Originally written: September 2016 Continue reading From the Vault: Blair Witch
Originally written: September 2016 Continue reading From the Vault: Blair Witch
Hello and welcome to another episode of the Failed Critics Podcast. Proving that they’re not just a pair of losers with no friends, hosts Steve Norman and Owen Hughes are back again but this time Paul Field and Tony Black join them.
As ever the podcast kicks off with a quiz, this week hosted by Steve, that puts the Failed Critics’ soap knowledge to the test, before they move on to What We’ve Been Watching. Paul makes a bold declaration that Park Chan-wook’s Handmaiden is the Oldboy director’s best film yet; Steve also takes a trip to Korean cinema with zombie-thriller Train to Busan; Tony reaches peak noughties teen melodrama as he continues his run-through of Smallville; and Owen laments ever letting Paul know his address after receiving a copy of British gangster-exploitation flick Killer Bitch in the post.
The big new release this week for the team to chew over is Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard’s eagerly anticipated Blair Witch, the sequel to the iconic cult classic, The Blair Witch Project in case you were wondering. It also leads to the second quiz of the week, with Paul surprising the other three with a game of ‘Bitch’ or ‘Witch’!
Join us again next week for a special triple bill of our favourite westerns as The Magnificent Seven remake hits the silver screen.
Unironic warning: there are some minor spoilers in this article for the following films: Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, X-Men: Apocalypse.
Time to Quit Those Spoiler-Filled Trailers, Or: How studios are trying desperately to make it so that we don’t need to go to the movies anymore
Directors, producers, studios: we need to talk. I’ve had about enough of forcing myself to avoid your marketing because you are intent on spoiling the entire damn film, sometimes months before we’ve even been given the chance to see the bloody thing.
Over the last 18 months or so, I’ve lost count of the amount of times where I’ve gone into a movie knowing not just the plot and some of the best bits of dialogue, but I’ve actually known the mid-film twist, or the big action sequence that’s supposed to be a surprise. All sense of awe has selfishly been taken away from me.
I go to the cinema to be amazed, to escape the day-to-day shittiness of having to go to work and to give me an excuse to babble on about films. Whether that’s with my mates, or in one of those many reviews I’m allowed to keep writing here.
What I don’t go to the flicks to do, is to watch the gaps in between the plot points and spoilers that I’ve already seen in your bloody trailers and TV spots.
So, of course, from here on in there will be spoilers. Mostly of older films, but I will telegraph them all and hopefully give you the opportunity to skip those you want to.
There are definitely degrees of spoiled bits, I reckon. There’s that key moment in last year’s Jurassic World where Chris Pratt’s main character, Owen, has his little bad ass moment. Zipping through the jungle growth on a bike followed by a herd of dinosaurs; that should be this amazing, awe inspiring moment. But we all knew it was coming. It was in the damn ads.
From the first reveal, to the final trailer: we saw Owen “taming” these animals one second and running with them like Mowgli and the wolves the next. But this ain’t that bad…. OK, it is. But it’s one action scene in a two hour film full of them. It’s almost understandable that you’d need to show something to whet the audiences’ appetite. There are plenty of other scenes you could have used, but whatever.
It’s nothing – and I mean nothing – compared to the now infamous Terminator: Genisys trailers. An average-at-best film (on a good day) needed a good marketing campaign to get people excited for it. After Salvation, no one wanted this pointless half reboot, and a great trailer campaign would’ve got you some serious hype.
Instead, the imbeciles whose only job was to sell me the movie decided to put the film’s defining moment, its big twist, in the god damn trailer. And here’s where my biggest issue with these bloody trailers lies – I can’t avoid them! I was staring at a screen the size of the barn when someone revealed that John Connor was a poxy Terminator!
So many films have fallen foul of this egregious marketing bullshit. Recently, X-Men: Apocalypse had Quicksilver’s family tree and a super-clawed cameo thrown directly into the faces of film goers in its final trailer The latter of which was revealed in TV spots during the ad breaks for any show on after 6pm.
Imagine trying to avoid spoilers for your next big film, only for it to be ruined because you had the audacity to be watching Coronation Street!
