Category Archives: Movies

My Top 5 Indie Horror Films & My Growing Interest in the Genre

In the past year or so, I’ve noticed an increase in my appetite for the horror genre. Since this blog was started, I’ve written a post about my first experience reading a horror novel, a post about my recurring nightmares, and a post about the spookiness of the American college town I lived in for 3 years. In reviewing these three posts, I find myself wondering whether my tastes have suddenly changed, or if I’m actually returning to a proclivity for being scared that was always there. My first instinct is to believe the former- since I grew up in fear of horror movies and avoided them at all costs. As a kid I was exposed to things like The Ring, The Omen, and The Fly at sleepovers- and they left me utterly petrified and incapable of sleep. On one particular occasion I was exposed to the horror-comedy Scary Movie and when my mom came to pick me up the next morning I was visibly traumatized. It’s something she still remembers. After all, that was only last week. Kidding! I was about 10 or 11 years old, and I just wasn’t ready. Every other boy my age seemed unfazed by it all, and I grew up thinking I was a real pussy. But when I go deeper into my childhood, I encounter memories of my love of Goosebumps. I owned several of the books and was clearly interested in exciting my own sense of fear.

I’ve realized that I enjoy being scared, and I am attracted to the atmosphere of horror. And by atmosphere I mean all the elements of the mise-en-scène that contribute to that feeling of imminent danger. It’s not the danger itself, but the sense that it’s lurking around the corner. And I’ve enjoyed that for years in non-horror movies without realizing it- such as the scene in Nocturnal Animals where the normal family are getting followed and harassed by youths in the West Texas night. It’s a situation that could be real, and it had a much greater effect on me than the monsters of supernatural horror films. Since growing up and becoming desensitized acts of unspeakable violence as one does, I’ve watched things like Insidious and found myself thoroughly uninterested. Demons and phantoms just aren’t that intriguing- or indeed scary- to me.

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In the last year however, I’ve discovered several indie films that seem to encapsulate the brand of horror I’m interested in. They’re slow-boiling, atmospheric, and thought-provoking. They’re understated; by no means shying away from gore, but using it sparingly. They’re not concerned with testing your gag reflex- they prefer to cripple you psychologically.

Here’s my list of the top 5 indie horror films that have cemented my interest in the genre. They’ve all been released in the past 3 years and most of them are available on Netflix. What’s interesting is that three of these films all featured a near-car crash with an animal in the opening scene. I think it’s a plot device intended to keep the viewer in a state of panicked alertness without revealing the real threat of the narrative so soon.


  1. The Invitation – 2015

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I didn’t love this one quite as much as the first four, but it puts its pieces together skillfully, and I needed to round this list out to the nearest five. This movie does a great job of building suspense with the scenario of a dinner party where the hosts seem to be hiding something- but the payoff doesn’t ultimately match the rather effective tension that precedes it. The setting of the Santa Monica Mountains at night is suitably creepy, and the shadowy canyons that surround the mansions of the Hollywood Hills make me think that the Manson Family might be waiting around every corner. I definitely think the strangeness of Hollywood has a lot of potential for horror, and I can’t think of a better place for a movie to explore themes of Jonestown-style brainwashing.

 

  1. The Witch: A New England Folktale – 2015

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This is where the list gets tricky. The 4th, 3rd, and 2nd spots were hard to separate. The Witch is the biggest outlier on the list as the most supernatural of the five films. Generally speaking, I’m not into horror films where the threat is something inhuman, but if a story is executed so well, you can’t help but make an exception. What I liked about this movie was that the supernatural elements were so subtle. The titular witch doesn’t even get much screen time, and when she does she’s nothing more than a fleeting, hunchbacked silhouette scuttling away in the darkness. She occupies that hazy twilight between the real world and the world of imagination, which I think supplements the feeling that we’re in a fairy tale. It’s not a monster movie. The witch is more of a Shakespearean literary device that drives the human characters bananas and then goes back to its warren to hibernate for the winter and put up a new set of shower curtain rings fashioned from baby teeth. The focus of the movie is on our pilgrim family, alone in the New England wilderness, and their descent into paranoia and madness.

 

  1. Bone Tomahawk – 2015

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I watched this movie in the cinema with my dad and my brother. It’s both a western and a horror film, but I went to see it because I simply love westerns. I really enjoyed the movie, so much so that I even fashioned my moustache in the style of Kurt Russell’s character. It didn’t quite have the consequences I intended however. As I approached my friends with a cocksure, outlaw swagger and a thumb in my belt, I was told “Damnit if you don’t look like the Pringles logo right now”.

