The Black Phone

When I first saw the trailer for this one, I was excited; it looked right up my alley with regards to themes and style. I’m a fan of the director (Scott Derrickson – Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us from Evil), and its based on a story by Joe Hill who is Stephen Kings son and a reasonably good writer in his own right (I really dug ‘Heart-shaped Box’ but couldn’t get through ‘The Fireman’ so there was some caution there). This quickly became my most anticipated film of the year.

Firstly the plot – A serial kidnapper called ‘The Grabber’ is stalking the kids in small town America in the 70s. Finney (Mason Thames) is victim number five and when he awakens in a soundproof basement with only a supposedly broken phone on the wall, he knows he is in some strife. That is, until the phone starts ringing and he hears from the previous child victims hints and tips on how to defeat The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). Outside the confines of his prison, his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) is working hard to convince the police and her own abusive father (Jeremy Davies) that the visions she has of Finney and the other victims are real, and could help them find him before its too late. But the clock is ticking…

The acting here is mostly good. James Ransone was a wonderful addition to the cast, he’s always good in everything he does and always adds a touch of eccentricity to his characters.
Ethan Hawke was excellent as The Grabber, a fully committed performance in a role that I know from reading interviews he was not convinced he was wanting or willing to play. He was by turns skin-crawly, malevolent, childish, threatening.
Thames playing Finney also gave a fine performance as the kid in peril learning to fight from those who lost before him.
The cast is rounded out by an inconsistent performance by McGraw as Gwen – she is given a sassy character that will blind some people to the quality of her performance, but she was either great or terrible and there didn’t seem to be any middle-ground; and every time she was bad it took me out of the movie.


The main problem here is that all the ‘scares’ were completely telegraphed in a not-so-well-written script; a lot was given away in the trailer and the rest you could see a mile away if you’ve watched more than a few horror movies.

There were no surprises at all and quite a lot of plotholes, such as a scene where Finney manages to remove the bars from the window in his small cellar-dwelling and nothing is made of this, he is not punished, the Grabber never even mention it and there seems to be no repercussions from this act which would have certainly compromised the soundproof quality of his ‘prison’. Why, in a small town, are the police struggling to find an obvious sinister black van? The grabber shares his home – how is he getting away with the things he does? what exactly is the ‘naughty boy’ game? why would he let Finney keep his ‘weapon’? why did this all start? and why on earth would there be a phone there in the first place?
Moreover, you never feel like he is ever in any real peril and there is never any doubt in your mind that he will survive to the end, which makes The Grabber feel nonthreatening.
This feels like a short story stretched out beyond its limits, and that is why it is so repetitive when each day a new kid teaches Finney something that they learnt while they were captured.
You can’t help but wonder why when their plans failed for them, they think they will work for Finney.


I really like the aesthetic of this film, the 70s vibe was well-realised, The Grabbers masks are exceptionally well-done, the dreams/visions looked fantastic – disjointed and full of crashing information like dreams are, Derrickson always does a good job in making things look creepy, dark, grainy, lived-in; but I felt the script was too weak to support what could’ve been a really great story had it had more context, depth, and time spent on really fleshing out the intricacies of a more complex plot. While I appreciated the efforts to give the characters more ‘grey areas’, they needed further work to truly come alive as people who could engage you.

Though underwhelming and somewhat forgettable, this isn’t a bad film, but it should have been far better and somehow that irks me more.

I wish it had been stronger

6/10

Dashcam

I love found footage films; I’d say its likely my favourite sub-genre, and I’ve enjoyed all the sub-sub-genres it has ushered in such as screen-horror (a film taking place entirely on a computer screen, eg ‘Unfriended’) and live-stream horror such as ‘Spree’. I enjoy the immediacy and immersion it affords the audience, and so I was excited to watch ‘Dashcam’, the latest live-stream horror from director Rob Savage whose previous film was the screen-horror ‘Host’.

Set during our current pandemic times, Dashcam is led by Annie (Annie Hardy), a real-life anti-vaxxer/mask live-streamer hosting her show BandCar which is essentially a showcase for civil disobedience, malevolent mischief and horrible rapping. She is an unlikable character – abrasive and obnoxious, so to cast her as the lead and allow her to use her own platform and personality in your movie is a risky choice, one that doesn’t do this film any favours. With her MAGA hat and conspiracy-theory buzzwords, if I didn’t already dislike her than her choice to abandon her sweet cat to go to the UK from LA to cause mayhem there, would’ve done it.

Once in London, she wastes no time alienating her friend Stretch (Amer Chadha-Patel – amiable), insulting his girlfriend and stealing his car. After making herself a nuisance at an eatery, she picks up a strange passenger for cash and thus launches her strange, gross, bloody night – all captured on her livestream.

There are issues here that show up almost immediately, the livestream format kills any atmosphere that may have been generated as the constant stream of comments and emojis to the left of the screen is distracting and detaching, Savages choice to abruptly cut from tense scenes to a whole new scene with no explanation as to what happened during the cut was exasperating and failed to make use of the strengths of this genre, the chaotic jerky camera makes it hard to see what’s happening during key scenes, the protagonist’s lack of common decency and humanity is echoed in the films perspective and embracing of mean-spirited apathy, but the biggest sin of all is that this is boring. The storyline is thin and Annie is bad company, but its the repetitiveness and lack of invention or any real reason to exist that eventually does this film in. I was barely interested by the time this wrapped itself up, and I am struggling to remember many scenes or the finale at all at this point.