Southpaw gave away a vital plot point/character death in its initial trailer. Star Trek Beyond not only gave away massive plot points in its final trailer, but ruined what should have been a head nodding “awwwwww SHIT!” moment from the first reveal trailer. One of those Twitter buddies I hold so dear even had a spoileriffic trailer for The Huntsman: Winter’s War played to him in the trailer segment just before the Snow White sequel was due to be played.
I know it’s not a new phenomenon, I do. I know that as long as trailers have been a thing, they’ve been spoiling what they’ve been advertising, but surely it’s time for something to be done. As I write this, I’m furious (and deeply thankful) that another Twitter acquaintance warned me off of the latest Suicide Squad trailer as it reveals a load of act three spoilers! What the fuck, Warner Brothers?
It’s time these idiots leaned how to market their films. Recently, 10 Cloverfield Lane managed to get the world flocking to see it, even after it looked like a sequel to a mediocre film that no one really asked for. Marketed perfectly, we all went in clear-headed with no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. And made an excellent film from it, too.
Or you can go the other way. You can pound us with never-ending ads, trailers and TV spots if you want. Why not? Deadpool did it. But its genius is in the fact that after trailer one, we got no new footage shown to us. A load of new stuff made especially for its campaign kept the jokes coming in at ten to the dozen, without killing the comedic payoff once the film actually came out.
Just take a look at what Adam Wingard did last week. He got us all super excited for his amazing looking, insanely creepy The Woods. Then went and revealed that it’s actually a Blair Witch sequel! He managed to grab a franchise many didn’t care for and as many had forgotten – myself included – and made me all kinds of excited for it. I guarantee that trailer has barely scratched the surface of what we see when the film hits!
Come on guys, you can do so much better. Some of the greatest, most memorable films that stuck with us came with stellar marketing campaigns too. There’s no need to explain the film’s plot, beat-by-beat. or reveal twists and show all the best bits in the 2-4 minutes you get to advertise your film.
Ask absolutely anyone. Blowing your load early like that is never pretty and people don’t come back for more.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
141. That’s the number of films released in 2014 that I have seen. That is a lot of films. To put that into perspective, I have been attempting to critique films on the Internet for five years now and that number is more than the combined total of films I had seen in all four of those prior years when it came time to do some list making. Of those 141, 131 were eligible for appearances on my lists. That is insane. To tell you the truth, I have no idea how on earth I’ve managed it, especially since I spent much of this past year despairing at movies in various forms.
Except that, as the year has come closer to its end and I’ve reflected more and more upon what I have seen, the problem is not that films were worse in 2014 (although there have been some atrocious pieces of tripe, as we shall see in a few days’ time). The problem is that I have seen more films in 2014. Whereas in prior years I would have to pick and choose what films I could and could not see, therefore sticking with safer bets and actively avoiding crap, this past year I have been able to see damn near everything that came my way, which has meant flinging quality control out of the window and exposing myself to films I wouldn’t normally touch with a ten-foot pole.
In some cases, this has meant extended bouts of self-flagellation. In others, this has allowed for major surprises that I would not have typically tried to burst through to the forefront. In some cases, this has meant that the frequency of films that I was looking forward to disappointing me in some way this year would get me down somewhat. In other cases, this has meant that I can see the films I love multiple times and allowed them to really stick out in my brain for days, weeks, even months on end. It’s a double-edged sword is throwing out the personal quality control barrier and seeing whatever comes your way, but I honestly can’t think of my cinema-going lifestyle now in ways that don’t involve voluntarily seeing everything that I can.
It also means that constructing my Top 10 list this year was both incredibly easy and unbearably difficult. I’ve had to do this three separate times over the past month for various different things and each time it’s gotten progressively easier and harder, as certain films remained steadfast in their appearance and placements whilst others jumped around and dropped out. Seeing so many films has made the absolutely cream more apparent but has also made filling the bottom end of the list that much harder, as certain entries are way too close in quality to others. The list is actually a Top 20, but it’s been abbreviated to Top 10 as I am pretty sure that Owen would like back his website at some point this week. I am, however, incredibly satisfied with it, the most satisfied with any Top 10 Movies of [x] list I’ve so far had to make, so take that for what it’s worth.
