5 stars

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: 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: 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: 42 (2013)

Over the weekend Chadwick Boseman’s family released a statement saying he had passed away on Friday night from colon cancer – a disease he was diagnosed with in 2016. Personally, this was very upsetting and I couldn’t comprehend what had happened or the fact he’d been living cancer and getting many treatments and surgeries for years while still working, making multiple films including Black Panther and the other films in the MCU he starred in. a couple of months ago I wrote about How the MCU Helped Me Grieve Over the Loss of my Dad, and T’Challa and how he described Wakandans view of the afterlife was one of the big things that helped me.

This weekend I watched the few films from Chadwick Boseman’s filmography that I had yet to see and rewatched my favourite film, and performance, of his from outside the MCU – 42.

42 is a biopic about Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) who was the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era after the innovative Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) signed him.

Jackie Robinson was a trailblazer. While there are a lot of sports movies that deal with racism and discrimination as teams have to integrate e.g. Remember the Titans (2000), Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, having previously played for the Montreal Royals in the minor league the year before, and he was alone out there, breaking down barriers while horrendous abuse was hurled at him and he wasn’t allowed to react to it once.

As Harrison Ford’s growly Rickey says to Robinson, if he says something back or retaliates in anyway the blame will be on him. Boseman is great as Robinson. He’s a quietly confident kind of guy and also a genuinely nice person who’s strong and knows what he wants. However, he does such a good job of showing how the abuse gets under his skin but not allowing any of the spectators see it, meaning when he’s finally alone and not in the spotlight, he explodes in rage and anguish.

The whole supporting cast in 42 are good too. A lot of the other Dodgers players get a moment or two to see what Jackie’s dealing with and how they decide whether or not to face up to any of their own unconscious prejudices. Alan Tudyk play an opposing teams’ coach who hurls vitriol at Robinson, and he does it so well that you hate him and feel so much sympathy for Robinson.

There’s a surprising amount of humour in 42, a lot of which comes from the baseball commentator played by John C. McGinley. How he narrates the games is funny as it’s often the quick-witted radio friendly version for what’s really happening, especially when Robinson’s teammates get involved, physically standing up for him when he cannot.

42 follows a lot of the usual sports movie tropes but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, in fact I think it’s one of the best sports dramas around. The baseball sequences are tense and exciting, the characters are compelling – especially as it’s a true story – and the cast are all perfectly suited for their roles.

42 shows Boseman’s talent and poise on screen, and it’s fascinating watching 42 back to back with Get On Up (2014), a film in which Boseman plays larger than life James Brown. These were two iconic and important men in their fields but were vastly different in terms of personality and Boseman plays them both so well. Chadwick Boseman really was a star in his own right and it’s a shame that we won’t get to see him be regal King T’Challa again, or on our screens in general. 5/5.

REVIEW: Personal Shopper (2016)

Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a personal shopper in Paris, refuses to leave the city until she makes contact with her twin brother who died there. Her life becomes more complicated when she starts receiving text messages from an unknown number.

Personal Shopper is one of those films I’d recommend going into knowing as little as possible – and avoiding the trailer at all costs. All I knew about it was “Kristen Stewart played a personal shopper and things aren’t what they seem” and I had no idea the level of unnerving suspense that would be throughout this film.

Maureen, like her twin brother, is a medium and while she doesn’t necessary believe in the afterlife and the souls of the dead, she does believe she can feel presences. What worked really well was how her beliefs aren’t mocked by those around her. Some characters also believe and treat the idea of spirits as perfectly normal, and even those who are a bit dubious don’t laugh in her face or belittle her for trying to get a sign from her brother.

Personal Shopper is all about grief and trying to find connections. Kristen Stewart is fantastic here, playing Maureen’s search for any sort of contact with her brother with desperation, and when she starts receiving text messages that seem to know far too much about her, she’s close to tears but also has a steely determination to see things through. Maureen responds to the texts and things spiral as she tries to figure out what’s happening – could it be her brother on the other end of the phone? Stewart is in every scene of Personal Shopper and is just magnetic to watch, you can’t take your eyes off her as the camera lingers on her as she tries to process things, often while trying to stifle tears.

Personal Shopper is an unsettling blend of drama, horror and thriller. There are so many moments that can be left over to the viewers interpretation, making Personal Shopper an interesting film to discuss with others. There’s an eeriness throughout the film, and a tension that I wasn’t expecting. The sound, and sometimes absence of sound, in Personal Shopper gets under your skin, leaving you on edge and waiting for the other shoe to drop almost constantly.

