Raw

Posted: April 14, 2017 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Julia Ducournau. Starring Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf.

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And this is what happens when you stick Lego up your nose.

Justine (Marillier) is on her way to college to train as a vet. Her parents attended the same college, and her older sister Alexia (Rumpf) is already partway through her studies there. Justine and Alexia were raised as vegetarians by their parents, but when Justine arrives she finds that an intense hazing ritual awaits all new students, or rookies as they’re known, and part of this involves the initiates having to eat raw rabbit kidneys. Justine initially refuses, but Alexia persuades her to do it.

Soon after Justine begins to feel unwell, she develops a rash which she presumes is an allergic reaction to eating meat. A little while later and she starts to develop an unusual craving…

 

Up until about a week ago I had no idea this film existed, and in a world of franchise blockbusters it’s a pleasant surprise that this did actually make it to my local multiplex given its a/subtitled and b/is a female skewed cannibal film.

Although the first thing to make clear is that ‘French cannibal film’ really doesn’t do this justice. Exceptionally well directed its truly mesmerising to watch, and acting wise both Marillier and Rumpf are superb. In particular Marillier gives one heck of a performance, switching from virginal and timid to sexy and confident and then back again, and the shifts in her personality never seen forced.

Setting aside the more lurid elements of the film, this is a story about finding your place in the world, about growing up and discovering just what kind of person you want to be. It’s about those first painful days at university when you’re alone, trying to make new friends and trying not to miss home. It’s about being out of your comfort zone, about exploring your sexuality and about fitting in, or choosing not to fit in.

The easiest point of reference I can make to this film is the Canadian werewolf film Ginger Snaps (which if you haven’t seen you should really see!) which again featured sisters coming of age, and again featured appetites that are, shall we say not the norm. Just imagine Ginger Snaps without the werewolves, which is something of a recurring motif for Raw, because in many ways it’s a zombie film that features no zombies, a vampire film sans bloodsuckers.

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The first rule of Bite Club is, you don’t talk about Bite Club!

Which isn’t to suggest Raw is a strictly speaking a horror film, although obviously in many ways it is, but like the best horror films it’s more than just a scary movie, and it has something to say. It’s exceptionally dark, evocative, disturbing, sexy, funny, and shocking. At times you want to look away, not because something is happening on screen, but because of what you imagine could happen at any moment. It’s an unsettling film because you’re always on edge, and in part this is why it’s so enthralling (along with the performances).

Rumours abound that, much like the Exorcist or Robocop when they first came out, people were fainting/vomiting in the aisles. I can’t say I ever quite felt like doing either, but at times this is a wince inducing film, and not always in the moments you might imagine. The bit where Justine scratches her rash is one of the most grimace inducing bits of the film, as is a waxing scene. There’s disturbing imagery at play outside of the more horrific elements. The scene with students crawling through an underground carpark is genuinely unsettling, and with this being a veterinary school there are a lot of scenes featuring animals which again put you on edge without you knowing why.

If it has a flaw I’d say it was a touch impenetrable at first, it did take me a little while to get into it, but that might be more to do with me acclimatising to the subtitles rather than anything the film does or doesn’t do. Suffice to say that after a while I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, which given what was often happening on screen says a lot for how enthralling it is.

Proving yet again (if it even needed proving) that women can make films that are every bit as unsettling (if not more so) as blokes, this is a treat. Oh, and it has a great soundtrack too.

It isn’t a film for everyone, but I really, really liked it. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m feeling a trifle peckish all of a sudden…

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It’s going to take more than Persil to get these stains out…

By Harry Harrison

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Arch criminal turned ace secret agent, ‘Slippery Jim’ diGriz is taking some well-earned R&R. Of course for the Stainless Steel Rat this involves robbing a series of banks. He’s soon reeled in by Inskipp, the head of the Special Corps, who Jim now reluctantly works for. The Corps has something big to contend with. In the future invasion of another world should be impossible, but somehow the inhabitants of the planet Cliaand have managed to invade multiple planets with ease, and Inskipp wants to know how.

