Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Olsen’

Smaller studios and mid-budget mainstream films scatter and run for cover as the dominant force in popular cinema makes its presence felt once more: yes, Marvel return with Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a somewhat baroque title which nevertheless is certainly appropriate for the film. That said, there are a number of factors which may combine to have some viewers expecting things which aren’t quite there in the movie: given the striking level of ambition some other Marvel productions have shown, perhaps this is only to be expected.

Benedict Cumberbatch is back in leading-man mode as surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange, who is generally acclaimed for his role in saving the universe a few movies back but still not entirely happy in his personal life (as is practically obligatory for a Marvel character). The doc is also afflicted by bad dreams, specifically one about a young woman being pursued by malevolent supernatural forces while being aided by a slightly different version of him.

Well, the girl from the dream crashes a wedding reception Strange is at, pursued by a big gribbly demon, and naturally he saves the day and rescues her (with a little help from Wong (Benedict Wong), whom these movies have done an impressive job of making into much more than just a sidekick). She turns out to be America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a unique individual in that there is only one iteration of her in the entirety of the multiverse of parallel worlds, and she has the gift of being able to travel between the different worlds almost at will. Naturally this makes her a person of interest, especially to a powerful and ruthless supernatural being who wants to kill America and steal her power.

Well, Strange and his various allies (in addition to Wong, he goes to the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for help) aren’t going to stand for that sort of thing, but needless to say they find themselves hard-pressed and Strange and America have to flee through a series of other parallel worlds, some of them jarringly odd, others rather familiar. But can they find a way of saving America’s life and defeating their adversary for good?

As noted here passim over the last decade or so, it’s quite rare for Marvel to turn out a movie which is not a solidly constructed and imaginative piece of entertainment – crowd-pleasers are what they do, and anyone who usually enjoys a Marvel film is likely going to enjoy this one too. Expectations are probably higher than usual for this one, partly because it’s directed by Sam Raimi (who has previously made some of the best Marvel superhero films ever), but also because it’s following on the heels of Spider-Man: No Way Home, another film with Cumberbatch which was deeply involved in matters multiversal.

Well, there are elements of Multiverse of Madness which certainly seem to be informed by Raimi’s CV as a director, but rather further back than his Spider-Man trilogy: there’s much more of a horror movie vibe to this film than anything else Marvel have done on the big screen recently. Some moments in the film are unexpectedly grisly and macabre, although I wouldn’t describe it as actually being any more scary than most mainstream films.

The multiversal element of the film is likely to be one of the things that may throw and possibly disappoint especially ardent viewers: following the cameo-stuffed pleasures of No Way Home, there has been a lot of excitable on-line chatter about just who could be turning up in this film. It’s tricky to talk about this without risking spoilers, obviously, but expectation management might not be a bad idea here – the closest thing the film has to a big gosh-wow moment won’t really come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the publicity for it. The rest of its surprises are clever, but you really need to be a devotee to get all the references and jokes, to the point where a Disney+ subscription is almost obligatory. This is certainly the case with a major element of the film’s plot, which is arguably lacking in the dear old objective correlative if you haven’t seen the applicable streaming series.

This is possibly a problem for the film, as it makes a big deal out of seeing alt-universe versions of familiar characters, certainly at the expense of other possible ways of exploring the multiverse concept. Strange is repeatedly asked if he’s really happy, and you might expect the film to explore the possibility of a world which has a Strange-iteration who genuinely is content. There’s dramatic potential here, obviously, but the idea is never really gone into – a typhoon of CGI and fan-friendly death-matches are what the script plumps for.

Long-term viewers might also be inclined to raise an eyebrow at how a character who was originally presented as powerful but not exceptional has, over the course of their last few appearances, become a virtually unstoppable force of reality-warping cosmic power, but that’s what the script here requires, I guess: in the same way, while the comics version of Doctor Strange is so nebulously omnipotent he’s often sidelined, treated as a plot device more than a character, the movie character is much more fallible and limited much of the time. He spends a lot of this film looking worried and running away – but, as I say, it’s all about the requirements of the story.

