Chingle Hall

Chingle Hall by Zowie Swan
Published 2021 by Safety Pin Publishing, UK

I don’t want to do anything that will spoil this superb story, so this review will be relatively short!

Living in Australia, (it’s almost Christmas and midsummer here) I’m always looking for books especially that transport me to other places and times and I love horror in all its forms best of all. This story spans generations and is told from the point of view of various women who live in the titular manor house across the years. It came as no surprise to me when researching for this review, that Chingle Hall is a real place and considered one of the most haunted places in the UK. Swan has given her characters tremendous depth and a believability that transcends the tonal shifts in narration.

Chingle Hall is a very well written supernatural thriller that gripped me from start to finish. It has a bittersweet edge that has stayed with me since I finished reading and I particularly appreciated the beautifully drawn and relatable female characters.

I was offered an E-Book by Safety Pin Publishing in return for an honest review and once again, they’ve come up with the goods. Highly recommended!

Titane

Titane (2021)
Directed and written by Julia Ducournau.

I watched this a week ago and I’ve been sitting on my review for days, tweaking words, trying to find the language to describe it without spoiling it. Seriously, this movie is difficult, demanding, utterly insane, at times hard to watch but it’s also blackly funny, deeply poignant but impossible to neglect and has stayed with me relentlessly all week.

Titane is Ducournau’s second feature and, in my opinion, a better, more interesting film than her debut, Raw (2017), which left me feeling distanced, at arm’s length from the story and the characters. Where Raw was clearly examining eating disorders and body image, Titane examines body image but particularly drills down into gender roles.

It’s also a film of two distinct halves, the ultra violent, hypersexualised first half, melancholic examination of belonging in the other. Body horror abounds throughout, so this film is not for everyone, certainly not for the faint hearted but unlike so many films that sit in the genre, none of the violence feels gratuitous.

Two riveting central performances ground the film. Comparative newcomer Agathe Rousselle is the tough and uncompromising Alexia, and French national treasure Vincent Lindon, the ageing firefighter trying to defy the march of time. Neither of them are particularly likeable (especially Alexia) but ultimately both are heartbreakingly relatable.

Ducournau is a wonderful “show, don’t tell” filmmaker and I can see where she was influenced by Hitchcock generally and Vertigo (1958) specifically, but Titane asks more questions than it answers and will haunt you all the while. I sincerely hope it is a huge success outside of its native France, where it won the Cannes Festival Palme D’Or earlier this year. But equally, I hope some producer with dollar signs in their eyes DOESN’T try and make an English language version – that would be exploitation!

Undoubtedly one of the most original films I’ve seen in ages, I think it’s a masterpiece that will stand the test of time. Titane is currently showing in select cinemas throughout Australia.

The Fylde Witch

The Fylde Witch by Chris Newton.
Published 2021 by Safety Pin Publishing, UK

This is the story of Meg Shelton, something of a legendary figure in Lancastrian folklore and Newton has woven a sometimes spooky, often sad but always entertaining story of one woman’s life. It is set in a time when to be different or outspoken was hard enough as a man but almost impossible as a woman. So, while Meg’s hardships are many, her triumphs are delicious!

While I live in Australia and haven’t any first hand knowledge of Lancashire, I have spent time in Cornwall, where some of my forbears were reputedly “cunning folk” and it isn’t difficult to see the level of research Newton has engaged to create this story.

It’s a well written book (the pacing is particularly good) and while not as scary or explicitly horror-laden as it could be, it is definitely Gothic and explores horror themes. While I as an adult thoroughly enjoyed it, it would be suitable for a YA audience too.

I was offered a E-Book by Safety Pin Publishing in return for an honest review, and if The Fylde Witch is indicative of the titles in their catalogue then they should become a very successful small publisher.

All in all, it’s a cracking read – well worth seeking out!

Dune (Part One)

Dune (2021)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay by Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve (based on the novel by Frank Herbert).

Yesterday was my birthday, and I’m very pleased Warner Brothers got the memo and arranged to open Dune as part of my birthday shenanigans. It was almost as good as the year Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) and Jack Black (Tenacious D) decided to play a few tunes to celebrate my day.

