Archive for the ‘Film reviews’ Category

The Northman

Posted: May 6, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy and Ethan Hawke.

Seen in April

The year is 895 and King Aurvandill War-Raven (Hawke) returns to his kingdom on the Irish coast from his conquests overseas and reunites with his wife Queen Gudrún (Kidman), and his young son, Prince Amleth. Injured in battle Aurvandill decides to bestow his crown on his son and the two undertake a spiritual ceremony. Next morning they’re attacked by Aurvandill’s brother, Fjölnir (Bang) and his men. Fjölnir kills Aurvandill, takes his kingdom and his wife for his own and young Amleth is forced to flee, swearing vengeance on his uncle and vowing to save his mother.

Amleth is raised by a band of Vikings. Now an adult (Skarsgård) he has become a berserker. After helping to subdue a village in the lands of the Rus he encounters a seeress who tells him he will soon have a chance to enact his vengeance on his uncle. Shortly afterwards Amleth learns that Rus slaves are being sent to Iceland, where Fjölnir, now lives in exile having been overthrown. Disguising himself as a slave, Amleth allows himself to be taken to Iceland. On the journey he meets another slave, a woman named Olga (Taylor-Joy) who claims to be a seeress.

Set to work on his uncle’s farm Amleth begins to plot his revenge! 

Following on from The Witch (or The VVitch as its styled, a film I appreciated much more on second viewing) and The Lighthouse (a film I still need to see) Eggers’ third film is a different beast entirely, albeit one that clearly sticks to his artistic integrity. The major change is one of budget. The Northman is a full-on blockbuster with a budget rumoured to be in the $70-90million range, a huge upswing compared to the Witch’s $4 million and The Lighthouse’s $11million and not bad at all for only his third feature length film. It’s fair to say every dime is up there on the screen, from epic battles to sweeping vistas (Ireland standing in for Russia and Iceland) and it’s certainly a full-blooded film.   

Eggers hasn’t compromised his vison however, at least insofar as it comes to authenticity. His evocation of the 9th and 10th centuries feels incredibly real. A time of darkness and dirt, violence and hardship. Likely he’s taken artistic licence but just as likely this is probably as accurate a Viking blockbuster as you’re ever going to get. Much of the dialogue is in English but a fair amount is in Norse with subtitles.

As Amleth  Skarsgård is well muscled and stoic, and one can certainly believe he’s a Viking berserker. Taylor-Joy is an actress I’ve admired since I first saw her in The VVitch (credit to Eggers who manages to include all three of the main players from his debut feature in this film) and she’s good here, although her part feels wafer thin, she’s mainly there to give Amleth an ally, and someone to fight for. I didn’t recognise Bang as Fjölnir until I saw the end credits. He’s good as the bad guy, though perhaps not the character you initially think he is. For me the standout is Kidman however, though much like Taylor-Joy she’s short-changed when it comes to screentime. Still, it’s nice to see her in such a meaty role, and it’s definitely the best performance of hers I’ve seen in a while (and given she’s usually good that’s hardly faint praise) and in respect of her character Eggers does some interesting things. Always good to see Ethan Hawke in anything but this is little more than a cameo sadly.

So great cast, good direction and cinematography and an indie heart married to a blockbuster head.

So why didn’t I enjoy this more?

Partly it’s the story that lets it down. Based upon an ancient legend and it feels old. Seriously, the rightful heir escapes his death as a child and returns as a man to get his vengeance is a story we’ve seen time and time again, and no amount of money can quite make up for a generic plot.

Pacing wise the story trudges at times, and I’ll admit to shuffling in my seat more than once and wondering how long was left to go. The mystical elements don’t quite chime with the grounded nature of the world Eggers has created either. He seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it, and while ambiguity worked well in The VVitch, it jars here. How authentic can the world you’ve created be after all, when the hero has a magic sword that can only be unsheathed at night?

Visually impressive yet something of a slog, this is a film I admired more than I actually liked. Not terrible by any means but this Viking epic didn’t exactly pillage my emotions.    

The Batman.

Posted: April 16, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard,  Andy Serkis and Colin Farrell.

Watched in March.

The vigilante known as Batman (Pattinson) has been fighting crime in Gotham City for two years. Though looked on suspiciously by most in the Gotham City Police Department, he has an ally in Lieutenant James Gordon (Wright). When the mayor is murdered by a criminal calling himself The Riddler (Dano) Gordon involves Batman because the Riddler has left a riddle addressed to the caped crusader.

The Riddler also leaves evidence to suggest the mayor was corrupt and in the pocket of Oswald Cobblepot, known as the Penguin (an unrecognisable Farrell) a lieutenant of crime boss Carmine Falcone (Turturro). As Batman investigates further he crosses paths with car burglar Selina Kyle (Kravitz) who works at Penguin’s club and seems to have a relationship with Falcone.

As the Riddler kills more and more of Gotham’s elite, and reveals more and more dirty secrets, Batman finds himself increasingly isolated, with only Gordon, Selina and faithful butler Alfred (Serkis) for support. But worse is to come, because the Riddler has set his sights on another doyen of Gotham, billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne!

Another year, another Batman! If Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ was effectively Year One, Reeves’ ‘The Batman’ is most obviously Year Two, and while it isn’t perfect it’s still a hugely enjoyable entry into the Batman canon featuring a great performance from Pattinson.

It has to be said that this is a dark Batman film (in all sorts of ways) darker even than Nolan’s entries, riffing on things such as Se7en and Saw. Even more grounded than Nolan’s entries as well, this might be as realistic as Batman ever gets, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (much as I love the gothic exuberance of Tim Burton’s two films). The Gotham City here is grim and dirty, a place you wouldn’t want to visit, let alone live in, and the closest comparable Gotham would be from the excellent tv series ‘Gotham’.

It would be unfair to say this was just an exercise in grimdark however, Reeves is saying something, and Batman evolves over the course of the film, starting as a harbinger of vengeance and ending up as more a symbol of hope.

As Bats, Pattinson is simply superb, eschewing the growl that sometimes made Christian Bale’s Batman seem a trifle silly, and with perhaps the best Batsuit to date (sleek, manoeuvrable and yes that Bat symbol on his chest is probably made from the gun that killed his mom and dad) he’s very, very good, and utterly convincing as a winged avenger. He is perhaps slightly (but only slightly) less successful as Bruce Wayne, but in part that’s because we get to see less of Bruce, and unlike Bale’s Wayne, and perhaps more like Keaton’s, this Bruce shuns the limelight, quite literally, and there’s a wonderful recurring motif that sees Pattinson struggle with bright sunlight because he spends so much of his life in the dark. I walked out feeling like I’d possibly seen the best cinematic Batman (well outside of Lego Batman and Adam West obviously, and I mean all that stops Keaton being number one by a country mile is a suit so rigid it looks like he’s some kind of invalid.  And Keaton remains the best Bruce Wayne by far, and I’ll shut up now!)

