FILM REVIEW: Ghostbusters

Ghosbusters

For all the hype and hope, all the fury and anger, Ghostbusters was always going to be just a movie. It’s a shame then that it’s not a very good movie. Which is frustrating, as it manages to get so many of the difficult things right that a blockbuster franchise reboot entails, but then messes up the simple stuff.

Simply put, Ghostbusters might be the most carelessly assembled tentpole release in recent memory. Okay, except Batman vs Superman (there’s nothing here as incoherent as that film at its clunky worst), and perhaps if the film was snappier and shorter (not that it ever dragged), the problems wouldn’t be so noticeable, but Ghostbusters is marred by sloppy editing at every turn. It’s not just nitpicking continuity errors, but scenes feel so obviously pieced together from a mishmash of takes, I found it hard settling into a decent groove without something jolting me out of the experience again. Dialogue cuts off abruptly (showing the cracks of unsuccessful riffing), little is done to make the off-screen action feel like it flows concurrently with what is happening on-screen (one moment, Patty is lying on the floor, the next she’s upright with a ghost perched on their shoulders), and there is no sense of time and space (two defenestrations take place through the same window, yet this is never commented on). It feels like the events of the film could be over the course of a few days, but Holtzmann somehow manages to create all this kit, retool all these devices and pimp their ride seemingly at the same time she is out and about with the rest of the team. At one point, Erin is split up from the group only to rejoin them at a crucial moment because…reasons?

Sorry to get all nitpicky. But co-writer/director Paul Feig also fails to get a handle on the big set-pieces. The ghosts and special effects looked decent, if lacking in imagination, but the crowd scenes lack atmosphere – the big heavy metal concert looks like all the oxygen has been sucked out of it – cheap-looking sets and unconvincing backdrops don’t help either. All this wouldn’t matter so much if the film was funny – and I guess it is, sorta? Its fun, generally, and there were a few good laughs, but Ghostbusters is stuffed with too many jokes that fall flat, lost in mumbly, improvy, overtalking, a register that doesn’t quite work with the rest of the film. I kept on thinking “Okay, that’s weird” fairly often, like a comic beat had been missed, or something in the script just didn’t translate to screen and then failed again in the editing room but stuck around anyway. And despite stealing pretty much every scene, I am still not sure if I really understand Chris Hemsworth’s part in all this. It’s a great performance, and I understand it’s a gender flip on the idea of the dumb but sweet natured bimbo who’s breezed through life on looks alone, but Kevin is a special kind of surreal stupidity (we’re talking beyond even Dougal from Father Ted). It’s nice that the jokes are spread around but it leaves the humour feeling imbalanced. You need the principal characters to bounce off someone that represents some semblance of reality, but here every supporting character is an oddball. Oh, and I still have an issue with the internet appearing prominently in films (yeah, it’s a vital part of all our lives, but any references to Twitter and Amazon and YouTube just makes me cringe – acknowledging the manbabies that have plagued the internet since the film’s announcement works against it).

But for all my petty gripes (easy to let slide on their own, but the cumulative effect becomes too much to bear), Ghostbusters certainly has its pleasures. And as mentioned before, these are mainly the elements that were harder to pull off, so credit for the creative team and cast is still due. I liked all the main characters and the dynamic they had with each other and how the team comes together. The performances from Wiig and McCarthy add a touching emotional element, and although McKinnon is largely played as an inconsistent bag of quirks, there’s enough about her unphased perma-grin that delights. And Jones for the most part sidesteps lazy “Aw hell naw” sassitude with a winning positivity and energy. The overarching plot is fine, if not necessarily the fuzzy motivations and glossed over know-how, using the vague skeleton of the original film but making everything else very much its own. Ghostbusters is at its best when its doing its own thing; affectionate cameos and references abound, some subtle and neat, others distracting or horribly dated (note: The Obsbournes ended over a decade ago).

And in that way, I hope for a sequel. And I am glad they made THIS Ghostbusters film. With the team in place and the pressure off, another Ghostbusters outing completely divorced from its predecessor would be enticing (hopefully the final post-credits tag is just a corny wink than a statement of intent). But maybe next time round, Feig should pass the torch on to a writer-director who can mix comedy, action and horror and make it work. Are Edgar Wright or Joe Cornish available – or am I being too obvious?

