Review: THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (2018)

Some films make you angry, some films make you cry, and some films make you squirm, and some of the best make you feel them all. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is one of those films.

It’s a hard sell to a mainstream audience I suppose – the story of a young LGBT+ person’s experience of gay conversion therapy – but it’s a vital watch for anyone in doubt that these issues are no longer prevalent and affect lives daily. Like Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, also out in cinema, both are period stories that starkly reflect the fractured and disturbing prejudices and methods of discrimination that still pervade throughout in the US today. It’s easy to factor in that this film was made during the 2016 presidential election, a putrid time that uncovered a swath of uncertainty and fear about how minorities, including the LGBT+ community, would be treated in Trump’s American nightmare.

The director of TMOCP, Desiree Akhavan first came to my attention with her writing/directing debut, Appropriate Behaviour (which may still be on Netflix if you have a quick search), a funny and seemingly personal tale of an Iranian-American bisexual person navigating the single life and familial relations in New York. The non-tropey bisexual on film is such a rare find, so Appropriate Behaviour was something of a revelation to me. I couldn’t think of anyone more suited to take on this new story of another LGBT+ experience.

The 1993-set TMOCP is adapted from the novel of the same name by Emily Danforth, and the film takes the core plot of Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), who after being caught having sex with her best friend on prom night, is shipped off to a Christian camp called God’s Promise to be cured of her “same-sex attraction.”

The camp is an eerie place of fake smiles and hushed tones, where even Cameron’s cassette tape of The Breeders is even too risqué for consumption. We watch in disbelief as Cameron’s and the other camp members’ “sins” are explained away as symptoms of prior traumas. Being over indulged with sports by a parent is weaponised as tool for shame. Thankfully, the film creates moments that allow for humour, piercing what could be unbearable into a more manageable, if still shocking, world to witness. There’s a rendition of 4 Non-Blondes ‘What’s Up’, as much an anthem for confused discontentment now as it was in 1993, that raises genuine smiles. And in case you wondered, ‘Blessercise’ is a real thing.

Moretz is excellent, her eyes are incredibly expressive as they scan the rest of her therapy group as she tries, or perhaps hopes to not, see herself in them. At times we’re unsure if the ‘therapy’ is finally working on Cameron, just as we are party to the devastating affects of what is essentially, sanctioned torture. My joy at seeing Jennifer Ehle (please cast her in everything please) was short-lived due only to her stand-out depiction of Dr. Marsh, a softly spoken Nurse Ratched, rigid in her belief of being on the right side of morality.  Co-stars Sasha Lane, winningly called Jane Fonda,  and Forrest Goodluck are Cameron’s cool-for-school kindred spirits as they come to terms with just how they got to God’s Promise in the first place and if indeed, they will ever get out as the same people. I particularly enjoyed Cameron’s assigned roommate, Erin, who easily could have been used simply as a mode of diffusing the tension, but like everyone in this film, gets a chance to show many facets of themselves.

Though the ‘doctors’ of God’s Promise attempt to reduce everyone down to their own  unique behavioral ‘iceberg’ diagrams, the characters constantly, with varying degrees of success, break free from their icy surroundings and assigned gender/sexual  straitjackets. I was reminded also of Todd Hayne’s Safe, another film that dealt with clinical psychologies and enforced communal life in the 1990s.

The final wordless scenes in the film are as optimistic as we can hope to expect in a tale that so rooted in realism, and though we cannot know what the future holds for these characters, the morning sun has never felt more liberating.

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Celebrating Ingrid Bergman in NOTORIOUS (1946)

“A man doesn’t tell a woman what to do. She tells herself.”

29th August marks the anniversary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth (and death, she died on her 67th birthday), and it seemed as good a time as any to reflect on one of her best screen roles.

There are many eras of Bergman’s career you could focus on – from her work with David O. Selznick to the cruelly banished years in Italy days, and of course her iconic role in Casablanca (1942), but her portrayal of Alicia Huberman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), her third film with the director, has always been of fascination to me. A multilayered and contradicting depiction of a woman caught within a web of espionage, Bergman’s Alicia eventually uses her wiles AND her intelligence undercover in a cutthroat enemy territory cunningly disguised high society in post-World War II.

Notorious is essentially the story of one woman used as a political pawn to reveal the secrets of Nazi criminals for the American intelligence based in Brazil. Traces of feminine perception and intervention continually drive the plot as well as highlighting the masochistic tendencies of the male characters surrounding the female. Furthermore, it typifies a trend of emerging post-war cinema in which the female narrative helms the film and highlights male inadequacy. The schemes in Notorious heavily rely on Alicia’s compliance in the mission, and though from the outset we are aware that she is being used (and being asked to essentially ‘sleep with the enemy’), Alicia remains the active participant among passive men: Devlin (Cary Grant) and Sebastian (Claude Rains).

