Halloween (2018)

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Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak

The High Noon of horror

Oh look it’s that time of year again! Because nine sequels, one remake and a sequel to that remake wasn’t quite enough, Blumhouse have only gone and produced another bleedin’ horror featuring the William Shatner mask-wearing madman, Michael Myers. In fact, this sequel makes all the other Halloween movies obsolete by totally ignoring their existence. It’s a very wise move considering that Jamie Lee was unwisely bumped off in 2002 so that a cliché-ridden teen slasher film could follow. This sequel could’ve been equally as terrible, however I’m relieved to say that it’s not.

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I’ve seen every Halloween film so I consider myself quite a fan and it excites me to say that this is unquestionably the best sequel in the franchise and may even be as good as the original. David Gordon Green has put all the tired slasher tropes in the corner and actually focused on making a good film. It opens fairly bizarrely with a couple of Brits visiting old Michael in his maximum security asylum for their podcast, hoping that he’ll have something to say for himself after over forty years of silence. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t. Then the title hits the screen and John Carpenter’s beautiful score fills the air and you realise that this film really has got back to the basics, in the best possible Scream 4 kind of way.

We then get to see the ultimate final girl, Laurie Strode who’s looking quite different to how she was imagined in H20. To say that the events in 1978 traumatised her would be an understatement. This Laurie is utterly obsessed with the idea of Michael returning so she’s created a little fortress in the middle of nowhere and laden it with traps to capture him once and for all. This has understandably put a strain on the relationship with her daughter, but her granddaughter seems pretty groovy with it. The new characters are all interesting and relevant to the story, however the film doesn’t take long to get into the character we really want to see.

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As if by fate, Michael manages to escape after some bright spark decided it’d be a good idea to transfer him and a load of other loons to another loony bin. Seeing him wondering around the streets and heartlessly butchering random people is thrilling and chilling in equal measure. Out of all the Halloween films, I’d say that Michael definitely gets the most screen time in this one, which is fantastic news. He’s also never looked better, Halloween proves to be a masterclass of lighting and camerawork. It’s incredibly well-made for a slasher film and David Gordon Green isn’t afraid to show some creative flair behind the camera.

In the style of High Noon, however, the film is basically one big build up to the showdown between Michael and Laurie. It’s very well executed and when the climax does arrive, it’s every bit as thrilling and unpredictable as you could hope for. The suspense and intensity levels are very high and less hokey than the fight in H20. In the end, you couldn’t have asked for more in a Halloween sequel. You couldn’t really have asked for a better face off.

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Horror fans will also be pleased to know that the body count is very high and pretty violent at times. Of course this doesn’t make it a better film, but it makes it far more entertaining to watch. It’s also not afraid to make you laugh and I was surprised to find myself laughing amongst moments of dreadful horror. It’s also worth noting that Jamie Lee brings her all into the role and it’s humbling to see that she hasn’t forgotten the character that turned her into the superstar we know her today as. Halloween isn’t just the best sequel in the franchise, it also proves itself to be one of the finest slashers to come out in the past two decades.

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A Star is Born (2018)

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Stars: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliot

A Miracle Birth

Cooper’s A Star Is Born had everything going against it when it was announced. Hollywood is renowned for its lack of originality but remaking a film for a third time is garishly lazy, even for them! It began with Janet Gaynor in 1937, then Judy Garland had a go in 1954 before passing the song-and-dance baton onto Barbra Streisand in 1976. I mean, how many times can a star really be born? Well, apparently the answer is at least four times as our Lady Gaga is now having a go playing the reluctant starlet rising to fame. Gaga wouldn’t have been an obvious choice for a leading lady after her horrendously wooden stint in American Horror Story which bizarrely earned her a Golden Globe. Type-cast pretty-boy, Bradley Cooper also wouldn’t spring to mind as the perfect leading man, let alone as writer and director. The whole project sounded doomed from the beginning.

