Monday, 30 October 2017

Feature - Halloween Special

What's your favorite scary movie?
I have an odd relationship with the horror film genre. When I was fourteen I bottled out of watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with my mates, making up some feeble 'need to go home for dinner' excuse. No one was fooled. Then in my 20s I set about catching up on all the scaries I'd missed as a teen, challenging myself to sit through them without flinching, no matter how gruesome the content. 
(I had exactly the same experience with roller-coasters, incidentally. Anytime I saw one, it had to be experienced on principle.) 


This continued until several years ago and the evolution of so-called 'torture porn'. Yes I watched Saw and Hostel and winced along with millions of others at the excruciating acts perpetrated on various hapless victims. Then one evening I bore witness to a piece of extreme French cinema called Martyrs that so numbed me with its onscreen sadism that I gave up on horror more or less altogether. It was a feel-bad experience that resonated with me way too long, and I began to wonder what the hell point there was in horror in the first place. 
I've tiptoed back from that point and made my peace with the genre, having acknowledged one simple fact. I don't want to be appalled, sickened, harrowed and depressed for its own sake. Scared witless, yes. Provoked, thrilled, exhilarated, challenged, chilled, set on edge, even filled with a sense of creeping existential dread now and then. Yes, I'm good for all of those, possibly even at the same time. But spare me the Saws and the Centipedes. Those are the stuff of teenage dares, and screen horror can be so much more. It doesn't have to horrify literally, like being involved in an M25 multi-vehicle pile-up. There's a reason why the Michael Jackson song is entitled Thriller, rather than Horror. Think about it. (And no, it's not just because horror doesn't rhyme with killer.) Few viewers if any want to be horrified in any real sense.
So after that long introduction, here are five of my all-time favourite horrors to enliven your Halloween - films that each on some level provide me with actual entertainment. Once again I aim to provide a service. Don't mention it.

1. Halloween (18)
Yes, it's the most obvious of choices. And some of the dialogue is a bit duff. And a few of the actors are ten years too old to be playing teens. But the use of sound and silence, the darkness in the periphery of the frame, the killer's mask looming out of that darkness, Jamie Lee Curtis' genuinely fraught responses, and that utterly chilling piano/synth score - all combine to make this one of the most beautifully sustained pieces of suspense-horror in the history of cinema.

2. The Exorcist (18)
This film is not just about a couple of iconic moments involving literal head-spinning and projectile vomit. There's so much more going on than that. It's a stone-cold serious story of good and evil, where there are metaphorical demons in the characters to compliment the literal one in the little girl. The effects look old, but the sense of dread is as fresh as when the movie first came out. Few things chill as much as innocence infected with evil. Brrrrrrrrrrrrr. Put your coat on.

3. The Vanishing (15)
Not the 1993 Hollywood remake, the 1988 Dutch/French original. A young man's sense of disorientation and rising panic, when his girlfriend goes missing. He gets an opportunity to discover what really happened to her, but the implications for both him and her are truly terrifying. It was between this and The Wicker Man (original Brit version, obviously) as to 'most scalp-prickling ending', but I think The Vanishing just edges it.

4. Shaun of the Dead (15)
The wonderful thing about Shaun is that it manages to be truly unsettling and truly funny at the same time. (It's also gut-wrenchingly emotional at one point.) It combines all the claustrophobia and paranoia of the best zombie horror with truly joyous comedy at every turn. See? Horror can be joyful. Endlessly watchable and still the stand-out of Edgar Wright's magnificent Cornetto Trilogy.

5. The Babadook (15)
Mother and child horror once more. I've said everything I need to about it on this blog. Twice. Click on the link and check out what I said first time around. It's utterly unspeakably awesome.

I could go on - classic horror titles are clamoring in my head along with a few hidden gems, but I'll save those for another occasion. The point is that horror for me has been rescued as a genre. Yes it's loaded (as is all genre cinema) with dross, but this calendar year alone has proved that there's life in the (slavering, human-flesh-craving) beast. Get Out, IT and Happy Death Day are all worth your time. 
Horror lives, and it doesn't have to be grim. At its best it can be truly life-enhancing. Happy Halloween...

