I’m usually a bit jittery about movies that bring a lot of anticipation bolstering their US premiere because the more the promotion, the less likely it’s warrant to deliver on its premise or be watchable past opening night. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. Knowing next to nothing other than its bare-bones synopsis of two men stranded on a remote location tending to a lighthouse, I walked in, and let his story unfold.
The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, two actors who have been involved in back to back projects that have only managed to cement their status as two of the best working actors in cinema today. Both star as a pair of lighthouse keepers who must take care of the building for a total of five weeks. It’s a task that sounds simple enough — do your duties, rinse and repeat — but soon enough, isolation starts to sink in, and the need for the men, who already don’t like each other, to relate to something human while asserting their own presence starts to play mind games… or does it? Pattinson’s character one night walks out into the dark open to see what looks like a mermaid swimming in the waters beyond. DaFoe stands in front of the huge beaming light of the lighthouse in complete ecstasy, but what is that tentacle quickly seen and that disappears? A sea gull turns out to be more menacing than just bothersome.
Could the night and the fog and the lighthouse itself hold some dark secret?
Robert Eggers never reveals what, in fact, might be the ghost that haunts the grounds where the fabled lighthouse stands, and that is perfect for me. Exposition and backstory are kept to a minimum, only enhancing the entire movie’s mystery and whatever it is that haunts the twosome. All we get is that the previous lighthouse keeper went insane and killed himself. Pattinson’s character longs for some peace and quiet far into the Canadian country and thought this could be a next step into achieving the goal. DaFoe has been chained to the island and the sea for 13 years, a thing that took a toll on his marriage. Meanwhile, in the present, the men go through their daily chores, making irritating small talk (well, technically, DaFoe is the one who talks the most while Pattinson, who starts out as silent as a moonless night, let’s him take center stage), engaging in petty banter over who does what.
The more they engage in the mundane, the farther away they creep from reality. Soon, even a simple dinner sequence becomes a nightmare of repetition in hell with two men aching companionship devolving from mates to enemies to back in a furious kaleidoscopic whirlwind. Eggers movie becomes a ferocious battle of wills to see who will remain the last madman standing, all the while the looming, sinister figure of this lighthouse, the all-knowing sentient spirit, observes without pity or passion.
This is the most cinematically gorgeous movie I have seen this entire year — or this decade, as a matter of fact. It is rare to see black and white, treated with such care that even seeing it at a two-dimensional ratio one can almost see depth in the style of deep focus, and have that morph seamlessly into German Expressionism, only to do a fade out like David Lynch’s Eraserhead towards the ambiguous end. Eggers’ movie seems as though it came out of the lens of someone living and making movies 100 years ago: it is dense, exotic to a letter, alien, mythical, and yes, haunted. Two actors helm the entire production and carry it to next-level narration, something strange and sinister, with fart-jokes and base-level humor to pepper it through as if reminding you these are two uncouth men sharing tight quarters together while the endless storm rages on and they lose their minds. I firmly believe this will a film that will be studied well past tomorrow, and a template for future directors wanting to get behind a camera to make a story come alive.
Unless anything comes along the road that can surpass this movie, I will call The Lighthouse the movie of 2019. Done.
THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET. Country, Austria. Director, Marie Kreutzer. Screenwriter, Marie Kreutzer. Language, German, English. Cast: Valerie Pachner, Pia Hierzegger, Mavie Horbiger, Michelle Barthel, Marc Benjamin. Runtime, 108 minute. Venue: IFC Cinema. Mostly Indies: D
Here we have a movie that boasts a trailer that makes it look and feel like we are going to walk into a thriller filled with dread and portent. Marie Kreutzer’s The Ground Beneath my Feet announces itself as a story about a woman haunted by the almost omniscient presence of her sister who may be closer than she would like it, and points at this woman potentially losing her mind as a result. So imagine my surprise when expectations turned to disappointment when the movie failed to deliver on all accounts, settling on a tepid psychodrama so cold, so devoid of life, it may as well been stillborn.
