Why I love The Goonies

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In late 1985, aged ten, after seeing this TV spot for The Goonies, I really wanted to see it. I voiced my enthusiasm to my mother, not expecting that I would actually be taken. A few days later, my mother informed me that my father wanted to see me that evening, after school. Panicked thoughts rushed through my mind. What had I done now? Had the school complained about me again?

It turned out that my father had decided to take me to see The Goonies at the cinema. Needless to say I was thrilled. I recall the excitement of attending what was then the ABC cinema Magdalen Street Oxford – an old-school art deco one screen auditorium, complete with balcony, and one of those lovely red curtains that rose to reveal the screen. Memories of perusing lobby stills, buying the “storybook”, and then sitting in anticipation of the upcoming film remain as vivid as ever for one chief reason: this was the first time I ever went to the cinema with just me and my father. Every prior cinema trip had included my mother and/or my sister.

Before the main feature, we were treated to the full-length music video for Election Day by Arcadia (Duran Duran in all but name) – a bizarre, pretentious but visually arresting Cocteau influenced bit of 1980s kitsch. We also watched a newsreel update on the money raised by Live Aid, along with a second music video for Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s cover of Dancing in the Street. I call also recall exactly which trailers ran beforehand, including Teen Wolf, Legend, and Back to the Future.

Finally the main feature arrived, which I thoroughly enjoyed. These days I don’t eat cinema snacks, but on that occasion my father had purchased a large packet of Maltesers, chocolates which I have associated with The Goonies ever since. As with everything Steven Spielberg had his name on in those days (even as executive producer), I immediately wanted to see the film again the moment the credits rolled.

Fast forward to 2019, and The Goonies is presently on re-release in UK cinemas. Today, I went to see it again, with my wife and children. We’ve all seen it before, several times, but cinema is in our blood, and we know the big screen is where films really belong. As such, how does The Goonies hold up on a cinema viewing, some thirty-four years later?

sloth_the_gooniesThe painfully honest answer to this question is to acknowledge that The Goonies is not a great film in the same league as the other classics from the heyday of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Whilst the likes of Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and Back to the Future have all stood the test of time as stone-cold masterpieces, the same cannot objectively be said of The Goonies. At best, it’s a modestly successful children’s treasure hunt adventure, shamelessly pillaged from countless Famous Five or Hardy Boys books, or the Children’s Film Foundation films of the 1970s. Add a pinch of Raiders of the Lost Ark and a dash of Treasure Island and you’ve got a good idea of what to expect.

What is undeniable, is that if you watch the film when you are ten years old, you will love it forever, regardless of an objective assessment of the material. If you watch it for the first time as an adult, you’ll probably find, with a certain generosity of spirit, a reasonably diverting story, with engaging performances from a cast that includes the young Sean Astin and Josh Brolin. Richard Donner directs well, and some of the set pieces are effectively exciting, even though the third act degenerates into pantomime with its trio of incompetent villains.

Viewed for the first time as an adult, you’ll also probably find the children loud and obnoxious – not to mention sweary. This film was made back in the day when children could swear a bit, and you’d still get a PG rating. In fact, it amazes me what you could get away with in a PG film in those days. Parents understood exactly what “Parental Guidance” meant and therefore didn’t expect the BBFC to nanny their children. Hence why today, many films of my childhood (including The Goonies) have 12 certificates instead of PG certificates.

So why do I love The Goonies so much? Well, for one thing the sheer nostalgia. The film reflects childhood days when children played outside, unsupervised, on bikes without safety helmets, and went on (normally imagined) adventures where they hunted for treasure and outwitted foolish villains. There isn’t a mobile phone is sight.

Obviously, that sounds very old-gittish, so here’s a better reason: the subplot between Chunk and Sloth. Of all the Goonies, Chunk is my favourite. Not only do I love his hysterical, very Jewish sense of humour, but I love the deeply humane way he gets to know the “monster” Sloth, leading to the shamelessly sentimental but undeniably touching moment at the end, where he says he’ll take care of him from now on.

MV5BMTU1NzA4MzUxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDU4NDIwNA@@._V1_But the most important reason I love The Goonies is this: the afore-mentioned treasured memory of seeing the film in the cinema with my late father. Today, in honour of the occasion, I broke my no-snacks cinema habit and purchased some Maltesers. There were other strange echoes of that evening long ago – including a music video for Pink’s Walk Me Home (which played in full beforehand), which reminded me of seeing that Arcadia video.

