Recommendation: Free Fire

When you’re pretty certain that a film is going to be good, but then when you start watching you discover Sharlto Copley is in it…


We had a great time watching ‘Free Fire’ and highly recommend it. It’s wonderful to see a film that sticks to a nice, tight 90 minute run time. The plot of this film couldn’t be simpler – a gun deal goes bad and turns into a multi-sided shootout – and with no padding or unnecessary vanity, it’s a slick, fun, exciting movie.

It’s also a reminder that if you put good actors together they spectacle or computer graphics to make the scene watchable. When you boil this film down there is hardly anything to it, but the actors work together so that you don’t even notice. I know very few directors who could pull that off. The great thing about Wheatley as a writer and director is that he never gives you anything more than you need to get the film. It’s always there, but he’ll never put it out there or draw attention to it. His films don’t even know the word “flabby”. It’s a Ben Wheatley action movie. With Sharlto Copley. Why wouldn’t you go and see it?

I’d happily watch a *bad* movie with Sharlto Copley and go away happy.

The best trailer for Trainspotting 2 was made 20 years ago

I had forgotten just how good Trainspotting is.

When a film is as enduring as this, it can be easy to allow it to slip into a strange category of “good” that doesn’t do it justice. I haven’t actually watched it in what must be over 10 years, but I “know” Trainspotting is a “good” film. I remember the plot, and the characters, and the music, and the style. All of it. I remember the impact it had. The way it resounded as a snapshot of our culture at that time.

But I actually sat down and watched it again this weekend, and suddenly it all came back with an immediacy that I had lost in the intervening years. Experiencing this film again, for the first time in over a decade, it’s impossible to ignore just how good it is! It’s no longer a “classic movie” in a dusty, academic sense. I’ve seen and felt it all afresh. The storytelling is just so tight and clear. The characters fleshed out and real. The world a gloriously aware snapshot of the dark side of the “Cool Britannia” world of twenty years ago.

I hadn’t really been that excited for the sequel before this. I had categorised it as just another throwback by studios lacking in original idea that would, at best, be a rehash of the original but with the actors twenty years old. But now I find myself hoping against hope that I’m wrong. I remember how good the director and the actors are and can be, and I’m aware that I trust them enough not to ruin it for everyone. That they’ll want to do right by the original as much as we what them to do so. Maybe even more than we do. That it’s quite possible that they will create something new that resonates just as much to the same generation it electrified twenty years ago.

If they fail, I feel it will be because the task was impossible, not because they didn’t try.

I’ve allowed it to give myself hopes and expectations that T2 will be worth the wait.

Danny Boyle, please don’t let us down.

 

My 2016 Game of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

While SOMA came out in 2015, I played it over the winter and completed it in 2016.

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Suffering from brain damage after a car crash, Simon Jarrett agrees to an experiment brain-scan. Blacking out half way through, he wakes to find himself in a seemingly abandoned deep sea research facility in the year 2104. What follows, as Simon tries to work out what has happened, is a terrifying exploration of the nature of the human soul and the sense of self.

This is one of those games you irritatingly can’t say much about in a review for fear of giving too much away. Half the appeal of SOMA is the experience of playing and discovering the story for yourself.

If you’ve played any of the Amnesia series of games, then you’ll have an idea of the gameplay. But SOMA is a massive step up in terms of story and voice acting. This is a story-driven, survival horror game, so you’re not going to be battling monsters. Rather, you’ll be running from them, helpless, as you solve puzzles and try to work out what the hell is going on. But as you creep or spirit through the game world you discover a plot that’s both depressing and fascinating. It will make you really think about who “you” are, and then leave you in a deep, existential mire.

Honestly, when I finished this game I lay awake at night with an honest to god existential crisis. It will make you question your very existence.

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I wouldn’t exactly call this a “fun” game, although I don’t want to give the wrong impression from that statement. What I mean is, this isn’t something you throw on after a stressful day at work when you just want to switch your brain off for some mindless entertainment. You’re going to have to think through this one. Not because it’s especially hard, but because the story is so smart and thought provoking that you will need to pay attention to get all the benefit. But don’t worry, it’s so well written and perfectly balanced that it never feels like a chore to do so.

I would say the better descriptions for this are “rewarding” and “satisfying”, rather than “fun”. But, damn, is it both of those in spades.

