Movie Review – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Are all the prequel series to enormously successful franchises doomed to succumb to George Lucas syndrome?

⭐ star:
Corey Hogan

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald picks up close to where its predecessor left off, taking us into episode two of five(!!) in the prequel series. After a brief period in captivity, the powerful dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escapes imprisonment. He sets about gathering followers to aid in his sinister cause of rising pure-blooded witches and wizards up to reign supreme over the non-magical. Having shared a history with Grindelwald and seeing it his duty to stop him, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) recruits his former student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for the task, who, along with his former allies Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Jacob Kowalski (Don Fogler), heads to Paris to track down and stop the dangerous wizard.

The first entry, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Themcertainly didn’t recapture the magic or provide a particularly good setup for another extended period in the wider ‘Wizarding World’. It was, at the very least, watchable enough to forgive Warner Bros. for cashing in and J.K. Rowling for attempting to stay relevant. The Crimes of Grindelwald avada-kedavras this newly established flow and the results are less than spellbinding.

Forgoing the steady world-building and gradual reveals and payoffs that kept Harry Potter accessible across eight movies, Fantastic Beasts descends directly into the dark tone of the later Potter chapters. In rushing, the darkness feels both unearned and devoid of impact, especially since most of the one-note characters simply have not been fleshed out. Rowling’s story itself comes across as convoluted fan fiction. It tends to favour side-characters delivering monologues and backstories that no one will be able to follow without a PhD in Pottermore.

Frequent tacked-on callbacks and foreshadowing of the events of Harry Potter, along with a superfluous return to Hogwarts, drive home how poorly this series stands on its own. Jude Law fares fine as a young Dumbledore, but like so many of the parts that make up this prequel, he’s just there as a name we recognise. Surprisingly not terrible is Johnny Depp, who could potentially have a new calling as a controversial figure with twisted villains – even if their motives are clumsy and make completely unsubtle parallels to contemporary politics.

Once a forerunner in amazing cinematography and visual effects, Grindelwald’s ugly aesthetic proves that David Yates and company are no longer interested in lovingly crafting adventures that will be cherished for years to come. There’s sadly little to recommend here to anyone except die hard Potternerds.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is available in Australian cinemas from November 15. 

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Murder on the Orient Express

Hollywood once again recycles that which need not be recycled, in Kenneth Branagh’s take on Murder on the Orient Express.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

I see no other way to approach a review of a movie like this than to compare it to what’s come before. Its history is too deep. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has been adapted to radio; into a 1974 feature by Sidney Lumet starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot; a 2001 TV movie with Alfred Molina in the role; and of course as an episode of the distinguished ITV Poirot series. It has even been remade in Japan. Now comes another version, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, and I find myself simply incapable of finding the right words to recommend it.

This is an adaptation that works on the fundamental level, which means it has a sound plot, supreme technical prowess and performances that befit its ludicrously high-profile cast. It is a movie that can be seen and appreciated in about equal measure without being spectacular. Whether it holds up as a faithful Christie adaptation I will leave to her loyal fans and scholars to determine; as a gripping murder mystery, it is neither gripping nor very mysterious.

To discuss the plot would be to grind against the very grain of Christie. Her stories are designed to unfold chronologically, so that we pick up hints and clues and slowly piece together the unfathomable puzzle along with her great detectives. The less we know going in the better. Murder on the Orient Express remains her most famous probably because of its claustrophobic setting (the length of a snowbound train), its immense cast of characters and the degree to which misdirection is employed to keep us guessing.

But all these are assets of the original story, not of this film. Branagh is perhaps a finer actor than he is a director, and he puts on a brave face as Poirot, but his film lacks in ingenuity and freshness. I can’t think of a single reason to see his version and not the Lumet classic, which had Finney scuttling down the corridors of the train like a frenzied crab. Branagh’s Poirot is unusually calm and chipper, which might have been a fun new take on the part if he had buckled down and took it to the edge. Poirot, like Sherlock Holmes, is a character of extremes. A detective of unusual intelligence who is easier to admire than befriend. To play him as anything less than a feverish snob is to miss the point.

