The Guest (Wingard, 2014)

THE GUEST

 

Adam Wingard is fast becoming one of the most distinctive voices in horror, taking familiar stories and exploding them with a stylistic gusto that many directors lack the skill or conviction to pull off. His latest film The Guest, appearing at this year’s London Frightfest this week, is admirable in many ways: the performances, particularly from lead Dan Stevens, are fantastic, its soundtrack is at times jaw-dropping, and its best moments carry a thrilling sense that anything could happen. Its flaws are plentiful, but it never fails completely, pulling the fun out of even its most disappointing missteps.

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Harold and Maude (Ashby, 1971)

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Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude would not be made today, and not because a studio wouldn’t back it: no one would even want to make it in these cynical times we live in. Its sweet, almost-syrupy-but-not-quite earnestness could only exist in 1971, when the younger generation, despite being killed in their thousands in a war that no one wanted, could still find it within themselves to believe in peace and love. It was largely panned upon its initial release, dismissed as hokey and simplistic and all too strange, but it found a cult following in later years from those who wanted to live in the world that its two protagonists share. It’s a world of intimacy and love, of the promise that no matter how dismal it may seem, life is still worth living. There may never have been a film before or since that addressed life and death with such ease and high spirits – you can’t help come away from Harold and Maude without having its wide-eyed optimism brushed off on you.

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Boyhood (Linklater, 2014)

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Boyhood has no interest in declaring its ambitions. Shot in short spurts over twelve years as its lead actor Ellar Coltrane aged from seven to eighteen, it is the grandest undertaking that director Richard Linklater has yet attempted, but it never feels any less relaxed and casual than his other films. Coltrane’s Mason doesn’t come of age so much as he ambles into it, the transition from boyhood to adulthood portrayed as a slow journey made up of moments large and small rather than one defined by a three-act structure. No grand epiphanies, just small realisations. 

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Short Term 12 (Cretton, 2012)

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If you had blinked you might have missed Short Term 12 when it was released in cinemas here in the UK last year, but that comes with the territory with this kind of film. Small-scale, extremely American in its earnestness, and heartfelt almost to a fault, Daniel Destin Cretton’s film, based on his own experiences working at a facility for troubled teenagers, is a moving, lovingly-crafted little indie, its faults stemming only from its overzealousness to make you care about its characters.

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Godzilla (Edwards, 2014)

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A failure by conventional standards, Gareth Edward’s Godzilla is fascinating in the degree to which it goes against the grain of the Hollywood disaster movie. Entirely spectacle-driven, to the point that it has next to no interest in building blocks of narrative storytelling like plot and character, Edwards has created a film that works only on the level of mood and tone, conjuring up ethereal, almost serene images over and over out of the mass destruction of major cities, out of monsters beating the crap out of each other, out of countless lives being lost.

As it’s been noted elsewhere, Edwards was an interesting choice for this project from the get-go. His first film, the modest indie-hit Monsters (2010), demonstrated his ability to tell a story featuring giant monsters, sure, but it was nothing like a summer blockbuster, telling as it did a small-scale, character-based allegorical story against a larger-than-life, alien creature-filled backdrop. It didn’t quite work – its characters were never quite interesting enough to follow them around for 90 minutes – but it was easy to warmly recommend due to its atmosphere, its palpable tension tempered with a sense of wonder and awe. Godzilla both fails and works for the same reasons, only here both sides of the coin are magnified – the characters are wafer-thin, the plotting is harebrained, but it may be the most visually ravishing big-budget monster movie in recent memory.

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How My Mad Fat Diary became the best show on British television

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When the first series of My Mad Fat Diary began, you could be forgiven for thinking it was another E4 teen drama, that like Skins and Misfits before it, the moments where its ideas come together to form something lovely would be vastly outnumbered by the moments where it fell flat on its face. So concerned with being provocative, clever, and gimmicky are our scripted dramas for teens that things like character and plot fell by the wayside, and much of the the promotional material for MMFD pointed towards a show about a day-glo portrait of a loud, brash, sex-obsessed teen girl who was going to be spending so much time shouting about how mad and sex-obsessed she was that we’d never really get to know her.

The reality was very different. For one, it being set (and soundtracked) in the mid-90s means that it avoids any pressure to shoehorn in any on-the-pulse references and music. And sure, Rae Earl is often loud, brash, mad, sex-obsessed – but she’s also a person. Over the two series of My Mad Fat Diary we’ve learnt a lot about Rae and how she responds to those around her; her complex, detailed relationships with her mother and her best friend Chloe; her increasingly complicated relationship with her therapist Kester; and the massive insecurities she faces when amongst her peers. By the time that series two ends we have a portrait of a young woman who is trying desperately not to be defined by her illness or by other people’s perception of her but by who she has the potential to be. What’s more, the despite the show’s forced, nearly totally subjective perspective, the focus is never solely on her. The show’s writers have let the supporting characters, in particular Rae’s egotistical, emotional mother, blossom into fully-fledged people in their own right, and in the show’s best episode they even shift the perspective to Chloe’s and reveal the world that’s going on outside of Rae’s head. In short, My Mad Fat Diary is the best TV show about adolescence since Freaks and Geeks, and maybe the best  British show about adolescence ever made. (more…)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lawrence, 2013)

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Like most, I enjoyed The Hunger Games, the first film in the latest of a long, distinguished  line of megafranchises based on Young Adult novels. Fast-paced, smart and surprisingly edgy for a big family blockbuster, it borrowed liberally from predecessors such as Battle Royale and the Running Man books Stephen King wrote under the name Richard Bachmann without ever ripping them off, crafting an original story out of well-worn ideas. Those who have accused Susanne Collins’s novels of watering down their darker, more violent predecessors have confused grit with maturity – The Hunger Games Trilogy may be more tame in its depiction of violence, but it’s far more potent thematically and better plotted – Battle Royale may have more style, but The Hunger Games actually kind of makes sense.

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