The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2 Review

Well, it’s time to bring this little expedition to a close.

I never planned from the outset to review all of these films, and certainly not in such a short space of time, but left with not much to do stuck at home, I ended up watching them all a few days apart, partly out of a desire to see the end of the story, and party just for completion’s sake.

I’ve chosen to review both parts together, as it makes more sense to review a whole cohesive story together rather than in two parts; they can’t be viewed in a vacuum, they need each other for context, and thus, should be judged together.

Following on from the events of Catching Fire, Katniss is being kept safe in District 13 and tasked with taking on the role of ‘Mockingjay’, the symbolic leader of the rebellion against The Capitol. Meanwhile, Peeta is being kept hostage by the enemy and manipulated against Katniss by the treacherous President Snow.

Although I have decided to group the review of both parts, I will analyse the story beats and moments within each film separately, as to not cause confusion for the reader, or myself, as I could quite easily lose track of all that went on between the two films.

This is the story the series has been gearing up to tell from the start, it’s meandered somewhat in the middle but here we are now, with the characters ready for battle and the world around them crumbling, it feels like a satisfying pay-off for viewers of the last two instalments.

This is also the film that starts to show the most character development and organically evolves arcs that had been established from the start.

Katniss no longer feels as generic. She’s more damaged in these films, and desperate. Her desire to fight morphs from one with selfish intentions to one of righteous indignation, it’s the character wrinkle she’s needed for a while, she has fire here that was sorely missing from the last two films.

Peeta also gets significant character evolution, at long last, arguably he’s the character that undergoes the most change over the finale, and that holds true over both parts, he becomes somewhat of a wildcard, you’re unable to anticipate just what his character will do next, which certainly makes a change from the white-meat, deer-in-the-headlights character we’d come to know in the previous instalments.

I generally like the direction the series took from here on in, I think it really found its feet once it started exploring the wider world and its inhabitants. At the start, it just feels like yet another YA-aimed series with no stand-out features, but by the last two films, it has started to stand on its own two feet.

Granted, you’d have been well within your rights to write it off as another cash-in after the first film, but I feel like you’re rewarded for sticking with it and seeing how things develop.

The quality of the filmmaking has certainly tightened up as the series has gone along, with these two films, in particular, sticking to a nice pace, and doing much better with creating tension, as well as paying off long-running plot details or inferred twists. These twists are more heavily featured in the second part as opposed to the first, but they’re well-built and, more importantly, logical. They don’t come out of nowhere with no reason, in most cases, it has been hinted at, or something has been teased only for the opposite to happen in a manner that makes sense. It has plot twists that serve the pot, in other words, rather than just for the sake of the twist itself.

These films also have a distinct feeling that the first two lacked, they feel more grungy, more industrial. Probably as a result of District 13 surroundings, but even the decadent luxury of The Capitol seems grim in comparison to before.

I was also fond of the cohesive tone the director managed to maintain throughout both films, giving each film enough events to have its own identity while maintaining a mutual atmosphere, much to its benefit, as both films feel breezy and make for easy viewing as a result but also managing to retain a satisfying tension underneath it all.

A sad, and unavoidable, difficulty of these last two films was the passing mid-production of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Limited on his inclusion for the final instalment, I think his inclusion was handled very well, and with great respect. His loss was an extremely sad one, of a tremendously talented actor, and his mark is left indelibly on this franchise.

The second Part sees District 13 launch their attack on The Capitol, while President Snow tries to keep one step ahead, setting traps for them at every turn, and Peeta tries to shake off the effects of The Capitols torture and brainwashing.

Every finale relies on one thing: sticking the landing. You could have all the goodwill in the world drained away by a bad ending (anyone remember Dexter?) especially when you’re a franchise like this, Katniss’ final arrow had to hit the target or the whole series would have fallen apart.

Luckily, it did, and it felt like my perseverance with a series I wasn’t totally on board with had been rewarded. The ending (which I won’t spoil here) was well-built and masterfully executed, the tide turns, characters change, and so does the eventual end goal, but what matter is that it all comes together in the end, and it did.

The finale of a story usually brings along with it a sense of loss, leaning emotionally on characters deaths to further invest the audience, and while all the death don’t have the same punch, most do, and one, in particular, provides the final gut punch to the audience and Katniss which sets up her final actions beautifully.

The characters now feel like they have fulfilled the arcs they started way back at the start, and the film plays with your expectations with some of them, pulling the rug out from under you. I was particularly impressed with how the character of Gale changes from the start to where he is here, and how you as an audience member are encouraged to view him.

One fault I would say of the final film is it suffers from ‘Return of the King syndrome’, or put more simply, it has too many endings.

A perfect closing shot is followed up by another scene in the form of ‘x years later’ showing the characters older and where they are, which is nice to a degree, but also unnecessary, especially when the scene before it would have been a lovely ending to the series as a whole.

These final two films won me over on a lot of the series’ aspects, looking back. I didn’t feel an attachment to the two main characters, Katniss and Peeta, but felt they were extremely strong here, and I was happy with how their story ended. I was interested in seeing more of the world, and they delivered that too. I can’t help but feel like the series got stronger as it progressed, and even with a few quibbles, I still found great enjoyment in this two-part final chapter.

So, I suppose that’s the final word. My determination to finish the series was justly rewarded with a conclusion that ticks all the right boxes for an epic climax. I may not have grown to love the franchise as some have, but these films have at least made me fond of it.

Halloween (1978) Review

Throughout October, I’ve been looking at a genre that I haven’t given much thought to in the past, that being the Horror genre; there’s no better time of the year to look at some spooky films than this month after all, and we now arrive at the film whose name derives from the holiday that makes October so spooky: Halloween.

