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Line of Duty – H Bomb

You do not have to read this. But, it may spoil Series Six of Line of Duty if you do so. Anything you do read may be given in evidence.


What will I do with my life after Line of Duty ends on Sunday?

Ahead of the finale, speculation is rife over the identity of H, aka The Fourth Man (or Woman). There’s been a natural shift throughout the series. According to the site True Crime Mania, after Episode Four, the most searched character was Ted. They report a 2500% increase in searches for Philip Osborne during Episode Six, and based on search data, rank the current suspects as follows:

1. Philip Osborne

2. Patricia Carmichael

3. Marcus Thurwell

4. Ian Buckells

5. Jo Davidson

Chief Constable Philip Osborne
Pictured: A git.

That’s a huge hike in searches for our dodgy Chief Constable, and Jed Mercurio wants us believing he’s the bad guy. Osborne has lied, encouraged officers to lie, and tried to stitch up our Steve. Plus, he was chummy with ACC Hilton. As bent coppers go, Hilton was as bent as a plate of spaghetti served in a Mafia owned restaurant. But, while actor Owen Teale has form for playing baddies, remember that the last time before Series Six we saw Osborne was in the first series. No wonder people are Googling who he is.

And there’s another theory doing the rounds. Jed herring, or massive clue? You be the judge.

That theory is, that while he remained alive, the second smuggest person that Central Police have ever met, Jimmy Lakewell, said the following, “Look beyond the race claim to find H.”

If you combine ‘race claim’ with ‘H’, you get an anagram of … ‘Carmichael’.

Patricia Carmichael
Pictured: The smuggest person that Central Police have ever met.

A brilliant piece of cryptic deduction, with which there is only one problem: Lakewell didn’t say it. I’ve checked.

However, I may have stumbled over a clue of my own, which, in the highly unlikely scenario I am right, will have me recruited into AC12 in double-quick time. Fella.

The exhilarating trailer for the finale (above) features this brief shot of the misspelt ‘definite’ that’s been a clue since we first saw the encrypted conversations with H in Series Five:

A close of handwritten notes with the misspelt word 'definite' highlighted

Is it me, or does that handwriting have a pronounced feminine quality? It’s also written in black biro. A biro like the flashy one wielded by Carmichael in her interview scene with Davidson.

As I said in my review of that episode, Carmichael looked as dodgy as the cast of Dodgeball driving a Dodge Challenger to Dodge City. While drunk. And high. At night, and without shoes or socks on.

She even drank from the ‘Glass of Shiftiness,’ something every nervous suspect in LoD history has done.

We hardly ever saw her writing, but we saw a full page of her handwritten notes (Black biro. Just saying.)

We also saw her having opened a second page of the notebook when ‘chivvying’ Steve along from his and Ted’s enquiries when they were looking for evidence to identify H. In that screenshot above, you’ll see not only the text could match, but it’s at the top of the page.

Hardly definitive (definative?) evidence. I’m highly unlikely to second guess Jed, but it sure is fun trying. The biggest thing for me watching that interview scene again was its sheer quality. Kelly Macdonald hasn’t received enough praise for her acting. She was fantastic during that scene, amply justifying her casting. And Anna Maxwell Martin deserves a comparison to the late great Alan Rickman for her brilliant portrayal of villains who stay just outside the Pantomime.

Arnot, Carmichael and Hastings interviewing Davidson.  Carmichael has a gold and black pen.
Pictured: The smoking pen?

Villain? Of course, she is, for now. Is she H though?

I’d like to see a final twist, and the news that Brandyce, the DI who incurred Carmichael’s wrath in the last series may return, hints that there is more to her. Equally, I’d love to see a further series with her in charge – frosty, but straight.

The few who know the answers won’t rat, that’s for sure. Until Sunday Jed has us all stretched tightly on tenterhooks. He’s certainly under enormous pressure to deliver.

Come back next time to see if he can produce a crack shot worthy of AC12, or if it all floats off down the Lagan in a bubble…

Until then, I’m definately Code 11.

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Line of Duty Series Six, Episode Six

Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the wee donkey …!

You do not have to read this. But, it may spoil Series Six of Line of Duty if you do so. Anything you do read may be given in evidence.

Car chase! Steve and Ted still alive!

A calmer (for LoD) episode lets us gather our thoughts, and delivers another great interview scene.

Where do we stand as we reach next Sunday’s finale? Is Osborne bang to rights? Will Super Ted make it? Did Marcus Thurwell suffocate to death on his terrifying fake hair?

Davidson – ‘no comment’:

Given how shifty Jo has been these past weeks, do you believe her story of manipulation rather than greed? Certainly, the revelation about her parentage distressed her. Her actions in the interview (nearly 10 minutes of ‘no comment’!) seemed honourable. She took responsibility for what she could, without fatally ratting on the OCG.

Learning the identity of the bent copper she believed to be her father is surely key to unlocking the story. Thurwell provoked a reaction when she saw him, and the Spanish connection is strong (assuming they’ve ruled a VPN). Google says the surname Thurwell is most common in Yorkshire … would a Scottish officer be more convincing as her father? Dryden maybe? Or someone we’ve yet to meet?

Either way, she’s in mortal danger, as the tormentors of Denton and Jatri proved with their menacing appearance in the prison. Cell Block H is missing a couple of inmates there, I reckon. Could their line about it being like a maze refer to The Maze, perhaps? (See last week.)

Ryan:

Cheerio, you terrifying psychopath, and good riddance. Can’t help but wish he’d been the subject of an interview, but nice shot grouping, Kate.

H:

Do we believe Thurwell is dead? Well, that’s what I guessed would happen last week. But the night vision was grainy at best, and who’s to say the Spanish officer who named him wasn’t just as bent as Ryan? If it’s not his body, then who? If it is, then who killed him? And what (or, who) is buried beneath the weapons factory?

Carmichael (and as much as I detest the character, Anna Maxwell Martin is great) looked as slippery as a greased eel in a Vaseline factory. She could be covering for Osborne, she could be H, or she could just be the robotic careerist douchebag she seems to be. God knows we’ve all met them.

Super Ted has Osborne in his sights, and he does seem like the obvious candidate. Yet it feels like another twist is coming. Maybe Hunter is alive. Maybe Thurwell is. Maybe Robert Carlyle will turn up, and be the big bad for a Series Seven. Maybe Buckells is secretly a brilliant, manipulative genius. I still wouldn’t rule out Fairbanks, Wise, or a senior politician either. Or Ted. Or Kate. Or frankly myself, at this point.

Kate:

Bloody hell.

If you saw previews for this (even just the Electronic Programme Guide on Sunday’s TV), it was all about AC-12 coming to terms with ‘tragic events. I thought for a moment that bent AFOs were going to shoot her in the street, once they got out of Steve’s MX-5 (so what if it’s not a grown-ups car, Kate? I still want one, it would go very well with my mid-life crisis.)

Seeing her take charge of the MIT investigation at the end was wonderful, although, at that point, I was still convinced someone was going to die.

Steve:

Five days to take a drug test or he’s suspended…

Googling how long Codeine stays in the system, if they use a hair follicle (from that luscious beard, perhaps) then traces remain for three months. I don’t think Steve has been taking it in the short term – he’s got his teeth into the case, he’s got his mojo back. But if Codeine is a problem, it’s going to show.

The drugs themselves are probably a minor part of this though. It’s his back, and his ability to do his job as decided by Occy Health. And probably Carmichael. Oh, dear.

Odds are, he’ll get suspended at a crucial point next week and be unable to help a friend in need, which brings us to…

Super Ted:

Line of the week again, but it was hard to take seeing him so distressed. That, and his sidelong guilty look at Lee Banks’ mugshot. Surely, for the love of God, he’s not H? He’s so hellbent on bringing down the Fourth Man (or woman).

It doesn’t look good for the Gaffer, does it? Will he survive, and what will be left of him if he does? Adrian Dunbar was top notch again, and it’s hard to watch him coming apart like this.

Enjoy this tribute while we await his fate.

Everyone else and the plot:

Carmichael makes my skin not so much crawl, as leg-it to the nearest Uber and demand to go to the airport. The woman is bloody horrible, but I thought it was strange that she was so quiet during the (great) interview scene. Despite her blatant suppression of the wider investigation, she wasn’t quite the full frustrated dominatrix she normally is. That made her more suspicious. A DCS in sole charge of a single corruption unit would be an ideal tool for the OCG. But surely, she’s too odious to actually be a baddie?

Predictions:

I got nothing.

At this point, I kind of hope it goes completely barmy next time. Maybe Joanne Lumley will spin around in a chair, stroking a white cat and laughing maniacally. Or maybe, Rimmer from Red Dwarf will show up.

Whatever happens, it’s been a great ride.  If it is the last series, then the characters we love are on a gripping collision course. 

Get your stab vests ready for next weeks folks, it’s going to be huge.

Foxtrot India Sierra Kilo, Code 11.  Till next time…

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Line of Duty

Best of British, worst of coppers.


(My friends over at Live for Film have also posted this blog.)


Right ladies, fellas, and non-binary folks, I’ve divided this into two parts. If you don’t know what I’m waffling on about, read the first part. If, on the other hand, you’re a hardcore LoD fan like me, listening to the podcast and obsessively reading theories on every worthwhile site, jump straight to the second section. Carry on.


1. Briefing for those of you who haven’t seen Line of Duty. Pay attention now, you wee scoundrels …

Line of Duty on BBC One, is now in its sixth (and quite possibly final) series. The Beeb is boasting about its massive viewing figures, and quite rightly, it’s an absolute phenomenon.

The series began life on BBC Two back in 2012 and comes from the pen of Jed Mercurio, an ex-doctor and politically engaged writer never shy of dealing with topical subjects directly and provocatively. That first series started with the killing of an innocent Muslim man by armed police officers in a clear mirroring of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.

The thing that’s so breathtakingly audacious about this show is that it consistently manages to balance righteous fury at such real-world events against completely barmy action scenes that would sit comfortably in a Bond movie. If you stop and take a breath, you can drive a Space-X rocket through the plot holes, but that’s not the point. The point is that this manages to be among the most consistently entertaining TV shows available, standing toe to toe with all the giants of modern TV.

Now okay, as someone who’s been there since the beginning, I’ll concede that maybe it’s not quite as mind-blowingly brilliant as the peak in series two and three, but the current episodes are more than holding their own, and we’ve just had two peerless back-to-back cliff-hangers.

The show follows AC-12, an Anti-Corruption unit of police officers working in ‘Central Police’ in England (Mercurio deliberately never names the location, down to fake postcodes and number plates, although it’s hinted as being set in the Midlands and is filmed in Belfast. Mercurio wanted it to be deliberately vague so that it could easily be your local constabulary).

Each series has focused on a corruption investigation into a different lead character, portrayed by the cream of UK acting talent. Series One set the template, as DCI Tony Gates (played by Lennie James) sank deeper into a mire of corruption that started with administrative irregularities and spiralled out of control due to his ill-fated attraction to a greedy criminal in too deep for her own good.

Gates lived and breathed. He was a multi-dimensional human being from his first scene to his last, and as a viewer you found yourself conflicted as to his guilt or otherwise.

Investigating him are the Three Musketeers of AC-12, led by Superintendent ‘Super Ted’ Hastings, a Belfast raised ex-officer of the RUC, never short of a memorable phrase and as moral and as straight as they come. Or is he…?

As the series has progressed, we’ve dug deeper into a vile criminal conspiracy that brings all levels of society and the police into intimate contact with organised crime. Mercurio has incorporated real-life crime into the storylines with a burning, righteous rage. Somehow, he’s managed to do this without preaching or crossing boundaries of taste, and always with driving, heart-stopping excitement.

Fans love the show as much for its idiosyncrasies as its writing and action set-pieces. For example, police abbreviations litter it… CHIS, OCG, GSW … there are running jokes about having to watch with one eye on Google to keep up. But don’t let that put you off, the jargon keeps it feeling authentic and keeps up the pace, it never gets in the way of the story. Some of the show’s greatest scenes take place in the ‘glass box of doom,’ where an extended (sometimes very extended) interview scene becomes as dramatic and exciting as the best action. And Hastings’ colloquialisms are the stuff of legend.

Another important thing about the show is the fact that it is stubbornly weekly. We’re all so used to binge-watching now, that having to wait seven days for the next episode can feel like an ordeal, an ordeal that Mercurio has relished from the first series with the application of fantastic cliff hangers. A weekly pause can gloss over plot holes or contrivances, which can sometimes be all too clear when watching episodes of a show back-to-back like an extended movie. The format also encourages fans to hunt down clues, an activity that Mercurio actively engages with. His ‘Jed herrings’ have become famous now, whether it’s extended on-set chats with actors who played deceased characters (in full view of photographers), or false or misleading cast lists being published. Searching for clues, just like the characters we love in the show, is half the fun.