This is what pains me when I see feature films like this. I respect the intent and the artistry behind the final product because it’s clear the director has something to say. I also respect a story that seems to point at something, only to unfold into something completely unexpected. The problem I have here is simple: movies that become festival darlings and then go on to get released all over the world, and film critics who throw caution to the wind and hail praise and accolades and announce a “strong new voice” when, frankly, and maybe I’m missing something, there isn’t.
The Ground Beneath My Feet is a massive disappointment at all levels. It tells the story of Lola Wegenstein (Valerie Pachner), a rising young business consultant who is so committed to her job, so stoic about her emotions, and so minimalist in her personal space she makes Diana Christensen from Network seem like an Earth mother you would gladly confide your darkest secrets to. Often framed maniacally jogging, often before dawn, or riding stationary bikes, pushing her body to the extreme, Lola is an example of the workaholic at the most extreme. Barely ever in her own apartment, she is often seen at work in hotels, her own office, and even airports, constantly discussing business with robotic zeal. The fact that we find out that she’s romantically involved with the company’s owner — her boss Elise (Mavie Horbiger) brings next to no warmth even when the couple exchange gestures of affection. Dressed in perpetual black and both looking like ice princesses, this is not a relationship borne out of love but mutual, financial interest.
The point of interest in the story occurs when Lola’s sister Conny (Pia Hirzegger) attempts suicide (off camera), and has to be committed to a mental hospital. Lola, who serves as her caregiver, continually expresses almost no affection towards her sister, and keeps this piece of information solely to herself. When Conny starts calling Lola at all times, complaining of staff mistreatment, Lola does not make this own to Elise who demands that personal affairs not intrude into the workforce.
So far, so good. This I could completely understand and buy into. However, for some unexplained reason, Marie Kreutzer veers the story into some strange territory. For almost the entire first half we are slowly and inexorably drawn into a feeling of uncertainty, where nothing seems to be what it is. Lola gets informed that her sister cannot be calling anyone as she doesn’t even have access to any phones. However, the calls continue, and in one scene, Conny appears to have followed Lola all the way to Rostock. In another sequence, an elevator malfunctions (in a more restrained fashion than the insane elevator sequence from Neil Jordan’s Greta). She spies Elise doing research on schizophrenia on her laptop upon learning her family secret (and getting bumped off a project). Lola has a confrontation with a homeless woman who accosts her at the airport and raises her own paranoia. At another point, Lola gets informed that she is supposed to be at a meeting, and had completely forgotten about what day it was.
What is happening here? Is Lola living a parallel life? Could this woman, who keeps everything bottled and under control, be on the verge of losing it? Could madness, then, be inherited? Will her sister’s illness, now that it’s been discovered, be the cause of her failure as a power exec?
Marie Kreutzer answers none of these questions since this thread gets dropped midway and the movie then turns into a more straightforward drama of a woman attempting to micromanage every aspect of her life and succeed at all costs while her sister collapses, mostly off-screen. In return from the initial suspense we get a half-baked story of sexual politics at work in which one colleague comes onto Lola at dinner (which could be in her head), and another exposes himself to “show her who’s in charge). Meetings with Conny become more typical of estranged sisters, and seem a bit repetitive and bring none of the pregnant tension from the movie’s promising start. It’s as if the movie had forgotten where to go, and decided to turn around and seek for the blandest resolution.
Most egregiously, is Lola’s own character development. For the most part she is supposed to be cold, restrained, but not inhuman. Her fears seem real, her need to succeed feel like filling the void left by her familial failure. So, when Lola encounters the same homeless woman and callously throws her a bill, what are we supposed to feel then for her? That she’s somehow better than the poor woman asking for money? It comes at odds when at a key moment, Lola faces her worst fear this is a well-crafted character study, and its inability to define itself as a psychological thriller or a psychodrama only accentuate its flaws. Because of this, The Ground Beneath my Feet comes as a colossal misfire at all angles.
