Review: Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension 3D

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Paranormal Activity The Ghost Dimension

The Pitch: We absolutely saw you coming. While you’re here, can we interest you in some magic beans?

The Review: Hallowe’en. Season of ghouls, ghosts and spectres (although this year it was dominated by a SPECTRE of a different kind). What, then, could be more appropriate to the season than exhuming the corpse of a once popular franchise and attempting to wring as much cash out of its rotting corpse as possible? When the Saw franchise had become fatally worn out through familiarity, Paranormal Activity appeared at just the right time to fill the vacancy left behind. Oren Peil’s attempt at heightening the reality of the found footage genre as much as possible served up a winning combination of scares and mood that had many cinemagoers questioning whether or not this was real. (These people do exist, and many of them thought The Martian was a true story.) Sadly the studios have long since run out of enough ideas to be able to churn out one of these films a year, so after a gap of nearly two years the final film of the franchise (or so we’re promised) limps into view.

There is a plot, but not one that feels the need to concern itself with too much in the way of character development. After an opening scene that harks back to the ongoing mythology of the series (before being largely forgotten about), we see a family settling into their new house. The man of the house Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and his brother (Dan Gill) find a box of video tapes and a weird old video camera that appears to have had some unusual upgrades. When trying it out, it appears to pick up more than the eye can see, but that just happens to be around the same time that Ryan’s daughter Leila (Ivy George) starts acting rather oddly. In keeping with the rest of the series, at this point they decide to put video cameras up at night to capture the spooky goings on.

I say spooky: it’s absolutely the same premise as the rest of the series rolled out again with so little variation as to verge on insulting. Forgetting what made the original so compelling (the slow burn of mood and the effective offsetting of night and day; in the original, the onscreen captions for each new night meant it was time to pay close attention and served to heighten the mood), this is simply a random collection of moments designed to try to make you jump. For less money, you could sit at home in the dark while a friend occasionally yells at you at random intervals, and I’d be willing to bet it would be scarier too. The film’s also hamstrung by the continued attempts at mythologising, but all of the storytellng is handled so clumsily you’ll be hard pressed to notice that none of it really makes any sense any more, even in the context of the series.

Katie Featherston, the anchor of the series since the first film and ever present up to now, has had the sense to finally jump ship, so while her character is referenced it’s only young Katie you see at the start. The rest of the acting is so wooden you expect to find woodpeckers living in it, the characters variously demonstrate new highs (or lows, depending on your viewpoint) of stupidity for the series and the presence of a young blond girl going through inter-dimensional troubles makes this feel more like a sequel to Poltergeist than the culmination of the Paranormal Activity series. It’s a sign of how little the producers care about whether or not you even like this film is that the director’s chair is occupied by a man whose CV consists mainly of roles as an assistant editor – not even a full editor – and he fumbles badly with a script that seven people couldn’t manage to shape into something with any redeeming features. The time has come to turn the cameras off on this insipid franchise, which struggled to justify more than one sequel and eventually fell victim to the laws of diminishing returns, rather than anything more supernatural.

Why see it at the cinema: If you’re the most absurd kind of completist that needs to see the franchise through to the end. I hope for your sake that when they say this is the last one, they mean it.

Why see it in 3D: Don’t bother. With only the parts on the found video camera in 3D, you’ll either have to watch a poorly lit film mostly in 2D while wearing sunglasses or risk putting them on and off at the right times.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong supernatural threat, violence, strong language. Based on the current BBFC guidelines, I think it’s mainly the language that tips this one over to a 15.

My cinema experience: Did I jump at all? Yes, yes I did. Mainly because was falling asleep and the loud noises disturbed my blissful almost-slumber, blessed relief from this nonsense that it was. The biggest horror I faced was finding a car parking space in Bury St Edmunds on a Saturday afternoon for my trip to the Cineworld.

The Score: 2/10

Review: The Conjuring

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The ConjuringThe Pitch: Ghost Hunting. (Dereh Acorah optional.)

