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Mudbound

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Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name by director Dee Rees (Pariah), Mudbound tells the tale of two families in post-WWII rural Mississippi, divided by race but tied together by the hard, hostile land that the title alludes to.

There’s Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who has brought his refined, city-bred wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan) into this hardscrabble world where he plans to work the land like his father, racist patriarch “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks). And there’s the black tenant farmers who live on the McAllans’ land, the god-fearing Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), and their passel of children. The power dynamics are clearly defined along racial lines: this is the Jim Crow south, after all, and black men use the back door and don’t raise their eyes to their alleged betters.

The situation changes when to veterans return from their World War II service: Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who served in the tank corps, and Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who flew bomber missions over Europe. Both are struggling with PTSD and their place in the world, and their wartime experiences bond them in friendship. Such a relationship, however, cannot be countenanced by the locals, and violence is inevitable.

Mudbound is handsomely shot, well acted and possessed of a rare and mournful lyricism, but it feels off by degrees. It’s issues are common to literary adaptations: a hesitancy when it comes to understanding what to keep and what to cut, where to focus the cinematic narrative. The friendship between Jamie and Ronsel is the obvious crux here, but director Rees and her co-writer, Virgil Williams, do their best to encompass as many voices and viewpoints from the source novel as they can, and in doing so muddy the waters somewhat, if you’ll pardon the expression.

What that gives us is an arresting portrait of a place, people, and time, but a weaker story than one might hope for, which leaves us with a very good movie instead of a great one. Still, there’s much to admire and enjoy here: uniformly strong performances (Blige is a quiet miracle, and let’s acknowledge that Hedlund is doing much better as a character actor than a leading man), a pinpoint sense of specificity and detail, a restrained, downbeat visual style that gives the characters room to live and the incidents we witness their full emotional weight. Still, while Mudbound is a very worthy film, that odd and nagging lack of coherence stops it from being the masterpiece it so very nearly is.

 

 
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Star Trek: Discovery S1E9: Into the Forest I Go

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The peaceful inhabitants of the planet Pahva have sent a signal to both the Federation and the Klingon Empire to come to their world and negotiate peace. Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) knows that the Klingons are on their way and will decimate the Pahvans when they arrive. Against Starfleet orders he commands the USS Discovery to stay and face the Klingons head-on.

With this ninth episode Star Trek: Discovery concludes its initial run, referred to by CBS as “Chapter One”. Another six episodes will be released in early 2018 to properly conclude the first season, but for now it is mid-point climax time for Lorca, Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the rest of the Discovery crew. It has been a maddening and frustrating ride, with numerous outstanding elements in the series constantly over-shadowed by inconsistent characterisation, poor plotting, and an attitude to Star Trek continuity that is most politely described as ‘dismissive’.

That in mind, it is a genuine relief to find the plot of “Into the Forest I Go” to be straight-forward, dramatic and pretty much the most Star Trek-like narrative so far. The Discovery is under orders to retreat, leaving the Pahvans defenceless, but Lorca disobeys orders and stays behind to fight. The bulk of the episode, in which an attempt is made to detect a cloaked Klingon starship using a combination of ship-to-ship espionage and the Discovery’s spore drive, is a wonderfully suspenseful exercise in action, character development, and the finest Star Trek technobabble. It also all leads into a great end-of-chapter cliff-hanger that suggests more than one of the current fan theories circling the Internet might be true.

The episode takes time for its characters as well. The most impactful scenes involve Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who was held captive by the Klingons and tortured for seven months by L’Rell (Mary Chieffo). Their relationship was in part sexual, and the profoundly traumatised Tyler confides in Burnham about his experience. This is, to be honest, the sort of thing I was expecting from a 21st century Star Trek series: genuinely progressive subject matter that earlier versions were too conservative to address. Could the episode have handled Tyler’s sexual assault and PTSD more sensitively? Very probably, but in the context of an action-packed mid-season finale it seemed impressive as it was.

