Screenplay by: Harry Bromley Davenport, Michel Perry, Iain Cassie, Robert Smith
Story by: Harry Bromley Davenport, Michel Perry
Produced by: Mark Forstater
Cast: Bernice Stegers, Philip Sayer, Simon Nash, Maryam d’Abo, Danny Brainin etc.
Cinematography: John Metcalfe
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Being a fan of the horror genre never fails to spring surprises, especially if you also love trashy-B-movie-exploitation-video-nasties too. Because what often occurs is a hidden or buried or previously banned film will reanimate and be located on one of the many streaming platforms we have today. I am both surprised and even more joyous if I find I have never even seen the said film. This is certainly the case with low-budget alien monster film, XTRO (1982).
There I was pressing play via Amazon Prime, thinking it was another schlocky American indie I had missed from yesteryear, only to discover Xtro (1982) is actually a bizarre British film which twists and riffs on the box office hit that was ET: Extra Terrestrial (1982). Xtro (1982), directed by Harry Bromley Davenport, is not a comforting family science fiction drama like its more famous counterpart though. Instead, it is a gory sci-fi shocker with many outrageously violent set-pieces and a budget lower than E.T.’s lunch bill.
Critically damned at the time, Xtro (1982), when released on home video in 1983, was subject to a prosecution case in relation to British obscenity laws and labelled a “video-nasty”. Watching it now I have to admit it is quite shocking still, but the practical effects are so gloriously over-the-top they are more humorous than sickening. Having said that there are some memorably gruesome moments involving alien births, crazy clowns, a live “Action Man” doll, weird space eggs, and transformative man-into-monster effects.
The film doesn’t hang about establishing character but propels, from the opening scene of a father playing in the garden with his son, straight into the disappearing parent plot. The father (Philip Sayers) vanishes without a trace and three years later his wife (Bernice Stegers) and son are attempting to repair their lives. Yet, the boy is suffering horrific nightmares when suddenly his father reappears attempting to reconcile. The familial drama within the script itself could have been further developed to some emotional impact. However, while Bernice Stegers gives a decent dramatic performance, the film soon descends into a mix of surreal and insane set-pieces, combined with the father’s metamorphosis into something from another world.
There’s much to like and much to loathe about, Xtro (1982), notably the gratuitous nudity sprinkled throughout. Yet, if you are drawn to exploitational B-movies there is much sick entertainment to be found in the blend of impressive practical effects and creature moments. Philip Sayer and Bernice Stegers keep the shlocky elements of the plot in check with sane acting performances and despite some eccentric writing throughout Harry Bromley Davenport and his team have delivered an out-of-this-world bona fide B-movie cult classic.
Screenplay by: Edgar Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Produced by: Nira Park, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Edgar Wright
Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Michael Ajao, Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg, Rita Tushingham, etc.
Cinematography: Chung-hoon Chung
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Edgar Wright is one of my favourite directors working today. His films possess an endless series of cinematic techniques such: long takes, quick cuts, swooping camera moves, canted frames, Steadicam, camera holds, frame switches, pans, scans, tilts, low-angles, metronomic editing, blurred dissolves, point-of-view and god’s-eye view shots. Moreover, Wright’s use of humour, music, colour, casting choices, and cross-genre collisions are spectacularly imaginative and entertaining. His latest film Last Night in Soho (2021) is no different. I was enthralled and excited throughout this ripping big-budget exploitation film, which juxtaposes influences such as Stephen King, Brian DePalma and Doctor Who, with a suggestion of Dario Argento and giallo cinema.
Last Night in Soho (2021) is both a love and hate letter to the Soho area of central London in the 1960’s and the now. If hate is too strong a word then at the very least the myriad of storylines collide to create a cautionary tale of one young person’s move from Cornwall to London to study fashion at the University of Arts. Major acting talent Thomasin Mackenzie is Ellie Turner, a passionate young woman who loves the sixties music and style, but also mourns the loss of her mother at an early age. Leaving her comfortable home she shares with her Grandmother (Rita Tushingham), Ellie experiences London and student life with initially mixed results. Finding it difficult to connect with her obnoxious room-mate, Jocasta, she moves into an antiquated bedsit, with imperious Diana Rigg as her landlady no less. All of a sudden her incredible journey into the glamorous and seedy past of Soho begins.
As with many of his films Wright establishes several storylines simultaneously. He brilliantly crosses rites-of-passage with period drama, romance, musical, detective and finally the horror genre. Ellie finds her feet at University, gets a job in a bar, receives praise for her initial designs and starts a budding romance with fellow student, John (Michael Ajao). At the same time her life becomes entwined in a surreal twist with that of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an engaging character desiring showbiz stardom who happens to live in Soho, but in the 1960’s. Ellie’s psychic link with Sandie brings her vivid dreams, but a striking empathic connection.