I must admit I don’t buy into Halloween as a holiday all that much. Being British I am averse to anything seen as ‘too American’ and Halloween is one such thing. It isn’t really a holiday, after all, just an excuse to get dressed up and procure free sweets and candy. It doesn’t serve any other purpose.

One thing it does have going for it though is being the key time of year for all the big horror releases to make their move on the big screen; we usually see this in the form of a new addition to a big horror franchise most years, which is one of the more maligned aspects of the horror genre; the abundance of sequels. A habit it still hasn’t managed to kick even all these years later.

This franchise itself is no stranger to the unnecessary sequel it has had no less than seven sequels in this canon, one reboot with its own sequel, and ANOTHER reboot with another few sequels in the pipeline. It’s become an amorphous mass of a franchise that one would need a sizeable flow chart to keep up with. Not that we need to now, as the most recent reboot reset the series continuity, but we get ahead of ourselves.

This is also the film that set a lot of precedents for other series’ to follow within the ‘slasher’ kind of horror film. You could go as far as to call it a blueprint for all similar films to follow with such elements as the unstoppable monster, a signature weapon, and the specific targeting of promiscuous teenagers all claiming this film as their origin point.

The film’s premise is simple. 15 years before the main bulk to the story, six-year-old Michael Myers inexplicably stabs his older sister to death, after which he is committed to an asylum. The main plot kicks off after Michael escapes the institution and makes a beeline for his old house, where he comes across babysitter Lauri Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and begins a reign of terror while his physiatrist Dr Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is in hot pursuit.

There’s something I always refer to when talking about horror films, one thing which I think is key to any movie hoping to get under someone’s skin, and that word is atmosphere. It’s often the glue that holds these experiences together and can make the difference between a fairly generic horror, and a true classic of the genre.

There’s a reason this film has been used as the blueprint for so many films after it because it’s simply the best example of how these kinds of films can work; its sense of creeping dread is second to none, the threat of Michael Myers is always looming, even when he doesn’t make an appearance he feels omnipresent, just hidden out of view, and waiting for the right time to strike.

This is especially evident during the films early stages, where we adopt the perspective of Myers himself, tracking his movements as he follows Laurie, hearing only his shallow breathing and the ever-present musical underscore that makes your hairs stand on end. It all feels so claustrophobic and restricted, even though the scenes are outside, it further adds more discomfort to the audience as we’re occupying Myers’ own space as he stalks a victim.

This tight, restricted style of filming is utilised multiple times throughout the film when it is used, it feels like the camera is Myers himself, impassively viewing the events while he waits for his moment to strike, such is the voyeuristic nature of some of the cinematography. It all comes together so nicely to create that wonderfully oppressive atmosphere that I talk about so much.

This is the film that popularised the ‘unstoppable monster’ as a horror antagonist, someone who is not outwardly supernatural but has elements of such things regardless. He’s an inhuman monster with a human exterior, the fact he’s almost recognisable just makes him all the more creepy.

Of course, when it comes to the creepiness factor, his iconic mask also helps. It’s a perfect match for his character too; it’s blank, emotionless and gives us no clue to what lurks beneath. I have often parroted the theory that what you can’t see is always scarier, and Michael Myers is an example of this because his true nature is hidden behind a pale, lifeless mask, it just makes him more imposing, coupled with his relentlessness, it makes for a truly compelling horror icon.

If I were to critique his appearance and how it is portrayed, however, I think I’d say that we see a little too much of him. In the early scenes, we only see him glanced from far away, he still has an overriding sense of mystery about him, but when we spend so much time up-close-and-personal with him, it dulls the effect somewhat. The more you get used to an image, the less frightening it becomes, and even though he is a very well executed villain, I just think less of a focus on what he looks like would have just made him that little bit more unnerving.

As for the other characters, there’s a certain amount of cliche to be had, although this is retrospective cliche, something we can only identify as such with the benefit of hindsight. We’ve had the luxury of seeing the forty-plus years of derivatives this film spawned, so we know that these characters are now overdone, but they weren’t in 1978, so a certain amount of slack has to be allowed.

That being said, however, some of the dialogue between the teenage girls seems a little bit manufactured and stilted, not helped by clunky delivery from inexperienced actors. I found myself quite averse to the actress playing Annie (Nancy Kyes), for example, as she was very wooden in parts, and this is not helped when other actors around her step up their game.

To that end, Jamie Lee Curtis was the star of this film. Unsurprisingly given how it effectively launched her career, she manages to pull off both terrified damsel-in-distress and capable protector very well, especially in the face of such a ferocious enemy. She has the vulnerability to be a shrinking violet and yet, when cornered, she can more than handle herself. Her character may have gotten messy in subsequent instalments, but here she’s well-rounded and likeable, more so than her peers, at any rate.

A lot of the success of this film comes down to the capable hands it found itself in, those hands belonging to John Carpenter, and as seen by future sequels, when his influence is removed, the franchise falls apart. It takes an incredibly strong and focused mind to create a successful horror film, one that doesn’t sit back and rest on laurels but forges new paths, and Carpenter would make a career out of doing just that.

In conclusion, then, a gripping and thrilling experience, whose flaws I am willing to overlook due to its superb atmosphere and direction, it made me forget about my previous misgivings of the genre by telling a coherent story with interesting inhabitants. You could do a lot worse on Halloween night than sitting down to watch this film.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review

So, the first film in this series got me into it; invited me inside, made me a cup of tea, now it’s up to the sequel to fetch the biscuits and keep me entertained with an anecdote or two. This analogy fell apart quite quickly, didn’t it? Never mind, I’m pressing ahead anyway…

Even though the first film had engaged me enough to want to see its follow-up instalments, I wasn’t completely all-aboard with the franchise as a whole, and it still ran the risk of losing me if it didn’t come good on a lot of its more interesting plot threads.
After the events of the first film, Katniss and Peeta (Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, respectively) are living a better life in the winner accommodation within District 12. As dissension grows amongst the districts, and Katniss shows her sympathy towards their plight, President Snow decides to change the rules surrounding the games, thrusting the pair back into the deadly competition for their lives.

