Tuesday, 21 October 2014

FEATURE: Shocktober - Snowtown

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here

There are some films that are swiftly described as an experience rather than something to be enjoyed, usually on particularly harrowing topics that don't often get explored in movies designed for entertainment. Snowtown, also known as The Snowtown Murders, is one of these experiences, a brutal and unflinching look at the story behind Australia's worst serial killer, John Bunting, and those he influenced and coerced into aiding him. Directed by Justin Kurzel, the film centres on James Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) and the circumstances that brought him into contact with Bunting (Daniel Henshall).

Rather than build something sensationalist out of a series of horrific murders, Kurzel opts for a pared back, clinical approach that examines these circumstances rather than simply presents them. The neighbourhood in which Jamie and his family reside is slowly decaying and evidence of poverty abounds. It allows for criminal activity, specifically the sexual abuse of children, to run rife and when their mother Elizabeth leaves her three sons with a neighbour, the problem is brought into their home. When Elizabeth discovers what has happened, the situation brings someone else into their home, the charismatic Bunting, who promises to rid them of their neighbour. He soon does so, coercing the boys into helping him terrorise the man until he leaves. In various meetings held in Elizabeth's home, Bunting and his associates adopt this vigilante role to plug the gaps left by an apparently inept justice system.

The corruption of the domestic space and familial relationships is something that continues throughout much of the film. Bunting's presence in amongst this failing little world is jarring; everyone else is fairly solemn whilst Bunting cracks jokes and spends a large amount of his time grinning. Henshall's performance gives him an alluring charisma in amidst this greyness and it's easy to understand why Jamie falls quickly under his influence. Bunting becomes the older brother/father figure that Jamie is clearly lacking and Pittaway layers the initial naivety with a sense of awe. This is someone who actually talks to him and understands what he's going through. It makes the moments in which Jamie's innocence is shattered harder to bear and it is harder still to accept his complicity in the later events.

The film is unflinching in its presentation of the sexual abuse and violence that it examines, made all the more unsettling by the calmness with which it is presented. These domestic settings allow for an extraordinary banality to define these proceedings which makes everything all the more unsettling. Sometimes, just the aftermath is shown, like a lengthy take of a bloodstained bathtub, followed by an answer-phone message clearly recored under duress as the victim tells their loved one that they've gone away.  In other moments, scenes of sexual abuse are scored by a cricket commentary. This connection between events of horrific violence and the everyday sounds of existence make for a disturbing pairing.

At all times, you are reminded of the truth of the situation, that these crimes occurred in an ordinary neighbourhood and in people's homes. Even in films that claim to be based on a true story, there is always a sense of artifice. This underlying knowledge that the world you are watching has been created from a page and not from reality allows for a sense of separation from the events that you are watching unfold. With Snowtown, there is no such comfort. The film is largely naturalistic, presented coldly and without prior judgement and crucially, without sensationalism.

Snowtown is, without doubt, one of the most brutal and uncompromising films I have seen and the first time this month where I've felt completely broken by the events I had just witnessed. In truth, there were moments when I didn't think I could actually make it to the end of the film, but, having done so, Snowtown is an immensely powerful experience.

- Becky

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Monday, 20 October 2014

THEATRE REVIEW: Forbidden Broadway - Vaudeville Theatre

Something an off-Broadway institution, musical theatre satire show Forbidden Broadway can currently be seen over on our shores, at the Strand’s Vaudeville Theatre, more specifically, having transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Razor sharp and devilishly witty, the show lovingly (or so it claims) rips to shreds a whole host of musical shows, performers, writers and more, perfectly pinpointing the source of humour in each individual musical. Unlike its original American counterpart, however, this version focuses almost exclusively on shows with are either on in the West End at the moment, are touring or at the very least fall within recent memory. Comedy comes from recognition, after all, and there are nods, well perhaps stabs would be more appropriate, to some pretty huge shows. From Billy Elliot to Phantom of the Opera via Wicked and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I would wager that most people in the audience would have been familiar with at least one or two shows in the parody repertoire.

And even if they weren’t, each sketch has enough silly, slapstick comedy in there to keep you going if you’re not getting the in-jokes.

Brought to life by a ludicrously talented cast, including Merrily We Roll Along’s, also on at the Menier, Forbidden Broadway is unfailingly funny throughout. For me the Les Miserables section, turning ‘One Day More’ into ’10 Years More’ and having great fun with the rotating stage was a particular highlight, in fact I would merrily have watched an full-show spoof of it, as was the Idina-bashing of Defying Gravity and Let it Go. Cristina Bianco's impression of Kristen Chenoweth is also well worth a mention, although admittedly by the nature of the show everyone will have their own personal favourites.

