Blithe Spirit – Review

Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 36 minutes, Director – Edward Hall

A struggling writer (Dan Stevens) begins to experience troubles in his second marriage when the ghost of his first wife (Leslie Manville) reappears after a séance.

‘Jolly good, what a splendidly smashing show, old chap!’ were unlikely the words that Noel Coward first thought when looking at the finished script for his 1941 play Blithe Spirit. It’s also unlikely that such terms or phrases were ever in this script. However, it’s exactly the type of stereotypical, dated British posh-talk that this newest film-take on the play is littered with. As characters get more and more infuriated they blurt out terms such as “hussy” and “harlot”, and dare they exclaim “bally”? There’s almost surprise in the eyes of the big-name actors as they find themselves reading off such lines.

The story follows Dan Steven’s Charles Condomine, a struggling 1930’s writer who has been given the opportunity to adapt one of his successful mystery novels into a feature film. However, for weeks he has suffered from writer’s block, with no clue as to what he should put on the page, his wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) at this point struggling to offer any more support than a simple ‘get on with it’. However, after getting some inspiration for his script Charles invites a medium (Judi Dench) to his lavish, seemingly modern design, home for a séance. While initially there are no effects, not even further inspiration, it’s not long until Charles is able to see the ghost of his deceased first wife, Elvira (Leslie Mann). However, it’s only him who can see her.

Cue routines about how nobody else can see Elvira and so get the wrong message when Charles is talking to her and a complicated marriage spawning from there. Despite Ruth objecting against such intrusions in her husband’s life things develop well for the screenplay with his dead first wife back on the scene. Elvira essentially writes the script for Charles, as she did his books when she was alive. While she doesn’t actually write herself, she tells him what words he should put on the page. Ghostly powers certainly fluctuate throughout the film. One minute ghosts can walk through walls and simply go through people, the next they can pick up objects, control them and even manipulate multiple items from a distance.

Throughout the tone is that of a garish ‘wacky’ comedy. Characters blithering around – the opening lines of the film are Stevens’ character calling himself a “blithering idiot” – through the same repeated jokes over and over. To pick things up the score, with a tone that highlights just how zany and kooky things have become, kicks in. However, none of this distracts from the fact that the film as a whole is void of wit and charm, in fact everything seems to be rather overdone. Every scene – even the ones where the lights are turned off or events are set at night – is garishly lit, full-on bright light flooding the entire frame; simply highlighting the watered down florescent colours.

Everything becomes a mesh of a comedy that almost seems as if it’s screenplay is trying to poke fun at itself when it comes to certain instances and lines. There are times when you almost expect the set to fall apart and the cast of Mischief Theatre to run on, forget their lines and turn this into The Séance That Goes Wrong – it would certainly be far more entertaining. Unfortunately, what we’re left with is a very long, very bland, 96 minutes that truly shows its length towards the end as various pieces of string are picked up, some which weren’t there in the first place, and tied together to create some form of ending. Yet, throughout, aside from the repetitious jokes, the recurring theme is a simple pun. Ghost-writer.

Taking a stereotypical, dated view of 1930’s posh-Britain this take on Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit simply lacks any form of charm to properly highlight humour. The living characters have as much life as the ghost, and to think of it the film itself.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

LFF 2020: One Night In Miami – Review

Release Date – 15th January 2021, Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 55 minutes, Director – Regina King

Four influential African American figures; Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) meet in a hotel room one night, discussing their status in society and the change they can help create.

While different in tone and style Pixar’s Soul and Regina King’s directorial debut One Night In Miami have a shared sense of humanity. Both written by Kemp Powers, Soul being a collaborative effort, both features, which have been talked about as awards season contenders, come with a feeling of hopefulness and pride. With this latest big screen venture Powers adapts his award winning stage-play of the same name. Following four iconic African American figures the film depicts Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr – who can truly belt out a song with the power, soul and sound of Cooke) meeting in a Miami hotel room to initially celebrate the 1964 World Heavyweight Championship win of Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) – yet to become Muhammed Ali.

However, the celebration quickly becomes a discussion about where the four stand in society, and what they can do to advance the civil rights movement. The conversation coolly flows like the gradually melting ice cream as each friend helps the others to pave a way forward for the future. Such talks are brought to life by a fantastic set of central performances that create believable and engaging characters that are, most importantly, human. Not forgetting well-placed humour, or the light, banter-like tone of some topics, each individual figure feels real, with a fresh 60’s-infused swagger to further boost their air of relatability and familiarity.

King allows for her cast to move and create humanity within their portrayals, making it all the more easier to connect with them and recognise their emotions. The ensemble is strong and despite the sometimes stage-like feeling of the piece, particularly being set a large deal in a single hotel room, each of the leads shines from the screen and leaves a lasting imprint on the mind. Awards consideration is rightfully discussed when it comes to these performances, however the conversation over who’s a lead, who’s not and whether the ensemble nature of four great pieces of acting has one specific ‘leader’ or nominee could get in the way of a nod. Whatever happens the performances are undeniably worthy of plaudits.

When you throw into the mix the heady tone of the 60’s and the celebration of victory, and energy of the drive to continue it on other ways, there’s a true upbeat sense of hope to the whole film. Pushed further by the passion that each figure has for their future. Clay is about to announce his conversation to Islam, soon to become Muhammed Ali, Cooke is trying to turn his art, his music, into a further form of activism. Meanwhile, Brown tries to push forward the role of black athletes, particularly within his sport of American football, and Malcolm X is, while thinking about how his own actions affect the world around him – particularly those who seem to be constantly surveilling him – is pushing each of them to further the impact that they can have and to spread the word of and engagement with the civil rights movement.

Powers’ screenplay allows for layered personalities that are simply further detailed by the fantastic performances that King’s direction allows and captures. Early exposition allows for a clear understanding of points and feelings throughout the piece as the characters engage in their conversations of impassioned hope.

Regina King knows exactly what to do with Kemp Powers screenplay, and she does it and more. When the night is over you’ll have consumed a refreshing drink of hopeful humanity brought about by four brilliant central performances that capture the tone almost perfectly.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Just A Little Bit Random Audience Top Ten Best Films Of 2020

After a year of chaos and mostly comfort watches it seems that there was still plenty of room for viewings of new releases. Whether a rare big screen viewing or one of the many streaming and PVOD releases (all done by UK release date) there was a lot to enjoy within 2020, and your votes certainly showed that. Throughout the voting process for the audience best films of the year a diverse range of films were showed a great deal of love, and while the top three remained the same by their own distances the remaining seven films in the top ten were part of a very close, ever-changing race. And so, as voted for by the Just A Little Bit Random audience and beyond, here are the top ten best films of 2020!

10. Military Wives

One of the last films to be release before cinemas closed during the first lockdown Military Wives was billed as the “feel-good” film of the year. And, it seems to have done its job. The film had already had good word of mouth and was boosted further when being released soon after on PVOD for more people to see in the safety of their homes. Perhaps its upbeat tone – from The Full Monty director Peter Cattaneo – was what people needed during this year.