While Ellie is nervous and insecure within her London experiences, Sandie is the opposite. The theme of duality in their polar characters is both emotionally and visually breathtaking as their twin journey brings positive change and developing confidence in Ellie’s character. Yet, when Sandie’s career desires are exploited for nefarious gain by a local face called Jack (Matt Smith), both woman head for darker spaces in the shadows and smoke of the capital. Here the issue of mental health is intriguingly explored too. As Ellie is drawn further into Sandie’s nightmarish existence, she struggles to hold on to reality and the present.
Despite some minor wrinkles in the narrative and geographical London liberties taken, Edgar Wright has delivered one of the most thrilling and spectacularly energetic films of the year. The nostalgic and heavenly soundtrack is to die for, with so many songs I recall growing up listening to. Likewise, the cinematography and lighting design sparkle in hues of black, fluorescence, shadow and neon. Sure, Edgar Wright has his cake and eats it with mild virtue signalling relating to the “Me Too” movement. The male gaze eats up Anya Taylor Joy’s stunning charisma on screen, making us complicit in her downfall. Nonetheless, with issues relating to grief, mental health, sexual exploitation, identity, doppelgängers, urban breakdown and many more all enveloped into a craftily structured plot, you won’t find a more breathless cinematic experience all year.
Screenplay by: Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
Based on: Dune by Frank Herbert
Produced by: Denis Villeneuve, Mary Parent, Cale Boyter, Joe Caracciolo Jr.
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, etc.
Cinematography: Greig Fraser
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I truly hope Dune: Part One (2021), an epic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s legendary Dune literary series, has a second part, otherwise I would have wasted well over two hours of my life watching the Denis Villeneuve helmed film version. Having said that, there were times where I felt the glacial pace of the narrative caused time to stand still, boring me in the process. But, I get it. It’s part one and setting all the major players up and building a strange world both visually and imaginatively. As such perhaps Herbert’s books may have suited a HBO TV adaptation rather than a cinematic version.
Maybe I’m jaded and cynical though. Have I seen too many films and stories? Is Dune: Part One (2021) even worth the journey and perhaps it’s too old-fashioned a sci-fi story to create resonance for myself and these times? Well, it absolutely looks amazing. The special effects, sandy landscapes, behemoth buildings, underground monsters and space vessels are rendered with such believable authenticity they genuinely looked real on the screen. Frank Herbert’s (I haven’t read the books) vision is astoundingly realised as this futuristic world in a far, far galaxy felt like a moving work of art. But, it was extremely beige and brown and sandy looking on Arrakis, so much so that I was glad of the dark contrast in the scenes involving House of Harkonnen. By the way, I’m not often a fan of the natural cinematography style used here where during big action scenes at night I could hardly see anything. Moan over.
The story of Dune (2021) felt a bit old-fashioned as a classic hero’s journey. It didn’t help that the in-the-sand screenplay and Denis Villeneuve’s meditative, confident direction was too subtle for this story. I mean why do we care about Timothee Chalamet’s Paul Atreides and his family’s inheritance of the spice world’s of Arrakis? Without giving anything away it becomes a poisoned chalice politically in this world and Paul’s, his parents, and the House of Atreides’ lives all become endangered. So, while Frank Herbert’s novel was originally released to powerful acclaim in 1965 and five other novels would follow year’s later, a film version of Dune (2021) now feels outdated in terms of subtext. Villeneuve is a genius filmmaker, but I’m not sure, aside from the beautiful look of the locations, sets and actors there is much of a narrative to get our teeth into. Just another ‘white saviour’ quest, which is so drawn out in terms of the interminable slow pace at times.
Of course, the cast are wonderful to look at, but Chalamet is miscast for me. He is an incredibly talented young actor, but he is not given any character to get his teeth into. Villeneuve does a less-is-more style that I love and he’s obviously playing the long game withDune (2021), yet he really needed a young Ryan Gosling to carry Paul Atreides as Chalamet isn’t given enough to do in terms of acting. Yes, there are massive worms and big explosions and floating fat men, but the story dragged. Thankfully, Jason Momoa injected some movie star charisma in his action sequences, while Rebecca Ferguson and Javier Bardem sprinkled some of their own spice amidst the over-controlled Villeneuve design.
I really wanted to like Dune (2021). I won’t see a more attractive and technically perfect rendition of a sci-fi world in the cinema in years. But, I could not connect with the narrative or drama. I mean, Paul is possibly the chosen one or something or other but why do we care? His mother is connected to some weird cultish sect — with the “Force” — and there are big worms which made me want to watch Tremors (1990); a far superior and shorter version of the hero’s journey. Watch that instead.
