Why do we dig through the earth looking for remains of those who lived before us long ago? Is it for posterity’s sake, for the people who will come we’re gone? Simple collective genetic curiosity for our fellow humans? Is it purely academic or is there some intrinsic burning impulse to unearth what was before in the hopes it might affect our own lives, in some invisible cosmic fashion? Simon Stones’s new Netflix original film The Dig is a phenomenal piece of work that asks these questions by showing us a varied ensemble of people working in the famed archeological dig of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk England, 1938, right before the outbreak of World War 2. The excavation is commissioned by widow landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), spearheaded by focused, workaholic expert Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) and assisted by others including junior archeologist Peggy Piggott (Lily James) and British Museum scout Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). While the film focuses intently on the dig and eventual unearthing of a wondrous find itself, what really stands out and feels important is the character work and how each person deals with issues like alienation, mortality and interpersonal relationships individually and as a group. Fiennes is wonderful as Basil Brown, a hard working guru who doesn’t want fame or acclaim, but simply has an organic passion for pulling back the curtain of history and illuminating the past. Mulligan is a staggering actress and displays great fragility and resilience in the face of looming adversity. James was such a bubbly presence in Mama Mia and she certainly draws attention but she’s much more restrained, subtle and heartbreakingly vulnerable here, stuck in a loveless marriage to a colleague (Ben Chaplin) and feeling trapped by circumstance. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Mike Eley (Touching The Void) with a lyrical feel for the scope, lighting and spacial dynamics of rural England’s elegiac fields and hills, scored to emotional, melodic perfection by Stefan Gregory, competently directed by Stone and stunningly acted by the entire cast. The menace of incoming war is always present here as fighter planes frequently careen across the overcast skies, but somehow we feel safe in picturesque Suffolk with this intrepid band as they dig and search, not only in the dirt below them but amongst themselves, inwardly and in relation to each other to find peace, love, sense and some kind of solace in an often sorrowful world. It’s early in the year but this is already one of the strongest films so far.
Motion pictures don’t get much more uniquely eclectic and spellbinding than Bacurau, an ingenious genre tapestry of angry social commentary on capitalism and foreign relations, balls out gory splatter-fest genre flick in the midnite madness tradition, sun soaked modern western, anthropological oddity and overall mesmerizing curio sewn together from various different creative elements that are purposefully rough around the edges in their melding, which is one of the many charms to be found here. Somewhere in the back end of Brazil is Bacurau, a tiny village with a population that couldn’t be over one hundred, mourning the loss of its shamanistic matriarch as her daughter (Bárbara Colen) arrives back in town after long absence, just in time for a hypnotic funeral that sets the film’s first tonal resonance of many to come. The town has a host of interesting characters including protective ex-hitman Pacote (Thomas Aquino), charismatic feral warlord Lunga (drag artist Silvero Pereira is so great he deserves his own spinoff film) and fierce, no nonsense local physician Domingas, played by the great Sônia Braga. For the first act it feels like this will be a quaint, illuminating portrait of life in a part of the world we don’t normally get to see, a place where life is very different from what we’re used to in the west. The townsfolk struggle with their corrupt mayor who abuses his power by whoring out a young girl amongst them and withholding water supply under murky pretences. Then we shift gears into demented twilight zone mode and if there’s anything in your film to signal midway through that things are about to get very, very weird it’s the arrival of beloved cult film star Udo Kier as mysterious hunting guru Michael, who leads a troupe of despicable psychopaths into the region as the town suspiciously disappears off of Google maps, literal UFO’s observe from above and all hell breaks spectacularly loose. I don’t want to spoil too much because this is a film to savour, to unwrap and deliciously have the rug pulled out from under you at every turn of your expectations. It’s a brilliant social commentary on the dynamics of racism, corruption and the notion that foreign influence shows up to do basically anything it wants to perpetuate violence, corruption and hatred as long as there’s enough money involved. Kier hasn’t had a role this juicy in years, usually when you see his name in the billing as ‘special appearance’ you can bank on seeing him for two minutes in a throwaway cameo. Directors Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho know better and give him an extensive, scenery chewing monstrosity of a character that is his best work in a while. This film is hard to pin down and categorize, not necessarily because of its high ambitions but because of how audaciously and unapologetically it expects the viewer to keep up with them. There’s buckets of gruesome gore, deft social satire, genuine heartfelt emotion in areas and true artistic inspiration put into the finest of details in the way of life this village has, left like Easter eggs for the keenest of viewers to find and treasure. Bacurau is a truly special experience and one of my favourite films in a long time and the literal example of a ‘must-see’ for anyone who enjoys cinema, especially the wild and weird corners of the medium where gems like this reside.