Laugh out loud funny, this is a great night out, particularly if you’re going with a gang of theatre nerds, professionals or a combination of the two. Oddly though, and I’m not sure whether this says good or bad things about the show, although I mean it as a compliment, the overwhelming effect on me when leaving the theatre was one of wanting to go and see again every one of the shows I’d just seen ridiculed.

I’ve also had every single one of the sketch songs in my head over the past few days since I saw it. And with musical theatre, there isn’t really a higher compliment than that.


- Jen


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Watch the trailer here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4arIIDKEUM

FEATURE: Shocktober - The Sacrament

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list hereMajor spoilers ahead for this one - I had too much to talk about.

Utopian fiction sprung up a lot towards the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, a way of counteracting the constant driving development of industry and technology by finding something pure. Utopias varied from novel to novel, but a predominant trait was that this society had somehow got something right in their social system by engineering it somehow. For Charlotte Perkins Gilman, this was to imagine a society without men, a matriarchal structure that had evolved to reproduce asexually. H.G. Wells imagined a eugenically produced society founded on socialist principles and William Morris created something similar with a focus on health to lengthen life spans. 

One of the key things that all of these novels and more had in common was the character of the outsider, someone travelling from their contemporary society into one of these utopias and reporting on what they found and the differences they discovered. It allowed not only for an exploration of the these differences and the possible benefits they could provide, but also for an examination of what contemporary societies were lacking. It also led to the more satirical side of the genre to arise, one that pointed out all the various flaws in creating such utopias and the outsider characters came to be recognised as the sensible ones in the situation (think Aldous Huxley's Brave New World).

Although the film is largely cribbed from the true events of the Jonestown Massacre, there's a lot of this utopian exploration going on in The Sacrament. Journalists Sam and Jake tag along with Patrick who goes to visit the commune Eden Parish at the request of his sister, Caroline, who has been living there. It's a Christian settlement shrouded in secrecy; they have to fly to a certain location before being picked up and transported by helicopter. When they are there, they find a largely peaceful commune, ruled over by the charismatic Father, who everyone seems to obey happily.

The film adopts a found footage documentary approach which works well within this utopian context; like the diaries or narrations of the original utopian genre, the documentary serves to contrast the filmmakers' ideals, which also stand for the audience's, with those of Father and his 'children'. In the hands of the filmmakers, the camera becomes a questioning eye, evaluating each aspect of the commune for both the documentary and the audience. Initially, everything seems a little too good to be true. Everyone's happy and satisfied with their peaceful existence and there's an understanding on behalf of the filmmakers; they accept why people would want to live like this, but don't feel they could do it themselves.

However, even though things look calm on the surface, Ti West's screenplay drops in little hints that everything is not all right in paradise. There's men with guns guarding the gate, some people aren't so happy to see a camera crew wandering around and there's a general sense of unease. When Father finally appears amidst a round of applause and general rock star treatment, the film crew are granted an interview, which he quickly spins against them. He's a charismatic figure and it's easy to understand why people would flock to him, specifically the vulnerable people that the crew meet throughout the day. Gene Jones plays Father with a quiet menace and it's here that the presence of outsiders begins to affect those around them.

The crucial point in any utopian novel is when the outsiders have too much of an effect on the world they've wandered into. In Herland, for example, this break occurs when one of the male travellers attempts to force himself upon his female companion, a huge violation of Herland's rules. In The Sacrament, it's the opportunity to leave that the outsiders represent. Several residents assume that the filmmakers will be able to take people with them and this quickly causes a riot as they beg to be taken. However, like all utopias, steps are quickly taken to ensure that the status quo is maintained. In this case, it's to keep everyone together in death if they can't in life. Father's paranoia about the outside world leads to a plan that will find everyone committing mass suicide.

It's significant then that the camera is no longer in the hands of the filmmakers when the massacre itself begins. They are removed from the action and the film no longer carries the same judgemental quality that characterised it before, simply because their gaze isn't focused on these events. Instead, it is in the hands of Caroline who agrees entirely with what Father is doing to the point of killing her own brother. When the massacre begins, the film becomes considerably calmer, a sharp contrast to the hysteria that characterised it before Jake left for the helicopter. It makes the massacre itself incredibly chilling and a balance is struck as a result. 