The Graphical Review:

The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 1

The Conjuring 3

The Conjuring 4

Why see it at the cinema: If you’re a complete wuss who can’t sleep without the light on in the hallway, then The Conjuring will give you nightmares for weeks. If you’ve ever read an issue of Fangoria, then chances are you’ll get more enjoyment from watching the uninitiated be separated from their bejesus.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong horror. One man’s strong is another man’s mild, but either way I would support not showing this to 12 year olds as goes through its standard gearbox with a silent efficiency.

My cinema experience: A Saturday afternoon at the Cineworld in Cambridge, and I will take it on trust that everyone in the audience met the minimum age requirement. However, people’s horror did seem to be inversely proportional to their age. My main horror was, once again, two people looking at their mobiles during the screening – even if it’s on silent, you might as well shine a torch round the cinema. Frustrating.

The Score: 6/10

Previous graphical reviews in this series:

The Croods

The Sapphires

The Half Dozen: 6 Most Interesting Looking Trailers For August 2013

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The passing of another month, and it’s been a hot July in the UK, which is never good news for cinema attendance. I’m gingerish, so will do a definitive boiled lobster impersonation if left in the sun for more than around 20 minutes, but part of my cinema philosophy involves seeing films in the company of others, so I’m hoping for both self-interest and selfish reasons that the heatwave doesn’t maintain too much longer.

Especially because the list of films due out in August is so promising, nestling as it does between the back end of summer blockbuster season and the start of the festival season in September. I do take my time over this list every month, perusing the upcoming lists of films at the Internet Movie Database, Rotten Tomatoes and Launching FIlms among others to try to find the cream of what’s coming up. So in an average month for preparing this post I typically watch all or part of around 30 trailers to attempt to whittle this down to the six best.

That’s been as tricky as ever this month, so to shake up the format a little I’ve first narrowed it down to a dozen, and then paired them off in some tenuous themes for a head-to-head battle to the death. I’ve included the trailers for both, so feel free to tell me if I’ve got any of these face-offs wrong. (It also means I have an excuse to skip the trailer for Only God Forgives, as (a) there’s nothing else like it coming out, and (b) it was in last month’s rest of the year preview.)

LET BATTLE COMMENCE! (Sorry, got a bit carried away there.)

The Well Regarded Horror Movie Face-Off: The Conjuring vs. You’re Next

Since the demise of the late, much lamented Empire magazine event in August, variously called Movie-Con or Big Screen, I have instead spent my pennies on a day at Film 4 FrightFest. Last year threw up a right mix, from the sublimely twisted (Maniac) to the unintentionally ridiculous (Tulpa), and for those attending the opening night, they’ll be treated to You’re Next as their final film. I’ve got R.I.P.D to “look forward to” in my six film on the Saturday, so if you’re around at the Empire Leicester Square on the 24th, do say hi. (Warn me on Twitter first so I know you’re coming.) But of the mainstream horror releases, these two look to be the pick of the crop this month. I’ve always been a fan of harder shocks and gore (hence buying a ticket for FrightFest), so only one winner in this category.

WINNER: You’re Next

The Funny / Serious Steve Coogan Face-Off: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa vs. What Maisie Knew

Steve Coogan once did a live show called “Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters”, and that might sum up the permanently typecasting effect that being Norfolk’s premier fake celebrity has had on Steve Coogan’s career. But in a month where a man who’s given us the likes of “He must have a foot like a traction engine!” and “Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! DAN! DAN!… DAN!… DAN!”  has a film out there can only be one winner.

WINNER: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

The Almost Inevitably Disappointing Follow-Up Face-Off: Kick-Ass 2 vs. Elysium

I thought that both Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 were outstanding of their examples of their genres, neither quite as ground-breaking as they seemed at the time, but both thought provoking pieces of high quality entertainment. Vaughn has passed the torch to Jeff Wadlow on the Kick-Ass sequel, while Blomkamp looks to be revisiting a little of the same ground with his sophomore feature film. Both will inevitably disappoint slightly in regard to their predecessors, but which one will suck slightly less?