Of course, there are still the silly bits. The sensors Burnham and Tyler must place in secret around the Klingon ‘ship of the dead’ are comically large with bright lights and a loud voice recording. The episode begins with Discovery remaining to protect Pahva, because if they leave the Klingons will destroy the whole planet, and ends with the Discovery flying away with multiple Klingon ships on approach – and Pahva presumably abandoned to destruction anyway. Star Trek continuity obsessives like me will be left wondering why Spock and McCoy had to retro-fit a photon torpedo to detect a cloaked Klingon ship when the Discovery solved that problem 40 years earlier. To be honest it’s all minor; this episode is genuinely great where it counts.

The potential in Discovery has been there from the start, but these first nine episodes have offered one hell of a rough ride. “Into the Forest I Go” brings the promise of a much-improved series as it goes on. If the production team can stick to the core of what makes its characters work, and shave off the elements that have been dragging the series back – poor plots, inconsistent characterisation, and a quite frankly insulting attitude to the franchise as a whole – it could become something quite special.

 
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The Punisher

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Hell, where do we be begin?

The hotly anticipated Punisher TV series represents the nadir of Marvel’s Netflix streaming projects, narrowly nudging out the widely derided Iron Fist by dint of squandering a perfect set up and a shedload of goodwill left over from the character’s Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity debut in season 2 of Daredevil. That’s pretty impressive; Jon Bernthal’s turn as the ex-Marine vigilante Frank Castle is the fourth live action iteration of the character since Dolph Lundgren took on the name (And little else) way back in 1989, and is pretty much universally considered the best by a considerable margin. This time, fans told each other, they got The Punisher right. Now, on the other side of 13 turgid, meandering episodes, it seems it’s time to go back to the drawing board once more.

When we left our man Frank back in Daredevil, his origin was done and dusted; his family was dead, and he’d acquired for himself an arsenal of terrifying weapons and a rather striking white on black skull motif, leaving him in prime position to begin his never-ending war on crime. The follow up series wastes no time in undoing that. After a brief, bloody and quite enjoyable montage that sees him cleaning up the last few mooks responsible for his family’s deaths, Frank calls it quits, picks up a construction job under an assumed name, and does his level best to put his violent past behind him.

That’s strike one right there: the idea of The Punisher, of all people, trying to go on the straight and narrow contradicts the very essence of the character. Luckily, we have a mechanism to pull him back into action: former NSA analyst David “Micro” Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who has uncovered evidence of military malfeasance linked to Frank’s time as a marine in Afghanistan, and needs his help to take down the bad guys. We still have to put up with a lot of wheel-spinning and wool gathering, though – especially frustrating when you have a character such as this stuck on the “Refusing the Call” chapter of Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Indeed, The Punisher suffers from the now-familiar Marvel/Netflix issue of having to spread too little story over too many hours; there’s actually about a feature film’s worth of narrative here, maybe two at a pinch. It’s possible to actually skip from the first episode to episode 10 and not miss anything of value or, indeed, any plot points you won’t be able to infer for yourself. Much of the series is just Frank and Micro arguing in Micro’s warehouse base of operations – especially galling considering the promise of plenty of action is baked into the basic concept.

Instead we get side-plot after side-plot that drags us slowly toward the inevitable climax, and precious little mayhem until things ramp up in the final stretch. After all, why have our skull-shirted avenger mowing down armies of deserving criminals when we could be watching Micro fret over his family, who think he’s dead since he faked his own death to protect them from reprisals? Or Frank, acting as Micro’s catspaw, fixing their sink, at the same time getting a taste of the family life that was torn from him? It’s not as poignant as it sounds.

Also in the mix are a couple of Homeland Security agents (Amber-Rose Nevah and Michael Nathanson) who are also on the case; a disabled veteran (Jason R. Moore) who runs a support group for returned soldiers; returning supporting character Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) from Daredevil; and Billy Russo, Frank’s old comrade-in-arms, now working as a private military contractor and, of course, The Villain. Rather than build a narrative that operates organically and builds satisfyingly, show runner Steve Lightfoot has simply packed the show with enough separate story strands and characters that he can just cut between them whenever a scene begins to run out of steam.

