Gathered here you will find my thoughts on the big budget, so called ‘mainstream’ offerings, mainly from the Hollywood dream factory, but with the odd international picture that has fought its way to the top of the heap!

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Okay, I know it’s perhaps a bit mainstream for this blog, but to hell with it, the Star Wars movies are an indelible part of my cultural hinterland. Besides which every other Tom, Dick and Harry has thrown their two’pennorth in, and the Star Wars universe has cool spaceships, droids, lightsabres, walking carpets and oh god, will someone deliver us from the leaden prequels…

Well, say what you like about JJ Abrams, but the bloke knows how to spin a yarn, and on this showing he might just have saved the Star Wars IP from disappearing up the Trade Federation’s backside. There isn’t an inch of expository lard to be trimmed from the first outing since Disney paid the equivalent of Africa’s GDP to get their hands on the property. You can almost hear the sound of Mickey Mouse mopping his brow with relief.

I have to admit, I went in with low to zero expectations. Perhaps that helped, but my initial reaction is that the galaxy far, far away has got its mojo back. Perhaps the lack of blue screen helped, the deliberate scaling back, less is more approach to the CGI, Abrams decision to film in real locations, making the Star Wars universe feel like a real place again. All these factors edged me towards giving The Force Awakens a favourable nod, yet there is something intangible about Episode VII that makes it feel like a Star Wars movie, a spirit that the prequels failed to capture (although I should add that I think the Clone Wars animated series does).

It’s this impossible to put your finger on ‘x factor’ that swung the movie in a favourable direction for me. Inevitably it already has its detractors, but people my age just need to get over the fact that it’s not going to be like it was when you first watched A New Hope or Empire or Jedi when you were six or seven years old. The cruel world of death and taxes inevitably soils your sense of wonder to some degree. Such is life.

I won’t bother to blather on about the plot here, there are plenty places you can go to for a full throated review of the narrative, spoilers and all. What then does the movie have going for it, I hear you cry? First, the two leads; Daisy Ridley does a hugely impressive job of carrying the weight of the movie on young untested shoulders, with John Boyega putting in a grand turn as comic foil playing a deserting stormtrooper (specialisation – sanitation. Can’t they get droids the clean the traps?) Harrison Ford pretty much phones in his performance, but you get the sense that playing Solo again feels like putting on a comfy old jacket for him. His scenes with Carrie Fisher carry an emotional depth that betrays thirty years of their characters unseen travails with a glance and gesture almost sans dialogue, a masterpiece of small acting and ‘show, don’t tell’ direction. Abrams understands that stories are ultimately, all about characters.

New droid BB8 is endearing rather than irritating, and the already much maligned by fandom Kylo Ren is pitch perfect as the wannabe dark jedi with anger management issues. Yes you want to give him a hiding, but surely that’s a tribute to the Adam Driver’s portrayal of who Ren is as a character. A dislikable sulky little wretch who didn’t get enough cuddles off his mum and now wants to go round blowing up planets because of it.

Plenty of questions are raised along the way, neatly setting up the story arc for episodes VIII and IX, and the ending is a classic cliffhanger; Abrams knows to always leave ‘em wanting more. On this showing I await the next instalment with renewed excitement.

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An affectionate homage to seventies Italian giallo movies, Berberian Sound Studio stars the always dependable Toby Jones in diffident Englishman mode as Gilderoy, a sound engineer hired by the eponymous film studio to create the sound design for their latest feature The Equestrian Vortex, which the slightly unworldly Gilderoy naively assumes to concern our equine friends, but which, of course, turns out to be exploitation schlock horror of the kind that got the British tabloids all worked up at the dawn of the VHS era in the early 80’s.

This being a film primarily about sound as its title suggests, we get to see nothing of the visual aspects of the fictional movie within a movie, bar its grotesquely lurid title sequence which is cleverly substituted for the credits sequence of the ‘real’ film the audience is watching. Instead we get glimpses of its narrative through the characters dialogue and sound effects (most Italian movies of this kind were usually shot cheaply, without sound, with the dialogue dubbed over the top in several languages, enabling the studios to distribute their productions into numerous European and overseas markets).