Around him is assembled a cast of veritable class, which includes but is not limited to Michelle Pfeiffer as an uppity American socialite; Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor; Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary Debenham; Leslie Odom Jr as the handy doctor; Penélope Cruz as a faithful servant of the Lord; Judi Dench as the Princess Dragomiroff; Johnny Depp as the despicable businessman Ratchett; and Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi as his staff. Any more and I suspect the train would’ve toppled off the ridge.

Pity, then, that such great talent should go unchecked by a story as rich as this. Everyone plays their parts as if they know the end before the beginning. There is no thrill, no embracing the unexpected. It’s all just cogs turning in rhythm to the screenplay, which can be fatal for a mystery like this.

So I leave you rather nonplussed, unable to praise Orient Express enough to make you go see it, unable to exploit its weaknesses enough to turn you away. I don’t prefer it to some of the earlier iterations, but I suspect if you’ve never heard of Poirot and his impossible moustache, or perhaps even Christie, this movie might do the trick. But just barely.

Murder on the Orient Express is available in Australian cinemas from November 9.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox 2017

Blockbusters To Watch Out For This Winter

Josip Knezevic 

America has entered blockbuster season, and that means some of the year’s biggest budget films will soon be hitting our cinemas. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s likely you’ve heard something about these upcoming films. There’s some familiar franchises headed our way, as well as some fresh blood that may just upset the established order of things.

When you say “blockbuster” it’s hard not to immediately think of Transformers. Yes, for some reason, Michael Bay is continuing his nonsensical spout of robot violence… well, that reason is probably the $1 billion USD Transformers: Age of Extinction made at the box office, but I digress.

The latest entry, Transformers: The Last Knight, aims to shatter the franchise mythology established by its many predecessors. Humans and Transformers will be pitted against each other, with no Optimus Price around to act as a peacemaker. Fans of the series will no doubt flock to their local cinema to see this latest installment, and even I have to admit that there are some amazing special effects on display in the trailer. Here’s hoping the same can be said for the story… but it’s hard to even suggest that with a straight face.

This week we’ve seen Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales sail into cinemas. Filmed off the coast of Australia, we revisit our favourite “worst pirate”, Captain Jack Sparrow, now under threat from old nemesis (yes, another one) Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). Captain Jack’s only hope lies in finding the Trident of Poseidon, which grants its possessor total control of the seas. Could this be the revival the series needs after the questionable On Stranger Tides? Perhaps if Jason Momoa was thrown in as a fill in for Poseidon we might be getting somewhere…

Speaking of Aquaman and comic book films, we have origin films Wonder Woman and Spider-man: Homecoming coming very soon. After getting a taste of these characters in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War respectively, it’s hard to anticipate which film will be more successful. Interest in both films has grown exponentially on the back of each trailer. Personally, I’m less concerned with yet another re-boot of the Spider-Man series, so I hope Wonder Woman takes the win at the box office, but we shall see.

And finally, we’ve got the return of The Mummy, only this time, our beloved Brendan Fraser isn’t here to reprise his role. Instead, we’ve got Tom Cruise. Perhaps I’m blinded by my affection for Fraser, but Cruise seems to be a questionable choice. Nevertheless, The Mummy promises to once again tackle an ancient spirit who has accidentally risen from the dead to wreak havoc.

So, there you have it. If these films don’t get your heart pumping, fear not! As we draw nearer to Christmas time, another influx of blockbusters will be hitting our screens. Films like Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, The Dark Tower, Justice League, Thor: Ragnarok and Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be coming to a screen near you!


Image courtesy of Roadshoew Films 

Movie Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

The fifth instalment to the Pirates of the Caribbean series is at once familiar and comfortable, even if it’s all been done before.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies have long since crossed over into James Bond territory; they’re no longer about their heroes. What’s more important are the villains – who are usually dead, undead, or about to die – and the central MacGuffins. This time the villain is played by Javier Bardem and the MacGuffin is the legendary trident of Poseidon, and it’s a real doozy because unlike all the other MacGuffins, this one promises to undo the curses of the seven seas and restore life to normality, which, we are hoping, also includes scraping the barnacles off poor Orlando Bloom’s face.