As The Riddler, Dano is about as far away from Frank Gorshin’s Riddler as you can get, even a more grounded Riddler like Gotham’s Cory Michael Smith has nothing on this guy. Dano’s Riddler is one part incel, one part serial killer and one part internet troll, and that he has his reasons is never enough to make him remotely empathetic, he’s a monster who delights in horrible murders and in generating fear (which does lead to an interesting comparison with Batman.) Dano is one of those quiet yet brilliant actors who immerse himself in a role and does the simple things very well.

Another actor immersing themselves in a role is Colin Farrell as Penguin, again Reeves plays up the mobster angle and plays down, well, the Penguin aspects. Some people have been sniffy about his performance, but I thought he was very good, of course you could ask why they didn’t just hire a larger actor for the role, but Farrell himself is very good, menacing yet also curiously likeable at times.

This film isn’t just about the Bat of course, it’s also about the Cat, and Kravitz is very good as Selina Kyle, again playing up the cat-burglar aspect of the role and playing down the feline aspects. She’s more Anne Hathaway than Michelle Pfeiffer (or Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt or Lee Meriwether) which makes sense in this film. (Of course this is Kravitz’s second Catwoman because she’s also in the Lego Batman movie!) Perhaps the best thing about Kravitz’s Kyle is how much of a chameleon she is, changing personas as often as she changes her wigs and outfits. There’s definite chemistry between her and Pattinson and she makes for a good foil for Batman.

On paper Serkis should make for a great Alfred, but I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe the fact Bruce and Alfred had a somewhat testy relationship in this film didn’t help. Similarly Wright makes for a good Jim Gordon, but it would have been nice to see him get more agency rather than just being someone there to hold Bats’s cape at times.

Three other things I loved about this. One is the soundtrack which is fantastic, the second is the Batmobile, a souped up muscle car that fits this film’s aesthetic perfectly, and the third is that fact that, for all that Batman skulks around in the dark and punches people really hard, he’s also a detective, an important aspect of the character that’s often overlooked but here it’s front and centre.

Yes it’s a trifle grim, and yes it’s waaaay too long, and yes it falls into that Return of the King/The Last Jedi trap of making you thinking it’s over when there’s still a lot to get through, but despite all this I really, REALLY enjoyed it and I sincerely hope we get to see Pattinson in the Batsuit again.

Nightmare Alley

Posted: February 24, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, and Ron Perlman.

It’s 1939 and Stanton Carlisle (Cooper) buries a body beneath his home before setting fire to the house and heading out on the road. In need of work he links up with a carnival, working initially for a carny named Clem (Defoe), who runs the geek show, and explains to Stan how he lures alcoholics into working as a geek, a broken man who’ll eat live chickens.

Soon Stan is also working for clairvoyant Madam Zeena (Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (Strathairn). Their act relies on a detailed code that passes between them so that Zeena can appear to have psychic powers. Stan begins to pick up some of their skills, and suggests to Molly (Mara) a girl he’s fallen in love with that they could be successful running a similar act.

Two years later Stan and Molly are living in Buffalo and making money as a psychic act performing to the wealthier members of society. Everything is going well until Stan begins to cross the line that Zeena and Pete warned him about, that you should never fool people that the dead can talk to them. Soon Stan is embroiled with an icy psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter (Blanchett) and a dangerous man named Grindle (Jenkins) desperate to connect with his dead lover.

My second cinema trip of the year so far, and a corker of a film from Guillermo del Toro. I wasn’t familiar with the 1940s’ original or William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, but I tend to like del Toro, loved the noir aesthetic and the cast is great, so I thought it was worth giving a go, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It is a tad long, feels somewhat of a film of two halves and if you don’t figure out early on how it’s going to end, well, you probably just haven’t watched as many films as me, but in truth none of this matters because the film is a superb evocation of other times and other places, whether it’s the dirt and grime of the carnival, or the clean modernity of the city, and unsurprisingly there’s more honesty from the carneys than the city folks.

Del Toro’s direction and the cinematography are excellent. It’s a beautiful film to look at, even when it’s showing you something ugly, although the shift from the carnival to the city is a little jarring (but then maybe that’s the point.) From the dirt and grime of the carnival to the veneer of the big city, every frame looks amazing.

People have rightly pointed to Tod Browning’s Freaks from 1932, but I also felt the film had a curious kinship with Blade Runner once Stan ventures to the city. Blanchett’s ice femme fatale feels like a blonde Sean Young, with her coiffured hair and perfectly painted lips, and the art deco skyscraper she has an office in definitely feels like Deckard might walk in at any moment. There’s even a scene with a polygraph that evokes the Voight-Kampff test.

The cast are top notch, led by Cooper who’s come a long way since he was Sydney Bristow’s best mate in Alias all those years ago. He’s a very good actor, and has a rare ability to play both noble yet slightly shabby at the same time, he did it well in A Star is Born and he does it well here. However good the rest of the cast is, this is his movie, and it wouldn’t be half as good without him. 

Blanchett was born to play Lilith, cool and assured yet fragile as glass. Collette couldn’t put in a poor performance if she tried, and she and Strathairn make for an engaging couple. Defoe is very good as Clem, genuinely terrifying when he calmly explains how he grooms potential geeks.

Mara as Molly is perhaps lumbered with a character who’s less interesting, though she’s always important to the plot, and continues to provide a link between Stan and the carnival, even after they move to Buffalo. Credit also to Ron Perlman and Mark Povinelli as a pair of carneys concerned for Molly’s welfare.

As I say it is a long film, and towards the end it starts to feel it, and the shift from, carnival to the city is very noticeable. It’s fair to say I found the first half perhaps a little more interesting than the second, but the film does hang together well, it looks amazing, and the cast are great. It’s a shame it hasn’t done better at the box office, but I do think it’ll pick up some Oscars.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted: February 5, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Jon Watts  Starring Tom Holland Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon and quite a lot of other people…

(Watched in January.)

Back to the cinema again! Quick warning, this review will be spoiler free insofar as the major plot points of the film go, however I will have to talk about the cast, which does include some surprises. Now I think it’s pretty common knowledge who else is in this film, but just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock and really would like to go into this cold, then maybe skip this review until you see the film.

