image**** (out of five)

As Hollywood investigates its vision of what audiences want, director Karyn Kusama delivers a Hollywood Hills movie drenched in casual, comfortable diversity, where a character’s race is not troubled by that of the actor. Kusama, who made a headstrong debut with Girlfight, got a little lost with the over-capitalised Aeon Flux, and made a film I love – Jennifer’s Body, from a Diablo Cody script – has delivered the kind of Friday Night Twilight Zone affair that unites thinking adults and genre-fiends with The Invitation. It’s an excellent flick, and its diversity credentials are a nice little bonus, rather than any kind of obvious statement.

Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi are an established team, and their franchise Ride Along might lead you to think they’re only Studio Boyz. Here, though, doing double duty as (some of) the film’s producers, they – along with Kusama – are in full control, and they’ve delivered a cracker of an Agatha Christie freak-out in the Hollywood Hills, where the spirit of Manson has never really gone away.

Once the spectre of cult shenanigans reared its head,  I was deeply, deeply hooked. Hay and Manfredi’s plot is complicated and satisfying and pays off to boot – big time.

Theodore Shapiro’s big and ambitious musical score is excellent and vital to the film’s structure. For a film shot in one location, The Invitation is deeply cinematic. There are plentiful, obvious and highly appreciable nods to one-location fright-feasts such as Repulsion, but even within the sub-genre of dinner-party horror, The Invitation is one of the classy affairs. Logan Marshall-Green makes a huge, career-making impact in the complex lead role. Highly recommended.

bigger_splash.jpg***1/2 (out of five)

Luca Guadagnino follows up his surprisingly successful – and polarizing This Is Love with another Tilda Swinton vehicle in a lighter vein. A Bigger Splash is a loose remake of 1969’s French La Piscine, and indeed, a heck of a lot of it takes place around a very beautiful swimming pool.

That pool belongs to a villa on the Italian island of Pantelleria, where rock star Marianne (Swinton) and her beau Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are vacationing. Along comes her ex-beau Harry, an extremely successful rock and roll producer, and his recently-discovered daughter. Sexual and romantic tensions simmer, by the pool and elsewhere.

Harry is played by Ralph Fiennes, and his daughter Penelope by Dakota Johnson, and these two inspired pieces of casting give the film its zing. Swinton is good, of course – she always is – but we’ve seen her in this kind of role before, and she can kind of do it in her sleep: Marianne is cool, and so is Swinton. But Fiennes, whose out-of-the-box comic performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel gave Guagagnino the clever idea to cast him, gives us something we’ve never seen from him before, with gusto and huge energy. Harry is a big big character and Fiennes gives a big big performance that is spellbinding and – the cursed cliché of the film critic – revelatory.

Schoenaerts continues to be excellent in every thing he does, but Paul is the least interesting character, the reactor rather than the actor in this house full of extroverts. I wasn’t sure whether Paul was meant to be American or European – his accent is kind of both – but, when Hollywood is ready, so is this lumbering Belgian.

A Bigger Splash has little to say; a sort-of subplot involving refugees on the island results in little more than a cute joke at the end rather than a powerful look at what’s going on in Europe at the moment. It’s a sun-kissed vine of a film, whose plot (which is really incredibly slight) is entirely subservient to its presentation, on an antipasto platter, of four excellent performances. You kind of go to this movie to go to this house on Pantelleria, and hang out with these rock gods – and why wouldn’t you? They’re beautiful, sexy and fun.

The_Daughter_(2015_film)_POSTER***1/2 out of five)

Simon Stone’s adaptation of his stage adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck tosses out the metaphorical title and tells us straight who this story is about. She’s played by Odessa Young, brilliantly, and a huge part of the enjoyment of this film is watching a star being born in front of your eyes.

Young has previously appeared in Looking for Grace, and based on that and her performance here, I can safely predict her dance card will be full for many years, and will include waltzes with Hollywood. She’s astonishingly present as Hedwig (Ibsen eh!), the daughter of logger Oliver (Ewen Leslie), who re-unites with his old mate Christian (Paul Schneider) to nobody’s benefit.