Nevertheless, the movie has a charm and energy of its own, especially in its weirder moments. This is what you hire Sam Raimi for, after all. What’s perhaps a little unexpected and quite pleasing is the fact that – for all its metaphysical extravagance – the impulse driving the plot is firmly rooted in recognisable human emotions and drives. This gives the actors something they can really work with – and while Cumberbatch is as good value as ever at the centre of the film, what’s really eyecatching is a very impressive performance by Elizabeth Olsen, almost certainly the best she’s given in a Marvel movie. The various ghoulies and spectres the film summons up are very insignificant compared to the moment of genuine emotional anguish at the heart of the story. It’s this which holds the film together and keeps it satisfying even when some of its peripheral pleasures threaten to become rather unravelled.

This even extends to the ending of the film, which comes close to being a less-than-fully-satisfying cliffhanger (maybe even more than one). If this latest phase of Marvel films is heading in a particular direction, what that direction is is by no means clear yet. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a mid-table entry for this franchise (perhaps just a little higher than average), but I don’t imagine the huge audiences Marvel movies routinely attract will be disappointed by it.

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Autumn is upon us, schools and universities are back in session, the last of the big summer tentpole movies have been and gone, and in the pause before the onset of serious awards-bait, we have a chance of a slightly more interesting and intelligent type of genre movie. This is also an opportunity for people who get their biggest pay-checks for appearing in movies about killer robots and giant monsters to show that they still have what it takes as credible actors and not just the basis for action figures. Thus, we find Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen appearing in Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a US Fish and Wildlife Service Officer who is also a lethal rifle shot (nice to see that Renner shows no sign of becoming typecast – I can think of at least a dozen movies where he plays a sniper, a special forces operative, an assassin, or something similar). He describes himself as a hunter, but one of the things the film quietly suggests is that the difference between a hunter and a sniper is basically down to where you happen to be pointing your gun. Lambert is on the Wind River Indian Reservation, on the trail of a mountain lion, when he comes across the half-dressed corpse of a young woman, frozen solid inside a snowdrift.

The authorities are summoned, including happened-to-be-in-the-area FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen) – Banner originally hails from Florida, so the wilds of Wyoming in the depths of winter are not exactly her comfort zone. A medical examination takes place, and many blood-curdling details relating to exactly how one dies of exposure when underdressed in a blizzard are passed on to the audience, but the most significant one is that, although she was attacked, the girl’s cause of death was technically exposure, not actual murder, which means Banner will not be given the full support and resources of the FBI as she works on the case – the local Tribal Police Chief (Graham Greene) is not surprised.

Still, Lambert is willing to pitch in, which is probably just as well, as the answers to the mystery of the girl’s death lie somewhere out in the snowy wilderness. Many grim truths about the inhabitants of Wind River threaten to come to light, provided Lambert and Banner survive to discover them – the land itself here can be as deadly as any criminal…

I really should keep better track of my up-and-coming American writer-directors. All the way through Wind River I found myself thinking that there was something about this film, the strength of the writing and dialogue, the sense of time and place, the elegant unfolding of the plot, which put me rather in mind of Hell or High Water from last year. And, of course, that was another Taylor Sheridan movie – if you want a smart, tough thriller set in the wide-open spaces of the US of Stateside, Sheridan is turning into a very good bet.

Once again, it’s a little tricky to pin down exactly what kind of movie this is – there are elements of the investigative-procedural, of course (visits to the path lab and so on), but also sections with a strong western vibe to them. Renner spends a fair chunk of the film in a cowboy hat, and while he isn’t strictly speaking a lawman, his character is definitely out for justice in a certain very specific way.