Gilderoy, belatedly realising he isn’t making a documentary on equestrian pursuits, but a horror film about undead witches laced with healthy dollops of misogyny and sadistic violence, starts to become ever more estranged from the rest of the production staff, most of whom consist of surly engineers, an ice maiden secretary and a production head with the sexual morals of Attila the Hun. Right from the start we get a feel for the englishman’s sense of alienation and displacement in a foreign clime, exemplified first by the language barrier, then by the byzantine office politics, and treatment of actresses that would make the Taliban blush.

Up to this point, at about two thirds in, I’ll admit I wasn’t sure where the film was heading, and the last third veers off into Lynchian surrealism, which judging from a lot of reviews I’ve read definitely isn’t a lot of people’s cup of tea. My own reaction was one of slight frustration, as it seemed the film lacked the courage of its convictions (is Gilderoy suffering hallucinations due to his isolation, is he going mad?) in taking the story to its ambiguous conclusion. That said, Berberian Sound Studio is perhaps best viewed as an experience, rather than a strict piece of narrative. The last act certainly has the quality of a nightmare, in keeping with a lot of Italian horror movies and giallo of this period (check out Lamberto Bava’s Demons, if you haven’t already, for a great example of this).

Certainly recommended for those with an appreciation of the oevres of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, and the underbelly of Italian seventies cinema in general. An interesting curio.

NB -For those interested Berberian Sound Studio’s director Peter Strickland (great name, but sadly no relation) has recently directed a reimagining of Nigel Kneale’s classic 70’s chiller The Stone Tape for Radio 4. At the time of writing, it’s still got a week to go on iPlayer, and is well worth an hour of your time.

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Warning – contains spoilers!

With the advent of All Hallows Eve last weekend, my better half and I settled down in front of the box for our traditional scary movie night. This year’s choice was low budget little Australian flick The Babadook, (hat tip to Mr Bligh yet again, for the recommendation).

The story centres around six year old Samuel who lives with his frazzled and sleep deprived single mum Amelia. We are shown in flashbacks how Samuel’s dad Oskar died in a car accident while driving the pregnant Amelia to hospital to give birth to him. Forward to the present, and Samuel is convinced that an imaginary monster inhabits the house and builds a variety of makeshift weapons to defend himself and Amelia against ‘it’. Her son’s night terrors and increasingly erratic behaviour have caused the sleep deprived Amelia to reach breaking point.

After one of Samuel’s weapons is discovered in his possession at school, Amelia removes him rather than have the boy put under special measures. That evening Samuel selects a bedtime story book called ‘Mr Babadook’ that Amelia is unfamiliar with. At this point the fun kicks in. Mister Babadook turns out to be possibly the most splendidly inappropriate children’s pop up book of all time, its sinister charcoal drawings accompanied by a rhyme that reads like it was written by a particularly vengeful Spike Milligan on a bad acid trip.

As things start to go bump in the night, an increasingly terrified Amelia begins to suspect that Samuel’s insistent warnings about ‘the Babadook’ may well be founded in reality. Or is it all in her head, a twisted hallucination borne of past trauma and too little pillow time?

Well, glad to say it certainly isn’t, and I was cheered that the film didn’t end up going down the route of that well roasted old chestnut of a plot twist. At its core The Babadook is a film about repressed grief; a theme that runs through the film and forms its inner core. Amelia refuses to have Oskar’s name mentioned in her presence, and cuts a rather wan and fragile figure, listlessly moving from one day to the next, feeling increasingly isolated due to her son’s behaviour. It’s almost painful to watch Essie Davies’ nuanced portrayal of a single parent laden down by grief, confronting the seemingly unsympathetic world around her. Amelia’s mental and emotional state is deftly evoked in the films cinematography, all washed out greys punctuated by harsh lighting.