Which happens a lot – it’s impossible to overstate how leaden and badly structured The Punisher is. There are endless dialogue scenes that go nowhere, flashbacks to backstory we already know or can parse for ourselves, pointless verbal confrontations and posturing… the list goes on.

It’s also dumb. That’s not necessarily a cardinal sin when it comes to an action series, but you want to make sure things are moving too quickly for the audience to notice how sloppy things are in the moment. The Punisher does not do that. It’s at its worst when it’s trying to be smart – there’s a bit of business in the back half addressing the ever-topical gun control issue that just comes across as glib and contrived, especially in a series specifically built around and celebrating the “good guy with a gun” myth beloved of the NRA. It’s actually, on reflection, rather offensive, an act of blatant ass-covering so that the producers can point to it and say that they addressed the issue.

If that doesn’t bother you, perhaps Frank’s laughably mawkish hallucinations of his wife will. Or Paul Schulze’s scenery-chewing turn as a corrupt CIA agent. Or the fact that, when you elide away all the unnecessary window dressing, the actual plot is basically Lethal Weapon, to the point that Frank sitting down for Christmas dinner with Micro’s family as the credits roll seems like an all-too-possible denouement.

There are a few positive elements in play. The cast do everything they can to elevate the substandard material they’ve got to work with, and Jon Bernthal remains a flat-out great Punisher, all barely restrained rage and possessed of a physical stoicism that borders on the masochistic. It is absolutely frustrating to see this guy, who for a brief moment was well on track to being the definitive on-screen Punisher, undone by such bad writing, and such a misguided understanding of the character. The scenes where Bernthal gets to cut loose against his enemies, carving his way though them with methodical fury, remain the highlight of the series, but boy do you have to wade through a lot of dross to get to them.

And, in the end, it’s just not worth it. The Punisher is an absolute mess. It’s thematically naive, narratively inert, condescending to its audience,  and lacks almost any understanding of its central character’s appeal. Only the low bar set by previous on screen Punisher incarnations prevents it from being unarguably the worst live action version of the character.

And he hardly ever wears the damn skull, either. Honestly, who thought that was a good idea?

 
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OtherLife

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Ren (Jessica De Gouw) is the designer of OtherLife, a liquid substance that can be dropped onto the eyeball and re-program the human brain. As the release date for its recreational use fast approaches, Ren spends an increasing amount of time on her own secret project. When her business partner Sam (T.J. Power) comes with a lucrative offer from the Department of Corrections to use OtherLife as an alternative to incarceration Ren is horrified – but opposing such a high-value offer has made her a target.

OtherLife is a new science fiction film from Perth-based filmmaker Ben C. Lucas (Wasted on the Young). It does a superb job of spinning a smart, engaging thriller out of a modest production budget, and marks a fresh and still comparatively rare Australian contribution to science fiction cinema. Sadly, it does not quite vault from being a solid genre entry into something ground-breaking or progressive, thanks to a string of comparatively safe choices in the plot.

Where it does excel is in taking the sort of well-established virtual reality tropes of such films as Total Recall and grounding them in a much more contemporary context. The virtual reality of OtherLife is a chemical one, applied via a liquid agent, and combined with scenes of Ren being interrogated over the drug’s safety and ethical concerns it feels genuine and believable. It may be a science fiction, but it feels aggressively contemporary at the same time. As with all science fiction cinema, making the science fiction parts seem real is half of the battle – and it is a half that OtherLife absolutely wins. It also rather clever to see virtual reality, something often presented in film and television as a drug-like experience, presented as an actual narcotic.

Where the film struggles is in the predictable story. Twists and turns in the narrative feel predictable and unfold in ways that can be seen from far, far ahead. For any viewer half-versed in virtual reality thrillers there will be few surprises to be found. As it stands the film is an entertaining one, but a few more ideas and unexpected developments in the plot and it could have been something tremendous. In that respect it is largely par for the course for writer Gregory Widen, whose previous screenplays such as Highlander, The Prophecy and Backdraft all betray a similar problem: strong ideas, but a relatively ordinary execution.

