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Movie Reviews

Blair Witch

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blairwitchDirector:  Adam Wingard

Stars:  Callie Hernandez, Wes Robinson, James Allen McCune, Corbin Reid

Certificate: 15

Released 16th September 2016

If you go down to the woods today you’re sure to get a horrifying surprise…

That was certainly the case when ‘The Blair Witch Project’ reinvigorated one specific corner of the horror genre and proved that independent films on a small budget could pack one hell of a mean punch. Solidifying itself in the annals of horror, the 1999 film became an instant classic and inspired a plethora of found-footage movies and franchises to follow. Fast-forward to 2016 and a surprise in the form of Adam Wingard’s ‘The Woods’ has been revealed as the next chapter, ‘Blair Witch’.

It’s rare that such surprises occur in this day and age, with the internet somewhat determining that secrecy is a myth, but ‘Blair Witch’ going under the radar has certainly done wonders when heading into the movie. By the time release comes around, it seems as though sources have rooted through productions with a fine tooth comb, leaving no stone unturned, but with ‘Blair Witch’ here is a film filled with much mystery.

Set in 2014, after the events of ‘Project’, ‘Blair Witch’ sees James (James Allen McCune) looking to find his sister following her ill-fated journey through the woods we experienced many years ago. A YouTube video of the events has surfaced online and in it shows what looks to be James’s sibling alive. Naturally, he recruits three of his friends and looks to explore the woods, armed with multiple cameras, whether handheld, drone-mounted or otherwise, along with the unhinged video uploader and his girlfriend.

Off the beaten track and heading into parts that haven’t been explored in years, the initial swatting of urban legends and their validity soon becomes redundant as voices begin to echo around the woodland and the rumblings of something evil begin to make themselves known. Could the myth of the Blair Witch be true and is James’s sister out there somewhere?

Following up on his breakout hits ‘You’re Next’ and ‘The Guest’, Adam Wingard once again proves that he is one of the most talented young filmmakers in the horror genre today. A film that could have easily become ‘just another found-footage movie’, ‘Blair Witch’ – initially worked under the title of ‘The Woods’ – proves that sometimes horror can be refreshing, it can be disturbing, and it can be downright bloody scary! And ‘Blair Witch’ is certainly one of those films that you’ll walk out of with sweaty palms and having removed yourself from the depths of that folding chair.

One of the key components to the film’s success in creating the tension and ultimately the scares: the impeccable sound design. This is a film rich in its sounds, from the cutting of one piece of footage to the next, the rustling of the trees in the wind, to the crunching of bark as trees around our characters fall foul of the dark forces controlling them, ‘Blair Witch’ takes atmosphere to the next level. Wingard, like the majority of the audience likely to see the film, knows all the tropes with found-footage, but here he seems to break the mould and present something wholly refreshing.

Admittedly, ‘Blair Witch’ borrows some elements from its predecessor, but ultimately it is a film that startles on a regular occurrence and leaves us as an audience reeling continuously. Wingard sets the tone almost immediately with a series of jump scares that are just as playful as they are a warning for things to come, and matches it with a dash of humour that settles us in nicely for those cold, dark and unrelenting nights we’re about to spend in the woods.

To the film’s credit it is driven nicely along by its cast of unknowns who manage to set the scene well with an instant showcase of friendly banter and togetherness, all before putting on their best scared faces and proving that, when done right, we as an audience can be convinced that they are involved in a legitimately terrifying ordeal. From the writhing in pain to the agonising screams, we’re guaranteed these guys are sending shivers down the spine at every possibility.

Obviously, with a film of this type many will be instantly put off by the thought of shaky cam sending one into a hypnotic nightmare, but in truth Wingard and his team manage, for the majority, to steer this to a rather steady and comfortable viewing plain. This is aided by various camera angles provided by headcams, drones and other technological advancements and also presents a new and fun dynamic to the obvious handheld camera approach. It helps in key moments to build that additional tension, one scene in particular involving a claustrophobic mud tunnel a highlight of true heart-pounding ordeal.

A film that isn’t afraid to poke fun at the right moments (even to the extent of a character shunning a jump scare with a piece of well-timed dialogue), but also one that amps up the clammy-palmed terror, ‘Blair Witch’ is easily one of the scariest experiences you will have in the dark realm of the cinema for quite some time. It’s by no means an absolute game-changer but it certainly harks back to the original days of the genre giving us thoughts of sleepless nights and things lurking in the shadows – just remember to take deep breaths at regular intervals!

Emma Stone obsessive and Denzel Washington advocate, James is a lover of all things cinema. Donnie Darko is his favourite film and he firmly believes DC will rule supreme over Marvel.

Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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Movie Reviews

Superfly ★★

Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience

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Director: Director X
Stars:  Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams
Released: 14th September 2018 (UK)

Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.

Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.

Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.

There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.

Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.

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