WINNER: Elysium

The Sharp Indie Comedy Looking To Avoid The Summer Blockbusters Face-Off: The Kings Of Summer vs The Way, Way Back

August is so packed with comedy that I had to hold a preliminary round face-off between two face-offs, and the Big Name Comedies Putting It All Out There Face-Off was the unlucky loser. Pain And Gain looks interesting, but We’re The Millers appears to have been entirely built around the principle of watching a 44 year old woman take her clothes off. Instead we have Steve Carrell and Sam Rockwell versus Nick Offernan, Megan Mullally and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Alison Brie. The winner here is simply defined by the trailer that made me laugh the most.

WINNER: The Kings Of Summer

The Enigmatic Trailer Of Mystery Face-Off: Upstream Colour vs. Silence

I defy anyone to determine what either of these are about based purely on the trailers. No peaking at the synopses. I SAID NO PEAKING! Anyway, Upstream Colour wins this one on the entirely arbitrary basis that it’s been renamed so us simple folk in the UK are allowed to spell it correctly. (Did you know that color / colour was also once spelled culoure and coolor as well? Crazy times.)

WINNER: Upstream Colour

The Old Films Back In The Cinema Face-Off: Jurassic Park 3D vs. Plein Soleil

And finally for this month, a pair of films sneaking back into cinemas, both literary adaptations (Crighton and Highsmith respectively), but that’s about where the similarity ends. Also sneaking back into cinemas this month – if you can find them – are the likes of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse.

WINNER: Plein Soleil

The Half Dozen: Film 4 Fright Fest Special

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Warning: normally this is a PG blog but the trailers contained herein are not suitable for younger viewers. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

It’s been a big month for trailers, at least round here; not only have I published my pick of the month and my Tony Scott tribute list, but here we are with a third selection. And this time it’s personal.

Yes, as mentioned in that earlier monthly round-up, I’m having a day at Film 4 Fright Fest 2012, to substitute for the fact that there’s no Movie-Con or Big Screen this summer. The logistics of this should be fun: the first film starts at 10 a.m. tomorrow morning (meaning I’ll be heading to bed very soon), so I’ll be driving 60 miles to my nearest Tube station and parking up. However, the last film doesn’t start until 11:30 p.m., so I’m expecting to be on the night bus around 1 a.m. on Sunday (or later), back at the car around 2:30 – 3:00 a.m. and getting in around 4 a.m. The sacrifices I make for my craft sometimes…

It should help to address a rather unfortunate imbalance in my viewing this year as well, as The Woman In Black and Prometheus are the closest I’ve come to a horror film this year, and neither are what I’d be looking for in a decent horror. I’m equally at home with psychological horror, deep scares or an all out gore fest, but it’s harder to find quality product in the multiplexes these days. For the last two years I’ve managed to catch a few at the Cambridge Film Festival, but mainstream horror by and large leaves me cold these days, so I can’t wait to see what tomorrow’s got in store.

Right, I’m off to get some well needed sleep, but here’s (some of) the trailers for what I expect to be watching tomorrow, just to get a flavour of what I hope to be experiencing.

Read the rest of this entry »

UCC Review: The Cabin In The Woods

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The Pitch: The first rule of The Cabin In The Woods is, you don’t talk about The Cabin In The Woods.

The Review: There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to survive a horror movie. Did you know, though, that those rules apply to the audience as much as they do to the characters? We now live in a culture where it’s possible to watch pretty much anything seven days after it’s aired on TV, even if you didn’t record it; but only if you have no desire to watch it without knowing what happens. Likely Lads Terry and Bob thought they had it bad trying to avoid the footy score, but these days you can’t even watch an episode of anything from Masterchef to The Walking Dead unless you’re willing to cut yourself off from friends, the internet and social media as today, the tools that allow us to communicate feed instant discussion and analysis and leave no hope for spoilerphobes. So what chance have you got of watching a horror movie that depends on its surprise for gaining the most enjoyment, and that’s been sat on the shelf gathering dust for three years?

