IT (2017)

A fear of clowns is one if the most common phobias, but for Stephen King fans, the first word that comes to mind when they think of clowns is not coulrophobia. The word is IT. Written in 1986, the paving slab of a novel about Pennywise the Dancing Clown gave people a whole new reason to be afraid. Then in 1990, it was first adapted to screen, starring Tim Curry as the title character. I have neither read the book, or seen the first adaptation. But the other night, I saw the rehashed version of the film. The trailers looked sufficiently hair raising (even to those of us not afraid of clowns) and the reviews were good, so I braved the Friday night cinema to give it a look.

Unlike the original, which was set in 1960, the 2017 version, starring Bill Skarsgård as the malevolent clown, was brought forward to 1988. Set in Derry (Maine), IT tells the story of seven teenage friends over one summer as they are terrorized by different manifestations of their own worst fears. Led by Bill Denbrough, whose own younger brother Georgie disappears, the friends – collectively known as The Losers Club – band together to try and bring an end to the horror, and to the murderous clown responsible for causing it.

IT opens really well, and the scenes where young Georgie encounters Pennywise in the sewer are in fact some of the best (and more affecting) parts in the entire film. But from there, it kinds of drops off. The first portion of the film is largely just an introduction to The Losers Club, interspersed with individual scenes where Pennywise appears to the kids in the forms of their worst fears. It had the potential to flow nicely but these scenes are singular and feel disjointed, not really building on each other enough to really work properly. The latter half of the film is where it all starts to finally come together, and where the Losers face evil not just from the shape shifting fiend who wants to devour them, but from the bully who is at the very least, equally intent on causing suffering. 

In terms of graphics and the special effects, IT does quite well. It’s a bit of a step up from the fake teeth and face paint of the original (no offence, Tim) and I actually think it’s the kind of film that could benefit from a 3D viewing to make it really pop, so to speak. There’s a particular scene involving Pennywise emerging ferociously from a projector screen that I’m fairly certain made the entire cinema jump. One thing I did really appreciate was that the film wasn’t heavy on the gratuitous gore. The violent or bloody aspects of the film (keep an eye out for the bathroom scene) were almost tasteful in comparison to some modern ideals of horror, and I think in this case it definitely worked to the movie’s advantage. 

In terms of actual scares though, I rather felt IT to be somewhat lacking. There were a couple of mildly tense moments, and there was at least one scene that got a scream from one of the other people in the cinema. But rather than the clown, for me it was his other forms that were more unnerving. In particular, the painted woman that plagues Stanley had a kind of menacing presence that gave me the wiggins, and Eddie’s leper was especially gruesome. As for Pennywise himself, I found no true horror there. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the voice adopted by Skarsgård is a kind of raspy lisp, which I found more grating than spooky. 

Honestly, IT felt a lot more like a kind of coming of age drama than a real horror, with perhaps more focus on the themes of friendship and (loss of) innocence, and less actual scares. Whilst the film was still enjoyable despite its shortfalls, I think I was expecting something a little more…creepy. With a second instalment in the works, I hope that chapter two will not skimp on the heart (and the charm) of the Losers, but improve on the scares, and give the opportunity to make something genuinely terrifying. 

Baby Driver (2017)

I went to see Baby Driver the other night with a friend of mine, and yes, I’m lazy and that’s why I’m only writing about it now. Put your judgy eyes away and just read, will ya?

Written and directed by Edgar Wright (the chap who directed Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs the World), Baby Driver is a fast paced crime/action film with a killer score and an array of awesome characters. Rounded out with some quippy dialogue and a winning combination of originality and style, this film pretty much has it all. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the best getaway driver in the biz, timing everything to the beat of his own personal soundtrack. Kevin Spacey plays Doc; Baby’s suave, shady employer and the crime boss who runs the show. And Lily James plays Debora, the pretty young waitress that captures Baby’s eye.

Honestly, this film had me hooked from the very first scene. Opening to the sound of ‘Bellbottoms’ by John Spencer Blues Explosion, Wright pretty much throws us into the passenger seat of an expertly choreographed getaway after an in-and-out bank robbery. His direction is so smooth and clean, that the scenes flow effortlessly, without the jarring cuts often employed in this kind of film.

