The Shape of Water

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The winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, The Shape of Water throughly merited this acclaim with its imaginative and universal story, beautifully haunting direction from Guillermo del Toro and top notch performances from an outstanding cast of actors. Plus, it stands as one of Guillermo del Toro’s finest films put to screen.

The year is 1962 and in a coastal area of Baltimore, Maryland, Elisa Esposito(Sally Hawkins)lives above a picture house that screens old movies to a pretty absent audience. She has been mute since childhood when she was found by the river with marking on her neck. An orphan who lives an ordered, almost ritualistic life, Elisa’s forms of companionship are closeted gay artist Giles(Richard Jenkins) and wise cracking and loyal co-worker Zelda Fuller(Octavia Spencer). Elisa and Zelda work in a government facility as cleaners, where they are expected to make things tidy and not ask any questions about the goings on within their workplace. One day, the facility has an arrival of a humanoid creature(Doug Jones) that comes courtesy of the finding of nasty government agent Colonel Strickland(Michael Shannon). He is head of the operation regarding investigating the creature, which mainly involves torturing it as he sees it as unholy, yet who himself is a self righteous hypocrite. Elisa becomes curious about the creature and begins to spend time with it. The creature responds to her and though it doesn’t talk either, they find a way to communicate with one another. Over time, a genuine love forms between them. This places her in danger as the people higher up than Strickland want to vivisect the creature and an enigmatic scientist by the name of Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) has his own motives for studying the humanoid. Elisa, feeling emboldened by her newfound love and understanding, decides to help the humanoid escape. Though this is not going to be an easy operation and Strickland has grown suspicious of her and the consequences could be deadly for Elisa if she does not succeed in saving her lover. 

From the moment The Shape of Water opens with a submerged dream sequence involving Elisa’s water filled apartment and with narration from Giles, you know it’s a film by the masterful Guillermo del Toro. His strong presence and boundless imagination are on full display, twinned with a sensitive story of acceptance, love across the boundaries and understanding of what is deemed different. He was rightly rewarded with an Oscar for his poetic direction of this dark yet endearing movie that pays homage to monster movies of the 50’s, old Hollywood and Cold War intrigue, all wrapped in the confines of his exceptional vision. The Shape of Water is many things that it can be difficult to classify it as it mixes intense thriller suspense, socially aware drama and budding romance. His script, co written with Vanessa Taylor, grounds fantasy in a historical prism, exploring prejudice within the narrative. The main players in the story are all deemed outsiders;Elisa is mute, Giles is having to conceal his sexuality and Zelda faces adversity due to her skin colour. By featuring this aspect, it seems wholly appropriate that Elisa would find solace in the arms of a humanoid creature, who himself is tortured for being different at the hands of the ignorance of others. The message of accepting everyone’s differences and uniqueness is rendered excellently into the fantasy realm with a very human touch that’s simply irresistible. The Shape of Water is a beautifully engaging and unusual fairy tale, that retains a sense of almost childlike curiosity and wonder but is definitely a fantasy for mature audiences owing to violence, brutality and sexuality displayed in the story. This is aided by amazing, award winning production design that captures a darkness of the 60’s in terms of historical context and the ravishing cinematography( blue, green and red feature heavily) that transport us into the distant past via a fantasy romance that’s not afraid to be strikingly adult or daring. Alexandre Desplat earned his second Oscar for his sublime score that captures a wistful, romantic longing and sense of dreamlike joy, coupled with darkness and action when events start to deepen and the stakes of the story increase. 

One of the strongest aspects of The Shape of Water is the sensationally talented cast it boasts. Front and centre is the talented Sally Hawkins, who never lets me down when it comes to convincing acting that feels so true. She’s required to not speak a word, but displays a silent symphony of feelings from quiet delight, aching sadness and growing, admirable bravery in an exquisite anchoring portrayal. You buy all of this because of just how darn good Sally Hawkins is in this part. Hawkins injects Elisa with a deep humanity and sense of authenticity that it stands as one of her finest performances that truly shines in this romantic fantasy. She’s the beating heart of The Shape of Water and it simply wouldn’t be the same without her layered performance of dazzling emotion and winning, hopeful clarity. Hawkins is supported delightfully by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as the two people closest to her. Jenkins, who has been one of the most reliable character actors in what seems like forever, gives life and pathos to his acting as the artist having to suppress his sexuality in a world of ignorance. He’s something special here it must be said with his notes of humour and sympathy splendidly telegraphed. Octavia Spencer also brings her A-game as the loquacious best friend with attitude and conviction. You feel the energy of Spencer and also her understanding of the part, which shows her as tough but deep down longing, hurting yet extremely loyal to those closest and willing to defend them until the end. All three actors were rightfully nominated for Oscars for their respective performances here and they were much deserved.

As the Amphibian creature, Doug Jones, although covered entirely in a scaly suit and make up, brings out a curiosity and sinuous movement in his role. It’s a credit to him that we see the soul of the misunderstood creature and that’s high praise indeed. Although the humanoid is seen as the monster in the story, that title actually the fits the part of the vicious Strickland, played by the incredibly reliable Michael Shannon. He’s excellent as the bible spouting, bullying government agent who always needs to be in control. Shannon is fine when giving voice to Strickland’s frustrations and nastiness, but it’s often when he is silent with emerging rage and intensity that he’s most riveting to watch. Not to say that he’s better at one than the other, he’s amazing at blending both but there’s just something about the way he uses body language and his face that really sells it. Michael Stuhlbarg displays his skills as a secretive scientist with more going on that it seems behind the appearance of studious investigation. He’s nicely understated with his subtle turn as a man who ends up conflicted on what to do with regards to the creature. 