In 2021 another film came out called Dashcam, it was a tense indie thriller that didn’t get a wide released – watch that one instead; because the best thing I can say about this film is that its short, even though, like me, you may find yourself counting down the minutes of its runtime so that you can watch something else.

1.5/10

Firestarter 2022

Back in 1984, director Mark L Lester released Firestarter, a mildly successful horror film based on the brilliant novel by genius Stephen King starring Drew Barrymore, David Keith, Martin Sheen and George C Scott. Its a film I’ve always enjoyed and had a soft spot for for the last 28 years.

Now, because all the films we enjoyed as kids seem to be in need of an update according to Hollywood, we are ‘gifted’ with this remake.

This story of a young girl (Charlie) with the power to create fire with her mind, the mind altering lab tests her parents took part in before she was born, the shady government agency trying to kidnap her for their own nefarious reasons, the struggles of her father (Andy, who has a little party trick of his own – the ability to ‘push’ people to do as he wishes) to protect her at all costs, and her work to learn how to control her unwieldy power, is a good one – compelling and nerve-jangling… in the right hands.

So what went wrong? Firstly, every change made from the book and from the original film add nothing to the narrative and in many ways seriously hurt this film. The relationship between father and daughter is not as well fleshed out, the farmhouse scene is a complete mess in the 2022 version whereas in 1984 it was a set-piece, the relationship between Charlie and Rainbird makes much more sense in the original and is fraught with tension – totally missing in the remake, the agency is better explained in the original, giving mind altering drugs to college kids in the 70s makes sense but these days not so much, the finale of the original is powerful and tear-jerking but in 2022 its beyond ridiculous with an alliance formed that makes absolutely no sense and is almost offensive after what we have seen one of the parties do.

In this version, Andy is played by Zach Efron, Charlie by Ryan Kiera Armstrong, and both actors do the best with what they are given, Efron with somewhat more success as he manages to make his thinly drawn character someone almost resembling an actual person; but his character is a walking contradiction whose supposed ‘life lessons’ are thrown out the window in the end which makes the whole thing feel pointless. Also pointless in this version is the hideous death of a cat (which we left the theatre during – we didn’t want to see it) – when will film-makers learn that audiences don’t like to see animals hurt???

This isn’t a terrible film but it is very far from good and is wholly un-needed. Upon further research I discovered that this was written by Scott Teems, the writer behind the worst film of last year – Halloween Kills. If last years rubbish weren’t enough, than this film gives me ample reason to avoid his work from now on.

Pointless, ugly, and inferior to the original in every way; don’t bother.

3/10

X

Looking back, the fact that Ti West directed this should have been a clue that I was going to be disappointed. After all, I only really like one of his eight horror films (The Innkeepers) – that’s not good odds.

However, this appeared to be a pastiche of exploitation 70s style horror with a healthy dose of killer hillbillies and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so I figured I was on safe ground, as those themes are my jam.

This film starts strong, with well defined characters in Maxine (Mia Goth), the wannabe-porn-star, and her manager/partner Wayne (the always reliable Martin Henderson) getting excited about their plans to shoot a porn movie on-site at a farmhouse in Texas, rented specifically for that purpose.

They set off with a ragtag team of sex-workers and minimal film crew – Jenna Ortega as Lorraine the reluctant sound operator, and Brittany Snow as the experienced Bobby-Lynne, make impactful impressions, but Kid Cudi and Owen Campbell round out the cast with equally good performances. There’s not a weak member in the cast and the characters are interesting, I had high hopes for a good time at the movies.

The problems start as soon as we are introduced to the Texas farmhouse homeowners – the first time Wayne meets up with Howard, the old man pulls a gun on him, and is openly hostile towards the paying guest. Ignoring this red flag, they press ahead with their film-making plans, and I’m left thinking they are idiots deliberately putting themselves in harms way – ok, I will have to overlook that in order to get to the killings, I think, fine.

But then, the film brings us to the character of Pearl (also Mia Goth) and things turn from sublime to ridiculous.

Howard and Pearl are quite obviously young people in heavy make up – its so obvious in their voices/movements/actions but to add the cheap looking make up on top makes suspension of disbelief nigh-on impossible.

Howard and Pearl don’t go the expected route of being mad that porn is being filmed at their farmhouse but are instead ploys in an incredibly convoluted plot in which the octogenarian Pearl suffers from a high libido that her aging husband cannot satisfy, and this makes her crazy enough to become an insatiable murderer? No, that doesn’t make sense, even if she were physically capable of doing the things West has her doing here (spoiler alert – she would not be).

What did work for me was the evocation of the 70s era – this was done expertly and was definitely one of the films strengths, along with the central cast. The cinematography was wonderfully dreamy in some scenes, suitably gritty in others; I particularly enyed the aerial shot of a lurking crocodile.

Though competently filmed, I found the storyline troubling on many levels – the ageism of shaming and even going so far as to film a sex scene between elderly people as a ‘gross-out’ moment sits uncomfortably with me, the actual motivations behind the killings doesn’t work, the hints at a legacy of shame and religion aren’t explored fully and neither is the real-life illness that is ‘Sundowners’ which is cough-and-you’ll-miss-it mentioned, the reasoning behind not hiring actual elderly actors is something I cant fathom, and after all the hoo ha, the killings themselves are somewhat tame. This wasn’t in anyway scary either, and so it all feels pointless in the end, as well as over-long, inconsistent and tonally muddled.

