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.
Halloween is slowly creeping out of the fog and shadows. It’s a time of the year where horror films come to the fore. Personally, I watch horror all the year round, but it’s always fun when the genre pulls focus on the cultural calendar.
Rather than concentrate on current horror film releases, I thought it would be interesting to seek out chillers that are a tad less known. So, I had a scan through Amazon and Shudder screening platforms and unearthed several cult horror gems worth catching.
Some of these films come from the 1980’s period which encompassed the “video-nasty” era in the United Kingdom. With the advent of home video technology, the government suddenly got frightened about bloody and exploitational films and desired control. Censoring seventy-two titles and banning a flurry of films actually made people want to watch them more. This caused the government’s policy to backfire as people clamoured to watch “pirate” video versions of such films. In fact, it was in the living room watching forbidden films and the old Universal black-and-white classics where my true love of horror cinema began.
The following films may not have been banned at the time, but I was intrigued by how many of the titles I missed seeing on first release. Aside from Ben (1972), When A Stranger Calls (1979) and Phantasm (1979), I hadn’t seen the other titles. Therefore, if you’re looking for obscure horror films to watch then delve deep into the Amazon library. They have a fine feast of 1970’s and 1980’s fear inducing fare, many of them which were on the infamous “video-nasty” list. Dare you watch them!?
THE CAT OF NINE TAILS (1971)
An early Dario Argento giallo finds a blind puzzle-maker (Karl Malden) and dogged reporter (James Franciscus) investigating murders at a genetics lab. Aside from a couple of scary set-pieces, notably in a graveyard, it neither works as a detective nor horror story. It is however beautifully filmed with a vibrant restoration. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission track down missing toxic waste the New York homeless population are becoming victims to something monstrous in the sewers. An energetic sci-fi-horror hybrid combining a schlocky plot with socio-environmental themes. It’s not bad and actually quite funny, with early roles for John Heard and Daniel Stern whose acting raises the overall quality. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
CLASS OF 1984 (1982)
I remember school kids raving about this film when I was twelve. I really wanted to see it, but could never find it in the video shop or from the “pirate” video guy. The plot merges The Blackboard Jungle (1955) with Death Wish (1974), as Perry King’s music teacher attempts to soothe the savage beast of a gang of nasty punk students. He fails and the final act revenge-driven rampage is fantastically inventive and gory. Latterly famous director, a young Tim Van Patten, portrays the psychotic, Peter Stegman, with vicious zeal. A true exploitational classic. (Mark: 8 out of 11).
HELL NIGHT (1981)
This is one of those films I had never even heard of. With a sizeable budget of $1.4 million dollars for a slasher film, it concerns four college students, including a grown-up Linda Blair, spending the night in a creepy house as part of an initiation ritual. Unfortunately, there’s a psychotic killer about hellbent on hunting them down. We’ve seen it all before, but it was nicely filmed and had decent humour. Overlong but way better than I thought it would be. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
PHANTASM II (1988)
I reviewed the remastered version of Don Coscarelli’s low-budget masterpiece here, but only just got round to watching the sequel. Phantasm II (1988) had a bigger budget and suffers from some stodgy plotting. The re-casting of Mike with James Le Gros in the role throws you. Yet, once Mike and Reggie fight with the Tall Man (inimitable Angus Scrimm), the razor-sharp spheres and the hooded monsters, the film finds real pace. Coscarelli blows-up a lot of stuff and ramps up the weaponry, but the sequel lacks the twisted magic of the original must-watch horror fantasy, Phantasm (1979). (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
TERROR TRAIN (1980)
Another unknown mini-gem I found on Amazon. This Canadian slasher film is, you guessed it, set on a train and finds, yes you guessed it again, college students getting picked off one-by-one by a vengeful psycho. Notable for a really good plot which gives the killer empathy and understandable motivation, it also stars everyone’s favourite final girl, Jamie Lee Curtis. With disguise and magic prevalent in the themes, David Copperfield also appears in a neat role. Highly entertaining with a killer twist. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979)