Inspired (being a very key word here) by the true story of the Military Wives choir there’s something almost similar in tone to 2019’s Fisherman’s Friends – voted as the 7th best film of that year. While both films may have been assumed as widely being for a general ‘silver cinema’ audience clearly they both stretched out to other audiences to make, in only a couple of weeks as most cinemas were beginning to close, over £3 million at the UK box office.

A story about people coming together amidst fears, worries, stresses and more – as the characters’ husbands are out fighting in the Afghanistan war – seemed to be what people needed during this year, with Military Wives sticking with them for a fair deal of it. For a number of voters it truly was the “feel-good” film of the year, hence its appearance as one of the top ten films of 2020.

9. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

Making many best of the year lists it seems that you the audience agreed that Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire was truly something to behold. Foreign language films as a whole made a big impact in 2020 and this artistic tale of passionate love clearly stood out amongst them.

It’s almost impossible to fault any of the film’s details. With fantastic lead performances from Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant – which managed to receive as much, if not more, acclaim as Elisabeth Moss’ much talked about turn in The Invisible Man, released the same week – who bring to life characters who you just want to see express their emotions to each other.

There’s something truly heart-breaking and tragic about the hopeful tone of the film as you fear there isn’t a future in the relationship due to Haenel’s Héloïse preparing to be married off. The emotional punches of this beautifully told and shot period drama transported viewers somewhere entirely new and different, somewhere they may very well have returned to a number of times throughout the year simply because of how perfect it felt. Which may be just one, there’s bound to be a great deal more than many for this film, of the reasons that this film is at number 9 on this list, speaking to how well received the films above it were.

8. Wolfwalkers

For the past few years Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon have often been referred to as the Irish Studio Ghibli. However, with their continuing trend of gems such as Song Of The Sea, The Secret Of Kells, The Breadwinner and now Wolfwalkers it may soon be the case that this studio becomes the comparison for many others. Wolfwalkers continues Cartoon Saloon’s trend of deeply rooting their tales in folklore while managing to make something that seems like its own individual piece of folklore. The fine animation of their most recent feature about a young English girl, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), living in Ireland who becomes friends with a girl living in the woods, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who just happens to be a wolkfwalker – described as “half-wolf, half-witch, half-people” – simply adds to the charm that this film overflows with.

Although, this certainly isn’t a film without its elements of darkness. Simon McBurney voices the truly slimy ‘boo hiss’ figure of the Lord Protector, trying to rid the nearby woods of wolves simply to extend the land that the English are taking over. Yet the charm, humour and heart of the film is never left in the background.

It’s a film that has had care and passion for the story that is being told and the places it comes from into every frame, all leading to a great final product for anyone to enjoy. Thanks to a release on Apple Tv+ – and a limited cinema release beforehand – this feature was potentially able to be viewed by more people than previous limited theatrical release Cartoon Saloon pieces, and from the reception that it’s had it’s clearly been worth it.

7. Onward

Despite the lack of animated films released this year there was clearly a lot of love for those that were released. Animation giant Pixar released two films, and while at the end of the year Soul received a share of acclaim when released on Disney+ the one that seems to have stuck with audience members is Onward. A call-back to 80’s fantasy films such as Time Bandits and Labyrinth, Onward is certainly something different from the studio. There’s plenty of detail in the mythical land of elves, centaurs and manticores where restaurants boast that they’re “now serving 2nd breakfast”.

This is an escapist road-trip as brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) embark on a ‘quest’ to bring back their dad for just one day, after a spell goes wrong and only brings back everything below the belt (belt and trousers included – this is a family film after all). One of the number of films released only a couple of weeks before cinemas closed Onward managed to earn just under £10 million at the UK box office this year, and for a number of weeks was the number one film as cinemas were gradually beginning to re-open. Perhaps people were going for re-watches to escape from the outside world, maybe they were going because they heard the film was good and wanted to watch it on the big screen instead of on Disney+ (where it was released early due to the pandemic).

Either way Onward served as some light entertainment for young and old, a call-back to classics for some and an introduction to a genre for others. Despite not having the box office the studio may have hoped for, but there is, of course, a pretty good excuse for that, Onward clearly was a hit with those who have seen it. Also allowing for it to be voted as the best animated film of the year (Soul doesn’t appear in this top ten).

6. Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn)

Despite everything that happens in Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) – possibly the longest film title of 2020, but one which almost perfectly sums up the tone and style of Cathy Yan’s DC film – one element truly stole the show. “I don’t know if it’s the stray Armenian arm hair, or the fact that his cheese slices are always six months out of date; but no one makes an egg sandwich like Sal”. Perhaps the egg sandwich which serves such an integral part of Birds Of Prey is one of the most iconic things to emerge from a film in 2020, it certainly inspired multiple Twitter threads analysing the greasy breakfast pile.

Aside from the egg sandwich – it truly is immensely desirable – Birds Of Prey is filled with stylish fun and colour, while DC’s style has been changing over the last two or three years there certainly hasn’t been anything like this so far. In fact this is something that goes for comic book movies as a whole, this is a film that stands out amongst all of them for its style and general tone.

While some might draw comparisons to Deadpool Birds Of Prey is very much its own unique piece filled with a controlled chaotic sparkle. The film also allows Margot Robbie’s titular Harley Quinn to properly burst out, free from the shackles of 2016’s Suicide Squad, with bounding, fourth-wall breaking energy for a funny, entertaining ride with some equally stylish ass-kicking in hand.

5. Da 5 Bloods

For many Delroy Lindo stole the show in this particular Spike Lee joint – a monologue of his in particular being one of the cinematic highlights of the year – however there’s a great deal more happening within Da 5 Bloods. Telling the story of four former-soldiers meeting in present day Vietnam to find treasure they had buried in the 80’s Lee’s latest narrative feature, having also released the much-praised David Byrne’s American Utopia towards the end of the year, explored the bond, lives and memories of the group as they returned to the place they had once fought in.

It’s a sometimes tragic story, a feeling pushed further by the excellent ensemble cast and the detailed characters that they bring to life whether in the present day or in flashbacks, and it truly leaves its mark whether looking at elements of action or drama, sometimes both. Yet, the film never forgets its humour to make the figures at the centre of it feel more authentic, simply making the emotional punches even swifter and more devastating. Also holding one of the final performances of Chadwick Boseman, which certainly has more impact and emotion that it already held since his unfortunate passing.

There’s a lot of great things in the mixture that makes up Da 5 Bloods that stay in the mind long after viewing it. Perhaps for many the entire film stayed with them long after viewing, however much stayed with people it was clearly enough to lead it to be place so high up on this list of the best films of the year.

4. Tenet

If there’s one film from 2020 that everyone agreed on it was Tenet. While the reason it was agreed upon was the fact that it doesn’t make sense there were still plenty of people who enjoyed this latest mind-melting time-twister from Christopher Nolan, truly taking the film’s advice of “don’t try to understand it, just feel it” in there stride. One of the few blockbusters to be released in cinemas in 2020, thanks to a push from Nolan himself, this may also have been one of the most re-watched films of the year, with people trying to actually follow it (alongside hear the dialogue) and understand, potentially enjoying, it more each time.