THE HORROR OF IDENTITY: DOUBLE BILL FILM REVIEWS – DEERSKIN (2019) & POSSESSOR (2020)
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde
We’ve all wanted to exist outside our own skin. Or perhaps inhabit someone else’s? Or, maybe even change our own identity, both literally and psychologically. Or is that just me? At the least we have all thought about it. Even losing weight and going down the gym or giving up alcohol or changing our hairstyle is a means of basic transformation. We may make a more defiant change and leave that job we hate or break out from a negative relationship. Arguably though, personality, attitude and mental changes in one’s life are the most difficult. After all, it is incredibly difficult to change the very fabric of one’s personality or character.
We can find an alternative source of transformation in a vicarious sense through storytelling mediums such as literature, television and cinema. The horror genre especially is replete with monstrous visions of identity switches, psychotic breakdowns and physical transmogrification. I personally take great pleasure in seeing altered identities occur on the screen and am especially drawn to characters who experience mental and corporeal metamorphosis. That simply isn’t because I cannot change who I am or what I do on a daily basis, but it’s quite scary to attempt to reshape one’s existence and identity. It’s bloody hard work without much guarantee of success. Horror films, while also frightening when done well, are far more satisfying and give a more immediate hit than the grind of reality.
Two films I have seen recently both relate to mid-life crises and exhibit themes that illustrate two characters changing their appearance to bring about a shift in identity, behaviour and personality. They also show characters spiralling out of control in incredibly violent, bizarre and entertaining ways. Those films are Deerskin (2019) and Possessor (2020) and here are my reviews.
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Directed and written by Quentin Dupieux
Main Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adele Haenel
Have you ever seen the film Rubber (2010)? It is a gonzo horror-comedy about a murderous-tyre called Robert killing birds and people with telekinetic powers. Beneath the insanity of the pitch there is in fact a subtextual satire on the nature of Hollywood filmmaking and an audience starved of originality; I think!It came from the mind of Quentin Dupieux, so I was intrigued that he had nabbed for a subsequent production the grand talents of Jean Dujardin and Adele Haenel for the obsidian killer comedy, Deerskin (2019).
Dujardin is Georges, a middle-aged loner, recently dumped by his wife whose only aim now it appears is to purchase a deerskin jacket. Buoyed by the confidence the jacket has given him, and armed with a video camera thrown in with the deal, George plots up at a rural hotel and befriends Adele Haenel’s bar server and enthusiastic film editor. Their budding friendship threatens to turn this into a relatively conventional love story, however, a series of twisted turns tip the story into a hilarious series of murderous set-pieces, with Georges determined to get money to make a movie, but most importantly buy deerskin trousers, hat and gloves.
The story of a middle-aged man altering his outer look in order to transform his life and fortune is a staple of Hollywood comedies and romance films. Deerskin (2019) is that kind of film on the surface. Yet when filtered through Dupieux’s iconoclastic imagination the premise is an altogether different kind of demented animal. Ultimately, it is a low-budget gem of a black comedy with some fantastic ideas and fascinating character study of a man attempting to shift skin, but falling deeper and deeper into psychopathy. It’s a wacky journey with committed performances, yet, it felt like the ending was just too sudden, as if the filmmaker either ran our of money or just wanted to screw with audience expectations right up until the final sudden frame.
MARK: 7.5 out of 11
Directed and written by Brandon Cronenberg
Main Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton etc.
Whereas Deerskin (2019) finds a literal and figurative metamorphosis when a character buys a jacket, Brandon Cronenberg’s vicious horror film, Possessor (2020), is an altogether more cerebral, violent and psychologically stunning journey. Andrea Riseborough is as intense as ever portraying an assassin named, Tasya Vox, who through some incredible technology is able to inhabit the mind and body of another individual and use them as a human puppet to commit murder. It’s a perfect set-up for the assassination agency led by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s handler, Girder. Yet such murder by scientific proxy comes at a cost to Vox’s family life and mental stability.
After a glorious opening scene featuring an astoundingly brutal stabbing, Vox attempts to reconnect with her partner and son, but finds herself becoming ever more disconnected. The pressure of taking over another individual’s identity is causing Vox to discombobulate as her mind begins to fracture. Despite this she takes the next job, a contract to kill John Parse (Sean Bean), using Christopher Abbott’s Colin Tate as a conduit. As Vox struggles with her splitting psyche, Tate himself is having personal issues also and this leads to some mind-bending and psychedelic montage scenes as the two battle within Tate’s brain. If this all sounds a bit weird, it is and it isn’t because the filmmaking is of such a high quality one believes the process. Further, the director never loses his grip on the narrative and Cronenberg gets a compelling performance from Abbott as his character confronts the invasion into his soul.
