Tuesday, 20 September 2016

BLAIR WITCH

Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid
Writer: Simon Barrett
Director: Adam Wingard


After viewing footage which may show the events leading to his sister's disappearance, possibly at the hands of local Burkitsville legend the Blair Witch, James (McCune) and his friends head to those infamous woods in the hope of solving the mystery and locating his long lost sibling...

It would seem to be something of a gamble, artistically if not commercially, to take on another sequel to Blair Witch especially considering the high esteem in which the original is held and with the critical (and audience) mauling given to the second movie Book of Shadows. However, writer Barrett and director Wingard are no strangers to the genre and if anyone was going to make a decent stab at this it's these guys. Even with their previous pedigree (The Guest is a firm favourite of mine), having spent the weekend examining the reaction to this film on social media, it appears that there's not a huge amount of love out there for their latest collaboration.

Me? I'm going to be contrary (what's new?) by saying that I thought it was pretty decent.

Does it work? On the whole I think it does, taking the map of the original movie and using many of its main signposts but amping up the suspense and scares while throwing in a couple of plausible explanations about exactly what the hell was going on all the way back in Myrick and Sanchez's lo-fi, Heather Donahue snot-laced phenomenon. The film doesn't allow itself to get too bogged down in expository dialogue though. It's more concerned with putting its characters through the wringer, progressing from the initial eerie noises in the distance to...ah, but I'm risking giving too much away here.

So, is it scary? That, of course, is a subjective thing but Blair Witch attempts to give the audience both chills and jumps. There's A LOT of jump scares (several being of the "suddenly bumping into one of your camping buddies" variety) for which I don't especially care but I'll admit that these moments delivered the goods judging by the reaction of many of my fellow viewers. For people like me there's plenty of psychological horror going on too, playing on the fact that it's what you don't see which scares you the most.

Once the action really gets going the tension rarely lets up and the last twenty minutes is pretty unrelenting in terms of piling on the terror. Also, I should warn you that if you're claustrophobic there's a sequence about 75 minutes in that's probably going to make you want to leave the cinema. Unlike the original, I think this one benefits from seeing it on a big screen with a willing audience as its frights are more finely tuned to that environment. The Blair Witch Project's more intimate shudders, for me in any case, worked so much better watching it at home and that's probably why it took me a few screenings to appreciate what a fine piece of work it is

So, is Wingard and Barrett's take on Blair Witch "a new beginning for horror films" as is mentioned on the poster? That would be a bold claim to stake on behalf of any film in any genre and this certainly doesn't herald a blindingly original new direction for fright flicks but it does set out to scare and it often succeeds in doing so. Yes, the potential for deeper characterisation is jettisoned in favour of more spooky "things that go bump in the woods" action but would it have benefitted from more dialogue about how the four characters came to be together? Personally, I'm not sure it would have but it's just one of many things about this film that appears to be dividing the opinions of moviegoers everywhere.

At least Wingard isn't concerned with dialling down the shocks in order to make a horror movie with the broadest appeal possible. When Blair Witch is firing on all cylinders its clammy, grimy (literally), taut sequences are thoroughly enjoyable even though you're sinking into your seat. It may over-egg the pudding by giving its audience so little time to breathe, particularly in the last third, but the intent to terrify the living crap out of everyone is clearly there to see.

To recap: I enjoyed it, okay? I know a lot of you didn't. Things would all be so much duller if we were the same. That's my way of saying please don't send me abuse on Twitter...

Thursday, 8 September 2016

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR

Starring: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson
Writer: James DeMonaco
Director: James DeMonaco



Senator Charlie Roan (Mitchell) has a very good reason for wanting the annual Purge - 12 hours in which all crime, including murder, is legal - to be stopped for good. Eighteen years previously she was the only survivor of a Purge Night incident which wiped out the rest of her family. Now she's campaigning to be President and it looks as if she might actually win, which is not good news for the current pro-Purge establishment. However, the rules for the Purge are about to change and someone on Roan's own team is about to betray her, leaving her a sitting duck for a group of assassins. Of course, someone is standing in the way of the killers, that someone being Roan's gruff, dour Head of Security Leo Barnes (Grillo)...

It does seem that the Purge movies at least try to bring something new to the table with each incarnation even if, like this one, it's not wholly successful. The political angle is an interesting one but the machinations of those in power (or those who want to be in power) is dealt with in such broad strokes that it's ultimately there to service the action-horror shenanigans. But hey, this isn't All The President's Men we're talking about, this is a film in which shoplifters who feel wronged tool up with automatic weaponry and attack the grocery store of the man who made them put back a candy bar they were about to steal.

