Film Review – Close Encounters of the Third Kind (re-release)

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Steven Spielberg’s 1977 masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind has returned to UK cinemas in a very limited run. I have now seen this on the big screen in a variety of formats, including 70mm, 35mm and now digital 4K, but the fact remains that any big screen viewing is at least twenty times as powerful as watching it on television. In fact, this is in my top five, must-see at the cinema movies, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For the purposes of this review, I am assuming everyone has seen the film. If you haven’t, stop reading now and find a screening immediately, because this review will have no regard for spoilers. Here then are ten reasons why, 40 years on, Close Encounters remains a stone-cold classic of the genre, plus one reason why, for all it’s brilliance, the film is flawed.

“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”

The opening is nothing less than masterful. Initially silent white on black opening titles are gradually disrupted by an eerie chord, which builds and builds to a dramatic crescendo before the screen explodes into light. This incredible cut simultaneously celebrates the light and sound show that is cinema, hints at the aliens returning those planes that were lost in the Bermuda Triangle into the middle of the Mexican desert, and finally engages the viewer with the dramatic reveal of a light in a sandstorm, which turns out not to be a UFO, but the headlamp of a jeep. Amid the confusion and linguistic misunderstandings that follow, as UN officials meet with Mexican authorities trying to make sense of the inexplicable return of Bermuda Triangle planes, one witness speaks enigmatically of what he saw, whilst a translator notes: “He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.” The sheer mysteriousness of the entire scene sends thrilling shivers up my spine every time I see it.

“Toby! You are close to death!”

This scene, introducing protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family is a brilliantly observed sequence of suburban family squalor. Everyone talks over everyone else, and there are mess, misunderstandings and moments of utter hilarity, such as when Roy informs his oldest son he isn’t going to help his son with his maths homework, because that was why he went to school and studied, so he wouldn’t have to do maths homework. Or better still, when Roy yells at his younger son, after the noise of his incessant doll smashing pushes him to breaking point: “Toby! You are close to death!”

“This is nuts!”

Lost on the highway at night, Roy stares distractedly at a map whilst car headlights draw up behind his vehicle. Roy waves the car past, but rather than go around, the lights move up. Roy’s subsequent encounter with the UFO, and his eerie discovery of the people watching the UFOs on the hillside, is absolutely masterful, with Vilmos Zsigmond’s phenomenal cinematography at it’s most potent with bold, beautiful blacks featuring magical starfields and cloudscapes.

“Toys!”

The sequence where little Barry (Cary Guffey) is abducted by aliens is full-on terrifying, like a scene from a horror movie. The only thing that undercuts the terror is Barry’s complete absence of fear, as he has already discovered the aliens are not malevolent.

“I guess you’ve noticed there’s something wrong with Dad…”

Driven insane by the vision of a mountain in his mind, Roy builds said mountain out of shaving cream, pillows and even mashed potato, much to the alarm of his increasingly worried family. Eventually Roy’s breakdown precipitates his wife taking the children and leaving, whilst he remains behind to build a gigantic replica of the mountain in their sitting room. When this mountain turns out to be a real place – deftly revealed as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming – Roy and Barry’s mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) join him there, despite the fact that the entire area is being evacuated.

“No-one’s going to believe the plague in this day and age!”

Said evacuation is undertaken due to a government cover-up of gargantuan proportions, and it is here that the film is all too believable. One darkly comic scene features a group of people trying to come up with a cover story scary enough to make sure everyone evacuates (“No-one’s going to believe the plague in this day and age!”), and there is something undeniably unsettling about large government vehicles masquerading as Coca-Cola trucks and the like.

“I want to talk to someone in charge!”

Needless to say, Roy and Jillian defy the quarantine, but are captured and are eventually questioned by Laughlin (Bob Balaban) and LaCombe (Francois Truffaut). The scene where Roy berates them, telling them they have no right to make people crazy, demanding to see “someone in charge” has been paid homage to in several films, most recently the 2014 Godzilla.