A beguilingly unusual but very touching fantasy romance about acceptance, love and bravery, The Shape of Water is a different but enthralling film that knows how to move the audience with its story, compelling craftsmanship by Guillermo del Toro and simply stellar cast, headed by the sublime Sally Hawkins.

The Life Ahead

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Sophia Loren, following an absence of ten years from screen comes back gloriously with a wonderfully warm, fierce and emotionally nuanced performance in The Life Ahead. The story is rather familiar but is nonetheless very moving and the acting from Sophia Loren and newcomer Ibrahima Gueye is something to behold. It’s a great movie I discovered on Netflix and I recommend it to my audience.

In a seaside town in Italy, Senegalese orphan Momo(Ibrahima Gueye) lives an existence of aggression and mixed up feelings. Though he is cared for by Dr. Cohen(Renato Carpentieri), the 12 year old Momo feels isolated and not at all happy with life. He takes his anger out on others, while resorting to theft and drug dealing with others. One day, Momo steals the belongings of Madame Rosa(Sophia Loren), a former prostitute who is now seen as a respected figure in the community. When Cohen gets word of this crime, he takes Momo him to her to say how sorry he is. The ageing Madame Rosa recognises as the one who stole from her and is not at all interested in helping Momo. Cohen is getting older and feels he can’t look after the troublesome Momo, yet senses that Madame Rosa might have something more to offer. Knowing that Madame Rosa makes money as an unofficial carer to the children of streetwalkers, Cohen persuades her to take care of for a decent amount of money. From the start, the two do not get along. Momo is a tough kid with a chip on his shoulder and a feeling of loss that he expresses with violence and dealing drugs to people nearby, while Madame Rosa is kind but firm, yet haunted by a past that includes her imprisonment in Auschwitz because of her being a Jew. It looks like things won’t be going well for the mismatched duo as they are both incredibly stubborn in their own ways. Over time and little by little, a bond develops between and they seem to bring out the best in the other while attempting to overcome their adverse pasts and unknown futures.

Edoardo Ponti, Sophia’s son, beautifully directs this gently touching tale of two people of different backgrounds and forming an unlikely bond across the. Ponti knows how to strike the right tones of feeling to the piece and elevates the rather simple material into something a step up from the usual wrought dramas, his chief asset being the development of the two central characters of Momo and Madame Rosa. The Life Ahead does strike many familiar notes that you’d expect but it should detract from the emotional heft of the story that make it worth treasuring. I feel the movie could have ran a little longer for some more details, but the relationship between is nicely explored enough to compensate for that. Italy is captured beautifully through the cinematography of Angus Hudson, while most of the often sparse music score is nicely heard and though sometimes intrusive, it does the job well enough . There is a heartfelt song, given stunning voice and resonance by Laura Pausini and with lyrics by Diane Warren by the name of ‘Io sì’. It is quite a beauty song that rounds off The Life Ahead gorgeously and deeply.

Sophia Loren is the big standout and takeaway from The Life Ahead. The biggest piece of praise I can give to the wonderfully talented Loren is that the film wouldn’t be the same without her. She is ideally cast and embodies so many shifting feelings in a way only she can with her innate magnetism. She’s spiky yet hauntingly vulnerable, funny yet morose, sparky yet slowly succumbing to the ravages of old age. You warm to her so much and it’s a treat to see all of these emotions displayed, often with only a simple look that speaks volumes from those dazzling eyes. It’s fantastic to see her back on screen and on sensational form with this vivid portrayal of maternal love and haunted memories. Newcomer Ibrahima Gueye plays beautifully off the classic Loren with a feeling of naturalism and authenticity to his work. It hardly seems like he’s acting at all, that’s how convincing Gueye is as the scrappy kid discovering that happiness can occur in what he originally saw was a life of sadness. And considering he’s starring opposite an icon of world cinema, he shows no nerves whatsoever and rises to the occasion. They are commendably supported by the gravitas of the excellent Renato Carpentieri as the doctor who sets things in motion, the fantastic Abril Zamora as a loyal trans woman who is best friends with Rosa and Babak Karimi as a carpenter/shop owner who takes Momo under his wings at work. But above all, The Life Ahead is a showcase for the undimmed power of Sophia Loren and a great introduction to Ibrahima Gueye.

A touching film of emotion and heart directed with grace and elegance by Edoardo Ponti, The Life Ahead won’t win any awards for originality but should definitely be in contention for plaudits for acting, partially from the iconic and still amazing Sophia Loren.

Empire Records

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The wonderful Gabriela asked me to take part in a blogathon to pay tribute to Maxwell Caulfield.I thought of the perfect film for it and that film is the coming of age comedy/drama Empire Records. My entry is a day early but I don’t think anyone will mind. 

Set over a day in the lives of the workers at the titular music store, Empire Records is a 90’s movie with plenty of good music and filled with many stars on the brink of making it. Plus, you’ve got offbeat characters and fun antics so it’s a great way to spend an hour and a half. Don’t go in expecting anything revolutionary and you’ll have a good time with this cult classic that’s stature has grown in recent years.