The previous film ended with Mysterio framing Spider-Man for his own murder, and with J Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons the man who was born to play him) revealing that Peter Parker (Holland) is Spider-Man. While Peter is arrested, he’s soon released, although the world is now divided into those who believe him, and those who believe Msyterio’s fake news (feels very relevant doesn’t it!). Not only does Peter’s life become something of a nightmare, but this rubs off on his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Batalon), and when all three are turned down by MIT Peter visits Dr Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch, who I’m liking more and more in the role) to ask him to cast a spell that will make people forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. This seems relatively straightforward but when Peter realises that MJ, Ned and Aunt May (the underused Tomei) will also forget that he’s Spider-Man, he tries to get Strange to alter the spell mid casting.

In the end Strange gives up, but it seems that he’s cast enough of the spell to have an unexpected impact on the multiverse. Rips are forming in the fabric of reality and villains from other universes are bleeding into Peter’s. Faced with a pantheon of evildoers Spider-Man’s going to need some help…

Okay, last chance…

Maybe it’s just the novelty of sitting in a cinema again for the first time since October and Bond, and only the second time since the pandemic hit, but I really really enjoyed this, and given this appears to be the sixth highest grossing film of all time it seems I’m not alone.

Not bad for a film that takes much of its inspiration from the excellent Into the Spiderverse and from that meme of Spiderman pointing at himself, and a film that lifts much of its cast from pre MCU Spidey films made between 2002 and 2014.

Sure, some elements of the plot don’t make a heap of sense when you think about them, but it doesn’t really matter because the film works so well on a visceral, emotional level, and the script and direction are punchy enough that even thought it’s two and a half hours long, it never outstays its welcome.

Holland continues to excel in a role it seems he was born to play, and I hope any rumours of him stepping down are wide of the mark, especially given where Spidey winds up at the end, wearing possibly my now favourite movie costume (side note one thing I’ve always slightly held against Holland’s Spidey is the patronage of Tony Stark and the gadget laden nanobot infused outfits.) Holland is great though, whether it’s as poor put-upon Peter—and he gets some hefty emotional scenes here—or as quippy Spider-Man.

His chemistry with Zendaya is wonderful, but perhaps not too surprising given they’re a couple in real life, and despite not always having enough to do, she does it well, as does Batalon as Ned whose chemistry with Holland can’t be attributed to an off-camera romance!

Cumberbatch has definitely relaxed into the Dr Strange role, though his accent still feels forced, and he has some good scenes with Holland, there’s also an amusing joke at his expense when we learn he’s no longer Sorcerer Supreme. He isn’t in it much, but Benedict Wong is always a joy to watch as Wong.

Now onto the villains, and what a clutch of bad guys our Peter must face. The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Electro, Lizard and Sandman! Some fare better than others, in particular Lizard and Sandman get short shrift, but that’s probably to be expected.

As Norman Osbourne Willem Dafoe is just amazing, and proves that he didn’t need that stupid costume back in 2002, his unmasked face is scary enough when he’s in Goblin mode, and he manages to flip between decent human being and maniacal psychopath with ease. Returning as Doc Ock Alfred Molina is also great, and to be honest Jamie Foxx probably gets a better run as Electro then he got in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Of course, as great as it is to see these bad guys show up, what’s even better is when Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield step through from their own universes.

When it first leaked that Dafoe, Garfield, Maguire and co were playing a part here I surmised, as did most people I imagine, that these would be little more than cameos, but the reality is something altogether much better, they’re in the film a lot, they each get their moment to shine and they’re absolutely not here to just make up the numbers, and the brotherly affection that develops between the three Peters is simply wonderful, especially with regard to Garfield as the somewhat side-lined middle child. Now I always loved Garfield in the role, but his films perhaps weren’t stellar, but here he finally gets to shine, and while unlikely, the notion of us seeing Garfield and maybe even Maguire again as Spider-Man is more films a mouth-watering thought.

There’s also a very funny joke shared between the three relating to the very different powers one Spidey has (I’ll say no more.)

The film’s funny, action packed, emotional, joyous and also heart-breaking, and it’s kinda weird to say given this is, what, Holland’s sixth cinematic appearance as Spidey, but this almost feels like the origin story we never got (with him at least).

Just great on every level, sure the plot maybe needed a bit of tightening up, and yes it is kinda hard to tell our three Spideys apart in the final battle, but minor, minor quibbles. This is amazing, this is spectacular, this is friendly neighbourhood…ok that didn’t work.

It’s great. Watch it!

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung.

The latest in my irregular review series of films I would have seen at the cinema if it wasn’t for this pesky pandemic.

Shaun (Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) are best friends and work as parking valets in San Francisco, they lead a fairly aimless existence which annoys some of their friends. One day on the bus they’re attacked by strangers who are intent on stealing Shaun’s necklace. To Katy’s astonishment Shaun proceeds to fight the gang off, although they do make off with his pendant.

Shaun reveals to Kary that his name is really Shang-Chi and he’s the son of Xu Wenwu (Leung) the head of the clandestine Ten Rings organisation. A thousand years ago Wenwu discovered ten mystical rings which not only granted him immortality, but also God like powers. For hundreds of years the Ten Rings operates as a criminal empire, toppling governments across the world, but then in the late 20th Century Wenwu met Ying Li (Chen), guardian of Ta Lo, a village said to harbour mythical beasts. The two fell in love and Wenwu put away his rings and Li left her village to be with him. They had two children, the eldest of which was Shang-Chi.

Sadly tragedy led to Wenwu resurrecting the Ten Rings organisation. Despite being trained as an assassin Shang-Chi escaped and fled to San Francisco and a normal life. Until now. Fearful that the Ten Rings will go after his sister, Xu Xialing (Zhang) Chang-Chi flies to Macau to warn her, and Katy goes along too. All too soon they’re embroiled in an adventure that could have catastrophic consequences for the world.

Shang-Chi isn’t a character I’m overly familiar with, the notion of the magic rings seemed a little preposterous, even for Marvel, and I’ve never been a huge fan of kung fu movies, and so this idea of seeing this film didn’t grab me as much as some Marvel films have. Of course, I might have once said similar thing about the Guardians of the Galaxy, so you’d think I’d have learned my lesson. Turns out Shang-Chi is a hugely enjoyable film full of action, humour, magic and heart. As the first Asian led Marvel film it’s also a little bit different from what we’ve seen before, although it does follow the Marvel template for the most part, which of course means a giant battle at the end, albeit one that isn’t as soulless as some have been.

Liu is great as the protagonist, a handsome leading man who can clearly handle the physicality of the role, yet who’s also vulnerable and conflicted where it comes to his family.

As his sister Zhang is equally good, especially factoring in this is her first film role (it won’t be her last). This is far from Leung’s first film, he has a huge body of work behind him and he’s excellent as Wenwu, who is more than just another two-dimensional villain. Given how badly this character has been portrayed before (effectively he’s the Mandarin) it’s testament to Marvel that they went all out to give us a well-rounded villain.