As you may or may not recall, Will Turner (Bloom) suffered the dreaded barnacle curse at the hands of Davy Jones more than ten years ago, and as Dead Men Tell No Tales opens, his son Henry (Brenton Thwaites) vows to relieve him of it. To do that, of course, he will need the trident, which also means, by tradition of a Pirates of the Caribbean plot, he will have to team up with Jack Sparrow.

Sparrow is once again played by Johnny Depp and is once again a figure most intrusive. Depp plays him with so much flavour that the less we see of him, the better. But in Dead Men Sparrow is everywhere, usually severely unfunny and always in danger of derailing the film’s joys, of which there are surprisingly plenty.

This is a proper swashbuckling action adventure, with the kind of scale to make David Lean proud and the sort of thunderous, full-blooded musical score that elevated Star Wars (1977) to an art form. Sparrow and Depp aside, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have crafted here a movie about the seas that plays like a chapter from a children’s novel pumped full of adrenaline. Yes, the plot is essentially a beeline to the MacGuffin, the film borrows almost every joke and narrative element from its predecessors, and the bad guys are once again shot in front of a green screen and digitally animated to look like half-eaten zombies, but I was relieved to discover a story behind all the action; an honest attempt to make us care for the characters for once.

Henry wants to return his dad to his former self, which brings out all the awws from the audience. Hector Barbossa (Rush) is back and despairs of ever finding true meaning in his life. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), another new addition, dreams of finding the trident because it’s the quest her dad started and never got to finish, and Scodelario has some fun running about in her corseted dress as she makes all the men look like fools.

Dead Men is more entertaining than a fifth movie in an insufferable series has any right to be. There are visually splendid moments, such as when a mysterious island lights up with crystals to reflect the night sky. And there is a majesty about the film’s climactic showdown in which the ocean waters part like the Red Sea and the Black Pearl teeters precariously on the edge above.

I cannot recommend you see this film for the plot or the jokes, but I suspect you will have a good time feeling its cheerful energy. I, for one, walked out humming the theme music with a smile. That’s gotta count for something.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is available in Australian cinemas from May 25 

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Does winning an Oscar actually matter?

Winning an Oscar is great and all, but is it really all that it’s cracked up to be?

 Rhys Graeme-Drury 

The annual awards circus is upon us once again. Numerous red carpets are being rolled out to receive reams of bedazzled famous faces, all of whom are hoping to drive home with a gilded statuette resting on their laps.

We place a lot of value on those who have walked away a winner on Oscar night – just ask Leonardo DiCaprio. For years the Internet yearned for Leo to finally nab one – and then he did in 2016 so we all collectively rejoiced and laid the dank memes to rest.

Apparently, an actor or filmmaker can’t claim to have truly arrived until they score an Oscar statue of some kind. Right? Eh, not exactly.

Even though it’s all very exciting and generates a lot of gossip, the Oscars aren’t actually good for all that much (and this is coming from someone who gets invested every year and is genuinely still upset that Eddie Redmayne beat Michael Keaton back in 2015).

Across its history, the Academy Awards have made a habit of routinely shunning some of the best and brightest talents and minds of the era – which sort of defeats the purpose of rewarding those who produce the best films, surely?

Filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock have famously never won anything for their directorial efforts, with the latter losing out in the Best Director category on five separate occasions. Kubrick’s entire catalogue only took home a single Oscar win; 2001: A Space Odyssey won Best Visual Effects in 1969. For those of you playing along at home, that’s the same number of Oscars as Tim Burton’s 2010 remake of Alice in Wonderland and Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour. So it’s not like the Academy is a great barometer of quality and lasting legacy, huh?

The same could be said for actors; Bill Murray has never won an Oscar, but do we view his filmography with any less reverence? The same can be said for umpteen actors and actresses from across the decades. For many people, Harrison Ford is the literal embodiment of sharp and sophisticated Hollywood stars. He is Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan in the flesh – we don’t need the Academy to tell us Ford is a living legend, he has crafted that legacy without their adulation.

The same goes for Gary Oldman, Edward Norton or Joaquin Phoenix; they’re back catalogues speak for themselves. Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Annette Benning and Sigourney Weaver have all been denied Hollywood’s highest honour – but that hasn’t hindered their standing as some of the most talented actresses to grace our screens.