Yet, despite such jabs there is still quite a lot to admire about Tenet, particularly when it comes to the handful of action sequences within it; heightened by Ludwig Göransson’s detailed score which at times sounds like it’s playing in reverse itself. There’s certainly something thrilling about the fast-paced action throughout the film, and after so many months of cinemas being closed potentially the feeling of seeing something of this scale on the big screen may have added to the response of the film.

This isn’t to say that it’s actually bad, there are plenty of people who really liked Tenet, and it is an entertaining film with plenty to like – as shown by its placing in this year’s top ten, just outside the top three.

3. Parasite

Perhaps one of the biggest sensation’s of the entire year Parasite took the world by storm. There wasn’t anyone who had a bad word to say about the first ever foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar – it almost seems to have been one of the only good things that have happened during the year. Part-thriller, part-drama, part-dark comedy, part-social commentary; there are a great deal of themes, genres and ideas packed into the various backgrounds of Parasite, yet the film pulls it off with a detailed screenplay and excellent performances with the already great Bong Joon-ho behind the camera.

The film was a box office success in the UK, being the 7th highest grossing film of the year, earning more than the likes of Birds Of Prey, The Invisible Man, Onward and Jojo Rabbit. To say something that certainly everyone else has already said, there seems to be nothing to say about Parasite that hasn’t already been said.

Not only was this considered one of the best films of the year, or even the decade already (for some last decade due to this being a 2019 release in a number of countries), but multiple people have claimed this to be one of the greatest films ever made. Parasite in all its, as it seemed almost everyone who has seen it might put it, perfection was undeniably a force like no other this year. With widespread acclaim from the very start there was justified anticipation and a worthy pay-off at the end of it, striking a chord with many and if not at the top of their best of the year lists causing it to appear somewhere in their top ten lists, and that’s precisely the case here.

Throughout voting there was much support for Parasite, and the top three remained very much the same, and its support was strong enough to lead it to be named as the third best film of 2020.

2. Jojo Rabbit

Released at the very start of the year Jojo Rabbit has clearly stayed with many voters throughout it, receiving just over double the amount of votes that Parasite earned. Much more than the story of a boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who’s imaginary best friend is Hitler (writer-director Taika Waititi) this is not the scathing satire that some may have expected. Adapted from Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, this is the charming, bittersweet story of a boy trying his best to be a Nazi but learning more about his world when he discovers a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) living in his walls during World War II.

Filled with Waititi’s signature form of laugh-out-loud humour and some finely tuned emotional beats – sometimes hitting immediately after moments of lightness and managing to never feel out of place, the screenplay won the Best Adapated Screenplay Oscar – this is an absolute gem from the breakout writer-director of a few years ago. Slightly looking at the impact and corruption that propaganda can cause, Waititi looks once again at the characters of the outsiders, a group he has made a number of films about now, including Boy and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, although this time with quite a different lens and angle. Waititi’s original screenplay was first placed on the Blacklist in 2012 and his passion and care for the project clearly never died down in the six or seven years it took to get the film into production, and it was well worth the wait.

The finished product is a hilarious, emotional and finely-balanced piece of work that was a success both in terms of awards and box office, both in general and in the UK. Clearly having formed a close bond with viewers, strong enough to lead them to vote it as the second best film of 2020, with only one film receiving that bit more love.

1. 1917

Back towards the start of the year many believed that Sam Mendes was a lock in for his second Best Director Oscar for 1917 (his first having been won in 2000 for American Beauty), in fact his film was biggest piece of competition for Parasite when it came to the battle for the top prize on the night. There’s no denying that technically 1917 is a great film – it also won master Cinematographer Sir (it feels good to be able to say that, doesn’t it?) Roger Deakins his second Oscar, his first for his work on Blade Runner 2049.

Told in what looks like two continuous shots the look and sound of the film heightened many people’s immersions into this World War One feature. Not just focusing on traditional war elements such as battles, attacks and fights there are plenty of quieter moments held within the film. However, even these are lined with tension as the deadline of the mission of the central pairing (played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) gets increasingly close. Their task is to deliver a message to another battalion to stop an attack that could lose the lives of thousands of soldiers.

Not only does Mendes and the relatively dialogue-light screenplay (co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns) remind the audience of this, but so does Thomas Newman’s score and almost all of the other technical elements of the film that throw the two leads into further riskier situations that threaten their lives and their mission. Audiences found themselves similarly thrown into the trenches, no man’s land, enemy territory and beyond in a story inspired by the stories and experiences of Mendes’ grandfather.

1917’s high levels of tension and drama caused it to have a great, lasting impact on viewers of all forms. The highest grossing film in the UK of 2020 (earning more than double that of the second highest earning film, Sonic The Hedgehog) and an equally large hit during awards season this was perhaps one of the best received films of the year.

In fact, throughout the entire voting process this film was the number one choice for nearly the entire run, just to show how much love and support it has had. Truly leading it to be named as the Just A Little Bit Random audience’s best film of 2020.

Top Ten Best Films Of 2020

2020 is a year that many will likely agree can only be described with itself as the adjective. With fallouts between cinemas and distributors, lockdowns leading to the close of cinemas for a large portion of the year and a limited amount of releases thanks to multiple delays, it may come as a surprise to some that there were even ten films released this year.

However, despite everything that’s happened, we’ve still managed to see a number of great films. At the very start of the year we saw awards hit Jojo Rabbit and Guy Ritchie’s gangster movie return The Gentlemen. While at the end of the year we still managed to see the cinema release of Wonder Woman 1984, Warner Bros also making a pandemic gamble in the summer by releasing Tenet to the world. Meanwhile Bill and Ted once again taught us to be excellent to each other, Parasite became the first ever foreign language film to win the Best Picture Oscar and Borat made an unexpected return.

Streaming services saw an even more rapid rise compared to the one they were already having in previous years. Netflix released awards hopefuls I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, The Trial Of The Chicago 7, Uncut Gems and Da 5 Bloods. Disney made the most of Disney+ by releasing big films such as Mulan and Soul, and PVOD saw some smaller films, such as Days Of The Bagnold Summer, Clemency and Farewell Amor.

Alongside all of this in a year that was already scary enough audiences turned to a number of top horror releases. Social horrors such as The Invisible Man, His House and Relic received great deals of praise, alongside inventive pieces like Host and Possessor. And, let’s not forget isolation horrors Vivarium and The Lighthouse.

Despite everything that happened throughout it 2020 still managed to be a great year for films. Whether available to stream, rent through PVOD or on the big screen there were very few films that I personally considered weak or bad. It was still difficult to whittle everything down to a top ten. But, finally, here are what I believe to be the top ten films released in the UK in 2020.

10. A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood

Tom Hanks absolutely shines as Fred Rogers. He might not look like him or sound like him and yet he perfectly captures the pure kind essence of the US TV icon. While this isn’t a film about Rogers, it follows Matthew Rhys’ cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel, it perfectly gets across his messages of care to the viewer. As Hanks walks in at the start of the film smiling and singing, asking the viewer “won’t you be my neighbour?” it’s impossible not to feel a sense of warmth and welcoming, even if you aren’t aware of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood.

