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Film Review – Sing Street

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People of a certain age will find Sing Street has an extra dimension of enjoyment, although I must stress that the film does not get by on nostalgia alone. On the contrary it is funny, touching, euphoric and melancholy in equal measure; perfectly capturing the agony and ecstasy of adolescence in a very entertaining and endearing way, and also the strange magic of creating “happy sad” music.

Set in economically depressed Ireland circa 1985, the film follows Conor (Derdia Walsh-Peelo) who attempts to chat up slightly older Raphina (Lucy Boynton) by claiming he is in a band. He then decides to make this lie a reality by putting a band together, with the help of some eccentric and hugely likeable friends, and the sage like advice of his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). In the background of all this lurks the misery of his parent’s impending separation, school bullies, and abusive Catholic priests, but the film does not degenerate into misery. Instead, writer/director John Carney’s bittersweet tale focuses on how these trials can forge artistic endeavour and crowd-pleasing defiance.

Performances are terrific, and Carney has a real eye and ear for the sights and sounds of the time. This is particularly amusing as the band goes through various hilarious influences as it evolves, from Duran Duran to The Cure, Spandau Ballet and so on. Speaking of which, the afore-mentioned bands do feature on the soundtrack, along with The Jam, The Clash, Joe Jackson, Hall & Oates and various other greats from the 1980s, including a very clever use of A-ha’s Take on Me. However, the original songs are very good too, especially when they are being knowingly naff by spoofing the sillier aspects of 80s fashions and music (“The Riddle of the Model” being a case in point).

As I stated earlier, if the 1980s was not your era, please don’t be put off. Sing Street is hardly groundbreaking, and there are flaws (for example, by necessary contrivance, the band become much too professional much too quickly). However, it is immensely charming and frankly will appeal to anyone with a soul. I came out of the cinema with an enormous grin on my face.

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Books

Horror or Supernatural Thriller?

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I often hear the words “I don’t like horror” when actually what the person means is they don’t like films such as Hostel, Saw and so forth. Horror is actually a very broad category with multiple subgenres, and many stories not classed as horror contain elements of these. Of course, the horror genre has always been disreputable to a certain extent, though I observe that over time stories initially considered beneath contempt by a certain elite, or by moral guardians, can eventually become classics.

One only has to cite novels such as Dracula or Frankenstein to support this argument. Horror novelists such as Stephen King are also a case in point. In movies, the likes of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead or William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, both banned in the UK during the video nasties scare, are now considered classics of the genre.

So what is horror? Some would say any story that horrifies can be considered horror, but I don’t agree. For example, a drama about the Holocaust would not be classed as horror, but I can’t think of anything more horrifying. Does that make Schindler’s List or Son of Saul horror movies in the genre sense? I would say not.

Like film noir, horror has a certain atmosphere and particular iconography that defines it as a genre. But the overall emotion experienced by the reader or viewer, regardless of whether the outcome is positive or negative, must be an escalating and suspenseful sense of fear or dread. It does not, however, necessarily mean the story will contain buckets of gore (although it sometimes can), and again whenever I hear the “I don’t like horror” line, often that is what is being objected to.

I suppose my frustration with those who dismiss the horror genre outright comes from the knowledge of what they are missing. For example, The Babadook – my favourite film of 2014, and the best horror film this decade to date – has so much power, catharsis and compassion for those suffering with guilt and grief that I hate not being able to recommend it to certain people.

However, I have discovered there is a way out of this predicament. In certain cases, these stories could equally be labeled as different genres. For example, Psycho, or more recently Green Room, could easily be classed as thrillers. Alien could be classed as science fiction. William Friedkin famously claimed The Exorcist was not a horror film, but a supernatural drama, and I would fervently argue that case could also be made for The Babadook or The Sixth Sense.

I have written a number of novels I intend to release over the next few years – including my soon to be announced The Thistlewood Curse – which could easily be lumped in the horror category. But I don’t want to unfairly limit my readership, especially as I genuinely think they would fit better under the “supernatural thriller” label; a category which also applied to my earlier novel The Birds Began to Sing, though that does also contain horror elements.

To date, those who have read and enjoyed The Thistlewood Curse do not think I should limit my readership by describing it as “horror”, even though it is ultimately, in my mind at least, a horror story. As I discuss the novel in the upcoming weeks on this blog, I shall try to be careful to clarify what I mean in this respect.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Green Room

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Think Assault on Precinct 13 with neo-Nazis and you’ll have the measure of Green Room, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s pleasingly taut and nasty horror gem. Upfront warnings for eye-wincing levels of violence and gore are definitely warranted, and there’s plenty of bad language too.

With Aunt Ethel duly warned off, horror fans are in for a treat. Saulnier’s tale of a punk rock band foolishly taking a gig at a skinhead venue, only to find themselves under siege in the eponymous green room once becoming murder witnesses, really does turn the tension screws. There are great moments of suspense followed by explosions of graphic violence.