Ordinarily, films which give house room to the notion of (for want of a better expression) frontier justice make me rather uncomfortable, as it strikes me as a very dubious message to putting into a piece of entertainment. Wind River manages to get away with it, much to my surprise, probably because it contextualises the idea so thoroughly and seems to be presenting it fairly dispassionately. It’s inevitably a bleak idea, but then this is a largely bleak film. It is, I would say, normal for films in this kind of setting to engage in a little social commentary on the lot of the inhabitants of reservations, and Wind River is no exception – the icy setting reflects the death of hope which has come to afflict so many of the film’s characters, and emphasises that this is a place profoundly different from America’s urban centres – this is a place from which only the strong can emerge unscathed.

To be honest, the murder-mystery element of Wind River’s plot is not particularly complex or challenging, but then the film is about other things – as mentioned, the loss of hope, and the corrosive effects of grief and guilt. The film needs considerable heft for this to work, and gets it mostly from Jeremy Renner, who gives a really impressive performance, achieving that neat trick of revealing everything about a character who really doesn’t speak much or show real emotion in the usual course of events. Olsen is also very good – one hopes she will break out of the genre ghetto at some point. Then again, this is a film with consistently strong performances from a mainly unknown cast (although Jon Bernthal pops up for a brief cameo at a crucial moment).

On the other hand, the film also contains some well-staged action, and what I took away from it was not really much to do with the characters or plot but a general sense of people struggling to find reasons to live – and, of course, the magnificent landscape of Montana in winter.

I suspect I’m making Wind River sound like an incredibly bleak and joyless experience, and while it’s not completely bereft of lighter moments, in general this is a serious and thoughtful film. And while it is true that the film does not shy away from the repugnant nature of some of the crimes involved, I think that’s infinitely preferable to a film in which people are casually blown away by the dozen and sexual assault is treated mainly as a seasoning element to make a film just a little bit more piquant for the jaded viewer.

Wind River is not a light or frothy film, but it does pretty much everything you would want from a film of this type – the drama and thriller elements complement each other flawlessly, the performances are good, the atmosphere is almost palpable, and the theme of the film is clear without the audience being beaten about the head by it. This is a very fine film.

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What in the world is more likely to get a sequel than a movie with a $1.5 billion box office? A movie with a $1.5 billion box office that’s a keystone of a sequence of over a dozen movies which has already made $7 billion. Yes, it’s time for the unstoppable colossus that is Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. I tell you, folks, there’s something almost unsettling about the sheer aura of implacable self-confidence that this extraordinary film gives off: it’s almost as if it doesn’t care whether you like and enjoy it (or even understand it) or not, it’s still going to make more money than the GNP of most African countries. Resistance feels useless.


As things get underway, the Avengers are in the process of sorting out a HYDRA base in the obscure Balkan nation of Fictionalakia, which they do with a reasonable degree of alacrity: this is more an excuse for the director to get all flashy with the camerawork than a source of genuine conflict, though HYDRA’s pet superhuman pawns the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) give it a good shot.

This looks like the final victory in the team’s current campaign, and it seems to offer the opportunity for a significant step forward in the cause of global security: for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) thinks he can use captured alien technology to create a sentient robotic security system encompassing the entire planet. He decides not to mention this side-project, codenamed Ultron, to the rest of the team, because what could possibly go wrong? To the surprise of nobody but Stark himself, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) turns out to be an indestructible genocidal maniac with a snarky line in repartee, and after delivering an admonitory spanking to the team flies off to set about his plan for global destruction, recruiting Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver along the way. But will they ultimately prove to be heroes or villains? One thing Marvel Studios’ lawyers are very clear on: they’re definitely not mutants.