As Rhys’ magazine writer finds himself struggling with his relationship with his father (Chris Cooper) and trying to look after his newborn son with his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) there’s a rather genuine tale of someone turning their life and attitudes around. While being released at the start of the year in the UK throughout the year this film has still managed to provide a feeling of warmth throughout the year.

There’s a traditional feeling to Marielle Heller’s direction and Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s screenplay. Yet the film avoids an overall feeling of cliché and tiredness because of how invested you become in the characters. Heller and the cast treat them with respect and a true sense of heart and control. It never pokes fun at them or their situations while managing to avoid a feeling of it being overly-sweetened. The film simply feels like a well-constructed tale of people coming together and simply learning to be better – while teaching us along the way that “anything mentionable is manageable” and truly capturing the warmth, charm and kind spirit of Mr Rogers.

9. On The Rocks

Bill Murray truly does shine when he works with Sofia Coppola. He’s excellent in her latest finely tuned venture, exploring a father-daughter relationship between Murray and Rashida Jones – also on fantastic form. The two have a brilliant chemistry that feels genuine and allows for the natural humour of most scenes to effortlessly drift through, and a bond between viewer and characters to be easily formed. When paired with Coppola’s fine screenplay there’s a lot to enjoy about the central figures as they roam the streets and restaurants of New York trying to work out whether the husband of Jones’ character (played by a wonderfully restrained Marlon Wayans) is having an affair.

Such elements push forward the point that this is a film about humans simply being humans. Admittedly very wealthy humans that personally know the concierges of the best hotels in London, still somehow managing to avoid the feeling of exaggeration. Nevertheless the film gently looks into their worries and stresses, their fears and desires, and most of all their behaviour.

On The Rocks might look at humanity, although certainly with a light touch, yet it’s a piece of true escapism. It’s hard not to be caught up within the various scenery’s that lines the piece. bright city lights as Jones and Murray cruise around in a small red car that shines in the New York City nightlife. It all springboards from Coppola’s screenplay, brought to life by two award worthy central performances that shine as bright as the small red car in the bright lights of the New York City nightlife that Jones and Murray cruise around in. It’s a pure joy to watch. The 96 minute run-time breezes past quickly and effectively, barely dropping or missing a beat. Simply creating a joyful, entertaining and finely tuned piece of work that clicks because of the light conversation of humanity that it so fluidly demonstrates.

8. Host

One of the first films to be produced and released during lockdown, Host was such a big hit on streaming service Shudder that it found itself with a cinema release later in the year. It also happens to be one of, if not the, scariest films of the year. It’s hard to believe that this is director Rob Savage’s feature debut, this feels like a masterclass in terrifying timing. As a Zoom séance leads to angered attacks from spirits the assaults become increasingly frequent, not to mention brutal.

The onslaught that occurs over the course of 56 relentlessly shocking minutes is perfectly staged and timed. Much like the people in the online call you feel helpless and unable to do anything, stuck on the other side of a screen, not in the same room and simply forced to watch it all unfold. Each moment made more effective by the fact that the effects were set up by the cast in their own homes, due to this being thought of and submitted in just 12 weeks.

Very rarely do I hide behind something in fear, and Host had me doing just that as the demonic attacks simply get worse for you and the characters. I found myself wincing, squinting through my hands and simply wanting to leap behind the seat I was glued to in pure fear at what was happening on-screen. Never taking delight in its lightly bloody details the film sparingly uses blood for full effect when it comes to the highest point of brutality, just to emphasise to the viewer the true amount of torture and pain that the on-screen figures are going through. It’s expertly timed and once the build-up of the first 20 minutes is out the way Host is nothing but fear and terror; even the credits have an air of tension about them.

7. The Trial Of The Chicago 7

If stories about humans being themselves is something I’m into then I’m definitely a real sucker for a courtroom drama, and with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin of course The Trial Of The Chicago 7, which he also directs, makes my top ten of the year. Sorkin’s film, while pushing some figures aside, manages to capture the personalities of its characters well as they are put on trial for riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Each figure is brought to life by a wonderful ensemble cast, including; Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron-Cohen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt just to name a few. All give great dramatic performances to truly capture the scale of this seemingly never-ending courtroom drama. One which questions whether the trial in question is political or not.

There’s a clash of views not just in the scenes set in the courtroom but amongst the defendants themselves. All have strongly held, passionate views that they want to argue and get across, however often these get in the way of the people they are fighting for justice with. Something which isn’t helped when there’s clearly prejudice from the judge from the very start.

Sorkin is known for his fast-paced ‘walk and talk’ film style and screenplays. And yet, courtroom dramas are often gradual and slightly slower in pace. Yet, he manages to blend the two rather well, packing detail into every scene, making the most of montages – the opening ten minutes is fantastically set up with a fast pace and high level of energy as all characters are introduced and their motives easily established, boosted by Daniel Pemberton’s racing score. It simply draws you in, connects you with the characters and prepares you for the punches and force of the rest of the film. You’re strapped in for shock – especially when it comes to the treatment of Abdul-Mateen’s Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale.

As usual Sorkin’s screenplay is carefully sculpted and filled to the brim with detail to make for an interesting and engaging courtroom drama that also works as an ensemble character piece. One with fantastic performances throughout to truly capture the drama and the clash of views in and out of the centre stage that forms of the titular trial. Certainly something different from the writer-director, yet the various montages and flashbacks help to push forward his style, alongside the general tone of the film. It all comes together to be something truly engaging and not without its true sense of shock and fighting drama.

6. The Lighthouse

Perhaps it was foreshadowing that back in January a film about two men going mad while being stranded on a rock for a continuously extended amount of time was released. Whether it was or not The Lighthouse – Robert Eggers’ superb follow-up to his brilliant horror debut The Witch – is undeniably a truly great atmospheric psychological horror. You can’t help but feel the biting cold wind and have your nostrils infected with salt and brine as Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe (both sporting some smashing facial hair) are kept on a small island, maintaining a lighthouse for more than the initial four weeks they were meant to be there for due to harsh weather conditions preventing boats from making it to the island.

As the pair’s time on the island is lengthened their sanity begins to slip – particular for Pattinson’s newbie, Ephraim Winslow, who has traded trees for sea. Visions haunt him of demon mermaids, unsettling seagulls and more as his fascination with the forbidden light of the building is always kept from out of his reach. The giant bulb is treated as a person in itself. A mysterious, controlling, alien force that tries to consume and take over those who look into it. Simply adding to the fear factor and mystery of this unique isolation feature. Various questions are asked throughout. Is this all real? Is this all in the minds of the characters, or even just one of them? Is it the harsh conditions? Is it the island itself? Perhaps it’s the drunken state of the pair – Dafoe’s Thomas Wake is himself a commanding booze-hound. The longer the pair spend together the more their personal feelings of rage, upset, boredom and even sexual frustration turn to demons on the outside.

Enhanced by the decision to shoot the film in a cramped box-like aspect ratio and in black and white the feeling of the 1890’s, but more importantly the severity of the environment and its surroundings. When you add in Jarin Blaschke’s stunning, highly cinematic, cinematography the full intensity of this mostly two man piece is released. Eggers use of frequent close-ups shows the terrified nature of the two, particularly Ephraim, as the constant stream of madness almost begins to feel like The Shining but with a more sea-salt drenched narrative.

