Florence Pugh

Midsommar

05/07/19

Rising star Ari Aster’s second movie, Midsommar, is a bucolic horror, a direct descendant of The Wicker Man. Starring Florence Pugh as the troubled Dani, it upends as many horror tropes as it embraces, the excesses building gleefully to a riotous, high-pitched finale.

The film opens with Dani worrying about her sister and pestering her reluctant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), for reassurance. He’s out with his flatmates: Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), frustrated at being disturbed. He wants out of the relationship, he tells his friends, but he’s dithering, loathe to make a decision and act on it.

But then Dani’s parents die suddenly and he can’t ditch her; how can he? She’s clingy and needy, can’t be left alone. Christian feels trapped, compelled to invite her along on the trip he and his pals have planned, to visit the remote commune in Sweden where Pelle grew up, and take part in their midsummer festivities.

The tension here is nicely drawn: Christian caught in the middle between his girlfriend and his friends. Mark does not want Dani there and she is too fragile to let his animosity wash over her. The setup is promising.

From the dingy, gloomy hues of the opening reel, we are suddenly transported to the gloriously colourful and sunlit idyll of Pelle’s home with the Härga people. This is a daytime horror, no murky shadows where monsters lurk: these fiends are hiding in plain sight. Because, of course, not all is as it seems…

This is not a perfect film. There are some clear issues. Christian in particular is underwritten; his behaviour is inconsistent and lacking credible motivation. What we do know (he’s too weak to walk away from a failing relationship; he will deny a friendship, Judas-like) makes him unsympathetic, so it’s hard to care what happens to him. And then there’s Will Poulter. Mark starts off well enough, adding an interesting dynamic to the friendship group. But, once they arrive in Sweden, he seems to slowly fade from the film, a woeful underuse of such a fine actor. Perhaps, though, it’s the unthinking adherence to problematic clichés that causes me the most concern: exoticising the only disabled character; positioning naked elderly women as grotesques; suggesting mental illness is synonymous with violence and murderous intent.

Despite these problems, Midsommar is largely successful, not least for its bravura. Pugh is as compelling as ever, a real physical presence, dominating the screen. And there are some assured flourishes – a sequence where the protagonists’ car seems to quite literally start running upside-down along an inverted highway clearly shows Aster’s directorial chops. The mounting sense of dread is expertly manipulated, with even the silliest scenes adding a genuine disquiet. The fact that it all takes place in this sun-dappled pastoral hideaway only serves to highlight the brutality.

It’s worth noting too that all the horror here is human: we don’t need the supernatural; we are quite evil enough.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Fighting With My Family

24/02/19

I have to confess that my expectations for this are not particularly high. This may surprise you, but the world of WWE wrestling is not something that’s ever figured high on the list of things I enjoy – but a members’ screening of Fighting With My Family at The Cameo, coupled with a quiet Sunday afternoon, is enough to entice me along to give it the benefit of the doubt.

And against all the odds, I am thoroughly entertained.

Written and directed by Stephen Merchant (who seems to be making more credible inroads into the movie industry than his old compadre, Ricky Gervais), this is a ‘based on a true story’ account of the career of Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), who, from her childhood, along with brother, Zak (Jack Lowden), is schooled in the ways of all-things-wrestling by her parents, Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Heady).  They run a small wrestling club in the exotic locale of er… Norwich, where they regularly put on small-time bouts and train the local teenagers in the ways of unarmed combat.

Saraya and Zak have always dreamed of hitting the heights of the WWE so, when they are invited to go along to a tryout in London, they are of course wildly excited. But things become more complicated when Saraya is invited to head out to Florida to see if she has what it takes to become a wrestling superstar – while Zak is given a polite ‘no thanks.’ Now he has to watch as his sister has chance of achieving everything he’s ever dreamed of, while he’s stuck in Norwich, helping to care for his partner’s new baby and training the local teenagers. Bitter? Yes, pretty much.

Merchant does a terrific job of this, managing to steer  clear of the obvious and giving us a much more nuanced story than we might have expected. Just when we think we know where this is heading, he throws in the odd surprise – like the seemingly snooty model girls training alongside Saraya, who turn out to be perfectly decent people. Pugh, in a role I’d never have anticipated after Lady Macbeth, is appealing as a square peg trying desperately to fit into a round hole, and Lowden does an excellent job of conveying Zak’s inner torment as his sister’s star continues to rise. Vince Vaughan is terrific as the hard-assed coach who pushes Saraya to the edge of endurance and there’s even a nicely judged cameo by Dwayne Johnson, where the man’s inherent likability is allowed to shine through.