Overall, Possessor (2020) has a stunning concept at its heart but I just kept wondering how a genre filmmaker like Leigh Whannell may have handled the idea. He certainly would have made the characters more empathetic because it is so tough to warm to either Vox or Tate. Indeed, Tate’s character should have been developed more at the beginning in my view as he would have made an ideal “innocent/wrong man” type character so often used by Hitchcock. Nonetheless, Brandon Cronenberg has crafted one of the most visually impressive and shocking psychological horror films I have seen in a long time. Like Whannell’s Upgrade (2018), it contains some memorable gore and violence. It is also very intelligent as the fantastic ideas explore what it means to not only inhabit another person’s skin, but rip through their very soul.
Produced by: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, John Krasinski
Written by: John Krasinski
Based on characters created by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck
Cast: Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou and John Krasinski
Music by: Marco Beltrami
Cinematography: Polly Morgan
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Ah, the difficult second album. Well, how do you follow up a genuine classic horror thriller such as A Quiet Place (2018)? I mean, it had everything, including a simple but devastating premise and an imaginative set of rules for the monstrous dangers facing the Abbott family. With hardly any fanfare or major marketing campaign the original film really got audiences flexing their “word-of-mouth” muscles. Throughout A Quiet Place (2018)my heart was literally living in my mouth, as my fingers and knuckles clenched and whitened during the whole tense escapade. Plus, Emily Blunt and John Krasinski’s “every-couple” and their three children brought a believable humanity to the characters, with Blunt especially on phenomenal form in her reaction and character work.
The sequel opens with a prequel sequence which illuminates how the world descended into chaos. Sadly, and not surprisingly, we only get a short time with John Krasinski’s action-dad, Lee Abbott, before he dives back behind the camera to direct this rattlingly good and highly tense horror/sci-fi mash-up. Thus, the weight of part two is left with Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds and the less effective, Noah Jupe character. Once again, the trio, plus baby, rely on dead silence in an attempt to remain uneaten by the blind-but-deadly alien creatures hellbent on making Earth’s inhabitants lunch. Along the way they bump into an apparent loner, Emmett, portrayed by Cillian Murphy. His jaded, shell of a man, hides a tragic secret and the last thing he wants is other people around to attract more devourers.
The story develops as the relationship between the Abbott’s and Emmett, while initially distrusting, becomes less hostile. However, he still wants them gone, much to Emily Blunt’s frustration. After all, any good mother wants to protect her children, as evacuating the factory setting could mean certain death. I have to admit I felt Emily Blunt’s major acting talents were not as well utilised as the first film. Indeed, it was Simmonds’ character, Regan, who had more development and heroic moments. It is Regan who is determined to discover a way out from the dark recesses of the filthy basement and clanking pipes. She may be foolhardy to some, but Regan has guts and makes important life-changing decisions for her family. Simmonds is compelling as she gives another mature performance in the role.
Overall, A Quiet Place – Part 2 (2021) is not as much as a surprise as the original film. How could it be?! I mean we now know what defeats the monsters, yet that doesn’t stop them being fierce predators and foes. Moreover, the use of sound design that was so brilliant in the first film is presented equally superbly in the sequel. While the film lacks for a decent plotline, as anyone who has their fill of zombie apocalypse films could testify, there remains some incredibly exciting chases and well directed set-pieces. Krasinski clearly had the Spielberg playbook to hand and that is certainly not a criticism, because I think he is definitely a talent to keeps tabs on. Thus, as my first film back at the cinema after yet another lockdown, I can definitely recommend A Quiet Place – Part 2 (2021), to take one’s mind off the horrors of real life for ninety-odd pulsating minutes.
TO BOLDLY REVIEW #10 – STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION (1991 – 1992) – SEASON 5
Based on Star Trek & Created by: Gene Roddenberry
Season 5 writers (selected): Michael Piller, Michael Wagner, Rick Berman, Jeri Taylor, Lee Sheldon, Melinda Snodgrass, Richard Manning, Ronald D. Moore, David Bischoff, Joe Menosky, Drew Deighan, Brannon Braga, J. Larry Carroll, Hilary J. Bader, Harold Apter, Stuart Charno, Sara Charno, Maurice Hurley, Susan Sackett, Sara Charno, Stuart Charno, Randee Russell, Peter Allan Fields, Rene Echevarria etc.
Season 5 directors (selected): Jonathan Frakes, Winrich Kolbe, Corey Allen, Robert Weimer, Les Landau, Robert Scheerer, Cliff Bole, Paul Lynch, Chip Chalmers, Timothy Bond, David Carson, Gabrielle Beaumont, Patrick Stewart, David Livingston, Marvin V. Rush, Chip Chalmers, Peter Lauritson, Robert Lederman, Paul Lynch, etc.