Seeing these people die for their faith doesn't feel exploitative because we're left to form our own opinions on what we're seeing. When babies are fed syringes as their mothers willingly look on, when children drink the 'potion' down in one gulp because they're asked to or when a family begs their son to join them, the camera presents it coldly, in a matter of fact way. This in turn makes the events feel that much worse because the audience are. It's here that The Sacrament naturally must diverge from the utopian genre as the society is well and truly destroyed by Father's actions.

It's at this point that the camera is returned to the filmmakers, a necessity in order to align the audience back with the emotional core of the film and to observe the horrific aftermath of the massacre. The outsiders manage to escape, but not without leaving pretty much everyone in the camp dead in contrast to traditional utopias which would see the society continue as the outsiders leave. Here, the film closes with the tragic results of the massacre, a haunting reminder of the dangers of exploitation and fanaticism. 

- Becky

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Sunday, 19 October 2014


Based on the hugely successful Gillian Flynn novel of the same name, director David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl was without doubt one of the most hotly anticipated film releases of the year. The advertising and PR campaign has been colossal, and there are already loud (very loud) whisperings of Best Picture nominations.

As one of the biggest Flynn fans going, as well as someone prone to negatively judge adaptations of books with the all the conviction of somebody watching their local Waterstones be burned down to make way for a Vue, I was more than a little concerned that the film would fall neatly into the trap of not living up to its own hype.

In an attempt to summarise the plot without giving away too many spoilers, the story focuses on Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) a teacher and ex-journalist who, on the day of his fifth wedding anniversary, discovers that his wife, Amy, (Rosamund Pike) is missing. He returns home from the bar he runs with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) to find a crime scene in his living room. It looks like a break-in, although the police, when he eventually gets around to calling them, don’t seem so sure.

As his reaction to his wife’s disappearance grows increasingly out of synch and bizarre, and with him seeming to have little to no clue about her life when he’s out of the house, the finger of suspicion of both the police, represented by a truly excellent Kim Dickens as the wonderful Detective Rhonda, as well as the media begins to point to him. 

Is he just a mam struggling to come to terms with his missing soul-mate, or is something more sinister at play here? Throughout, we gain insight into their, perhaps not quite as idyllic as it seemed, marriage via extracts from the diary of the missing Amy. Largely taken directly from the book, these give us a window into the darker side of Nick Dunne, but can we trust this either?

There are plenty of complex ideas to deliver here, with crime, the recession and marriage all coming under the spotlight, but Fincher ticks every box with immense style. The cinematography is a dream, perfectly capturing the slightly patched-together nature of mid-west, small-town Americana that is Flynn’s calling card, and using colour beautifully to suggest the different perspectives and time periods as we move between the present day of Amy’s disappearance, the diary pieces and the early days their relationship.

This is complemented by a slick, darkly comic script, adapted by Flynn herself, as well as some truly brilliant performances from the key cast. Rosamund Pike presents an arrogant absent-ness to the character of Amy, a character who has all her life been fictionalised by her doting parents in their ‘Amazing Amy’ series, a character who knows other way but to play pretend her own life.  Both Fincher’s subtly brilliant direction and Pikes performance expertly realise the creepily unusual, the almost Carter-esque fairytale anti-heroines that are Flynn’s speciality. There is a certain head movement from her, in a certain scene (I’ll give you a clue, the scene is the reason the film is rated 18), which I really think is the most effective moment in the entire film. 

Neil Patrick Harris shines as Amy’s creepy, unavoidably camp ex-boyfriend, and Ben Affleck is perfectly cast everyman Nick, caught up in events he doesn’t quite understand, although with sinister undertones. I do think, though, that his character could have been pushed further. He could perhaps have benefited from more anger, the stress and dislike of those around him, particularly women, running closer to the surface than it is here. In the book, Nick is really our central perspective, but here he is outshone, appropriately enough, by his dazzling wife. 

Haunting, and unsatisfying in all the right places, Gone Girl gets its tone exactly right.
Certain elements could have been taken further, in order for it to make more of a statement about its key ideas. Character rather than theme seems to be the key focus here, but it would have been good to see slightly more of a mix.

All in all, though, this isn’t one put on your 'wait for Netflix' list. It looks gorgeous on the big screen, and hearing the discussions of your fellow cinema-goers on your way out will be a highlight in itself. 

It’s so, so much more than the crime thriller it’s been marketed as.

But then, so was the book.