Look, this is never going to be anybody’s choice for film of the year, but if you’re looking for a slice of undemanding fun, and a genuinely heartwarming conclusion, you could do a lot worse. It may not convert you into a rabid fan off WrestleMania, but you’ll have some genuine laughs, something that’s in woefully short supply these days.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Outlaw King

 

23/11/18

In a move that is happening with increasing regularity, Outlaw King has gone straight to Netflix. When this first started, I imagined it would only be an occasional thing, but now, it seems, the streaming company have their eyes on the Oscars. The inevitable result is that brilliant films like the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs have been afforded the same treatment; and Alfonso Cuaron’s upcoming release, the Oscar-tipped Roma, looks certain to follow an identical path. Oh sure, it will have a ‘limited theatrical release,’ but that may only amount to one week in a few cinemas in London in order to qualify for competition. Ultimately, it means that British cinema goers are going to miss out and this worries me. I love cinema and I want to see it supported not sidelined.

Ironically, this powerful action movie, based around the life of Robert the Bruce is yet another film that really deserves to be viewed on the big screen. There’s sumptuous location photography, filmed (in what is becoming the exception rather than the rule) in the places where the story actually happened. The time is clearly right for the subject. Consigned to a supporting role in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Robert the Bruce is an important figure in Scottish history, and the man chiefly responsible for securing its independence from England.

When we first meet Robert (Chris Pine), he is renewing his fealty to King Edward the First of England (Stephen Dillane), mostly at the insistence of his elderly father, Robert Senior (James Cosmo), who feels he’s seen enough bloodshed for one lifetime and fears the consequences of taking on his country’s occupiers. Robert reluctantly toes the line, paying his exorbitant taxes and even agreeing to marry Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh, building on her star making role in Lady Macbeth), a woman he has never even met before. But the capture and murder of Scottish rebel leader, William Wallace, brings about a change of heart in Robert and, against all contrary advice, he takes up his sword and sets about trying to unite Scotland against a common enemy. It’s no easy matter and he has plenty of defeats to overcome before he can make any progress. But as the saying goes, ‘if at first you don’t succeed…’

David Mackenzie makes an assured job of all this, handling the more intimate scenes and the epic battles with equal aplomb. The growing relationship between Robert and Elizabeth is sensitively handled but the film is unflinching when it comes to the visceral – a scene where one character is hung, drawn and quartered is certainly not for the faint-hearted. A climactic cavalry charge is so brilliantly immersive, I find myself wincing at every hack of a claymore, every thrust of a lance. Again, this really needs the scale of a cinema screen to fully bring Barry Ackroyd’s superb cinematography to life – even the biggest of home screens cannot hope to do it justice.

Pine handles the Scots accent convincingly enough and there’s nice supporting work by Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the pugnacious James Douglas, one of Robert’s closest allies. Those hoping for an appearance by the infamous spider of legend will be sadly disappointed, but lovers of stirring action will find plenty to enjoy here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Commuter

 

 

15/01/18

Since 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has expended much of his onscreen energy trying to sell himself as an ageing action hero. While the first film was something of a guilty pleasure, the two sequels weren’t anything like as sure-footed, but Neeson (who, I feel compelled to remind you, once starred in Schindler’s List) clearly isn’t a man to give up on an idea. In The Commuter he lends the daily trip to and from the office a whole new dimension. As the opening credits unfold, we see him taking his regular journey in all weathers and in all types of clothing. The sequence is so nicely put together, it lulls us into thinking that this will be a classier film than we’ve come to expect from Mr Neeson, of late – but, sadly, that feeling is rather short-lived.

Neeson plays Michael McCauley, former cop turned insurance salesman. Happily married to Karen (Elizabeth Montgomery), he gamely takes the train to work every day, just as he has for the last ten years. But things take a turn for the worse when he arrives at work one morning to discover that the bank has decided to let him go. What is he to do? He’s sixty years old, for goodness sake! He has two mortgages and his teenage son is planning to go to a fancy college! Over a few beers he confides in his old pal, Detective Alex Murphy (Patrick White), and then hurries off to the station to catch the train home.

Once on route, he encounters the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who offers him a very strange way out of his current predicament. Somebody on the train doesn’t belong there, she tells him. All McCauley has to do is work out who it is, stick a miniature tracker on the guilty party and receive a massive cash payout in return, enough to solve all of his worries. At first, he’s intrigued enough to start looking for this unknown person but, as the labyrinthine plot unwinds, he begins to realise it’s going to be a lot more messy than he’d anticipated…

This, I’m afraid, is the point where the film starts to go (if you’ll forgive the pun) right off the rails. The premise is so ridiculous, so downright complicated, it’s hard to hold back hoots of disbelief. Okay, so the action sequences do generate some excitement, but a whole raft of worrying questions start to prey on the viewer’s mind. How have the villains managed to contrive such an intricate plot? How is it that not one tiny element of the plan ever lets them down? More worryingly, how does a man who has spent the last ten years selling insurance contrive to be so good at beating people up, leaping on and off trains and crawling into inaccessible places? Yes, he’s a former cop, but doesn’t that consist mostly of eating doughnuts?

As the train (and the plot) thunders relentlessly on, we are treated to needlessly extended punch-ups (a scene where Neeson belabours an unfortunate man with his own electric guitar invites whoops of derision rather than the thrills it is surely aiming for) and there’s a late ‘shock’ plot reveal that will frankly surprise precisely nobody. All this is a shame, because Neeson is an accomplished actor and he deserves better material than this. Did I mention that he was in Schindler’s List? Oh yes, I did.