Performances are all good from the young leads, but Patrick Stewart in particular is supremely entertaining to watch as the neo-Nazi big cheese, oozing dangerous calm but backed by bone-chilling murderous determination. As he and his gang move in for the kill, cat and mouse games ensue, bodies fall think, fast and bloodily, and the genre guessing game of just who will survive proves a great deal of fun – if this is your idea of fun. There is even a soupcon of subversive satire to leaven the grisliness, which I particularly appreciated.

All things considered this isn’t one for the easily offended, but if you’re up for it Green Room is a bracingly tense, thrilling bloodbath of a movie.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – X-Men: Apocalypse

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Many critics have been deeply unfair to Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, and I can’t quite figure out why. True, it’s hardly groundbreaking. Nor is it as good as the recent Captain America: Civil War. But it is light years ahead of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Furthermore, despite an overstuffed plot, it does feel like a satisfying superhero movie, delivering the requisite thrills, laughs and even occasional moments of pathos.

The plot is a bit involved; suffice to say it begins with a Stargate style prologue, with a false god aka super-powerful mutant called Apocalypse entombed in ancient Egypt. Thousands of years later, in 1983, Apocalypse is dug up by an over-enthusiastic cult, and all hell breaks lose. Various mutants side with him, including Magneto, whilst Charles Xavier and other mutants new and old try to fight him.

The returning cast includes James McAvoy (Xavier), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), and Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggert). Newcomers include Sophie Turner (Jean Grey), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightcrawler), Ben Hardy (Angel), Alexandra Shipp (Storm) and a barely recognisable Oscar Isaac, whose eponymous Apocalypse looks rather too much like a Star Trek villain, despite moments of undeniable menace. All are very good. Better still is Evan Peters (Quicksilver), who has a stunning rescue scene set to Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. And best of all is Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, who also has a few outstanding moments early in the film that add real weight.

Themes of overcoming false deities, discovering potential and finding the good within oneself are positively explored. As expected the visual effects are excellent, Singer directs with flair, and John Ottman builds on his signature X-Men score to good effect. The final part of the film is certainly more predictable, with the story degenerating into the usual destruction porn, but despite such inevitabilities, I really can’t understand why some critics claimed this film was terrible. It absolutely is not; despite a neat, knowing joke about “the third one is always the worst” after certain characters take a visit to the cinema to see Return of the Jedi. The third film in this series, X-Men: The Last Stand (not directed by Singer), is certainly the worst.

As it stands, X-Men: Apocalypse doesn’t top X-Men 2, or X-Men: First Class as the top films in the series, but it is certainly on a par with the last outing, Days of Future Past, and well worth a watch.

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Books

MR James: Ghost Stories

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I am currently reading a volume of quite superb ghost stories by MR James. Recognised as a master of the genre, his are brilliantly concise tales that begin with intriguing mystery, escalate with gnawing unease and culminate in a single, bone-chilling moment of absolute supernatural horror. His use of language is exceptional, finding the sinister in all manner of everyday objects – for example books, as the protagonists are often scholarly individuals.

I recently read one of his stories, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book, by the light of a single bedside lamp in a hotel bedroom late one night. By the time I reached the climax, my sense of dread had built to the point that I kept looking over my shoulder, glancing in the shadowy corners of the room and particularly that dark area just out of sight, leading to the bedroom door. I absolutely love spooky stories of the uncanny that have the power to stimulate the imagination of the reader in such a way.

Ghost stories – including those by MR James as well as others including Susan Hill and Daphne Du Maurier – have been a big influence on my work, including the are-they/aren’t-they supernatural elements of The Birds Began to Sing, and my soon to be released thriller/horror hybrid The Thistlewood Curse. More details on the latter soon, but in the meantime, if you are not familiar with MR James then I thoroughly recommend checking him out, especially the notorious Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. Bone chilling stuff.

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Books

What makes a great treasure hunt story?

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I am presently writing a novel which concerns a treasure hunt, and also Oliver Cromwell’s head (just to throw in a random piece of information). Increasingly I am noticing it harks back to my debut novel Uncle Flynn, and that it is in essence a grown-up version.

All of which got me thinking, what is the essential component of a great treasure hunt tale?

For me, the answer is the treasure should turn out to be a side benefit to a greater reward ultimately received by the protagonist. Perhaps in some cases, the protagonist does not retain the treasure at all, but emerges with something greater. The Indiana Jones films follow the latter principle. Consider Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The Holy Grail is not ultimately taken by anyone, but Indy gains something far greater – the restoration of the relationship with his father. Uncle Flynn has a similar thematic arc in terms of father/son relationships, and also overcoming fear. In the end, the fate of the treasure is incidental to Max’s greater rewards.

