Category: Guest bloggers

Gig Review: Big Ups

Our writer Harry Casey-Woodward reviews the New York punk band Big Ups, who he saw at the Lexington, London on the 30th March 2016…

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The Big Ups are a Brooklyn post-hardcore band who have just released their second album this year. Nearly a week after buying said album Before a Million Universes, I discovered that the band were voyaging across the Atlantic to play in our merry little capital on Wednesday 30th March so eagerly I grabbed a ticket.

The Lexington is a small venue on Pentonville Road, with a 200 max gig room above the bar. The bar was cool to sit in, the walls decked with various animal horns and antique rifles. Upstairs there were two support bands besides the Big Ups. The first band was a surprise, since they weren’t even mentioned on the gig poster. I didn’t catch their name but they certainly made an impression. Not only did they sound like some enraged pub rock band, but the raucous singer was channelling the spirit of Jonny Rotten, from glaring moodily at the crowd to chucking beer. The second band Crows made a hellish post-punk din you could dance to, while the bug-eyed singer jerked and writhed across the venue as if possessed by some demon.

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The supports were energetic enough to get the packed room going. When the Big Ups took to the stage, I was surprised. I knew they met at college in New York, so I was expecting some moody art students. They all looked so young and fresh-faced, and their enthusiasm clearly shone. After the two rather assaultive performances from the supports, the Big Ups’ youthful energy was a refreshing blast.

Singer Joe Galarraga certainly knew how to entertain a crowd. Between songs he was a mild-mannered stand-up. When performing he took on a comic intensity, making faces and throwing himself recklessly around the stage. There was one moment when he slithered head first over the edge of the stage and sang to the floor with his skinny legs flailing in the air. I wondered if he was a fan of Jello Biafra, clownish singer from such satirical punk bands as Dead Kennedys.

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So the band knew how to get a laugh out of their audience, but the intensity and quality of their performance was all too clear. The singer could certainly scream, and the crowd screamed along with him, a good amount knowing lyrics to nearly all the songs. It was great to see such enthusiasm. The songs that sounded so cool and loud on Before a Million Universes sounded even more exhilarating live. The quiet moments built up tension that was shattered by the explosive stabbing riffs.

The crowd were very energetic and there was some vigorous moshing. But overall the gig felt very good natured. For me, the Big Ups’ performance distilled everything I wanted in a punk show. There was a good balance of rage, energy and humour and they were rather pleasant people. They played an encore, mingled with the crowd afterwards and personally thanked everyone for turning up and supporting their music. I personally thank them for gracing us with their presence and such an awesome show.

Images from facebook.

Film Review: What We Do in the Shadows

Our resident film reviewer is writer Harry Casey-Woodward who will be sharing his opinions on things he has watched…  

What We Do in the Shadows, 2014, cert 15, dir Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, 3/5 

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There are two things that bug me about the horror genre. One, vampires are sometimes taken too seriously and two, horror parodies are often overly crass. New Zealand horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows solves both issues.

One thing that attracted me to this film is that it was co-directed, co-written and starred New Zealand comic actor Jemaine Clement. You may have seen Jemaine in HBO comedy show Flight of the Conchords, in which he and fellow star Bret McKenzie played two struggling folk musicians trying to hit the big time in New York. I liked the show for its absurd, awkward humour and the hilarious songs which peppered each episode.

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In Shadows, Jemaine and some fellow New Zealand actors play some vampire mates who live in a flat in Wellington. There’s Viago (Taika Waititi, who also wrote and directed), an 18th century dandy who is the most civilised and foppish of the group, often holding house meeting to get his flatmates to do the dishes. There’s Deacon (Jonny Brugh), who fancies himself as a stud but just comes across as creepy. Jemaine plays Vladislav, a medieval vampire who is a shadow of his former tyrannical self. There’s also Petyr (Ben Fransham), an ancient Nosferatu-like creature who lives in the basement and hisses rather than speaks.

The film is a mockumentary, as this band of bloodsucking bachelors are being filmed by a documentary crew who wear crucifixes and the vampires have promised not to attack. The vampires are filmed getting into various misadventures. They hit the town and try to get invited into clubs. They order their servants to bring virgins to the flat. They make a decent attempt to include Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), one of their recently changed victims and his human friend Stu (Stu Rotherford), who they end up liking more than Nick.

