Film Review – The Girl with All the Gifts

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Just when I thought there were no original ideas left in the zombie movie genre, The Girl with All the Gifts proves me wrong.

Michael Carey’s screenplay (adapting his own novel, which I confess I haven’t read), opens with mysterious ten year old Melanie (Sennia Nanua) in a cell in an underground bunker. She is surrounded by soldiers with their weapons trained on her, but doesn’t seem particularly upset. Indeed, she greets them warmly as they tie her to a wheelchair and generally treat her like Hannibal Lecter. She and a couple of dozen other children in orange uniforms are then escorted by these soldiers into a classroom where Helen (Gemma Arterton) asks them questions about the periodic table then reads them tales of Greek mythology. What on earth is going on?

To say too much more will spoil the film, suffice to say this provides some very clever variations on established zombie staples. Performances are all very good, especially from the wonderful Sennia Nanua, and supporting cast members Glenn Close and Paddy Considine. Director Colm McCarthy stages some terrific (and gruesome) zombie set pieces but also makes very, very good use of a limited budget and locations, especially a run-down London which is starting to be overgrown and reclaimed by nature.

The usual horror movie warnings apply for strong violence and bad language. Also, Christian viewers might want to take note that this story has a fairly bleak evolutionary atheist worldview, although obviously that doesn’t mean one cannot appreciate the fine storytelling, acting and directorial mechanics on display here.

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Horrify, Terrify or Repulse?

Stephen King famously once said there were three levels on which a horror story could work. The highest level is to horrify, the second highest to terrify and the third to repulse. He also said he wasn’t too proud to stoop to the third level, if it was the only way he could make a story work.

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King’s definition has been in the back of my head throughout my own writing of horror stories (including in my upcoming novel The Thistlewood Curse). Specifically, I have thought to define further what King meant, with examples from book and film, so as to apply this to my own work in the hope that I might achieve the highest of the levels to which he (and I) aspire in writing horror.

To horrify one must tap into the deepest and most primal of fears in, a new, interesting and effective way. The Woman in Black does this well, because it explores parental fears about the death of children. Frankenstein taps into worries about morally unchecked advances in science. Dracula deals with dark and dangerous repressed sexuality and so on.

In film, The Exorcist is another good example as it also takes the theme of something terrible happening to a child, and with that theme (demonic possession) it explores all kinds of fears both directly related to the story (ie the actual literal possession) and metaphorical (subconscious fears about puberty, emergent sexuality and so forth). More recently, The Babadook delves into themes of guilt and grief in a profound and genuinely horrifying way.

As a brief aside, I would also argue that at this highest of levels, horror is ultimately about catharsis. People who do not care for the genre often comment to the effect of “Why would you put yourself through that?” to which I would reply, “Why would you put yourself through a comedy? Or a weepie?” Such stories are simply the flip side of the same coin. No-one would actually want to go through the events of a farcical comedy or an overwrought weepie any more than they would a horror story, but people enjoy them because they provide emotional release – a catharsis. In my experience, people who have been through dark events in their lives don’t avoid dark stories. By stepping into the horror protagonist’s shoes, we relate, we identify, we find meaning, and above all it can help us come to terms with our own demons.

The difference between horrifying an audience and merely terrifying them is to me a question of mechanics triumphing over the ability to relate in a meaningful way. In the case of a slasher story (Halloween for instance) there is no deep connection the audience or reader feels to those foolish teenagers who have unwisely ignored advice to stay away from the woods, or from the haunted house, or wherever else the bloodthirsty villain might lurk. To that end, such a story can expertly manipulate a reader or viewer, but whilst the result can prove gripping, it will often fail to resonate at a deeper level.

Finally, there is the option to repulse or gross-out with high levels of gore. Obviously such techniques speak for themselves. However, horror stories at this level can sometimes elevate themselves by combining gruesome bloodletting with other techniques. For example, Dawn of the Dead is a classic zombie movie not just because of the buckets of gore but because of the savage satirical undercurrent.

With all this in mind, I am intrigued to see what readers make of The Thistlewood Curse. I would prefer to brand it as a supernatural thriller (as I have already mentioned in previous posts) but there are unquestionably horror elements which I hope will tap into universally relatable fears in a new and interesting way. In short, by the end of the novel, I hope to horrify the reader.

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Film Review – Don’t Breathe

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The spirit of 1967 nail-biter Wait Until Dark lingers in Don’t Breathe, one of the surprise horror hits of the year. To be honest it isn’t as amazing as some reviews have made out, but director Fede Alvarez nonetheless has crafted an efficiently tense piece of genre filmmaking.

Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three thieves breaking into various homes with keys stolen by Alex, whose unsuspecting father has sold security systems to the homes they break into. Upon learning of a potentially big score with an old blind man (Stephen Lang) living in a run-down area of Detroit, they decide to risk breaking in whilst he is still asleep. However, they get considerably more than they bargained for when the old man turns out to be a much more formidable opponent than expected.

Performances are good, particularly from Lang whose menacing physical presence really amps up the sense of threat. The often brutally violent games of cat and mouse that ensue are well staged by Alvarez, who references the afore-mentioned Wait Until Dark in a sequence where the thieves are plunged into darkness in a basement whilst the blind man stalks them. Speaking of violence, it’s worth adding warnings for that, as well as swearing and a rather distasteful, disturbing plot turn in the final act that will have many in the audience squirming.

I can’t say I particularly cared about the protagonists, despite the screenplay assigning Rocky a background involving a little sister designed to get the viewer on her side. That said, on the whole Don’t Breathe is a well-crafted bit of suspense that delivers the goods. Just don’t expect anything radical, or expect it to be as good as Wait Until Dark.

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The Woman in Black – book versus film

My oldest son has recently been studying gothic literature in school, so I decided to help him out a bit by reading him Susan Hill’s classic ghost story The Woman in Black, and also showing him the 2012 film. This led to an interesting comparison of film versus book, particularly with regard to the finale.

The text of the book is quite brilliant, with Hill’s prose generating a subtle, gnawing unease from the very start. The sinister atmosphere drips off the page in a singular way that somehow demands to be taken completely seriously. Possibly a key element of her genius is the way she opens the story with the older Arthur Kipps listening to his family telling absurd and clichéd ghost stories, whilst quietly feeling increasingly ill at ease because he knows the reality of a true haunting and the curse he has suffered that has blighted his life.

By contrast the film inevitably lacks the subtlety of the book, piling on jump scares and extra deaths that were merely referred to in passing in the text. That said, despite the miscasting of Daniel Radcliffe, the film is efficiently chilling, atmospheric and macabre as the curse of the woman in black unleashes havoc. The film reveals this curse very early on, whereas in the novel it is only discovered in the closing stages. What works on page will not necessarily work on film so I don’t necessarily take issue with the way the film opts for a more obviously lurid assault on the senses.

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

The woman in black’s curse comes into play most memorably in the finale, in both film and book. However the film is actually, on balance, somewhat softened by the fact that Kipps’s wife is already dead. Therefore, having Kipps die attempting to save his son from the oncoming train (which his son has stood in front of due to a trance induced by the vengeful ghost) leads to the scene with them all happily reunited in the afterlife. This undercuts the horror considerably.

By contrast, in the book, the stark, blunt, merciless way Kipps’s wife and child are dispatched by a different spectrally induced accident is far, far more horrifying because Kipps has to live with the agony of losing them. There is no reunion in the afterlife, and instead, due to the flashback structure of the story, the reader already knows that he has spent decades recovering from this anguish. The book therefore ends on the bleakest note imaginable, and Hill’s deliberately abrupt, brilliantly terse prose reflects this as Kipps muses that the ghost has had her revenge.

“They have asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.”

To an extent, I can understand why the filmmakers altered the ending, since if shot exactly as it is on page, the scene would not have been as powerful. A film cannot get inside the head of the main character in quite the same way, and it would have been difficult to convey the full impact of the ensuing decades of grief. That said, had the filmmakers killed Kipps’s son and not Kipps in that final scene, the film could perhaps have got a bit further towards the full horror of what Hill wrote, thus remaining truer to the essence of the original.

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Film Review – Anthropoid

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Watching Anthropoid, I felt astonished this particular part of World War II had not been told on film before. Then I discovered it had, in a film I confess I have not seen (1975’s Operation Daybreak). Either way, this account of the Czech resistance’s plan to assassinate third highest ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich and its aftermath is a superbly gripping true story.

One gets a real sense for director Sean Ellis’s passion for the project, and his film is a real labour of love. It centres on resistance fighters Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan), covertly parachuted back into Czechoslovakia under orders from the exiled Czech government in London to contact what remains of the resistance and bring about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (known as “The Butcher of Prague”, and also the main architect of the Final Solution). A suspenseful build-up ensues, along with two stand-out set pieces including the attack on Heydrich itself and the finale, which I won’t spoil for those unfamiliar with the facts.