I will also confess that one small moment in the chaotic finale actually brought a tear to my eye, for obvious reasons. When gadget obsessed Data is reunited with his equally gadget obsessed father, said father tries to take a photo, but his gadgety camera malfunctions. Data just smiles and says “It’s OK Dad. You can’t hug a photo”.

The Goonies might not be a great cinematic work of art, but because it is inexorably tied to memories of my father, for me, it will always be a great film.

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The Tangent Tree is back

The Tangent Tree is back! Coming very soon – on Wednesday 24th April to be precise – film podcast The Tangent Tree, which I co-host with the excellent Samantha Stephen, will return for a second series.

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For the uninitiated, The Tangent Tree is so named for the endless tangents in which we indulge whilst discussing all matters film (and occasionally TV or books). For rant-filled banter and general fun, check out our thoughts on disruptive cinema-goers here, our thoughts on scary movies here, why I prefer my romance doomed here, the difference between favourite films versus greatest films here, why I am an unashamed fan of The Last Jedi here, an interview about my novel Spectre of Springwell Forest here… You get the idea.

So what’s coming up in series two? For a start we have a two-parter on science fiction, an episode on film noir (with a lot of discussion about portrayals of the femme fatale character throughout the years), and an episode on political films – which ended up getting rather, well, political (but not in an idiotic polarised Twitter argument way).

Check out the first episode of series two when it “drops” (hopefully not smashing all over the place and making a horrible mess) on Wednesday the 24th of April. Also, catch-up with series one now, either on The Tangent Tree website or on Podcast Addict, iTunes and Spotify.

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Film Review – Pet Sematary

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Stephen King’s bleakest novel Pet Sematary gets a new coat of cinematic paint in this glossy remake from directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer. An undoubted improvement on the disappointing 1989 version, this is reasonably solid stuff for genre fans, although liberties taken with the source text will raise a few hackles amongst purists, and arguably undercut the afore-mentioned bleak tone.

The plot concerns medical doctor Louis (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two young children Ellie (Jete Laurence), and Gabe (Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie). After moving to the country to be more together as a family, Ellie happens upon an eerie pet cemetery in the midst of the woods (the misspelled “Pet Sematary” of the title), where local children bury their deceased pets. Elderly neighbour Jud (John Lithgow) explains how local legends and Native American folklore speak of the “sour” ground having the ability to bring back the dead. When Ellie’s cat is run over, this legend is put to an alarming test – with horrific results.

The trailers spoil too much of the plot, so I won’t – suffice to say this is decently acted and directed, and horror fans should be reasonably satisfied; if hardly overwhelmed or particularly frightened (despite a few obligatory cattle-prod jump scares). Themes of bereavement, guilt, the afterlife, and tampering with spiritual things that shouldn’t be tampered with are woven into the narrative, but not to particularly deep or thought provoking effect. Warnings for gore, violence and bad language are probably superfluous, but here they are nonetheless.

In short, this version of Pet Sematary isn’t likely to make it onto any list of the greatest horror films ever made, but it does an efficient if unremarkable job, making it an agreeably gnarly diversion for those with the stomach for it.

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Antagonists with the same goal as the Protagonist

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In Raiders of the Lost Ark, there’s a scene where villainous, Nazi collaborating French archaeologist Belloq tells Indiana Jones that “I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.”

Both men are equally obsessed with finding the Ark of the Covenant, and that’s what makes Indiana Jones such a fascinating character in that film. He isn’t a hero so much as a grave robber. Twice he abandons Marion in the pursuit of his goal, and ultimately it takes a terrifying, Old Testament style act of God to get him out of that mindset.

Antagonists with the same or similar goals to the protagonist can provide superb fodder for dramatic storytelling. In my own writing, I’ve done this on a number of occasions. For example, in Uncle Flynn, there are criminal treasure hunters on the same trail as Max and his uncle.

59e4d9084385ae2c008b4830However, this technique isn’t limited to treasure hunt adventures. I’ve also deployed it in some of my other works, including the upcoming supernatural mystery The Irresistible Summons. A ghostly tale concerning a haunting in a London office block, this novel gradually reveals how the deepest desire of the protagonist is mirrored in the deepest desire of the antagonist. At the core of the story lies the simple desire shared by all who have experienced bereavement: namely that they long to see their departed loved ones again.

