The safe word is Screening Room! This week, we run through the good (Peter Rabbit), the bad (Fifty Shades Freed), and the hard to review (The 15:17 to Paris) as well as Michael Haneke’s latest Happy End and all that’s fit to watch in new home entertainment.
Happy End is as perceptive as it is dispassionate—and this, as every choice filmmaker Michael Haneke makes—is intentional.
Channeling themes from across his career, pulling most noticeably from both his 1992 horror Benny’s Video and his 2012 masterpiece Amour, Haneke slowly, deliberately unveils a tale of distance.
His subjects are the well-off Laurent family: a doddering patriarch (Amour’s brilliant Jean-Louis Trintignant), the daughter who runs the company (Isabelle Huppert), her surgeon brother (Mathieu Kassovitz), her disappointing son (Franz Rogowski), and the surgeon’s 13-year-old daughter, Eve (Fantine Harduin).
Eve has come to live with the family because of her mother’s suicide.
In the film’s opening moments, we watch as an emotionally unattached and unnamed character documents a mother’s every banal moment with critical commentary before poisoning a pet hamster.
It’s a maneuver that announces Haneke’s point: whether by way of technology, psychosis or money, the Laurents lack any depth of emotion, intimacy or personal connection. Or is it humanity they lack?
The filmmaker braids together the stories and points of view of several main participants, keeping his focus at arm’s length until we’ve become apprehensive about every move. Why is Georges (Trintignant) wandering the median in a wheelchair and talking to strangers? What struggles could cause Pierre (Rogowski) to behave—and dance—like that?
Why would anyone leave a baby alone with Eve?
Patient viewers will recognize Haneke’s deliberate and chilly storytelling, but Happy End really requires your patience. Still, don’t let your eye wander because too many frames contain a startling image, and this filmmaker won’t insist that you notice.
Eventually the distance becomes somewhat problematic because it feels as if Haneke is pulling punches he was happy to land in previous films.
As is always the case, though, you’re repaid for your efforts. Whether it’s the understated brilliance of the performances (Trintignant and Harduin are particularly memorable), the chilling clash of human emotion with whatever has taken its place within the Laurent family, or the diabolical final image, Happy End leaves you stunned.
A likely Oscar winner drives its Tesla of Justice into your living room this week. Well, it does if you’re smart, but The Square is not the only outstanding movie option for layabouts and slugabeds this week. They are all great! What?!
Who wants to scare your kids? Because there is ample opportunity to do so without breaking any laws. Yes, year after year the cinemas are lousy with God-awful PG-13 horror (Rings, Ouija, Wish Upon, Bye Bye Man) aiming to cash in on the underaged market with jump scares and lazy writing.
But, if you look closely you can find some scary shit. Nightmares in the making. So, we looked closely…
6. The Grudge (2004)
The amazing thing about The Grudge’s PG-13 rating is the remarkable amount of violence in this film. There is a death, dismemberment or supernatural act in very nearly every single scene in the movie.
There’s also the larger, scarier idea of a contagious haunted house. You’re not just in jeopardy when you’re in it. This shit comes home with you.
The Grudge is one of the rare American remakes of J-horror that stands up, partly because the antagonists from the original are involved (Yuya Ozeki as the terrifyingly adorable Toshio and Takako Fuji as the just terrifying Kayako). It’s also a benefit that director Takashi Shimizu (who also wrote and directed the original, Ju-on) is back, and that he keeps the setting in Japan. Plus those creepy-ass sounds!
5. Insidious (2010)
Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell took a break from each other after a disappointing follow up to their breakout 2004 collaboration Saw (Dead Silence—yeesh). The the pair were back strong in 2010 with a wildly imaginative descent into “the further.”
This is the film where Wan finds his way as a director, and a director of horror in particular. Whannell’s bold story offers plenty of opportunity to work, and the atmosphere, practical effects and clever use of jump scares has become the trademark of the filmmaker.
They are also the elements that help this genuinely frightening effort maintain a PG-13 rating. Man, this guy knows how to milk that rating, doesn’t he? That lady in black, that red-faced guy, the whole organ thing, that kid? Tiptoe through the Tulips?
The pair takes a ghost story premise and does what very few people can do well: shows us what we are afraid of.
4. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Oh, you totally didn’t figure it out. Don’t even start.
A troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) treats a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) carrying a terrible burden. The execution—basically, seeing ghosts in every corner of Philadelphia—could have become a bit of a joke, but writer/director M. Night Shyamalan delivers a tense, eerie product.
