Films

Ramblings about Films – whether it’s new, reviews or something else.

REVIEW: Shirley (2020)

Famous American horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss) finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) take in young couple Fred and Rose (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young).

I don’t know anything about Shirley Jackson and haven’t read any of her books, and to be honest after watching Shirley I don’t think I have much more of an idea about who she was. Shirley is a strange take on a biopic. Instead of being a linear story about Shirley Jackson’s life, it’s more of a character study about how she, and to a lesser extent her husband, affect and manipulate a fictional couple who come into their lives.

There are interesting elements to Shirley, but interesting elements don’t necessarily make a compelling film. There’s a lot of extreme closeups on characters faces, tilted angles and some beautiful cinematography but it’s not enough to make the film memorable. The costumes and set design are also striking, as is the frequently intense score, but it often feels like window dressing on a film with a plot that’s just not interesting.

Elizabeth Moss does crazy and intense very well. Her chemistry with Odessa Young is strong as Shirley Jackson turns Rose into her housekeeper/assistant/muse for her latest novel that she’s trying to power through writer’s block to write. Real life merges with the fantasy of Jackson’s would-be novel as scenes from her book play out on screen, with Young portraying the missing girl in the novel.

The relationships between the four characters are supposedly important to the plot of the film but so many of them are pushed to the side that things happen between certain characters so out of the blue it’s jarring. Lerman’s Fred is absent for a lot of the film and his relationship with Rose suffers as she becomes more enamoured with Shirley Jackson. Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is also largely absent but when he does make an appearance, he does have more of an impact. Towards the end of the film Shirley and Stanley’s desires are revealed but because the way the film is put together, where you’re not sure what’s real or what’s fantasy, it’s hard to see the threads that led everything to that conclusion.

Shirley has a powerhouse performance from Elizabeth Moss but the film that surrounds her isn’t as engaging and leaves you feeling a bit confused as to what it was trying to say. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.

The Blair Witch Project is one of those films that I knew of but hadn’t watched because I am a wuss. I did wonder how effective The Blair Witch Project would be with so much of it has become a part of popular culture and referenced in various other types of media, so I was aware of certain shots and the general story before actually watching it. I’m pleased to say it was still nerve-wracking and creepy.

The pace of The Blair Witch Project is really smart. The opening twenty minutes is the three students talking to residents of Burkittsville, hearing the stories about the Blair Witch and the other weird and horrifying things that have happened in the woods outside town. This sets the tone and makes you expect weird and creepy things to happen, and soon they do.

The trio of filmmakers all give great performances and it’s easy to see why people could believe the events of The Blair Witch Project actually happened. The fear, panic and stress is clear to see and their reactions to the unexplainable events are understandable. Heather is the projects director and she’s the one who is always filming everything and to start with doesn’t seem to mind the creepy things that are happening around them as in her mind it’ll make her documentary even better. She’s joined by Josh, who she knows well, and Mike, who she doesn’t, and as things get weird, tensions rise.

As the trio bicker as they traipse around the woods, getting more and more disorientated, the addition of unexplainable and strange piles of rocks, sounds and bundles of twigs gets everyone feeling anxious and just wanting to go home.

The Blair Witch Project is a classic of the horror genre and it’s the film that really kickstarted the found footage subgenre of films. As someone who very rarely watches horror films in general, never mind the found footage subgenre, The Blair Witch Project is tense and eerie from the outset and all the tropes that are so common now, are effective and unsettling. 5/5.

REVIEW: Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

When a zombie apocalypse breaks out in their small town, best friends and scouts Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller) and Augie (Joey Morgan) – along with cocktail waitress Denise (Sarah Dumont) – must use their scouting skills to make it out alive.

This is one of those films where it started out and I was like, “Yeah, this is alright, a bit generic but fine” but then something clicked and I ended up having a great time with it.

The actual proper zombie battle stuff does take a while to get going, instead it spends time focussing on the friendship between the three scouts. The three scouts all have the sort of personalities you’d expect; Ben is the normal, relatable one, Carter is the loudmouth one and Augie is the more awkward one. They bicker and fall out as some of them feel like they’re getting to old for scouts while others still love it and it’s all very normal teen friend drama but in scout uniforms.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is actually really funny. There are clever visual gags, one-liners, gross out and humour (they’re teen boys – what do you expect?!), and just a lot of laugh out loud moments. Perhaps I went into this with rather low expectations, but this was far funnier than I was expecting it to be.