I also spent my time thinking about what made the film a horror title exactly. And upon reflection, I think that it’s all about the cinematography and the pacing of the film. It’s a western, with western characters, a western setting, and a western conflict, but it’s shot like a horror film. The fictitious Indian tribe of the Troglodytes don’t do anything supernatural, but they are shot as if they are monsters. They command the same level of fear that comes with an evil that can’t be reasoned with, and it’s a genius idea. What the film does, is portray the Troglodytes through the lens of 19th century racism. The Troglodytes are like an amalgamation of every settler’s fear about Native Americans. There’s a line that stuck with me near the start, where an Indian character asks one of the protagonists if they’d even be able to tell the difference between his people and the Troglodytes. It’s reflective of the way Native American peoples as culturally and linguistically different from each other as they were with the Europeans, were grouped under the single banner of “savages” because of the color of their skin. By having the Troglodytes play the role of a terrorizing monster from a generic slasher film, Bone Tomahawk cleverly illustrates how Indians were monsterized in the Old West. It’s an excellent piece of art house cinema and an interesting reinvention of one of my favorite movie genres of all time.

 

  1. Gerald’s Game – 2017

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This is another Stephen King movie adaptation that’s turned out to be an absolute banger. It’s your classic sex-game-gone-awry literary scenario. A middle-aged couple go out to an isolated and idyllic lakeside cabin for the weekend in the hopes of rekindling their stagnating marriage. The mild-mannered husband surprises his buxom wife by dropping it on her that he’s always had a rape fantasy, and persuades her that the best way to save their lousy sex life is to let him handcuff her to the bed posts and pretend he’s an intruder. Obviously, things go sour, and before you know it you find yourself in a complex and sinister narrative that touches on everything from child abuse to necrophagia. Don’t give this one a miss! It’s on Netflix and it’s a haunting, psychological thriller written by one of the masters of suspense.

 

  1. Get Out – 2017

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There was never any doubt in my mind that Get Out would take the number one spot on this list. For one, it’s the most deserving- that is to say, it puts its pieces together in the most effectual and masterful way. The movie is a triumph on every level of filmmaking; its performances, cinematography, pacing, and script are equally excellent. There’s not a dull moment to be had, and the movie pays off the suspense it creates in its earlier scenes by fully engaging with the heart of its mystery and concluding that in a satisfying way. This is unlike The Invitation, in which things are left too vague and mysterious for the audience to give a dang.

But furthermore Get Out rightfully heads the top of this power ranking because it encapsulates everything I want from a horror movie. It plays with the kinds of fears and dangers that I find really interesting and scary; a small community (in this case a neighborhood) acting as though they’ve got something to hide, a series of unexplained disappearances, the sinister use of hypnosis. I think what’s really scary is the idea of trust being violated- in this film it’s the trust implicit in hospitality. It’s hosts that seem a little too perfect and saccharine, whose exaggerated smiles don’t sit right. It’s the idea of being in unknown territory, far from what’s familiar and safe. If you haven’t seen this one yet, I can’t recommend it enough! You don’t even have to be remotely a horror fan to enjoy it- it’s one of those movies that transcends genre.

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My Thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story

This post is about a month late, but perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing. Hopefully it means that most of y’all have gotten around to seeing Solo: A Star Wars Story and can therefore appreciate what in tarnation I’m rambling on about. If you haven’t yet checked out the latest Star Wars flick because you’re some kind of flawlessly-extroverted sexual Tyrannosaurus too busy hosting wet t-shirt contests to give the time of day to space westerns, then I suggest taking off the star-shaped sunglasses and getting an Uber to one of Panama City’s movie theaters. You might even enjoy it! Then, come back to this site, disable your Ad-Blocker if you haven’t already, and continue with the post, because I will be covering major spoilers.

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I liked Solo. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film- but I liked it. I’ve heard it described as a “fun” movie and I’d certainly concur with that. It’s lighthearted and a little swashbuckling in tone, which to be honest is what I would expect from a film that styles itself as a space western. It’s got a couple drawbacks- which I will discuss later- but nothing so diabolical that it completely ruins the experience (like The Last Jedi for example). It’s not the movie I asked for, but I do think it’s a worthy addition to the franchise, and even something I’d like to see more of.

When I say I didn’t ask for it, what I mean is that I was hoping for Disney’s budget to be allocated to exploring events, characters and places farther removed from the main saga than an origin story of one of its most iconic heroes. However- it was exactly the type of story that I wanted. Everyone loves Star Wars in a different way, and for me the aspect of the franchise that I love the most is simply the world itself. That’s the defining characteristic of my profile as a fan. More than anything else I’m attracted to the vastness of its universe and the potential it has to tell any story you want. The proof of its potential is in what I consider to be the greatest Star Wars story ever written- Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords. The game is a perfect example of what you can do with the Star Wars template, and it’s the reference I use for illustrating that there is room in the franchise for telling stories that are nuanced, original, and dark. So even though I wasn’t initially excited about the prospect of a Han Solo movie, I found myself warming to the idea when the details of how this story was going to be told emerged in the initial marketing.

