Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Lies We Tell (UK 2017: Dir Mitu Misra)

Any film that starts off with Harvey Keitel being driven around the streets of Bradford and ends up with Gabriel Byrne facing off a mad dog must have something going for it, right?

And Lies We Tell does have a lot going for it.

Gabriel Byrne is Donald, world weary driver to shady boss Demi (Keitel). When Demi dies suddenly, his last request is for Donald to visit his home and clear away any traces of Demi's extra marital relationship with a girl called Amber (who by day is a trainee lawyer), including an intimate video of them together. Mid clearout, Amber turns up at the house, and an uneasy friendship between the two develops. Amber has been seeing Demi as a way of obtaining money for her legal education, and to free herself from her family, ruled by the vicious and calculating KD, who has links to the Bradford underworld. Amber and KD, who are cousins, were once 'married' on paper to appease the family but agreed not to consummate the relationship, except that KD changed his mind. But any control that Amber has on KD's behaviour vanishes when he turns his attentions to Amber's 16 year old sister Miriam. And Amber has other problems, namely that copies of the incriminating video are still floating around, potentially jeopardising her burgeoning legal career.

Gabriel Byrne and Harvey Keitel in Lies We Tell
Donald's constantly perplexed gaze, as he tries to assist Amber in her plight to extricate herself from Demi's life and do right by her family, is one likely to be shared by an audience not previously exposed to the harsher side of life in a Northern city. Bradford, where the film is located, has been used as the setting for other 'gritty' films like Room at the Top (1959) and Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987). But this is arguably the first time that the experience of a working class Muslim family and indeed the sub culture of young minority ethnic groups has been depicted in this way. Director Mitu Misra shows us the highs and lows of a society normally either pilloried or ignored by the media, and it is to his credit that he doesn't sweeten the pill. Credit should also be given to Sibylla Deen, who as Amber shows the right combination of grit and uncertainty (and as an Australian does a pretty convincing Bradford accent).

On the downside Lies We Tell does have a lot of inconsistencies. Bryne seems rather lost in the role of Donald, unsure of his motivation from scene to scene (he just looks tired). And Mark Addy, who plays Donald's friend Billy, looks like he was slated for a much larger part which may have been trimmed during editing - there are scenes between Billy, Donald and Amber that are played out without context.

Gabriel Byrne at the end of his tether in Lies We Tell
For a first film Misra has also crammed in too many elements - to make them work needed a steadier and more accomplished hand. Apart from the family entanglements in this country there's a land dispute which is touched on but never fully explored. There's also some schemes of mysticism among the Muslim citizens which doesn't help the film defend itself from claims of racism. And the thriller and domestic themes never really gel together. I wondered whether Misra may have been better off simply telling the story of a Muslim family in Bradford, and the tensions with an older daughter who wishes to break out of the household and start a career as a lawyer. It's one that hasn't really been told before, and arguably didn't need the expositional criminal trimmings.

But while the strands of this film don't all quite hold together, there are some good set pieces, and the vibrant photography of the streets (and clubs) of Bradford contrast well with scenes shot against the city's backdrop of imposing buildings and immaculate formal gardens. This is after all a film about Bradford, so it's perhaps right that Lies We Tell's contrasts are as diverse as the city itself.

Monday, 15 January 2018

The Darjeeling Limited (USA 2007: Dir Wes Anderson)

Another of my FEAST Film Nights viewing notes.

For those unfamiliar with the idiosyncratic films of Wes Anderson, The Darjeeling Limited is as good a place to start as any – his movies all share a unique vision, mixing the mundane with the bizarre, featuring odd characters in odd situations in even odder landscapes – and once you’ve seen one, you’ll immediately recognise his work. Confusingly, one should start before The Darjeeling Limited with a short prologue to the movie, Hotel Chevalier, which may or may not be showing tonight: don’t worry if it isn’t, I’m just being pedantic.

The story of The Darjeeling Limited centres on three brothers - Jack, the youngest, the bandaged and bruised (and very bossy) Francis, and clothing kleptomaniac Peter - who re-unite following the accidental death of their father a year previously, and decide to take a spiritual journey across India by train, hoping to reconnect with each other. That the brothers are a fairly dysfunctional bunch, made worse by their states of mourning, means that their plans, originally carefully planned by Francis and monitored by his seen but not often heard accomplice Brendan, fall apart quite spectacularly. But when they’re thrown off the train on which they’ve been travelling they are properly introduced to a country outside of their sphere of experience, a country which is now home to the reason for their trip.

