Archive for October, 2015

No Tricks, just Treats

Posted: October 31, 2015 in Film reviews, horror
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It’s Halloween, one of my favourite times of the year, and a great time to watch scary movies, so in case you’re struggling to decide what to watch, I thought I’d offer a few suggestions culled from my list of all-time favourite horror films. Whether you want something creepy and cerebral, something gory to make you jump, or something to just make you giggle, hopefully you can find something on this list to appeal…

The Haunted House film

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The Haunting (1963)
“Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.”

Robert Wise’s cinematic version of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel sees paranormal investigators stay at Hill House, a house that was “born bad”. Featuring a stunning central performance by Julie Harris as the increasingly unhinged Nell, this is a film that relies on performance and atmosphere to create its scares. We never actually see anything, and the film is all the scarier for it. Strange knocks in the night, way the light catches the wallpaper as ghostly voices whisper, skewed camera angles and an iconic scene involving someone’s hand…arguably one of the best horror films ever made, and one of my absolute favourite films. The quintessential haunted house movie.
Under no circumstances watch the 1999 remake starring Catherine Zeta Jones!

The Slasher flick

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Halloween (1978)
“I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.”

It’s arguable whether John Carpenter invented the slasher genre, after all you could argue Psycho is a slasher movie, but whether or not it’s the inaugural slasher flick, Carpenter’s low budget film remains a true classic. There’s barely any blood but the stalking of a group of teenagers by escaped lunatic Michael Myers is truly terrifying. This isn’t some haunted house or remote hotel, this was happening in an ordinary American town to an ordinary bunch of teenagers. With his white mask and boilers suit Myers it eternally creepy, especially when you just catch a glimpse of his face in the shadows. Donald Pleasance is superb as Dr Loomis, selling Myers as a demonic presence, not so much a madman as the living embodiment of the Bogeyman, and in a nice bit of synchronicity with Psycho Janet Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis gives a wonderful debut performance as Laurie.

The Zombie film

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Dawn of the Dead (1978)

“When there’s no more room in Hell the dead will walk the Earth.”

George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is the seminal zombie film, the low budget tale of the dead coming back to live arguably kick-started a subgenre that continues to this day to spawn children, zombie books have never been more popular, and The Walking Dead continues to be one of the best shows in telly. But I’m not here to talk about Night of the Living Dead, because Dawn is that rarest of beasts, a sequel superior to the original.

What made Romero’s films so great was the fact that they were about more than just gore, more than just scares. Night was about racism but Dawn, with its characters taking over an abandoned shopping mall is a wonderful meditation on consumerism. After you see the dead shambling round a shopping centre in a parody of their former lives Christmas shopping will never quite look the same again, and what initially seems like the perfect bolthole, with everything they could ever want, quickly becomes hollow, little more than a prison, few films have as much to say as this.

AND it’s a great zombie film full of action and gore to boot.

Science Fiction Horror

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The Thing (1982)

“Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.”

1982 was the year an extra-terrestrial visitor came to Earth and stole our hearts, but enough about ET, it was also the year that John Carpenter gave us an alien who didn’t want to go home, an alien who didn’t want to be our friend, no, he gave us an alien who wanted to take us over.

Overshadowed by ET The Thing was originally a flop, thankfully the initial critical assessment was soon revealed for the ridiculous imposter that it was. Not since Invasion of the Body snatchers has a sci-fi film traded in so much paranoia. Theoretically a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World, Carpenter’s film is much closer in tone to John Campbell’s original story “Who Goes There”.

The all male cast are fully three dimensional, a catty bunch, bored and getting on each other’s nerves, and probably disliking each other even before there’s the possibility that some of them aren’t them any more, but it’s the effects by Rob Bottin that elevate this. The Thing is a creature that, as the film tells us, could have imitated a thousand creatures on a thousand worlds and might be able to turn into one of them at any time, it is a truly alien foe, and Bottin and Carpenter play with this concept: torsos split open to reveal giant mouths, heads detach and sprout legs before scuttling away and when a character says “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he really is speaking for the audience.

