Archive for October, 2018

The Treat

Posted: October 31, 2018 in Free fiction, horror
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As it’s Halloween, when spooks and ghouls go out to play, I thought it only fair to gift you a tiny tale of terror…enjoy, and when you open the door to Trick or Treaters tonight, well maybe you’ll wonder…

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I like Halloween, it’s the one night of the year I feel safe going out.

If I walk up to someone’s front door on Halloween night they don’t cringe or scream when they open the door, don’t shut it in my face and turn out all the lights. No, on Halloween they smile at me, they talk to me, complimenting me on my costume, asking how I create such a vivid effect. I talk about using my mum’s makeup, and charcoal, lots of charcoal. Does this convince them? I don’t know, there’s a flicker in their eyes sometimes, as if they understand but can’t consciously bring themselves to accept that understanding, so they joke and give me candy.

I can’t taste the candy of course, but the wrappers are pretty.

Usually the other children play with me. It seems a different group each year, though it’s hard to tell when they’re all dressed up as witches and vampires. They’re happy for me to tag along with their little gang, though I have to be careful, if they ask who I am I stick to a first name only, never my own, and if they ask where I go to school I tell them I’m at boarding school far away.

I can’t very well tell them my school is St Michael’s, because St Michael’s burned down in 1976, the only casualty a nine year old girl who’d been playing with matches.

I stay with the other kids until they start to drift away, until they all head home. I used to stick it out to the last, until there’d be me and one other child left, but I don’t do that now. Somehow once a kid is alone with me they recognize me for who I really am, as if there’s some group hypnosis at work that keeps us all safe and happy, but only so long as we’re together. It isn’t much fun seeing one of your new friends running away from you screaming, and it isn’t fair on them; Halloween isn’t a time for real scares, it’s a time for pretend terrors.

On Halloween night I skip and play and laugh. On Halloween night I have friends, I have fun, and I almost forget…

But then midnight comes and I trudge away from bright lights and people. Midnight comes and I go back to the graveyard.

Until next year…

 

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Halloween

Posted: October 27, 2018 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by David Gordon Green. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer and Andi Matichak.

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Door to door salesmen get more intrusive by the year!

It’s forty years since Michael Myers returned to Haddonfield and murdered five people, forty years since Laurie Strode (Curtis) survived her own fateful encounter with The Shape.

Michael now lives in a mental institute. He can speak but chooses not to. Meanwhile Laurie struggles with PTSD, and has become obsessed with Michael someday returning. She’s turned her home into a fortress and trained herself to fight, although this obsession has come with a cost and her relationship with her daughter Karen (Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Matichak) is strained.

When true crime bloggers Aaron and Dana ( Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) visit Michael they show him his mask. Whilst there seems to be some sign that he senses the mask, he still says nothing. Michael’s physiatrist Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer—or Mehmet from EastEnders as some may remember him!) explains that Michael is due to be transferred to a maximum-security facility the next day.

Of course with it being almost October 31st it isn’t long before Michael escapes. Soon he’s headed for Haddonfield to wreak carnage once more, only this time Laurie will be ready for him.

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Knife to see you, to see you knife!

The Halloween franchise has a confused timeline, with sequel upon sequel upon reboot, so in many respects the decision to jettison everything after the first film, making this effectively Halloween 2 mk.2, seems a sensible one, although there are nods to the other films, in particular the original Halloween 2 which revealed Laurie was Michael’s sister (just an urban legend here). The downside of this is that it neuters Michael somewhat. Suddenly he’s not a supernatural force of nature who’s slaughtered hundreds, now he’s just a psycho who killed five people and was caught not long after Dr Loomis (the late, great Donald Pleasance) shot him and watched him fall from a first floor window. The ending of Halloween is a masterstroke of terror, heavily implying that Michael is something not quite human, now it seems he was caught with ease five minutes later, and one of several problems the film has is that Michael’s lost that sense of otherworldly dread he once had, and as horror movies go Halloween 2018 commits the cardinal sin of just not being scary.