I’m not usually one for sex comedies, I’m more reserved about the subject matter overall, it’s just not my style and most of the ones they make these days are obnoxious as fuck and pretty terrible. However, having said that I caught Maggie Carey’s The To Do List the other night and I gotta say it was a great time for more reasons than just being hilarious, which it is. It’s probably about the best my experience will get in this sub genre and I think one of the main reasons why is Aubrey Plaza, who is so young here! I’ve seen her here and there mostly in supporting turns and cameos but never in dead on lead role, but she nails it here as Brandy, a terminally curious high school senior with no sexual experience and a burning desire to get some under her belt. As summer break starts she writes up a To Do List (or a Fuckit List, as one reviewer on IMDb so candidly put it) of experimentation ideas and sets out to check some boxes off, but her adorable naivety and unhinged overzealousness leads to some… fairly chaotic situational comedy. She encounters a brain dead jock douchebag named (I wish I was making this up) Rusty Waters and a sensitive good boy (Johnny Simmons), all while under the various influences of her hilariously repressed dad (Clark Gregg), secretly adventurous mom (Connie Britton) and spitfire sister (Rachel Bilson). The film is set over a portion of the summer in the 90’s, so not only is there a wonderful sheen of carefully curated nostalgia at play, she also works at an outdoor kids pool under the deranged mentorship of a hopelessly inebriated boss (Bill Hader) so the setting and atmosphere are lovely to hang out it. Plaza is such a terrific presence onscreen and this likely my favourite of her roles yet, she makes Brandy adorably clueless but also has this clumsy intuition where she stumbles into the most awkward sexual situations possible and then somehow manages to find her way out in ways that had me laughing a lot. It’s also nice to see a sex positive comedy from a girl’s perspective that does a nice job of blending the raunchier aspects with a really down to earth message woven into the narrative. Good stuff.
Gary Fleder’s Don’t Say A Word is one of those slick Michael Douglas thrillers with a juicy cast, luxurious runtime and that classic ‘Hollywood thriller’ feel. It’s one of those scripts written with people like him or Harrison Ford in mind, the middle aged high profile professional whose family is menaced or kidnapped, forcing this straight laced Everyman to take action. This one is particularly strong and terrifically entertaining thanks mainly to the late Brittany Murphy in my favourite of her onscreen roles as a disturbed teenage girl whose broken, traumatized mind hold the secret to the film’s central mystery. When she was a young girl she witnessed the brutal murder of her father at the hands of a dangerous career criminal (Sean Bean) and his marauding gang of thieves. It’s now a decade or so later and he’s back to terrorize her again in hopes of unlocking a clue lodged deep in her head, information she’ll do anything to hide. Douglas is the hotshot psychologist who finds himself and his family targeted by Bean & Co., extorted into treating her and gaining the information so badly desired by all. Douglas and Murphy have terrific onscreen chemistry and she even upstages him in many scenes with her trademark raw, potent and very candid style of acting that seems almost out of place in such a glossy high profile thriller but really gives the thing its most valuable spark of life. Bean’s villain is admittedly kinda one dimensional in terms of script but he can take any character and give it something memorable with his talents, he’s utterly ruthless and despicable here, making the peril feel real and relentlessly threatening. The supporting cast is stacked to the nines with work from Famke Janssen as Douglas’s terrorized wife, the late Sky McCole Bartusiak as his cunning daughter, Oliver Platt as a shady colleague clearly hiding something, Jennifer Esposito as a shrewd homicide detective on everyone’s case, with additional support from Shawn Doyle, Guy Torry, Lance Reddick, David Warshofsky, Paul Schulze, Aiden Devine and a cameo from Victor Argo as a wily coroner. Fleder is an accomplished director (Runaway Jury, Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, Kiss The Girls) and knows his way around a flashy big budget thriller without losing a palpable sense of character and setting. This is one of my favourite Michael Douglas thrillers, mainly because of Brittany Murphy’s super affecting, down to earth work, Bean’s cold, psychopathic baddie, the blue and grey hued NYC cinematography full of hustle, bustle and urgent incident and the overall orchestration which has a classic ensemble thriller mentality that you just don’t get from Hollywood anymore. Great film.