Now, before we begin, a brief set of pointers. This list is strictly limited to films that have seen a UK release in 2014, so the awards season films that have yet to cross the pond (Foxcatcher, Wild, Inherent Vice, Whiplash, Birdman) or just films that don’t have the common courtesy to turn up on time (Big Hero 6, Top Five) aren’t eligible. I am also limiting the list to 2014 films, awards season films that saw an American release in 2013 (The Wolf Of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years A Slave, The Wind Rises) aren’t eligible. Finally, even though I have seen a ridiculous amount of films in 2014, I haven’t seen them all and, naturally, this list can only include films that I have seen. Blue Ruin, Belle, Only Lovers Left Alive and Nymphomaniac may be outstanding, and I tried so hard to get around to seeing them, but I unfortunately ran out of time and so they can’t be featured.
Lastly, I mentioned that I did arrange a Top 20 so I might as well share 20 to 11 with you before we get started on part one. In reverse order (starting at 20, ending at 11): St. Vincent, Locke, Pride (which was my favourite surprise of 2014 and would have taken the #10 slot by default if this were any other year), Mistaken For Strangers, Lucy, 22 Jump Street, My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks, The Lego Movie, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier/Guardians Of The Galaxy which was pushed out of the Top 10 at the very last minute. It’s a testament to the Top 10 that these films, all of which I love, are the ones that just missed out.
So, no more pre-amble faffing. Today, we go through entries 10 to 6. Are we all ready? In that case, TITANS, GO!
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Dir: Doug Liman
Star: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton
Edge Of Tomorrow is something that 2014 surprisingly lacked: a damn fun, pure blockbuster. Much of this past Summer consisted of films that either took themselves way too seriously, were majorly flawed in some way, or severely underwhelmed and disappointed. That’s not including those films that were desperately trying to force a franchise out of thin air, or were so busy trying to set-up pays-offs in practically guaranteed later films that they did nothing and told no stories in their current films. Blockbuster filmmaking nowadays frequently consists of nothing but po-faced seriousness, loud noises and delayed gratification.
Then in swaggers Edge Of Tomorrow, wide-eyed with optimism, confident in what it wants to do, aviator sunglasses proclaiming it to be the coolest motherf*cker in the room at that moment in time, and looking for some fun. It takes one look at the dreary and dull way that everybody else is doing things, sees how the general public is lapping up that crap, then swiftly turns around and marches back out that door. Edge Of Tomorrow wants nothing to do with the modern blockbuster. It wants to be fun, it wants to smarter than just loud noises, it wants to tell a full and complete story, the kind that only a $178 million budget can provide, and it does not give one f*ck if anybody else cares or not.
By the time that Edge Of Tomorrow had arrived in cinemas, I was in rather low spirits for 2014 film. I had come off a string of disappointments and was all prepared for this film that I had heard good things about and seen advertised majorly to similarly underwhelm me. Instead, over the course of 113 brilliant minutes, I was rejuvenated and reminded of why I love the movies. Sometimes you want to sit down and be challenged, be pushed, be confronted and to experience something very serious. But sometimes you just want to sit down and watch something fun, and Edge Of Tomorrow delivers that in spades. It takes its central premise – the day resetting every time that Tom Cruise’s Major William Cage dies – and goes for broke, exploiting it for drama, comedy, black comedy, character work, and a tonne of incredibly awesome action moments.
But it’s also smart, it has a brain going on up in its head. Edge Of Tomorrow is fun and spectacle, but grounds that fun and spectacle in excellent character work and committed performances. Tom Cruise sheds his usual charm and movie star charisma to play a slimy cowardly ass and he is equally as strong at that as he is when Cage slowly becomes braver, more in control, more heroic; his excellent performance adding onto the extremely well written character. Emily Blunt, meanwhile, is a goddamn revelation as Sgt. Rita Vrataski, absolutely commanding the screen in a performance of such intensity and skill and quiet emotion that, in a decent and deserving world, would catapult her to A-list superstardom. Vrataski, too, is one hell of a character, a strong capable woman who has been hardened by trauma but is not emotionless or humourless or relegated and degraded by the film. In other words, the kind of female character that blockbusters almost never bother to create.
