Archive for September, 2016

Blair Witch

Posted: September 30, 2016 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Adam Wingard. Starring James Allen McCune and Callie Hernandez.

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This time she was determined to get photos of the teddy bears’ picnic.

Even though it’s been 20 years since his sister Heather disappeared in the woods near to Burkittsville, James Donahue (McCune) hasn’t given up hope that she might one day be found. When he finds video footage online that seems to show Heather inside a dilapidated house in the woods he persuades his friends Peter and Ashley (Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid) along with film student Lisa Arlington (Hernandez) to accompany him to Burkittsville. There they meet up with Lane (Wes Robinson) who is the man who found the video and posted it online. Lane agrees to show them where he found the tape, but only if he and his girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry) can tag along.

The six travel into the woods, taking with them all manner of modern technology, including GPS trackers, walky-talkies and even a drone. After their first night camping out they awake to find a multitude of stick figures hung around their campsite. When it becomes apparent that someone might be playing a prank on them the group decide to head back to their cars, but despite several hours walking in a straight line they find themselves back where they started.

Soon they will experience the wrath of the entity that lives deep in the lonely woods, the eponymous Blair Witch, and all the modern technology in the world might not be enough to save them.

 

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The Blair Witch is so scary she’ll turn your hair purple!

Blair Witch is a sequel that came out of nowhere. It’s working title was The Woods, a deception designed to obfuscate its true nature as a sequel/reboot of the 1999 original, The Blair Witch Project, a film which, though it wasn’t the first such film, kick-started the found footage genre that continues to this day.

I’ve always been a big fan of the original film, though I’ve never seen the somewhat derided sequel, but I was wary of a direct sequel set twenty years after the original, especially when it transpired that it might be something of a re-tread of the original.

The first thing to say about Blair Witch is that, odd as it may seem, the film this most reminds me of is the Force Awakens, insofar as it is a sequel that follows many story beats of the original, with similar things happening to new characters. The similarity ends there for whilst The Force Awakens is magnificent, Blair Witch is nowhere near as good—which isn’t to say it’s bad.

The biggest difference between this and The Blair Witch Project is in its production. The 1999 original was pure guerrilla filmmaking, with Myrick and Sanchez sending three unsuspecting young actors into the woods with only a vague script and then proceeding to genuinely scare the shit out of them. There is a visceral, realistic edge to The Blair Witch Project which the sequel lacks. Blair Witch is far slicker, it’s clearly scripted rather than improvised and this ensures a better quality of performance from the actors. This means it loses the raw brilliance of the original, but the flipside is that Blair Witch feels more coherent.

For saying that the film steers so closely to the original, it’s testament to the production that it works as well as it does. It relies on many elements of the original; a sense of dread, an unseen threat, lots of running through the trees in the dark being chased by something…in fact there’s little the film does that is very different, though when it does deviate from the original’s path through the woods this leads to several of its best moments. There’s some gruesome body horror that unfortunately doesn’t lead to any real payoff, some nicely claustrophobic scenes that are again let down by the lack of a punchline, but there’s a moment perhaps two thirds of the way through that is truly original and one hell of a shock. The real shame is that there isn’t more of this.

The original film was notable for its expanded universe; webpages and books that told us more about the Blair Witch, about Elly Kedward and Coffin Rock and Rustin Parr, and Blair Witch builds upon what has been told before (though there is some nice moments when Lane explains that there are other theories out there and that what we took for fact might just be conjecture). The film almost makes more of the fact, only alluded to in the original, that those haunted by the Blair Witch can find themselves out of temporal sync, and at times the film veers close to becoming a time travel movie (and it has to be said a good one at that).

From my perspective a film that doesn’t show much tends to keep my attention focused, because I’m constantly trying to spot something in the background, but be warned, if you suffer from motion sickness this might not always be an easy watch.

The performances are decent enough, and though it relies on too many jump scares there is a genuine creepiness to it. The opening fifteen minutes are awful, but once the group make it to the woods the film gets a lot better. The incredibly deranged reappearances of one character are a trifle too hammy, and the finale inside Rustin Parr’s house starts well, segues into a nice roller coaster scare ride, but then goes on too long and ends up slightly tedious.

It’s scary, but nowhere near as scary as The Blair Witch Project, and it offers very little that’s new, but as found footage horror films go it’s actually quite good, and it takes care not to trample on what made the original great. If you go down to the woods today you might not find a big surprise, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be disappointed with what you do find.