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2015: Films of the Year

Here are ten films I saw in 2015 that I liked a lot with some comments too (some lazily culled and edited from earlier reviews), with some fairly arbitrary ranking (I could probably swap around the top five each day). Given how film release schedules work (or don’t in one particular instance) and festival screenings and the like, it’s somewhat fluid what constitutes a 2015 film (a couple of international releases date from 2013 and 2014, one other film here isn’t out in the UK until March), but if you want the full context of my tastes and habits to avoid a “Where’s [BLANK]?”-athon, I’ve got a Letterboxd account now, which I plan to make full use of in the New Year. So now you can judge everything I watch or do not watch! Enough preamble, on with the list!

 

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1. The Look of Silence

A companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, this time telling the story of the Indonesia genocide from the point of the view of the victims, rather than the perpetrators. Here, an optician whose brother was murdered before he was even born confronts those responsible, but this is far more complex than a straightforward revenge story.  In fact, while this may be a more accessible work than The Act of Killing in many respects, it is even more essential. Playing something like a documentary version of Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s chilling, eye-opening and powerful, and carries with it, in its main subject and his family, an emotionally engaging centre through the horror.

2. The Lobster

Though absurd in its set-up and often very funny, The Lobster has a lot to say about our own reality, namely love and relationships, and the weird rituals, mechanics and quirks that make no sense taken out of context and viewed dispassionately – even if there is something strangely moving about the central character’s own quest for companionship. Though this is his first film in the English language, Yorgos Lanthimos’ dry deliberate tone and stilted dialogue fits well with the international cast.  It’s weird, sad, dark and hilarious, reminiscent of Chris Morris’ Jam if anything, and one of the best films of the year.

3. It Follows

There is so much about David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows to talk about, it’s hard to know where to begin (I go into more detail here). For all the talent taking place on screen and off (especially when it comes to its score and cinematography), a recommendation would be hard to justify through style alone, but It Follows’ substance runs deep. It feels timeless yet current, it presents a gimmick and vague set of rules but allows an uncertainty and ambiguity to the premise to unsettle you further, and it plays on multiple themes explicitly but doesn’t vocalise them in a way to make them seem so heavy-handed. A trashier version of the film, played more for yuks and scares, could exist somewhere – and would probably be very entertaining – but as it stands, It Follows feels fully-formed and left me much impressed.

4. Carol

Carol is a simple story – in the best possible sense – impeccably performed and elegantly told. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara put in their very best work, even given their tip-top standards, and you can almost smell the smoke and perfume pouring off the screen. Every glance feels electric, every touch momentous, and every creative detail perfectly judged.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road

There were arguably better films released this year, but Mad Max: Fury Road was the talking-point movie of 2015, ten tonnes of unfiltered crazy from a singular vision in George Miller, age having done nothing to dull his sensibilities. As blockbusters get baggier and bleed into each other through ‘cinematic universes’, this is world-building done right, with exposition that cuts to the chase, characters that speak through their actions, story that is inferred without sacrificing pace. Instantly iconic.

 

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6. Force Majeure

A family skiing holiday is punctured by a sudden incident and a split-second decision that has deep personal ramifications. Sounds like a thriller, yet Ruben Östlund’s hilarious comic tale manages to create simmering tension while maintaining an excruciatingly funny vein of humour. If you can bear the cringe-inducing awkwardness of it all, Force Majeure is a biting and witty dissection of the roles and responsibilities of men and women in their social and domestic relationships. The great expanse of the Alps has never felt so claustrophobic.

7. Snowpiercer

Included here as something of a protest vote, Snowpiercer remains without a UK release due to meddlings from the Weinstein Company. A shame, as it means audiences here have been denied a chance to see another fine film from Korean master director Bong Joon Ho (his first – mainly – in the English language) on the big screen. In spite of this, Snowpiercer is a compelling addition to the future dystopia social satire sub-genre, charting an uprising aboard an intercontinental train perpetually travelling through a post-apocalyptic Earth turned icy wasteland. As with Bong’s earlier work, it can smartly juggle grim reality and sudden violence with dark humour and emotional weight, and a great cast commit themselves to the outlandish premise (Tilda Swinton particularly memorable as a Roald Dahl-esque villain). Absolutely worth seeking out.