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However, ladies and gents, take those cynical hats off because by some miracle turn, Bradley Cooper’s version of A Star is Born isn’t just good, it’s pretty much great on all levels. Following in the footsteps of the 70’s Barbra Streisand version, Cooper unsurprisingly decides to focus on the music industry rather than the movies. This means that both leads find themselves outside of their comfort zones as Cooper must pretend to be a world-class singer and Gaga has to do a Cher and become both a phenomenal singer and actress at the same time. Somehow, they both manage to pull it off.

Bradley Cooper is more known for his comedy roles in The Hangover and the films of Academy favourite, David O Russell (The Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle etc.) and has given no indication of just how far he can stretch his acting abilities. Here, he completely transforms himself into Jack, the raging alcoholic with a troubled past and a penchant for popstars. I’d certainly be very surprised if he doesn’t earn an Oscar nomination for his performance which at times feels painfully all too real. Gaga also impresses as Ally, although this is a role which doesn’t particularly stretch her as an actress. A popstar playing a popstar rising to fame wasn’t exactly going to be difficult for her, at one point she mentions being signed with Interscope Records (her actual record label) and you wonder if she’s really acting at all. She really does mesmerise in the singing department, however, and the scenes involving heated arguments feel frighteningly genuine.

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The plot itself sticks quite faithfully to all the other Star is Born’s. Alcoholic superstar falls for talented nobody and transforms her into a superstar whilst he spirals into a deadly hole of addiction, whilst almost derailing her career. It’s a very simple story and the film does feel quite overlong. The first half is the strongest and paciest section. After about and hour or so, the film does start to feel a little repetitive and I was left wondering where else it was going to go. What packs a real punch though is the ending. Of course, it won’t come as any surprise for those who have seen any of the other versions of the story, but here it’s no less powerful and executed pretty much to perfection.

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Cooper’s directing is also very arresting. There’s a very raw and real feel to whole film which grounds the film in a reality rarely seen in Hollywood blockbusters. The camerawork is often handheld and intimate so that we always feel close to the characters and their lives. Whilst I wouldn’t quite say that the film is an instant classic like some critics, A Star is Born is well worth your time. If not least for the powerful ending which sees both Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga at the very top of their respective games.

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The Ritual (2017)

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Director: David Bruckner

Stars: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier

Lads holiday gets ruined by gigantic moose man

You’d think people would’ve got the idea now. Don’t go into the woods! Especially if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, in a Scandinavian country, with only a compass to rely on. The Ritual might not be all that original but it’s a solidly made little film which will certainly appease hungry horror fans who live for watching a group of friends get butchered one by one. It also ends up becoming surprisingly layered and moving, it’s certainly more intelligent than the B-movie exterior it hides behind.

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It’s a premise we’ve all seen before. In fact it’s exactly the kind of formula The Cabin in the Woods was poking fun at, there even happens to be a cabin in the woods, would you believe it! A group of thirtysomething men decide to go on a walking holiday (which is a bit of an oxymoron, but there you go, some people enjoy it) after their friend gets brutally murdered by some crackheads robbing a corner shop. He was the only one who wanted to go on a Scandinavian hiking trip so they all go in tribute to him. Unfortunately, Rafe Spall is now wracked with guilt because he did nothing to help his friend and instead cowardly hid behind an aisle, which is something we’d all probably do if we were put into that godawful situation.

Alone in the gorgeous Swedish outback, one moaning member of the group bruises his ankle so they decide to take a short-cut through some deep woodland which has ‘Blair Witch’ written all over it. They’re not even that phased by a deer hanging on a tree with its guts pouring out, they just want to get some rest in an old creepy cabin which has an even creepier Wicker Man-esque moose/reindeer thing upstairs. The film does an excellent job of building up a sense of foreboding and threat. You know something isn’t  right but you can’t quite work out what’s going on. It’s a film which keeps you guessing right up until the surreal third act.