Jessica De Gouw presents Ren as a complex and damaged figure, and brings a lot of talent to enhance the character and provide additional depth. It is a valuable performance given how much of the film focuses directly on her. There is a bit of a stereotype at work in Ren’s goth fashion sense and demeanour, but design-wise it does look great on screen.

OtherLife is Lucas’ second feature, following his 2010 debut Wasted on the Young. It shows a strong and developing directorial talent, and marks Lucas out as a filmmaker to keep a close eye on in the future.

 
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Star Trek: Discovery S1E8: Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

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Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), Saru (Doug Jones) and Tyler (Shazad Latif) beam down to a strange planet in the hopes of utilising its natural harmonic transmissions to detect cloaked Klingon vessels. Their mission is complicated, first when they discover a species of intelligent energy-based aliens living on the planet, and secondly when Saru appears to fall under the planet’s control and begins working against Burnham and Tyler.

I honestly cannot pin Star Trek: Discovery down. It is a series visibly made by a lot of talented people – particularly its cast – and yet the end result each week veers wildly from well-observed drama to genre cliché, and then stumbles into bizarre tone-deaf moments of poor character development. It is the least Trek-like Star Trek series ever made, in which the upbeat Utopian values that typified its predecessors – yes, even the murkier Deep Space Nine – are sidelined in favour of a bleak setting, a war criminal captain, and an inexplicable obsession with straining franchise continuity to breaking point. At this stage I am loving Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance as protagonist Michael Burnham, and Jason Isaac’s committed portrayal of the horrifying Captain Lorca, and pretty much despising almost everything else.

Recent episodes have seen a partial shift towards the episode-of-the-week science fiction stories of earlier series. Last week saw Discovery revisit the well-worn ‘time loop’ story with fairly ordinary results. This week sees an honest-to-god away mission, with a bonus first contact scenario thrown in for free. Starfleet ships cannot pinpoint cloaked Klingon vessels to avoid getting ambushed, but the strange emanations from the planet Pahvo may hold a key to developing some sort of interstellar sonar that would pick such disguised ships out from the darkness. When the planet’s wraithlike inhabitants reveal themselves it throws this mission into crisis mode, since it means that in addition to investigating the crystal tower that is transmitting the signals the away team also has to beg permission to touch it. Saru tries to negotiate with the Pahvans, but their constant alien signals do something to his brain and lead him to sabotage the mission in order to live with them forever.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Saru. Doug Jones plays him wonderfully, and he is an exceptional piece of prosthetic design and application. At the same time he is a grossly inconsistent character. At first he seemed so risk-averse one questioned why he would have joined Starfleet at all. By three weeks ago he was willingly torturing a sentient creature to complete a mission. Now he is sabotaging mission-critical work in order to escape the war and live in peace. One spends much of the episode assuming he is under alien control, however later scenes reveal he knew exactly what he was doing all along. It turns his character into a joke, since he cannot be taken seriously as the first officer of a warship any more – assuming he ever was. Between his treachery, the captain’s willing betrayal of his superior to the Klingons, and Lt Stamets’ hiding of serious medical issues to the captain and ship’s doctor, this is the most wildly incompetent Starfleet bridge crew since they let a teenage boy pilot the Enterprise.

The production values are top-notch, with each episode looking and sounding great. Burnham is a truly brilliant lead character. The rest is just a weird mess. If Discovery was simply bad television, it would be easy to dismiss and ignore. Instead it’s actively frustrating: you can see the decent series that is almost in view, and cannot help but want the production team to somehow find it under their noses.

 
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Alias Grace

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Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), Alias Grace is the true story of Irish immigrant Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) and her 15-year imprisonment for the murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy (Anna Paquin) – yet she claims to have no memory of the murder, throwing into question whether she is even guilty.

