Jake Gyllenhaal has a strange look in his eyes for the first half hour — “I was nominated for a Oscar,” they say, “I used to do low budget quirky cult hits.” He’s a superhero from a parallel dimension, here to do battle with four Elementals that want to destroy this Earth as they destroy his. And it just so happens Water hits Venice when Peter Parker is on his school trip.
The Bookshop (Isabel Coixet, 2017)
Sometimes the gun over the fireplace in Act One is a paraffin heater.
This film works really hard not to be liked. It’s set in and around a bookshop in a small Suffolk village set up by widowed Emily Mortimer, and everybody loves a bookshop. Well, not everybody, because Patricia Clarkson, channelling Glen Close as Cruella de Vil, would rather have an arts centre, for reasons which need not detain us and clearly don’t detain the film. Meanwhile, Bill Nighy, who increasingly leads me to poor viewing choices, is a misanthropic widower who likes books and likes Emily Mortimer. In particular, in turns out he likes Ray Bradbury.
What’s not to like?
Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
Remember, if there’s a gun over the fireplace in Act One, then…
Early on, we learn that little Charlie Graham needs an epi, and despite the fact that she could die at any point from anaphylactic shock, this always gets left behind. So, obviously, when her mother forces Charlie’s brother Peter to drag her to a party, she’ll make a beeline for the walnut cake. And things then take a turn for the worse, as stoned Peter tries to get her to casualty.
I’d very nearly given this a miss, but somehow I’d been convinced that this was Quality Horror, presumably on the grounds that Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne wouldn’t appear in something which was pants. How wrong whoever that was was.
Annie is an artist who makes miniatures of her life, including her family and her Nasty Dead Mother. For example, she makes a model of Peter failing to get Charlie to hospital.
The family is haunted, perhaps by guilt, perhaps by something supernatural, and there is a room in their huge house that used to be her mother’s and they now keep it locked, because…
One day she attends a bereavement session, but Annie lies about going to it, claiming she was at the cinema. Hubby, whose job is not entirely clear but involves reading large manuscripts and sitting at a big desk, has clearly never asked her about what she has seen. Personally, I think a bereavement session is more fun than movies. This allows her to bump into Joan, similarly bereaved, and get to know her. Joan introduces her to the wonderful world of seances.
This cannot end well.
Before long, we’re deep in Rosemary’s Baby territory and the only question is who is in on the conspiracy and who is disposable. This film could have been made in 1968 and frankly Lucifer hasn’t caught up with Second Wave feminism yet. The One must be prepared for. And so we get some risible low key special effects and some embarrassing nudity and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.
No wonder Gabriel Byrne looks so miserable throughout.
There’s some neat uncanny stuff, and Annie reminds me of Frances Glessner Lee’s crime scene models, but the ironies of Annie creating fake world whilst herself being a puppet never really pays off. The director likes tracking shots, but even these seem a little haphazard.
Beast (Michael Pearce, 2017)
Among the trailers before my screening – which included a trailer for Beast — was an advert featuring villages walking along a twilight rural-ish road toward a beach at the bottom of a set of cliffs and then a series of black horses running toward them. I was reminding of an equivalent community parade in Broadchurch, and the disappearance and murder at the heart of that. (Lloyds claim we are not alone and that they are by our side, which is less convincing if they’ve closed your branch.)
Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti, 2018)
Stop me if you’ve heard this before – gay films tend to the gay gothic where one or more of the gay characters has to die at the end. For the ‘clean’ gay – the noble heroic one – he or see might be driven to suicide by despair or killed as a result of homophobic society, or succumbing to HIV related conditions; for the ‘unclean’ one – the villain – the sentence is to be killed by the hero, at best to be imprisoned. Even a recent, and reasonably delightful, film such as Love is Strange, kills off one of its leads rather than give us a happy ending.
A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)
Your response to this film will depend on whether you can buy its central conceit: when a husband dies in a car accident he haunts his wife in a white sheet. In the next house along there is another ghost, in a rather more fetching design. The cumulative effect is it is not certain how seriously you are meant to take the film — is it a comedy, a tragedy, a bitter sweet comedy, a comedy with tragic overtones? Much of the film is in silence, the husband staring, first at his wife, and then at the various later, or perhaps earlier, inhabitants of the house. The cynic is me suspects that they could only afford Casey Affleck for a couple of days, and a stand in plays the ghost, but apparently it is him.
One of the incomers, present at a party, has a speech longer than all the other dialogue put together. Oddly, when a Spanish-speaking family move in, they are not subtitled — perhaps the ghost does not understand them — but the dead neighbour is.
Lowery works within an almost square ratio, something like 4:3, the same as used in silent films, and this adds a sense of voyeurism to the proceedings. The Curzon’s policy of not closing curtains — maybe there are no curtains — to cover the blank screen draws attention to the empty space outside the restrained diegesis. The ghost is often at the edge of the frame, just in view, with the camera held on the tableaux for longer than we are used to and certainly more than is comfortable. I was reminded of the great southern American photographer, William Eggleston, with his focus on the determinedly mundane. It is ordinary, but there is a beauty in it.
Whilst in Manchester By the Sea delayed the final revelation of what the trauma and guilt at the heart of the film was, this is more circumspect. There is tension between the married couple, over whether they should move or not, the chain of tragic events is less laid out for us. Whilst that film denied us catharsis, this one is even more frustrating of audience desires. The pace is glacial at first, but slowly builds, never less than watchable even as it toys with us. The mourning wife, Rooney Mara, binge eats a chocolate pudding, in spoonful after spoonful after spoonful and I hope this was achieved in a single take for the sake of her waist line.
It is not clear whether it is told in linear time — in a sense it isn’t, as we have flashbacks — but the years that the house lies empty should be stretching out from more or less the present, even as a modern metropolis encroaches on the house. They have laptops. Mobile phones. And we also loop back to pioneers. The film’s epigraph is taken from a Virginia Woolf story, “A Haunted House”:
”Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure — a ghostly couple.”
and Woolf repeatedly plays with duration in her work.
On a couple of occasions the husband loses patience with his squatters and haunts them — exploding light bulbs, throwing books around. We see some of the titles: A Farewell to Arms, some Nietzsche. They mean something. Probably. You may lose patience. You may surrender to the film. You should probably cry.