Okay, fans of thick-ear movies will find things to relish here. And I’m aware of the ‘so bad it’s good’ contingent who make these films bankable. But I’m unable to suspend my disbelief enough to let this one go by. Keep an eye out for some interesting faces amidst McCauley’s fellow-passengers, though. Isn’t that Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmintraut of Breaking Bad)? And her with the pink hair and the sneer – surely that’s rising star Florence Pugh from Lady MacBeth?

Little wonder she looks dazed… she’s doubtless wishing she’d taken an earlier train.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Lady Macbeth

27/04/17

The ancestral origins of this movie are vaunted by its title, which leads us from Shakespeare’s ruthless anti-heroine to Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. This film, adapted from Leskov’s 1865 novel by Alice Birch and set, this time, in the northeast of England, is a dark and unnerving piece of work, as chilling as it is spare.

Florence Pugh is Katherine, a young Victorian woman sold into marriage. Her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton), has no interest in her at all, and his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), is a brutal tyrant. Both men are often absent from home, and Katherine is alone and bored. At first she sleeps the days away; then she seeks solace in alcohol. And then she encounters Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a farmhand, and they begin a passionate affair. So passionate, in fact, that it is dangerous, in a Heathcliff-Cathy kind of way; it’s surely no coincidence that these two women share a name. There is nothing Katherine won’t do to protect her illicit relationship,  and no one she won’t sacrifice. Even Sebastian himself isn’t safe: “I’d rather kill you than not have you with me,” she says.

This is an extraordinary debut by director, William Oldroyd (he’s made a couple of critically acclaimed shorts in the past, but this is his first full-length film), one of stark originality. It looks like other costume dramas, but it doesn’t feel like them at all. There’s no sound track, which is oddly disconcerting, and accentuates every noise in the horribly quiet house: the cat chewing, the floorboards creaking; everything grates and enervates. Katherine’s frustration is palpable.

This isn’t an easy watch: there is violence and savagery throughout. Katherine’s response to oppression is spirited to say the least; she refuses to be confined. Race and class are important themes here too: mixed-race Sebastian knows he – not she  – will be hanged if their crimes are discovered; black housemaid, Anna, is abused and exploited throughout. Katherine might be isolated, forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, but she has far more power and privilege than those with whom she spends her time.

Unlike her namesake, Katherine never wavers, never feels remorse. She’s powerful and subversive: loud when she’s supposed to be quiet; rebellious to the very end. Florence Pugh has an earthy vitality, and her performance is the foundation on which this remarkable film is built.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Falling

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03/05/15

Carol Morley’s The Falling is an intriguing and occasionally mesmerising film, that has somehow managed to stake a claim at the multiplexes, amidst the tub-thumping superhero and action flicks. You’ll have to go back a long way to find something similar; all the way, in fact, to 1975, and Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, with which this film seems to share an affinity for the languorous, sensual qualities of nature. Weir’s story was, of course, based in Australia and this one, somewhere in the UK (it’s never actually specified exactly where) but Morley is fond of counterpointing luscious shots of lakes and woods with the tightly corseted, emotionless wasteland of a girls’ private school. Indeed, the two films have so many scenes in common, I refuse to believe that it’s coincidental.

It’s 1969 and the wild and rebellious Abbie (Florence Pugh) is beginning to discover the depths of her own sexuality. Her best friend, Lydia (Maisie Williams) can only watch helplessly as Abbie is inexorably drawn away from her towards Lydia’s brother, Kenneth (Joe Cole). Lydia lives with Kenneth and her tightly buttoned mother, Eileen (Maxine Peake) an agoraphobe who never leaves the house and who seems incapable of portraying any kind of emotion whatsoever. When Abbie finds she is pregnant, it threatens to blow apart the closeted world of the private school she attends and Lydia starts to look for ways to procure an abortion for her friend – but shortly afterwards, Abbie collapses and dies. The resulting shock has a profound effect on her fellow pupils. Lydia begins to experience rapturous fainting spells and as hysteria mounts, more and more more girls (and even one of the female teachers) experience the same phenomenon. In the film’s most powerful scene, pretty much the whole morning assembly succumbs. Is it simply a case of mass hysteria? Or is something deeper and more sinister at work?

The film revels in throwing out more questions than it has answers for. Morley’s slow, sensual direction generates an atmosphere of incredible tension and there are occasional uses of subliminal imagery that lend the film an almost hallucinatory quality. As Lydia, Williams delivers an unforgettable performance, while Pugh is so charismatic that her memory haunts the proceedings despite her early exit. Interesting too, to see former Merchant Ivory pin-up Greta Scaachi, taking on the role of the school’s sternest teacher.

The Falling is by no means a perfect film, but it’s far more experimental than most movies you’ll see these days and it has an ephemeral quality that will prompt you to talk about it long after the final credits have rolled. Not something you would say about Iron Man or The Avengers.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney