My Top 10 Horror Films

As it’s Halloween the time is right to look at my horror favourites. It’s a list that is debatable, not least of all within my inner monologue, but I’ve made it easier by the decision to avoid works that simply have elements of horror for my top ten. These are films unquestionably classifiable as horrors that I personally love and would gladly revisit, and the reasons why are set out below in an undoubtedly controversial order….

10. Audition

Director: Takashi Miike

Few films feel as fresh twenty years on as this does, a horror with all the ingredients for a masterwork. It’s an intriguing study of relationships that moves from drama to horror with melancholy, beauty, good, and evil all swirling around in this precise mixture. It’s too refined to be deeply affecting, but it’s so compelling and original that it merits a yearly rewatch.

9. Piercing

Director: Nicolas Pesce

This is a fairly twisted character study and unique on the screen. It looks at two characters predisposed to differing forms of violence, and a horrific, witty, and utterly unusual bond that develops between them. It’s not an immersive work due to its absurdist style but is alluringly complex — and cinema is richer with its existence.

8. The Exorcist

Director: William Friedkin

Unquestionably this remains one of the most iconic horrors of all time and certainly earns its place here. It’s not as terrifying or shocking as it might once have been, but its pacing is perfect and so, too, is its tone. The demonic entity that possesses twelve year old Regan (Linda Blair) is violent, swearing, grotesque, and this balances brilliantly with the solemnity of those who witness that horror. A slow burner that, as testament to its craft, leaves you almost convinced in this metaphysical struggle.

7. Saw III

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

This second sequel in the infamous horror franchise is not one of the greats, but for a keen fan it proves exceptional. There are good twists, devious traps, and brilliant characters; a combination that makes for a remarkably satisfying watch. Its success is due to evident passion behind it that isn’t even so evident, or infectious, in much better known works.

6. Suspiria (1977)

Director: Dario Argento

Suspiria might have recently seen its profile raised by a remake, but this somewhat clunky original is still, in its originality, unmissable. It isn’t a perfect film and feels stilted fairly frequently, yet it has such beautiful imagery and transcendentally eerie music that you’re transported into it’s its weird, janky world.

5. Antichrist

Director: Lars von Trier

You’ll find the reputation of this to precede it, the bulk of opinion being that it’s gruesome and misogynistic. It’s a gruesome work, yes, but cerebral; it challenges the audience to understand the complexity of its message. It’s perhaps not easily approachable but left me feeling I’d seen something surprisingly meaningful.

4. Suspiria (2018)

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Remakes hardly come as bold as this inventive, uncompromising work. It has a style cleverly positioned between camp and sombre, allowing its dense and unclear journey through good and evil to be both fun and rigorous. It never bores in its lengthy runtime thanks to Luca Guadagnino’s typically bold vision, and its intelligence means it demands rewatches.

3. Saw

Director: James Wan

Gleeful, neatly plotted fun can be found in Saw. It’s not a deeply disturbing film but one with a carefully constructed mystery and, amidst that, delightful nastiness, great characters, and unforgettable iconography. It’s not often near nail-biting in its tension but is a smart melding of the slasher and thriller genres, the result being an exceptional piece of Halloween entertainment.

2. The Descent

Director: Neil Marshall

This really is the ultimate in cinematic terror. It has many layers of horror, and wrings all possible tension out of every situation. It’s got a realism which draws you in, well-acted characters who make you care — and a raw relentlessness that is incomparable. Pure brilliance that will still distress on repeat viewings.

1. The House That Jack Built

Director: Lars von Trier

Is this truly horrifying? The foundation is horror, if the killings of its central character are anything to by, and it builds something remarkable around that. It’s a stunning work that melds depravity, humour, and an intelligent, pathetic protagonist to portray evil and to increasingly skewer it. To indulge evil is to reject sensitivity and feeling; creator Lars von Trier portrays without remorse how the loss of those is life’s ultimate horror and punishment.

Honourable Mention

Silent Hill

Director: Christophe Gans

Some films transcend their limitations because of them, and this does as such with panache. The source material is twisted, bleak, iconic, but also in a B-movie vein; this leans into that with horrifying monster designs, an unsettling atmosphere, and a sense of unvarnished ambition. It’s a little too campy, sure, but feels like Guillermo del Toro meets a haunted house sensibility. The result is as memorable as that sounds.

This selection of films, being an unusual mix of highbrow and lowbrow films, the critically acclaimed and critically drubbed, is one I suspect that could land me firmly in the territory of film bro. These works, however, each have evidence of craftsmanship and care behind them that have resulted in vital, memorable entertainment and art. The House That Jack Built, however, melds those two states elegantly for me in a way that suits my tastes and, naturally, perfectly fits the remit of this blog.

Are Saw and Audition twins in terror?

It’s fifteen years since the release of Saw and, more notably, a full twenty since Audition. The latter, a tonally shifting and often quiet horror, has unquestionably greater depth — but it’s often seen as the root of the “torture porn” genre that Saw spun into an eight-movie trap-filled gorefest. What do the films actually have in common, though? And what roles do they play in modern horror?

Saw has the most obviously striking aesthetic, the screen covered in sickly tints that linger over bleaky dilapidated locations. It’s a cool style and one that is gauche enough to aid the twisted sense of fun in the films. It also works as clever shorthand in the similarity to the videos of horror-adjacent rock music, suggestive instantly of the pulpy tone and engaging people through that familiarity. There’s no confusion, just an expectation of visceral unpleasantness.

A green-tinted shot of one of Saw’s terrible traps

A similarly punchy and intriguingly offbeat premise drives the series’ narrative. The serial killer, with a franchise-friendly name of Jigsaw, is not one committing murders with wanton, if creative, abandon, but instead putting apparently ungrateful people in physically punishing ‘games’ that test the wills of players to survive. It’s a dark twist that expands the parameters of mainstream horror beyond traditionally mindless villainy.

Audition, however, doesn’t so much as widen the parameters of horror but busts the structure apart. It begins something along the lines of romantic melodrama, lolling around in some light comedy — and then twisting towards a nightmare. It’s not the effectiveness of this that is totally the focus of the film’s importance: it suggests fresh potential for horror in its wholesale warping of expectations.

There is plenty of complexity to mull over with Audition, too — its depths pernicious and troubling. It discreetly questions the nature of the apparently good, kind person who is the protagonist; someone who for much of the story appears a sympathetically lonely widower and victim. These things are less clear by the film’s end as the villain is given an even more pitiful backstory. We are asked the unsettling question underpinning our lives: where is the distinction between good and evil?

A romantic dinner in Audition, belying the tonal switch to come

Similar themes can be found in Saw but there exists much less room for contemplation. It’s a film where, essentially, everyone is bad —and it’s not concerned with moral complexity beyond that. The film isn’t dumb but simply neatly structured around other goals; it cares more about being a thrilling mystery than something which says anything purposeful or useful.

Of course, on a surface level they share an obvious point of comparison in their extreme violence, Saw even mirroring its predecessor with the amputation of a foot. Like most aspects of the film, though, their approaches differ: the violence in Audition is horrifically drawn out, whereas Saw‘s is surrounded by histrionics and acts as another shocking narrative turn. It’s clear that the latter, with its focus on pure entertainment, is the only one that sets the gruesome stage for torture porn’s sadistic arrival.

Non-ambiguous, thrill-based fear can provide a catharsis that something contrary to the norm mightn’t provide. Saw has obvious points that would draw a casual fan of the genre in, and offers obvious twisted fun. There is an original take on the motivations behind the story’s narcissistic prime mover but, essentially, everything is in service to entertainment — leaving audiences excited rather than bemused.

Audition’s villain prepares for torture

Audition‘s descent into hell, rather than a simplistic revelling in the gross and morbid, suggests a discomfort and unease that traps you in its world. It’s the sort of work that not only has an off-puttingly dark narrative but a structure that is unusual and uninviting from a distance. The moral element is likely a particular obstacle to engagement, a threat to the status quo offered by something nihilistic.

There’s a contrast in palatibilty between Audition and a similarly intellectual work like Get Out. Get Out softens the bleakness of its tale — its exploration of the pernicious racism in society is inherently bleak — by being significantly satirical. Audition, by contrast, pushes viewers away in playing the story relatively straight, its horror creeping into the texture of story rather than only seeming an intellectual message.

Language barriers, or wider barriers that have been created by a cultural isolationism, are perhaps a significant reason for Saw‘s supremacy in the West. Indeed, the taste for remakes of Japanese works is testament to that, with the American takes of The Ring and The Grudge‘s making around $200 million. Our lack of interest in the original works is attested to today by the fact we’re seeing yet another non-Japanese sequel to The Grudge next year, little clearly having changed in tastes following the nearly twenty years since the first.

A shot of the subversively sunlit Midsommar

Mediocre influence can be seen on the horror genre from Saw. It, of course, led to an ongoing franchise and proved once more how monetisable the horror genre is, its most obvious spiritual successors being reboots of similarly cash-focused ’80s franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween. Camp and fun were removed from the reboots, too, as per the more realistic approach of Saw.

A parallel horror exists, though, and can to some degree be attributed to Audition. There has, in the last decade, been a bevy of films which are preoccupied with exploring the dark places of the psyche, eschewing more palatable scares: Hereditary, The Babadook, and It Follows. They see their origin in the risk-taking of Audition.

These two films are definitely different, then, but there is room for both sorts of horror. For every provocative, original, and startling Midsommar today, you have a daft, shlocky, and fun Ma — and that’s fine. But there should be credit where it’s due, and remembering how less financially successful works, and how non-Western works, have as much value as famous American productions is always something worth doing.

Joker’s Morality

Joker is definitely the most controversial film of the year, serious concerns having been raised about its moral purpose. It puts at its centre Arthur Fleck, a disillusioned white man who becomes a chaos-sparking criminal. Any sympathy for its protagonist is outweighed, however, by its urgent message — melded in with a visceral sense of distaste.

It’s a comic book movie that is startlingly grounded in reality. Arthur Fleck is the man who would become Joker, and begins as a clown and aspiring comedian who is perpetually down on his luck. He’s bullied, has mental health issues, a neurological condition, and no real talent. His evolution to Joker naturally, then, involves going beyond the bounds of a cartoonish origin into much starker truths.

The concern is, then, that this could be seen as validating the most toxic, anti-society notions of white men in a position like Arthur’s. It’s an understandable concern considering the state of society today, where an isolationist, nationalist white man leads America, emboldening the angry, superior views of men across the globe. It requires a tactful film to deal with this.

Some people have seen this as being a rehash of Taxi Driver, both films following isolated men who plot their revenge on society. There was controversy with that film, too, most notably the inclusion of Jodie Foster as a 12 year old prostitute. Flirtation with real horror is always going to make people questions its inclusion, and rightly so: film reflects and influences us, and to deny this is to suggest its impact can only be ephemeral.

Reality isn’t put forward particularly clearly in Taxi Driver, however. Travis Bickle, the troubled protagonist, is always fumbling about on the outskirts of society, an ever pathetic figure trapped in his own mind. He’s like a leaf on the breeze, the wistful, jazz-driven score reflecting his transience. It’s an approach that makes it appear a mature, analytical film, but which robs you of feeling the impact of Bickle’s behaviour.

We don’t have the luxury of being at a remove from Arthur. This is a film that thrusts us into his world with an almost-chaotic structure, energetic performances, and an industrial score that thrums and growls with anger. It’s an immersive story and therefore one where we have to feel the emotions involved and to grapple, whilst watching or when ruminating afterwards, with its meaning.

Arthur is sympathetic to a degree. His bullying seems unjust, the character being a person with a desire to be kind that’s curtailed by cruel people and a city falling apart. It’s not wrong to have some sort of connection to him at the start of the film: at that point he seems to simply be someone who’s crushed by the world rather than having inflicted an awful revenge.

Sympathy is partly limited by how involving the whole thing us, as it’s so unreservedly alive that there is an element of opera to it. Most viewers will, of course, bring some awareness of the character that will set them up for the ultimate trajectory of the film. Regardless of what you bring to your viewing, however, there’s an edge of parable evident from Arthur’s first received beatdown, but not enough to make it feel anywhere near didactic.

The transformation of the central character sees him push far beyond the limits of normal behaviour. He commits violent acts against people who are, in varying ways, cruel, malicious, and morally warped — but it never feels like the right course of action has been taken. Arthur relishes his acts in a way that leaves no room for empathy; just one of the ways in which we are made to feel sickened and shaken by his worldview.

Perhaps key to making clear the awfulness of the nature of events is that Arthur trangresses so much he destroys himself and society. The likes of A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and even Fight Club all see some hope or a return to the status quo. Here moral transgression and personal alteration seem absolute; Arthur makes himself disappear and the Gotham which he inhabits.

It’s a gut wrenchingly definitive journey, and no singular scene seems more definitive than his encounter with his chat show one-time-idol Murray Franklin. Murray invites him on the show as an extension of mocking his appearance at a club night; Arthur debuts on his show and ends by killing him. It’s a massive upending of social order, especially as we’re there with the main character as he enacts this unexpected murder.

What makes the scene so effective isn’t the murder but the build up, the pushing beyond our expectations. Arthur reveals his commiting of an earlier murder which leads, first of all, to the collapse of the normal interview structure. We don’t know how things will unfold from there with no hero to intervene, and as their unorthodox conversation continues it seems like we’ve been cast adrift. We feel the steering away from normality as if we’re in the scene — and share in the horror, too.

You’re almost left with terror by the fact that Arthur has no game plan beyond revenge. He’s angry, wounded, and his outlook results in a deadly nihilism that upturns a society that deals in rational, procedural operation. Universal destruction is the alarming result of someone being able to break without oversight, his unbridled emotions stirring a society that has no trajectory beyond the continued suffering of the underclasses.

It’s really an extraordinarily thorough exploration of the principle, espoused by Alfred in The Dark Knight, of some men just wanting to see the world burn. The clown prince of crime, at least as is known to the general public, might not here be the genius of yesteryear but certainly is transgressive enough to fit the bill of the character.

It’s clear that, no matter his problems, Arthur’s decisions are his own. Yet the hypocrisy of a society that professes to care, whether in the form of faux-friendly Murray or purported man of the people Thomas Wayne, means its worst aspects fester. A functioning society has to acknowledge and act on its weaknesses; Arthur’s actions blew the lid on a overboiling pot.

More than anything this is a timely parable, a warning: for society to pay attention to itself, where it’s going, and what value systems it may be fostering. It’s a remarkably intelligent and valuable exploration of how a society not being honest with itself can bring it to its knees. And the deeply unsettling, unforgettable tone of the film leaves you in no doubt it’s an outcome we all want to avoid.

The Legacy of the Blair Witch

It’s twenty years since the release of The Blair Witch Project, and three this month since the release of its belated direct successor Blair Witch. There is a massive perceived discrepancy in quality between the two, though, with the sequel having been widely criticised and not very widely seen. Is the franchise’s once bold found footage style no longer relevant, and can you still see the mark it made on cinema?

The direct impact it had was in spurring on found footage movies, and the fact that it existed was very much a result of the cultural mood time. Horror was in a state of self-reflection and so too was film was more widely, there being many works from the era that questioned traditional approaches and probed the very nature of society. The end of the century meant a bevy of works that were making a statement about the past and future.

Themes weren’t at the forefront of The Blair Witch Project‘s approach, though, being instead driven by style and a simple attempt to take a different tack for eliciting fear. It’s filmed on a handheld camera and focuses on characters set in the woods, its aim to immerse viewers and to strongly elicit the primal fear of being lost. There’s simplicity there, something that’s effective in sparking interest across all genres.

Stagnancy had hit American horror after a revolutionary ’70s and more predictable, but still fun, ’80s. The ’90s saw it become less ambitious with unwelcome sequels in slasher franchises, uninspired original films, and horrors that were based in the milder territory of psychological thriller. Horror didn’t have any terrifying or revolutionary vehicle throughout the majority of the decade, a saddening end to the century when it had been a popular genre, critically and commercially, since Psycho.

Blair Witch

Considering the circumstances it’s no surprise that The Blair Witch Project was successful, and it has led to notable spiritual successors. Cloverfield, Chronicle, and Paranormal Activity are clearly directly influenced in their usage of found footage but, fascinatingly, all have vastly differing subjects. These may only be a few examples but have been enormously popular ones, the first an last still having seeing spin offs or sequels into recent years. People like being thrust into the action, perhaps partly because point of view work is rare and also as these were all critically acclaimed.

The favour of the public can be fickle in that it decided to fall on low-budget haunted house horror Paranormal Activity but to reject Blair Witch. The former is in a similar vein to its spiritual predecessor, focusing on people trapped in an environment — this time, a couple in their house — and finding themselves haunted by an invisible demon. There’s nothing in its concept to mark itself out as particularly innovative, except the simplicity and limitations of the concept might mark it out as impressive for those who find it to work.

Nothing new of note was brought to the scene apart from its instances of a static camera. It was deeply unsettling for viewers at the time, perhaps because of how it attempted to make homes appear to never be safe. Today, however, the familiar structure of initial bantering, odd happenings, a splintering group, and then a few instances of real horror makes it seem an imitator now of something which has become boring.

The Blair Witch Project

Thematic depth is increasingly prized in horror above such stylistic twists, seen by the critical and commercial success of the likes of Get Out and Hereditary. These works deal with societal and interpersonal issues, intermingly basic, instinctive scares with more complex, haunting fears. Innovation is much easier to come across nowadays, but work that deals intelligently with profound parts of the human condition will always be appreciated no matter how much it’s been explored.

Audiences want freshness, too, no matter the approach taken to bring that about. Get Out was an intelligent horror-satire that was satisfying for many people, but the entertainment-driven releases of Annabelle, Ma, and the Saw series have equally proven to be big box office draws. Horror seems to fundamentally be an excitingly shifting genre, seeing constant reformulation that results in offerings for all tastes.

Found footage provided occasional bursts of freshness but can only go so far. Cloverfield was created as a bold new take on the monster movie in its meshing of the genre with found footage – superficially a world away from Paranormal Activity. However, it still had the self-referential nature of carrying a camera around, the artificiality of supposed naturalism, and an element of showboating. Incorporating characters into the camerawork means a constant wink to the audience as concessions are made to allow it, the approach always risking being gimmicktry.

Paranormal Activity

It seems that Blair Witch particularly highlights the limitations of the found footage film. It’s a bolder film than its predecessor but, nearly twenty years later, still shares many structural similarities with it and even Paranormal Activity. There’s something fundamentally unexciting from a distance about the prospect of Blair Witch, and the critical mauling it received probably didn’t help.

Despite everything that’s weighted against Blair Witch it does deserve a revaluation. It has a variety of characters, throws more drama into the mix, uses cameras in interesting ways, and plays with our expectations of what The Blair Witch Project aims to do. It still exists, of course, within certain confines, meaning that these additions are mere alterations to the surface of a fixed, unwieldy structure.

Perhaps the Blair Witch franchise, as far as film is concerned, is dead. The influence couldn’t be more ever present, though, in terms of helping to make horror appear full of potential – and since the late ’90s it hasn’t stopped. It doesn’t matter what you think of the original film or any of its sequels; they represent the willingness to experiment that keeps horror exciting to this day. As far as 2016’s Blair Witch is concerned, though, it’s well worth audiences taking a risk too.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – Review

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Where To Watch: Cinemas

Some controversy has accompanied the release of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and this is par the course for a Tarantino film. This is a look at ’60s culture and the Manson murders, one that has prompted people to reevaluate the director’s relationships with violence and women. Does this film mark a more socially conscious work, doing justice to the era and the victims of Charles Manson’s “family”? Or is it simply business as usual for an established creator?

The film’s central idea is the conflict between the old and new in film and, tangentially, society. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are an actor and his stunt double increasingly finding themselves on the edge of Hollywood, whereas Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), whose story runs with varying prominence alongside, is young, vivacious, and full of potential. It’s a work that sees the era as one of cinematic and social transformation.

Humour makes the film interesting from the start even when it’s not laugh out loud funny. Much joy comes from the corny but cool authenticity of the faux classic film and TV shown throughout, the precise recreations making the heightened ridiculousness both amusing and admirable. If you’ve ever fallen prey to pop culture nostalgia it’s hard not to imagine that watching some of this would entail wearing a broad grin.

Another element that adds to the charm of the entertainment is the charisma of Cliff. It’s a character that appears likeable, Pitt’s portrayal of smiling warmth, loyalty, and gentle wit meaning his scenes are easy to watch. It’s a major issue, though, that the murder of his wife hinted at throughout the film is barely addressed; an omission that’s morally perturbing and indicative of superficial storytelling.

There’s suggestion of a flawed foundation in the weak acting beyond Pitt, it appearing that the actors aren’t at fault. Most characters seem artificial in some way, their behaviours abnormal and dialogue delivered in stilted manners. It may be the fact that there isn’t the usual quick-fire, witty dialogue of Tarantino’s other work, the resulting measured tone meaning the characters appear cartoonish caricatures.

Aesthetics here are not roundly weak but confused, there being a beauty to the world that’s unfortunately hindered. It’s a glorious recreation of the ’60s from a design perspective, feeling never less than accurate and vivid. However, the cinematography itself has no verve, no sense of any interesting craft to elevate the work as a whole. It’s visually both impressive in what’s portrayed and contrastingly workmanlike in how that’s done.

Underneath everything is a lack of structure; a lack of the control that you might expect from the creator of the gripping Inglorious Basterds. This isn’t tense or emotive, there being no serious momentum and no clear character arcs. You’re left at the end with the sensation of having been on a journey even less satisfying than a shaggy dog story. It’s a meandering, unclear, message devoid work.

Some fun is there to be had, though, amidst the caution or carelessness. It almost feels afraid to be bold, to say anything about such a difficult subject. Tarantino could have made an arresting statement about the end of an era and looked into what that meant, but instead he’s simply rekindled some of its sense of fun. It’s good to have a smile on your face, but to be challenged or invigorated would make this as a classic rather than merely a good blockbuster.

Woodstock Or Bust – Review

Director: Leslie Bloom

Where To Watch: Streaming (Amazon/Google etc.) from August 12

It seems the perfect time for this film considering it’s fifty years since the first Woodstock festival. This is a timely film in another major way, too, being a celebration of female friendship; something that has unfairly been denigrated and rightly being elevated now. This isn’t, however, specifically a tribute to Woodstock, so where does its interest lie? And does it explore its subjects with much success?

The film follows two teenage friends, Lorian (Willow Shields) and Meryl (Meg Delacy), both talented musicians stuck in a small town with overbearing parents. Despite their obstacles they wrangle themselves the opportunity to head on to Woodstock which leads, naturally, to a series of surprising and shocking events that show the strength of their bond.

One aspect of the film that stands out from the start is the naturalistic dialogue. There’s no effort to artificially make this feel like the ’60s; the teens feel modern but simply hamstrung by the mores of the time. It means you’re interested in the characters and drawn into the time period rather than made to feel like a distanced historian.

There are likeable leads, too. They’re great, expressive actors individually but have some believable charisma as friends, and the latter means that everything else feels more cohesive as a result. You appreciate that friendship is crucial to the story and are able to be more invested in their adventures – there being some curiosity created in seeing where they end up.

It’s admirable that the story is driven by a female friendship and fantastic that it’s been delivered so well. There’s the sense of authenticity in not only their bond but how all the clichés of tumult have been rejected, making for an enjoyable and necessary combination. Regardless of the film’s wider quality it’s done something important here with an enjoyable panache.

Frustrating, in contrast, is the striking lack of quality in the aesthetics. There’s a made for TV look in the uninventive lighting, bland and small sets, and the intimate camerawork. Very few shots feel like they’ve been given much artistic consideration and rarely feel anywhere near memorable, the one distinctive moment – a helicopter shot over a canyon – simply seeming out of place.

There’s a similarly uncrafted approach to the film’s tone, it switching uncomfortably between comedy and drama. Moments occur which should be uproarious and shocking or, simply, deeply uncomfortable. Little actually elicits a significant emotional response, though, because it doesn’t lean into anything with emotional certainty. You’re left with a series of disjointed non-events.

It’s a shame as there are messages in the film, just none that are given the time to gain significance. Social justice, the importance of friendship, jealousy, and assault are all looked at but nothing’s expanded upon in any way beyond the superficial. The take away can only be, with a friendship driving the story, is that friendship’s a cure all: a message which simply indicates that everything else is surface.

You’re left with a puzzle of a film. The good performances and mostly light tone make for a nice afternoon watch, but it’s simultaneously a work at odds with itself that feels noticeably incoherent. It’s easy to make sense of the fact, however, that there’s plenty of heart in the making and result of the film. Just expect to be pleased rather than moved.

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw – Review

Director: David Leitch

Where To Watch: Cinema

What can you expect of a spin off from a nearly twenty year old action series, especially one that seems to have reached its limits of ridiculousness? This one clearly aims high seeing as it centers action legends Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham fighting a super soldier. Does it capitalise on the reputations of its predecessors and stars or is this ninth, sci-fi inflected story a sign of a series that has lost any sense of proportion?

The story is pretty standard for both a buddy film and a modern day actioner. Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham) are quasi-enemies forced together to save the world from Brixton (Idris Elba), a super-suit powered, mechanically enhanced villain desperate to get hold of a deadly virus. The virus, however, is in the hands of Shaw’s estranged sister, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) — leading to all manner of personal and professional complications.

It’s an ugly film, that much being certain almost as soon as the film starts. Locations are stagey with imposing lighting, and shots are rarely creative or subtle. The style tells you how the rest the thing will be, and that’s loud, brash, and not particularly refined; a step back from the elegance of the better Bond films. It’s a little distracting to watch something consistently reminding you of its rough and ready approach.

There is at least an undeniable energy that flows through the film. Quality editing and some skillful choreography mean that you’re glued to the screen, scenes as simple as the violence-laden character introductions being fun and surprising. There’s a carefree vitality in how cleanly much of the action is constructed that is refreshing even against the likes of Mission: Impossible.

Humour positions itself at the level of the action, though, as per the tradition of the buddy movie. It doesn’t always work but is mostly entertaining, there being great quips and enjoyable slapstick that prove enough to create several laugh out loud moments. This is not just a counterpoint to the action but something that makes it involving in a way that evokes, admittedly far more rudely and crudely, The Last Crusade.

It’s essentially a very Bond-like adventure overall, though. International locations, a distinctive villain, and a plot that meshes the personal with the professional all make this structurally reminiscent of his adventures. The number of elements that are tackled makes for an impressive action movie on paper, and one that, with the panache in its construction, definitely iz within the ballpark of the big league. It’s much more entertaining the practically humourless, overly mythologised Spectre.

Characterisation is reasonably superficial as per its cinematic counterparts. There are relationships and backstory explored but they don’t really feel meaningful in an affecting way; they’re more like essential ingredients to the formula of any action movie. However, an attempt to at least make the characters more than cartoons does make them likeable, drawing you more into the moment and keeping the action invigorating.

A sharper script could have made this a classic. There are lines of dialogue that don’t work as they should, scenes that go on too long, and perhaps a slightly skewed balance between humour and a more real human touch. There’s a lot that works but too obvious a lack of cultivation in something that just isn’t as entertaining as it should be.