At the time of its release the concept that guides this South Korean horror movie was rather new, so it’s a problem for me to review this movie when its conceit has practically worn itself out. a Tale of Two Sisters is the story of Su-Mi and Su-Yeon Bae, two sisters who come to live with their father and their stepmother. Soon after their arrival, they begin experiencing paranormal visitations of vengeful ghosts unwilling to left bygones be bygones. An accident precipitates the mental deterioration of one of the sisters, and what transpires on film may not be what is exactly happening.
A Tale of Two Sisters is good in establishing its ghost-lore rather quickly — from the get-go, one of the sisters who has been institutionalized hints at horrible secrets yet to be revealed. Her and her sister’s arrival to the house is met with Gothic coldness; the stepmother, a porcelain beauty, has what seems the heart of a dead animal. Night scenes are almost impossible to appreciate directly without staring into the flat-screen. It’s as though director Jee-woon Kim wanted to portray a household whose very own darkness has been swallowed by petty passions and unresolved issues.
One sequence in A Tale of Two Sisters is a standout and it involves a guest a dinner party completely losing her mind at something she sees. We never truly get the glimpse of it (although we are made privy to it later), but the progression is frightening and once unleashed, it becomes impossible to control. However, Sisters loses a bit of its steam later on and its switcheroo — a device that by now has been done to death — while shedding light, brings little satisfaction, and as the final scenes approach one gets the feeling that a great horror movie sold itself short by execution and the use of an overused plot technique of an unreliable narrator.
(3.5 / 5)
Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs finds itself in this list because I saw it a month ago even though it was released in 2009. I just felt it was appropriate for me to see the original as it was released in lieu of renting the American remake that went straight to VOD a little under a year ago. Knowing the penchant we have for fucking up originals, I didn’t wish to take a chance and waste my own time.
Martyrs is a movie you’ll either like due to its visuals and ultra-violence or hate because your trained eye will catch a glaring plot holes that by proxy should have buried the plot before it took one final tumble down the rabbit hole. When Martyrs starts we see a young girl fleeing a run down warehouse, screaming in pain as she’s been tortured and has narrowly escaped a horror beyond all imagination. The young girl, Lucie, finds herself in an orphanage where she befriends a young girl named Anna. Anna becomes her only link to the outside world as she suffers from extreme bouts of PTSD following her ordeal and continues to see a horrific apparition that refuses to let her alone.
Years later, we come into a scene of domesticity: a family having dinner. [Catch a young Xavier Dolan, who would go on to direct I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways, Mommy, and most recently, Just the End of the World.] In bursts Lucie who swiftly dispatches them. She informs Anna that this is the family who kept her captive years ago and submitted her to unbearable torture. Anna, wanting to help, is a little freaked out by what just has happened, and you would think they would leave the place and start anew, but Laugier has other things in mind. Darker, more depraved.
Anna overhears the matriarch, still alive, and tries to save her from certain death to no avail: Lucie interferes with bloody results. At the same time, Lucie gets attacked by the spirit who’s been tormenting her since she was a girl. Anna realizes that something else is happening: Lucie is having hallucinations that she can’t seem to control. Becoming aware that this apparition will not leave her alone — having been a girl she was unable to save years ago, she does the unthinkable. Anna, now, has become our Final Girl.
From here on Martyrs takes a different turn that if you can stomach, you will probably like. Leave it to the French to commit to the art of delving into pure, creative sadomasochism that would make Sade a happy man. Martyrs takes one last turn into its own heart of darkness that takes the viewer into the limits of tolerance. It is a terrific incursion into complete cruelty into another human being, and that as a viewer I was still there, wanting to know where it would all lead, shows that this is either a good movie or I’m a potentially twisted individual with nothing better to do than watch the unwatchable.
Laugier seems to be onto something but his love for nihilism for the sake of it makes me refrain from recommending this level of horror to anyone but the die hard. If you do watch Martyrs, just be advised; it’s not an easy film to stomach once the carnage begins.