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I enjoyed watching this film more than I enjoyed Flight of the Conchords. I would even go so far to say as this would make a better TV show. As much I like Conchords, the jokes are mostly about being poor and single. Here, the humour is more creative as the vampire condition is hilariously and cleverly picked apart. The creators have managed to get great jokes from various aspects of vampire mythology. Their vampires are not tortured hunks, but creepy losers who are still painfully human.

While being a hoot from start to finish, the movie is also a good tribute to the horror genre. Not only are the costumes and sets suitably Gothic, but there are moments in the film that are quite horrific and even scary. There are two chase scenes in particular, one in the vampires’ house when they pursue Nick and another where they are chased around a park after antagonizing some werewolves. The use of hand-held camera in these scenes is more effective and unsettling than anything most serious horror mockumentaries have attempted with the technique.

Film Review: The Salvation

Our resident film reviewer is writer Harry Casey-Woodward who will be sharing his opinions on things he has watched… 

The Salvation, 2015, cert 15, dir Kristian Levring, 3/5 

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The western genre is riding to strange places at the moment. From Tarantino‘s genre-busting, blood-soaked visions on race conflict to Slow West, a 2015 British production shot in New Zealand and Bone Tomahawk, a cannibalistic horror western released this year. How about a Danish western shot in South Africa?

Cue last year’s Salvation, starring Mads Mikkelsen. His icy looks have been put to good use in villainous roles for Casino Royale and the recent US show Hannibal, in which he played the psychiatrist chef from hell himself. This time in Salvation, he uses his cold gaze and sparse dialogue to play the grim western hero.

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His character Jon is a Danish ex-soldier who has been building a life in America with his brother, played by fellow Danish actor Mikael Persbrandt. Jon is understandably distraught when his wife and son have barely been in America a day, only to have them murdered by drunk ex-cons. After taking a brutal revenge, it turns out one of his family’s killers was the brother of the tyrannical Colonel Delarue. He is also upset about the loss of a family member and takes it out on the town of Black Creek, demanding they give up citizens for him to kill until they find his brother’s murderer. He also demands they pay him a protection fee, which is ironic seeing as he is the one threatening them. So naturally the townspeople aren’t eager to help Jon when he finds himself on the run. Outnumbered and threatened on all sides, it’s up to him to save his own skin.

So while the blood feud plot is nothing new in the western genre and this film’s depiction of American history is rather simplistic and harsh, it manages to tick all the other boxes in making a good action western. For one thing it looks good. The landscape of South Africa provides an epic backdrop. You’ve even got the Tabletop Mountain looming over the action. The camera work is also very striking and stylish, with lots of dramatic pans and zooms.

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The cast is also good too, and we have an interesting range of performers. Mads is, as usual, gripping to watch. US actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a good attempt at playing the moustached, cigar-smoking villain but maybe I’ve seen him in too many sweet, good guy roles to be convinced. French ex-footballer Eric Cantona plays one of his many henchmen. Welshman Jonathan Pryce plays the treacherous mayor of Black Creek, while Eva Green portrays the most interesting character, the mute scheming widow of Delarue’s murdered brother. It’s good to see a western giving us a strong female character, even when she has no lines.

So this western has enough original quirks to help it stand out from the crowd, while also taking care of all the generic conventions with enthusiasm and skill. It’s dark and savage, but it’s still an enjoyable, gritty ride if you’re looking for a good action film.

Film: 5 Sequels that are actually better than the originals

Hobbyist reviewer Harry Casey-Woodward discusses that rarest of phenomenons, a good sequel.

The history of cinema is littered with disappointing sequels. However, on very rare occasions there come along sequels that actually do the job they’re supposed to and raise the bar set by the first film, rather than just giving us exactly the same film or utterly destroying our faith in movies. I have thought of five examples that fit the bill. If you disagree with them, there’s not going to be a sequel to this article anyway.