One thing I’ll say about Catching Fire straight away is that it suffers from ‘middle movie syndrome’. As in, it’s a film in the middle of a series that naturally suffers from a lack of a concrete ending, given that it has to set up for subsequent iterations. The first film had its fair share of this too, but could at least have been viewed as a standalone experience to some extent, now we’re deep into franchise territory and it shows.

Not that I can begrudge a film for serving a purpose, as this does, but those who like their individual films to be complete experiences on their own are going to be left disappointed, but as a part of a series that is indisputably aimed at people who are already fans it certainly works.

I’d say it’s a more polished affair this time around too, the cinematography is less jumpy and more fluid, and the pacing is much improved too. As much as I enjoyed the first film, it did seem a tad over-long, happily, this sequel does not share this issue.
It is also starting to explore the larger themes at play in this world; the first film was very much about introducing the concept of the games and the world it inhabits, and with this done, it can now start to knuckle down and work on building the world around the characters. As a result, we see the theme of tyranny explored in a more direct manner, as our protagonists are dragged into the conflicts, being pulled by either side and manipulated, while the other occupants of the world are finally starting their fight back in earnest with their symbol of hope, Katniss, firmly established as being on their side.

Speaking of tyranny, we also get more time to get to know President Snow as a character, although, not as much as I’d like, admittedly. I want to know what led him to this point, what events have shaped his approach, instead he seems to have the same air of self-righteousness that most stock villains have in films; that being said, I feel like the film is starting to turn a corner in how the despot is portrayed, and we get a lot more insight into his personal philosophies in this instalment.
Steps have also been taken to round-out Katniss as a character, she doesn’t have the same sense of naivety as she did in the first film, although she hasn’t yet had her moment to stand out among a large cast, I feel as though that moment is coming, and that her character is on a slower boil than most.

As for the other characters, they’ve remained unchanged between films, even if their motivations have shifted, their characters have largely stayed the same. I found myself quite apathetic towards Peeta, for instance, who barely has any character that makes him rise above the usual portrayal of ‘hunky male love interest’. The really interesting characters are still in the background, like Effie and Caesar Flickerman, their personalities are more effervescing and colourful, but I understand that they serve their purpose in the background, they run the risk of being annoying if they’re too heavily spotlighted.

I also had an issue with the films ending, which was very abrupt and anticlimactic. It reminds me of the ending of Harry Potter and the deathly Hallows Part 1 in that it didn’t seem to know where a good place to end would be, so it picks somewhere completely random and leaves its audience perplexed. This should all come with the qualifier that its ending serves as the set-up to the next instalment, but it doesn’t leave the audience very fulfilled when you screech your plot to a halt in such a sudden way.
All in all, then, it’s very much more of the same. A passable film that didn’t make me want to stop watching the series, but didn’t particularly grip me either. It’s not helped by being the middle part of the story and therefore it’s bound to be an anti-climax, but it doesn’t do anything to stand-out ahead of its future finale either.

It has its merits, and may very well be a better made film than its predecessor, but I feel like I didn’t get enough out of it to truly recommend it. I want to watch the last two simply because I want to know how the story ends, and that’s a shame, as the world and some of its inhabitants seem genuinely interesting, it’s just that they get glossed-over in favour of the undercooked lead characters.

I feel like it needs to do something big in the next film to really grab my attention, as it’s building a great anticipation with no sign of a pay-off. I anxiously await the next instalment.

The Hunger Games Review

I must admit that this franchise passed me by entirely. The height of its popularity came and went just after I was outside of its target demographic; and in truth, it seems like a franchise I could quite easily get into, but hadn’t had the time to do so, but now my options are limited, it’s a great chance to catch up on things like this.

I vaguely remember the hype around this series in the early-to-mid 2010s, and while it never achieved the height of pop-culture phenomenon afforded to its Young-Adult-orientated contemporaries, it has still generated a fairly sizeable fan-base, and enough momentum to warrant a new prequel book that was released earlier this year.

It’s based on the eponymous book series written by Suzanne Collins, which depicts a dystopian future where twenty-four ‘tributes’ are selected from twelve districts to compete in a fight to the death competition as punishment for a previous uprising, with each tribute picked at random, except for our hero Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who volunteers herself to save her younger sister.

Right from the off, I was comparing this film to similar YA-aimed tales that were popular around the same time, and I have to say, even amongst its contemporaries, it really stands out. The premise itself was enough to pique my interest, but it was in its execution where it made me want to learn more about this world and its society.

There’s a wonderful dichotomy between the utopia of ‘The Capitol’ where all the money and influence is based and the twelve districts from which the champions are picked. The Capitol awash with vibrant (and often sickly) colours and fashion, with its population living in the lap of luxury, sporting wildly over-the-top outfits, while the citizens of the later districts live ration-to-ration, in grim and grey environments, working their often labour-intensive jobs out of the view of The Capitol. It has a devilishly sharp satire running underneath it that will be blindingly obvious to a more mature audience but will likely fly over the heads of the younger crowds.

It’s a particularly extreme example of wealth inequality, but one that puts the setting into perspective quite nicely, and its the world and how it functions that I came away more interested in by the end of the film.