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Film Review - Thor: Ragnarok (12A)

Point me in the direction of whoever's ass I have to kick.
If you recall Captain America: Civil War, you'll remember that the Avengers assembled with two notable exceptions. Thor (Son of Odin, God of Thunder) and Bruce Banner, aka Hulk, were both conspicuous by their absence. Well in Thor: Ragnarok we discover what the boys were getting up to in the interim. And it's nothing if not eventful.
Thor, courtesy of Chris Hemsworth, has become one of the most likeable Marvel movie characters due to the self-deprecating humour that undercuts his godly stature. Such humour is present in great sackfuls from the start here, as the hammer-wielding hero has a jaunty dust-up with underworld demon Surtur and investigates what his step-brother Loki has been getting up to. (No surprise - it's mischief.) 
But these encounters are only a prelude to the arrival of the film's main antagonist - Hella, Goddess of Death, played by a slinky serpentine Cate Blanchett, who's possibly having the most sheer enjoyment of her acting career. In a few swift moves she dismantles Thor's power and sets about doing the same to Asgard - and it's then that the fun really begins.
If all this suggests a plot moving at break-neck pace, then that's Ragnarok. And even considering that strange word is basically Asgardian for 'Armageddon', the movie's other defining feature is comedy. While humour was always a feature of the Thor stories, here director Taika Waititi dials it up several levels. Thor's interactions with Hulk/Banner (the always endearing Mark Ruffalo) are priceless and it's lovely to see these two Avengers given proper screen time together; however a handful of other characters make an equally memorable impact. Tessa Thompson is a boozy swaggering Valkyrie, Jeff Goldblum the absurdly laconic 'Grandmaster' of the galaxy's ultimate gladiator show and director Waititi a hilariously polite and understated rock-monster called Korg, complete with polite Kiwi accent. Oh, and Tom Hiddleston has his usual blast playing Loki, the Marvel Universe's favourite anti-hero.
The film's visuals match its vast storytelling scope and sense of comic delight. The underworld is a stunning lava-lake nightmare, while Asgard past and present is like a series of epic landscape paintings brought to awe-inspiring life. Most impressive, however, is a key planet named Sakaar with its towering architecture, trash-dumps and gargantuan gladiatorial arena, all of it realised in eyeball-blistering psychedelic colour. In terms of setting, this movie is a multi-course banquet for the eye.
The film, it should be said, is not without its problems. My main issue (as with Spiderman: Homecoming) is that the story references numerous other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so that fans are laughing along gleefully, while casual viewers sit in bewildered silence. My casual-viewer companions assured me that they were able to filter out the fan stuff nonetheless and enjoy everything else. There's also the fact that the story is getting so much mileage out of Thor's evolving new team of associates that it rather neglects Cate Blanchett's antagonist. She's suited and booted impressively and could do with more scenes, but loses out to all the crazy stuff going on elsewhere.
If Waikiki's brief is anarchic space-opera fun, then he succeeds. Ragnarok plunges established Avengers characters into Guardians of the Galaxy silliness, and the result is outrageous, audacious and more than a little daft. Thor brings the gravitas when he needs to, but make no mistake - this is a comedy action spectacular, emphasis firmly on the comedy.
Gut Reaction: Regular laughter, a little pain on behalf of those not in on all the jokes, and a moment of pure despair when Chris Hemsworth took his shirt off.

Ed's Verdict: Hemsworth raises his comic game to match all the colourful characters surrounding him. Marvel's self-indulgence can be forgiven, due to the film's sheer creative joy. 

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Film Review - Happy Death Day (15)

Sprinklers... Car alarm...
Some films take you by surprise in the best possible way. You arrive at the cinema with bottom-rung expectations of something trashy and derivative, and come out with a huge smile at how much you've been entertained. Happy Death Day is that kind of film.