I wasn’t prepared for what a pitch black, unapologetically dark comedy Heathers really is. I’ve always known about this film and always meant to see it because I love Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and all things 80’s but man does this thing have some teeth! High school satire has never been this ruthless as we see Ryder try and escape a popular clique trio of bitchy brats all hilariously named Heather with the help of sociopathic, extremely destructive bad boy Slater. Her character is interesting because she’s like the Daywalker of high school cliques, able to blend in as both the good girl and snotty popular girl crowds and as such comes across as an individual rather than a caricature. Her and Slater are adorable together onscreen, both in full on nubile brunette mode and they have cutey pie chemistry that supernovas when he goes kamikaze and decides he not only wants to commit multiple murders on campus, but eventually blow up said campus with a giant brick of C4!! This all sounds perfectly horrible and of course the subject matter takes on dark, ominous new portent when we look at all the tragic school shootings these days but somehow this film, besides being very much of it’s time, manages to play off all these fucked up elements squarely for laughs, albeit of the darkest kind. The corrosive script by Daniel Waters (Hudson Hawk, Demolition Man, Batman Returns) is an impossibly witty, bitterly sardonic yet refreshingly playful cocktail of deprecating cynicism, punishingly pointed social satire and so many jokes I had to compartmentalize how long to laugh at each before the next one piled on. Ryder is lovely here and this might be one of her most engaging, impressive and attractive onscreen roles, she has a grand time with the dialogue, her chemistry with Slater’s lovably dangerous, misanthropic outsider almost singes the celluloid and you can tell overall that everyone involved is just having so much fun. I’ve made darker films before about the kind of subject matter you’re not sure if you should laugh or wince at and they are the best kind of sets to be on, if everyone is in on the joke and willing to ‘go there.’ It’s evident they all were here, and they’ve made one hell of a great film.
Return To Oz is not a film that’s held in very high regard at all but after watching it I have to say I’m a huge fan and that, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, it’s far closer to the source material than The Wizard Of Oz ever was. Here’s the thing: L. Frank Baum wrote an entire opus of Oz novels, fourteen to be exact. They were incredibly strange, terminally bizarre otherworldly fables with borderline dream/nightmare logic and a nebulous ecosystem of odd, surreal nonsensicality that was a world you could get lost in. While Wizard Of Oz is a lovely film with its classic musical numbers, doe eyed, iconoclastic turn from Judy Garland and turned darker, more menacing aspects into more accessible sensibilities, I’ve got to be honest as a childhood fan of the books and say I prefer Return because it feels more akin to Baum’s vernacular, intangible aesthetic and topsy-turvy world building. Additionally, Dorothy in the books was supposed to be between the ages eight to twelve and while seventeen year old Garland was wonderful in the role, Fairuza Balk at age ten fits the character more congruently and she’s terrific in a debut role that’s a perfect precursor to her own career full of edgy, intense and very ‘Oz-esque’ acting creations of her own. Dorothy returns to Oz in far less of a spectacle than the tornado before, and finds it conquered and ruled over by a tyrant called the Gnome King (Nicol Williamson). Dorothy must battle his minions as well as an evil witch named Thrombi (Jean Marsh, also effective as the evil witch in Willow). She’s helped by a new host of fantastical beings including clockwork robot Tik Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, a talking chicken, a sentient Moose head and others while her old friends the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man remain largely in captivity but make some comforting cameos later on in the film. This is one of those blessed 80’s children’s fantasy films that isn’t afraid to get dark, genuinely menacing and has an overall edge and bite to its narrative and tone, which the books had as well. The special effects are utterly spellbinding from shifting rock faces, a flying couch, the gnome king’s fearsomely gigantic final form and all manner of phantasmagorical eye candy. Balk is wonderful as Dorothy and even at an early age it’s easy to see why she went on to become such an accomplished actress and beloved cult film star. As someone who cherished the books as a kid I have to say this is as close as it’s ever come; Baum’s stories were meant to be illogical, disorienting dark fantasies full of subconscious imagery and dreamlike storytelling, not syrupy Hollywood musicals that took all that edgy atmosphere and filtered it through a golden age, tame prism of sunny optimism. That’s not to say I don’t like Wizard Of Oz, it’s a fine film for what it is and a cherished classic to many, it’s just that if we’re acknowledging and paying tribute to the extensive lore behind it all, Return To Oz it’s where it’s at and I would have loved to see a continuing series with Balk as Dorothy again.
