Host: Film Review

Host

I have heard nothing but praise about Host in the weeks since it premiered exclusively on Shudder in July and the power of word-of-mouth has taken the film to new heights – it’s now getting a cinema release in the UK!

The British found footage horror film was developed and shot entirely during the Covid-19 lockdown earlier this year, with the cast all communicating from the isolation of their own homes via Zoom. Hoping to spice things up a bit – presumably from Zoom quiz fatigue – Haley (Haley Bishop) and her friends Emma (Emma Louise Webb), Jemma (Jemma Moore), Radina (Radina Drandova), Caroline (Caroline Ward), and Teddy (Edward Linard) hire a medium, Seylan (Seylan Baxter), to host a virtual seance, with fatal consequences.

I was advised to watch this film in the daylight and I didn’t pay attention to this advice – and I should have! Host is genuinely very scary, perhaps even the scariest movie I’ve seen all year (although Saint Maud and Relic come close). I watched it a few days ago and I haven’t been able to shake it off, with certain imagery popping into my mind when I’m trying to sleep. It has effective jump scares – which are tricky to pull off over Zoom – shocking moments, and anxiety-inducing sequences filled with tension and fear. I had such a visceral reaction to it; I jumped, hid behind my hands and told characters “don’t go there/don’t do that” – I was truly involved.

Not many films have a zippy runtime of 57 minutes and I truly recommend it. More like this please! Director Rob Savage had carte blanche on the film’s duration so he picked one which best served the story and Host is all the better for it – it would have been weaker and had less impact if it had been padded out to try to hit 90 minutes, for example. The film is lean, we have a brief introduction of the characters and their relationships and then it gets down to it. Savage has trimmed all the fat so Host doesn’t hang about – when the scares well and truly get going, it doesn’t let go. I’m glad it was short because I don’t think my pounding heart could have handled much more.

There’s some obvious foreshadowing in places but that doesn’t make it any less effective, and normally I would criticise a film for not developing its characters enough as a lack of characterisation generally means I don’t care about anybody, but that wasn’t the case here at all. I actually forgot about that once the action got going, it just doesn’t stop and give you a minute to think about anything else. And you care about them regardless, because they’re in a terrifying situation. I was particularly fond of Caroline – she was the most scared about doing the séance – and Emma, as she gets put through the wringer and gives an amazing performance, although there are no weak links in the cast, who are friends in real life.

Host has become something of a phenomenon and I’m glad it has been picked up so it’ll be seen more widely because a film of this quality deserves to be celebrated by the masses. Savage has landed a Blumhouse deal off the back of Host’s success and he thoroughly deserves it. Host is clever, inventive, timely, and original and shows what can be done within the limitations of lockdown. It is truly terrifying and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Go check it out!

In selected cinemas and on digital platforms from Friday 4th December

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Possessor: Film Review

Possessor

I had heard so much about Brandon Cronenberg‘s second feature Possessor – and while I can appreciate many things about it, it wasn’t my cup of tea.

The film stars Andrea Riseborough as Tasya Vos, who is a possessor, a contract killer whose consciousness is implanted into another person’s body in order to carry out the assassination. Her boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gives her her next job – she is to inhabit the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), who is dating Ava Parse (Tuppence Middleton), the daughter of John (Sean Bean), the head of a huge corporation, for which Colin works. However, Colin cannot be as easily controlled as some of her previous subjects.

Possessor is an incredibly unique film that will stick with you for hours afterwards. Cronenberg has come up with an effing cool idea and it was exciting watching it play out in all its intense, gruesome glory. This film is not for the faint-hearted – it is extremely graphic and violent, there’s plenty of nudity, and some body horror that truly grossed me out. There are also some weird and experimental visual flourishes to help illustrate some of the inner control struggles.

I also loved the initial set-up of the story and the introduction to Tasya and her dual lives – in the real world with her estranged husband Michael (Rossif Sutherland) and their son and this possessor world; the final scene of the movie; and the superb performances from Riseborough and Abbott, with Abbott particularly excelling in the latter half of his story.

However, there is a portion of the film that totally lost me. I didn’t truly understand what was going on and it felt quite chaotic and muddled as it made its approach to the climax. While I loved the closing scene and thought it was a great way to bookmark the story, I was left wanting more answers and some explanation of what the heck just happened. I would have also loved some more backstory about Tasya and the organisation she works for.

I like Possessor and I certainly appreciate the imagination, the performances, and the cool concept, but I’m just not a big fan of body horror and the ambiguity of not knowing what’s real and what’s not. The story stopped being clear to me as it neared the end and that negated its impact somewhat.

