Saturday, 16 December 2017

Needful Things

Year of Release:  1993
Director:  Fraser C. Heston
Screenplay:  W. D. Richter, based on the novel Needful Things by Stephen King
Starring:  Ed Harris, Max von Sydow, Bonnie Bedelia, J. T. Walsh, Amanda Plummer
Running Time:  120 minutes
Genre:  Horror

A mysterious stranger named Leland Gaunt (von Sydow) arrives in the small Maine town on Castle Rock, where he sets up a strange antiques/curiosity shop called Needful Things.  Gaunt appears to have an uncanny knack of finding the one thing that every customer most desires, and each is priced to just what the customer can easily afford, but there is a catch:  The cash price is only half of the payment, the rest comes in the form of a deed, usually a cruel prank played on someone else in town, and all designed to point to someone other than the prankster.  Before long, the nice little town becomes torn apart with suspicion, paranoia, hate and misplaced revenge. 

While this is far from the worst movie to be based on one of Stephen King's works, it's also far from the best.  Although it really does as well as it could do at compressing King's sprawling, episodic doorstop of a novel into a coherent film.  It's well cast with solid character actors, and the story is interesting.  The problem is that the film doesn't have much of a consistent tone, the mixture of supernatural horror, dark comedy and small town soap opera worked a lot better on the page, where there was more space to go into the characters and their relationships.  The performances are good, especially Max von Sydow as the devilish Leland Gaunt, and the story is interesting enough to carry it along, but it's neither scary or funny, and the climax is ridiculous.

Max von Sydow in Needful Things         

Saturday, 25 November 2017

"Strange Weather" by Joe Hill

Year of Publication:  2017
Number of Pages:  432
Genre:  Horror, fantasy, suspense

In the last ten years Joe Hill has established himself as one of the most original and striking writers working in the field of horror and fantasy.  This collects four short novels, written in longhand over a period of four years.  In "Snapshot", a boy and an elderly woman are stalked by a mysterious tattooed thug who owns a Polaroid camera which has the power to steal memories.  In "Loaded" a mall security guard is hailed as a hero for stopping a mass shooting, but a young journalist suspects there is more to the story than meets the eye, and as she investigates the guard begins to find it increasingly difficult to maintain control.  In "Aloft" a young musician attempts skydiving for the first time, only to find himself marooned on a bizarre floating island in the clouds.  An island that seems to have a strange life of it's own.  In the apocalyptic "Rain" a lethal rain of nails spreads across America and the world.

In the afterword to this book, Hill discusses the appeal of the short novel form (the longest story in the book is 140 pages, and the shortest is about 90 pages), describing them as combining the narrative drive of a short story, with the additional character depth of a novel, and tells us that the best are "All killer, no filler".  By and large he is right when it comes to the stories here.  The stories are full of tension and zip along at a good pace.  The characters are well drawn and believable.  Hill has always been very skilled at putting often quite surreal horror elements cheek by jowl with the mundane details of everyday life, making the horror seem almost more bizarre.  There is also a strong vein of humour and social satire here, with "Loaded", in particular, critiquing American gun culture.  "Snapshot" becomes a metaphor for ageing and resultant memory loss, which kind of gives the story a strange feel in it's final pages, and doesn't really fit with the fantasy elements.  However, this is a hugely entertaining , gruesome and funny collection.

       

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Dracula

Year of Release:  1931
Director:  Tod Browning and Karl Freund (uncredited)
Screenplay:  Garrett Fort, based on the stage play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker
Starring:  Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
Running Time:  75 minutes
Genre:  Horror

This is one of the most influential horror films ever made.  an English solicitor, Renfield (Frye) arrives in Transylvania to finalise the purchase of an old abbey by mysterious nobleman Count Dracula (Lugosi).  Renfield soon learns that Dracula is, in reality, a vampire.  Driven insane by his experiences and enslaved to Dracula, Renfield helps the Count travel to England.  Once in Britain, Dracula sets his sights on Mina (Chandler), the daughter of Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston) who runs the lunatic asylum next to his abbey.

There have been many screen adaptations of Dracula, and this is neither the first or the best of them, but it is still the most influential.  The film bears little resemblance to Bram Stoker's original novel of 1897, being largely based on a hugely successful 1924 stage adaptation which turned the novel into effectively a drawing room mystery.  The film has some extremely atmospheric scenes, particularly early on, capturing a real sense of decay and mystery.  As it comes along the film becomes increasingly flat, it's stage-bound origins very much in evidence.  A lot of the important sequences take place off-screen, including the film's climax, which is hugely disappointing.  There are also plot elements and characters that appear and are dropped without explanation, and it doesn't really flow.  However, Bela Lugosi is the definitive Dracula, even though he bears little resemblance to the character as described by Stoker he is still what comes to mind when you think of "Dracula", and to this day his portrayal is parodied, copied and referenced.  With his slow, fractured, heavily accented speech (Lugosi couldn't speak English at the time and learned his lines phonetically), along with his icy hypnotic stare, he has an otherworldly sense about him that dominates the screen.

This is not a good film, and it really hasn't aged well, but there are some great things in here and it is a key film in the canon of American film and the evolution of the horror film, which make it worth watching, and it is a must-see if only for Bela Lugosi's performance.

Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in Dracula
  

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Taika Waititi
Screenplay:  Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, based on the comic-book character Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum. Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy, science-fiction, action, adventure, superhero, comedy

Two years after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), the Asgardian Thunder God Thor (Hemsworth) is hunting, unsuccessfully, for the powerful Infinity Stones, but is tormented by dreams of Ragnarok, the end of Asgard.  Returning home to Asgard, he finds his trickster half-brother Loki (Hiddleston) in charge and his father, Odin (Hopkins), missing.  With Loki's aid, Thor manages to track Odin down to Earth, where he reveals that he is dying and that his death will allow his first-born child, the Death Goddess Hela (Blanchett), to escape her imprisonment and seize control of Asgard. 

This is the third Thor movie, and the seventeenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the shared universe centered on movies based on Marvel Comics characters.  This film is very light in tone, and often very funny, playing more as a comedy than a straightforward action adventure superhero film.  The cast all seem to be enjoying themselves, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are both very good comic actors and they bounce off each other very well, Cate Blanchett goes full on panto villain as the evil Hela, and Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the intergalactic warlord, who rules a planet where Thor and Loki find themselves trapped on.  To add to the fun, Mark Ruffalo reprises his rule as the Hulk , and Benedict Cumberbatch has a brief appearance as Doctor Strange.  The film manages to balance the humour with enough drama to give scenes some emotional heft if needed, and sometimes comedy makes drama all the more affecting. The film is definitely too long,and the humour doesn't always land, but this is still a fun and funny comedy adventure.

