Sunday, 31 December 2017

MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2017

Hi folks! Hope the holiday season was full of cheer and you all have my best wishes for a great 2018.

So here we are at the end of 2017. It seems like just a year ago that I was talking on this blog about my favourite movies of 2016, because it was. Now it's time for me to reveal my ten favourite films of this year, plus ten more which just missed that particular cut but are still well worth your time.

As usual, there will be great movies I didn't get to see this year and that's why they didn't make the list. As usual, I can't rank them from 1 to 10 (or 10 to 1), it was difficult enough to narrow the list down without trying to decide which one I liked the most. And, as usual, it's fine if you don't like my list. However, it's my list and I'm standing by it.

Some of the following may have played festivals or could have even been released last year but I saw them in 2017 and that is purely the criterion I'm applying.

So, rambling over. In purely alphabetical order, here goes...


BABY DRIVER



Edgar Wright's effervescent car-chase/heist/romance thrill ride was something that I went back to see again and enjoyed it just as much, if not more, than I did on the first viewing. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the best getaway driver around but he's trying to get out of the business, doubly so when he sees the possibility of a new life with waitress Debora (Lily James). And of course he's pressured into doing one last job...

I know some people complained about the plausibility of this one and I get that but sometimes cinema is all about escapism and Baby Driver presents a marvellously skewed reality, one in which a simple walk to and a from a coffee shop is choreographed to a cracking track from Bob & Earl.

Elgort and James make for a cute couple, the dialogue fizzes, the ancillary roles are all nicely-written and acted (Jon Hamm looks like he had a blast making this), the action sequences get the adrenaline pumping, the jokes land and the romantic interludes are sweet. And now I want to watch it again.


CREEP 2



The first Creep movie, for me at least, came pretty much out of nowhere and I was thoroughly impressed at not only its mixture of chills and chuckles but also with how it took the building blocks of the "found footage" genre to construct something very different.

Again, Duplass' serial killer - now calling himself Aaron - advertises for a videographer to document his life and web series maker Sara (Desiree Akhavan) shows up but from then on all bets are off as this superior sequel heads off in a number of unexpected directions. Bringing the fear and the funny in equal measure, this risks a lot by playing almost the entire proceedings as a two-hander between Aaron and Sara but this pays off handsomely because Duplass and Akhavan spark off each other outstandingly.

I saw this at Celluloid Screams in October where it went down a storm. Mark Duplass is once again both hilarious and deeply unnerving and Akhavan kicks arse in both performance and plot. I was more than sufficiently Creep-ed out (yeah yeah, I'm using that one again) to want a third one.


COLOSSAL



Nacho Vigalondo's magnificent mash-up of monster movie and indie dramedy sees the somewhat flaky Gloria (Anne Hathaway) have her life in New York fall to pieces and head back to her hometown where old acquaintance Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) offers her a job in his bar. Meanwhile, a giant creature is attacking Seoul and Gloria is struck by the possibility that she may be connected to this strange phenomenon.

It's a brilliant concept and Vigalondo runs with it, giving us the classic city in peril sequences we'd expect but never allowing these to undercut the smaller moments as Hathaway tries to get herself together. In fact, the smaller moments end up becoming the bigger moments as...but I'm giving too much away.

As always, Hathaway is first-rate and makes for an affectingly flawed heroine but it's Jason Sudeikis who is the real surprise here. Yes, his comedic turns have always been impressive but here he turns in a multi-layered and, quite frankly, amazing performance. As for the movie, it's winningly weird and I loved it.


THE ENDLESS




After Resolution and Spring, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead make it three unmissable films out of three with this genre-hopping, mind-melting tale of Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead) who return to the "UFO death cult" from which they escaped years previously.

Resolutely refusing to stick to any kind of template, The Endless constantly leaves the viewer genuinely unsure of exactly where the story is going and what the hell is going to happen next. It also avoids going down the usual route of having cult members behaving like lunatics within nanoseconds of being introduced to them. In fact, they actually seem like reasonable people with a purpose. Or is that what the movie wants you to think?

Taking the lead roles in their own film is something of a risk but Benson and Moorhead carry the film very well, helped by a fine supporting cast. With a beautifully executed, satisfying callback to their previous work which explains some of the head-spinning plot developments this rewards patience and attention. You may leave the cinema with your mind blown but trust me, you'll feel better for it.


THE FLORIDA PROJECT



On the fringe of Disneyworld the fringes of society live in motel complexes, facing a daily struggle to just exist. In one such place, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) goes off on various adventures with her equally free-spirited playmates while rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) tries to keep a roof over their heads.

There's no doubting that Sean Baker's film tackles a tough subject and there are some utterly heartbreaking moments along the way but there's also a whole lot of joy to be found as the piece captures precisely what it's like to be a kid. The young members of the cast are amazingly naturalistic and the adults are none too bad either. Bria Vinaite's debut is flawless and Willem Dafoe, as sympathetic motel manager Bobby, demonstrates once again what an exceedingly fine actor he is.

The end of The Florida Project seems to have proven somewhat divisive. I thought it was totally in keeping with the rest of the film, a mixture of heart-rending sadness and unbridled delight. 


GET OUT



Is a horror movie? Is it a thriller? Is it a social satire? Whatever the label, Jordan's Peele film is excellent from start to finish. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) takes a trip with girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her ultra-liberal parents for the first time and from the get-go something doesn't seem quite right.

Get Out doesn't play its hand too early, building the tension - and eliciting plenty of nervous laughs - via a series of increasingly weird and unsettling events before tipping into full-on horror in its final stretch. As well as being thoroughly entertaining, this also makes salient points about racism but not in a preachy way. It asks us to take a look at how we behave without having to hammer the message home.