On digital platforms from Friday 27th November

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Happiest Season: Film Review

Happiest Season

Feeling in the mood for a fun, lovely, delightful Christmas movie? Then look no further than Happiest Season.

Clea DuVall‘s film stars Kristen Stewart as Abby and Mackenzie Davis as her girlfriend Harper, who invites her home for the holidays for the first time. What seems like a big step in their relationship is soon crushed with the revelation that Harper is still in the closet and she needs them to pretend to be straight roommates during the five-day visit.

This is the first major studio-backed same-sex festive film, as Christmas movies are largely dominated by white straight characters. It shouldn’t be such a historic, pivotal moment for representation in 2020 but it is – and what makes it even more exciting is that it is a traditional, conventional romcom – it has all the hallmarks of ‘meet the parents’ and ‘going home for the holidays’ films – but it just happens to star a lesbian couple.

Romantic comedy is a genre I’ve always embraced but the heyday of quality ones seems to have been and gone. Happiest Season gives me hope because it’s well-written, there are great characters and relationships, and the ensemble cast is terrific. However, it does suffer from the chronic romcom issue of being predictable, but that’s fine because we came here for warm fuzzy festive feelings. Also, there weren’t enough laugh-out-loud moments. It was always entertaining, captivating, and amusing (and occasionally moving) but I really wanted a hearty laugh and didn’t get that. It’s also tied up a bit too neatly at the end but I can forgive that too.

The cast is the film’s biggest strength. I love Stewart in absolutely everything so me enjoying her performance here is a given, but she brought great warmth and heart to the role and I liked seeing her in this type of film. She had convincing chemistry with Davis, an actress I adore.

The stars of the show are in the supporting cast though – first up is Dan Levy as Abby’s gay best friend John. He was fabulous, so much fun, made me smile the most, and has the most moving moment in the movie – his monologue is powerful and I imagine gay viewers will relate to it very well. Secondly, I loved Aubrey Plaza as Riley, who has a history with Harper. She’s a lifeline for Abby when she’s in need of normality outside of the highly-strung, perfectionist family and I liked that friendship. Then there’s Mary Holland, who co-wrote the movie with DuVall. She shines as the oddball weirdo Jane, who just wants to be noticed as the constantly overlooked middle child. The ensemble cast is rounded out by Alison Brie as the bitchy sister Sloane (we’ve seen Brie in this role before), and Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber as Harper’s parents.

Happiest Season isn’t perfect but it gave me pretty much what I wanted from a festive romcom this year. It’s an absolute delight and I’ll happily watch it again.

Released on digital platforms such as Amazon Prime and iTunes on Thursday 26th November. Available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from 18 December.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hillbilly Elegy: Netflix Film Review

Hillbilly Elegy

I love Glenn Close and Amy Adams as individuals so I was excited to see them sharing the screen together in Ron Howard‘s domestic drama Hillbilly Elegy but damn, this film is a tough watch.

In this film adaptation of J.D. Vance‘s bestselling memoir of the same name, adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso), a Yale Law student, is on the brink of a promising summer associate job in 2011 when he receives a call from his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) who informs him that their mum Bev (Adams) is in hospital following a heroin overdose. As he heads home to deal with the latest family dilemma, the film flashes back to 1997, when a young and pudgy J.D. (Owen Asztalos) lives at home in Middletown, Ohio, with Bev, a former nurse and drug addict who has uncontrollable mood swings, can act violently, and can barely look after herself, let alone her children. It tells the story of how he managed to turn his life around with the help of his grandmother Mamaw (Close).

I have quite a few issues with the movie – and not just its awful title. It is just so stressful to watch these characters, particularly in the flashbacks. They are repetitive as they serve to illustrate the same point – how difficult Bev was to have as a mother – and sure, they are illuminating in a sense, but there are so many and they basically consist of constant yelling. I just wanted to tell them to shut the hell up. It was unpleasant and tiresome and a lot to sit through.

All I felt for Bev was hatred and that’s the screenplay’s fault. She is written in a stereotypical, one-dimensional way so we never get to know her fully or understand why she is the way she is. Sure, this is J.D.’s story and not his mother’s and there are some flashbacks to her childhood that shed some light on her behaviour, but it’s not enough. I wanted more substance and depth – to get under her skin – when we just get this monster. I wish there had been a couple more scenes of her in better times to give us a greater sense of who she once was and to balance out all the drama and screaming. Mamaw gets a slightly better deal as she has compassion for her grandchildren and wants to help, but she is no angel – she is mean, wicked, and has a history of domestic violence too.