Even if you know the history, the film is a riveting piece of drama for several reasons. Firstly the terrific performances, not just from Murphy and Dornan, but also from supporting cast members (including the always brilliant Toby Jones). Additionally Ellis and Anthony Frewin’s screenplay is fiercely uncompromising. There is heroism, yes, but at no point does the film overlook how resistance fighters were often frightened and panicked, in some cases enough to turn informer. Nor does this gloss over some of the appalling things the resistance had to do to achieve their goals, setting aside any hope for a normal life (glimmers of which are seen in relationships Josef and Jan experience with Marie Kovarnikova (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafkova (Anna Geislerova), two girls they meet who help the resistance). As one character observes, war is not romantic.

Arguably, there are a couple of false steps. For instance, in the first few minutes I struggled with the accents a little, and there is a brief moment in the finale that I felt to be misjudged and out of place. Ultimately however, Anthropoid is a stirring and fitting and tribute to the courageous men and women who fought in this fascinating chapter of history. It is also a sobering, deeply human story that implicitly challenges the viewer as to what they might do faced with similar evil. Highly recommended.

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Film Review – Hell or High Water

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Hell or High Water is a terrific modern western from Starred Up and Hallam Foe director David Mackenzie. For my money it’s his best film to date.

The deceptively straightforward plot concerns Toby Howard (Chris Pine), a divorced father, and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster), who desperately undertake a series of low stakes bank heists to save their family ranch in Texas. Soon to retire Marshall Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are hot on their trail. However, what makes the story special from then on is not so much what happens but how it happens.

For a start, Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay focuses on the touching bond of brotherhood between Toby and Tanner. Secondly, it neatly subverts soon-to-be-retired-cop clichés in the banter between Hamilton and Parker, and in the events of the finale. Performances are all very good, particularly from Bridges and Pine, the latter of whom proves there is more to him than Captain Kirk. Mackenzie’s  choice of stark, run-down locations adds authenticity and pathos to themes of banking greed (banks are ultimately the real villains of the piece). Nick Cave and Warren Ellis also contribute a fine score complimenting the melancholy visuals, courtesy of Giles Nuttgens’s superb cinematography.

In final analysis, Hell or High Water is a rich, mournful, elegiac piece of work that receives a shot in the arm during a tense and gripping finale. I must add the usual warnings for sex, swearing and violence, but nothing is out of context or gratutious. In short, it’s well worth a watch.

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Film Review – Kubo and the Two Strings

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Laika Studios have been responsible for some of the more offbeat animated family movies of late, the high point thus far being Coraline. Kubo and the Two Strings continues that tradition in style with this superbly poignant fairy tale, my favourite animated film so far this year.

A young boy named Kubo lives reclusively with his ailing mother in a cave by the sea. Using a magical instrument that brings his origami characters to life, he earns his keep telling stories in the local village. One night evil supernatural forces from his mother’s past return to seek revenge. Subsequently Kubo finds himself on a quest to locate a magical suit of armour worn by his late father, with a talking monkey, a samurai transformed into a beetle, and an origami soldier for company.

Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro and Art Parkinson all contribute fine vocal performances. The story is unhurried but never boring, striking the right balance between sombre, surreal, comic and thrilling. Director Travis Knight and his animation department ensure every frame is achingly beautiful, whether it’s fields of sun-soaked grass, a boat of leaves on a stormy ocean, a flock of origami birds or a giant magical skeleton. Speaking of which, in the great tradition of children’s films that do not patronise their target audience, Kubo and the Two Strings rightly pushes the PG envelope in terms of scary scenes, as well as embracing darker themes such as coming to terms with bereavement.

Some more right-wing Christian reviewers have complained that the film promotes Eastern mysticism over a Judeo-Christian worldview, but if so then it does that very superficially. Much more to the fore are positive themes of good versus evil, sacrifice, forgiveness, the importance of memory and the power of love to overcome evil – all of which Christians should have no issue with. Also, even if one is bringing one’s children up with a Christian worldview (as indeed I am, and unapologetically so), it is foolishness to be paranoid about exposing children to fairy tales based around non-Judeo Christian worldviews (in this case, the Buddhist tradition of praying to one’s departed ancestors). Rather than react with prohibition and thus generate forbidden fruit curiosity, I prefer engagement and educated discussion so these beliefs can be understood and contrasted with that of mythology and folklore based in the Judeo-Christian tradition, whilst still enjoying what is simply a terrific story.

Such spiritual hand-wringing aside, Kubo and the Two Strings is ultimately a surprisingly moving film for all ages. It is drenched in memorable imagery, so see it on the big screen whilst you can (sadly it hasn’t done very well at the box office).

0h – and it’s worth sticking around through the end credits to make sure you don’t miss a timelapse shot of the animators preparing a key sequence from the film, providing a fascinating snapshot into the painstaking work behind stop-motion animation.