While waiting for the film to start, I did find myself observing to a friend that it would be interesting to see how Joss Whedon coped with making a film with nine actual Avengers in it, and that’s before we even get to the villain or supporting cast. The answer, clearly, is to make a film which is almost ridiculously massive in every respect. It opens with a hugely lavish special effects action sequence and just gets bigger and bigger and (in true comic book style) sillier and sillier as it goes on. The crash-bang-wallop-zap-kapow is relentless, reaching an early peak in the long-awaited Iron Man-vs-Hulk fight, which brings new meaning to the word blockbuster, and proceeding all the way to a notably untrammelled climax. (One character even shouts ‘This is crazy!’ in the middle of the concluding chaos, which probably counts as an example of Whedon’s noted self-awareness.)

It does go on for a remarkably long time, but this is because in addition to the actual plot and his nine Avengers (in addition to the original cast and the two non-mutants, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany finally gets some proper screen-time as the Vision), Whedon also opts to include a coachload of other characters, either ones from previous movies, or ones destined for more signifcant roles in future projects: Don Cheadle has a surprisingly beefy role, and also present are the likes of Anthony Mackie, Stellan Skarsgard, and Andy Serkis. We even get to see what an Avengers works do looks like – needless to say, the world’s most famous nonagerian comic book writer puts in an appearance.

Also in true comic-book style, the lavish property damage is leavened by some slightly histrionic soap-opera style interactions between the principal cast, but I would honestly argue that finding a space in a film like this one for actors to genuinely find their characters and act is as impressive an achievement on Whedon’s part as any of the technical wizardry or plot-wrangling on display elsewhere. Whedon’s stated intention was to favour the characters who don’t appear in movies of their own, especially the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and he pretty much pulls this off – although his attempts to wrong-foot the audience are somewhat undermined by Marvel’s fondness for announcing the cast lists of future movies several years in advance. Personally I could have seen a bit more of the Vision, but there is a huge amount to squeeze in and on the whole the film does the best it can in the circumstances. Elsewhere, I found that Whedon’s brand of self-aware knowingness was getting a bit predictable – I was able to more-or-less guess what some of the jokes would be, so perhaps it’s just as well that this film marks the end of his association with the Avengers films, at least: I suspect the writer-director would agree, because to be honest the film sometimes feels like a monumental contractual obligation – it’s never less than competent, but (not inappropriately for a film largely about androids) it often has a curiously mechanical, joyless feeling to it.

At least the sense one sometimes gets watching Marvel movies, that of characters being laboriously shunted around in order to facilitate the launching of the next instalment, is less pronounced this time. But I do wonder how this film will play with some sections of the audience: if you know who Baron von Strucker and Ulysses Klaw are, get all the other references, and have been meticulously keeping track of the meta-plot about the Infinity Stones, you’ll be in some variety of heaven, while if you’re a non-discriminating partaker of overblown CGI action you will find nothing here that disappoints you either. However, if you’re a normal, mature person who expects a film with a bit of focus and a recognisable beginning, middle and end, this may not be your best choice of night out.

However, I get a strong sense that Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t really care about that as it cruises merrily toward the various box-office records it will reduce to smithereens. This doesn’t feel quite like it’s raising the bar on the comic-book movie in the same way that the first film did, nor does it really seem to be intent on allowing the franchise as a whole to regroup: it just looks like another attempt by Marvel to see how crazy they can get before they lose the audience. I suspect they still haven’t reached that point. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a bloated carnival of absurd empty spectacle held together by ridiculous soap-opera plotting, or a grandiose monument to Marvel’s ambition and skill in growing their world-conquering franchise-of-franchises, but either way it’s going to be more or less unavoidable for some time to come.

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Something has been a-stirring for some time now. Maybe it’s just my advancing age, or possibly my 60+ movies a year regimen is taking its toll, but it’s actually quite unusual now for me to get genuinely excited about a new movie. Too many disappointments, too much cynicism, I suppose. However, when I learned that Gareth Edwards, director of one of my favourite films of recent years (2010’s Monsters), was to oversee a big-budget American Godzilla movie (a franchise I have enjoyed rather too much for nearly a quarter of a century now), my interest level spiked, and it has stayed spiked ever since.