Which isn’t to say it’s a terrible film, and isn’t to imply that I didn’t enjoy it, but it would have been nice if it had played more like a horror film and less like a Terminator 2 knockoff. Unkillable antagonist, check, survivor of an original encounter who’s gone from naïve young woman to hardened killing machine, check, child of said survivor who thinks mom’s just nuts, check…you get my drift.

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As an action thriller Halloween works well enough, and its clearly made by people who have a great affection for the original, and there are many nods to the first film, including clever reversals of iconic images (remember Laurie looking out of the window and seeing Michael across the road, well now we get Allyson seeing Laurie standing sentinel over the road) that help lift the film above being just another slasher film, and of course it’s great to hear the Halloween music again and see Michael on the big screen.

It’s a gory film, yet the increased body count does mean that a lot of Michael’s kills seem somewhat repetitive. Sure you can overdue the inventiveness to the point where it becomes laughable, but after you see Michael ram someone’s head into a wall/steering wheel/whatever multiple times it becomes a trifle boring, and too many kills seem to happen off screen as well which is a little strange (although even in the original this happened).

The cast are good and the #metoo notion of daughter, mother and grandmother coming together to battle the faceless patriarchy seems incredibly prescient given the film’s production started way before Weinstein et al.

imagesCurtis is superb, and this really is her movie, and you have to give props to a film with the balls to make a woman of nearly 60 an action hero (I mean you shouldn’t because it shouldn’t be any more ridiculous than turning Liam Neeson into the most dangerous man alive, but that’s sadly the current nature of Hollywood, though thankfully times are changing). Curtis does an excellent job of making Laurie strong and defiant, yet incredibly brittle. She wants Michael to come back so she can kill him, but she’s also still traumatised by her earlier encounter. We believe she can shoot a bullseye from half a mile away, but we can also believe she wakes up screaming in the night. If anything I wish she’d been given even more to get her teeth into. Similarly with Greer who should have got more to do (though I do think she has the film’s best moment) As Alysson Matichak is very good, and thankfully Alysson feels like her own person rather than just being a cheap copy of 1978 Laurie.

Special mention to Virginia Gardner as Vicky and Jibrail Nantambu as Julian, the little boy she babysits, who have such a affectionately snarky relationship that for a while you kinda wish the film was about them. And it’s always nice to see the ever-reliable Will Patton, here playing Deputy Hawkins, the only local cop (improbably) who takes Michael’s return seriously.

The script feels a trifle confused, and whilst some of the direction is very good in evoking moments from the original, at times it’s very flat, which feeds into the lack of atmosphere which is the film’s biggest downside. It doesn’t even have many effective jump scares because they’re telegraphed so far in advance. Even the ‘twists’ aren’t that unexpected.

As an exercise in nostalgia, and an acting canvas for Jamie Lee Curtis this is excellent, as a female led action thriller it’s good, but as a horror film it fails miserably, which is a shame because if they’d actually managed to give this film a palpable sense of dread it could have been a true classic rather than an enjoyable but ultimately forgettable curiosity.

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After 40 years Michael finally feels comfortable coming out of the closet…

First Man

Posted: October 16, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy.

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He looks like a nice guy…

In 1961 test pilot Neil Armstrong (Gosling) is flying the X-15 rocket plane, but after near disaster he’s grounded. It’s another blow on top of the trauma he and his wife Janet (Foy) are already struggling with because their daughter, Karen has a brain tumour.

In the aftermath of tragedy Armstrong applies for NASA’s Project Gemini, a precursor to the Apollo programme. Armstrong and his family move out to Houston where they quickly become friends with his fellow astronauts and their families.