The many lives thrown off-kilter by Christian’s return to Oz from the US include characters played by Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Miranda Otto and Anna Torv. They’re all solid, but it’s Young, Leslie and Schneider’s show, and they’re all excellent. Leslie, playing against his urbane type, is stunning, making a bunch of really tricky character maneuvers seem effortless. And Schneider, having experience with a couple of Antipodean films and filmmakers (he was in Jane Campion’s Bright Star and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jess James by the Coward Robert Ford) is believable as an Americanised Aussie – not a natural role for anyone.

It’s really inspiring that in a film with so many brilliant old-timers, it’s the young ones who impress, and the youngest the most. Stone is a young man making his feature debut, and he certainly breathes youthful energy into an old story, while also giving the whole thing a very Euro feel. It’s beautifully shot, too. Perhaps the least interesting thing about it is the actual story, which makes sense: I’d see this film over a stage production of Ibsen any day.

image*** (out of five)

Alex Jennings plays Alan Bennett exactly as you’d always imagined him – stuffy, witty, and ludicrously British – in this adaptation of Bennett’s novella, and subsequent play, which told the true story of an old lady who lived in her van in Bennett’s driveway in Camden for fifteen years. Maggie Smith plays the old lady, and twenty members of the cast of Bennett’s play The History Boys appear in the film. It’s as cosy as a home-cooked steak and kidney pie.

Early on, an actor in Bennett’s West End play at the time says of it, “It’s so English. Just what people want.” Like everything in Bennett, the line is being terribly clever, speaking, as it plainly is, about the film you’re watching. This vehicle – see what I did there? – delivers everything a Maggie Smith-loving Anglophile could possibly desire, including dry wit, acerbic wit, spiky wit and melancholic wit.

What’s surprising and delightful is that the film has a little more to offer than just Smith and wit: it’s quite a personal insight into Bennett – one of the most popular playwrights of all time – as well as the suburb of Camden in the 1970s and 80s, class (of course) and, naturally, the way societies treat the aged (and non-conformists). It’s also much more cinematic than I was expecting it to be.

Bennett is not really my cup of tea, and the most his zingers get out of me is a wry smile, but if you’re a fan of him or Smith, this will be catnip. If you’re a fan of both, this will be heroin, of the purest grade. Not that Bennett would go anywhere near that.

thewitch_online_teaser_01_web_large***1/2 (out of five)

Sundance Best Director Winner Robert Eggers’ carefully modulated, highly original 1630s-set “New-England Folktale” is precisely that, and the Friday night gore-cravers and retro-slasher freaks should look elsewhere for their bloody thrills. If not, ten minutes of authentic (literally taken from journals of the period) 1630s Puritan parlance will quickly convince them they’ve picked the wrong movie.

This happened to this handsome, small film on its US release: buoyed by the supremely enthusiastic response the film received at Sundance, its distributor A24 went wide with its release, accompanied by a trailer that shamelessly exploited a batch of the film’s creepier shots, thus encouraging a whole swathe of mainstream horror heads to attend on opening weekend only to dismiss the film – in many cases, extremely rudely – through all the venues modern technocriticism has to offer. In other words, it deliberately tried a bait-and-switch, attracted the wrong audience, and got shat on.

The film itself is no con, but an artful and beautifully crafted little gem that seems to draw inspiration from Ben Wheatley (particularly A Field In England), Wheatley’s own source of inspiration the “British folk horror” film (such as The Witches, Blood On Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General) as well as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, with which it shares all the major themes but in a much more confined setting. The dialogue – and there is a lot of it – really is drawn from primary sources, full of “thees” and “thous” and “thithers”. It’s delivered with absolute sincerity by an excellent small cast including everyone’s favourite tall Yorkshireman Ralph Ineson (you’ll know him when you see him), Red Road star Kate Dickie, and a quartet of excellent children led by soon-to-be-a-major-star Anya Taylor-Joy.