When future historians write the final history of our ‘Golden Age of TV’, Line of Duty will be up there with the likes of Breaking Bad as an absolute class ‘A’ thriller. More than that, it has something important to say, and my profound hope is that the younger generation watching this will look deeper into the crimes and injustices that the show highlights, because as Ted might quote himself, “All that is required for evil to triumph…”

All six series are available on BBC iPlayer in the UK, and one season is also currently available on Netflix. Check it out and if you get as obsessed as me, I’ll see you for the episode wrap-ups and predictions between now and the end of this series.


2. If you’re up to date …

You do not have to read this. But, it may spoil Episode Five of Series Six of Line of Duty if you do so. Anything you do read may be given in evidence.

Mother. Of. God.

Incest, a Mexican stand-off, Ted in the field, ‘Definately’ making a comeback and one of the most powerful scenes the show has yet produced? We’re not just sucking diesel here, we’re breathing fire. The show feels incredibly strong now, if ever so slightly ludicrous at the same time.

I’ve been saying from the start of this series that the slower pace it began with would ultimately reward us, and as it crested the hill of Episode Four it has continued to accelerate toward the climax in 10 days. So, where are we?

Davidson:

As many speculated, Jo is the daughter, and apparently the niece (as per a Post-It in the background, although I don’t think they could have concluded that purely from the DNA evidence) of Tommy Hunter. She is the product of incestuous rape. Just when you thought that Hunter couldn’t become any more loathsome, he manages it. So, was she initially blackmailed and corrupted by that connection? If so, it implies that she would have been a law-abiding officer until 2012 because Hunter wasn’t apparently identified beforehand, so presumably, the blackmail wouldn’t work. Either way, since then she’s carried out corrupt actions and crimes, culminating in her attempt to set up Kate’s murder at the close of this episode. On the face of it, she was reluctant, so will she come through and potentially save Kate? Or, should Kate manage to kill Ryan, will Jo try to frame her for his murder?

Ryan:

Our resident psychopath had a bit of a wobble this episode, didn’t he? Maybe the (probably tongue in cheek) rumours that Martin Compston is in the running for Bond have led him to take a shot at the Bond villain role, hence his moustache-twirling admission of murdering Corbett and Bindra. In the context of the scene, he was responding to Kate calling him a little boy, and it was a call-back to the interview between them in Series One when she managed to get under his skin. If he survives this, he’s surely bang to rights now, given the burner phone, the OCG weapon and of course, the attempted hit. Kudos to actor Gregory Piper, who can deliver such blood-curdling malice with his death-stares.

H:

Well, well, well. I can now amend my statement in the first part, above, to read: “…a corruption investigation into a different lead character, portrayed by the cream of UK acting talent. And James Nesbitt.”

Is he going to be the big bad and/or ‘H’? Well, I hope not, and I don’t think so. I hope not because he’s just finished (unconvincingly) playing a bent copper in Bloodlands, so it doesn’t feel like great casting to have him pop up here in a similar role. More importantly, were he confirmed as H with two episodes left, it would feel like a cheat.

I don’t think so, a) for both the reasons above, b) because he’s too big a name only to crop up in a couple of episodes, c) because as many have speculated, if he is a big bad, then it’s more likely a potential set up for a further series, during which anything could happen, and d) it’s just got ‘Jed herring’ written all over it.

What about Ted? The revelation from Lee Banks that he revealed a rat in the OCG was tough to take after the events of the last series, and Steve’s reaction was understandable, but it is far from conclusive that he’s bent. If anything, Ted’s just too human for his own good. If someone had done to your loved one what Corbett did to Ted’s ex-wife, then I’d wager you’d want them hurt or dead too. I know I would. And unlike Steve, we already knew the money came from the OCG. What Ted did with it may have been legally wrong, but it was morally right. If there’s one thing we know for sure about the real H, it’s that he or she is not a moral person.

The most interesting speculation I’ve seen this week about H is that it’s a place, not a person. Hillside nick? The H blocks of the Maze Prison in Ireland? Either way, surely the most likely ‘Mr Big’ at this point is either CC Osborne, a (still faking) Fairbanks, or a politician we’ve yet to meet. The Home Secretary, perhaps?

Kate:

Oh, dear. Not looking good, is it?

Well, Adrian Dunbar was on TV this week pointing out that there is a big clue out there that LoD fans have spotted already about her fate. My feeling is that there are two contradictory clues:

· The original series trailer featured Kate in a scene we’ve yet to see.

· There’s no listing of Vicky McClure appearing in the next two episodes… neither mentioned are Gregory Piper or Kelly Macdonald

Both can’t be true; one is Jed up to his usual tricks. My speculation is below, but who knows? They could easily have filmed or edited together a fake trailer.

There’s also been derision toward Kate’s decision to drive to a dodgy truck park. Nothing good ever happens in truck parks after nightfall, not on TV or the movies for sure, and as grim as that bar looked where she and Davidson had been drinking in earlier episodes, it’s still a bit of a step-down, isn’t it? However, let’s not forget that at that point she still believed Ryan and Davidson were under surveillance. Moreover, like all the Three Musketeers, she’s an absolute crack shot and we see her releasing the safety on her weapon ahead of time. She’s ready.

Aside from the imminent danger to her person, Kate is in better shape than her comrades.

Steve:

Oh, double dear.

The awkward conversation with Steph Corbett brought back painful memories of my dating years. Neither of them would have been able to hear each other over the mayday signals. Despite the fifty-odd grand of dirty money stashed in her attic, Steph is the healthiest relationship our wee Steve has had since the show started (albeit she’s a departure from his usual ‘type’). I’m hoping that somehow, he gets through this and they travel off into the CGI sunset behind her suspiciously smart house (although not as suspicious as DSu Davidson’s swanky, Fort Knox style pad).

But first, there’s the small matter of his drug test, which you just know the loathsome Carmichael will be all over in the next episode (and she is bloody loathsome, sorry). Steve’s sad relaying of his predicament to Steph in the earlier episode was heartbreaking stuff, Martin Compston has come into his own now, if not always having been the most convincing in past series. Kudos to his pronunciation of ‘homozygosity’ too. Must be part of basic police officer training.

Super Ted:

While he didn’t get to deliver another barnstorming speech this week like ‘What has happened to us?’ it was a treat to see the Big Fella out in the field again after his appearance in the Underpass of Secrets the week before. “Site three. Alpha Charlie one zero receiving,” was great to hear, as the plot unfurled, and we realised Kate and the team’s plan.

And while seeing him getting his wings clipped by Carmichael (did I mention I don’t like her?) was hard to take, few will have missed his choice of phrase as he rushed to Kate’s aid at the end: “That’s my officer out there. I’ll breathe when she’s safe.” Does that mean that Kate has been under deep cover the whole time? Nah. It means that once Ted cares about you, he does so for life, no matter the difficulties that have passed between them and Kate’s speaking truth to power in the past episode. If anything, he respects and values her even more now.

The trouble is, Sindwhani has given Ted both carte blanche and a time limit. The last time he was under pressure like that, he pretended to be H and nearly lost his liberty as a result. What on Earth is he going to do this time?

Everyone else and the plot:

If Ted didn’t get a memorable speech this episode, Chloe certainly did. The amalgamation of the real-life Stephen Lawrence and Christopher Alder cases into the fictional Lawrence Christopher was a big step. Like others, I hope that their families were consulted beforehand. I expect they were, and I commend anything that brings attention to the cases. The fact is, if you’re not angry about what happened to those men, then frankly you bloody-well should be. Chloe’s question, “How could anyone be okay?” just like Ted’s “What has happened to us?” should not be allowed to be a rhetorical one.

The more we see of Chloe, the more I believe she’s a good ‘un. The idea that she’s Gates’ daughter or a relative of Lawrence Christopher may turn out to be true (especially given Central Police’s woeful record on staff vetting), but I think she’s going to be one of the heroes. More prosaically, I think she’s taking the place of Tatleen, played by Taj Atwell in Series Five. Atwell is starring in the current series of The Syndicate, so they may just have had a casting clash and decided to bring in a new character.

Chloe may go on to be one of the new Three Musketeers if there is a Series Seven. Which brings me to…

Predictions:

Ryan’s modified gun misfires (the earlier episode hinted at this when they interviewed the boy-band armed robber), and Kate (highly trained AFO remember) fires two shots, double-tap to the centre mass.

Ryan dies, Kate survives. But…

Since that first trailer that I linked to above, they’ve been hinting that Kate might die. I have a horrible feeling it’s a bait and switch, and that the close of Episode Six will see either Ted or Steve die. No cliff-hanger, no get-out clause, one of them unquestionably deceased. There’s just too much of a finality hanging over this series for all of them to get out alive. If it’s Ted that doesn’t make it, would Steve and Kate end up frostily working with Carmichael in a future series?

In this theory, that loss seriously jeopardises the investigation, only for DS Chris Lomax to step up in the final episode, revealing himself as a UCO for either AC3 or AC9 and helping them crack the case. His physical and personal similarity to Dot Cottan has got to be a misdirect, surely? And he’s been there since the first scene of this series… there is more to him than meets the eye.


I’m going to try to post early Monday morning after each of the final two episodes, but I’m watching this at the same time as you, I don’t, unfortunately, have early access like some reviewers, so I’ll get something out as soon as I can! Till next time…

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Good times with four great movies

Bad Times at El Royale (2018) is pulp fiction. Pulp Fiction it ain’t, but it unashamedly massages that movie’s feet, then steals its shoes to walk in them for a while. It’s directed by Drew Goddard, who gave us The Cabin in the Woods (2012). You’ve seen The Cabin in the Woods, right? If not, go and watch it right away, it’s an absolute cracker of a film, a great horror comedy with depth and smarts.

Forearmed with that knowledge, it’s clear from the outset that El Royale is going to be more than it initially appears. The film is set in 1969, and the El Royale of the title is a hotel on the border of California and Nevada. These are clues about where this is going, but it takes a fun, winding road to get there. For those of us sick of Hollywood’s morbid refusal to forget a murderer who deserves nothing more, there is enough distance and artistic merit to hold the interest.

It’s no Cabin in the Woods, not even close, but it’s entertaining, has a great cast and enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. If nothing else, it’s worth seeing for the fantastic music throughout.

Our Kind of Traitor (2016) stars Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgard and Damien Lewis in an adaptation of a 2010 John Le Carre novel. It was poignant to see the author’s cameo in the film, having lost him last year.

The cast is uniformly excellent, the story compelling and it’s well shot. True, if your familiar with Le Carre’s work, you might guess the ending before you put it on but, as you would expect it’s an excellent journey to reach that point. And give me this over the much more storied adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) every time. That film suffered badly from its casting, so the final revelation of the traitor was underwhelming.

The Invitation (2015) is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. You really, really should know as little as possible about the film before watching it to get the most from it. All I’ll say genre-wise is that I’d class it as ‘uncomfortable.’ Going any further than that risks spoiling it. Other reviews I’ve read rightly commend the film for its intelligence and not talking down to the audience, but don’t worry, this is no Nolan flick, you’ll follow it fine first time. The plot is, as it says, about an invitation extended to Will (played by Logan Marshall-Green, separated at birth from Tom Hardy) and his girlfriend Kira. Awkwardly, said invitation comes from Will’s ex-wife, Eden. Accept the invitation yourself, and you’ll spend the whole movie second-guessing what is going on. It’s a brilliant piece of work, which takes you on a thrilling, believable journey with a great pay off. Exceptional.

Fair Game (2010) tells the story of Valerie Plame, the CIA operative exposed by the Bush administration in retaliation for her husband Joe Wilson’s op-ed article, ‘What I didn’t find in Africa’, which exposed one of the key lies about intelligence leading to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Naomi Watts portrays Plame, and Sean Penn plays Wilson. If anyone can sell anger, it’s Penn, and while he’s not an actor everyone likes, he is brilliantly cast here. Irrespective of your opinions of the Iraq invasion, or Wilson himself, the man was a hero to many, best exemplified by the stand he took against Saddam Hussein in 1990. He was the last American diplomat to meet Saddam after the invasion of Kuwait, telling the dictator to leave. Saddam then told all the Baghdad embassy heads, Wilson included, that he would execute anyone sheltering foreigners. Wilson’s response? He called a press conference in which he appeared with a homemade noose around his neck. He said, “If the choice is to allow American citizens to be taken hostage or to be executed, I will bring my own fucking rope.”

Backing his words with actions, he sheltered over a hundred people and evacuated thousands. He was a brave, principled man. Certainly, that’s how he’s portrayed in the film, as well as being confrontational and difficult, and unwilling to suffer fools (the look on his face at a dinner party when one of those present is speculating on how the diners would feel about men in turbans boarding a plane in the aftermath of 9/11 is priceless). Watts and Penn portray a convincing professional couple, and the fissures in their marriage that widen due to the fallout of the leak are well played, along with the wider ramifications of the government’s actions. The anger that many of us felt as we were marched to an illegal war burns hot from the screen, but the film doesn’t quite work. Maybe it’s the sense of familiarity or the inevitable outcome. As a packaged piece of history, particularly for those less familiar with the time, it’s certainly worth a watch, maybe as a double bill after the superior Vice (2018). Together, they certainly help to explain the current state of the world.

