FILM REVIEW: Blair Witch

The Blair Witch ‘franchise’ has thus far followed a familiar pattern; a genuinely ground-breaking original, a predictably dire sequel – Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 – in which every single positive aspect of the original was extracted and discarded, and now this, the third instalment: Blair Witch.
It’s a film that, to a certain extent at least, seeks to get ‘back to basics,’ attempting to recapture the essence of what it was that made the first film such a refreshingly original horror, way back in 1999.
The whereabouts of the original bunch of young folk that disappeared, having foolishly set foot into the woods in search of the Blair Witch, has by all accounts mystified many for years. None more so than James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of one of those that originally vanished, Heather, whom he’s convinced he spots in some creepy video that’s been uploaded onto the internet. This footage was apparently discovered, discarded in those infamous woods, by Lane (Wes Robinson), a slightly odd character who lives with his girlfriend, Talia (Valorie Curry).
Racked by curiosity and still harbouring hopes of finding Heather alive, James, together with his girlfriend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), and a couple of their friends, tracks down Lane, who, on the proviso that both he and Talia may tag along for the adventure, agrees to escort James and his group into the woods and show them exactly where it was that he discovered that abandoned video tape.
Though dubious of whether they can trust Lane and Talia, they all reluctantly agree to the proposition, and into the woods they go…
First and foremost, it should be said that Blair Witch, on the surface at least, is a very routine horror run-out. A few classic horror ‘devices’ are thrown about which serve to ramp up the fear factor sufficiently, and to provide a number of irritating obstacles which hamper the group’s best laid plans and actions. We’ve certainly been there and seen its kind before.
Based upon such a luke-warm summary alone, Blair Witch won’t get too many pulses racing, but, perhaps unwittingly even, it’s a film that has an unusual ace up its sleeve – technology.
Admittedly, this could also be a point of irritation to many, as our intrepid explorers – they of ‘the generation that can’t leave their fekkin’ gadgets alone for even a minute’ – spend many a scene either engrossed in an assortment of illuminated screens or fiddling about with operating buttons and switches, but it’s in the use of this plethora of mobile phones, GPS systems, walkie-talkies, digital video cameras, miniature bluetooth cameras clipped to ears, and even a small flying drone device, that director Adam Wingard ensures that maximum video coverage of the events that unfold, is attained – remember, this is a film compiled from nothing but the group’s own personal footage.
Visual footage is one thing, but the act of switching on and off, combined with the cutting in and out of reception of the aforementioned gadgets, adds considerable jarring digital distortion and static noise into the mix. These decibel-heavy sudden bursts of grating sound are used repeatedly – almost to the point of overkill – but to often startling, dramatic effect by Wingard.
Add to these a whole array of thuds, rumbles, creaks, shrieks and screams that emanate, out of sight, from within the forest, and given the general low visibility of the night, Wingard’s sonic assault on our senses really does prove key here to achieving a truly disturbing experience, to say the least.
 As the film develops and the tension levels are augmented, there is a growing sense of uncertainty and confusion amongst the group. Combined with the gathering realisation that Lane and Talia perhaps cannot be trusted after all, and not to mention the bizarre sense of both time and place rapidly becoming warped and displaced, Blair Witch takes us into a truly messed-up, rather hexed dimension, beyond that which we’ve experienced in either of the previous outings.
It’s well-paced and increasingly alarming, and in fact it takes Blair Witch right until the closing act before it arguably finally falls over its own broomstick.
Ramping up the energy and the claustrophobic levels of confusion to almost demented levels by this point, Wingard conjures up an increasingly disorientating experience for the viewer. Intermittent flashes from an excessive lightning storm offer brief glimpses of both the members of the group – who by this point have disappeared and are exhibiting peculiar behaviour in varying states of distress – and, interestingly, glimpses of the Blair Witch herself.
Yes, all this chaos does indeed achieve moments that are genuinely disturbing, but there’s a sense that ultimately the whole thing begins to ‘get away’ from Wingard by this point in this crazy melee of loud noise and visual carnage, like some sort of desperate attempt to spin more and more plates over a greater and greater distance.
 The need or desire to throw more and more – both visually and sonically – at the screen, is certainly one approach to the heightening of terror levels, but as ever, one senses that less would have been more.
If anything it takes the sheen off a film which, whilst no game-changer, is up to that point, as good a horror sequel as you could realistically hope to expect.
In its favour though, Blair Witch refuses to offer any sense of resolution, leaving many an unanswered question in its wake – primed, no doubt, for a further instalment of this most ‘marmite’ of franchises.
Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen…
It is unsurprisingly not quite up to the standards of the original. It has a tendency to get just a little clunky in places, but considering the whole Blair Witch phenomenon is now thoroughly well-trodden territory, it was always going to be on a bit of a hiding to nothing.
Let it be said though, Blair Witch makes an admirably good fist of things in its bold attempt to recapture some of the original film’s magic. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t successfully manage to get back on-side many of the franchise’s original fan base, whilst simultaneously convincing a whole new generation of its considerable worth as a genuinely frightening horror concept; and that, ladies and gentlemen, comes as both a pleasant surprise, and should be considered a thoroughly laudable achievement.