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok   

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Good Morning

Year of Release:  1959
Director:  Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay:  Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu
Starring:  Keiji Sada, Yoshiko Kuga, Chishu Ryu, Kuniko Miyake, Haruko Sugamura, Shitara Koji, Masahiko Shimazu
Running Time:  94 minutes
Genre:  Comedy, drama

Set in a Tokyo suburb, the film focuses on two young brothers: Minoru (Shitara Koji) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu), who are desperate for a TV set, but their parents refuse to buy one for them, partly because they are expensive, and partly because the boy's father (Ryu) believes that television turns people into idiots.  Angered by their parent's refusal, and sick of being told to keep quiet all the time when adults indulge in pointless small talk and conversational niceties that don't really mean anything (such as "Good morning", "How are you?", "Good evening" etc.), the boys resolve to stop talking altogether, a decision which causes tension and misunderstandings in their gossipy, close-knit neighborhood. 

This is a gentle, sweet-natured comedy from legendary film-maker Yasujiro Ozu, and is a loose remake of his own 1932 film I Was Born, But....  As always with Ozu, this is beautifully shot film, in vibrant Technicolor.  Every shot is perfectly composed and designed, largely filmed in low-angles with the action framed in doorways or corridors, and sometimes taking place in the distance.  It's also sedate, moving at a very slow pace, with very little actually happening.  However, it is funny and joyful, although it is hardly a laugh-riot.  It is also a deceptively simple film, it has weight, dealing with traditional Ozu themes such as the generation gap, and the changing of Japanese society.  It also pokes fun at small talk and everyday conversational pleasantries, while also acknowledging that they are kind of a necessity. 

Silence is golden for Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) and Minoru (Shitara Koji) in Good Morning

   

Friday, 17 November 2017

Justice League

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Zack Snyder
Screenplay:  Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, from a story by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon, based on the comic book series Justice League created by Gardner Fox
Starring:  Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons
Running Time:  120 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, fantasy, action,

While the world mourns the death of Superman, Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, (Affleck) becomes aware of strange, flying cybernetic alien creatures who are behind a string of abductions in Gotham City and Metropolis.  Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, (Gadot)  recognises them as Parademons, the army of the evil multi-dimensional entity Steppenwolf who wants to fid three powerful devices that will enable him to take over the world.  Recognising that Steppenwolf is far too powerful for them on their own, Bruce and Diana decide to recruit a team of superheroes:  Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman, (Momoa), from the undersea kingdom of Atlantis; Barry Allen, aka The Flash, (Miller), who suffered an accident that gave him the ability to move at superhuman speeds, and Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Fisher), who was cybernetically reconstructed with alien technology following a near-fatal accident.

This is the fifth film in the DC Extended Universe series, based on characters appearing in DC Comics.  Here they seem to be following the Marvel mold, with more humour than usual and also two post-credit sequences.  The DC movies tend to be criticised for being too dark, and while this is still pretty bleak, it is still much lighter than usual.  The first half of the film is putting the team together, and introducing the characters of The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman into the film universe, previously having only been seen in brief cameos in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), although of course The Flash is likely to be familiar to viewers through the TV series The Flash (2014- ).  The putting the team together scenes are too long, and Steppenwolf and his plan are all revealed too early and feel like kind of an afterthought and the action scenes don't have the sense of danger necessary to really be thrilling.  The performances are fine, Gal Gadot in particular is fantastic as Wonder Woman, and Ezra Miller is very funny as The Flash.  However, when the team are together and interacting and joking that is when the film really takes off.  The added warmth and humanity in the film is welcome, and point to a very promising future for the franchise.  A truly great movie is waiting to be made with these characters.  This isn't it, but gives cause for hope.

Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) are ready for action in  Justice League.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Strange Days

Year of Release:  1995
Director:  Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay:  James Cameron and Jay Cocks, from a story by James Cameron
Starring:  Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D'Onofrio, Michael Wincott
Running Time:  145 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, thriller

Set during the last two days of 1999, in a nightmarish Los Angeles on the verge of all-out war, the film tells the story of Lenny (Fiennes), an ex-cop turned black market distributor of illegal virtual reality recordings (known as "SQUIDS") which allow the user to relive the memories and experiences of the recorder.  When Lenny stumbles upon a recording of a murder, he and his friend Mace (Bassett) find themselves the targets of a high-level conspiracy.

Watched now, this film feels like a dry-run for Bigleow's Detroit (2017), dealing with similar themes of racial tension and police corruption albeit in a science-fiction setting.  The film is visually stylish, and Bigelow is an excellent action director ensuring that the set-pieces are well-staged, and she creates a real apocalyptic feel to the whole thing.  However the film feels stretched and strangely dated, inevitably due to the setting and the technology, and it never quite escapes it's mid 1990s roots, also Fiennes is too clean-cut for the scuzzy Lenny.  Angela Bassett is impressive, though, as the ass-kicking limo driver, Mace.        

To be fair, it's not really a bad film, and cyberpunk fans should enjoy it, but it's certainly not spectacular. 

Ralph Fiennes and Angel Bassett in Strange Days

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Freddy vs. Jason

Year of Release:  2003
Director:  Ronny Yu
Screenplay:  Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, based on characters created by Wes Craven and Victor Miller
Starring:  Monica Keener, Robert Englund, Ken Kirzinger, Jason Ritter, Chris Marquette, Kelly Rowland, Lochlyn Munro, Katharine Isabelle
Running Time:  93 minutes
Genre:  Horror, action, comedy

The spirit of child-killer Freddy Krueger (Englund) is trapped in Hell and can't get out.  The children of Springwood have forgotten about him, thereby denying him the ability to enter their dreams.  Krueger decides to recruit the aid of serial killer Jason Voorhees (Kirzinger).  Posing as Jason's beloved mother, Freddy convinces him to go to Springwood and start murdering the local teenagers, in the hope that the residents will start to remember, and fear, Freddy again, and thusly give him back his power.  The plan works perfectly, but now that Freddy doesn't need Jason anymore, he realises that he hadn't thought how to stop Jason.  Didn't think that one through, Freddy!  For his part, Jason is too busy enjoying his favourite pastime, and has no intention of returning to Hell.  Meanwhile, a rapidly diminishing group of teenagers have to work out how to survive and stop both of them.

Back in the 1980s, Freddy Krueger (of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films) and Jason Voorhees (of the Friday the 13th films) were the titans of screen horror, as the number of sequels in both franchises mounted up, alongside TV shows, video games, books, comics, and a deluge of other merchandising, fans were keen to see them both go head to head, and initial plans for Freddy vs. Jason were discussed as early as 1987.  However, at the time, the characters were owned by different studios, and they couldn't agree on a story, as well as the fact that both franchises started to decline in popularity.  The resulting film is fairly mediocre, with most of the best scenes being before the titular showdown.  The problem is that neither of the characters can really be hurt.  They stab, slash, punch, burn, kick and drown each other, as well as being thrown around like ragdolls, without apparently being hurt much at all, for what feels at times like an eternity.  Also it's kind of hard to care.  Robert Englund, as ever, seems to have a great time as Freddy Krueger, and adds some much needed vest to the proceedings.  Ken Kirzinger as Jason (taking over from Kane Hodder the actor most identified in the role) has little to do but shamble around.  The teen characters (which include Monica Keener from Dawson's Creek, singer Kelly Rowland from Destiny's Child, and Katharine Isabelle from Ginger Snaps (2001)) are given some attempts at backstory early on, but by the second half of the film are little more than spectators.  The performances range from passable to abysmal.
This is really aimed at fans of the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street films, and they probably will enjoy it.  Newcomers, however, are likely to be completely lost. To be fair, it has a few cool scenes and special effects, and some of the jokes are quite funny, if you are in the right frame of mind for it, you can have fun with this one.  It's a bad movie, but is kind of fun in a bad "B" movie way.

