Tag Archives: The Witch

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017): Threats, Mistakes, and Inexplicable Illness

Yorgos Lanthimos is not a normal person. His debut film, Dogtooth, centered on a family whose children were brainwashed into believing cats were vicious predators and that the outside world was uninhabitable. His most recent movie, The Lobster, was about a man sent to a facility where he had to find a partner or else he would be turned into an animal. As strange as they may sound, each of his films is centered on a high concept. His first was about societal norms, The Lobster was about the overlooked ridiculousness of courtship, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about trust during a family crisis. Steven (Colin Firth; The Lobster) is a heart surgeon who spends time with Martin (Barry Keoghan; Dunkirk), the 16-year old son of a man that died during an operation. After Martin meets Steven’s family, he decides Steven must pay for the death of his father. He claims a series of illnesses will strike Steven’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman; Lion) and their son and daughter unless Steven makes an impossible choice.

Lanthimos continues the style seen in The Lobster but with a thriller twist. Characters still speak in the same monotone with a deliberately anti-naturalist cadence. This can still lead to laughter at the sheer morbidity flowing from each deadpan delivery. Martin’s threats are spoken like a reading from a number from a phonebook, slow, clear, and punctuated. He becomes a dangerous presence despite his size. He makes no physical aggressions and maintains a withdrawn posture. He seems resigned to the fate of Stevens family, not excited by it, and is completely stoic, often trying to present logical reasoning for why they must suffer. Keoghan, an Irish actor, maintains complete control of his body language and takes Martin from a potential red flag to an enigma of potentially sadistic capability.

The camera’s distance emphasizes the insignificance of the characters.

The film’s world feels sterile and foreboding. Lanthimos tracks his characters like Kubrick in the famous tricycle scene from The Shining but places his camera at a curiously elevated height with wide angle lenses. The camera, perched near the ceiling, looms over its subjects, making them tiny figures in a pristine, but cold and empty world. The hallways of Steven’s hospital are cavernous with rooms that dwarf the staff and patients. Lanthimos adds to this atmosphere with his use of music. The soundtrack uses heavy groans from a piano and violin screeches. Everything in the production hints at the ominous nature of the events to come.

The genre of the film is as inexplicable as its narrative. It features laugh out loud moments as characters bluntly and dryly describe their situation, flashes of body horror, but, more than anything, a creeping paranoia. Like with the family from last year’s The Witch, when the kids suddenly fall ill, distrust begins to grow. What is happening and how? What are they willing to do to stop it? Farrell and Kidman’s relationship goes from loving, or at least whatever loving means in a Lanthimos film, to jagged and explosive. There are no clear answers about on what is going on and what should happen next. Instead, their suspicion breeds desperation as we witness how quickly – and violently – a family unit can be upended by an outside force.

4/5 stars.

Best Films of 2016

2016 went by in a flash but some of its films have still left an impact. Yes, it has been a while since the year ended, but this list’s lack of timeliness means many of the movies discussed here are now available on streaming services.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was not just the quality of films but the strength of new filmmakers. Several of the films below are made by first-time directors which bodes incredibly well for the industry as a whole and means there will be even more impressive films sure to release in the future.

15. Nocturnal Animals

The framing narrative can be stale at times with unneeded avant-garde flourishes, but the inner story is thrilling. Tom Ford’s take on a Deliverance-style encounter is a frightening look at the fragility of one’s existence. Seemingly perfect lives can be destroyed in an instant and even deep affections can turn into resentment.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

14. Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson has never been one for subtlety and Hacksaw Ridge is no exception. The character development is saccharine but earnest and the action is gratuitous but visceral. He is a visual director whose skills come through in the wordless action scenes. Gibson deftly stages the many moving pieces of combat to create a deliberately disorienting chaos. The violence may be too gory for some, but he captures the pandemonium of battle with great success.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

13. The Witch

Stark and slow-moving, The Witch is a film that uses the bleakness of its period to full effect. It’s a horror film about the paranoia of a pilgrim family. When things don’t go according to plan and mutual mistrust builds, every character’s behavior becomes suspect. Even when the facts aren’t there to support assertions, it’s their perception of others and need for an easy explanation that leads to their downfall.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