5. Vivarium

Yet another film about people trapped somewhere for what seems like an endless amount of time – although this time released at the very start of the first lockdown – Vivarium may be the film that’s stayed with me the longest out of everything from 2020. Each time I’ve seen it it made me feel as if I needed to go and sit in a dark room to properly think about what I’d just seen. I’ve known that I’ve really liked it and that I’d gladly watch it again, yet I feel that no matter how many times I view this film I’ll need to have time to properly process it after.

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots find themselves trapped in what seems like an extended episode of Inside No. 9. Trapped in an infinite estate of identical houses, after being abandoned by a mysterious, almost robotic, estate agent. After being forced to raise a rapidly growing baby in the hope of freedom the two gradually find themselves losing hope and going mad in fading desperation for escape. There’s a consistently unsettling and creepy sense to every action and event that happens over the course of the narrative. Never dropping such feelings the film consistently travels along its course delving the two central figures – wonderfully performed by Eisenberg and Poots – into further hopeless depths over the course of the slow-burn narrative, which somehow makes it all the more effective as the viewer is dropped into the same new lifestyle structure.

Director Lorcan Finnegan almost never misses a beat as he knows just when to add new details and elements to keep the viewer intrigued and in near suspense and tension as they too are trapped in a repetitive maze of green houses – but mostly within number 9, potentially an intentional choice?

When it comes to films that are possibly going to be future cult classics I would list Vivarium as one of them. It’s a fantastically unsettling acid-trip of mind-warping trickery, especially in the final stages – truly the points that push you over the edge to needing a dark room to sit in afterwards. Just as effective on re-watched and bound to stay with you, it stayed with me for many months after first seeing it in October 2019, this is a great piece of slow-burn isolated entrapment horror.

4. Les Misérables

Little to do with the musical or novel, Les Misérables is a close look into the abuse of police power and gang-related tensions. Director Ladj Ly uses his documentary past to capture the true chaos of this piece. Initially showing the peace and harmony of the joy in the streets as France celebrates a World Cup victory. However, this is all shattered when the police become involved in the case of a missing lion cub from a travelling circus that has arrived in the streets of Montfermeil. The group of police in question being new-to-the-force Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), Brigadier Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and squad leader Chris (a superb Alexis Manenti). It’s Chris’ workstyle and seeming lack of boundaries and ethics that make him a dangerous force on the streets, frequently not following the rules – on one occasion seemingly doing so just to make the girl he’s searching at a bus stop feel uncomfortable.

Thus when brought into an already tense situation involving various gangs things quickly get out of order, with those who are meant to uphold the law coming off worst of all. During scenes of angered outbursts and potential street brawls Ly was inspired by 2008 Parisian riots – his various edits and shots truly capture the chaos and panic of such instances and throw the viewer directly into the confusion by not following one specific character. Throughout the narrative there are various key figures who come into play, although the trio of officers remain the central focus, each one adding to not just the films layers and potential directions but the risks that could be faced by other characters along the way. Each one easy to keep track of because of the well-structured course that the narrative takes place over.

As we meet new people and the various public fights, slurs and chases unfold the levels of tension are ramped up. Things become increasingly dangerous and they develop and get more worrying for the police as Chris’ actions, and Gwada’s acceptance of them, lead to further trouble. It all comes together to create a really well-told, finely flowing story. One that while feeling rather timely is , for 104 minutes, a blood-pumping, tension-filled piece of reflection. Yet, an admirable piece of reflection that never feels drab, bleak or as if it’s lecturing the viewer or talking down to them. A finely crafted non-documentary mirror of character, intrigue, action and tension

3. An American Pickle

Perhaps, for me, one of the biggest surprises of 2020 is that a Seth Rogen film has made my top ten best films of the year, the top five in fact – it’s a mild surprise that one was considered. Especially one about a man who wakes up in modern day America after being perfectly preserved in pickle brine for 100 years. This isn’t to say that I don’t like Seth Rogen, he’s made and starred in a number of films that I’ve enjoyed and An American Pickle is certainly one of them. In many ways it came at the right time. Just after the first lockdown as cinemas were starting to re-open with little new releases. Rogen’s film was a light, entertaining, uplifting and very funny and reintroduction to the big screen.

The film might have its moments of silliness that perfectly match the very basic gist of the plot. But ,in many ways that’s what brings the laugh out loud funny humour that runs throughout, main character Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen in one half of his brilliantly performed duel role) voices many olde-age views that are now considered offensive. Yet, amongst all the humour that the film holds there’s plenty of more serious moments. Herschel’s great-grandson Ben worries about disappointing his deceased parents, not having as strong of a Jewish faith as they, or his other ancestors, may have had. There’s a layer of sorrow to such moments and to an extent you can feel this as a personal piece for Rogen and all involved in this clearly collaborative effort, the directorial debut of frequent Rogen collaborator Brandon Trost.

When everything is combined An American Pickle feels like a collaboration between Mel Brooks and Taika Waititi. It feels cared for and impassioned as the heart that’s gone into the film helps to form the hilarious nature of the piece, helping to form an effortlessly charming tale. There are highly observed performances, writing and direction that simply help to form one of the most accessible and entertaining, not to mention pleasantly surprising, films of the year. It simply makes me happy, even on re-watches, but part of that may very well be the fact that it happened to come at the right time, and just so happens to be rather great.

2. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

One of the best things about Céline Sciamma’s expertly handled love story is that it never asks ‘will they, won’t they?’ it simply asks ‘when will they?’. It’s clear from the very beginning as the two central lovers meet that something is going to happen between them, however, much like them, the viewer has no idea when or how it will happen. As painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the woman she’s secretly painting a portrait of for her upcoming marriage, bond more their relationship doesn’t get closer, instead it opens up. It’s a unique view of a relationship and writer-director Sciamma portrays it with great precision, pushed further by her two leads.

Love and passion burn bright throughout the entirety of this highly artistic and stunningly framed piece of cinema. The relationship and the actions within and around it feel genuine and heartfelt, simply drawing the viewer further into it, emotionally willing it on and wanting it to be explored. There’s something deeply poetic about the whole thing – if there’s a film that sums up the idea of something being ‘poetic’ it’s very likely this. Many of the key conversations and moments of the film are birthed through some form of art, whether it be paintings, theatre, writing and storytelling. All allowing for both parties to increase their adoration and expressions of love for each other.

Even the character’s longing gazes and the lingering shots of the wonderfully captured landscapes – thanks to the stunning cinematography – manage to keep the viewer in awe throughout the entire film. There’s an honest delicacy that lies throughout the entire piece when it comes to Sciamma’s direction. What brings this honesty is the fact that this is clearly a film told entirely from the female gaze – almost every single figure who appears in the film is female. They understand what the film is aiming for, what Sciamma wants to achieve with the finished piece and the collaborative effort shines. Forming a stunning feature that captivates the viewer from the the very start to the very end. It would be very easy to spend many more hours with these two characters, in fact even just in the world of the film through the gaze that events are seen through.