It has been sixteen years since Roland Emmerich’s first attempt at an American Godzilla – a film for which the word ‘reviled’ is probably not an overstatement – and ten years since Toho, creators of the great beast, decided to suspend production of Japanese-language Godzilla films following the release of the maddeningly uneven Final Wars, on the occasion of Godzilla’s fiftieth anniversary. Sixty years on from the first Godzilla movie, there are clearly a lot of expectations for this film, and if nothing else you have to admire Edwards’ ambition in attempting to combine the requirements of a typical Hollywood popcorn blockbuster with the very special conventions of a Japanese kaiju movie, not to mention producing something with merit as a piece of cinema, too.

Godzilla himself does not show up until well into the film, leaving the job of carrying the story to Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He plays Ford Brody, a young US Army officer whose life has been shaped by the death of his mother (Juliette Binoche, briefly) in mysterious accident at a Japanese nuclear plant some years ago. Brody has tried to move on, but his dad (Bryan Cranston) remains convinced there is some secret to the tragedy, and has been trying to sneak into the quarantine zone and find out what it is, forcing Ford to fly over there and try to sort him out.

They learn the ruins of the plant are incubating an enormous pupa-like object, containing a primeval creature which feeds on radiation. As luck would have it, they arrive just as the creature – dubbed ‘Muto’ by the attending boffins (Watanabe Ken and Sally Hawkins) – hatches out and engages in a little light rampaging. The Muto heads for the States in search of more fissile material, with the armed forces in hot pursuit. However, Watanabe has a suspicion that another, equally ancient predator may still be around, and keen to make lunch out of the Muto. Watanabe calls this creature Godzilla… but with the army and navy in trigger-happy mood, and signals suggesting a second Muto may also be on the loose, it looks as if the King of the Monsters may have a lot on his (glowing radioactive spiky dorsal) plate…

While it is almost indisputable that Edwards’ Godzilla is a vast improvement over Emmerich’s take on the story (a film which even Toho were publicly contemptuous of) , just how much you enjoy it may well depend on how steeped you are in the traditions and lore of Japanese kaiju movies. These are subtly different to the grammar and conventions of the American monster movie, for all that the two share a deep connection.

For one thing, Edwards understands that a classic Godzilla movie isn’t just about a giant monster wreaking havoc and being attacked by the armed forces: it’s about two or more giant monsters, more than likely with super-powers, ripping into each other on a grand scale. The inclusion of the Muto creatures means Godzilla has a couple of worthy opponents to take on in the final reel, which is one base covered.

Beyond this, though, the screenplay reveals a considerable knowledge and understanding of the genre – Max Borenstein’s screenplay puts a new and rather exciting spin on the core Godzilla mythology, and finds a new way of incorporating the obligatory mention of the 1954 A-bomb tests. And both visually and in terms of the general shape of the story, it seemed to me that this movie owes a considerable debt to Kaneko Shusuke’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe – not a Godzilla movie, admittedly, but still one of the highlights of the genre. (There are a couple of tiny shout-outs to the Mothra movies too.)

There are moments here, too, which are as good as anything in past films – the build-up to Godzilla’s first appearance is immaculately handled. Directors often talk about the big G as an implacable force of nature, but Edwards really gets this right – Godzilla’s approach is heralded by fleeing wildlife, storms and tsunamis, and he really does seem like an impossibly immense avatar of total destruction. (Watanabe’s performance – with just the right level of awed reverence – does as much as the CGI to sell this.)

On the other hand, the movie does subscribe to the current genre dogma that all giant monster fights must take place after dark and under conditions of poor visibility, which I found a bit disappointing. God knows what watching this film in 3D must be like, given the light-loss involved: a pitch-black screen and a lot of roaring, I suppose. It also seems for much of the film that Edwards is either being a total tease or trying to make an art-house Godzilla film – no sooner does a monster fight start or a city begin to be devastated than Edwards cuts away to something else. There is a very enjoyable monster battle at the end, but I could have happily watched a lot more of this stuff.