Recently (and somewhat reluctantly) married, Jim leaves his heavily pregnant wife, Angelica (one of the few people are smart and deadly as him) behind and heads for Cliaand, but with no gadgets and only his wits to rely on, and with an entire planet full of soldiers to thwart, has the Stainless Steel Rat finally bitten off more than he can chew?

And so my (very slow) re-read of the Stainless Steel Rat books reaches the second novel. There’s actually quite a gap between them, given than Harrison published this around 1970 and the first book (which I reviewed here) came out almost a decade before.

Very little has changed in the intervening time, and much like the first book this is a slender volume very much in the pulp space opera mould. Again it’s a product of its time, although in fairness Harrison does give his female characters a degree of agency (if anything Angelica is smarter and much more ruthless than Jim, he is the more cunning however) and although painted with very broad brushstrokes, he does provide a matriarchal society of Amazonian women to help Jim out.

As before this is a lightweight, non-too serious adventure.  diGriz is smarter than any opponent, so even when he’s captured you know he won’t stay incarcerated for long. That said the Grey Men he finds himself up again are somewhat creepy, and this book does feature a truly shocking event that, when it happened, made me sit up and take notice because I didn’t remotely see it coming. Suffice to say it was a trifle Game of Thrones!

As science fiction goes this is about as hard as brie, and the era it was written in makes for some anachronistic aspects of a so called future society at times. But it’s amusing, well-paced, and if the use of smoke bombs becomes a trifle repetitive, don’t worry there’s usually a surprise or two waiting around the corner.

Something of an admission however, is it wrong that I find Jim’s criminal escapades just a trifle more exciting than his life as an intergalactic James Bond?

At the current rate set your alarms for a review of book three coming sometime in 2019…

Directed by Rupert Sanders. Starring Scarlett Johansson, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Juliette Binoche and Michael Pitt.

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Cue bionic woman theme tune…

It is the near future and the majority of humans have been enhanced with cybernetics. The leading cybernetic company is Hanka Robotics, and they have taken such augmentation one step further by placing the brain of a human inside a completely mechanical body, or shell. The test subject is a young woman who is apparently the sole survivor of a terrorist attack. With little memory of her life before the new hybrid (Johansson) is renamed Mira Killian and assigned to Section 9, an anti-terrorism organisation led by Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Beat Takeshi).

A year after her rebirth Killian is now a Major in Section 9 and a trusted, if sometimes unpredictable, officer. She has been experiencing glitches however, flashbacks from her previous life. Dr Ouelet (Binoche) one of the team who created the Major, assures Killian that these are nothing to worry about, and with the Major’s consent she deletes them.

When a mysterious hacker known as Kuze (Pitt) begins killing Hanka scientists Major and her partner Batou (Asbæk) begin an investigation, but the closer Major gets to Kuze, the more and more Major learns about her past life, and realises that not everything she was told was true…

 

The first thing to say about Ghost in the Shell is that I’ve never seen the original, so I have no Amine axe to grind. The second thing to say is that the film looks gorgeous, but I’ll come on to that later.

As I said, never read the Manga or seen any of the Anime but one can only hope it’s better than this. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a terrible film, it’s just very forgettable.

I don’t want to get into the issues around whitewashing, about why Hollywood felt this needed Scarlett Johansson rather than a Japanese actress, frankly I’m not sure that would have made it any better as the problems are in the script and realisation rather than in the performances, which vary from very good to a trifle average but are never awful.