THE EYES OF MY MOTHER
(5 / 5)
You’ve probably never seen a movie quite like The Eyes of my Mother, and this is precisely why you need to see it immediately. If it’s playing in an art-house near you, go. If you can rent it on Amazon or DirecTV, do so. If you still would rather wait a while, that’s okay, but please see it. This is how horror should be — slow, devoid of a single jump scare, disjointing, and progressively shocking.
I don’t want to talk too much about this movie because this is the kind that you have to go in with only a thread of information in order to experience its enveloping layers of horror firsthand. We get introduced to a quiet household in rural America. A little girl lives with her elderly parents in what seems a suspended paradise. One day — because that is how every basic story begins — a stranger arrives, and despite his googly smile, he’s not one to trust. His visit, as it turns out, comes with the heaviness of fate and impending doom, and doom does happen . . . but the story is less interested in this aspect. It’s interested in the little girl and how she grapples with the ultimate horror — loneliness — which invades her perfect world and tears it apart, only to permutate itself into something even more gruesome and perverse.
The Eyes of my Mother, a movie whose title can be interpreted several different ways, uses black and white to striking, nightmarish effect. One early sequence shows a woman running for her life in a deserted road as a truck looms behind her. Shots done overhead, from a distance, or in near darkness give the movie a sense of rising discomfort and dread and often recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but more importantly, Georges Franju’s Eves Without a Face (to which this film does owe a little its own title). Then the sound — one murder sequence is mostly heard but never seen, and then there’s a disturbing sequence involving a man in chains eating food from a plate that is frightening in its own context.
Nicolas Pesce has created a horror movie drenched in poetic imagery that begs to be seen and experienced in its austerity. You will almost regret how short it is.
(2 / 5)
Lights Out exists as a cheap imitation of other horror movies reviewed here — like Martyrs and A Tale of Two Sisters. That it does have a couple of good visuals doesn’t make it exactly anything remotely watchable. However, I’m pretty sure that ghosts do not behave like the living; and could we please — please! — stop with the floor dragging already? What are people, stand-ins for Swiffers? Jesus on a stick. Oh that Paranormal Activity had never been made. Ever! Now every ghost we see is outlined in black and can, it seems, drag people under a bed, through doors, and act as through they were completely alive. Let it go already. Surely there are other ways to present haunts as actual scares.
Also, the jump scares again. When a movie can’t offer any plausible reason for an action to go on without something scary to see, in waltzes the fucking jump scare complete with the loud, shrieking violins and the boom. I’m so sick of it. Kill it already. There has to be something better than having them on cue, every ten to twelve minutes because the director can’t trust his or her audience enough to feel scared — or at least, very uneasy — without going “BOO!” If a movie does this, reader, just get up, count your losses, and sneak into the next theater to watch a potentially better film. Or call it a day and move onto something truly horrifying, such as watching our “president elect” deliver some speech and attempting composure.
Also, what’s with ghosts looking like featureless, ashy humanoids? This one is in dire need of Vitamin D, stat.
I think this is all I have to say about this movie. It’s garbage. It stinks. It wastes the talent of Teresa Palmer who should be doing better. It really, really, REALLY under uses Maria Bello, and that in itself is a crime. Just stay away. There’s nothing to see here.
(3.8 / 5)
Someone must have read Stephen King’s Cujo and thought that rather than film a remake, better, do a reconfiguration. If any of you read the book (I did) or saw the movie (did that, too), you’ll remember that much of the book’s conflict takes place in a lonely stretch of rural America where a woman and a child huddle inside a car that won’t start while a rabid dog stalks them. Bryan Bertino’s latest movie The Monster seems to have borrowed snippets from Cujo down to the backstory that interrupts the story in flashback sequences. It tells the story of Kathy (Zoe Kazan), a train wreck addict who just can’t get it together. She has, it seems, custody of her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentina). However, from the looks of how badly she treats Lizzy, both in the present and in flashbacks, how awful, how completely, irredeemably dysfunctional their relationship is, fractured to the point of no return, it becomes clear that Lizzy needs to be with her absentee father. This is Mommie Dearest, played straight and with a bite. Kathy is basically a monster-mother.