The Darjeeling Limited is not a film obsessed with plot – it is instead a quirky, ruminative and free-wheeling study of three men caught up in their own depression, struggling to hold themselves together as a family, as well as finding out what ‘family’ means. It’s also a lot of fun, with the brothers bumbling along, sometimes strung out on Indian prescription drugs, constantly bickering while trying to makes sense of their own grief and the country they find themselves in. Anderson isn’t afraid to take us to some dark places, but the combination of humour, occasional slapstick and pathos is delicately balanced, recalling at times the silent comedies of Buster Keaton with added mysticism.

But the real star is India itself. Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman perfectly captures the majestic sweep of the country, and his colour palette is hugely effective whether it’s depicting the glow of sunset or the garish colours of The Darjeeling Limited, the train on which the brothers travel.

There are layers of symbolism in The Darjeeling Limited which have been endlessly pondered over by fans and critics in the same way that the films of the Coen Brothers are carefully dissected. What do the feathers mean? Who is the Bill Murray character? What’s a tiger doing on a train? Who knows? Just enjoy it.

Monday, 8 January 2018

The French Connection (USA 1971: Dir William Friedkin)

Continuing my viewing notes for the FEAST Film Nights evenings, these were my musings on The French Connection:

Towards the end of the 1960s major Hollywood studios started worrying that they might be out of touch with younger viewing audiences, and began hiring ‘risky’ directors like Arthur Penn (The Chase (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967)), Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch (1969)) and Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider (1969)) to breathe new life into depictions of America at the cinema. But despite the advances made by these movies, the concept of The French Connection – where drugs are rife in the city and New York cops are almost indistinguishable from the bad guys - was deemed too amoral, and was turned down by nearly every major studio before finally getting the green light from 20th Century Fox. 

The French Connection is an adaptation of Robin Moore’s 1969 book of the same name, which told the true story of NYPD detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, who broke up a notorious New York drug operation and confiscated thirty-two million pounds worth of heroin. Egan and Grosso served as technical advisors on the movie, incorporating their own phrasing into Ernest Tidyman’s script - their film counterparts Gene Hackman (who was not the director’s first choice – Friedkin originally wanted Jackie Gleason) and Roy Scheider spent a month patrolling with Egan so they could get closer to the characters they were portraying. It’s probably best known for having one of the tensest car chases in the history of film, but The French Connection is so much more than that – both an intense character study and essay on the price of corruption.

In a 2015 interview with the film’s director, William Friedkin, he reflected on the making of the film: “We were mostly influenced by the European films of the 1960s. The French new wave; Italian neo-realism; Kurosawa and other Japanese filmmakers. We were inspired by them and not bound to any formula. The French Connection, for all its success, was a real departure for a cop film, which was why it took us two years to get it made.”

“The chase scene was never in (the) script. I created that…with the producer Philip D’Antoni…we walked out of my apartment, headed south in Manhattan and we kept walking until we came up with that chase scene, letting the atmosphere of the city guide us. The steam coming off the street, and sound of the subway rumbling beneath our feet - the treacherous traffic on crowded streets. Nobody ever asked to see a script. We went three hundred thousand over (the) million and a half dollar budget, and they (the studio) wanted to kill me every day for that.”

Friedkin hasn’t always been the most reliable of documenters of his own films, and probably the greatest thing about The French Connection is that, while he makes it sound like it was made up as he went along, it’s actually a meticulously plotted movie without a wasted shot, which played its own part in changing the future of film.

Friday, 5 January 2018

New Films Round Up #12 - Reviews of Watch Over Us (USA 2017), The Ice Cream Truck (USA 2017), Consumption (USA 2016), Jonah Lives (USA 2015), Peelers (USA 2016) and The Id (USA 2015)

Well hello. It's been a while since I did one of these. So here's a round up of reviews of various movies seen last year that were generally too sniffy to have been considered for publication by others. But not by me, obviously:

Watch Over Us (USA 2017: Dir F.C Rabbath) Written, directed, shot and cut by ‘inventor, comedian, former journalist and entrepreneur’ (it says here) F.C. Rabbath, a young director with over 30 credits to his name already, Watch Over Us is a mildly interesting if painfully low budget movie, which dates from 2015 but which only had a VOD release late last year.