Other famous treasure hunt stories also follow this pattern. Treasure Island is probably the most famous treasure hunt story of all time, but I’ve always seen Jim’s rites of passage to manhood as being ultimately the more interesting aspect of the tale. The finding of the treasure in Five on a Treasure Island may rescue George’s parents from pseudo middle-class poverty so they can send George to a posh school, but this rather laughable call on reader sympathy and its subsequent resolution is not the most satisfying upshot for George and the other children. Instead, George’s character arc from angry, distrustful loner to someone with close friends is the ultimate reward for her endeavours.

There is also an inverted principle at play when treasure hunt stories have a darker, more tragic side to them, especially when characters become unduly obsessed with the treasure they seek. Fred Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Elzevir in Moonfleet are good examples. It can be equally satisfying to see these characters obtain the treasure (often temporarily) whilst losing everything that actually matters.

At any rate, I am very much enjoying writing my as yet untitled new novel. Hopefully readers will find it adheres to these principles.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Son of Saul

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Son of Saul, the Hungarian winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, is a fiercely uncompromising drama that makes absolutely zero concessions to viewer comfort in the way it relentlessly plunges into the hell of the Holocaust. It might well be a film only a critic could love, but it is nonetheless a vital addition to the must-see-once list. (Other candidates include Cries and Whispers, Amour, Leaving Las Vegas, 12 Years a Slave, Precious, Tyrannosaur, Requiem for a Dream… You get the idea).

Two things make Son of Saul a masterpiece. First, the astonishing central performance by Geza Rohrig as Saul, a prisoner at Auschwitz forced to assist the Nazis in their exterminations. His daily routine consists of herding his fellow Jews into the gas chambers, listening until they stop screaming and banging, clearing the corpses, burning them and dispensing with the ashes. One look at his face tells you this is a man utterly defeated and destroyed; a man for whom anything resembling normal life is but a forgotten dream. However, when a young boy somehow barely survives being gassed, and Saul witnesses him being promptly murdered by a Nazi doctor, he becomes obsessed with the idea of giving this boy a proper, Rabbi assisted burial. He later begins to refer to the boy as his son, even though he clearly isn’t, for reasons that are never explained. However it can be inferred that in this obsession, Saul is desperately reaching out for a glimmer of his former humanity amid the intolerable torment his life has become.

Which brings me to the second brilliant thing about Son of Saul: Laszlo Nemes direction. His technique of spending almost the entire film in front of or behind Saul’s head gives the film an immersive, visceral quality quite unlike any other Holocaust movie to date. As a result, most of the violence occurs offscreen, most of the disturbing imagery is out of focus, and yet because of this restrictive, claustrophobic quality, Nemes has crafted a work of pure cinema. The big screen lends itself brilliantly to two particular kinds of shot: the big wide panorama, of which there are none here, and the intimate close-up, of which the film almost entirely consists.

All things considered, Son of Saul is a necessarily horrible experience, but a brilliantly acted and directed one which once experienced can never be forgotten. When I mentioned this film to someone recently, I was met with a groan of “Not another Holocaust film…” A simple look at headlines of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the appalling situation in the Middle-East tells me that yes, there really can’t be too many Holocaust films. It seems the world needs constant reminders not to slip into the apathy that allowed the Nazis to commit such a monumentally appalling act of genocide.

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Film Reviews Films

Captain America: Civil War

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Note to Zack Snyder: This is how you make a superhero movie. Captain America: Civil War has a similar plot to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but unlike that dull, leaden slog Civil War has wit, charm, genuinely exciting action sequences and even a modicum of political and moral food for thought.

With the Avengers increasingly criticised for collateral damage, the United Nations want oversight of the group. Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) believes this oversight is necessary, whereas Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) believes surrendering autonomy will mean political agendas get in the way of justice. This disagreement deepens as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) makes a volatile return, causing Avengers new and old to take a stand on either side of the debate.

The cast do very well too, with Chris Evans bringing to mind another Chris, the legendary Christopher Reeve, in his total commitment to what he believes is right. Robert Downey Jr is superb as ever as Tony Stark, equally committed to what he believes is right. Other returning Avengers – including Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s Vision – provide fine support, but Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man deserves a special mention for nearly stealing the show at one point. New Avengers in the form of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) get very good introductions, and I look forward to their planned standalone movies.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo helmed my favourite Marvel movie to date, the previous Captain America picture The Winter Soldier. Whilst Civil War doesn’t quite top that, the Russo Brothers have done a tremendous job here too. What makes it works so well is the fact that Stark and Rogers both have good, well motivated reasons for their actions which demand audience sympathy, making their inevitable falling-out all the more compelling. Like The Winter Soldier, Civil War raises a number of increasingly relevant political issues, law versus liberty for instance, alongside moral musings on the futility of vengeance. However, none of this overshadows the usual bouts of running, jumping and fighting. And make no mistake, those bouts are tremendous, with one particular battle in an airport being a fun and exciting stand-out, boasting the usual superb special effects.

It may be a tad overlong, and there are times the plot feels a bit overstuffed due to the sheer number of superheroes involved. But overall, Captain America: Civil War is a tremendously satisfying blockbuster entertainment.