The appearance of the mothership

This sequence alone fully justifies seeking this film out on the biggest screen and best sound system possible. Mere words cannot describe the sheer jaw dropping spectacle and beauty of that moment, not to mention the incredible use of sound (most speakers simply cannot handle the low frequencies). The staggering, non-CGI visual effects were ground-breaking and remain as impressive as ever today.

“Play the five tones.”

Sound and music play key roles in the narrative, which includes John Williams’s evocative, Oscar-nominated score (he lost out at the Oscars – to himself – for Star Wars). The sequence where the aliens and humans learn to talk together with music remains a delightful, whimsical moment. Of course, communication is a key theme of the film.

“Bye…”

Which brings me to the ending. The moment where Roy volunteers to be taken away by the aliens – sticking out like a sore thumb next to the other potential astronauts all lined up with perfect neatness – is masterful. The way the aliens chose him, lifting his arms and carrying him away in a moment of rapture… It always brings a tear to my eye. Final farewells are said, and the mothership ascends… A cathedral of lights rising into the heavens, becoming a star.

My one criticism?

No matter how you slice it, the fact that Roy choses to go off with the aliens, leaving his wife and children (presumably forever) doesn’t quite sit right with me. Nor with Spielberg. Years later he admitted he made a mistake with that part of the script, which was doubtless influenced by the trauma of his own parent’s separation (he explored this theme much more effectively in the later E.T. The Extra Terrestrial).

That said, I understand what Spielberg was aiming for at a metaphorical level – a spiritual journey whereby those of limited vision cannot understand what is happening to Roy. I just think the story would have been better served if Roy had a different backstory that meant his ascent with the aliens didn’t mean abandoning a family.

One final thought: This is, absolutely, a deeply spiritual film akin to something of a religious experience. Interest in the UFO phenomena is an understandable response to the spiritual yearning in all of humanity for something greater than themselves. The problem, from a Christian perspective, is that the real UFO phenomena is both deeply alarming and almost certainly demonic. In 1977, Spielberg claimed he would never make a film about unfriendly aliens as the idea seemed absurd to him. Yet since then he has made a number of films that feature more malevolent extra-terrestrials, including War of the Worlds and the fourth Indiana Jones film. I can only wonder at where Spielberg’s research has taken him, and what has caused him to change his mind.

All that said, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still a magnificent, moving and uplifting science fiction classic, filled with wonderful performances and stunning, iconic set pieces. It remains an essential watch on the big screen.

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Out of Context

I recently noticed Goodreads and Amazon contain features that allow readers to highlight quotes from my novels. Seeing these snippets out of context is interesting, because in some cases they cease to be the thoughts of my characters and become statements of belief or insights into life.

Folded Valley cover

For example, in the case of my most popular novel to date, Children of the Folded Valley, here are some out context thoughts:

On school:

“It was the culture of school I took a great disliking to; the idea that academic study is the be-all and end-all, and that to fail is to fail at life.”

On adolescence:

“When you feel the whole world wants you to act like an adult, but it continues to treat you like a child, you no longer trust the adult world.”

On selfishness:

“People often use childhood or adolescent trauma as an excuse for selfish decisions they take, and I for one refuse to offer such a simplistic explanation.”

On nostalgia:

“I do not long for the past, yet nor do I think of it as exclusively bad. I don’t ever want to go back, but I want things that are trapped there, lost forever.”

If any authors reading this have had a similar experience, by all means drop a few of your own out of context one-liners in the comments.

 

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Film Review – Mother!

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There has been much debate around Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! as to what it is all supposed to mean. Some have interpreted it as an environmentalist parable (a “Mother” who gives to an overpopulated world until she can give nothing more), and some have claimed it is as an allegory about religious delusions, or even an anti-Christian statement. Yet for all the discussion and controversy (which has fallen well short of A Clockwork Orange levels of outrage, despite the predictions of some), I actually found my own interpretation to be fairly straightforward, and even a trifle obvious.