Main Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Whoopi Goldberg, Colm Meaney, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Wil Wheaton, Gates McFadden, Michelle Forbes, Majel Barrett, Rosalind Chao, plus guests: Matt Frewer, Ashley Judd, Kelsey Grammer and Famke Janssen etc.
Music/Composers: Alexander Courage, Jerry Goldsmith, Dennis McCarthy, Ron Jones, Jay Chattaway
Production Company(s): Paramount Television, CBS Television
**** CONTAINS SPOILERS ****
I have just finished boldly watching Season 5 of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and it was an extremely excellent raft of science fiction television episodes. I have to say though that TWENTY-SIX episodes was a hell of a lot of TV to produce. I know they had big budgets and an army of staff working on the show, but to produce such high quality viewing, albeit within the established formula, is overall incredibly impressive.
Season 5 was up there in consistency of quality writing, acting and directing with the superlative Seasons 3 and 4. Once again the creatives and storyline team explored issues of the day (i.e. 1990s) and married them to the STAR TREK values and philosophies. Of course, we get the usual alien enemies, such as the Romulans and Ferengi, paying a visit to the Enterprise. Yet, we also found new foes, obstacles and allies encountering the Enterprise. Lastly, the formidable Michelle Forbes as the Bajoran, Ensign Roe, was a welcome addition to the crew.
Sadly, Gene Roddenberry passed away during this particular season’s making. This would cause create sadness in the STAR TREK universe, but the production was, by now in very safe hands, as they paid fine tribute to their creator during Season 5. Here are SIX of the best episodes well worth visiting or revisiting. Live long and prosper.
REDEMPTION – PART II – EPISODE 1
The concluding part to the prior season’s cliffhanger found Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) continuing to fight for honour alongside his brother, Kurn (Tony Todd), against the Duras hordes. There are many moments of high tension throughout the episode with Dorn impressing again as the divided, but ultimately united and redeemed Klingon. Overall, the episode is full of memorable plot turns and fantastic Romulan and Klingon villains, notably Lursa and B’Etor.
UNIFICATION – PARTS I & II – EPISODES 7 & 8
Chosen more for nostalgia as opposed to stellar storytelling, UNIFICATION is a two-parter which sees the return of a famous Trek character, namely Spock (Leonard Nimoy). We also get Mark Lenard’s final appearance as Spock’s father, Sarek, as he and Picard (Patrick Stewart) share a thoroughly moving final scene together. The story finds Spock attempting to repair years of conflict between Vulcans and Romulans, however, Starfleet believe he has defected. Thus, Picard and crew attempt another search for Spock. The narrative pace is steady, nonetheless it is great to see Nimoy don the ears and ultra-logic for a further outing as Spock.
CONUNDRUM – EPISODE 14
While STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION had more than its fair share of emotionally powerful episodes, sometimes a fast-paced and twisting plot with a bit of space espionage was more than welcomed. In CONUNDRUM, the Enterprise crew have their memory wiped by an unknown force dedicated to destroying an alien race. The audience finds suspense and dramatic irony in knowing the crew’s minds have been tampered with as they race against time to prevent war. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Ensign Ro’s (Michelle Forbes) simmering sexual tension adds romance and humour to a packed storyline.
CAUSE AND EFFECT – EPISODE 18
Easily one of my favourite TNG episodes of this and many a season. This is because it features a fantastic temporal-causality loop plot and extremely high stakes where the Enterprise is concerned. Here the crew are trapped in a perpetual time cycle where the end of it results in the destruction of the Enterprise. Essentially GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) in space (even though this episode came before that classic film), it truly fizzes along with a brilliant script and powerful drama. Kelsey Grammer also guests, adding to the overall quality on display.
I, BORG – EPISODE 23
Could an evil machine ever be humanized? That is just one of the fascinating questions posed in this thoughtful and provocative episode? While they owe much to the Cybermen, the Borg remain a powerful weapon in the STAR TREK storytelling arsenal. The only problem is they are virtually invincible, so tough to write stories for. Rather cleverly in I, BORG, the episodes isolates a single unit and Picard, Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) and La Forge (LeVar Burton) especially, confront their hatred and desire for revenge. As the Borg unit, or Hugh (an excellent Jonathan Del Arco) as he becomes known, spends time on the Enterprise he positively changes. This provides much to consider for the crew with their emotions shifting toward Hugh/the Borg.
THE INNER LIGHT – EPISODE 25
Not only is this one of the best episodes of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, but it is also one of the best episodes of STAR TREK ever. The story is precipitated by an unknown probe which scans the Enterprise and directs an energy beam at Picard, who wakes up to find himself on Kataan, a non-Federation planet. Here Picard attempts to escape his existence as Kamin, but over time he grows into this strange new life. What begins as a simple body swap plot, unfurls into something all the more emotionally grander. We know Patrick Stewart is a fine actor, but he imbues Picard/Kamin with a gravitas of enormous propensity. I also loved how Picard, the Captain, is humbled by a more domestic life full with life and love. Lastly, Jay Chattaway’s score is absolutely beautiful.