The comedic timing and chemistry between the three friends and Denise is really good. Denise is badass and how she fits into the dynamic of this kind of dorky friendship group works surprisingly well. The four of them each bring their own skills to the zombie fighting and the action sequences are all well shot and very entertaining.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse has a solid mix of gore, crudity and laughs which makes it very enjoyable in its ridiculousness. Like honestly, there’s zombie cats and it has possibly the best use of a Dolly Parton song I’ve ever seen and that whole sequence, just like the film in general, is just so much fun. 4/5.

Sci-Fi Month 2020

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com. QUOTE from Seven Devils by Elizabeth May & Laura Lam.

Even though 2020 seems to be dragging on forever, we are getting closer to the end of the year and November brings Sci-Fi Month, hosted by Lisa and Imyril.

As the name suggests, Sci-Fi Month is all about celebrating all things sci-fi, whether that’s books, films, TV show, games or podcasts. It’s the chance to focus on the sci-fi stuff you’ve been putting on the backburner, whether it’s speculative fiction, epic space operas, time travel adventures or parallel worlds.

There’s a couple of readathons happening during the month if that’s your kind of thing. Jorie Loves a Story is hosting a readathon of Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott while Imyril is hosting a readathon of Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle.

While there’s the readathons and some challenges still to be announced, there’s no requirements or goals to take part in Sci-Fi Month, the main point is to consume some sci-fi, a little or a lot, and have some fun. See imyril’s blog for more information and to sign up to Sci-Fi Month and follow @SciFiMonth on Twitter and use the hashtag #SciFiMonth to take part in all the chats or when sharing your posts.

While I like sci-fi books, I don’t currently have a lot of them on their TBR, in fact I only have two: Brilliance by Marcus Sakey and Gemina Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. I’ll try and read them both in November but Gemina will be the priority as that chonky book has been on my shelf for far too long.

I also plan to watch and review a lot of sci-fi films next month. I’ve had a look through what sci-fi films I’ve got in my Netflix and Prime watchlists and pulled together a selection of what it’d like to watch. There’s a whole load of different types of sci-fi, superpowers, aliens, and AI, and from different countries too. Here’s some of the films I’ll hopefully be watching next month – any thoughts or recommendations based on this list would, as always, be much appreciated:

What are some of your favourite sci-fi media? I’m always looking for sci-fi book and film recommendations. My favourite kind of sci-fi (or sometimes it’s science-fact) is when people are really competent at their jobs e.g. The Martian, Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures.

REVIEW: Herself (2020)

Trigger warnings for domestic violence.

After young mother Sandra (Clare Dunne) escapes her abusive husband, she fights to give her young daughters a home, going the unconventional route against a broken housing system by deciding to build her own home.

Herself is a brilliant and impressive film. From the opening scene I was captivated by Sandra and her story, her fight for survival. Herself opens with Sandra singing and dancing with her daughters Emma and Molly (Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann) in the kitchen but the arrival of their father Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) brings all that to a screeching halt. The tension between Sandra and Gary is palpable and, like Sandra, you’re just waiting for inevitable explosion.

From that shocking opening you see Sandra and her girls are now living in a hotel room and are just waiting for a housing opportunity to come up as Sandra works two jobs. Herself is an unflinching look at both the housing crisis and domestic abuse. Sandra is questioned as to why she didn’t leave sooner rather than have her ex-husband be asked, why he would hit her in the first place. And once Sandra has removed herself from that situation it is so very difficult for her and her girls to have some stability and somewhere to call home. There are forms to fill in and hoops to jump through and when a house does become available, there’s hundreds of people ahead of her on the waiting list.

When Sandra learns about self-build houses, she thinks that’s the way she can have a home for her girls. One of the most unexpectedly delightful things about Herself is the soundtrack and the montages of Sandra and her newfound friends working together to build a home. Catchy, upbeat pop songs accompany the scenes of the house slowly coming together, and you can see how as the house becomes a reality, Sandra starts to come into her own. The people around her; a fellow mum, a colleague and her friends from the squat they’re in – they all become a stronger family unit than Sandra ever had before.

Clare Dunne, who also co-wrote Herself, is fantastic as Sandra. She plays the different sides of a woman trying to build herself up again after being knocked down for so long so sensitively. She doesn’t have many big shouty scenes, though when she does her desperation is clear to see, instead she is quiet and just trying to hold things together for her children. She’s sad and scared and relieved and a whole load of other complicated emotions and Dunne puts them across so well. the young actresses who play her daughters are also brilliant and their relationship is the foundation Herself is built on.

Herself is about a woman finding a family, herself, and a strength she perhaps forgot she had. It’s empowering and thought-provoking and an emotional watch. 5/5.

REVIEW: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

The centuries old vampire Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) comes to England to seduce his barrister Jonathan Harker’s (Keanu Reeves) fiancée Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) and inflict havoc in the foreign land.