Empire Records is a funky little independent record store in Delaware, that provides a solace for the teenagers who work there under the caring eye of store manager  Joe(Anthony LaPaglia). The store prides itself on being independent and doing its own thing, not complying with corporate pressure to be mainstream, but all that could be in jeopardy. The sarcastic and wisdom dispensing employee Lucas( Rory Cochrane) discovers that there is a plan to sell the store and for it to be changed into a soulless music chain. Determined for this not to happen, Lucas takes the store’s takings and heads to Atlantic City. He plans to increase the money at the casino, yet his luck runs out quickly and the money is gone thanks to his harebrained scheme. The next day, the store opens for the arrival of has been former teen idol Rex Manning(Maxwell Caulfield), whose attempting some form of a comeback. It’s here that the rest of the characters are introduced. We have beautiful over achiever Corey(Liv Tyler) , a good girl who wants to lose her virginity to celebrity crush Rex, sexy and sassy Gina( Renée Zellweger) who goes through men like clothes, artistic A.J( Johnny Whitworth) who is in love with Corey but hasn’t had the courage to tell her, wild eyed stoner Mark(Ethan Embry) and troubled Deb(Robin Tunney), who announces herself by shaving her head within minutes of entering the store. Also appearing later are Deb’s on/off rockstar boyfriend Berko( Coyote Shivers)and Mark’s fellow stoner Eddie(James ‘Kimo’ Wills) .

Once Joe notices that the money is gone, he is furious and waits for Lucas to show his face. After animosity following Lucas resurfacing, Joe attempts to explain a plan that could stop the store becoming mainstream while still nursing anger towards the well meaning but careless Lucas. It seems that the money Lucas lost was going to be used to buy the store outright by Joe. Meanwhile ups and downs within the store flesh out the eventful day before them. A whole host of things take place in the twenty fours like a belligerent thief going by the pseudonym Warren Beatty( Brendan Sexton III) causing havoc, Corey and Gina falling out over their respective reputations, Deb’s feelings of alienation and indifference and the appearance of the washed up Rex who has seen better days and isn’t blessed with the kindest of egos . Above it all, feelings are aired and the misfits begin to band together to stop the takeover in an attempt to sock it to the man. 

Allan Moyle is on director’s duties and he seems to have a good grasp of teen angst and how music is always there for us. Complete with messages of fighting the system and being yourself even when you’ve got problems, Moyle injects Empire Records with a certain nostalgia value and the script sizzles with great one liners and plenty of hip dialogue. Moyle keeps the pace flowing as more crazy events mount up within the store, many of them overlapping and entertaining. Empire Records is far from flawless( parts feel rushed and sometimes there is one music montage too many). It isn’t exactly going for being the most original movie out there, but I think therein lies the appeal of Empire Records. Sure it has foibles and the characters are largely archetypes, but it’s not attempting to be a game changer and is going for showing teenagers and their problems/ antics shared with each other and the audience. It’s got a good nature to it and is hard to resist for its sheer quirkiness and witty nature. You get the feeling that for all the angst and eventfulness in the character’s lives, that there’s some light out there for them at the end when surrounded by friends and music. Fun can be gleaned from seeing certain stars at the beginnings of their careers in this comedy drama( chiefly Renée Zellweger and Liv Tyler) that has earned itself its place as a cult classic. Plus it provides one entertaining capsule into the 90’s complete with the fashions, records, VHS and lingo that dazzle. And you have to love the soundtrack that truly singles it out as a 90’s movie of the highest order.

 A game cast fit into their arguably archetypal parts that are well suited to them in an offbeat and idiosyncratic way. As the main sense of parental authority that isn’t stuffy or condescending is Anthony LaPaglia, who combines both a fatherly charm and a gruff  visage to the craziness around him. He’s a softie at heart though and functions wonderfully as the person who provides a sense of fun and respect towards his workers who all look up to him. Much humour and astute observation comes courtesy of Rory Cochrane as the witty yet unlucky Lucas. His deadpan humour and almost mystical advice to his friends is both in check and makes for most of the movie’s laughs. A luscious Liv Tyler is on hand to present pressured angst and a want to be more than just a goodie two shoes, coupled with notes of humour and sadness. Her blend of winsome appeal and longing is employed excellently here. Renée Zellweger in an early role aces it as her best friend who has a bad reputation but is a lot more than meets the eye. Zellweger savours the sassy one-liners that her part presents and delivers them with a wicked edge. Johnny Whitworth has the right attitude for the part of lovesick A.J, who can produce great art but it seems is unable to fully express his feelings of romance, while the main points of comedy come from the crazy and uninhibited turn by Ethan Embry as the stoner. Robin Tunney rounds out the main group with a decidedly dark yet acerbically funny performance as a girl crying out for help but also letting loose and just holding nothing back. 

And we now come to the man of the hour that is Maxwell Caulfield. He’s splendidly cast as the has been pop star whose attempting a comeback yet is never taken seriously by anyone. Caulfield captures the sleazy and entitled attitude of someone who doesn’t realise that their heyday is in fact over and that he’s an embarrassment full of arrogance and swagger. Complete with bouffant hair and bad spray tan, he’s a funny figure to witness and one that Caulfield plays very well. It’s really evident that Maxwell Caulfield is having a ball with this peach of a part. I enjoyed seeing a young Brendan Sexton III as the surly and amateur thief who begins to feel at home inside the confines of the store. In support there is Debi Mazar as his personal assistant who actually can’t stand him and sides with the store, plus the music stylings of Coyote Shivers and slacker humour from James ‘Kimo’ Wills.