Some may think that winning an Oscar is also guaranteed to usher in a string of professional riches for the lucky winners, but too often that isn’t the case. Hunger Games sensation Jennifer Lawrence has racked up a surprising number of nominations (four) and one win at the tender age of 26 but it wasn’t until recently with Passengers that she was given a bigger slice of the pie than her male co-stars, financially speaking.

You only have to glance at the list of the highest paid actors across the industry today to see that those raking in the most cash aren’t necessarily those who took home the most awards. Robert Downey Jnr routinely makes in excess of $50 million for each Avengers performance whilst Johnny Depp is still throwing on funny hats and making bank despite never winning an Oscar. Meanwhile I don’t see Disney or Marvel throwing $10 million at Mark Rylance or JK Simmons, the two most recent winners in the Best Supporting Actors category.

Essentially, what I’m trying to say is, it doesn’t matter whether La La Land scored four, fourteen or zero nominations; what matters is how it is making audiences feel. The same goes for Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea or any of the other films nominated this year.  After the cameras inside the Dolby Theatre have gone out on February 26 and all the very famous people have gone home, regardless of who won or not, these films will continue to captivate and enthral audiences long afterward.

Films like Sing Street, The Witch, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Midnight Special all characterised my cinema experiences in 2016 but didn’t get a look in at the Oscars. Should I feel any less moved by their characters or narratives because they can’t claim to have been ‘Oscar nominated?’ No, of course not. Films mean so much more than just handing out trophies and racking up stats; we can leave that sort of thing to sports thank you very much.

Rather than taking a snub personally, just brush it off with a shrug. So what Amy Adams didn’t get nominated for Arrival? That doesn’t change how moving and powerful her performance was. Who cares that Sing Street didn’t get any love for Best Original Song? It doesn’t mean I don’t still love that soundtrack to pieces.

Don’t get me wrong; awards season is a lot of fun. But it’s also a lot of meaningless and banal bullshit that ultimately shouldn’t change how we view art or place value on what something made us think or feel.

Enjoy the Oscars, lap up the glamour and laugh at all the gaffes – but don’t forget that there is a whole myriad of wonderful films out there whose enduring qualities don’t change regardless of who wins or loses on the night.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 

Movie Review – Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

Fool us once Burton, shame on you…fool us nine consecutive times…shame on everyone!

⭐ ⭐
Tom Munday

Hooked On Film recently compiled a list of the best Tim Burton-directed movies without Johnny Depp and/or Helena Bonham Carter. It was a small list, for sure. Indeed, his better movies avoid Depp and Carter’s white-faced antics in favour of depth and resonance.

Sadly, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children sorely misses the spark set by Burton’s earlier works. Based on Ransom Riggs’ book of the same name, the movie kicks off with 16-year-old nobody Jake (Asa Butterfield) living a sad existence in Florida. With his parents lacking care, Jake gravitates to his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp). After tragedy strikes, Jake goes to his grandfather’s childhood homestead in Wales. However, an army of monsters and overlords, led by neon-eyed baddie Mr Barron (Samuel L Jackson), are hot on his trail.

Burton, at the beginning of his career, created acclaimed fantasy-family works with darkness, depth and delights. Over the past decade, several useless remakes have tarred his reputation. In true Burton tradition, Jake falls down a rabbit hole into a fluffy, whimsical parallel universe. This time around, our protagonist finds a school filled with superpowered beings, led by Miss Peregrine (Eva Green).

In a Burton picture, the real world is disdainful. His human characters are always unlikeable and two dimensional. These scenes do little but express Burton’s impatience – yearning to get to the wacky otherworldly counterparts. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is no different. In fact, it’s a patchwork of tried and true Burton clichés.  At the very least, the production design, score and cinematography carry Burton’s latest feature throughout every cringe-worthy, sappy second.