On the night that Kathy has to drive Lizzy off to give her up to Lizzy’s father, they take a dark and lonely road. Nothing out of the ordinary; there are many roads like this in the country. When they hit an animal, an event that causes their car to break down and force an injured Kathy to call for roadside assistance and an ambulance, Kathy, selfless mother that she is, tells Lizzy to go out and inspect. It’s a wolf, all right . . . but there are teeth embedded in its fur that don’t belong to any animal Lizzy knows. Something just out of visual reach is out in the woods. Something large, bestial, and hungry.
Sure enough, the mother-daughter tension that had been brewing like a pot of water blows wide open when havoc breaks loose and the two of them now have to come together to defend themselves against this horrifying new attacker. I found it rather interesting that here we have yet another film that uses symbolism to perhaps narrate the real story of a woman fighting the monster within her — the beast of her own addiction. It’s been done before, so well, in movies like The Shining, Under the Shadow, Goodbye Mommy, and The Babadook. If you think of it, the apparently unrelated flashbacks, who at first seemed to be filler for a movie, clearly telegraph who the monster of the story really is, but in horror, you can always alter the perception of reality and use other techniques in order to get the point across. And so, here we have an actual beast and a woman who is largely unsympathetic diving headfirst into motherhood at its most violent, committed to seeing her daughter doesn’t get killed. It’s probably not going to win any awards but who cares: this is a very good movie from a first-time director and it delivers the shocks in spades
NEXT TIME I’LL AIM FOR THE HEART
(4 / 5)
It is said truth can be stranger than fiction and there is no better example than Cedric Anger’s 2014 movie that was an official selection for Rendezvous with French Cinema and officially released earlier this year for a very limited run.
During the winter of 1978, the Oise Killer terrorized the region. Several women were found murdered at gunpoint, their bodies abandoned on the roads. What no one knew was that the gendarme in charge of the investigation, Alain Lamarre, was also the same person doing the murders.
Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart is dark and slick, never deviating from a rather drab blue-grey palette that fills the story with a sense of dread right around the corner. It doesn’t over-glamorize Lamarre — here renamed Franck — and doesn’t go into overkill during some of the more salient murder sequences, particularly its shocking opening sequence and another sequence where Franck picks up a hitchhiker. Even so, these are handled with great delicacy and remain a tough act to watch. Of course, being that this is based on a notorious case, it’s somewhat predictable only because much like its companion movie that also was a part of 2014’s Rendezvous with French Cinema, SK-1, it has a well-known ending. Even so, the pace never lags, there is one surreal sequence involving a case of Franck seeking a woman for company and arriving at a rather hilarious surprise. One of the better surprises from France, a country that continues to turn out surprising features that have long since left the sunnier French New Wave in the dust for good.
(4 / 5)
The ghost of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona looms large in this well-executed, tense psychodrama about two actresses on the rise who find themselves circling each other like lionesses about to engage in a fight to the death. Sophia Takal’s second feature following her 2011 little-seen film Green follows the story of Beth (Caitlyn FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) as they plan and execute what seems to be a weekend getaway at a distant lodge cabin in Big Sur. Already before the movie’s plot’s wheels are beginning to spin we’re given cues of what might be trouble underneath: Beth comes first, facing the camera, crying, hair disheveled, clearly uncomfortable, begging an unseen person she’ll do anything to win him back. It’s revealed to be a mere audition for a part, and it presents her in a passive, almost simpering feminine role not unlike Shelly DuVall’s Wendy in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Anna comes next, also facing the camera before a white background. However, her face is more androgynous — bordering on soft masculine. She’s also angry and spews out line after line in a furious tirade. Her introduction, however, turns out to be Anna herself living this moment in real life as she complains about a bill for her car repair.