It’s a very good blockbuster, perhaps one of the year’s best in its pure joyfulness. There’s a consistent undercurrent of fun and a sense of a genuine attempt to entertain that make even the weaker moments bearable. It needed a different approach to be a classic, though, and it’s hard to imagine people regularly revisiting this as part of the action canon. A genuinely fun weekend watch but unfortunately not as impressive as its potential.

The Lion King – Review

Director: Jon Favreau

Where To Watch: Cinemas

We’re onto the third live action Disney remake of 2019 and this has a lot riding on it. Indeed, this is probably the biggest in a couple of senses: The Lion King is one of the most famous and loved Disney animations, and this take is presented in an ambitious, photorealistic CG style. Is it an enjoyable enough film to at least ride the coat tails of its source, or can it even stand on its own?

Many of the scenes are, at least in content and music, near identical, and this film wisely aims to open with the expected grandeur. It manages to do so with the stunning familiar score as a start, but the wonders of nature are emphasised by detailed visuals and a camera that reveres nature . It’s a risk to centre the visuals early on in such a way, but the careful construction makes everything shine.

The first speaking part sets the tone, too, by being of unarguable quality. Chiwetel Eijofor is a different bhtt effective Scar, his speech conveying the characters deceitful, bitter nature without falling into hamminess or becoming wooden. It’s a positive indicator that the cast have given this the same respect as the original regardless of it being a remake, and there aren’t any weak links at any point throughout.

Lots of emotional moments still work, too, as some of the key themes are timeless. The love between parents and children, the desire to prove yourself and feel worthy of love, and the nature of life’s cycle are themes that are almost inherently attention grabbing when treated seriously. This is a sentimental film and, if you’re willing to engage with it, will most likely find yourself tearing up multiple times.

It’s likely that the realism has been a contributory factor here, as the visuals continue to be gently impress. There aren’t scenes that will genuinely wow you like the best of animation today – the likes of Your Name and When Marnie Was There being such works – but the reverence of our world heightens the emotion. If the animation can ensure touching scenes are as affecting as possible then it’s done its job.

The attempt to simulate live action, however, doesn’t work in many areas. Characters who were lively and distinctive have become less colorful, energetic; the Yoda-esque character of Rafiki not having the same prominence and even Timon and Pumba being forgettable. Moving away from a pliable, kinetic, more abstract approach means that the characters feel like plot points.

Some major moments feel like they lack significance because they are, in this context, less earned. The relationship between Nala and Simba can’t be built up through a gentle, playful montage, as the characters’ emotions can’t be put forward clearly enough. The filmmakers don’t seem to have considered how the story structure mightn’t be transferable without appropriate modification.

Music feels less important here without the dramatic staging of the original, even if it’s still quality. Songs don’t have scenes constructed in a way to really heighten their impact, and most of the voices are merely good rather than potentially iconic. The original had songs as epic showtunes designed to be epic and unforgettable; here they serve as just part of the journey through the story.

It’s an enjoyable watch but almost lacks a punch. It has some tremendous highs but this is much owed to what’s come before, with the visuals, narrative, pacing hampered by this conservation recreation of a classic. It’s worth a watch for fans even just for nostalgia, and those encountering the story for the first time will probably enjoy it – but their likely true attachment will be to the sweet and, crucially, kinetic original.

Midsommar – Review

There’s been a tremendous amount of hype for Midsommar, and it’s quite understandable. It’s a film directed and written by Ari Aster who helmed the ambitious, successful, and conversation-starting family drama/horror Hereditary. This sophomore effort sees an attempt to take on the sub genre of folk horror, most famously represented in The Wicker Man, as well as explore a deteriorating relationship. Does Aster have the skill to surprise and enthrall once again?

It’s a plot that suggests ratcheting terror. It follows a struggling couple, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Raynor), who find themselves invited to a friend’s rural community in Sweden where a once-every-90-years festival is being held. The festival’s bizarre, intense traditions find the group and couple pushed to their limits, and the gradual unfurling of surprises is an exciting prospect as a viewer.

Some good performances make it a fairly easy watch. The whole ensemble is of a decent level, there not being any obvious missteps, though all are overshadowed by Florence Pugh’s engrossing and honest performance. Dani is a character who is forced to grapple with difficult emotions, who contains herself but also has opportunities to express her magnitude of feeling. Regardless of everything else, there is some interest in seeing what happens to her thanks to Pugh’s immersion into the character.

It’s unfortunate, then, that much of the film feels undercooked, even shlocky. The violence feels rote; rarely shocking, unexpected, or disturbing. There does seem to be a deliberate age of camp, but rather than adding a surreality like in either of the Suspiria movies it simply flattens a film that lacks impact without the silliness. Hardened horror fans are unlikely to be disturbed.