It’s not perfect, it’s not thematically heavy, and I do wish that it ended about two minutes earlier, before the bittersweet ending is turned into a completely happy ending, but those flaws only serve to raise Edge Of Tomorrow as a whole. They are the flaws and rough edges of a scrappy individualistic film, a film that does its own thing and remains steadfast against studio interference and focus grouping as much as possible. They throw what Edge Of Tomorrow does right into sharper relief and Edge Of Tomorrow gets so much right. It’s a reminder of what blockbuster filmmaking is capable of if it would get its head out from its ass, stop purely focussing on profit margins, quit focus-testing everything, and stopped sucking the teat of serialisation and franchising.
In a decade or so’s time, we as a film-going audience, along with a generation of filmmakers with studio budgets, are going to look back at Edge Of Tomorrow and go, “Yep, we should have done more of that. We should be doing more of that.”
Dir: David Mackenzie
Star: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
Forget the trailer. Ignore the trailer. That is not Starred Up. Starred Up is not a dark, gritty, lads’ “C’MON, YOU SLAAAAAGS!!” prison flick with nothing going on aimed solely at the lowest common male denominator. Starred Up is actually a bleak, unflinching, realist melodrama about masculinity, fathers, and the self-perpetuation of the modern prison system. It is not a film that asks you to like any of its characters, it is not a film that revels in its bursts of violence or nastiness, it is not a film that is interested in fulfilling anybody’s fantasies of how cool prison is. Starred Up is an angry film and you are damn well going to pay attention to what it wants to say.
Much of the plaudits thrown Starred Up’s way are for Jack O’Connell’s central performance as Eric Love, and it’s hard to argue against that. O’Connell – in the first of what turned out to be three outstanding performances from this past year, I really hope that this momentum keeps up because he deserves to be a star – plays Love with such barely restrained intensity that perfectly fits his livewire tendencies without going overboard into ham and cheese. He’s also able to reach down and find the sadness, the wounded nature at the heart of Eric that powers his angry violent lashings out at the world and which makes them hurt that much more. Eric Love could have been a cartoon character in the wrong hands, but O’Connell mixes that intensity, that vulnerability, an air of mystery and his own natural likeability as an actor to create a profoundly complex lead. It really is a powerhouse performance.
But to focus solely on O’Connell would be to do the rest of Starred Up a disservice. The script, for example, by newcomer Jonathan Asser, grounds its more melodramatic tendencies in a low-key rather realist way. The tropes that you expect to show up in a prison drama – corrupt officers, shankings, prisoners running the show, lots of swearing – turn up here, but they’re executed in a low-key way. Big deals aren’t made of them, they’re just everyday facts of prison life and their appearances tie back into character work, with Eric’s crazed alpha-male desire to make a name for himself both disrupting the delicate nature of this broken system and re-enforcing his worst impulses, and the film’s bleak overall message of the self-perpetuating cycle of prison.
Nobody in Starred Up is clean or fully good. There are only shades of grey and even darker shades of grey. Even the closest thing the film gets to a fully sympathetic character, in Rupert Friend’s tired and ceaselessly loyal prison therapist, is still strongly hinted to have some kind of superiority complex powering his actions – his adamant claim of “I need to be here” can be taken so many ways. Eric’s been raised with the belief that self-destructiveness and violence is the only acceptable form of masculinity, and he can’t realise that all it has done is destroy his life. It’s also so deep-seated that all of that hard therapy work can be instantly discarded the second his dad turns up and tries to make up for lost time by steering him the wrong way and completely misreading his son. Not to mention the fact that the actual prison staff view the people they are assigned to look after with nothing but contempt; deep-seated beliefs that all of their charges are irredeemable and not worth even trying to reform.
The film’s more melodramatic moments – shower attacks, the final 10 to 15 minutes – benefit from that realist nihilism and strong character work. Such effort has gone into fashioning a portrait of our broken prison system that the moments where more blatantly fictional touches break through still fit within the previously established world and nature of the film, acting like cappers to its overall point. Couple that foundation with extremely well-handled themes, great supporting performances (Friend’s increasing desperation in protecting his little group is especially well-conveyed), an excellent script, and a thunderous central Jack O’Connell performance and you get a film as commanding and fiercely memorable as Starred Up. It is bleak viewing, but it is vital viewing and it is so much better than the trailer suggests.