The six-part miniseries directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol), and co-written by Atwood and actress turned filmmaker Sarah Polley, follows Grace as she shares her story with psychologist Dr Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who was enlisted by the committee for Grace’s freedom to clear her name, but as their sessions grow longer and Dr Jordan becomes more invested in her story, it grows more and more unclear as to whether Grace can be trusted with her own story.

This framing device allows the first half of the series to be dominated by Grace’s recollection of her story, punctuated only by brief scenes with Dr Jordan serving to remind us of the present. Yet this is in the series’ favour: Grace’s dramatic story of her immigration to Canada with her family, the close friendship she develops with fellow servant Mary (Rebecca Liddiard) at her first job in Toronto, and her hasty exit to work for Master Kinnear and Nancy in the country, is fascinating, layered with an enchanting voiceover from Grace as she tells her tale. And as her story becomes more twisted and blood-soaked, the viewer becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about Grace, just as Dr Jordan does: is she guilty? Is she mad? Is she both?

Sarah Gadon is absolutely captivating as Grace Marks, wide-eyed and seemingly innocent, yet with a hidden coldness and darkness to her that the audience can sense just under the surface, anticipating its reveal.

However, it is Dr Jordan’s side of the story, the present, which is Alias Grace’s downfall. The series’ reliance on Grace’s story leaves his character woefully underdeveloped, and his interactions with the committee and his odd sexual dreams surrounding Grace, the few pieces of character we discover about him, are so few and far between until the final episodes that they seem almost unnecessary to begin with. His character is simply there, as are most others, to facilitate Grace’s incredible story.

With such an intriguing first two episodes setting the stage, Alias Grace settles into its groove through the middle, but just as you think you know what you’re watching, the final episode goes off the rails with shock and surprise, leaving you wanting just one more episode to process what in the hell you just discovered. Whilst not entirely earned, the twist is worth it, especially for a series that leaves you in the dark for so long.

Certainly, a different way to end what starts off as such a straightforward period murder mystery, Alias Grace is an electric six episodes driven by the pursuit of truth and a hell of a main character, but which could’ve been more.

 
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Small Town Hackers

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When Alex (Tim Watts) returns home to the small country town of Durran for the funeral of of his ex-girlfriend (Caris Eves), he soon discovers that her death may not have been accidental. Luckily for him, his oyunger brother, the alienated and nerdy Devon (Sam Campbell) runs a cell of anarchist hackers out of their mum’s spare room, including tech guru Peng (Trystan Go) and the violent, anarchic Tess (Adriane Daff). Can the nascent underground revolutionaries solve the mystery?

As a comedy, Small Town Hackers spreads a wide net, ripping strips off of small town mysteries ala Twin Peaks and Riverdale, hacker culture and hacktivism in particular, and teen alienation in general. It’s a good time, mainly down to the efforts of Sydney comedian Campbell as the ambitious, frustrated and generally hopeless Devon, who wants to be a feared cyberterrorist but can’t seem to get over the obvious wounds a lifetime of being picked on and put upon have dealt him. Other characters haven’t really snapped into focus yet but will hopefully get some spotlight time going forward, although Luke Hewitt clearly enjoys himself as the local cop, who also happens to be Alex and Devon’s mum’s new boyfriend.

In terms of style, the show takes a scattershot approach – genre parody is its main game, but its not afraid to grab for any laugh that’s close to hand. This makes it a little tonally uneven as non sequiturs get thrown at the audience,  but it also means you’ll be smiling or laughing more often than not

Small Town Hackers screams potential, but it’s a little hampered by its format – this feels like a full half hour pilot chopped into six segments, not six discrete episodes building to a climax. Still, it does lay out the scenario and promises some interesting developments down the track – hopefully we’ll be getting a second series sooner rather than later.

Small Town Hackers is streaming now on Above Average.

 
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Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare

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Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare is, in essence, the story of Craig Anderson. Craig’s an affable chap with a lifelong dream of writing and directing a feature film. When we first meet Craig he’s quite frank about the fact he’s not getting any younger – and opportunities haven’t exactly been falling into his lap – so he decides it’s time to get proactive and make the bloody thing himself. As the title of the doco suggests, Craig’s dream turns dark pretty quickly.