Be afraid. Be very afraid. But maybe that fear is what will get you to The Cabin In The Woods unspoiled. If you’re reading this review and you haven’t seen it, then curiosity is already probably getting the better of you, and that kind of recklessness wouldn’t see you last five minutes. But you already knew that – you’ve seen horror movies before, who hasn’t? – and it’s that very fact that means if you don’t go into a film written by creator of Buffy and Angel and directed by the writer of Cloverfield expecting that it knows its audience watch horror movies, then you’ve probably not seen enough popular culture in general. But in the post-Scream era, just being self-referential about your genre isn’t enough; to truly stand out you either need to innovate, or you need to be damn good at what you do.

Whether it’s April or whether it’s Hallowe’en, everyone’s entitled to one good scare. But those expecting a film delivering wall to wall scares may be in for a disappointment, for while Cabin has a decent set of scares and a reasonable dose of gore, it’s primary achievement is that it’s consistently hilarious from start to finish. Some of the subtler jokes will depend on both your deep knowledge of horror and also your ability to pick up details in the background, but by and large it’s the characters front and centre that will have you rolling in the aisles. Where the genius starts to become apparent is that Cabin can switch between humour and fright seemingly at will, without ever losing the impact of either. It also has the most bizarrely erotic moment seen in any film in living memory, which while relevant to nothing else in the film will probably live long in your memory.

But whatever you do, don’t fall asleep, for The Cabin In The Woods moves at a fair old lick. While much horror relies on the slow burn, Cabin expects you to come with it on the journey, and conceptually it’s a long way from where we start to where we end up. Taking that journey are the cast of relative unknowns venturing into the woods, although Chris Hemsworth has found global fame since this film was in front of the cameras. Of the others, the standout is Randy-from-Scream clone Fran Kranz who steals most of the scenes he’s in and grabs a fair chunk of the best lines. There are two other well known faces who have big roles and who help to elevate the film to what it is, but given that they’re not even in the trailer, even mentioning in their names is more of a spoiler than I’d like to give you.

We all go a little mad sometimes, and frankly attempting to review this without giving the game away has almost driven me crazy.  But back to my point from earlier: The Cabin In The Woods is being touted as revolutionary, and on that I’m not convinced that it is, but it certainly doesn’t hold back, and at the various points where you find yourself thinking where the story could go next, and hoping against hope that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have the balls to deliver what you’d most like to see, they never, ever disappoint. So what The Cabin In The Woods does achieve is being entertainment on the grandest of scales, an absolute joy from the first moment to the last as you put the pieces together to see if you can get to the end game before the characters, and it will become endlessly quotable once everyone that’s interested has actually seen it. Others might have trodden the path before, but Whedon and Goddard have proven they have what it takes to be considered right at the top of the tree where big scares mixed with hard laughs are concerned. Hail to the kings, baby.

Why see it at the cinema: I’m not sure what I expected, but I know I didn’t expect this film to be quite so consistently funny in a way that doesn’t undercut the scares. Comedy and horror are the two best friends of audience reaction, and there’s reason enough to see it on the big screen, but there is undoubtedly some imagery that will also benefit, and even the sound design screams “See me in a cinema!” if you’ll pardon the pun. But the sooner you see it, ideally on opening day, the less chance you have of one of your less intelligent friends blowing the whole gaff.

The Score: 10/10

I saw this film at Ultra Culture Cinema #09: for my review of that, see here.

Review: Paranormal Activity 3

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The Pitch: The kids, Marty, something’s gotta be done about those kids…

The Review: I grew up in a simpler time, when scary movies were just scary movies. But even when I was a kid, the horror franchise was becoming a well established phenomenon. These days, you can’t call yourself a horror movie if you don’t generate at least half a dozen sequels, and most are flogged well past the point where any non-horror franchise would be put out of its misery. It’s a little ironic that the genre which gets its best moments from surprising you should thrive so much on repetition, but one idea is enough to get you a career spanning several years. For many years, the Saw franchise had the monopoly on the Hallowe’en season, but it was displaced by found footage movie franchise Paranormal Activity and it’s back this year for a third stab, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Many a horror series is blighted by killing off its villain at the end of each movie and then having to find increasingly unlikely ways to bring them back next time. *cough* Freddy Krueger *cough* PA2 got around this by becoming a prequel to PA1, and in the process attempting to set up a mythology, but also expanding from a single camera to, wait for it, FIVE cameras! PA3 goes back even further, a pre-prequel if you will, and uses the conceit of a wedding photographer in the family to permit a two-camera set-up and a flashy (for 1988) editing suite to be able to review the footage. The sisters of the first two films are back, but they’re young girls and it’s their parents who find things going bump in the night.

