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Non-Review Review: The Nun

Nobody really talks about how strange The Conjuring is.

James Wan has effectively managed to fashion Hollywood’s second most successful shared universe from a variety of old-fashioned horror tropes stitched together with a more modern blockbuster aesthetic. The films in franchise – which include The Conjuring 2, Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation – are remarkable because they seem like such a strange basis for a twenty-first century blockbuster franchise. They are all period piece jump-scare driven retro jorror movies that are produced with a very slick and modern sensibility.

Bad habits.

The Nun is another worthy (and interesting) addition to that canon. As with the other films in the series, its basic structure wields more modern storytelling and filmmaking techniques to a more classic horror tone. As with the other films, the production team also understand the appeal of a certain level of variety within that familiar template. The Conjuring was a throwback to beloved seventies haunted house films, Annabelle set its horror against the backdrop of the sixties, The Conjuring 2 moved to England and Annabelle: Creation unfolded against the backdrop of rural America.

The Nun evokes gothic horror. Set in a creepy abbey in Romania during the fifties, following an investigator dispatched from the Vatican to investigate the suicide of a young nun, The Nun thrives in this environment with this iconography. The Nun falters a little bit in its storytelling, especially its exposition, and it stumbles a little bit when it comes to building a climax that works as both an action film and as a horror. However, the film is canny enough in its choice of setting and imagery that it never completely comes apart.

Who goes stair?

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Non-Review Review: Spotlight

Nominally, Spotlight is about the exposé that ran in the Boston Globe identifying dozens of paedophile priests who had been shuffled around Boston parishes and the corrupt institution that sheltered them. Thomas McCarthy’s film never shies away from the horror stories told by the survivors of such institutional abuse, nor does it ignore the systems that were complicit in perpetuating and covering up that abuse. Running just over two hours, McCarthy’s film is meticulous and painstaking as it sorts through all the leads and follows the unravelling thread.

However, Spotlight is also about something bigger. It is a story about institutional structures as they exist, and how those structures are primarily motivated to protect themselves. The big reveal in Spotlight is not that the abuse is taking place, it is just how many people tried in how many different ways to expose that abuse to the cold light of day. The Catholic Church might be the most significant institution involved in the cover-up, but Spotlight suggests that the structures of Boston (and implicitly all over the globe) failed the people who needed them most.

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Spotlight is a powerful film. McCarthy is not the most dynamic or exciting of directors, but his matter-of-fact presentation style suits the material perfectly. Towards the end of the film, journalist Matt Carroll jokes that he has started working on a horror novel to distract himself from the particulars of the case. Spotlight is very much a horror story, but a horror story where the discomfort is tied to the sheer inevitability. McCarthy’s camera is always definite and steady; a slow pan or zoom confirms what the audience already suspects, and is all the more effective for it.

McCarthy has assembled a fantastic cast, including John Slattery as Ben Bradley Junior. Bradley is the son of Benjamin Bradley Senior, the executive editor at The Washington Post who oversaw the Watergate coverage and who was played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men. This creates a nice thread of real-life continuity for Spotlight, cementing its pedigree. McCarthy’s journalism epic is powerful stuff, and perhaps the most compelling endorsement of long-form investigative journalism to appear on screen in quite some time.

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My 12 for ’13: Philomena & Harsh Truths

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 8…

Every country has its own shameful secrets, the parts of its history that it would gladly lock away in a box far from prying eyes, and would be happy to never speak of them again. Slavery has been pushed to the forefront of American popular consciousness over the past year or so. Spielberg’s Lincoln dealt with the topic in a very philosophical manner, while 12 Years a Slave offered a more visceral exploration and Django Unchained sought to shock and discomfort its audience with its exploration of past atrocities.

In Ireland, we have an entire lost generation. In a society where the Catholic Church held an inequitable amount of authority, and prevailing moral values led to condemnation of single mothers, countless young women effectively signed their lives away to indentured servitude, parting with their children and devoting years of their lives to financing the church by providing free labour. It’s something that we’ve only recently begun to come to terms with, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologising publicly for their treatment in February of this year.