As Slavoj Zizek concluded, Hitchcock’s films in the 1940s are “thematically centered on the perspective of the female heroine, traumatized by an ambiguous (evil, impotent, obscene, broken…) paternal figure” with Notorious being the archetype of this. Devlin, unable to admit his love for Alicia, cruelly rebuffs her and encourages her mission to investigate Sebastian. Sebastian meanwhile appears to really love and care for Alicia but is unaware of her double-crossing until his manipulative mother influences him. Both men appear weak and emotionally volatile, while Alicia, though prone to excesses (alcohol and, shock horror…parties), is forced to put aside her emotions at every development of her mission. We as viewers are invited to side with Alicia and become frustrated at Devlin’s detached character.

A year earlier, Bergman had starred in Spellbound (1945), a film bursting with strange imagery and essentially works as the prototype gender swapped Vertigo (1958). A love story of two damaged, compromised people (Bergman and her on and off-screen lover, Gregory Peck), this description works to define Notorious too. Bergman enthralls her co-stars and viewers within intelligently realised female narratives. Spellbound is mostly Constance’s movie, just as Notorious is finally Alicia’s.

Hitchcock’s gaze lies firmly with Alicia during the film, it is through her binoculars we spy on the other players in the tense few movements at the race day,  and though we are witness to a female being influenced and cajoled into action, the camera sympathises with Bergman throughout. In the famous ball scene we see the camera in one smooth, descending close-up zoom into Alicia’s hand to show her holding the key which would open the wine cellar and reveal Sebastian’s criminal plot. We are left in no doubt that Alicia’s agency is being acutely emphasised and Alicia is a ‘heroine’ indeed.

“I am Mrs De Winter now!” – Female Plight and the Patriarchy in Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1940)

In 1940 came a film which has generated much discussion, despite Hitchcock’s insistence “it’s not a Hitchcock picture” in his interviews with Truffaut.

Adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel, Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood, and his first in contract to David O. Selznick, the producer-tycoon behind such epics as Gone with the Wind (1939). Rebecca is a contentious film in that, it remains sceptical of male and female relationships and especially highlights the plight of a woman in an oppressive aristocratic setting. This is a common topic of many of Hitchcock’s earliest films and within Rebecca it meets its zenith. It also remains one of the more overt instances of queer storytelling. Though the iconic Mrs Danvers’ (Judith Anderson) predilection for Rebecca may have been missed by the audience at the time (though that is impossible to know for sure), the monstrous housekeeper has become something of a classic Hollywood touchstone for repressed female sensuality.

Women get a bit of a hard ride in this dreary but captivating tale. Joan Fontaine, playing the unnamed second Mrs De Winter is at once pitiful in her marriage to Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier) who seems intent on keeping her as his “little girl” whilst brooding over the titular Rebecca, his first wife.

Rebecca is a film which, in its critique of male and female relationships under the patriarchy, tests the second Mrs De Winter’s endurance of her flawed marriage and sets Rebecca free from the constraints of Maxim’s intense expectations. It resists painting Maxim as the cold-blooded murderer of Rebecca (as in the novel),  she is simply instead a victim of his inability to love anything other than a wife over whom he can exert total control, but we are under no illusion by the end of the film that Maxim and the second Mrs De Winter’s marriage is near to irreparable in the aftermath of the film’s events. As a modern viewer, it is irksome to see the film tiptoe around making Olivier be completely villainous (Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) paid similar caution with Cary Grant), but with news of a new adaptation on the way (as ever), perhaps we will see more careful consideration for how men often feel emasculated, resulting in tragic consequences.

Returning to Mrs Danvers, you can imagine that at the time, her devotion to Rebecca could be happily be dismissed as servile devotion to the lady of the house, but upon the spine-tingling reveal that she keeps Rebecca’s undergarments and expensive clothes enshrined in the house for her to fondle and touch, we are under no illusions of her feelings for the late Mrs De Winter. Indeed, in the TV mini-series of the story in 1997, Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs Danvers really drives home her desirous intentions, perhaps in view of a potentially more receptive contemporary audience.

The pleasure in viewing Rebecca from Mrs Danvers’ perspective is that of a woman’s film or melodrama through a queer lens, even if Hitchcock would never admit it or even consciously know of it.  When the film is viewed from her perspective, we can understand and sympathise with her pain, even if her cruel reception to The Second Mrs De Winter is uncalled for. Maxim suffers in his marriage to Rebecca and thus finds another woman, less powerful than his femme fatale wife and eventually moves on. He remains a well-off man within a patriarchal society while Mrs Danvers’ loses everything to a relationship that was fraught with the difficulties of class hierarchy and ambiguous sexuality.