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Solo is crime movie. It’s a heist movie. It’s a wild-west movie set in outer space. It explores different worlds and different characters than what we see in the main saga. I’ve long wanted a film with Disney’s budget that focuses on the criminal underworld of the Star Wars galaxy. And the benefit of that hefty budget is seen straight away in the movie’s excellent set and costume design. I love that both this film and Rogue One capture the clunky 70’s-inspired aesthetic of the original trilogy in a way that is beautiful and fresh. That’s the first thing I noticed about this film- how beautiful it is. I’m glad they are committing to that crude and clunky sci-fi art style as opposed to something slick yet bland.

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The film opens on Han’s homeworld of Corellia- a planet that I have long wanted to see adapted for the big screen- and it looks incredible. The artistic design really brings life to the planet and its people, with a thick, industrial atmosphere. Han and Qi’ra are young lovers with big dreams. They live in an orphan community in thrall to a local crime lord, making a living stealing scrap parts from the city’s massive Imperial ship-building warehouses. One day they find a rare and valuable material that they hope to bribe their way off-world with. Han makes it out, but not before the whole thing goes tits-up and his missus is captured by the neighborhood bully and his pet Staffordshire Terrier. They’re separated for several years Cathy & Heathcliff style, until a chance reunion on a gangster’s luxury barge in which Qi’ra reveals that in order to escape she’s had to do terrible things at the behest of said gangster. Yada yada yada, and the two of them find themselves in a situation in which they have to pull off the heist to end all heists or face getting shanked by Paul Bettany’s vibroblade. It’s a pretty good plot and the action sequences in particular are fantastic. The train heist was probably my favorite. However there were a few issues I had with the story.

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The first problem is right at the beginning. One of the golden rules of writing dialogue is not to have the characters of your story act as mouthpieces for the plot, in which they end up saying aloud things they already know for the sole benefit of the viewer. It’s the sort of thing you get a lot in soap operas, where the characters are constantly puking information into your lap. For the most part, Solo adheres to this golden rule, but in the opening scene it gets violated like your Nan at a thrash metal concert. It’s a tough one, because the plot sort of writes itself into this hole by the nature of having the opening so fast-paced. I get that they don’t want to spend too much time going into Han’s childhood, but these are the kind of holes a good writer is expected to navigate. However, this was the only instance of this kind of thing that I noticed in the film’s dialogue.

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The second problem, for me, is in how Han and Chewie form their relationship. I wanted them to go more in-depth with the concept of a Wookiee Life Debt, which is a huge part of Star Wars lore. I expected it to manifest in a scene in which Han chooses to save Chewie’s family or something, but it never happens. Given that this film is the origin story of Han Solo, the establishment of his friendship with Chewbacca is something of paramount importance, and I just feel like this could have been done better. The film lacks any one strong and defining moment that we can point to as the birth of their bromance. For the most part they just seem fond of each other, and I don’t recall a particular scene where this fondness evolves into something more profound, that you know will last a lifetime.

The third problem I have is with Han’s character arc. For me, the heart of this film must absolutely be the transformation of a young, optimistic and naïve Han into the cynical, distrustful, self-centered rogue we see in A New Hope. Otherwise, this movie is essentially pointless. There would be no purpose to a Han Solo origin story without this specific arc. And it’s not that this inward journey isn’t there- I just feel as if it could have been done a little bit better. I know the movie wants to maintain its lighthearted tone, but the Han at the end of the film is not as jaded as I would have liked him to be. If you re-watch A New Hope, you realize just how much of a cold mercenary Han Solo is. For me, he’s still a little too hopeful by the end. I’m not saying he displays no growth, because clearly getting betrayed by Beckett and abandoned by Qi’ra changes him. I just wanted that growth to be more apparent.

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Where this movie succeeds, aside from its creative action scenes and stunning visuals, is in its performances. Woody Harrelson is perfectly-cast as the grizzled mentor type with dry wit and suspect moral values, but for me the standout performance was Paul Bettany as the film’s primary villain. He’s a different kind of villain to the kind we’re used to- which for the most part are variants of evil warlock figures. Dryden Vos is a more familiar antagonist for moviegoers, because he’s a purely human villain with human motivations. He doesn’t wield the mysterious space magic of Palpatine or have the samurai skills of Darth Vader, and yet he’s so menacing. His unnerving stage presence comes entirely from his unstable, psychotic persona, which Bettany does an awesome job of portraying. I was genuinely nervous every time our heroes were in a room with him.

