Film Review – American Honey


Sasha Lane gives an extraordinary, career-making performance in Andrea Arnold’s new film American Honey; a vivid, vibrant, visually exhilarating road movie that provides a fascinating insight into present youth culture and the fragmented, elusive American dream.

We first meet Lane’s character, Star, rummaging in bins to find food for two younger siblings in her care. Hers is a daily grind of crushing poverty and abuse at the hands of her father, but already, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, she is lying in the gutter but looking at the stars. Her chance to escape is provided by an encounter with Jake (Shia LeBeouf in something of a comeback role). He encourages her to join their group of young people who drive across the US to sell magazine subscriptions by any means necessary. Star agrees to this, and so begins what is essentially a meditative road movie that becomes a kind of anti-Easy Rider. Unlike that film, instead of running from the Establishment, this one tries to find what is left of a shattered American Dream, as the characters desperately try to make money by any means. Nothing, it seems, is off limits in this pursuit. Lying and stealing become routine, and yet in the midst of this the romantic chemistry between Star and Jake is tangible. Sparks fly, they appear to fall in love, but Jake frequently backs off, perhaps due to his relationship with their employer, the ice cold Krystal (Riley Keough). Yet Jake also has outrageous fits of furniture throwing jealousy, worries about Star’s safety amid some of her more reckless moments, and clearly cares about her – despite what Krystal says to the contrary.

Arnold’s choice to shoot in the nearly square Academy aspect ratio proves an inspired one, as it allows for beautiful tall landscapes, echoing the dreamlike imagery of Terrence Malick. In fact, the film often feels like a strange fusion of Malick and the social realist sensibilities of Ken Loach in its exploration of the massive class divides in America. Images of flightless birds and insects (with a rare shot of a bird actually flying at one key point) provide an interesting visual metaphor for the young people in the story, and their aspirations and dreams. At the same time the film doesn’t shy away from grim deprivation. Yet nor does it wallow in it. There are many joyful sequences, particularly those involving partying in various settings. Incidentally, Arnold makes good use of the pop soundtrack, particularly Rihanna/Calvin Harris’s We Found Love in two key sequences.

At this point I should add warnings for very strong language, sex scenes, nudity, drug taking and so forth. However, these factors are an important part of the raw, realistic, warts-and-all verite tone, and whilst this certainly isn’t a film for everyone, it is one that contains enough food for thought to prevent older audiences dismissing it as an aimless, narcissistic tale of young exhibitionists and their rap music. In fact, despite overlength and a meandering narrative that focuses on individual dramatic vignettes rather than a strict three-act plot, the quality of the performances and direction alone makes this an important film for anyone with a serious interest in cinema.

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Film Review – Under the Shadow


Performances, screenplay and direction are all absolutely first-rate in writer/director Babak Anvari’s debut Under the Shadow, a UK funded, Farsi language horror film set during the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s. Echoing everything from Repulsion to The Babadook but also quite distinct in it’s own right, Under the Shadow is a brilliant entry in what has been a remarkably strong year for the genre.

At first, the film feels more akin to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, as Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is informed she cannot complete her medical studies due to a radical political past disapproved of by the Iranian regime. Disappointed and frustrated she returns to her flat, only to find her husband has been called up to military service, leaving her and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone and in danger of falling Iraqi missiles. One such missile hits their apartment building shortly afterwards, though it does not explode. However Dorsa comes to believe the missile has stirred up a Djinn – an evil spirit that has come to take possession of her, as signified by her claims it has stolen her doll.

From there, Anvari turns the tension screws with stripped down precision, keeping the action centred in the flat and gradually building up an atmosphere of unease and dread. Has a Djinn really entered their flat? Or are they both imagining the apparently supernatural goings-on? Are the peculiar events all a result of post traumatic stress? Or perhaps a psychological condition provoked by the oppression of the Iranian regime itself? In one key sequence, mother and daughter flee their home in terror, only to be stopped by religious police who arrest them for being improperly attired. Shideh is subsequently told she should count herself lucky that she didn’t get lashed, and they are promptly sent back to the flat. Clearly it is no mistake that the Djinn sometimes assumes the form of a veil, so the film can also be interpreted as a feminist critique of fundamentalist Islam.