Inspired by a famous urban legend, Fred Walton’s chilling suspense thriller has one of the most nail-biting opening twenty minutes in horror cinema. Carol Kane is the babysitter terrorized by a series of tense phone calls from a mystery ringer. From that terrifying start the story falters slightly as it focusses on Charles Durning’s obsessive search for the unhinged man. Only when Kane rejoins the film some years later does the horror rise up again in a truly frightening denouement. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
WILLARD (1971) / BEN (1972)
This was an odd one because I knew and seen the sequelBen (1972) when I was a younger. Little did I realise the original Willard (1971) had been released the year before and became a sleeper box-office hit. Bruce Davison is excellent as the introvert, Willard, who is bullied at work by his aggressive boss, Ernest Borgnine. Only when, and take a deep breath here, Willard trains an army of rats does he gain confidence to take on the world. It’s a weird film that actually works because of Willard’s fascinating character arc and Davison’s nuanced performance. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
The follow-up Ben (1972) focusses on Willard’s alpha rat, Ben, and his friendship with lonely kid, Danny. The sequel really raises the rat count and there appears to be thousands of them in their dirty lair. Danny is a likeable kid who suffers from a serious illness that prevents him from going out. Why he would make friends with a killer rat though is still frankly nuts! A lack of thrills and goofy premise make it difficult to recommend, and is more famous for the classic Michael Jackson hit called, surprisingly enough, Ben.(Mark: 6 out of 11)
Who doesn’t like a great movie death? Well, people who abhor violence and gore on the screen. But I am not one of those people. Thus, if done right in terms of combining emotional context and cinematic imagination, there’s nothing I like more than revelling or lamenting a character’s end in fine bloody fashion. Lastly, I hear you ask why no Zahler, Scorsese, Cronenberg, Miike, Peckinpah, Jackson, Fulci, Roth, Romero, Argento etc. on this list? So much death and only six make it, so please suggest any of the thousands I have missed off in the comments.
*** CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
ALIEN (1979) – “Do these eggs taste off?”
I think it may have been something Kane (John Hurt) ate or maybe something that ate him? Anyway, one of the most spectacularly surprising scenes ever still holds amazing power to this very day.
THE FURY (1978) – Separated at death!
This under-rated tele-kinetic thriller is a spiritual sequel to Carrie (1976). Adding a spy conspiracy plot to Amy Irving’s rites of passage character arc, it has a whip-cracking-pace and classic DePalma set-pieces. None more so than the explosive end of the baddie-in-black.
PSYCHO (1960) – Take a bath next time!
What more can be written about one of the most shockingly original scenes in cinema history? Not only did Hitchcock break all narrative rules killing off the main protagonist halfway through, he did it with one of the most ingenious uses of montage, music and murder ever.
PULP FICTION (1994) – The original “face-off!”
Marvin never saw it coming. But let’s face it – none of us did!
ROBOCOP (1987) – Toxic Wasted!
Whoever designed this action scene, no doubt Paul Verhoeven had much to say, delivered one of the most excessive demises in 1980’s cinema. The vehicle crash, the toxic waste, the melting bad guy, the steam coming off his body and the final disintegration are just cinematic perfection.
WILD AT HEART (1990) – Bobby Peru loses his mind!
David Lynch’s vibrant adaptation of Barry Gifford’s romantic thriller contains many colourful characters. Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru is a particularly nasty piece of work and he gets his comeuppance in an incredibly visceral and disturbing way!
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, Christopher Lee etc.
Cinematography: Alex Thomson
***CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS***
In my last review I wrote with nostalgia about trips to the video shop. Yes, an actual shop where you could hire films existed! Imagine that. Now, I further lament the splintered streaming marketplace where you have to pay a subscription to watch a film when I used to be able to see it on telly for free. Plus, there are TOO MANY platforms. Those £5.99 and £4.99 and £7.99 per month fees soon stack up. I used to love turning on Channel Four or BBC2 or latterly Film Four and there would be a cult horror film, classic film noir, World cinema, art film or early directorial release from a now famous director on there late at night – FOR FREE! Thankfully, aside from all the streaming stems I have to manage, a channel on digital TV called Talking Pictures does show some genuinely great movies that time and humanity may have forgotten. One such is Deathline (1972).