Johansson is a good actress who’s proven before (Under the Skin, Lucy) that she can convince as someone who’s not quite human (or in the case of Under the Skin someone who’s note remotely human!) I think she’s acted better than she does here, but I do think the material she had to work with didn’t help. The main problem with Ghost in the Shell, and it seems odd to say this given the increasing prevalence of the internet, of hacking and technological enhancements, is that it feels dated. We might be on the verge of a real-life cyberpunk world, but cyberpunk films have been around for quite some time now, and one can’t shake the feeling that this might have played better in the nineties. As it is it feels derivative of things like The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days etc. Now you could argue a lot of those earlier cyberpunk films were themselves derivative of Japanese Manga and Anime, but that’s irrelevant when this film just brings nothing new, nothing interesting to the table.

Watching it you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve seen it done before, and done better. Want a better future city detective story, watch Blade Runner, want a better examination of what it means to be human/sentient, watch Ex Machina or Under the Skin, want a better action film, well watch quite a few things, several of them this year alone.

The storyline is pedestrian and the film provides zero surprises, if you haven’t figured out what’s going on inside the first ten minutes you need to see more films. Of course, plenty of films can make a predictable storyline work, and not every film needs twists and reveals, but likely those films would have had something else to say. For a film about a woman whose brain is stuck in a robot body the film doesn’t have enough to say about the nature of humanity. It tries, but for the most part attempts at addressing this are superficial at best, or speedily got past; classic example is when Major wakes up for the first time and Dr Ouelet just flat out tells her. “Hi there was an accident but we saved your brain and stuck it in a metal shell.” Way to break it to her gently!

Which is another thing, just how many times the words “Ghost” and “Shell” are used. Seriously, we get it Hollywood, no need to whack us over the head every ten minutes.

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Batou’s laser eye surgery wasn’t what he was expecting!

On the plus side the cast is good. Johansson imbues the role with a curiously appropriate physicality that takes a little getting used to, but Major isn’t remotely Black Widow. Asbæk makes a great foil for her, and their partnership is one of the best things about the film, and whilst he doesn’t do a whole lot, Beat Takeshi has an iconic cool about him, as if Dirty Harry got old and became the police chief.

Oh yes, and the film looks gorgeous. The cityscapes are magnificent and the costume and character designs are exceptional (you can see where the time and money went, and it wasn’t on the script) but even here the film is flawed. The city never feels real, it certainly doesn’t have that lived-in look that LA had in Blade Runner, and for a sprawling metropolis I kept wondering where all the people were? No street scene seems to have more than a handful of extras and the roads seem surprisingly clear. You could say the same about Blade Runner but at least there’s a reason for that, in that most people have buggered off off-world.

In the end this film is well named, because it’s a beautiful shell that, sadly, only contains the ghost of anything interesting.

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“What did you just say? How very dare you!”

Get Out

Posted: March 31, 2017 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener and Lil Rel Howery.

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Photographer Chris Washington (Kaluuya) is nervous about meeting the parents of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Williams) for the first time, especially when he discovers that they don’t know he is black. Rose assures him her parents will be cool about their interracial relationship. “My dad would’ve voted Obama a third time if he could have,” she assures him.  Leaving his pet dog in the safe hands of his best friend, and TSA officer, Rod (Howery) Chris sets off for the weekend with Rose.

En route they hit a deer. When a police officer arrives he insists on seeing Chris’s licence and registration, even after Rose assures the officer she was driving. Rose is outraged but Chris takes the encounter in his stride.

When they arrive at the palatial Armitage home Rose’s parents are welcoming, perhaps a little too welcoming, and Chris is disturbed to see they have two black servants. Rose’s father Dean (Whitford) advises Chris that the servants (Betty Gabriel’s Georgina and Marcus Henderson’s Walter) had been hired by his parents and he couldn’t bear to let them go. Meanwhile Rose’s mother Missy (an exceptionally creepy performance from Keener) offers to hypnotise Chris to help him quite smoking.