So while it has its moments that detract from the overall product, Empire Records is still an entertaining film to watch, mainly for the performances and of course the music 

Katie Melua – Album No.8

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I promised I’d do some music content on here and now it’s arrived. Below is my review of the new Katie Melua album.

With a voice that just envelopes you in it’s mellifluous delivery and unaffectedly strong nuance, Katie Melua is one of those artists who you feel puts her soul into her work. Her music has always had a different ambience to it, probably stemming from her mixture of pop, smidgeons of jazz and influences of her homeland Georgia. This is most definitely the case with her first album in four years Album No.8; an excellent compendium of songs charting rising and falling love, daydreams and heart on sleeve confessions. She’s recently separated from her husband of many years, but the wise Melua is not making a record that’s purely a pity party. Far from it in fact when one really listens to the lyrical content of Album No.8. Yes I’m sure some of her personal life covered recording of this record, but it is never bombastic or even in your face about it. Instead, her voice is so inviting and tells stories, which completely sells her music beautifully. It never bellows, belts or grows incredibly loud, instead delivering words in an evocative hush that’s bewitching to the ears. If you’ve been ambivalent on Katie’s music in the past, be prepared to reevaluate that assessment with this record.

We open with the string laden ‘A Love Like That’ that bristles with a 60’s ambience and something of a Bond movie sound to it. One can imagine the dark haired Miss Melua performing this in a swish casino or nightclub as intrigue unfolds around her. It’s a lush and cinematic opener that acts as the first indicator of the themes explored here; love, loss, memories and reflection. It’s one of many standout tracks on a record that brims with them. ‘English Manner’ presents a suitably intriguing narrative, pertaining to a love triangle in a refined space . Once more there is something cinematic and haunting about this track that sounds jaunty at first before evolving into an instrumental that’s both arresting to the ears and slightly dangerous too.

Dream like imagery is evoked in the sensationally ethereal ’Leaving the Mountain’ . Taking us on a personal, magical and beautiful journey through a memory of “a forest buried in ice” and “crisp Edelweiss”, Melua’s voice once more entices you in with its gentle observation in phrasing and eloquent ability to reach into the soul on what is one of my favourite on the album. It’s the kind of song you can close your eyes to while listening and be swept up in it’s description. Coupled with the choral strains of ‘Heading Home’, Melua revisits her Georgian heritage and memories of childhood splendidly with an adult understanding of teenage years. The song features a choir in the background, whose voices blend and back up Melua’s already serene voice to otherworldly levels. A country jangle is present in ‘Joy’ that swifts you along on its travels of personal growth, while the gently healing ‘Maybe I Dreamt It’ acts as a great follow up to the aforementioned track.

The jazz infused ‘Voices In The Night’ conjures up a smoky club with slow dancing and red wine. It’s probably the track on here that’s something a little change of pace and I like it for it’s faster tempo and somewhat seductive tone in comparison from the rest of the songs. And that’s meant in the best way possible and is in no way a slight on the part of the slower numbers, those are something special to and form the exemplary backbone of the record.

We find the chanteuse her on reflective form on ‘ Your Longing Is Gone’, that becomes a bittersweet ode to love and loss is a gorgeously performed song that works it’s quiet yet powerful brand of emotion on you. Like the best on the album, the tone here is struck between breezy and melancholy. The slow and slinky ‘Airtime’ ponders how much time is spent on love and its immense pressures for all involved. It’s a resounding success of a song that’s enticing as it is ruminating; burrowing itself into your mind with its lyrical content and languid sound. Rounding out the record is  ‘Remind Me to Forget’ that closes things with a pensive and growing ever closer hope of what lies ahead for her . A pleasing end to the album that feels exactly like the soul lifting following hardship with nuanced strengths. My last point of note is that credit in Album No. 8 must also be extended to the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra who provide the beautiful flourishes to this record that compliment Melua’s already substantial talent and tapestry.

So in a nutshell, Album No.8 is a personal and professional triumph for the talented Katie Melua. She’s baring her soul on this record but not in a trite or hackneyed way. Her main focus is to make this album one that opens her up to the listener with imagination and grace. Some could say that the music is just more of the same from Melua, but I think this album has more of a honest touch to it that marks it out as her most mature and detailed work to date. Just sit back, soak up the gorgeous atmosphere of reflection and enjoy its sublime aura from Katie Melua.

The Crow

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A Gothic fantasy/ action revenge thriller, The Crow dazzles on the visual front and weaves a melancholy yet pulse pounding spell over the audience. The accidental death of star Brandon Lee also impacts on the film with a grim sense of irony and sadness.