Personal Shopper really was an unexpected delight. I was captivated by its eeriness and by Stewart’s performance, how she can portray so much with so few words is wonderful. Personal Shopper really is a film that’s open to interpretation, what certain scenes mean, whether there are spirits, and if Maureen does the right thing. It’s an often creepy but always stunning film. 5/5.

REVIEW: Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble by Graham Hunter

This is the story of the greatest achievement in the history of international football. After decades of failure, Spain won the European Championship in 2008 and then the World Cup in 2010. At Euro 2012 they became the first team to win three consecutive tournament titles. Graham Hunter was inside the dressing room as the players celebrated after the finals of the World Cup and Euro 2012. His access-all-areas pass at all three tournaments has resulted in remarkable eyewitness accounts and new interviews with star players and the men behind the scenes.

I loved this book. I’ve talked before about how I support the Spanish National Team and how the 2008-2012 era is just my favourite thing and it was a pure delight to watch Spain’s success happening in real time, so reading Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble was just as delightful.

It doesn’t just follow the events of the three tournaments and give a play by play of each of Spain’s matches. The tournaments are a major part of it, but it also looks at the history of the Spanish National Team, the legacy of the coaches that led the National Team to victory, and how the players in this historic era got to where they are. The youth system is a major factor and it was interesting to learn about how the Royal Spanish Football Federation, the governing body for football in Spain, builds up and invests in players when they are so young. It’s not just teaching these young players the skills they need, but teaching them a good work ethic and attitude, and how to work as a team. This book makes clear how so many of the golden generation had grown up playing with each other, either for their club or their country, and how club rivalries mean nothing when they have a Spain shirt on – no matter how hard José Mourinho may have tried.

There are interviews with players, organisers, pundits, and coaching staff in Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. The coaches and their staff are given their due and it’s clear that the players have respect for them. It’s interesting and impressive to hear how some of the more experienced players, like captain Iker Casillas, Carlos Puyol and Xavi (who acted as a second captain to the national side really), were involved in some big decision making and all players were allowed to share their thoughts. Luis Aragonés who coached the national side to victory in 2008, instilled a sense of pride and confidence in the players and wasn’t afraid to make big changes to the team, and then Vicente del Bosque who took over and coached Spain from 2008 – 2016, ran with the foundations that Aragonés had set.

Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble is definitely a book for fans of the Spanish National Team, but I think any football fan would gain something from this book. To see how it takes decades to produce players and a team of this calibre is important. Spain’s success didn’t happen overnight, and they had a lot of doubters, but the way this group of players, so many of whom were involved in at least two of the major tournaments, achieved something so extraordinary is to be admired. The players in this era were friends first rather than teammates and how they learnt to read each other so well, offer advice and support in important moments (it’s thanks to Pepe Reina’s advice and experience that Casillas saved Paraguayan José Cardozo’s penalty at the World Cup) and just work together so seamlessly is just wonderful.

You might think Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble would be a dry read but it’s actually really entertaining and often funny. There’s a lot of witty anecdotes from players and staff and Hunter does a great job at explaining events and finding humour in tense situations.

I had a huge grin on my face pretty much the whole time I was reading Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. It was so much fun reliving Spain’s golden years, there were some things I knew or remembered but so many others were new to me and it was wonderful to learn more about these players and these teams that were such a solid unit. I just love these Spanish players and their friendships and this book really captures how the Spanish National Team really had captured lightning in a bottle and managed to hold on to it for six years. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Losers (2010)

I shall preface this by saying I think this “critical review” is going to turn more into a “gushing review” as I talk about one of my favourite films.

After a CIA special forces team known as the Losers are betrayed and left for dead by their superiors and a mysterious and powerful man known only as Max (Jason Patric), the Losers wage a war against them in order to get their lives back.

A film like The Losers lives or dies on its core team of characters and The Losers thrives. From the first scene you can feel the comradery between the Losers and can feel how these often very different men fit together in a cohesive team. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Clay, the leader of this team. He’s more world-weary and feels responsible for the others. As a side note: I once heard someone saying Jeffrey Dean Morgan should have the career Gerard Butler has and I can’t say I totally disagree with that statement.