The movie begins promisingly. Jake and Abe’s relationship convey Burton’s finer touches. Sadly, as Jake becomes more involved, useless exposition and world building bog down Jane Goldman’s screenplay. Almost every scene is ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’. Instead of building stakes or character development, the majority of the dialogue explains the rules of this time travelling, magical world. Going further into the void, the narrative becomes a blur of silly names and overcomplicated plot points. The final third is particularly lazy; devolving into a clunky, CGI-laden fight sequence between our magical factions. Indeed, the further down the rabbit hole it goes, the more of a mish mash it becomes. Even Butterfield, Green, Jackson, Rupert Everett, Ella Purnell and Judi Dench can’t make this behemoth interesting.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a joyless, flavourless jumble of Burton’s oeuvre. The once brilliant and imaginative filmmaker is now a shell of his former self. Like M. Night Shyamalan, this once-great talent takes promising material and delivers uneven stories, poor performances, tacky visuals and laughable moments. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is available in Australian cinemas from September 29

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Movie Review – Deadpool

Vulgar, violent, and vivacious – Deadpool delivers what you want from a light-hearted superhero-action flick.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Tom Munday

Not since Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine or Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man have we seen an A-list powerhouse fit a role so perfectly. Ryan Reynolds has shown he is fully committed to the comic-book anti-hero of Deadpool/Wade Wilson; pushing for a cinematic version for the better part of a decade. After the travesty of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the character is back with a vengeance on the big screen.

Deadpool may just be a Fast Five-level surprise – an exhilarating experience acknowledging preceding instalments whilst improving the franchise tenfold. Despite the X-Men series’ topsy-turvy quality, Deadpool’s inspired marketing and promotion campaign reassured us of a return to form. Thankfully, the movie delivers on everything it promises.

The plot itself is relatively simple, with Reynolds strapping on more skin-tight spandex as yet another big-name superhero in a familiar dilemma: former gun-for-hire Wade Wilson (Reynonlds) is diagnosed with body-spanning cancer and given months to live. A secret organisation, headed-up by Ajax (Ed Skrein) and Angel Dust (Gina Carano), offers him a second chance at make-a-difference badassery before betraying him.

Deadpool is the final lifeline for Reynolds as an action star and leading man. Wallowing in a slew of bad movies, the charismatic A-lister needed to redeem himself from Blade: Trinity, Green Lantern, and almost everything in between. Leading the charge, Reynolds and co. make a silly, slimy, and sarcastic riff on the superhero-action genre. Screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese tap into the saying-what-we’re all-thinking style of comedy; its sense of humour insults and pays respect to every noteworthy Avengers/Batman v. Superman-sized blockbuster out there. Throughout, the lead character pulls out all the stops – breaking the fourth wall, ironically discussing Reynolds’ career, cussing out the X-Men franchise and dishing out fifty shades of sexual references.

First-time director Tim Miller delivers everything the fans asked for throughout development. The movie’s visual flair elevates each action sequence, with the film’s pacing, snarky humour, and thirst for violence amplifying each set-piece’s visceral and sensory impact. Despite its prominence in the trailers, the freeway chase/shootout sequences showcase Deadpool’s enviable array of abilities.

Deadpool’s cast – noticeably made up of one star and a bunch of character-actors/no-names – makes the most of the invigorating, exciting material. Reynolds clings on to his pet project, determined to see it live up to the hype. Silicon Valley star T. J. Miller becomes a solid sparring partner alongside Reynolds, matching the lead’s comic sensibilities point by point. Firefly actress Morena Baccarin portrays Wilson’s sassy, care-free love interest with the right amount of chutzpah. Like every other Marvel property, the villains are reduced to clichéd one-liners and familiar abilities.

Deadpool is a fun, refreshing take on the superhero genre, tearing a new hole in more ways than one. Finally, Reynolds has delivered an action flick worthy of future instalments from now until his hip gives out.

Deadpool is available in Australian cinemas from February 11th 

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Movie Review – Black Mass

Despite a directionless script and broken moral compass, Black Mass marks a turning point in the faltering career of Johnny Depp.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

When you think about Johnny Depp, what springs to mind? You’re most likely imagining an assortment of wacky characters and silly hats surrounded by gothic melodrama, right? Well, prepare to have that image shattered by Black Mass, Depp’s first film in a long while that dispenses with flamboyance, and instead focuses on intense character drama.