Jason (Ken Kirzinger) and Freddy (Robert Englund) are badly in need of a good plumber in Freddy vs. Jason.               

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Happy Death Day

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Christopher B. Landon
Screenplay:  Scott Lobdell
Starring:  Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine
Running Time:  107 minutes
Genre:  Horror, comedy, slasher

Obnoxious college student Tree (Rothe) wakes up on the morning of her birthday in a stranger's dorm room.  She goes through the rest of a pretty miserable day, being as horrible as possible to everyone around her.  Until the evening when she is murdered by a masked killer.  However, Tree wakes up in the stranger's dorm room, and soon realises that she is being forced to relive the day of her murder, over and over again, until she can stop the killer, and survive the day.  And you thought your birthdays were bad!

The obvious comparisons to make are with the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day (which has the same concept of a person being forced to relive the same day over and over again - and which is namechecked in the film) and with the 1996 film Scream (with which it shares a similar sense of humour).  The film starts slowly and it takes some time to really get into it, but once it gets there it is funny and exciting.  Jessica Rothe gives a fantastic performance in a difficult central role.  She plays a very unlikeable character, but gives her enough depth, so that the audience goes along with her through her journey. There are elements in the film which are introduced but not really followed through on, such as her relationship with her father and what happened to her mother.  Some horror fans may be disappointed because it is neither particularly scary or particularly gruesome, but there are plenty of shocks and an intriguing mystery.  The film does a good job of building and maintaining the mystery, and the scenes were Tree conducts her investigations are very funny.  The killer's creepy baby mask is memorable, and it's a good film for people who may enjoy the odd scary movie, but are not big horror fans.       

Look behind you:  Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day

Thursday, 26 October 2017

"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

Year of Publication:  2014
Number of Pages:  864
Genre:  Literary fiction

In New York City, thirteen year old Theo Decker, cared for by his devoted single mother, visits an art museum with his mother, when they are caught up in a terrorist attack on the museum.  Theo's mother is killed in the attack, but Theo is physically unhurt.  Naturally however he is deeply traumatised by the experience and, almost without realising it, leaves with the famous 1654 painting The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius.  The novel follows Theo throughout the next fourteen difficult years of his life.  As he moves back and forth from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, the painting remains a constant in his life, his one connection to his beloved mother, it becomes his touchstone, his obsession, his salvation and possibly his nemesis.

This is the third novel by acclaimed American novelist Donna Tartt, who made a huge splash with her debut book The Secret History in 1992.  It is written in beautiful descriptive prose, and is an intriguing coming of age story, which also blends in elements of a thriller, as well as an examination of the healing and redemptive power of art.  However, as you would expect from a book of this length, it doesn't all work.  The plot hinges on a number of quite fantastic coincidences, and some elements of the book don't seem to fit in with the rest of the novel at all.  However, despite this it is a fine, important novel.      


Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Vivre sa vie

Year of Release:  1962
Director:  Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay:  Jean-Luc Godard and Marcel Sacotte
Starring:  Anna Karina, Sady Rebbot, Andre S. Labarthe, Guylaine Schlumberger, Gerard Hoffman
Running Time:  83 minutes
Genre:  Drama

This French film tells the story of Nana (Karina), a young Parisian woman, dreams of becoming an actress, but is stuck working as a sales assistant in a record store.  Struggling financially, she decides to start working as a prostitute.

Released as My Life to Live in North America and It's My Life in Britain, this is one of the greatest and most accessible works of prolific director Jean-Luc Godard, one of the founding members of the French New Wave.  The film is constructed as twelve very short episodes in Nana's life (each preceded by a title card).  It uses point of view shots, captions, experiments with sound and narration, and a semi-documentary feel.  The depiction of sex work is not glamorised or celebrated, but neither is it explicitly judged.  Despite some very bleak subject matter the film is lively, and always exciting.  There can be seen to be some criticism of the consumerism of 1960s Paris, where everything can be bought and sold, including human beings.  However, the film really works due to the luminous performance of Anna Karina, who was married to Godard at the time.  Appearing in nearly every scene of the film, frequently staring directly at the camera, she gives a startling performance that you will remember for a very long time.   

Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Everybody Wants Some!!

Year of Release:  2016
Director:  Richard Linklater
Screenplay:  Richard Linklater
Starring:  Blake Jenner, Zoey Deutch, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Glen Powell, Wyatt Russell
Running Time:  116 minutes
Genre:  Comedy, drama

The film is set in September, 1980, at a Texas university and is set over the three days before class starts.  Freshman Jake (Jenner) arrives on a baseball scholarship and movers into the house that he will be sharing with other members of the baseball team.  Over the course of the resulting few days, they banter, bond, insult each other, play pranks, party, get stoned, get drunk and try to pick up girls.

Richard Linklater is a talented and prolific filmmaker who successfully moves between experimental films such as Waking Life (2001) and mainstream studio fare such as School of Rock (2003).  However, he is possibly best identified with meandering, dialogue-driven films such as Before Sunrise (1995) and the award-winning Boyhood (2014).  Everybody Wants Some!! can be seen as a follow up to his 1993 film Dazed and Confused, which is set over the last day of high school in 1976, and the two have a very similar feel.  Linklater has also said that he considers it a "spiritual sequel" to Boyhood, with Everybody Wants Some!! picking up from where Boyhood ends.  Nothing much really happens in this film, and there isn't really any story, it's guys partying and having a great time.  There is a strong nostalgic feel to it.  Linklater wrote the script based on his own experiences of playing baseball in college, and the film unambiguously celebrates these jock frat boys and there are no real consequences to any of their actions, and they are depicted throughout as loveable japesters.
It is worth pointing out the film's depiction of female characters.  There is only one prominent female character and she doesn't really appear much until towards the end, and women are depicted mainly as love interests, or for the guys to hit on, and it has to be said that some of the guys don't really have great attitudes towards women, to put it mildly. 
It is maybe not one of Linklater's best, but it is a funny, warm and amiable film, with a great soundtrack, full of classic rock.


Blake Jenner, Tyler Hoechlin and Ryan Guzman in Everybody Wants Some!!