In a decaying, dark city where it always seems to rain and crime is almost ever present, rock star Eric Draven( Brandon Lee) and his fiancée Shelley Webster( Sofia Shinas) plan to get married on Halloween. They are deeply in love and are each other’s rock in the tides of violence that surrounds them. Then brutality strikes on Devils Night, when a street gang barges into their apartment and brutally kills Eric and rape Shelley. Shelly dies later from her wounds and Eric lies dead on the sidewalk. Sergeant Albrecht( Ernie Hudson) , who is one of the only decent people in this place of corruption is on the case and takes young Sarah(Rochelle Davis) under his wing. Sarah is a neglected waif who was incredibly close to the deceased couple and who now is looked after by Albrecht, as her drug-addled mother has no time for her . A year later, a crow lands on Eric’s grave and begins tapping on the tombstone. Moments later, this resurrects a confused and traumatised Eric. Stumbling back to his apartment with the help of the crow as his guide, Eric experiences flashbacks of that fateful night and swears revenge on the scum that killed him and Shelley. Donning striking clown like makeup, black clothing and realising that his wounds heal now that he’s been resurrected, he sets about tracking down the gang. Whatever the crow sees, he sees as he brutally sets about righting the deadly wrongs. The low level, scummy gang consisting of T-Bird(David Patrick Kelly), Skank(Angel David), Tin-Tin(Laurence Mason) and Funboy( Michael Masses) are setting fires across the dank city and don’t expect the vengeance coming their way. To the gang, it’s just another night to cause mayhem and indulge in violence, but it’s going to get a lot more bloody now that Eric is on their trail . As Eric eliminates the gang, it leads him up to twisted crime boss Top Dollar( Michael Wincott), who is a nasty piece of work and the one who rules over the chaos of the city. Violence unfolds as Eric seeks vengeance to be at peace and right the wrongs inflicted on him and his beloved , while influencing both Sergeant Albrecht and Sarah along the way.

Alex Proyas is a sensationally visual director who truly brings this mournful yet thrilling film to life. Lifting it from the comic book source, Proyas is on to something special with The Crow. He’s truly alive in the action scenes and when shooting them, while also bringing something else to the project. The flashy yet evocative aura is on point with how it delivers both thrills and story, particularly in the flashback sequences. It must be said that there are some areas where the film falls flat such as not enough backstory for some characters and occasionally an emphasis of style over substance . Saying that, Eric, Albrecht and Sarah are all well designed and explored and the flaws are pretty minor so I can forgive a few gripes. When it comes to the grisly yet thrilling action, this movie delivers with scenes of crazy action in high demand and prominence with its fast running time. On the visual front, The Crow is masterful and it’s sublimely dark and Gothic design is as haunting as it is beautiful. The city that the characters inhabit is both dark and dank and exquisitely painted, with the rare appearance of brightness coming up every now and then against the harsh rain that continues to fall throughout. The editing is stylish and reminiscent of a music video with more substance, and it’s hard to fault it on that score. The camera pans across this nightmarish world with precision and flair; with many moments slowed down to capture the impact of events as Eric goes about exacting poetic justice and other parts being kinetic when vengeance truly hits home for the scum of the streets( check the bullet laden shootout at Top Dollar’s residence for a great example). The comic book origins come through in the cinematography Dariusz Wolski who injects The Crow with ambience that sucks you into this unjust world that just got a dose of Karma. If anything, The Crow is a feast for the eyes but also has some depth and a cloud of melancholy to it. Brandon Lee’s tragic passing impacts on this sense of sadness but there is a grim irony also attached to it. Lee died just as he was about to make it in the mainstream in a freak accident and also soon to marry his real life fiancée, the irony being that his character comes back to life following demise. It swathes The Crow in a deep sense of sadness and what if possibilities for the actor and this made the film into a cult hit. Depth comes in how Eric just wants to teach them all a lesson and avenge his beloved; when he first rises he is confused and disorientated, followed by flashbacks that spur him on to become a weapon of revenge. He isn’t just a single minded killing machine as he doesn’t kill those who haven’t wronged him or Shelley, plus he brings some clarity to the lives of Albrecht and Sarah. He’s a romantic angel of vengeance and swift justice who you don’t want to cross. The soundtrack is pumping and all encompassing, backed up by the atmospheric and darkly romantic score from Graeme Revell. Both enable the film to also be an aural experience as well as a visual one. 

The late Brandon Lee heads the cast as the avenger of justice with a sinuous blend of tragedy, action star and intense demeanour. Lee has a dark sense of charisma that’s tempered with both an athleticism and a deep well of sadness. He’s undeniably hard to take your eyes off as he owns the screen whenever he’s around, which is nearly every scene. It’s sad that this was his last movie as he shows great promise as a movie star who could have gone places. Still it stands as a knockout performance that truly infuses The Crow with action and melancholy. Ernie Hudson is also a shining light as perhaps the most honest and thoroughly loyal characters in the film. He possesses a level of positivity and gravitas that lends itself beautifully to The Crow; signifying that the world inhabited is awful, but some goodness remains. Villainy comes in the form of the formidable Michael Wincott . Utilising his raspy voice and tall stature to his advantage, he imbues Top Dollar with a vicious nastiness and unbridled devilry that’s thrilling to witness. You really revile the character because of how well Wincott inhabits him. Rochelle Davis provides winsome relief against the gloom as the lonely skateboarding girl who has learnt to fend for herself and has forged a deep connection with Eric. As the gang of nasty individuals who are picked off one by one, there is David Patrick Kelly, Angel David, Laurence Mason and Michael Massee. Each doesn’t have to really stretch dramatic muscles, but all really give their characters a feral nature that suits the bunch of criminals they portray. You also get the greatness of Jon Polito as an underhand pawnbroker and the imperious Tony Todd as Top Dollar’s head bodyguard turning supporting roles into something memorable with short screen time. Bai Ling, though extremely bewitching to look at, is saddled with not much of a part. She’s mainly there to show a twisted relationship between Top Dollar and his sister and not much else. Sofia Shinas, seen mainly in flashback, provides an almost angelic presence that shows just how much she meant to Eric. 