When the trailer first came out for this, people joked that it was obvious Oscar bait and I thought that was a pretty cynical view, but now I have seen it, I can confirm this is quite accurate. These actresses, who have both been nominated for Oscars many times and never won, are doing the most to get another run at the gold with their performances here and I would even say they’re trying too hard. They both go for it and throw themselves into their characters, who are so showy and melodramatic that their performances come across as OTT. Their big acting will definitely get them noticed by the Academy but I reckon Close, covered in all those prosthetics, has more of an edge as Mamaw has more dimension, some great facial expressions (she’d cut you down with a stare!) and presented more of a physical challenge. It’s mind-boggling seeing Close go from The Wife to Hillbilly Elegy, but she just about convinces. I wasn’t fully sold on Adams as Bev though.

A story which depicts a personal triumph against the odds or in the face of adversity normally usually makes me emotional and leaves me feeling inspired but the only thing I felt with this film was pity for J.D. and Lindsay. I think that’s because there’s not enough meat on its bones, it isn’t grounded in much political or socio-economic context, and implies that if you simply apply yourself at school, you will rise up out of poverty, get into a university and then an Ivy League law school and that’s hardly ever the case. Very disappointing.

Streaming on Netflix from Tuesday 24th November

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula – Film Review

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

I was a big fan of 2016’s Train to Busan so I was excited for its sequel, Peninsula, but I came away sorely disappointed.

Set four years after the zombie outbreak depicted in the first film, Peninsula follows former military sergeant Jung-Seok (Gang Dong-won), who narrowly escaped South Korea and is now living in Hong Kong. He is approached about a mission to return to the quarantined peninsula to find an abandoned truck filled with cash and escape via the port within a set amount of time. Sounds easy, right? Nope! Not only is the peninsula riddled with fast and bloodthirsty zombies, but there’s also a mysterious and dangerous militia group on the prowl.

The zombie genre has been done to death (pun intended) but Train to Busan managed to inject a new lease of life into it. It felt fresh, exciting, and had a contained setting. Given its huge success, a sequel isn’t a surprise, but it’s a shame it falls into the same trap many follow-ups have done in the past. Peninsula’s budget is almost double the original’s and it is clear to see where the money was spent, as it is much bigger in scale, filled with action sequences, and jam-packed with CGI. But bigger doesn’t equal better. A prime example of this is the film’s first proper action sequence – a car chase which looked plucked straight from a video game, with the screen teeming with zombies rendered in sub-par CGI.

The concept for the first one was cool and new, whereas this story feels unnecessary and pointless, like it’s just been conjured up for the sake of making more money. The cash truck is located within the first half hour and I wondered how it was going to pad out the rest of its 116-minute runtime. This question was answered pretty quickly with the arrival of the militia group, which were largely unlikeable and had no redeemable qualities, and thankfully, the shining light of the movie – two sisters, Jooni (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), who rescue Jung-seok and take him to their hiding place, where he meets their mother Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and grandfather Mr. Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo). They were capable and kickass and added humanity and substance to a story desperately in need of it.

Although these characters are the saving grace of the movie they aren’t able to redeem it. The acting isn’t great, the mindless action scenes are chaotic and confusing, and the story is cliched and generic. It’s such a shame that Yeon Sang-ho, who returns to direct Peninsula, has not only failed to create a sequel that lives up to his predecessor but made one which fails to justify its own existence. Sad times.

Available on digital download from Monday 23rd November and Blu-ray and DVD on 30 November.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Endless: Film Review

Endless

I decided to give Endless a whirl because I like Alexandra Shipp and think she deserves a better career than she has had thus far but it’s safe to say that Endless isn’t the one to turn things around for her.

She stars as Riley, a high school graduate who is madly in love with her boyfriend Chris (Nicholas Hamilton). After a tragic car accident, Chris dies and finds himself stuck in this weird limbo place, where his loved ones can’t see him. Despite this, the two miraculously find a way to connect.

I wasn’t massively convinced by the concept, but I went in open-minded and was willing to be bowled over by a great story and strong performances. But this film didn’t tick any of those boxes. The story is unoriginal for starters – it’s basically like a young adult version of Ghost – and the plot and script are sappy, cliched, and generic. There is no depth or nuance here whatsoever, it is all so shallow and surface level, which is a shame because there were obvious opportunities for the film to explore grief and letting go more deeply.