The denouement is deliciously twisted, the clash of cultures is dealt with in a smart, amusing way, any movie that has Catherine Keener in it gets my vote and can we please have a spin off which focuses on Chris's best friend Rod? For me, Rod is the supporting character of the year and Lil Rel Howery is ace as the TSA employee with a nose for suspicious goings-on. Rod is the guy we'd all like as our best friend.


LADY MACBETH



Rural England, 1865, and the young Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold into marriage to a man twice her age. As her husband spends more and more time away from home, Katherine enters into a reckless romance with a stable worker on the estate. Needless to say, things don't go well...

William's Oldroyd's strikingly shot drama is intense, passionate and gripping, with Florence Pugh absolutely magnetic in the central role. Sure, it's on the bleak side but it's beautifully made, dripping with atmosphere and its climax seems to have upset a few people judging but some of the things I've read about their reaction to it.

My view is: surely they should be upset in some way at how things end here. It's also a testament to the conviction of those who made this that they don't try to pull out an upbeat ending from nowhere, the piece naturally moves inexorably towards its grim and tragic conclusion and that's how it should be. 


LOGAN



At long last, the Wolverine movie that I (and possibly many others) had been waiting for, Logan is grungy, sweary, and very, very violent. It's also full of unexpectedly warm - if somewhat dark - humour with Hugh Jackman's titular hero and Patrick Stewart's Professor X as aged, bickering companions in an increasingly emotional road movie as they attempt to keep mutant kid Laura (Dafne Keen) out of the hands of some very bad guys.

F-words and severed limbs are liberally scattered throughout. Innocent people die up close in brutal and shocking ways. It's the antithesis of all those summer superhero blockbusters and is so much better for it. If this wasn't enough, the final moments deliver an emotional gut punch that will make you hope there's no post-credit sequence so you can get out of the cinema for air.

Definitely my favourite Marvel movie so far and if this is Messrs Stewart and Jackman's final appearance as X and Wolvie then they'll have bowed out in superb style.


MAB



As with 2016's Top Ten another short movie finds itself on the list. Last year it was Katie Bonham's wonderful Mindless and this year it's Katie Bonham's even more wonderful Mab. Rosie delivers packages on a regular basis to the mysterious title character but a late arrival to her destination one day gives her a glimpse into a strange and terrifying world.

Once again, as with Mindless, social commentary mixes with the supernatural to produce something truly distinctive. Without so much as a drop of gore, the revelation of the fate of one particular character is devastatingly, horribly realised and it's moments like this which confirm you're in the hands of a skilled film-maker.

Everything about this short is infused with quality. The production design is fabulous, the score is sublime and the performances are accomplished, especially newcomer Maria-Theresa as Rosie who's expressive and sympathetic without ever overplaying it.

Deservedly winning the Melies D'Argent (and the Audience Award) at this year's Abertoir Festival, this expertly fuses the everyday and the extraordinary. Is another Katie Bonham film going to be on the 2018 Top Ten? On the basis of Mab, don't bet against it.


PREVENGE



After the death of her partner, Ruth (Alice Lowe) starts to hear messages from her unborn child. These messages tell her to take revenge on the people responsible for covering up the tragedy as an accident, sending the mum-to-be on a homicidal rampage.

If the above paragraph sounds like a terribly depressing night at the cinema, it's actually quite the opposite. Prevenge serves up its murders and mayhem with a deliciously dark streak of humour and having many of its scenes play longer than we're used to gives us much more of an insight into the story's potential victims which means that, rather cleverly, we're never exactly sure who to side with.

Has Ruth truly been wronged or is she experiencing a psychotic episode following the death of a loved one? Indeed, is any of this actually happening? Prevenge lets you decide the answers to these questions for yourself. Writer/director/star Alice Lowe takes on that most tricky of beasts, the horror/comedy, and delivers both the shocks and the sniggers with surety.  


Honorable mentions go to the following (again in alphabetical order):

The Big Sick - Smartly scripted by Kumail Nanjiani, this takes his own real-life tale and spins it into a subversive rom-com. Full of heart and hilarity, this is a massive, welcoming hug of a movie and it has Holly Hunter being awesome. What more could you want?

Blade Runner 2049 - Making a sequel to Ridley Scott's classic original takes a lot of guts and I'm delighted to say that Denis Villeneuve's follow-up is very good indeed. Visually, this redefines the word "stunning" but there's also an intriguing continuation of the story in which to become involved. Ryan Gosling is first class as top blade runner J but it's Harrison Ford's return as Deckard which really elevates the proceedings. How great is Harrison Ford in this? I'll answer that one for you. He's bloody brilliant.

Brawl In Cell Block 99 - S. Craig Zahler follows up the excellent Bone Tomahawk with this tale of drug runner Vince Vaughn landing in the clink and trying to save his pregnant wife on the outside. Builds brilliantly to an astonishingly violent payoff, Vaughn is on career-best form here and sterling support is provided by Udo Kier and Don Johnson.

Canaries - Belying its £29,000 budget, Peter Stray's beguiling mix of sci-fi, horror and comedy reaches for the stars while still keeping its feet firmly on the ground as bantering, bickering mates try to survive an alien invasion in the Welsh Valleys. With a surprisingly detailed mythology to give the backstory some real heft, this hits all of the right notes regardless of which genre it's stepped into.

Diani & Devine Meet The Apocalypse - Comedy duo Etta Devine and Gabriel Diani suddenly find themselves in a situation where there's no power, communcations are down and society is collapsing. What follows next is an unexpectedly sweet and consistently funny series of adventures as our heroes try to survive. Track this down before the world ends.