I really really wanted to like this, but it left a bad taste in my mouth and I wouldn’t watch it again.

What a shame.

4/10

X Trailer

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2022

Everything old is new again, or so they say, but I think in the case of horror films lately – everything can be recycled and repackaged for the new generation whilst attempting lip service to rope in fans of the OG; and for many horror lovers, that’s a concept that’s rotting on the vine.

Ostensibly a sequel to the original (don’t try to make the timeline or the storyline make sense, it will just hurt your brain) this sequel succumbs to the annoying trend most recently used by Scream (5) of having the same title as the far better original. Thus forcing the viewer to use the year when talking about this particular film.

So this is a review of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2022.

This is a reboot sequel, I refuse to use the term ‘requel’ because it was invented by Scream 5, and that piece of trash does not deserve the notoriety of having created a word that is now part of the collective consciousness.

I love the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it has so much to say about the way we treat animals, the nuclear family, mental health; it is clever in its restraint, the terror you see on the screen is visceral and real but rarely does it revel in exploitation – its truly quite the achievement. My biggest issue with all the remakes and reboots is that the screenplays always want to focus on the gore (for a film with chainsaw massacre in the title, the original actually has very little gore – a truth most of the people making the reboots/sequels ignore) and forget the social commentary that made the first film so unique and vital. This film does little to remedy that – it either heavy-handedly presents cancel culture as a thing to be snuffed out, and only lightly touches on gentrification – without taking a stand or a viewpoint on either issue – a tad cowardly in my book.

IMDB summarises this film thusly – ‘After 50 years of hiding, Leatherface returns to terrorize a group of idealistic young friends who accidentally disrupt his carefully shielded world in a remote Texas town’. This is an accurate, bare bones description of what takes place, but the questions it creates are hard to shake whilst watching the movie.

Essentially two sisters (one a victim of a school shooting tragedy) and their group of friends who oddly want to create some kind of hipster mecca in a rundown and remote Texas town, create enemies from the get-go because they are outsiders and a bit too happily positive – how dare they! After one of the friends throws his weight around a bit too much which results in an elderly ladies eviction and she passes away from an undisclosed heart condition aggravated by the stress, Leatherface (who was in her charge) becomes enraged and decides to just straight up kill everyone. Somewhere along the way a townsperson thinks to call up the original’s ’final girl’ Sally Hardesty (now played by Olwen Fouere after Marilyn Chambers passed away) who arrives to get revenge… or something. The sisters, Melody and Lila, are played by Sarah Yarkin and the talented Elsie Fisher, who definitely pull their weight and are the kind of characters I want to survive – they care about each other and fight like hell. I hated the denouement of this movie and would have enjoyed it much more had it not done such a disservice to these well-rounded characters.

The direction by David Blue Garcia is effective and does create some nice tension, I did feel quite on the edge of my seat once or twice which is not common for me. The deaths, were mostly eye-wateringly good and anatomically correct but the bus massacre was stupid and a bit too mean-spirited for my taste, we are meant to hate people just for being affluent and culturally aware now?

The big problem here is the script and the many MANY implausibilites. Starting with Leatherface himself – what happened to his family from the original? how was he hidden after the brazen attacks of the first film? and the big one – how is he running about hefting a chainsaw when he would now be in his 80s??? There is absolutely no way his body would be capable of doing the things he does here. Leatherface was always a damaged, almost sad individual who only hurt the people who kept invading his home, he didn’t go on rampages. The lack of knowledge the film-makers display about their own characters is disheartening to say the least.

Then there’s Sally – after the original films condemnation of our practice of eating meat and the terror she went through they make her a pig farmer? really? Not to mention that the character from the original was totally broken by her experiences, there’s no way she would grow up to be some kickass sexagenarian just waiting to kill him, and if she had, would she spend the whole movie just wanting him to “say my name” before she did so? And how did she not know where he was all that time when everyone is still in the same town?

For fans who had embraced the character of Sally in the original film, in all her messiness and pure terror, this new tough-talking cypher of a survivalist is pretty insulting. This would not be the natural progression of that character, it just doesn’t fit, and the obvious way they tried to shoehorn her into the narrative to pull in a crowd, is transparent and cynical.

Personally I’m tired of horror treating trauma, women’s trauma in particular, as some kind of personality trait – a character building exercise that only makes you stronger. It’s verging on suffer-porn and fetishising, and the reverence with which it is regularly presented is fairly disturbing.

This film is dumb, its bombastic and bloody and annoying in many ways, but I have to admit I had a good time with it, and I enjoyed it a lot more than the terrible Scream 5 and Halloween Kills.

With that in mind I will give it a good score. Go in expecting numbskull logic and you might enjoy it on that level.

Its crap, but its entertaining crap.

5.5/10

Scream

It’s been 11 years since the last installment in the Scream Franchise, and for whatever reason, the powers-that-be decided it needed another chapter.

Although I questioned the wisdom behind this decision, I’ve always liked the Scream movies (though part 3 is not remembered fondly, they got back onto better footing with part 4 and ended on a satisfying note) so I was excited to go see this movie with my high hopes intact.

What a crushing disappointment this is.

The storyline is the same – years after the original killer and all the others that followed, Ghostface is back to terrorise more teens.