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Big space movies are back. Gravity, Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, even Prometheus has something to answer for (well, a lot of things to answer for). Ridley Scott’s attempt this year to make an all-together decent off-world offering was very close to finding its way into my top ten – the hugely enjoyable The Martian – but Star Wars: The Force Awakens managed to not only course-correct a franchise that had lost its sheen, but do so in such an entertaining fashion. And it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, I was having such a good time with its trio of new characters (plus Ball Droid), it was a bit of a disappointment when Han and Chewie show up. The Internet can nitpick away at its flaws; JJ Abrams for all his success at nailing the tricky stuff does have a habit of fumbling story and speeding through leaps of logic (which makes the next instalments and spin-offs more exciting now the groundwork is out of the way). But fewer better times were had at the cinema this year.

9. Enemy

While Sicario has garnered justifiable praise, it’s Dennis Villeneuve’s previous film (released in the UK on 2nd January 2015, so just sneaking in here) that left the greater impression. Enemy is an engrossing head-scratcher that lingers long after watching, not just as you unpick the plot but with the weird sense of dread that seeps through it. Almost a year after watching it, there’s still stuff in here I’ve yet to shake off. Jake Gyllenhaal is just as good here as in Nightcrawler (though played very differently), and if Villeneuve can combine the atmosphere and paranoia of Enemy with the tension and action of Sicario, then his forthcoming Blade Runner sequel may shift from ‘approach with caution’ to ‘very exciting indeed’.

10. Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is naturally as Kaufman-esque, for want of a better word, as previous favourites, witty and strange and emotionally engaging. But in teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson, together they have also crafted a quite remarkable animation to boot. The use of animation serves many functions here, especially as our lead character, a relatable but crucially not necessarily likeable writer (played by David Thewlis) is surrounded by a sea of identical faces, be it man, woman or child, all voiced by Tom Noonan. To describe what Anomalisa actually is would perhaps reveal too much as the story itself is slim and contained, but the directions it takes and the choices it makes offer much to take away for further thought and reflection. For any fans of his previous films, it is essential viewing.

 

And for making it this far – a reward! Here’s my annual Spotify playlist of favourite pieces of scores and soundtracks from 2015. Stream below or click here to open separately.

 

THEATRE REVIEW: Biohazard The Stage

Biohazard The Stage

As previously documented, my long-standing relationship with Resident Evil (or Biohazard, to give its original Japanese title) has been somewhat tortured of late. Therefore, the prospect of going to see a stage adaptation of the franchise (having already spun-off into films, books, comics, and theme park interactive experiences) was met more with caution than excitement, but still a morbid curiosity. What form would it take? How would it work? Would it be scary? Embarrassing? Hilarious? Awful? Given that it tied in nicely with a trip to Tokyo and I would be accompanied by a friend with a similar take on all things Resident Evil, how could I not go?

Performed at Roppongi’s swish, new EX Theater, with a short run in late October/early November, Biohazard The Stage (a glorious linguistic misfire of a name) is set sometime between the events of RE5 and RE6, in which a virus outbreak turns the staff and faculty of an Australian university into zombies and fan “favourites” Chris Redfield, Rebecca Chambers and Piers Nivans have to contain it. The plot devised by Capcom is not based on any one game, but follows the same predictable narrative beats that would make it fit neatly amongst the official chapters. As such, it won’t surprise anyone who has played any of the games (and God help you if you see this without any prior experience), or probably anyone who has encountered a work of fiction for that matter. Will the scientists with the wonky tie harbour a dark secret? Will the bleach blonde guy in the red shirt turn out to be a bit of a bad’un? Will the mysterious stranger with the leather jacket hold the key to everything?