No review of Solo would be complete, however, without a mention of the movie’s twist at the end. So it turns out that Dryden Vos in fact was serving as a kind of lieutenant for Darth Maul, who apparently survived getting sliced in half in order to reinvent himself as a cyborg Pablo Escobar. Within the context of the movie the twist doesn’t bother me that much, and it’s cool to think that Emelia Clarke might be seen again as some kind of Dark Jedi, but I’m not really a fan of Darth Maul surviving. Even within the realm of science fantasy there’s got to be a certain level of believability, and beyond that, as a narrative device I think resurrecting someone is weak. I loved Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace because he was so mysterious. But whenever you get a badass that doesn’t talk much- like Boba Fett for example- you can bet your ass someone will contrive a way for them to inexplicably survive in order to milk the fanboys for a quick and easy cash-grab. It cheapens Maul as a character, and it annoys me that he’s probably out there right now in other Star Wars media, dancing around with his iconic double-bladed lightsaber like some kind of circus monkey that should have long ago been put to sleep. This is the guy that got beat by a padawan Obi-Wan (an important part of his character growth), so there’s no way in hell he’d last ten seconds going toe-to-toe with Vader, Dooku, Windu, or an older Kenobi. I also thought it was particularly cringe-worthy that Darth Maul felt the need to activate his lightsaber during his hologram exchange with Qi’ra. She knows who he is, so that little display he did was just another wink toward the audience, and another example of the fact that this Maul is not really Maul at all- he’s Disney’s trick pony they’ve trotted onto the stage to ring a few more pennies from the masses. However, I’m not opposed to the idea of Dryden Vos serving a Sith Lord, and given that Maul has already been reintroduced in other media, it didn’t spoil my experience of the movie.

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In conclusion, Solo is definitely worth your time. I think it struggled financially because it wasn’t marketed very well. In my opinion, it should have been released in the fall of 2018, which would have distanced it from The Last Jedi and given Disney enough time to build some proper hype for the movie. I would be interested in a sort of loose sequel centering on the adventures of Lando Calrissian. I’m also curious to see what becomes of Qi’ra’s character. I hope that Disney continues to make standalone Star Wars movies and that they venture further from their comfort zone. Where would I rank Solo? Better than The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi by far, but not quite hitting the heights of Rogue One and the Empire Strikes Back. I’d put it on par with the prequel trilogy- highly watchable but not without its flaws.

Spring 2018 Recap

Today I’d like to do a springtime recap! These posts are always super-fun to write, and they let y’all know what I’ve been up to when I’m not writing or scrapping metal. Don’t worry; there are no spoilers for anything I review here.

 


TV: Westworld & Evil Genius

 

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These are the two shows I’ve really been obsessed with this year so far. I’m actually enjoying Westworld’s second season more than its first. I won’t spoil anything for those of y’all still catching up, but I love the direction they’re taking the show in and the themes that come with that narrative avenue. The crux of Westworld is its exploration of the consequences of theme park robots remembering what happens to them before they’re destroyed, repaired, and reset, and I think that the concept of these “dreams” and “reveries” being the catalyst for self-awareness is such a fascinating, clever idea. It’s probably the most layered TV drama that I watch. It’s a show that I think about when I’m not watching it. I love going online after the episode finishes and watching video breakdowns of all the hidden meanings and revelations.

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Evil Genius, on the other hand, is a Netflix crime documentary, pitched to me by my kid brother as being to 2018 what Making a Murderer was to 2016 and The Keepers was to 2017, respectively. I loved both shows, and Evil Genius definitely scratches that particular, chillingly-macabre itch. It’s just as addictive, and like them, it’s a documentary that proved as engaging as a thriller flick. But where Making a Murderer raised questions about the U.S criminal justice system, and The Keepers was poignant and unsettling, Evil Genius is just plain weird. It’s a case of reality conjuring up something stranger than fiction. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong is about as frightening as a Cormac McCarthy antagonist, and her associates tantamount to a Who’s Who of Erie’s most despicable white trash assholes.

 


Cinema: I, Tonya

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This might be my favorite movie of the year so far! When I think back on all the media I’ve consumed in the past few months, I, Tonya stands out as something that was both an enjoyable and a creative experience. Margot Robbie gave a career-defining performance as redneck figure skater Tonya Harding. A complete performance. One that utilized every aspect of her talent in order to create a Tonya that was in equal parts flawed and sympathetic. Given the nature of the film as being both comedic and heart-wrenching, it had to have demanded a lot of her, and she just kind of gets it right. It works, and the performance made the movie. I love how creative she is an actress and how invested she is in her recent roles; it seems like she is selecting parts that she’s really passionate about and working as both an auteur and a performer. She reminds me a lot of a young Robert De Niro.

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I was very impressed with the choreography and cinematography of the ice skating scenes, which are the most exciting moments in the film. Watching them was like watching the car chase in The French Connection or the bank heist in Heat. They’re treated like action scenes and the way the movie pulls them off is simply breathtaking. It honestly looked like Margot Robbie was executing that triple axel.