And first, let's deal with the poster. It's reminiscent of '80s slasher movies like Bloody Birthday and The Slumber Party Massacre (who remembers those lurid VHS box covers at their local video rental store?), albeit with a hint more humour. In actual fact Happy Death Day is much less exploitative and much more fun than those esteemed titles, for all its darkness. Because the other main filmic point of reference here is Groundhog Day.
Tree (short for Teresa) is a college student woken up, in a strange bed after a rough night, by ringtones reminding her it's her birthday. She's a sorority member with attitude to match, showering all around her with condescending wit. But come-uppance is on the way in the form of a knife-wielding stranger in a grotesque baby-face mask. Then the Groundhog effect kicks in and Tree finds herself trapped in the last day of her life over and over and over...
This film's best move is to acknowledge openly its debt to the Bill Murray comedy classic. It mirrors the structure knowingly right down to the wake-up music, making this less a rip-off and more a macabre homage. This is combines not only with the teen slasher flick, but also with college satires of the Mean Girls variety. The result is a fresh take on old themes, and a movie that is as much about exhilarating fun as jump-scares. Call it the IT factor. 
The other stand-out aspect of the film is fresh face Jessica Rothe as Tree. She cameo-ed as one of Emma Stone's actress gal-pals in La La Land, but gets her own big break here and makes the most of it. If Tree starts out as a bitchy irritant, she quickly develops into something much more layered and likable, not least due to Rothe's performance. Energetic and quirky, tempestuous and vulnerable, she's both a great contemporary scream-queen and a comic blast of fresh air. She's also supplied with strong support from Israel Broussard as the boy in whose dorm she continually wakes up, and from a slew of gleeful college stereotypes (who are also suspects in her own multiple murder).
Side-note - I didn't recognise a single actor in this film, which was refreshing in itself. This was all about the story.

Happy Death Day knows the things it wants to be (murder mystery, college comedy and fright-fest are only three) - and succeeds at them all. It's jumpy, funny, twisty and satirical, as wildly colourful as it is dark and scary. I thought it would be laughable rubbish. Turns out it was a birthday present to die for. More than once.
Gut Reaction: Quite a few jumps, many more laughs, an adrenaline blast and even a lump in the throat. One massive post-movie grin-in-the-making.

Ed's Verdict: A big delicious slice of frosted red-velvet cake, perfect for birthdays or Halloween.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Film Review - The Ritual (15)

Yeah yeah - four twats in a forest.
The Ritual is a no-nonsense British genre pic from Andy Serkis' new Imaginarium production company. That's 'no nonsense' in terms of it being a pared-to-the-bone horror film that wastes no time in set-up. It does get pretty nonsensical as the story goes on, but never at the expense of its fundamental creepiness.
Rafe Spall plays Luke, who with a group of mates set off on a lads' Scandinavian walking holiday. The trip is partially an act of memorial following a nasty trauma that has shaken the group to its core, none more so than Luke. But things veer towards the sinister when the boys take a dubious short-cut through the woods. (Don't go through the woods! Haven't you seen... any horror films, lads? Like, ever in your life?) 
In fairness to the writing, every debatable decision made by the group is - well - debated, so that their poor choices make some kind of half-arsed sense. And the writing is one of this modest film's considerable strengths. The source of the friends' emotional turmoil is established in a neat but shocking opening sequence, and from there a sense of real if strained friendship is established. These are guys who've known each other a long time, resentments building up along with the camaraderie. Their dialogue is spiky and funny and utterly believable, so that investment in their brewing plight occurs very naturally. 
The overall feel of the story is Blair Witch, only with much more steady-cam, and beautifully shot throughout. The sense of the woodland growing denser, as danger increases, is achieved to genuinely unnerving effect. Laughter gives way to urgency and terror, and to its credit the film plays its scares completely straight, refusing to undercut it with knowing humour. And whatever I suggested earlier, it does well to sidestep genre cliches, never quite doing what the audience expects.