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FEATURE: Shocktober - Frozen (2010)

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

The title Frozen may now be synonymous with revisionist fairytale sensibilities and empowering ballads, but back in 2010, it was also the name of a film with decidedly less sparkles jollity and sparkles. Dan (Kevin Zegers), his girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) and best friend Joe (Shawn Ashmore) are coming towards the end of a skiing weekend and decide to head out on the slopes one last time, not banking on the fact that their chair lift stops halfway up with the park closing down around them. Trapped and growing increasingly desperate after realising the park will be closed for five days, the three friends try to find a way out of their predicament, but it's not long before a pack of wolves close in.

Adam Green's film is one of those minimalist horror/thrillers that seemed to spring up everywhere in the wake of Open Water back in the day and in truth, the premise is the film's strongest point. Not only do you have to watch along with the three characters' predicament, but you also find yourself attempting to solve the problem. What would you do in such a situation? My answer to this question normally is really easy: I wouldn't be there. Skiing is my worst nightmare before you add in stuck ski lifts because it's balancing on snow. I am not good at this. And yet I found myself thinking about how I would cope in such a situation and yes, how angry I would be at myself for going skiing in the first place.

I digress.

The location itself is used extremely well; Will Barratt's cinematography emphasises the mountain's isolation throughout with a series of chilling wide shots that enforce terrifying nature of this predicament. Everything in this landscape feels potentially threatening and even the ski lift is responsible for harming the characters. Nothing is safe here and there's a constant tension mined from that. It also helps greatly that the film relies on the practical over the computer generated. Knowing the actors really are up 50 feet on a mountain builds that suspense and adds a general feeling of authenticity to the proceedings.

It's from this hostile relationship with their environment that much of the film's shocks are derived to great effect. The human body may be more resilient than usual when it comes to movie injuries, but Frozen sticks with that authenticity. Characters' poor decisions are punished bodily as the environment gets harsher and the film takes great delight in showing the consequences of their actions. There some great wince-inducing icky moments, but they never feel exploitative; they're there to serve a purpose to either illustrate how silly these people are (and they are very silly) or how easy it would be for this environment to snuff them out completely.

Despite all of this fantastic set-up and the truly tense moments throughout, Frozen never quite comes together to form a cohesive, scary whole. The characters are a bit too thinly drawn and their relationships are depressingly rote. It's not the fault of the cast, who handle the film's bigger moments well, but the smaller scenes of dialogue are too simplistic or timed too badly to complement everything else that is going on. It's a real shame, because with a tighter script and more effort to create characters that feel as authentic as their situation, Frozen could have been a real terror.

- Becky

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TV REVIEW: Doctor Who - Flatline

Jamie Mathieson's adventure is one of the better episodes of this series so far (it's going to take a lot to beat Listen for me) and messing with the usual dynamic caps off a thread that has been occurring throughout. Clara and the Doctor may be back on good terms at the end of Mummy on the Orient Express, but there is still the sense that she doesn't quite understand his methods, or agree with them. So how do we solve a problem like that? Stick Clara in the Doctor's shoes, arm her with the sonic screwdriver and see how she does. It's a bold move for an episode, even in a series that has delighted in messing with the Doctor-Companion dynamic and it proves to be an interesting one. 

We've got used to seeing Clara take the lead a little more here and it's given Jenna Coleman a lot more to do. She's handled it brilliantly and her slightly offbeat, slightly antagonistic chemistry with Peter Capaldi has been nicely removed from the mooning and flirting of previous years. Here, she gets to take on the role of the Doctor entirely, even saying cool things that the Doctor would say. I know some people will likely grumble at the Doctor being relegated to a supporting role in his own show, but Capaldi's screen presence is such that the fact he was in one location for much of the episode barely registered. He's still a fantastic Doctor and got to fire off one liners with ease. 

Keeping him in the TARDIS, the one to be rescued, is a further exploration of the idea of playing roles. When the Doctor is guiding Clara through becoming the leader in the group running away from the episode's monsters, the pair discuss the best way to keep them on side; give them hope, they'll run faster, play the hero, they'll believe you can help. There's a lot in here about adopting the name (Clara becomes the Doctor) and playing up to a performance that people have come to expect. By the end of the episode, the Doctor's back with a full size TARDIS and triumphantly becomes 'the man who stops the monsters', which he then of course does.