Where the antagonist and protagonist differ are the techniques they use to achieve their goals, and the lengths they are prepared to go to. In The Irresistible Summons, my protagonist, Naomi Levinson, is a television producer who makes documentaries to debunk the supernatural. When she discovers what might be a genuine haunting, tragedy from her past draws her inexorably towards the discovery of a terrifying secret that could redefine life and death as we know it. Upon discovery of this secret, Naomi’s moral compass will be tested in ways she could not possibly have anticipated. In the meantime, the antagonist also has tragedy in his past, but the lengths he is prepared to go to, in order to ease his pain, are deeply alarming to say the least.

I won’t say anymore, for fear of spoilers. You can find out more when The Irresistible Summons is released this summer.

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Film Review – Shazam!

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By now we must be reaching saturation point with superhero movies, right? How many more variations on a theme are there left to be discovered? At least one more, it would appear, since Shazam! – the latest from the not exactly consistent DC Universe – turns out to be smart, funny, exciting, and occasionally touching, with just the right amount of knowing send-up.

Coming off like a superhero take on Big, the plot concerns fourteen-year old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who after running away from multiple foster homes in search of his lost mother, is sent to live with a couple who were once foster children, that have five other foster children already. One of these children, a superhero nerd cripple with an agreeably dark sense of humour called Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), attempts to befriend the new arrival in their home, but at first Billy pushes him away. However, things change when Billy, having been found to be “pure of heart”, finds himself summoned to a mysterious cave and offered the power of an ancient wizarding order. Upon returning to our world he finds he can transform into an adult superhero (played by Zachery Levi) with all manner of powers simply by uttering the word “Shazam”. Cue lots of misadventure and comedy, as Freddy helps Billy come to terms with his new found abilities. Later of course, an inevitable supervillain in the form of demon possessed Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) turns up to test Billy’s mettle.

Performances are winning and the visual effects up to the expected high standard. Director David F Sandberg creates his own beast from the source material, with several laugh-out-loud set pieces, not to mention plenty of wisdom, wit and heart. Also, watch out for one or two clever nods to Big. At times, this also reminded me of underrated found footage superhero film Chronicle.

Themes of fostering, the need for family, and family unity overcoming the power of evil are all woven into the narrative with surprising effectiveness. I actually wouldn’t mind getting a sequel to this one, as there are other places this story could go (especially after the events of the action-packed final reel).

All things considered, Shazam! works a treat and is a joy to watch.

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Film Review – Us

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Us completes an astonishing one-two punch of horror gems for writer/director Jordan Peele. If anything, I enjoyed Us even more than Get Out. Some claim it lacks the socio-political bite of the earlier film, but I disagree. On the contrary, the metaphors about America tearing itself apart seem more pertinent than ever.

The film is, first and foremost, a deeply unsettling horror film with an agenda to terrify the viewer. This it builds up to very cleverly; opening with a creepy prologue set in 1986 where a young girl, Adelaide, wanders off at a funfair near a beach. She ends up in a hall of mirrors that borrows from the nightmarish imagery of Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte (specifically the painting Not to be Reproduced, previously referenced in films including Dolores Claiborne and The Double).

The film then flashes forward to the present. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is now grown up, with a husband (Winston Duke), teenage daughter (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son (Evan Alex). They go on holiday together, staying in a home near the same funfair and beach of the prologue. Flashbacks gradually reveal that something traumatic happened to Adelaide in the hall of mirrors. Various other unsettling incidents then build to a home invasion scenario, culminating in a shocking turn of events that really is best left unspoiled.

Performances are all good (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker also appear in the supporting cast), but it is Lupita Nyong’o’s superb lead performance that really drives the story – a hugely demanding role that requires an incredible range. As director Peele is in complete control, not above gore and a good jump scare, but also able to conjure an incredible atmosphere of creeping unease. The cinematography and sound design are first-rate, and the music score by Michael Abels cleverly references not only Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen, but also Luniz’s I got 5 on it in a particularly striking sequence. There’s even a stunning twist to top things off, which I really should have seen coming. At this point, I should probably add the usual warnings for violence, gore and bad language.

Us is provocatively titled to wear it’s metaphorical heart on its sleeve, yet strangely, it is also very open to interpretations. In the same way that Don Siegal’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers can be read as pro or anti McCarthy, so this film is open to a number of different readings. Apart from anything else, it has had lots of people googling Jeremiah Chapter 11 Verse 11 – a Bible passage frequently referenced throughout the film.

Satirical, scary and satisfying, Us will delight genre fans, whilst proving an unsettling, incisive, thought-provoking watch for non-horror fans with the courage to brave it.