The actual meat of the film, the games themselves, can’t help but be predictable and anticlimactic, but it is a starting point of a bigger story, something that is both a positive and a negative thing; on one hand, it was a significant enough chunk of the over-arching narrative to not feel bare as an overall experience, and it is intriguing enough to make me want to watch the next instalments, it feels like there’s something brewing, we just don’t get there in this film, which can be frustrating at times, as it feels like its holding something back for later films, which is something I’ve criticised Marvel for in the past, so I’m nothing but consistent in my complaints.

Really though, we knew going in that this was the first in a series, so a comparison to the MCU’s approach of every film being an advert for the next isn’t exactly fair, but in my defence, it does feel like there is a certain something lacking, like it doesn’t quite grasp the overarching narrative yet, and as such can come across as unfocused and messy.

This is reflected in the cinematography too, which is extremely restless and jump-cut-happy at times. There are moments when the films builds a nice intense atmosphere, which is interrupted by a jumpily shot scene, and this isn’t even a problem exclusive to the action, even in the slower scenes, five different angles are used when two would have sufficed.

The cut-up nature of the story is just a reflection of it being an adaptation of a series of books, however, meaning that the closure we usually seek in films is lost; this is an easier feat to pull off in a book, but less so in a film, which has to tell a coherent narrative and be accessible to anyone at the same time, whereas a book assumes you are onboard with the series for you to read it. If you were to start the Harry Potter series from the Second Book, for instance, you’d only have yourself to blame, whereas the film adaptation is obligated to also be understandable to anyone jumping on at that point. It’s what makes novel adaptations (specifically a series adaptation) such a perilous undertaking.

I couldn’t comment on how good an adaptation of the book the film is, as I haven’t read it, but I can say that it did its job well enough as a film to make me interested enough in the series, it’s sold me to the point where I want to watch more, and maybe even pick up the books eventually, so that’s job done as far as they’re concerned.

I am here to review films on their own merit though; to me, it doesn’t matter if a film is a faithful adaptation or not, so long as it is an enjoyable product, then I’m happy, and for what it’s worth, The Hunger Games is enjoyable, I can’t help but feel like I’m not the target audience and so am not invested in the series as perhaps is necessary to get the full enjoyment of it, but as I say, its job is to introduce new audiences to the material too, so there’s a win right there.

I can’t say I was overly-enamoured with the characters involved either, I was warming to Katniss in the end (and Lawrence does a great job as the character) but it feels like she’s still growing into a big enough character to carry a franchise, other characters are either insignificant, merely being walking time-bombs for their inevitable demises – these are usually the ones with the least characterisation – or they’re stock retreads of the usual tropes.

There are a few exceptions, however. Woody Harrelson delights in chewing the scenery as Haymitch, a former winner of the games, sporting a ridiculously terrible hairpiece (between this film and Venom, I’m starting to think Hollywood’s wig-makers have a vendetta against Woody) and a drinking problem, and Stanley Tucci also has fun hamming it up as lively talk-show host Caesar Flickerman (for my UK readers, try and imagine Graham Norton with purple hair, and for my US audience, imagine Jimmy Fallon). These two are little shimmer of brighter characters amongst an otherwise so-so mix of cliches and tropes.

Still, though, the underlying point of this review is that the film held my attention and interested me enough to make me want to watch more, I’m not in a rush to see the next instalment, but I would like to see where the story goes next, I wasn’t actively wishing the film would end and all of its characters to spontaneously combust like I do when I watch Twilight, but comparing it to those low standards is doing it a disservice.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed The Hunger Games, despite my lack of engagement with most of its characters, the world of the film more than made up for it, I like its dynamics, how juxtaposing the lives of those at either end of the scale are, and that’s what will make me come back for more. It helps that it has a talented cast, and it is fairly dependably directed and shot, even if it can be a bit messy, and it can’t help but being an anticlimax, in the end, it’s an entertaining and engaging enough film to lead you into its universe, I tentatively await to see if its next instalment takes the franchise to higher places.

The Nightmare Before Christmas Review

Is it a Christmas film? Is it a Halloween film? Well, let me put this argument to bed, it’s both, there the argument is solved. Also, pineapple does go on pizza (if you want it to) and Jaffa Cakes are cakes, not biscuits.

Alternatively, why don’t we just forget restricting films to a certain season, and watch what we want, when we want? Or is that a bridge too far?

It is one of my pet peeves, the internet discourse about subjects that just don’t matter, they never go away, and they cause such VICIOUS conflict online, why does it irk people so much that other people have pineapple on pizza, to go back to that argument? No-one is forcing you to eat it too, similarly, who cares whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie? (It is. It definitely is) or whether you should watch Nightmare Before Christmas in October, or wait until November? The only reason you should need to watch a film is that you want to.

Anyway, that’s my initial rant out of the way, we might have another one before too long, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, eh?

The Nightmare Before Christmas is, of course, beloved by many, of my generation especially, that mark it out as one of the best modern (albeit now over 30 years old) representations of stop-motion animation. as well as an early indicator of Tim Burton’s talents…

…except it isn’t. As I say to many people (I imagine it sounds quite smug to others, but it sounds smart to me so shush) Tim Burton didn’t direct TIM BURTON’S Nightmare Before Christmas, the film was actually directed by Henry Selick, an experienced animator whose work varied wildly from being an in-between artist, right up to director. He’s not been a prolific director by any means, including this film, he’s only been in the directors chair four times (he does have a few projects lined up in the next few years too) unlike Burton, who, to me, is one of the most vastly overrated filmmakers of the modern era, but comes along here to take all the thunder.

In all fairness, it is Burton’s story, and he was producing, but that’s no reason for his name having pride of place in the films title. Think of all the times when a big name director has lent their name to a newer filmmaker as a producer, do you remember Stephen Spielberg’s Poltergeist? No, of course you don’t because that’s misleading, and so is this films titling. It does no favours to Selick, the actual director, who isn’t mentioned, and comes across as a real ego trip on Burton’s part.

