SWALLOW (2019)

dir. Carlo Mirabella-Davis. Hunter (Haley Bennett) is a newlywed, living with her husband in a beautiful glass house on the Hudson River in upstate New York. Her wealthy new family are loathsome, and Hunter copes by swallowing inedible objects, later diagnosed as a Pica disorder. A remarkable looking film, for such a difficult subject, their family home is as beautiful as the one in EX MACHINA (2015). More of a tense drama than a horror film, although there are some scenes of animal slaughter, and surgery that give the aesthetic of horror. Haley Bennett is remarkable, and is on camera for almost every shot. She reacts so honestly and believably to the oppressive, suffocating world around her, that it’s understandable, even perversely logical, why she makes her choices. The supporting cast includes David Rasche as the boorish father-in-law, a wonderful actor, and featured in some of the best TV series made, including ‘Succession’, ‘Veep’, and ‘Rubicon’. This is director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s first feature, and it’s remarkable, definitely a name to watch.

THE GRUDGE (2020)

dir. Nicolas Pesce. A strange sequel/remake of the creepy and atmospheric Japanese horror film JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002). The central concept being, that gruesome murders in a house will conjure vengeful ghosts that curse anyone who enters that house. It’s a simple horror idea, that only really works when the film is able to sustain a spooky atmosphere, letting you enjoy the creepy detective story unravel. The 2020 story is told non-linearly, for apparently no reason at all, there are no surprises or revelations that come from this structure, and its only effect is to prevent any one character from being developed to a level where you may connect with them. The spooky riff on the original Japanese style is completely abandoned towards the end of film, which is disappointingly the least tense or spooky segment of the entire film. The dialogue is never good, and has some truly bad moments. The wonderful John Cho is completely wasted. Very disappointing.

GHOST WORLD (2001)

dir. Terry Zwigoff. Based on Daniel Clowes’s 1990s comics of the same name. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) best friends who have just graduated high school, looking for an apartment together, find themselves involved in the private life of blues record collector, Seymour (Steve Buscemi). A wonderfully weird film. Often described as a black comedy, but more of a romantic comedy about post high school friendships, with an intelligent and subversive sense of humour. Enid and Rebecca are delightfully cynical, and genuinely funny together. The opening sequence with the clip from Bollywood film GUMNAAM (1965) has to be one of the best openings to a comedy ever. Enid’s bedroom is perfectly designed, as the sanctuary of a serous thinking, art obsessed teenage girl in the 1990s. The translation of the visual style of the comic to the screen is perfectly done, the colour palette is overly saturated when we’re with Enid and Rebecca, never feeling cartoonish. The ending is beautiful, and open to interpretation, but I do wish we had more time with Enid and Rebecca rather than checking back in on Seymour. Brilliant soundtrack, which introduced a generation of high school art nerds to American blues music.

27 DRESSES (2008)

dir. Anne Fletcher. Jane (Katherine Heigl) has been a bridesmaid 27 times, selflessly planning her friends weddings to perfection. Due to a series of unfortunate events, she is left to plan her younger sisters wedding to a man she was developing feelings for, who is also her boss. Simultaneously Jane is dealing with the attentions of cynical wedding newspaper reporter, Kevin (James Marsden). I really enjoyed this. Written by the amazing Aline Brosh McKenna who wrote, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006), and MORNING GLORY (2010). These other films entwine sweet and sentimental plot lines within satires of American workplaces, with deft commentary on the challenges of being a women in various industries – 27 DRESSES does not have those elements. Jane’s job as an office assistant is set, and she has no other goals in life, other than to be married. That said, Katherine Heigl and James Marsden have real chemistry, and it feels natural they way they drift closer together. The scene where Jane tries on (almost) all of the titular 27 dresses for Kevin, is a real treat, I was grinning through the whole scene. The only real low point for me was Jane’s crush, and sisters new finance, George – I didn’t believe the impressive and confident Jane would have fallen for the milk-toast mumbling George. That role needed an actor with more charisma, like Robert John Downey Jr.. Wonderful female supporting cast, including Krysten Ritter (Jane in ‘Breaking Bad’), and Judy Greer (Kitty in ‘Arrested Development), and Melora Hardin (Jan in the US version of ‘The Office’).

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017)

dir. Sean Baker. Halley (Bria Vinaite) is a young single mother, looking after her six year old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), living in a motel in Florida, close to the Walt Disney World amusement parks. Moonee is on school holidays, and spends her days exploring her surroundings with other children who live in the motel. Her mother Halley, does her best to create a positive environment for Moonee, which becomes increasingly challenging. Almost entirely told from the perspective of Moonee, we watch her spend her days hustling for ice cream money, running errands to collect free food for her mother, and getting in the way of exasperated, but protective motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). The majority of the movie is spent watching heartbreakingly sweet (most of the time) Moonee, as the adult world encroaches on her world of adventures and friendship. The candy coloured setting is also remarkable, a different pallet to Sean Baker’s previous film TANGERINE (2015), and even more distinctive. One of the best ambiguous endings to a movie in a long time.