As training progresses Armstrong is chosen to fly on Gemini 8, but every man sees Gemini as only a stepping stone, every one of them wants to go to the moon and Armstrong is no exception, but the earliest era of the space race is a dangerous time and for all their scientists and engineers, NASA are pushing the envelope in terms of what is possible. As accidents and tragedy befall the group, and Armstrong withdraws further and further into himself, Janet has to accept the very real possibility that her husband might fly to the moon, it isn’t certain that he’ll come back.

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It was a bad time to need a pee!

After the delight of La La Land it’s interesting to note that Damien Chazelle’s follow up is a very different kind of film, and even though he’s retained the services of Gosling, the locked down astronaut Armstrong is a very different character to laid back jazz aficionado Sebastian.

It’s been three days since I saw First Man, and it’s fair to say that it’s still haunting me. Chazelle has managed a rare feat, a film that, on the surface, is an epic tale of the race to the moon, but which underneath is an incredibly intimate character portrayal of one man’s struggle with grief and solitude.

For all that he was seen as an all-American hero, the reality of Neil Armstrong was something more nuanced. Here was a man who didn’t like being the centre of attention, who was incredibly introverted and who struggled to express his grief, bottling it up and retreating further and further into his work, and Gosling is just amazing. He’s awkward and insular, a man unable to tap into his emotions—in one scene he explains to his children that he might not make it back from the moon, but talks to them like he’s chairing a meeting. In another scene he bluntly explains to one of his friends, who asks if he wants to talk, that the reason he suddenly left a funeral was because he wanted to be alone.

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Suddenly Claire realised she wasn’t in Charlies’ Angels 3 after all!

It’s Foy as Janet who is our way into his life, and she continues to impress as an actress. In many ways it’s a thankless role, and yet an essential one to ground the drama, and often it’s Foy who’s left to express our exasperation, whether it’s decrying NASA as a club for schoolboys building toys out of balsa wood, or insisting that Armstrong talk to his children before he heads off to what could be his final mission. If there’s a misstep in the film it’s that she disappears during the Apollo 11 mission, I can understand why Chazelle did this, but her absence is notable.

The supporting cast is solid, in particular Jason Clarke is good as fellow astronaut Ed White, and Corey Stoll seems to be having a blast as Buzz Aldrin, who’s portrayed as something of a loudmouth, and is the perfect counterpoint to the buttoned-up Armstrong.

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Kept expecting Blofeld’s rocket to sneak up behind it!

The true wonder of this film is in Chazelle’s direction and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography however, and in fact the whole crew deserve credit for putting something so stupendous on the screen. The effects are amazing, and spaceflight in the 1960s in shown in all its cobbled together glory. The Gemini and Apollo space craft may look ultra-modern from a distance, but they’re not the sleek craft of science fiction, they’re metal and they’re clunky, bolted and riveted together like handstitched jeans, and when one technician asks if anyone has a swiss army knife just before take-off so he can fix something this makes perfect sense. Chazelle doe an amazing job of putting us in the capsule with Armstrong, and it isn’t glorious or heroic. It’s cramped and noisy, and when they launch the craft rattles so hard that it feels like it’s going to shake apart, and it’s bought brutally home to us that these men are strapped into tiny metal coffins that are jammed onto the top of rockets full of highly flammable liquid. Spaceflight is brutal, and for some of the astronauts it may be fatal.

Still, seeing the Gemini capsule in space, or the lunar lander approaching the moon, there’s a real sense of awe unlike anything I’ve seen before, and in particular the lunar scenes are just incredible.

But this is a film about claustrophobia, and Chazelle uses hand held cameras to film his stars in close-up to empathise this. It’s also film about solitude, and it’s clear even before he travels hundreds of thousands of kilometres to the moon that Armstrong is detached from the rest of the human race, shut off behind a façade to hide his grief.

There’s a moment, on the moon, that revolves around nothing more than Armstrong lifting his visor and then lowering it again, yet it’s an incredibly evocative moment that brings the whole story together, even before we get to a final scene that reinforces everything we’ve come to realise about Armstrong.