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Martin Donovan, Clement Poesy, etc.
Music by: Ludwig Göransson
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I am writing this review from the future while travelling backwards to the past to try and alter events which have yet to occur in the present. Confused yet? Jokes aside, Christopher Nolan’s latest temporally challenging and narratively inverted blockbuster, TENET (2020), is actually not as complicated as some would lead you to believe. However, that’s because I’ve been training my brain with such mind-boggling adventures in time, space and dimensions while watching the third season of the ingenious German sci-fi drama, DARK (2020), this week. Safe to say however, TENET is still rather complex and probably unnecessarily so. Yet, Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who loves exploring challenging scientific concepts and marrying them to hugely involving plots and stylish spectacular action. All credit to him too for pushing himself and the audience!
TENET opens with a fast-paced set-piece located at a Ukrainian opera house. A SWAT team, that includes our unnamed hero, (John David Washington), is there to save a spy and obtain an unidentified object, which will of course become an integral part of the plot later or earlier on in the story. From then on, ‘The Protagonist’, as he later becomes known, becomes embroiled in stopping the megalomaniacal plans of Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). In order to do so he attempts to infiltrate and stop Sator via his bullied wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Here the Protagonist builds a bond to Kat and this provides the emotional glue of the film. Although, I’ll be honest, I was too busy thinking about the machinations of Nolan’s head-twirling approach to temporal structure, than actually feel much for the characters.
What the film lacks in emotional depth it more than makes up with spectacular action. There are at least six incredible set-pieces that involve hand-to-hand combat, fast-paced vehicle pursuit, bungee-jumping and all-out combat between various government and mercenary factions. Nolan and his production team twist the action with a visually mirrored trick which, well I won’t say anymore. Moreover, the grandiose style and cinematography are eye-popping. Sharp suits, sharper knives and futuristic masks are adorned by the characters giving the spy thriller a hyperreal edge. Similarly, the stunts and editing are superbly orchestrated and executed. Having said that, the sound design and dialogue could have been better. Far be it from me to criticize, but in striving for verisimilitude in the sound, the constant wearing of masks meant important dialogue lacked clarity. Likewise, in the final amazing set-piece I was lost amidst the bodies and explosions as to who was who and why and what and how. Clearly a second and third watch of TENET (2020) is in order.
While the action was pretty much flawless throughout, the screenplay, unlike say Nolan’s prior high-concept masterpiece, INCEPTION (2010), did lack character depth for me. While I realise this was Nolan’s intention, hardly any time is given setting up the characters. So much so they become cyphers within the plot. Nonetheless, the charisma of the cast, notably John David Washington and the impressive Robert Pattinson, dominates the screen and the two bounce off each other magnetically. Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh also bring much to their roles, however their subplot involving domestic abuse felt out of place in such a post-modern spectacle. Moreover, Branagh’s oligarch was, in certain scenes, verging on parodic cliche. I wondered if the villain of the piece could have been a little less B-movie heavy at times and possibly more cultured. This is a minor gripe though. After all, he is the bad guy!
Ultimately, TENET (2020) is a big, brash and confident Bond-type film with bells on. Sure, the rules of the world could have been excavated and presented somewhat clearer. But, Nolan favours a breakneck pace and be damned if you cannot keep up. Indeed, I am certain he has covered all the plot-holes (or paradoxes) I thought I saw and numerous questions I had by the end. While it is not without flaws, on first watch, I once again have to congratulate Christopher Nolan for striving for original thinking and fascinating concepts within a genre film. One may even argue that there are too many ideas here and simplification could have created a more emotionally satisfying film. However, there are many moments of cinematic genius in TENET (2020), notably in the Sisyphean payoffs within the inverted plot structure. Finally, one won’t see a more shiny and beautiful looking film all year. The future is bright: the future is Christopher Nolan.
REVIEWS OF THE BOYS (2019), THE EXPANSE (2016) & PREACHER (2016)
So, we are now a few weeks into the lockdown scenario caused by the COVID-19 virus and I have been off work for around that amount of time too. Tragically people are dying, and we owe it to be responsible by continuing to follow the rules laid down that will prevent the spread of the infection. It’s tough for everyone including families, employees and businesses. The capitalist system has taken a massive hit, and some will not survive in terms of life and work. I am not a religious person, but I pray to everyone’s God, whoever that may be, society comes through this. We are digging tunnels, looking for light and an escape. It cannot come soon enough.