Oren Peil, creator of the original, still has a had behind the scenes, but it’s the makers of documentary Catfish, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, on directing duties this time. Katie Featherston, star of the series, is back but only for a brief intro thanks to the format. Don’t be fooled into thinking that these changes in personnel will bring anything new to the franchise, though; PA3 is so formulaic that you can almost set your watch by it. The same sequence of increasingly escalating events, alternating between day and night, plays out in much the same manner as the first two films. If anything, there’s slightly less going on here to start with, as the early scares are less supernatural and more a series of “boo” moments as people suddenly appear in frame.

Don’t get me wrong; done well, those moments still have the power to cause an audience to leap out of their seats, and if you’re anything like me you too will enjoy watching a group of people repeatedly having the bejesus scared out of them. But it’s pretty much all there is here, and while the mythologising helped to keep PA2 fresh, it’s more of the same and it’s starting to make less sense, the fact it’s going backwards clearly not helping. The direction and the performances are all serviceable, but it’s difficult to see how the series can continue to regress from here –  if we’re to get to epic franchise levels, then Paranormal Activity may need to move forward literally as well as figuratively.

Why see it at the cinema: If you like people leaping out and going “Boo!” at you. Repeatedly. Or if you like watching fellow humans being freaked out by having that done to them.

The Score: 5/10

Big Screen Review: Red State

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The Pitch: Assault On Parish 13.

The Review: Chances are, even before you start reading this review, you’ve made your mind up about whether you’re going to see Red State, and probably even if you’re going to enjoy it. Because Kevin Smith makes a certain kind of film, with ripe dialogue that has an honesty that at its most extreme becomes a form of cinematic Asperger’s syndrome. Even when he’s diverged a little from his original themes and settings with the religious discourse of Dogma or the unlikely porno making-of Zack and Miri, pretty much those same dialogue staples and that same directorial style stay in place. The most adventurous camera work in any of his films up to now has probably been a dance number in Clerks 2, and even that wasn’t exactly revolutionary. Maybe it’s the feeling that his movies never surprised people that’s driven Smith to attempt something completely different, although after the critical beating handed to Cop Out you could forgive him for wanting to retreat back into his old style and to be as familiar as possible.

And for the first few minutes, that appears to be exactly what he’s done. A school setting, three young men discussing an unusual proposition, all of which appears to be very familiar, but it’s what that proposition leads to which is unfamiliar. The three (of whom Michael Angarano is probably the most familiar face) soon end up in the clutches of a Westboro Baptist Church-like group, having been lured in by Melissa Leo’s middle-aged stooge. She’s the wife of the group’s leader, Michael Parks, who has a very specific plan in mind for those who deviate from society’s norms, and even the intervention of the local law enforcement (led by Stephen Root’s cowardly sheriff) won’t get in his way.

Smith has advertised this as a horror movie, maybe as an attempt to distinguish it from his earlier efforts, but anyone expecting a gory slasher will be sadly disappointed. His interest here is in psychological horror, particularly in an extended early sequence where Parks’ preacher lays out his mission statement while his young captives await their fate. Audiences are likely to be divided into two groups at this point: those that buy into the psychological horror of the sequence and the youngsters’ potential demise, or those that are bored rigid for a man standing and preaching for a significant chunk of the running time. Anyone lost to the film at this point is unlikely to be redeemed by what follows, although it does stray away completely from the horror genre of any kind and most of the second half is more siege movie than anything else. Unlike some of his previous work, though, Smith is a little less judgemental here, using the religious devices purely to drive the plot, rather than to generate debate.