From director Scott Cooper, Black Mass is a biopic about James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Depp), one of Boston’s most notorious gangsters during the late 70’s and early 80’s. It’s a classic tale of rags to riches that sees Depp headline an impressive cast that incorporates Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s senatorial brother William, Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, a crooked cop inside the FBI, and Dakota Johnson, Whitey’s long-suffering wife Lindsey.

This might not be Depp’s first foray into the gangster genre (he previously teamed-up with Michael Mann to play the iconic John Dillinger in 2009’s Public Enemies), but it is his most fascinating. By eschewing his trademark larger-than-life characters for something more muscular, Depp disappears into the otherwise conventional role, and makes it one of his most memorable in years. Dripping with malice, and driven by a voracious thirst for blood, Whitey is a cookie-cutter character whose motivations and arc are substantially elevated by Depp’s unsettling performance. The tension skyrockets whenever Depp strides onto screen; you’re never quite sure whether he’s going to hug someone, or shank them.

Meanwhile, hot on the heels of his outstanding directorial debut in The Gift, Edgerton continues to excel with another compelling and nuanced performance. Connolly is the character with the most depth here, and Edgerton sinks his teeth into the role with aplomb; cunning, intelligent and increasingly desperate, Connolly’s frantic efforts to cover his tracks make for some of the films lighter moments, whilst the domestic drama at home with his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) keeps the tension tightly wound.

However, two great characters aren’t enough to save this film from sliding into mediocrity; despite his compelling lead duo, Cooper fails to breathe life into a flat screenplay that fizzes to an unsatisfying and muted finale. After starting strong, the final third of this film felt disappointingly unambitious, and we’re left with an underwhelming conclusion where all the loose ends are resolved through conventional “where are they now?” credits.

Furthermore, I felt that the film lacked a clearly defined emotional anchor; Depp and Edgerton may give brilliant performances, but at the end of the day they’re still unlikeable people doing immoral things. Devoid of an honest do-gooder to put them in their place, the film feels desperately bleak and hollow; Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll are the closest we get to “heroes”, but they’re left to float around on the periphery saying little and doing even less.

As a result, the film loses steam somewhere in the middle and never recaptures it. Black Mass isn’t a bad film; it just doesn’t quite know how to fit all the elements together to make a satisfying whole. Depp’s performance alone makes this film worth a watch, but don’t expect the narrative to transcend the tight confines on the genre. And the less said about Cumberbatch’s gawky Boston accent, the better.

Black Mass is available in Australian cinemas from October 8th 2015

Images courtesy of Roadshow Films

Tribute: Wes Craven 1939-2015

Screenshot 2015-09-07 11.53.01

This year is becoming a cruel mistress indeed to cinema’s finest, having also claimed this past week horror mastermind Wes Craven. Famous for haunting our dreams with terrifying movie monsters Freddy Krueger and Ghostface, the horror genre will feel a little less chilling without Craven’s clever contortions and maniacal menace.

Corey Hogan

Despite the very mention of his name being enough to reduce movie lovers to a whimpering puddle of fear, Wes Craven (born Wesley Earl Craven) was, perhaps surprisingly, raised in a strict Baptist family in Ohio. The fear of death was planted in Craven from a very young age; witnessing his father succumb to heavy alcoholism and an unexpected early end led Wes to believe he wouldn’t make it past 40. Leaving his Protestant roots behind him in the 60’s, Craven entered the academic world as an English and humanities professor in New York, though this served only as a brief stint and entry point to the world of filmmaking – during this time he obtained his first 16mm camera and began to shoot his own short movies. Craven worked his way upwards taking sound editing and post-production jobs (training under folk-rock songwriter Harry Chapin), and claims to have directed numerous hard-core pornographic films under pseudonyms in his early days of filmmaking.

Craven’s big break came after co-editing the film Together with Sean S. Cunningham (director of Friday the 13th), which had been a hit for the studio, Hallmark Releasing. Craven and Cunningham were petitioned to produce another horror for Hallmark, for which Craven stepped up to writing and directing duties, delivering his confronting and controversial debut The Last House on the Left. Always believing in the power of facing and thinking rationally about fear, Craven’s filmography remained predominantly within the realms of the horror and thriller genres, though his style evolved from splatter-heavy exploitation films to innovative and genre blending terror designed to blur the lines between reality and the imaginary. Sadly a long battle with brain cancer ended on August 30, 2015; Craven passed away in his Los Angeles home at the age of 76. His career, which helped define and then redefine horror, shall continue to endure as it has for years to come.