We later learn that Anna is having trouble getting film parts while Beth has been luckier, landing parts here and there with extreme ease. Anna’s resentment rings loud and clear — particularly in a sequence that starts with Anna making a discovery about Beth. In this sequence, Anna finds out Beth has landed a plum part in a commercial that is giving her loads of exposure. Anna feigns happiness, but it rings shrill. Anna, however continues to make a point to state how much she’s happy that Beth is making it. A later reading of Beth’s lines starts to morph slowly into something completely disturbing once Anna encourages Beth to play the other part so she can show her how Beth’s part should be played. Here is where Sophia Takal’s camera draws you into the unseen tension building within the two women: a slow, creeping zoom-in shows Beth growing increasingly uncomfortable as Anna, as the antagonistic character, rips right into her, a mass of what Addison DeWitt called “fire and music.” Anna clearly could be playing it too well . . . but there are layers and layers of subtext hidden right on the surface of her delivery — how she seems to strike out at Beth with every hurtful word, wanting to push Beth, make a point.
Beth, of course grows increasingly cautious of Anna’s increasing anger. I felt my breath getting tighter and tighter during the movie. While not a lot happens that may register as a plot per se, the noose between the two women continues to grow tenser with each frame. It’s almost a rule that in a movie in which two people engage in continuous conversation pregnant with the unsaid and rife with emotions bubbling under the surface calls for a moment where the lid will essentially, blow, and Sophia Takal directs her movie with a sure hand, escalating each scene into something bigger. And midway through, the film starts fucking with you.
This is a sharply made psychological thriller that also dares to push the boundaries of film, identity, and reality — at one point cleverly inserting a shooting clapper that again is reminiscent of the scene in Persona where Bibi Andersson discovers Liv Ullman has been using her and the film per se breaks apart, only to reform again. It’s an important little insert because while it still ensures you that you are watching a filmed story, it still brings a wink in tow telling you this is merely a film within a film, meta-narration, maybe even just a state of mind.
As a female-centric movie, Always Shine boasts a critical look at how women can be as ruthless as men in outperforming the other when it comes to landing plum parts in film or commercials, but also, a way that we see them — sometimes with clearly distinct personalities, sometimes interchangeable.
Nothing brings a family dysfunction to the surface like the departure of the glue that holds them together, and in Joachim Trier’s and Eskil Vogt’s new film Louder than Bombs it all rings too true. However, this is not a melodramatic film — it would have been easy to give actors scene after scene of loud arguing, emoting, and a finale of almost grandiose proportions. Trier instead has created a rather tender and quiet portrait of a father and his two sons coming to terms with the premature death of their mother who was a noted photo journalist and had a couple of secrets of her own.
The mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), hovers over the picture like a ghost who won’t rest in peace. When we first see her she’s getting some award for her body of work. Soon later we realize how it was she really died — in a car crash, possibly caused by her, which would make it suicide. However, no one ever truly speaks out that word and it starts a chain of avoidance between the surviving characters who now have to contend with this shattered new reality. Gene (Gabriel Byrne), Isabelle’s widow, has no idea how to reach his teenage son Conrad (David Druid) who has become withdrawn and aggressive, so he takes to either following him after school or playing World of Warcraft in order to connect. Gene has also been carrying on with Hannah (Amy Ryan), David’s teacher, in a movie that seems more out of loneliness than anything.
In the meantime, in for a retrospective of his mother’s work, older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up. He’s recently become a father and on the night that his wife borne him a son he ran into and reconnected with a former flame who’s mother was also dying in the hospital.
As I said before, this isn’t a movie with big revelations complete with an abundance of self-important dialog or all too camera-ready scene chewing. If at all the only moment that any performance feels completely naked even when it doesn’t reveal anything other than inner torment is a flashback sequence showing Huppert in a hotel, her face pinched and sad. It’s no wonder she’s this force that will not give away: Huppert has imbued her character with a world of inner pain that perhaps had no other solution than the way out. Everyone else is left to gravitate around her and try to fill in the void she has left.
Because of this, Louder than Bombs may disappoint viewers looking for that “a-ha!” moment when everyone comes into the foreground and sounds off. I actually preferred this somewhat elliptical turn, since let’s face it, this is closer how we tend to react to traumas such as these. It’s probably despite of this, where the film films incomplete, that one will appreciate its content more.