Imaginatively action packed, darkly arresting and hauntingly gloomy, The Crow lives long in the memory of viewers owing to its take of vengeance and atmosphere of sadness that comes through.

Saw

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A horror movie that gave rise to a series of increasingly brutal follow ups, Saw was the benchmark of pushing the envelope yet retaining a story. Shot on a small budget and completed on a quick schedule, director James Wan and writer/ actor Leigh Whannell created a film that was grisly yet very well executed and with more psychological underpinnings than what followed. 

Two strangers, prominent surgeon Dr. Lawrence Gordon(Cary Elwes) and photographer Adam(Leigh Whannell) wake up in an underground bathroom. They are both chained to pipes and between them is a bloodied corpse holding a cassette player and a revolver. Both men seem to have no recollection of how they arrived in this dank, disused place. Soon discovering that the room is filled with clues and objects that may be useful, the two men use the cassette player to listen to the messages left. A gargled voice explains that Lawrence’s wife Allison(Monica Potter)and daughter Diana have been kidnapped and will be killed if Lawrence doesn’t kill Adam by a certain time. Adam is urged to escape, though it seems the only way to do that is to saw off his foot and crawl to hopeful safety. 
Soon memories start coming back to Lawrence who realises something awful about their predicament. Him and Adam are part of an elaborate and disturbing game set up by The Jigsaw Killer(Tobin Bell). He is a man who puts people who don’t appreciate life in horrifying situations involving torture to see how much they want to survive. As time keeps ticking by, we also witness a former detective named David Tapp(Danny Glover) who had previously runs in with Jigsaw, becoming dangerously obsessed with finding him. Both scenarios promise much in the way of horror and brutality for everyone involved with a killer twist.

Debuting director James Wan made a splash with Saw and its clear to see why. Wan possesses a keen sense of what unnerves the audience and a hold over a gloomy sense of style. Setting the film largely in one location was a great idea that paid off, with the flashbacks setting the scene even further for us in a gradual fashion. The cold,  washed out colour pallet adds to the grimness of Saw; bathing events in an uneasy hue that makes your eyes almost readjust to the bleakness. Certain comparisons can be drawn to Seven, and that’s quite a movie to take influence from. Saw however does it well and has its own twisted agenda going for it, so it is far from a copycat of the masterful aforementioned movie. Though later films would up the gore to excruciating levels, Saw itself is a bit more tame. There is definite gore and much unpleasant imagery to behold( like one unfortunate victim of Jigsaw in a maze of barbed wire), but it’s often shown briefly or in ways that don’t display everything. Take for instance when we see a victim of Jigsaw with a reverse bear trap strapped to her head. Instructed by the madman to retrieve the key to release her from sudden death, she must brutally kill a sedated man and find the object in his stomach. It would have been easy to make it a full on bloodbath, but Wan chooses to speed up footage and only display various parts do that our imagination does the rest of the work and makes us picture the horror. It’s one of many scenes where you see bits of the gore but it’s largely left up to us to visualise what is happening in the story in that particular grisly. 
Once the film opens up in narrative terms, it feels more expansive and puzzling with the history of characters explored after what seemed like such a straightforward premise. Granted the set up is simple but effective, but Wan and Whannell are clearly interested in playing with the formula as well as injecting some pertinent questions on the nature of morality and desperation. Saw isn’t without its flaws( sometimes the script shows that it’s from a novice and a few times things can move too quickly to focus), yet this shouldn’t detract from a creepy as well as horrifying film that knows how to get under your skin. It’s hard to forget the clown like puppet that acts as the terrifying mouthpiece for Jigsaw, uttering the now infamous line “ I want to play a game”. This moment and visual has become synonymous with the film and rightfully so as it’s chilling. One of the best elements in Saw is the score from Charlie Clouser. It has an industrial influence that hums away with an electronic pulse that underscores the mounting terror of the film. 

Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell head the movie as the imprisoned men. Elwes is all trying to remain calm under pressure with a seemingly sensible and arrogantly strait-laced head before really cracking up, while Whannell in an early acting role is the more showy and in your face, never seen that still for long. Occasionally both actors go a little overboard( especially Whannell in a few stretches), but what still remains is good acting as we buy into the shared terror between them that can’t be denied. Sure no Oscars are coming their way for this, but they are acceptably good in their given parts and sell a lot of the horror we witness. They must be commended for holding our attention as the people who are basically on screen the most from start to finish. 
Danny Glover is suitably intense as the obsessed and verging on full breakdown former detective who provides the other half of the story and an axe to grind with Jigsaw. Ken Leung provides more backstory to the case as Glover’s parter in investigation and the two work well off each other. Michael Emerson, with his large eyes and uneasy demeanour, has us on edge with his delivery of a man caught him the game but not in the way you might think. Monica Potter on the other hand is just required to be terrified and not much else, as her character doesn’t have much in the way of development. Props must be given to Shawnee Smith for her one scene that truly traumatises; the reverse bear trap one where most of her acting is through her eyes and they evoke such a feeling of desperation and visceral pain it’s astounding. Despite limited screen time and mainly just the use of his voice, Tobin Bell creates one of horror’s most memorable villains in Jigsaw. That voice will send unending shivers down your spine and it’s down to that and Bell’s embracing of the twisted philosophy of the character that you buy into it.