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Ritual

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  David Bruckner
Screenplay:  Joe Barton, based on the novel The Ritual by Adam Nevill
Starring:  Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton
Running Time:  94 minutes
Genre:  Horror

Five middle-aged friends, Luke (Spall), Hutch (James-Collier), Phil (Ali), Dom (Troughton) and Rob (Paul Reid), meet up in a London pub to plan a guy's holiday.  Immediately afterwards Rob is killed in a liquor store robbery.  Six months later, the other four friends are on a hiking holiday in Sweden, partly as a tribute to Rob.  However, the group are unprepared and inexperienced with wilderness survival.  As tempers fray, the weather takes a turn for the worse and one of the group suffers a twisted ankle.  The guys decide that, instead of continuing with their planned two day hike, they will take a shortcut through a thick, dark forest.  Now, anyone who has ever seen a horror film knows that this is a big mistake.  The men soon realise their mistake when they get hopelessly lost and discover a freshly killed animal carcass suspended in the trees, and strange runic markings carved into the tree trunks.  Spending the night in a run-down cabin in the forest makes the bad situation a whole lot worse.

Based on a successful novel from British horror author Adam Nevill, this film never really works, mainly because the four central characters are all pretty unlikeable.  There isn't much backstory given to them, and they spend most of their time bickering and trading apparently jokey insults at each other, but it is hard to see how they became friends in the first place, because most of the time they don't even seem to like each other.  It does have something to say about how men find it so difficult to open up about their problems and anxieties even among their closest friends, and also how male friendship often works, with an apparent superficial, light and sometimes almost cruel surface, but with a lot of deeper undercurrents hidden beneath it all.  It also deals with the very real but inevitable horror of simply getting older.  It's worth pointing out that this is almost an entirely male film, the only women on screen appear very briefly towards the end.  After a brutal pre-credits robbery sequence, the film moves into a quieter tone of a Blair Witch-style lost in the woods film, until kicking into high gear for the climax.  The thing that stalks the group is mostly hidden, you hear it's roars and see the trees shaking, alongside the occasional dismembered corpses of it's victims strung up in the trees, with occasional half-seen glimpses of a large creature, until it's revealed in all it's CGI glory towards the end.  The climax feels kind of rushed.  It's not a very scary film, and it is kind of frustrating because despite some good sequences and ideas, the whole just didn't really work for me, and it felt like it should have been so much better.

From left to right:  Robert James-Collier, Rafe Spall, Asher Ali and Sam Troughton             

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

"Sleeping Beauties" by Stephen King and Owen King

Year of Publication:  2017
Number of Pages:  715
Genre:  Horror, fantasy

One day all the women in the world start to fall asleep as normal, but they do not wake up.  Instead, as soon as they fall asleep they grow a web-like cocoon , and react with mindless, murderous violence if the webbing is cut or broken.  In the small town of Dooling, West Virginia, a strange woman appears who has superhuman powers of strength and healing, has knowledge about people that she could not possibly possess and, most of all, can sleep and wake as normal.  As a rapidly decreasing number of women stay awake to combat "Aurora" (as the mysterious syndrome is called), men face up to a world without women.  Meanwhile, the women wake up to a strange world, entirely without men.  Can the women find their way back?  More to the point, do they want to?

This is a pretty gripping novel, it focuses mainly on the small town of Dooling, and the women's prison in the town.  It comes from a simple, but quite fascinating premise:  How would men be in a  world without women?  And what would a world without men be like?  It's a timely novel, which does not shy away from contemporary resonance (some books wear there politics on their sleeves, this one pretty much has it on the front of it's tee-shirt).  However while it is thought-provoking, it also succeeds in being fun.  despite it's length it keeps you reading.  It's dark, funny and suspenseful with a range of interesting and mostly likeable, although there are a fair few straight-forward villains.  Of course, Stephen King is the most popular writer of our time, and here he teams up with his son, Owen, although the novel's voice is pretty consistent, and reads throughout like a Stephen King novel - however I have never read any of Owen King's other works, and so I do not know what his style is.  Some of the storylines in the book are unsatisfying, and there are a few plotlines that seem to be building up early and are then abandoned.  However, this is a good book and well worth your time.


Sunday, 8 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay:  Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, from a story by Hampton Fancher, based on characters from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Starring:  Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto
Running Time:  163 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction

This is the long-awaited sequel to Blade Runner (1982), one of the most influential science-fiction movies of all time.  The film is set in 2049, where a series of environmental disasters have made the use of biologically engineered artificial humans known as "replicants" a necessity for humanity's survival.  However some of the older model replicants have not integrated and they are hunted down and executed (or "retired") by police "Blade Runner" units.  The film focuses on K. (Gosling), a Blade Runner, and I won't say anything else because it would be something of a spoiler.

This is possibly one of the most visually stunning films that I have ever seen.  It is absolutely beautiful, moving from neon-drenched cityscapes to desolate, grey wasteland, to burnished orange deserts, all swathed in mist, dust, rain and snow.  However, as with the original film, this is a demanding watch, because it is very slow, and long.  It moves at it's own rhythm, and if you can go along with that and surrender yourself to it's spell then it really works.  As with the original the characters tend to get washed out in the visuals.  Ryan Gosling plays his lead role in a similar manner to his role in Drive (2011), Ana de Armas gives the film some much needed heart as Gosling's hologram girlfriend, and it is worth pointing out that, while Harrison Ford does reprise his role from the first film, he does not appear until very late in this film and has little more than an extended cameo.  In fact, Harrison Ford's appearance is something of a spoiler, but he is featured very heavily on the poster and all the publicity for the film.
In many ways, I prefer this to the original, the storyline is intriguing, with an interesting central mystery, and it still tackles the Big Issues about the nature of humanity.  While the length and pace might put off some viewers, I think that this film will find it's audience sooner or later, and there are images and scenes that I think will become iconic in the future.   
See this film, and see it on the biggest screen possible. This is dark, beautiful and intelligent science-fiction.


Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049       

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Simon Curtis
Screenplay:  Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan
Starring:  Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Running Time:  107 minutes
Genre:  Period drama, biopic

Playwright AA Milne (Gleeson), traumatised by his experiences in the First World War, has difficulty relating to his socialite wife Daphne (Robbie) and his young son Christopher Robin (Tilston as a child, Lawther as an adult).  He also has trouble restarting his writing career.  Moving to a rural area in southern England with his family and Christopher Robin's nanny (Macdonald).  Milne becomes inspired by his son playing with his stuffed toys and starts writing the "Winnie-the Pooh" stories.  However the success of the books comes at terrible personal costs for Milne and Christopher Robin.

This film about the creation of the beloved "Winnie-the-Pooh" stories is not such a sickly-sweet confection as it might have been, and as it might look from some of the advertising.  This is actually quite dark, AA Milne suffers from severe post traumatic stress disorder, he and his wife cannot really relate to Christopher Robin (it's hinted that Daphne didn't really want a child, but thought that a baby might cheer up her husband) and it is really his nanny that raises the child (although I think, at the time, that was fairly standard for families of the Milne's wealth and social status).  Most of all, Christopher Robin really suffers from the immense fame that the huge success of the "Winnie-the Pooh" stories conferred upon him.  However, this is a very beautiful film, full of summer meadows and dappled sunlight shining through trees, and does manage to capture some of the magic of Milne's work.  The performances are good from all concerned, with Will Tilston in particular affecting as the young Christopher Robin.  In the end, the film becomes incredibly moving.