 

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FILM REVIEW: Little Men

With the sudden death of his grandfather, fate conspires to have young Jake meet Tony – a kid of a similar age who quickly becomes an inseparable best friend.

Jake is moving from Manhattan into a new apartment in Brooklyn that has been bequeathed to his father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), by his late father. Below this new apartment of theirs is a small retail unit – also a part of the inheritance.

Its occupant is Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García). She is a rather bohemian seamstress, making her own clothing to sell from the shop, but with the increasing gentrification of the neighbourhood, business she finds is increasingly poor.

For a short while the whole set up is ideal. Jake – who we are informed is (much like his father once was), a bit of a loner – has a new friend, and his parents have a loyal, dependable and kindly tenant for their shop. Leonor, whilst polite and courteous, is however noticeably reluctant to become too involved in the lives of Brian and his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle). It’s almost as if she knows to keep a distance owing to the often precarious nature of tenant / landlord relationships, though she is pleased that her son has found a new friend.

Unfortunately, the shop was bequeathed to both Brian and Audrey (Brian’s Sister – played by Talia Balsam), and without any emotional ties to the tenant, she is keen to maximise the value of their newly inherited asset. Rumours of being able to increase the existing rental income threefold, in line with the rest of the neighbourhood, are enthusiastically – yet rather thoughtlessly, considering the company in attendance – banded about the dining table one evening by Audrey, at a family barbecue.

Brian is a kind-hearted soul, but realising that having inherited the entire apartment for him and his family, it’s only fair that Audrey should take the lead in any decision making relating to the shop.

A new lease, demanding a ‘fair’ increase in rent is proposed, but totally out of the question for Leonor who can barely make ends meet as it is, and an inevitable frosty landlord / tenant relationship follows, becoming increasingly bitter and personal as the days roll on. Not only this, but the entire episode begins to put an unavoidable strain on the boys’ new found friendship.

Whether it be their subsequent vow then not to speak to their respective parent(s), or Leonor’s revelation that Brian’s father was embarrassed by his son’s inability to provide adequately for his family, whilst also being adamant that Leonor should stay put, citing her business’ very presence as far too important and special to the neighbourhood for it to be lost, they all arrive at something of an awkward impasse, leaving each of them to wrestle with their conscience.

Such a predicament makes for particularly gruelling viewing owing to Ira Sachs’ wonderful ability to not only make us truly relate with these characters, but to thoroughly emotionally invest ourselves in their collective predicament and respective fortunes.

The two boys, despite everything, remain bonded by their desire to end up attending the same artistic school in the future.

Theo Taplitz’ depiction of Jake is a rather aloof one, portraying a young kid that seems somewhat at odds with what he wants in life, although his pursuance of a burgeoning artistic talent hints at the direction that he should ultimately take. Michael Barbieri brings Tony’s dreams of being an actor to the big screen with a notable swagger and attitude. Tony, perhaps owing to a lack of a father figure in his upbringing, is a smart-mouthed, defensive kind of kid who’s not afraid to speak his mind and quick to defend those less able to do so for themselves.

There’s a strong and believable chemistry between the pair of them as they seek to navigate their young lives through these unfortunate, unsettling times, but it’s arguably Kinnear’s tender portrayal of Brian that steals the show here. Kinnear shows brilliantly that glazed look and demeanour of a man attempting to keep it all together . A man racked by both grief and guilt and the subject of cruel barbs from those who know no other way but to strike out at others when unable to deal with their own problems.

If we boil it all down, Little Men is essentially a story of youthful aspirations – and to a large extent, naivety – in the face of the sometimes oh so destructive issues of adulthood, and it’s really rather good.