For me, this is a difficult, darkly comic, savagely violent parable about the artistic process from the point of view of the muse. Mother! is a surreal, dreamlike experience that’s clearly intended as metaphorical and set in a world that’s a sidestep outside reality. For one thing, the characters have no proper names. The protagonist, “Mother”, is played  by Jennifer Lawrence – a visceral and committed lead performance – alongside supporting characters including “Him” (Javier Bardem, Lawrence’s husband, a poet suffering from writer’s block), and various others that come to their country house, disrupting their idyllic existence.

The first of these is “Man” (Ed Harris) who inexplicably mistakes their house for a bed and breakfast. “Him” welcomes “Man” into their home, despite the misgivings of “Mother”. “Man” is later joined by his wife, “Woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer), who proves to be a nosy, tactless houseguest. Both rather lack self-awareness, to put it mildly, and at this point it becomes obvious (to me at any rate) that the people, the place, the house itself (unfinished, and being decorated by “Mother”) are all symbolic elements in the artistic process. “Mother” tries to inspire “Him”; creating a good environment for him to work, continually sacrificing and giving… She ultimately inspires greatness, but “Him” turns to others for inspiration as well, inviting them into their private existence. When “Him” finally succeeds in writing a masterpiece, it is not just for “Mother” but must be shared with the whole world – a world that intrudes upon the wellbeing of “Mother” in very alarming ways.

What happens subsequently may or may not be taking place in the mind of “Mother”. For one thing she takes medicine regularly, yet at one key point in the narrative she stops. Does this somehow unleash the madness that follows? I should add warnings here for extremely strong language as well as brutal, bloody and shocking violence. Yet it would be exceedingly foolish to take even the most unpleasant, upsetting violence at face value. Again, to me the metaphors – about the artistic process – were fairly obvious.

Aronofsky has created a claustrophobic, unsettling piece here. By keeping his camera focussed in and around Jennifer Lawrence, the film becomes genuinely disorientating and nightmarish. There are echoes of Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and even Ben Wheatley’s High Rise at times, yet more than anything this feels like a companion piece to Aronofsky’s own Black Swan. It’s also the better film of the two.

I expect Mother! to polarise audiences as much as Aronofsky’s other films, but I must say I admire him. Mother! may be pretentious and self-indulgent at times, but it is also incisive, challenging, bracingly cinematic and actually in metaphorical terms quite honest in terms of the dark truths it confronts. Some will find the film offensive, no doubt, but as I said about Paul Verhoeven’s Elle earlier this year, I’d rather be offended than bored.

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Plot Twists versus Unexpected Plot Turns

I have noticed some people confuse plot twists with unexpected plot turns. Here I shall attempt my own definitions of each, to explain the difference.

Earlier this year, I was most amused by a “bad” review of my novel Love vs Honour on Goodreads. The reviewer took great exception to the third act, stating the following:

“No…just No….
I hate such endings..
Wtf….
When the story got interesting then the author has to shock us?
No…
That’s bad..”

Obviously the reader is entitled to their opinion, and I am pleased that my writing got under her skin, but I maintain (and this is supported by many others who have read the novel) that the third act of Love vs Honour is not a pointless exercise in shock tactics but an outcome that was hinted at throughout – indeed the very first chapter clearly telegraphs where this is all going to end up.

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That said my intention in writing that novel was to create an unexpected plot turn, despite the hints that had been dropped. The third act should still feel like a shock, even though in hindsight it ought to seem inevitable. This was not a twist, but a new and unexpected narrative direction. However, an unexpected plot turn does not mean earlier events are viewed in a different light. In Love vs Honour, the first two acts are not open to drastic reinterpretation as a result of the third act.