Red Christmas is the film in question, a polarising Yuletide slasher flick that in Craig’s own words, “[is] about an aborted fetus that returns and kills its family – of course it’s going to be terrible!” While the eventuating feature is a niche proposition, Horror Movie itself is absolutely fascinating. There’s a palpable sense of tension throughout the two-part doco’s runtime, where our scrappy hero and his band of friends realise they may have bitten off way more than they can chew.

Scenes where Craig borrows ungodly amounts of money from his brother, tries to negotiate the complexity of America’s SAG rules to land Dee Wallace (E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, The Howling) in the lead role and attempts to explain some of the ropier aspects of his script to dubious cast members are a mixture of fascinating and cringe-inducing. Director Gary Doust (Making Venus, Next Stop Hollywood) has crafted an intimate look at the world of low budget genre filmmaking in Australia and portrait of a man who lives for movies, often at the expense of his own well being.

Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare is about what happens when a wide eyed dreamer with visions of success meets the speeding semi-trailer of reality and the ensuing carnage. It’s at times hilarious and heartbreaking, brimming with pathos and well worth a watch for those with even a casual interest in the grisly sausage factory that is making movies on a shoestring budget.

Basically it’s the Hearts of Darkness of Chrissy-themed killer fetus slasher movies.

Part 1 airs on ABC October 31st 9.30pm, and part 2 on November 7.

 
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Stranger Things 2

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Strange doings are still afoot in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, when we pick up the narrative thread a few days prior to Halloween in 1984, and a year on from the events of Stranger Things Season 1. With the first four episodes under our belt, we can tell you that everything you liked about that first run is here, present and correct: the ’80s nostalgia (heightened), the otherwordly, alien menace (broadened), the sinister government conspiracy (deepened).

Also back are the cast of characters who are, let’s face it, the real key to the show’s success. That whole “what if Stephen King wrote The Goonies” vibe is fun, but it’s the anchoring, committed performances of David Harbour as grizzled town top cop Hopper and especially Winona Ryder as frazzled, brave single mum Joyce that make it work, along with the seemingly bottomless charm possessed by Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown and co. as the party of prepubescents at the centre of the whole thing.

This second go-round they’re joined by a passel of newcomers: Sean Astin (an actual Goonie, lest we forget) as Joyce’s pleasantly basic new boyfriend; Paul Reiser as Dr Owens, the avuncular, nebbish face of Weird Science now that Matthew Modine’s more amoral lab-runner is out of the picture; and, most interestingly, Sadie Sink as Max (actually Maxine, but don’t call her that), the tomboy new kid on the block who not only manages to smash Dustin’s (Gaten Matarazzo) high scores at the arcade, but, in attracting the awkward attention of both Dusty and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), hints that childhood will soon be coming to an end for our heroes.

But not just yet – our nerdy protagonists still turn up to school for Halloween dressed as the Ghostbusters, complete with an argument over who gets to be Venkman. The exception is poor Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), who was sucked into the dark alternate dimension of The Upside Down last season and is still haunted by his experiences a year later, suffering apocalyptic visions and, thanks to his weird return from the “dead”, social alienation. Once again the poor kid is the vector for unimaginable evil to infect our world.

It’s actually impressive how many threads from the previous season are picked up and followed – take poor, dead Barb, whose parents we learn are going broke paying a dubious private investigator to look into her disappearance, a turn of events that weighs heavily on lovebirds Nancy (Natalia Wheeler) and Steve (Joe Keery, still perfectly coiffed), with the former particularly guilt-wracked. Meanwhile, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), outsider older brother to Will, meets a girl who dresses like Siouxsie Sioux – good for him.

Showrunners the Duffer Brothers are also smart not to keep fan fave Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) offstage for too long – her return was shown in the marketing material, after all, and you don’t keep a gun like Brown in its holster for longer than you need to. The circumstances around her return are an enjoyable surprise, and we’d be remiss going into them here. It must be said that her return does undercut her sacrifice last year, but the pay off is, well, more eleven – which would you rather?