It’s a film that presents hard lessons for everybody to take and learn from, and in this instance, it’s all expertly handled by a director who clearly understands people and the human condition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FILM REVIEW: MÆND OG HØNS (Men and Chicken)

Never has the disclaimer ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this film’ ever been a more welcome sight at the tail end of a film’s closing credits; for those of us that religiously stay put until they’re finished, that is.

Writer / Director Anders Thomas Jensen’s dark comedy is as bizarre a concept as you could hope to dream up.

On the tiny Danish island of Ork, with its dwindling population of in the region of forty inhabitants, there resides a reclusive old man in a ramshackle old mansion, or so rumour has it.

Through a poorly video-taped revelation from beyond the grave, hair-lipped, dysfunctional brothers Elias (Mads Mikkelsen – over-sexed and with an obsession for the girls), and Gabriel (David Dencik – a more sensible type, but with an inability to sustain any sort of relationship), learn that their late father was in fact not their father at all, and that the same is true of the mother that they in fact never even knew!

The ‘brothers’ for whom life has offered few positives, drop everything, compelled to journey across from the mainland in order to meet the mysterious old man of Ork, for it is he that they are informed is their true father.

The mayor of the island and his terminally miserable daughter reveal to the boys just how difficult the island is finding it to both attract and more critically retain new blood, and encourage the pair of them to remain on Ork. There are clearly underlying reasons for this shortage of inhabitants, as the boys will discover in due course.

Being attacked by an assortment of stuffed animal-wielding, fellow genetically-challenged men on arrival at their father’s huge dilapidated house, is certainly not the kind of welcome that ‘prodigal sons’ Gabriel and Elias were anticipating. To compound their bewilderment comes the staggering realisation that these aggressors are in fact actually their brothers; brothers that they weren’t even aware that they had!

Much in keeping with existing family traits, each of these newly-discovered hair-lipped lunatics appears to be in some way afflicted by an idiosyncrasy peculiar to themselves.

Gabriel and Elias are impatient to meet their father, but fobbed off at every turn with limp excuses, and so, despite their intense curiosity, the brothers have no choice but to try and be patient and wait things out for a few days in the big house where chickens run loose, a prize bull lives in the basement, and evidence of poorly executed, warped taxidermy is strewn about left, right and centre.

It’s all highly peculiar to say the least, and believe me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Unknowingly for Gabriel and Elias, this innocent visit to meet their ‘biological’ father, is one that will reveal some devastating truths about the brothers – all of them.

Men and Chicken is extremely funny in places, whilst shocking and utterly ludicrous in others, but always engaging. It’s a dark, refreshingly non-politically correct comedy within which beats a genuinely warm heart, and which asks pertinent questions about social acceptance and society’s obsession with vanity.

As I’ve often mentioned in the past, it really is a hard task to successfully adapt a funny concept into a full-blown comedy motion picture, particularly one that’s quite so rich in slapstick humour and visual gags as this. Credit then to Jensen, in developing characters who at times seem so hopelessly bereft of life skills it’s painful, you simply can’t help but sustain a vested interest in their welfare throughout, as they stumble awkwardly upon warped revelations galore. This sense of engagement is very much the key to the success of Men and Chicken, a film that by way of its sheer oddity, is as compelling as it is amusing.

With genuinely funny comedy feature films about as rare as an actual laugh in Zoolander 2, thank goodness then for the ever present threat of being beaten about the head with stuffed poultry and old fashioned tin baths, whilst musing upon the wonder of warped genetics.

Basically, thank goodness for Men and Chicken.

 

FILM REVIEW: The BFG

Roald Dahl’s childrens’ (and adults’ for that matter) favourite, The BFG, has made it to the big screen, and Disney have certainly pulled out the big guns. Not only do we have the magic of Roald Dahl’s imagination to work with, but Steven Spielberg is in the director’s chair, with his trusty sidekick and master of the soundtrack, John Williams, on board once again to provide that crucial sonic sparkle.

It’s not the first time that The BFG has been turned into a film. Brian Cosgrove’s 1989 TV movie / animation, complete with David Jason’s voiceover, paved the way, but 2016’s big budget extravaganza is an altogether different beast.