Dir: Wes Anderson
Star: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, a lot of others
My first viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel underwhelmed me somewhat and I am willing to chalk that up to two things. The first was trailer overexposure – this thing was relentlessly trailed before films for months on end, a lot of its best laughs were featured in it, and most everything stops being funny when you’ve seen it for the 20th time – the second was personal overhyping – I really liked that trailer when it dropped and was really bloody excited for the finished film. I still thought it was a very good movie, but overexposure (the catalyst in getting me to just walk out during trailers now) and my weird belief that I was going to get a more monumental film than what I ended up getting lead to my questioning of whether this was it, as it were.
A second viewing later in the year proved me to be majorly and totally wrong on every negative account. See, Grand Budapest is my first proper Wes Anderson film – I had seen Fantastic Mr. Fox in late 2012, but that was it – and so I wasn’t properly prepared for what was in store, expecting something different than what I got (I don’t know what it was I was expecting, but there you go). I think the rather low-key nature of Grand Budapest caught me off guard. It’s a film whose scale is large – encompassing tonnes of characters in a wide range of locations across multiple time periods and several different aspect ratios – yet whose stakes are rather small and its central character relationships tight knit.
And it’s that closeness that actually makes The Grand Budapest Hotel resonate and stick. This is a very funny film – good lord, is it ever a very funny film, especially pretty much anything that comes out the mouth of an absolutely dynamite Ralph Fiennes – but what sticks with me after watching this film, both in the immediate aftermath and in the days and weeks after, is the sadness that runs throughout the entire film due to that closeness. This is a sad film, a melancholy film, a film that never lets that sadness get buried under too many layers of whimsy or raucous jokes. It is a film that is sad for days long since passed, both in terms of humanity – with barbarism and self-interest corroding decency and respectability – and filmmaking – there’s genuine love coming from Anderson’s insistence on using virtually every aspect ratio ever used in a commercial cinema release.
Yet the irony is that none of its characters are from the time it’s so wistfully nostalgic for. Gustave H. is a man of some level of respectability and civility stuck in a time that slides further into greed and fascism the longer he sticks around. Zero is a man who is clearly wounded and saddened by a world that would reject the actions and principles of a man like Gustave, and whose life is marked by constant loss and the encroachment of old age. The Author is fascinated by the stories of Zero and Gustave H. but remains removed and emotionally distant due to both his profession and the fact that he doesn’t get the true feeling of that time due to having experienced nothing close to it. The Young Girl who reads the book that starts off our film similarly can only paint a picture in her head of those times, to escape the miserable looking world that she is currently a part of, and it’s unlikely to resemble anything close to reality.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is very much about people trapped out of time, even Inspector Henckles who tries to deal with proceedings in a civil manner despite the force that he is a part of being of the barbaric type. That wistful nostalgia does not really exist for many of its characters, as the time they are nostalgic for frequently ended long before they were born. Yet, it’s what bonds them, it’s what brings Zero and Agatha together, it’s what makes Gustav and Zero such fire-forged friends, and it’s what ultimately proves their downfalls; their inability to let go. Yet, they are respected and admired by the film and by Anderson for that commitment to their nostalgia – why should holding onto a time when people weren’t being violent fascist pigs be considered a bad thing? – and that’s why the film’s gradual reveal of its incredibly bittersweet ending feels so poignant.
It’s a film that is sold on its laughs and its quirkiness, but stays with me thanks to its deep-rooted sadness and melancholy heart. It’s an incredibly clever and impeccably well-balanced film and pulls off that tightrope walk – sentimental without being sappy, riotously funny without drowning out the melancholy or becoming too bawdy – with aplomb. I should really make the time to watch more Wes Anderson films, already.
Dir: Dan Gilroy
Star: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed
First things first, Nightcrawler contains my single favourite film scene in all of 2014. I am referring to “Horror House”. Not the bit where Lou Bloom is filming the sequence, nor the bit where he utterly unnervingly shreds Morning News Director Nina over negotiations for the tape (although that is close), the bit where it goes to air and the film makes you sit through every last agonising second as a whole studio full of ratings hungry opportunists exploit the misery and suffering of others for profit. It’s the way that it twists the knife and turns the screws and keeps going, and going, and going, forcing you to sit through the whole segment, making you complicit in their work, and being written and presented in such a way that the scene stopped being a sequence from a movie for me and became something uncomfortably close to our reality.