Deathline (1972) – (AKA Raw Meat in the U.S.) is a genuine cult classic horror film which is gruesome, darkly witty and incredibly moving in equal measures. In this era of constant remakes I am surprised no filmmaker has decided to transfer this grimy and quintessentially British movie into the modern day. In many ways I am glad they haven’t as it, despite some glaring flaws in characterisation of two main protagonists, borders on being a bona fide under-rated classic. The premise involves a series of missing persons who are disappearing around the area of Russell Square underground station. The sarcastic Inspector Calhoun (inimitable Donald Pleasence) is tasked with cracking the case. He does so with gallows humour and gallons of cups of tea.
Pleasence is not the only person who gives a memorable acting performance in Deathline (1972). Because the screenplay and direction spends a lot of the grisly running time creating a thematic and visual mythology around the antagonist. Indeed, while the killer, described in the credits as the ‘Man’ (Hugh Armstrong), commits several brutal slayings and abductions, the ghastly backstory given and Armstrong’s emotionally charged portrayal really make you empathise with his situation. The combination of pustular make-up effects, the rat-infested underground lair he inhabits, plus the tragic circumstances surrounding the ‘Man’s’ plight ensure he one of cinema’s most empathetic monsters since Karloff in Frankenstein (1931).
It’s a shame therefore that more wasn’t done to develop the leading couple in the film, students Alex Campbell (David Ladd) and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney). While she is at least sympathetic, he is completely unlikeable and mostly unheroic. So much so I was rooting more for the plague-pocked ‘Man’ at the end rather than him. But hey I’m watching this for the gore and deaths aren’t I? Well, there’s plenty of that in between Inspector Calhoun’s chirpy working-class snipes and demands for cups of tea. Plus, director Gary Sherman gives us a tremendous, long take which establishes the cavernous setting for the murder and horror, utilising the dank London underground tunnel system to maximum impact. While Christopher Lee is given poster billing, he’s only in one scene as a privileged MI5 agent. Finally, did you know Marlon Brando was originally cast as the ‘Man’. Well, I’m kind of glad that was an offer he did refuse. Because Armstrong’s tragic human monster lives on long in the mind, even after the film’s haunting final echoes have faded.
Produced by: Dave Franco, Elizabeth Haggard, Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Joe Swanberg, Christopher Storer
Cast: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss
Cinematography: Christian Sprenger
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
If you’re old like me you will remember the golden era of video rental stores in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I used to love going to the video shop at the weekend and choosing which films to watch. For example, on a Saturday afternoon at Blockbuster I would choose three films usually. One would be a banker like a high quality release or made by an acclaimed filmmaker whose work I was certain to like. Another would be a more commercial choice like a high concept action film or comedy; something to take the brain out for. Lastly, I would take a gamble on either an arthouse or foreign or indie character-driven film; OR an even bigger gamble on a lower-budget or unheard horror film or thriller with a back-of-the-video-box pitch that grabbed me. Often the latter choice would end up being a terribly arty bore or a schlocky B-movie disaster. However, every now and then I would find a film gem which totally gripped me.
With streaming now there’s not so much of a gamble as you haven’t had to walk or drive to the video shop. Even better there’s no need to return the tapes on time and risk getting fined. You switch on your streaming device and choose your film. If you don’t like it you can turn it off, although I do tend to see things through to the end on most occasions. But hey Paul, enough about comparing the past with the present – WHAT’S YOUR POINT! Oh yes, the Dave Franco directed The Rental (2020) is one of those films which I took a chance on because of the cast and the back-of-video-box-pitch (i.e. the Amazon online trailer). I’m glad I did watch it, as it is a terrific thriller with a tension-filled script which leads and misleads you through a series of compelling twists. It’s a simple premise, involving two couples spending the weekend at a beautiful rural property where poor choices destabilise their harmony, only for all hell to break loose when a serious crime escalates the action.
The cast of Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Shiela Vand and Jeremy Allen White are arguably punching below their weight where the B-movie material is concerned. Yet, they bring quality to the proceedings as the initial peace between the characters descends into chaos when first infidelity and then murder rears its ugly head. One of my favourite character actors, Toby Huss, is excellent here too as the suspicious property manager. I’ve seen some so-so reviews for The Rental (2020), but it’s the kind of tightly plotted suspense thriller I really thrive on. What starts as an idyllic getaway for two relatively wealthy couples is carefully unravelled by Dave Franco’s well-paced direction, complimented by Brie and Steven’s committed performances, has wonderful locations and a seriously proper killer ending.