Throw in a great Antarctic setting and Kurt Russell at his world weary, laconic best and you have one of the best, and most fucked up, monster movies of all time.

And finally, something silly

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Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

“In space no one can eat Ice Cream…”
Not particularly scary, and arguably one of the craziest ideas for a movie ever, there’s no denying that this is fun and schlocky horror at its best as a spaceship that looks exactly like a big top lands outside of a small American town and the next thing you know a group of homicidal clowns are terrorising the locals. It’s stupid but so much fun!

Happy Halloween folks!

Sicario

Posted: October 16, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin.

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During the attempted rescue of kidnap victims in Arizona, an FBI hostage rescue team led by Kate Macer (Blunt) make a shocking discovery that seems linked to the Mexican drug cartels. Later that day Kate’s boss introduces her to a Department of Defence advisor named Matt Graver (Brolin) who needs an FBI agent with special weapons and tactics expertise to join a specialised team he has put together with the intention of tracking down one of the most senior cartel bosses.

Kate agrees to join the team and is introduced to the mysterious Alejandro Gillick (de Toro) who may have once been a prosecutor in Mexico, and who may, or may not, be an assassin (Sicario means hitman in Spanish).

Initially Kate is told they’re heading to El Paso, but instead the team cross the border into Mexico to extract a prisoner who they believe can lead them to a man named Diaz, a high level boss who they think can lead them to the head honcho of the organisation, if they can get him rattled enough.

Despite being misled Kate sticks with the team, but it soon becomes apparent that nothing is quite what it seems, and that she’s in way over her head, and when she can’t tell friend from foe can she have any hope of surviving?
I’ll be honest here, there was a moment where I wondered if Sicario was all it had been cracked up to be. Sure there’d been a couple of nice set pieces (though trailers and reviews had kinda spoiled one quite heavily) and the three headliners all appeared to be at the top of their game, but it wasn’t living up to the hype.

And then all of a sudden it was…with a vengeance.

It’s hard to know what point I became transfixed, probably shortly after our heroes decamp to a cowboy bar for some much needed R&R, but from that moment on I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

It’s hard to define just what kind of a film Sicario is. On the surface it’s a thriller come action film, but it’s really so much more than that. With its wide open vistas and gunfights, it feels like a western, whilst at times it veers into territory more akin to a horror film, not so much in its blood and gore as in its tone.

There’s a palpable sense of dread hanging over almost every scene that most horror films can only dream of, and even in the most innocent moments you can’t help expecting something horrible to happen (and often it does).

At times it’s a conspiracy thriller, at others almost a war film, and it isn’t afraid to mash genres together. One eerie scene set inside some tunnels and shot via night vision feels like the director placed the Blair Witch Project and Call of Duty in a blender, yet actually created something palatable at the end of it, and the tension is aided by a stark, terrifying in its own right, soundtrack.

Emily Blunt continues to show that she’s a great actress, flitting from period drama to chick flick, escapist sci-fi war movie to deadly serious indictment of the war on drugs and convincing in every role I’ve ever seen her play. For a film with such a strong female lead Sicario would never pass the Bechdel test, and for all the agency Macer has, for most of the film Blunt is a horrified passenger dragged along for the ride, her tough cynic revealed to be a naive innocent when exposed to the horrible truth about the cartels, and the American agents who fight against them. She is us though, and the horror in her eyes mirrors ours. It’s a great performance.

As Matt Graver Brolin effortlessly channels the relaxed sleaziness of a man who knows he’s doing bad things but has long come to terms with the fact that he’s doing them, he believes, for the right reasons.