By contrast a plot twist, particularly a final act plot twist, turns the entire story on its head, providing a rush of insight that causes the reader to see all events and characters in completely new terms. Said twists must be cleverly woven into the narrative in such a way that they come out of left field, and yet like unexpected plot turns, also seem inevitable in hindsight, causing the reader to wonder how on earth they didn’t see it coming.

In a number of my novels – including Uncle Flynn, The Birds Began to Sing and most recently The Thistlewood Curse – there are big, final act twists which mean the entire story has to be reassessed in light of the new information. How well these big twists work is of course up to readers to decide, but for better or worse, the events in those finales do mean the entire plots of those books are turned on their heads, hopefully in an entertaining and enjoyable way.

To conclude, a good example of the difference between the above narrative devices occurs in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. The notorious shower stabbing is an unexpected plot turn, whereas the finale in the cellar (when the nature of Norman’s “mother” is revealed) is a plot twist.

Here are some other examples of both from books and movies (I will tip-toe around spoilers):

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – The man with two faces finale is a big plot twist.

One Day – The bike accident late in the novel is an unexpected plot turn.

The Sixth Sense – Bruce Willis’s final discovery about himself is a justly famous plot twist.

His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass – The upshot of the romance between Will and Lyra, as a result of the difficult choice they are forced to make, is an unexpected plot turn.

Planet of the Apes – Charlton Heston’s final discovery on the beach is a plot twist.

Great Expectations – The demise of Miss Havisham is an unexpected plot turn.

The Empire Strikes Back – Darth Vader’s big revelation is a plot twist, one that turns the entire story of not just that film but also the previous film completely upside down.

Million Dollar Baby – What happens to Hilary Swank’s character following the sucker-punch is an unexpected plot turn.

Les Diaboliques – The nail-biting bath finale is a plot twist.

Dead Poets Society – What happens to Neil after he performs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an unexpected plot turn.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – The identity of the mole in MI6 is a big twist.

Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia – Irene Adler’s escape is an unexpected (and unconventional) plot turn.

Murder on the Orient Express – The finale is one of the most famous whodunit resolutions of all time, and one of the biggest twists.

Kind Hearts and Coronets – The delicious irony of why the protagonist finally gets arrested is a particularly amusing unexpected plot turn in this sublime black comedy.

I could go on and on, but hopefully that clarifies my definition.

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Film Review – It

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Stephen King’s It has previously been adapted as a memorable television miniseries, so this new version, helmed by Mama director Andy Muschietti, comes with a certain level of expectation. Personally I don’t find It quite the bone-chilling exercise in terror claimed by many, but the new film certainly works reasonably well.

For me, It (or at least this version) is more successful outside the horror elements when tapping into the Stranger Things zeitgeist. Updating the novel from the 1950s to the 1980s, this nostalgic, coming of age story is familiar King territory for anyone who has seen Stand by Me, not to mention kids-rule Amblin movies like The Goonies. That’s not to say it skimps on gruesome horror either, and at times the film borrows heavily from Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Now is as good a time as any to warn of strong bloody sequences, violence, bad language, and other disturbing content.

The plot covers the first half of King’s novel, whereby children in a small American town are terrorised, abducted and murdered by a demonic force that takes the form of Pennywise the Clown. This malevolent spiritual force has lurked in the town for decades, and a local group of bullied children (who collectively refer to themselves as “the Losers Club”) start to put together the pieces from history, discovering the truth and deciding to fight back.

The largely unknown cast all do pretty well, and Muschietti directs solidly, delivering a least a couple of decent scares. However, as I mentioned earlier I didn’t find it massively frightening overall, perhaps because clowns simply do not scare me. Far more disturbing are the appalling adults in the story, at best useless and at worst abusive (in one case sexually). The stand the children take against demonic evil is admirable, but I found myself far more interested in the afore-mentioned coming of age themes, as well as the character arc of one of the children dealing with grief.

All things considered, It is likely to please fans of both the novel and the miniseries. However, they’ll have to keep their fingers crossed for a sequel covering the second half of the novel, which will no doubt be dependent on box office.