 

My 2016 TV Show of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

This one gave me a little difficulty. We all know that we’re in a so-called “Golden Age of Television”, and as much as that phrase is tired and overused I can’t deny that with subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime I’ve had copious excellent television to get through. By rather than one of the series that everyone’s already raved about online, I’m going to pick one that we started watching on a whim without knowing anything about it and turned out to the be one of the cleverest TV shows I’ve seen in a long time.

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On the day Rebecca Bunch is finally about to reach her lifelong goal of being made a Partner in a prestigious New York legal firm, she is suddenly struck by just how miserable she truly is. Then, mid-breakdown – she runs into an old boyfriend. Releasing that the time she dated him – for just 3 months one summer over a decade ago – was the last time she was truly happy, Rebecca drops everything and follows him across the country to win him back.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the smartest pieces of television writing I’ve watched in years. While the premise could be one of a thousand bland rom-coms or generic sitcoms, writer and star Rachel Bloom instead created something that’s both a fun musical show and a deep look into the divide between what society has taught us to think we want and what we actually need.

Rebecca drops a high-flying legal career to be with the boy of her dreams. Why wouldn’t that be the right thing to do? They had a Meet-Cute on the day she needed it the most. That’s what television and movies have taught us; that our fairytale will come true if we just believe enough to fight through all obstacles. Why should it matter that she’s stalked him across the country? Or that he’s been with the same girlfriend for fifteen years? Or that her actions throw the lives of so many people into chaos? It’s meant to be!

Ultimately, this show is about the delusions we build for ourselves to hide from the truths we don’t want to face.

While also being a light-hearted musical.

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It’s the layers to the characters and the plots that make this show unmissable. They’ve managed to avoid or subvert every trope in their path, without a single lazy path taken. If two characters have an ‘amusing misunderstanding’, rather than stretching that out for an entire episode they will talk it out and focus instead on the underlying issues. We’re introduced to characters such as “the boss who wants to be everyone’s friend”, or “the controlling bitch girlfriend”, or “the love interest”, but as the series progresses you see how none of them are solely defined by these labels. You also see why they are this way. Why does the boss so desperately want people to like him? Why is the love interest’s girlfriend such a controlling bitch? Why does the love interest stay with his girlfriend even though she’s so unpleasant and demanding? And, most impressively, all of them change and grow in a way that suit the character rather than the longevity of the show. Or getting preachy.

Basically, if you’ve not caught this show I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do. It’s currently half way through its second season, and you won’t find many shows so that subvert television character tropes so well.

 

My 2016 Film of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

This one was pretty easy. My film of the year has to be The Witch, from director Robert Eggers. I’ve already written about it here so I won’t go into too much detail again when you can just click the link. The passing of time has not quenched how much I love this film.

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Exiled from their settlement for their extreme Puritan views, Samuel’s family settles their own farm on the edge of a distant forest. After a year of toil, dedication, and hard work, their new-born child is stolen from under the nose of their eldest daughter by a witch living deep in the woods. What follows is a spiral of fear, persecution, blame and madness, as grief and petty grievances tear the family apart. 

This film is creepy, sinuous, creative, and beautiful. Every shot is a portrait. The story a masterpiece is isolation and the collapse of sanity in the face of forces we can’t understand. Eggers firmly roots his film in a grimy sense of reality, using only natural light, researching the world and the lifestyle of the time, and utilising documents from the period to ensure the dialogue is authentic to the time.

Don’t expect jump scares. Don’t expect gore. Expect steady burning, character driven fear. Expect to be left creeped out and unsettled. This movie is truly what a horror film should be.

My 2016 Book of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

I had to put a bit of thought into my favourite book from this year, as the one that I’ve ultimately decided upon was actually released back in 2011. But as I was given this as a gift last Christmas, and therefore only read it for the first time in 2016, I have decided it can count. Because this is my personal list, and I get to make the rules.

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In a world where real-life has become almost unliveable, where the class and wage gaps are bigger than ever and a majority of people live in poverty, most of the world live within OASIS; a fully immersive virtual world, that functions as both an MMORPG and online society where most people go to school and hold their jobs. But when the creator and owner of OASIS dies, he leaves ownership of it to whoever can solve a complex treasure hunt based on obscure 1980s trivia. And whoever owns OASIS becomes one of the richest and most powerful people in the world.

When teenager Wade Watts manages to solve the first riddle, his life becomes a race between him, his friends and peers, and the multinational corporation which will stop at nothing to gain control of OASIS.