In terms of escape it has never been easier to find both the time and formats with which to fill the gap. Thankfully the internet is still up and running, thus I have been filling my time in — aside from some minor administrative work-from-home stuff — writing my film reviews, editing and posting short videos, exercising and watching quite a lot of television and film content. Anything to stop me from becoming a beer monster or functioning alcoholic – AGAIN! The latest focussed viewing has been of Amazon Prime, and the many boxsets they have. So, here are mini reviews of three shows I have seen recently. All with the usual marks out of eleven.
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
THE BOYS (2019) – SEASON 1 – PRIME VIDEO
Based on the comic book series created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, this violent superhero comedy is the complete antithesis of the Marvel Universe. Taking savage satirical swipes at huge corporations and United States foreign policy, it features a group of vigilantes, led by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) called ‘The Boys.’ For a variety of reasons, including good old-fashioned revenge, they have targeted the most powerful business in the world, Vought International. Vought control and monetize ‘The Seven’, a group of all-powerful superheroes who happen to mostly be narcissistic, unstable and psychotic arseholes.
The initial episodes started slowly for me and I found it difficult to warm to any of the characters. This could simply be superhero fatigue or certain weaknesses in the writing throughout. However, the spikes of tremendous action, vicious humour and spectacular violence kept me on board. Elisabeth Shue and Antony Starr impress as the nefarious villains, while Erin Moriarty shone as the one decent superhero, Starlight. The least said about the shockingly bad English accent Karl Urban delivers the better. I mean his acting is impressive, but mate – come on!!
Mark: 8.5 out of 11
THE EXPANSE (2015) – SEASON 1 – SYFY/AMAZON PRIME
Usually when I see something is on the Syfy channel I baulk slightly. I mean the shows are pretty decent as a rule, but some right old fantasy schlock can get dumped there. So, with a saturated streaming market offering a plethora of U.S. cable shows, sometimes the Syfy channel shows get short shrift. It’s a shame because The Expanse is a really good science-fiction programme which began airing on Syfy, but is now on Amazon Prime. The sci-fi show hangs tonally betweenAlien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and the Philip K. Dick-style “Mars v Terra” stories I have read. Indeed, while it doesn’t contain actual aliens or Dick’s surreal explorations of the psyche, it is, in fact, a fantastically plotted and styled industrial, political and humanistic set of narratives.
Based on James S. A. Corey’s (a pseudonym I believe for two writers), The Expanse(Season 1), is set hundreds of years into the Earth’s future and space has been colonized. But it’s not a utopia. Mars, Earth and an outer-planetary system of space stations called ‘The Belt’ are all conflicted on the brink of civil or galactic war. The multiple narratives follow the likes of the always-excellent, Thomas Jane, as a grizzled cop investigating a missing person and a space freighter gang led by Stephen Strait. The latter’s crew go from episode to episode finding life-threatening situations throughout. It’s a space-rock solid production full of twists, action and conspiracies; retaining a cynical, noir and unglamorous edge which makes me want to watch further seasons.
Mark: 8.5 out of 11
PREACHER (2016) – SEASON 1 – AMC/AMAZON PRIME
Developed by Hollywood players Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, along with Breaking Bad writer, Sam Catlin, this darkly comedic post-modern vision of heaven and hell is based on a comic book by Garth Ennis (that man again) and Steve Dillon. Starring the very reliable Dominic Cooper as hard drinking and former career criminal-turned Preacher, Jesse Custer, we find him losing faith in a small Texan town and a dwindling set of hopeless parishioners. That is until one day he is struck by some twisted divine interpretation. Then, literally, all hell breaks loose as Custer battles his inner demons and the local slaughterhouse baron portrayed with callous joy by Jackie Earle Haley.
Like The Boys, I initially found Preacher a little bit slow in terms of setting up the story and characters. But I think that was deliberate as there are so many crazy concepts relating to religion and the afterlife in here, a balance had to be given to combining the fantastic and more realistic elements. I’m not sure they’re wholly successful, however, Cooper is great, and he is ably supported by the effervescent Ruth Negga as his tough-talking ex-girlfriend, Tulip. Moreover, English actor Joseph Gilgun steals the show as the Irish sidekick with a dark secret. While the narrative moves steadily, with arguably too many secondary characters, the bloody gore levels during the fight scenes are absolutely spectacular. If, like me, you enjoy irreverent bible-black comedy which offends most religions and contains lashings of ultra-violence, then Preacher is definitely one to pray to the lords of television for.
CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #13 – BLADERUNNER (1982) – “TEARS IN THE RAIN.”
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Produced by: Michael Deeley
Screenplay by: Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples – based on the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, James Edward Olmos etc.