There’s a million and one movies out there about Ouija boards and it’s potentially a great concept but most of them are pretty shit. Ouija: Origin Of Evil, however, is directed by Mike Flanagan who in my experience has never made a film that was anything less than terrific, and this is no exception. Ostensibly a prequel to a more modern set Ouija movie that I’ve only seen a trailer for, Origin backtracks to the late 60’s where a widow (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters (Annaliese Basso and Lulu Wilson) run a seance scam out of their living room to pay bills and make ends meet. One day the older daughter decides a Ouija board would be a fun idea to throw into the mix (right?) and before they know her little sister has become a full on medium for communicating with the dead and whatever else is out there, but she has no filter for letting things in and pretty soon something dark and pissed off is hanging around the house with them. The daughter’s catholic school teacher (Henry Thomas) does what he can to help them out but the decades old secret that haunts their home threatens to annihilate them all. This is a solid horror film that relies on mounting tension, the use of space, sound design and ghostly possession to scare the viewer effectively, and never cheaply like a lot of horror films do. Flanagan in my eyes is a master of the genre akin to and on the same level as Carpenter, Craven and Argento, he’s that good. His stories are terrifying but there is *always* a discernible undercurrent of humanity and character development interwoven so that we actually care when people are being terrorized onscreen. Reaser, Basso and Wilson are terrific as the mother and daughters, as I love how Flanagan has his extensive ‘troupe’ of actors he keeps recasting in new projects, they become like recognizable totems of his work and I love seeing people this talented show up time and time again in different roles. This might be a bit slighter of a film when I look at my preferences regarding his career overall, but it’s no less well crafted, unearthly and thrillingly alive as the rest in his stable. Great stuff.
Peter Masterson’s Blood Red is a fascinating film for many reasons and feels like a long lost relic that the sands of time have wrought forth unto the world of streaming and Blu Ray. Kind of like a classic, old school Hollywood historical melodrama with a bit of a Michael Cimino flavour, it tells the story of conflict and corruption in 1800’s California as an amoral Irish railroad tycoon (Dennis Hopper) tries to muscle an Italian vineyard owner (Giancarlo Giannini) out of his land to make way for development. The man refuses to sell or move which ignites a violent conflict between his hot blooded eldest son (Eric Roberts), a nasty enforcer (Burt Young) hired by Hopper to facilitate his goal by any means necessary and all the other local farmers who follow example and take up arms themselves. This isn’t a perfect film and editing feels a bit loose and unconstructed sometimes but I very much enjoyed and was swept up in the spectacle of it all, and any film with a cast this good deserves attention by default. Roberts has swagger and charisma as always, a very young Michael Madsen and Elias Koteas show up as cousins of his to assist in the ongoing skirmish, while Hopper is hammy and the only weak link in terms of acting and, as we know from his mad bomber film Ticker, he just *cannot* do anything *close* to a proper Irish accent and any attempts always take me right out of the scene in a fit of giggles. My favourite performance is from Julia Roberts, and this is the only film her and Eric have ever been in together and playing siblings no less, so it’s kind of a special thing for us fans of both. She’s terrific as his younger sister, showing true emotion and personality in a role that has barely any dialogue, but she’s present and very effective nonetheless. The film’s credits start and end with a slideshow of real black and white photos from that time period (similar to Malick’s Days Of Heaven) accompanied by a beautiful Italian song, and set up the atmosphere wonderfully. Much like this film details an important part of American history with its story, so too does this production mark a transitional period for much of its cast who were just getting started in their careers at the time and as such it’s a historical picture that is integral to both the history of the country overall and that of the Hollywood industry. Very strong film.