This book is just so fresh and clever. Well researched – Cline obviously has an encyclopedic knowledge of the ‘80s and early computer games – and expertly written, Ready Player One perfectly encapsulates my generation’s culture and attitudes. Cline manages to mine the current fashion for modernised nostalgia while commenting on how just fragile the line between the real world and escapism has become.

It’s just such a shame that his follow up – Armada – which did come out this year, is so mind-bogglingly awful. Seriously, don’t bother wasting your time unless you want a perfect example of an author buckling under the pressure of a smash hit debut.

Recommending… Ninja Sex Party

Sometimes you’re introduced to something that you can’t get out of your head. Something that, if you didn’t love, you’d have to have a long hard think about why you hate fun.

Ninja Sex Party are one of these things.

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If you can imagine a band that’s a mix of Tenacious D and Flight of Concords, that’s basically Ninja Sex Party. Made up of Dan Avidan and Brian Wecht – who portray their characters Danny Sexbang and Ninja Brain – they’re synthpop/rock comedy band.

I’ve had these songs basically on a loop – either on my phone or ear-worming me – all week.

Most of their songs are a lot shorter, but when you have a spare view minutes go and watch the video for their Rush inspired epic, 6969. Trust me.

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Or do you hate fun?

Recommendation: Chester 5000

My latest acquisition from the world of webcomics via Kickstarter; Chester 5000, books 1 & 2.

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I love Jess Fink‘s work. Both playful and sexy, she manages to capture both the beauty and excitement of the erotic without being overly titivating. Yes, there’s sex in these pages, but it’s always infused with romance. You can see her love for the art and the history she’s influenced by on every page.

Also, I’m a sucker for any artist who can create both story and distinct characters without using any dialogue. Everything is done through the images to the point where you don’t even notice no one has spoken.

Recommending… Locke & Key

If I’ve not read something, its new to me. And if I’ve not even heard of it before and can experience it completely devoid of expectations? Well, that happens very rarely.

Everyone has a list of things they intend to read/watch in the future. Things we’ve been recommended or have heard talked about so much we know it’s got to at least be worth a go but haven’t quite yet had the chance to get around to. This is why I love Humble Bundle. It gives me the opportunity to pick up a bunch of books or graphic novels to load onto my Kindle for when I need something to read.

This allows me to try out writers I’ve had on my “must try” list. Recently I finally got around to trying Cory Doctrow’s work, for example. But it also gives me the opportunity to occasionally try out something completely new. Work I’ve never even heard of before. And this creates the opportunity for me to experience something both rare and magical: the once in a lifetime chance to read something brilliant without any expectations or preconceptions.

Such as happened when I downloaded Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s six volume graphic novel, Locke & Key.

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Locke & Key tells the story of the Locke family who, after losing their father in a horrific home invasion, move across country to their old family home; The Keyhouse. There they discover a collection of fantastical keys that, used with the correct doors, unlock extraordinary powers in themselves and the world around them. But soon they learn that behind one of those doors is a spirit both ancient and evil, and they discover the history of the keys, the story of their creation and the horrific events that caused their father to work so hard to hide them.

I think the best endorsement of this series is this; I gave up the writing time I get on my lunch breaks to keep reading. I needed to know what happened next. I’m incredibly lucky that all six volumes were included in the Humble Bundle so I could read them all in essentially one sitting. And when I finished, I went out and bought the slipcase collection (which is so pretty). Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 12.57.47This is one of those books that you need to reread straight away, to give yourself the chance to see just how well the story has been plotted out and foreshadowed. Lines and images that seem incidental on your first read are revealed to have so much more meaning the second time around. Hill is a writer who knows exactly where he is going and where he is leading you.

Locke & Key is a Lovecraftian story, but I want to qualify that statement slightly. The word “Lovecraftian” has become a little watered down in many people’s minds. Forgetting the mountains of – let’s be charitable and call it “fanfiction”[1] – out there, there are professional, published, well respected writers out there who don’t quite get what Lovecraftian should mean. But Joe Hill gets it. He understands both the nature of the mythos, and that it comes second to character and plot.

Be warned, horrible things happen to people in this story. It opens with the Locke family suffering a home invasion involving murder and sexual assault, and the story largely focuses on the ways that the characters deal with this. It’s never forgotten or glossed over. A major theme is how our mistakes and bad decisions will haunt us and echo through the rest of our lives. Don’t expect everyone you meet to have a happy ending here.