Perhaps this is more a ‘greatest hits’ package, assembling these well-worn elements (and fairly cohesively) as a nod to the fans. And there is certainly fan service on offer, notably flashbacks to RE0 and RE1, as well as appearances from those infamous door animations, a rocket launcher and even a First Aid Spray (no typewriters or item chests that I can recall though). These winky references are to be expected, and as cringe-inducing as they may be, they made me smile, in a chucklesome “oh, you went there, didn’t you” kind of way. The same can be said of the staging, a large shifting multi-tiered set onto which are projected different foregrounds and backdrops to change location. And yet, these projections are low-resolution and/or created with crummy CG, unintentionally mimicking the basic polygon models and basic textures of the original game. It’s a shame though that the key thing lost in its translation to the stage is the horror. What little blood and gore and gruesomeness there is in Biohazard The Stage is largely confined to pre-recorded video, nothing especially scary happens, and the zombies are disappointingly unthreatening. It doesn’t help that the action gets repetitive quickly, with scene after scene of our heroes darting into a new location, popping some caps, fisting some cuffs (in a reminder to just how much the games have been influenced by the films, there is an awful lot of kicking and hand-to-hand combat), and making their way to point B. But at least the actors are no slouches in that department, maintaining an impressive energy level throughout.

In fact, for all the inherent silliness, the cast are completely committed to the premise, taking everything very seriously, as if a stage adaptation of a video game franchise is just as legitimate as Pinter or Beckett, or at the very least a jukebox musical. And why not? That a stage version of Phoenix Wright was playing down the road suggests this wasn’t as novel a proposition as it first appeared. Though the principals are mostly culled from TV dramas and idol groups, Sonny Chiba (best known in the West for the Street Fighter – not that one – movies, and Kill Bill) lends the production a bit of emotional heft and gravitas, though the best character is the impossibly-monikered Posh Brown, a jittery security guard whose comic relief antics, while played broad, break the po-faced earnestness elsewhere. During the interval, my friend and I joked that what it really needed was a musical number, and lo and behold, the second half commences with a big zombie scuffle choreographed to a hi-NRG dance-pop tune. There are some other fun stage effects and ideas too – the backstory for the Umbrella corporation features actual umbrellas twirling on stage, text messages are projected onto the backdrop, a genetic mutation happens with the aid of simple but effective costume trickery.

So, for better and for worse, Biohazard The Stage is a faithful adaptation of the Resident Evil games as they currently exist. It is closer to the games than the live-action films in execution, and while it plays like one long cut-scene, it’s at least more interesting than the straight-to-DVD CG offerings. Faint praise, maybe, and there’s certainly nothing there for anyone but the most dedicated fans, but despite feeling burned out by all things bio-weaponry, it was not the abomination it could have been.

A DVD release is due in January with English subtitles, but I imagine much would be lost removed from the live setting (where at least there is something fascinating about experiencing it in the flesh with an audience). Viewed through a screen, I can see it becoming especially tedious. One for only the most hardcore/foolish (delete where applicable) Resident Evil enthusiast.

LFF 2015 Wrap-Up: The Lobster, The Assassin, Anomalisa, The Boy and The Beast

The 2015 BFI London Film Festival has long been and gone, but I’ve finally gotten round to doing a quick wrap-up of all the films I saw. Admittedly, I only managed to see four out of a line-up of hundreds but they are all worth talking about, and three of them are waiting to be released in the UK.

The Lobster

THE LOBSTER

My most anticipated film of the festival (and also the one that was released right after its LFF screenings) also ended up being my favourite. Billed as an unconventional love story from Dogtooth and Alps director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster depicts a world in which singletons are taken to a remote hotel where they must find a partner within 45 days or face being turned into an animal. Though absurd in its set-up and often very funny, like the best sci-fi (or alternate near-future semi-dystopia or wherever/whenever the setting might be), it has a lot to say about our own reality, namely love and relationships, and the weird rituals, mechanics and quirks that make no sense taken out of context and viewed dispassionately – even if there is something strangely moving about the central character’s own quest for companionship. Though his first film in the English language, Lanthimos’ dry deliberate tone and stilted dialogue fits well with the international cast, lead Colin Farrell especially good playing our sadsack ‘hero’. It’s weird, sad, dark and hilarious, reminiscent of Chris Morris’ Jam if anything, and one of the best films of the year.

