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In a nutshell: Hammer horror goes ghostly in style

Pocorn rating: 4/5

A Hammer fan since the age of 13, I was hugely excited to learn that the iconic British film company was adapting Susan Hill’s shudderingly creepy classic ghost story, The Woman In Black. Then I heard they’d cast Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role, and I was nervous. Not that I have anything against the lovely eager-faced Potterboy, but surely this film was for grown-ups? And knowing it had a 12A rating didn’t help. Any film that under 12s can watch provided they’re with their mum* just couldn’t be that scary, I thought.

HA! How wrong was I?

The Woman In Black, like the best of Hammer’s early output, is a lushly atmospheric Victorian Gothic period piece that, during the showing I attended, had half the audience yelping in fear and saw popcorn liberally be-scattered about the aisles where hapless young wusses had literally jumped out of their seats. Moreover, Radcliffe is really rather good as a young widower trying to do the best by his little boy, and turns in a thoroughly convincing and sympathetic performance throughout.

Much as Hammer used to take substantial liberties with Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley in their golden years, they’ve done away with plenty of Susan Hill’s plot here: The Woman In Black diverges considerably from the book, and it doesn’t really have the understated feel of the novel. What it does have is imaginatively-staged scares by the spadeful and a nice line in gloomy Gothic melodrama as this traditional haunted house tale gradually unfurls before us. There’s almost no gore, hence the 12A rating, but it’s still deeply gruesome in tone, relentlessly spooky, and full of serious make-you-jump moments. Plus, there are some genuine shocks – if you’re confident that cute kids in jeopardy always escape the worst in horror films, think again.

Subtlety isn’t the film’s strongest point – there are only so many times you can be shown a creepy clockwork Victorian monkey toy before you just want to giggle – but there are moments of quirky humour that work remarkably well, and the film overall is well-executed and beautifully shot – bleak estuary marshes, dank mists and all. Plus, like all the greatest Hammer films, it has a fine supporting cast of stalwart English character actors and even one of those brilliant scenes where a cheery young chap enters a local village pub and finds that something is clearly Not Quite Right.

All in all, great spooky fun, and you’ll never look at a rocking chair in the same light again. But really, don’t be fooled by the rating: avoid taking your nine-year-old unless you actively want them to be wetting the bed and sleeping with the lights on into their mid-teens.

*In fairness, I actually went to see it with my mum, and I’m 36.

Reviewer: Jo Sheppard

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In a nutshell: Ding dong, the witch is – oh. Still alive. Damn.

Popcorn rating: 2.5/5

I’m not Margaret Thatcher’s biggest fan. By that, I mean of course that she’s a vicious old vulture who ripped bleeding flesh off the country’s dying corpse with one claw while pressing its face into the dirt with the other. So I was prepared for the The Iron Lady to present a more balanced picture of the former PM than the one in my head (in which she’s usually kicking away a child’s crutches).

However, it’s a disturbingly sentimental portrait by any standards, right down to speeches about the Falklands backed by hideous stirring music. Jumping between the past and the present, in which an elderly Thatcher  (a remarkably unrecognisable Meryl Streep) talks to her late husband Denis (an unremarkably recognisable Jim Broadbent), The Iron Lady suggests Thatcher’s only real transgression was being impatient with Geoffrey Howe over poll tax.

Surely even the most ardent Thatcherite would have to admit that she was divisive figure, but that’s glossed over here: for instance, the order to sink the Belgrano is covered in about five seconds.

Setting aside such qualms, I’m interested in the politics of this period, so I thought there would still be much for me to enjoy in the film. But sadly, Thatcher’s career is covered as just a succession of events with no feel for what links them, and very little substance. Airey Neave is blown up in front of Thatcher’s eyes by an Irish National Liberation Army car bomb, but there’s no insight into how this might have influenced her destructively stubborn stance on Northern Ireland. We see the plucky young grocer’s daughter stick it to the sexist Tory toffs on a candidate selection panel, but there’s nothing on her failure to give a toss about gender equality once in power.