Created and written by: Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Directors (Season 6): Matt Lipsey, Guillem Morales
Original Network: BBC (available on BBC Iplayer)
No. of Episodes: 6
I have written exhaustively about how brilliant this television programme is, so much so I don’t think I can add any further other than I believe it deserves regaling as TV national treasure. Just when you think Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton could be running out of creative steam they prove you wrong with another superb series of Inside No. 9. If you are interested, here are prior articles I have written about it.
However, to recap, if you have never seen Inside No. 9 I urge you to do so. It is an exceptional anthology series with six stand-alone episodes per series. Individual episodes feature a whole host of different characters and amazing actors each time led by the multi-talented Pemberton and Shearsmith. As per the prior seasons, the latest one is absolutely unforgettable. It again privileges tightly woven thirty-minute short narratives, which more often than not, feature a twist in the tale. Moreover, the events usually unfold in one location with rarely more than a handful of characters. This makes the narratives feel more focussed, intense and intimate. In series 6, there is even more growth within the anthology genre and much risk-taking where style and form are concerned.
So, here are my mini-reviews of each episode from Season 6 with marks out of nine (obviously).
*** BEWARE: POTENTIAL SPOILERS ***
EPISODE 1: WUTHERING HEIST
Main cast: Paterson Joseph, Gemma Whelan, Kevin Bishop, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Rosa Robson, Dino Kelly etc.
Not only are Pemberton and Shearsmith accomplished actors, writers and directors, they are also acutely aware how fans revel in their incredible work, devilishly mocking their own mythology and playing with audience expectations. They do this to dizzying impact in the puntastic opening episode, Wuthering Heist. Marrying elements from farce, crime, Commedia dell’arte and the plot of Reservoir Dogs (1992), the players wear masks, prat about and bleed over each other while attempting to pull off a diamond heist. Set in one location, a disused warehouse, Gemma Whelan is superb as the fourth-wall breaking narrator attempting to hold all the story innards together. Pretty soon though one realises that the flurry of puns, sight gags, plot contrivances and comical misunderstandings are intended as wondrous and silly fun. The lack of emotional depth is the joke here and the writers know this. Because Shearsmith and Pemberton’s script has a gag every four seconds, be it a sight jape or involve some sparky verbal dexterity. Lastly, not only do they know they are jumping the shark, but they revel in doing so during this hilarious meta-work.
Mark: 8 out of 9
EPISODE 2: SIMON SAYS
Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Lindsay Duncan, Nick Mohammed
Among many of the recurring pleasures of watching Inside No. 9 is wondering what the number nine will refer to. It’s been a myriad of things including: a karaoke booth, a hotel room, a train sleeper car, a dressing room, a referee’s changing room, and even a shoe. In Simon Says it’s the name of a television epic called The Ninth Circle. This show is very similar to Game of Thrones in genre and scale, and likewise has a battalion of fans across the country who feel the final series undid the majesty of the prior seasons. The episode opens with immediate mystery as Steve Pemberton’s writer, Spencer, enters his flat with blood staining his clothes and conscience. Suddenly, Simon (Reece Shearsmith), is at the door saying he has evidence Spencer has committed a serious crime. Simon, a Ninth Circle uber-fan then blackmails Spencer into, among others things, rewriting the whole of the last season of The Ninth Circle into something more fan-friendly. Managing to be both funny and suspenseful in equal measures, Pemberton and Shearsmith’s characters play cat-and-mouse expertly, throwing in several big plot twists at the end of this compelling tale.