Of course, this is only aided by the aforementioned brilliant soundtrack. Each scene is set by the song that plays at the time, and it fits in so well with the dialogue and the action, that you gotta give Wright his credit; the man knows how to capture an audience. I gotta be honest here, I knew none of the songs in the entire film, but each and every one of them just…worked. And it’s a good thing too, because music is what literally drives this film. (geddit?)

But it’s not just the rad tunes that make this film so good. The characters; oh man, the characters. Baby’s moral compass is in stark contrast with the vaguely psychotic Bats (Jamie Foxx) and perpetually moody Griff (Jon Bernthal), who is in turn at odds with the cool, easygoing Buddy (Jon Hammer) and his sassy wife, Darlin’ (Eiza Gonzalez). The characters kind of offset each other, and each one adds something different to the film.

And beneath it all, the promise of young love and the only getaway Baby really wants; the one that will take him out of his life of crime, with Debora and “a car [they] can’t afford, with a plan [they] don’t have.”

Honestly, Baby Driver is one of the coolest films I’ve seen this year. If you like your car chases smooth, your soundtracks funky, and your characters cool, I recommend giving it a look.

Satanic (2016)

**This review has spoilers. But that shouldn’t really matter because if you value your time, I highly recommend you don’t even bother watching the film anyway.

Sometimes I ignore my better judgement and watch a movie that I suspect will be awful, in the vague hope that perhaps I’m wrong. But in the case of Satanic, a “horror” film – and I use that term loosely – that I found on Netflix, the scariest part about the movie was the fact that there are enough people out there with terrible judgement to grant the film five stars.

Satanic is so bad, in so many ways; I don’t even know where to begin. Maybe with the eyeball gouging-ly awful characters, who seem to have no redeeming qualities at all between the four of them, and who seem to do nothing but be douchebags, and scream a lot. Or perhaps I could start with the sub par plot, which is full of holes and lack of research, and has about as much imagination as a rock. Or hell, why not start with the ending, which is so nonsensical and limp that I still can’t believe I actually made it through to the finale without turning it off.

Basically, the movie tells the story of four college friends who go to L.A en route to Coachella, to check out some well known true crime locations. They think they’re all hardcore and, like most ignorant young people, think that Satanism is all about ritual sacrifice and wearing black. Long, dull story short; they pick a fight with a dude who runs a cult supply shop, follow him to his place, essentially walk in on what looks like a bunch of guys in robes about to sacrifice a girl. That same girl then turns out to be a whole lot crazier and fucked up than she looks, and then they all die by way of some invisible, malicious force, supposedly meant to be the devil or something I guess.

The whole film just falls flat. There are no scares, no substance and no surprise. The acting is bad, the writing is worse, and the effects are…lame. And don’t even get me started on the cliches and complete lack of subtlety. Honestly, there was nothing about this movie that I liked. If you’re looking for a good way to spend your time, I’m sure pulling out your fingernails one by one would be less painful than suffering though this film.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here 

It was a slow day at work on Sunday, so I smashed out an entire book. That book was The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness. After a long run of reading mediocre titles, I’m finally reading more books that are not “just ok”, but rather make me say “holy fuck that was good”, and I’m pleased to say this book fell into the latter category. I read his Chaos Walking trilogy a few years ago, and fell in love with his storytelling and his character development, so I was super excited to finally get my hands on a copy of this book.

The book actually tells two stories; that of the “indie kids” who encounter strange happenings and try to save the world. The kind of story you read when you pick up any urban fantasy series. But the best part about this book – and the cleverly worded title tells you all you need to know straight away – is that the world saving part isn’t even the main focus. Ness tells the story in the chapter titles, and it’s brilliantly presented as second fiddle to the main plot, which centres around a group of friends – very much the opposite of indie kids – who each have their own personal issues, and are just trying to make it to graduation without someone blowing up their high school…again.

Our narrator is Mikey, a soon to be graduate, on the cusp of adulthood, who has anxiety so severe, he can’t stop himself from washing his hands over and over and over and…but as all consuming and frustrating as it is, his anxiety is the least of his problems. He is about to graduate, and his life is about to be turned entirely on its head as a result. He has a drunken father and an overbearing, seemingly unfeeling politician for a mother. His sister Mel, (and a member of his close knit group of friends) is a recovering anorexic, and he isn’t sure whether he is in love with Mel’s best friend, Henna, or his own best friend, Jared. 

This book was so cleverly written, I wanted to read it again straight away. Ness takes the whole “Chosen One” trope, and turns it into background noise. But he does so in such a way as to poke gentle fun at it, without actually paying any insult to the genre. This whole book plays with the notion that not everyone is the Chosen One, and puts the spotlight on the normal ones, who are just trying to make it through their day to day lives. As our narrator says, “…sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.”

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is clever, funny, touching, and to be honest, quite brilliant. Ness effortlessly combines fantasy elements (zombie deer, anyone?) with down to earth, very normal issues and characters. The plot is engaging and entertaining, and the book is well written. I encourage you to give this book a read, I promise you won’t be disappointed. 

How To Build A Girl (review)

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I finally found it. The book I’ve been waiting to review. And let me tell you, How to Build a Girl is hands down the best book I have read in a long, long time.

Written by Caitlin Moran and set in Wolverhampton in the 1990’s, How to Build a Girl follows the life of Johanna Morrigan from the ages of 14-17, as she tries to navigate the tempestuous waters of young adulthood. It is funny, clever, filthy, and raw, and I found myself relating to this awkward, dorky, sassy teenager in more ways than one. There is something about the way Moran captures what it’s like to be a teenage girl that really resonated with me. And she doesn’t shy away from the realities of exploring sexuality either. The book frequently delves into Johanna’s masturbation habits and later, her sexual encounters, with a kind of blunt honesty that I found both refreshing and amusing.

Johanna is an aspiring writer, who leaves school to pursue her dream and turn it into a career. She lands herself a job writing music reviews for a magazine, and it is a move that thrusts her into the music scene, and into the adult lifestyle that she so desperately craves.

Enter Dolly Wilde; a drug taking, alcohol guzzling, top hat wearing cynic, who manages to charm and repel people in equal measure with her razor wit, outlandish tales, and scathing opinions. Dolly Wilde is Johanna’s greatest creation; the very embodiment of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. And it is through Dolly, and the fearlessness that she is able to enjoy whilst wearing that mask, that Johanna is able to discover herself, who she truly is and what she wants. Though she manages to get herself into some pretty interesting – and cringeworthy! – situations along the way.

An array of interesting characters are interwoven throughout; a lovable bunch of misfits that add a kind of dark humour to the book. Amongst these are Johanna’s father; a sometime drunkard who has grand plans of making it in music…if only he can get someone to play his tapes on the radio. There is her surly older brother Krissi, who doesn’t seem to reciprocate Johanna’s unfailing feelings of adoration, but who still remains her hero and one of her favourite people. And of course, her first real love, best friend and favourite person; quirky rock star, John Kite. It is this last relationship in particular that really struck a chord with me. There’s something inherently sweet and pure about their easy friendship, and the intensity with which Johanna loves this slightly dishevelled, but truly genuine soul.

This book is honest and funny and heartfelt, and everything I could want in a coming of age story, without any of the saccharine overtones. I laughed out loud, and there were even times when I felt the prickling of tears at the corners of my eyes. I loved it so much I almost want to go back and start it all over again. But, more books are yet to be read and so, for now, I will simply say that How to Build a Girl has definitely made its way into my top ten books of all time.

Reading Goals and Disappointments

I’ve been tracking my reading with Goodreads, and so far I’ve read 9 of my 30 book goal for 2017. I haven’t actually bought any books to read in months, as I’ve been making my way through the sloooowly diminishing pile of books that I’ve had stacked up for literally years. The stack has gotten bigger and smaller, and the books have changed over the years as I’ve made my way through them, but the stack itself is a permanent fixture in my house. Anyway, despite reading a fair bit more regularly this year than last, due in large part to getting time to read on public transport, nothing I’ve read has really jumped out at me, or stuck in my mind. I keep telling myself I will do more book reviews, but I don’t want to review any of the books I’ve read recently. It’s not that they’ve necessarily been bad, it’s just that none of them have really been all that…good.

Most of the books I’m reading are books I bought from the Book Grocer back home, when I had friends that worked there. I literally purchased bags of remaindered titles for a pittance, pretty much anything I saw that had an intriguing blurb or a pretty cover (ooops). I am currently reading Tales from the Dead of Night; a collection of short horror stories by thirteen different authors. I’ve always been a fan of the horror genre across all mediums (so long as it’s done right) and reading horror stories in bed at night is one of my favourite things in the world. Not that I’ve done that in this case, and the stories themselves have less of an effect when read on a busy, bright train car in peak hour. Nevertheless, so far the book has kept me intrigued and entertained. And it’s a hardback with a really nice cover, so points for that.

There are some decent titles in the stack at home, or so I believe. But so far the ones I’ve chosen haven’t been all that spectacular. So I’m actually thinking I might reread of some of the books I’ve read and actually shelved. Return to some old favourites and familiarise myself with the stories that I love. First on that list is going to be Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. That was the first Gaiman title I ever read and, incidentally, the first book my best friend ever lent me. American Gods was the book that started my love affair with Neil Gaiman’s writing. And with the upcoming television adaptation due at the end of the month, now is as good a time as any to get back in touch with Shadow, Mr Wednesday, and the Gods gang.

I do know that there are a couple of titles that I would like to read from the stack. Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series is one that I’ve been meaning to get around to for months. And despite his more recent literary failures, I’m fairly certain there’s one of Chuck Palahniuk’s earlier works in the stack as well, from a time when his writing was actually still good. There is also one of his more recent books, Make Something Up, which I have been hesitant to read because of how little faith I have in his work these days. I should point out that, despite still being one of my favourite authors due to his earlier work, pretty much everything since and including Damned written by Chuck has been heinously awful, with Beautiful You sitting in the top three of worst books I have EVER read.

I’m hoping that the rest of the books I read this year will be better than the ones I’ve read to date, so that I can actually get around to writing some proper reviews. And, y’know, so I can actually enjoy the things I’m reading. There’s no point in setting myself a reading challenge if I’m only going to hate all the things I read. That being said, if any of you have some book recommendations, I am open to suggestion. Regardless of genre, throw some ideas my way and I might find myself enjoying my reading more!

God Help the Girl (2014)

Netflix scored another win the other night. Scrolling through aimlessly, as I do, and in the independent films section I found God Help the Girl. It is a British musical drama written and directed by none other than Stuart Murdoch, the man behind indie band, Belle and Sebastian. Starring the ever lovely Emily Browning, Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander, and Hannah Murray (Skins and Game of Thrones), it is a sweet film, both lighthearted and serious, and full of the chill indie tunes one can expect from Murdoch.

Emily Browning plays Eve, a young woman struggling with an eating disorder, who dreams of being a musician. Whilst in hospital, she starts writing music as a way to help her deal with her emotional and mental problems, eventually finishing a tape which she sends into a radio station. Following a breakout from the hospital one night to go see a band, she meets James (Alexander); a lifeguard and musician. The two develop a friendship and, along with James’ guitar student, Cassie (Murray), they start a band.

There is nothing particularly complex about the plot; just three young adults bonding over music and the simple thrills of being young. It’s about friendship, and ambition, and the role music plays in people’s lives. The cast is small, but the music itself acts almost like another character; nudging the plot forward and conveying everything Murdoch wants to say, in verse. Which makes sense, given what he does for a living!

It was well acted, each of the characters lovable in their own way, and each with their own set of problems they have to deal with. The movie made me long for the ability to play one (or all) of my various instruments. Vaguely reminiscent of films like Song One, Begin Again, and Rudderless (three music based films you need to go out and watch right now), it was just a nice, simple film with a great soundtrack. Plus, if you’re into that kind of thing (which I am) the costumes are to die for. If you like Belle and Sebastian, and bands of that ilk, – or even if you just like quirky independent films – I recommend giving God Help the Girl a look.

Logan (2017)

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While I was on holidays, I went to see Logan. I had the entire cinema to myself (woot!) and settled in for Hugh Jackman’s final performance as everyone’s favourite anti-hero, Wolverine. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Set some years into the (near) future, mutants are near extinct. Logan is driving a limo to earn money, and caring for an ageing Charles. But things take a turn with the unexpected arrival of Laura (played by Dafne Keen), a young girl with Wolverine’s same adamantium claws and healing abilities. Initially Logan wants nothing to do with her, but soon finds himself thrust into the unwanted role of her protector, whilst being hunted by mercenaries who want Laura for their own purposes. However, this isn’t just another hero film. Unlike the previous films set in the X-Men universe, Logan is less about hero vs villain (though there is that, of course), and more a kind of raw, serious insight into one of the series’ most popular characters. I think this is evident straight away in the title – and with the Wolverine moniker dropped almost entirely throughout the film. But right from the opening scene, in which an aged Logan takes on a gang of thugs in a violent and bloody showdown, it is clear to the viewer that this is going to be a completely different X-Men experience.

Honestly, with the absence of almost any of the other mutants we’ve become so familiar with, it’s difficult to really see Logan as part of the same franchise. And it is somewhat confusing as to when, and in which timeline this film falls. Any of you familiar with the comics, and previous films will know that this whole timeline issue is convoluted and complicated. But Hugh Jackman attempted to shed some light on this new, dystopian reality prior to the film’s release, being quoted as saying “Not only is [Logan] different in terms of timeline and tone, it’s a slightly different universe. It’s actually a different paradigm and that will become clear … It’s a stand alone movie in many ways. It’s not really beholden to timelines and storylines in the other movies.” In this regard, I think it’s almost easier to consider this film as a singular, one off movie, rather than a follow up to any of the previous films.

Aside from being a much more sombre affair than anything preceding it, this film tackles some serious themes too; perhaps most notably, the inevitability of time, and death. And not just superhero death, where someone comes to save the day and everything is alright. We’re talking the very real passing of time, and the effects it has. Both Charles and Logan have aged, and previous events hinted at throughout the film have left them both weary and, in many ways, broken. These are the characters we know, but they are different, changed in irreparable ways. There are underlying tones of regret throughout the film, as well as a kind of quiet sorrow, which both Jackman and Stewart convey effortlessly. And it was affecting, in ways I wasn’t expecting. This film is like watching a loved one slowly die, and knowing there is nothing you can do to stop or slow it.

But don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a tear jerker or sorrow fest – far from it. With its initial R rating, Logan uses, to great effect, some serious comic book violence. It is brutal, and in some cases filmed in slow motion (which is always awesome, let’s face it), and exactly the kind of thing fans have been waiting to see from Wolverine. Plus, there is curse words aplenty, and though a seemingly small thing, it gives a kind of realness to the film. Makes the whole thing a bit more gritty. Even Laura’s character adds to this; she is a child, yes, but there is a seriousness to her, a kind of fierceness that almost makes you forget that she isn’t another adult.

I think there could be no more fitting end to Hugh Jackman’s run as Wolverine than this movie. It was everything he had ever wanted to do with the character, and everything we had been hoping to see. Poignant, violent, visceral, and utterly brilliant. What are you still reading for? Go and see it for yourself.

Split (2016)

Kevin has 23 distinct personalities. The 24th is about to be unleashed…

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I’ve never really been the biggest fan of M. Night Shyamalan. I’ve seen enough of his films to know that I can expect very little substance to come from his direction. But when I saw the trailer for Split, I have to admit that I was intrigued. So the other night, I decided to give one of my least favourite directors one more shot.

As the tagline reads, Kevin is a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, who has 23 different, distinct personalities. The basic premise of this film is that one of his personalities, Dennis, kidnaps three young girls. They wake in a room, drugged and groggy, in a scene vaguely reminiscent of 10 Cloverfield Lane, and in the following scenes, the audience can be forgiven for assuming the kidnapped teens are there for the sexual gratification of their captor. But Dennis’ motive is altogether different, and here the film hints for the first time at the pending arrival of a 24th personality, chillingly referred to as “The Beast”.