12. Maggie’s Plan

Despite her busybody nature, the titular character is never anything but endearing. Greta Gerwig’s performance shows that her meddling comes from the best of intentions. As Maggie pulls strings in the relationships around her, the genuine affection she feels for her loved ones and sacrifices she makes for their benefit make her a lovable presence. Even as she fumbles her plans, her actions are filled with a palpable warmth.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

11. Love & Friendship

Who knew Whit Stillman’s arch humor would translate so well into a period piece? His clever phrasings and prim tone mix perfectly with the haughty manners of the setting. Kate Beckinsale as the deceptively loquacious widow is entrancing as she talks circles around her friends and family to get her every wish fulfilled. The swirling verbal dance she plays is a joy to behold, even when you know of her calculating nature.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

10. Hell or High Water

Hell of High Water is a film that strips a genre down to its core. It’s a modern western presented as a low-scale heist movie. Instead of relying on elaborate staging, it leans on the terse dialogue and body language of its characters. The acting is so expressive in its own subtle way that a brief conversation becomes as thrilling as a police shootout.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

9. Eye in the Sky

Drones have been a hot topic in the media lately, but Eye in the Sky is more than topical. It evaluates the minutiae of several stakeholders in each military mission. Politics, infantry, pilots, and data analysis all play a part in actions that have good intentions but inherent, often fatal, tradeoffs. The film succeeds by creating tension at each stage of decision-making and driving home the moral complexity behind every order.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

8. The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook is known for his often transgressive plotlines but with The Handmaiden he adds a more playful tone. Returning to Korea after a brief foray into English language films, he is clearly enjoying his freedoms back home. The story swivels through different perspectives, each revealing new, film-altering context. Every twist is a face-slapping surprise as the director expertly – and repeatedly – flips over audience expectations.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

7. Wiener-Dog

Director Todd Solondz has created another world of marginal characters locked into stagnant existences. Like Robert Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar, it follows one animal as it travels in and out of the lives of its owners. The overwhelmingly depressing tone may be too much for some, but there is truth behind each person’s failures. Their missed potentials or bleak futures are products of their unfortunate situations. Even as the characters sink further into their miserable realities, their plight is deeply sympathetic.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Balancing over the top antics with a heartfelt message of belonging, Taika Waititi has created his best film to date. The unlikely duo of a 13-year old ne’er-do-well and a grumpy old man mistakenly becoming the center of a nationwide manhunt is an endless source of humor and only buoyed by an eccentric supporting cast.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

5. Girl Asleep

Set in an elaborately designed 1970s, Girl Asleep is a fresh take on the coming-of-age movie. The first half is a vivacious look into a teenage girl’s interactions with her quirky classmates and family, overflowing with panache, and the second half is a surreal exploration of the pressures she faces as she tries to reconcile changing expectations in her transition to womanhood and independence. It’s an original experience that is as flamboyant as it is honest.

[Currently available on Netflix}

4. Swiss Army Man

While it will most definitely turn off viewers with its aggressively weird premise and moments of gross-out humor, Swiss Army Man is an incredibly emotional journey. It looks at the value of friendship from the angle of outcasts and examines the nature of conformity with Daniel Radcliffe’s talking corpse as the mouthpiece of the directors. It’s a call to break free from our own inhibitions and an indictment of the self-doubt that prevents us from being happy, filtered through the minds of two strange filmmakers.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

3. A Monster Calls

Movies are rarely more honest about grief than A Monster Calls, especially from a child’s perspective. At every turn, it eschews easy answers and delves deeper into the emotions behind the pain of watching a loved one suffer. Using beautifully rendered fairytale stories and a lifelike tree monster voiced by Liam Neeson, it tackles the seldom touched upon topic of guilt with uncommon sensitivity and insight.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

2. Sing Street

Sing Street is the most infectious movie of the year with an incredible original soundtrack and endearingly oblivious characters. As the kids start their own band in 1980s Dublin, their tenacious spirit and adorable naivete is irresistible. Whether it’s writing the next hit song or winning the affections of a certain someone, anything is possible. Director John Carney has proven once again that he is the master of the modern music movie.