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The gang had a horrible feeling that this wasn’t Glastonbury…

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Posted: September 23, 2016 in Book reviews
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By Renée Knight

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Documentary filmmaker Catherine Ravenscroft finds a book titled The Perfect Stranger on her bedside table and though she can’t remember how she acquired it she starts reading it. All too soon she realises that she is the subject of the book, renamed as ‘Charlotte’. The novel is a fictionalised account of events that happened 20 years ago after her husband Robert had to come home early from a family holiday, leaving Catherine alone in Spain with their 5 year old son Nicholas. What happened in those few days in Spain is a secret Catherine has told no one in the last twenty years, but now the book proves just the start of a campaign by retired teacher Stephen Brigstocke who is determined that Catherine should pay for what happened back then. As her life begins to fall apart can Catherine save herself from the deadly fate that befalls her literary counterpart Charlotte, or will Stephen get the revenge he feels he is owed?

 

I picked this up because it had an interesting premise. What would happen if you began reading a book and quickly realised that it was about you, and in particular about a dark secret from your past? I wasn’t seduced by the “It’s the new Gone Girl!” label on the cover (mainly because I’ve never read GG, only seen the film) but that should have given me some warning. As a rule of thumb books that tell you how brilliant they are on the front cover rarely are, especially when they compare themselves to something else.

My first problem with the book is that it took me a little while to get into it. The narrative shifts between Catherine and Stephen’s perspective, only Catherine is in the 3rd person and Stephen is in the first person. I’m not sure why this was done, except to provide a contrast between the two points of view, and perhaps because whilst Stephen thinks he knows what happened in Spain, only Catherine would know for sure.

The book also shifts in time, between 2013 and 1993, and it took a little while to acclimatise myself to the shifting perspectives and times. I persevered and the book did become more engaging, and Knight’s prose and structure did hook me somewhat, against my better judgement. I wouldn’t quite call it a page turner, but it did prove a quick read because I wanted to find out what was going on.

The trouble is that what’s going on is pretty flimsy and hangs on a multitude of contrivances, and like a bad sitcom plot everything could be resolved pretty quickly if characters just sat down and talked to one another. I can understand Catherine’s reluctance on one level to dig up a traumatic event, but when a man seems hell bent on ruining your life and possibly even killing you and your son, surely it’s time to bite the bullet. Other characters just believe second hand testimony as if it was gospel, which is especially vexing when late on a certain character seems to have held doubts all along.

I’m sure the author would claim that it’s all about guilt and secrets, and how you get to a point where you can’t reveal what really happened because of the hurt you’ll cause, but in the end it feels like a house of cards, and every narrative trick the author uses seems really obvious in hindsight.

It doesn’t help that not one character is remotely empathetic. Sure towards the end you begin to feel for both Catherine and Stephen, but up to this point neither is that likable, nor is Catherine’s husband or their layabout son. None of them ever felt ‘real’, even Catherine’s job as a filmmaker seems flimsy, like the author just googled the job and then barely took any notes. This is bizarre given Knight herself was a documentary filmmaker for many years.

It’s not terrible, and it isn’t like Knight is a bad writer, I just wish her characters had been warmer and her plot a little meatier. As it is this is an ok book that you can’t help feeling was sold on the basis of an intriguing elevator pitch, but which never quite lives up to its billing.

 

 

 

Bridget Jones’s Baby

Posted: September 22, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Sharon Maguire. Starring Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth and Patrick Dempsey.

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You won’t believe what the cast of Bridget Jones’s Diary look like now!!

On the cusp of her 43rd birthday Bridget finds herself single and childless, a fact her mother chooses to remind her of. At the funeral service for Daniel Cleaver (no Hugh Grant this time I’m afraid) she sees her ex, Mark Darcy (Firth) and his wife. None of her friends is able to help celebrate her birthday, so she spends the evening alone. At least her career is going well, she’s now a television producer and has become friends with her news anchor Miranda (Sarah Solemani).

 

Miranda encourages her to go away for the weekend with her, and Bridget accepts. She’s expecting a classy mini break but Miranda whisks her off to a music festival in the middle of nowhere. Wearing completely the wrong outfit Bridget falls flat on her face in the mud, but is rescued by a handsome stranger, Jack Qwant (Dempsey). Later a somewhat inebriated Bridget accidentally wanders into Jack’s Yurt and the two have sex (as you do!).