 


Theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire & A View from the Bridge

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The Tobacco Factory and the Old Vic in Bristol have had some awesome plays on this year. In my last “creative roundup” post I wrote about going to see Macbeth. And recently I’ve been to see two more tragedies: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller. I was already very familiar with the former, having seen the Marlon Brando film version several times. But it’s a story that’s so damn good that it never gets old, and I jumped at the chance to see it on stage. Even though I write fiction and poetry, I’d say my two favorite storytellers of all time are Shakespeare and Williams. As far as narratives go, they’re my absolute idols. I love the themes that Williams works with, and the modern adaptations of his plays have the freedom to be more explicit and visceral. In the Brando film version, the darker elements of the plot are hinted at but never seen. So much has to be inferred when watching it (or indeed any other adaptation of Williams’ work from that period). But watch one of his plays nowadays and it is absolutely brutal. Everything Williams wanted to write about but had to dance around in the 1950s is unleashed in all its bleak and depressing glory. I thought that Kelly Gough in particular did a fantastic job as Blanche Dubois, in a performance that made me think about just what a tragic character she is.

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A View from the Bridge, on the other hand, was a play I knew literally nothing about. I’ve seen both The Crucible and Death of a Salesman on stage, and I know that Miller is an O.G. I went to see this one with my father and my nan, and it was only on the drive to the theatre that I learned the play was about Italian-Americans in the New York docks, which made me think: I’m gonna like this. The play turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever been to- not just this year, but ever. At the interval we all looked at each other, blown away by how good it was.

“This is absolutely brilliant,” my nan said, and the woman behind us was like “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

There were a lot of young people in the audience, who were no doubt studying the play for their Lit exams, and when the play ended everyone was on their feet whistling and hooting. It was probably the loudest applause I’ve ever heard at the Tobacco Factory. If you ever get the chance to see this play then DO IT. It’s a classic tale of incest and revenge…

 

 

What I’ve Been Up To Recently

My vision for 2018 is for it to be my most ambitious year yet. 2017 was all about recovery; it was about finding my productivity and finding my happiness. But none of that was planned from the outset. It just sort of happened. And because of that progress, I now hold myself to a higher standard. I figured out that I want to live and do something with my life, and now it’s all about getting to work to achieve what I want.

One of the ways I want to improve my life this year is simply to do more. My problem the past few years has been my tendency to hibernate between my travels to the USA, counting down the days until I get to taste root beer again, until I hear cicadas at night. Now I want to make up for all the time I wasted while I was still in the UK and refusing to get out of bed. I want to fill my life full of vivid experiences. I haven’t got much money, but I have been looking to do small things in my spare time. I don’t want my weekends to slip by in a haze of basketball highlights and potato chips. It’s as simple as just saying “Yes” more often. It’s things like going for a walk with my kid brother Frank before he moves out, traveling to Stamford Bridge to watch Kanté tear it up with my old writing buddy from Winchester, or finally trying out Bingo and Trivia Night at the pub where I work.

Of course, I’m most interested in things that are creative, that light a fire in my soul. So here are three things I’ve seen this year so far, that I consider to be of artistic value:

 


Humanity – Ricky Gervais Stand Up Tour

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In January I went to the Colston Hall in Bristol- the place where I both sang and danced in three separate shows when I was a kid- to see my first stand up gig. I just couldn’t turn down the chance to see one of my favorite all-time comedians in the flesh. What was great was that Ricky Gervais was in the best form of his life- the quality of his material hadn’t dropped at all since the likes of Animals and Science. I can see how a comedian might not be able to keep up with the times, but Gervais is as sharp and relevant now as he ever was. During Humanity he told stories about celebrities, which to the average person like me, was so interesting, because it was like he acted as bridge between the real world and Hollywood. He’s worked with so many famous people, and yet he comes across as a very down-to-earth guy. It was like he was our man on the inside, sharing the juicy details of the bizarre existence of the famous. I don’t want to spoil any of the material, so go watch this show now (it’s on Netflix!).

 


Loveless – Andrey Zvyagintsev film

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About a ten minute drive from where I live is a cinema called The Curzon, in a Victorian seaside town called Clevedon. It’s one of the oldest continually-running movie theaters in the world. They’ve got this old organ from the 1930s and sometimes a fellow in a bow tie comes down to play it before the movie starts. I went to this cinema a few weeks ago to see a Russian movie called Loveless. It was the only night they were showing it, and I really wanted to see the film. I think it’s the first foreign-language movie I have seen in the theater, and maybe the first I’ve seen since my days in Film Studies class at City of Bristol College. The film was beautiful and bleak. It’s all about a kid that goes missing during his parents’ bitter divorce. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in recent times, and it gives a very cynical portrayal of domestic life in Putin’s Russia. It’s not about Putin or politics per se, but you can feel it ticking in the background. Fleeting glimpses of current affairs, from car radios or TV sets, contribute to a general impression of national sadness. The dialogue in this film was great; the adults rip into one another like Siberian Lynxes. It’s a whole lot of sex, swearing, and darkly-humored nihilism.