As the weekend proceeds, and more family members show up, Chris begins to feel increasingly uneasy, and begins to fear that he and Rose might not get out alive…

 

Get Out is a hard film to pin down, which accounts for some of its charm, but also ensures it’s something of a slow burn, but it’s a film that repays your efforts, and a film that very much plays with your expectations. Technically it’s a horror film, but it also functions as a comedy and, most of all, as satire. The ghost of The Stepford Wives looms overhead, and Peele has been very upfront about that film being a big inspiration. Whereas that film tackled gender roles, Get Out is quite patently about race, and however welcoming the Armitage clan are it’s clear from the start that something is slightly off kilter. It isn’t just that the Armitage family have black servants, as much that Georgina and Walter act so strangely, as does the sole black guest at the weekend garden party.

One of Peele’s triumphs is placing his lead in a situation where, theoretically he should be safe. This isn’t the deep south, he isn’t surrounded by good old boys waving confederate flags, or alt-right white supremacists. No, instead the racism he encounters is much more subtle and unconscious. Nobody outright says anything racist too him, yet the comments are increasingly close to the line, and the fact that the threat to Chris comes from white middle class liberals just makes it all the more uncomfortable.

I’ve been a fan of Kaluuya for some time. He was the best thing about BBC 3’s The Fades (which is saying something given the show had a strong cast) and was fantastic in the Black Mirror episode Fifteen Million Merits, and it was a pleasant surprise when he showed up with an American accent in Scicario. Hopefully Get Out will secure his leading man credentials because he’s very good, especially at portraying Chris’s helplessness at certain points. He’s a good actor and a strong screen presence, not to mention handsome, damn him! He makes Chris a likeable hero you want to root for, and you will want to root for him because he’s in over his head!

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Look out, she’s got a teacup!!

Williams makes for an engaging heroine, and the two make a likeable couple. As the elder Armitage Whitford plays the part to perfection, walking a delicate tightrope between friendly and threatening. As I’ve already said Keener is a trifle less subtle, but in many ways that makes her scarier.

Threatening to steal the show however, and providing some much needed laughs on occasion, is Howery as Chris’s best friend Rod, although I did find it a little odd that a film written and directed by a black man that tackled issues of race should feature such an obvious trope as the wisecracking comic relief black best friend, but then again as I said this is a film that plays with your expectations, and perhaps the use of such a well-worn cliché was intentional given how well put together this film is (though having said that having heard how the film was originally going to end I’m glad they changed their minds because I wouldn’t have liked the film half as much if it hadn’t ended the way it does.)

Peele is a solid director, and on occasion gives us something surreal amidst all the normalcy (which isn’t remotely normal). The film is painted with quite broad brushstrokes at times, and this did make it a hard film to get into, but, much like last year’s Arrival this allowed for my mind to be somewhat blown when the rug was very firmly tugged out from under me midway through. Like Arrival the film relies on certain contrivance and narrative tricks that mean a second viewing is going to be essential to determine whether it’s quite as good as I think it is now. Do the pieces fit neatly together, or is the puzzle a little too clever for its own good?

The best horror films are ones that have something to say beyond just wanting to scare you, and in this Get Out comes up trumps. It’s unsettling, scary, but also very funny in places and I urge people to get out and see it.

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“I’m sure we’re going to have a nice relaxing weekend…”

In Cold Blood

Posted: March 30, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Truman Capote

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In November 1959, a brutal crime shocks the small farming community of Holcomb in Kansas. In the early hours of a Sunday morning Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer, his wife Bonnie and his teenage children Nancy and Kenyon are roused from their slumber by the arrival of two armed men. After restraining the Clutters the invaders proceed to kill them one by one.

The killers are ex-convicts, each with a long criminal history behind them. Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock is ostensibly the man in charge, and his partner is Perry Edward Smith. In demeanour and upbringing the men are very different, yet after meeting in prison they further bond over the murders of the Clutters.

The local authorities in Kansas are perplexed by the brutal, and seemingly motiveless murders. Whilst they investigate Hickock and Smith head south to Mexico, but events will see them soon return to the United States, were they will find their crimes finally catching up to them.