X-Men 2, 2003, dir Bryan Singer 

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Man the original X-Men film feels old, what with the flood of sequels we’ve had since and the new X-Men: Apocalypse on the horizon. The first film is pretty representative of the flood of comic adaptations at the start of the noughties, which hasn’t really seen an end. It was a nice introduction to the characters but I still don’t think it stands out much from your average superhero film. The second movie, however, gripped me with its darker, more interesting plot of a sinister government agency closing in on the mutant heroes. The relationships between the characters were more developed as well. There were times where I felt it was like a superhero soap opera, except the characters are on the run. Then we got Last Stand and subtlety was thrown out the window, and so it has been since.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army, 2008, dir Guillermo del Toro 

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I don’t remember if I read the comics before seeing the first Hellboy movie, but I still remember feeling disappointed after seeing it. At the time, it just felt like another apocalypse-themed, supernatural action movie with CGI monsters and to this day I still don’t think it captures the eerie, beautifully surreal nature of Mike Mignola‘s original comics. I enjoyed the sequel more, however, because it’s more creative plot and special effects felt more in tone with the comics and this time, Hellboy wasn’t necessarily the focus of the plot. He was just trying to stop all the mayhem unfold, which again felt more true to the comics and less grave than the first film. It was just more entertaining and imaginative, and we got to see Hellboy and fish-man Abe do some drunken karaoke.

The Dark Knight, 2008, dir Christopher Nolan 

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I think we can agree that Batman Begins didn’t have the same impact in 2005 as its sequel and you can kind of see why. Batman Begins is a decent superhero film, a slight cut above the others with its dark action and psychological profiling of the hero, but it still underwhelmed me. It might have been the ridiculous stunts at its end. The Dark Knight, however, really raised the bar for the genre. It’s shunning of CGI and plentiful plot twists gave us a decent, genuinely gripping thriller. Also Heath Ledger somehow made a far scarier villain than Liam Neeson. So I like to think of Batman Begins as an intelligent introduction to the nail-biting mayhem of Knight.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1991, dir James Cameron 

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The first Terminator film is deservedly a classic, but it is still so 80s and Judgement Day just does everything better. Not only did it have a bigger budget so the action and effects are more thrilling, but it’s mix of characters and their relationships was more interesting than Sarah Connor getting it on with the soldier from the future in the first film. The young John Connor interacting with Arnold Schwarzenegger as his robot guardian gave us humour and sweetness that lacked in the first film. The more present threat of Armageddon also gave a deeper gravity under the cool car chases and one-liners. Director James Cameron seems to be gifted at sequels, as he did an equally good job on Aliens, his sequel to Ridley Scott‘s classic sci-fi horror Alien.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003), dir Peter Jackson 

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This may be cheating slightly, as the Lord of the Rings trilogy was directed as one long project. However, the creators could easily have messed up at any point during the process, and we would have got something like the Matrix trilogy. The Fellowship of the Ring sequels managed to magnify the story, the effects and the action without losing any quality in the film making and storytelling. This is remarkable considering the enormity of the task Peter Jackson and his fellows took on. Although the sequels had to lose the eerie subtlety of the first film, once you saw the Battle of Helm’s Deep there was no quenching your thirst for epic battle scenes, and like a proper sequel Return of the King delivered in even bigger style. To me Lord of the Rings is still the perfect movie trilogy, a beautifully plotted and gloriously cinematic build-up to its emotional crescendo.

Film Review: The Rover

Our resident film reviewer is writer Harry Casey-Woodward who will be sharing his opinions on things he has watched… 

The Rover, 2014, cert 15, dir David Michôd, 3/5 

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This film is about an epic car chase across the barren wastelands of post-apocalyptic Australia. No, this is The Rover, not Mad Max: Fury Road, a very different model of Aussie road beast. When you compare the two films, it’s easy to see why The Rover was overshadowed. Fury Road was a full-throttle fantastical feast of insane stunts, outlandish costumes and fire-breathing guitars. The Rover drove in the opposite cinematic direction.