It’s a magnificent scene and it also hides the true target of Nightcrawler’s venomous anger in plain sight. Nightcrawler is a takedown of sensationalist 24-hour cable news networks, but it’s also a blisteringly angry screed against Capitalism, encapsulated in “Horror House” by having the news crew exploit the suffering of others to further their own hunt for money and success, especially hammering home the idea that a wealthy white suburban family was murdered by lower-class possibly Hispanic (at the time it’s unclear, not that that stops any of the anchors from pushing down hard on this button) gang members. After all, nothing’s more likely to keep the broken system of Capitalism in place than by terrifying those with the power and success that the unworthy lower classes are coming to take everything away from them, whilst simultaneously profiting off of that fear.
The film’s thoughts and views on Capitalism can be best summed up by the character of Lou Bloom himself, a walking encapsulation of everything that is wrong with the system. Lou is a complete sociopath purely interested in his own self-gain. He is somebody who has been told time and time again that he deserves success and that he can win at The American Dream if he just works hard enough, and when that doesn’t happen he resorts to crime and petty theft to claw his way up. He speaks near-exclusively in sound-bites ripped from corporate handbooks, justifies everything he ever does in cold, calculated business terms and is incapable of treating people like humans – later revealed to be down to his contempt for them.
Then, he stumbles into a field where his sociopathy, lack of morals and complete disregard for social decency and the law are rewarded. His desire to stay one step ahead, by any means necessary, in the Nightcrawling business gets him the money, the car, the recognition and the in to start climbing up the corporate ladder. And when he doesn’t get what he wants, he manipulates, blackmails, threatens, sexually exploits, and even near-outright murders to get his way. But not once is Lou punished. Not once does he truly hit a setback, because Capitalism is broken and those who are willing to cross the moral line are the ones who will successfully make it, whilst the rest will be left in the dust to be exploited by those who go too far. [BRIEF SPOILER BIT, SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU’VE YET TO SEE THE FILM] That’s why Lou gets off scott-free in the end. Sure, the police technically have enough evidence to put him away, but to do that would be to undermine the message: Lou has won Capitalism because of his complete sociopathy and lack of a moral code. Even his new company logo is ripped straight from that of the rival he killed earlier!
Jake Gyllenhaal puts in the performance of his career as Lou Bloom, always keeping the viewer at a distance yet forcefully commanding their attention at all times. He’s clearly relishing the opportunity to sink his teeth into such a detestable yet complex role, and his total commitment to making Lou this utterly abhorrent and frightening monster is a major reason of why the film works. Rene Russo also puts in her best performance in years as a similarly repulsive but slightly more socially acceptable female counterpart to Lou, Dan Gilroy’s direction for his debut feature is confident and assured, I have already talked about James Newton Howard’s quietly genius score, and the film is also tightly paced and expertly structured. Nightcrawler is an outstandingly relevant and captivating film that features a villain protagonist for the ages, and satire and venom that deserves way more analysis and conversation than it has sparked. A film for 2014 if there ever was one.
Dir: Adam Wingard
Star: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Lance Reddick
Holy hell, is this one ever fun! Dumped into the beginning of September with precious little fanfare and left to fend for itself, The Guest is one of the biggest gems I have stumbled across all year. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s, previous of You’re Next, demented genre hybrid thriller is just pure good old fashioned fun. That’s it. There is nothing deeper to The Guest, no giant thematic core or major emotional centre, and no huge twist to it. The Guest is just pure, undiluted fun and, as mentioned back in my entry on Edge Of Tomorrow, fun is something that I put a very big price on due to its growing rarity in the modern filmmaking landscape.
So, what is The Guest? After all, I spent pretty much all of September doing nothing but praise the ever-loving crap out of it and despairing when, unsurprisingly, nobody saw it. Well, The Guest is hard to categorise for people who haven’t seen it, partially because it hops around between genres like an indecisive driver coming up on a line of toll booths, but mainly because the fun of The Guest is watching it slowly reveal its true colours. In the most general terms, it’s a throwback to trashy 80s B-Movies, mashing together elements of psychological thrillers, gory low-budget action films, the works of John Carpenter, and a nice sprinkling of camp. It sounds like a mess, but Barrett’s script is airtight, Wingard’s direction is so confident, and the pair are so learned in what they are trying to emulate that it works perfectly.