There’s a good cast assembled, who are all on form, and as well as Parks, Leo and Angarano there’s John Goodman and Kevin Pollak as a couple of ATF officers who quickly end up out of their depth. Despite the varied themes, Smith never completely releases his hold on his own particular writing style, and even to the end the dialogue and settings are unmistakeably Kevin Smith. What is a revelation here, though, is Kevin Smith the director. Shot with the RED digital camera system, the visual style is bleached out, the camera is more active than in any of his previous efforts, and the overall sense of composition and the action shots elevate the whole film at least a couple of notches. It’s a little rough around the edges, and maybe the digital technology allowed Smith to edit it a little too quickly, but this could be his best film since Dogma, and if it’s an example of what he’s still capable of, let’s hope that talk of his retirement is unfounded.

Why see it at the cinema: The stark digital photography and the dramatic siege sequences are worth hunting out on the big screen; it’s also worth being in the cinema for the ending, which is likely to surprise and amuse Smith fans in equal measure and will benefit greatly from a cinema with a good sound system.

The Score: 8/10

Review: Julia’s Eyes

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The Pitch: In the kingdom of the blind, how do you know who the king is? You can’t even see him.

The Review: If you see any advertising material for a new movie, then chances are the first names you’re looking for are either the lead actors or the director, as often those names can be a mark of quality, or an indicator of a lack of it. Directors wield a huge amount of influence in the movies these days, but go back half a decade and that wasn’t always the case; originally the Hollywood system was run by the producers and the director was little more than an afterthought. But the name of a producer can still be used today to sell an audience on a product, from Steven Spielberg’s name plastered all over the Transformers movies to Peter Jackson’s District 9. Ideally the producer credit will still give the audience a good guide as to what to expect – if Emma Thompson gave up the Nanny McPhee movies and produced a slasher horror, we’d get more than a few traumatised seven year olds, but in this case the familiar name of Guillermo Del Toro is also an indicator of a familiar product.

So if you were thinking about Guillermo’s previous output, then you’d probably be thinking dark, twisted, unusual and Spanish, and you’d be right on all counts. Guillem Morales has co-written and directed, but you can see why Del Toro’s name is a good fit about the title. First off, the dark – if the title Julia’s Eyes isn’t already a give away, then eyes and vision are a consistent theme throughout the movie. Julia and Sara are twin sisters, and both suffer from a degenerative eye condition which is sending them both blind. Investigating Sara’s death, the police find nothing suspicious but Julia isn’t convinced and starts her own investigation. Working against her are her own condition, which worsens whenever she is under stress, and that fact that even her own husband is sceptical at first. As the clues mount and Julia’s condition worsens, the darkness creeps in both in terms of the light levels in the film itself and in the tone, which for the first half is an eerie mood piece centred around Julia’s investigations.

If anything, it’s that first half of the movie that lets down the whole, as the pace moves slowly and the creeping dread hasn’t yet been ratcheted up enough. But the second half allows the twisted aspects to unfold and the story twists and turns, increasing the atmosphere and throwing in a few more random scares for good measure. While you might think unusual with Del Toro, it’s the fascination with eyes that provides that, and what eventually reveals itself is a taut and effective thriller that quickens the pulse and entertains in equal measure, but while it’s a well made one the core story is nothing new in itself. The performances are strong, and Belén Rueda as Julia (or Sara) is in practically every scene and convinces on pretty much every level.

As with many of Del Toro’s other movies, it’s a universal tale that just happens to be in Spanish, and the washed out and grimy settings feel much more middle America than middle Spain. The other American feel comes from some of the later twists, which do have a feeling of daytime soap opera, admittedly one made in the style of a thriller. A word of warning, though – while the tension and the thrills increase in the second half, so does the level of visuals more commonly found in horror, and if like me you are squeamish about eyes then there’s at least one scene in the last reel that could leave you screaming or running for the exit. All in all it’s high marks for Del Toro the producer and for Morales the director, who makes excellent use of the visuals and uses both the light and the dark to great effect, it’s just a shame that Morales the writer lets the side down a bit – if the story hadn’t flagged early on and taken so long to get going, this could have been a feast for the eyes, rather than merely a good, solid watch.