Instead, we get endless scenes of Thatcher today, confused and frail, but as I can’t say Maggie ever cared about the elderly, sick or mentally ill when she was slashing NHS budgets and throwing psychiatric patients on to the street, it’s odd that I’m suddenly expected to equate her with, say, my nan (who in any case would have put her fag out in Thatcher’s eye if they’d ever met).

Everything you’ve heard about Meryl Streep’s performance is true: she is astonishingly good. And once you get the hang of a lot of very familiar people pretending to be other very familiar people, the supporting cast is splendid too. But not even a staggering turn by Streep and fine efforts from a who’s who of Britain’s finest character actors can save this one.

Reviewer: Jo Sheppard

In a nutshell: Elementary, my dear iPad

Popcorn rating: 3.5/5

Sherlock, in which Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss bring Conan Doyle’s characters from fog-shrouded Victorian London into the 21st century, has returned to our screens. I enjoyed the first series, but had minor gripes with it, mainly that there was no need to show an iPhone and cut to images of the London Eye and the Gherkin every two minutes just to remind us it wasn’t the 1890s.

Now I’ve accepted it as all part of the BBC’s Sherlock ‘look’, however, I quite enjoyed that aspect this time around. I do need to point out that if you’re going to give a show an ultra-techy feel, don’t have characters say ‘camera phone’; who the hell has routinely called their phone a ‘camera phone’ in the past decade? What next, searching the internet with Ask Jeeves? But other than that, I’ve come to believe that it all adds to the excitement.

The cast in last night’s ‘A Scandal In Belgravia’ was strong as ever. Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes is still cold, sharp and slightly alien; Martin Freeman’s Watson is dependable but never boring. Mark Gatiss was perfect as Mycroft, and Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson is… well, Una Stubbs. The plot was complicated, implausible and tremendous fun, much like Conan Doyle’s were. There’s no doubt that Sherlock is slick, stylish and immensely entertaining.

Last night’s episode reworked Conan Doyle’s ‘A Scandal In Bohemia’, in which Holmes finds the mysterious Irene Adler a particularly intriguing adversary. However, it appears that the writers wanted to crank it up a notch, so their Adler was a bisexual dominatrix and she and Holmes spent half the episode semi-clad and smouldering at each other. Sexy, right? Er… no. It was so heavy-handed and obvious that I expected the words ‘SEXUAL CHEMISTRY’ to flash across the screen accompanied by a klaxon. Nothing’s less sexy than having something flagged up as sexy. Fangirls fancy Cumberbatch. We know that. No need to hammer it home.

One other thing: Conan Doyle has Holmes captivated by retired opera-singer Adler and ultimately bettered by her. She ends the story with the upper hand. But last night, Adler, now a sex-worker, falls in love with Holmes and uses his name as a password. Under her Miss Whiplash exterior she’s a vulnerable, emotional ickle girl, you see; Sherlock even makes her cry. Oh, and in an ill-fitting twist, he also saves her from decapitation by terrorists.

Any power she has is sexually defined, she gets her comeuppance for being a bit too uppity and she ends up a damsel in distress who’s rescued by the hero. A fine piece of gripping, escapist, modern entertainment Sherlock may be, but iPhones, blogs and shiny London skyscrapers aside, sometimes I can’t help feel we’re moving backwards.

Reviewer: JoSheppard

In a nutshell: Ghouls and boys come out to play…

Popcorn rating: 4/5

November’s the perfect month for ghost stories. An eerie mist hangs in the air, trees clutch skeletally at their last dying leaves, darkness creeps up on us ever earlier each night… it’s all conducive to being gleefully scared shitless. And The Awakening, released in cinemas last weekend, does exactly that.

The Awakening is a proper, old-fashioned ghost story set in 1921, with an emphasis on atmosphere, suggestion, beautifully haunting cinematography and well-timed shocks rather than gore and effects. Rebecca Hall is likeable as bluestocking Florence Cathcart, who could easily have been insufferable in the hands of a lesser actor; Dominic West turns in a typically convincing performance as a teacher battling shellshock, and Imelda Staunton is perfectly cast as a maternal school matron. Pale, doe-eyed whippersnapper Isaac Hempstead Wright is also impressive as boarding school misfit Tom.