It’s no surprise to find Michelle Yeoh turning up later on in the film, and as is always the case her presence elevates matters—that woman is incapable of giving a poor performance.

Michelle Yeoh as Jiang Nan in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2021 Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.

There are also a couple of characters from previous Marvel films who show up, one in particular was a complete surprise and proved very funny.

Not as funny as Awkwafina of course, and it’s fair to say that Katy is my favourite character in the film, funny, snarky, brave yet also for much of the film, as Awkwafina herself has said, useless. Much like Yeoh I’ve yet to see Awkwafina be anything less than great in anything I’ve seen her in (admittedly in fewer films).

The fight choreography is superb, in particular the fight on the bus and a battle that takes place on the outside of a skyscraper in Macau! Even if it is a bit predictable, the final fight is also great to watch. The quieter moments don’t disappoint either, and this is more than just a sequence of fights strung together. Cretton’s direction is spot on throughout.

Funny, exciting and downright magical, this is top drawer Marvel and I can’t wait for the sequel!

No Time to Die

Posted: October 11, 2021 in Film reviews, James Bond
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Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Starring Daniel Craig, Rami Malek,  Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Ana de Armas, Christoph Waltz and Ralph Fiennes.

Please note: This is going to be as spoiler free as I can make it. I will do a more spoilerific review once I’ve seen the film again. I can’t guarantee I won’t give away snippets of spoilers though so if you’d rather see the film completely spoiler free, I’d suggest reading my review afterwards 😊

After the events of Spectre, James Bond (Craig) and Madeline Swann (Seydoux) are holidaying in the city of Matera in Italy, when they’re ambushed by Spectre agents intent on avenging Blofeld. In the aftermath of events in Matera, Bond retires to Jamaica.

Five years later Felix Leiter (Wright) arrives and ties to tempt Bond into returning to the field because he needs to locate a missing scientist in Cuba. Bond is a little hesitant, but after a new 00 agent, Nomi (Lynch) appears and warns him off, Bond decides to help Felix out.

In Cuba Bond contacts CIA agent Paloma (de Armas) and they locate the scientist. Things aren’t what they initially appear to be however, and Bond soon returns to London and MI6 and all too soon he’s at odds with Lyutsifer Safin, a mysterious adversary with links to Madeline, and a man in possession of a deadly weapon.

Finally! Eighteen months after it was supposed to come out No Time to Die finally arrives in cinemas, and I take my first trip back to the pictures since March 2020 (Parasite, in case you’re wondering).

So was it worth the wait, does it justify the hype, or is it merely Spectre 2?

It’s difficult to truly judge a Bond film until I’ve seen it a few times, so my opinion may waver (I famously hated the final act of Skyfall the first time I saw it but now adore it) but at the moment what I can say is that No time to Die is very, very good.

Not perfect, and maybe not top five Bond film status, but a huge improvement on Spectre and a hugely enjoyable film pretty much all round. The action set pieces are superb and the emotional heft of the film carries it buoyantly along, even through a somewhat choppy third act. This is a film that goes places no Bond film has ever gone before and wears its homages to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with pride, the first time Hans Zimmer lets a hint of ‘We have all the time in the world’ play a shiver went down my spine.

As he’s been all along, even if the material was at times suboptimal, Daniel Craig is immense. He truly has been a fantastic 007 and it kinda takes some getting used to the fact that, while James Bond will return, Daniel Craig won’t, but at least we have Knives Out 2 to look forward to. Here he has a whole gamut of emotions to run through. Despair, joy, anger, resignation. At times he’s very funny but he’s always mesmerising. The next Bond really has big shoes to fill.

I was not overly enamoured with Léa Seydoux in Spectre, but then much like everyone else she didn’t have a lot to work with. Here, given a story arc with true emotional intensity, she’s wonderful and has probably quickly risen through my Bond girl rankings. The chemistry between her and Craig is also a lot more palpable now than it ever was in Spectre (where they fell madly in love in the space of about 13 seconds) and their relationship finally has room to breathe, bringing their romance closer to the levels of Tracy or Vesper.

Of course, she isn’t the only woman in Bond’s life. As Nomi, Lynch makes a fine addition as the franchise’s first official 00 agent (there are women seated amongst agents being briefed in both Thunderball and The World is not Enough, though it isn’t clear if either is a 00). She’s snarky and tough, although the nature of Bond as the film’s lead means she is somewhat side-lined as the film progresses, though she plays a significant part in the final act.

There is, of course, another kick arse female agent on display, CIA agent Paloma who Bond works with in Cuba. Sadly the wonderful Ana de Armas (see Blade Runner 2049 and Knives Out for further details) has limited screentime, but what an impression she makes. The trailers show her as deadly and competent, and she is, but what they don’t show is how downright adorkable she is!

This leaves Harris as Moneypenny, and I genuinely feel sorry for the actor. She’s fantastic in Skyfall but since then she’s had little to do and it’s been a waste of a fine actor and an interesting character. In another universe maybe she’d have taken Nomi’s place by Bond’s side in the final battle.

Talking on Moneypenny brings us onto Tanner, Q and M. Kinnear gets about as much to do as he ever has (here’s an idea Eon, next time why not combine the roles of Moneypenny and Tanner?). Whishaw is wonderful, but again doesn’t get a whole lot to do. At least the film proudly shows Q is most assuredly gay, and we get to meet his cat (cue hilarious line for Bond). Fiennes is arguably one of my favourite actors, but again feels short-changed as M, at times here he always feels like the bad guy, or at least as a man who’s made questionable choices. Whether he remains as M or not I think the producers need to give the character a more respected footing.

A villain can make or break a Bond film, but thankfully the rest of the film is so good that this isn’t the case here, because Rami Malek is…well, he’s just kinda there. I don’t wholly blame the actor, and he is given a decent backstory (even if it does retcon my own personal cannon about Spectre) and at least initially, his motives are solid, but then he just becomes a generic Bond villain, I’m not 100% sure what his eventual plan actually is, the film gets a bit fudgy here. He’s going to do something evil, that’s all you need to know I suppose. Most of his lines are in the trailer. Shame really.

Blofeld returns, but not for very long. Waltz and Craig spar nicely and Blofeld manages to have more of an impact on the story than you might imagine, and it’s nice to see Jeffrey Wright return for Craig’s final film. He makes for a great Felix.

Of course, the most shocking casting, for British viewers anyway, is the appearance of Hugh Dennis!

Fukunaga’s direction is excellent, and he manages to snag a writing credit as well, which suggests he, and the incomparable Phoebe Waller-Bridge, had substantial impact on the script, which for the most part is excellent. This is a film about something, a film with a solid emotional core, which makes it easier to forgive some plot related issues (seriously what is Safin’s plan?)