To reflect on his rich legacy, here are five of Craven’s best directorial efforts. Special mention must also be made for Red Eye (2005), a gripping white-knuckle thriller featuring stellar performances from Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. One of Craven’s most recent films, he boldly stepped outside his usual horror conventions to prove he could make the more realistic effectively chilling.

  1. The Last House on the Left (1972)


“To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie… it’s only a movie… it’s only a movie…” so went the iconic tagline featured in the trailer and poster of Craven’s highly exploitative debut, in which two teenage girls heading to a concert for a drug-fuelled evening of sexual discovery are instead kidnapped and graphically raped, tortured, stabbed, shot and forced to wet themselves by a sadistic gang of escaped convicts. A notoriously nasty piece of work, yet undeniably effective given its humble budget; this schlocky splatter-fest was a huge success despite being banned in multiple countries for decades, and is continually cited as a strong influence by first-time horror directors even to this day (witness the remarkable trailer, which served as inspiration for the fake Grindhouse previews).

Classic Trailer:

4. Music of the Heart (1999)

Screenshot 2015-09-07 11.49.09

Craven’s sole venture outside the horror and thriller genres (excluding his segment for the romantic anthology Paris, je t’aime) is as far removed from his gruesome gore-fests and suburban slashers as possible; instead telling the inspiring true tale of Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep), a violinist who, after enlisting as a substitute music teacher at a troubled New York school, forms a successful string program – only to face sudden budget cuts and unemployment. Guaspari then enlists former students, parents and teachers for ‘Fiddlefest’, a violin concert to raise funds for her program’s continuation. The singular Wes Craven film to be recognised by the Academy Awards (Streep, naturally, received her twelfth Oscar nomination), Music of the Heart displays a rare upbeat, sincerely feel-good nature usually absent from his work – a change Craven felt so passionate for that he would only return to direct Scream 3 if given the chance to make this first.

Roberta’s students perform for their principal:

  1. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Craven’s second feature is very much in the same exploitation vein as The Last House on the Left – equally gruesome and harrowing; this time the murderous thugs and secluded forest setting are swapped out for an incestuous brood of barbarians who stalk and prey upon a road tripping family stranded in the Nevada desert. Having successfully made his mark with a profitable debut, Craven was granted a higher budget and ensured his script was tighter and more accessible, and – despite a feud with the cast and crew, who strongly opposed his idea that the baby be killed off – became another cult classic. Craven directed a Part II in 1985, which he later disowned due to its overwhelmingly negative reception; a slick remake by Alexandre Aja arrived in 2006, replacing the savages with nuclear mutants (Craven and his son Jonathan returned to co-write the remake’s sequel in 2007).

“Baby’s fat… and juicy…”:

2. Scream (1996)

Screenshot 2015-09-07 11.44.27
Forget the stupidity of the Scary Movie series, Craven’s Scream is unquestionably the defining horror parody. Intended as a comedic and satirical send-up of the slasher clichés disseminated by the Friday the 13th, Halloween and even his own Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, Scream managed all this while still remaining chilling in its own right; carving out its own iconic movie monster (Ghostface’s twisted mask now a fundamental dress-up) and memorable scenes (Drew Barrymore’s phone-call opener resuscitated a derailed career). Scream proved yet another enormous and hugely influential success for Craven, resurrecting the horror genre for the 90’s and even allegedly inspiring a wave of copycat murders. Scream 4 would be Craven’s final feature; he also served as executive producer on MTV’s recent Scream TV series, passing away two days before the finale.

“What’s your favourite scary movie?”: 

  1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Screenshot 2015-09-07 11.17.53

Some may prefer the slasher-subversions of Scream, but Wes Craven’s true stroke of genius and confirmation of horror mastermind came with the delightfully 80’s gem A Nightmare on Elm Street, arguably the best slasher flick and inarguably one of the all-time great horror pictures. With so many epochal elements, from the debut of Johnny Depp to Robert Englund’s demented depiction of disfigured serial killer Freddy Krueger (famously named after a bully who tortured Craven in school), Nightmare towers above for its transgression of horror itself. Craven had discovered the ultimate way to keep audiences awake at night – creating a monster that could kill you in your dreams. An instant hit, the film made Wes Craven a household name and spawned six sequels (including the superbly self-aware deconstruction of the series New Nightmare), a television series, a remake and a crossover with Friday the 13th in Freddy vs. Jason.