But anyway, most of you probably don’t care about that, you want to know about what I think of the film, especially given my championing of animation on my site. Well, like many my age, I really, really like this film.

I have a few films that I watch every year in the run up to Christmas, and the first one I watch, sometime in October – as previously discussed it is both a Halloween AND a Christmas film – is Nightmare Before Christmas it really gives me that glowing, familiar feeling that your favourite seasonal films give you, something that I can only compare to a warm hot chocolate on a cold, winters night.

Sometimes I think films are a comfort blanket more than anything else. There’s a good chance that you yourself have a certain film that you’ll go back to when you’ve had a bad day, or you’re ill and need a lift, films that are just as good when watched repeatedly that leave you feeling much better after you’ve watched them. Christmas films are an even bigger example of this, because Christmas films (for the most part) are made to be heartwarming, cheery affairs; so when the nights get darker and the weather gets colder, you’re sure to find me under a duvet watching Elf, Miracle on 34th Street, or this, I am a Christmas-loving person anyway, so these are my comfort blankets.

Sadly though, this level of emotional investment does belie a certain amount of bias towards the films. I’ve said repeatedly that the easiest way to ruin your childhood is to watch your favourites from those days with adult eyes, because it does them no favours, similarly, watching one of these films, that you’ve only grown to love even more as an adult, arguably, than you did as a child, it is evident that there are probably some rose-tinted glasses at play.

I could, if I wanted to, find faults with these films, and there are faults in this film, don’t get me wrong, for one thing, the animation is starting to age now, although this is helped by the recent addition of CG effects on top, and Lock, Shock and Barrel are annoying at times, but I just don’t want to face a world in which Nightmare Before Christmas is anything less than beloved.

It has a truly unique atmosphere for an animated Christmas film, which is still ostensibly aimed at children, it engages with the macabre and surreal, it pushes at the boundaries of the scarier world around it, without ever feeling like it’s too much for a younger audience. It has an anarchic sensibility that Burton has tried for many years to recapture, and rarely gets anywhere close.

More than anything, I think this is a show of how effective Selick and Burton worked together, with Burton’s ideas being moulded by a defter hand it certainly seems to work better than most of Burton’s most recent efforts; it strikes just the right balance of Halloween and Christmas, and combines the elements that make both occasions special without sacrificing either of them, it’s an incredible balancing act really, to spotlight the highlights of both while rarely missing a beat.

The soundtrack is also something that keeps me coming back for more, somehow it just doesn’t feel like October until I’ve heard ‘This is Halloween’ at least once, or my personal favourite underappreciated villains song: ‘Oogie Boogie’s Song’ (once you have read this, I highly recommend you seek out a video of the characters voice actor, Ken Page, singing it at a recent convention, it’s heartwarming to see how much he revels in the character) which is right up there in terms of establishing a character through song alone in my book.

The film is one big collaborative effort that wouldn’t work without any of its moving parts, I think. There’s a feeling that every department is working in unison to make this the best it can possibly be, from the design of the backgrounds, to characters voices, to animation, and finally to music, what really makes Nightmare such a triumph is how cohesive it all is as a whole product; the atmosphere wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the surreal, quasi-horror visuals, the score wouldn’t hit quite the same if it weren’t delivered so superbly by the best possible talents.

I gave my position away quite early in this review, but this is a nostalgia film which I think holds up as a great film overall, I didn’t see it for the first time until I was an adult, and fell in love with it on first viewing, I didn’t grow up with it like many others, so I feel like my appreciation for it doesn’t come from nostalgia, but rather an appreciation of its overall quality in general.

So, I hope as well as putting some arguments to rest throughout this review, I have also whet your appetite for more spooky reviews this month, followed by some festive cheer in November-December, this film acts as a perfect bridge between both, and is still a fantastically entertaining experience, no matter what the month.

An Ode to Cineworld

There are very few times when my film writing and my creative writing intersect, but given the situation unfolding with Cineworld (sadly, I can’t see them being the only ones) I decided it was time those two worlds met, and I composed this short poem in tribute to my usual cinema of choice…

There you stand,

A shell of what might be,

A temple of tears, of fears,

You stand alone.

The screens are blank,

The seats are empty,

There’s an absence of life, of fun,

You stand alone.

A victim of apathy,

Overlooked and ignore,

Not seen as important, as essential

Still, you stand alone.

No matter the weather, you were there.

When we needed a laugh, you were there,

When we needed a scare, or a cry, or to just feel, there you were.

Now, you’re alone.

We will dance again, In the celluloid light,

Save a smile,

Keep the projector running,

While you stand alone.

Discarded by those whose memories you helped make,

Remembered by those who still live in hope,

We will sit in the dark one day, someday, hopefully soon.

For now, you stand alone.

The Shining Review

When I put out a vote on my social media to pick my next review, I deliberately picked horror films, with it being October now, and I must admit, this film was a last-minute addition.

I wanted four horror films, and more to the point, four horror films in my collection, with an already established reputation so I could cast my eye over it as admittedly someone who doesn’t always ‘get’ horror (hence why I don’t own many, I suppose) and as much as I appreciate the votes and how many people cared to participate, you don’t half give me the difficult jobs don’t you?

Not only am I now tasked with reviewing a film universally beloved (unless your name is Stephen King) by film audiences, but a film by Stanley Kubrick, of all people! It’s like asking an art critic to review the Mona Lisa, everyone seems to love it, it’s an iconic staple, and nothing I have to say is likely to add any new discussions.

But even as a Kubrick-lover, I might still find something interesting to say about it, and I’m not likely to just disregard the will of my readership… well, unless you’d asked me to review Transformers then I’d disregard them pretty quickly.