I won’t claim The Awakening is groundbreaking. The twists are clever, but hardly revolutionary, and much of the creepiness comes from fairly standard devices – ghostly images in old photos, spectral children, secret passages and vaguely sinister objects appearing in odd places. However, this doesn’t make them any less unsettling, and there are original touches scattered throughout too – one particular scene with a dolls’ house made my skin crawl.

Moreover, the references to the First World War are well-placed: as well as the ghostly child purported to be haunting a remote boarding school, the universal spectre of the war hovers over everyone. There’s schoolteacher Mallory, with his survivor’s guilt and his residual stammer. There’s Florence, emotionally crippled by the death of her ex-fiancé. There’s even handyman Judd, rendered bitter and resentful by his own cowardice. Lest we forget, indeed.

As the nerve-shredding chills in the final third of the film build to a climax, it might be fair to say that things are a wee bit drawn out and overblown. But frankly, I didn’t care. The Awakening isn’t quite The Others, but it’s got great performances, a strong script and enough jump-out-of-your-seat moments to keep you thoroughly entertained on a dark evening. According to Peter Ackroyd’s recent book, The English Ghost, the English produce more ghost stories than any other nation in the world, and The Awakening – a BBC Films production – does a fine job of upholding that tradition.

Reviewer: JoSheppard

In a nutshell: “Just put ‘approx’ nine more killings…”

Popcorn rating: 4/5

When someone ‘vulnerable’ – a child, or an adult who might not fully understand the procedure – is arrested or charged with a crime, an ‘appropriate adult’ is appointed to sit in on interviews, offer them advice, and generally make sure the nasty old policemen aren’t taking advantage of them. Presumably, when Janet Leach volunteered for this back in the mid-90s, she was expecting to be keeping an eye on 15-year-old shoplifters. What actually happened was that her first client was a ‘53-year-old man with learning difficulties.’

Who’d raped, murdered and dismembered his daughter.

Appropriate Adult is the true story of the investigation into Fred and Rose West’s squalid, sadistic murder spree, told from the perspective of Leach, West’s uneasy confidante. Much praise has been given to Emily Watson as Leach, but while she is indeed convincing in what must have been a harrowing part to play, from the audience’s point of view all she really has to do is look haggard and harassed. The really strong performance is from Dominic ‘No Relation’ West.

Is there no end to Dominic’s talents? How can one man play a Baltimore cop, a 1950s BBC newsreader and a psychotic bumpkin and be utterly convincing as all of them? I suspect witchcraft, but whatever: West is brilliant as, well, West. He’s sinister, occasionally roguish, even charming in a manipulative sort of way, one moment ‘a bit simple’, as my mother would say, and the next wily and cunning.

Somewhat overlooked in the previews, Monica Dolan as crass, aggressive, foul-mouthed Rose is excellent too – malevolent, vicious and terrifying in an entirely different way from her disturbingly affable husband.

The subject matter of Appropriate Adult is, of course, distressing, despite the wise decision not to attempt to recreate any of the actual murders or show the exhumation of the victims’ remains. But incredibly, there are lines, lifted straight from the real police interviews with Fred, that are shockingly close to being funny: this drama isn’t scared to shy away from the occasionally comic banality of small-town evil.

The cast and makers had a tough job on their hands with Appropriate Adult, but they’ve managed to pull it off without it once descending into sensationalism or exploitation. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve had cause to say this in the past twenty years – but ITV really have done a fine job.

Reviewer: JoSheppard

In a nutshell: Insipid sub-Twilight fantasy

Popcorn rating: 0/5

Little Red Riding Hood: it’s a creepy old fairytale, isn’t it? And I’m a sucker for a good old lycanthropy-as-a-metaphor-for-coming-of-age story, two of my favourites being Neil Jordan’s dreamlike Company of Wolves and the low-budget Canadian shocker Ginger Snaps, so I thought I’d give Red Riding Hood a go.

Unfortunately, Red Riding Hood, directed by Twilight’s Catherine Hardwicke, has about as much depth as, well, Twilight.

Red Riding Hood is set in a mediaeval European village in which everyone is spotlessly clean with porcelain-white teeth, speaks in a nasal Californian twang and is coiffed and made-up as if for an American Apparel advert. The cliché-ridden dialogue is a monstrous offence to the ears and probably the scariest thing in the film.