Philomena bristles with a righteous sort of anger, offering the remarkable story of one woman who lived through that.

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Doctor Who: The Web of Fear (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Web of Fear originally aired in 1968.

See, now this is interesting.

The Enemy of the World had the luxury of arriving almost unannounced, a genuine honest-to-goodness classic story that had been written off by all but a minority of fans as a generic run-around James Bond pastiche. It was recovered, it turned out to be quite brilliant, and so was a massive surprise. Indeed, even if it had been merely “good” or “fine”, it would have been a joy to watch, because the episode was being measured against a popular imagination that had never really been too bothered with it. I don’t think it was too near the top of the majority of fans’ “would love to recover…” lists.

There were no expectations, so The Enemy of the World didn’t have to worry about measuring up to anything. The fact that it was quite brilliant was icing on the cake. In contrast, The Web of Fear has a lot of expectations to live up to. It is being measured not against the weight of continuity – featuring a much loved monster and introducing a recurring character – nor the sky-high expectations of fans. It is measured against the popular imagination. While The Enemy of the World probably seemed like an after-though to most Doctor Who fans, The Web of Fear is a massive part of what Doctor Who is to the general public.

Fur and loathing...

Fur and loathing…

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Non-Review Review: Mea Maxima Culpa – Silence in the House of God

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

It’s very hard to know how to react to the seemingly bottomless pit of sex abuse allocations that have surfaced against the Catholic Church over the past couple of decades. Mea Maxima Culpa reveals that not only does the institutional abuse reach far into the past of the religious organisation, but that the Vatican was aware of these betrayals and violations of trusts for forty years. Mea Maxima Culpa is brutally candid in the way that it exposes the steps that the Catholic Church took to insulate and protect itself from these allegations and insinuations, even pointing out that most modern concessions and apologies are more concerned about the violation of the sanctity of the priesthood than with the damage done to the victims.

Mea Maxima Culpa is rough and overwhelming at times, but it’s hard to fault the documentary for this candid approach to the most uncomfortable subject matter. It’s well-constructed, thoughtful and also quite affecting – a powerful piece of documentary cinema that really exposes the true extent of a problem that has only been acknowledged in the past decade or so.

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Game of Thrones: Season 2 (Review)

I’ve always found that it’s the second season that makes or breaks or a television show. After all, the first season of a new television series has an air of novelty around it that can mask any faults, and it’s interesting to watch both cast and crew settle into new roles. The world and characters are to be defined, everything is possible, the potential is truly limitless. It is only in the second season where you really see the show crystalise into the form it will most likely remain for the rest of its run. You get to see the television show “settle” into its particular groove or comfort zone, once the initial novelty or excitement has worn off. Arguably Games of Thrones faces an even bigger challenge. After all, the climax of the first season saw the death of the show’s one true marquee name, Sean Bean.

So, it is a massive relief that, in its sophomoric year, Game of Thrones remains one of the best constructed and most compelling dramas on television.

Burn, babies, burn!

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Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Horse Player (Review)

As part of the “For the Love of Film” blogathon, I’ll be taking a look at Alfred Hitchcock’s contributions to his celebrated anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I’ll be looking at some of the episodes of the classic show that he directed. The “For the Love of Film” blogathon this year is raising money to keep one of Hitchcock’s earlier works, The White Shadow (which he wrote, edited, designed and assistant-directed), available on-line and streaming for free. It’s a very worthwhile cause and you can donate here.

The Horse Player actually makes for a nice conclusion to our run of Alfred Hitchcock Presents reviews. It aired in 1961, towards the end of the sixth season of the anthology show, a year before the show would be rebranded The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It was the second last half-hour show that Hitchcock personally directed, but is generally agreed to be much stronger than his final effort, a morality play titled Bang! You’re Dead. Instead, The Horse Player is an enjoyable and engaging meditation on those cardinal virtues of faith, hope and charity.

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