For one thing, it’s set in a slightly more tangible future where economy and civilisation have collapsed, reducing Australia to a desperate Wild West-like world. The rover Eric, played by Guy Pearce, has his car stolen by small-time bandits, and is so attached to his vehicle he pursues the robbers relentlessly across the burning outback. Along the way he bumps into Rey, the brother of one of the robbers played by Twilight hunk Robert Pattinson. He had been left for dead by his fellows and under gunpoint agrees to lead Eric after them.

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I expected this to be more like the first Mad Max film, a brutal low-budget road action movie without any of the excessive fantasy of Fury Road. In fact, despite the western-style narrative, I wouldn’t even call The Rover an action film. It plays more like a crime drama, with chilling, haunting depictions of violence and a focus on the growing relationship between the two male leads.

Both the stars’ performances are opposites. Guy Pearce returns to the Clint Eastwood-esque, grungy drifter persona he portrayed in 2005 Aussie western The Proposition, hiding his vulnerabilities under a grim sense of purpose and lack of dialogue. Robert Pattinson was the film’s element I was least looking forward to, but he proved there’s more to his acting abilities than creepy sparkly vampires. He slips into the skin of a scared young hillbilly, not very bright and clearly not suited for this harsh futuristic world. His acting is so convincing he’s like a frightened animal during the intense scenes. Nevertheless, his child-like idealism sets him apart from the other savage characters and he has hidden strengths which he uses to help Eric as best he can, even though Eric clearly establishes his disrespect for him early on.

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So this film hides a startling depiction of a human relationship under its tense action scenes and bleak world view. In fact, the main thing that lets this otherwise remarkable film down is that it’s a bit too bleak. Apart from good film work and beautiful scenery, bleakness is all it has to offer. None of the characters are particularly likeable. In fact, apart from Eric they’re all pretty pathetic. Also there were several scenes where I thought the movie was trying to be philosophical or just plain bizarre, but they felt too artificial. So although this film does a lot of things well and is a cool, lean little slice of imaginative indie film making, it was so sparse and downbeat it just left me feeling empty by the end.

TV Review: Stag

Our resident film reviewer is writer Harry Casey-Woodward who will be sharing his opinions on things he has watched…

Stag, 2016, cert 15, dir Jim Field Smith, 3/5

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It’s great when something comes along that you know you shouldn’t like because it’s so ridiculously horrible but it’s also genius so you love it. When people told me about this programme, they seemed both amused and horrified at the madness they were describing to me. I was certainly surprised to hear about a TV programme that had such a darkly humorous take on violence and knew I had to see it.

Stag was a three part miniseries put out earlier this month on BBC 2 and still available on iPlayer.  The word ‘stag’ has more than one meaning in the show. It is about a stag weekend in which a band of young males set off into the Scottish highlands for, funnily enough, a stag hunting trip. Unfortunately for them, it’s not the stags that end up getting hunted.

The unlikely hero of the bunch is a Geography teacher named Ian (played by Jim Howick). He says he is the brother of the bride, but the groom Johnners (Stephen Campbell Moore) doesn’t even remember him. As Ian says, he’s not somebody you’re likely to remember. Compared to the other blokes, he is rather meek and timid and thus an easy target for the louder, more obnoxious males. You certainly get the impression from Ian that he would rather be anywhere but there, but he is keeping a promise to his sister to look after her future husband.

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Quite soon into episode one, everyone needs looking after as they end up stranded in some remote Scottish woods and start getting picked off one by one by a mysterious killer, in comically gruesome fashion. It is Ian, with his geological knowledge and calm head, who ends up offering some help to the other squabbling, selfish stags.

BBC is not new to horror comedy. The presence of Reece Shearsmith among the cast reminds me of his own hilariously disturbed BBC series, such as League of Gentlemen, Psychoville and Inside No. 9. But Stag certainly takes the comic horror up to a new level. If the episodes were put together, they would make a decent slasher.

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It is tempting to compare Stag to British horror film Dog Soldiers, a black comedy about blokey soldiers getting hunted by werewolves in Scotland. But the plot of Stag is smarter and funnier than Dog Soldiers, along with many other slashers. Strip away the swearing and comic violence and you get a decent thriller. I was kept guessing all the way through who was the killer and who was next to get dispatched.