This film had the potential to be a real disaster. And according to quite a few reviews I’ve read since watching the film, it was. Shyamalan has caused something of an internet uproar with his portrayal of an already disputable, though legitimate and recognised mental illness. Along with other films such as Secret Window, and even Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Split‘s portrayal of Kevin’s other personalities (or at least the ones we see) is, for the most part, largely negative. This had led certain reviewers to boycott the film, citing that it only adds to the stigma surrounding mental illness, and gives D.I.D a bad name.

Despite the backlash, which falls mostly on Shyamalan himself, one has to give credit to the actors. Anya Taylor-Joy, who made her acting debut in the critically acclaimed 2016 film, The Witch, plays Casey; a quiet, intelligent young woman who seems to have a better understanding of her situation than her two classmates. James McAvoy plays Kevin, though most of the screen time is taken up not by Kevin himself but rather by three particular personalities; the sinister Dennis, commanding Patricia, and nine year old Hedwig. Each personality has their own…well, personality, and each plays a vital role in the preparation for the Beast’s arrival.

Aside from the three main personalities we encounter over the course of the film, we meet Barry; a gregarious fashion enthusiast, and very briefly touch on two or three others but aside from that, the other personalities mentioned in the tagline are barely even spoken about. I confess, I was a little disappointed in that regard, expecting to have more focus on them as well. But in hindsight, I think it was perhaps the best course of action, as any further character involvement and development would have clogged up the plot too much, and made everything far more complicated than it needed to be.

As with other films involving a character with D.I.D, Split indicates that the personalities manifested as the result of Kevin’s own childhood trauma. But this movie plays heavily on the underlying notion that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, and certainly the 24th personality is meant to indicate that. Casey’s character furthers this notion, as we learn more about her as the film progresses.

I think as a whole, and particularly in comparison to some of Shyamalan’s other cinematic failures, this film didn’t do too badly. As I have come to expect, it had his trademark ode to the bizarre but in this case, I think it seemed to work, at least inasmuch as it furthered the plot enough to reach a conclusion. The main protagonist is clever, cunning where she needs to be, and tougher than she looks, and I think that was definitely a selling point for me with this film. The damsel in distress trope is overused, so I was pleased to see it tossed out the window for this movie.

I think this is a film where it’s best to avoid the reviews until you’ve seen it. There seems to be an equal number of haters as there are fans. But as M. Night Shyamalan films go, it was definitely not shit.

Green Room (2016)

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I haven’t watched a lot of movies lately, at least not any that I haven’t already seen. So last night, I went straight to the horror section on Netflix and came across Green Room.  My best friend brought it to my attention a few months ago, and after reading a review for it yesterday, when it came up on Netflix, I decided it was a good time to check it out.

Green Room tells of punk band, The Ain’t Rights, performing their songs and struggling to get by. Following a disastrous gig that they don’t get paid for, they take the advice of local radio host, and book a show at an out of the way bar, run by neo-Nazis. What starts as just another gig for the band quickly turns to disaster after Pat (played by Anton Yelchin) returns to the green room to retrieve a phone, and unwittingly walks in on a murder scene.

From there, it turns into a fight for survival; band members pitted against violent neo-Nazis, led by the quietly insidious Darcy (played by Patrick Stewart). One of the things I really loved about this film is how real it is.There are no malevolent spirits or hideous beasts; there is just man, and a self serving agenda. For the band, their motivation is to break free of their green room confines and make it safely out of their nightmare. For Darcy and his men, it is simply about silencing the witnesses. They handle their planned violence like a business deal, with the kind of cold resolve that is part of what makes Darcy such a powerful antagonist.

Jeremy Saulnier, who both wrote and directed this film, has a clear grasp of what it takes to have an effect on his audience. In just 95 minutes, he presents a simple and effective plot that propels itself forward smoothly, aided by the raw performances by the cast, and the darkness that the film is steeped in. Green Room is edgy, confronting and totally believable, and definitely worth the watch.