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Writing animal fiction

Earlier this year, my youngest son asked me to write a story about wolves. Initially I said no, as animal fiction is not something I have had an ambition to attempt. However, annoyingly, a rather good story then occurred to me, and before I knew it I had the outline of a novel on paper.

two-wolves

After a certain amount of encouragement/begging from the afore-mentioned youngest son, I decided to attempt the project. Astonishingly, I have just finished the first draft. I am currently awaiting the verdict of test readers, but if they are positive, I may well fast track it for release this year, instead of The Faerie Gate, which I had originally planned to bring out this autumn (that novel would be pushed back for a 2018 release).

Whilst awaiting feedback (apart from anything else, I need to know if the quality is good enough for my youngest son), here are some thoughts on my experience writing animal fiction.

It’s bloody difficult.

Writing animal fiction is a fiend, because it is very tricky to tread the line between assigning a number of human attributes to animal characters to make them relatable, and yet making sure their knowledge doesn’t go beyond what they would naturally know. A myriad of choices complicate this – everything from turns of phrase to knowledge of the world around them. For example, I had to weed out a lot of human expressions from the dialogue or create wolf equivalents. A wolf wouldn’t be “unable to put my finger on the problem”, for instance. It also gets very awkward when describing human devices they have no knowledge of (for example guns). In addition, when hearing about places beyond their natural habitat (eg cities, or the sea), again, they have to be seen to not fully comprehend such concepts.

Animal fiction is a technique, not a genre.

Animal fiction can incorporate everything from comedy to satire, allegory, adventure, fantasy and more. In the case of my novel, it is a coming-of-age adventure story for all ages (well, older children and up); combining the atmospheric, dirt-and-snow-under-the-paws realism of the Alaskan wilderness with metaphysical elements. There is plenty of action – with hunts, blizzards, epic journeys and more – alongside a mysterious, supernatural background. The main plot involves a revenge story, but in keeping with the great traditions of much animal fiction, humans lurk on the narrative periphery as an ever present potential menace. Key inspirations include Watership Down, Bambi and, bizarrely, Twin Peaks.

Suspension of disbelief: where to incorporate research, and where to ignore it.

Again, this was fiend. I undertook the usual deluge of research for writing this novel, but how much of it I should incorporate became a constant question. I have included elements of how cubs are raised, how a pack hunts, the challenges to become Alpha and so on. However, science tells me wolves see in black and white. Needless to say, I ignored the latter point and opted for poetic licence, for much the same reason George Lucas opted for poetic licence so we heard all those cool laser sounds and explosions in the Star Wars space battles, despite the fact that space is a vacuum and we’d hear nothing were such battles to take place in reality.

Title Trouble: From the generic to the enigmatic.

As with many of my novels, I wrestled for some time with the title. I wanted something original rather than my generic working title of Wolf Story (which has probably been used in any case). A close friend of mine sent me a number of amusing but useless monikers, including A Tale of Tails and Lupine Larks. However, in the end she came up with the title I am actually using: Echo and the White Howl. I rather like the enigma and mystery inherent in that title, and I hope (subject to feedback) that the rest of the novel lives up to it.

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Download Uncle Flynn FREE – for five days only!

For five days only, my debut novel Uncle Flynn is available to download FREE from Amazon Kindle.

Uncle Flynn was received very positively. On the surface it is a properly old-fashioned treasure hunt adventure, but it contains underlying themes about overcoming fear and the dangers of mollycoddling. The book is dedicated to my eldest son, and was largely inspired by our many excursions over Dartmoor, as well as a bit of local history.

Here is the blurb from the back of Uncle Flynn:

When timid eleven year old Max Bradley embarks on a hunt for buried treasure on Dartmoor with his mysterious Uncle Flynn, he discovers he is braver than he thought.