It also helps that they have an outstanding central performance to hang proceedings onto. I’ve raved about Dan Stevens in my review of the film, so I’ll let you go back and re-read that to save me from repeating myself, but I cannot stress how absolutely note perfect he is here – switching between charming, terrifying, and utterly hilarious (in a deadpan way) effortlessly whilst keeping David a consistent character throughout. He’s also matched beat for beat by Maika Monroe who expertly embodies the determined Final Girl archetype whilst making it her own. The film visually is wonderfully stylish, the soundtrack is one of the very best of the entire year, and it is by far the coolest film of the year thanks to the way it completely owns and openly embraces its campy tendencies – the finale is absolutely hilarious and unbearably tense without one ever undermining the other.
Look, I want to write a giant (attempted) intellectual deep analysis of this film like I have everything else so far on this list, one that gets to the root of why this film works and why I love it so, but I just can’t because The Guest is not that kind of film. The Guest actively resists that kind of analysis because, quite frankly, its start and its end can be summed up with “it is a hell of a lot of fun” which it very much is. It is also damn near flawless at what it aims to do, it’s an immaculately constructed film that I can’t find a single wasted second, dropped pacing or glaring flaw in. Sometimes, a film sticks out as excellent purely because of how much fun it is and The Guest is the single most amount of fun I have had in a cinema all year.
Or, to put it another way, I saw it opening day and went back for a second go-around seven days later. I would likely have kept going every Friday if the film hadn’t been pulled from cinemas in near-record time. Whilst you are reading this, I will be watching it again on the Blu-Ray that I picked up on the first day it was available, and my writing for this is being fuelled by the film’s soundtrack. This is just a straight shot of pure smile-inducing fun, for me, and you are officially out of excuses to not give it a shot.
That’s the first half of the countdown done. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle numbers 5 to 1. In the meantime, let me know in the comments on whether you agree with my picks or not and what some of your favourite films of 2014 are!
The Guest is the best action-suspense-thriller I have seen since Drive.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Well, this is nice. You may have noticed that I have come to you on this website recently to repeatedly tell you that movies suck, or that they’re disappointing, or just general negative words about films that came out in August. Let’s face it, with the exceptions of Guardians Of The Galaxy and Lucy (although what exceptions they were), August really sucked movie-wise, much like the rest of the year. So I go to the cinema this weekend to see the new releases, most of which I hadn’t heard about at all until about two weeks ago, and one of them ends up being of the best films I have seen so far this year. How considerate of cinema to wake up after August and start strong, eh?
The Guest is an action-suspense-thriller that proves, should there be any doubt, that you don’t need to re-invent the wheel to make a great goddamn movie. It is pretty much what you’re expecting and not much else, but it is so, so good at what it is that I honestly do not care. What it is is a story about David (Dan Stevens), a veteran who has returned home from active duty, after having been discharged due to injury, and has appeared on the doorstep of the Peterson family having supposedly served with their departed son in his regiment. He takes it upon himself to look after the family and attend to their whims, becoming a confidant to father Spencer (Leland Orser), teaching youngest son Luke (Brendan Meyer) to stand up for himself, helping out around the house for mother Laura (Sheila Kelley), and being a charming chaperone for daughter Anna (Maika Monroe). He’s basically the most perfect and charming guy you could think of… except that he has a very short temper, a nasty propensity for violence, and the very distinct possibility that he may not be being entirely truthful with the Petersons.