Mark: 8 out of 9
EPISODE 3: LIP SERVICE
Cast: Sian Clifford, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith
I watch some television series and films and am often struck at how much time is wasted in setting up the protagonists and story. Similarly, in unnecessarily long TV series you get either eight or ten episodes full of padding in the middle which destabilizes the momentum of the story. Nothing of the sort occurs in Inside No. 9. Stories are set-up with stylish economy and the situations immediately grab you by the throat and rarely let go. In Lip Service, Steve Pemberton’s downtrodden Felix is holed up in a hotel room waiting to liaise with a woman. But it’s not what you think. Sian Clifford’s Iris arrives and it turns out she is there to offer her services as a lip-reader. Felix suspects the woman he loves is having an affair and he requires Iris to read her and a possible lover’s lips at an adjacent hotel suite. I’ve now seen this episode three times and it truly is breathtaking. There’s empathy for Felix’s lost soul, some fine linguistic comedy, a potential romance, Clifford’s performance knocking it out of the park, Reece Shearsmith having great fun as an officious German hotel manager and THAT ending. The denouement, while totally believable, comes out of nowhere and leaves you genuinely speechless.
Mark: 8.5 out 9
EPISODE 4: HURRY UP AND WAIT
Cast: Adrian Dunbar, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Donna Preston, Bhavna Limbachia, and Pauline McGlynn
Quite possibly my favourite episode of the series, Hurry Up and Wait manages to achieve that difficult juxtaposition of being meta-textual and containing some real emotional power. Because it is one thing to be self-referential and satirise the creative process, in this case the making of a television police drama starring famous actor Adrian Dunbar, but it’s quite another to build in a murder mystery and empathetic characters who you root for. While Reece Shearsmith is always excellent playing angry characters, here he portrays James, a mild-mannered actor, who has got a break playing a scene with the precious talent, Dunbar. The TV drama they are in concerns a missing child and the “green room” happens to be a static caravan owned by a working-class family who may have important information about said grisly crime. Steve Pemberton and Pauline McGlynn play the parents of immature, Beverley – the brilliant Donna Preston – adding much comic relief, but all possibly hiding a dark secret. As James learns his lines he also plays detective seemingly discovering the truth until the truly chilling ending is revealed.
Mark: 9 out of 9
EPISODE 5: HOW DO YOU PLEAD?
Cast: Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Derek Jacobi
Arguably the darkest tale, both in terms of the noir lighting and foreboding themes, it is difficult to discuss this tale of soul-searching guilt and justice without giving away too much of the story. Thus, I’ll talk about the actors and characters more. Derek Jacobi gives a deeply moving performance of a dying barrister who prides himself of, after an upturn in his early legal career, never losing a case in court until retirement. As he lies dying in bed, lungs heavy around his heart, he feels guilt about one case where he defended the indefensible. As he confesses his regret to Shearsmith’s cheery carer, it is soon revealed both men have sins they buried in the past which will soon come back to bite them. Watching these two fine actors spark off one another is as compelling as television drama can get, but there’s also comedy there too as Shearsmith delivers some spirited one-liners in between Jacobi’s grand screen gravitas. But where’s Pemberton I hear you ask? He’s sitting there waiting patiently in the shadows of this evocatively lit and thrilling tale.
Mark: 8 out of 9
EPISODE 6: LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS!
Cast: Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Julian Glover, Debra Gillett, Bamshad Abedi-Amin, Sarah Parish etc.
Are you aware of the work of Dennis Potter? He was one of the finest writers in British television from the 1960’s way into the early 1990’s. His scripts were always highly erotic, political and incredibly controversial. They skewered very British and human themes and burnt great sacred cows of the church, government, family, sex and marriage on the TV barbecue, leaving charcoal remains in their stead. Potter was a genius and with Last Night of the Proms, Pemberton and Shearsmith match him for bravado in deconstructing human nature and what it means to be British. Set in a well-to-do, middle-class household, a family of three generations sit down to watch the Last of the Proms on the BBC. It’s a big traditional classical music event and cultural celebration of what it means to be British. It makes me sick! Britain isn’t great. The British are racist, imperialistic and hardy murderers, who have a history and present (fucking Brexit!) they should be ashamed of. The thought-provoking screenplay here is heavy on compelling themes, memorable imagery and striking symbolism. This is a jarring and messy episode and what it lacks in precise plotting it more than makes up for in juxtaposing horror, satire, drama, surrealism, Jesus, social commentary and comedy to rather mesmerising effect. Potter’s ghost would have watched with glee and disgust and hate and love and pity and sadness; which is much how I felt witnessing Last Night of the Proms.