Cinematography: Jordan Cronenworth
*** CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS ***
Philip K. Dick’s dense, dystopic and futuristic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), is an ugly, beautiful, depressing, obtuse, hypnotic skip-through-treacle read full of incredible concepts relating to: Artificial Intelligence; robot technology; android simulacra; animal husbandry; apocalyptic disease; virtual reality/empathy mood tech; extinguished humanity; and ultimately, of course, mortality and death. The fact that Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples were able to fashion a workable screenplay for Ridley Scott to direct is a creative miracle. Moreover, it is testament to the writing and Scott’s incredible production team that, Bladerunner (1982), is held in such high esteem among cinema fans now.
The original Bladerunner, despite bombing at the box office and subsequently going through a number of cuts, re-cuts, final cuts and re-re-re-releases, has become a bona fide science fiction cinema classic. I watched the original theatrical version recently and despite the deadpan Harrison Ford voiceover and spurious, tacked on “happy” ending, it actually has a lot going for it. Obviously the ‘Unicorn Dream’ re-edits released under the guidance of Ridley Scott are the purer versions but the film holds up notably because of Ford’s gruff, depressive and world-weary performance as Rick Deckard; the imperious psychopathy of Rutger Hauer as android assassin Roy Batty; Scott’s glorious tech noir rendition of our desecrated future; as well as the evocation of Philip K Dick’s thematic existential power.
Such existential power is demonstrated in one of the final scenes where Batty has pushed Deckard to the edge of a building and death. The rain falls and the majestic soundtrack swells. A stripped down Batty, rather than let Deckard die, saves his life. It’s an ambiguous decision, but one of redemption for a replicant that is more used to delivering death. Perhaps, it proves that Batty does indeed have human qualities and Deckard will take up the cause. Delivering one final heartfound speech, Batty regales and laments the beautiful things he has seen. But they are gone – just like tears in the rain. It is a moving epitaph and amazing end to an incredible science-fiction classic. Batty closes down for good, but his demise and Hauer’s incredible performance will live long in the memory.
Screenplay by Leigh Whannell – based on H. G. Wells The Invisible Man
Produced by: Jason Blum, Kylie du Fresne
Main cast: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Michael Dorman,
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Cinematography: Stefan Duscio
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Many a work, home, pub, dinner party and school conversation has started with the following question: what would YOU do if you were invisible? Depending on the company it’s something that can descend into wild fantasy territory. Being invisible will allow you the freedom to spy and become the ultimate voyeur. You could also become a criminal and creep into places without being seen to thieve. You could be a prankster and play tricks on your friends and family. You could become a superhero, battle crime and help people. You could simply just disappear not just literally, but philosophically from society. The possibilities are endless.
H. G. Wells original novel is an absolute genre masterpiece. Arguably the most famous version was filmed in 1933 with incredible practical effects and an exceptional performance from Claude Rains. In this new version the conventional invisible scientist-goes-mad story is twisted successfully into an exhilarating horror suspense film with themes relating to toxic masculinity and abusive relationships. Here invisibility is used to control and instil fear, as the recently deceased Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is, according to his ex-partner, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), targeting her from the grave.
Leigh Whannell has great experience writing and producing low-budget horror films including: Saw (2004) andInsidious (2010). His last directorial release, Upgrade (2018), was a fantastic mix of 1980’s B-movies, sci-fi and horror cinema. Building on the crowd-pleasing thrills of Upgrade, Whannell has crafted a paranoiac classic with Elisabeth Moss giving a fantastically nerve-shredding and physically adept performance. From the tense opening scene, we empathise with her desire to escape a controlling and malevolent force. Building slowly throughout the first act, Whannell’s script brilliantly picks up the pace and plots Cecilia’s descent into a living hell. Consequently, Cecilia’s anxiety reaches peak stress as no one believes she is being set up by a gas-lighting, unseen and venal monster.
It pays to see this film on the big screen with the finest sound quality available. I watched it on an IMAX screen where the sound design and Benjamin Wallfisch’s amazing score really enhance the fear-inducing visuals. How the production team made this film for a reported $7 million dollars is beyond me. Yet, Whannell is an economical and highly efficient filmmaker. His writing is lean and mean, as the script is full of fantastic set-pieces and plot reversals. Moreover, the story is very relevant, exploring the themes of the day relating to domestic abuse, depression and mental illness. However, it’s not an overbearing message movie, but rather a smart and surprising thriller.
Overall, The Invisible Man (2020) starts strongly and proceeds to deliver a series of gripping and, at times, heart-in-the-mouth cinematic moments. There are none of the usual scientific and over-expositional set-ups that can slow down such films. The visuals, sound, score and performances deliver the story most effectively. I felt like there were a few fuzzy plot moments that Whannell could have explained in more detail, however, that could have hindered the pace of the story. Finally, with Elisabeth Moss imbuing her character with resilience, energy and steel, we get an individual who will never give up. She sees through her ghosting nemesis and will fight to the last breath to prove her innocence and remain in control.