Tomorrow: Rebellion, Don’t Breathe, The Climb, and … Line of Duty. Fella.


I watched the movies reviewed above on the following platforms (no additional cost other than subscription):

Bad Times at the El Royale – Disney +

Our Kind of Traitor – Amazon Prime

The Invitation – Netflix

Fair Game – Amazon Prime

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Is it safe?

So, last week I had a tooth out, and the (literally) bloody hole where it used to be got infected. If you’ve experienced that kind of dental pain yourself, you’ll know that it turns you into something like the Hulk, only with fewer anger management skills. It’s also hard to think, let alone work, so I found myself slumping (angrily) in front of the TV for days and sleepless nights as I waited for the antibiotics to do their work. I watched a lot:

Palm Springs – Amazon Prime

Bad Times at the El Royale – Disney +

Our Kind of Traitor – Amazon Prime

The Invitation – Netflix

Fair Game – Amazon Prime

Rebellion series one – Netflix

Don’t Breathe – Amazon Prime

The Climb – Amazon Prime (paid, but on special offer for £1.99 when I watched it)

Series one of Line of Duty – BBC iPlayer, also on Netflix (series six currently airing on BBC One at 2100 BST on Sundays)

All were good entertainment, some were outstanding.

I’ve done some reviews, but this has resulted in a lot of text, so will drip feed it out over the next few days and … perhaps … I’ll talk a wee bit more about Line of Duty at the end, because, Mother of God, it didn’t drift down the Lagan in a bubble fella, and now it’s really sucking diesel! (If you’re not a fan, this won’t make much sense, but you’re also missing out on quality entertainment…)

Palm Springs is the latest from the Lonely Island guys. If you haven’t heard of them, take a look on YouTube for their hysterical music videos… Jack Sparrow is a personal favourite (NSFW… but WTF are you doing reading this at work?). Unlike their earlier, hilarious movies, Hot Rod (2007) and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016), this one only features Andy Samberg (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), rather than the whole crew, and it has a different vibe from those earlier films, but it is excellent, possibly an instant classic.

There have been a few clever takes on the Groundhog Day formula recently. Edge of Tomorrow (2014) was woefully underrated, and Happy Death Day (2017) was tremendous fun, genuinely improved on by its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U in 2019, despite the awful title. What these takes lacked in Bill Murray, they made up in genre smarts and heart, but Palm Springs takes on Groundhog Day on its own terms, as a rom-com, and it wipes the floor with it.

First, while Andy Samberg may not be Bill Murray (who is?), he’s a gifted actor and comedian in his own right, with a similar easy charisma and command of the screen.

Secondly, in Palm Springs, Cristin Milioti plays the female half of the romantic pairing. It turns out she was drastically underserved by her fleeting role as the eponymous mother in How I Met Your Mother. Here, she is engaging, hilarious and completely convincing as someone who’s made seriously bad choices in life. You’ll be rooting for her despite that. The film also stars JK Simmons. JK Simmons is always formidable, isn’t he? He’s having a ball in this.

Thirdly, and I realise this is so obvious as to be dumbass, but Groundhog Day was repetitive. As the audience, you feel just as trapped as Phil the weatherman, and comedy genius or not, I think I’d be right there with the various suicide attempts after a while. Palm Springs skips all of that. Someone always must go first, and this modern crop of repeated day movies have the benefit of hindsight. Moreover, this comes after another thirty years of continually decreasing attention spans. That’s not always bad – this movie is sharper and more dynamic than Groundhog Day was. In Palm Springs, the young protagonists take every advantage of repeatedly living an entirely consequence-free day.

Like another film on this list, the less you know going in, the more you’ll enjoy it, but this is a modern, heartfelt, heartwarming comedy that will just make you feel a little happier, especially if you’re married. And yes, it is painfully, choke-on-your-drink funny. Try it.

Tomorrow: Bad Times at the El Royale, Our Kind of Traitor, The Invitation & Fair Game

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School’s Out Forever review & bits and pieces

I’ve had more fun recovering from major surgery

Hello readers, here:s the link to my review of School’s Out Forever which is released on Monday 15th Feb. It’s fair to say I wasn’t impressed..!

Also, for those that missed it and want to have a (long) read about monster movies, here is part one

Terrifying gigantic woman. Oh, and a gorilla.

…and part two.

Pictured: It’s an Alien, NOT a bloody ‘xenomorph’!

This month we’ve been doing a chronological watch of the MCU. Well, almost chronological. I skipped Captain Marvel, because a) she doesn’t turn up again for umpteen movies and it probably just have confused Mrs Fisk Film who is not a comics fan and b) well… it’s a bit pants, really. The funny bit’s are good, but once it turns into a spangly, overpowered CGI fest it just feels lame. We will watch it, but in between Infinity War and Endgame where it makes more sense.

Viewing the movies this way works well. For one thing, like it or not the MCU is very televisual. Watching it in order on TV, picking up all the links between the stories feels more engaging. I still think the series peaks with the triple whammy of Avengers, Winter Soldier and Civil War. I love the closure to Cap’s story in Endgame, but I didn’t feel engaged with the Thanos saga the first time around. Maybe this will be different. I’ll probably do a ‘listicle’ about it. Sneak preview: Iron Man 2 is way, way at the bottom. Sheesh.

Also watched Greenland on Amazon Prime. Good to see Gerard Butler acting again rather than shouting and punching things. It’s okay, but if you want to see a quieter Butler performance in an exciting, fun film, then I’d go for Hunter Killer instead. And just saying, the key plot point that much of Greenland‘s story hangs on is just bad parenting. Some things, you always double check. Life saving medicine for your kid is one of those things. Still, there are a couple of scenes in the film that are really well executed and stick with you after the credits roll.

Have also been nerding out with a lot of Doctor Who YouTube videos. It’s freaking me out that there are adults presenting these ‘video essays’ talking about how nuWho affected their childhoods. Sixteen years is a long time.

There have been some incredible highs in that time, which make the current state of the show all the more galling. If it’s true that Jodie Whittaker is leaving at the end of the next series, then I hope the BBC recognises how successful (and lucrative) the show has been for them and backs it, preferably replacing Chris Chibnall as show-runner. Even if they slash the budgets, the show could survive and thrive, provided it has decent writers. Not an original point of view, I know, but nothing seems to be working at the moment and there is little respect for what’s gone before, whether that’s The Timeless Children or the character of The Master.

Please don’t cancel the show, BBC. It’s lasted almost sixty years on (mostly) tiny budgets and shonky effects. Spend the money on creative talent and just film everything in a quarry. That worked great for years.

Whatever happens, at least we have absolutely perfect television like Blink and The Day of the Doctor. Yes we’re living in a golden age of TV, and those episodes are the equal of anything you can see elsewhere.


Until next time, people. I’ll leave you with Jack Black auditioning to replace Chris Hemsworth as Thor, which is my favourite thing on the internet at the moment.

Fisk Film out.

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Monsters, and other stuff to do in Lockdown Three

Happy New Year and welcome back, hope you’re all well.

I’ve written a long article for Live for Film on monsters in cinema which they’re publishing in two parts today and Wednesday. In the meantime, unsurprisingly under lockdown, we’ve been watching a stack of movies, so here are some quick and dirty highlights.




Wonder Woman 1984.

Well, this is divisive. Some of the reviews are saying we all need this, others are slating it to kingdom come. As I’ve said before though, always give me a contentious movie over something which offends no-one. I can see why some people don’t like it. WW84 feels a little messy in places, and is deliberately excessive in comparison to its predecessor. After a fantastic intro on Themyscira, the first action scene sets the tone of an Eighties superhero film. For me, Patty Jenkins has adopted the ‘up to eleven,’ sensibilities of the decade and drenched the film in it.

The film hit its stride with some brash, fun political commentary, although later portions of the Washington set movie in the context of what happened there on 6th January, are a little disturbing. One thing is for sure, with the recent revelation of where Zack Snyder wanted to take this character (turning her into a bloodthirsty killer), it’s wonderful(!) to have this uplifting, moral take, instead of yet another dreadful, tone-deaf effort which seems written by a teenager who has skim-read the Wikipedia page on Nietzsche. There’s a moment in Hans Zimmer’s great score at the emotional height of the film when the DCEU suddenly makes sense. It never has before. Although, erm, didn’t Hans Zimmer quit the superhero business?

I saw Wonder Woman 1984 on premium streaming.



Parasite

Wow.

Was not a fan of Bong Joon-ho before this. I’d only seen Host which I didn’t enjoy. Snowpiercer I switched off. But this? Well, all the reviews which said for once the best movie of 2020 won the Best Film Oscar were right. The film is another reason to long for an end to lock down so I can talk about it around a pub table with my friends. There’s so much going on in the story and the visuals.

The movie flows around different genres like a shallow stream on a rocky bed. The main thrust is social commentary but never feels forced or preachy. Instead, the film is more like a thriller, perhaps one of those Nineties psycho-thrillers that were all the rage after Single White Female. But Parasite is like a three-course meal at a decent restaurant, while they were more like a sweaty kebab at three o’clock in the morning.

Parasite doesn’t give you any easy answers and doesn’t judge its characters. It presents its story and lets you decide. Who are the parasites?

Parasite is streaming on Amazon Prime.



Every Time I Die

This 2019 thriller currently has a deserved 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It put me in mind of something like The Sixth Sense, that strain of ‘supernatural thriller’ which isn’t a horror movie and doesn’t try to be but uses the paranormal as a part of the plot, in this case, (sort of) instant reincarnation. This is a smart, well-made little thriller which works best once the plot kicks into gear. I guess they slightly fudge the start and end, but if you respond to the story that’s a minor problem.

Every Time I die is on Netflix.



Tenet

The film that was meant to save cinemas and didn’t. The irony is of course, that so many people chose to stay away for safety reasons, it may have been safe to go. Still, the film is streaming now. Your feelings on the movie will depend on your general feelings about Nolan films because this is peak Nolan. Tenet is complicated, it doesn’t wait around for you to catch up and refuses to dumb down. The emotional payoff ties tightly into the plot complexity. And yes, it means that the sound mix is a little heavy – the score is brilliant and VERY LOUD, the dialogue sometimes obscured.

I absolutely loved the film. I loved the scale, the plot, the effects, the jaw-dropping set pieces, the performances – Kenneth Branagh manages to transform his whole face with rage in one scene and he’s bloody terrifying. This is a full-bore Nolan Bond film, with a large dollop of physics thrown in for good measure.

Mark Kermode was spot on in his review in that the complexity is more around the mechanics than the philosophy, and for that reason, I’d say if pushed that Inception is still his greatest work, but come on… Watching a film more than once is simply good value, surely? Nolan himself is right when he says you don’t need to hear all the dialogue; this is a film, there are multiple ways in, multiple ways to understand it. And to be clear, the story is not lost on first viewing, you will understand what’s going on. It’s just that by revisiting you can take more away, like re-reading a fantastic book or wiping up every morsel of a great meal. More than that, watching Tenet again is just as thrilling as the first time… that is the mark of the highest quality cinema. I’m so grateful to be a movie fanatic living while he’s working, it’s a huge privilege.

Tenet is streaming (rental) now.



Calibre

Enjoyed this tense if somewhat formulaic little Netflix thriller. It’s British, from 2018 and debuted that year at the Edinburgh Film Festival. It put me in mind of A Lonely Place to Die, the 2011 Melissa George vehicle, and while it’s not as good as that movie, it matches or even edges it in terms of suspense. The only actor I recognised was Tony Curran (a man who to this day I can’t look at without seeing him enthusiastically shagging Ferdy in the toilets during the climactic wedding in This Life).

Calibre is on Netflix.



Indigo Gaming Cyberpunk Documentary

My buddy recommended this two-part (a third instalment is planned) review of the cyberpunk genre, covering movies, novels, games, and comics. It’s a fun ride through the genre, starting with a good definition (‘Hi-tech, low life’) before looking at how it developed and what the key milestones are. It’s exhaustive, though I’m looking forward to seeing more of the Nineties and later stuff, including Keanu’s journey to becoming a de-facto Cyberpunk messiah. If you’re a fan of the genre it’s well worth checking out, as you may well find some new avenues to explore.

These documentaries are free to view on YouTube.



The Wind in the Willows

I’m reading this, having had it as a Xmas present. Despite knowing the story well, thanks to an audiobook I wore out as a kid, I’ve never actually read it before, and its perfect lockdown material, taking you away from the craptastic early 2020s to a better world where everyone is good-natured. I hadn’t appreciated how beautifully written it was, the language is beautiful, and the characters are such great analogues of our personalities and whims that it’s no surprise there’s a well-reviewed counselling book based on it. This version has an introduction by AA Milne, who says: “The book is a test of character. We can’t criticize it, because it is criticizing us.”