Domhnall Gleeson and Will Tilston in Goodbye Christopher Robin     

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Flatliners

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Niels Arden Oplev
Screenplay:  Ben Ripley, based on Flatliners written by Peter Filardi
Starring:  Ellen Page, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton, Kiersey Clemons, Kiefer Sutherland
Running Time:  110 minutes
Genre:  Horror

Medical student Courtney Holmes (Page) convinces her reluctant friends to take part in an experiment during which she will be clinically dead before they resuscitate her, so that she can learn first hand what happens after death.  After the experiment Courtney finds herself with a new lease on life and astonishing powers of memory.  After seeing the effects, Courtney's friends all want to undergo the experience.  However, it soon turns out that flatlining has some much darker side effects, as the students begin to be haunted by bizarre and disturbing visions.

Although referred to as a sequel to the 1990 film Flatliners, this 2017 film is really a remake.  Keifer Sutherland, who starred in the original, does appear in this, although as a different character.  This is a fun film, with a good cast.  Despite being a horror film, it's really not scary at all, and suffers from being too long.  The characters aren't particularly explored and are more or less cliched.  It also suffers from having too pat a conclusion.  There is plenty of humour, the characters manage to rise above the material, and it is exciting, and the flatlining sequences are well executed.
I can't really say how fans of the original Flatliners will take to the remake, because I've not seen the original in years, and can't remember much about it. 

Ellen Page in Flatliners

Friday, 29 September 2017

"The City & The City" by China Mieville

Year of Publication: 2009
Number of Pages: 373
Genre: Fantasy, crime, detective

The city is Beszel and the city is Ul Qoma, two cities in two different countries, but each occupying the same geographic space. The cities are built in and around each other, however anyone in one city (resident or visitor) is forbidden to take any notice of anyone or anything in the other city. Any failure to do so incurs the wrath of the mysterious and all-powerful "Breach". When the body of a murdered student is found in Beszel, it seems like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad, but the investigation proves more complex and dangerous than Borlu could have imagined, leading him from one city to another and to the even more mysterious places in between.

This 2009 novel from British author China Mieville works as a complex and intriguing fantasy tale in a well-realised world, the rules by which the two cities exist together and function are well worked out and believable, but this also works as an exciting detective novel, and it delivers anything you might want from a crime novel. A gruesome murder, investigation, no shortage of suspects, action, chases, and a likeable and troubled protagonist. It also makes a point about how people deliberately ignore the more troubling aspects of where they live.



Sunday, 24 September 2017

Desperado

Year of Release:  1995
Director:  Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay:  Robert Rodriguez
Starring:  Antonio Banderas, Joaquim de Almeida, Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, Quentin Tarantino
Running Time:  105 minutes
Genre:  Action

This film is a sequel to Robert Rodriguez ultra-low-budget debut El Mariachi (1992), but is also kind of a remake with a much bigger budget, because, although it follows directly on from El Mariachi, and events from that film are referenced, it follows the plot of the first very closely, and several set-pieces form the original are recreated on a much grander scale.  The unnamed Mariachi (Bandreas, replacing Carlos Gallardo from the first film) is seeking revenge on crime boss, Bucho (de Almeida), for the death of his one true love.  With the help of his American pal (Buscemi), the Mariachi wanders from town to town with a guitar case full of guns pursuing Bucho.

Full of stylish action and violence, which is graphic enough to be appealing to action fans, but not too graphic to be too disturbing.  Antonio Banderas makes for a great action hero, and Salma Hayek, who made her breakthrough performance with this film, is good as the bookstore owner who helps the Mariachi.  There is also a fun cameo from Quentin Tarantino.  This is the kind of movie that is just a fun action packed romp.        


Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas in Desperado

El Mariachi

Year of Release:  1992
Director:  Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay:  Robert Rodriguez
Starring:  Carlos Gallardo, Consuelo Gomez, Peter Marquardt, Reinol Martinez
Running Time:  82 minutes
Genre:  Action  

This 1992 movie is the debut film from writer/director Robert Rodriguez.  An unnamed musician (Gallardo) travels from town to town with his guitar to pursue his dream of becoming a mariachi like his father and grandfather.  Arriving in a small town, the Mariachi is mistaken for a criminal, Azul (Martinez), who has broken out of jail and is being hunted by the local crime boss, Moco (Marquardt).  Like the Mariachi, Azul dresses in black and carries a guitar case, only Azul's is full of guns.

Reputedly produced for a budget of only $7000, which Rodriguez raised mainly by taking part in medical tests, this is funnier and more exciting than many bigger and more expensive action films.  Carlos Gallardo is winning as the Mariachi, and Consuelo Gomez is affecting as the bar owner who he falls in love with.  Some of the acting can be politely described as  overly enthusiastic, the low budget is obvious in many scenes, and also there are several scenes that seem to be there just to pad out the run time, but by and large this is a fun, stylish movie, with well choreographed action.  It was followed by two sequels:  Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003).      

By the way, Robert Rodriguez's book on the making of the film, Rebel Without a Crew (1995), is worth tracking down for anyone interested in low-budget film-making.

Carlos Gallardo is El Mariachi

Performance

Year of Release:  1970
Director:  Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay:  Donald Cammell
Starring: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton
Running Time:  105 minutes
Genre:  Crime, drama, fantasy   

This film was produced in 1968 but not released until 1970.  In London, Chas Devlin (Fox) is a brutal gangland enforcer, who genuinely enjoys his work.  When he disobeys direct orders from his boss and kills a rival for personal, rather than business reasons, Devlin becomes targeted by his own gang.  He decides to hide out in the vast mansion of reclusive rock star, Turner (Jagger), who lives with Pherber (Pallenberg) and Lucy (Breton).  In Turner's surreal, erotic, decadent world of drugs, sex and mysticism, Devlin finds the boundaries of reality and fantasy collapsing.

This is a film that, if you see it once, you will never forget it.  It's very much a film of two halves.  The first half is, in terms of plot, a great if conventional gangster film (in terms of style and technique it is a million miles away from an ordinary gangster film), and in the second it becomes a surreal fantasy of sex, drugs and identity.  It utilises a fragmented, stream of conscience style, using almost every cinematic trick in the book.  James Fox is perfect as Chas Devlin, someone who is, in British criminal slang, a "performer" (a gangster with a special talent for violence and intimidation), he frequently tells people "I know who I am", he lives in a pristine apartment, and is always immaculately groomed and dressed in sharp suits, and is always in control.  Mick Jagger's Turner is another type of performer, a rock star who has retired because, as he says "I lost my demon".  Devlin, a man who needs to be in control, suddenly finds himself, in Turner's house, in a situation where he has no control, where all the old rules just don't apply.  Very much a product of it's time, and full of references to Jorge Luis Borges and William Burroughs, this is still genuinely shocking and disturbing.

Mick Jagger in Performance

White Heat

Year of Release:  1949
Director:  Raoul Walsh
Screenplay:  Ivan Goff and Ben Robert, based on the story White Heat by Virginia Kellogg
Starring:  James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochrane,
Running Time:  113 minutes
Genre:  Crime, thriller, film noir  

This is one of the quintessential Hollywood gangster movies.  Tracing the violent life of psychotic robber Cody Jarrett (Cagney) who despite being married to Verna (Mayo),  has a deeply unhealthy bond with his equally ruthless mother (Wycherly) who is the only person that he seems to have any real feelings for.