Why see it at the cinema: There’s always something claustrophobic about seeing sequences set entirely in the dark in a large dark room, even if it is filled with other people, and Morales’ taut direction and the cinematography both make full use of the big screen.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Scre4m (Scream 4)

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The Pitch:  The real life events in Woodsboro that inspired Stab 8, as seen in 5cream. Probably.

The Review: Two years ago… oh wait, that was a different meta review. Fifteen years ago, believe it or not, the ironic, post-modern, nudge-nudge-wink-wink movie franchise was launched on an unsuspecting world. The three Scream movies, stretched over four years, brought two things to the world of horror that made them stand out; their killer, the Ghostface killer, is actually a different person each time, and is normally just one (or two) bitter mortals with a mask and a supernaturally efficient voice changer. It also established that there are rules to horror movies, maybe more so than any other genre of film, and if you know those rules and understand them, then your chances of surviving to the final reel or beyond are that much higher. There’s an unwritten rule about horror movies, that they never die; they just get rebooted if all the actors get too old or the series runs out of creative juices.

So in an attempt to milk as much money as possible out of a fifteen year old franchise seem fresh and inventive, Scream has rebooted its franchise with the same actors. Eleven years of constant pestering and faltering careers have finally convinced Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette that doing another one of these is a good idea. There were two other key players in the franchise as well: director Wes Craven, who’s been pulling these metaphysical, self-referential tricks since the seventh instalment of his other Nightmarish franchise, and writer Kevin Williamson, who gave us the movie-obsessed Dawson’s Creek as well as the horror movie-obsessed Scream films. It felt as if both had lost interest in Scream 3 a little, resulting in a noticeable drop in quality compared to the first two (Williamson didn’t even write the screenplay for the third entry), so their investment, maybe even more than the actors themselves, was key to getting anything substantial from the reanimated corpse of this franchise.

Oddly, though, what they brought to the original Scream films was that sense of knowing, and framed them into character-based whodunnits. Whisper it quietly, use a voice changer if you will, but the Scream films have never been that scary. There was certainly a death in each of the first two films, that of Drew Barrymore’s Casey and Jamie Kennedy’s Randy respectively, which shocked and traumatised, but Scream films have never been that terrifying – there’s plenty of attempts to make you jump, but that’s the cinematic equivalent of someone repeatedly leaping out from behind your seat and shouting “Boo!” So it’s the knowing and the whodunnit that actually make the Scream films most enjoyable, and there’s plenty of knowing here, almost too much in fact. It works best in the opening sequence, which has fun with audience expectations and is so self referential the only thing that the characters don’t do is turn and wink at the audience, instead allowing the script to do that for them.

There are rules of writing reviews as well, and one of those is to talk about the film in question, which actually I’ve done very little of. (Is that the phone ringing? Never mind, it can go to voicemail.) But there’s also a rule about the Scream films, which is that much of the fun comes from discovering what happens for yourself – the fun is pretty much all in the surprises, and I don’t mean the sudden jolts of people in a black cape and a Munch mask leaping into frame. So all I can say is that you’ll see the likes of Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell, Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts, Rory Culkin and Anthony Anderson, and many more, because both horror franchises and self-referential whodunnit franchises need fresh meat, and Scream 4 ploughs through that meat like Freddy and Jason let loose at a horror convention. While it comments on horror trends, the main focus is the reboot, but actually Scream 4 feels most like the original; so much so that it’s almost like a cinematic comfort blanket, providing the same old thrills and pleasures in equal measure. It’s not up to the standard of the first two but is a stretch better than the rather dull third, and if you’re a fan of the series then there’s plenty to enjoy in the company of a similarly minded crowd. Now if you’ll excuse me, I really must get that phone…

Why see it at the cinema: Scream movies are at their absolute best in a packed cinema, where you can guarantee being entertained by the one-third or so of the audience who do still jump every time Ghostface appears. Or, like me, you can use the cinema toilets afterwards and have the crap scared out of you when someone bursts in very suddenly.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Black Swan

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The Pitch: Swan Lake and Madness used to make me think only of this. Not any more…