The Assassin

THE ASSASSIN

Winner of the Best Director prize for Hou Hsiao-Hsien at the Cannes Film Festival and topping Sight and Sound’s Critics Poll as the best film of 2015, The Assassin comes already heavily garlanded. But it’s a case of cinematic Emperor’s New Clothes if there ever was one. Critics may fool you with words like transfixing, captivating, or imaginative to describe the film. But what they really mean is that it is empty, dull and plays around with its aspect ratio a bit. It’s possible to have a beautiful film that also manages to captivate with its story and character, but The Assassin is deliberately vague on both counts for seemingly no reason other than perhaps to make snobby arthouse audiences feel like they are watching a proper film rather than something as trifling as a simple ‘martial arts movie’. And what action is here is incredibly brief, a rush of fast edits that amount to very little, simply there to punctuate the tedium and keep you from dropping off to sleep. The bulk of the film involves people in pretty clothes walking into nicely decorated rooms and telling other people what is happening, who then sit there and think about it for a bit, and then onto the next scene. And yes, there are some rather gorgeous shots, but nothing more breath-taking than any desktop backgrounds that come pre-loaded onto a new laptop. If you don’t find yourself checking your watch repeatedly throughout, you’re either lying or not wearing a watch.

Anomalisa

ANOMALISA

The LFF Surprise Film is always a hot ticket and a bit of a treat (though the list of past entries is an eclectic bunch all right). And out of all the potential offerings, Anomalisa was the one I hoped for after hearing great things coming out of its other festival appearances. And lo and behold, so it was. Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is naturally as Kaufman-esque, for want of a better word, as previous favourites, witty and strange and emotionally engaging. But in teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson, together they have also crafted a quite remarkable animation to boot. And it’s not just a gimmick, rather the animation serves many functions, story, character and humour, creating a distancing effect while simultaneously making you invest more as you find humanity in something not quite real without a living, breathing human being entering the picture and spoiling everything, much as with Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day, for example, makes you care deeply for a stick man. Here though the 3D printed models offer greater detail but also a deliberate sense of the uncanny, especially as our lead character, a relatable but crucially not necessarily likeable writer (played by David Thewlis) is surrounded by a sea of identical faces, be it man, woman or child, all voiced by Tom Noonan. To describe what Anomalisa actually is would perhaps reveal too much as the story itself is slim and contained (not unlike The Lobster, set largely in the confines of a hotel, the unnatural atmosphere of which Anomalisa perfectly captures), but the directions it takes and the choices it makes offer much to take away for further thought and reflection. And yet, how it ranks amongst the likes of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche New York is hard to say. Upon initial viewing, it didn’t quite make the same impact on my heart, gut and mind as those films. I liked it a lot, but perhaps the second time, when its aims are clearer, it will connect more. Still, for any fans of his previous films, it is essential viewing.

The Boy and The Beast

THE BOY AND THE BEAST

With The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children, Mamoru Hosoda has become maybe the best working anime director currently in the business. His latest is as thrilling and beautiful on a technical and emotional level as one has come to expect, though suffers from a few too many standard anime narrative conventions and character beats to be considered one of his best. A young street urchin finds a passage to a world of anthropomorphised animal creatures and is taken under the wing of a grumpy bear who reluctantly decides to train him as an apprentice so that he then may challenge for rule of the domain. There is an enjoyable antagonism between the two; even when there is the risk of their relationship sliding into sentimentality, the film holds off from letting them become too fond of one another, so when those emotional payoffs come, it feels earned and genuine. And it means you get more entertaining scenes of them getting on each other’s nerves. It does however lose its way during the inevitable segment in which they go their separate ways, a return to the human world and a forced love-interest perhaps adding an extra dimension to the characters but offering very little that’s engaging. It adds a fair chunk to the run time too, bringing a lively buoyant fantasy up to that point to a halt. But for the most part, whether through its entertaining mismatched-buddy comedy or its spectacular action set-pieces, The Boy and the Beast still has much to offer.

Triple Feature of Terror!: The Babadook, The Innkeepers, and It Follows

For a time, horror was my default genre of choice, but recently my interest has fallen somewhat by the wayside, so it was a nice coincidence that in the past couple of weeks I watched three contemporary examples that offered modern and/or alternative takes on familiar tropes. They’re not exactly linked in any way, but they rekindled my passion for spooky movies.