A big fan of Roald Dahl’s darkly devious stories, myself, and being from that generation when Anglia Television – they of the rotating knight on a horse – adapted many of Dahl’s short stories for television in the unforgettable series, Tales of the unexpected, my own experience of Dahl’s childrens’ stories, whilst relatively comprehensive, somehow didn’t include The BFG.

Nevertheless, as with any film, a prior lack of knowledge of the storyline can so often be beneficial, dispensing with the need to constantly compare and contrast with the inevitably much better book.

Not having read it, I went in fresh for Spielberg’s vision of the Roald Dahl classic.

For those of you in a similar boat, The BFG tells the tale of a little orphaned girl, Sophie (the excellent Ruby Barnhill). Strong of mind and with a wise old head on rather young shoulders, she’s a proper vivacious little madam, living at an orphanage in her own little world of make believe.

One night, on hearing a commotion outside her window, she gingerly peeks out and spots a giant ‘going about his business’ in the shadows of the street; the only problem being that he spots her too. Taking no chances, he whisks her away with him, for fear that she might speak about what she’s seen.

Deaf to her protestations and promises of silence, he carries Sophie off, and trekking through wild and rugged terrain, they finally find themselves in the giant’s rather rustic cave-like dwelling where The BFG insists Sophie must remain for the rest of her days.

For a feisty little thing like Sophie, this is no proposition whatsoever, and so she sets about plotting her escape.

It’s only once she realises who The BFG really is, that he is in fact nothing like the ogre she had imagined him to be, and that he is actually the victim of systematic bullying by a group of other much taller and stronger giants that inhabit the same valley, that Sophie decides to remain with The BFG and give him the help that he clearly needs.

Spielberg has opted to use motion capture animation to bring The BFG to life. It’s an inspired move and Mark Rylance’s softly spoken, cuddly portrayal of the big fella with the West Country accent is nothing short of the perfect fit for the part.

A special mention too for young Ruby Barnhill, that rarest of rarities, a British child actress that is not only wholly believable in her role, but absolutely excels within it. A big future awaits there, no doubt.

Whether The BFG is a faithful rendition of Dahl’s book or not, there is no denying that it certainly works very well as a film in its own right.

It’s a film that, much like so many of Dahl’s marvellous, imaginative and magical books, champions the child, giving them the power and belief that they really can be Kings and Queens of the world, whilst cleverly teaching them the value of love, respect, tolerance and friendship at the same time.

Awash with genuinely funny jokes to bring out the giggling child in you, and just the right level of sentimentality so as not to overdo things, you’ll come away from The BFG with the very warmest of warm glows. If you don’t, let’s face it, you probably have a twitch-tickling problem understanding words, babblements and such.

Don’t worry – it happens.

Far and away the best children’s film I’ve seen in quite some time.

Hats off to one and all for The BFG. A hugely charming piece.

 

FILM REVIEW: Jason Bourne

I was a little late familiarising myself with the Bourne films, and despite the fourth instalment having passed me by to date, like many of you, having finally seen the original trilogy, the prospect of a further fifth chapter with the franchise’s original star, Matt Damon, on board, was something to get excited about.

The series of films that came out of nowhere and gave the Bond legacy a good kick up the rear end, is back. But does it deliver?

Against the odds, I have to say – I wasn’t at all disappointed.

Why ‘against the odds’ you cry?

My heart so often sinks when a film company releases a sequel, in this case to a whole series of films that have all delivered superbly thus far at a higher certification, yet suddenly deems it necessary to lower a film’s rating, and in turn our expectations, by adopting the all encompassing, bums-on-seats death knell that is 12A; so often the tell-tale sign of a film company’s big sell-out in their panic to recoup a hefty initial outlay.

Thankfully, Jason Bourne is directed in a manner that’s sympathetic to the core attributes that made its predecessors such a hit. Its a film whose only real concession to the lowered rating is to restrain itself from the overly-gratuitous, and to any scenes of over-the-top, in-your-face violence. The grit, realism (to a point) and suspense remains and is layered on thick and fast.

As ever, Bourne is up against it. This time he’s targeted by the CIA for both his part in past misdemeanours (when at the behest of the CIA), and through his new association with Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a computer hacker who, acting on behalf of a whistle-blower, seeks to expose truths about -amongst others – the highly sensitive CIA operation, Treadstone. Consequently the pair find themselves on the run, pursued by an assortment of CIA goons and assets – with one particularly determined assassin, played by Vincent Cassell – hell bent on bumping them off, lest the truth should come out.