Together they decipher clues, find a hidden map and explore secret tunnels in their search. But with both police and rival treasure hunters on their tail, Max begins to wonder if his uncle is all he seems…

Here are a few reviews from various readers:

“Harking back to the wonderful adventure stories of Arthur Ransome, Uncle Flynn is a welcome return to the excitement of outdoor exploits in wild surroundings. Excitement, tension and peril combine in a well-written tale where The Goonies meets Swallows and Amazons. The evocative descriptions of treasure seeking on Dartmoor will have you longing to visit and explore for yourselves. Action-packed puzzle-solving pleasure for children and adults alike, with a neat twist in the tale to keep you guessing.”

Mrs Alice R Brewer, Amazon.co.uk

“A treasure for all ages. Kids and teenagers would love this fast-paced adventure story. Most adults would also find it a light and enjoyable read.”

B Fraley, Amazon.com

“Don’t pass this one by. I have been burning through the free NOOKbooks and this is the absolute BEST. Doesn’t matter what type of fiction you like to read, I can imagine this would capture just about anyone’s attention – and heart.”

willreadanything, Barnes and Noble.

“Could not put the book down, so enjoyed the journey. Recommended it to my 12 year old grandson who now wants me to be his book reading adviser. Loved by three generations.”

Brinney, Barnes and Noble.

“What a wonderful book for young readers and anyone else who loves a book with a great twist on an amazing story of courage over fear.”

Beansie47, Barnes and Noble.

“I’m an 83 year old woman. Your book was a joy to me. I felt I was having all the adventures myself at this ripe old age. Your book was like a cold drink of water on a hot day. Thank you.”

Joan McLaughlin, commenting on the Uncle Flynn blog.

“I downloaded the book for my boys to read, and thought I’d just read the first few lines… Needless to say I read to the end! Well written and most enjoyable – great adventure with life lessons woven into the story.”

Cecile Weyers, commenting on the Uncle Flynn blog.

Uncle Flynn is available to download FREE here. Print copies are also available (not free) here.

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Film Review – Patti Cake$

patti-cakes

Patti Cake$ is an entertaining if flawed indie outing from writer/director Geremy Jasper. It follows the fortunes of overweight, white female rapper wannabe Patti Dombrowski (the excellent Danielle Macdonald). Her determination is undermined at every turn by those in her downtrodden hometown in New Jersey, including her divorced, alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett), herself bitter at the way her own career as a rock/metal star failed to happen due to teenage pregnancy.

Despite such hard knocks, Patti is encouraged by Indian best friend Jehri (Siddharth Dhananjay), and later a black, Sex Pistol-inspired punk rock wannabe who calls himself “Basterd the Antichrist” (Mamoudou Athie). For reasons too convoluted to explain, the three of them, along with Patti’s grandmother Nana (Cathy Moriarty), form a multi-racial rap group.

It’s well acted and directed, intermittently amusing and touching. However certain scenes feel a bit forced, such as fantasy sequences where Patti is enraptured by the godlike presence of her idol rap star OZ. Despite its rather determined offbeat quirkiness, Patti Cake$ is actually quite a conventional narrative that doesn’t really warrant the hand-wringing it has induced in certain politically correct corners over “cultural appropriation” (a particularly annoying current axe-grind for the professionally offended). Nor does it quite warrant the praise that has been heaped on it by those who view it as breaking down social, racial or gender barriers, even though I admit there is a certain amount of subversion in the way it occasionally exposes the misogyny inherent in a lot of rap culture (particularly in an early, ultimately shocking scene, involving a street rap contest).

To be honest, Patti Cake$ is best viewed and enjoyed as a straightforward, agreeably heartwarming underdog tale, albeit one that contains a plethora of bad language and sexual references. I enjoyed it mostly for Macdonald’s winning performance, and for that reason alone the film is worth seeing.