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.
SIX OF THE BEST #32 – CINEMATIC STATEMENTS OF INTENT!
This is a dive into the world of punchy dialogue that sums up a film or character or a relationship in a few key words. Because sometimes you just don’t want to think and sometimes you don’t want subtle hints to a character’s intentions. On occasions you want the whole plot and cinematic situation summed up succinctly and in an emotionally impactful way. I like ambiguous or complex characters, but from time to time I just gots to know, in a few words, what the character wants or their plans or capabilities. How do they do that? Well, through a good old-fashioned statement of intent.
I would categorise a statement of intent as generally involving the words “I” or “me” and has a character telling another character or group, plus the audience, what they intend to do or how they feel about a particular moment in their life. Or indeed their life as a whole. There is no ambiguity, but rather a direct proclamation of where the character stands and what he or she wants. Actually, I should say this is an extremely masculine list, but la-di-da, it is what is and so it goes. Thus, here are six of the best, of what I call statements of intent from film.
*** CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
QUINT – JAWS (1975)
“I’ll catch this bird for yer – but it ain’t gonna be easy. . . bad fish!”
One of the great character introductions of all time and an incredible statement of intent too. In a way Quint did catch the “bird”, but that big bird caught up with Quint too! What a speech! What a film!
HOWARD BEALE – NETWORK (1976)
“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Acclaimed playwright Paddy Chayefsky arguably wrote one of the greatest cinema speeches of all time with Peter Finch’s newscaster, Howard Beale, reaching the end of his tether with society and life! The saddest thing about this statement of intent is that NOTHING has changed – the world is still nuts and it gets crazier by the day!
T101 / T800 – THE TERMINATOR (1984)
“I’ll be back!”
Sometimes three simple words can say more than a lengthy monologue, as James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger combined to amazing impact in this classic sci-fi action film! Arnie lived up to his promise too, coming back again and again in a series of sequels and prequels and, aside from Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992), rarely equalled follow-up films.
MARTIN RIGGS – LETHAL WEAPON (1987)
“Do you really wanna jump… Well, that’s fine by me!”
Amidst all the mullets, bullets and B-movie baddies of Shane Black’s over-the-top 1980’s script, there is in fact a moving buddy relationship in here too. There is also a compelling character arc of a suicidal man finding a reason to live through an adopted family. Mel Gibson’s Riggs has so many great scenes to demonstrate his wild-man acting style and the “jumper” scene is probably the best of them.
HAWKEYE – THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992)
“You stay alive no matter what occurs – I will find you!”
This statement of intent comes later than they usually might in a film. But, under the fall of water and with the majestic score swelling Daniel Day Lewis’ Hawkeye powerfully declares his love and intentions to Madeline Stowe’s Cora Munro in Michael Mann’s incredible romantic war drama.
BRYAN MILLS – TAKEN (2008)
“I have a particular set of skills… I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you!”
Despite the xenophobic undertones within Pierre Morel and Liam Neeson’s rapid-paced action thriller, it does have one of the most iconic statements of intent in recent film history. Neeson delivers it brilliantly and what’s great is he does find the kidnappers and he does kill them! Just like he said he would! Nothing I like more than a man who keeps his word!
“Essentially, I’m untrained, so I just go with my imagination and try to put myself as solidly as I can into the shoes of whatever person I’m going to be playing.” — Christian Bale
It’s easy to forget that Christian Charles Philip Bale was only thirteen years old when he was chosen out of thousands of young actors for a starring role in Steven Spielberg’s war drama, Empire of the Sun (1987). From there on in he has become one of the most formidable actors of a generation. Unlike many young actors he has not fallen by the wayside, but rather delivered a series of tour-de-force and award-winning performances in both independent and big budget Hollywood blockbusters.
So, for my occasional look at the major talents of cinema I have turned to one of the greatest actors of the last twenty-something years, and chosen five of his best roles to illustrate that. An intense and natural talent he has been in many outstanding films and some not so good. However, whatever role Christian Bale chooses he is usually never less than powerfully magnetic. I must say, I have not selected any of his portrayals of Bruce Wayne and that very fine Batman performance, notably from a physical perspective. Even though in, Batman Begins (2005), he created a stirring existential vision of a wealthy child growing out of grief into the dark saviour of Gotham City. I just think he has given five better acting transformations on screen. Here they are.