A simple storyline, not too hard to get right you might think; but you’d be wrong.

In trying so desperately to come up with a reason for this movie to exist, they cobble together a way to tie the past to the present and in doing so, tie themselves into ridiculous knots trying to make it work. The ‘star’ of this movie, Sam (Melissa Barrera) whose character name I had to look up because that’s how little impression she made on me, is connected to a character from the first movie in a painfully convoluted rewrite of the past – done in order to shoehorn the connection in. She is haunted by visions of that character (whom she never met) who though particularly evil in the original, is now almost a benevolent presence for her – so much cringe.

Her sister is attacked in the opening sequence which is brutal, but not much more so than Drew Barrymore’s demise in the first movie, and this leads to everyone coming together in Woodsboro.

We are very, very briefly introduced to each character before they get slaughtered (care factor zero as most have the charisma and personality of a tea towel) and we see some old familiar faces as three original cast members (and one from part 4) return, stealing even more of the spotlight from our insipid ‘stars’.

Dylan Minnette makes a good impression as Wes, he has star power and can act, which is more than I can say for most of the new cast; with Barrera particularly lacking in these qualities. Jack Quaid also has some good screen presence as Sam’s boyfriend Richie.

Casting choices here give away at least one of the killers early, so then it’s just a matter of watching that pan out; though, as a friend recently noticed – no-one ever actually catches the killer in these movies, they always just reveal themselves in the end. No-one in this friends group seems to care much for each other either, throwing a party literally a day after two friends are brutally murdered/attacked – this apathy isn’t ‘cool’, its gross and disturbing; and it hamstrings the script – if they don’t even care for these people then why should I?

The nods to Psycho, The Babadook, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood etc just made me want to watch those far superior films instead of this dross – name-checking does not always work in a movies favour!

There is a good set piece in the middle of the film that was only mildly marred by a lack of expected police presence; it was exciting and messed with your expectations in the way previous Scream installments would have. I also enjoyed the ‘behind you!’ scene; and the horror of your fingers being too slick with blood to work on your desperately needed touchscreen phone, something that hadn’t occurred to me before.

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyer Gillett, the late Wes Cravens absence is sorely felt here; this is not witty, wry, funny or scary enough to call itself a Scream film, and it lacked heart.  For me, I don’t consider it part of the franchise. Add to this the fact that they felt they had the right to kill off someone they shouldn’t have, someone who deserved a far more reverential send off, and it just rubs more salt into the wound.

There’s a big difference between being clever and knowing with sly nods to the audiences expectations; and making each line/scene a joke on the audience. This movie is not clever, half the ‘tropes’ they refer to aren’t actually tropes at all but are choices very specific to this movie itself;  and it is existing in a world where being meta and acknowledging tropes is now passe, having been done to death in other, better, movies.

Its lazy and cowardly to just riff on itself – and its way too self-referential for its own good. Like watching someone kiss their own ass for 2 hours, it certainly doesn’t inspire benevolence towards this unnecessary chapter.

From the nonsensical title (its Scream 5 ffs) to the try-hard meta meta meta, this is maddeningly self-satisfied, the constant digs at previous installments are annoying, and the references to classic or ‘elevated horrors’ (as one character says like that’s everyday speech – lmao) are unearned and in all honesty, embarrassing.

I wish I liked it, I really do, but this was an epic fail on every level for me.

1.5/5

The Best Films of 2021

This year I watched 298 films. This figure, however, only counts the first time a film was viewed, and doesn’t include subsequent rewatches, of which there were plenty. It was another year where there were quite a few films I liked, but no real stand out, so the following list is in no particular order.

Enjoy!

Annette

I gotta admit, I was not excited to watch this, and had put it off several times. After all, its a musical about a pair of celebrities who give birth to a singing prodigy, with the child portrayed by a marionette puppet. But it was breathtakingly original – all sumptuous visuals like half-remembered dreams, the story operatic in tone and scope, the songs, composed entirely by Sparks, were emotive and cutting, the performances by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard were fully committed, and the storyline about a malignant narcissist and an abusive marriage that becomes a story about a controlling parent failing to put his child first, was moving and memorable.

Music

The second musical on my list. As directed and written by musical genius Sia, this is so her; and that’s an aesthetic you either embrace or reject. This film tells the story of Music (Maddie Zeigler), a low-functioning autistic teenager who ends up under the guardianship of her sister Zu (Kate Hudson) who has her own troubles with drugs, alcohol and mental health. I know this is a controversial film, mostly because of the huge backlash against Sia for not casting an autistic actor in the title role, but the film itself is magical. It moved me to tears a few times, and the songs are so damn good; not to mention the use of imagination and colourful imagery to tell the story. I really loved this movie.

Our Friend

Do you want to cry? Do you want a film that will rip your heart out and stomp on it but still leave you glad you watched it? Then this is the film for you! Parents of two little girls, couple Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) receive life changing medical news, and their long-time friend Dane (Jason Segel) puts his life on hold to live with them and help them through this tough time. Sounds a little pedestrian and depressing but it really isn’t, its about the power of friendship, and finding beauty where you can, and how rewarding it is to support someone in need. But yeah, bring tissues.