On the other hand, regardless of how you interpret it, Under the Shadow is quite simply a splendid piece of psychological horror which really comes alive during the final act. Without once resorting to blood and gore (though it is not above a good jump scare), the film delivers deeply satisfying shocks in style. Images of cracked ceilings, peeling masking tape and blowing curtains are all milked for maximum menace; and the sound design and spare music score are both superb.

In short, Babak Anvari is definitely a name to watch out for in future. In Under the Shadow he has crafted a genuinely unsettling, must-see genre treat for all with nerves of steel.

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Film Review – The Girl on the Train


As with High Fidelity, a lot of fuss has been made about the relocation of The Girl on the Train from the UK to the US. Frankly this didn’t bother me. Plenty of other things bothered me, but I’ll get to those in a moment.

Based on the bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train begins with… well, a girl on a train, Rachel (Emily Blunt). Rachel is battling alcohol addiction following a disastrous marital breakdown. She takes a particular commuter train (to London in the novel, to New York in the film), which passes the house of a seemingly happy husband and wife, about whom she idly fantasises. But one day Rachel witnesses an incident that could prove to be of vital importance when the wife disappears.

Let’s start with the positives: Emily Blunt is very good, and she is well supported by the likes of Luke Evans, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Haley Bennett and Alison Janney. Director Tate Taylor (in conjunction with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen) creates a distinct look for each of the various female points of view in the story (for example, in Rachel’s case, a woozy handheld camera to accentuate her alcoholic haze). Furthermore, certain plot themes – the devastating effects of alcohol addiction, the anguish of infertility, abusive relationships and so on – are potentially intriguing.

However, my problems with the film are the same as my problems with the novel. None of the afore-mentioned themes go anywhere particularly interesting, and other plot elements are as hackneyed as they come (for example, some very tired nanny-having-an-affair clichés). The thriller mechanics do work well, even if they owe a debt to Hitchcock (particularly Rear Window), as well as other recent films such as the vastly superior Gone Girl, but the most serious problems cannot be overcome by the thriller element.

For me, the most serious issue was that I didn’t care about a single person. Perhaps I am in a minority, but even Rachel failed to generate much sympathy. Some will argue that a cast of such deeply flawed characters makes the story more realistic, but in this case it simply caused me to disengage, resulting in a competent but unmemorable whodunit. Speaking of whodunit, when I read the novel I predicted the perpetrator within about three chapters.

The usual warnings apply for sex, bad language and violence, as well as a fairly bleak view of the human condition (albeit one containing hints of redemption). In the end however, this is a film I’d only recommend to Emily Blunt completists.

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Film Review – Hunt for the Wilderpeople


Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a hugely endearing Kiwi curio. Although largely neglected at the box office, it’s offbeat, comic, poignant sensibilities will undoubtedly lead to cult status.

When troubled foster kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) comes to live with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill) on their remote farm by the bush, he forms an attachment to Bella, though the gruff Hec is initially a lot more reluctant to have him around. However, when a series of unfortunate events lead to Hec and Ricky roughing it in the bush, on the run from the authorities and social services who mistakenly believe Hec has abducted Ricky, they begin to develop a genuine bond.

Although I understand writer/director Taika Waititi has taken liberties in adapting Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress (I’ve not read the book), I really loved this film. Several scenes are laugh out loud funny – especially in moments of darker humour such as a hilariously inept funeral address (Waititi himself playing the officiating minister), and a scene where Hec gets mistaken for a paedophile (no, trust me, it’s hilarious). Speaking of Hec, Sam Neill is on great form. Julian Dennison is also a real find.

For all its edginess and quirkiness (and here I should add a mild caution for animal related gore for the squeamish), Hunt for the Wilderpeople is ultimately a surprisingly touching story about the importance of fostering and adoption. Bella’s Christ-like behaviour in her determination to look after the neglected, leading to Ricky and Hec’s odd couple relationship, makes the message understated but clear. Every child, no matter how problematic their background, needs a loving home to develop and grow into their true potential.