This is an exciting, influential film and is widely regarded as one of the best films ever made.  It has aged well, and the almost documentary style film-making is still in evidence today.  The ending of the film has become one of the iconic scenes in movie history, and the prison cafeteria sequence is startling.  James Cagney turns in a gripping performance as the savage, but strangely sympathetic Jarrett, and Virginia Mayo is impressive as Verna, who Jarrett cruelly ignores, but has her own capacity for extreme ruthlessness.   Edmond O'Brien makes less of an impression, however, as the square-jawed hero.  This is a must see for thriller fans.

James Cagney in White Heat

Saturday, 23 September 2017

"I Am Behind You" by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Year of Publication:  2014
Number of Pages:  405
Genre:  Horror

This horror novel is the sixth book from Swedish stand-up comedian turned author John Ajvide Lindqvist to be translated into English.  Four families on caravan holidays wake up one morning to find the rest of their campsite has vanished. In fact everything has vanished, they are totally alone in the middle of a seemingly endless blank, flat field, where, despite clear bright blue summer skies, there is no sun, and the grass is the exact same height.  Where are they?  How did they get there? Why are they there? and, more importantly, how can they get back?  Running low on food and supplies, their situation is desperate, but there is something else out there.  Something that knows their worst mistakes and deepest desires, and will confront them with their darkest dreams and worst fears, and something even worse.

Lindqvist is still probably best known for his debut novel, Let the Right One In (2004) which was  adapted as an acclaimed Swedish film in 2008 and a successful US remake, Let Me In (2010).  With Let the Right One In and his subsequent books, there can be little doubt that John Ajvide Lindqvist is one of the most interesting modern writers working in horror.  The characters in this book start off wondering where they are and how they got there, and are little the wiser by the end of it.  For every question that is answered, another is posed, and it really seems to just stop dead.  However, this is the first volume in a planned trilogy, so presumably we'll find out what happens later.  The ending, though is a fairly minor issue when this is such a chilling, gripping novel and genuinely disturbing.  It's full of dark humour and often graphic gore.  The frequently surreal happenings in the book work because the  characters are interesting and well-drawn, with their past lives depicted in flashback.  Lindqvist is frequently compared to Stephen King, and this has a lot of King-like elements to it, with the disparate collection of ordinary people having to band together against horrific adversaries, although it's more like if Stephen King had ever collaborated with Ingmar Bergman, because it has a very strong philosophical element to it.  Lindqvist his a particular gift for writing about children and one of the child characters, six year old Molly is one of the most terrifying characters you're likely to read about this year.  This is definitely recommended.


Monday, 18 September 2017

"A Legacy of Spies" by John le Carre

Year of Publication:  2017
Number of Pages:  264
Genre:  Thriller, espionage

Moving between past and present, the novel follows Peter Guillam, retired British spy and former right-hand man of legendary spymaster George Smiley, living peacefully on his family farm in Brittany, until he is summoned back to London by the Secret Service who are investigating an operation Guillam was involved in over fifty years ago.  Forced to rake over his murky past in Cold War espionage, Guillam is forced to reckon with the consequences of a life of personal and professional betrayal.

This fine novel returns to the world of Cold War spying that made John le Carre's name and features the return of his best-loved character, tubby, bespectacled, soft-spoken, but ruthless spymaster George Smiley.  The novel is a kind of follow-up to le Carre's 1962 breakthrough novel The Spy Who came in From the Cold, and also calls back to his other best known book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1973).  Written in spare terse prose, this is nevertheless complex and emotionally devastating.  As with many le Carre novels, this deals with the psychology of a spy, and the moral and psychological consequences of that lifestyle.  This is John le Carre at his best.   


Saturday, 16 September 2017

Mother!

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay:  Darren Aronofsky
Starring:  Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Running Time:  121 minutes
Genre:  Horror, drama,

A young woman (Lawrence), referred to as "Mother" in the credits, although nine of the characters are named in the film, is married to a successful poet (Bardem), who is suffering from writer's block.  They live together in a rambling country house which she is renovating after a severe fire.  One night a strange couple (Harris and Pfeiffer) arrive and insinuate themselves into the lives of the homeowners.  It then gets progressively darker and weirder as more and more people invade the couple's home.

This film from writer/director Darren Aronofsky is frankly bizarre.  It's full of striking, memorable images and sequences, and Jennifer Lawrence gives a fantastic, tortured performance.  Some of it though is frankly tedious, and almost the whole thing makes very little sense.  It's probably best to see the film as an allegory, not to be taken literally, and there is likely to be a lot of discussion about what it actually means.  My take on it is that Jennifer Lawrence just wants to be left in piece with her family, but it's impossible to escape from the demands and intrusion of the world outside.  It's worth watching for it's sheer ambition.  You'll likely not see much like this, certainly not from a mainstream Hollywood release.  Personally I didn't enjoy the film, but I'm glad that I saw it, and I*'m still trying to decode what the hell it's all about.

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!

Friday, 15 September 2017

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Year of Release:  1984
Director:  Wes Craven
Screenplay:  Wes Craven
Starring:  Heather Langenkemp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund
Running Time:  90 minutes
Genre:  Horror

 A group of teenage friends in a small American town find themselves pursued in their dreams by a horrifically burned figure armed with a glove which has razor-sharp blades attached to the fingers.  If they are killed in their dreams, they die in reality too.  As the friends are killed off one by one, the survivors have to stay awake long enough to figure out a way to fight their dreams.

This film is one of the most influential horror films of the 1980s and possibly one of the most influential horror movies of all time, introducing the iconic movie villain Freddy Krueger (played by Robert Englund), and spawning six direct sequels, a TV series (Freddy's Nightmares (1988-1990)), a crossover with the Friday the 13th franchise (Freddy vs. Jason (2003)) and a remake in 2010.  By and large the film sticks to the well-established slasher movie formula, but given a supernatural twist.  The death scenes are, by and large, imaginative and well-staged.  Another reason why the film works so well is the simple fact that everyone sleeps and dreams, and our dreams are always beyond our control, and it plays with the idea that is we are harmed in a dream we could be harmed in real-life as well (the idea that dying in a dream equals dying in real life is a very old one, and it used to be believed that this is why we wake up at the very last minute, a kind of psychological escape hatch so we don't snuff it in our sleep because we happened to have a midnight snack).  Writer-director Wes Craven was inspired by a series of disturbing real-lifer incidents from the 1970s where refugees from Southeast Asia refused to sleep after suffering terrifying nightmares, some of them subsequently died in their sleep.
The film creates a believably cluttered suburban setting, and is elevated by Craven's obvious affection for his teenage characters, who are played by a talented cast headed by Heather Langenkemp who gives a great performance mixing vulnerability and strength as the strong-minded Nancy, and a very young Johnny Depp as her boyfriend Glen.  Of course, the standout performance is Freddy Krueger who, coupled with his memorable appearance, gives Freddy a gleefully cruel wit, before the character became a pop culture joke.
This is one of the purely fun horror movies.  Full of shocks and scares and a few jokes, and nasty enough to raise a gasp, but not nasty enough to be too disturbing for non-horror fans.