 

I decided to read this in an ongoing attempt to broaden my choice of reading material, and I’ve never read any Capote. Also, I got the book for free as they were handing out copies gratis at the university I work for so it seemed like fate!

After hearing about the events of that November morn, Capote travelled to Kansas, along with his friend, and fellow writer, Harper Lee. Over the course of several years Capote pulled together a detailed examination of the crime, the victims, the law enforcement personal, and of course the killers themselves.

The book was a huge hit when it was released in 1966, and whilst it can be argued that it was far from the first ‘true crime’ novel, it was the novel that saw the genre skyrocket.

I found it an interesting read. In other hands the story could have been recounted in far less words, but part of what makes this so engaging is the texture of Capote’s writing, and the meticulous research he and Lee obviously undertook. Again it is easy to imagine that the minutiae of the Clutter’s lives, and the details of Hickock and Smith’s petty histories, could have been boring, but Capote finds something interesting in the most trivial of things. Mrs Clutter’s fascination with miniature objects, Perry Smith’s addiction to chewing aspirin, even the gossip of the local postmistress. Every person in the book feels like a real person, because of course they were, but another writer could have produced mere caricatures.

Capote begins with multiple narrative strands, on the one hand detailing the final hours of the Clutter family, whilst on the other introducing us to Hickock and Smith as they arrive in town, with homicide on their minds. The Clutters are detailed so vividly that by the time the murders occur I was ready to beg for their lives. They are portrayed as good people, especially Nancy, although Capote does not shy away from some of the less salubrious elements of family life, and some things are implied, quite subtly, to suggest all was not well. From Bonnie Clutter’s obvious depression (despite the hopeful diagnosis that she was just suffering from a trapped nerve) to Nancy’s cat being poised weeks before, and the notion that she keeps smelling cigarettes, even though no one in the house. Then there is Kenyon, the young son and something of a loner (and who, looking at this with 21st Century eyes, might even have been on the Autistic spectrum).

In many ways these tiny mysteries are red herrings, because we the reader know who done it, even if the police are stymied. Capote takes the decision not to show us, at least early on, the events of that morning. As I say, I felt so close to the Clutters that I was glad of this.

After the bodies are discovered Capote changes tack, showing the impact on the townsfolk, who become fearful and paranoid about their neighbours, and the local police and Kansas Bureau of Investigations agents who are frustrated by a lack of motive, evidence, or suspects. Meanwhile we follow Hickock and Smith south of the border, where the reality of life in Mexico doesn’t quite live up to their fantasies.

If the book has a fault (beyond the widely-held view that Capote may have been somewhat economical with some aspects of the story) it is that for the most part it is the killers, not the victims or the hunters, who are centre stage, though this is unavoidable really. Capote’s evocation of the deadly duo is incredibly vivid, to the point where I began to at least empathise with them, Smith in particular, though Capote never lets you forget what each man is capable of and it’s hard to feel too sorry about where they end up.

As a snapshot of rural America before such crimes became commonplace, and of poverty and criminality in the late 1950s, this is an exceptional piece of work, a detailed examination of what was a petty and pointless crime that cost six lives for little gain. Capote is the kind of author whose literary credentials would usually have put me off, but this was a great example of gaining pleasure reading outside one’s comfort zone, and I think I might have to get hold of Breakfast at Tiffany’s now.

 

Kong: Skull Island

Posted: March 25, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman and John C. Reilly.

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Kong’s toy helicopter was his best Christmas present ever!

In 1944 an aerial duel ends with an American and a Japanese pilot having to bale out onto a nearby island. Initially they continue their battle on the ground, until interrupted by the arrival of an ape…a very BIG ape.

Flash forward to 1973 and satellites have recently begun to photograph every inch of the Earth’s surface, in the process they have discovered a hitherto unknown island which Bill Randa (Goodman) the head of an organization named Monarch believes is the mythical Skull Island. Persuading his bosses to let him tag along on a mission to the island Randa and his colleagues hire ex-SAS tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston) to accompany them. Also making the journey is Mason Weaver (Larson) a photojournalist who’s also managed to wrangle her way onto the trip.

Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) is leader of a special helicopter unit of the US army, and he and his men are tasked with ferrying the scientists onto the island, and providing security for them whilst there. As the helicopters reach Skull Island however, and begin dropping seismic charges which are supposed to help in mapping the geology of the island, they attract the attention of an ape…a very BIG ape!

 

Since his first appearance in 1933, Kong has been a big (sorry) deal. His exploits in climbing the Empire State Building, Fay Wray in hand, and of swatting at attacking biplanes rank amongst the most iconic of movie images. It was never in doubt that Kong would return, but I wonder how many of those who saw that first film eighty plus years ago would imagine that King Kong would still be around today?

The last time we saw Kong was 12 years ago in Peter Jackson’s incredibly bloated 3 hour epic that managed to completely miss the point about what made the original such a hit, namely that it wasn’t some grand sweeping epic, it was, effectively, a B movie (even if that term probably didn’t exist back then). Thankfully Skull Island has no pretensions of being a ‘proper’ film. It knows it’s ridiculous, embraces this fact and rolls with it, and whilst I can see why some people haven’t enjoyed it, I think that if you switch off your brain and roll right along with it there’s plenty to enjoy here.

I’d have loved to have been at the pitch meeting where presumably someone uttered the phrase “It’s King Kong meets Apocalypse Now!” or something similar (surely no coincidence that Hiddleston’s character is named Conrad) , and the early seventies setting suits the film perfectly, giving us something different from the 1930s setting of both the original and Jackson’s reboot, whilst still putting the film into an historical context that allows for a degree of mystery that might be missing if the film had been set in today’s interconnected world where satellites can see every inch of the globe and everyone has a camera in their pocket.

The post-Vietnam setting also provides some interesting narrative hooks about the nature of war, the inability of some soldiers to accept defeat, and the folly of attacking an enemy fighting to defend its home, and whilst it isn’t exactly subtle, and perhaps doesn’t quite follow through on some of the interesting ideas it sparks, this isn’t quite the throwaway action/adventure film it might have been.

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“You ever read the Bible, Kong?”

As leader of the army faction Jackson tones things down (just a fraction) to make Packard a relatable antagonist, he’s a man who was sent to fight a war then told he had to stop before he could win it. As he says on at least one occasion, “we’re going to win this war!” Less Colonel Kurtz than Captain Ahab he’s as almost as dangerous an enemy as the giant lizards that live under Skull Island.

As Weaver Larson acts her socks off, expressing wide eyed amazement at everything she sees. Though her billing doesn’t reflect it, in some ways she’s the film’s lead—at least the film’s human lead—providing an emotional core and, much like Wray in 1933 and Watts in 2005, being the one to forge a connection with Kong. She’s no damsel in distress however, and despite wielding a camera instead of a gun she’s no shrinking violet and has a lot of agency.

Some reviewers have taken umbrage with Reilly’s marooned aviator, but I really liked his character and I thought he, like Larson, added a lot of emotional heft to the film, some people have thought he didn’t fit tonally but, at the end of the day, it’s a film about a giant ape and an island full of monsters, and you need larger than life characters.

If there’s a weak link it’s oddly Hiddleston. He’s a good actor, and has proven he can convince as an action hero, but his former SAS captain feels a little too modern. He’s too smooth and too buff, and it doesn’t help that his character is wafer thin, and one can’t help but think someone a little earthier, Tom Hardy perhaps, might have been more convincing.

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Well Loki what we have here…

At its heart Skull Island is, in part, a war film, albeit one more like Predator than Saving Private Ryan, and part of its success is down to providing characters who could just be cannon fodder with personality. In fact some of the most amusing scenes in the film come courtesy of Shea Whigham and Jason Mitchell’s sardonic double act.