This truly is one of the most stunning and effective expressions of love seen on-screen in recent years. It’s an emotionally invested pouring of adoration and passionate embraces. A truly fantastic effort from all involved; the wonderful performances, the precise direction, the specific, if little, dialogue in the screenplay and so, so much more, simply pushes this even further to create a unique and brilliant piece of cinematic storytelling.

1. Jojo Rabbit

When going into Taika Waititi’s adaptation of Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies a number of people may have been expecting a biting, scathing satire. However, what they got was another bittersweet Taika Waititi gem. This is more than just a film about a young boy whose imaginary friend is Hitler (a hilarious performance from Waititi who did no reasearch for the role “because the guy is a f*cking c*nt”). It’s about the boy who discovers a Jewish girl in the walls of his house and gradually forms of a bond with her, despite it being against what he’s being taught.

The film tackles the idea of people being easily indoctrinated into something through easy persuasion, want or simply following the crowd. In one of the opening scenes footage of people swarming and cheering at the presence of Hitler, compared to Beatlemania as the German version of I Wanna Hold Your Hand is played. And yet, amongst all such serious themes, and a fair deal of emotion, there is the usual brand of laugh out loud funny humour in a style and tone that only Taika Waititi seems to be able to capture.

Released at the very start of the year and after a number of re-watches Jojo Rabbit has managed to remain my personal best film of 2020 for its entire run. While there have been a number of other great releases that I’ve loved this is the one that I’ve most enjoyed. Perfectly balancing comedy and tragedy, packing both a humorous and emotional punch – managing to instantly change tone in a split second and never feeling like an idea is out of place. It’s far from a satire ripping modern day figures to pieces, it’s a warm, sweet, perfectly balanced, occasionally tragic and consistently hilarious Taika Waititi feature about two people developing, bonding and growing together as the walled off world outside attempts to spread a thin veil of hate and unacceptance. It’s just wonderful. And it also happens to be what I believe is the best film of 2020.

LFF 2020: Soul – Review

Release Date – 25th December 2020, Cert – PG, Run-time – 1 hour 37 minutes, Directors – Pete Docter, Kemp Powers

Music teacher Joe (Jamie Foxx) has just been given the chance to fulfil his dreams and play piano in a jazz club. However, after dying and trying to escape the afterlife he finds himself trying to get back to Earth with reluctant unborn soul Number 22 (Tina Fey) by his side.

Pixar are iconic for their colourful and imaginative worlds. With Inside Out they took this to another level by visualising elements of the mind such as lost memories and emotions while weaving them into an engaging story. With their latest venture, Soul, they manage to do even more of this. By looking into themes such as lost souls, people not sure as to where they are in the world and what people’s purpose in life actually is there’s a lot of deep themes to visualise within this latest feature.

And encountering all of these ideas and worlds is Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a music teacher and aspiring jazz musician. When given the chance of a lifetime to play piano at a jazz club he falls down a manhole while crossing the road and immediately finds himself travelling along a large conveyer belt to a bright light. His form has changed to a sort of multi-coloured blob, a mixture of blue, green, turquoise and more. It represents him on earth, his form is now his soul after all. Unwilling to enter the afterlife Joe falls off the track and finds himself in The Great Before – a place where souls are given their personalities before being sent to Earth to take human form.

It’s here that he meets soul Number 22 (Tina Fey). A small, childlike soul (who happens to sound like a middle-aged woman – a joke made in the film) who has wreaked havoc since day one. After going through various mentors who have tried to get the soul to unlock a final trait it’s no use. 22 doesn’t see the point of living if life just ends with death and returning to just soul form, not understanding why Joe wants to get back to his body so badly. Through this Pixar creates a deep thinking and mature film for all ages. They prove that there are such themes and ideas that can be tackled in a way that can be accessed by younger viewers as well as adults. All while managing to tell an engaging and humorous story at the same time.

Soul may not pack as much of an emotional punch as some of co-director Pete Docter’s other Pixar ventures, but there’s an authenticity within not just its story but its characters. Perhaps it comes from Kemp Powers (who also helped to co-write the film with Docter and Mike Jones), whose screenplay adaptation of his own play One Night In Miami also has a genuine sense to it. There’s a clear sense of care and detail that has gone into all elements of the film, into story, character, detail and more. Meanwhile, with Jon Batiste composing free-flowing jazz pieces for the scenes set in New York City and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross working on the score for scenes in the world of souls/ The Great Before. Never do the different ideas in either score clash or conflict with each other. They simply work hand-in-hand and help to emphasise the various elements and ideas of the story, and the differences between Joe and 22’s human experiences and life as simply as a soul.

There’s clearly a lot of effort that has gone into all aspects of the film, including the voice performances. The two leads clearly understand their characters and the internal emotions, and especially confusions, of them both. It simply makes for a mort heartfelt and engaging piece that connects more with the viewer as they become absorbed into the brightly-coloured, brilliantly animated (as is standard from Pixar) worlds. Visualising concepts that are difficult to think of a physical form for. It might not have the emotional punch, but there’s certainly a lot of detail within the story, animation and general ideas of the piece that this is still another high-quality and original piece from the ever-inventive minds at Pixar.

While not quite a tear-jerker there’s still a lot to enjoy within the heart, humour and care that’s poured into and emitted from Pixar’s latest. Finely animated and filled with detail Soul is another hit from the ever inventive and heartful studio.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar 2020 – Christmas Evil

Christmas films are often associated with warmth, family, togetherness and a general infusion of the joys of the festive season, not horror. However, there are a number of horror films set at the festive season, a time when you would least expect the evils of the world to be on display. Therefore, this year the Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar, inspired by last year’s selection of Anna And The Apocalypse, takes aim at Christmas horror films.

It’s Christmas Eve. A time of anticipation, hope and excitement. It’s certainly not often associated with fear and revenge. Fear caused by revenge and attacks from a man in the guise of Santa, almost believing that he is the much-loved yearly home-invader all in red. It’s another cult Christmas slasher.

Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) is a dedicated toy factory worker. Having been promoted through the ranks he now has a nice desk job where he can ensure further that products are of the highest quality, so that all children are happy on Christmas Day. He’s dedicated to the festive season and making it as best as possible, trying to avoid a specific Christmas of his childhood when he saw Santa sexually touching his mother, not knowing that it was just his father in a costume. However, Harry’s obsession with Christmas has got to the point where he himself seems to have taken on the role of Santa in his neighbourhood. He keeps track of all the local children, making notes of them in large books to decide whether they’re naughty or nice – asking what they ‘wish’ for each day to know what they want for Christmas. He cancels holiday plans with his family, making them and his brother (Jeffrey DeMunn) all the more concerned about him and his mental health.

Everything leads to Harry’s Santa obsession causing him to don a big red suit and dirty near-grey beard to initially deliver a large load of toys to a local childrens hospital. However, as Christmas Eve moves on his intentions shift. While he doesn’t quite go on a killing spree blood is certainly spilled at his cause, and certainly one caused by a want for revenge. Soon there’s a full police investigation into Santa’s Christmas slay (not quite on the same scale as “he knows if you’ve been bad or good, and he’s got an axe” – see Ernest Saves Christmas’ fake film Christmas Slay).