The Babadook

The most acclaimed horror film of last year, The Babadook, certainly warrants its acclaim and attention, though it is its emotional impact that has garnered most praise, and rightly so. As a mother struggling with her increasingly disruptive and seemingly disturbed son (Noah Wiseman) and burdened with grief following the tragic death of her husband, Essie Davis gives a superb performance, believable and raw in the face of unexplained events, tied to a fiendish character from a mysterious pop-up picture book, that push her to breaking point. You can certainly see how We Need To Talk About Kevin has been raised as an interesting parallel. Debut feature director and writer Jennifer Kent succeeds in conjuring an atmosphere thick with dread, playing with shadows and sound in a house designed to discomfort, and Mister Babadook himself feels like a boogeyman for the ages. Yet, the film itself is unlikely to cause much in the way of sleepless nights – my strongest reaction came when Daniel Henshall appeared in a supporting role, though that says more about how much Snowtown has stuck with me than anything (the director of which – Justin Kurzel – is married to Babadook’s Davis, fact fans). But the pervading sense of despair and melancholy is what lingers longest, setting it apart from the other monsters-in-my-closest fair. As strong a calling card as you’re likely to find.

While James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Oren Peli, Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson et al have been the key figures responsible for shaping the landscape of American horror at the box office (with the likes of Saw, Insidious, Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring, Sinister, etc. to their names), another close-knit group of writers/directors/producers/actors have been bubbling away just beneath, carving out their own identity. Often sharing DNA with ‘mumblecore’ movies (to the extent the term ‘mumblegore’ is a thing), the likes of Adam Wingard, Ti West and Joe Swanberg have been knocking out low-budget horror films together (though in Swanberg’s case more indie dramas than anything) with varying results, though still often interesting and efficiently put together. They all contributed to found-footage anthology V/H/S, Wingard directed West and Swanberg in You’re Next, West directed Swanberg in The Sacrament…you get the picture.

The Innkeepers

But it is West’s The Innkeepers from 2011 up for discussion today, with Sara Paxton and Pat Healy (who would more recently appear again together in the grimly comic Cheap Thrills) as staff in a soon-to-close hotel, waiting out their time spooking themselves silly by investigating the supposedly haunted establishment’s dark past and trying to record paranormal activity. But of course it’s all fun and games until things start to get really freaky.

Both Healy and especially Paxton excel in their roles which, while not comic, are imbued with a natural sense of humour and well-observed character traits. Their dialogue exchanges are what makes The Innkeepers feel different and enjoyable and the characters feel like living, breathing people rather than simple slasher-fodder or audience ciphers (to give you an idea of how it’s pitched, there’s even a Lena Dunham cameo). But at the same time, as nice as these moments are, they slow the pace of the story. Given the things that go bump in the night aren’t anything especially new, even if they are effective, the film starts to drag before it really gets going, failing to really satisfy either the ‘mumble’ or ‘gore’ camps, or meld the two together. Which is a shame, as there are still very good elements of both here, but had the whole film been leaner and snappier, it would be easier to recommend.

Finally, my pick of the three is a new release, the much talked-about It Follows. As with the best of its kind, it is reverential and referential, but offers a new twist or take on established horror formulae. In this case, a sexual encounter leaves Jay (Maika Monroe, last seen in Wingard’s The Guest) with an apparent curse in which she is pursued by an unknown entity that takes the form of different people, strangers and familiars alike, but only she can see what’s coming after her. And she must pass it on if she is to survive.

It Follows

From the set-up to the execution, there are clear antecedents. The curse itself shares similarities with the tape from Ring, the unseen predator (and the presence of swimming pools) recalls Cat People, and the sex = life/death motif runs deep throughout so much of the genre it’s hard to know where to start. But It Follows is knowing enough to play with these influences, indulging them some times and subverting them others, without winking to camera.

Perhaps the most obvious influence is John Carpenter’s Halloween, primarily in its cinematography and music. Mike Gioulakis is responsible for the former, beautifully framing and filling each shot such that it feels like a widescreen movie with a capital WIDE. It also plays with perspective, as you are sometimes viewing the action through Jay’s P.O.V. but not always (like the phantasmagorical gimmickry of William Castle’s 13 Ghosts), but mostly the camera feels removed, dispassionate, even voyeuristic, forcing you to scan the margins for when a slowly walking presence might emerge to track down Jay. Anything that can make scenes set in broad daylight unnerving is doing something right. And with Rich Vreeland aka Disasterpeace (probably best known for the soundtrack to twisty platform-puzzle game Fez) providing a gorgeous, haunting, squelchy synth score, it feels both like a clear harking back to the late 70s/early 80s, while also feeling strangely timeless.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell knows his horror onions and is clearly technically accomplished, but he also does a fine job at making his teenage characters sound and behave like teenagers. The cast handle the dialogue and emotional beats in a way that feels authentic, and far removed from your typical scream teens, but Mitchell also understands a balance needs to be struck, and this is a more successful melding of indie sensibilities and spooky goings-on than The Innkeepers. With its stripped back approach, it may disappoint audiences more used to the ‘boo-scared-ya’ blockbusters. And there’s a case to be made that it is the least out-and-out scary of the three. But It Follows is certainly the one that has lingered around in my mind the longest and the one I feel I will return to most often.