Spall's likeable everyman is perfect for the role of Luke, although this time the likability is compromised by cowardice - a central theme in the film. He's backed up by his ageing-lad associates, notably Robert James-Collier (formerly Downton Abbey's dodgy under-butler Thomas) as the alpha-male of the group. Together they make for a funny bickering group, who play the drama and the horror in dead earnest.
If there's a flaw (and there is) it's that having grounded events in reality, the latter stages of the film do stretch credulity beyond snapping point. The nature of the threat is rather too much at odds with what's gone before, although maybe the point is to take these ordinary blokes well beyond their usual bounds. Also whether or not the central themes of the movie play out satisfactorily is open to debate.
The Ritual is a solid horror trip nonetheless, as focused in its progress as the boys' is meandering. Character-based throughout, it combines empathy with its chills, more than justifying its existence.
Gut Reaction: Simultaneously unsettled by the environment and entertained by the laddish banter. A bit deflated by the end.

Ed's Verdict: It's a standard horror, elevated by great atmosphere and ensemble playing. Bodes pretty well for Mr Serkis' Imaginarium company. 

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Film Review - The Snowman (15)

You can't force the pieces to fit.
A dark thriller adapted from a bestselling novel by Norwegian crime write Jo Nesbo. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, who brought up scintillating vampire horror Let the Right One In. Starring the magnificent Michael Fassbender and rising Swedish star Rebecca Ferguson, along with a terrific supporting cast that includes Charlotte Gainsburg, J K Simmons, Chloe Sevigny and Toby Jones.

What could possibly go wrong???
Well...

First a bit of set-up. The mighty Fassbender plays Harry Hole (pronounced Huuule in the original Norwegian apparently, but in the film it's plain 'Hole'). He's an alcoholic police detective shaking off his vodka brain-fuzz to investigate serial murder. The film's psycho-du-jour waits till the Scandi winter sets in, so he can build a snowman close to each of his victims for some reason rooted deep in his deranged mind. Rebecca Ferguson joins Fassbender as an out-of-town rookie and they set off investigating together (or mostly apart as it turns out). There are secrets and political conspiracies and personal baggage - lots going on in what I'm told worked very well in the original page-turner of a novel.
But it doesn't work here at all.

It's clearly not director Alfredson's fault. His 2011 adaptation of Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy makes smart work of a hugely intricate spy thriller and the actual look of The Snowman film is an icy kind of gorgeous. The problem, as the director himself explains (click here for more on this), is a screenplay that went partially unshot. Adapting a complex, multi-layered crime story with all its sub-plots and red herrings, along with central characters the viewer hasn't met before, requires a sense of coherence that's disappointingly lacking, due to pieces of plot going clean missing. Two editors are credited, like the whole thing was overhauled several times in the in post-production to try and undo the damage. It proved a task too great. 

The result is ramshackle storytelling that doesn't hold together, or the audience's interest. Taking the tale of a cheesewire-wielding killer on the rampage and draining it of all dramatic tension requires some doing, but that's what has miraculously been achieved through these gnarly production issues. I thought while watching that I was one espresso short of a fully functioning brain, but in truth the reasons for my confusion lay elsewhere.
Fassbender's presence can do nothing to lift proceedings. As Hole he's brooding and wracked with demons, but there are few hints as to why. Ferguson makes something of her back story through empathetic acting, but it's simply not enough. And the two of them do so little actual communicating, even when they're in scenes together, that it's ultimately hard to care about either. As for the other name actors, they pop briefly in and out of a rambling messy story, like the killer has chopped down their scenes along with his victims. The whole thing is additionally dull and devoid of humour, and even sporadic bursts of crime scene gore can't enliven it.
There are two additional hints in the film's trailer as to what went wrong. One shot shows an imminent victim of the killer getting caught in some kind of animal trap, the other has Michael Fassbender raging and weeping in front of a wildly burning building. Neither scene makes it into the final cut. More evidence of a film that was re-edited endlessly to try and make sense of the half-baked screenplay. 
Sorry, guys. It didn't work.
Gut Reaction: Only vaguely interested as to what the hell was going on, with occasional starts at the gory stuff and one belated heart-pounding moment much too late in the day.