It maybe could have done more to show the work of those women and persons of colour at NASA who played their part, but this may have detracted from the focal point of Armstrong, and it is a long film. It’s also somewhat slow at first, but rewards your patience. An incredible film that’s been put together with the meticulous care of a Saturn V rocket, and I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t win big at the Oscars (but then again, I thought Dunkirk would so what do I know!)

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Fly me to the moon…

A Star Is Born

Posted: October 11, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Bradley Cooper. Starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.

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Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a famous country music star suffering from tinnitus who has a major alcohol problem. After one concert he’s so desperate for a drink that he gets his driver to drop him at the nearest bar, a drag club where he sees Ally (Gaga) perform La Vie en rose. Enraptured by her talent he talks to her after the gig and learns that she’s never been able to break into the music business because of her looks. They talk and sing together and he invites her to one of his concerts where he convinces her to sing on stage with him.

Ally proves a hit on social media and the two fall in love. As time passes she gets a manager and a record deal, but as Ally’s star rises Jackson’s falls and his drinking becomes more and more of a problem…

And so the 4th (or maybe 5th as there’s a Bollywood iteration) version of this story hits our screens, following on from the 1937 original and the 1954 and 1976 remakes. As far as I can tell the basic story has remained the same, though obviously the setting and the players changed each time.

This time it’s the turn of debutant director Cooper and debutant (in a leading role) actor Lady Gaga, and the first thing to make clear is that if you walk in with certain expectations about either of them, prepare to have them blown way, because both are very, very good in a multitude of ways. It’s clear Gaga can sing, but she can also act, as for Cooper not only can he act, but he can sing too, and direct…oh yeah, and he co-wrote the script and several of the songs.

On many levels A Star is Born is a broad, predictable film, but that’s not to demean it, far from it, taking an age-old story and reimagining it well takes talent, and one hopes this isn’t the last time we see Cooper in the director’s chair, or Gaga swap singing for acting.

I’ve been a fan of Cooper’s since he starred as Jennifer Garner’s best friend in Alias, surprisingly not playing the romantic lead. Suffice to say he’s been somewhat pigeonholed since then as the charming pretty boy, but here he clearly demonstrates there’s more to him that that million-watt smile. As Jackson Maine he’s all greasy and gravelly, with a voice that sounds like it’s the product of a million cigarettes, a million whiskies, and a million songs. He’s a broken drunk, albeit a high functioning one, most of the time, and he utterly convinces as a guy thousands would pay to see sing on stage.

As Ally, Gaga eschews the makeup and kooky outfits (at first at least) to effectively play the girl next door, the self-conscious woman with talent who’s too plain to make it. She does this so effortlessly that you’ll forget all about the million selling artiste. There’s a naturalness to her performance that’s honest and refreshing, and if there’s a flaw to her performance it’s that as the movie progresses she becomes less and less Ally, and more and more and more Gaga, but then that’s probably the point.

A STAR IS BORNAlthough it’s a two hander, it’s worth mentioning Sam Elliott as Jackson’s brother. He does sterling work with limited screen time, and I sincerely hope that Cooper, Gaga and Elliott all find themselves with Oscar nominations come next year.

The direction is exceptionally assured, and I really enjoyed the music, at its heart though is the romance between Jackson and Ally, and Cooper and Gaga sell it for all it’s worth. They have natural chemistry, and it helps that the relationship is flawed (as all are) rather than some fairy-tale romance, and in the end you can’t help but realise that each character has selfish reasons to make the romance work. For Jackson it’s the reinvigoration of his love of music, whilst for Ally it’s clearly an opportunity to make a career doing what she loves. It’s to the film’s credit that it never tries to sugar coat each character’s ulterior motives and makes it clear that their romance goes beyond these reasons anyway.

If the film does have a flaw it is in how broad it is, take for example Ally’s manager who’s straight out of central casting and acts exactly how you’d imagine a weaselly record producer to act, but this aside it’s a great film which proves that a simple story told well still has the power to engage and move an audience.