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Film Review – Emmi

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Emmi, a short film directed by Andrew Carslaw, proves to be a well-acted, well-directed but remorselessly grim affair. Set in a high rise council building, the story concerns an infertile woman who longs for children, and a teenager concealing a secret pregnancy. Hints of abuse from the unseen “Uncle Ray” and a sense that something terrible is about to happen hangs like a shadow over the entire film, which in ten short minutes packs a considerable punch.

Performances are good, especially from Amy Harris and Natalie Martins, as Sarah and the eponymous Emmi respectively. Writer Susie Stead clearly has the social conscience of a Ken Loach, and her admirably spare screenplay leaves plenty of room for viewers to fill in the blanks. Personally I’d have preferred a smidgeon of dark humour to undercut the bleakness, as the story does feel a little one note, but it is one note played very well.

Carlsaw paints his film in a muted palette of steely greys, and the overall tone combines social realism with hints of horror. A seeping dread lingers throughout the entire piece, from an opening subway encounter red herring to the bleak finale. The editing and music score, also by Carslaw, are very well done. Overall Emmi is a fine short and a good calling card for Ferny Films.

NOTE: Emmi can be seen at the following UK film festivals this autumn:

9 SEPTEMBER: Copenhagen Film Days (http://www.copenhagenfilmdays.dk/)

10 SEPTEMBER: London Rolling Film Festival (http://rollingfilmfestival.com/) – Free and including Q&A

23 SEPTEMBER: Screen It! Film Festival (http://www.screenitfilmfestival.com/)

9-22 OCTOBER: Fisheye Film Festival (http://www.fisheyefilmfest.uk/) – including Q&A

14-15 OCTOBER: Bristol Radical Film Festival (http://brff.co.uk/) – including Q&A

19-22 OCTOBER: Southampton International Film Festival (http://www.southamptonfilmfest.com/)

11 NOVEMBER: London Golden Scout International Film Festival (http://www.lgsiff.com/)

 

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Film Review – The Limehouse Golem

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A fine brace of lead performances from Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke form the heart of The Limehouse Golem, an agreeably nasty Jack the Ripper-esque Victorian whodunit with deliberately theatrical Grand Guignol horror hokum overtones. Deft sleight of hand and neat, should-have-seen-that-coming twists are the order of the day, so if you can withstand the sex, violence and considerable levels of blood and gore, this will certainly hit the spot for a certain kind of viewer.

The film neatly “begins at the end” with celebrated Music Hall performer Lizzie Cree (Cooke) arrested for the alleged poisoning of her husband. Flashbacks tell of her rise to fame, from humble beginnings in harsh, abusive poverty to her arrest. Along the way, Detective Inspector John Kildare (Nighy) investigates a series of brutal, seemingly unconnected killings, with Lizzie Cree’s late husband amongst a four suspect roster.

Boasting a fine screenplay from Jane Goldman (based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd), The Limehouse Golem has had something of a difficult production history, with a number of directors attached to the project at various times (including names as diverse as Terry Gilliam and Neil Jordan). In the end however, Juan Carlos Medina helms the piece with appropriately atmospheric gothic panache. Sequences where suspects are seen as possible killers in flashback are well deployed, with effective use of sound, and the film is elegantly constructed with a certain clever-clever, metatextual, borderline fourth wall-breaking suggestion that the audience (in both the Music Hall and cinema) are complicit in the gruesome murders.

Given that many of the characters are sexually and socially unconventional for the time period, it’s difficult not to read subtexts lamenting homophobia and sexism into the film. This proves particularly poignant amongst supporting roles, including Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), Lizzie’s close friend and fellow Music Hall performer, and Kildare’s assistant PC George Flood (Daniel Mays). On the subject of the supporting cast, it’s also worth giving Sam Reid and Eddie Marsan a special mention, as both have pivotal roles in the narrative.

All things considered, The Limehouse Golem is a very well-crafted, suspenseful, satisfying mystery, albeit a rather gruesome one.  I enjoyed it a great deal.

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