Based off the 1977 novel of the same name, The Shining sees the Torrence family: Jack, Wendy and Danny (Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd, respectively) take residence of the Overlook Hotel one winter, with Jac, a struggling writer, employed as its live-in caretaker. Soon, a malevolent force begins to terrorise the family and turn the snowy hotel into a freezing hall of horrors.

Reviewing a well-regarded film such as this is always no small task, as I’ve said multiple times before. Although I have done so in the past; I find reviewing such films to be somewhat redundant, especially when most of the points I would like to make have already been made tenfold by other reviewers, and probably more eloquently to boot.

I also think that it makes for a boring read, for anyone reading this who probably knows The Shining, and has heard the same praise sent its way for the past forty years, and I like to keep my reviews as entertaining as possible for a wide audience, so I’m going to mix things up a bit in this review, to keep it interesting, I’m going to explore where this film stands among Kubrick’s body of work while giving my thoughts on the film, I’ll also muse on Kubrick’s technique’s and his questionable treatment of his talent, as I think this will make for a much more interesting read overall.

As much as this is diverting from the usual formula, I’d like to at least give you my thoughts on the film too, after all, it’s what I’m here for, but you don’t need me, or anyone else, to tell you that The Shining is good, no, more than good, it is an excellent film, masterfully executed horror with the kind of atmosphere most directors dream of, but this is to be expected, given who was behind the camera.

Kubrick is (rightly) today celebrated as a visionary, a genius. Exceptionally hot-headed as he was, it was in the pursuit of perfection; after all, this is the man who famously ordered more than one-hundred takes for the iconic door scene (just think of all those wasted doors) exhibiting the kind of behaviour that would have you written off as being ‘hard to work with’ if you were starting out, but because of his pedigree, it was just accepted that this was what he was like, this is how he achieved such greatness in the first place.

Now, I can’t tell you how or why more than one hundred takes were necessary for that scene, this is a knowledge unique to Kubrick, he was looking for something more, something a mere mortal could not understand, he got the most out of every scene and every actor, even if it meant pushing them to the edge of a break-down.

It is this label as an auteur genius that gets Kubrick a free ride when it comes to the treatment of his actors, a free ride that I will not extend to him, not only is such treatment unnecessary, it’s simply irresponsible. I understand the need for a little bit of tension maybe, and some wonderful things have come from combinations who maybe didn’t see eye-to-eye, but the reported atmosphere surrounding The Shing’s filming can only be described as toxic.

I don’t for one second believe that Shelley Duvall’s performance was improved in any way by the torment she received on-set (her hair even started falling out during filming due to stress) and I don’t think that Jack Nicholson’s performance was improved at all by the constant tinkering of the script and long shooting days; of course, I have no proof of this, but come on, he’s Jack Nicholson for crying out loud! Furthermore, Duvall was no slouch either, having already picked up a BAFTA nomination, what I’m saying is, there was no need to create this toxic environment in the name of making a good film, because all the parts were there, come to think of it, I’m amazed it ended up as good as it did, given the somewhat stormy relationships on-set.

Maybe I’d go so far as saying that this may have helped the films oppressive atmosphere, but I doubt it had a factor in it at all. It’s a good script, based on good material, with the best of the best both behind and in front of the camera. There would have been better ways to build the atmosphere of a film than torturing the actors involved.

Although I’m not willing to roll over and forgive Kubrick’s treatment of people on-set, it doesn’t stop his work being some of the best the art of film has to offer.

Although he had been directing films since the 1950s, to me, Kubrick came into his own in the mid-to-late ’60s. Seemingly invigorated by the tidal wave of cultural change, Kubrick embraced this new era, and his films have become known as groundbreakers and trailblazers.

Dr Strangelove was an anti-war satire, taking shots at the ongoing ‘Cold War’ between the USA and Russia, an incredibly brave thing to do in 1964, anti-war satire wasn’t a thing in cinema at that time, at least in the mainstream, it would be another few years before Mel Brooks would successfully parody Nazis, it seemed off-limits, but it soon appeared that nothing was too far for Kubrick.

Following that, he made the science-fiction film that remains the template for many such films to this day: 2001: A Space Odyssey, inadvertently lighting a spark for a new generation of sci-fi, for proof of this watch the spaceships entrance scene in this film, and compare it to the opening of A New Hope, it’s homage almost to the point of plagiarism, but it just shows the far-reaching influence of his work.

He wasn’t a director to be pinned-down either, simply put, he made what he wanted to make. Be it a bizarre fantasy thriller like A Clockwork Orange, or a gritty war film like Full Metal Jacket, he wasn’t a director that stuck with one genre, he wouldn’t stick within the limits, he’d made his big studio films within accepted rules, and now he wanted to break them.

In my opinion, The Shining is Kubrick’s second-best film, still a masterpiece in its own right, and a masterclass in pacing and atmosphere, but it doesn’t top the enormity of 2001, doesn’t have the same far-reaching implications. I love it, and it’s such a close call, but it’s also a reflection on his talent that a film as accomplished as The Shining could only be considered his SECOND best effort, he was a talent the likes of which we haven’t seen since, and probably never will again.

In recent years especially, it’s become harder and harder to separate art from the artist, and there are many accounts to read online of all the ways Shelley Duvall was affected by her experiences during this film, with a lot more research and time gone into them than I could ever do, but as a film critic, my focus is the art, the above paragraphs are merely a glimpse into the full story, and I don’t condone a second of it, as much as I want to focus on film, I must make my case very clear that I don’t approve of it, and as I said, his behaviour on set was unnecessary and irresponsible.

The film is a masterpiece both of its genre, and cinema overall, but I couldn’t blame you if you chose not to watch it.