Several days later she attends the christening of her friend Jude’s (Shirley Henderson) baby where she meets Mark once more. Mark confesses that he and his wife are getting a divorce, and he and Bridget have sex (as you do!)

Flash forward several weeks and Bridget discovers she’s pregnant. Unable to get a DNA test done whilst she’s pregnant Bridget resolves to involve both potential fathers in her pregnancy, only without telling either man about the other! In this she is helped by her OB/GYN Dr Rawlings (Emma Thompson who also co-wrote the script along with Helen Fielding and Dan Mazar).

Can Bridget keep up the deception? Will she keep her job in the face of a ruthless new boss, and will she find true love with either Mark or Jack, and just which one is the father anyway?

 

A lot’s happened since we last ventured into the world of Bridget Jones. Zellweger took a six year break from acting and returned looking somewhat different, Firth won an Oscar and became a Kingsman, and Helen Fielding wrote a third Bridget book where she killed Mark Darcy off!

With all this in mind, not to mention a 12 year gap since Edge of Reason, I had to wonder whether the old magic could still work.

Well the answer is, I’m very pleased to say, yes it can, albeit with some caveats. As before the beating heart of the film remains Zellweger, who once again makes you forget she’s actually from Texas and convinces as a middle class English girl from the Home Counties, albeit a somewhat romanticised Home Counties. She imbues the character with such genuine warmth that it’s nigh on impossible not to love Bridget, no matter how rubbish she is, though it’s fair to say she isn’t quite the disaster area she once was, but in her mid-40s she’s still not quite got the hang of this adult business: One empathises! Bridget isn’t perfect. She wears the wrong thing, she does the wrong thing, and quite often she says the wrong thing, and despite the somewhat romanticised world she inhabits this continues to make Bridget Jones one of the more realistic movie heroines. It pains me to say it but I’ve never had a James Bond moment, I have had plenty of Bridget Jones’ moments however! Zellweger might look a little different (and whether it’s surgery or just aging who cares) but she’s still the same old Bridge.

The presence of Firth’s uptight Mark Darcy is also of vital import. The film survives quite well without Hugh Grant but it’s hard to imagine it would have been any good without Mark, and yet again Firth proves what a fantastic actor he is, because it takes a lot of talent to imbue such an apparently cold character with so much warmth, but yet again Firth does it, providing a master class in subtlety. Just watch the joy when he discovers he’s going to be a dad, and the pain when he realises it might not be his baby. I don’t know what Fielding thought she was doing killing him off but I’m very glad the film series at least is taking a different path.

As the third corner of the triangle Dempsey tries his best, but whilst Jack is a nicer guy, and a far better potential suitor, than Daniel Cleaver ever was, he lacks Grant’s caddish charm. Of the rest of the cast pretty much everyone from the previous films is back, though their roles are a tad limited—still it’s nice to see Shirley Henderson, James Callis and Sally Phillips again; I just wish we’d seen more of them, and the same applies to Gemma Jones and Jim Broadbent as Bridget’s mum and dad, though Jones does have her moments.

Thompson isn’t in the film much, but the benefit of being one of the writers is that you can give yourself the best lines, and her wily doctor is quite amusing. The standout for me though is Solemani as Bridget’s new BFF. She has good comic timing and a nice line in physical comedy and it’s a shame that she’s increasingly side-lined as the film goes alone.

Plot wise it’s safe to say this is a film that treads familiar ground, and rarely does anything especially unexpected (although there’s a nice double bluff at one stage that did catch me off guard) but that’s not really what you want from this kind of film, you want a warm, familiar, comfortable blanket of a film, and on this level the film succeeds. Contrivances abound but, again, if you ignore these and just go with it the film’s a lot more enjoyable.

The script feels dated. Setting aside the elephant in the room (woman in successful job but only man and baby can make her truly happy) a lot of the jokes riff on things that would have been funnier a year or two ago; social media/cat videos/ hipster beards, and even the Ed Sheerin cameo seems like it would have worked better a couple of years ago. I guess the film had been in development for some time but it’s a shame it couldn’t feel a little more 2016 and a little less 2014!

But still it’s funny, I laughed all the way through and there’s some physical comedy involving a revolving door near the end that’s almost worth the price of admission alone.