As I was watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I realised I didn’t really know the original Dracula story. Dracula (and vampires in general) is a character that’s so ingrained in our popular culture so I know the general things of what makes a vampire and I’ve seen so many variations of the story like Dracula Untold (2014) or Van Helsing (2004) but never the origin of Count Dracula so watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a weird experience. I knew the names, places and the general story beats but seeing them all play out on screen was fun – though obviously I don’t know how true it is to the source material.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is visually interesting. The costumes, the set design and make up are all so striking. The make up used to make Gary Oldman look thousands of years old was so good that you just took his Dracula at face value so when he suddenly appears looking young and how Oldman looked in the early 90s it’s very effective.

The use of lighting and shadows adds to the creepy feel of Dracula’s home and the whole story. The way Dracula’s, and other creatures, shadows work, seemingly to touch people while they are the other side of the room, increases the uncomfortable feeling the humans have when in their presence.

The acting is a bit all over the place really. Keanu Reeves has a terrible British accent and both he and Winona Ryder are a bit wooden, especially in their scenes together. Somehow it doesn’t break the film though. Anthony Hopkins plays Professor Van Helsing and looks like he’s having a whale of a time with it. He swings from one emotion to another, serious professor to almost overexcited child at what is happening around him. Oldman’s Dracula is suitably unsettling and captivating and sells the obsessive love he has for Mina.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is over the top (the bright red blood, the dramatic dialogue and score) but it totally works. Watching it for the first time now, almost thirty years after it was released, there’s a certain charm about Bram Stoker’s Dracula that we don’t see as often in modern films. It’s proper old-fashioned filmmaking with striking sets, impressive make up and beautiful costumes. I often feel films that are set in the past, in this case the late 1800s, have a timelessness to them, so the potentially outdated effects etc just help make the film feel like a perfect time capsule. Bram Stoker’s Dracula really is worth the watch if you enjoy classic stories of good vs evil. 4/5.

REVIEW: Practical Magic (1998)

There’s said to be a curse on the Owens women – any man who they fall in love with will surely die. Witch sisters Sally and Gillian (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) are unlucky in love and just trying to get by in a town that’s scared of them and their family. But after Gilliam’s boyfriend dies suddenly and a detective (Aidan Quinn) starts asking questions, things get more difficult for them.

Practical Magic is just a delight and the fact that it has a 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a travesty! Do these people not appreciate and love the power of sisterhood, love and female relationships?! Because this is what Practical Magic is. It’s like a love letter to sisters and family and the power women can have, even when things go a bit wrong, and it’s brilliant.

Sally and Gillian were raised by the eccentric aunts, Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest), and the relationships these four women have are the heart and the soul of this film. The aunts are funny and weird, but they love their nieces so much and try to teach them all they know about magic. Sally has more of innate gift for it, but Gillian has some powers too, but their biggest gift is how in tune with one another they are. Bullock and Kidman have amazing chemistry and they feel like sisters, they argue and laugh and know each other better than anyone. If I’m being honest the tone of Practical Magic is kinda all over the place, but this film definitely wouldn’t have worked so well without these two leads.

Speaking of tone; there’s comedy, horror, romance, crime – it’s a mix of so many things but it works! The whole aesthetic for Practical Magic is peak 90s witchy vibes. The costumes, the setting (especially the house where the majority of the film takes place), the fact that Sally’s job involves creating plant-based remedies – to coin a popular internet term, it’s all very cottagecore. The soundtrack is very 90s too but there’s so many good songs on it from Stevie Nicks, Faith Hill, Joni Mitchell and more. The score by Alan Silvestri is great too. A lot of it feels homely and suits the setting of a small town on a small island where everyone knows each other.

Honestly Practical Magic was so much fun and so heart-warming. I often found myself with a huge smile on my face because of these women and their love and respect for one another. Yeah, the “big bad” of the film is them apparently not being able to have a lasting relationship with a man, but the driving force for the Owens family, and even some of the other women in the town, is love for one another and the lengths they’ll go to keep each other safe. 5/5.

REVIEW: Time Out (2018)

When inmate Joan Anderson (Melissa Leo) is granted one weekend out of prison to see her dying mother, rookie correction officer Nicole Stevens (Tessa Thompson) struggles to keep her under control.

Time Out (or Furlough as it was apparently originally called) is a comedy drama that doesn’t really have any decent comedy in it. Leo and Thompson play the typical odd couple roles, Leo’s Anderson is carefree and impulsive and is more than happy to take advantage of her naïve caretaker, while Thompson’s Stevens is straightlaced and stressed about this assignment and the fact that she’s leaving her forgetful mother (Whoopi Goldberg) at home alone. This duo doesn’t really have the chemistry that you need to make this kind of dynamic work. Anderson comes off as super self-centred for the majority of the film, and then when it tries to add some depth to her character it feels cheap.