Ed's Verdict: All that talent - from source material to cast and crew. And it still managed to be so damn dull...

Monday, 16 October 2017

Feature - Big Screen versus Small Screen Part 2

Cinema is about giving you an emotional experience, about transporting you to another place or time and making you feel something special. Dave Thomas
I wrote a near-paean to modern TV drama in my initial Big Screen versus Small Screen article (click right here). How then can I explain why, in this age of Game of Thrones and Big Little Lies, I still look forward to my cinema visits so much? Why does cinema still matter? You see in spite of all the box-set delights on offer, the immersive multi-season shows with all their character development and expanding dramatic worlds, cinema is still my first and overriding love. I continue to crave those one-off film experiences and look at the start of each calendar year for what intriguing stories might be told.
Because it is about stories. It took my pal Dave Thomas to remind me of this. (See, I've even quoted him above.) And what he also pointed out was that television drama and cinema offer very different experiences. Long-running shows like Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy and Orange is the New Black focus on long-term character development and so often do so with aplomb, even if it's sometimes at the expense of plot. 
What film majors in, however, is a very pure form of storytelling - single-evening experiences that bring to bear all the industry talents to tell a tale with imagination and power. With the exception of trilogies and the current fad for shared film universes, it doesn't leave you wanting more. Rather it satisfies (hopefully) in its own right - a self-contained piece of entertainment, or art, or preferably both. At its best you want to watch it again, to explore its detail and revel in how artfully it captures a moment in space and time. How it distills its themes and its characters into two cunningly crafted hours. It's a form of artistry, which can potentially satisfy more fully than the week-to-week dramas that feed us cliffhangers to keep us hooked. 
Put it like this. In the same way that Breaking Bad's 'bland-white-collar-worker-turns-evil-drug-baron' conceit would never have fitted into the confines of a two-hour film, so the best movies could never transfer to a serialised TV format. Take the first film that ever filled me with wonder - ET the Extra-Terrestrial. Stephen Spielberg toyed with the idea of taking this creation further; ultimately though he abandoned the idea because to do so would, in his own words, 'do nothing but rob the original of its virginity'. One hundred and twenty minutes of storytelling genius - to be returned to and enjoyed, but not sullied by stretching it out into something it was never meant to be.
That holds true of so many of my favourite films (and explains why sequels are so often a terribly bad idea). These motion pictures stand alone and draw you back, like you'd return to a gallery to review your favourite painting. Casablanca. Once Upon a Time in the West. Witness. Groundhog DayMagnolia. Great stories, sublimely told, leaving nothing unsaid. I mean could you imagine if they ever tried to extend the basic concept of Jaws? (Oh dear God, they did. It's a memory I've tried so hard to suppress.) Take Christopher Nolan's Memento - a revenge tale with a plot as intricate and fine-tuned as Swiss clockwork, and a brilliant exploration of the theme of memory. Pure craftsmanship. Wonderful cinema. And you can return to it again and again (in fact you kind of have to, to try and work the whole thing out).
Even a family drama like Little Miss Sunshine works best as a one-off. Yes, the characters could conceivably work in a TV show. But there's something so beautiful and charming in how their dynamics are sketched, something so perfect in how the film's outrageous conclusion draws the Hoover family all together never mind their flaws, that you want them left alone. Don't spoil it. Let it be.
Every time I visit the cinema and the curtains draw a little bit wider just before the feature to accommodate the wide-screen format (you know that gorgeous moment), I'm wondering if I'm going to be wowed by what I see. If it'll stay with me long after I leave and I'll feel compelled to buy a hard-copy when it comes out on DVD, so I can possess the thing. Will this one be a gem? Maybe that's the difference between modern TV and film - one is about building a juggernaut, the other is about painstakingly crafting a gem. It's why in spite of sequels and remakes and rehashed ideas I'll always keep going back - to find a jewel amid the sludge, the multi-faceted precious stone that shines like a TV show never could. 
At its best (and there's been quite a bit of best in 2017) cinema does bring us those sublime stories. And it makes us feel - thank you Dave - that 'something special'. I rest my case.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Film Review - Blade Runner 2049 (15)