Through Hitchcock’s disregard for Rebecca later in his career and his preference for the unsentimental and humour in his original adaptation (an early draft had Maxim and his anonymous wife meeting on a channel steamer, with Maxim bringing on her seasickness by blowing smoke in her face) Selznick’s instance on being faithful to the original text eventually won out. Selznick, it appears had some understanding of the psychology of the women in the novel, resulting in a natural sympathy for the second Mrs De Winter for an audience. In a note sent to Hitchcock, he explained the importance of maintaining the ‘feminine’ voice in Rebecca:

“…her nervousness and her self-consciousness and her gaucheries are all so brilliant in the book that every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind…just how bad a picture it would be without the little feminine things are so recognizable and which make every woman say. “I know just how she feels…I know just what she’s going through…”

The making of Rebecca could be regarded as a ‘trial by fire’ for Hitchcock as he began to learn how female audiences in America dictated box office success. In his long interview with Truffaut he addressed this: “…it’s generally women who has the final say on which picture a couple is going to see. In fact it is generally the woman who will decide, later on, whether it was a good picture.” And though Hitchcock may have been reluctant to indulge in “feminine literature”, it seems he did have aptitude for creating empathy within female subjectivity.

 

“A beautiful mysterious woman pursued by gunmen…it sounds like a spy story” – Women in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock’s British Era

From the 1920s to the late 1930s, Alfred Hitchcock was establishing himself as a film director in London and working from a mixture of original scripts and adapted works.

Hitchcock revelled in the genres of melodrama and thriller and would begin to explore the themes which would prove to be dynamically synonymous with the Hitchcock name. Hitchcock’s formative years in Britain, as well as his time spent in post-World War I Germany, was the period in which he developed his unique filmmaking style as well as cultivating a reputation which would precede him in America. Filmmaking in Britain was still relatively unsophisticated when Hitchcock began to work as an art director under the formidable Graham Cutts (a hostile collaboration according to Donald Spoto in Spellbound by Beauty,  2009) and Michael Balcon of Gainsborough pictures with whom he made The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927). Generally regarded as the first picture which included the themes that would make Hitchcock famous and loosely based on Jack the Ripper, the treatment of women in his film was of great fascination. Film historian Philip Kemp notes:

“Like Hitchcock himself, the serial killer in The Lodger seems to have it in for blondes…[and] Hitchcock’s mischievous, semi-sadistic treatment of blondes hit its stride in Hollywood, perhaps provoked by the flawless glamour of its screen goddesses.” (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999).

Throughout Hitchcock’s early career, he would continue to direct stories which would reinforce the motif of the ‘blonde woman’ that would develop further prominence in his later films. Madeline Carroll as Pamela in The 39 Steps (1935) for instance typified this notion. Stuart Y. McDougal in Mirth, Sexuality and Suspense: Alfred Hitchcock’s Adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1975) describes how the film’s source literary material was transformed “into a quickly paced work of suspense, greatly simplified the plot…” which altered the structure, used the settings functionally and made the work an exploration of the nature of male-female relationships.

Richard Hannay’s (Robert Donat) interactions with Pamela and initially Annabelle (Lucie Mannheim), the mysterious woman pursued by gunmen who seeks refuge with Hannay, offer a dynamic opportunity to portray two different kinds of women in one quick-moving narrative. Annabelle (or “Miss Smith” as she calls herself) exudes sexuality and danger, and as Hannay remarks: “A beautiful mysterious woman pursued by gunmen…It sounds like a spy story.” Annabelle soon meets a bitter end, but her few minutes on screen are indelible. Annabelle is “the archetypal femme fatale: dark, beautiful, mysterious and foreign” McDougal explains, and is the complete opposite of the crofter’s wife (Peggy Ashcroft) or indeed Pamela. Her active role in the plot of the film (the firing of the shots in the theatre in the opening scene and her shocking death) is the first of the three women in The 39 Steps who propel the story along to its dramatic conclusion- she after all, is the one who ‘picks up’ Hannay and invites herself to his flat. The narrative progress which Annabelle initiates, may involve her own death, but also vitally, persuades the protagonist out of a malaise.  The crofter’s wife for example, strikes out on her own against her god-fearing highlander husband and secures Hannay’s escape whilst Pamela’s initial distrust of Hannay results in one the most satisfying character transformations of the film. As Saptarshi Ray of The Guardian concluded in his appraisal of the film, “[though] this was an era of rampant male chauvinism…pretty much all the women are strong and smart.”