The near three hour run time was never an issue for me, in fact I didn’t start to get remotely fidgety until right near the end, and thanks to some judicious planning I managed not to need the loo while watching it! I was quite numb when I walked out of the cinema, but the length of the film had nothing to do with this.

The film is exceptionally well paced. Most of the action is superb but the film has plenty of quiet contemplative moments as well. There are some neat homages, including a reference to Delectado cigars, last seen in Die Another Day.

Great set pices, great performances, wonderful cinematography and true emotional engagement with its characters, this isn’t a Bond film without its flaws (Safin!) but the good outweighs the bad significantly, and even that final act is rescued by the end.

A Bond film in every way, yet a Bond film that goes places Bond has never gone before.

So long, Daniel, we’ll miss you, but as the title card said right at the end of the credits…

James Bond will return.

Directed by John Krasinski. Starring Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou and John Krasinski.

Another in my irregular series of films I would have seen at the cinema. Please note, while I won’t be including spoilers for this film, discussing it will involve spoilers for the original Quiet Place so be warned!

In an opening flashback we see the arrival of the aliens that will soon ravage the Earth and view how the Abbott family (including Krasinski as dad, Lee) survive the initial assault.

We then return to the present and pick up immediately after the end of the first film, where the surviving members of the family Evelyn (Blunt) Regan (Simmonds) Marcus (Jupe) and Evelyn’s new-born baby are attempting to find more survivors. They come across Emmett (Murphy) once a family friend but now an embittered survivor reeling from the death of his family. Emmett is reluctant to let the family stay but Evelyn convinces him to give them some time to rest.

When a song comes on the radio Emmett explains that it’s been playing over and over for months. Regan deduces that it’s a message from another group of survivors and sets out to find them, hoping the discovery that her cochlear implant can disorient the aliens can be weaponized.

As Regan travels into unknown territory and into peril, those who stayed behind aren’t safe either, and there are other dangers now beyond the aliens.

A Quiet Place is one of those films that came out of nowhere, a low(ish)budget monster movie with a great hook, what if the world was invaded by monsters who, although blind, had incredibly sensitive hearing and the only way to survive was to commit to living in a world of near total silence? Despite a huge plot hole it succeeded because the script, direction and performances were all top drawer. The script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, rewritten by Krasinski, was excellent, and Krasinski’s direction was spot on, creating a tense environment where the slightest noise could mean certain death. Added to this the cast were superb, with the standout being Simmonds, deaf in real life. When the first film was a hit a sequel was inevitable, it’s just a shame we had to wait over a year from when it was supposed to come out. As with any such sequel the most important question is, is it as good as the first one?

And the answer is, almost, which I think for the majority of sequels is a ringing endorsement. It lacks the surprise factor of the first film, and the bigger budget means more action set pieces and perhaps a little less of the intimate tension of the original but it’s still a superior monster movie.

Again the cast prove one of the film’s greatest strengths. Blunt is a superb actress, and she’s not afraid to take a back seat to let others shine. For a while I worried she was taking too much of a supporting role but thankfully as the film progresses she comes into it more, though the real leads in this film are Simmonds and Jupe, who are both great once again. I love how Jupe plays Marcus as almost perpetually terrified, but who wouldn’t have PTSD in this world? He gets to develop more this time, becoming more of a hardened survivor by the end of the film. Simmonds carries on her star role from the first film, and again is the best thing about the film. Determined and willing to stride into the unknown, despite her disability—which as the film shows is exacerbated in this world because she can’t hear when she’s made a noise—yes you might call her foolhardy, but the character has agency, and drives the story onwards, and it’s great to see someone differently abled being shown as up to the task of survival as anyone else. This leaves Cillian Murphy who’s long been an actor I’ve admired and he slots into the film perfectly as Emmett. Like Blunt his American accent is spot on and he essays a man who’s lost everything perfectly, and you’re never quite sure if he’ll do the right thing. As he did so well in Peaky Blinders and Dunkirk he does a thousand-yard stare with scary authenticity, leaving you in no doubt that Emmett is a man who’s seen horrible things.

Djimon Hounsou rounds out the cast. Another actor I like but he isn’t given much to work with here, in fact his character doesn’t even get a name!

While the world is broadened somewhat it doesn’t go all globe trotting or epic on us, retaining the small scale that worked so well. Yes there’s more CGI, and yes the aliens seem a trifle familiar but coming up with truly original monster designs is a tough ask. Despite their familiarity they’re still a potent threat and in Krasinski’s hands a source of unbelievable tension at times.

Don’t shout it from the rooftops (“they” might hear) but roll on A Quiet Place Part III if it can be this good.

Black Widow

Posted: July 19, 2021 in Film reviews
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Directed by Cate Shortland. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz and Ray Winstone.

So it’s been almost eighteen months since I’ve been to the cinema, and frankly I’m not sure when I’ll feel comfortable going (Bond, only Bond) but that shouldn’t mean I shut up shop when it comes to my film reviews, right? I’ve been neglecting my blog and that stops right now. Not that I’m going to review every film I see on the small screen, but maybe the odd one, certainly those new films I would definitely have seen on the big screen, and where better to start than with Marvel’s latest.

It’s 1995 and Natasha Romanoff seems like any other American girl living in Ohio, except she isn’t American, she’s Russian, as is her sister Yelena and her parents Alexi (Harbour) and Melina (Weisz). They’ve been spying on the west, but SHIELD is onto them so the makeshift family escape, just in time. Back in friendly territory Natasha and Yelena are handed over to the tender mercies of General Dreykov (Winstone) who enrols them in the Red Room, where he trains them to be ruthless assassins. Black Widows.

Flash forward to 2016 and Natasha (all grown up and now Scarlett Johansson) is on the run following the events of Captain America: Civil War. She wants to disappear but when mail is redirected from her safehouse in Budapest she’s targeted by Taskmaster, Dreykov’s latest weapon, a man capable of mimicking the fighting style of anyone he fights (spoiler, he’s not played by Greg Davies).

After her run in with Taskmaster Natasha heads to Bucharest where she crosses paths with Yelena (all grown up and now Florence Pugh) who explains that the Widows are no longer conditioned by training to obey, now they’re forced to obey by a mind controlling chemical. Yelena escaped and now she wants to free the rest of the Widows. With a chance to exact revenge on Dreykov as well as freeing the Widows, Natasha agrees to assist. They’ll need some unconventional help though, which means twenty years after they were last together, it’s time to pull a very dysfunctional family back together.