When first released in 1980 the film was known as You Better Watch Out – which considering the tone and lack of overall horror is possibly a more fitting title than Christmas Evil, although this didn’t stop it from being part of the UK’s video nasty panic. The film is certainly more of a character study than anything else. You watch a person who loves and cares about Christmas become almost delusional because of it, partly relating to scarring at this time of year during his childhood. While passionately capturing the role of Santa in front of kids, jolly and consistently laughing, encouraging goodness with the promise of presents in exchange. However, around parents and adults he’s a figure of fear and pain.

Harry finds himself confused as to why people don’t like him when they clearly should, after all everyone loves Santa. But, when you create a Christmas Eve of trauma and distress it’s to be expected. It takes a while for such elements to kick in, and this could be seen as more of a dramatic character study than a horror -although there are certainly some, even if a bit unconventional, horror elements within the film when it gets to its final third. The festive themes of wanting to spread peace and goodwill are there for some scenes – even if they are shattered by the murders that the same character commits as part of their delusions. Either way with its firm Christmas setting and style, even if not the most conventional seasonal flick, this is a decent enough low-budget festive low-on-slashes ‘slasher’ character study that’s worth even just a one-off check-out viewing, even if the slightly festively-forced ending is a bit on-the-nose and unfitting of the rest of the film.

While it may not bee the most horrifying or slash-filled Christmas Evil, more fittingly titled You Better Watch Out when first released, does have a handful of festive themes. It’s about a man who loves Christmas and cares about it being as magical and enjoyable as possible for children, one where they won’t be disappointed. He takes it too far and there’s a slightly interesting character study to be found there amongst everything else that happens across the film. Deeply rooted within a Christmas Eve/ Day setting Christmas is a core setting for the piece, and, of course, so is Santa. It’s just unfortunate that in this film he’s coming to town with a resulting thirst for revenge.

Christmas Evil can be watched in the following places:
Shudder
You may have a physical copy of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray (it was passed uncut with a 15 certificate in the UK in 2012, alongside a Blu-Ray release from Arrow Video). It’s always worth checking JustWatch to see where the film is available to buy, rent or stream in your country.

Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar 2020 – The Curse Of The Cat People

Christmas films are often associated with warmth, family, togetherness and a general infusion of the joys of the festive season, not horror. However, there are a number of horror films set at the festive season, a time when you would least expect the evils of the world to be on display. Therefore, this year the Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar, inspired by last year’s selection of Anna And The Apocalypse, takes aim at Christmas horror films.

1942’s Cat People is regarded by many as an early horror classic, while it’s 1944 sequel isn’t as widely seen, or known. Not as dark as the original (which isn’t a necessary watch to engage with this mostly separate feature), but still with its elements of horror, The Curse Of The Cat People is possibly the most conventional Christmas film in this year’s calendar.

Six year old Amy (Ann Carter) is something of an introvert within her class. She has few friends and prefers to spend time on her own exploring instead of playing games with the class. Her imagination and behaviour reminds her father, Oliver (Kent Smith), of his estranged ex-wife Irena’s behaviour before she passed away. However, Irena (Simone Simon) appears in a ghostly form to Amy. The two form a close friendship that’s supposed to remain a secret, all Amy’s parents (her mother, Alice, played by Jane Randolph) think is that she has an imaginary friend. However, as more details of this bond unravel the two become increasingly concerned about their daughter and the things that she’s seeing.

Irena isn’t the only person that Amy gets to know over the course of the film. After walking into a mysterious house in which it’s believed by the local children a witch lives. After venturing in the young protagonist discovers ailing retired actor Julia (Julia Dean) and her daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell). There’s a clear rift between the two figures in the house, made darker and more mysterious by the fact that Julia claims that Barbara isn’t actually her daughter, claiming that her real daughter died when she was the same age as Amy and that the person she lives with is some form of disguised spy.

Yet, throughout the film the emphasis is on the friendships and bonds that Amy creates throughout the film, particularly that with Irena. As their bond strengthens Christmas comes more into play, with the final stages playing out across Christmas Eve. There’s something about the idea of people coming together that boosts the festive spirit held within the film. However, Amy’s parents still continue to worry, with their concerns only increasing as the film goes on and their daughter’s behaviour becomes more and more unusual and like that of Irene’s before her passing – her ghost, on the other hand, is a presence of calm and kindness.

With all of this going on the horror elements are never forgotten – this is a ghost story after all, and isn’t A Christmas Carol? While the film isn’t a direct horror there are, what may be seen as, some underlying eerie moments, and undeniably a handful of themes relating to the genre. In a number of scenes campfire style spooky stories are retold – such as tales of the Headless Horseman and Sleepy Hollow – and yet it all goes towards the idea of people coming together at Christmas. There’s a slight warmth to a number of the scenes between Amy and Irena, as they converse in the snowy garden while carollers sing in the background – the initial title for the film was Amy And Her Friend until studio RKO changed it to something seen as more marketable to bring in the profits, as Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Jingle All The Way shows, Christmas is nothing but commercialism.

Certainly the most conventional Christmas film in this year’s calendar there’s a fair share of warmth and goodwill within The Curse Of The Cat People and its themes of friendship during the festive season. However, with a plot that revolves around ghosts and multiple mysteries surrounding the living and the dead there are a number of horror related elements within this film. It might not be the scariest, it’s certainly not trying to be, but there are at least one or two moments that might create a slight chill within some viewers watching the cold and frosty settings of a number of scenes.

The Curse Of The Cat People can be watched in the following places:
BBC iPlayer
You may have a physical copy of the film on DVD or Blu-Ray, or even VHS (remember those?). If you don’t and you want to watch the film it’s always worth looking at JustWatch to see where you can buy, rent or stream the film in your country.

Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar 2020 – The Wolf Of Snow Hollow

Christmas films are often associated with warmth, family, togetherness and a general infusion of the joys of the festive season, not horror. However, there are a number of horror films set at the festive season, a time when you would least expect the evils of the world to be on display. Therefore, this year the Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar, inspired by last year’s selection of Anna And The Apocalypse, takes aim at Christmas horror films.

After the relentless savagery of yesterday’s calendar feature today the film behind the door is something a fair deal milder – but not without its horror elements. Christmas for many is a time to break out the board games, Cluedo sometimes being a particular favourite; so, let’s take a look at mystery-thriller The Wolf Of Snow Hollow.

Snow Hollow is a small, secluded ghost-white town where something very rarely goes wrong. Life is calm and mild and because of this the local police force is small. However, when dead bodies begin to turn up every full moon the paranoia begins to get to the town – despite the claims of officer John Marshall (writer-director Jim Cummings) that werewolves don’t exist. John already has his own problems, he regularly attends alcoholics anonymous, he struggles to have a proper relationship with his teenage daughter, Jenna (Chloe East) and at work he begins to feel as if he’s losing power, especially in the face of the ailing health of the sheriff (the final film role of Robert Forster).

