31 Days of Halloween: Recap 0 87

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This year, like last, I embarked on what I like to call my 31 Days of Halloween. This is basically where I pick and watched a horror movie to watch every day of the month throughout October with the stipulation that they’re horrors that I’ve never seen before. I started this last year so I could expand on my viewing of the genre so, as great as they are, I wasn’t just watching the same old movies like The Shining or The Descent as always (although, admittedly, I watched those too).

Anyway, I thought I’d throw up a quick recap of what I watched and which were my high and lowlights of the month. I’ve included a screengrab of my list over on Letterboxd (a website that, if you’re not already using, I highly recommend joining for all your film diary and listing needs).

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Quite the mix, as you’ll see! Here are my highs and lows.

Highlights

The Sentinel (1977)

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By far my favourite of the month was this ultra creepy religious-themed horror directed by the late-great Michael Winner (Death Wish). It follows a young fashion model who moves into a beautiful old Brooklyn apartment building inhabited by a strange blind priest on the top floor. After meeting the other weird neighbours, she soon begins experiencing strange physical problems (including flashbacks to her traumatic past) and hearing strange bumps in the night, eventually discovering she has been put in the apartment for a reason. It reminded me a lot of Rosemary’s Baby, conjuring a terrifically unnerving atmosphere and it kept me glued to the screen with a central mystery that led to a genuinely surprising ending. It also has some truly bizarre scenes that I won’t forget in a hurry.

The Changeling (1980)

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Not to be confused with the Clint Eastwood/Angelina Jolie historical drama, it stars the great George C. Scott as a composer and family man who starts being haunted by a mysterious spectre in his secluded historical mansion. I loved the old Hammer Horror feel that this one had while recalling greats like The Innocents and The Haunted. Much like the best horrors that really stand the test of time, it’s more about the spooky and unsettling atmosphere than it is in-your-face jump scares, although it definitely has its share of moments like that. There’s a seance scene that puts most other supernatural horrors to shame.

Ravenous (1999)

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I’d always know about this one, mainly from the cast (which includes Robert Carlyle, Guy Pearce and David Arquette) and that striking DVD cover, but only now got around to watching it. It’s a bizarre, disoncerting story of a group of soldiers in mid-19th century California who are stationed in the mountains. On the watch of recently promoted Captain John Boyd (Pearce), a mysterious stranger (Carlyle) turns up with a sickening tale of cannibalism. It’s part satire, part black comedy, part nasty horror movie and altogether a very effective watch thanks to great performances – Carlyle is particularly good as the enigmatic stranger – and the unusual, often shocking way the story unfolds.

Honourable mentions: Suicide Club, Kidnapped, The Hunger

Lowlights

Shrooms (2007)

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And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “I think I’ll give that British mushroom horror a go.” This truly awful, painfully inept excuse for a horror follows a group of 20-somethings (some British, some American) who head out into the Irish wilderness to take mushrooms and go on a wild trip. Not long after taking them, and hearing a horrifying campfire legend about killers in the woods, the shrooms start to take effect, all the while people are disappearing. Can the killer legend be true? Or is it all in their trip? Most importantly, who gives a crap? No scares, no fun and an absolutely drag despite its threadbare 84 minute runtime, mainly due to the annoyingly endless hallucination scenes that makes it seem like it was shot by a dog dragging a camera through the mud. Total rubbish.

Mockingbird (2014)

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The law of averages means that with the amount of films that Blumhouse (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Conjuring, Sinister) puts out, at least a few of ’em are going to miss the mark. The Gallows is easily one of the worst movies of this year and if I was updating my list from last year then Mockingbird would surely make that one. It has a perfectly intriguing set-up, with a married couple, a female college student and a man who lives with his mum all receiving a mysterious videotape on their doorstep which instructions for them to keep filming no matter what and if they call the police they will be killed. However, what follows over its short 80 minute runtime is as derivative, dull and un-scary as they come, relying too heavily on trite found footage techniques that so often give the genre a bad name. It’s made all the worst that it’s directed by Bryan Bertino, who gave us the rather effective The Strangers.

Circle (2015)

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The prize for the biggest waste of a great premise for this this year might just go to this initially fascinating movie about a group of 50 strangers from all walks of life who suddenly wake up in a dark room with no memory of how they got there. They find themselves in an inward-facing circle and quickly learn that one of them will be killed every two minutes, left to decide among themselves who deserves to live and who dies next. As with all movies set all in one place,  the script has to spark and sadly this isn’t the case here and the cast (of which Dexter’s Julie Benz is probably the most well known) aren’t able to elevate the weak sci-fi-horror material. Very disappointing indeed.

(Dis)honourable mentions: Hardware, Popcorn

That’s it for my 31 Days of Halloween recap – hope you enjoyed! What did you watch this season?

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 353

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 380

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10