The Disaster Artist - James Franco directs and stars in this take on the making of Tommy Wiseau's now infamous movie The Room. The chaotic environment of the film set makes for some big laughs along the way but this is also a spirited celebration of someone following their dream, however crazy that dream may be.

I Remember You - A confidently-made slow-burner based on Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's novel, this weaves seemingly unconnected elements (a woman found hanged in a church, a missing child, a project to renovate a run-down house) into a coherent and ultimately satisfying whole. Beautiful Icelandic locations abound and it's creepy as hell, too.

M.F.A. - After a year in which new allegations of sexual misconduct surface pretty much every day, Natalia Leite's exploration of what happens to art student Noelle after a horrific incident could not be more timely. Uncompromising but unwaveringly unexploitative, this benefits further from an excellent, provocative screenplay by Leah McKendrick (who's also effective in a pivotal supporting role) and a terrific performance from Francesca Eastwood as Noelle.

My Life As A Courgette - Short (66 minutes) and very sweet animation centred on a young boy sent to a foster home following a tragedy at home. Confronting difficult subject matter with straightforwardness and great skill, this never descends into sentimentality and it's rather wonderful. You may have to pretend you have something in your eye come the end of this one.

Wonder Woman - After Logan, another much needed shot in the arm for the superhero movie as Amazonian warrior Diana (Gal Gadot in a piece of perfect casting) joins the fight in World War One. A wonder-fully (oh, I'm so sorry for that) entertaining mix of great action sequences, amusing fish-out-of-water comedy and spot-on emotional beats, this destroys the ridiculous argument that this sort of movie - any sort of movie, to be honest - is "a guy's thing".

Sunday, 17 December 2017

MAB

Starring: Maria-Teresa, Carolyn Saint-Pé, Lucy Clements
Writer: Katie Bonham
Director: Katie Bonham



Mab tells the story of Rosie (Maria-Teresa) and her mother, Kris (Lucy Clements), who struggle to make ends meet. Their only source of income comes from the daily delivery Rosie makes to the mysterious Mab, but what are these deliveries and what impact will this have on their lives of those around them?

You may remember how much I enjoyed Katie Bonham's previous short film Mindless, a terrific, emotionally resonant piece of work that ended up in my Top Ten films of 2016 so it was with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation that I approached Mab. I needn't have been concerned because Mab is even more accomplished than its predecessor.

Much like Mindless the plot’s focus is on the real, desperate, domestic struggles of the type of characters who are seldom given prominence in the horror genre and gives them a deft, otherworldly spin. The magical elements of the story never overwhelm the surprisingly gritty social commentary, instead the supernatural weaves its way in and out of the tale in creepy, strange and ultimately startling fashion.

The performances are top-notch, especially newcomer Maria-Teresa who is truly outstanding as Rosie. Surrounded by people who range from uncaring to genuinely horrendous, we are further drawn into the struggles of her character thanks to an adept, sympathetic performance. We don't learn too much about the other characters along the way (other than the fact they're generally awful) but that isn't an issue as this is Rosie's story and Maria-Teresa's expressive yet delicate work takes centre stage as it should.

As for the production design it’s consistently excellent, Mab’s place in particular being beautifully realised, a weird, wonderful collection of mystic artefacts which provides the ideal enchanted counterpoint to the drab dwelling inhabited by Rosie and her mum. I also loved the train which took Rosie to Mab’s each day, a familiar mode of transport given an unusual makeover and providing the perfect connection between the everyday and the extraordinary.

In some short films, the score sometimes goes by the wayside for any number of different reasons but here it’s yet another example of how Mab delivers. Patrick Fagan’s sublime musical accompaniments are never nudging nor do they overpower the on-screen action but add another pleasing layer of eerie depth to the movie. 

This doesn't deploy gallons of gore to keep its viewers watching and if you’re waiting for heads exploding or sprays of arterial claret then you’re going to have to rein in that bloodlust of yours. This rewards patience and imagination, proving that it’s what you create in your own head that’s far more devastating and terrifying than explicit grue. The fate of one character is all the more chilling simply because it resists cashing in with a spectacular, OTT demise. It’s all too real, it's genuinely horrible and it's something to which we can easily relate.

Mab is neither a movie which joins the dots for you in clunky fashion nor is it one so frustratingly enigmatic that you’ll wander out of the cinema wondering what the hell it was all about. Put your phone away for fifteen minutes and be swept up in this brilliant, original tale. The pace is perfect, the plot unfolds with great care and the climactic reveal is quietly yet profoundly disturbing. It’ll stay with you a whole lot longer than a shrieking chord of strings, a jump scare and a splash of red.

I may be starting to sound like a broken record when it comes to Katie Bonham's work but, as with the magnificent Mindless, this demands to be seen. Mab is an unmissable chiller from a skilled director growing in confidence and scope with each new project and I'm very much looking forward to finding out exactly where she's going to take us next.

Friday, 24 November 2017

CANARIES

Starring: Sheena Bhatessa, Craig Russell, Richard Mylan
Writer: Peter Stray
Director: Peter Stray



Radio DJ Steve (Russell) returns home to Wales to play the tunes at a mate's New Year's Eve party and to pitch a business proposition to one of the guests. Across the Atlantic a shadowy department of the US Government is watching the area with great interest, predicting that the next in an ongoing series of extra-terrestrial events is about to happen in Lower Cwmtwrch (not to be confused with Upper Cwmtwrch, let's get the facts straight here). Soon enough, Steve's money-making scheme is the last thing on his mind as he and his friends fight to survive against a lethal, otherworldly menace...