Jon, a single parent dad, lives with his two daughters, no nonsense Eliza and older sister Becca, in the house of his own father. He’s fallen on hard times, between jobs and dating again after his divorce, albeit rather disastrously. And as if that’s not a difficult enough set up, the family house appears to be haunted. The centre of the disturbance seems to be a large barn, and when the girls threaten to leave, freaked out by the strange groans and shaking light fittings, a priest is summoned, but gets the wim wams when he manages to communicate with the demon, and advises the whole household to get out of Dodge (or Florida in this case).

The twist in this rather slight 70 minute film can’t be revealed, which is a shame as it’s the only interesting thing that happens in the whole movie, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Watch Over Us isn’t sure what it wants to be. It’s not scary, that’s for sure. It attempts a light comedy touch, but the script is weak and although the characters themselves are quite spunky the acting’s rather clumsy (the two daughters, played by Avery Kristen Pohl (Eliza) and Ella Schaefer (Becca) are the best of a middling bunch), so it ends up playing as a rather lukewarm and uncertain film. 

But the premise is quite a good one and I’d have liked to have seen this done in more capable hands. Mr Rabbath thanks ‘GOD’ in the credits, but I’m not sure if he was any help on this one.

The Ice Cream Truck (USA 2017: Dir Megan Freels Johnston) The press release tells me that The Ice Cream Truck’s writer and director, Megan Freels Johnston, is the granddaughter of crime author Elmore Leonard. And like her old granddad Johnston is happy to keep two or three lines of narrative going at any one time in her second directorial outing, but unlike crime’s grandmaster she’s not so good at pulling them all together. 

We meet Mary, who has moved back to the suburbs where she grew up, in advance of her husband and kids who will soon be joining her. Mary’s a freelance writer but you get the feeling that the work isn’t exactly flooding in – she’s also feeling the distance between her family, and struggling as a result. David Lynch style, beneath the picket fences and neatly mown lawns of the suburban streets the town is a hotbed of unreleased tensions, from the constantly on the sauce ladies who lunch to their horny sons, one in particular who sees Mary as a game piece of MILF action, particularly after she joins in with an illicit smoking session. And all the while the tidy streets are patrolled by an old school ice cream van, complete with white suited bow tie wearing owner, you know, like from the past. Strangely he’s never seen selling ices to kids, but occasionally propositions one of the townsfolk to look inside his truck to see what’s on offer. And they have a habit of not coming out again.

Johnston is clearly playing this as a satire – the problem being that satires only really work if you’re in on the joke, and it’s kind of difficult to see what she’s trying to get at. When Lynch juxtaposed the quaint little town of Lumberton with the positively evil events going on in it in Blue Velvet, for example, you got the idea. Is Johnston playing with the idea of retribution for moral corruptness by a maniac ice cream salesman instead of the more familiar Michael Myers type assailant? I’m not sure. Although there are horror elements, the gore is played down, denying the audience their thrills. Or is it hidden from them deliberately as part of the overall tease? I’m still none the wiser.

This isn’t to say that The Ice Cream Truck is not enjoyable. It’s well shot and Deanna Russo does well as Mary, pulled into the dark side of suburbia, albeit playing it for comedy in a film where the humour is more in the setup than the script. There’s a head scratchy end shot to underline that things are not what they appear, but it’s too oblique to reward analysis. Just ok then.

Consumption (USA 2016: Dir Brandon Scullion) On the director’s commentary for this film, Brandon Scullion, who wrote, directed, edited and contributed some of the music to the movie, seems to graciously accept that the company who owns the film wanted to change its title from original Live-In Fear to Consumption (it’s a 2014 film which has presumably been retitled for the home viewing market). But he gets his own way in the credits by listing both titles, which leads me to believe that his debut feature was a labour of love, and something he took very seriously.

And Consumption does come over as a film that desperately wants to escape the limitations of budget and cast – it’s a shame then that’s it’s a horrible mess, combining possession, murder, and ghost story narratives with little overall impact into one soggy, overwrought stew.

Four friends (two couples) gather in a snow bound cabin in the Utah mountains. Each has, shall we say, some baggage. Seth, one of the four, certainly does have baggage. It contains the chopped up remains of his mother, which he buries out in the forest. Unfortunately he’s taunted by visions of mum (played by genre stalwart Maria Olsen, who also co-produced the movie), very much in one piece. On the ride to the cabin, Seth tells the others about the local legend of a bloody bride, and it’s not long before all the cabin occupants are affected by an unseen force which exploits their hidden fears and neuroses. And don’t get me started on the cabin neighbours, a group of backwoods weirdos who may be part of a strange coven.