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Some have said that the film is at its best when it’s hinting at things in the shadows and that’s sort of true, but you’d surely be disappointed if the evil was never revealed. There’s a great sense of friendship with the cast of characters and for a horror film, it’s actually very well-acted. You believe everything which is going on, which is important in a film which gradually gets more and more bonkers as it goes on. It’s also nice to see a more mature British cast in a slasher flick instead of a bunch of whiny Americans. Who would’ve thought Thomas Barrow from Downton Abbey would be under attack in the woods?

Lots of people have expressed dislike towards the ending, but for me that’s when I realised that the film was actually more intelligent than what it’s given credit for. It instead becomes a kind of parable for facing your demons and accepting your faults. Like the creature is symbolic for grief in The Babadook, the one here is also symbolic if you dig deep enough. If you don’t take the ending too literally then you’ll find it to be surprisingly touching and meaningful, it certainly stayed with me after the credits rolled.

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The Ritual is a good example of a supernatural slasher flick albeit not exactly an original one. its high production values are let down by the formulaic screenplay which enables you to predict the direction in which it’s heading. It also bordered on the ridiculous at times, although I do admire films which decide to take a more surreal route. All in all, if you’re a horror fan you’ll find a lot to appreciate in The Ritual. Even though it doesn’t offer much new, there’s certainly worse ways to kill ninety minutes.

Get Out (2017)

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Director: Jordan Peele

Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener

Horror at the Oscars? Get in!

It’s been about one whole year since Jordan Peele’s Get Out was unleased onto cinemas and I’ve only just managed to see it! I call myself a seasoned horror fan but why on Earth did it take me so long to see a four-time Oscar nominated horror film? You know it has to be special when the Academy (who famously shun all genre movies) consider giving it a gong for Best Picture. After all, Get Out is the first all-out horror film to be nominated in the category since The Exorcist in 1973. Unless you decide to count the likes of Black Swan and The Silence of the Lambs which have elements of horror but are no where near as obvious as this film.

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Is it all that superior then? Personally I think we’ve seen better recently in films such as The Witch and It Follows, but there’s no denying that it’s a cut above the rest. It’s certainly far more intelligent than most films nowadays, which the Academy miraculously realised after awarding it an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay last night. It follows black British star Daniel Kaluuya as he goes to meet his white girlfriend’s parents at their large middle-class home. Everything seems fine a first but gradually things start to take a sinister turn as some very white guests arrive and seem to almost close in on our black hero. To say anything else would be to ruin the terrific surprises in store, I went in knowing almost nothing about the plot and was certainly all the better for it.

Get Out takes a simple horror movie premise and turns it into a thoughtful and scarily plausible satire about racism. What’s nice is that it doesn’t shove it down our throats in a ham-fisted way like say, Mother! (which I loved, I must say) but there’s stuff for keener viewers to dig in to. It never patronises its audience and is always interested in building up a sense of paranoia and suspense around a likable protagonist who we can all root for. It also manages to provide an exciting third act which manages to satisfy and thrill in equal measure.

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It’s difficult to believe that this is Jordan Peele’s debut film. The technical competence is pretty outstanding, although he has had plenty of experience starring in film and TV before so he must’ve learned something about being behind the camera whilst being in front of it! He shows great flair and vision behind the camera, always remaining focused and expertly building tension. Where most directors would go in for the heavy-handed approach, Peele uses subtlety and restraint. Even the barmy revelation is presented with such confidence, that you don’t doubt the logic for a second.

Get Out might not be the ground-breaking classic you were hoping for, but it’s certainly a fine horror film with enough comedy to comfortably cleanse your pallet. Despite always having its tongue in cheek, it carries an important message about liberal racism and does an excellent job at making the audience feel what it’s like to be a black man in modern America. The ending perhaps could’ve been less predictable and convenient, but Get Out offers plenty of hidden riches in repeated viewings.

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Coco (2017)

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Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina

Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt

Another first-rate animation from Pixar? I should coco!

Pixar needn’t fear about entering the land of the dead after Coco dazzling audiences and critics alike. They’ve been teetering lately with their three most recent films (The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory and Cars 3) all of which received relatively mixed reviews from a studio who have churned out more timeless animations than any other. Coco sees them back on top form though by emotionally weaving an engaging and constantly surprising story about family, love and loss.

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It follows a spirited Mexican lad called Miguel who wants nothing more than to be a musician. Unfortunately for him, his family are from a long line of music-haters after Miguel’s great great great grandmother’s husband left her and her daughter alone in order to pursue a career in music. Since then every child from the family has been raised to detest all kinds of music (as any sane family would do) which means Miguel has to tinkle his ivories in secret whilst worshipping his superstar musical idol, Ernesto De La Cruz. For reasons never quite explained, Miguel ends up in the Mexican land of the dead where a madcap adventure ensues, never failing to entertain along the way.

Coco fools you initially by pretending to be a straightforward family adventure film with stunning visuals and cute characters, but a genuinely shocking third act twist reveals itself to be so much more. It’s quite barmy how a film targeted for children is more unpredictable than the majority of films aimed at adults in this day and age. Nevertheless, this is Pixar and we all know that despite being family friendly, they’re really made for adults!

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What makes the film so memorable though is its pure emotion. Pixar have been pulling at our heartstrings for years from the infamous opening of Up to the tragic demise of Bing Bong in Inside Out. I’m happy to say that Coco is no exception. I’m not one to cry in films but I must admit to being quite choked up several times in Coco, particularly in its closing moments. This isn’t manipulative, sugary, trying-desperately-hard-to-make-you-cry kind of emotion seen in the likes of the recent Wonder but genuine tear duct pulling. This is a film which genuinely cares about its characters so the audience does too.

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Some people are calling this the best Pixar film ever but I think that’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. It lacks the innovation of say, Inside Out and the comedy of Up but that’s not say it’s a great film because it is. Pixar have just churned out such a high calibre of animated features that to say one is better than the other doesn’t really count for much. Coco will certainly be beloved for years to come though, I know I’ll be watching it with my kids all the time if anyone would have them with me!

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Phantom Thread (2017)

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Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

A Mighty Breakfast

The movie world jumped for joy when they heard that Daniel Day-Lewis was reuniting with Paul Thomas Anderson once more for another period epic. Although it was upsetting to hear that it would be Day-Lewis’ final swansong, there was no doubt that it would be a suitable film to bow out in style with and I’m delighted to confirm that that’s true.

Although not as powerful as the duo’s previous There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread is an exquisitely crafted film with phenomenal performances and enigmatic characters that dare you never to tear your eyes from the screen. There’s a tremendous tension bubbling beneath the film’s stylish exterior, yet that tension never quite explodes in the way you might expect.

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Phantom Thread is a love story with a strange twist. It follows a fashion designer called Reynolds Woodcock who is about as fascinating as a character gets. A beyond fussy workaholic who lives with his coldly reserved sister (played beautifully by Lesley Manville) and feels utterly cursed despite living lavishly. We meet him at his lowest point during breakfast where his latest relationship is in tatters. His sister convinces him to go away for a while where he meets Vicky Krieps’ Alma, a shy waitress who becomes besotted with the eccentric genius after he orders enough food to feed the Vatican City. From then on we’re treated with the weirdly captivating ups and downs of their beyond volatile relationship.

Some might say that nothing much happens in the film’s 130 minute running time. I heard an old dear behind me say, ‘well that was far too long. I would’ve edited that down.’ But thank god they didn’t hire her as editor because there’s so much more going on beneath the surface. This is a character-driven film, very much like Anderson’s previous There Will Be Blood and The Master and as such requires multi-layered, strong performances to carry the narrative along and this film does so in spade loads.

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It doesn’t come as much surprise that Daniel Day-Lewis gives an outstanding Oscar-worthy performance given that the man already has three of them. It would be wonderful to see him win a record-breaking fourth but it looks as though this year belongs to Gary Oldman. He completely transforms into the character and was extreme as ever when preparing for the role. Everyone on set had to refer to him as his character’s name and he even learnt how to sew and make dresses. The result is another astonishing performance, if it really is his final film then it’s a pretty spectacular exit.