Made for just £29,000, Peter Stray's sci-fi/horror/action/comedy hybrid somehow takes its minuscule budget and throws in exciting, well-choreographed fight sequences, striking visual effects, generous globs of gore and a globe-trotting plot that takes in locations such as Martha's Vineyard, Washington D.C. and Vietnam as well as the Valleys. And it makes a bloody good job of it all too.

It would be easy to focus solely on the admittedly impressive technical achievement of producing such a well shot, feature-length movie when the available funds would only cover half of the coffee budget of a recent outing for a well-known British secret agent but what's even more pleasing here is the fact that just as much effort has been put into making the story smart, involving and a whole lot of fun.

The initial mystery is developed nicely and the steady series of reveals which allow the audience to piece together what's going on is both well-timed and confidently handled. Even so, this wouldn't work nearly as well as it does if we weren't experiencing it all with such a well-drawn, diverse set of characters who are appealingly flawed and real.

Nothing feels crowbarred into the proceedings here: for instance, two of the male characters are gay but whereas many films would totally overplay this aspect of the tale it's dealt with in a beautifully naturalistic, matter-of-fact way here. No attention is brought to it whatsoever beyond the fact that their relationship is actually quite sweet and makes for some amusing dialogue between the pair.

Elsewhere, the females are strong, intelligent and well-defined, particularly Bhatessa's "travel agent" Sunita who consistently proves more resourceful than the often bumbling blokes around her. She's generally called upon to make sense of the unfolding plot but again this doesn't feel forced and the exposition isn't clunky. It's a role that isn't overwritten and avoids turning her into a superhuman, ass-kicking babe, instead she's a thoroughly credible and capable heroine.

Which brings me to the fellas of the piece in all of their awkward, sweary, banter-heavy glory. Russell is engaging as Steve, winging it on a dodgy current of bravado and movie quotes as he tries to dazzle those around him, succeeding almost never. Steve Meo is hilarious as the ever-more-sozzled Huw (at one point asking someone to step outside when they're already outside), Richard Mylan totally nails the serious, over-protective nature of Sunita's brother Nav and Aled Pugh is first-rate as Ryan, a guy with relationship issues and some wicked Wing Chung skills.

The chemistry between all of these is plain to see and you do really do feel that these people have known each other for years. The quips are convincingly clunky, often childish, almost always raising a laugh. For anyone who's concerned that the humour may be too Welsh, firstly I'm not quite sure what "too Welsh" is (suggestions in the comments please), secondly I found it extremely warm and relatable. I'm not Welsh, by the way.

It's great to see home-grown movies with such ambition and scope. Canaries belies its budget time and again, proving that ingenuity and imagination can produce something more involving and entertaining than many a big studio blockbuster. This was made with a real love of its various genres, inhabiting the same space as the very best of The X-Files with its mix of chills, chuckles and detailed mythology but also possessing a distinctive, confident voice of its own. All involved should be extremely proud and the possibility of further adventures in the Canaries universe is an enticing prospect.

Also, if you don't know how to pronounce Cwmtwrch you will after you've seen this.

Friday, 17 November 2017

CELLULOID SCREAMS 2017: DAY THREE

Day Two of Celluloid Screams 2017 took us on a whistle-stop terror tour of Iceland, the UK, the US and Germany. Where would we find ourselves on Day Three? Read on...

WARNING: There's some discussion of the subject matter of M.F.A. below. It isn't particularly explicit but if you feel it's going to upset you then I wholeheartedly support your decision not to read on.


TAG


Schoolgirl Mitsuko is on a coach trip with her classmates when something very strange (not to mention very gory) happens, leaving her to escape to another area where she finds another school and a totally different set of classmates, all of whom know who she is. So what's going on? Something that I would never be able to sum up in a paragraph, that's what.

As far as Japanese horror goes I'll admit I'm not the biggest fan but Tag was a unexpected delight, constantly re-inventing itself in a series of increasingly batshit insane sequences. If you're not willing to go with it, I can see how it would be a frustrating experience. However, I'm here to tell you that Tag is worth sticking with, primarily because it's terrifically inventive and entertaining but also because it achieves two particular objectives which other J-Horrors don't or (as is probably more common) won't.

One - it actually explains what the hell's going on. Not only that, the explanation is canny and taps into a specific cultural phenomenon. Yes, for 70 minutes you're probably going to sit there with a bewildered look on your face but Tag eventually lets you in on why all of the crazy stuff's been happening.

Two - it ends. It doesn't stop dead just as something apocalyptic is about to happen, it doesn't reveal that the movie you just watched is just the set-up for another movie, it actually ends. That's not to say there couldn't be a continuation of the action here but the story concludes in a rather affecting and satisfying way.


MAYHEM


Blamed for a corporate screw-up which is none of his doing, attorney Derek Saunders (Steven Yeun) is fired. Aftering clearing his desk, he heads for the lobby but before he can make it out of the building the place is quarantined due to an infection being discovered. This infection causes the affected to lose their inhibitions which leads to them acting on their most outrageous impulses - some violent, some just plain bonkers.

With the office on lockdown for the next eight hours, Derek sees a chance to clear his name and be re-instated but he must work his way up to the top in order to confront the highest levels of management, aided by Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), a civilian with a particular axe to grind - or, in Melanie's case, nailgun to shoot - where this organisation is concerned.

Sharing some DNA with the recent office-block shocker The Belko Experiment but throwing a virus into the mix rather than a Battle Royale-style contest, Mayhem is a bloody, amusing slice of office politics pushed to the extreme. Ruthless corporate types turn out to be just as cold and murderous as you think they're going to be and it's easy to side with Derek in his quest to literally stick it to The Man.