And the acting, oh boy. It’s very melodramatic. There was so much over-acting going on, or what felt like over-acting because their behaviour was too over the top, like they were overcompensating for the limp script. Most of the cast was guilty of this, although the worst offender was Famke Janssen as Chris’ grieving mother Lee. It’s a shame because Shipp and Hamilton play likeable enough leads (and I enjoyed DeRon Horton as Chris’ limbo guide Jordan). Shipp gives it all her emotionally, but there wasn’t enough substance there to back her up.

If you’re a fan of Shipp, then there’s no harm in giving this a go. For anybody else, your time would be better spent elsewhere.

Available on digital download from Monday 23rd November

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Proxima: Film Review

Proxima

I love space movies, but the vast majority of them focus on men and the mission itself, rather than the loved ones they’ve had to leave behind. Proxima, a moving mother-daughter study, rights this wrong and shows the emotional toll balancing an all-consuming career and motherhood can have.

Eva Green plays Sarah, a French astronaut who has been dreaming of going to space since she was a child. She is thrilled to learn that she is a last-minute addition to the Proxima mission to Mars. While she is excited about the opportunity to finally put her lifetime of training into practice, Sarah struggles with the thought of leaving her daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle) for a year, as she is her primary caregiver following her split from Stella’s dad Thomas (Lars Eidenger). Not only that, but American captain Mike (Matt Dillon) is openly hostile towards her and constantly undermines her, making it obvious that he would prefer a man on his team.

I love the idea of a space movie that doesn’t go into space and that director Alice Winocour went with a space angle to tell this mother-daughter story. I’m sure many women who work full-time and are primarily responsible for their children would see a lot of themselves in Sarah, who struggles to balance her dreams with her love for her daughter. It also doesn’t help that the field is dominated by men who have little sympathy for Sarah’s dilemma because they have wives at home taking care of their kids while they’re training. Sarah needs to put 110% into preparations but she is constantly distracted by looking out for her daughter and the emotional toll this takes is evident on Green’s face.

I’ve always thought Green was a terrific actress but she still manages to surprise and impress me. What she is able to convey without speaking is just incredible and I found her performance incredibly moving, particularly in the last 20-30 minutes when it all gets too much nearer her launch date. Boulant-Lemesle doesn’t let the side down either. Dillon plays the same douchey character he’s played before, and Sandra Huller brings great understanding and warmth as the compassionate family liaison Wendy.

Although the mother-daughter relationship is the main focus and the big emotional pull of the film, I found it fascinating watching Sarah’s training for space and the various drills they have to undergo, and I also loved how much she stood up for herself and demanded to be treated equally in the face of Mike’s sexism. Watching her earn his respect was rewarding.

I connected to the story and Sarah way more than I was expecting to and Green is simply sensational here so Proxima gets a big thumbs up from me.

Proxima is available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital from today

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Asia: Film Review

Asia

Shira Haas absolutely blew me away with her performance in Netflix’s Unorthodox so I had to see what she was capable of in something else – and she doesn’t disappoint in Israeli film Asia.

The film follows Asia (Alena Yiv), a 35-year-old single mother who immigrated to Jerusalem from Russia and works as a nurse. She is a free-spirited woman who likes to party at the local bar and has casual sex. She isn’t particularly close with her daughter Vika (Haas) and they scarcely interact with each other, with Vika spending most of her time smoking with her friends down the local skate park. But Asia has to step up and finally find that connection with her daughter when her health rapidly deteriorates.

Haas won the Best Actress prize at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year for her performance as Vika and it’s easy to see why. She makes it look so effortless. It is never specified which terminal illness Vika suffers from but based on what I saw, I assumed it was motor neurone disease. Haas does an astounding job both emotionally as a teenager who knows they’re dying and physically as she convincingly portrays someone who is losing control of their motor functions. Yiv is equally impressive playing someone who is struggling to cope with so much responsibility and has the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Ruthy Pribar won the Nora Ephron Prize at the same film festival and deservedly so – this is an assured debut. Most films which tell this sort of story are super sentimental tearjerkers which do the most to make you cry, whereas this is completely unsentimental and tells it like it is and that makes it more affecting and moving, with a surprising final scene that’ll stick in the mind for a while afterwards.

Asia is a short movie at only 88 minutes but it feels longer as it has a slow, relaxed pace plus the main characters aren’t super close so they don’t speak very much. I struggled to get into it because of its sparse, minimal nature. I got more invested once Vika’s illness started to physically manifest itself and Asia’s hospital colleague Gabi (Tamir Mula) is hired to help out at home while Asia has to work.

Asia, which is in Hebrew, certainly won’t be for everyone but I can assure you that you’ve never seen a terminal illness movie like it. It takes a well-worn story and makes it fresh and interesting, gives us two well-formed characters to invest in, and features two powerful performances.