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Film Review – Julieta

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Pedro Almodovar is in a quieter, more serious mood with Julieta, a gripping and heartbreaking psychological drama, with first-rate performances from Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez as the eponymous Julieta in her younger and older incarnations.

Told in flashback, the story begins as the older Julieta is about to move away from Madrid with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) only for a chance encounter with an old friend of her (presumably) estranged daughter Antia  to mysteriously provoke a change of heart. Deciding to stay in Madrid, Julieta then beings a chronicle addressed to Antia, explaining the whole truth about her past, starting with how she met her father Xoan (Daniel Grao).

In addition to the leads, the supporting cast are all very good (Dario Grandinetti makes me think of a Spanish Pete Postlethwaite for some reason). Almodovar’s direction is superb throughout. His clever use of white, blue and red at key points of the narrative make this sometimes feel like more of a noir thriller, or even a Hitchcock film like Vertigo. This mood is enhanced by Alberto Inglesias’s Bernard Herrmann-esque music score and other elements such as the presence of Rossy de Palma’s somewhat sinister, faintly Danvers-esque hired help Marian.

Thematically this concerns the viral, sometimes generational nature guilt and grief, drawing occasional parallels with Greek mythology and even, at one point, hinting at contemporary relevance with the idea of young people discovering themselves through cults and religious fanaticism. For people who appreciate warnings about such things, the film does contain some sex scenes and nudity, though nothing to my mind unjustified by context, and certainly far more restrained than one sometimes encounters in Almodovar territory. In fact, here we find Almodovar at his most compassionate as a chronicler of the human condition.

All things considered, Julieta is a rich, satisfying mystery melodrama. I found it engrossing and very moving.

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Reviews appeal

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Hi Everyone – A quick word from me as I prepare to announce the release of my new novel The Thistlewood Curse

If you have read and enjoyed any of my novels (particularly those other than Children of the Folded Valley), please would you consider leaving a review on Amazon? As you can see from the picture on this article, it doesn’t have to be long – a simple “I liked it” would suffice if you don’t fancy penning a huge critique.

Many thanks.

Simon

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Film Review – Sausage Party

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There is no God, and we should all have as much sex as possible with as many people as possible. That is the clear message of Sausage Party, an animated comedy aimed squarely at adults that will undoubtedly prove spectacularly offensive to many audiences, especially Christian ones. Herewith upfront warnings for extremely strong language and sexual references throughout, as well as an eye-watering “food orgy” that has to be seen to be believed (or rather, won’t be by many of you, if this warning does its job).

Still here? Then you are, like me, one of those impossible-to-offend types for whom the afore-mentioned warning is a signal to rub your hands together with glee. Unfortunately, I have to deflate your excitement by informing you that Sausage Party is actually a bit of a bore.

Admittedly the premise is a nifty one: self-aware food characters in a supermarket long to be chosen by “the gods” (ie customers) for a life of paradise in the great beyond, courtesy of a religious teaching perpetuated by the “non-perishable” food items. But once we are introduced to Frank the sausage (Seth Rogan), whose (reciprocated) lust for roll Brenda (Kirsten Wiig) is perpetually frustrated by their belief that they have to “stay pure” by remaining in their packaging until chosen, the extreme crudity and obvious satire rapidly become numbing rather than shocking. Quite honestly weapon’s grade smut only gets me so far before I long for a little wit and sophistication to leaven the unending stream of funny-if-you’re-14 sex jokes.

Even as a Christian I can understand why Bible Belt Christianity has been targeted by the filmmakers (though they also target other religions). In addition there are tons of deliberately racist stereotypes – the politically correct logic being, if you poke fun at one race, you have to poke fun at them all. Again, most of this bored rather than offended me, although I have to confess I did chuckle a bit at the obvious Israel allegory, as a Jewish bagel and an Arab pitta bread argue over “settlements” in their aisle, with the pitta bread also noting that when he reaches paradise, he will be given 77 bottles of extra virgin olive oil. There was one other time I laughed a little – at an agreeably bad taste joke about a Nazi type movement within the sauerkraut (they want to exterminate the “Juice”).

Directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon no doubt hope Sausage Party is seen as a subversive and clever, but to my mind it achieves neither of those aims. Instead it’s just a crassly transparent atheist sermon wrapped in a tedious avalanche of filth, more filth, annoying in-jokes, even more annoying “meta” plot twists, and a whole load of filth. Did I mention the filth? To be fair filth can be funny, but here, in the end, it just gets boring.

If you’re still curious, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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