 


Macbeth – Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

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The Tobacco Factory in Bristol is one of our go-to theaters, along with the Old Vic. I try to see Shakespeare as often as I can, and so far I’ve seen about 15 of his plays (almost half!). However until last Thursday, I had never seen Macbeth. I’ve wanted to check out this gory tragedy for years and years, but it just kept eluding me. In 2016 I saw the Michael Fassbender film adaptation with my roommate Aaron, but I loved it so much that it only made me want to see the narrative on stage even more! I got my chance this week and went along with my dad and brother. The Tobacco Factory is a modern theater, but it’s perfect for Shakespeare because the seats are arranged around a small, central stage area. You get to see the actors up close and it gives the plays this real sense of intimacy. I liked this adaptation of Macbeth– the stage floor was covered with a deep layer of blackened wood chips, the sound effects had the diseased, deathly tone of buzzing wasps, and the WW1-inspired costumes were low-key and utilitarian, in a way that contributed to the bleak atmosphere. Best of all were the three witches with their heads wrapped in gauze. It was creepy as fuck. Also, the play featured my favorite stage actor- Simon Armstrong- who I have seen in Bristol dozens of times in everything from Moliere to Chekhov. I also only just realized that he plays Qhorin Halfhand in Game of Thrones (the Night’s Watch ranger that Jon Snow serves under in Season 2!).

My Thoughts on Phantom Thread

I can’t remember the last time there were so many movies out at once that I’ve really wanted to see. I still need to see Loveless, Hostiles and I, Tonya. I’m also looking forward to seeing Annihilation, You Were Never Really Here, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, which come out very soon. I’m confident I’ll enjoy them all. So far the only movies I’ve had the time to see are Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and Phantom Thread. The former was good, the latter was better. And it’s the latter of those two films that’s inspired me to blog today.

At first glance, Phantom Thread didn’t look to be my kind of film. It’s set in the couture business of 1950s London. It’s a romantic period drama about a fancy dressmaker who makes fancy dresses for the fancypants people of high society. The kind of movies I usually watch tend to have a higher density of people face down in a gutter drowning on their own blood. But then I noticed something: this film starred Daniel Day-Lewis and was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The last time these two hooked up we were given a brutal drama set against the harsh backdrop of the Southern California Oil Boom, ending with the unforgettable image of a preacher getting his head caved in with a bowling pin. There Will Be Blood is a contender for my favorite film of all time, so I knew I had to give this a go.

And Phantom Thread did not disappoint.

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It’s a slow, meditative drama that’s admittedly not for everyone. But what really makes this film is the intensity of the performances from its two leading actors. Daniel Day-Lewis demonstrates yet again that he is the most talented and versatile actor of his generation, and he brings this absolutely dominating screen presence that turns even the most subtle scene into a hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat affair. You can feel the goosepimples crawling up your arms every time he does something as seemingly mundane as giving his opposite number a closed-mouth glare. And as good as Day-Lewis is, I thought that his co-star Vicky Krieps was right there with him. She matched his raw intensity and produced one of the most powerful performances I’ve seen in years.

Day-Lewis plays a famed dressmaker, and Krieps a waitress who sort of becomes his mistress and his muse. He’s wholly dedicated to his art, but Krieps is determined to have a piece of him for herself. The movie essentially follows her attempts to have a relationship with him- one that she gets something out of. She doesn’t want to ruin his art, or stop him from making dresses, but she just wants a little piece of him that is hers and hers alone. The film is a fascinating portrayal of the struggles of having a relationship with an artist. Day-Lewis is kind of a narcissistic- yet brilliant- genius, but Krieps has a profound effect on him, and ultimately he is shocked at how she changes his life and completely disrupts his routine.

Phantom Thread reminded me a lot of another film I watched recently. The other week I finally got around to watching the 2013 documentary Salinger. Funnily enough, Salinger was originally meant to be a feature film with Daniel Day-Lewis in the starring role. In Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis’ character is very particular, adhering to a strict and exact sense of routine. His every waking day, his every living breath, is dedicated to the art of dressmaking. And it pushes anyone away from getting too close. There’s no room in his life for intimacy; everyone comes second to his art. And it’s this aspect of the film that reminded me of Salerno’s documentary of one of my favorite writers- JD Salinger. The film portrays the novelist as being so obsessed with his art that it pushes away his wife; he would supposedly spend weeks at a time writing inside a windowless bunker, which neither she or anyone else was allowed in. Both movies seem to raise the question: is that lack of intimacy the price one pays for achieving true, lasting greatness? Can you live a normal life and be dedicated to your art? What are you willing to sacrifice for immortality? The most touching part of the documentary, for me, was a reported quote from Salinger to the effect that he wished he had never written The Catcher in the Rye. It made me sad, because it suggested to me that perhaps he wished he had lived a more normal life, without all the media scrutiny and the burden of being America’s greatest novelist.