This theme-park MediaevalWorld™ is pestered by a werewolf – which occasionally sprints in and kills someone, but this being a film rated 12, it does so in an inexplicably tidy, gore-free fashion. So far, so yawn-inducing.

Then priest Gary Oldman turns up from nowhere, overacts in a silly accent and tells the villagers that the werewolf must be one of them. Everyone gangs up on the village idiot for no obvious reason, and then it’s left to the too-perfect-to-be-true Mary-Sue of a heroine, Valerie (yes, Valerie – that really is her name. Her friend’s called Roxanne. Like, totally mediaeval, right?) to save the day.

The rest of the plot is a pile of guff not worthy of relating, but suffice it to say that the message overall is that the most important thing in life is to have a brooding, sexy boyfriend, even if he’s a potentially dangerous killer and you have to leave your home and your family to hang around for him until he works through his issues. Oh, and there’s also a thinly-veiled true-love-waits metaphor about learning to control the beast within.

Red Riding Hood is badly acted, badly directed and badly written. It’s not fun, it’s not creepy, it’s not romantic, it’s not dark, it’s not anything except appalling on every level. The special effects are rotten, most of the sets wouldn’t be out of place in panto, and the whole package spreads a horrible misconception that dropping everything for a ‘misunderstood’ brooding pretty boy means you’re twuly in wuv. One day, perhaps we’ll stop peddling this poisonous drivel to teenage girls and give them something positive to watch. In the meantime, strike this DVD off your daughter’s LoveFilm list.

Reviewer: JoSheppard

In a nutshell: Thought-provoking monkey business

Popcorn rating: 4.5/5 

Mention chimpanzees, and some bore will tell you they share 99 per cent of our DNA. So… does that mean they could learn to talk? Project Nim is a documentary about a chimp who, back in the 70s, was supposed to answer that question. Snatched with heartrending cruelty from his mother, Nim is borrowed by academic Herbert Terrace and raised by the hippy intellectual equivalent of the Brady Bunch before he’s whisked off to a mansion where ‘tutors’ in bell-bottoms attempt to teach him sign language.

Told through captivating archive footage, interviews with the humans concerned and some short dramatised sequences, Nim’s true story has all the dramatic highs and lows of fiction and a large cast of real-life heroes, villains and misguided idiots. Short, balding Terrace, who dined out on the publicity from his project for years, is particularly unappealing, although as it’s the 70s his Alan Partridge tennis shorts and limp moustache apparently make him irresistible to his nubile 18-year-old assistant.

Almost everyone interviewed professes to have loved Nim, which is actually the most frustrating thing about the film. Because for them, ‘loving’ Nim meant dressing him up like a doll, feeding him a diet of sugary junk and being inexplicably surprised when the cute infant chimp became an aggressive, testosterone-fuelled five-foot adult with the strength of six men. When Nim starts to bite chunks out of people like, you know, an actual chimpanzee, the project is abandoned and Nim is dumped at the grim primate breeding centre he came from. Oh, and the centre’s chief income comes from selling chimps for clinical trials.

Like all the best stories, Nim’s tale is never predictable – the only person who really understands him is actually a lanky stoner at the chimp farm, and the man who frees him and many other chimps from the vivisection lab is, incredibly, the doctor who runs the place. Similarly, an animal sanctuary isn’t quite what we’d hope, and when the adult Nim is reunited with his adoptive human mother – well, his reaction isn’t quite the expected one.

Project Nim is fascinating, startling and visually arresting throughout. Watch it after Rise of the Planet of the Apes for an alternate take on our complicated relationship with our closest primate cousins.

But wait! I hear you ask. What about the sign language? Does Nim really learn to talk? Well, as it turns out, nobody knows if he actually acquired language, or simply did tricks for bananas like a chimp in a PG Tips ad. But either way, when listless, lonely Nim gets a visit after many miserable years in solitary confinement from his only true human friend Bob, I don’t think it’s an accident that he signs ‘hug’ and ‘play’.

Reviewer: JoSheppard