It is no disrespect to either Blunt or Brolin however to say that the standout performance belongs to del Toro. Oozing mystery and danger he is urbane one moment, tender and almost fatherly, but is utterly ruthless and horrifyingly brutal the next. It’s a nuanced performance indicating a man who was once decent and noble but who’s stared too long into the abyss and has become as much of a monster as the men he’s fighting. He is superb and I hope his name pops up come Oscars’ time (ditto Blunt).

Finally there’s a nice performance from British actor Daniel Kaluuya (who you might remember from The Fades of Black Mirror) as Macer’s partner. He always impressed me on the small screen and it’s nice to see he’s done very well for himself.

Director Villeneuve, along with renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins has created a mesmerizingly beautiful film here, from wide angle shots of the desert to the overhead shots of the Mexican border, with a river of cars heading towards America, whilst a trickle of vehicles drives the opposite way, and a scene late on of special forces soldiers silhouetted against the sunset is practically worth the price of admission alone. Again one hopes those behind the camera will become associated with golden statutes come next year.

This won’t be a film for everyone; for a film billed as an action movie there are long stretches between set pieces, and some of the gun battles are realistically short lived, but all the more impactful for that. And for a film about the war on drugs the film is surprisingly bereft of showing the impact of drugs on the streets, and aside from a side story featuring Maximiliano Hernández as a Mexican cop we don’t get much of a feel what the other side of the fence is like, although perhaps this is a conscious choice, distancing us from the front line in the same way the Americans are distanced from it, seeing bodies hung from bridges as they speed by in black SUVs, or viewing things from high above via drones and satellites—making it easier to dehumanise the enemy or pretend it’s all one great big computer game.

There’s a slight issue of viewpoint. Blunt is our point of view character, yet at times she’s side-lined so we can follow del Toro and/or Brolin. I wouldn’t go as far as to say this is jarring, but it is noticeable.

In the end though nothing can stop this being a top notch film that manages to be exciting and tense, yet still deliver a message, that the war against the cartels is essentially unwinnable. The closest thing I can compare it to is No Country for Old Men, although the message of Sicario, that this is no country for young women, is much better presented.

Highly recommended.

The Martian

Posted: October 10, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

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If this review seems slightly familiar then it’s because I reviewed the book upon which the film is based a while back. Check out that review, if you’re interested, here.

It’s the near future and the crew of Ares III are 18 sols into their 30ish sol mission. After spending months together on the trip out there the crewmembers have an easy rapport. Everything is going to plan when they receive an update from NASA. The approaching storm they thought was going to be fairly mild is much, much more powerful, so much so that it will necessitate them aborting the mission, lest their MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) be blown over.

As the crew make their way through the storm to the MAV however, flying debris slams into botanist Mark Watney. Unable to locate him, with his suit monitors showing he’s dead, and with the MAV seconds away from toppling over mission commander Melissa Lewis (Chastain) orders them to leave Mars.

Once back in orbit they transfer to the spaceship Hermes and begin the long journey home.

Meanwhile back on Earth the head of NASA Teddy Sanders (Daniels) aided by the mission director Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor) and NASA’s PR spokeswoman Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig . except I didn’t even realise it was here till the end!) delivers the painful news to the worlds media. Mark Watney is dead.

There’s just one problem. Watney is very much alive.

Now alone millions of miles from any other human being, with limited food and spare parts, Mark Watney must find a way to survive, and a way to contact Earth. But even if NASA find out he’s alive, is there any hope of rescuing him?
It’s always a bit of a gamble transferring a novel to the screen, and I’ve often found that whichever one I read or see first tends to be the one that I like best. The Martian follows this pattern, because I have to say that I still prefer the book.

However, to put that in context, all that means is that the film is slightly less brilliant than the book, but it’s still a brilliant film.

What tips the film over from a run of the mill spaceman-in-danger blockbuster into the territory of something a little special is the same thing that tips the book over the line of brilliance as well.

Humour.