Needless to say, Bourne isn’t coming quietly.

As the  chase intensifies, stark truths about Bourne’s past and the death of his father come to light, galvanising his resolve to see justice done.

It’s all high-octane fun with some genuinely riveting chase and fight sequences, well choreographed and impressively executed.

This, together with a good cast – Tommy Lee Jones is CIA Director Robert Dewey and Alicia Vikander plays Heather Lee – and the creation of a convincing, over-riding sense of suspense that director Paul Greengrass does well to sustain throughout, makes Jason Bourne a surprisingly decent effort.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing particularly new here, and certainly no re-writing of the genre or benchmark-setting for the future, but much as with the Bond franchise, that’s not necessarily important.

If you’re a fan of mainstream quality, gritty espionage thrillers, this should hit the mark.

 

 

FILM REVIEW: Morgan

Hollywood has long had a fascination with Artificial Intelligence. From Spielberg / Kubrick’s A.I to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, and everything before, since and in between.

I suppose it stands to reason, with rapid advancements in technology and the very real prospect of Artificial Intelligence now frequently revealed through mainstream news outlets, it’s just a matter of time before we come face to face with the type of creation that director Luke Scott brings to the big screen here, in Morgan.

Strictly speaking, the ‘girl’, Morgan, is not an example of Artificial Intelligence, but more a result of genetic tampering and cloning; a controlled experiment creating a sort of humanoid being, but one that’s as close to ‘the real thing’ as has ever been created before.

The film begins with Morgan, draped in her signature grey jogging trousers and hoody combo, attacking one of the scientists that has had a hand in her creation. It’s a sustained, frenzied attack which, by all accounts, is most out of character for Morgan, and a concerning sign that she has developed an ability to exhibit extremely negative emotional responses way beyond that which her creators thought possible.

Such an unfortunate happening results in an enquiry from head office, and Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent in to troubleshoot. She is to make an assessment, and recommend an appropriate course of action. This will involve a short stay at the ‘laboratory’ where Morgan is housed. This takes the form of a high-tech, cutting edge underground bunker; a new built annex of an, at first glance, seemingly abandoned old house in the middle of dense woodland.

Lee is the epitome of an insensitive, hard-nosed, corporate type and quickly proceeds to rub the resident staff of scientists and assistants up the wrong way.

To her creators, Morgan is a true wonder of the world, and someone that they have grown to love and cherish. Crucially, the clear waters that separate work from life have become somewhat muddied for Morgan’s creators. To Weathers, it’s an asset, nothing more, albeit a remarkable one, but one about whom she must make a business decision; from the head, not the heart.

Everything about Morgan hints at real potential. From the impressive cast list – Anya Taylor-Joy as Morgan, Toby Jones (Dr. Simon Ziegler), Paul Giamatti (Dr. Alan Shapiro), and Kate Mara (Lee Weathers), to name but a few – the secluded, contemporary Ex Machina-like setting, and a very tangible initial sense of cold discomfort and uncertainty that hangs heavy in the air.

You can point a finger in all manner of directions when good potential amounts to very little, but considering Morgan is a film with designs on being a tense thriller with dark overtones, yet is neither particularly tense nor dark, in this case, the finger of blame must point firmly in Luke Scott’s direction.

As is so often the case, foundations that are initially fairly well pieced together, eventually fall apart. Morgan rapidly runs out of steam, with a disappointing dearth of good ideas and lacking the necessary guile to sustain the story and keep that all important ‘edge’ throughout. It’s as though writer, Seth W. Owen, only ever had half a story, and between himself and Luke Scott, was hoping that they could somehow wing the film’s latter stages.

They couldn’t.

Somehow they contrive to turn Morgan herself from the potential spawn of Satan, into ‘a bit of a moody teen delinquent’, albeit it one with impressive martial arts skills. Night time may well form the backdrop to a few choice, assorted scenes of mild violence, but that’s really as ‘dark’ as  Morgan gets.

What in another director’s hands may well still have proven to be ‘the big reveal’ at the end, ultimately unravels like the curling, rain-sodden cardboard of a disappointing gift from Amazon. We know what’s in it. We can see through the large gaps for heavens’ sake. We just can’t be arsed peeling the last of that protective mush off it, thanks.

It’s not awful by any means, but it’s another undercooked effort lacking both imagination in important areas, and the direction with which to keep us all guessing right until the very end.