Hope you find something here to entertain you. Until next time…

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Giant Spiders and Donald Trump. The Fear of 2020.

I’m going to start with a trigger warning. Well, three.

There’s a picture of a great big spider at the bottom of this blog. He’s called Sputnik. He’s probably a Giant House Spider. The mirror clip he’s next to is two and a half centimetres long (about an inch).

That’s one trigger. The next is a trigger warning for trigger warnings. Time was the mention of them would make me roll my eyes. Just don’t look at stuff you don’t like, right? Well… have you seen the news any time in the last four years? Even sources I trust have shown horrific images.

The last trigger warning is for the long, rambling nature of this post. There are films in here, eventually, but I’m off the chain this time, so apologies. It’s 3,500 words long. I know I’m just shouting into the void anyway, apart from the few (lovely) people who are interested in my nonsense (hello Mum).

The photo of Sputnik was taken last month, in my home office. I spent three days living with him… at least that I know of. He’s disappeared… for now.

It’s Autumn. In the UK and similar climes, it’s the time of year you’re most likely to see the fellas that come hurtling out from underneath your furniture. They’re horny males looking for a willing partner. Autumn is Springtime for House Spiders.

That means this time of year is a waking nightmare for arachnophobes. Years ago, I couldn’t have looked at the photograph below, much less taken it. And no, I didn’t use zoom and I haven’t edited it, save cropping it a little.

I’m not cured, but I’m better than I used to be. Well, I was, at least until this year.

The definition of phobia in the Cambridge online dictionary is, “a type of anxiety disorder (a mental illness that makes someone very worried and affects their life) that involves an extreme fear of something”. Other definitions say sufferers will actively, and irrationally, avoid any chance of meeting spiders.

Irrational? Of course, it is. Even more so now. The tiny thing that poses a threat to us in 2020 isn’t a spider, at least not in the UK.

It’s an atavistic phobia, one that evolved from a time in our history when we all lived in a place with venomous, potentially lethal spiders. It was irrational when I fled a room with a spider in it, though. It’s not something I could control. It was as automatic as breathing.

And yes, I avoid places and activities because of it. I always wanted to go potholing until I learned about these.

Throughout most of my life, I’ve also had a recurring nightmare about spiders in my bed. Frankly, I’d rather not write about that. Suffice to say they follow me from sleep. The waking period afterwards is harrowing.

A spider in real life was the ultimate horror for me, but I couldn’t bear to see photographs, film or even toy spiders. A close-up of a spider’s face on a David Attenborough documentary scarred me for months. I mean, how many eyes do you need? That’s just wrong. Even Charlotte’s Web gave me the willies.


My oldest friend helped reduce the intensity of my phobia.

One day at primary school, they introduced a bloke with a tarantula. We were all supposed to sit there calmly as this – palpably sadistic – man brought it round in his hands. I disappeared through the wall. For my buddy though, it started a lifelong fascination. Not long after that, he had his own tarantula at home. Soon afterwards, a corn snake.

It’s not like he forced me to visit the spider, he’s not that much of a maniac. But just knowing it was in the house when I was there was a constant subsonic thrum at the back of my skull. Sooner or later, morbid fascination and the fact that the beast was securely contained behind glass meant that I would voluntarily go and look at it. Sometimes, I’d watch as he fed it, seeing a doomed cricket flee for its life in a forlorn chase around the vivarium. I learned a little spider body-language – essentially it all amounts to, “Run”.

This didn’t mean I was fine with UK spiders, far from it. But when Arachnophobia came out in 1990, we went on opening night. That was inconceivable a few years previously. It’s a great film, even though I find it tough to watch.


So, I’ve attempted to become braver with these wee beasties as I’ve grown, to the point of touching some of the smaller ones that I see around the house.

Then 2020 happened.

This year has been the worst resurgence of my fear that I can remember for maybe two decades. The obvious explanation is the underlying anxiety of this year that many are experiencing, perhaps combined with the sense of being trapped at home. I’ve had sleepless nights, and self-inflicted spirals of fear, obsessing over them. And it is a spiral. My mind torments me. My eyes play tricks on me. An unexpected sensation on my skin isn’t the breeze or a hair… it’s one of them. It’s like my mind has become my enemy, casting me in an extreme horror film I’d never watch.

Interestingly, arachnophobia is defined above as mental illness. As an adult, I’ve suffered – and often continue to suffer – with depression and anxiety. Anyone who’s known depression will know that sense of your mind as your enemy. There’s no delineation in my mind for it, no terminator between ‘happy’ and ‘depressed’. But I’ve begun to understand it. This fear though, this phobia has been with me always. I don’t know there was an incident when I was very young. I certainly have a memory of one, in my bed or my cot. But did it happen? Or did the phobia instil it in me as a rationalisation, an excuse? I don’t know. I know memories are less trustworthy now. That fact is unfortunate, but understanding it is a privilege. Maybe my phobia plucked Jeff Daniel’s experience, magpie-like, from the film version. Or maybe it happened.

Whatever triggered it, it’s been here for my whole conscious life. And now it’s back like a trashy reboot, unwanted, unloved, over-hyped.

When Sputnik first appeared, he scared the s**t out of me. He was where he is in the photo that first day, he seemed to like it there. Maybe so he could keep an eye on me (he has enough spare). I spend all day in my office these days, just grateful that I still have work while so many others don’t. I was determined to live with him, not to run, not to get my Wife to put him out. I wanted to learn.

He moved around quite a bit, mostly in the evenings, mostly when the lights were out. I came in one evening and found him eating… it was a Cronenbergian nightmare in miniature, like an explosion in an abattoir. If you Google ‘serrated chelicerae’, then you’ll get a pretty good idea of what seemed to be happening. His victim was a large fly I’d noticed flitting around the light earlier. After he’d finished dining, the wings and one leg were left over.

Exposure therapy. Live with your fears. Can’t say I’m a fan. I don’t know if it helped, to be honest. Now that he’s out of sight, it’s worse.

But I think by trying to understand this thing that frightens me, maybe I’ve laid the foundations of a bridge to my fear, a way of conversing with my anxiety as an equal, rather than a victim. And if that’s pretentious, consider it in the context of 2020 for a second. Knowledge of inevitable loss is part of the human condition, but now, we’re drowning in it. And our best way to combat it? Lock ourselves away from the people we love.

Part of what makes spiders so terrifying to me is their total unrelatability. It’s why the face-huggers in Alien and Aliens resemble spiders… that scuttle makes my skin want to crawl away and hide in a dark corner.

Just look at the bloody things. For a start, they’re all predators. No such thing as a vegan spider. Fangs first, then a nightmarish, multi-eyed, segmented body, suspended by eight hairy, creeping, scuttling legs. They’re slower than I thought. Sputnik and his kin can get up to just over one mile an hour, so we can outwalk them, but that’s easier said than done when they charge at you in a confined space. Anyway… talk about a face only a mother can love. Moreover, this creature dissolves prey alive then… slurps.

When I asked my friend, the spider-man, he said that his feelings towards them were ‘interest and … fascination. They really are interesting animals to look after.’

‘Interesting’. In 2017, I went diving with sharks. I was always fascinated by them, but then I learned about tonic immobility, about sharks in ecstatic paralysis having their chins scratched. For anyone who knows dogs, it’s impossible not to see parallels. It’s that ‘start the motorbike’ fixation. The three-metre sand tiger sharks I met were like big, wet German Shepherds. They were interesting, sure, but somehow relatable too.

It’s probably (slightly) more rational to be afraid of sharks than spiders, but they are easier to understand. We evolved from life in water after all. Spiders… they’re about as relatable as the heat death of the universe.

Which brings me to Donald Trump.

2020 is … well let’s just say it, it’s a rancid stack of shit, 366 days high, towering over us like tumescent sewage.

There are people my age who will tell you that the Eighties were a far more frightening time to be alive and that we lived in greater existential danger. There were more nuclear weapons then, and the US and USSR were like a couple trapped in a loveless marriage, both terrified of divorce, but unable to communicate. Global thermonuclear war was prevented more than once, not just by better angels, but also blind luck. The dominant ideologies existed in total opposition. But at least they had ideologies. They believed in something bigger than themselves. How many of the world’s dominant leaders can we say that about today?

Worse, the world wide web, thirty years old this year and possibly mankind’s single greatest invention has become, according to some, our greatest threat.

Even when those nuclear stockpiles were so high, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction meant that self-preservation prevailed. It’s Game Theory on a terrifying global scale; nuclear weapons don’t kill people, people do. In the best cinematic depiction of Game Theory, The Dark Knight, one of the prisoners throws the detonator away. Unilateral disarmament. To date, only Costa Rica has had a policy of full unilateral disarmament, though South Africa gave up its nukes when Apartheid ended.

The point is no-one had the will to push the ‘end the world’ button. Those empires in their loveless marriage didn’t want to destroy the house they lived in and burn each other to death in the process.

But social media and trolling as a way of life has once again pushed the world into different camps. And what do they believe? That the other side is wrong. That’s it. The vitriol is rising like the pink gloop in Ghostbusters II, but globally. Hatred is becoming a universal language.

Better writers have long expressed the irony that our greatest ever communication technology has rendered us more alone than ever. Is there too much information? Too much reliance on it? By becoming a cybernetic society, are we losing our humanity?

Two films on Netflix have recently examined these themes, The Great Hack (2019) and The Social Dilemma (2020).

They’re not perfect. I’d encourage viewers to do their research and make up their minds, but the fact is that data, data about you, is more valuable than oil. Corporations have finally turned ‘human resources’ into a reality, creating the richest companies that have ever existed.

The Great Hack looks at the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while The Social Dilemma looks in more detail at social networking itself and how our data is exploited. The former is the more successful film, in my view. The latter spends about half its running time with a dramatization of its themes, which doesn’t particularly work and talks down to the audience.

Technology, like spiders and the death of our universe, is both ambivalent and inevitable. It doesn’t care about us, hate us, or wish harm upon us. However, unlike spiders, it can easily be manipulated.

Nor is capitalism, of itself, inherently malign. But it is unchecked. In the global climate emergency, it is failing us. With access to technology, it becomes more dangerous daily.

Donald Trump is capitalism with its mask off. The prospect of another four years of his rule frightens me much more than Sputnik. But he’s a symptom. He’s not the centre of this, as much as he’d like to believe it. He’s the ultimate demonstration of ‘trolling’, and genuinely smart people around him exploit his data as much as ours for their own ends… power at any price.

The same is happening here in the UK. While not as advanced, it is gathering pace.

The world is a terrifying place. It’s no wonder we need trigger warnings, or that mental health conditions are on the rise.

Knowledge isn’t a cure for terror, but it is a salve. Living with Sputnik for three days didn’t cure my fear, but it helped me to understand and respect him and his kind a little better.

The thing about knowledge is, the more you learn, the more you learn about learning. Understanding the difference between a primary and secondary source, for example. Or about the difference between subjective and objective data. About empiricism. The Rashomon effect.

The web is the ultimate democratisation of data. But the sheer deluge of data now is overwhelming to the point it has become frightening itself. We must work harder to understand.

Believing something you read on the internet, whether it’s here, Facebook or anywhere else is like unquestioningly believing a piece of graffiti. But plenty of us do it, I know I have. We rightly value reading, but it doesn’t come with a critical mindset built-in. Clever people manipulate information, appealing to a hangover of respect and credulity afforded to sources that meet formal criteria.

Learning to distinguish between fact and opinion is increasingly vital. Learning to debate. Seeking multiple quality sources to confirm facts. Staying open-minded, respecting other opinions. Find your truth, but don’t inflict it on others.

I’m opinionated. I’d hardly be writing a blog otherwise. I enjoy arguing about things especially films and I’ll sometimes get carried away. But opinions aren’t facts. Just because I think every Michael Bay movie apart from The Rock sucks balls, doesn’t mean that someone who rates his films above Scorsese is wrong. I’ll argue, but it’s your money and your choice, enjoy it.

It goes further. I believe facts, in the words of CP Scott, are sacred. But the truth is transitory. What can be proved within the event horizon of a person’s experience? If you want to believe that the Earth is flat, go for it. I’m unlikely to change your mind, and frankly, I’d sooner spend the energy more productively.

The closest thing we have to objective truth is mathematics, and every time we learn something new through that, it just generates more questions. Often amazing questions, but questions, nonetheless. Ultimately, I think there is no ‘destination truth’, no shining, unifying fact that will appear one day like a giant black obelisk and ‘level up’ humanity. A significant proportion of the world’s population will find that sacrilegious, that saying there is no one truth is the one true ‘wrong’.

But whether it exists or not, we should keep looking. We must. It’s what dragged us from the slime in the first place, it’s what makes us write, it’s what makes us tell stories. It’s what built the printing press, took us to the moon and created the World Wide Web.