 

Broadchurch is back – for better or worse?

Olivia Colman and David Tennant in Broadchurch - the Glum-Off begins!

Olivia Colman and David Tennant in Broadchurch – the Glum-Off begins!

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS

In my review of last year’s overrated The Honourable Woman, I found myself despairing at its embarrassing attempt to play with the big boys of HBO, AMC, and latterly Netflix, and wondered if this was the state of British TV drama. Though Happy Valley still appears to be ‘the one to watch’, I have now managed to catch up with both series of The Fall (Gillian Anderson great, show itself a bit of a slog) and the subject of this piece, Broadchurch, which returned for its second series last night.

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FILM REVIEW: I Declare War

ideclarewar

Regulars to this blog (if they even exist) will note my predilection towards films depicting kids that kill. Be it Battle Royale or Who Can Kill A Child?, I seemingly can’t get enough, so without wishing a a psychoanalyst upon me, it meant when tiny Canadian indie flick I Declare War appeared on my radar, my interest was certainly piqued, and a recent UK release was most welcome.

With a cast exclusively comprised of actors for whom having reached double figures is still kind of a big deal, two groups of kids pitch battle in the great outdoors, with sticks and twigs as firearms and water balloons as decisive ‘blood grenades’. What turns a simple childhood game into something different is that the film-makers give life to their imagination, arming them with ‘real’ guns, ‘real’ ammunition and ‘real’ explosives.

We’ve all waged make-believe warfare, long summers spent in the woods recreating whatever ridiculous action movies we recorded off late night telly without parental guidance (in that sense, this is something of a distant cousin to Son of Rambow). So there is something thrilling about the action sequences in I Declare War, which are surprisingly effective and exciting. But it is also inherently amusing. The kids fit comfortably into war movie archetypes – the joker, the religious nervy one, the ruthless general, the mute at one with nature, etc. They are suitably obnoxious: foul-mouthed, violent and cruel, so a fairly accurate portrayal of kids being kids. It’s surprisingly successful in being both a parody and fine example of war on film.

Yet, it also understands there is something unsettling about all this young unfettered bloodlust. As one might expect, it can be fairly on the nose with its messages –  war is pointless, nobody wins, military powers behave like squabbling tykes, yadda yadda yadda. However, its frequent scenes of kids with guns, intentionally or not evoking images of child soldiers and school shootings may be little too close for comfort for some – personally, I didn’t give it much thought, and nor do I think film-makers  Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson specifically set out for simple shock tactics. Better handled is how through the prism of conflict some pretty heavy emotional truths hit home, the kind that feel particularly brutal in childhood. Friendships are tested to breaking point, cliques are torn apart, bullying both physical and mental come to the fore – it’s tough being a kid some times, and I Declare War doesn’t shy from it.

It helps that there are some pretty good performances amongst the cast, some admittedly more so than others, but as PK, Gage Munroe is a force to be reckoned with – a pipsqueak with braces on the outside, but a cold heart and steely tactical brain inside. And Michael Friend as Skinner and Siam Yu as Kwon do well selling the tension of their scenes as captor and captive. But other performers are not so well handled, as much down to inexperience as ideas that perhaps looked better on the page and weren’t pulled off effectively in the finished product. The blurring of reality and fiction works well with the gunplay, but one character’s imaginary superpowers feel disconnected from the rest of the film, while a subplot with the only female character and her lovey-dovey daydreaming is a fumbled ball.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to admire about I Declare War – it is ambitious and fufils the potential of its premise, even if when it extends its reach, it comes up short.