This film is warm, funny, loveable and ever so slightly clumsy, much like Bridget herself. I do hope this is the last one though, Bridget deserves to have her happy ending and sail off into the movie sunset.

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“I’m just saying, if you wince it does look a little like Hugh Grant.”

Fifty Years Ago Today…

Posted: September 8, 2016 in Star Trek
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Fifty years ago today NBC aired the first episode of Star Trek. It wasn’t the first episode made, not by a long chalk, Gene Roddenberry had made ‘The Cage’ a pilot featuring Captain Christopher Pike rather than Captain James T Kirk (or is it James R Kirk?) over the winter of 1964/65, but it was famously rejected by NBC for being too cerebral and the episode in its original form didn’t air until the late 1980s (although substantial parts of it were used in the season 1 two-parter The Menagerie).

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Too cerebral? I think NBC were just bighead’ist!

By the time NBC authorised a second pilot Pike (actor Jeffrey Hunter) had jumped ship and the only character to survive from the first pilot was Leonard Nimoy’s Mr Spock (Majel Barrett would return, but as nurse Chapel rather than Number One). The new captain was William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk (though no one knew that’s what the T stood for for a long time!).

Oddly this second pilot—the wonderful Where No Man Has Gone Before— wasn’t aired on 8th September 1966. Instead the first episode anyone outside of the production team saw was The Man Trap, with  Where No Man Has Gone Before airing a couple of weeks later. The Man Trap is, in fairness, best described as a run of the mill episode of Trek, though it does have a few advantages over the second pilot. Firstly the crew are in the uniforms they’ll wear for the entire three season run, more importantly The Man Trap features Deforest Kelley’s Dr McCoy, and even though the triumvirate of Kirk/Spock/McCoy probably wasn’t quite planned at this stage (initially only Shatner and Nimoy got top billing) it’s clear from the off that McCoy will be an important character-heck the episode revolves around him.

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“Gimmie some salt, baby!”

This tale of an alien creature impersonating McCoy’s lost love also sets the tone for plenty of Trek episodes to come; the barren frontier world, long dead civilisations where threat still lurks, alien creatures beyond comprehension, the expendability of redshirts (ok technically none of the expendable crewmen were in red but metaphorically speaking they’re redshirts!) …and it also provides a handy lesson; if your ex comes back on the scene complaining about a lack of salt in his/her diet, RUN!

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Damn it, Janice, stop leading on the salt vampire with your sexy condiments!

Opinions on that first episode were mixed, but I doubt even the most fervent supporter of the show would have thought that, fifty years later, we’d have just seen our 13th Star Trek film at the cinema (Star Trek Beyond) and that we’d be preparing for the arrival of our sixth Star Trek series (Star Trek Discovery, though in fairness it’s the seventh series if you count the animated series).

This is the third big 50th in the last few years. First Bond, then Dr Who and now Trek. As with 007 and Who I was not around at the beginning, but when the BBC began showing Star Trek in the 1970s I was immediately and irrevocably hooked. Some shows from my youth are, in hindsight, a trifle naff but some are still magnificent. Star Trek, along with Blakes 7, falls into the latter category. I could list the naff ones but, oh for the sake of argument let’s just say I’m looking at you Buck Rogers in the 25th Century!

When The Next Generation was announced I had trepidation. A new Star Trek? A Klingon on the bridge? I needn’t have worried and I loved Next Gen (though time has not, I fear, always been kind to it.) Initially I was wary of Deep Space Nine but it rewarded my patience, whilst with Voyager I experienced the opposite reaction, and when Enterprise came along I think I, like many other Trekkies/Trekkers, was somewhat tired and jaded. It was time for a rest.

When in 2009 the movie series was rebooted I was initially horrified at the recasting of Kirk, Spock et al, but I quickly grew to love the new versions of my old favourites (especially Karl Urban’s exceptional take on Bones). And now, fifty years after The Man Trap aired, we’re just a few months away from a new series; Discovery.

But what makes Trek so enduring? In part it’s the notion of a future that hasn’t fallen into dystopian chaos—the 23rd and 24th Centuries are no Hunger Games, instead Trek is one of the few sci-fi franchises that manages to be hopeful about humanity. Beyond this though Trek has the kind of broad storytelling canvas that many storytellers can only dream of. Trek can be thoughtful and cerebral (don’t tell NBC!) but it can also be gritty and action orientated. It can be funny, moving, romantic and, let’s be honest here, downright camp and cheesy. Perhaps only Dr Who comes close in having that expansive kind of pallete. I’ll always love Star Wars, but however great it is the franchise rarely deals with big ideas or with anything controversial in the way Trek has.