Said grocery store owner is Joe Dixon, played by Mykelti Williamson in amusing, charming form. Dixon is there as the everyman who just wants to make a decent living while staying as far away from any of that Purge nonsense as possible - so you know he's going to get dragged into it all. He's also there to crack wise with the rather more uptight Barnes and it has to be said that some of their comedy banter, unsophisticated though it may be, raises a few laughs along the way. Williamson's role is the best-written of the piece and it has to be said he's great. Spin-off Purge movie featuring Joe Dixon? Well, you'll have to see if he makes it through this one.

It could be argued that the political leanings of the plot get in the way of the action which gets in the way of the horror which gets in the way of the politics which gets in the way of...you get what I'm saying. Yes, there were points during this where I felt the movie didn't quite know what it wanted to be and if it was aiming to be all things to all viewers then it doesn't reach its goal. However, there are several excellent sequences along the way, including some genuinely creepy post-kill vignettes.

The Purge: Election Year is a film in which the good guys are generally pretty good (Mitchell's character borders on angelic) and the bad guys are extremely bad. Ooh, they're bad. Punching babies in the face bad. That bad. You only have to view an early sequence in which the assorted bigwigs of the establishment meet to plot Senator Roan's unfortunate Purge-related downfall. Raymond J. Barry, always a fabulous choice for a corporate or government bad guy, shows just what a reprehensible bloke his character is by calling lovely Elizabeth Mitchell the c-word. Twice. In just a few seconds. Disgraceful.

We're on that kind of ground here. It's somewhat cartoony and there's no question who you're going to root for here (and if you are rooting for the bad guys, I think you're just being contrary for the sake of it). That doesn't necessarily make it a terrible evening out. In fact, TP: EA makes for solid, well-made, occasionally inspired thrills and although I'm not crying out for a fourth Purge outing I wouldn't be opposed to it especially if they threw a few new plot elements into the mix.

Monday, 5 September 2016

MORGAN

Starring: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie
Writer: Seth Owen
Director: Luke Scott


After a violent incident at a remote research facility involving the artificially created Morgan (Taylor-Joy), company risk management consultant Lee Weathers (Mara) is assigned to investigate the events and come to a decision whether or not to terminate the project - and its subject...

Director Luke Scott is Ridley Scott's son and there's certainly enough in terms of style to this sci-fi thriller to prove that he's something of a chip off the old block (sorry to Ridley Scott for calling him an old block). Unfortunately what he doesn't have is a script to match and the odd potential spark in the proceedings is usually dampened by either clich├ęd plotting or cumbersome dialogue or both.

A previous catastrophe is referenced - far too often - using variations of the line "We don't want another Helsinki". What happened in Helsinki, or in the project codenamed Helsinki, was obviously very bad and no one wants another Helsinki. The team of scientists working with Morgan tell Weathers and each other this A LOT. I'm tempted to use this in real life, e.g. "I wouldn't try rewiring that. We don't want another Helsinki".

I wished I liked this more because it's anchored by a trio of strong performances from Mara, Taylor-Joy and Leslie and it's the female characters who drive the story along, nicely subverting the usual stereotypes such as the hunky nutritionist who also happens to be an experienced hunter and a crack shot with a rifle. He gets much less involved in the action than you'd expect and from minute one corporate troubleshooter Mara isn't really going to take any of his shit. Which is a really enjoyable thing.

Taylor-Joy, following up her excellent work in The Witch (which you should see if you already haven't), proves that she's rapidly becoming the go-to actress when you're looking for a performance that's slightly off-kilter in a way you can't quite fathom. Here Morgan is a genetically-engineered five-year-old who may be acting strangely because she/it can't understand her/its place in the world or it may all be down to the fact that the DNA jiggery-pokery hasn't quite achieved its aims and has created, to all intents and purposes, a murderous psychopath.

To be fair to the flick it plays off both of these options (and all shades in between) with some degree of success but it just takes too long to get to the meat of the plot and the first half in particular is mired in having the characters reel off clunky expository dialogue about how they got there or what their role is within the facility. The second half ups the ante in terms of tension and action but you might be checking your watch some time before things finally heat up.

Come the end, there's something of a twist which, depending on your ability to see when and where the rug is about to be pulled from under your feet, will either startle or have you nodding in acknowledgement of your acumen in spotting that type of thing a mile off. Either way, it's pleasing that the resolution isn't totally of the join the dots type, although it's hardly a game-changer either. Like so much of this film, it's okay when it should be thrilling, or shocking, or....well, just anything other than okay. Bonus Bryce Dallas Howard points, however, for Kate Mara's climb up a sheer face in killer heels.