A social network hosted by technology is a lens, a frame of reference. Those lenses exist in all our interactions, whether it’s over a garden fence to your neighbour on a Zoom call in 2020 or through an Instagram post. We absorb data just like the data companies do, but we have both a smaller sample size and a vastly different array of sensors. Five senses, maybe one or two others of which we’re unconscious, or led by instinct. And we process them in real-time.

Talking to your neighbour, you can hear her words, her nuances, her accent. You can smell what she’s cooking and whether she’s had a shower today, you can see the narrowing of her eyes as she struggles with something, or the genuine smile when she talks about her kids. If it wasn’t 2020, you might get a hug.

Cambridge Analytica understood all of this deeply. They understood phobias, too. They applied that lens at scale through our social media feeds, like Sauron staring back through the Palantir. They helped others use these instinctive reactions to increase their power and wealth.

The lens effect is very real. If we define reality by what we see through a screen, then, inevitably we put a reality TV star in charge of the free world.


Cambridge Analytica is gone. A multitude has replaced them. The data we give them grows daily. Your Fitbit, all the purchases you make in an increasingly cash-less world, every photo you store in the Cloud for free, in fact, anything you store in the Cloud for free, every Google search, every post, every online purchase, all your real-time location data as well as all the journeys you make using Google Maps. It’s all grist for the mill. It’s all beautifully expensive data that others are making trillions from. It’s all searched to identify the things you fear and the things you love, which are then used to influence you, to make your choices for you.

A reality TV star runs a world that seems more unreal every day, that seems more like a movie, and not a movie many of us like: “One star, thumbs down; loathed the lead actor.”

I used to believe there was a moral requirement to watch and read the news. No more. I need to protect my mental health. But in this insane reality, is there a moral duty to understand? To look deeper, to stare at the things that frighten you in the face and try to come to terms with them?

I think there probably is, but we must be careful. Walk, don’t canter. Opening the wrong door at the wrong time would be akin to opening the wrong hatch on a deeply submerged submarine.

There is certainly a moral duty to understand your data and decide how much you’re willing to give away. Data is the new oil. Look where blind use of oil brought us. We’re at the dawn of this age and we have huge power to make changes now. It’s easy too. DuckDuckGo, for example, is a search engine that respects your privacy, unlike Google. It has become much better in recent years and continues to improve. You can always use Google occasionally if you really must.

There are many changes we can and should make. Many of them are incredibly straightforward and will effect real, positive change right now. Just like fossil fuels, the more reliant we become on this technology, the harder it will become to change in the long run. Your data, your choice. All our futures.

Whether that moral obligation extends to confronting our fears, to understand the things that truly frighten us… that must be a strictly personal choice. Some things are too horrifying to consider.

I mean, spiders liquefy their victims, which include their mates and even their mothers. But at least they’re not Dominic Cummings.

I finished this last weekend. On Saturday night, I was standing in the lounge wearing shorts with bare feet when a spider ran up my leg. He was smaller than Sputnik, but big enough. My reaction amazed me … there was none. I just put him back on the floor and protected him from our curious, clumsy dog while my Wife found a glass and put him outside.

Sure, if he’d been Sputnik, it would have been different. But in this small way, by naming, learning about and living with my fears, I’ve taken away some of their power.


If it’s films you’re looking for on this, er, film blog, then I’ve just reviewed a movie called Huracán for my friends at the excellent Live for Films. You can find it here.

Sputnik alert..! Don’t scroll down if you’re phobic.

 

 

 

 

Seriously, don’t.

Sputnik the Spider

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The Haunting of Bly Manor Review

Spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor

Mike Flanagan is the most consistently excellent creator working in the horror genre today. He has brought us, among other things:

· Oculus – a fun, effective haunted mirror story starring Karen Gillan of Doctor Who and the Avengers movies.

· Hush – a rare ‘well, what would you do?’ story with none of the easy answers that often plague horror films. An isolated, deaf, and mute woman must fight off a homicidal lunatic.

· Gerald’s Game – one of his excellent Stephen King adaptations. As any long-time aficionado of that author knows, the current renaissance belies the fact that decent King adaptations are rarer than an ugly Australian (have you ever seen a genuinely ugly Australian? I haven’t.)

· Doctor Sleep – the book wasn’t brilliantly received, but the film works superbly. The sheer bravado of making a sequel to Kubrick’s The Shining often voted the best horror movie ever made (despite King’s famous disdain) is impressive. Flanagan succeeds with aplomb.

· The Haunting of Hill House – this ten-episode, 2018 Netflix series is his masterpiece. An enthralling story of family, secrets, regrets and redemption, it would work without the fear. But the fear is absolute and genuine. From the first episode, it grips with the icy clutch of earned horror.

Throughout he’s usually worked with the same ensemble, Carla Gugino, Kate Siegel, and Henry Thomas… yes, Elliot from ET. They’re all excellent actors and make a fantastic team with Flanagan.

Last Friday, Netflix released The Haunting of Bly Manor, styled as the second in an anthology series that started with Hill House. It stars most of the same cast as Hill House in different roles. Victoria Pedretti who was Nell in the last series becomes the protagonist. Oliver Jackson-Cohen was her adult brother last time, he plays a very different role here.

The story is based primarily on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which has been adapted too many times to count, including once already this year as a movie. Stephen King, among others, called the book compulsory reading for horror fans, but I have to say it left me cold, rather than chilled. I wondered at the time if it had suffered what all classics do – being first often means being imitated into lifelessness.

Hill House kept the DNA of the original novel and span it out into both a wider and narrower tapestry. Bly absorbs other stories by James and incorporates them into the narrative.

The biggest difference between the two though? Bly Manor isn’t scary. At all.

Okay, not everyone is as immersed in this genre as me. If you normally avoid this kind of thing then it might unsettle you or make you jump. But Hill House was a spectacular treat that haunted me long afterwards, for all the right reasons. Bly doesn’t haunt. Does that make it a failure? No. Partly because, as I mentioned – had you removed the scares from Hill House, you’d still have a compelling story. Moreover, this is a different story and a different kind of ghost story, too.

Hill House was a family horror. It perfectly captured the feeling of being related to total strangers, of love and loyalty despite betrayals, of undercurrents and resentments swept aside by the familiar. It understood that home isn’t a place, it’s the people we love. It captured that rarely glimpsed connection between family members that borders on the psychic. We know when they need us. And for me (despite loving this stuff, I’m often cynical about the supernatural) it kept the best thing about the novel – this could all be a psychological manifestation.

Bly is about letting go, about grief and the terrible inevitability of illness and death. But importantly, it’s about using that certainty to truly live. In places, it’s desperately sad, but it’s also funny (the running joke about tea especially tickled me) and life-affirming.

In comparison to both Hill House and The Turn of the Screw, it’s also unequivocal. I’ve read that The Innocents from 1961 also ditches the novel’s ambiguity, and I must watch it, but the weakest episodes for me were when we dwelt on the central haunting of that story. However, it recovered with another great Siegel performance from another James story, an episode that succeeded as a self-contained ghost-story and rescued the overall arc.

A big difference from Hill House is that while Flanagan oversaw the show, he only directed one episode of Bly. It shows and clearly, I enjoyed the 2018 series more.

I must also address the accents… some other reviewers have had great fun ripping into the cast about this. That’s a little unfair, but it certainly doesn’t always work. When we first meet Henry Thomas, I thought he did a good job not just of the accent, but of Englishness. There’s a sarcastic eye roll and comment when Pedretti’s American says how much she loves London that was spot on. After that though… his accent is as wobbly as an alcoholic on a Space Hopper. I thought for a while it was part of the performance, trying to delineate between different ‘states’ he occupies during the story, but sadly not.

Similarly, there are some anachronisms in speech and a few things which take you from the story. For example, the light in the cellar at Bly Manor has a chain switch on the pendant. Ain’t never seen that in any UK house, Guvnor. Seen it plenty on American movies though.

But these criticisms are minor. The story is compelling, the acting is generally very strong, and, in some episodes, I was utterly transported, particularly when learning the origin of the word ‘bonfire’ and in another scene with moonflowers.

Ultimately, as one character says towards the end, this isn’t a ghost story, it’s a love story and it’s a beautiful one. As the nights draw in and we prepare to turn our backs on this bollocks of a year, you could do much worse than spend your time at Bly.

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Bear with me…

S’up?

Sorry people, I’m a week late posting already, and it’s going to be a while longer, got a lot going on!

The next post is going to be long… it started about arachnophobia, but it’s mushroomed into… I dunno, something.

GeekGraffiti is on the way too… I’ve done a PoC and I just need to iron a few things out, but should definitely be here by the holiday season.

In the meantime, stay safe, be kind, listen to good music, read good books and watch good films.

Laters…

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Host (2020) Review

Hello!

I want to talk about a movie which, as I write, deservedly holds a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Host, released on July 30th, might be the most topical film I’ve seen. It takes place on the Zoom video app and under the UK COVID-19 lockdown (which may or may not still be in effect… no-one here has a clue, especially the ‘government’, poor lambs). Don’t confuse it with the Bong Joon Ho movie from 2006, or the Stephanie Meyer one from 2013. It’s just ‘Host’, there’s no definite article. Like Idles. Listen to more Idles. Anyway… it’s less than an hour-long, it’s streaming now and it’s bloody brilliant.

The film opens with a young woman removing tape (or maybe a Post-It note) from her webcam. This establishes so much about her character immediately. Maybe she has worked in cybersecurity, maybe she’s just heard about “Ratting” whereby cameras can be hijacked with relative ease. However, under lockdown when we’ve all become so reliant on webcams, she’s being more cautious than many of us. Is she a worrier? Has she previously been exploited? Light touches like this reveal the care and craft of the filmmakers.

This care is particularly evident in these characterisation beats. We see a character outside. Are they breaking lockdown rules? Another admits to doing so, and your view of them may change according to your feelings on this. I don’t want to labour the point or reveal the motivations of other characters, but considering this is a fifty-six-minute-long film made on Zoom, the establishment of these personalities is superb. The writers, Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage and Jed Shepherd, understand the importance of caring for, or at least empathising with, the characters in a horror. When things go bad, you’re invested.

It’s funny as well. The natural chemistry and camaraderie between these people suggest that they’re friends in real life. Either way, the acting is top-notch, and they should be applauded. I never felt like I was watching actors. There’s one gag in particular that another review, unfortunately, spoiled. A shame because it’s a genuine belly laugh and just the kind of thing a bunch of British mates would spontaneously come out with. And the film is very British. The reflexive piss-taking is as British as invading other countries then moaning about foreigners. We know people like these characters, we went to Uni with them, we get drunk with them in beer gardens, we get pissed-off with them when they’re selfish or insensitive. That’s not to say it’s parochial or inaccessible to people outside this weird island. You might just get an insight into your Brit buddies. What with the excellent Ghost Stories from 2017, last year’s hilarious Irish possession comedy Extra Ordinary and of course 2011’s harrowing Kill List, maybe these islands are entering a horror renaissance. I do hope so. Host director Rob Savage and his team are a new force to be reckoned with.

The Zoom thing isn’t a gimmick either. There’s an entirely valid reason for them all to use it and the concept and execution are superb, right down to the closing credits. The effectiveness of the movie may be married to its topicality, so perhaps to get the most from it you should watch it sooner rather than later.

This little movie succeeds beautifully in everything it sets out to do. That means, inevitably, we must talk about horror. I’m always reluctant here… it’s so subjective, so personal. I believe the two hardest things in entertainment are making an audience scared or making them laugh. Any horror review should start with a disclaimer that you may not be as scared as the reviewer was. But a horror film it is, so does it work?

Horror should horrify, terrorise, disturb. It should creep under your skin and paralyze you in the middle of the night straining to hear a sound echoing from your nightmares. If you’ve read my blogs, you know that’s what I want from horror. True horror isn’t a gore-fest, it isn’t ‘torture-porn’. That might successfully horrify, but it’s not going to shock you awake. That is horror, the demon or ghost that follows you out of the cinema and lingers… swaying unnaturally next to your sleeping form like Katie in Paranormal Activity. It’s my friend back in 1999 whose immediate reaction to The Blair Witch Project was ‘that wasn’t so bad’, only to call a few hours later saying, ‘Yeah, it just sank in. Can I come round dude? I’m kind of freaked out…’

So, where does Host sit by that measure? It got my Wife more than me. Initially. She went outside after it finished and admitted that the sounds in our garden were making her jump because of ‘that bloody film’. This is a woman who fears nothing. A half-ton-horse charging her at forty-miles per hour barely makes her shrug. So, ‘Ho, ho, ho’, I chortled, mocking this sudden bout of heebie-jeebies. ‘Aah,’ I condescended, ‘that’s so sweet’, gloating in this brief sensation of manly courage.

Cue an entirely deserved comeuppance at three o’clock the next morning when I woke up in a cold sweat and completely failed to sleep for the remainder of the night.