Shadow In The Cloud

I really had low expectations for this one, expecting a schlocky c-grade horror featuring an actress i really don’t rate – Chloe Grace Moretz. What I didn’t expect was a film that said “I see your c-grade schlock and raise you a feminist, kick-ass action that fully embraces its pulpiness and adds in a touch of Lovecraft for good measure”! This movie tells the story of Maud (Mortiz – who made me rethink my opinion of her talents), a female pilot during world war 2, who talks her way onto the last mission of B52 bomber with its all-male crew; she has a secret package to deliver, and, to add even more tension, there are monstrous stowaways onboard. This creature-feature war movie is gonzo crazy and an absolute riot until the end credits when a sobering truth about our past heroes is shared. Expertly directed by Roseanne Laing, I can’t wait to see what she brings us nextand the synth score is sublime!

Nobody

I’ve always liked Bob Odenkirk, there’s something very comforting about his gravelly voice, and his face is full of character, which is probably why he never seems to be the lead but part of the supporting cast, on film at least (Better call Saul definitely benefits from having him front and center). Nobody, the story of a retired hitman who is reminded of how much he enjoyed his prior life of crime and dives straight back in with gusto when his family is threatened, also knows how to trade on Odenkirks likability and ‘everyman’ vibe. This is entertaining as heck from start to finish with escalating action and bone-crunching violence aplenty – the over-the-top cartoonish variety of violence, not the sobering, ugly kind. Featuring the best needle-drop moment of 2021 when “heartbreaker’ by Pat Benatar accompanies a thrilling city car chase, this also contains one of the best ‘man and kitten’ scenes I’ve ever seen. So much damn fun!

The Mauritanian

A true story about the horrors inflicted upon a man imprisoned at Guantanamo without charge for years, and the people working on either side of his imprisonment. Jodie Foster plays the lawyer tasked with investigating and ultimately fighting for his freedom. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the idealistic soldier recruited to prosecute the prisoner who instead finds his own faith in the system, the military and the government, challenged. As Mohamedu the prisoner, Tahar Rahim (who should have been Oscar nominated) is mesmerising and revelatory, and Foster lends strong support in her Golden Globe award winning performance, with Cumberbatch solid as always. A galvanising and shocking meditation on the abuse of power.

Judas and The Black Messiah

Another true story, IMDB summarises this film as ‘offered a plea deal by the FBI, William O’Neal infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton’. It is a mini-biopic of Fred Hampton combined with the edginess of a spy movie; only this is also about betrayal and racism and the birth of a movement, and the decisions made by the characters had real-world consequences. A little dry ocassionally, this is buoyed by stellar performances from our two leads – Daniel Kaluuya (always riveting but an Oscar winner here) and LaKeith Stanfield (Oscar nominated for this, and also always good). With great support from Jessie Plemons, this one will make you outraged at the injustice. Powerful stuff.

Free Guy

Trapped in a video game, this riff on ‘The Truman Show’ starring Ryan Reynolds as ‘Blue Shirt Guy’ is a riot from start to finish. Sweet, warm-hearted, smart and with the added spice of a winning Jodie Comer, as well as an all-round likeable support cast, this is laugh-out-loud funny but still manages to get you in the feels by the end. Taika Waititi’s bizarre and OTT performance is the only misstep in this utter joy of a movie. Endlessly rewatchable.

Synchronic

What if there was a drug that allowed you to travel back in time? A drug that is like the most psychedelic trip ever but its dangerous because you have no control where you will end up, as the drug opens you up to ‘portals’ or ‘doors’ that can lead to anywhere and anywhen, would you take it? In Synchronic, this drug has already flooded the black market and our two world-weary EMT leads (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) are dealing with the medical fallout. I love the movies of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, they are always mind-opening affairs that exist within their own mythologies with a dash of magic realism and science fiction threaded through the narrative. Turn it on and strap in – this ride is unwieldy and unpredictable, but you’ll be glad you took it.

Possessor

Starring an actress I find fascinating – Andrea Riseborough, who plays an agent who uses brain-implant tech to ‘get inside’ a target and then use their body like a meat-puppet to assassinate victims selected by her rich clientele, to call this screenplay bold would be an understatement. The first feature film of Brandon Cronenberg, son of avant-garde director David, to call this cronenbergian may be on the nose, but its accurate. This combines body-horror, science fiction and touches on the dangers inerrant at the intersection of technology and humans. It talks about the cost of literally losing yourself in your work; and the ending is shocking as all get-out! A cerebral mind-fuck with ultra violence and a bloody raw heart, I didn’t shake this one for days.

Luca

I seem to always have an animated movie in my best of list these days, which is surprising to me as I don’t consider myself a fan of animated movies at all, but here we are. Luca (the film that shoud have won best animated feature at this years Golden Globes, not Encrapto) is a simple story about a sea creature child who wants more than just the sheltered under-sea life he leads with his over-protective parents, and after discovering he turns human on land, he befriends a cocky fellow sea creature with a secret – Alberto. Together with human Giulia, they form a relay team to compete in the Porto Rosso cup and win a Vespa. With major coming-out undertones, and its idyllic Italian summer vibe – this is a family-friendly ‘Call me by your name’ with fish. Nostalgic, gentle, moving and funny with great voice work by Jacob Tremblay and especially Jack Dylan Grazer, this is a movie I know I’ll enjoy on rainy Sunday afternoons for years to come.