Phantom Thread, however, ends on a much more optimistic note. In the end, Day-Lewis and Krieps have found a way to make it work. Theirs is a dark love in which he willingly allows her to feed him poisonous mushrooms so that he becomes so ill that he is completely dependent on her. It’s a crazy kind of passion, but then genius often comes hand in hand with madness. Despite all the difficulties of living in his world, she is determined to make a place for herself- and that’s what makes Krieps’ character so compelling.

We Need To Talk About That BIG Star Wars News

We need to talk about Star Wars. I don’t want to say that “This is the best time to be a Star Wars fan” because the sequel trilogy has been nothing if not divisive. But in terms of the sheer amount of Star Wars we are getting, and the staggering financial investment being pumped into the franchise, this is undoubtedly the Golden Age of the franchise. Disney have already made back the $4 billion they spent to acquire the Star Wars license from George Lucas, and have decided that the popular science fantasy name will replace Marvel as the dominant blockbuster property for the foreseeable future. I think that Disney are starting to recognize the potential the Star Wars universe has for fresh stories that will bring in the megabucks. The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi have all been a resounding success at the box office and maybe, just maybe, we are going to see a little more experimentation on their part.

The more I look at the sequel trilogy, the more I think it’s a hot mess. However I adored Rogue One. It felt different and edgy and interesting, and that’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about Solo: A Star Wars Story. The first anthology film was styled as a “war movie” set in the Star Wars universe, and in May we’re essentially getting a heist movie. I think the creative freedom afforded these new movies taking place outside the Skywalker saga could result in some really intriguing narratives- as was the case with Rogue One. There are supposedly two more anthology movies in the works, and by the looks of things they are going to be an Obi-Wan movie and a Boba Fett origin story. But even though these anthology movies represent a break from the Skywalker saga, they still feel close to the main films.

Over the last few months there have been several exciting announcements. Disney is now interested in telling stories completely separate from the characters, places and events we are used to. It’s like they’ve answered my prayers and finally realized the potential in the Star Wars universe. For the sake of coherence, I’m gonna break down the announcements in bullet points. These are the confirmed projects in the works:

  • At least one more anthology movie to follow Rogue One and Solo.
  • A new Star Wars trilogy directed by Rian Johnson, completely separate from the Skywalker saga.
  • A live-action Star Wars TV series, developed for Disney’s upcoming streaming service.
  • A new series of Star Wars movies written and produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, separate from the Skywalker saga and the Johnson trilogy.

Goodness Globb. That’s a lot of Star Wars. The news came in yesterday that the creators of the Game of Thrones TV show would be working on this new series of Star Wars films, and it’s encouraging to me that Disney would choose them for their experience with complex characters and darker, more nuanced narratives. The language used in the press release deserves close attention. The fact that they are producing a “series” suggests to me at least 3 films, but the fact that it’s a series and not a “trilogy” indicates that it may not be a singular narrative. It could mean that we’re about to get a new anthology series of standalone films, only this time more removed from the familiar Skywalker saga. I’d say we’re looking at about 7-8 Star Wars movies guaranteed to be coming our way all in all, which is a lot of Star Wars. And in addition to these films we’ve got a TV show in the works as well, which we probably won’t see until 2020. I’m interested to see what Benioff and Weiss come up with. They said in their statement that they will get to work on it as soon as Game of Thrones is finished, so I’d say the absolute earliest we could see the first film would be late 2020, and I think even that’s pushing it. With all the Star Wars we’re getting, Disney are going to think carefully about the timing of each release, and at the moment we don’t know what we’ll see first- the first of the Johnson films, the Obi-Wan film, or the first of the Benioff & Weiss films. Whatever one comes out first, the next surely won’t see theaters for at least 6 months after. I think we’re probably looking at 1-2 Star Wars movies a year, and the box office performance of the upcoming Solo film will probably be a good indicator of how Disney will want to space these movies out.

I think it’s good to be excited. However I’m not under any illusions that all of these projects will be just wonderful. One thing we know for absolute certain is that not a single one of these upcoming Star Wars projects will please all the fans. The Star Wars fanbase can be charitably described volatile, and each generation of fans will never be able to replicate the joy they experienced in their childhood. As I said earlier, I’m not overly thrilled with the sequel trilogy- though there are plenty of good moments I enjoyed in the films, such as the praetorian scene in The Last Jedi. And a lot of people like the films. It’s important to remember that Disney will be making these new movies for a new generation of fans, and they will be different to what we’re used to. This ain’t your nan’s Star Wars.

At this point it is pure speculation what these stories will be. I would love to see a Star Wars narrative that focuses on a padawan’s training- a sort of Harry Potter style, coming-of-age Jedi story. I’d also love to see more of the criminal underworld of the Star Wars galaxy. But what do you want? Let me know in the comments all your wishes for the new Star Wars narratives we are getting!

My Top 10 Movies of 2017!