Heather Langenkemp and Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street           

Saturday, 9 September 2017

It

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Andy Muschietti
Screenplay:  Chase Palmer, Carey Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman; based on the novel It by Stephen King
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Bill Skarsgard
Running Time:  135 minutes
Genre:  Horror

This is an adaptation of the 1986 novel by Stephen King.  Set in 1989 (as opposed to the novel's 1958 setting) in the small town of Derry, Maine, which has been terrorised by a spate of mysterious disappearances of children.  Seven young outcasts, who call themselves "The Loser's Club" decide to put a stop to it:  Bill Denbrough (Lieberher) has a bad stutter and his younger brother, Georgie, is among the missing; Ben Hanscom (Taylor) is picked on because he is overweight; Beverley Marsh (Lillis) is abused by her father and is the subject of cruel rumours; Richie Tozier (Wolfhard) is the group clown, often getting in trouble due to his loud mouth and foul language; Stan Uris (Oleff) is picked on because he is Jewish; Mike Hanlon (Jacobs) is subjected to racist bullying; and Eddie Kaspbrak (Grazer) has become a hypochondriac due to his over-protective mother.  They discover that the culprit is Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Skarsgard), who is in reality an evil, shapeshifting entity which feeds on fear, particularly children's fear.

Previously adapted as a two part TV miniseries in 1990 which was re-edited into a feature film; It is one of Stephen King's best known books.  The film lacks the richness of the book, but is an effective horror film, although, like many horror films, it relies too much on sudden jump scares and CGI trickery, and  there is less of the idea that was depicted so well in the book, of It mining the deepest subconscious fears of it's victims.  It is well acted, and the film really shines in  the quieter character moments.

Clowing around:  Bill Skarsgard is It

Thursday, 7 September 2017

"The Girl with All the Gifts" by M. R. Carey

Year of Publication:  2014
Number of Pages:  460
Genre:  Horror, science-fiction, thriller  


This 2014 novel from writer M. R. Carey (the pen-name of British writer Mike Carey, whose probably best known as a comics writer probably best known for his runs on X-MenJohn Constantine: HellblazerLucifer and his own series The Unwritten), is a striking post-apocalyptic science-fiction / horror tale.  Set in a near future Britain, ten year old Melanie is a bright, intelligent, friendly girl who loves school, particularly her favourite teacher Miss Justineau.  She lives in a cell on a military base.  Every day soldiers strap her to a wheelchair at gunpoint, muzzle her and take her to her classes with the other children on the base, similarly strapped and muzzled.  Occasionally there are new faces.  More often children disappear and are never seen again.  Outside the  world is gone, most of the population has become infected by a fungus that turns humans into cannibalistic zombies known as "Hungries".

This a deeply affecting, exciting, thrilling, and occasionally surprisingly tender story.  The plot moves along at a brisk pace, with interesting and engaging characters.  The are some plot contrivances, with characters often being rescued from certain death at the very last moment, and it's full of stuff that you will probably have seen before in many other zombie apocalypse stories (of which there have been a lot!).


Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Limehouse Golem

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Juan Carlos Medina
Screenplay:  Jane Goldman, based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd
Starring:  Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, Maria Valverde, Henry Goodman, Morgan Watkins, Eddie Marsan
Running Time:  105 minutes
Genre:  Horror, crime, period drama, mystery, thriller

Limehouse is one of the poorest and roughest areas of Victorian London where every kind of crime, degradation and vice is rampant, and now it is targeted by a brutal serial killer, the so-called "Limehouse Golem" which strikes seemingly at random, targeting the young, the old, men and women.  World weary Police Inspector John Kildare (Nighy), who has been passed over for promotion due to rumours about his private life, is put in charge of the case and during the investigation finds himself drawn to troubled music hall actress Elizabeth Cree (Cooke), who is on trial for the poisoning of her husband, one of several suspects in the Golem case.

This is a lurid, full-blooded Victorian melodrama, rich with atmosphere and period detail.  It's full of gore and horror, but also works as an intriguing mystery.  The film uses historical figures as characters, such as Karl Marx (Goodman), novelist George Gissing (Watkins) and comedian Dan Leno (Booth).  Bill Nighy is great as the sensitive, troubled police inspector and the connection he forms with  Elizabeth is genuinely touching.  The film explores themes of social inequality and the pursuit of fame.

Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke in The Limehouse Golem

Thursday, 31 August 2017

"Moon Palace" by Paul Auster

Year of Publication:  1989
Number of Pages:  298
Genre:  Literary fiction

This novel by American novelist Paul Auster opens in 1969 and follows recent graduate Marco Stanley Fogg in a quest for family and identity which takes him from New York City to the desolate beauty of American West.  Along the way he encounters various characters who all have their stories to tell.

The book deals with familiar Paul Auster themes such as the relationship between life and art, the role that chance plays in life and unreliable narrators.  It's a novel about exploration in both the literal, external sense of going out into the world, but also in the internal, spiritual sense.  It's a coming of age story spanning three generations, and ultimately it's a story of America itself.  It is beautifully written and full of memorable characters.



Saturday, 26 August 2017

"Oracle Night" by Paul Auster

Year of Publication:  2004
Number of Pages:  207
Genre:  Literary fiction

This novel is set over nine days in 1982.  New York author Sidney Orr is recovering from a serious illness, and has not written anything new in a long time.  Passing by a stationery shop, Orr stops and buys a blue notebook.  The notebook seems to unlock something inside Orr and he begins writing again.  However, while he is once more exploring his creativity, Orr's world is rocked by a string of life-changing events, some of which seem to be connected to the stories he is working on.

This short novel is beautifully written, moving between Orr's work and his "real" life.  It explores the links between life and art and how art and creativity can impact on the real world.  Orr is an interesting, if often unlikeable main character, and is surrounded by several other memorable characters.  It's definitely recommended, particularly to writers.    


Show Pieces

Year of Release:  2014
Director:  Mitch Jenkins
Screenplay:  Alan Moore
Starring:  Darrell D'Silva, Siobhan Hewlett, Khandie Khisses, Boykitten, Alan Moore
Running Time:  77 minutes
Genre:  Horror 

Alan Moore is possibly one of the most important and influential figures in the entire history of comics, the creator/writer of Watchmen (1986), V for Vendetta (1988-89), From Hell (1989-1996) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen  (1999 - current) and the writer of one of the most influential and controversial Batman stories of all time, "The Killing Joke" (1988) among many others.  A lot of his work has been adapted to film, with varying degrees of success.  However Moore himself has been famously against any of the film adaptations, to the extent of refusing payment and taking his name off the credits.  However here is something that he has written specifically for the screen.  Show Pieces is actually five short films, three of which have been collected into a linked anthology.