There are clichés in the scares, there are slammed doors and moving objects. But those clichés must be there in a film like this, not least to lull you into a false sense of knowing what to expect. This is a thoroughly modern, smart, incisive film which will find you, creep up on you and shake you.

Enjoy the fear.

Host is available on the Shudder channel on Amazon Prime. There is a free trial for the channel, which also has a great four-hour-long documentary on Eighties horror if you’re as much of a nerd as me.

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Fisk-Film is moving!

We’re becoming GeekGraffiti.co.uk. Depending on my rusty website skills, it shouldn’t take too long, and I hope to move my subscribers with the site. Thank you all so much for reading and I hope you find some great films here. See you soon, lovely readers.

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The Last of Us Part II Review

(I’ve tried to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but some are inevitable, so if you plan to play The Last of Us or The Last of Us Part II, I’d recommend you play them before reading.)

Recently the UK establishment has mentioned ‘levelling up’ a lot. In this case, it’s a fairly harmless appropriation of sub-cultural language, albeit irritating and untrue.

I’m a lifelong gamer. I’ve watched games across all formats adopt, adapt and evolve the idea of levelling up. Increasingly realistic, rewarding and granular expressions of growing experience. It contrasts curiously with real-life; our instant access to an accelerating mass of human knowledge seems inversely proportional to our wisdom as a species.

It’s rare in a modern blockbuster game to complete a ‘level’ in the sense of say, Space Invaders or Pac Man. Instead, you’ll likely (role) play a character and have a complex variety of variables that can be adjusted and finessed to give each player a more unique experience as they progress. The challenge will increase for sure as you progress, but you’ll have a rewarding choice of potential approaches.

So it was with The Last of Us, the game released by studio Naughty Dog in 2013, the twilight of the PlayStation 3’s lifecycle. Playing (mostly) as the character Joel, a smuggler living in a horrific, dystopian future, you could level up various weapons in various ways as you moved through the story.

And what a story. This was the first video game to reduce me to tears. Now, like I’ve said before on this blog, that’s not difficult… I weep like a mum at a wedding with the smallest provocation in a good movie. It’s frigging embarrassing. But I’ve been playing games as long as I’ve been obsessed with movies and nothing had come close to this before.

It was a story about being a parent, about sacrifice and about the sometimes wholly selfish decisions we all take to protect the ones we love. The play’s the thing. Or rather, with humble apologies to Big Willie Shakes, the story is. Stories are what we live for. We all want our own story to have meaning, hope, and a beautiful ending. And in our fiction, be it books, films, television or videogames, we want those vicarious lives to move us as much – or more – than our own.

Seven years later, after a few false starts, and in the grip of a real-life pandemic, many of us are back in Joel and Ellie’s world, where society has broken down after the Cordyceps outbreak some 25 years earlier in game-time.

Nature has reclaimed much of a world torn to shreds by the outbreak and by mankind’s futile attempts to beat it with heavy ordinance. That world feels as real and tangible as our own. The technical standards here are without a doubt the best I’ve ever seen in a game. The quality of the animations – especially the eyes – induced a kind of reverse uncanny valley effect on me, where it almost became difficult to separate the digital characters on the screen from real people. It was… well, uncanny. There are plenty of videos on YouTube now showing the barely credible attention to detail, like fresh blood melting snow, or the zipper tags on Ellie’s rucksack moving independently according to her current mode of transport.

Once again, this is a one-player game (yeah, yeah, difficult only child, does not play well with others) and the story is king. Or… it should be. We’ll get to that.

What is unquestionable though, is that Naughty Dog wants to take you on a journey again. The original game left us with a beautifully written ending. It took you to a place where you confronted the insanity that walks hand in hand with love. It made you play through a version of ‘the trolley problem’ and answer the question, do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? And to get you to that point, it made you grow to love these characters.

We accept that with books and films. That’s why people cry at the end of Avengers: Endgame, or Romeo and Juliet. But a video game? They’re for kids, right? No-one cares when Sonic dies for the umpteenth time. It’s annoying, not sad.

For me, then, this was the levelling up of video games from a hobby into art. As I’ve grown older, I’ve naturally had less time to play games, so I probably missed a few great titles, but from the opening, sickeningly inevitable emotional KO to that incredible ending, this was the most engrossing game I’d seen, the closest to a really good novel.

And if we’re comparing it to a novel, or film, then the closest match is probably something like The Road, although Ellie is a damned-sight less whiney than the boy in that story. A gruelling, nihilistic trip through a horrifying, all too believable dystopia, where the veneer of civilisation has crumbled as quickly as our buildings and infrastructure. And of course, the Cordyceps fungi are entirely real, albeit they don’t prey on humans… yet.

You can see where I’m going here, right? Last of Us Part II wants to level up the emotional challenge. Surprise!

Other reviewers have compared it to a revenge western. If the first one was The Road, then this is more like Unforgiven, the classic Clint Eastwood movie from 1992, where once more nihilism is king, no-one is a hero and pretty much everyone dies. Yep… there were moments when playing this that I had to remind myself it was entertainment. Pac Man this ain’t. Not unless you played as one of the ghosts and learned he had a tragic backstory involving murder, soul-crushing revenge, hatred and multi-generational civil war.

Where the game is most daring and where it will live long either in infamy or praise is its decision to challenge the most fundamental aspects of videogames. Killing, shooting and gleeful violence are as hardwired into this culture as beer gardens are to British summers. Sure, we all know people who buy the latest consoles when they come out and never play anything but the annual FIFA game or other sports simulation, but overwhelmingly the most successful games year on year are either shoot-em-ups or at least something that involves an element of killing. It’s a simple fact. I’m not interested here in the debate about videogames leading to violence. Lots of things lead to violence, especially guns and a toxic culture. But Forbes tells us that for each of the last five years, the best-selling games have either been Call of Duty shooters, Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption II, which is a Western where you play an outlaw, or Assassin’s Creed, which, well, it’s not about hitting a ball off a wall, is it?

Red Dead wasn’t necessarily all violence, but it kind of goes with the territory and Rockstar’s most successful title is Grand Theft Auto. GTA V is the second-best-selling game of all time and is tremendous fun, but controversy and – let’s face it – casual violence, follow it as closely as a bodyguard follows their client.

True, the first best selling game is Minecraft, which is less about violence than unbounded creativity. I’m not making these points to damn video games… video games are frigging awesome, and if you don’t happen to like them, too bad, you’re missing out on some incredible stuff.

But violence is woven into the fabric of gaming as surely as privilege is woven into royalty. It just is.

Last of Us Part II tries to make you question all of that by first setting up an inexorable journey of vengeance that will be felt as keenly by the player as the protagonist, then flipping that on its head by making you play as the antagonist.

It’s not easy. I wasn’t sure whether I could keep myself playing once I realised just how far the rabbit hole went. But that would be the response of a weakling or a coward. I hated that character, as much as I felt paternal love for Ellie by the end of the first game. It was not pleasant having them as an avatar, living in their world. But by that point, Ellie herself had already done some unforgivable things.

It’s not poetry. In places, it’s ham-fisted and trite, but the fact that this studio has created a game that challenges you emotionally as much as it does gameplay-wise is nothing short of wonderful. It truly is an unforgettable experience and something that you must sit with after completing it to process what you feel. It sticks around, like a doppelganger.

As I said earlier, the story doesn’t quite win out. If the goal is to make you question your violent motivations, then it only succeeds with the major characters. Sure, regular enemies now cry out the names of fallen comrades and express grief at their loss. And yes, the death scenes are grimly, viscerally realistic (the gore in this game is challenging to say the least). But the central mechanic of the game still revolves around killing a bunch of enemies and it’s still breathlessly enjoyable. The challenge is perfectly pitched and by the end, I felt like a Goddamned ninja. Now, sure, you can get through these sections without killing anyone if you want to. I snuck through a few areas that way, especially when opposing forces were fighting one another. But the mechanics just make it so much fun.

When playing as the antagonist, you naturally witness the effect of some of this ‘fun’ violence, but as ludicrously advanced as the game is, it still can only really do this for certain key scenes. Those key scenes work though. No-one worthwhile likes killing animals, but after a certain point in the game, it can become a necessity to survive. But then the game twists the knife by making you see a certain one of those animals in another light altogether. Much like the protagonist switcheroo, you see personality, and like Jules said in Pulp Fiction, “Personality goes a long way.” When a character has multiple dimensions (more than you often find in a Tarantino movie, ironically) their death or suffering or existence as an object of hatred suddenly becomes harder to live with.

In the end, I feel that this stands up as another piece of art, as accomplished as the first game. But did I enjoy it? Well, absolutely. It’s a magnificent achievement and the care and attention to detail that has gone into it are simply staggering. There is no question that Naughty Dog has just taken games to the next, er, level (bet you didn’t see that coming). As the new console generation launches later this year, they now have an extremely high standard to measure their games against. Did I love it? No. I doubt I’ll ever play it again. It was too bloody gruelling. I’ll almost certainly replay the first, and I’ll almost certainly pick up one or two of the Uncharted games (also produced by Naughty Dog) as my PS4 enters its twilight.

There is something else to be said here. If each of these games is as good as a novel, that’s a truly wonderful thing. However, I can pick up a paperback novel for four bucks. Last of Us Part II is currently retailing on Amazon for £43.99 in its cheapest format. Now, it is clear and it is fair that some, maybe many, people will not like this story or actively hate it. Because of the price, and for that reason alone, I do understand some of the anger online. But death-threats against the actors? Really? That takes fuckwittery to a whole new level of stupidity and let’s be honest, the gaming community hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory over the last few years. Grow the hell up.

To finish that Shakespeare quote from earlier, “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

In both the game and its players, it would seem.

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If you want to see the best reviews of the Last of Us Part II, then check these out. Spoilers abound though, you’ve been warned:

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Devs

This is an opinion piece about the Devs TV series and contains spoilers for the show from the start, as well as spoilers for other movies (with warnings in the text).

This is a critique, not a review. If you’re looking for a review of Devs, my advice is you should certainly watch it. Afterwards, come back here and argue with me. It’s an intelligent, enjoyable, interesting meditation on grief, power, love, technology and quantum physics. It is typical of the wonderful audacity of the peak TV era. It’s written and directed by Alex Garland, the guy who wrote the book that every Gen X’er read in the Nineties (The Beach). He then went on to write 28 Days Later and give us some great films: Dredd (outstanding fun), Annihilation (a must-see) and Ex Machina (very good). He also wrote Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, and while I don’t care for it, a lot of people love it. God knows I’d sooner have a divisive movie like that than the homogenised crap that makes up so much of Hollywood’s output. So, Devs is highly recommended. The complexity of the storyline means everyone will have their interpretation, all of which are valid to some degree. It’s high praise to say the series is worthy of debate, and I want to put an opinion out there.

That opinion is that the series was good, but it narrowly missed out on being great. The short version is, he didn’t land the ending. The long version (with spoilers for another movie which gives away the plot of Devs) it suffered from the Minority Report problem.

Minority Report was a great film, close to being perfect. But… it dropped the ball at the end.

The core premise behind both the film and the story that it’s based on is that the future can be predicted. That goes to the core of Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, who fundamentally believes in his ‘Pre-Crime Unit’ and has built a successful career on it. He is saving lives with this technology.

The film’s internal logic says he will kill his preordained victim, Leo Crow. Therefore, the scene when Anderton holds a gun on Crow, amongst an ‘orgy of evidence’ that Crow murdered Anderton’s son is the film’s emotional peak. All of Tom Cruises considerable acting skills pour into that scene. When Anderton reads Crow his rights, choosing to arrest, rather than kill him, character meets plot and the story elevates to be as good as it possibly can.

But… instead of ending it there, we get a Hollywood ending, so Max von Sydow (RIP) who always played the bad guy in Hollywood movies is revealed in a ‘twist’ to be the big bad and the perfect ending is flushed down the toilet. We’re told that the flaw in the Pre-Crime system is that would-be-murderers who learn what they are meant to do can choose to change their fate. But we have already had the perfect scene for that when our hero chooses to do the right thing, as all good heroes do. Everything that comes after that is pants.

Devs ending is vastly superior, but the moment where character and plot meet most interestingly is similarly wasted. The Devs system, we learn, is a quantum computer with a prediction algorithm based on a huge amount of data. Therefore, it can predict events forward and backwards in time with perfect accuracy. The protagonist, Lily, is investigating the murder of her boyfriend, on the orders of Devs’ creator, Forest, played by Nick Offerman. His whole purpose in creating Devs is to ‘resurrect’ his daughter, killed in an automobile accident when he insisted that his wife – who was driving – continue speaking to him on her cell phone. There is a moment in one of the episodes where it’s explicitly pointed out that he is seeking absolution. In a universe where your fate is inevitable, he could not have saved them. But what if, either on a simple or quantum level, his actions caused the death of his family?