Long Weekend

This is one of two very small indies to make my list this year, and is described on IMDB thusly – ‘ a down-on-his-luck struggling writer, meets an enigmatic woman who enters his life at the right time. While this synopsis is accurate, it doesn’t encompass the oodles of charm and naturalism the two mains (played to perfection by Finn Wittrock and Zoe Chao) bring to this movie, it also doesn’t give away the many interesting plot twists that hurtle this film through several different genres before landing on a genuinely touching finale; and I’m not gunna give away the big twist either, suffice to say I was invested from the first scene. For a directorial debut (Steve Basilone) this is impressive, and the music is lovely too. A unique little gem that I wish more people had seen.

Beast Beast

The second small indie on my list, this was a chance find on a late night and I’m so glad I took the journey. Essentially a coming of age film with all the nostalgia removed, this follows the lives of four gen z teens in a typical American high school – it documents the choices hey make, the way their lives intersect and how they navigate their lives in the context of the world as it is now. At times this is uncomfortable viewing with palpable desperation and a true sense of unease even in the most benign moments, but its always compelling. Strong stuff.

The Courier

Based on the true story of an ordinary joe recruited by the British government to be a spy and help end the Cuban Missile Crisis with the aid of their Russian source. This for me was a film that came out of nowhere; I’d seen no advertising and read no reviews, and I found it fascinating. Its remarkable the danger a government was willing to put a regular citizen like Greville Wynne in, and I enjoyed the ultimately moving friendship that developed between Greville and his Russian counterpart, Oleg. I have taken some time to warm to Benedict Cumberbatch, I think part of me will never move past his slimy pedophilic character in the excellent ‘Atonement’, but he certainly opened my eyes with his brilliant performance in ‘The Imitation Game’, and again here he is proving to be one the more impressive actors working today. Everyone brings their A game, but Cumberbatch goes a step further than I had expected of him.

Don’t Look Up

I’d been waiting for this movie. I’d heard about it and the synopsis sounded like a perfect combination of most things I like – Leo DiCaprio, director Adam McKay, Timothee Chalamet, climate change, large cast of stars, so when it finally hit the theatres for a limited time, I was keen to go. I’m so glad I did, because even though it was released on Netflix a few days later, the big screen was where this film deserved to be seen. The storyline poked wry and clever fingers at Trump and his ilk – his skewed ‘values’ and damaging persona, it satirized our push to not hear what isn’t convenient, to keep that smile plastered on even as we eat our own lies; it was a scathing look at humanity as it is now, our warped priorities and ‘bull in a china shop’ effect on the world. The big screen made those macro shots of nature and animals and hummingbirds not just effecting, but genuinely heartbreaking. The thought of losing those we share the planet with should stop us in our tracks, should break us. Funny, smart, important and quietly devastating. I hope someone out there listens, but I suspect its far too late.

Antlers

A horror film as much about child abuse, neglect and poverty as it is about monsters and mythology. This examines the after effects of damaging childhoods whilst also telling the story of young Lucas, trying to hold his family together and stop his father from becoming a literal monster – way too big a burden for a child to bear. The imagery is breathtaking, and the scares effective. Director Scott Cooper has managed to create an atmospheric, darkly fantastical tale featuring fine performances from the always great Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons, with an amazing accomplished turn from young Jeremy T. Thomas in his big screen debut. The best horror of the year.

The French Dispatch

I like Wes Anderson films, they can be twee and quaint but their aesthetic works for me, and he is reliably good even with his lesser films. Featuring, of course, an ensemble cast, this is not one of his lesser films. His usual troupe of players are here – Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, Frances McDormand, and more; they tell an anthology of stories revolving around a Newspaper called The French Dispatch. Essentially a love letter to old fashioned newspapering and the journalists who sought out and were passionate about their stories, this is outrageously amusing, and supremely creative. Like a good degustation, each course (story) brings you something different, but each portion is delicious and satisfying.

The Last Duel

I don’t much care for entertainment based in the medieval times, so this had not been much on my radar until a friend said she had seen it and thought it was good. I liked the cast, Ridley Scott is a solid director so I decided to give it a go. This is a true story about a woman who has a great wrong committed against her and how her efforts for justice are hijacked by a conceited husband. Set in the era when ‘truth’ is decided by a jousting duel, and women had no ownership of their lives or bodies, I loved the telling of the story from 3 different viewpoints – it worked wonderfully well in this, and kept me on the edge of my seat all the way to the finale. Starring Matt Damon (playing a sniveling pompous character that surprised me), Adam Driver and Jodie Comer (strong!) this is a sumptuous and brutal film that shies away from nothing whilst also not exploiting scenes that needed to be handled sensitively. Utterly engrossing.

The Eyes Of Tammy Faye

Buoyed by a chameleonic performance by Jessica Chastain, this deep dive into the life and crimes of real life 80’s christian evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker is by turns surprising, sympathetic and honest. The recreations of sets, clothes, attitudes of the times etc. are completely spot on and show the care and attention to detail given to every facet of this story. Andrew Garfield as Jim is outshined by Chastain only because her performance is so remarkable; without that attention grabbing accompaniment, he would be the one to praise. Tammy Faye herself is afforded a type of character restoration here, and the films goes a long way to right the wrongs that were heaped upon her.