Are you a horror fan? Do you have Shudder? If the answers are yes to the former and no to the latter you should get on it, because the curators of this streaming service have delved deep into the genre mines to come up with some long buried gems that have probably escaped the sonar of even seasoned fans. Example: Tom McLoughlin’s One Dark Night, a film I would never have dreamed existed if I didn’t see it in the cue, is a brilliantly grotesque little slice of peak 80’s schlock that almost feels like a long lost John Carpenter film. Meg Tilly stars as a college girl who will do anything to join a stuck up sorority ran by a titanic bitch of a head sister (Robin Evans). In this case the initiation ritual happens to include spending one night alone in a spooky mausoleum, but this place just happens to be the final resting place of a notorious serial killer with the clairvoyant ability to reanimate the dead into unsettling shambling corpses. On top of that the bitch head sister sneaks in through a busted window and plays mean pranks on her too, while the killer’s harried widow (Melissa Newman) and her boyfriend (Adam West) arrive to try and put a stop to these supernatural shenanigans. This film is just so much fun for a number of reasons: Tilly is a gorgeous, exotic looking scream queen who is convincing, charismatic and very talented, the special effects for the corpses are horrifically slimy and disgusting and these hovering cadavers get, shall we say, uncomfortably close to our heroine. As soon as the dead killer wakes up and his otherworldly energy permeates the crypt, the film is bathed in a beautiful, Lovecraftian purple glow that enhances the visual aesthetic, supported by an atmospheric, creepy score by Bob Summers. One scene in particular is incredibly effective and legitimacy horrifying, where we observe the first few coffins open and the partially decomposed people come eerily floating out, slowly, with an anxiety inducing inevitability using the confined space, glacial but steady pacing and the terror of the actors. The corpses are interesting here because they aren’t zombies, they aren’t possessed like in Evil Dead, they aren’t sentient or leering or even capable of eye contact… they’re simply rotting dead bodies being moved by telekinesis, and somehow that was eternally more scary to me than zombies or anything else of the like. Anyways, if you like old school gooey horror in the tradition of Carpenter, Craven and Hooper with a neon purple infused, Colour Out Of Space sensibility then you’ll totally dig this. Get Shudder too while you’re at it, it’ll be the best streaming service splurge you’ll make.
American movie studios are wild, man. They’ll remake Asian horror films, pump out a few sequels, and then once they get bored of that they (pauses, takes off glasses and rubs bridge of nose) remake their *own American remake* of the Asian horror like they forgot they even did the initial one in the first place. That’s not to say this bizarre behaviour can’t produce decent horror flicks as a rule but in the case of The Grudge (2020) I’d say they’ve done a pretty terrible job. The 2004 American Grudge film with Sarah Michelle Gellar scared the piss right down my leg at age 14 and despite being desensitized now that I’m older I’d still consider it a well made, effective chiller. But this new version is so all over the place and contains so little of what made the 2004 one so special it doesn’t even make sense to call it a Grudge film. So basically there’s two moody, hard boiled detectives played by the arbitrarily unlikely combo of Andrea Riseborough and Demien Bichir, who are investigating the classic case of a Grudge spirit hovering around a house and the unfortunate folks who are unlucky, stupid or morbidly curious enough to hang around it. There’s Lin Shaye in the Grace Zabriskie proxy role as the dementia ridden old woman who doesn’t know what planet she’s on, Frankie Faison as her desperate husband who enlists a lady (Jacki Weaver) who facilitates assisted suicides, John Cho and Betty Gilpin as a young couple trying for a baby that fall victim (in the film’s single, solitary effective scare, I might add), William Sadler as a disfigured, mentally disturbed former cop who ran afoul of the ghost and others. It has a huge big cast of talented, recognizable and engaging actors who run around in unnecessary subplots doing not much of anything. There’s barely any ‘classic Grudge moments’ and even when there are they feel somehow ‘off’ and not deserving of the franchise name. The single effective scare involving John Cho is a nicely shocking moment with a great choice of where to place the camera, but if your remake of your own remake only has one scary scene and not much else, I think it’s time to pitch the drawing board out the window and completely rethink your approach. It’s beyond me why they felt the need to do this, and make it so overloaded, needlessly elaborate and bereft of what made the initial Grudge film so good.