So, let’s cut to the chase, I bloody loved this, and the fact that I didn’t see it on a big screen didn’t dent my enjoyment in the slightest, though who knows, maybe I’d have loved it even more if I had gone to the cinema rather than watching on the TV?

And yes I get the complaints some have made that it is, to some extent, a redress of Captain America: The Winter soldier (Taskmaster is a riff on Bucky, the finale takes place on a crashing helicarrier type craft, and there is another similarity but that would be a spoiler) but this didn’t dent my enjoyment in the slightest.

This is a slightly more grounded spy thriller, and when I say grounded that’s in the loosest possible way, because this is still Marvel. It also fills in some of the gaps in Natasha’s story; we finally see the Red Room; we get to understand Bucharest and we meet Dreykov.

Johansson is, obviously, superb and it is a shame that this is likely the last time we’ll see her in the role. In an ideal world we’d have had a Black Widow film five or six years ago, and then we might have been able to squeeze in a second. Never say never, and they may tempt her back some day, but if this is the last we see of Natasha then it’s a good swansong for the character. Johansson gets to do more than just kick arse though, there’s a lot of humour in this film, as well as righteous anger, and it’s a more thoughtful performance than you might expect.

It says something about Scarlett that she allows multiple scenes to be stolen right out from under her by Pugh, Weisz and Harbour. A less generous actor might have insisted the film was all about her, and Johansson must have had a lot of creative control here, but part of what’s great about it is that it’s an ensemble.

This is the third film I’ve seen Pugh in, and the third great performance I’ve seen her give, and they’ve all been very different (Little Women, Midsommer and now Black Widow). she convinces in the fights, has great comic timing and bounces off Johansson like they really were sister, a spiky yet affectionate double act, and you have to love the running joke about Natasha’s power pose which was, so I hear, something Pugh herself came up with. If Pugh winds up the next Black Widow, then I think Marvel have made a very canny choice.

As the somewhat buffoonish Alexei, David Harbour is wonderful. An aging, out of shape super soldier (he’s the Red Guardian, the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America) he’s a man obsessed with the fact that he never got to fight Cap, even though he regales people with a lot of tall tales about how he did. Again I’ve seen complaints that the character is too much of a joke, and harks back to Thor’s midlife crisis in Endgame, but frankly I think people need to lighten up. Marvel is full to the brim of ripped, heroic male characters, the odd loveable idiot isn’t going to bring down the house of M. What matters is that Alexei is a joy whenever he’s on screen. He’s funny and he bounces well off all three of the women in his ‘family’.

As the mom Rachel Weisz possibly has the least to get her teeth into, but her presence is important to the family dynamic, she’s integral to the plot and she convinces as nerdy scientist and a lethal Widow herself.

The weak link cast wise is probably Winstone, but much as people have derided his performance, I thought he was good, he bought a creepiness to Dreykov that was needed, but yeah his accent was more London than Lubyanka.

This is only the fourth film that Cate Shortland has directed, and its clearly the biggest in terms of budget, but again Marvel score with a relatively unknown director. You wouldn’t think this was her first big budget blockbuster.

The only slip is the matter of a section that seems to be missing near the end, but Shortland has said this was intentional. I guess they could have done a bit more with Taskmaster as well given his unique fighting style.

Script wise the film goes to some darker places, darker than you might expect, and there’s a prevailing sense of the horrors perpetrated on women by men in power, primarily Dreykov. As the old man says near the end, he works with the most plentiful resource in the world, young girls, and it’s easy to read the Widows as a metaphor for trafficked sex slaves. Women forced to do terrible work and treated as little more than chattel. Suffice to say when the tables are turned on Dreykov I let out a little cheer.

An exciting, well-paced action film that manages to be light and funny one minute, yet pack an emotional punch the next. The cast are great, the set pieces awesome and the direction assured. I just wish this wasn’t the last time I’d see Scarlett Johansson kick arse as Natasha Romanoff.  

The Usual Suspects

Posted: April 19, 2021 in Book reviews, Film reviews
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By Christopher McQuarrie

In the aftermath of a brutal gun battle on board a ship in San Pedro Bay, twenty-seven people are dead, and there are only two survivors. One is a badly burned Hungarian mobster, the other is Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, a con artist with cerebral palsy. Verbal has somehow managed to wangle immunity for almost all of the crimes he’s been involved in, but still US customs agent Dave Kujan flies in from New York to interview Verbal. His interest is in a former cop turned hardened criminal Dean Keaton, a man who may or may not have died during the gun battle in San Pedro.

Verbal explains the series of events that led to he, and Keaton, winding up on the dock. It began weeks earlier when Verbal, Keaton and three other criminals (Michael McManus, Fred Fenster and Todd Hockney) are arrested in New York in connection with the hijacking of a truck full of weapons. Used as a line-up they are quickly released, and just as quickly decide to team up to rob some corrupt cops. After one successful job they embark upon a second in LA, but things don’t go to plan and they find they’ve been brought together at the behest of Keyser Söze, a mythical Turkish gangster, quite literally the bogeyman.  Söze claims they’ve all stolen from him in the past, and now to clear their debt he wants them to attack a ship in San Pedro Bay.

Kujan is convinced Keaton is actually Söze and that he survived the massacre in San Pedro, but is he right?

Okay clear spoiler warning here. This review relates t the script of a 25 year old film with one heck of a twist in the tail and if you somehow have managed to avoid that spoiler for goodness sake just go and watch the film! Otherwise carry on reading.

McQuarrie won the best original screenplay Oscar for this, and it’s easy to see why because it’s exceptionally well put together. It’s a lean script, without an ounce of fat and with not a single extraneous scene that doesn’t contribute something towards the plot. Yes you could argue that the characters are thinly drawn yet none quite feel like mere cyphers, and this is a script that comes down to it’s plotting, an elegant case of misdirection, a magic trick using words instead of smoke and mirrors. It’s easy to see why this won an Oscar and it’s a great example of writing that I think every script writer, or aspiring script writer could learn from reading.

The Film

Reading the script inspired me to watch the film again, for perhaps the first time this century! Given I’d watched it so recently after reading the script it seemed churlish not to say a few words about the film as well.

Now obviously this is a film that comes with a lot of baggage these days, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Kevin Spacy. Heck you can even throw in the late great Pete Postlethwaite in brownface with a dodgy Indian accent for good measure. Oh, and the sole female character exists only in relation to Keaton.

But still, this is a very good film—how could it not be coming off of that script—and yes it’s directed very well, and damn it if Spacy isn’t annoyingly good. With hindsight it seems much more obvious that Kint is Keyser Söze, heck in that early scene on the boat you can make out it’s Spacy and hear his voice, of course much of that might just be knowing what to look for! Similarly the big reveal feels a little less special, and damn Kint must have really good eyesight given how far away from the noticeboard he is.