However, with all this switching, role playing and name changes, there's a sense that the carefully built up identity of the Doctor is fracturing slightly. It's a thread that's run right through the series; this is a man questioning his identity and his actions in this universe and I'm still not sure the Doctor likes what he sees. Even though he's grown in confidence as the series has gone on and picked up hi own recognisable traits, there's a sense of doubt in there. With the Doctor's final parting comments about 'goodness', we're back full circle to his initial question to Clara back in Deep Breath; 'am I a good man?' How far is the Doctor accountable for the deaths and tragedies that occur under his watch and, by extension, is Clara?

In amongst all of this, the actual mystery to be solved at the centre of Flatlines is a rather good one, a locked room mystery with added 'the floor is lava' potential. There have been some creepy foes so far (the Mummy was horrible) and the monsters here continue that run, especially in the creepy stop-motion like animation that created them as they hit three dimensions. It's also refreshing that the Doctor just got rid of them at the end; there wasn't a coda that revealed they were just trying to be nice all along. No, they killed people and threatened others so the Doctor sent them back to where they came from without any fuss at all.

This brings us nicely to the final moments. In characteristic fashion, it appears that one massive revelation has been dropped on us with that last, brief line. If Clara has been chosen by Missy to be the Companion, surely that makes her the woman in the shop who gave her the number for the TARDIS? Given the effect that Clara has had on all aspects of the Doctor's life, this revelation has the potential to be huge. But then, it didn't really reveal all that much and the original questions remain; just who is Missy and how did she get that number? The Missy teases have been handled really well this series, nothing that overshadows the episode's proceedings and just enough to hint at the wider plan. Michelle Gomez may not have been in it all that much just yet, but she's cast a long shadow over the proceedings and I can't wait to see her in action properly. 

- Becky

You can read Jen's review of Mummy on the Orient Express here.

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Saturday, 18 October 2014

FEATURE: Shocktober - The Legend of Hell House

This poster is scarier than the film...
Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

Based on Richard Matheson's novel, Hell House, and with a screenplay adapted by the author, the film gets the ball rolling swiftly, assembling physicist Lionel Barrett, his wife Ann and two mediums, Florence Tanner and Ben Fischer to head to the Belasco House. It's a place so haunted that it has claimed the lives of eight people already and the mystery has never been solved. It is the ultimate in haunted houses and with the a fair amount of hubris and dash of trepidation, the four hunker down to solve the mystery of Emeric Belasco's haunted Gothic pile.

And boy, do we know we're in a Gothic tale here. From the moment they all arrive at the house, the exterior is bathed in thick fog, shrouding the early 20th century architecture and subsequently our cast of characters. The moody ambience is further enhanced when you realise the windows have been bricked up to prevent people from seeing into the house or, as one character ominously puts it, to prevent people from looking out. It's the last time we see the exterior of the house until the very end of the film and the claustrophobic location is established quickly and successfully. 

As you would expect with a film of this title, the house itself is the most well-realised character in the film. Dark and foreboding, the edges of each and every room are shadowy and uninviting. The use of lighting here is particularly effective; we're never allowed to see the complete picture. It gives the house an unknowable quality, fitting for the mystery aspect of the narrative given that we're not supposed to understand it entirely.

It also helps that we never really see what is affecting these people in such a manner. The furniture is prone to moving around, the cutlery willing to attack you at any given moment and the chandeliers really don't want to stay attached to the ceiling. Every single aspect of the house feels like a threat because there is nothing tangible to cling to. It's just menacing and supposedly more scary as a result. However, despite the excellent set-up and the carefully cultivated atmosphere, the film never goes far enough in converting this into anything truly scary.

Matheson toned down the more overtly controversial elements of his novel in transferring it to the screenplay, but it does more harm than good. In the right hands, there's a terrifying film in there, something which plays on the idea of the psychosexual energy in the house and really lets loose in bringing that forth. And it doesn't even need to be explicit. If you compare it to another psychosexual repression themed film, The Innocents does far more with far less explicit imagery than The Legend of Hell House. The similarly-themed TV series Penny Dreadful also manages to suggest a huge amount with very little, though it does stray into the explicit as the ongoing narrative becomes more extreme. It helps to have the performances to pull it off (and Deborah Kerr and Eva Green have theirs nailed), but it can be done. 

As it stands with The Legend of Hell House, it feels like every time it gets interesting, there's something there wrenching it back to stop it from going too far. Scenes that should carry an innate horror in them, like finding a shape in a bed or watching a body as its invaded by a malevolent presence, fall flat. The atmospheric set and production design can only do so much. When the actual scares fail to follow, the film can't help but feel like a bit of a failure.

- Becky

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