As I probably said in my book review (sorry crossover’s kinda hard not to do) the problem I find with most hard science fiction is that it’s all so terribly serious, and hence a trifle dull, with ponderous dialogue and cod philosophising. The Martian jettisons that in favour of character who speak like real people speak, and characters whose response to danger and strife is to crack jokes, and so even more than Interstellar and definitely more than Gravity, The Martian is the best hard science fiction film of the last few years (and yes some of the science is a trifle wonky I know)

The film hinges on a great central performance from Damon. I’ve not always been his greatest fan, but his everyman astronaut is note perfect. In other hands one man wisecracking to the camera might have fallen flat, but Damon delivers his lines with aplomb, essaying a man who clearly knows he isn’t going to make it, but who still refuses to give up and uses humour to keep himself going. When he says lines like: “Mars will learn to fear my botany powers.” It’s hard not to love the guy, and impossible not to root for him.

This isn’t a one hander however. On earth Jeff Daniels proves the necessary gravitas as head of NASA, ably supported by Ejiofor and Wiig, and a whole heap of others. In fact the only character on Earth who doesn’t quite feel right is the one played by Sean Bean, he just seems a trifle off kilter.

Between Earth and Mars of course there’s the Hermes spacecraft containing Watney’s fellow astronauts. They’re all great, and even though some get more to do than others they feel like a team, feel like a family. Special mention must go to Michael Peña who gives his second great character performance of the year, from dumb ass in Ant Man to wise ass here, and his bantering with Watney is a joy, and it says something about the actors involved that two men typing playful insults to one another can break your heart.

But talking of hearts the living breathing heart of the Hermes is Chastain as Melisa Lewis, a woman haunted first by the thought of Watney’s death, and then by the thought that she left him behind, and Chastain makes you feel every stab of guilt that Lewis feels. She convinces not only as an astronaut, but as a leader.

They’re all helped by a script by Drew Goddard that lifts pretty much everything of value out of the book, and doesn’t feel the need to tinker very much at all, except in trimming just how arduous some of Watney’s adventures on Mars are, so growing potatoes becomes a little easier, we don’t see every one of Watney’s trips in the rover, and a very pertinent detour near the end is expunged completely (and rightly so, it’s a long film as it is.) It makes a refreshing change not to see filmmakers dumping everything that made a book great.

Beyond the script and the characters this is most assuredly a Ridley Scott film. He’s always been a visual director, and his eye for an epic shot is evident in almost every scene on Mars or in space. Mars is all expansive vistas, emphasising just how alone Watney is, it’s a beautiful, haunting landscape. Beyond mars the Hermes never looks anything but beautiful gliding through the heavens. Three years ago Ridley Scott went back into space and it wasn’t a rip-roaring success, but what we can learn from comparing Prometheus with The Martian is this, when Scott has a decent script to work with he’s still a great director.

Great direction, wonderful effects, a fantastic and script and brilliant performances. If I was going to be picky I could say it’s a tad too long but really I think the most telling thing I can say is that a film which held no narrative surprises for me still held my attention and kept me on the edge of my seat in places. I heartily recommend you schedule your own mission to mars ASAP.

Agent 6

Posted: October 2, 2015 in Book reviews
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By Tom Rob Smith

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And so we come to the final book in the trilogy of novels featuring Soviet era detective Leo Demidov. I’ve already reviewed Child 44 and The Secret Speech, so while I’ll try to keep spoilers for Agent 6 to a minimum spoilers for the first two books may appear.

The book begins with a flashback to 1950, when Leo was a relatively new agent of the MGB (forerunner to the KGB). The flashback details the first blossoming of romance between Leo and Raisa, the women who’ll become his wife (although romance probably isn’t the right word seeing as one party is quite rightly afraid of the other) as well as introducing the character of Jesse Austin, a black American singer and communist who is visiting the USSR. Leo is one of the agents tasked with ensuring Jesse’s trip goes smoothly (i.e. he gets a sanitised version of life under Stalin).