In Hitchcock’s first sound picture, Blackmail (1929), the subject matter within the film also indicate themes which have been noted as significant throughout Hitchcock’s filmography. Indeed as Tania Modleski in The Women Who Knew Too Much, 1988 claims, “Some critics have even argued that Hitchcock’s work is prototypical of the extremely violent assaults on women that make up much of our entertainment today.” Blackmail then, deals with an especially difficult subject matter in which a young woman, Alice (Anny Odra), defends herself against a rapist, resulting in his death and the subsequent investigation by her detective boyfriend. It is a dark subject for a commercial hit which took advantage of new technology, but is another example of Hitchcock’s early style permeating through a still youthful medium. The film also launches a debate about the “episode in the artist’s studio”. In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 2000 by Donald Spoto, he shockingly describes it as “violent love” whereas Hitchcock, refreshingly frank for the time, simply called it as it appears to a modern viewer when interviewed by Francois Truffaut, as an attempt at “rape”. The film is rather uncompromising in its ability to demonstrate Alice’s immediate guilt, take for instance, the famous scene in which she listens to a gossiping neighbour discussing the knife as a murder weapon. The camera moves to Ondra’s traumatised face, and Hitchcock imaginatively distorts sound. The audience hears only the subjective impression of what the girl hears, as the neighbour’s words blur together until only word “knife” stabs out at her and at the audience from the soundtrack.

The film’s sympathy in dealing with the reaction of female guilt after experiencing the trauma of sexual violence also emphasises the female position in the patriarchy, especially in regards to the law, the accountability of crime and for the creation of identification with the female outlaw. The film does this at various moments in the film, in particular with the point-of-view shots which implicate the spectator in Alice’s guilt. The depiction of Alice is “hardly the one-dimensional vamp of so many films of the period”, as Modleski points out, making it impossible for the viewer to condemn Alice for her predicament. Indeed, Alice must exist at the mercy of the law-abiding (her detective boyfriend, Frank) and a blackmailer (Tracy), inciting a lack of resolution in the conclusion of the film, and as Modleski concludes, is a theme which we will see repeated again and again in Hitchcock’s work, attributing not a “sadistic delight in seeing his leading ladies suffer” but an obsession which takes “the form of a particularly lucid expose of the predicaments of and contradictions of women’s existence under patriarchy.”

In Richard Allen’s Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony, 2007, Allen discusses the most successful of Hitchcock’s British films, The Lady Vanishes (1938) which uses the “joint quest narrative”, whereby “masculine reason and female intuition combine to yield knowledge of the criminal” and results in these cases, the wronged man/woman’s exoneration. Allen’s analysis of these narratives highlight a largely forgotten aspect of the feminine voice in many of Hitchcock’s films, saying how in Hitchcock’s “‘wrong man’ thrillers the hero is often much weaker: the wronged man needs the heroine’s help and her active agency, in order to clear his name and restore his identity…” for instance, in The 39 Steps.

Though the female character is often transformed into the male character’s romantic conquest by the end of the film, it is not without the female character first demonstrating some detective agency and intuition, a characteristic which Allen believes to be one of the distinguishing factors of Hitchcock’s British films. The female protagonist of The Lady Vanishes, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is alone in her insistence that an older woman, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) has disappeared from the train in which they were both travelling independently. Iris is met with disbelief at nearly every turn, even initially from Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), Iris’ eventual love interest and partner in her investigation. The equalling of gender in Iris and Gilbert’s ability to solve an inexplicable mystery may even, as Allen deduces, “involve the realignment of traditional gendered epistemologies, and sometimes issues in an ambiguous stance toward the romantic resolution…”

The emergence of the feisty and determined female hero of films such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes it seems therefore, were the forerunners to the ‘guilty women’ film viewers would become accustomed to in the Hitchcock oeuvre from the 1950s and beyond.

Review: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT (2018)

I broke the code to tell my cinema companion that the colon was in the wrong place on the BBFC titlecard, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this action ‘six-quel’ (which no one is calling it), Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

My relationship with the M:I series has been a rocky one. The first film was first viewed on VHS, thanks to a friend’s enviable video collection, while the second film lasted only in my memory thanks to it’s nu-metal soundtrack and for first making me aware of Thandie Newton. The Gillette advert opener with Tom Cruise scaling a cliff was not enough to save the rest of it. Fast-forward to the third installment, I eventually caught it on TV after an alarming number of people had claimed “it’s actually good, I’m promise!”