Most, if not at all, of the corporate stereotypes are deployed here, whether it's the procedure-obsessed guy from Human Resources, the downtrodden personal assistant or the geeky IT dude in the basement. It's meant to be fun and it certainly is. Arguably it may take one too many detours between its claret-splattered scraps and you may not enjoy the discussion about 90s bands as much as I did. Even so, Mayhem is an engaging, lively lark which delivers the gory goods. 


M.F.A.


When art student Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) is raped at a college party she vows not to become a victim. Not only does she channel the experience into her creative projects but also becomes an avenger for other college girls in similar situations who have been failed by the justice system.

Natalia Leita's film is uncompromising and difficult to watch in places (as it should be) but the issues raised here are handled with skill and sensitivity, resulting in a piece of cinema which is bold, thought-provoking yet resolutely unexploitative.

Francesca Eastwood's performance is astonishing and she's ably supported by a superb cast, most notably the excellent Leah McKendrick as Noelle's neighbour Skye. McKendrick also wrote the screenplay which makes salient points about how survivors of sexual assault are treated, also raising pertinent, vital questions about how society creates an environment which enables these horrendous crimes to take place, moving on to deal with the concept of second chances for the perpetrators.

This film deserves as wide an audience as possible and, as new allegations of sexual abuse and harassment committed by those in positions of power surface almost daily, M.F.A. is a timely, important statement on a subject which we must all confront. It's a courageous movie which needs to be seen.


HELLRAISER (30TH ANNIVERSARY SCREENING)


Yeah, okay, I'll admit that at this point in the festival I ducked out to take a strategic break, having seen Hellraiser just a couple of weeks before. And yeah, okay, I'll admit that "strategic break" meant me having a couple of beers in the bar and talking about the previous movies with anyone who'd listen.


Still, on the strength of my recent viewing I can say that on the whole it hasn't aged too badly over its three decades. In an age of CGI, the practical effects in this are terrifically icky and the hammers to the head and hooks to the flesh may be even more effective now when set against animated dismemberings and rivers of digitally-created blood.

Effects aside, there's so much in Hellraiser which is impressive. It's the ice-cold brilliance of Claire Higgins as Julia. It's the genius of casting Andrew Robinson in a role where you're expecting him to channel Scorpio from Dirty Harry and go full-on psycho and there's a wonderful background game going on as you wait to see when - or if - it will happen. It's the Cenobites themselves, four wonderfully realised creations which have cemented themselves into horror folklore. It's Clive Barker's sly, twisted, fantastic story. It's all these and so much more besides but I'll never finish this blog if I carry on waxing lyrical about it.

Thirty years on, Hellraiser still stands (pin)head and shoulders above most films in the genre. As someone who saw it on its original cinema release (good grief, I'm old) it's an enduring classic. Also, the Celluloid Screams audience was treated to a Q&A with special effects supervisor Geoff Portass and the "Chatterer" Cenobite himself, the genial and unrelentingly smashing Nicholas Vince (was absolutely lovely to chat to him at various points across the weekend).


CREEP 2



And so it's on to my favourite of the festival, which picks up after the events of Creep and finds Mark Duplass' serial killer still living out in the wilderness but now going by the name of Aaron and once more advertising for videographers to document his life. Enter Sara (Desiree Akhavan), considering whether to change career after becoming disillusioned with her unsuccessful web series but agreeing to meet with Aaron, who tells her the two of them will make a great piece of art...

Normally the prospect of a sequel would hardly fill me with joy but in this case I'd enjoyed the first Creep film so much that I thought a second helping would stand a reasonable chance of being half-decent. It's much more than that, it's a follow-up that delivers, taking everything that made its predecessor such a grimly comic surprise and sending it off in a number of directions I really didn't expect.

Again, Mark Duplass is astounding, giving us a well-rounded character who's disturbingly real with all of his tics and tantrums. He's so much fun, not to mention unnerving, to watch as you never know quite what he's going to do or say next. Huge credit must also go to Desiree Akhavan who is a match for Duplass in both performance and plot.

Considering the bulk of Creep 2 is a two-hander between Aaron and Sara the potential was there for certain longueurs in the story to pad out the running time but there's nothing of that ilk here. The plot twists and turns agreeably and the battle of wits is thrilling, unpredictable and very, very funny. It's that most uncommon of horror beasts, the flick that I could have watched again the moment it finished.

Thank you to Messrs Duplass and Brice, I was left thoroughly entertained and Creep-ed out (okay, I apologise for that). Its 78 minutes went by in a blink and if there's a Creep 3 on the horizon you can definitely count me in.


BETTER WATCH OUT


The 2017 festival ended with a movie which can be described as Home Alone put through a Michael Haneke mini-juicer. When Babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is left in charge of twelve-year-old Luke (Levi Miller), the house comes under attack and she must use all of her wits to deal with the situation. However, things take a strange and even deadlier turn...

How much you enjoy this movie more or less hinges or how you react to the twist which is thrown in quite early on. For some, this will be a real showstopper and the sheer enjoyment of seeing the plot shift into unexpected territory will lift Chris Peckover's flick way out of the norm.

Me? Okay, so the twist is a very good one, no doubt about that, but it immediately causes a number of problems, most notably that the mystery is resolved and any suspense has to be generated in a completely different way. It's a brave move but unfortunately it's here that the plot is less sure-footed and although there are a couple of unnerving moments I couldn't shake the feeling that the biggest villain of the piece wasn't so much scary as just plain annoying.

The issues continue into the last half hour, where one particularly stupid character goes nuclear in terms of idiocy (even by genre standards) and it all runs the risk of becoming faintly ridiculous. It also has the problem of being distasteful but not distasteful enough. Having set up a pretty creepy premise, the script pulls back at times and I never felt as uncomfortable as I should have been considering the possible ramifications of the sharp turn the plot takes. Oddly, it's a little too mannered to succeed.