I have to admit, I was quite trepidacious about this film. First published in 1965, Dune was one of my favourite sci-fi novels when I was young and I’ve been very disappointed by previous attempts to commit it to screen. The problem is Frank Herbert’s book is a personal story with lots of inner monologue and detail, but simultaneously, a sprawling political epic, requiring loads of exposition, alien (to us) technology and expansive exteriors. Hence, my concerns.

Fortunately, after the opening scenes and some slow-paced exposition, I felt myself start to relax a little. Looking to his previous work on Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) Denis Villeneuve is the right director at the right time for this story, blending the enormity of the landscape, the political intrigues with the very personal journey of Paul Atreides. And Villeneuve is obviously prepared to take his time over the story, spreading it out over two films. Part Two is currently in pre-production and scheduled for release in 2023.

The cast are uniformly very good, there are too many supporting roles to mention but I did laugh at Stellan Skarsgard as Baron Harkonnen (if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I mean). Timothée Chalamet really shines as Paul and thanks to careful styling, lighting and makeup his scenes with Oscar Isaac (who is excellent as Leto Atreides) really are convincing as father and son. Rebecca Ferguson has the difficult role of Jessica, who only expresses her doubts in the book as interior monologue, and Ferguson does well to occasionally let her strong facade slip. I was concerned that Villeneuve was falling into the “absent love interest” pit (remember Liv Tyler in Ad Astra (2019)?) but I feel there was enough depth to carry Zendaya’s Chani through this installment.

Technology is beautifully realised throughout, and similar to Villeneuve’s other work, machinery and spaceships are realistically depicted, having weight and substance – they feel like they belong there. Special effects are very well done uniformly and the blending from dreams to the real world is artfully done. Hats off to the special effects team! Similarly, the costuming is by turns lavish, practical and at times austere, all beautifully designed by Robert Morgan and Jacqueline West.

The fabulous work of DoP Greig Fraser is aided by some excellent editing by Joe Walker, bringing a strong sense of reality to the action set pieces and a David Lean sensibility to the desert vistas. As always, the score by Hans Zimmer draws all the threads together quite wonderfully, enriching the overall experience without getting in the way.

Dune is not a short film (running time 2h 35m) and it is certainly a slow burn but this is not just another bloated action sci-fi. It isn’t cowboys in space or superheroes saving everything in sight, but a dense, wide-ranging story of epic proportions. It is undoubtedly one of my cinema highlights of 2021. Now showing in cinemas in Australia.

Last Night in Soho

Last Night in Soho (2021)
Directed by Edgar Wright. Screenplay by Krysty Wilson-Cairns & Edgar Wright.

I’m going to fess up at the start that I’m a big fan of Edgar Wright’s work all the way back to Spaced (1999-2001). While I really like Scott Pilgrim Versus the World (2010), Hot Fuzz (2007) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) from the Cornetto Trilogy remain two of my mainstay “comfort” films and Baby Driver (2017) is also a firm favourite. I think World’s End (2013) remains the only disappointment for me, but I’m well overdue to rewatch it!

A lot of people don’t like his “smash cut” style using very quick image clips, accompanied by foley sound &/or music, finding it annoying or distracting. Admittedly, it does take a certain amount of concentration, but in many ways it overtook the classical montage as an effective means of enhancing story and moving the audience down particular narrative pathways without taking loads of in-film time.

In Last Night in Soho however, I think Wright and his team have moved beyond the smash cut into something far more complicated and cinematic. There’s a film technique called the Texas (or Cowboy) Switch, (another trick Wright has used in previous films) and in first act this is pushed to the limit with quite astonishing results. The sound and visual design are stunning throughout but scenes in the first act are aurally and visually superb, beautifully choreographed, performed and shot.

The cast are uniformly excellent, and include 60s icons Rita Tushingham, Terrence Stamp and the late Diana Rigg in her last film role. Younger talent include Anya Taylor-Joy as the drop-dead gorgeous Sandie, Matt Smith as the deliciously lecherous Jack and Michael Ajao as John, but for me it’s Thomasin McKenzie who provides the glue that holds the film together. Her portrayal of fashion design student Ellie is heartbreakingly vulnerable and feisty in equal measure.