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Simon Dillon Plot Bingo

Someone recently read one of my novels and claimed it had a “full house of Simon Dillon Plot Bingo”. Far from being insulted, I was amused by this. In fact I was rather proud, because it meant I was getting to be known, as an author, for particular subject matters, themes, and plot devices.

Here are ten points this individual claimed would be on a list of “Simon Dillon Plot Bingo” in my novels for grown-ups (especially those novels on my psychological/supernatural thriller/horror spectrum):

Imperilled heroine – These books feature a tenacious, insatiably curious, likeable but flawed heroine, who is dealing with some kind of trauma either in the recent or distant past. Very occasionally I feature a male protagonist (in my as yet unpublished novel Wormcutter, for instance).

Religious Oppression – My protagonists sometimes have a religiously abusive past, or else the issue is relevant in the present.

Big central mystery – Spooky paintings, sinister writing competitions, inexplicable sudden deaths, apparent messages from ghosts, and murderous cover-ups all feature in these narratives.

Haunted locations – Creepy forests, castles, houses, office blocks, are key locations in these stories.

Supernatural elements – Ghosts, demons, witchcraft, astral projection… These are often (but not always) explored.

Hidden labyrinths – Again, these novels frequently include mysterious and sinister secret passages, caves, mazes, closed off wings in mansions, and – in one case – abandoned tube train tunnels.

Cults and/or secret societies – I seem to come back to this trope time and time again. Obscure religious movements and/or clandestine organisations pulling strings behind the scenes are an important part in many of my narratives. Often said organisations are revealed in secret rooms at the heart of the afore-mentioned labyrinths.

Villain/antagonist with similar goals to the protagonist – I am going to explore this point in more detail in a different blog later this month.

Melodramatic overdrive – With gothic horror, I have no shame in dialling up the melodrama when called for, with all the blood, thunder, and passion evident in the greats of the genre.

Big twist ending – This needs no explanation. I love a good twist ending, but only when it comes off as both inevitable and unexpected. It’s no good pulling out the rug from under the reader without laying the necessary groundwork, or it won’t feel satisfying. I don’t always do this (I’ve always maintained there’s a big difference between a twist ending, and an unexpected plot turn) but twist endings can be great fun to write, when they are appropriate.

I’ve also argued in the past that there is a difference between following a formula and being predictable (click here to read more). The former involves giving a reader what they expect, but not the way they expect it. The latter involves giving the reader what they expect exactly the way they expect it, and therefore risking boring them. I hope my novels fall into the former category.

Besides, whatever tropes I recycle, I am fully aware that I explore similar themes (such as religious oppression and abuse of power) again and again in my work. I am in good company, since many famous authors wrote their greatest works around the same theme. For instance, Charles Dickens, whose father was imprisoned for debt, wrote again and again about lost families and fathers.

With that in mind, when reading any of my novels (check out the list here), by all means play Simon Dillon Plot Bingo, and if you can add to the above list, please let me know.

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Film Review – The Kindergarten Teacher

The Kindergarten Teacher

An absolutely superb central performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal forms the core of The Kindergarten Teacher, writer/director Sara Colangelo’s English language remake of an Israeli film by Nadav Lapid (which I must confess I haven’t seen). The Kindergarten Teacher is a slow-burn, psychological drama that gets under the skin in a quite remarkable way.

Gyllenhaal plays Lisa, an art loving kindergarten teacher who is drawn to one of her charges, five-year old Jimmy (Parker Sevak). Jimmy is a child prodigy poet, whose extraordinary talent Lisa feels is in danger of being ignored or crushed by indifferent parents and carers. She takes it on herself to nourish his talent, but gradually her interest becomes an obsession.

Performances are uniformly superb. Parker Sevak gives a superb, naturalistic performance as Jimmy, but this is really a showcase for Gyllenhaal. Every understated glance, head movement, expression or gesture does everything a great performance should in showing rather than telling what her character is experiencing. The nuanced and restrained screenplay assists with this, as does the unshowy but nonetheless quite brilliant direction. Colangelo makes one or two particularly superb choices in the finale that stayed with me long after the credits rolled.

Speaking of finales, there are a number of well-worn paths it might have taken. This could have been a horror possession story (Jimmy makes eerie reference to a woman called “Anna” in his poems). This could have gone the psycho-thriller route, or to some even darker places. However, Colangelo opts for something quite different and far more thought provoking. The Kindergarten Teacher is about the rarity of true artistic talent, and the way an indifferent world can crush it. It is also about the dangers of living vicariously. Lisa’s indifference to her husband, disappointment in her own children, and in herself, causes her to take increasingly dangerous and inappropriate risks with Jimmy.