The characters also make this worth watching. Writer/director Jim Field Smith said on the BBC blog that he wanted to ‘skewer masculinity’ but at the same time give these blokes vulnerabilities so the audience care about them. I found myself rooting for each guy even though you’re never really sure who to trust. Overall this is very entertaining and original television, with plenty of twists and suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Images from BBC blog and BBC media centre.

Film Review: The Witch

Our resident film reviewer is writer Harry Casey-Woodward who will be sharing his opinions on things he has watched…

The Witch, 2016, cert 15, dir Robert Eggers, 3/5 

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I think I’m getting a little disenchanted with horror films. A few years ago I would have said horror was one of my favourite genres. I still love my favourites and I will happily sit down and watch something that’s supposed to be good or a classic. However, I think over exposure to a lot of trashy slashy horrors (thanks to Netflix) has exhausted me of the genre. Nowadays I feel as good as certain horrors are, they are just films about death.

As I’ve said, however, if something sounds interesting it will still get my attention. The Witch sounded very interesting, an independent horror film set in colonial New England. A family of Puritan settlers newly arrived in America are banished from their community and choose a remote spot on the edge of a creepy forest to start a new life. Unfortunately a witch happens to live in the forest and strange, scary stuff starts happening.

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In case you were wondering, this is nothing like Blair Witch Project. For one thing, the historical details are very impressive. If you wait a little after the film ends, a caption comes up before the credits stating that the script was based heavily on historical records of witchcraft. The director/writer also based the dialogue on the written style of these records and the way the characters speak feels pretty accurate. There’s a lot of ‘thous’. Unfortunately my partial hearing did not help when the characters said something quick and quiet in their strong Northern-style accents, which happened a lot so I missed a lot of dialogue, which probably impacted my enjoyment of the film. Nevertheless, I did feel like I was thrust into another world, and I believed these characters would genuinely believe in witchcraft even if nothing strange was going on, which did make the film creepier than a witch film set in the modern day.

Another thing that makes it different from Blair Witch Project is the shots. Rather than being shot on shaky handheld camera, the Witch is one of those rare contemporary horrors shot beautifully. Some scenes even reminded me of Kubrick’s work in The Shining, with long lingering shots set over ominous music all designed to create unease. Lighting is used effectively too. I felt dread whenever dusk crept over the screen, knowing there’d be no street lamps to relieve the characters of the impenetrable woodland darkness.

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This film certainly did the job of making witches and woods scary again. However, I felt a bit let down by all the hype surrounding the film. It certainly didn’t scare me greatly, although it did its best. But it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before. Moreover, by the end I just felt confused. This might have been due to me missing most of the dialogue, or the sheer strangeness of some of the scenes. I also somehow didn’t really care much about the characters, despite their plight. They might have just been too puritan to be interesting.

Nevertheless, I still recommend this film for its atmosphere, its style, its psychological creepiness and for just being so different from the usual ‘teenage massacre’ formula of most horrors.

Valentine’s Day Gift Guide

Valentine’s Day isn’t always the easiest holiday to tackle, and some people take it more seriously than others. Our guest writer and journalist 22-year-old Rachel Tucker shares her top five gift ideas to satisfy your beau this coming Sunday…

1. This collaboration from our long-time loves, tattooist Guen Douglas and homeware creators Red Temple Prayer, would be the perfect way to perk up your Valentine’s desk. Gwen’s traditional envelope design is available on a mug or on a card and is available on the Red Temple Prayer website. Red Temple Prayer have a rad collection of kitchenware and accessories, the Forever My Queen mug might even make a good gift to myself. Self love and all that, right?

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2. Tattooist, designer for the Grit N Glory clothes line, model and all round bad-ass woman, Megan Massacre, has created these “not your school Valentines” cards for those of you who aren’t into all that lovey-dovey mushy stuff. Saying “you’re my homeslice” and “be my weirdo” might just be the way to win them over without wearing your heart on your sleeve.

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3. Great gifts often involve days out, giving up your time and just hanging out, and what better way to celebrate being the rad couple you are than by treating yourselves to tickets for this year’s Brighton Tattoo Convention. This year the date’s been moved closer to summer meaning you might even be able to brave a romantic walk on the beach without being blown away!