THE ‘BURBS (1989)

dir. Joe Dante. Set in a suburban cul-de-sac, a group of neighbours led by Ray (Tom Hanks) become paranoid that a new family that has moved in, is actually a group of psychopaths, and embark on a series of schemes to uncover the truth. A fun mixed genre movie, combining comedy and horror. The wonderful Carrie Fisher improves any movie she’s in, and she’s delightful as the patient, protective wife of Ray. One of the neighbours is the military obsessive Mark Rumsfield, played by Bruce Dern, who also played George Spahn, the bed ridden old man in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019). It’s a nice touch to reference the music theme from 1970 war film PATTON, when he is on screen. The director Joe Dante has had such an interesting career, also directing other comedy/horror films including both Gremlins movies, and excellent science-fiction film INNERSPACE (1987).

FISH TANK (2009)

dir. Andrea Arnold. Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a fifteen year old girl, living with her neglectful mother, and her eight year old sister Tyler in a council estate in East London. Angry and friendless, Mia escapes through alcohol and hip hop dancing. Her difficult life is made more challenging when her mother takes on a new live-in boyfriend, Conor (Michael Fassbender). Heartbreaking and beautiful. Like some other great social realism films, the distressing subject matter is transformed into riveting viewing through the outstanding naturalistic performances, and unpredictable storytelling. It’s unbelievable that this was Katie Jarvis’s first film, she’s confident and superb. There are moments of genuine humour and hope, that lift you above the films more upsetting moments. Incredible. The film also looks wonderful, with perfectly framed images in a TV style 4:3 aspect ratio.

THE NAME OF THE ROSE (1986)

dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud. Based on the Umberto Eco novel, set in 14th Century northern Italy. Charismatic Franciscan monk with a rebellious side (Sean Connery), and his young novice Adso (17 year old Christian Slater) travel to an abbey, and try to unravel a mysterious series of deaths among the monks, however the Spanish Inquisition (!) arrives and complicates their investigation. The father-son like relationship between Connery and Slater’s characters is a highlight, especially their late night conversation on the difference between love and lust. Ron Perlman steals the movie as the multilingual “heretic” hunchback, Salvatore. The untranslated non-English dialogue is always frustrating, the only subtitled dialogue being the latin prayers. The Sherlock Holmes references are a bit too cute. Much longer and slower paced than I remember, I found my attention drifting often. It would be much better suited to a mini series, and I was pleased to read that a series was produced last year, starring John Turturro.

SE7EN (1995)

dir. David Fincher. Two police detectives, Somerset (Morgan Freeman) who is about to retire, and the younger detective Mills (Brad Pitt), new to the city investigating a serial killer, who kills according to the (non-bilbilcal) seven deadly sins. I can’t believe this is 25 years old, it looks so new compared to other 1990s murder mysteries. It has the same polished David Fincher stlyle, looking just as good as his recent TV series ‘Mindhunter’. The almost omnipresent downpour of rain gives the film a strangely comforting atmosphere. Despite containing some of the most violent murders in cinema, it’s mercifully restrained about showing too much gore – instead we see the detectives and the victims reacting, this makes the film more of a thriller than a horror film, which suits my tastes. Amusing seeing character actor John McGinley in one of his serious roles as the moustachioed SWAT commander, who people may know as Dr. Cox in hospital comedy TV series, ‘Scrubs’. The allegations of sexual abuse by one of the cast does diminish the enjoyment of the climax of the film, although looking back his performance is not quite on the same level as Freeman and Pitt. It’s perhaps Brad Pitt’s best performance, but the main star is Morgan Freeman as intuitive, academic Sherlock homes style detective – to quote ‘The Wire’, he’s “natural police”. I would also not be surprised if he was an inspiration for Detective Lester Freamon in The Wire.

HOOSIERS (1986)

dir. David Anspaugh. Gene Hackman plays a basketball coach with a mysterious C.V., who moves to a small town in Indiana to whip the talented but undisciplined team into shape, while making connections with a small town hostile to outsiders. This is the kind of movie that the filmmakers behind THE WAY BACK (2020) were shooting for, but missed. Roughly based on the true story of a small rural high school winning a state basketball championship in 1954, beating out much larger schools. Vintage Gene Hackman. I love watching him lose his temper at bad referee decisions – “You got pigeon shit in your eyes?!” The weaker moments are still the overly sentimental scenes, like the awkward love plot. Wonderful and sad to see Dennis Hopper playing the alcoholic father of one of the players, trying to get his life back on track. Amazingly, this was in the same year he played the deranged Frank Booth in David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET. Quality performance by character actor Chelcie Ross, who later played Conrad ‘Connie’ Hilton in TV series, ‘Mad Men’. Like many old fashioned sports movies, the highlights are the games, and it is thrilling and satisfying to see this small town team struggling, and overcoming. I had to look it up, but ‘Hoosiers’ just means someone from the state of Indiana, the movie doesn’t make this clear.