My personal favourite was actually Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, probably thanks to going into the film with zero expectations, other than vaguely hoping to see Tom Cruise once again scaling a building, a plane or some other death-defying stunt. The story was spy-lit lite but easy to follow, the villain (Sean Harris) was genuinely creepy at times, and most surprisingly of all, we had an interesting female character to encounter – Ilsa Faust played by Rebecca Ferguson. I could watch the scene in the Vienna opera house over and over again.

I was pleased then that this latest film, Fallout, continued the winning formula of the fifth, with Christopher McQuarrie remaining as writer and director (for the first time in the series) and hurrah, Ilsa Faust returning!

I’d recommend seeing Rogue Nation before tackling Fallout, but Fallout most definitely covers new ground, creating a whole new narrative despite picking up on tensions and emotional ties from previous outings.

The IMF spring into action again when nuclear weapons are stolen by a shady syndicate (of course) called the Apostles, hell-bent on chaos throughout the world in order to create a new world order. Ethan (Tom Cruise), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are tasked with reclaiming the bombs, taking them across Europe in quick lightning speed, and encountering a CIA operative (Henry Cavill) and a black market arms dealer (Vanessa Kirby) along the way.

Everyone in the cast gets their share of scenery to chomp and the action sequences were relentless but ingenious. Wringing my sweating hands as I watched Cruise race to the Tate Modern or motorbike through famous Parisian traffic, I gave myself over to the mindless thrill of seeing accomplished action scenes click effortlessly into place as if operated by clockwork. So many action/thriller films rely on fast cuts and shaky camera work to obscure the action and disorientate viewers, but the fight scenes, particularly the one in the silent club bathroom, was like a ballet of sinew and white-tiled fury.

Six films in and the series is now attempting to reflect on the destruction the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), namely Ethan Hunt, has created in the name of keeping the world and the people closest to them, save. When so many of the installments in the series have been individual ventures – thanks to idiosyncratic directors like Brian De Palma and John Woo picking up the gauntlet – the era of ‘cinematic universes’ has forced the producers to attempt to weave these wildly varying films together to create a narrative arc for Ethan Hunt. I appreciate the effort… just maybe for the next one they could resurrect Kristin Scott Thomas and complete the circle?!

M:I works best when it acts as an heist movie in the spy genre. Seeing a dastardly plan be thwarted or Ethan Hunt attempt another daring escape has always been where M:I excelled, even if the characterisation and plot was lacking. Ethan Hunt, in my mind, is just a cipher for a more palatable Tom Cruise. Less jumping on sofas more running across the roofs of London please.

 

Review: MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018)

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! a tissue, because Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is making me cry just thinking about it.

10 years ago, an awkward teenager not yet the age of a Dancing Queen, saw Mamma Mia! three times at the cinema, made a Dynamos t-shirt and ticked off another film on her epic list to watch every movie Meryl Streep ever made. A decade on and understandably nervous about the prospect of a sequel, I’ve been setting my fears to one side (“WHERE IS MARY LOUISE STREEP?” “HOW IS ‘FERNANDO’ GOING TO FIT INTO THE NARRATIVE?” “WILL HARRY HAVE A HUSBAND?”), ready to wear the platforms once again and enjoy a thin story held together by some of the greatest songs ever written.

We return to the island of Kalokairi to see Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) renovating her mother’s (MERYL!) hotel in time for a grand reopening. Old friends of her mother’s Tanya (The Great Christine Baranski) and Rosie (DAME Julie Walters) come ashore, once again in fine form to help her realise her mother’s Grecian dream  under the sun. In between scenes of Sophie’s estrangement from her partner Skye (Dominic Cooper) and touchingly heartfelt moments with her step-dad, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), the film flashes back to 1979, to see where Donna (Lily James) first got the idea to relocate to Greece and how she found herself enthralled by the three men who formed the dilemma of the first film – Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård)  and of course, Sam.

Ol Parker’s (Imagine Me and You) direction is spirited and fun manages to recreate the joy of the first film with added skill and panache. An early scene with Pierce had me welling up almost immediately, and it was then that a tidal wave of sentimentality rolled through to sweep me away. ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’ is briefly reworked in such a way that the lyrics take on a whole new meaning, proving the genius of a songbook that still enraptures the world over.

Speaking of the songs, we get a whole new collection of ABBA reworkings to enjoy, including what could have been an underwhelming interpretation of ‘Waterloo’, turns out to be one of the funniest set pieces in the film, while my disappointment at ‘The Name of the Game’ making an appearance on the first film’s soundtrack album but not in the final cut, was fixed with a dazzling rendition by Lily James. Fan favourite ‘My Love, My Life’ packs an emotional punch (well, more like a wallop across the head with the crying stick) and Cher doing a Cher version of ‘Fernando’ is surreal and absolutely fabulous.

But Lily James really is the stand out in this film. Having to convincingly bewitch all three potential fathers and embody the balls that would see a newly pregnant young woman stay in an abandoned farmhouse and transform it into a business…and after all the strange coincidences, unlikely situations and shoehorned ABBA songs, we just go with it. A special mention goes to Jessica Keenan Wynn who manages to exude the ‘big dick energy’ of Baranski’s Tanya, stealing nearly all over her scenes and has to be the best piece of casting in this sequel-prequel.

At the heart of this story has always been a loving, dysfunctional and unusual mother-daughter relationship and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again goes a long way to underline again that universal longing to understand where we come from and, most importantly, where we are going.  Seriously, MM!HWGA, just HOW can I resist you?

 

Review: HEREDITARY (2018)

When the posters proclaimed that Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary was as terrifying as The Exorcist, my first thought was: “Is The Exorcist actually as scary as we claim it to be?”

Side note: A school friend of mine gave me a copy of the extended director’s cut to keep and I was too afraid to watch it for years. Mark Kermode, I can assure you, I have watched it since!

This provocative statement works only as a way to make us remember our own ‘horror’ surrounding The Exorcist, as a ‘do we dare?’ sleepover movie option, or as a way to boast to friends in the school playground that we’d seen the infamous spiderwalk with our very own eyes. The hysteria that existed around the film in someways was more influential than the film itself. If the execs could harness even at little of that hype for Hereditary, they’d be onto a box office winner. No wonder they put it on the poster.

Where the two films can be compared is in the overwhelming feeling of dread that pervades throughout both pictures. And while I never particular found The Exorcist to be ‘terrifying’ as such, just creepy and incredibly atmospheric, Hereditary did seriously spook me at several key moments.

Horror and the cinematic themes of motherhood go hand-in-hand, just look to the modern Australian classic The Babadook or return to 1960s to see how Rosemary’s Baby tells very different tales of terrorised young mothers. In this way, both The Exorcist and Hereditary are insights to parents increasingly distanced from their children, with seemingly supernatural intervention setting a course for the destruction of the family unit.

While Regan and her mother Chris (played with steel by Ellen Burstyn) appear to be close to begin with in The Exorcist, despite Chris daring to have a successful acting career alongside motherhood in the 1970s, the Graham family’s disharmony in Hereditary can be felt almost immediately from the first scene. Tension flares merely from forgetting to take shoes off at the door or from asking to borrow the car. When the terror kicks into overdrive, we are truly left to wonder that if this family do make it out the other side alive and sane, will they even make it out together?

Toni Collette is Annie Graham, once again putting in a bruising performance as a neurotic, anxious artist, understandably concerned about the influence her distant (and recently deceased) mother has had on her quiet daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Collette recently admitted that she had initially wanted to work on lighter project that required less crying for a change, but that she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be in this film. And I am grateful she did. Whether it is a blistering rant at the dinner table that says so much about the way that grief can exacerbate unreleased anger, or her character’s faltering attempts to make herself understood to her family, Collette is stellar as an artist increasingly unable to occupy her stifling reality or find solace the artificial worlds she creates in her artwork.

Son Peter (Alex Wolff) appears to be a typical teenager, at odds with his parents, getting stoned at any opportunity and despairing at having to take his younger sister along to a party. When something horrible occurs that turns the family’s inner turmoil inside out, the Graham family is exposed to horrors that exploits their precarious power-keg existence to the limit.

For a debut film, Aster’s direction is exemplary and confident, while cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s camera work is manipulative and hypnotic. Jump scares, the go-to weapon of choice for horror films of late, are dispensed with, instead the slow creep of the camera far more terrifying, and a clever use of the 90-degree camera-tilt is the choice of a director unafraid to delve into the box of tricks to make his mark on the horror genre. The tone is uncanny, nervous audience laughter is borne of strange silences, stilted conversations and bizarre imagery, while the score is minimal but affecting. I can’t wait to see what Aster does next, and would love to see him continue his experiments in the horror genre.

Upon reaching the conclusion of the film, you either go with it or you don’t. I personally find horror films more unnerving when things are left relatively unexplained, as a little moments exposition in the certain moments feel a tad unnecessary. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or to scream by the end of Hereditary, and I have a shuddering, gnawing feeling that’s exactly the point.

Review: OCEAN’S 8 (2018)

To say I was anticipating this film would be an understatement. As a longtime fan of the first Ocean’s 11, well, Steven Soderbergh’s own reboot of the classic ensemble heist movie anyway, but less so of the subsequent sequels, an all-female spin-off was thigh-rubbingly exciting. And without the vitriol facing the all-female Ghostbusters film released the year Ocean’s 8 began principal photography, we were left to eagerly await the movie in peace. And quietly (or not so quietly, in my case) pray for the gay.