Available on Curzon Home Cinema and in selected U.K. cinemas on Friday 20th November. Most theatrical screenings have been delayed until December

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Life Ahead: Netflix Film Review

The Life Ahead

She may have been off our screens for 10 years, but Sophia Loren has definitely still got it and she proves why she’s still a screen legend in Netflix’s moving tearjerker The Life Ahead.

In this Italian-language film, directed by Loren’s son Edoardo Ponti, the legendary Italian actress plays Madame Rosa, an ageing Holocaust survivor and retired prostitute who is now a foster mom of sorts to children of other sex workers. She agrees to look after Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), a 12-year-old Muslim orphan originally from Senegal, even though he recently stole from her on the street.

I wasn’t personally familiar with the story even though it has been told many times. It is fairly obvious where it is going when Madame Rosa starts getting ill, but it doesn’t make it any less moving or interesting to watch. It is still heartwarming watching her and Momo’s relationship evolve and them become a little family.

She may be 86 and have been away from our screens for about 10 years, but Loren certainly hasn’t gone rusty. She gives a commanding performance as Madame Rosa, who suffers no fools and has a sassy attitude, and convincingly portrays someone in the early stages of dementia (I assumed). She isn’t the only one who deserves attention though. Gueye does a fantastic job of transforming his character from a rebellious troublemaker and drug dealer to a caregiver, while I also liked Abril Zamora as Loren’s transgender neighbour Lola and Babak Karami as carpet salesman Mr Hamil, who takes Momo under his wing.

Usually, a tearjerker like this hits me right in the feelings but this one only moved me slightly and I was at no risk of tears and I’m not quite sure why that is. The Life Ahead may be a fairly conventional drama but it is worth a watch because of Loren and Gueye’s performances and their uplifting evolving relationship.

Streaming on Netflix from Friday 13th November

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey – Netflix Film Review

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Netflix isn’t exactly known for producing many high-quality Christmas films – they usually fall into the “so bad it’s good” category – but hopefully the tide is set to turn because Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a wonderful festive film for all the family.

The story begins with young Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell), the most renowned and prosperous inventor of all, preparing to launch a matador toy that comes alive – Don Juan Diego (voiced by Ricky Martin). However, his young apprentice Gustafson (Miles Barrow), overcome by jealousy and greed, steals the toy and Jangle’s book of inventions. We then cut to many years later, when Gustafson (now Keegan-Michael Key) has become the most famed inventor and Jeronicus (now Forest Whitaker) has become a grumpy and lonely man who works as a pawnbroker out of his decaying shop. But his fortunes are about to change – his estranged granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills), who shares his gift for inventing, arrives for an unannounced visit.

Jingle Jangle has a super flimsy plot so you should look elsewhere if you’re wanting depth, nuance, and a more complex story. However, you can forgive the film for all this because it’s so entertaining to watch. Children will love the musical numbers and the choreography, Mills as the fearless Journey, and most of all, the Buddy 3000, an adorable robot that can talk and fly (and looks a lot like WALL-E).

Writer/director David E. Talbert has created an ambitious Christmas movie and a visual spectacle that features stunning production design, Victorian-era snow-covered sets, period costumes, gorgeous stop-motion animation, and CGI inventions. I loved watching the cast and the dancers perform synchronized routines on the street in their costumes – those sequences were a joy to watch. My personal favourite numbers were the opening sequence, This Day, Mills’ big solo piece, Square Root of Possible, and the Gustafson’s fun number, Magic Man G. Not all of the songs are memorable but they are fun to watch in the moment.

Despite being surrounded by an A-list cast, newcomer Mills easily steals the show as Journey, who is super smart and upbeat and helps Jeronicus see the magic and joy in inventing once again. She is likeable, proud of her intelligence, has ambitions to be an inventor too, and has a very impressive singing voice. My second favourite is Key as the cartoonish evil imbecile Gustafson; he is great fun and his solo number is a highlight. Whitaker’s transformation from grumpy to happy didn’t take too much work – more consideration could have been given to that transition – but he was perfectly cast as Jeronicus. Anika Noni Rose, with her stunning voice, also offers up terrific support as Jeronicus’ estranged daughter Jessica, as well as Hugh Bonneville as banker Delacroix and Phylicia Rashad as a narrator of sorts.

Jingle Jangle isn’t perfect but that doesn’t matter – Talbert has managed to deliver a Christmassy movie that is full of joy, wonder, and that festive feeling. A must-watch for families this holiday season!

Streaming on Netflix from Friday 13th November

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.