However, there's still much to give Christmas cheer. A number of the performances are hugely enjoyable - DeJonge is a smart, amiable heroine and Luke's parents, played by Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton, are wonderfully droll, providing the ho-ho-ho's with some nicely-timed zingers. As the denouement is unwrapped, there's a cracking little gift inside too.

Better Watch Out is a movie which I think will prove particularly divisive and I can't predict on which side of the love/hate field you'll end up. Or you could sit with me on the "unsure" bench.




As is customary, no Celluloid Screams Day Three review would be complete without thanking the people behind the festival, without whom I would not be delighting in (or, very occasionally, ranting about) such a diverse selection of horror movies.

To the festival director Rob Nevitt - you did it again. Every year I wonder how you're going to pull together such a marvellous selection of films and every year I'm blown away with what I see. Celluloid Screams sets the bar incredibly high in terms of content and this year's crop of movies didn't disappoint. I will keep buying that weekend pass as soon as it's available.

Thanks also to festival programmers Polly and Lucy and to the rest of the Celluloid Screams team. I know a huge amount of work goes into making the event what it is but trust me, it's appreciated by all of us. It's always a highlight of the year which we'll talk about for weeks before and afterwards.

Finally, a big shout out must to go to the "horror family", that dedicated band who comes together to sit in a darkened room for two and a half days - and loves it. To everyone I met for the first time at this year's festival, it was a pleasure to chat to you and proves that horror fans are the nicest, friendliest people you'll ever meet. To those I already know, you guys know you're the best. To those of you there who haven't experienced Celluloid Screams - COME TO SHEFFIELD! YOU'LL LOVE IT!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

CELLULOID SCREAMS 2017: DAY TWO

Day One of Celluloid Screams brought us a cult, a haunted house and a trio of kick-ass women. What would Day Two have in store? Well, I'm going to tell you. Wouldn't be much of a blog if I didn't...



I REMEMBER YOU


In a remote part of Iceland, an elderly woman is found hanged in a church and the ensuing investigation reveals a possible connection not only to a number of other deaths in the area but to the disappearance of the 7-year-old son of Freyr, the new psychiatrist in town. And is there a further link to events across the bay, where a project to restore a run-down house is beset by supernatural happenings...

Based on Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's novel, I Remember You is certainly a slow-burner but please don't let that put you off. The gradual build-up of tension and the drip-feed of plot developments make this work so brilliantly. The police procedural, missing person drama and ghost story elements mesh perfectly and it's fun to see how the seemingly disparate events of the plot come together in a clever and satisfying way.

Not only is I Remember You confidently made, excellently written and convincingly performed, it also showcases the bleak yet beautiful landscapes of one of my favourite countries. It's also creepy as hell and although there are a couple of effective jump scares along the way it's the sense of disquiet permeating the piece which truly elevates the proceedings. This is a chiller of rare quality which also packs quite the emotional punch.

Easily one of highlights of the festival and I'm looking forward to seeing this again. Check out Yrsa's novels too.


HABIT


Unemployed Michael (Elliot James Langridge) spends most of his time in his flat, at the Job Centre or in the local pub until a chance meeting with free-spirited Lee (Jessica Barden) lands him a job on the door at Cloud 9, a massage parlour in Manchester. One night things turn disturbingly violent and Michael is given a glimpse of a netherworld to which he may be attracted more than he wants to admit...

With such a diverse selection of films at Celluloid there's usually one that, for whatever reason, just doesn't land with me and unfortunately this year it was Habit. I talked to people after the screening who genuinely loved it and to be honest I'm happy when a film polarises opinion. After all, who wants to make something that everyone thinks is just okay?

Have to be honest here, this didn't engage me. I didn't care sufficiently about most of the characters and the gore, although packing in its fair share of entrails and lopped-off parts, is staged in an oddly mannered way. If you're going to show me cannibalism, make it as gross as possible. The 80s output from our Italian friends always made this sort of thing look utterly disgusting so what happened here?

Well, having Roxanne Pallett air kiss the end of a gristly piece of bloodied bone is stylish, don't get me wrong, but that pivotal moment of the film is where I need to be caught off-guard, wondering where the hell things were going to go next, instead of not being sufficiently shocked to be propelled into the second half of the story, where all bets should have been off.

Nonetheless, the final sequence at Cloud 9 is rather effective and suspenseful and although the plot doesn't tie up all of the loose ends it doesn't feel inconclusive in any way. I liked the slightly messy ending, I just wish I'd liked the rest of the movie too but hey, other people at Celluloid loved it and I can totally see why.

Quick mention for Joanne Mitchell (Sheffield horror fest regulars may very well remember her from Before Dawn): she's brilliant and very funny in a supporting role as one of Cloud 9's employees who knows all about the business, even down to etiquette of who makes the next brew in the place.


TRAGEDY GIRLS


Small-town teenagers Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) are obsessed with three things: death, their social media presence and the number of hits received by their web show. As their online status threatens to fade, they decide that an inside track on a new wave of killings will blow their popularity through the roof and so they take things into their own hands...

Not only does Tragedy Girls make some amusing and valid points about our relationship with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al, it has a keen eye for the tropes of the slasher/serial killer genre and uses those as the bedrock for a knowing, fun romp which goes about its bloody business with gusto.

Yes, Sadie and McKayla are somewhat annoying and are basically welded to their smartphones but the performances of Hildebrand and Shipp keep their characters interesting to watch even when they're being irritatingly self-absorbed (which is a lot of the time). The supporting players are excellent, notably the ever-reliable Craig Robinson as local firefighting hero Big Al and Josh Hutcherson sending himself up something chronic as cool, ahem, "deep", motorcycle-riding dude Toby.