Forget a star is born, I think we’ve just seen several stars born.

Highly recommended.

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The Little Stranger

Posted: October 2, 2018 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter and Charlotte Rampling.

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It’s a few years after World War 2, and England is gripped with post war austerity. Dr Faraday (Gleeson) has returned to the village he grew up in to work as a GP in the local practice. Very soon he’s called out to Hundreds Hall, the home of the Ayres family. Faraday’s mother worked there as a maid, and he has vivid memories of the house in its glory days, specifically a visit to the house he undertook as a child in 1919. Things have changed though, the house is in disrepair and the family are in financial straits thanks in part to the new Labour government’s death duties.

Nominally the head of the household is Roderick Ayres (Poulter) an RAF veteran who was horribly disfigured in the war, but in reality keeping the family together is his sister Caroline (Wilson). Their mother (Rampling) still dotes on her dead daughter, Suki and both Roderick and the family’s maid Betty (Liv Hill) feel there is a supernatural presence in the house.

Faraday doesn’t believe in ghosts, but as one tragedy after another befalls the family, can there be any other explanation?

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The follow up to the impressive Room, Abrahamson’s latest film as it once very different, yet bears certain similarities. Room was a contemporary story about a young woman and her son held captive, and on the surface a tale of post war austerity, class and the supernatural seems very different, except much as Bria Larson and Jacob Tremblay were held captive to an outside force, so are both the Ayres and Faraday.

Faraday is a man trapped by his own pride, the son of a working class family he’s made a success of his life, yet can’t help but feel like the help, like he doesn’t belong, and Gleeson plays the part to a tee. Ramrod straight, his accent as clipped as his moustache, Faraday is trying desperately to fit in with the upper class that he envies so much, and it’s testament to Gleeson that he manages to make Faraday both empathetic and yet somewhat creepy at times, a delicate balancing act meant to keep the viewer off kilter. Faraday is obsessed with Hundreds Hall and its former glory, to the point of acting like a jealous lover at times, and his every act, good and bad, can be linked, directly or indirectly to his infatuation with the house.

Bette-Liv-Hill-and-Caroline-Ayres-Ruth-Wilson-in-the-Little-Stranger-a-Focus-Features-release-600x320.jpgCaroline is a prisoner too, to her family having been brought home to care for Roderick, and to society’s idea of a woman’s place in the world. Wilson gives a superb, incredibly subtle performance, better even than Gleeson. It’s never explicitly stated, but there’s a clear suggestion that Caroline may be a lesbian, and here again she is captive to the conventions of the late 1940s.

And then there’s Roderick, imprisoned by his injuries, both physical and psychological, and Mrs Ayres, longing for her dead daughter.

The Little Stranger is gloriously shot, but it’s an incredibly slow burn of a film that won’t appeal to everyone. Marketed as a horror film it’s likely to annoy the jump scare generation by relying on more subtle chills, although at times you can’t help feeling the film is a little too nuanced for its own good, and maybe even a little snooty over its more supernatural elements, preferring to work as a class driven melodrama for much of its run time, to the point where, a few early comments aside, any indication of an actual haunting comes late on in the film.

Of course, the slow pace means that scares can creep up on you, there’s an unsettling air hanging over the house and the characters, and though it only gave me a shudder on a couple of occasions, they were quite creepy moments. As a film this owes more to The Haunting than Nightmare on Elm Street, although there are a couple of surprisingly bloody scenes.

The film’s done poorly at the box office, and whilst on one level I can see why (in many respects, like Faraday the film’s too stiff for its own good) in some respects it’s shame because there’s a haunting quality to the film that rewards a careful watch, even if Abrahamson chickens out a little at the end by explicitly showing just who’s really haunting the house, which was unnecessary because you can work it out from the clues you’re given.

A well-acted, well directed film that suffers from a glacial pace and more than a hint of embarrassment at its supernatural credentials, I hope this might turn out to be a film that’s reappraised with time.

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