The horror is simply in the wrong place. It’s a film that is partially a relationship drama, the grotesque and absurd aspects perhaps metaphorical or a test for this challenged couple, yet the horror draws more from body horror than anything more directly related to the central story. It means you’re left with a film that feels incoherent and, throughout much of the running time, devoid of emphatic purpose.

Unsurprisingly the relationship doesn’t get explored in much depth. There are evident moments of the relationship being put to the test, and Christian is shown repeatedly to be toxically selfish, but these moments feel fleeting amid the simply curiosity inducing proceedings of the cult. Acceptance of the shrug-worthy scares would be easier if it was engaging on an emotional level.

Like Hereditary there has been much attention paid to the visuals, though without a good narrative it can’t hold up. Intricate set design, sun blasted rocks, a haze of sun and a lingering camera can’t induce emotion when there are few seeds sown elsewhere. The camera notably emphasises the intellectual and spiritual emptiness of the film, the moments where you’re meant to think or feel only driven by your waiting for something to actually happen. It’s impressive work undone by wider poor material.

Despite where the film fails many have found something to connect with, the journey of Dani particularly being identifiable for some viewers. The effects of this toxic masculinity and the promises of healing for Dani through other women may make some of the weaknesses less apparent; it may all even take on a different hue altogether. It’s wonderful it’s had this impact and I’d recommend the film to those who are interested in exploring those areas, and to any who want to see why it’s a work that matters.

Promise and potential drive the film, however, but are hardly met. The structure is utterly compromised by poor clarity, its high points keeping the film tolerable but little above that. There will some, though, as discussed, who find its themes powerful, and it’s worth watching the film to understand its message, but the raw, carefully curated gut punch of quality from the imperfect debut is missing. This sophomore effort has enough merit for its comparably lacking power to be disheartening, though should still be seen for its moral worth.

Spider-Man: Far From Home – Review

Director: Jon Watts

Where To Watch: Cinema

There’s no such thing as an expectation-less Spider-Man, and this movie has a bigger challenge than most. It comes after the releases of the critically acclaimed Into the Spider-Verse, the era-ending Avengers: Endgame, and is a sequel to the massively popular Homecoming. It’d be hard to imagine a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie as atrocious, but does Far From Home set itself up as a Spider-Man 2 esque classic?

The story seems fairly ambitious even against the massive event movie that is Endgame. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is still reeling from the events of thst, and just wants a normal life – which includes sharing his feelings with MJ (Zendaya). A Europe trip looks likely to fulfil his hopes, but it’s not long before he’s drawn into a conflict involving Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) and world-threatening creatures, and with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) pressing him to decide his future.

Despite the dilemmas our protagonist faces there is a lot of humour throughout – for better or for worse. The humour provides an opportunity to connect with the characters and it does, to some degree, work, even if humour takes the place of fleshed out personalities rather than complementing them. It’s not frequently laugh out loud funny, either, the jokes often being worthy of just a light chuckle.

An important support for, and source of, humour is the bevvy of good performances. Gyllenhaal, a much revered actor for his distinctively shifting style, has his younger costars confidently holding their own with liveliness and even with some nuance. Holland and Zendaya are particularly impressive as they show glimmers of awkward, youthful romance; though they suffer, as does everyone, from dulling underwriting.

Action sequences are of a reasonable quality for much the same reason. They are engaging, their zippy energy and general fun keeping you glued to the screen. There are never, though, really stunning moments, partly because they lack the structure and coherence of the best scenes in the big action franchises. It’s popcorn entertainment in a mediocre sense.

There’s a somewhat admirable attempt to pull off, at least, a multifaceted narrative, and the achievement of such a thing could have given the film weight. It’s a film so unwilling to sit with sombre moments, so structurally scattershot, that nothing lingers – meaning no grin-inducing highs or stomach-sinking lows. Any ambition to tell a meaningful Spider-Man story is negated by this lack of gravitas.

There simply isn’t the majesty of earlier films. The mundanity is particularly displayed through the cinematography, everything being so intimate, so much like a sound stage, that you feel a sense of relief from the boundless swinging round New York when it does eventually arrive. You want to feel viscerally what it is to be Peter Parker and Spider-Man but the reigns are too tightly controlled throughout.

This is a good end, nevertheless, to Phase Three of the MCU. It ties up loose ends and reminds us of the baseline quality that has made the MCU accessible and entertaining. However, whilst it’s a perfectly good bit of light entertainment, it lacks the wonder and surprise to compare even with a weaker franchise instalment like The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Let’s hope the next one tries to recreate the magic that’s kept the series in film for nearly twenty years.