In "Act of Faith", a young newspaper journalist (Hewlett) makes a rash decision with deadly consequences, in "Jimmy's End" a heavy drinking womaniser (D'Silva) enters a bizarre and sinister working men's club, and in "His Heavy Heart" a man is forced into a nightmarish version of Ancient Egyptian funerary rites.

Directed by Mitch Jenkins, the film is visually very striking, with a powerfully oppressive, bleak atmosphere, and a minimum of graphic gore.  More atmospheric and disturbing than actively scary, it has a strong thread of dark humour. 


Saturday, 22 July 2017

Dunkirk

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Christopher Nolan
Screenplay:  Christopher Nolan
Starring:  Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Running Time:  106 minutes
Genre:  War

This Second World War film deals with the Dunkirk evacuation where 400,000 Allied soldiers were rescued from the beaches of France in 1940.  It deals with three narratives set over three different time frames.  British soldier, Tommy (Whitehead) is one of those waiting for rescue, constantly under threat from bombs and torpedoes. Civilian sailor Dawson( Rylance), his son and employee make the dangerous crossing across the English channel to help with the evacuation.  Two Spitfire pilots try to fend off enemy bombers.

This is a gritty, visceral, intense experience.  It's more like an experimental film with very little dialogue or even story.  It's all about the viewing experience, and this is a film that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible.  The cast, which include pop singer Harry Styles in his first major acting role, are impressive with very little to work with.  Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance provide the noble stiff-upper-lip speeches. This is an unusual war film in that the enemy is barely glimpsed, aside from a fighter plane you never see a German soldier, or catch a glimpse of Nazi imagery.  The characters are under threat from an unseen enemy, with attacks coming out of nowhere.  Also the soldiers are not selfless heroes.  In fact, they are often decidedly unheroic and often unlikable.  I couldn't say I enjoyed this film, but I admired it a great deal.            


Chopping Mall

Year of Release:  1986
Director:  Jim Wynorski
Screenplay:  Jim Wynorski and Steve Mitchell
Starring:  Kelli Maroney, Steve O'Dell, John Terleski, Russell Todd, Karrie Emerson, Barbara Crampton, Suzee Slater, Nick Segal,
Running Time:  77 minutes
Genre:  horror, science-fiction

Park Plaza Mall has installed a state-of-the-art new security system including three brand new Protector robots, designed to incapacitate and apprehend thieves.  However a lightning storm causes the robots to become homicidal and track and kill eight teenagers who are trapped in the mall after a party.    

This is the kind of film that if you watch it late enough, drunk enough and in the company of like-minded friends could be comedy gold.  Otherwise it's terrible.  The dialogue is terrible ("I'm sorry, I'm not used to being chased around a mall at midnight by killer robots", and a guy trying to seduce a woman:  "You smell like pepperoni... I like pepperoni"). The robots look like a combination of Johnny Five (from the Short Circuit films) and a Dalek (from Doctor Who) and about half as threatening as either.  They also move so slowly and so loudly, the characters could probably just keep out of their way.  Much of the script also depends on characters getting into trouble by doing very stupid things.  The acting isn't good, but it is about as good as the material deserves.  There is some fun to be had here with appearances from B-movie favorites such as Barbara Crampton (of Re-Animator fame), Dick Miller (veteran of many Roger Corman productions) and Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov (reprising their roles from cult favorite Eating Raoul), alongside many movie jokes and references.

One of the Protector robots from Chopping Mall  

Friday, 14 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Jon Watts
Screenplay:  Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on Spider-Man created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee
Starring:  Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, action, superhero

Teenager Peter Parker (Holland) has his hands full with schoolwork and maintaining his secret identity as superhero "Spider-Man".  After aiding billionaire Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Parker is taken under Stark's wing and given a new, sophisticated Spider-Man costume.  Soon tiring of the small-scale crimes he has been foiling and good deeds that he has been doing in his neighborhood, Peter sees his chance at the big time coming when he runs across a gang stealing and adapting advanced alien weaponry and Stark technology and selling it to criminals.

Spider-Man first swung on to the world's cinema screens played by Tobey Maguire in the 2002 Sam Raimi film Spider-Man, which was followed by two sequels, and then in the 2012 reboot The Amazing Spider-Man and it's sequel, with Andrew Garfield in the role.  Here we have yet another reboot, and, following Tom Holland's debut as everyone's favorite webslinger in Captain America: Civil War, he is firmly part of the ongoing "Marvel Cinematic Universe", the shared universe of various movies and TV shows centered on various superhero characters from Marvel comics.  Here we have the superheroics in the world of a teen movie.  Peter Parker worries about ordinary teenage stuff such as his grades, and his crush on classmate Liz (Harrier).  It's a refreshingly small-scale film, there are no world destroying monsters or maniacs, here the villain (played by Michael Keaton) is quite sympathetic.  He's a man who wants money to look after his family and his employees after they are casually laid off.  He's ruthless and murderous when pushed, however he is kind of likable.  Tom Holland is possibly the best screen Spider-Man yet, returning the character to his teenage roots, his Peter Parker (and Spider-Man) is engagingly awkward and enthusiastic, also the fact that he makes mistakes.  Most of the film's destruction, such as slicing a ferry in half, is his fault (albeit accidental),  he is also surrounded by a fun group of friends and adversaries.  By and large the film is self-contained, although it probably helps if you have seen the other MCU films, it also differs from other Spider-Man films in that it doesn't show Spider-Man's origin story, which is only briefly referred to.   While the action sequences aren't as thrilling as some of the other superhero films, this is still a funny, thoroughly entertaining romp.

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming

       

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Late Spring

Year of Release:  1949
Director:  Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay:  Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu, based on the novel Father and Daughter by Kazuo Hirotsu 
Starring:  Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura
Running Time:  108 minutes
Genre:  Drama

Twenty seven year old Noriko (Hara) lives happily with her widowed father, Professor Shukichi Somaya (Ryu).  Until, that is, a meddling aunt (Sugimura) convinces the Professor that it is high time that Noriko got married.  However, Noriko does not want to get married, particularly as it would mean leaving her father alone.

This is one of the great works of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and, like many of his films, it deals with themes of tradition versus modernity, family life and conflict between the generations, as well as the philosophy of mono no aware (the pathos of things), an awareness of the impermanence of all things.  Nowhere is it better exemplified than in the film's powerful closing scene.  The film also comments on occupied Japan (the film was made at a time when Japan was occupied by the Americans following World War II), contrasting images of Coca-Cola advertising with traditional Japanese pursuits such as a noh play and a rock garden.  It's not a plot driven film, and it moves at a slow, meditative pace.  There is also the theme of duty to others versus the individual needs, Noriko wants to stay and look after her father, her father, while he values Noriko's kindness and companionship, knows that she must set out and lead an independent life, even though it means him being alone.  It demands a lot of patience from the viewer, being largely filmed, like many Ozu films, by static cameras, with beautifully composed shots and characters often seen at a remove from the audience, framed in corridors and doorways.  If you have the patience to go along with the film's gentle rhythms than you will be richly rewarded.

             
Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu in Late Spring