Equally as magnetic is Vicky Krieps, a relatively unknown actress from Luxembourg who is entirely believable as the young muse falling head over heels in love with Woodcock’s peculiar charm. Lesley Manville is also quietly hilarious as the ultra-frosty sister whom Woodcock adores. In fact there’s a quiet hilarity running through the entire film. Woodcock’s eccentricities make him appear as a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode at any moment. The slightest noise at breakfast riles him, as does cooking anything in butter. His outbursts are both funny and sad at the same time. Funny because they seem so trivial and sad because this is obviously a man who struggles to find happiness in anything despite having it all.

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The film is also beautiful to look at, as any film about beauty and the fashion industry should be. You could proudly roll it down the catwalk for everyone to marvel at. Anderson even worked as his own director of photography for the film and the result is luscious imagery, some even quite haunting. There’s a heightened sense of reality in the film which makes it feel dreamlike in quality.

In some ways Phantom Thread is the opposite of There Will Be Blood. It’s far more subtle and contained with most of the drama happening within Woodcock’s majestic home. It doesn’t have the same raging intensity and is instead surprisingly tender. It leaves you with much to think about and even if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like their films to leave them thinking, you can’t help but be astounded by the highest calibre of acting. Films like this don’t come around too often so let’s treasure it and cherish it even more so that it could be the last time we see the greatest actor of our generation on screen.

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The Greatest Showman (2017)

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Director: Michael Gracey

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron

P.T Barnum Would Be Dancing In His Grave

“Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for” are the first words Hugh Jackman warbles in this box office smash hit. I’m not entirely sure that the world has been waiting for a jazz-handed, all-singing, all-dancing musical about P.T Barnum (the man who invented the business of show) but the audience numbers prove otherwise. Like a bad penny, Jackman’s returned to the world of musicals, only he’s looking a little happier in this one compared to Tom Hooper’s sprawling adaptation of Les Miserables and his voice is sounding a little better too! Or is that just the autotune?

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Either way, Jackman and the rest of the cast look like they’re having the time of their lives in Michael Gracey’s infectiously joyous debut. I must admit to being a little apprehensive about seeing it, fearing the worst for a High School Musical-esque cheese-fest, but was immediately drawn in by the spectacular visuals and mighty music. From start to finish, The Greatest Showman does what P.T Barnum knew how to do best, entertain. The film moves at a glorious pace, piling on the impressive images and sounds until your senses feel overwhelmed. Gracey displays great skill and confidence from behind the camera, at best it displays similarities to Baz Luhrmann’s musical masterpiece, Moulin Rouge! It’s hard to believe that this is a film from a first-time director.

Unfortunately it’s the screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Oscar-winner Bill Condon which stop this show from soaring to the heights of Zendaya’s pink-haired trapeze artist. The story is undeniably cliché and predictable. It’s the rags to riches tale we’ve all seen countless times before, only this time with more song and dance routines. The film almost peaks too early by rushing through Barnum’s rise to stardom and then not giving our hero much to do through the rest of the running time. A flat love story is introduced between Zac Efron (who remains fully-clothed for once) and Zendaya but neither character is developed enough for us to care what happens. Shock, horror, Hugh gets too fame obsessed and ends up neglecting his wife and children only to realise his sins in the end so we can neatly tie a bow and let the credits roll. There are also moments of sugary sentimentality enough to make even the soppiest person cringe.

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But in the end none of that matters, The Greatest Showman is a pleasure of the guiltiest kind. It knows exactly what kind of film it is and it does it very well. There isn’t a duff song in the film, although that’s no surprise given that the lyrics were penned by the duo who wrote for last year’s stupendous La La Land. The choreography is also top-notch, daring you not to take your eyes away from the screen. Despisers of musicals might want to steer clear, but those who are a sucker for a catchy showtune will undoubtedly find a lot to admire. It’s perhaps not something I’d shout from the rooftops and ruin my street cred, but I was a big fan and strangely I can’t wait to see it again.

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