Today I’m continuing my series of festive blog posts to close out 2017 with a definitive power ranking of the best movies I have seen this year. A couple of these films technically first came out in 2016, but did so right at the end of the year and were still in theaters in 2017, so I’m allowed to include them under the Federal Statute of It’s-My-Blog-And-I-Can-Do-What-I-Want. So grab yourself a mince pie, a tall glass of milk and enjoy!

 


#10 Logan

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I only discovered X-Men in the last two years or so, but I tend to latch onto things quickly. I was looking forward to a super-hero movie that was based around harrowing character development and horrific, nauseatingly-realistic gore. Logan didn’t disappoint, but at the same time I wasn’t quite as engaged as I thought I’d be. However for superb acting, cinematography, and writing it deserves its place on this list. Put simply, it’s just extremely well-made.

 


#9 Hidden Figures

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This might be my feel-good movie of the year. It might not have the indie tones and raw artistry of Logan, but it just about edges it in my rankings because I found it to be more engaging. It’s a heartwarming, intelligent story that fills in the blanks of our history. If you enjoy 20th century historical dramas- this is for you!

 


#8 1922

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Netflix have been balling recently, producing a slew of dark, close-ended drama series and nuanced arthouse features. I watched 1922 a few weeks ago on the basis that Stephen King is a genius, whose works have been so well translated to the big screen in such classics as The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. I loved the minimalist, claustrophobic setting and the dark narrative, and the motif of the rats was both chilling and masterful.

 


#7 War for the Planet of the Apes

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I love this franchise because it proves that not all summer blockbusters are devoid of self-awareness. It has the budget and look of a Hollywood action flick, but to be honest this movie has an emotional depth and complexity far beyond something you would expect about a movie based on talking apes whacking humans over the head with two-by-fours. It’s a depiction of a post-apocalypse that feels fresh and interesting, and Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of the deranged, Kurtz-esque isolated military leader was perhaps my favorite performance of the year!

 


#6 Fences

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This was the only movie I watched on my 10-hour flight from London to Houston in May of this year. I love the stage, and this is a mesmerizing adaptation of the great August Wilson’s drama of the same name. Denzel is unforgettable as the jealous patriarch Troy Maxson, and his performance alone makes this the most intense movie I have seen all year.

 


#5 Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

Before this year I had never seen a Pirates of the Carribean movie, but a bunch my bestie’s fellow therapists asked us if we wanted to go see it with them, so I watched the very first one the night before. Missing the next three installments didn’t ruin my enjoyment of Dead Men Tell No Tales however, and I had no idea just how much I needed a swashbuckling pirate adventure in my life. This movie was a barrel of laughs and just pure, summertime entertainment.

 


#4 Spider-Man: Homecoming

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When I saw that there was a new Spider-Man film coming out, I asked if the world really needed one. It was War for the Planet of the Apes that I was begging my roommates to take me to. However I ended up enjoying the new Spider-Man more than I ever thought possible, and it’s easily my favorite summer flick. The fact that the main villain was the evil mastermind behind the stealing of the McDonald’s brand from its namesake made it all the more sinister (and hilarious).

 


#3 Manchester by the Sea

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The top three on this list are all masterpieces that are all worthy of a Best Picture Oscar trophy in my opinion, and- for what it’s worth- the TumbleweedWrites Film of the Year Award. This character-driven drama was the first feature I saw in the movie theater this year, and it got 2017 off to a fantastic start. I loved every aspect of it, and it kept me engaged from beginning to end. Out of all the movies on this list, it’s probably the most “quintessentially Michael”. I love stories about family, personal tragedy, and working class neighborhoods. This movie didn’t so much tug at my heartstrings as it did bloodily rip them out.

 


#2 Mudbound

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When I said that Netflix was straight saucin’ this year, I wasn’t kidding. Mudbound is the latest entry on this list- I watched it this afternoon in fact. It’s a powerful, exceptionally well-written drama set in the Mississippi Delta. It follows two families, one black and one white, and follows their struggles before, during, and after World War 2. It’s a poignant, heart-wrenching depiction of race relations, poverty, and PTSD. Oh, and any fans of Breaking Bad– get ready to hate Jonathan Banks’ character a lot.

 


#1 Blade Runner 2049

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While it’s true that any of my top 3 are TumbleweedWrites Film of the Year Award caliber movies, there was really only going to be one winner. Choosing Blade Runner 2049 was easy because it displayed such excellence in almost every category measuring the quality of a movie might have. It is probably the most visually-stunning film I have ever seen, and every minute of this 3-hour epic was one of intense enjoyment on my part. It was so good that it didn’t even feel like a long film at all. The performances of Gosling and Hoeks in particular were stellar, the sound effects, musical score and clever use of colors so perfectly captured the essence of a Philip K. Dick post-apocalypse, and the inclusion of the Elvis Presley hologram was the cherry on top of the birthday cake as I celebrated the 25th anniversary of my birth watching this masterpiece.