There is a nice sense of claustrophobia as the two couples begin to unravel, but the central core of the film is unrealised and ultimately there are just too many loose threads to make it a satisfying watch. Scullion is clearly in thrall to both The Evil Dead and Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, but the movie doesn’t come anywhere near either of those films. Consumption aka Live-in Fear (and they’re both terrible titles, by the way) has to take some kind of prize for having the worst audio I’ve heard for quite some time. Sounds levels rise and fall, dialogue is muffled, and the almost musique concrete soundtrack, composed by Scullion and Melinda Ecchevaria, is both overbearing and inappropriate.

Jonah Lives (USA 2015: Dir Luis Carvalho) Four bickering kids mess about with a ouija board in the basement of a house for something to do and unwittingly summon the spirit of Jonah, who was poisoned by his wife for money. We know this because Jonah tells us via the board, before speaking through the voice of one of the kids, Lydia, and rising from the local cemetery. We know the rotted shape that emerges from the tomb is Jonah because the camera shows us the name on the grave a number of times. Via an earlier sequence, we have already found out that the kids carrying out the séance become possessed, although this plot development goes nowehere. Luckily god fearing Tony, the fifth member of the group and Lydia’s non pre martial sex observing boyfriend, refuses to participate and witnesses the whole thing (“Devil voices came out of you guys,” he observes).   

Secretly pregnant Yvonne - who is sports jock and demon expert Francis’s girlfriend - prays for God to deliver them from evil. It was at this point that I started to check whether this was one of those movies funded by evangelical church groups, but it isn’t. It’s naturally terrible. Meanwhile above them an adult party is in full swing. Guests include Zora (played by genre regular Brinke Stevens, who was cast in just about every straight to video thriller in the 1990s) and her girlfriend, trans star Brina (formerly Brian), previously seen in 2012’s Transsexuals from Space. Zora is of course Jonah’s ex-wife, and she’s celebrating her release from him, which seems a bit late as he’s obviously been in the ground for a while, judging by the state of him. But uh oh? Guess who’s going to get an extra guest at the party? 

Jonah Lives is a truly awful film. ‘Actors’ who should never grace a film set again seem to develop their characters on screen in front of us. The script and camerawork are entirely in sympatico here – repetition is the name of the game, with shots and lines duplicated over and over again, presumably to achieve some kind of hypnotic effect. 

Peelers (USA 2016: Dir Sevé Schelenz) Here’s a smart, funny horror comedy that gets the balance between laughs and gross out pretty much spot on. Director Sevé Schelenz made the above average Skew back in 2011, and it’s good to see that his earlier film wasn’t a one off.

Ex cop Blue Jean is facing her last night at the Titty Ball lounge, a strip club that’s being taken over by a big bucks businessman. Blue Jean and her assembly of sassy strippers are going to put on one last show for a loyal audience, joined by a group of local coal miners who have something to celebrate – they struck oil while hacking away at the coalface and figure they’re going to get rich pretty quick. Actually they’re going to get dead, as the oil is in fact a toxic substance which turns those in contact with it into, you guessed it, slavering infected creatures. And one of the miners is already in the throes of conversion.

From here on in Peelers is a fight for survival as the audience gradually becomes infected and the strippers and staff have to fight for their life.There’s nothing new on the menu here, but the cast works really well together. Blue Jean, played by Wren Walker, is a feisty so and so (but with a heart of gold) and makes a great lead. The strippers are all well drawn characters and a very game bunch of actresses (Baby, who wears a nappy, has a rather, er, refreshing end to her routine) and they do a good job at keeping a rather slim set up lively. The gore is, like a number of films these days, a mix of old school prosthetics and CGI but sadly much of the film is very dark – budget restrictions, I’m assuming – which means the effects can’t always be appreciated.

But I liked this movie – it’s a Friday night beer and popcorn feature, no less, no more, but it had me laughing out loud on several occasions, and its 80 odd minutes zip along pretty well. Oh and make sure you carry on watching after the end credits, to catch Blue Jean doing her own dance and find out just how she managed to win a police motorcycle in a bet.

The Id (USA 2015: Dir Thommy Hutson) A claustrophobic and rather disturbing two hander which slightly resembles Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Tell Tale Heart,’ The Id is a gripping chamber piece. 