And it is all a bit po-faced, too. Perhaps wary of accusations that a film about an immense fire-breathing nuclear dragon could be considered a touch silly, the tone of the new Godzilla is very earnest. There is no winking at the camera, hardly any jokes, no sign of the more extravagant genre elements (alien invasions, time travel, giant mystic lepidopterae) that distinguish the best of the Japanese films. All Godzilla films are, on one level, absurd, but this film never quite summons up the self-confidence to relax and revel in this (perhaps slightly surprising, given one of the Toho execs credited is Yoshimitsu Banno, who directed the bonkers 1971 movie Godzilla Vs Hedorah).

So we are left with a film which has many of the usual flaws of a Japanese kaiju film – primarily the incredibly thin human characters and dubious plotting – but none of its sense of fun or imagination. Some very fine actors are absurdly underused in Godzilla, especially the women (as well as Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen gets hardly anything to do as Taylor-Johnson’s wife). The first act of the film is very nearly confusing to watch, as well, given this is supposed to be a Godzilla movie yet the plot focuses exclusively on the Mutos (I suppose you could argue that this is itself another sign of the film’s reverence for genre conventions, given how much the later Japanese films focused on their antagonists’ origin stories).

It would be wrong of me to say that this film lived up to my expectations, but then those expectations were immensely high to begin with. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, by any means. Any even halfway-successful attempt at an American Godzilla is always going to be a bit weird, and this film is halfway-successful at the very least. It’s not one of the greatest Godzilla movies ever made, but its treatment of the character gets so many things absolutely right that it’s almost impossible for me not to like it.


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It occurs to me that it is a little-commented-upon fact that Sigourney Weaver has carved out a rather good career for herself despite the fact she is, to some extent, typecast. By this I mean that I would be willing to bet a modest sum that, if I were to ask someone to name one of her movies, they would come out with something which featured somewhere along the SF/fantasy/horror axis – quite apart from the obvious, there’s Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, and Avatar. A couple of recent high-impact cameos in Paul and The Cabin in the Woods only adds to this impression. Weaver doesn’t seem bothered by it, but it does feel like a while since she’s had a properly meaty leading role in a movie.

Well, she sort of gets one in Rodrigo Cortes’ Red Lights, a thriller with paranormal elements which is currently doing the rounds. On paper, this is a film with a considerable amount going for it – but in the brave new world of 2012, films are made digitally, not on paper. Certainly, this week I had the choice of taking a gamble on seeing a movie which has had mixed reviews, or seeing the reissue of Jaws (a film I’ve already seen umpteen times, including once on the big screen for its twentieth anniversary back in 1995 – and, yes, that does make me feel terribly old). Now I ask myself – was it worth passing on Spielberg’s undoubted classic in favour of something new and possibly surprising? I can only answer ‘Mmmm, well…’

It’s not really fair to compare Red Lights to Jaws, anyway, as the films are really quite different. (The title Red Lights, should you be a-wonderin’, is only alluded to in passing in the film itself – but wondering about the title is only one of the many points for rumination you will be left with if you actually see it.) Sigourney Weaver plays Margaret Matheson, a psychologist who specialises in debunking paranormal phenomena of various kinds. In this she is assisted by her physicist sidekick Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), and – a newcomer to the team – research assistant Sally (Elizabeth Olsen, who’s showing signs of getting lodged in the horror-thriller ghetto herself). Decades of research have uncovered not one iota of evidence for the existence of supernatural forces.