Of course, none of this can end well, but I was surprised by just how sympathetic I felt towards Lisa. That is both testament to the brilliance of Gyllenhaal’s performance, and a result of my own peculiar psychological make-up, which leads me onto my final point. Like all great art, how you respond to The Kindergarten Teacher will depend on who you are as a person. Whilst I felt sympathy, others might not – or perhaps, not to the same degree. Either way, this is a tremendous film and comes highly recommended.

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Title Announcement for my next novel (and other news)

As well as promoting new releases Spectre of Springwell Forest and my short story Papercut (part of the First Love romantic fantasy anthology), I’ve made good use of the grim winter months writing another spooky mystery novel entitled (drumroll…) Phantom Audition.

St Johns Museum, Warwick

I struggled more than usual to find a title for this particular novel, even resorting to testing a few suggested titles on social media. But in the end, my closest friend suggested this title to me, and it stuck.

Phantom Audition revolves around Mia Yardley, a recently widowed bit-part actress grieving for her much more successful actor husband in his ancestral family mansion (like the one pictured above). Cryptic runes, a strange diary, a mysterious medium, and ghostly visions gradually lead to the unravelling of a sinister mystery. Is Mia being given a message from beyond the grave?

This novel sits more at the supernatural/psychological thriller end of my gothic thriller/horror spectrum, though there are still plenty of suspenseful, skin-crawling moments. I intend to beta test it very soon, and once that’s happened (and it’s been through various publisher hurdles), it should be available this October.

Before then I have another scary novel to unleash, called The Irresistible Summons. This is a haunted house story of a very different kind about which I will say no more at present, other than you can expect to have it in your hands in July.

In between those two releases, I might just release another short story. It all depends whether my somewhat offbeat submission to my publisher’s upcoming Coffins and Dragons anthology is accepted. Watch this space.

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Oxford International Short Film Festival: Part 3

logoConcluding this series on the Oxford International Short Film Festival, here are some of the highlights you can expect to see there tomorrow.

Pianist in a Brothel – This melancholy mood piece from director Ciaran Cruden depicts a wonderful Jeremy Swift as the eponymous pianist in a brothel. Preceding this film is a short 8mm sequence of the pianist as a child at a piano; presumably hinting at hopes and dreams of a great musical career, and not the ignominious present. Swift oozes quiet despair as he plays his music, whilst in the background the women depart with their customers. The understated, humane undercurrent in Swift’s performance and in the musical score builds to a crescendo culminating in a clever wishful thinking sequence in the finale.

a6-04-no-responseNo Response – A desperate informer on the run hides and performs gruesome impromptu surgery on himself, in the bloody aftermath of attempting to wear a wire amid dangerous criminals. Director Ollie Blake stages the drama with claustrophobic flair, and even helms an agreeably nasty fight scene. A fine lead performance from Warren Sollars is another bonus.

a8-06-anything-for-you-abbyAnything for you, Abby – A highly amusing sci-fi sex farce, involving a girl called Abby taking care of her boss’s flat, trying to deactivate a malfunctioning sex robot that she has unwisely borrowed (it won’t stop masturbating). Abby spends much of the film on the phone to the sex robot’s customer service division, desperately trying to fix it before her boss returns. With an amusing script from Gregory Goetz and assured direction from Jamin Bricker, Anything for you, Abby is a good puerile giggle with fine comic performances from its cast, including Phoebe Neidhardt, Johnny Wactor, Amy Pietz and Todd Giebenhain.

Love Thy Neighbour – Writer/director Stanley Mackrell helms this nifty one-shot thriller, about a couple who let in a hysterical bloodied woman who has apparently just been attacked. Needless to say things aren’t quite what they seem, and the drama builds to an agreeably clever ending, although in my case I must confess I did see it coming.

The Last Dance – In the near future, a lonely old man called Hugo attempts to convert his wedding video into three-dimensional holographic projection, in order to savour a “last dance” with his (presumably deceased) wife Sophie. Fine performances from Richard Syms and Nigel Thomas (as the older and younger Hugo respectively), and from Sharea Samuels (as Sophie); underscore this poignant, cleverly crafted gem from writer/director Chris Keller.

The official site for the Oxford International Short Film Festival is here.

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