Kong is the star of the show however. He might not be quite as expressive and emotional as the Kong from Jackson’s film, but he has less screen time to engage with the audience, yet still does. Which isn’t to say Kong is a shrinking violet the audience barely sees, in what some have cited as a brave move we see Kong very early on. I don’t see why this is a problem, we know what Kong looks like so let’s get him out there front and centre early on, it certainly helps make this a much more enjoyable experience than Gareth Edwards’ drab Godzilla, which featured a great creature we barely saw, and there are plenty of other creatures to sneak up on us.

The pacing is good, the cinematography superb, evoking films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon etc. and the effects are for the most part excellent, though in places a little shaky. It’s worth staying for the end of credits scene, although this does mean sitting through a lot of credits I’m afraid.

Maybe it’s a tad too throwaway, and time will tell how rewatchable it is, but for me it’s the most enjoyable monster movie in a long time. Long live Kong!

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The Thinking Man’s Bastille

By Paul Starkey

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Today he would escape from prison.

Jack had to, because incarceration was slowly killing him. Not in a physical sense, but it was slowly sapping his will to live. Already, just six months into his sentence, he saw signs of the ennui that would eventually claim his life if he didn’t break out. He slept more than ever before, yet was always tired, lethargy bordering on paralysis, and his appetite was fading like the libido of an old man. He didn’t wash very often, and sometimes went days without even brushing his teeth.

He spent most of his time on his bed reading books downloaded onto his wafer, or watching the wall mounted scroll, though he minimised the screen resolution; rather than it filling the entire wall it was shrunk to the size of a television set from the cathode-ray era. Sometimes it still seemed too big. When he did leave the bed to wander the confines of his prison, he did so with the shambling gait of a zombie.

“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

It was one of many homilies his father had regularly uttered. Like “Ten men play harder than eleven” or “Always back the outsider in a three horse race”. Archaic wisdom from another age—after all there were no horses anymore outside of a zoo—but sometimes there was a kernel of some greater truth ensconced within those words, but even if there hadn’t been he would still have missed them, still have missed his dad.

Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time might have been the wisest of them all though, and maybe the one Jack should have paid closest attention to whilst growing up, but children rarely pay enough attention to their parents, and boys especially to their fathers, and he hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the consequences when opportunity arose.

They ended up being called simply the October Riots, the third instance of spontaneous civil disobedience that year. People became almost blasé about them.

The cause was never fully explained. Maybe it was down to the undertrained constable who hit some old biddy with a plastic bullet as he tried to disperse a group of stone throwers. Certainly the rioters claimed that was the spark, but everyone had an angle; the Tories blamed the increase in numbers claiming welfare, mainly Scottish migrants, whilst Democratic Labour blamed the Tories for cutting the value of the welfare stipend. Socialist Labour, meanwhile, blamed Democratic Labour because they always did, and as usual the whole thing descended into a DL/SL slanging match which allowed the Conservatives to push another welfare cap through parliament.

None of this mattered to Jack, he’d only ventured out because of curiosity. He wanted to see what was occurring, and he’d taken any excuse to venture outside back then, he hated feeling hemmed in, loved fresh air and wide open spaces, even rain rarely deterred him.

He wasn’t completely stupid however, like a sensible tourist at Pamplona he was content to watch the action from the side-lines; he had no intention of actually running with the bulls.

He hadn’t been alone in this, around the periphery of the violence a curious, carnival atmosphere sprang up. People brought their drinks out from the pubs, street vendors relocated from other areas and started doing a roaring trade. Even when a police sweeper exploded it didn’t dent the mood, instead people treated the flames cast into the air from the detonation like an impromptu firework display.

Gradually the lines between rioters and riot-watchers blurred and, like a sailor hearing a siren song, Jack found himself tantalised into drawing closer to the rocks. One minute he was downing a bottle of beer and dancing with a cute redhead, the next he was clambering in through a smashed storefront along with several others, passing more who were already clambering out the other way, clutching stolen booty tight to their chests.