A creepy and nail biting horror that is both stomach churning and psychological, Saw is a definite recommendation for horror fans out there. 

The Conjuring 2

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A successful spine chilling sequel to the first hit film, The Conjuring 2 continues with genuine scares, atmospheric events, inspired by the investigations of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. This time it’s the Enfield Haunting that is explored and it delivers on both the scare front and having a depth that can often be missing in horror movies.

It’s 1977 and in a council house in Enfield, London, the Hodgson family lives hand to mouth. There is harried single mother Peggy(Frances O’Connor) , who tries to do her best and her four children. When not contending with poverty or ridicule at the hands of either school kids or others, something strange begins for them. Following Janet( Madison Wolfe) playing with a makeshift ouija board, seemingly supernatural things begin to happen. She begins sleepwalking and communicating with something angry that claims to be a former occupant of the house. This is followed by objects being thrown about the house and terrorising the family in an abundance of ways. Terrified, the family flees to their neighbours and away from were the haunting originates. Meanwhile, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren( Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are taking a break from their jobs, following their encounters in The Amityville house a year before. Lorraine was put through the mill when conducting a seance and terrorised by a demonic nun figure who predicted the death of Ed. Still reeling, Lorraine has taken time away to spend it with her husband and young daughter. Yet it’s not long before news of unexplainable events in Enfield reach across the pond thanks to a media circus in England. The Warrens being experts in the field of the supernatural and haunting are asked to assist in investigating the unusual phenomena. After her experience a year prior, Lorraine is very reluctant to get involved in another case. Eventually, she and Ed travel to Enfield to act as observers and possibly help. Though they said they’d just observe, it becomes clear that Ed and Lorraine will have to really take on this force of evil as it gets more menacing. Upon entrance into the residence, Lorraine senses something deep and dark. The second oldest child Janet,seems to be the one most affected by the supernatural occurrences out of the family, leading to Ed and Lorraine investigating why the entity is using her as a conduit. The Warrens realise that they are up against an immensely evil being that seems to take pleasure in torment and may in fact be something relating directly to both of them. It’s up to Ed and Lorraine to fight this malevolent spirit that threatens to terrorise all in its path with no end.

Horror maestro James Wan is directing once more and his imaginative flourishes and ability to really generate fear in an audience is in huge supply once more. Wan is gifted in how he blends real feeling for characters and putting them through all manner of terror. An attention to characters and suspense building is what I really dig about this movie. Among all the scares, there is depth to be gleaned and relatable moments, especially pertaining to Ed and Lorraine. They are a fantastic couple whose open minds and devotion to each other is really amazing to watch as they compliment each other so well. The Conjuring 2 ups the stakes by making the main form of terror feel more personal towards the Warrens. There is the dual threat of a figure that takes the form of a nun that predicts bad things and the seemingly evil spirit of an old man who once lived in the Hodgson house. Both are the stuff of nightmares and really get under the skin whenever they appear. The nun especially has one very goosebump inducing scene in which she toys with Lorraine and it’s a doozy of a moment as it gradually begins to really unnerve the dedicated medium. Plus some sequences really stand out, in particular Janet sick at home and experiencing the full force of the ghost and Ed conferring with a possessed Janet in a one shot that obscures her. This visual trick is a nifty one as even though our view is blurred, you can see little differences as the demonic possession carries on and begins taunting Ed with inhuman glee. It doesn’t show us everything, but knows the trick of showing us enough to keep you on edge. It’s old school horror style at its finest. And speaking of style, the cinematography of moody blues and unusual camerawork really help us feel unsettled yet fascinated as we join this investigation. The colour scheme really highlights the period and setting, with the Warren’s providing the light that is unwavering through the darkness of their discoveries. And people may being skeptical about how true these events are, which is interestingly portrayed here as if it knows they’ll be naysayers. Amusingly, there are areas of the film that actually examine this in the form of investigator Maurice Grosse( Simon McBurney) and skeptic Anita Gregory( Franka Potente) but regardless of your belief or disbelief in the supernatural , you can’t deny that it isn’t one eerie and chilling film. The main flaw with The Conjuring 2 is that it does feel a bit overlong. Mind you, with that being the only real niggle with the film, I can’t find much fault with anything else on display. The score is appropriately nerve shredding in the best way there is, with low sounds and sudden jolts the order of the day. Plus, you get great periods of silence that truly maximise the tension and force you to keep your ears peeled for anything changing. 