I feel like I should hold off playing the film’s ace for a bit longer, maybe list certain other pluses it has before going in for kill, but I really can’t talk about The Guest without talking about Dan Stevens, so screw it. This is his show and he gives the best male performance of the whole film year that I have seen so far. He’s detached without being cold, distant without being charmless; David’s always clearly not-all-there and it’s hard to get a good lock on him, but you can always see why everybody else falls for him because, dammit, there is something likeable and charming about him even when he’s losing his temper. And then he busts out his thousand-yard stare and I am pretty sure my blood temperature dropped to single digits. There are several times he does this, and every single time he does so the film’s tension shoots through the roof. The soundtrack is rather muted during these bits (not a bad thing, more on that in a bit), so it’s solely down to Stevens’ performance that these scenes end up as seat-clenching as they do; David is barely stable anyway, but when that stare comes out, it is like a powder keg has just been lit and I was sat there damn near terrified as to when it would go off. And then David would relax and go back to being a charmingly likeable if suspicious guy, again. I have not watched Downton Abbey, so this is my first exposure to Dan Stevens, but he is a tour-de-frickin’-force here and physically lifts what would have been a great film into an outstanding film. He is the ace in the hole and deserves a long and acclaimed career if this is what he can do.
Dan Stevens is not the only thing that The Guest has going for it, though. He might be the best thing, but he is not the only thing. For one, there is the wickedly pitch black sense of humour that permeates through the entire production. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, Adam Wingard (the film’s director) and Simon Barrett (its writer) worked together on last year’s blackly comic horror You’re Next (which I haven’t seen, will have to rectify that based on this), but it was nonetheless one to me when I found myself genuinely laughing out loud at multiple points during the film. It deals mainly in the absurd, contrasting David’s demeanour with the actions he perpetrates, and it does wonders for the characters of the film and its overall mood, especially in the finale. A finale, incidentally, that takes the horror undertones that sat bubbling under the surface for the prior runtime and putting them front and centre in the campiest way possible. It’s a finale that is brilliantly tense, yet knowingly silly; something that works on both levels without undermining the effect of either, the humour enhancing the tension and vice versa.
It’s also stylish but not in an overly showy way. This isn’t a film that really draws attention to its stylish nature, it just happens to be. The soundtrack and score are awash in cool yet at times menacing synthesizers, the kind that set the mood fantastically yet still have toe-tapping beats and hooks that make a soundtrack release really damn necessary, Icon Entertainment. The pace is fast yet measured, it breezes along through its 100 minutes but it’s not a needlessly speedy movie. It takes its time, setting the mood, cranking up the tension, building and building to its release in a way that lacks any flab; at no point was I waiting for the film to just get to the point because it always felt like we were at the point. The shooting style of the movie very much echoes similar 80s thrillers, which the finale, combined with its soundtrack and impeccable pacing, overtly reveals it to be a loving homage to, but it still feels distinct. It’s a throwback, yet now.
And then there are the little things. Action, what little there is (again, this is a film that works more in regards to tension than all-out mayhem) is really well-shot, favouring steady, wider shots than usual, as both a feature of that 80s throwback intention and the focus on tension the film has. Stevens may be the standout amongst the cast, but the support really punch up their roles. Maika Monroe, in particular, really sells Anna’s growing suspicion of David and, even before then, believably inhabits a 20 year-old who is sick of her parents’ stifling authority; Brendan Meyer gets the emotional centre of the film and he is more than capable of supporting it; whilst Lance Reddick (an always welcome presence) brings genuine out-of-his-depth gravitas to a role I am not planning on spoiling here. There’s also just how airtight the film is. I already mentioned how there’s no flab in the pacing, but there’s not a wasted character, not an extraneous plotline, not a pointless scene… It’s been surprisingly rare, recently, for me to find a film where everything is clearly, and does, build to one clear end goal and where I couldn’t cut anything, so this is very nice to find.
Does it re-invent any wheels? No. Does it all quite hang together upon closer inspection? Probably not, I’d need a second viewing to make sure. Is the mystery behind David really not that important? No, and the film basically admits that when it’s time for the reveal; all but throwing its hands up in the air and shouting, “Just let us have this finale, OK?” Is it going to change any lives? No. Do any of the things that I have just mentioned matter one bit? HELL NO. The Guest is what it is, a trashy, silly, lightweight B-movie, and I love it for that. Not only is it unabashed in its intentions, it’s damn near flawless in executing them and, again, has quite possibly the best male performance in any film I have seen so far this year. It is exactly what I needed without even realising that I did and, unless these last four months are world-beating when it comes to film releases, this will be one of my favourite films of the whole year. I love The Guest, I love The Guest, and I have a very good feeling that you will too. You need to see this movie immediately!