As with most of my reviews, I’m not going to give any spoilers but Last Night in Soho explores some quite serious horror themes, undiluted by humour as in Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz but (as usual in Wright’s films) underpinned by a killer soundtrack. It is by no means a perfect film (I found the second act struggled to maintain momentum) but this is the work of a mature filmmaker. Here, Wright has moved way beyond the quirky smash cut and quick one-liner and made a really interesting horror movie, tinged with pathos and mystery.

Like all of Wright’s films, it’s cleverly made, has a great script and pays homage to both London and the 1960s – and it’s well worth seeing!

The Green Knight

The Green Knight (2021)
Directed & written for the screen by David Lowery

I’ve read a number of very disparaging comments about this movie but I really don’t get it. I have to question how familiar they are with Arthurian legends in general, let alone the epic tale of Gawain. The only conclusion I can draw is all these stories are shrouded in a mediaeval mysticism that could seem nonsensical or over the top to 21st century viewers. And this version of the Arthurian legend is visually sumptuous. Gloriously lit and shot by DoP (and frequent Lowery collaborator), Andrew Droz Palermo, this retelling plays deeply into the fantasy elements of the famous 14th century story.

Watching, I was reminded a few times of Terry Gilliam but more (particularly given the source) of John Boorman’s insanely flawed Excalibur (1981), which remains with Zardoz (1974) some of my not-so-guilty cinematic pleasures. While both Boorman especially and Gilliam to some extent veer into self indulgence, I don’t feel Lowery’s fallen into the same trap.

The casting is excellent and performances uniformly superb. Dev Patel has just the right balance of physicality, pride and foolishness to bring Gawain to life on his perilous journey to fulfill his bargain with the Green Knight, and he is ably supported by a great ensemble.

My only complaint is that this only had a very limited cinematic release here in Tasmania and I had to watch it at home via Amazon Prime on my big(ish) television. Nevertheless, it’s a glorious retelling of an epic story and, in my opinion, worth watching on any screen.

Lamb – No Spoilers

Lamb (2021)

Directed by Valdimar Jòhannsson
Written by Valdimar Jòhannsson and Sjón

Like many people, I try and avoid movie trailers these days. They’re often made by PR companies without input from the director and can include potential plot/action spoilers. It’s disappointingly common to go into a showing having already seen the best bits! So, on a wet and miserable Saturday afternoon, I caught up with a friend at our local (the State Cinema in North Hobart) and watched Lamb, directed by Valdimar Jòhannsson. All either of us knew about this was Noomi Rapace was top billed, it’s an Icelandic film, and A24 were distributing. And that was enough information for us to have a thoroughly enjoyable cinema experience!

From the opening scene, I found Lamb a wonderfully atmospheric film, sumptuously shot and one of the most original pieces I’ve seen for ages. That said, there’s a timeless, dark undercurrent as the story plays out, suggesting nordic mythology and folk horror. Rapace is excellent as Maria, who with her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Gudnason) farms sheep on an idyllic but very isolated farm. There is an air of magic realism that runs throughout and scant exposition that leaves much up the individual viewer. But these supernatural touches are elegantly juxtaposed by situations and conversations which are very relatable and believable, especially when Ingvar’s brother, Pètur (Björn Hlynur Haraldssen) visits. Also, having spent a lot of time living in relatively remote rural areas, I could relate to the very realistic depictions of farm life, from helping deliver animals to the ubiquitous thermos of hot coffee out in the paddocks.

The minimalist script by Jòhannsson and celebrated Icelandic writer Sjón (former member of The Sugarcubes and Bjork collaborator), marries perfectly with the superb sound design (Björn Viktorsson), unobtrusive original score (Poraninn Gudnason) and the carefully framed cinematography (Eli Arenson) offering touches of John Ford and Hitchcock in scope and intent. This lack of exposition combined with a delicate balance between the natural and supernatural audiovisual elements leaves adequate space where we, as active audience members, can draw our own conclusions.