Tyler MacIntyre's movie is gleefully unpleasant, handling its dark material with a pleasingly light touch. It left me with a smile on my face and a renewed alertness to the potential dangers of gym equipment.

INSIDE NO. 9



For many this was the biggest draw of the festival as Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton introduced three episodes of their anthology series which has recently finished shooting its fourth season. The three episodes chosen for Celluloid Screams were The Harrowing from Season 1, Séance Time from Season 2 and a brand new episode from Season 4 called Tempting Fate (which means the picture above is inaccurate because it's from The Trial Of Elizabeth Gadge but what the hell, I'm still going with it).

For a series which has a natural home on television, these episodes played incredibly well on a big screen in front of a large audience. The Harrowing pulls out all of the Gothic stops, constantly swapping laughs and chills as its tale of the world's creepiest babysitting job unfolds. It also boasts the outstanding double act of Shearsmith and Helen McCrory as strange siblings Hector and Tabitha.

Séance Time may very well be my favourite episode of Inside No. 9 to date so I was really pleased that it was showing here. This tale of a somewhat downmarket prank show is played for chuckles for most of its running time (Alice Lowe, in particular, is a disinterested, downbeat delight) but there's a sinister edge to the proceedings which really comes to the fore as the tone turns on a dime and a supremely unnerving twist is revealed.

And so to the new episode. Tempting Fate follows three council workers assigned to clearing out the property of a recently-deceased lottery winner but a discovery leads to the plot spinning off in all sorts of intriguing directions with all of the threads being tied up in a thoroughly satisfying way. If this is the standard of the new episodes - and I suspect it will be - then Season 4 is going to be a real treat.


DOWNRANGE (CELLULOID SCREAMS SECRET FILM)



Having guessed the Secret Film wrongly yet again - it wasn't Laissez Bronzer Les Cadavres, let's just face facts and agree that I will NEVER work out what the Secret Film is - I settled down to watch the latest from Ryuhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train, No One Lives). Well, when I say "settled down" that isn't strictly true because within a few minutes there's flying lead, bloodshed and holes in the head as an unseen sniper tries to pick off a group of people who have stopped on a deserted road to change a tyre on their SUV.

A heady cocktail of dodgy dialogue and ferocious firepower, Downrange makes the most of its simple premise by keeping things moving at a fair old clip and not giving the audience too many opportunities to catch its breath (and hence think about any holes the plot may have). There's a few attempts to give the characters some backstory as they're pinned down by the shooter but most of the flick is concerned with various attempts to escape. Oh, and people getting bits blown off them.

This manages to just about sustain itself over its running time by introducing the potential for further carnage just as the wheels look to be coming off. As for the finale, it's nothing short of crackers as we're introduced to some of the dumbest law enforcement personnel ever to don the badge and provide target practice.

Even so, Downrange works particularly well as a pulpy thriller if you're willing to switch your brain to "off". And I mean totally "off", don't leave it in neutral or it might accidentally slip into gear and then you're suddenly thinking about what could or couldn't happen or why someone's doing something stupid. What this delivers in spades is intense, bloody havoc. If you're expecting depth, well, just don't.

I'm still undecided about the very last moment of the film though. On the one hand, it's a good, gory gag. On the other, it's maybe one excess too far.


SUSPIRIA (40TH ANNIVERSARY RESTORATION)



Ballerina Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) travels to Freiburg to enrol in a prestigious academy but from the moment she arrives the weirdness dial is turned up to the maximum - even the task of getting a taxi from the airport is a disorienting, windswept, rain-drenched ordeal - and a beautifully orchestrated dance with the supernatural ensues.

After seeing this many times (don't ask how many) on VHS and DVD this was the first time I'd experienced Dario Argento's masterpiece on the big screen and it didn't disappoint. The visuals are jaw-dropping, the baroque soundtrack is a real button-pusher (especially when it's belting out like it was here), the murder set-pieces are peerless and there are great performances from a cast whose principals are mostly female.

Jessica Harper is terrific as the lead, playing Suzy as vulnerable without ever making her seem in any way a victim, and the amazing Alida Valli towers over the film as the formidable Miss Tanner. As I mentioned previously it's a feast for the eyes with most of the piazzas, buildings, rooms and corridors filmed to look as if they've fallen straight out of a dream. Or, in Suspiria's case, a prolonged nightmare.

With some of the audience never having seen this before, I wonder how it played to them when today's horror movies are so different from this? I hope they tapped into its genuinely deep-seated scariness and that they enjoyed it as much as I still do. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest films of all time in any genre and fans of cinema should count this as essential viewing.

Friday, 3 November 2017

CELLULOID SCREAMS 2017: DAY ONE

Sheffield's horror festival returned for its ninth year of madness, mayhem - which actually included the film Mayhem - special guests and karaoke. Day One brought us three very different pieces of work...

THE ENDLESS



If it's Celluloid Screams, where's the Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead film? The opening gala, as it turned out. With their third film, Benson and Moorhead bring us the tale of brothers Justin (Benson) and Aaron (er, Moorhead) who return to the "UFO death cult" they left several years previously.

Whereas most movies of this type would have the cult members behave like nutters within seconds of being introduced and send the plot into a downward spiral of increasing, babble-heavy tedium, The Endless flatly refuses to stick to the template - hell, it refuses to stick to any kind of template whatsoever - leaving the viewer in a situation where they have no clue as to what's coming next and where the danger, if any, is coming from.

The various characters within the cult actually seem pretty reasonable people - or is that just what they're trying to project? Obviously I'm not going to answer that one and I'm also not going to give away any detail of a beautifully executed reveal about two-thirds of the way in that left me grinning like an idiot. All I'll say is that it explains a lot, if you were already waiting for an explanation.