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4.  London based artist Alex May Hughes creates amazing, one-of-a-kind gold and glass artwork. Using actual gold carat foil, pearl and mirrors, Alex creates these amazing pop culture inspired pieces. If you’re feeling lavish, why not commission your Valentine’s name, anniversary date, the place you met? Maybe even something from their favourite film or a quote. The possibilities are endless and the results are beautiful.

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5. Last but not least, the idea that I’d like to think is most obvious to fall on. Get a fucking tattoo! Now I’m not saying go and get eachother’s names on your buttcheeks, just because there’s so many different ways you can appreciate eachother through tattoos now! Plenty of studios have flash days on Valentine’s Day so you’ll have loads of ideas to chose from, and lets face it, having something on you forever that reminds you of that person is pretty much the ultimate sign of love.

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Tattoo by Ian Parkin

So there you have it! The perfect gift guide for this Valentine’s day. Eat, drink and get smushy.

 

The Hateful Eight

Our resident film reviewer is writer Harry Casey-Woodward who will be sharing his opinions on things he has watched…

The Hateful Eight, 2016, cert 18, dir Quentin Tarantino, 4/5

The first thing you should know about Tarantino’s latest feature is that it is very different to his last offering, Django Unchained.
I have decided that the quality of Tarantino’s films follows a certain pattern: he does two good films, then a not so good film, then repeats. His first two movies, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are considered cinematic classics. His third movie Jackie Brown is not quite as exciting. The two Kill Bill movies that came after are still very popular, while many people I’ve met loathe his sixth film Death Proof  and it certainly showed at the box office. Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained wowed nearly everyone.

So I was worried about Hateful Eight fitting the pattern and being a poor film. After seeing it, I feel it shares some of the negative aspects of Tarantino’s lesser efforts and lacks the energy and creativity of his best. However, it’s lack of action and location-hopping compared to Inglorious Basterds and Django doesn’t make it a bad film, just different.

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I was excited enough about Tarantino making a period western with Django after repeating how much he’s inspired by them. I was even more excited when he said he was making another one. With both films, he has mastered what I believe are the two essential western plotlines. Django is obviously a journey western, where the hero goes on a quest through the ever-changing landscape of the Wild West and grows in some way. Then there are westerns centred in one location like a town, which tend to be tense action pieces.

Hateful Eight is an excellent example of this, for apart from a few outside scenes on a stagecoach the action nearly all takes place in one wood cabin. It’s more like watching an intense stage play than a movie. This made sense after reading an article on cinemablend where Tarantino declared he was thinking of writing for theatre.

I personally enjoy plots that are stripped down to the bare essentials, which is partly why I enjoy plays. Stories set in single locations are more intense and focused than plots that jump around locations, because you’re thoroughly engrossed in the characters and their dialogue.

Hateful Eight is no exception, as Tarantino never fails to hold your attention with his colourful cast of characters and their dialogue. Nevertheless, the film sometimes suffered from the same problem as Death Proof, which is that Tarantino over-indulged in his love for dialogue. In both films, the first halves are full of long scenes of characters chatting about topics not immediately related to the plot. Although the dialogue is entertaining, there were a few moments where I wondered if certain scenes were going anywhere and what was the point of them.

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On the other hand, these scenes are certainly good for building up suspense and character and the audience’s long wait for action is rewarded when all hell breaks loose in the second half. There are Tarantino’s trademark scenes of outrageous violence, but there’s a darker, more macabre spirit wreaking havoc in this film than in previous. The violence of Hateful Eight is over-the-top and streaked with Tarantino’s viciously black humour. But there’s none of Django’s tounge-in-cheek or thrilling heroics, nor any sense that Tarantino is daring you to enjoy the violence. Like Reservoir Dogs, it’s played for brutal shocks.

Like Django, the film is also firmly rooted in the history and issues of the time. The film is set after the American civil war and the emancipation of slavery. These events cause some of the tensions and divisions between the characters, for they still feel very strongly about them. Racism rears its ugly head, with frequent use of the n word directed at Samuel L. Jackson’s character. Misogyny also joins the party, for the only female character gets the worst treatment. However, this is more for her personality than her gender and the offensive attitudes expressed by the characters are simply reflections of American history. The historical background adds to the film’s quality and, along with Tarantino’s mastery of drama and the camera, balances with the moments of explicit crassness on screen.