The writing doesn’t directly dwell on fate, other than to say Lily will inevitably visit the lab at a certain time, but it certainly implies Forest seeks absolution through his beliefs. It is most interested in determinism and many-worlds theory, where all events are not just possible, but all events happen in an infinite number of separate timelines. Forest explicitly rejects the many-worlds theory in one scene.

So, this character monomaniacally created a god-like computer system because of grief at his actions. He sees the future and fundamentally believes that nothing can alter it. That has implications for what happened to his family; the moment when Lily ‘changes’ the future that he has seen and so fervently believes in could have been the perfect distillation of eight hours of drama. It should shake him to his core… everything he has done has to be questioned at that point.

True, this is a story much more interested in ideas. The ending with avatars living in a perfect facsimile of blissful reality chimes with the simulation hypothesis, a rather hopeful theory that Professor Brian Cox has said he found impossible to disprove.

But it feels a little tacked on, a little artificial. Okay, the Forest we see on the visualisation screen is a recreation of the Forest from the real world. But how does he interact with his observers? None of the other recreations we saw did that.

More importantly, it feels like a missed chance with clear echoes of Minority Report. When Forest sees Lily defy the predictions of a machine which he believes in so much that he has killed for it, character and plot could have collided in perfect drama.

Contrast the ending of both Devs and Minority Report with the film that, in recent times has had the most outstanding ending, Inception. The final scene of that movie is perfect, marrying themes, plot, and character. Our hero gets everything he wants; he crosses oceans and spends immense time trying to achieve this… dream. But is it real? Is it even what he wants when the film has shown us that desires can be implanted? All of this is condensed into a simple image. It is perfect cinema. Hell, it is perfect recursion; cinema and dreams being a perfect romance.

Inception is a demanding standard. Even Chris Nolan has struggled to match it. The ending of Devs is frustrating but is an excellent attempt. For now, Annihilation remains Garland’s masterpiece.

But you don’t need precognition to see that he’ll do more amazing work.

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Lock-down antics and Rob Reiner

Well, this is all a bit weird isn’t it?

I hope you’re all keeping well during the lock down/quarantine or whatever you’re calling it, wherever you’re reading this from. I hope your families are safe and that you are doing what you can to protect them and your communities. Follow the safety rules in your country. Stay at home. Don’t be a dingus.

If I’m quieter than normal at the moment, it’s because I’m doing Camp NanoWrimo, working on a short story that might become a novel next year.

I do have a (silly) idea for a series of lock down articles and I might update you on that soon.

In the meantime, you can click here for a link to a story I published on Medium, that you may not have seen. Reading it helps me out, so if you have six minutes, give it a look!

And reprinted below is an article that I had published by my friends at Flickering Myth.

Stay well.

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Ever wondered why the volume control on the BBC iPlayer goes up to eleven?

If you’re not sure, then the chances are that you’ve yet to see one of the greatest comedies ever made, This is Spinal Tap, from 1984.

This is Spinal Tap

While it was far from being the first ‘mockumentary’, it pushed the genre into the mainstream for the first time.  Not just genre-defining, it was also almost entirely improvised.  Many modern comedies are, but it remained rare in 1984.  Calling it “one of the greatest comedies ever made” is no exaggeration.  Time Out ranks it as the best, saying, “there’s literally nothing about it that could be improved.”  For Empire, it only scrapes in at number two (between When Harry met Sally and Groundhog Day).  Their take on the film: “the authenticity on show is quite staggering, while the hit rate of the gags goes all the way up to eleven.” 

It’s interesting that the Empire list (from 2019) should feature When Harry met Sally in third place.  Once again, this was a genre-defining piece of work, creating the template for modern romantic comedies.  It’s another film that frequently tops lists of its genre.  Ah, lists… As I recently said, I’m not a huge fan.  But humour me a moment as I point you toward another: the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest love stories.  Unsurprisingly, Harry and Sally are on that list, along with President Andrew Shepherd and Sydney Ellen Wade (The American President, 1995) and Buttercup and Westley (The Princess Bride, 1987).  If you must talk about lists, then it would be hard to improve on one containing This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally… but I’ll give it a shot. 

You see, as well as turning a new page for comedies, Spinal Tap marked the start of a staggering seven movie streak also featuring a top-drawer legal thriller, a great horror, and almost certainly the best coming of age movie. Don’t just take my word for it… these seven films have an average Tomato meter score of 90% and an average Audience Score of more than 89%.

They were all directed by a man whose politics have made him a target for Fox News and the butt of South Park jokes.  His more recent output has fallen some way short of this spectacular period.  Nevertheless, let’s consider the word ‘great’ for a moment, in the context of directors.

Some of us are film fanatics (or “film snobs”, as my brother calls me), so thinking of ‘great’ directors naturally draws us toward Orson Welles, David Lean, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Kubrick.  We’ll endlessly analyse scenes, characters, and themes, and sometimes dismiss popular films which lack depth.  The Scorsese/Marvel debate last year illustrated this.  But I’d argue many filmgoers probably don’t care who made a movie, they just want an entertaining experience.  They want to step from a cold, noisy street into a comfortable theatre, to forget about the real world for a couple of hours.  They hand over a lot of cash for the privilege and rightfully expect to be entertained in return.  Any ‘film snob’ who tells you there’s anything wrong with that is probably not a film lover.  They’re missing the point.  

Popular filmmakers like Spielberg aren’t just important, they’re vital.  Without people like him as a gateway drug, many of us would never have heard of Kurosawa.  It’s filmmakers like him who enter the collective consciousness, who build our shared dreamscapes. 

Now, when we talk about purple patches of great movies, Spielberg can certainly teach us a thing or two, as can Scorsese, Nolan, Coppola … both Francis and Sofia have had hot streaks, as, despite what the Academy would have you believe, have several other female filmmakers; Bigelow is yet to make a bad film.

There is one name that dominates this list.  Stanley Kubrick’s filmography is second to none.  Most of them are bona fide classics, endlessly rewatchable and rewarding of analysis.  Now, I’m not going to claim that the director of Spinal Tap rivals Kubrick, far from it.  But one thing they do have in common above all the other names mentioned is sheer variety

Scorsese, Coppolla… you know what you’re getting when you sit down to watch one of their movies.  Spielberg has shown a wonderful range as he’s matured and continues to do so, moving into musicals for his next project.

But both Kubrick and the director I’m talking about displayed a vast range with a short list.  Both made a comedy that comfortably sits on any top ten list of the genre.  At the other extreme, they each made one of the genuinely successful Stephen King horror adaptations, which let’s face it, is much easier said than done. 

So, who am I talking about?  A man who was hilarious as Mad Max in The Wolf of Wall Street:

I’m talking about Rob Reiner.  While those Kubrick comparisons are justifiable, this is where they part.  You could no more imagine Kubrick, despite his awesome talents, winning three separate positions on that AFI love story list any more than you could imagine Reiner making a genre-defining science fiction masterpiece like 2001: A Space Odyssey or a brutal war film like Full Metal Jacket.  Still, when it comes to brutality, the horrific hobbling scene in Misery (1990), still hard to watch, contrasts so starkly with Reiner’s other work that it once more demonstrates his range.

Let’s look at the whole list:

This is Spinal Tap, 1984.

The Sure Thing, 1985.

Stand by Me, 1986.

The Princess Bride, 1987.

When Harry Met Sally… 1989.

Misery, 1990.

A Few Good Men, 1992.

There is not one bad film on that list.  Hell, there’s barely a bad scene.  They are all, truly, great movies.  Of course, Reiner worked with exceptional writers during this period.  He has only one writing credit himself between ’84 and ’92 (on Spinal Tap).  When Harry met Sally… was written by the wonderful Nora Ephron, and he worked with such luminaries as William Goldman (twice), Aaron Sorkin and Christopher Guest.  But he chose, as director to work with these talents, and nothing about their talent can distract from the quality of the direction, which is deceptively simple.  Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”  In the clarity of Reiner’s direction, you can see that dedication to getting the fundamental things perfect in order to achieve a greater whole.

Take the train bridge scene in Stand by Me.  One second you’re enjoying the beautiful scenery and great music, then the camera pulls back to reveal the bridge stretching out across the chasm.  Okay, perhaps the expository dialogue that follows is a bit much for the child actors, but it’s ended with a masturbation joke and you’re back in the movie, suspense building against the sense of childhood adventure.  The pace slows, the characters personalities are examined in near silence as they move toward their goal.  Now the acting is conveyed mainly by facial expressions and you see just how talented these kids really are.  You’re with them for every step.  Occasionally the frame expands to show you how close they are to the other side.  And how exposed they are.  Then Gordie checks the rail, the sound effect builds at the same time as his face fills with terror.  You see the steam above the trees. He screams a warning…  The scene encapsulates the whole film: friendship, facing your fears, standing by one another when things are at their worst.

Or how about the hobbling scene in Misery?  It’s classic horror and suspense direction in many ways, the wider scene playing out as in the foreground you see Paul’s hand searching for the knife that we know he’s stored under the mattress.  You could easily swap it for Hitchcock’s bomb under the table.  Again, the scene slows down, this time building toward something you don’t want to watch.  The music contrasts with the pictures, as Annie Wilkes’ violence contrasts with her smiling face and calm voice.  After it’s over, she tells him she loves him.  At least, I think that’s what happened, I was cowering behind my fingers.

The morning after in Harry and Sally is conveyed using a split screen, four-way, simultaneous telephone conversation, from three different locations, but you know exactly what’s going on. 

The final courtroom scene in A Few Good Men is borderline genius.  You’re given a philosophical debate between two competing ideologies with wordy dialogue about the morality of killing, honour, and justice.  Arguably, this belongs in a university textbook, not a thriller.  Yet the framing, the pacing, the acting, and all the directorial choices elevate it.  As Tom Cruise’s character, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, grapples with the decision whether to cross the line and go for broke, it plays out on his face and you see his colleagues doubting him and their own convictions, but he does it.  What then follows, all words and angry eyes in close-up, is as exciting as the best action movie, yet it’s two men arguing about an obscure point of military procedure.

A Few Good Men does have one of the weaker scores of this list on Rotten Tomatoes, and it was to be the end of this golden period for Reiner.  The films that he made afterwards were less successful, although The American President was still to come in 1995 (written by Sorkin and acting as template for The West Wing) and The Bucket List (2007) isn’t bad.  Reiner got increasingly involved in politics during the Nineties, perhaps less focused on his movies.

But there’s no question: Rob Reiner is a truly great director. 

So, during these strange times, if you’re looking for something to watch while you’re on lock down, pick any film from this list. You’ll more than likely find yourself uplifted and it’s… inconceivable that you won’t enjoy it.

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Love and movies

Her voice was so low that at first he could not make out what she said. Then he made it out. She was saying that she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies.

Peter and Wendy, JM Barrie, 1911

How did you fall in love with movies?

You’re reading a film blog. Maybe you’re procrastinating, or sitting on the toilet, staring vacantly at your phone, but there’s a reason you chose a film blog over a pen blog or a grooming guide for nasal hair.

I’m Generation X, the generation born between 1965 and 1980. In movie terms, I was raised by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron. That’s some Holy Trinity. While I suppose I could swap Cameron (Aliens, The Terminator) for Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall), McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard) or Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween), Spielberg sits atop any sane reading of that list. Cameron, with his shorter filmography, has a better hit rate. There’s only one genuinely bad film on his record.

Pictured: Not Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

If you grew up in the Seventies or Eighties though, and you watched movies, Spielberg films felt like Christmas morning. He wrote and directed our childhoods. He had our backs. He was one of us.

The movies that shape you, that download straight into your heart, that feed your soul, that lift you from this world… they tattoo themselves into your being. They make you forget who you are. When my brain sputters and dies, these experiences will be with me. They’re as much part of me as my kidneys, heart and lungs, but unlike organs, memories can’t be transplanted… not until Rekall Inc. opens.

Some of the films weren’t good. The Legend of Boggy Creek, shown on BBC Two in the early Eighties, so terrified me that I’ve never forgotten it. It directly influenced The Blair Witch Project. Even now, people of a certain age talk about it in hushed tones. But don’t re-watch it as an adult, it’s bloody awful.

Pictured: Arkansaw’s least successful tourism promotion.

No wonder that movies can shape you. Emotions craft our memories like a swordsmith honing a blade. You don’t forget the adrenaline explosion of a horror film, the warmth of sharing a film with family (re-runs of Will Hay classics like Ask a Policeman for me), or the awful, cringing teenage embarrassment of enduring a movie sex scene sitting awkwardly in the same room as your parents.

As a film junkie, I’m lucky to be Generation X, luckier still to know people who adored and collected movies so my interest could be curated and deepened. Through one of these friends, I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. What a film! It has everything a boy could have wanted. Everything. Action, adventure, a gorgeous badass heroine, comedy, romance, Bane… no, wait, it’s Pat Roach, horror, evil monkeys, Han Solo on a horse (before I even knew who Han Solo was), snakes, submarines and Nazis having their stupid Nazi faces melted off by God. I lost my tiny little fucking mind.