Lovecraftian stories – and horror in general – are about fear of the unknown. And while a lot of that is embodied by “the monster” or “the powers we can’t comprehend”, there is also plenty of that in real life. Two stories run in parallel here; one about magic keys with a link to an ancient evil from the Plains of Leng, and the other about a family trying to deal with trauma and loss. About children trying to work out their place in the world without their father. About a mother coping with addiction and trying to keep herself together for her children. About that feeling of having no one there to lead us through.

I can’t really critique art in graphic novels. I’m afraid I’m stuck in the “I know what I like” category. But Rodriguez’s art fits in perfectly brilliantly with the writing, filled with character and background detail. Nothing throws me out of story like art that doesn’t fit the work. This one does. He works well with the writer, matching the style of the story and working bring the words to life. That seems good enough for me.

Locke & Key is definitely worth picking up if you’ve not yet discovered it. It ran between 2008 and 2013, so I’m assuming quite a few of you out there are scoffing at me right now for being so late to the party. But better late than never, and if I can direct any other poor souls who, like me, were living in ignorance, then I’ll be happy.

Enjoy.

 

[1] Please note I’m not trying to belittle Fan Fiction here, or the communities that surround it. I’m just trying to find the correct word for writing that enthusiastic but not quite up to – let’s say – a professional standard.

Recommendation Time: The Witch

It recommendation time again, and this time for a new film I managed to get to to see last night; The Witch: A New-England Folk Tale.

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This is one of those films that justifies why I retain my subscription to film magazines. Like The Babadook last year, I’ve been hearing good thing about this film for a while now, but hadn’t really seen any real marketing for it outside of the occasional poster. The kind of film which you will hear about if you’re interested in this kind of film, but otherwise will completely pass you by.

But if you like true horror films you can’t afford to let this one pass you by.

The film tells the story of a family of fundamental Puritans, recently emigrated from England to America and then expelled from their settlement due to their severe religious beliefs. Travelling into the wilderness they set up their new home on the borders of a forest. But when their new-born child disappears and their crops begin to suffer from a strange, they slowly begin to suspect they are the victims of witchcraft.

The first thing to point out is how amazing this film both looks and sounds. Using natural light where possible, and coming from a director who started out as a production designer, individual shots come across like paintings. thewitchstillRobert Eggers has an eye for beautiful, detail laden and atmospheric shots that just draw you into the world on screen. The dialogue, largely taken from documents and prayer books from the time is a thing of beauty to hear. A lot of that is down to the actors and a testament to their ability. As with most archaic language styles, such as Shakespeare, in the mouths of less skilled actors this dialogue would have come across as stilted and clunky. Not wanting to belittle the adults, its especially impressive that the words feel so natural coming from the child actors. For the most part, at least. There are some moments where they seem a little uncomfortable, but in no way enough to draw you out of the experience.

If you think horror consists jump scares, loud musical queue to make the audience jumps, pools of gore and sexual titillation, then don’t waste your time here. This isn’t that sort of movie. This is slow burning, unsettling, uncomfortable horror. The kind of film that builds over time to leave you tense and uncertain. This film oozes atmosphere. The setting and direction plays a big part in this – the religious fervour of New England in the 1600s is pretty much synonymous with witchcraft by now – but a lot of it has to be handed to the cast. After the disappearance of the youngest child, we slowly see them begin to fall apart; as sorrow, fear for their chances of survival, suspicions and folklore all combining as the supposed security of the family crumbles.

What’s interesting is how we’re never left in any doubt as to whether the Witch exists or not. The audience is shown there is someone in the woods from the very start, leaving us just one step ahead of the characters as to what is happening to them. It’s only the family that are uncertain of the cause of their growing misery. Fearful of the world, clinging to their faith as a shield against everything they can’t understand, trying to convince themselves they are simply being tested by God, rather than abandoned by him.

The Witch is a genuinely creepy film. The director manages to keep the pace slow while never losing the audiences interest. For all this is his first full length feature, it’s a masterpiece of cinematic horror. I’m slightly disappointed that his next film is going to be a remake of Nosferatu, but having watched this film I have hope and I’m far more likely to give it a chance. I’m really hoping that Robert Eggers will be bringing more films like The Witch in the future. This doesn’t come across a beginner’s luck, but something from a director who properly understands both the genre and the medium.

Unfortunately, as this is a small horror film it won’t be in cinema’s for long. That the latest comic book blockbuster is now in theatres will likely have now pushed it off most screens so it’s unlikely you’ll catch in it in cinemas. But I really urge you to grab this one on DVD.

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