The bathtub scene:

“The horrors of retirement. These are scarier than any horror movie I can dream up.” – Wes Craven, August 2, 1939 – August 30, 2015. R.I.P.

Movie Review – Into The Woods

In typical Disney fashion, Into The Woods is a film that is suitable for the kids, and lovers of musicals, and as I do not fall into either of these categories, I found it a most difficult film to stomach.

⭐ ⭐
Review by Cherie Wheeler

Disney’s version of the 1980s musical stage play Into The Woods is yet another contribution to the ongoing trend of modernising traditional fairytales on both the small and silver screens. It combines the classic stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella to create a new magical tale of heroes and villains. The film features an all star ensemble cast that includes Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine and Emily Blunt.

Naturally, I do not wish to bore you with a tedious account of the narrative, but I feel the need to explain the story arc in terms of the progression of its tone. At first the film appears to be quite promising, then abruptly it descends into madness, and becomes nothing short of a disaster.

The opening scenes quickly introduce the familiar characters and storylines, which each possess a few minor twists. I must confess, I absolutely loathe most musicals, and consider Les Miserables to be one of the worst films ever made, so I was genuinely relieved to discover that Into The Woods is not entirely sung from start to finish. Despite my distaste for characters spontaneously bursting into song, I have to admit that every performer definitely delivers in terms of his or her singing ability.

Towards the commencement of the second act, the film takes an unexpected turn, and becomes a satirical portrayal of traditional fairytale constructs. Pine brings the stereotypical Prince Charming to life, and is surprisingly hilarious in a farcical musical number between himself and his on screen brother (Billy Magnussen). A lot of additional humour arises from random acts of violence that are brushed off as insignificant events.

Shortly after the comical middle section, all of the conflicts that connect the many characters are suddenly resolved, which creates the impression that the film is about to conclude, and that all will live happily ever after (which would have been awfully cliche, but I was happy to accept that)… but instead, the film keeps going, and going, AND GOING. At first it gets weird… then REALLY weird, and then it simply becomes a laborious series of message laden ballads. No thematic subject matter is left untouched as the characters express the meaning of family, the fact that no one is wholly good or evil, and that all must forge on with life after the death of a loved one (among many other topics), until finally, we are all put out of our misery, and it ends.

The weakest part of the film is certainly the script, which contains more plot holes than a block of Swiss cheese. Countless loose ends are left untied, and many aspects of the film are conveniently explained away in a most unconvincing manner.

All of the characters are woefully one dimensional, and the fact that both Streep (the witch) and Blunt (the baker’s wife) have been nominated for their respective performances at the Golden Globes is bewildering. Oddly, half the characters speak with English accents, whilst the other half speak American, even though they all live in the same village…?

Depp is an obvious choice in his brief appearance in the role of the Wolf, but as he brings forth his usual fabulous and flamboyant self it is difficult to begrudge him for this. At the same time, it is more than a little uncomfortable to hear him sing lines such as “Hello little girl” and “Look at that flesh” in regards to eating Red Riding Hood. Apparently the song has been altered from the original stage play to try and ease the overtones of pedophilia, but sadly it is still very much there.

Young talent Daniel Huttlestone is very strong as Jack of the beanstalk (funnily enough he is also in Les Mis), however his youthful counterpart Lilla Crawford is excruciatingly annoying as Red Riding Hood.

One aspect that I did appreciate was the choreography of the musical numbers in terms of the blocking of the actors and the editing. Director Rob Marshall is responsible for award-winning musical Chicago (one of few musicals I actually enjoyed), so it would seem he has a knack for presenting theatrical content on the screen.

The only reason Into The Woods has received more than one star is due to the fact that the first half is actually bearable, but as the remainder is a train wreck, I have to call it as it is; 2 stars.