With its minimal dialogue and haunting visuals, this film is a wonderful lesson in “show, don’t tell” storytelling and while it isn’t a horror movie in the mainstream “splatterfest” mode, I know it won’t be for everyone, no film ever is. For my part, I found it uplifting, genuinely creepy, unbearably sad – and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Directed by Zack Snyder

I grew up through the Silver and Bronze ages of comic books and loved team-up stories. Although Thor was my favourite, I ate up The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Justice League and any comics that involved multiple characters in convoluted story arcs. At that age I didn’t really care or fully understand who published what, I was just there for a rollicking good tale that could take me away from my small country town life for a little while.

In many ways, that’s what I’ve continued to look for in what can only be described as, this golden age of superhero films. Unfortunately, DC’s cinematic offerings have fallen way short of the mark, with the exception of most of Wonder Woman (2017) and elements of Aquaman (2018). Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017) are distinctly below par, particularly when compared to Marvel’s unbelievably coherent productions and the tour de force that was Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019).

Rather than focus solely on what’s wrong, I’d like to stress that Zack Snyder’s version of Justice League is infinitely superior to Joss Weedon’s theatrical cut from 2017. As many critics have noted, the Snyder cut is far more coherent but sadly, still a mess! While I really appreciated the extended version of Cyborg’s story, I wonder if it would be better served by a short series or a standalone origin story film. Similarly, The Flash (despite being part of the Arrow small screen universe), here seemed somewhat overblown. But upon reflection I wonder if it was the grating dialogue Ezra Miller had to say, which cheapened the character for me.

Above all, what lacks here is true character and narrative development. Instead, I see wasted opportunities. For instance, there is no building on the character branding and fan goodwill established through the Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018) origin films. Instead, these two characters seem to get lost in the maze of the “it seemed like a good idea at the time” ad hoc storytelling and set pieces. There appears to be no cohesive narrative and even in this superior version, character motivations seem at best, muddled.

To my eyes and ears there are many problems with this film, not least of which are the (at times) incredibly intrusive score, the dreary colour palette (something of a DC trademark these days) and the overblown seriousness of absolutely everything! Also, this film runs in at just over 4 hours long, requiring a dedicated time investment and making it off-putting for many more casual viewers. But this is what the fans wanted, and to his credit, Snyder has responded.

Overblown and still pretty boring, but at least it sometimes almost makes sense now.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League and the theatrical cut are both currently available to stream on Amazon Prime in Australia.

Mushrooms – a Different Kind of Gardening

First of all, a big thank you to those of you who’ve been asking after my health, particularly my hands. Psoriatic Arthritis is in short, bloody awful – and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone! I still have great difficulty typing and repetitive tasks that require any amount of strength, so I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve got great gardening gloves, I’m a no-dig gardener and that I’ve bought Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software!

A heartfelt thank you from me, under the beautiful chestnut tree. Here’s to a better year in 2021!

I’ve been fascinated by mushrooms since I was a small child, foraging with my parents for giant field mushrooms in paddocks where dairy cows had been. My father used to carry an old cloth flour bag and my mother a pillowcase to collect the bounty that my sister and I would collect. Some were huge, with big flat caps, ribbed brown gills and the wonderful earthy smell that only comes from fresh mushrooms.

Once we’d get home, we would pick over our treasure, making sure we had only collected clean edible mushrooms, discarding any that were too old or bug ridden. My mother would usually slice them into thick strips and fry them in a hot pan with butter, salt and a grate of nutmeg and we would eat them on hot toast for lunch. I remember when very small, making a spore print and marveling that this dark brown dust could produce more mushrooms! In recent years, I’ve bought bags of compost from commercial outlets and been rewarded with a bonus crop of Swiss Browns or Portobello mushrooms for my trouble. For many reasons I’ve moved away from using this compost in recent years and it got me thinking about growing mushrooms myself.