The Review: At the time of year when awards are being handed out, it’s often useful to consider what qualities a great film embodies. When considering my favourite film of all time last year, I noted that Back To The Future was the master of many films, a science fiction / action / comedy / romance that did all types very well. It’s not a prerequisite for greatness, but if a film can straddle genres so successfully, then it stands a much better chance of being enjoyable. Black Swan is certainly a melding of many different concepts; it is on the surface a ballet film, and certainly the parallels with Swan Lake are clear and simple. Early on, ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) confidently tells everyone in his company that they all know the story of Swan Lake, then proceeds to explain it anyway for the benefit in the audience of anyone who might have come in cold. But this early scene with dancers rehearsing and generally milling in the foreground and background will leave you in no doubt of the context, and director Darren Aronofsky packs the film with ballet detail, from sessions at the physiotherapist to the rituals of preparing ballet shoes for the rigours of performance.

It’s also very much a character drama, and there a number of key players in this drama. The nexus of the drama, on screen almost constantly and into whose mindset we are drawn, is Nina (Natalie Portman), as she replaces Beth (Winona Ryder) at the centre of the ballet company and attempts to get into the dual mindset of the White and Black Swans at Swan Lake’s centre. Her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) guides her career, but may be holding her back as much as pushing her on, and her inhibited home live leads Thomas to encourage her to bond with tattooed rebel Lily (Mila Kunis) in order to explore both sides of her psyche. Lily is her exact opposite, almost her doppelgänger, and when Thomas makes Lily Nina’s understudy, her nervousness about the challenge begins to build into a full-blown psychosis.

Black Swan is effectively a coming of age drama, but this is no John Hughes movie; encouraged to the point of sexual harassment in his actions by Thomas, Nina transitions from the virginal and metaphorical White Swan to the dark side of her personality. Natalie Portman is completely fearless in her role, laying bare her emotions and being completely unafraid to explore the more sexual side of the role as well. (And when I say explore, let’s just say that When Harry Met Sally’s got nothing on this one where female vocalisation and inhibitions are concerned.) The whole cast is great, Hershey playing the overbearing mother to perfection and Cassel and Kunis also filling the roles well, but this is Portman’s movie and she slowly but surely takes ownership of the role and the film as it progresses. Aronofsky sees the parallels in the loss of innocence in adolescence as a parallel for Nina’s development and exploration, giving Portman plenty of meat to work with, and the psychosexual aspects add further layers to the drama and, indeed, the horror that form the core of the narrative.

For yes, this is as much a horror movie as anything else, and that will undoubtedly come as a shock to a certain part of the audience who’ve come for the ballet. The psychosexual tension simmers and occasionally bubbles, but there is psychological horror here as well as aspects of body horror that would seem to suggest Aronofsky could be a natural successor to David Cronenberg. It’s subtle and woven through the fabric of the film, and helps to ratchet up the tension at key points. There are parallels to the director’s previous work, and Aronofsky himself has quoted Polanski’s Repulsion, but if anything the film is most reminiscent at points of the Roger Moore film The Man Who Haunted Himself, as Nina sees herself reflected in the faces of those around her and starts to lose her grip on reality. The only criticism that could be levelled at the film is that it’s occasionally a little one note in tone, but what a note and what a tone. Fascinated with the idea of the double and the understudy as the usurper, Black Swan also has a mirror in almost every scene and is full of both physical and metaphorical reflection; when you come to reflect on Black Swan, you’ll realise that Darren Aronofsky and his cast have created something just a little unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, tense, theatrical, racy and provocative; allow your darker side out and it’ll have a fantastic time with this.

Why see it at the cinema: As communal audience experiences go, this one’s a belter; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, if you’re even slightly prudish you’ll feel very uncomfortable and between those lapping up all the melodrama and those in shock at getting a film they plainly weren’t expecting, there’s sure to be a buzz on the way out the door or at the pub afterwards. The subtle CG embellishments and sweeping stage scenes will be best appreciated on the largest screen you can find, so see it soon while it’s still on the main screens at your multiplex.

The Score: 9/10