The story fast-forwards to 1965, where Leo, Raisa and their adopted daughters Zoya and Elena are living a happy, if frugal life in a cramped apartment. Leo’s days as an agent, and the perks that came with it, are long gone and now he manages a factory. Raisa is still a teacher, and has been instrumental in organising a concert in New York that will feature Russian and American children singing together. She and her daughters will be taking part, but Leo is not allowed to go with them. He expresses concerns but still Raisa and the girls go.

In New York however Raisa quickly begins to worry that the concert is being used as a cover for something untoward. Her fears are justified when tragedy strikes, leaving Leo heartbroken and impotent, thousands of miles away. Unable to travel to New York to investigate the crime Leo falls into despair, eventually winding up part of the Soviet occupation force in Afghanistan 15 years later, but finally he may get a chance at redemption, and a chance to find out what really happened in 1965, but that will mean tracking down the mysterious Agent 6…
As you can tell from reading my reviews of the previous two books I loved Child 44, and thought The Secret Speech was generally ok, but nowhere near as good. Sadly the law of diminishing returns kicks in because Agent 6 is the weakest of the three. I wonder if Smith ever envisaged a trilogy or was railroaded into one when Child 44 was such a massive hit. It certainly feels that way.

There are some interesting ideas jammed into Agent 6, but they’re unconnected and are linked only by the most tenuous and contrived of ways.

The first third is good, or at least interesting. Jesse Austin (loosely modelled on Paul Robeson) is an intriguing character, especially in regard to his fall from grace to end up poverty stricken in Harlem in 1965, his downfall engineered in large part by the FBI, here represented most notably by nasty FBI agent Yates. The similarities between Yates and the man Leo used to be are striking, both men undertake horrible acts because they believe it’s in the best interests of their country, and I think it was a smart move by Smith to shift the action to the US, especially during the period in question, because it gives him the opportunity to show that, for all its vaunted democracy, the American security services were just as capable of treating people like animals as their Soviet counterparts. Austin may not have ended up executed or shipped off to a gulag, but his exile into poverty is no less shameful.

The downsides to this opening section are twofold, firstly Leo is conspicuous by his absence, and secondly because the blurb on the back talks about tragedy the reader is just waiting for it to happen so the story can move on.

Sadly the book goes downhill from here. Events in New York leave Leo a broken man, but we get to see very little of this because the story skips forward to 1980 where we find Leo is now an opium addled Soviet advisor in Kabul.

The shift in tone, time and location is exceptionally jarring, and is made worse by the fact that the Leo we encounter bears scant resemblance to the man we’ve been following for two and a bit books. I’m sure Smith thought it was a good idea to utilise Afghanistan, but it feels like you’ve put one book down and picked up a different one written by a different author and featuring different characters and frankly this portion of the book is a chore to read and no amount of Mujahedeen fighters, helicopter gunships and treacherous mountain passes can make it appear anything beyond unnecessary filler.

The finale in New York does perk things up a bit, but that isn’t saying much. Smith has a habit of rushed finales and falling back on happy contrivances, and so it is that, with a few dozen pages to go, Leo learns of the existence of Agent 6 (in fact so do we, the phrase Agent 6 isn’t used until about 50 pages from the end) and discovers the limp and pretty obvious truth about what happened to Raisa.

Agent 6 isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but it’s a sad conclusion to a trilogy that began so strongly. I wish Smith had skipped the Afghanistan stuff and contrived to get Leo to New York in the 60s, the book would have been shorter, punchier and far more consistent. Alternatively it might have been better if Smith had written a book around Jesse Austin, then another book set in Afghanistan, neither of which would have needed to feature Leo, or even be connected to each other, but as it is it feels like he’s taken bits from different jigsaw puzzles and jammed them together simply because he was contractually obliged to write a third book and couldn’t decide which idea to use so settled on all of them!
He’s a good writer but can and does need to do better.