Eggers is a costume and production designer from the short film world. The Witch is a superb debut for him as a writer/director, but, and please forgive my repeating myself, take him at his title’s word: this is a folktale, and while it’s creepy and atmospheric, it’s as far from a rollercoaster of jump-scares as it is from a barrel of laughs.

tumblr_nxgc9g0fVh1qm7fcfo1_500**** (out of five)

László Nemes’ Oscar-winning Son of Saul is as experimental as mainstream narrative cinema gets, and as bold. Set in Auschwitz in 1944 during the planning of a prisoner uprising, the film – and, very specifically here, the camera – follows Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jewish prisoner and Sonderkommando, as he tries to do one significant act of morality amongst the absolute horror of his surrounds.

The Sonderkommando were able-bodied prisoner work units within the death camps who aided with the disposal of gas chamber victims. They were separated from the general prisoner population and given adequate rations and sleep to remain productive (although, of course, everything here is relative, and we’re still talking about extreme and nightmarish conditions). With every move he makes to complete his objective, Saul risks his own life, the lives of others including those he “works with”, and the uprising itself. The stakes are as high as they get, and the milieu as dramatic as they come.

When I say the camera follows Saul, I mean it really follows Saul. Not to be glib, but the aesthetic here, bold and striking, is similar to that of a “first-person” shooter”, in that Saul is always in frame, usually centered, as the camera follows his every move. Beyond Saul, however – and here lies a crucial aesthetic choice – the world is out of focus. Nemes’ shoots the whole thing with an incredibly narrow depth of field, so while Saul is sharp, even the bodies he drags are blurry.

In a way, this technique makes the film bearable. We know these are bodies, and we’re glad not to see them. But on other levels, Nemes is getting to something, I think, of the mind-set Saul has to exist in in order to go about his business the way he does. He “sees but does not see”. Meanwhile, the soundtrack supplies us with endless horrors – but is also stylistically situated to reflect Saul’s emotional defenses: Nemes has stated that, to be truly realistic, we would hear much more screaming on the soundtrack, but Saul filters out the screams as much as he can, for his – and therefore our – protection.

It is an astonishing technical feat, especially considering the entire world the filmmakers must have constructed, only to shoot most of it out of focus. On a story level, the film is as murky as those blurry images, which fits in with the controlled chaos of the camp but also may alienate some viewers to the point of distraction. I gave up trying to keep track of a couple of story elements and instead let the world envelop me. Thank goodness, after an hour and fifty minutes, I was able to walk into the sunshine; Nemes, in his debut feature, has created such an immersive experience that it is hell to be part of, and yet must be experienced.

image.jpeg

**** (out of five)

The Coen Brothers’ 1950s-set Hollywood Studio comedy is an endlessly, effortlessly entertaining flight of fancy. If they only created it to delight themselves – which is how it possibly comes off – I have no beef with that.

Structured as the day in the life of the fictional Capitol Studios’ Head of Physical Production Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the episodic structure allows the Coens to gently – lovingly – satirize Ben Hur, On The Town, Manhattan melodramas, singing cowboy pictures and water ballets while also glancing at communist screenwriters, rival sibling gossip columnists, the rise of the Californian aerospace industry and Carmen Miranda. It’s all a colorful hoot.

The real Mannix was not the head of a studio but rather a mob-connected studio “fixer”, and while Brolin’s character shares attributes with the infamous heavy, the fanciful way he’s named is representative of the film’s whole alternative-universe, take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt aesthetic. George Clooney plays a Charlton Heston type – but one who is swayed by communism. Channing Tatum is a Gene Kelly, but hardly the Gene Kelly, and Tilda Swinton plays identical twin sister columnists who are barely disguised substitutes for Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons – who weren’t related. Perhaps the most delightful performance comes from the little-known Alden Ehrenreich, who plays a Kirby Grant Jr. style singing cowboy forced to not only join the cast of a picture where he has to speak – “to other people!” (not horses) – but also to foil an extortion scheme.

It’s all very silly and all very Coen at their lightest. It’s extremely easy to digest, pretty as a picture, and constantly gently amusing with a few huge belly laughs. If you really don’t care for Hollywood history I suppose it would be possible to hate this gorgeous, loving pastiche; the more you care, the more gags there are to tickle you. I was tickled pink.