Widows (2018)

McQueen had me from the first frame. Seen a lot of people wishing this was more fun – which I get – but in what world was this ever going to be Steve McQueen’s Ocean’s 8? It’s based on an 80s BBC drama for crying out loud. I came for the stoic faces, formal control and awesome cast, wasn’t really expecting a good time but it does pulsate with a steady, white-knuckle fatality that I found extremely gripping.

As to be expected with McQueen, the instances where it engages with race and politics head-on can be a little shaky – the cop scene is too much, the extended take mounted on the car exterior is stellar overt symbolism – but the fact it’s willing to engage with these topics at all is admirable. I like that this feels more like a blunt instrument than a scatter gun. It’s tough, but the women headlining the cast – Davis, Debecki, Rodriguez, Erivo – command the screen. Matt Lynch compared this to the work of Jack Hill and that’s right on the money. Easily my favourite McQueen since Hunger.

Watched at the cinema.

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Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

“You’re going to tell the story of the inside of her brain?”

Best categorised as a film of the mind, Madeline’s Madeline hypnotises you with its smeared imagery and swirling editing, evoking the feeling of a waking dream rather than anchoring you to a traditional narrative. Josephine Decker has conjured a film of such unconscious beauty and lyricism, it feels alive in your hands – film as wet clay, the possibilities seem endless. Her trademark affinity for strange POV’s electrifies the entire film. At various points the camera wanders away from its main focus, finding life on the fringes of the frame. We see the city at night, all the lights smudged together like an oil painting in a downpour of rain (or tears) or catch momentary glimpses of lives on the periphery. These seemingly improvisatory flourishes stem from the film’s focus on performance.

At the centre of it all is an attempt to stage a piece of theatre, less a play than the depiction of a certain headspace mounted on a stage. The trio of central performances from Helena Howard, Miranda July and Molly Parker are exceptional, so alive and thoroughly contained by Decker. These aren’t the kind of great performances that overshadow a film, where praise on the actors exceeds praise of the overall work, but rather performances that enhance and electrify the whole into totality. Decker controls so many shades here – beautiful and strange one minute, sickening and mad the other – that her film resembles a great magic trick. I don’t know how she and her collaborators did it, but I don’t want to know either. Extraordinary.

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Snatch (2002)

Probably the definitive distillation of Guy Ritchie’s brand. Overly stylish and cocky yet totally controlled and entertaining. The attempt at zingy dialogue is certainly too clever for its own good but Ritchie does have an ear for rhythm. The constant repetitions and “to me to you” banter filtered through the variety of accents lends the whole film a musicality which I enjoy, though I can see why it might grate on many. This is definitely a film full of characters who are no more than the sum of their quirks and colourful monikers. Richie wants you to walk out of his movies and think back to characters like Bullet Tooth Tony, Frankie Four Fingers, Boris the Blade and Brick Top and go, that guy, he sure is a character! It helps that all the actors are on the same page and make a meal out of Richie’s universe.

Being British, born in the 90s and growing up through the 2000s, watching Snatch and quoting it endlessly was a real rite of passage but I always preferred Lock Stock. Maybe because it was more of the underdog. As time has gone by, however, I’ve come to appreciate Snatch as the better film that still holds up through the lens of its endless imitators. Watching this after many years away was like triggering some kind of dormant muscle memory. I’d love to see Richie return to this world again but I suspect the polished grime and punkish energy of his early films has been completely scrubbed from under his fingernails in favour of studio fireworks. Never thought this would be a film I’d remember fondly in 2018 yet here we are

Watched on blu-ray.

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Suspiria (2018)

A completely different beast to the original Suspiria but a beast all the same. Some major horror moments here that are legit nasty and upsetting, some of which I’ve never seen the likes of before. It’s a cruel world, full of screaming, skin and (broken) bones.

Guadagnino’s fingerprints are all over this thing as much as Argento’s were the original. His disorientating editing patterns, paired with the gorgeous stately compositions and full-tilt nightmare imagery truly fucked me up. And Thom Yorke’s score? Best of the year. It’s exhilarating to see a vision of horror mounted on a canvas this grand and grotesque. Loved most of the creative choices in how they adapted Argento’s movie (of which, like everyone, I am a rabid fan) but I can totally understand why this is proving to be divisive. The added length and political backdrop worked for me, but I get why so many find them arbitrary.