A Look Back at September

This year seems to be flying by and yet also seeming to last forever, it’s incredible. Almost like the Batman v Superman of years, it seems twice as long as all regular years, and yet it still glosses over a lot of the content.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed that tortured analogy, as it’s the most I’ve thought of one in a while. Those of you who are regulars to my site would have noticed firstly a rather barren month for content, and secondly, after I none-too-subtly mentioned it a few times, that I have moved this month, not only moved house but moved city, which goes some way to explaining why I haven’t written as much.

Between packing stuff, moving stuff in, and unpacking, plus all the hype that goes along with it, I haven’t had much time in the past month for films, not that there was a massive choice at the cinema anyway, as I’ve been kept busy by all the different activities that moving out entails.

Still, I did review some films this month, even if it wasn’t a vast amount there was still enough for me to pick a favourite for this month…

Film of the Month: The Big Lebowski (1998) – Directed by Joen Coen

I’m a fan of the Coens’ work and have been for a few years, but prior to reviewing this, I’d never actually seen The Big Lebowski, but suffice to say I wasn’t disappointed, Jeff Bridges was fantastic and the overall film was strewn with laughs and bizarre characters, a great Coens production, in essence.

So, now I’ve settled down in my new home, it’s time I get back on the old reviewing horse, expect a lot of older films with some newer releases sprinkled in if there are releases, I definitely hope to be more productive in October, I may even review a horror film or two, ’tis the season to be spooky, after all.

The Big Lebowski Review

There are a lot of classic films that are on my ‘to see’ list and believe me, it grows by the day as people message me and ask me to review old black-and-white Soviet films that are all analogies about capitalism (I’m only mildly exaggerating, okay, moderately) but there are a few that I want to watch more than others.

I’ve said before that I tend to avoid films that have already been universally acclaimed, I think that adding another voice to something that the universe has already decided is good is a bit redundant, especially if I’m just going to parrot the same praise everyone else has, I’ll usually only touch them if A. I felt passionate about them or felt they needed to be talked about, or B. I have a wildly different opinion to the general consensus. I’ll let you decide which camp this film falls into.

Although, to call The Big Lebowski ‘universally acclaimed’ might be over-egging the pudding somewhat; it’s a well-loved film amongst its audience, but it falls too much into the category of cult, or niche, film to be considered an all-time classic. It’s no Godfather, but in the realm of the cult film, it’s certainly on the higher tier, it belongs to the class of cult film that gained its notoriety by being a good film that few people saw, as opposed to being an ungodly pile of tripe that’s funny to watch in a group with a bottle of vodka on hand.

It also comes to us from a well-regarded filmmaking duo too, that of the Coen Brothers, the quirky sibling directors behind Fargo and No Country For Old Men, amongst others, who made their name with offbeat, often black, comedies about strange and interesting characters, a niche that The Big Lebowski fills perfectly.

The film itself is a modern twist on the old ‘mistaken identity’ plot, albeit occupied with more White Russian-slurping hippies and Germans with questionable accents than usual.

It tells the story of Jeff Lebowski, (Jeff Bridges) or ‘The Dude’ as he and his friends call him, being mistaken for a rich businessman with the same name. Far from living in mansions with trophy wives though, The Dude is a slacker with a penchant for bowling, and when his rich namesake’s wife is supposedly kidnapped, The Dude is dragged into the unfolding mystery, taking his perpetually-angry Vietnam vet friend Walter with him as chaos ensues.

Although I’d never seen the film, I was, of course, familiar with The Dude. He’s one of modern cinemas most quoted (and GIF-able, if that’s a word) figures, and he most certainly did not disappoint. Jeff Bridges is brilliant in this film, probably his most defining role, and certainly the one he’s most recognised for, but the brilliance of the character lies in its organic weirdness, how The Dude reacts to the world around him, and how they, in turn, react to him.

He’s portrayed as some kind of mythic figure amongst his friends, revered and referred to by them by only his self-appointed moniker, he emits this radioactive level of coolness, while also being roundly mocked by the subtext of the film.

He’s simultaneously like a fairytale character come to life to his friends with this zen level of laziness, but also such a character many people will recognise from their own lives. He’s like a guy in his 30’s who befriends university students and insist they call him ‘The Prophet’, they all think he’s wise and enlightened, but really he’s just on enough dope to knock out Cheech Marin.

The way he’s referred to and almost idolised makes you realise how cults get started (and indeed, there is now a religion based around him, which just proves my point) all the while, all the normal characters are pointing out what a lazy ass he actually is, it’s a wonderful trick to make a character seem this cool, while also roundly mocking them and their entire philosophy.

He isn’t the only stand-out character though, for me, the most reliable laughs came from John Goodman’s unhinged performance as Walter. A supposed Vietnam veteran whose temper is so wild that he pulls out a pistol for a foul in a bowling game, all the while calmy rationalising it because ‘it’s a league game’. His consistent outbursts, diatribes, and constant shutdowns of Donny (Steve Buscemi) are the ying to The Dude’s yang and offer a nice bit of balance to the film, character-wise.

There are things I don’t get about the film, I don’t understand the bowling side-plot, for instance. Was bowling a big thing in the late ’90s? I certainly don’t see why it was such a big character crutch for the film, to use it as a quick side plot might have been funny, but it’s the constant backdrop they keep returning to, and I’m not sure I understand why. It feels like the film is already juggling to keep the kidnapping plot coherent without trying to juggle bowling balls as well.

It does offer a few laughs though, such as the aforementioned scene where Walter pulls a gun on someone for disagreeing on a foul, then there’s the character of Jesus, who adds absolutely nothing to the overall plot, but it the requisite injection of Coen-brand weirdness dialled-up to eleven. The film would have worked perfectly fine without him, but he’s funny while he’s there nonetheless.