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I think they’re trying to tell us something but it may be too subtle to figure out…

Yes the show could be clunky and heavy handed at times, but this was a show that put a woman, and a black woman at that, on the bridge of a starship and mentioned her ethnicity precisely once in three seasons (said mention coming courtesy of an alien representation of Abraham Lincoln.) An Asian man was at the helm, it had an alien science officer, and at the height of the Cold War a Russian! Later series would feature an African American captain, a woman in the centre seat and, yes, women in catsuits, but don’t hold that against it.

Fifty years on Trek still has stories to tell, and as you may have noticed I have a new category on my blog dedicated the Star Trek, so expect a fair few blogs in the coming months, along the lines of ones I’ve done for Bond. I plan to rank the shows, rank the captains and, if I find the time, rank the films.

These are the continuing voyages of the Star Trek franchise, its ongoing mission to go where no one has gone before…

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Oh my God! I only just realised that I picked a Next Gen pic that didn’t feature Beverly Crusher! For shame, Starkey, for shame!

Terminate with Extreme Prejudice

Posted: September 4, 2016 in Book reviews
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By Richard Belfield

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I picked this up second hand for about 50p earlier in the year as it looked interesting (and was obviously cheap). Finally decided to give it a read. It’s written by (I think) a former ITV journalist and it’s quite old now (2005) so parts were out of date—this was written in a world where Gaddafi and Bin Laden were still alive, when British and American troops were still heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, long before the Arab spring  or ISIS.

It’s an interesting read, though at times the author has a tendency to make stories that should be exciting or engaging a little dull. He does delve into the history of assassination, in particular focusing a lot on the Hashashin, the Islamic sect from whom we draw the word assassin, and this part is interesting, especially as it debunks a lot of the myths (that they were drugged and tricked into believing paradise awaited them). There’s also an interesting section on the death of Thomas Becket and whether Henry II had actually wanted him killed when he gave his vague order for someone to rid him of this troublesome priest. There are also interesting references to other historical killings such as one that occurred during the French Revolution, and to the many attempts on the life of Queen Victoria.

On the whole though the book focuses on the twentieth century, for the most part the latter half of the century, but there’s reference to the death of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand. Reading the blurb I had expected a wide ranging discussion of hitmen at all levels, but—aside from some Mafia related killings—Belfield focuses on the use of political assassination, which is fine but a broader take would have been nice.

The Cold War, the KGB and the CIA feature heavily here, and Belfield makes the point that the KGB gave up on assassination after a few high profile failures (several instances where KGB hitmen turned up on the doorsteps of their targets and said “I’m supposed to kill you but I actually want to defect”) whereas the CIA couldn’t stop with the killings, from the activities of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala in the 50s, to the ludicrous attempts in Castro’s life and the killing of South Vietnam’s President Diem.

There’s a heavy focus on the big assassinations of the 1960s (JFK, RFK and MLK) and discussions of patsies, be they Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan or James Earl Ray. The author has a tendency to lean towards a conspiracy theory if one exists which is fine, but such theories are often just that; theories.

Later in the book he’ll lean even more this way; when discussing the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside of the Libyan embassy in the 1980s he pretty much suggests it was a CIA conspiracy, though I’m not sure how much evidence there is of this. Worse is to come of the Princess Diana chapter. He mentions a host of discrepancies in people’s accounts of the evening in Paris, challenges some supposed facts, but though he’s clearly desperate to imply that she was assassinated he never seems able to tie the various threads together, or to offer any coherent theory that wouldn’t require the British government, the French government, the CIA and the paparazzi to all be in cahoots, which seems improbable to say the least, especially given that he’s spent a lot of the book so far telling us how incompetent all these government assassins are, and  that such an attempt on Diana’s life might well have have failed if she’d just fastened her seatbelt.

It’s a shame the book wasn’t written a little later, because whilst he mentions an instance of an Al Qaeda operative being killed by a drone, he obviously predates a time when this would become commonplace. Interesting in part this book is let down by a certain dryness to the prose, and an obvious desire to see conspiracies around every corner. By all means give it a go if you have an interest in the subject, just don’t take it all as gospel.