I want to ask you some questions.
Let's be clear straight off. Blade Runner 2049 is a film for people who know and love the original. It's aimed squarely at those who took the 1982 dystopian classic to their hearts and cherish it there. If that's you, go see the new one. If the experience left you cold, then all the stunning visuals and brooding philosophy of 2049 will bore you silly. And if you haven't seen the first one at all, then you'll be baffled into the bargain. Welcome to October's movie Marmite. 
Blade Runner is a cult classic that failed at the box-office, but achieved lasting status due to the acclaim of movie critics and fans of thoughtful science-fiction. Set in a grimly over-populated 2019 Los Angeles, it concerns a group of 'replicants' - artificially engineered humans used as slave labour on colonial worlds, who have broken from captivity and returned to Earth seeking the longevity denied them by their biological programming. Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a 'blade runner', whose job is to hunt down and destroy or 'retire' rogue replicants. But his view of his own work starts to change, when he gets emotionally entangled with one of the female replicants he is meant to pursue. 
It's morally complex stuff, with a protagonist whose mission is a dirty one, and antagonists who could easily be viewed as heroic. It's also seething with questions about life and consciousness and memory, with an added environmental subtext. (2019 LA is a grim environment, garish neon illuminating the darkness.) 
With both Harrison Ford and screen writer Hampton Fancher on board, Blade Runner 2049 shares much DNA with the original, while having evolved in every conceivable way. The vistas are bigger, the vision more epic, the exploration into life's meaning more profound (and more glacially slow). Ryan Gosling leads proceedings, playing a guy in the same profession as Deckard before him. Known only as 7 'K', he is a new-model replicant himself, tasked with hunting down and retiring older types who have gone underground. The LA he patrols is plunged even further into darkness, while rural California is a bleached desert, all due to further environmental catastrophes. Then one assignment leads to the discovery of a dark buried treasure, which links to the past in a way that will transform 'K''s destiny and possibly that of many others.
This is a film that thinks huge and has visuals to match. Directed by Arrival's Denis Villeneuve its look is uncluttered but constantly dazzling. Earth is in one sorry state, but it still looks amazing - full of devastated beauty. The advancement of science fiction ideas is a marvel too, one aspect of 2049 artificial intelligence proving unexpectedly moving. And the whole thing throbs with a score co-written by Hans Zimmer, who pays homage to Vangelis, the music scribe first time around.
Gosling is sombre, where Ford was brooding, though his passion when sparked runs deep. He's in a La La Land with all the joy drained out of it, and the result speaks volumes for his acting range. There's wonderful support too - Robin Wright as his tough boss, Ana de Armas as a highly unusual lover and Harrison Ford himself, grizzled and defensive, and clearly determined to revisit every role he played in the '80s. (Witness 2: Once an Amish is surely on the cards). 
As for the plot - it's as profound as the film is sometimes ponderous, providing breathtaking moments for Blade Runner fans, that will leave everyone else scratching their heads. This is cerebral science-fiction simultaneously at its best and its most self-indulgent. It's a a gourmet delight for those already on board, a feast for the eye and the brain. But like its predecessor, this is not a meal for everyone.
Gut Reaction: Struggling at times, enthralled at others. Enthrallment was the winner.

Ed's Verdict: Yes it's arse-numbingly slow, but it plays beautiful homage to the original while kicking out that film's walls with a slew of amazing new ideas. Watch the original first, and bring a cushion to the cinema.