Anyway, back to the team. Roque (Idris Elba) is more volatile but he and Clay balance one another out. Pooch (Columbus Short) is the wheelman and has some very funny moments, while Chris Evans plays a very sarcastic and talkative Jensen who’s the tech guy. It’s honestly a delight seeing Chris Evans in a role like this, especially as The Losers was released a year before he made his debut as Captain America. To round out the Losers there’s sniper Cougar (Óscar Jaenada), who’s more of the silent but deadly type.

When a secretive woman Aisha (Zoe Saldana) comes to the Losers with a plan for them to get Max, things get complicated as they have heists to carry out in order to get to Max. Max is a fun character too. He’s shady, unpredictable nature, and always has an air of menace even though you rarely see him get his hands dirty. Think it’s down to the costuming choice.

Having read the comics this film is based on (and after seeing the film), I think The Losers is one of the best comic book movie adaptations out there. It has the same humour, the essence of the story is there, if naturally changed a little, and the actors do a great job at bringing these characters to the screen.

The way The Losers is shot is fun and interesting. A lot of the time it’s like a standard action film, but then there’s slow-motion shots of fights or sudden camera zooms; it’s like the filmmakers had fun with the concept of bring a comic book to life.

I think fun is a good word to describe The Losers. The action, the fights, the dialogue, it’s all really fun and enjoyable to watch. The character beats are good, the intrigue is there, the music choices are sometimes unexpected but great, and it has a proper tight script and a runtime close to the 90 minutes mark. The Losers is a great comic book adaptation and a really enjoyable film. 5/5. Fun fact: The Losers is also one of my go to comfort films and is a great piece of escapism.

REVIEW: Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide is the sequel to Dread Nation so there may be vague spoilers for the first book in this review.

After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother. But nothing is easy or as it seems and soon after Jane arrives in a town called Nicodermus, she comes to believe it’s not as safe as everyone believes. Jane soon finds herself on a dark path as she’s out for revenge and closes herself off from the world. But one person won’t let her shut herself off completely. Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, she knows friends are hard to come by – and that Jane needs her, too, whether Jane wants to admit it or not.

Amazingly, Deathless Divide is even better than its predecessor. It’s told in dual perspective with the chapters alternating between Jane’s point of view and Katherine’s. it’s great getting to see things from Katherine’s perspective and she becomes a much more fleshed out character as you learn more about her past and how she struggles with the fact she can pass for white. Also, both perspectives are equally gripping and they both have distinct voices which is always a plus for dual narratives.

Jane honestly has gone through so much and she is such a fighter, but her quest for revenge and how desensitised she has become to killing the dead, puts her in a precarious place. She likes to think she doesn’t need anyone but that’s not the case and it takes a long time for her to sort all those feelings out in her head.

Jane and Katherine’s friendship is really the heart and soul of this book. Jane needs Katherine and Katherine wants to be Jane’s friend. They balance each other out and have fought and survived together, meaning they know one another unlike anyone else. There are other relationships in Deathless Divide, romantic or otherwise, but none of them are as strong or as important as Jane and Katherine’s.

In Deathless Divide you learn more about how the shamblers (the undead) have affected the rest of the country, and there’s even mentions of outbreaks around the world showing it’s not a localised event. Deathless Divide combines different genres and themes in an interesting way; it’s a survivors story, there’s Western elements, there’s a deeper discussion of bioethics and experimentation, and there’s a lot of trauma and how that can effect someone’s psyche.

All the while Deathless Divide continues to work as an alternate history because there are so many actual historical elements included and adapted for this scenario. For instance, the explanation for the Chinese arriving on the West Coast and how that effects things and how no matter what, it’s Black people who are always at the bottom of the theoretical social ladder.

Deathless Divide really goes to dark and unexpected places and it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities Jane and Katherine live in the; the racism, the cruelty, the threat of death at any moment – from shamblers or humans – and it’s still an action-packed story with lots of twists and turns. It also has a very satisfying if a little bittersweet ending to what really is a fantastic duology. 5/5.

REVIEW: Misbehaviour (2020)

True story about the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant in London, the women competing and the women who hatch a plan to disrupt it.

Misbehaviour is a feel-good British comedy drama and once you know that, you’ll have a good idea of how things will go but it makes that formula work in a very pleasing way. It’s funny and engaging with a lot of fun characters and it mixes the drama of political tensions with the glamour of a world beauty pageant so well.

Misbehaviour has a wonderful ensemble cast who all give great performances. There’s unfortunately too many to mention here so I’ll just focus on four key women to the story.