As I said a few paragraphs ago, the main plot is very much a juggling act, revolving around a kidnapping plot, and introducing more angles and possibilities as it wears on, introducing avant-garde artists, German nihilists, and more Walter antics as the intrigue wears on, and the impressive thing is that it manages to keep all of these plates spinning without dropping a single one. There might be the odd wobble but on the whole, it all works incredibly well.

It is a little messy, especially as it wears on, and I’d say it concludes just before it ran out of steam and started testing my patience, again, not to beat on the film too much but I did feel like there were a few unnecessary additions to the formula like the private detective who shows up near the end and gets no resolution, or the ‘video artist’ (played by David Thewlis) who is also in a scene and adds nothing. It does add to the hazy feel the film is going for and works with the overall aesthetic, I just feel like a few corners could have been sanded off for efficiency.

In many ways, The Dude is the perfect representation of this film as a whole, he stumbles through life in a messy haze, while somehow managing to be occasionally coherent and obtain an almost god-like level of admiration among his friends, and sneering contempt from those outside his little bubble, he’s a wonderful character study, played perfectly by a very talented actor.

Overall then, it’s easy to see the appeal of this film, and why it has achieved its status as a cult comedy classic. It’s hilarious at times, messy in others, but perfectly brings across a clearly aesthetic, telling a well-worn story through unique and interesting characters, it’s no surprise why this film is beloved by fans, and why the Coens enjoy Dude levels of admiration for their outside-the-box films and characters.

The One and Only Ivan Review

So, I’ve been quiet recently, as it turns out that moving city is quite time-consuming, who knew? Anyway, I haven’t had time to get to the cinema in the past few weeks, so I haven’t reviewed anything. But, between packing and shifting boxes, I got a chance to watch the latest Disney+ original film, The One and Only Ivan.

You tend to get a free pass if you have animals in your movie (unless you’re Dolittle) especially if said animal is your main character, your human actors become almost background set-dressing to the cute animals and their antics, even if said animals were created on a computer like they appear to be here.

So, what is this film about then? Well, it sees the titular Ivan the gorilla (voiced by Sam Rockwell) ad his gang of misfit circus animals try and turn around the fortunes of their once-successful show, with the human ringleader Mack (Bryan Cranston) hoping his new acquisition of a baby elephant will be enough to draw crowds back.

Like most films with animals in principal roles, this film is going directly for the heartstrings. Unlike several other films which save its touching events for the climax of the film, this movie sprinkles them in throughout the runtime, managing to pull together a few different moments that will attempt to warm the cockles of your heart.

There’s a nice focus on the relationship between Mack and his animals, which I would say is very nicely fleshed-out and doesn’t ever boil down to simple ‘human = bad’ cliche you see in such stories as this. There’s a lot of warmth shared between human and animal, with Mack even shown to have raised Ivan since he was a young gorilla.

Despite this, there is a conflict between man and creature, and the typical narrative device of animals wanting their freedom is wheeled out about a third of the way into the film, despite the animals seeming quite content in their surroundings up to that point; it is only after a particularly upsetting event in the story of the film that the tide begins to shift, and cracks begin to appear.

This is then used to add further complexity to Mack’s relationship with his furry friends, as he grows impatient and worried about the future of his show. Despite this though, you never get the feeling that he doesn’t care for the animals, just that he may not have their best interests at heart, even if he doesn’t realise it.

Truth be told, this year has been pretty rough for animals in films; what with Dolittle and its bewildering cast of animals and humans, The Call of the Wild and its ‘ruff’ CGI (get it? I’m a comedy genius), and lets not even talk about Cats, but in a year when animals have seemed to signify that it’s best to turn and run away from a film, The One and Only Ivan actually gets certain things right and hits all the necessary story beats to leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling by the end.

The animals appear to be CGI, as opposed to having actual animals on set (although it might be a mixture of both, I’m not sure) and for what its worth, they look fine. Not amazing, especially considering who made the film and the resources they have to hand, but the animals look believable, and what’s more, actually look like they’re there for the most part, as opposed to added in post-production.

The relationships between the animals goes a long way to building a feeling of community between the rag-tag collection of species assembled in this run-down show. Each animal has their own personality traits and friendships, and it goes a long way to making these animals feel like characters as opposed to set dressing.

The characters are engaging enough too. Sure, it’s hardly groundbreaking in the story department, we’ve seen this kind of story played out several times before, but the heart of the film is in the right place. There’s no over-arching antagonist, it’s just the story of a struggling showman trying to keep the crowds entertained with a show he’s done for years, and unusually he’s a caring owner for the animals, as opposed to the snarling circus masters with whips we’ve grown used to over the years.

The animal voices are hit-and-miss though, in my opinion. Sam Rockwell does a fine job as Ivan, conveying several emotional changes over the course of the story, and Brooklynn Prince does a great job as Ruby, the baby elephant brought in to bolster the crowds, but some of the other voice actors really do sounds like they were phoning in their performances. As much as I love Danny DeVito, his performance here as Bob the stray dog was uninspiring and lacked the life and verve he usually brings to a project, similar things can also be said of Helen Mirren, who sounds like she’s simply going through the motions.

Like many films purporting to be ‘based on a true story’ you get the feeling that more than a few liberties have been taken with the truth, but it doesn’t get in the way of your enjoyment of a bright, and ultimately fulfilling story.

On the whole, The One and Only Ivan is nothing new, it’s a collection of story beats and archetypes we’ve seen a million times before, but it still manages to keep a steady pace, and reliably hits the heartstrings with its engaging characters, both human and animal, to provide an enjoyable enough watch. It’s hardly one that will stick in the mind, but as a way to kill a few hours, you could do much worse.