Is the Babadook itself is a manifestation of Amelia’s repressed grief for Oskar, (the Babadook appears to Amelia as her dead husband at one point) brought to the surface by Samuel’s fear of ‘monsters under the bed’ and her subsequent lack of shut eye? The Babadook certainly ends up acting as a catalyst in shaking Amelia out of her moribund state, forcing her to confront her fears (of grieving for Oskar?)

The monster (poltergeist would be more fitting) is a suitably ambiguous presence. Although we are left in no doubt of its malign intent, the spirit’s personality is childlike, if nasty and unpleasant; it hides in dark shadows (Amelia and Samuel’s home is a gloriously lit sound stage steeped in sharp and oppressive shadow of which F W Murnau would have been proud), and delights in mischief like bobbyknocking. In fact, the spirit seems to be capable of being frightened itself as when an enraged Amelia confronts it at the film’s climax forcing it to retreat into the cellar and perceived safety away from a mother’s wrath (in the final scene we see Amelia and Samuel collecting earth worms from the garden which Amelia then takes to feed the Babadook who has taken to living in the cellar, thus representing Amelia coming to terms with her fears and living with the loss of Oskar).

The aspect I loved most about The Babadook (apart from the fantastic, intentionally lo-fi appearance of the Babadook itself, you’ll see what I mean if you watch the film) was the ambiguous nature of the eponymous spirit. It is left unclear as to the provenance of the storybook that unleashes the entity into the lives of Amelia and Samuel, leading one to suspect that both book and spirit are manifestations of either mother or son’s ids, manifesting physically in order to force Amelia to confront her demons. Horror, I think, is the genre that does this sort of ‘show, don’t tell’ approach the best when handled skilfully as I believe it is done here.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a look, ‘cos you can’t escape the Babadook.

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A couple of weeks ago I popped along to the annual Mayhem film festival held at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema for a pre certificate screening of The Witch, an atmospheric little folk horror movie recommended by my esteemed work colleagues Alan and Holly, with whom I share a love of horror cinema, and who tagged in for a very enjoyable post film session of tea, cake and film geek chat.

The trailer had promised what looked to be a bleak and oppressive tale, and the finished article doesn’t disappoint on either score. Coming across like Ken Loach channelling Dario Argento, director Robert Eggers spins us the tale of a puritan family in 17th century New England, cast out of their settlement for being too, er… puritan. No sooner has patriarch William and his nervy wife Katherine set up home in the wild, than their infant son mysteriously disappears while in the care of eldest daughter Thomasin. Cue the family’s descent into paranoia and fear as one event after another seems to conspire against them. The crops fail and Thomasin falls under suspicion of witchcraft, but are the family’s travails a manifestation of religious hysteria or does an evil presence truly lurk in the woods that loom against their small holding?

I’ll give away no spoilers here, suffice to say this has to be one of my favourite films of the year. Like all great horror, The Witch conjures up an unsettling atmosphere right from the start, aided by a superbly minimalist score and shot in a relentlessly desaturated palette of browns and greys (no hope, or colour here). In its atmosphere and setting the film evoked, for me at least, comparisons with the excellent Witchfinder General and the less well known Blood on Satan’s Claw (you don’t get films with titles like that nowadays, more’s the pity).

The Witch then, is my kind of horror movie; a much needed change from the numerous’ jump scare’ nonsense that currently infests the supermarket DVD shelves and streaming services. The script has the self-confidence to focus more on the unseen, psychological aspect of the situation the protagonists find themselves in, and director Eggers has the presence of mind to leave the audience’s imagination do its worst (although the film is no slacker in the ketchup stakes either).

A word of caution; The Witch is not forgiving of those with a deficit of patience when it comes to viewing habits. The characters dialogue is in the form of 17th century English vernacular, (no RSC vowels here), and though beautifully acted by the cast, demands the viewers full attention. For me though, details like this put the cherry on the cake that is the production’s splendidly realised period setting, and made me love this movie all the more.

And you’ll never look at a goat the same way again.