Two of the main characters in the Women’s Liberation Movement are Sally (Keira Knightley) and Jo (Jessie Buckley). They both want to bring down the patriarchy, but they come at it from different angles. Sally has a young daughter and is studying at university with the idea that if she has a seat at the metaphorical boys table, she’ll be able to change things there. Jo is more rebellious, graffitiing slogans on walls and is living in a commune with likeminded men and women. It’s interesting to see how the two of them butt heads on their ideas but also learn to listen to one another and work together to make the protest work. Knightley is the queen of period films (no matter the time period) and again it’s clear how good she is, showing her frustration and anger while still keeping it bottled inside as she knows she’d be ridiculed for showing it.

In the pageant the Miss World contestants the story focusses on are Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the first Miss Grenada, and Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) the first black South African to take part. For them, Miss World presents the chance for new opportunities for them, but they also have frank discussions about their chances of winning because they’re not white.

There are so many interesting discussions that can come from Misbehaviour. What it means to be a woman, what’s their “role” in society and what opportunities are there for one woman may not be there for another based on their looks or background. The intersectionality of feminism isn’t explored that deeply but there are black women and disabled women in the protest, and Sally and her co-conspirators make it clear that they aren’t against the contestants but the prevalent attitude of judging women just based on their looks. While possibly contrived, there is a moment between Sally and Jennifer where Jennifer gets the chance to explain what winning could do for little girls who look like her around the world, and it brings home that not all women’s experiences are equal.

Misbehaviour is a wonderful snapshot at what women’s rights were like fifty years ago, and how in many ways’ things have changed for the better, but in others there’s still a long way to go. The performances are brilliant with Knightley and Mbatha-Raw being the standouts, the soundtrack is ace and it’s just a really fun, feelgood film about sisterhood. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Places I’ve Cried in Public by Holly Bourne

Trigger warnings for controlling behaviour, emotional abuse, gaslighting, sexual assault and rape.

Amelie loved Reese. And she thought he loved her. But she’s starting to realise love isn’t supposed to hurt like this. So now she’s retracing their story and untangling what happened by revisiting all the places he made her cry. Because if she works out what went wrong, perhaps she can finally learn to get over him.

Do you ever start a book, and you’re only a couple of chapters in or less than 50 pages in, but you think to yourself “Wow, this book is going to be incredible”? Because that’s how a felt about The Places I’ve Cried in Public when I’d only read the first two chapters and I’m happy to say that gut reaction was correct.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public really was incredible. It has two timelines, Amelie in the present going to the various places she’s cried over Reese, a park bench, a bus stop, her music class, and trying to process everything that has happened and her own thoughts ad emotions. Then when Amelie is at these various places, she remembers the incident that had made her cry, and slowly the rose-tinted view of her relationship with Reese is worn away as she sees the red flags she didn’t notice before, or saw but ignored them because she was so caught up in Reese.

There are so many great, thought-provoking lines and whole passages in The Places I’ve Cried in Public. Especially in how it deals with trauma and abuse, slowly working things out as Amelie does, giving words to the things she’s feeling as she starts to process them. One of my favourite quotes is: “Crying is a very obvious sign that something isn’t going right in your life. You should not ignore tears.”

And another favourite passage is: “I wonder how many times in a given second girls are told that their guts are wrong? Told our tummies are misfiring, like wayward fireworks. No, no, no, dear, it’s not like that at all. Where did you get that from? I promise you that’s not the case. You are overreacting. You are crazy. You are insecure. You are being a silly little thing. And, then, days or weeks or even years later, we look back on The Bad Thing that happened to us because we ignored all the signs, and we say to ourselves I wish I had listened to my gut.”

I think they both sum up the difficulties people, but perhaps girls especially when so often the media and society wants to mould them into a certain way, have when trying to figure out their own emotions. There are so many moments in The Places I’ve Cried in Public that are like a punch to the gut with their poignancy.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public is so compelling because as an outsider, you see a lot of the little warning signs that Amelie ignores, or sees in a positive light, even when friends, some of who she’s known her whole life, point them out to her. It’s well-written because even as you see the issues, you can also understand where Amelie is coming from, making her a sympathetic character as her whole sense of being is changed by her connection to Reese.

The Places I’ve Cried in Public is an incredibly sad story but also one that offers hope for anyone who may be in a similar situation to Amelie. There are scenes of Amelie going to a counsellor which were very well-written and important as it shows how there are people out there to help and no one should feel lesser for needing help. The Places I’ve Cried in Public really is a fantastic book and it’s one that’ll leave a lasting impression. 5/5.