However, the media is suddenly filled with news of the re-emergence of Simon Silver (Robert de Niro), a celebrity psychic from years gone by. (You can have fun spotting the references to the supposed real-life psychics that Silver appears to be based on – most obviously, Uri Geller, but also, for example, Ted Serios.) Tom is keen to investigate Silver, but Margaret is more cautious, knowing what a slippery and manipulative customer the man can be. Given his wealth and popularity with the public, it could be dangerous to expose him as a charlatan. The fact that it could be even more dangerous to antagonise him, should he truly have paranormal abilities, is left unspoken…

I have to say that my overriding reaction throughout the early sections of Red Lights consisted of that mildly inexplicable phenomenon, deja vu. I do seem to have watched a few of these paranormal thrillers over the years, and the fact they exist close to a very porous border with full-on horror movies doesn’t help much. I probably shouldn’t have been sitting there going ‘This bit’s like The Awakening… this bit’s like Mothman Prophecies… this part is a bit Sixth Sense…’ but unfortunately I was. Now, this is not to say that Red Lights is a bad movie because it feels derivative, but I do think it should perhaps have worked a bit harder to do something new and original with its premise. You know that this kind of film is going to open with a spooky event which the characters cheerily debunk, following which we will get to know them better and become party to the personal issues and tragedies which have led them to become involved in this particular area (no-one ever becomes a psychic researcher in movies just because they’re intellectually stimulated by psychic research, they’ve all had a sister abducted by aliens, or lost a loved one to a war and become obsessed with proving consciousness persists after death, or [spoilers deleted]). Less driven characters will openly question the value of their fixation, pointing out the very real sense of comfort people draw from visiting a medium or astrologer. Events will demand the protagonists reassess their materialistic world view. (As I said when reviewing The Awakening, the thing about ghost stories is that they do tend to have ghosts in them.) And so on, and so on.

Red Lights sticks to this pattern quite faithfully, but – despite not having anything new to add – manages to do so with intelligence and gravitas. It doesn’t look or sound sensationalistic and it’s aided considerably by the performances of Weaver and Murphy, both of whom are reliably watchable and continue to be so here. Elizabeth Olsen, alas, doesn’t really get the material she deserves. On the other hand, de Niro does not take an axe to his own reputation with the vigour he’s shown in other recent movies, but nevertheless there is little here to mark him out as an especially noteworthy performer. This whole opening section is psychologically thoughtful and contains a lot of interesting nuts-and-bolts detail about psychic research, which I found rather absorbing to watch despite the tone of the thing being so familiar.

Then, about halfway through, an Unfortunate Event occurs and the film goes into a bit of a tizzy. It becomes much more of a supernatural thriller as the protagonists attempt to figure out if Silver really does have special gifts, and if he’s using them in an inappropriately malevolent fashion. It all gets a bit overwrought, if you ask me, with quite a heavy reliance on ‘jump’ scares and explicit weirdness. The plot unravels into a series of strange events and the characters’ reactions to them, and it becomes much more Murphy’s movie. While he’s as good as ever, I did miss Weaver and Olsen.

And, subliminally, one gets an irresistible sense of a Twist Ending heading one’s way. (It may be that even revealing that Red Lights has a Twist Ending counts as a spoiler, but given that comparisons between it and The Sixth Sense are plastered all over the publicity, I don’t think I can really be held responsible.) Well, as twists go, the one in Red Lights is about a B- : it doesn’t feel like something completely new and unexpected that’s been shoehorned in just to pep up the finale, having been carefully seeded throughout the movie, but on the other hand neither did I go ‘What a brilliant idea! How stupid I was not to have figured it out!’, which is the mark of something special. To be honest I was more relieved than anything else when the twist was revealed, because up to that point the film was showing severe signs of not knowing how to finish and collapsing into an incoherent mess. The twist just about holds the main plot together, but doesn’t help with lots of other irksome little questions and story points the film never really gets back to.

A strong cast, mostly working well, and a sober and thoughtful atmosphere are the main things that Red Lights has to commend it. It doesn’t really do anything new, and certainly doesn’t appear to have anything interesting or really original to say on the subject of why people believe or disbelieve in paranormal phenomena. The story doesn’t completely hang together – lots of major and minor events basically go unexplained as the closing credits roll – but it passes the time reasonably enough. A fairly average movie, but that’s the fault of the script rather than the cast.