***CONTAINS FILM SPOILERS***
AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
Having tread water in a career-sense attempting to traverse the difficult bridge from child actor to the leading man we have come to know, Christian Bale got a break in Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious novel, American Psycho. And boy – did he make the most of it! I watched the film again recently and I have to say, other than perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio (who was originally cast in the role), no other actor could have delivered such an unhinged, evil and funny (yes he’s hilarious) portrayal of the Wall Street banker-turned-serial killer, Patrick Bateman. It’s a dangerous and sick character who Bale somehow manages to make you despise, yet simultaneously humanise.
THE MACHINIST (2004)
Possibly the greatest Christian Bale performance that hardly anyone has seen. Oh you have seen it? Wow, what an intense performance Bale gives as lonely blue collar worker, Trevor Reznik. Reznik is a haunted man who cannot sleep. He is also anorexic as Bale reduced his weight to 62kg for the role, demonstrating, not for the last time, a dangerous method of obsessive physical transformation. It works too as the skeletal Reznik struggles to overcome a slow descent into madness, with Bale, once again, showing incredible commitment to his craft in this under-rated and haunting noir nightmare of a film.
THE FIGHTER (2010)
While Mark Wahlberg was excellent as the lead actor in David O. Russell’s profile of tough Massachusetts fighter, Micky Ward, Bale absolutely steals the thunder with an incredible acting performance as Ward’s half-brother, Dicky Eklund. As a study of the nefarious curse of addiction, Bale makes the charismatic, but unreliable, Ekland both a loathsome and somehow empathetic character. Because while his crack cocaine addiction drives him to make bad choices for both him and his brother, there is at his heart a loving person battling to win over his illness and make his brother a champion. A story about family and human beings overcoming the odds, Bale punches out another memorably flawed individual in The Fighter (2010), deservedly winning an Oscar in the process.
This revisionist Western did not get nearly enough attention on release. Yet buried in here is another quietly intense acting performance from Christian Bale. His other Western, 3:10 to Yuma (2007) is the more entertaining film, but in Hostiles (2017), he gives a much more complex characterisation as Captain Joseph Blocker. The weight of guilt and pain and death hang heavy on Blocker following years of brutal conflict. Scott Cooper’s film conveys the depressing murderous times borne out of the greedy need for progress. Hatred and white man’s guilt drives his character as Bale’s soldier initially refuses to take Chief Yellow Hawk back to his homeland. Is it more because of the deaths of his own men on the battlefield or because he does not want to face up to his own crimes against the Native Americans? The film explores this question superbly with Bale at the heart of the conflict from savage beginning to bloody end.
While I agree with critics of Vice (2018), that it is cartoonish and simplistic, it is also a brilliant and scabrous work of satire. Yes, sure it’s preaching to the liberal and left-winged Hollywood choir, but it definitely presents a fascinating snapshot of Dick Cheney’s rise from alcoholic wastrel to powerful political figure. I mean let’s face it, Cheney, based on his reign in U.S. politics, is arguably one of the most dangerous men who ever existed. In Adam Mckay’s black political comedy Cheney is shown to be a manipulative puppet-master to Bush’s marionette President. McKay’s film, while certainly one-tracked, powers along picking apart one of the most shadowy political figures of recent years. But what about, Bale? Why take a role where he had to live on doughnuts for year to gain the weight required for the film? Well, because he likes to challenge himself and Bale should have won the Best acting Oscar! Rami Malek was decent as Freddie Mercury, but Christian Bale is astonishing. Fair enough, he takes a real person and delivers an emulation performance, but he also brings to Cheney to life with such intelligent style. Of course, the physical transformation takes the headlines, but in terms of emotion and mentality he really raises the bar. Cheney may be an enigmatic character but Bale brings menace, whispers and evil to the role. There is also a sly humour there too which makes Bale’s Cheney another unforgettable monster he’s brought to the screen.
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.