Indeed, the less plot disclosed, the better – Stranger Things 2 is wonderfully structured, and even the smallest reveals and moments are delivered for maximum impact and enjoyment. Hell, even the reveal of the Don Bluth arcade game Dragon’s Lair is built up perfectly (If you remember that coin-devouring beast, that scene will have you grinning. You’re also old.). The series is, even after last year’s revelations, still a mystery at heart, even if it’s a mystery couched in familiar tropes and symbols from both the period and the genre.

The genre does skew darker this time out, though – Season 2 is much more of a horror story than Season 1 (and S1 was no slouch in that department). The influence of the great John Carpenter, never far away thanks to the show’s retro-electro score, is even more prominent, coupled here with some Lovecraftian vibes. There’s more gore, more body horror, more of a sense of menace.

More of everything, really. If Season 1 was proof of concept, Season 2 is  pedal-to-the-metal Stranger Things – more confidently plotted and staged, darker, with deeper referential cuts and a firmer hand (or two) on the tiller. If you dug the first outing – and a hell of a lot of you clearly did – your weekend is well and truly sorted.

 
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1922

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In a rundown hotel room, a Nebraska farmer, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) writes his confession, telling how “…in 1922, I murdered my wife.”

Adapted from Stephen King’s 2010 novella of the same name, 1922 is a slow burn affair that begins prosaically enough: man of the land Wilfred is proud of his farm and the son, Henry, (Dylan Schmid) he hopes will follow in his footsteps. His wife, Arlette (Molly Parker) longs for life in the big city (ironically, Omaha – not that big at all) and plans to sell some land she has inherited. Slowly but surely, Wilfred’s thoughts turn murderous. He manages to enlist Henry in his cause and before long, Arlette is at the bottom of a well with a slit throat.

And then things start to get really interesting.

Australian writer and director Zak Hilditch (These Final Hours) mounts 1922 as an American Gothic moral fable, heavy on haunting atmosphere and spiced with the occasional bit of graphic violence and gross-out gore. The shadow of Edgar Allan Poe looms large here; indeed, 1922 is very much King’s riff on The Tell-Tale Heart, with Wilfred gradually driven to madness by guilt over his crime – possibly abetted by supernatural means. The other classic of American horror literature the story is indebted to, in a roundabout way, is Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls, for reasons which become apparent when the symbol of Wilfred’s guilt makes itself known in the text. (Also, note son Henry’s full name.)

Structurally, 1922 is a little weak, running along a “…and then this happened” train track inherited from the source material. What carries us through is an absolutely sterling performance from Thomas Jane, who over the last few years has proven himself to be a top notch, nigh-chameleonic character actor (compare his work here with what he does on The Expanse). In lesser hands, the slow-talking, down-home Wilfred could come across as a caricature. With Jane inhabiting his skin, he’s both human and mythic:  an outwardly decent man slaved to his own petty jealousies and insecurities, and something larger, like a dark mirror of Tom Joad, victim to not just his own moral failings but to the forces of modernity itself – it’s Arlene’s longing for a more modern, urban lifestyle that sets things in motion, after all. And so, 1922 is very much an American ghost story, using a deceptively simple – albeit shudder-inducing – tale of murder and guilt to dig into larger myths about the nature of American culture, in particular American masculinity and its failings in the face of change.

Even if you don’t want to dig that deep, the film offers plenty of thrillers for the shock cinema connoisseur. Hilditch has an admirable command of tone and atmosphere, and he’s not afraid to get bloody when circumstances demand it – the central murder is a messy bit of business, and it’s only the first of a number of strong – in every sense – scenes of violence and mutilation.Those shocks never overpower the film’s somber tone, though, which is commendable – it would be easy to rely on the gross-out gags to hold our interest, but 1922 has more interesting things in mind than jump scares. This is a rock solid, astute, effective and thematically rich piece of modern horror cinema, an absolute must for both fans of the genre and fans of simply great films.