Put upon, eccentric Meredith Lane has made nothing of her life, remaining at home to look after her father, a foul mouthed, misanthropic couch potato whose hatred of everything and love of the bottle drove his wife away years ago. As we meet the two of them they’re involved in an ongoing battle of wills, with the father insisting on Meredith doing everything for him and castigating her while she’s doing it. It’s clear this can’t go on indefinitely. Meredith’s only potential for release comes when she receives a call from a high school sweetheart, Ted, who’s in town and wants to catch up. Can she escape her father and form a new life with a man from her past?

Of course not. The Id is an agonising film. Patrick Peduto, playing the father, is such a bundle of anger and vileness that you find your fists bunching watching his performance. But it’s not easy to side with Meredith (hysterically and convincingly played by Amanda Wyss) because she’s also pretty unlikeable and almost certainly not quite the ticket (she spends the second half of the movie in a puffball dress left over from high school, waiting for Ted to arrive).

I’m sure I don’t need to mention that Meredith’s growing psychosis means that this doesn’t end well. It’s a massively unpleasant hour and a half of your life, brilliantly played, and with a coiled spring of narrative tension that threatens to burst at any moment. The Id won’t be for everyone – it’s bleak and unsparing – but there’s no doubt that it’s a twisted, first rate drama, bookended by credits and slightly saccharine score (about the only music in the film) that lull you into thinking that perhaps you’re going to be watching an issue-of-the-week movie. Well you’re not.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Themroc (France 1973: Dir Claude Faraldo)

Continuing my series of viewing notes of films screened at West Norwood FEAST Film Nights over the last few years, here's some thoughts on Themroc.

This year (2015) the French Canadian director Jean Marc-Vallée made Demolition, a Hollywood movie featuring a tortured soul who starts to dismantle appliances and later buildings to work through his emotional crises. 43 years ago the French director Claude Faraldo directed Themroc, a movie where a tortured soul has a bad day at work, comes home, turns his entire front room into a cave, shacks up with his sister and eats a policeman. Two films, two building sites. Come on, which one would you rather see?

Themroc is a dark but hugely funny howl of rage against oppression, the strictures of work and everything that prevents man from being primal and free. Made five years after the Paris riots of 1968, there’s more than a whiff of anarchy and Situationist politics in the air as we follow Themroc: preparing for and on his journey to work; his sacking (because he witnessed his boss and secretary fooling around); and his subsequent orgy of destruction after he returns to his flat, grabs his just-clothed sister and walls up the living room door, before creating a cave mouth where the back wall used to be.

I’ve seen this film a number of times over the years. My first viewing, as a teenager, admittedly left me rather cold – it seemed that director Faraldo just wanted to shock with his scenes of incest and cannibalism – don’t worry, you’re spared most of the detail. But watching it some years later, and again recently - with the benefit of at least one mid-life crisis behind me - I appreciated not only Michel Piccoli’s superhuman performance (literally – watch for the scenes where he takes a loaded wheelbarrow upstairs and moves a car with his bare hands) but also a brilliantly nuanced one. 

Communicating without language - his vocabulary consisting of a series of increasingly guttural snarls, howls and grunts (his fellow actors just speak gibberish, save for a few words of French) - Themroc is a bewildered stranger in his own broken part of France, trying to make sense of his own feelings and escape his dull existence.

Praise also for the supporting cast: Jeanne Heviale, who plays Themroc’s mother, is excellent, her face portraying a constant mask of disappointment whatever her son does, whether being late for work or throwing the best cutlery out of his newly formed cave mouth.  Also Beatrice Romand as his sister, who turns in an extraordinarily sensual performance amid the distinctly un-erotic ruins of Themroc’s flat. 

Themroc is a film which in its own desire not to be taken seriously becomes the perfect vehicle for the Situationist concept of non-competitive play being the one thing that is truly liberating for the self. Themroc’s cave and actions are the inverse of the walled in flat-dwellers around him, and he emerges as the hero of the piece despite his apparent madness: he’s a tenement - and rather pervy - King Lear.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Performance (UK 1970 Dir Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg)

At the start of 2018 I thought I'd reproduce some viewing notes that I wrote for screenings at my
local film club over the past couple of years, kicking off with Performance. 

Performance is a movie thoroughly deserving of that rather over-used term ‘cult status.’ Filmed in 1968, it was shelved for two years before finally being released – with cuts – to a public unused to such transgressive goings-on in a British flick, and greeting it with little more than mild disinterest. Two decades of frequent showings on the club circuits built up a steady fan base, leading to the film now regularly being included in ‘20 top British film’ lists. Whether it deserves that accolade is a matter for debate, but its enduring fascination is more than nostalgia for a London of the past – it was one of the first films, British or otherwise, to explicitly flirt with gender identity and its blurred boundaries. Filled with druggy details and a certain soupcon of polymorphous perversity, it’s a movie the UK certainly wasn’t ready for in 1970.