One of the many wonderful things about gardening is learning new skills, so for the past few weeks I’ve been researching how to grow mushrooms outdoors in my climate. (For context, in Australia Hobart is considered cold climate but my patch has a northerly aspect and my summer growing season is often extended far into autumn). My research led me to straw bale inoculation and cultivation, with the end product of not only mushrooms but also mycelium enriched mulch for garden beds.

Several varieties of culinary mushrooms can be grown outdoors on straw substrate. In particular, Oyster mushrooms and King Stropharia, aka Red Wine Caps or more correctly Stropharia rugosoannulata. I ended up choosing the Red Wine Caps for several reasons. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, this is a fairly easy-to-grow and forgiving mushroom for the home gardener. In my experience nothing breeds further exploration than early success, and being an utter novice at this, these seemed like the best option. I’d also read that Wine Caps, while not being the most delicious mushroom on the planet, are quite tasty – especially when picked young before the cap is fully opened. Stropharia is very robust and will not only colonise very quickly, outcompeting other fungi but will grow in relatively sunny conditions. Finally, once it’s finished fruiting, this produces a a compost that is very beneficial to the soil.

There are quite a few places that sell spawn in various forms to home gardeners. I opted for Aussie Mushroom Supplies, a small family business based in Victoria, though I’ve since discovered Forest Fungi here in Tasmania and I’ll be trying them out in the near future. I ordered a bag of grain spawn and it arrived very quickly, well packaged and smelling sweet and earthy. Before opening the bag, I massaged it thoroughly to break up any larger clumps of spawn.

I am blessed with a very large Sweet Chestnut tree that provides a haven for bees when it’s in flower, dappled shade in summer and abundant crops in late autumn but it’s dead space for growing anything beneath the tree. For years I’ve used it to stack bags of manure, pots or anything else that was in the way. So, after watching a number of videos (mostly on YouTube) I arranged four full-size very clean bales around the base, away from the trunk and soaked them thoroughly for the next few days. Using a steel rod, I poked holes throughout the bales, widening them with a wooden stake and filling these gaps with the spawn. I used extra barley straw to plug the holes and gave each bale an extra dousing with the watering can. All but one of the bales will get moderate sun throughout summer and autumn, so I’m interested to see how that one in the shade fares.

The finished bales around the chestnut tree

In the meantime, I’ve signed up for a local mushroom growing workshop next month and I’ll be keeping these bales damp and watching for signs of mycelial growth over the coming weeks.

I’ll post updates as things happen, but for now me and the Site Manager will just lounge around and wait!

Neko the Site Manager, hard at work

Wherever you are in the world, stay safe friends and I’ll see you soon! ❤

Beyond the Door

Well, it’s October and in the run-up to Halloween I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies, albeit fairly obscure titles. I love cheesy horror films and it’s been a welcome distraction from the near constant pain in my hands and fingers. So the next few blog posts will all be reviews of some of the best worst movies I’ve been watching lately.

Beyond the Door Poster

Beyond the Door (1974)

Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis and Roberto Piazzoli.

This Italian/US made supernatural chiller leans heavily on Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973). So much so, the original cut was subject to a lawsuit from Warner Bros against the producers for copyright violation, which was settled some years later.

It stars Richard Johnson, Gabriele Lavia and most notably, Juliet Mills who was looking for more adult, dramatic roles to take her away from the Mary Poppins image cultivated by her popular starring role in Nanny and the Professor (1970-71). Mills plays Jessica, wife of Lavia’s Robert and mother to two particularly obnoxious children. Johnson plays Dimitri, Jessica’s former lover who sold his soul to the Devil in order to survive an otherwise fatal car crash. Jessica finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, and of course, from here all kinds of shenanigans ensue.

The look and feel of this film is really very good, with exteriors shot in southern California and interiors in Rome. Make-up artist Otello Sisi does an excellent job, as do special effects artists Donn Davison and Wally Gentleman, who famously made the spaceship models for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Unfortunately, the writing really lets this down, and the actors do the best they can with a story that doesn’t really have that much to say and a script that hasn’t aged well.

Worth watching and quite a lot of fun- but not a patch on the films that influenced it. Beyond the Door is available to watch on YouTube via the excellent channel New Castle After Dark.

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