Spider-man: No Way Home

I enjoy superhero films – they generally feature high quality production values, are well acted and big popcorn entertainment; if they seem to all blend in for me that’s ok, they have a job to do and they do it well – they entertain. I’d seen the previous two Spider-mans featuring Tom Holland as our titular hero and thought they were just fine, nothing special (his best friend Ned annoys me to unreasonable levels) but I cant fault them. This part is different, this part has everything you could want from a superhero film, and, more specifically, a spider-man film. In fact, this is the spider-man film you didn’t even know you needed. I cant summarise it, the joy is in the discovery, but I cant imagine anyone not having a good time with this film.

Honorable mentions –

Blue Bayou – American immigration woes in this smart heartfelt indie – I ugly-cried, you will too.

The Card Counter – Oscar Isaacs is a broken ex-soldier hitting the casino circuit – intricate and gritty.

Together Together – Ed Helms bonds with the woman surrogating his baby – heart-warming, not cloying.

Horror in The High Desert – found footage with an endearing central character and genuine chills.

The Worst List

Much as it pains me to admit, most of the worst films of the year were horrors:

Halloween Kills – Please tell me this was a parody.

Malignant – Ugly and stupid. James Wan please leave horror alone.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It – a hallmark movie disguised as a telegraphed horror and a snoozefest.

The Empty Man – So boring, So long, So trite. A tonally awkward mess.

Titane – Nonsensical, distancing, meandering and gross. There is nothing to connect with or enjoy.

Vanquish – So bad its almost funny, my love for Ruby Rose led me astray… again!

Suicide Squad – One of the most cynical films I’ve seen, it’s like the film makers hate the audience – an ensemble film with no character development? No thanks

The Stylist

The Stylist begins with a haircut. Our protagonist Clare (Najarra Townsend), is cutting the hair of a client who is chatting away about her life. As the woman talks more, you can see the envy in Clare’s eyes. She makes the client a drink, waits for it to take effect, scalps the poor woman and then gets her body ready for disposal. It’s all done with the efficiency of someone who has done this before.

Because she has.

When she gets back home and puts the still-wet scalp onto one of the mannequin heads that adorn her under ground dress-up space, we can see many other scalps adorning other mannequins. This is something Clare likes to do, and does often, using the stories the clients have told her about their lives, she wears their scalps and pretends to be them. Using the same mannerisms and habits, she can become someone else, someone not Clare.

Problems arise when she gets an urgent call from Olivia (Brea Grant), who needs help styling her hair before her big wedding. As Clare gets closer to Olivia, she can’t decide if she wants to be her friend, or just be her. Olivia, sensing a growing strangeness in her new friend, withdraws, and this could prove catastrophic for them both.

Written and directed by Jill Gevargizian, this is an artfully rendered film, with some beautiful cinematography and a dreamy quality about much of it. There is a ‘Maniac’ vibe, but mostly because of the scalpings and the mannequins; this is a gentler film than that one, and works harder to create a real person out of the awkward troubled murderer at its centre.

As Clare, Townsend manages to induce sympathy but doesn’t shy away from embracing the insanity of her character, and the sadness of who she could have been. You watch her make mistake after mistake and then commit some truly atrocious acts, but you never hate her, even while you hate what she’s doing.

As for Olivia, the less showy part, Grant imbues her with a freshness and a kindness that makes the inexorableness of the spider web she’s in, that much more difficult to witness; It would have been easy to make her a ‘mean girl’ but she never is.

There aren’t many slashers directed by women, and there aren’t many these days at all; falling out of favour lately with ‘elevated horror’ taking the reins for a while, so it’s interesting to see what a feminine, modern slasher looks like.

This is a car crash movie; you are horrified but cant look away. Its tense and gross and upsetting.

It’s also good.

7.5/10

Antlers

Horror films have always been a catalyst for discussion about the issues that occupy us; they address societal concerns, socio-economic problems, and the dynamics of our relationships with each other and the world we inhabit. Not all horrors have such loftiness in mind, but it’s often there regardless, hidden in the subtext.

Antlers, whilst essentially on the surface – a monster movie, addresses the weightier subjects of child abuse and its after-effects, drug addiction, family, and poverty; and is all the richer for it.

We begin with Frank (Scott Haze), unwittingly leading his small child, Aiden (Sawyer Jones) into an abandoned mine, after he fails to make good on returning from his work there (the mine in fact, a place for troubled Frank to cook meth). Something happens to them in that dark cramped place, and they come back changed; much to the sorrow of Frank’s older son, long-suffering Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), a ten-year-old tasked with the impossible role of caretaker for his increasingly violent father and younger brother – both ‘infected’ somehow, and far from the family he knew. The unstable home-life he had grown used to, now far worse than he could have imagined.

Meanwhile, we get to know teacher Julia (Keri Russell), back in town after an extended absence; she has moved into the home she grew up in, the home that is still inhabited by her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons). There is tension between them, they are cautious around each other, learning to reconnect, painful secrets and hard truths between them. We see flashbacks to a sickeningly abusive childhood, where Julia was a plaything for her father to use and hurt on a whim.

With her baggage firmly in place, she comes to grow increasingly worried about Lucas, who is a student in her class at the local primary school.

Their individual struggles connect them, and before long it becomes an obsession for her – to save him from the terrible life she believes he is living. She decides to investigate, but what she finds will go far beyond what she had envisioned.

Back at home, behind a bolted attic door, dad Frank is getting hungry, and angry.