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It’s probably quite difficult to make an impression as a performer when you have two elder siblings who have been headlining projects since the age of six, have owned their own self-merchandising corporation since the age of seven, and have a collective worth of over one hundred million dollars. Nevertheless Elizabeth Olsen has found a way, recently being nominated for umpteen awards for her debut film role: the title role in Sean Durkin’s Marcy Marlene May Martha May Martha Marlene Marcy Marlene Martha May Marlene (oh good grief) Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Olsen plays a young woman who wakes up one morning in a dilapidated rural farm somewhere in America, where she shares a house with a group of other young people. But before anyone else rises, she flees the house and runs into the nearby woods, hiding from her fellows when they pursue her. Contacting her elder sister (Sarah Paulson), she takes refuge at her affluent home, refusing to answer any questions as to what she’s been doing for the last two years.

But while she may be finished with her past, her past is not yet finished with her, and memories (or are they dreams?) of her former life persistently trouble her. One question in particular refuses to go away – has she left her recent past as completely behind as she believes? Or is her escape only a temporary respite?

For yes, for the past two years she has been a member of a cult, led by a man named Patrick (a remarkable, deeply creepy performance by John Hawkes). Patrick operates by enticing troubled young people to his farm, where through an insidious combination of brainwashing, drugs, and folk singing he strips them of their former identities and names and renders them almost wholly dependent on and obedient to him.

This would be strong enough material for a movie, but the way in which Marcy Martha Mary (sod it) Ma Ma Ma Ma handles it is particularly striking: the film has a fragmented narrative, cutting almost imperceptibly between past and present. As a representation of the main character’s messed-up psyche, this works very effectively, particular as an illustration of why she finds it so hard to abandon the habits and attitudes she has been indoctrinated with by Patrick.

Although it’s certainly not being marketed as such, many critics (even some not living in attics) have commented on the general ambience of Ma Ma Ma Ma, which is not dissimilar to that of a full-on horror movie. Personally it reminded me most of the original version of The Wicker Man, with its uncomfortable clash of ethical codes reflected here in the different values of the cult and the main character’s family – and it seemed to me that despite being not at all sympathetic to Patrick or his activities, the film doesn’t exactly endorse the outside world either. The lifestyle of the sister and her husband does somehow seem slightly empty, if not outright decadent. There’s a queasy moment when you actually understand why Olsen considers going back to the cult, if this is what the alternative is.

But Ma Ma Ma Ma goes further in suggesting that not only are ethics a matter of local convention, but so, in a strange way, is identity. Is the main character Martha, her ‘real’ name? Or is she Marcy May, the name given to her by Patrick? Does she even know herself? Is this a meaningful distinction? Olsen gives a luminous performance of tremendous nuance, that reveals just enough, and leaves just enough to the viewer to decide.

The film is shot in an unfussy, naturalistic style, with – for the most part – a stripped-down score. It doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of the story, but neither does it present them in a sensationalistic way. The story unfolds in a highly intelligent way, with some of the main character’s odder behaviour towards her well-meaning family explained by later flashbacks. Perhaps there are a few longeurs towards the end, and perhaps with hindsight the sister and her husband come across as a little slow for not realising sooner that the main character has been severely damaged by her experiences, but then again it only slowly becomes apparent to the audience, and they’ve had the benefit of the flashbacks!

This is a challenging film in many ways, though never less than rewarding and enjoyable. I imagine the ending in particular will be divisive and the cause of much discussion, because it is extremely ambiguous. I thought it could either be hopeful, with a cautionary note, or alternatively simply very ominous – in the circumstances, either would be very appropriate. My literary advisor, on the other hand, thought it was too pretentious for its own good and made various rude suggestions as to where the director had his head stuck. Here, however, I have to disagree: this is a highly intelligent, finely-crafted film, well-deserving of the accolades lavished both on it and Elizabeth Olsen’s performance.

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