The Night House (2020) ** – Seen at the Cinema

An overloaded atmosphere cannot make up for the lack of directorial killer instinct, resulting in a ghost story that leans more towards the preposterous than horror.  Beth (Rebecca Hall), dealing with the suicide of her husband, begins to imagine a ghostly  presence in her remote house on a lake. Left a very odd suicide note, she pieces together stranger aspects of his life, involving the occult and a photo on his phone of a Beth lookalike.

The picture divides very neatly into the entirely believable grief of schoolteacher Beth – she nips at a moaning parent, knocks back the brandy, makes inappropriate comments to her workmates and displays sufficient off-the-wall tendencies to alarm pal Claire (Sarah Goldberg) – and the various tropes that need to be knitted together to take the story into the ghost/horror realm, few of which work. Mysterious footsteps, sometime muddy, sometimes bloody, appear, harmless neighbour Mel (Vondie Hall Curtis) is presented as potentially malevolent, and music suddenly blares out in the middle of the night.

Had the story remained entrenched in Beth’s imagination, where she almost willed her husband either to be still alive or enough of a presence (as in Ghost, 1990) that she could touch or be comforted by, and gradually either became subsumed by grief or came out of it, it might have worked very well. But the minute it started to delve into the area of the unbelievable it became largely unbelievable. Even when it is obvious her husband is not at all what he once seemed, the picture just ignores the obvious.

And that is a shame. Even more so than Stillwater, reviewed last week, this is a thespian tour-de-force. Beth is scarcely off the screen and her ever-changing mood displays terrific acting skills. But just like Stillwater, it loses its way, going for plot instead of character, and the film cannot make up its mind whether she is going mad, or just mad with grief, or whether she is victim to unseen predator. There was only one genuine jump-out-of-your-seat shock and the introduction late on of elements of her backstory served to confuse rather than elucidate.

Rebecca Hall (Godzilla vs. Kong, 2021) can certainly hold the screen and hopefully this will lead to better roles in bigger films. None of the other actors are particularly noteworthy. Director David Bruckner (Netflix’s The Ritual, 2017) seems to be focusing on horror – Hellraiser is next – but whether he needs a bigger budget or a better script to scare the pants off an audience remains to be seen. Writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Stephanie, 2017) also appear to be specialising in this genre.

Current Cinema Catch-Up 1 – Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, Godzilla vs. Kong

Before the pandemic and before I started writing this Blog I used to go to the cinema once a week on a Monday, normally catching a double-bill of my own choosing, and occasionally lucky enough to watch three movies in a day. Since cinemas re-opened in my neck of the woods in mid-May I’ve found it impossible not to return to my old habits. So here’s my first triple-bill.

Nomadland  (2020) ****

Easy Rider meets The Grapes of Wrath except in both these cases the travellers had a distinct destination in mind. Like the title implies, the characters in Nomadland are going nowhere, and often just round, though somewhat contentedly, in circles. Deservedly winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress Frances McDormand and Best Director Chloe Zhao, this not so much invests in diversity but in a world we never knew existed, of people who live out their lives in the backs of vans and trailers. In a previous generation, they might be deemed trailer trash, but that’s not the case here. They may be humbled but they are not unprincipled.

Recently widowed Fern (Frances McDormand) takes to the road after unemployment closes down her small town and temporary work at the local Amazon depot dries up  after Xmas. Considering herself “houseless” rather than “homeless” Fern finds herself involved in a peripatetic community of like-minded individuals, some drifting due to circumstance, others wanting to live out their last years as sight-seers. It’s not a drama and it hardly even qualifies as a docu-drama because virtually nothing happens but it is an eye-opener, not just for the visuals but for the way it explores the inherent loneliness in society. Once she has a taste for the road, Fern spurns every opportunity to settle down. The characters encountered are definitely originals and have the feel of genuine nomads – Swankie and Linda May certainly are –  the camera just happened to catch as it tracked by.

A true original with McDormand – her third acting Oscar after Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2107) plus another one as producer here – giving a tremendous performance as a passive individual surrendering, despite occasional indignity and hardship, to the joys of roaming.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) ****

Rather than face a jail sentence. car thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) turns FBI informant and infiltrates a Black Panther group led by Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Spurred on by FBI controller Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), O’Neal’s work has disastrous consequences.

As a devastating expose of the criminal activities undertaken by the world’s highest- profile criminal-catching operation, the FBI,  this is a first-class procedural type of picture, where, courtesy of the suspense created by director Shaka King (Newlyweeds, 2013), you find yourself rooting for O’Neal as he comes close to being discovered. But it is also grounded by an impeccable performance by Kaluuya (Queen and Slim, 2019) who portrays Hampton as a gentle soul, shy with women, but with a gift for public speaking that rouses a put-upon generation.

The Black Panthers are shown as instigators of genuine social reform, setting up medical programs etc, rather than just gun-toting rebels. Kaluuya won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor but in truth he steals the show from the lead Stanfield.  

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) ***

If you can make out what is going on in among all the noise and implausibilities then there is a halfway decent summer blockbuster to be enjoyed. The sci-fi gobbledegook spouted by scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) leads Kong-whisperer Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and Ilene (Rebecca Hall) into harm’s way, so far beneath the earth you are likely to poke up in Australia. Naturally, the two ancient behemoths go head-to-head while destroying everything in sight.

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