I thought Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth and Swinton were all extraordinary. Loved how Susie’s hair is often the lone ember of colour in many scenes – a subtle flickering flame which eventually becomes a pagan bonfire in the outrageous finale. This is Guadagnino’s danse macabre and I loved every deranged minute of it. Sometimes you’ve just gotta go and paint the walls red.

Watched at the Leeds International Film Festival

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Possum (2018)

Matthew Holness’ debut is a disquieting character study anchored by a remarkable performance by Sean Harris. As Philip, Harris is something of a shellshocked stray cat, lumbering around like Frankenstein’s monster clinging to a bulging leather satchel which contains…well that would be spoiling it. Possum is a British horror movie in the kitchen sink-gothic mould. Think Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, Cronenberg’s Spider or, more loosely, Denis Villenueve’s Enemy. The thing that connects all these films is the way they’re told. You always feel like you’re only being given fragments of the complete picture – it’s film language as damaged psyche.

You’re never quite sure if Philip is a character to fear or feel sympathy for. There’s a violent past, a missing boy and a big secret that, if only should it be revealed, will surely tie everything together. And that’s where Holness slips up. The film works best as an elliptical urban nightmare, with excellent atmosphere that soaks through to your bones like damp clothing. So when Holness shows his hand in the final ten minutes, explicitly solidifying the plot the rest of the film has worked so hard to submerge, it feels wholly unnecessary. It doesn’t damage the film entirely though. Everything preceding the ending works wonders, successfully establishing and exploring a hostile 70s Britain with a handful of genuinely unnerving scares and images. Not one for the squeamish.

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Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

This has certainly lost a lot of its spark in the twenty years since its release, diluted no doubt by the gamut of imitators which continue to plague the UK genre and STV markets in its wake. Still, Lock, Stock remains an effective calling card for Ritchie’s rapscallion stylings and the way he manages to tie all of the unruly characters and plot threads together in a nice bow by the end is a nifty trick. Whatever the movie lacks in subtlety and finesse, it more than makes up for in confidence and charisma.

The central quartet of lads are all especially well cast and the assortment of tough guys, numbskulls, dealers and geezers are also well-drawn and colourful. Vinnie Jones’s Big Chris is deservedly the poster-boy and even on this rewatch – I’ve seen this movie dozens of times but this is my first in a while – that character still pops. The soundtrack is truly terrific too, and the one key component all Ritchie wannabes never had the budget – or, I’m guessing, connections, given that this was a pretty low-budget affair itself – to match. They also didn’t possess Ritchie’s sense of style.

I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for these early Ritchie movies. It was genuinely thrilling to see British genre jams this cocky, stylish and shamelessly entertaining during that very brief window when they weren’t done to death, especially when you were around ten years old when they hit.

Watched on blu-ray.

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Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)

An impressive melange of British talent crashing into one another in the form of an acidic family dramedy, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is peppered throughout with Wheatley’s signature deadpan wit and bubbling conflict. Things get off to a good start with a hectic opening third which zips along on the strength of its onslaught of character introductions and initial awkward interactions. Once the family dynamic has been established and the film settles in to its running time, however, it starts to feel a bit shapeless and repetitive. When the final credits rolled I was stumped, being convinced we were moving into the film’s concluding movement exactly where it was cutting off. Strange.

Wheatley apparently intends for this to be the jumping off point for a TV series following the same group of characters, but I can’t say it left me with a desire to see the story continued in serial form as much as I wanted to see it concluded definitively. Wheatley is credited as sole writer here, and while I don’t doubt Amy Jump had some uncredited input, it does lack the control and satisfaction of the films of theirs in which she has a leading creative hand.

One of the things I love about Wheatley though is his productivity. I don’t expect, nor need, everything he makes to knock me out, I just want to see him make as many different, esoteric things as possible and this certainly qualifies. He surrounds himself with wonderful collaborators too, each relishing the opportunity to work with the kind of material they aren’t usually offered. The performances here are all excellent, namely Neil Maskell, Sam Riley, Hayley Squires and Charles Dance. My only other complaint would be that it doesn’t look particularly dynamic, with Wheatley and DOP Laurie Rose reverting back to the handheld run-and-gun stylings of Down Terrace rather than the increasingly composed and varied aesthetics of A Field In EnglandHigh Rise or Free Fire. Part of that is probably due to budget and a tight schedule though, but I still wish the visuals were a little more striking.

This is airing on the BBC in the UK on Christmas Eve so I’ll definitely be giving it another go.

Watched at Leeds International Film Festival with Q&A by Ben Wheatley, Andy Starke.

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