With his 1999 breakout, Shyamalan painted himself into a corner he found it tough to get out of: the spooky surprise ending. And though this would nearly be his undoing as a filmmaker, it started off brilliantly.
Part of the success of the film depends on the heart-wrenching performances: Toni Collette’s buoyant but terrified mother, Willis’s concerned therapist, and Osment’s tortured little boy. Between Shyamalan’s cleverly spooky script, a slate of strong performances and more than a few genuinely terrifying moments, this is one scary-ass PG-13.
3. The Woman in Black (2012)
Director James Watkins was fresh off his underseen, wickedly frightening Eden Lake. Screenwriter Jane Goldman (working from Susan Hill’s novel) had recently written the films Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, both of which are awesome. And star Daniel Radcliffe had done something or other that people remembered…
I’d have been worried that Radcliffe chose another supernatural adventure as his first big, post-Hogwarts adventure were it not for the filmmaking team putting the flick together. Goldman’s witty intelligence and Watkins’s sense of what scares us coalesce beautifully in this eerie little nightmare.
A remake of a beloved if rarely shown BBC film, the big screen version is a spooky blast of a ghost story. It makes savvy use of old haunted house tropes, updating them quite successfully, and its patient pace and slow reveal leads to more of a wallop than you usually find in such a gothic tale. Glimpses, movements, shadows—all are filmed to keep your eyes darting around the screen, your neck craned for a better look. It’s classic haunted house direction and misdirection laced with more modern scares.
Ten points for Gryffindor!
2. The Others (2001)
Co-writer/director Alejandro Amenabar casts a spell that recalls The Innocents in his 2001 ghost story The Others. It’s 1945 on a small isle off Britain, and the brittle mistress of the house (Nicole Kidman) wakes screaming. She has reason to be weary. Her husband has still not returned from the war, her servants have up and vanished, and her two children, Anna and Nicholas, have a deathly photosensitivity: sunlight or bright light could kill them.
What unspools is a beautifully constructed film using slow reveal techniques to upend traditional ghost story tropes, unveiling the mystery in a unique and moving way.
Kidman’s performance is spot-on, and she’s aided by both the youngsters (Alakina Mann and James Bentley). Bentley’s tenderness and Mann’s willfulness, combined with their pasty luster (no sun, you know), heighten the creepiness.
With the help of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and supporting actress Fionnula Flanagan, Amenabar introduces seemingly sinister elements bit by bit. It all amounts to a satisfying twist on the old ghost story tale that leaves you feeling as much a cowdy custard as little Nicholas.
1. The Ring (2002)
Gore Verbinski’s film achieves one of those rare feats, ranking among the scarce Hollywood remakes that surpasses the foreign-born original, Japan’s unique paranormal nightmare Ringu. Verbinski’s film is visually arresting, quietly atmospheric and creepy as hell.
This is basically the story of bad mom/worse journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) investigating the urban legend of a videotape that kills viewers exactly seven days after viewing.
The tape itself is the key. Had it held images less surreal, less Buñuel, the whole film would have collapsed. But the tape was freaky. And so were the blue-green grimaces on the dead! And that horse thing on the ferry!
From cherubic image of plump-cheeked innocence to a mess of ghastly flesh and disjointed bones climbing out of the well and into your life, the character is brilliantly created.
We air some minor grievances with the Oscar nominations as we talk through the merits of this week’s new releases: Hostiles and Maze Runner: The Death Cure. We also run through new releases in home entertainment and preview next week’s flicks.
Hey, Christian Bale and Ben Foster are in another Western. Remember how fun 3:10 to Yuma was?!
Well, writer/director Scott Cooper is a very serious man. If there is one thing you won’t call his films—Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass and his latest, Hostiles—it’s a laugh riot.
Hostiles is a morose Western with too-obvious intentions. Thanks to Bale and cinematographer Mesanobu Takayanagi, though, the result is a graceful if revisionist image. With Takayanagi’s help, Cooper recalls the best of John Ford’s The Searchers, and with Bale’s help he rectifies its worst.
Facing retirement from a lifetime of warring with Native Americans across the West, Capt. Joseph Blocker (Bale) has one final assignment: escort the ailing Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana so he can die with his people.
After many years of hatred and resentment toward Native Americans in general and Yellow Hawk in particular, Blocker wants no part in this “parade.” But he is a good soldier.
The journey offers opportunities for many an adventure, the first of which is the meeting of homesteader Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike). Blocker’s party finds her in her burned-out home, but we already know what happened thanks to the profoundly brutal attack that opened the film.