For me, Messrs Benson and Moorhead are three for three. I loved Resolution, I loved Spring and - no real surprises here - I loved The Endless. As the leads in their own film, their performances are excellent, the supporting cast is uniformly great and there's more than enough welcome humour to complement the mind-bending strangeness even when things get "very culty".


BORLEY RECTORY



Ashley Thorpe's labour of love about the "most haunted house in England" is a beguiling mix of live action and animation wrapped up in the stylings of a 1930s chiller. A whistle stop tour of the spooky goings-on over a number of decades weaves a number of real-life characters into the mix, played by such genre luminaries as Reece Shearsmith and Nicholas Vince.

Make no mistake, there's nothing else out there like this and as a technical achievement it's stunningly impressive. However, as a piece of cinema, I ended up liking it very much when I really wanted to love it with all of my heart. Originally intended as short of around 30 minutes in length, this version clocks in at over an hour and in my opinion the optimum running time would have been somewhere between the two. On a few occasions it does wander and some tighter editing wouldn't have gone amiss.

Even so, there's plenty to enjoy and there's no doubting the passion for the project that's evident in every frame of this. It may reach a little too far in trying to cram in as many events as possible but its ambition has to be applauded. Borley Rectory sets out to be different and in the main it succeeds admirably. This has to be worth your time over a trip to the multiplex to see the latest instalment of yet another uninspired, production-line horror franchise.


68 KILL



Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) is very much in love with Liza (AnnaLynne McCord) and would do anything for her. Which, in this case, means accompanying her on a spot of breaking and entering to bag them $68,000. Of course, things don't go according to plan leaving Chip with a serious case of second thoughts about their relationship. Provided he can actually survive the next couple of days, that is...

So is 68 Kill a movie featuring a clutch of strong, empowered, female characters who don't take shit from anyone or is it ultimately a revenge fantasy about a doormat of a guy who's finally had enough of his domineering girlfriend? Well, I guess you could make an argument for both of those but my view is that it's a shamelessly enjoyable blast of primo grindhouse scuzz which shouldn't be taken too seriously.

And yes, the plot is driven - refreshingly so - by the women of the piece. Alisha Boe is excellent as Violet, who initially appears to be a victim and then turns out to be anything but, the awesome Sheila Vand puts in a memorable turn as murderous super-Goth Monica and the aforementioned McCord is quite brilliant as Liza. Yes, she's clearly a little unhinged but at the same time it's also plain to see exactly why Chip is smitten. Hey, I would probably have been robbing rich guys' houses with her too.*

Written and directed by Cheap Thrills scribe Trent Haaga, this walks a similar line between guffaw-inducing comedy and vomit-inducing violence, only more so. Occasionally, it does threaten to tip over into the realm marked "outright disgusting" especially when Liza's brother - and his revolting hobby - is thrown into the mix but the whole enterprise is so batshit OTT it's more likely you'll be shaking your head and laughing at just how far the plot is willing to go totally off the range than rushing to the nearest bin to be sick in.



*Theoretically speaking, and within the 68 Kill universe that is. I'm not in any way condoning the theft of property from the houses of rich guys. Or any type of thievery from anyone else, for that matter.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

THE SNOWMAN

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Chloë Sevigny
Writers: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan, Søren Sveistrup
Director: Tomas Alfredson




*** THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS ***

Boozy Norwegian cop Harry Hole (Fassbender) is spending most of his days investigating the contents of a vodka bottle when the case of a missing woman drags him from the sidelines and back to what he does best - solving really horrible crimes. And this one looks like it's going to be particularly horrible if the instincts of his new colleague Katrine Bratt (Ferguson) turn out to be correct...

After the recent Flatliners, here's another movie which takes an exceptional cast and strands them in a plodding, by-the-numbers thriller which manages neither to excite nor chill. Yes, there are some gory moments and the plot does contain a bunch of ideas which are conceptually unpleasant but it's all delivered in such a perfunctory way that you'll probably be checking your watch long before the killer is revealed.

Fassbender's excellent but his detective is saddled with the type of crime genre baggage we've seen all too often - he's something of a maverick, he can't sleep, he hits the bottle whenever he's got a spare moment, his previous relationships have been disasters but he's still in touch with his most recent ex and her son, and so on, and so on.

Even so, these well-worn character beats could still have been given fresh life through the writing but the script goes through the motions to a frustrating level and even its attempts to wrong-foot its audience are half-hearted at best. To give an example: Ferguson's new addition to the police department is obsessed with the case - hold on, could she be hiding a secret? Hmm. Guess.

Elsewhere, Sevigny - playing twins - is given virtually nothing to do twice and the flick ultimately blots its copybook by casting J.K. Simmons and then reducing his role to what is almost an extended cameo. His character should arguably be casting a huge shadow over the story but considering his potential for being a major suspect in the investigation there are huge chunks of The Snowman where he doesn't even figure in any sort of discussion.

At almost two hours in length, you'd think The Snowman would cram in the twists and turns, rack up the suspects and pile on the bodies. Unfortunately it doesn't do any of those, lumbering along to a ho-hum confrontation between cop and killer which puts those Harry loves in jeopardy. Even the climax is botched, with proceedings apologetically grinding to a halt as the enterprise literally gets itself on to thin ice, having been there figuratively for about ninety minutes previously.

The one thing at which The Snowman did succeed is that it made me want to go to Norway - the scenery's undeniably beautiful. As for everything else, I wasn't quite prepared for just how underwhelming it would be given the talent involved. What could have been an exhilarating Scandi-noir slay ride through the snow ended up as an unrelentingly dull trudge through a slushy mess.