While not the focus of the film, I did like the relationship between Nicole and her mother. While it’s not explicitly stated what condition her mother has, as someone who has multiple relatives live with dementia, I think that’s clear that’s what the screenwriter and Goldberg’s performance was going for. It really captured how a carer gets no time for themselves, even when they’re supposed to be working, and the frustrations of having to answer the same questions over and over again. I especially liked the entitlement of Nicole’s sister Brandy (La La Anthony) when she had to look after their mother for one weekend when Nicole has been doing it every hour of every day for who knows how long previously.

That side plot aside, the plot of Time Out is very generic and predictable. A lot of the “comedic” moments are more cringey than anything else, and personally I didn’t laugh once. Melissa Leo and Tessa Thompson are both incredibly talented actresses, but they are both given little to do here and nothing about their characters or performances really stands out. 2/5.

REVIEW: The Craft (1996)

Sarah (Robin Tunney) is a lonely newcomer to a Catholic prep school in LA, until she falls in with a trio of outcasts, Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True). Together they practice witchcraft, conjuring up spells and curses in order to get what they want like love, beauty, and power – but magic comes with a price.

At the beginning of The Craft, it does a great job of leaving you guessing how much of what the girls are doing is magic, and how much is by chance. Sarah has always had weird things happen to her but it’s not until she’s with the other three that they can seem to control what they want to happen.

Yes, The Craft is a bit dated and very nineties in a lot of ways. The hair and the fashion, the chunky landline phones and the way the girls learn from the occult through books in a shop rather than scouring the internet. But, for someone like me who’s watching it for the first time almost fifteen years after it was first released, it’s still an effective film.

It’s creepy and eerie and the sort of spells or things the girls want are all relatable teen things. They want the boy their like to like them, they want their bully to stop tormenting them, they want to look beautiful – all things that teen girls wish for, but these four can actually do something about it.

The four actresses are all great in their roles and they have good chemistry. The dynamics between them all is interesting, especially how Sarah fits in (or doesn’t) with a ready-made, solid trio of friends. Tension rises between Sarah, who appears to have natural power, and Nancy, who wants to be strong and powerful and to get what she wants. The way these two butt heads as the film progresses and their spells get out of their control is interesting as there’s the high school teenage bitchiness level to a friendship group potentially breaking down, but then there’s also the potentially dangerous consequences to these girls actions and how they can hurt one another if they no longer see eye to eye.

The final act goes all out creepy and scary and perhaps it’s a bit of a leap from the sort of high school drama The Craft had inhabited before, but it’s still exciting to see how everything comes to a head – Fairuza Balk deserves a special mention for doing crazy so well.

The Craft is a great mix of high school drama and the occult. It’s whole aesthetic is great and it’s the kind of eerie but fun horror film I’m totally on board with. 4/5.

REVIEW: Corpse Bride (2005)

When shy Victor (Johnny Depp) practices his wedding vows in a forest, he inadvertently gets married to Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) a deceased young bride who rises from the grave to be with him.

If you couldn’t tell by the character designs, Corpse Bride is directed by Tim Burton. I wouldn’t call myself a big Burton fan, I tend to like his films more often than not, but his stylish flair isn’t something I’m particularly fond of. Still, the character designs are all Burton with exaggerated facial features, especially the eyes, and quirky costuming. The whole animation style is beautiful and suits the tone of this odd story very well. The grey, sombre tones in the land of the living is a sharp contrast to the characters and setting of the underworld where everything is that bit more vibrant and weirder.

Before watching it, I didn’t realise that Corpse Bride was a musical. While “Remains of the Day” was a catchy song while it was playing out on screen, it and none of the other songs, were particularly memorable once the film was over. The score though, composed by long-time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, was really lovely. It often manages to be eerie but with a magical quality to it, suiting the action and setting perfectly.

The voice casting is really good, but the standout is Christopher Lee he plays the intimidating pastor. He steals every scene he’s in and he’s equal parts menacing and funny. Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney are also entertaining as they voice Victoria’s (Emily Watson) parents and they make a great bickering double act.

Corpse Bride balances the spooky with the charming very well and visually it’s great, but the songs and the story aren’t up to the same standard. With it’s less than 80-minute runtime, Corpse Bride is a quick watch and one that gets you into that spooky, Halloween mood but there’s not enough to make a huge lasting impression. 3/5.