But the measure of a good film, especially one dependant on a twist, is how enjoyable it is when you know what’s coming, and this was still a hugely enjoyable film, and the decent cast make the best of wafer think roles (kudos to del Toro who damn near steals the show). A sharp, violent thrill ride that still holds up a quarter of a century later.  

The Haunting, director Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, is arguably my favourite film, one I’ve watched numerous times and one I always seem to get something new out of, but it was a long time until I read the source novel. A few years ago saw the release of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House tv miniseries on Netflix. In the past nine months I’ve re-watched both the film and the tv series, and I’ve also reread Jackson’s novel, so it seemed a good time to examine all three.

This will be a fairly deep dive, so I will go into spoilerific detail. If you haven’t read/seen any of these and you’re worried about finding out how they end, maybe look away now, but if you’re a fan, or maybe if you don’t mind spoilers, why not take a trip with me to Hill House, which has stood for eighty years, and might stand for eighty more…

 

The Novel. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (1959)

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Given its reputation as a true classic of literature, it is perhaps surprising that I’m not as enamoured of the source novel as many are. In part I think it’s the fact that I came to the party late, as it were, reading the book many years (and many repeat viewings) after seeing the film, which means there’s a lot that’s fixed in my mind, my image of the central characters for one. There’s also Jackson’s prose, which is at times superb and at others a little cold. The book isn’t that old yet feels a trifle old fashioned. That said you can’t argue with that opening paragraph:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Just reading that last line makes me shudder.

The original story is slightly different than the film that followed. There’s no Dr Markway, distinguished and handsome potential love interest here, Dr Montague is a different figure altogether, only ever paternal, and Nell has no eyes for him, only for Luke but otherwise the dynamic fans of the film are familiar with is the same. Four intrepid investigators. The academic, the rich layabout, the bohemian extrovert and the guilt-ridden introvert.

The other big difference is that Jackson’s tale sprawls beyond the house, and many of the spookier elements take place outside. In particular Nell and Theo coming across a (clearly ghostly) family picnic is shudderingly written, most particularly because Jackson never tells us what is so wrong with it that prompts the pair to run, and for Theo to tell Nell not to look back. Later still Nell walks into the undergrowth believing Theo and Luke are following, only they aren’t… Brrr!!!

It seems likely there is a ghostly presence at Hill House in the novel. It isn’t impossible that it’s all Eleanor’s doing, her grief and guilt magnifying her psychic powers but I think even Jackson made it clear there’s something spooky afoot. The sense of dread regarding Nell as the book progresses has a horrible inevitability about it as well.

The one misstep I think, is the arrival of Mrs Montague and her curious companion. She’s too broad and overbearing and their inclusion does feel a bit jarring.

One can’t quibble with the story, and some truly wonderful prose however, and if it wasn’t for the novel, we wouldn’t have got…

The Film. The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise (1963)

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It’s sometimes incredible to consider just how eclectic Wise’s career was. He directed everything, from musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) to science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek the Motion Picture) as well as Westerns, war movies, thrillers and of course horror (The Curse of the Cat People, The Haunting.) He directed his first film in 1944 and his last in 2000. Some have called him a journeyman, but I think that’s unfair, and The Haunting just shows how good he was. A technically perfect film featuring four wonderful performances and inventive camerawork to instil fear without ever really showing us anything.

Ostensibly it follows the beats of the novel, with a group of four intrepid researchers travelling to Hill House, although there are some changes. Dr Montague is replaced by Dr Markway, and it’s Markway rather than Luke who provides us with Nell’s unobtainable love interest, and while Mrs Markway does show up, she isn’t remotely as annoying, and doesn’t come complete with her own sidekick in this version.

Perhaps the biggest change is that Wise dispenses with the garden scenes, and whilst a few scenes take place outside—most notably the finale—for the most part he eschews the grounds in favour of bottling his characters up inside of Hill House. This is a great stylistic choice, emphasising the claustrophobia of the story, implying our heroes have been swallowed whole by the vile house that Hugh Crain built, and suggesting there’s no escape.

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The choice to film in black and white is another masterstroke. The sets are superb, with an oppressive rococo style and claustrophobic feel. The statues and the library are wonderful. Wise utilised a revolutionary amorphic camera that was so new he had to sign an understanding that the lens was imperfect. Wise and his cinematographer keep the camera moving and utilise crazy angles, skewed shots and weird lenses—as well as utilising mirrors— to give the impression of an insane house that’s always watching, always waiting.

And of course, perhaps the best decision Wise made was to rely on unseen terrors, with the exception of curious shadows (the face in the grill) and of course the breathing door. There are sounds as well of course, the banging, and the ghostly voices of Hugh Crain and the distressed children, but for the most part he relied upon his actor’s reactions to the house, the most famous of course being Nell’s “But whose hand was I holding?”

Which brings us onto the actors. Setting aside Lois Maxwell (yes Moneypenny!) as Mrs Markway and Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley as the wonderfully creepy Mr and Mrs Dudley, and a few other minor players, this film revolves around the four leads who play off one another perfectly.

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As Nell, Julie Harris is superb (why wasn’t she Oscar nominated?) fragile and frequently on the edge of hysteria, she’s a jittery mess of anxieties and guilt, a child in the body of a grown woman. With every tic and tremor Harris speaks volumes. By all accounts she was suffering with depression during filming, and isolated herself from the others further enhancing the character’s disconnection. She’s a pitiful, utterly empathetic character and you can’t help but feel for her.

As Theo, Claire Bloom is the polar opposite of Nell, experienced, confident and quite patently gay, even if it’s never explicitly stated, and her relationship with Nell is incredibly complex. At times friends, at times almost sisters, at times perhaps something more, is she interested in Nell? Theo clearly cares about Nell, yet can’t help sniping at her. It’s Theo after all who suggests Eleanor might be the one who wrote her name on the wall, and her throwaway “like sisters” line is heavy with meaning given we know how fractious Nell’s relationship with her own sister is. In weaker hands the relationship could have been flat and predictable, yet instead it’s vibrant, testament to Bloom and Harris’ acting. All the more amazing since they didn’t speak during the filming (though reconciled later).

As Markway Richard Johnson is cool, calm and collected, and quite debonair (in a slightly stuffy academic kinda way). Of the four his performance is the one that feels a little false at times, especially in the tenser segments, a little more theatrical should we say. I’m being harsh, because he’s still very good and as with the others it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Finally we have former child star Russ Tamblyn as Luke. Young , hip and flippant it’s a performance that could have gone over the edge but Tamblyn carries it off perfectly , and in many ways he’s the reason the film works, going to sceptic to  believer over the course of the story. He’s the one after all who at the end says the house should be burned down and the ground sown with salt. He’s wonderful in this, playing off each of the others perfectly. And of course this won’t be the last time Tamblyn crosses paths with Hill House….