I’ve been always been happy to wallow in the subtext for my queer fix, whatever Ocean’s 8 would gift me, that’s just part and parcel of my film watching experience, and I was certainly happy to just enjoy an all-female cast in a big budget movie. And what a cast. Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett is a combo I never knew I wanted, and as ringleader Debbie Ocean (George Clooney’s Danny’s sister and fellow swindler) and the effortlessly cool Lou, there was plenty to ‘squee’ over. Honestly, whoever decided to put Blanchett in all those suits deserves the Oscar for Best Costume Design. The collective sighs and swooning as set pictures were released during filming remain justified upon seeing the final film.

Making up the eight are Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, Rhianna, Mindy Kaling and Awkwafina. I did get the impression that there was a lot that was probably left on the cutting room floor with this script, as each of the eight are given paper thin backgrounds and motivations, but once the heist gets underway, it’s all about the mechanics of the play at hand. The goal? To steal a diamond Cartier necklace from under the noses of security and celebrities at the New York Met Gala.

The motivation of Debbie, much like her brother’s in Ocean’s 11, and under the guise of it being “what’s she’s good at”, is in part to get revenge. While Danny sets his goal on reuniting with his ex-wife, it works less well in this instance. The greedy former lover is a distraction from the main narrative, and when Lou confronts Debbie about her need to balance the scales with the man who effectively put her in prison, you are never really convinced of Lou’s threat to walk nor of the plan being in jeopardy. It’s needless extra impetus in a film that is most successful when we get to see female con artists unable to resist the pull of doing what they do best, regardless of the possible gains at the end of it all.

Though an ensemble cast, Bullock and Blanchett do carry most of the film, as Clooney and Brad Pitt did in their first scheme together. Bonham Carter does great with what she’s given – another ‘kooky’ character, and Hathaway as the ludicrously annoying Daphne Kluger remains on the right side of believable. Rhianna, possibly the most surprising piece of casting, is great too, effortlessly snarking and hacking her way through tasks. Awkwafina and Kaling are instantly likeable, but again, many of the scenes that aren’t directly related to getting the heist on the road appear to be prematurely cut short.

And well, the gay isn’t overt, but Bullock and Blanchett do share enough glances and chemistry to make my heart flutter all the same. And not since Archie Panjabi and Gillian Anderson in TV’s The Fall did a motorbike scene scream: ‘GAAAAAAAAAAAAAY’…

Overall, Ocean’s 8 offers me everything I love about the franchise, but contains few surprises, despite a sprinkling of callbacks to the earlier films and a couple of heist-y (not a word) twists. The whole eight-sided package is watchable, popcorn, Saturday night entertainment that I can definitely see myself picking off the DVD shelf when I need a fun, girl-tastic, kick-ass caper to indulge in.

Ocean’s 9 anyone?

Review: A QUIET PLACE (2018)

Amazingly, my local cinema was truly engulfed in silence on Sunday night. Despite the optimistic purchases of popcorn and other confectionery, they were all but forgotten once A Quiet Place, John Krasinski’s (of The American Office, It’s Complicated and Away We Go) debut horror feature took hold.

The concept is gripping one: you make noise, you die, which is essentially a movie tagline writer’s dream, and follows a family who must live life in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound. What we do know is that most of Earth’s human population has been wiped out by an invasion of alien creatures with hypersensitive hearing.

All of this is expertly told without over-explanation or exposition. The streets of an already sleepy town are strewn with undisturbed leaves from passing seasons, drugstores have been raided and trails of sand have been marked so that surviving inhabitants can creep quietly without fear of detection. One such band of survivors are the Abbott family. They talk in whispers, but mostly by cannily using American Sign Language, in part due to the fact that one of the children is deaf.

Scenes of the family attempting to go about their daily lives are still somehow fraught with tension. Even an innocent game of Monopoly is dicing with death. Our discovery that the mother, played with steel and gumption by the always brilliant Emily Blunt, is also pregnant is gut-punch of a plot point.  The camera pans over the wall calendar to glance at the due date, and a wave of dread hits. The family wouldn’t survive an inadvertent clink of plates on the dining table, never mind the arrival of a screaming newborn baby.

Coming in at just 90 minutes, the film makes quick use of the premise, turning even the smallest of drama into an opportunity for the family’s devastating annihilation. The protruding nail on the stair scene in family romp Home Alone will forever now send me screaming back to the gory horror of A Quiet Place. And when the father, also played by Krasinski, takes his youngest to a nearby waterfall, it is an understated scene of catharsis for both his understandably nervous son and the audience.