[Currently available on Netflix}

1. Under the Shadow

Blending physical and supernatural dangers, Under the Shadow creates tension with every scene. The unexplained missing items, freak occurrences, and ingrained superstitions escalate into an unbearable level of suspense without ever resorting to frequent jump scares or cheap gore. I have never been more terrified of a piece of fabric in my entire life.

[Currently available on Netflix. DO NOT watch the dubbed version. Please change your settings to watch in the original Farsi.}

Special Mention: Pure Pwnage Teh Movie

Its appeal is incredibly small, but if you are in the specific demographic that grew up with the original web series, Pure Pwnage Teh Movie is going to be an unexpectedly successful modernization of an early-internet-video classic.

[Currently available for VOD rental on Vimeo]

Split (2017)

The words “M. Night Shyamalan” used to elicit groans or sighs. After releasing often laughably bad films through the late 2000s he returned in 2015 with The Visit, his first movie in a very long time to receive anything close to favorable reviews. While that film wasn’t a complete success and lacked some of his strongest talents because of the found footage shooting style, it did show hope for his future. With Split, Shyamalan has created his true return to form. Leaving a birthday party, three teenage girls, led by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as Casey, are kidnapped and awaken in a locked room. A stern man (James McAvoy; X-Men: First Class) enters their room and tells them not to worry because they will be taken care of. In other scenes, this same man is seen by his psychiatrist for dissociative identity disorder (DID). He has 23 total personalities, each with their own behavior and, according to his shrink, their own physiology. During their meetings he reveals that there is a 24th personality about to emerge.

The entire film rests on the shoulders of James McAvoy. With so much asked of him and so much of the runtime centered around his performance, a failing on his part would have easily crippled the movie. Fortunately, he is up to the task. Many actors would have relished an opportunity like this to show off their acting abilities, but McAvoy successfully juggles the disparate roles with aplomb. As he switches personalities, his accent, his mannerisms, and his overall presence completely changes. While it could be considered comical to see him dressed as a woman in high heels, McAvoy’s physical stature and commitment make it an unsettling sight. He is able to engender sympathy as he plays the child personality, Hedwig, then moments later fear as Dennis, the personality that kidnapped the girls. His adaptability is praiseworthy.

The dank interiors are the perfect setting for a kidnapping.

Shyamalan’s early films greatly benefited from strong direction and blocking and Split is no different. Camera movements are smooth and the sets are built to instill claustrophobia. Shyamalan hired Mike Gioulakis, the cinematographer of It Follows, to shoot this film and the effect is obvious. There is a noticeable improvement to the lighting and colors from The Visit and it helps establish the atmosphere. That being said, Split does not have the dread of Shyamalan’s best work. He is able to create tension in several scenes but isn’t able to maintain the suspense throughout. This is caused by the other two girls and a problematic backstory for Casey that distract and detract from the desired mood.

Sadly, any review of the director’s work will always need to answer one question: is there a twist? The answer in this case is not really. The film is fairly straightforward in its story and never hints at a hidden subtext. The ending will leave some viewers incredulous, but it is believable within the context of the film. The real surprise of the film comes as a stinger at the very end. It isn’t a twist, but it recontextualizes the narrative in the best way possible and hints at a very exciting path for Shyamalan’s next films. While Split isn’t his best work, it provides a welcome recovery of the director’s trademark style.

4/5 stars.

The Witch (2016)

The Witch, or The V V itch as the opening title reads, starts with a family on trial in front of their fellow plantation workers. They are banished from their home for incorrectly preaching God’s word. Headstrong, the father moves his family away and starts farming to survive on their own. They seem to be successful until something goes wrong. The infant goes missing and the family is wrecked with grief when they are unable to explain their loss. They can’t reconcile their misfortune with their religious beliefs and the loss creates cracks in the foundation of their lives.

The strength and originality of the film comes from its focus on relationships and beliefs rather than the supernatural. Living in the 1600s in a puritan, extremely orthodox family, the characters have deeply held beliefs about God, Original Sin, and the Devil. To them, Witches are as real as droughts and famine so when bad things start happening, they look for someone, or something, to blame. The Witch uses this finger pointing to create an atmosphere of distrust. Much like the horror classic The Thing, the question isn’t “who’s going to die next?” but rather “who will they believe?”. This adds a moral complexity to the storyline that elevates it well above other similar movies.

4/5 Stars.