As the stresses pile up so do the bodies, each one with all the gruesome markings of a wolf attack. Hysteria begins to flow through the town and its police force, including John’s partner Detective Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome), with John himself still being the only one claiming that it’s the work of a murderer, nothing else. The question begins to be asked whether he’s the werewolf, or rather if there really is a werewolf. His sanity begins to decline across the film as the demand to catch the killer rises more and more with every corpse found in the now deep red snow. As his parental obligations are forgotten and he risks not being able to see his daughter again, losing his job and so much more gradually we see the mental state of the protagonist also decline as more obscure happenings occur in an otherwise small, quaint and quiet town that’s still embracing the festive spirit.

Most of the film’s events seemingly take place between Christmas and New Year. Slow carols drone in the background of a number of scenes, while frosty decorations that look as if they’ve seen better days sit, scattered loosely around, in front gardens. The town, cold with its snow, is clearly still embracing the season of peace and goodwill and doesn’t need a series of murders disturbing it. Although, an amusing piece of folklore could certainly give them all something to talk about – The Wolf Of Snow Hollow does sound like it could be a folktale after all.

John is trying throughout to try and get closer to his daughter, both feel that he’s slightly distanced from her. And what better time to show people trying to bond and coming together than Christmas? A number of the themes and ideas throughout the film can certainly be found in more conventional Christmas films. There are some who have already labelled this as a Christmas film, with Cummings gladly accepting such comments – although with it very much in the background and not often mentioned, and most of the other themes in the film, this is certainly, for my money, an alternative Christmas film. With its horror elements fuelled further by the mystery that it brings in, and Cummings already solidified brand of humour, sometimes bordering on dark – this is only his second feature after 2019’s debut indie gem Thunder Road – pushes this further.

Instead of turning the figure of Santa into a murderer, kidnapper, or creating dark, twisted fantastical abilities The Wolf Of Snow Hollow simply goes down the werewolf route. Or at least it implies that it does. It’s a guessing game with various elements that all add to the horror feeling. A film about people, particularly John, struggling to work together around Christmas with increasing worries and stresses. With an element of dark comedy it certainly has its lighter moments, and helps to feel even more like something slightly festive because of this. But, it never forgets its horror related elements and the mysterious potential werewolf that, like Christmas, is always in the background to remind the viewer of the tones and themes of the film.

The Wolf Of Snow Hollow can be watched in the following places:
Amazon
YouTube
Rakuten TV
Google Play
Microsoft Store
Or you may have a physical copy of the film on Blu-Ray or DVD. It’s always good to check JustWatch to see where the film is available to buy, rent or stream in your country.

Just A Little Bit Random Audience Best Films Of 2020 Vote

Despite cinemas having been closed for much of the year 2020 has still seen a number of great new releases – remember January and February? As usual at this time of year, it’s time for you to say what you thought was the best of them all.

Simply vote via this poll by 5pm on Wednesday 6th January for what you think was the best film of 2020. The results will be announced on the radio show from 6pm on the same date, with a piece here on the website afterwards.

From the heights of the few big screen blockbusters such as Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 to VOD hits such as Clemency and Days Of The Bagnold Summer – possibly more widely seen thanks to such releases – there was a lot to love in the handful of films released this year. Perhaps your favourite is one of Netflix’s many streaming hits, including Da 5 Bloods, Mank and The Trial Of The Chicago 7. It could even be a film you connected with a lot during lockdown, Vivarium and The Lighthouse come to mind. Whatever your personal favourite is it should be included in the poll. (All films featured are by UK release date. Hence why films such as Jojo Rabbit, Parasite and A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood are included, while the likes of Sound Of Metal, Promising Young Woman and Ammonite – all of which currently have release dates early next year (at time of writing) – aren’t).

A huge thank you to anyone who votes, helps spread the word, or both. All shares are greatly appreciated. The results will be announced from 6pm on a review of the year show on Somer Valley FM on Wednesday 6th January, alongside a piece here on the website.

Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar 2020 – Inside

Christmas films are often associated with warmth, family, togetherness and a general infusion of the joys of the festive season, not horror. However, there are a number of horror films set at the festive season, a time when you would least expect the evils of the world to be on display. Therefore, this year the Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar, inspired by last year’s selection of Anna And The Apocalypse, takes aim at Christmas horror films.

The week of Christmas has arrived, the home stretch towards the day itself has arrived. And so behind today’s calendar is possibly one of the least festive films set during the Christmas period there is. One truly not for the faint of heart – and even those used to films that serve lashings of gore may find this particular feature difficult to stomach. Dare you venture Inside today’s door?

As already delved into as part of this year’s calendar Christmas is a time of celebration and welcoming – especially when it comes to the bloated man in red whose home intrusions are encouraged on an annual basis. However, Inside is far from this, and is certainly a jet dark – even darker than the almost black shade of crimson blood that lines many of the later shots – home invasion.

Alysson Paradis’ Sarah is hoping for a quiet, isolated Christmas. After losing her partner in a fatal car accident four months earlier she’s still grieving, while heavily pregnant with their now overdue child. Unfortunately the plans for a calm and almost ignored Christmas is shattered when a character simply called La femme (Béatrice Dalle) breaks into Sarah’s home in the middle of the night with the intent of stealing her baby. After waking up to her stomach attempted to be cut open the frightened protagonist finds herself fighting for not just her life but her unborn baby’s too as a merciless attacker attempts to slash through every door and obstacle in her way. All while Sarah desperately locks herself away in her bathroom, gasping for breath after the initial attacks.

More characters get involved, including Sarah’s publishing employer, Jean-Pierre (François-Régis Marchasson), and her mother (Nathalie Roussel), and yet La femme’s tirade refuses to stop. It simply gets increasingly bloody until the lens itself is drenched, capturing the relentlessly savage action with an extra sheet of red that simply adds to the brutality of the piece. All captured with lingering shots from writer-directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury. Shots which simply add to the long-lasting flinching pain the viewer feels throughout; as the situation becomes vastly more intense and worrying for Sarah, despite her resourcefulness and determination.

There is very little, if any at all, festive spirit within Inside. It’s a brutal slasher filled with intensity and scares for the scenario that the central character finds herself in. It could be said that her determination to survive, and keep her unborn child alive – especially at Christmas – show a want for peace at this time of year. The lack of joy and festivities oppose the standard feel of conventional Christmas films, but creates hope that there’s a way out of this, mother and child will survive and that, even if not properly celebrating, they will be safe when the day finally arrives.

Christmas might not play a huge part in Inside, it’s very much in the background. A tree appears in the side of the frame in a scene or two and Christmas Eve, on which the events occur, is only mentioned once or twice. Yet, thematically you can’t help but feel the impact of this slight detail on the unfolding horror. It adds to the tension, the fear, the deep cut of the violence and gore – this is the opposite of a scratch, and once again not for the faint hearted – and the overall theme of Sarah’s desperate battle for the survival of two. Definitely fitting in with this year’s horror theme this is certainly a very alternative Christmas film.

To find out where you can watch Inside it’s worth checking out JustWatch to see where you can buy, rent or stream the film in your country. Or, you might already own a physical copy of the film on DVD.