I’m not sure I want to put too much weight onto the allegorical nature of the film’s themes, but the best horrors have always played on societal fears. That’s just Film School 101, right? A Quiet Place is equally ripe for unpicking. Pressure to keep quiet and obfuscate, plus our increasing acquiescence about being ignored in a world of noise and fake news are flipped on their head in this silent wasteland. Expression, the act that differentiates us from animals, is somehow now the method of our own extinction. So when Blunt and Krasinski come together to share an earphone rendition of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon,  it is a touching moment, but its one that disturbs the silence we’re now all too comfortably complicit in.

As expected, the good old-fashioned tropes kick in wonderfully and the Alien-style cat and mouse chase across the family’s farm makes for an unbearable watch at pretty much every beat of the action. With multiple perilous set pieces to grip the armrest through  and a monster that is seemingly unbeatable, A Quiet Place is a sweat-inducing time in the cinema. Nerves are shredded and nails are bitten and as soon as it ended, I wanted to do it all over again.

Review: LOVE, SIMON (2018)

Occasionally, a film comes along that we not only want, but need. Love, Simon is such a film.

Watching this teen drama-comedy (more drama than comedy, but there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments), I wish I had been young enough to be the target audience. In my teens I made do with Napoleon Dynamite (genius), ripe-for-sleepovers high school slasher flicks and John Hughes’ body of work in the 1980s. But as fun and as formative as those films were, none of them were able to recreate or hold a mirror up to how it might be to go to school ‘in the closet’.

Without realising it for most of my youth, I was that closeted teen. I ‘admired’ my history teacher, I held Dana Scully up as simply a ‘great role model’ and saw Mamma Mia! three times because, well, ABBA plus Meryl Streep is just pure cinema gold, isn’t it? And I, like Simon, had a good group of friends who wouldn’t have cared at all if I was queer.

This is the point of the story where we meet Simon (Nick Robinson). He’s aware of his privileged home and school life, and isn’t particular ashamed of the fact that he is gay, but cannot quite bring himself to find the ‘right’ moment to relate this small aspect of himself. An amusing scene, doing the rounds on the trailers (SIDE NOTE: This film is being PROPERLY ADVERTISED! It’s a shame films like 120 BPM aren’t get the same time in the spotlight), imagines the heterosexual characters in the story having to ‘come out’ to their parents. It’s on the nose for sure, but it works, highlighting the ridiculous act we all still face, sometimes on a regular basis, no matter our age or circumstance.

As ridiculous as it is, Simon’s attempts to control how and when he comes out is a recognisable one, and is a privilege that is all too often taken away from queer teens or LGBTQ+ identifying people in the public sphere. I completely identified with Simon’s desire to wait until university, when are you are able to forge a new identity of your own and control the way you present yourself to the adult world for the first time. And in an amusing scene where Simon participates in a fantastical flash mob dance to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’, we are witness to Simon’s adorable and completely relatable need to belong.

When his identity is about to be revealed against his will, it kick-starts a domino effect of events that challenges Simon to question how far he is willing to go to come out on his own terms. When the pieces come crumbling down (this is a high school drama after all), we’ve become so invested in these ice-coffee drinking, Panic At The Disco-loving teens that the real prospect of finishing high school alone without lifelong friends in tow is a true narrative gut-punch.

Robinson is ably backed up by a strong supporting cast, including Jennifer Gardner and Josh Duhamel as his liberal and soppy parents who both get opportunities to present a sympathetic portrayal of supportive parents who love their son, whatever the nature of his “secret”. The direction by Dawson’s Creek and Supergirl alumni Greg Berlanti gets the leafy, middle-class, middle-America down to a tee. All the characters reside in the kind of houses that LadyBird longed to infiltrate in Greta Gerwig’s vision of staid high school life. When Simon puts the record player needle down on The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, I couldn’t help but make a mental note to search for the pristine OST on Spotify. Millennial and proud.

The film’s tagline “Everyone deserves a great love story” could not be more apt. With Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name and God’s Own Country getting widespread acclaim, the teen movie deserved a chance at telling a gay love story, and Love, Simon is a confident and fun-loving success. It’s portrayal of an average guy that just wants to experience love for the first time is endearing and so tear-jerkingly touching that I couldn’t tell if my tears were tears of happiness of tears of relief at finally seeing a mainstream movie tackle this subject without any evasion or cynicism.

A film about trying to embrace who your are, pass your exams and all the while balancing the careful act of not getting your phone confiscated. Now if that’s not a universal teen experience, then I don’t know what is.

Love, Evangeline.