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As with any good western, the scenery and music are quality too. The menacing original score (a first for the soundtrack-stealing Tarantino) is composed by Ennio Morricone, who also wrote the iconic music for such classic westerns as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. When the action was happening outside of the stagecoach and the cabin, the snowy mountain scenery looks stunning too; especially in the extra-wide 70mm camera format Tarantino shot in that got him in such technical issues during cinematic release.

So don’t watch this expecting another Django, but do expect a master class in suspense, acting and cinema in general. Yes it’s slow and not packed with action, but Tarantino has really pushed himself and succeeded in making a unique film not just for his own filmography but westerns in general. Although there are good westerns regularly coming out, Tarantino has been the director to smash the most generic conventions. With Hateful Eight, he proves westerns don’t necessarily need showdowns at noon and characters riding off into the sunset.

All gushing for Tarantino aside, it is really the cast that keep you gripped. Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Walton Goggins  from Justified are all perfect, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s deranged role can be added to Tarantino’s gallery of powerful female performances.
So as it’s winter, hop on the stagecoach and ride into Tarantino’s cramped, snowy, blood-drenched hell. You’re in for a treat.

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Documentaries: Making a Murderer

Alexandra Langston is a creative copywriter, editor, and part-time blogger, living and working in Qatar. In this post Alex talks about the Making a Murderer series… 

Over Christmas, like a lot of people, I plummeted into the Netflix Making a Murderer vortex with wilful abandon. Living in the Middle East, I had heard a few grumbles about the series on the internet, but was otherwise unaware of details; in retrospect, blissfully unaware.
About a year ago, I delved similarly head-long into a series of documentaries about the West Memphis Three – three Arkansas teenage boys who in 1994 were found guilty of the murders of three younger boys. Two were sentenced to life in prison, whilst the perceived ringleader was sentenced to death.

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The murder, trial, and media coverage were all clouded by the so-called ‘Satanic Panic’ that pervaded the US for much of the early 90s. Wearing black, listening to heavy metal, and being interested in belief systems beyond the typical Christianity of the Deep South, meant a guilty verdict was more or less guaranteed. If it wasn’t for film makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky capturing proceedings, that would have been that for the boys.

Fortunately, after the first film aired in 1996 interest in the case built, and over the next fifteen years the tireless support of the public (and some celebrities) led to new DNA evidence. In 2011 the possibility of a re-trial that would potentially embarrass the state led to an unusual plea deal; all three men were freed, but the state maintained their guilt.
I watched in absolute horror and astonishment, feeling elated at their release and total disgust at the injustice of the state’s lack of culpability. Overall though, I felt that this scenario had to be an anomaly, a one off. I was very wrong.

Enter Making a Murderer. In 1985, Steven Avery was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, and spent eighteen years in prison before being fully exonerated by new DNA evidence. Two years after his release, and on the eve of a multi-million dollar settlement from Manitowoc County, Avery was arrested and then tried and convicted of the murder of a young woman. His nephew, Brendan Dassey, was also sentenced to life in prison for his part in the killing.

The confluence of a looming settlement that would have financially crippled the county, and the investigation by officers and prosecutors that had also played a part of the original wrongful conviction, is at the centre of the ten hour series. The documentary raises questions about the trustworthiness of the investigation and its key players, but it has also seen a heavy backlash that claims a lack of impartiality from documentarians Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. The two women are also accused of leaving out important trial evidence in order to more convincingly paint the defendants as innocent.

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What is clear is that for both men the investigations and trial were not entirely unbiased, and whichever side of the fence you come down on, the takeaway should be that we take a long hard look at our justice systems. In the twenty years since the West Memphis Three case came to prominence, how many more people have not received adequate defences due to a lack of money and resources?
Questionable journalism aside, it is important that these kinds of documentaries continue to be made – that we keep asking questions – because it is not just in the US that you can find yourself in an unwinnable situation.