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A superb film, a textbook example of creating tension without resorting to special effects. Claustrophobic and, pardon the pun, haunting, with wonderful characters at its heart, and that’s perhaps one of the main reasons it succeeds. Even if nothing supernatural happened at Hill House, you’d still enjoy watching these four characters interact. Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve watched this so many times they almost feel like old friends, and Nell’s death still hurts every time.

Anyway, let’s shift forward fifty odd—very odd—years to…

The TV series. The Haunting of Hill House, created and directed by Mike Flanagan (2018)

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The arrival onto the scene of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime has seen a whole slew of new TV shows, and when  it was announced that a 10 part series based on Jackson’s novel was in the works I was concerned, mainly off the back of the truly atrocious 1999 remake of The Haunting, an exemplar for how not to remake a classic that misunderstood everything about the story and which wastes a decent cast by surrounding them with terrible CGI, overexaggerating the plot, and by having Catherine Zeta-Jones play Theo with all the subtlety of a punch to the face. I saw it once at the cinema and I never plan to see it again.

But enough about 1999’s exercise in how not to make a Hill House story, let’s talk about 2018’s exercise in how to do things properly, because Flanagan’s series is really top drawer storytelling, pretty much every episode scared me at some point and at least two of them are stone cold classics. Sure, it all kinda falls apart at the end but I can forgive it because the journey getting there is So. Damn. Good.

It’d be wrong to say there’s no nuance in the story, but from the perspective of the supernatural it’s clearly real. There isn’t even the hint that what’s going on is in characters’ heads. And we see most of the horror full on, albeit this is done far more effectively than the 1999 film managed. Flanagan also takes liberties, lifting pieces of the story and rearranging them, or in many cases rewriting them completely, and yet the essence of the story and the more familiar characters remain.

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The story is set in two timeframes. 1992 and 2018, with different actors playing child and adult versions of the Crain children, and in fact Hugh Crain himself. Back in 1992 the Crain family were renovating Hill House, until tragedy struck, a tragedy that left questions over what, exactly happened there, and a tragedy that’s informed each character’s life since. The eldest son Steven (Michael Huisman in the present day) used a fictional account of what happened to springboard his writing career, and now makes a living writing true ghost books. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is ostensibly the most together of the Crain children, and she runs a mortuary. Living rent free in a guest house on her property is Theo (Kate Siegel) who works as a child psychologist. A sensitive, she wears gloves most of the time to keep her curse at bay, and has distanced herself from any emotional attachments.

This leaves the youngest, and perhaps most damaged Crain children. Twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) a man with a history of substance abuse, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) haunted by sleep paralysis and recurring imagines of a particularly terrifying spectre.

There’s Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton as the past and present versions of Hugh, and Carla Gugino as Olivia, the children’s mother.

Like all the best horror Flanagan’s tale is about something beyond scaring people. This isn’t some soulless fairground attraction, it’s a tale of guilt and loss and redemption, and above all else love and family. Even if there weren’t a possessed house involved, it’d be interesting due to the writing, the direction and the cast.

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The Crain children think they’ve moved on with their lives, but the death of one of them will prove that, in many ways, they never left Hill House. The interweaving of timelines is exquisitely done, and not only between 1992 and 2018, even within the distinct timelines the story shifts back and forth as we see the same event from different characters’ perspectives.

In terms of frights there are some fantastic jump scares (a couple in particular had me literally screaming, even second time around when I knew they were coming) but beyond this there’s a palpable sense of dread, and many of the scares take their time, tension building as you wait for what you know is coming—take little Luke hiding under his bed as footsteps approach!!

By all accounts there are dozens of spectres in some scenes, hidden away in the shadows, though even on a second viewing I only spotted a couple of them. Two of the ghosts at the forefront are the most effective however. The tall man who menaces Luke (and there’s a Luke centric episode in the present that I’m sure Flanagan loaded with really tall extras so the ghost is subconsciously always on our minds) and the Bent Neck Lady who terrified Nell both as a child and an adult.

Which brings me to those two episodes. Episode 5 is named the Bent Neck Lady, a Nell focused episode that shows the full nightmare she experiences as she’s haunted by the titular phantom. It starts out utterly terrifying, but eventually morphs into something utterly heart-breaking. If you thought Nell’s fate in the book and the film were tragic you ain’t seen nothing yet, and by the end I was in pieces. One of the best episodes of television ever, in my not so humble opinion, and for a ghost story something that plays with time better than 99% of actual time travel sci-fi.

And then we get episode 6. Two Storms. A story that alternates between two thunderstorms, one in 1992 which the Crain family experienced in Hill House, the other in 2018 the night before Nell’s funeral as the family reconvene in the funeral home to talk about their sister, and old wounds will be reopened. The 1992 stuff is eerie, especially when one of the children goes missing, but it’s in the present day that the episode excels. The direction and cinematography, the script and the actors all combine to create (pardon the pun) a perfect storm of grief and anger captured in fluid tracking shots that show us spectres the family can’t see, and intercut between 2018 and 1992 seamlessly. It’s a heartrending episode where every single character’s wounds are raw. Again, strip out the horror and it’d still work.

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There are so many other things I could mention; the return of Russ Tamblyn in a cameo as Nell’s psychiatrist, the cup of stars (missing from the film),  Luke’s imaginary friend who it turns out is anything but ghostly, the character names (Shirley for Shirley Jackson, Steven for King etc), the secret of the red room that’s been staring us in the face the whole time, the clock repairman, Mr Smiley Face, the elevation of the Dudley’s beyond just creepy two dimensional plot points…and of course the fact that the five Crain siblings represent the stages of grief: Steve is denial, Shirley is anger, Theo is bargaining, Luke is depression, and Nell is acceptance.

Nothing is ever perfect, and maybe it could have been an episode or two shorter, and maybe it does all wrap up a little too neatly in the end, and yes, Oliva as the crazy woman who wants to kill her kids in order to save them isn’t a great trope, but any flaws are minor, and if a second viewing taught me one thing, it’s this, much like the film, The Haunting of Hill House is a series I will return to again and again because I think there’ll always be something new to take from the story, and much as with The Haunting these are characters I enjoy spending time with, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on The Turn of the Screw.

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In the final analysis this is a tale that’s stood the test of time for over sixty years, and might stand for sixty more, testament to the strength of Jackson’s original story. It’s been remade and reimagined, and even survived Jan de Bont and Liam Neeson! Nobody’s tearing this story down and sowing the ground with salt in a hurry!