Touching on myths that First Nations people have been sharing for generations, writers Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca, create a compelling story through which they interweave that mythology. Cleverly placing the fantastic within an ordinary world, leaves less room for the audience to doubt and question. It also gives the film the breathing space to claim that what appears to be reality, may instead be allegorical.

I’m a fan of both Russell and Plemons and both bring truth and pain to their performances, but the surprise stand-out is Jeremy T Thomas who gives a truly committed turn – he is never less than 100% genuine, no matter what is asked of him emotionally.

The direction by Scott Cooper is also to be commended – the dark foreboding atmosphere is almost visceral, the child abuse scenes are filmed in both literal and suggestive ways that give them an almost nightmare quality which is hugely effective, and this is one of the very few films that actually made me jump. I rarely do; but I realised thinking back its because the ‘jumps’ in this movie are filmed as they would happen in real life – with no jarring musical cue to ‘add’ to the moment; because when shocks happen in life, there isn’t any musical accompaniment – they just happen when your world is going on as it always has – and isn’t that the true horror?

This is a heavy film, its about drug abuse and neglect and poverty and painful childhoods and inner suffering – it’s not for everyone.

However, if you want a film that will affect you, that will give you food for thought and a few scares on the way, I highly recommend Antlers.

In a year when we have endured some truly woeful horror movies, this one stands out as a winner.

8/10

Halloween Kills

You know those musicals where members of the cast basically say a line back and forth to each other and it builds up into a crescendo until everyone is saying the same line over and over again, and it becomes a song and everyone takes part?
Well that kind of happens in this movie, only it’s not joyous, there’s no song, and it’s utterly annoying as hell.

Halloween Kills is the sequel to the 2018 version of Halloween as directed by David Gordon Green, in which we saw a sequel to the original Halloween, choosing to ignore all the original sequels that happened in between. The 2018 outing was good, it was creepier and nastier than expected, the familial connections between the 3 Strode women – Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Karen (Judy Greer) and Allyson (Andi Matichak) are well realised and give weight to the events that befall them, they fight hard and work together to defeat the ‘boogey’man who has been renting space in Laurie’s mind since her violent encounter with him 40 years prior.

In my review of that previous film I asked for no sequel – turns out, I was right; because this is a train wreck.

Halloween Kills begins directly where Halloween 2018 left off, with Laurie stabbed and Michael trapped in the basement of her burning house. We go to the hospital with Laurie where she learns she didn’t kill him as she thought, as he was let loose by the team of fit firemen who showed up at her home, and whom Michael Myers then turned into chunks of flesh on the burning pavement (uh huh, sure). We cut across town to meet up with actors and/or characters from the original movie including an entirely obnoxious Tommy Doyle (now horribly overplayed by Anthony Michal Hall), Lindsay, Marion and Lonny (who all played teeny parts in the original). Lonny’s inclusion is particularly ludicrous given he once caught a glimpse of Michael walking the halloween streets 40 years ago and has been stuck in that town haunted by that event ever since (uh huh, sure). We are treated to a 70s flashback featuring Jim Cummings (which had me fangirling) but really didn’t serve much purpose except to give Sherriff Beckett (Patton Oswalt) some backstory before he spent the entirety of the movie laying in a hospital bed. Which is what Laurie of course should be doing, after we witnessed her major abdominal surgery. She is inexplicably left unattended, not on opioids, not in the icu, to be dramatic and pull out her iv before stabbing herself in the butt with a needle full of mystery drugs because “she’s the one whos got to kill him!” except that she cant, and ends up in bed for the rest of the film. Its a super duper professional hospital too, with the morgue right there in the middle of the waiting area with a handy viewing window. And people wandering in and out without any security clearance. Karen takes it upon herself to be a social conscious because well goshdarnit, someone has to, and the survival skills background that was a big part of her back story previously is forgotten here anyway so lets just be the ‘mum’. Tommy decides that ‘Evil dies tonight’ which is basically the sum of his lines from this point on, but don’t worry, if you miss him saying it, the rest of the cast will say it at some point, again and again and again. It could be a fun drinking game. If this film was any fun. Which its not. At all. It takes itself so seriously its embarrassing. In fact the only intentionally funny part was when a character accidently kills themselves, the only other laughs to be had, are at the films own expense.

Michael goes on a killing spree; people make epically stupid decisions and end up dying (like lets form a mob and then all split up, like lets confront him weaponless instead of running away, like lets chase this guy who looks nothing like Michael Myers, like lets wildly shoot in all directions before he’s in front of us so we have no bullets for him, like lets never go for a head shot, like lets hit him with this bat/stick/pitchfork once and then drop it like its on fire – just assume he’s dead and turn your back on him like a good little victim) but it wouldn’t matter what they did anyway because the film makers have decided to go the ‘supernatural’ route and have him suddenly not even really be a person. Slight spoiler – he’s just ‘fear itself’ now – uh huh, sure.

The acting is pretty bad across the board I’m afraid and the dialogue had me cringing so hard it hurt. The theatrics were so off the scale that even Donald Pleasance would be ashamed. The tone is all wrong, lacking grit and feeling almost like satire.

The score by John and Cody Carpenter essentially just riffs on the original but its one of the few positives I can give this movie. I also really like the old-school opening credits, and the mask was cool.

This unnecessary sequel was bad and I’m sure the upcoming ‘Halloween Ends’ will be just as bad, but I guess I’ll still watch it in the faint hope that maybe, for once, Michael would just die for good.

3/10

Halloween Kills Trailer