Over the course of the film’s 133-minute running time, lessons are learned, each one coming at a very bloody cost. Though Bale and most of the supporting players deliver quietly devastating performances, their arcs feel more than forced. They feel patronizing.
Mainly that’s because the Native American actors have no such arcs. Studi, along with Adam Beach, Tanaya Beatty, Q’orianka Kilcher and Xavier Horsechief—the prisoners—are one-dimensional beings of pure wisdom, compassion and nobility.
Which is no doubt preferable to the being nameless, bloodthirsty monsters that stand in for Apache characters.
Cooper sets his tale at a bitter transition in American history when civilization was beginning to overtake the Wild West and people like Blocker were no longer sure of their purpose, no longer comfortable with their past. Like Blocker, Cooper seems determined to right a wrong but, again like his character, he doesn’t seem to know quite how to do it.
Busy week! Loads covered on this week’s podcast: 12 Strong, Den of Thieves, Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name, Mom and Dad, The Road Movie, The Final Year and Mary and the Witch’s Flower, plus a quick look at what’s new in home entertainment.
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) sews little treasures into the gowns he makes for the most upper of crusts in 1950s London: little notes, wishes, secrets. It is a connection between the creator and the creation, existing regardless of the audience.
In many ways, Woodcock could be a stand-in for writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker whose work is genius (few would argue) even if there are things about each creation we may not entirely grasp.
Phantom Thread may be his most exquisite and least accessible film. Every frame, every elegant sweep of the camera, every jaunty note from Johnny Greenwood’s score says classic glamour. And at the center of this controlled, rhythmic beauty is Daniel Day-Lewis.
Hard to go wrong there.
Day-Lewis entirely inhabits this character, as you, of course, expect. His Woodcock oscillates between childlike charm and parental dismissiveness, and it’s a beguiling creation: narcissistic but tender, spoiled and selfish but dignified, the epicenter of his universe and yet frighteningly dependent.
The conflict here is subtle. While your eyes will not leave Woodcock and his glorious gowns, the remarkable Lesley Manville refuses to escape your notice. Manville plays Woodcock’s sister Cyril, the business brains to balance Reynolds’s creative genius, yin to his yang, Alpha to his Omega.
Manville is chilly perfection, her every gesture and expression a conundrum of thoughts and emotions. She keeps this man, this art, this world working. There is one scene in particular—Reynolds loses his temper when his breakfast solitude is broken and Cyril reminds him with clarity and authority exactly who is in charge here.
Which brings us, slowly and quietly, to the film’s actual conflict. Woodcock tires of the muse/model/girlfriend living with him, leaves Cyril to remove the problem and heads into the country for a rest. There he meets his next muse, the lovely German waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps).
What follows is an interesting, deeply human, beautifully acted and quite surprising battle for Alpha. And of course, it’s a great deal more than that. Namely, it is a meditation on creation and recreation, on the tricky nature of inspiration, on an artist’s obsession, on the surprising intimacy between creator and creation.
It’s a languid Italian summer circa 1983 and everything is just so ripe.
Call Me by Your Name, the coming-of-age drama from Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), swoons. Precocious seventeen-year-old Elio (an utterly astonishing Timothée Chalamet) is surrounded with luscious fruit from the trees, lovely girls from the village, books and music to fill the hours spent with his parents (Amira Casar, Michael Stuhlbarg) in the rural villa where they research Greco-Roman culture.
Then their seasonal research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives.
Awash in sensuality, Guadagnino’s love story is unafraid to explore, circling Oliver and Elio as they irritate each other, then test each other, and finally submit to and fully embrace their feelings for one another. Theirs is a remarkable dance, intimately told and flawlessly performed.
Enough cannot be said for Chalamet’s work. He is astonishingly in control of this character, and were that not the case, the age difference between the two characters (Oliver is meant to be 24, though Hammer is 31 which makes the gap seem more disturbing) would have left things feeling too predatory.
Hammer has never been better. Though the young Chalamet’s performance is Oscar-caliber, Hammer matches him step for step, creating a character both vulnerable and authoritative.
A standout in a solid ensemble, Stuhlbarg, looking almost alarmingly like Robin Williams, brings a quiet tenderness to the proceedings, a tone he elevates in a late-film monologue that could not have been delivered with more compassion or love. It’s breathtaking, perfectly punctuating the themes of acceptance and self-acceptance that permeate the film.
But even before Hammer or Chalamet can seduce you, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom does, lensing a feast for the senses. Together he and Guadagnino immerse you in this heady love story, developing a dreamy cadence and alluring palette that invites you to taste.