The shop had been one of the few still operating on the high-street, and the irony was that if he’d been caught up with the crowds who broke into the empty shops either side his sentence would have been lighter, because he wouldn’t have actually stolen anything. As it was when the police nabbed him he had a rolled up scroll under each arm. Irony number two was the fact that they were last year’s model, barely worth anything second hand, inferior even to his cheap Brazilian import.

The stupidity of his crime didn’t serve as any kind of mitigation, and neither did his previously spotless record. Messages needed to be sent, examples made. All the fact of this being his first offence brought him was the option of something called “nuanced incarceration”. An option he jumped at because the idea of going to an actual prison scared the hell out of him.

Idiot.

It was odd to put shoes on; he mostly went around barefoot, and though they were old and well-worn they pinched tight as new shoes now. He’d taken a shower for the first time in days, already invigorated by the thought of freedom the hot water roused him further. He ate his heartiest breakfast in weeks.

As he walked towards the door his mind wandered. Where would he go, how long could he stay free, what would the authorities do when they caught him? He already knew they would, he had no money, no identification, and wasn’t remotely suited to the life of a fugitive. To stay free would entail either becoming an actual criminal, and taking what he needed from others through guile or force, or else dropping out of society altogether. Neither option appealed. He wasn’t tough enough for a life of crime, and he liked comfort too much for the life of a downout, and even if he could bear it, downouts were becoming scarcer all the time, so he’d stand out like a sore thumb unless he ventured south to the Cornish Wastes.

And why on earth would anyone choose to do that?

No, he would be caught quickly, but his hope was that by virtue of escaping his incarceration the authorities would send him to a real prison. Odd that suddenly a life of locks and lags didn’t seem so bad.

He’d turned these thoughts over and over a thousand times before, and nothing new came of today’s cogitations, but that hadn’t been the point, he’d just wanted to distract himself from the feelings of dread that crawled over him like ants as he neared the door.

It didn’t work. Each step was a struggle. The urge to turn back, to just curl into a ball on the floor, was strong. Palpitations started. His heart began to pound and his chest seemed to tighten around it. But he fought on until he reached the door to his prison.

Except it wasn’t really the door to his prison. It was the door to his flat. The door to his prison was buried deep inside his mind.

He got as far as putting his hand on the latch, but he couldn’t bring himself to disengage the bolt. Dark terrors were pulling hard against him now: the fear was rising as panic threatened to overwhelm him.

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t even open the door, let alone step… outside. He knew it was irrational, but he was convinced that if he did all would be lost. The world would swallow him, he’d be engulfed within its vast emptiness like a single drop of rain within an ocean. He needed to stay safe, needed comforting walls around him.

He stepped back. The panic eased, and his heart began to calm. By the time he reached his bedroom he felt himself again, though this was no benefit. In the absence of fear there came only shame.

Nuanced Incarceration. In a time of austerity, of quadruple dip recessions, it was the latest thing. Cheaper than prison, more humane too, if you believed the hype. Jack didn’t, not anymore. What was the American term; cruel and unusual.

The particular punishment strand of Nuanced Incarceration Jack had volunteered for was called ICA; Induced Custodial Agoraphobia. Induced initially in Jack’s case by several hypnotic sessions and reinforced by regular, mandatory injections of a benzodiazepine derivative.

They said it was reversible, but somehow Jack suspected his three year tariff as a prisoner in his own home might turn out to be a life sentence.

He wanted desperately to cry, but sobbing required energy, and just getting to the front door had left him frail and weak, so he crawled under the duvet and let himself drift off to sleep, even though it wasn’t yet three in the afternoon.

In the instant before consciousness faded he took comfort in a tiny spark of defiance buried deep inside him that, despite lacking the oxygen of hope, somehow continued to burn.

Tomorrow he would escape from prison.

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