In short, I highly recommend Hunt for the Wilderpeople. You’ll leave the cinema with a big smile on your face.

PS – if you’ll forgive a note of monumental arrogance, this film contains a similar DNA to my own novel Uncle Flynn (although both are also very different and distinctive) so if you enjoyed that you will probably enjoy this.

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Film Review – Deepwater Horizon


Either see Deepwater Horizon at a cinema on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system, or don’t bother seeing it. That would be my advice regarding Peter Berg’s movie based on the notorious 2010 events that led to the biggest oil disaster in US history.

The film unfolds in classic Hollywood disaster movie style, with Offshore Installation Manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and Chief Electronics Technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) locking horns with their BP overlords, mostly in the form of Donald Vidrine (John Malkovitch) who pressurises them to skimp on safety. Cue the inevitable pyrotechnics after a satisfyingly should-have-seen-it-coming build up.

For sheer visceral, gut-level immersion, the film succeeds admirably. Berg makes excellent use of his very impressive, dirt-under-the-fingernails sets, and the special effects and sound design are tremendous. Performances are good, and even if the film does lurch slightly into melodrama, that’s not really a bad thing in this context. In fact, Deepwater Horizon is surprisingly powerful and moving as a tribute to all eleven men who died, despite mainly focussing on Harrell and Williams. Unfortunately, the film does lapse into cliché during the closing credits by showing footage and photographs of the real people. I know that appeals to some, but I’ve always found it oddly distracting (give or take Schindler’s List, where it worked astonishingly well).

As to the hideous greed of BP and their culpability in the tragedy, little is made of that once things start blowing up, although a postscript reveals that the two men most directly responsible had their manslaughter charges dismissed. Obviously BP had very good lawyers, and one suspects that another story – one of corruption and legal nit-picking – still needs to be told.

For now however, Deepwater Horizon is a gripping and intense piece of work. But if you are going to see it, for goodness sake see it on the big screen.

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Film Review – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children


Sweet and scary. That sums up Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Tim Burton’s latest. Sweet because the central relationship in the story is quite touching, and scary because Burton’s gothic horror sensibilities push this firmly into “12A for a reason”. In other words, only take younger children if they can handle the macabre and sometimes gruesome imagery.

The plot concerns Jake(Asa Butterfield), a young man whose grandfather (Terence Stamp) tells him stories from his past about a mysterious island containing a special home run by a Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) for children with special powers. Miss Peregrine protects these children from malevolent forces in the outside world. Although he has long since come to believe his grandfather’s stories are not true, Jake’s life is thrown into disarray when a monster from his grandfather’s stories apparently targets his grandfather, resulting in his death. Jake’s father (Chris O’Dowd) takes him to see a psychiatrist (Alison Janney) after Jake insists he saw this monster and isn’t imagining things. The psychiatrist then suggests Jake go to the island to where his grandfather’s stories supposedly took place to prove they can’t be real. However, once Jake reaches the island, events take a turn for the bizarre. He appears to travel back in time and meet the peculiar children his grandfather knew as a child, including Emma (Ella Purnell) with whom Jake forms and immediate bond, and with whom his grandfather was once romantically involved.

In adapting Ransom Riggs’s novel (which I confess I haven’t read), screenwriter Jane Goldman has done a good job overall, but the narrative does feel somewhat convoluted. That said, performances are all good (Samuel L Jackson and Judi Dench also appear). Burton’s recurrent themes (oddball loner heroes, gothic visuals) are all present and correct to good effect, and in the end the combination of ghoulish thrills and tenderness works very well. One sequence involving skeletons recalls Jason and the Argonauts, and the creepy hollows and Slenderman-esque wights are envelope-pushingly frightening for a family audience – always a good thing in my book.

In summary, this is definitely recommended to Burton fans, despite the flawed plot. Again I would reiterate the warning about taking younger children. Some will perhaps find its message about protecting the vulnerable and finding courage quite empowering. Others might find it too frightening. Adults on the other hand are like to find it quite poignant. Sweet and scary indeed.

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Film Review – The Girl with All the Gifts


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.


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


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.


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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