The question of identity extends beyond the story of the film, which sees heavy for hire Chas (played by James Fox) on the run from a killing, moving himself into, and ‘turning on’ at the Notting Hill home of ‘retired’ rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) and his two muses, played by Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton.   

The distinction between real life and film was blurred in the casting - Jagger and Pallenberg may possibly have been an item at the point of filming, and the latter had already been associated with other members of The Rolling Stones. James Fox was at the time going out with an androgynous girl called Andee, who is suspiciously similar to the slight Ms Breton, with whom Chas has a relationship. Jagger’s former girlfriend Marianne Faithfull goes further in the ‘art imitating life’ debate, citing  a wild druggy evening with Jagger, James Fox and Andee as the inspiration for part of the film, a detail picked up by Donald Cammell and expanded into a full length movie script, originally titled ‘The Liars’. 

And one cannot forget the spectre of Brian Jones, the Stones member who, very like Turner in the film, had rejected his band and opted for a life of drug-fuelled self-reflection. As Bill Wyman said, again echoing the Turner character, “he was very influential, very important, and then slowly lost it – highly intelligent – and just kind of wasted it and blew it all away.” Tragically Jones would die between the filming of Performance and its cinema release.
People often cite Performance as Nic Roeg’s first directing role, which it was, but it was also co-helmed by Donald Cammell. Cammell came from a wealthy background, which funded his travels around the world, freely indulging his talent as an artist and moving in the circles of the great and the good. In 1967 he ended up in Paris, where via producer Sanford Lieberson he was paired with Nicolas Roeg, a jobbing cinematographer, to produce the final flick – rumour has it that Marlon Brando, a friend of Cammell’s, was first approached for the James Fox role. And although it’s what would now be seen as a typically Roeg film – all sharp edits and strange point of view shooting  - there is a question about how much of Performance’s look and louche transgressive feel actually came from Cammell’s first-hand experience of the excesses of the ‘swinging sixties.’

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Better Watch Out (US/Australia 2016 - Dir Chris Peckover)

Chris Peckover's witty, deceptive suburban nightmare Better Watch Out (which I saw under its original title, the more prosaic Safe Neighbourhood) is both a Home Alone / Funny Games / Scream mashup and a rather interesting take on the state of US maleness.

Luke (Levi Miller) is a 12 going on 13 year old living a somewhat privileged life. While his well to do parents attend a Christmas party, babysitter Ashley (Olivia de Jonge), who is five years older and on whom Luke has a crush, comes over to watch him. But it seems that everyone's interested in Ashley, including a couple of older boys, and she's made plans to leave town for a while; Luke only has eyes for Ashley, but when his attempts to impress his babysitter by rescuing her from a gun toting home invader fail - a bit of staging involving his friend Garrett as the masked housebreaker - it all threatens to get difficult for the boys. But then the tables are turned.

Part of the twisted pleasure of watching Better Watch Out unfold is that it functions both in a rather meta way but also as an effective thriller in its own right. There's an amorality on display which clashes with the squeaky clean visuals and clean cut cast - very Wes Craven. There's also some clever genre nods (at one point one of the victims gets a paint bucket swung into his face, while another comments that he's been "Home Aloned" and indeed the movie plays like a more sinister version of Chris Columbus's 1990 film, which of course includes that very scene).

But there's something more than simple homage at work. Better Watch Out gradually transforms, after the first half hour of homely snow scenes (although it was actually filmed in Australia) and light comedy, into something increasingly and insidiously darker. While it's difficult to go into more specifics without spoiling the plot (and yes it is a film that you are best knowing nothing about before seeing it) the nastiness of later events is tempered by consistently good acting and a whip smart script; also having the violence occur mostly off screen (surely a nod to movies like Funny Games) makes it a more unsettling watch than I expected.

Levi Miller and Olivia de Jonge make a great cat and mouse pairing; Miller is creepy, chilling but not unlikeable, and de Jonge, with her unattainable girl next door beauty, transforms well into the film's 'final girl.' There are fine supports too from Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton as Luke's parents, and from Ed Oxenbould as the gullible Garrett.

For only a second movie, Chris Peckover's directing is assured and never misses a beat. This is a director to watch and one who has delivered a very cool addition to the Christmas fright flick canon. Go see.