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga head proceedings with commendable and believable performances. Wilson is dependable, amiable yet equally as adept in bringing home the serious nature of the job, while Farmiga is graceful, quietly forceful and tenderly beautiful as the gifted Lorraine. The chemistry is a big highlight and what makes us truly care for these people who are clearly devoted to each other and stalwart in their belief to do the right thing. Frances O’Connor is subtly devastating as the vulnerable single mother going through hell with her children; she truly comes alive with fear and terror as events spiral against her thanks to the great acting from O’Connor. Madison Wolfe really gives it her all as the besieged Janet and it’s amazing to watch such a young performer really hold the attention with a performance. She manages to be both very sympathetic and very alarming depending on whether she’s herself or possessed. Whichever side she’s portraying , Wolfe truly delivers fine work that is very memorable. Simon McBurney and Franka Potente, although assigned more supporting roles, at least get great moments as people on opposite ends of the believer spectrum.

Mixing creepy horror and human drama, The Conjuring 2 is an excellent sequel that features fine acting, eerie scares and a classy sense of horror that doesn’t go for hack and slash( instead opting for psychological terror). You won’t be having sweet dreams following this chiller.

The Black Cauldron

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Often forgotten in the wide spectrum of Disney movies and more frequently than not misunderstood because of its willingness to be dark, The Black Cauldron is in fact a rather excellent animated fantasy film.

In the mythical land of Prydain , Taran( Grant Bardsley) is a teenager who works as an assistant pig keeper with his guardian, the wise Dallben . Taran is a dreamer with ideas of being a warrior, but is often naive and foolhardy. One of the pigs he takes care of by the name of Hen Wen gets special attention, which Taran doesn’t understand at first. Though it becomes clear why Hen Wen is treated with such care when Dallben reveals a secret to the curious teenager . Hen Wen has the power of clairvoyance which puts her in a dangerous predicament. The ruler of Prydain is The Horned King( John Hurt), an evil demon who has his eyes set on discovering the mythical Black Cauldron. If he gets his hands on it, he can raise an army of the dead that will aid him in truly taking over the world.  fears that The Horned King would use Hen Wen to unearth The Black Cauldron and act out his diabolical plan for domination. sends Taran into hiding with Hen Wen, but Taran’s immaturity leads to Hen Wen being kidnapped by The Horned King’s minions. It’s up to Taran to rescue the pig. After infiltrating the castle inhabited by The Horned King, Taran helps Hen Wen escape but himself is captured. Thankfully along the way, he meets a host of characters who either aid him in his journey to stop the barbaric villain. There is the plucky Princess Eilonwy(Susan Sheridan), washed up and unlucky bard Fflewddur Fflam( Nigel Hawthorne) and unusual, fawning creature Gurgi( John Byner). Throw in dragon like creatures, three marsh witches and a group of underground fairies and the stage is set for adventure. 

There’s a rather epic feel to The Black Cauldron that’s reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, and the two share a few similarities. A certain grandeur is here that adds levels of majesty for what it a film that’s really overlooked. I hope with this review I can bring The Black Cauldron to more notice among movie fans. While underrated, The Black Cauldron is far from flawless. At points, the tone can get a little scattershot and not quite know what to do with itself. Plus, some of the attempts at humour fall a bit flat and feel old hat. The story itself is standard swords and sorcery, but that shouldn’t be held against it because this movie is unabashedly dark and not afraid to be strangely mature and horrifying. Overall though and despite little foibles, it’s an undiscovered dark gem of a film that deserves a second chance and a new audience to appreciate what it was going for. The small quibbles shouldn’t detract from a Disney film with an overt difference and one that is often forgotten. When it goes for the creepy and menacing factor it definitely succeeds, due in no small part to the beautifully eerie animation and particularly The Horned King. The colours are moody and more subdued than most of Disney’s output, but is technically beautiful in their bleakness and sense of foreboding, with just enough light to bring hope. Scary and unnerving sequences abound in The Black Cauldron, it was after all the first animated film from The House of Mouse to revive a PG certificate upon release. Chief among the spooky and nightmarish scenes is the army of the dead. Anyone who has seen the film knows exactly which sequence I’m referring to and it still holds up as very disturbing and visually dazzling and dizzying. I’ll admit, The Black Cauldron is one of my favourite Disney films and mainly because it had the idea to go for something more grown up and not just pandering to little kids. The great Elmer Bernstein contributes a soaring, moody and wholly appropriate score that fits the fantasy like a glove. When the score hits the eerie heights, it’s really a thing of chilling beauty that doesn’t ignore the more rousing elements of the film.

A voice of largely English and upper crust voices bring their characters to life, though sometimes it can be a little too posh. Grant Bardsley is appropriately curious, adventurous and scrappy as our hero, while the soft voice of Susan Sheridan provides warmth and courage to the Princess Eilonwy. Nigel Hawthorne brings out distinction and humour as the bumbling bard swept along on the journey after being rescued from the dungeon; his voice is a case of it being amusing that he speaks so well and is so unlucky. John Byner uses an eccentric yet lovable voice to give life to the wild creature of Gurgi, who more often than not speaks in rhyme. He really gets the ups and down of the character well, showing both a cowardly nature and a growing loyalty. The voice you’ll remember the most though is the deep, gravelly tones of John Hurt as The Horned King. His voice booms with a menacing aura of authority and is truly spine chilling to hear. Without him as the voice, The Horned King wouldn’t work as a truly evil villain. Thankfully, the voice of John Hurt truly brings the monstrous demon to life to honestly scare the living daylights out of the viewers.

While immensely dark for a movie from a company marketed towards children, The Black Cauldron is definitely that but also a rousing fantasy adventure that maybe quite mature and shocking but has enough to make it a film that needs some re-evaluation.