That’s how I lost my Spielberg virginity. Then, on TV, I saw the best horror film ever made. Go on, show me a film that has scared – scarred – more people than this:

Pictured: “No, frankly, I do not like to be beside the fucking seaside”.

I’ll always remember that first viewing. Remember my Mum saying, “are you sure, love?” and double-checking the rating. It was classified as a PG at the time (they raised it to a 12A when it was re-released a few years ago). The UK film censors, the BBFC, say that: “A PG film should not unsettle a child aged around eight or older”. These are the same unhinged maniacs who rated Watership Down as ‘Universal’. What, in the name of a million piss-soaked mattresses, were these sadists thinking?

Pictured: OH JESUS! MAKE IT STOP!

So, anyway, Jaws ruined swimming for, oh, about thirty bloody years. But if you observe a film-lover of a certain age, you will note that it’s virtually impossible for them to flick past Jaws if it’s on TV. It’s just too frigging good. You get two complete masterpieces in one film, a shore-based political horror-thriller, then the three archetypal heroes (Ahab, the Geek Hero and the Everyman) fighting a battle to the death on the high seas with the ultimate force of nature. And like The Godfather, it achieves the exceptionally rare feat of being better than the novel it’s based on.

I watched Jaws in the same room I saw Boggy Creek. It’s a miracle I ever set foot in there again.

So, by now I understood that directors existed. Well, I say that. What I really mean is that I understood there was a Steven Spielberg and that he was a magician. Not like the disturbing men in nylon suits blathering on Saturday night television; he was a sorcerer. I dimly understood that he was a director the same way I noticed James Bond looked a bit different from film to film.

So many great memories I have are from movies. Many of them watched with two great friends who I’m lucky to still have. Films like Aliens and Robocop which occupy a fringe area between science fiction, action and horror, never quite letting you settle the first time you watch them, the potential for indelible, shocking images in each scene, combined with exceptional writing, acting and direction. We’d discuss them endlessly at school, bonding over shared experiences like, “Oh my God! It just ripped his fucking spine out!!” (Predator). Somehow, one of our peers managed to convince our teachers that it would be totally cool to screen An American Werewolf in London for the whole school on the last day of term.

Pictured: 1980s British High School education.

Anyway, good memories all, but back to 1982. I’d just seen Jaws. I was hooked. Films could do things. These short windows of time that felt, to a child, like living someone else’s life, for better or worse. Then…

A lot has been written about the sheer film geek nirvana of 1982. Just look at the releases:

Das Boot, Porky’s, Conan the Barbarian, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Gregory’s Girl, Rocky III, Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Firefox, Blade Runner, The Thing, Tron, An Officer and a Gentleman, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, First Blood, Creepshow, 48 Hours, Gandhi, The Verdict, Sophie’s Choice, Airplane II: The Sequel, The Dark Crystal, Tootsie

Another film was released that year, a Spielberg film which crystallises this movie love affair for me. I was the target audience then, but it changed me for life.

I was with my Mum, my Aunt and my cousins. It was a cold night. The UK release was August, but we probably waited until September to avoid the rush. This was many years before multiplexes arrived in the UK, but even though we waited, the queue was huge. This was cinema. This defined the experience. The anticipation, seeing the illuminated movie posters in their curved Perspex display frames as we drew closer to the entrance, the popcorn, the gigantic screen, the explosive excitement as the lights dimmed and the curtains drew back, the trailers…

No jokes here.

ET isn’t my favourite film. It might not even be in the top ten. But it is cinema for me.

In that trailer, you get a hint of how it’s filmed from the child’s point of view. Apart from the kid’s mother, the adults are menacing strangers. Often you can’t see their faces. The camera occupies the same space as both the younger kids and ET himself for much of the film, about a metre above the ground. You’re held fast to the cradle of childhood wonder by a filmmaker who has never forgotten what it feels like to be a child. Their father is gone, and they’re suffering the aftershocks of separation. They escape reality with roleplaying games. They bicker like real siblings. They play with the toys we played with. They watch the movies we watched. They come together to save a friend.

It’s a film about a boy and his dog, I guess, with all the joy and all the inevitable heartbreak that brings. Again, there’s a literal lifetime of experience here condensed into less than two hours. The emotional landscape of the film is met so perfectly by John Williams’ score that I think it eclipses even the music for Jaws and Raiders as a marriage of sound and image.

Like Jaws, the effects might not have aged well. Yes, ET’s spaceship looks like a Christmas tree decoration. Yes, some think that ET looks like a four-foot rubber turd with a telescopic neck and doll’s eyes. That’s kind of the point. You must trust the film to make you believe.

It’s curiosity and wonder that separates ET from his family and his ship. In order to survive, he must trust Elliot, who in turn must trust the alien, his own family and ultimately his friends in order to help. That mutual trust between Elliot and ET creates a psychic, emotional connection.

Stepping into that cinema, I had seen one Spielberg film that thrilled me beyond reason, and another that so terrified me, our family dog slept in my room afterwards because I was too scared to be alone. Trust was hard.

Some people can build worlds. A great author or great filmmaker can make believers of us, they make creation a reality. But a novelist needs time to build it. God needed seven days. Spielberg has just 115 minutes.

Give your trust to a Spielberg and he owns it the way Da Vinci owned a canvas. You enter an emotional contract with him. You give him your dreams, and he treads lightly upon them. Together, you architect a better world. Together, you escape reality. To enter this world fully is to become as vulnerable as a lover, your heart in another’s hands. If you can get there, if you’re willing, you’ll experience pure joy. And sometimes, you can experience the joy of the greatest thing humans are capable of, love.

So, ET taught me that if I gave myself to this medium, if I relaxed, suspended my disbelief, then a truly great filmmaker could suspend me. I could fly, with Elliot, Michael, Gertie and ET.

The first time I fell in love, I was nine years old.

I fell in love with a movie.

Photo by Nathan Engel from Pexels

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Uncut Gems review

A luxurious bath in filth

Watching Uncut Gems is like having your face aggressively rubbed into a filthy nylon carpet while Aqua’s Barbie Girl is played painfully loudly on repeat. The protagonist is an irredeemable scumbag with absolutely no likeable qualities. He loves two things only: money, and the adrenaline buzz of taking moronically huge risks to make more money. A lot of the supporting characters are deeply unpleasant too.

And yet, it’s brilliant.

The Uncut Gems trailer – now available on Netflix

From the outset, the film makes its intentions clear, by cutting from the inner space (pun intended, for anyone that remembers the credits of that film) of a gem, to outer space, to an extreme close-up of a proctological exam. Yep, you’re going to get to know Adam Sandler’s character very intimately.

Adam Sandler. For some of us, that’s a name on a movie poster guaranteed to conjure as much despair as Michael Bay. I can count the number of his films I really like on one finger. I say ‘like’, but actually, I think I may love The Wedding Singer. “Don’t you talk to Billy Idol that way,” indeed. I’m ashamed to admit that I have yet to see Punch Drunk Love, but I’m going to make a point of watching it now. And I know people love The Waterboy and Happy Gilmore. Both are fine. But what’s indisputable is that since he’s been working with Netflix, apart – maybe – from Murder Mystery, he’s released an unrelenting tide of shite that would make the Exxon Valdez jealous. The Ridiculous Six anyone? No, thought not. How about we go back further, what about Jack and Jill? The only possible claim to fame of that abomination is its surely being the nadir of Al Pacino’s career.

So, it was with a dose of cynicism roughly the size of Jupiter that I sat down to watch Uncut Gems. The guy’s brilliant in this, from start to finish. He is utterly convincing as the sleazy, repellent jeweller-come-con-artist, Howard Ratner. I’m certainly not the first person to be convinced that the name surely must be a reference to Gerald Ratner.

Pictured: How not to sell jewellery.

The Ratner in the movie is vile. Kinder people than me might find some glimmer of humanity in the man, but I felt he was an unremitting jerk. He doesn’t care about his kids, his wife, his father – any of his relatives. The only other human being he has any time for is his mistress, who he treats in the same way as the ostentatious bling he covers himself in. In debt to many people, for reasons that become increasingly clear, he makes a series of staggeringly stupid decisions, always believing that he’s one step ahead of everyone else, and financially savvy. I briefly wondered if the writing was hinting at possible hypomania, but no. As another character says at one point, “Howard, you did this to yourself”.

Sandler jumps inside the character even more thoroughly than the audience does in that, um, snug opening. He’s right up in your grill, all greedy, restless energy and combative survival instinct, like a Shakespearean cross between Arthur Daley, Del Boy and a New York sewer rat. His appearance is garish, vivid, unapologetic and vain. Everything glimmers, everything is superficial, everything is the next big break, that one big hustle for which he quests desperately, like an itchy, starving vampire trapped in a deserted vegan supermarket. In fact, he’s so good in this that he felt like an awful version of Ratso Rizzo, Dustin Hoffman’s character from Midnight Cowboy.

The supporting cast is uniformly convincing as well. Lakeith Stanfield repeats the outstanding form he brought to Short Term 12 and Sorry to Bother You. Eric Bogosian, in my experience, has a habit of being absolutely brilliant in absolutely terrible movies, so it’s a relief to see him being his dependably great self in something better here. Julia Fox somehow manages to make you empathise with her unlikeable character. The real, ahem, gem here though is Idina Menzel. It’s staggering that she’s not better known for live-action dramatic roles, frankly. The woman behind Elsa from Frozen is magnificent in the few short scenes she’s given; it barely feels like she’s acting at all.

The direction, like the anti-hero, is right in your face immediately and it doesn’t back off. There’s so much going on at times that it can’t possibly work, but it does, it just does. The music in the opening is intrusive and set my teeth on edge, but that vibe is the fabric of the film. It transmits Sandler’s nervous energy to you like a virus and pulls you beyond the event horizon of the screen to be fully immersed in the madness.

Is it a comedy? A drama? I don’t know. It’s certainly funny in parts and I laughed out loud at some scenes. You do care for some of the characters and care what happens to many of them (even if you’re not necessarily rooting for them). It seems to me that the film works as a metaphor for modern capitalism, particularly the sub-prime mortgage scandal and the global recession it created, with money being leant against worthless promises which are in turn exchanged for greater and greater gambles, leading to an inevitable disaster, like too many pint glasses stacked too high by a reckless collector in a crowded pub. It really doesn’t matter what this is, it’s a brilliant, abrasive and incredibly fresh piece of work. Honestly, I’ll probably never watch it again, but boy am I pleased that films like this still get made in this superhero saturated age.

The writer-directors, Josh and Benny Safdie are working on a remake of 48 Hours. Now, I love that movie and generally I loathe remakes. But with these guys at the helm? I’ve already bought the ticket.

Uncut Gems is available on Netflix now.

For more of my recent ramblings, check out Medium.

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Some musings

Bond, Sex Education and 21st Century Horror

So, Barbara Broccoli has confirmed that James Bond “can be of any color, but he is male,”. Glad to hear it. It makes perfect sense for Doctor Who to be female (I just wish she had a better writer backing her up), but Bond is a man and one who, let’s face it, is unlikely to undergo gender reassignment surgery, despite the interest in same-gender relationships that he alluded to during Skyfall. The character in the books and – controversially in that film – has, at best, a callous, disposable attitude towards women and at worst, he’s an outright misogynist. Moreover, his character is something that recent films have explored in more interesting ways than their predecessors. To change such a fundamental dimension of a character seems a shame.

I like what Broccoli goes on to say in that article about writing new interesting female characters rather than arbitrarily changing a gender. It seems to me, that in the inelegant race of so many franchises to duplicate the stupendous success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the longest-running franchise in film history could do it very easily and well. Perhaps this is what they’re planning with Lashana Lynch’s casting in No Time to Die. Personally, I would like to see a standalone film with a female 005 or 009, say, establishing a new hero who can team up with Bond to save the world in a couple of movies time. It seems like a no brainer to me. God knows there are some obvious candidates: Charlize Theron smashed it out of the park as usual playing an MI6 agent in Atomic Blonde, bringing to mind the darker, harder spy from the Bond novels rather than the movies, albeit she was better than the film she was in (not for the first time). Likewise, the Mission Impossible franchise continues to widdle on Bond from a great height, with every film being better than the last and all of them after the (weak) second movie being as least as good as the best of Bond. Rebecca Ferguson would be a shoo-in to replace the Cruiser as series lead should Ethan Hunt retire or – God forbid – Tom Cruise finally go too far with one of his increasingly insane stunts.

The fact that Broccoli has said that Bond “can be of any color” is great news. Sadly, I think it’s too late for Idris Elba, who would have been perfect (although let’s face it, Trever Noah definitely has a point…). In that case, my pitch would be Riz Ahmed. He’s a great actor, he’s clearly handsome and charismatic enough, he’s played an agent from MI6’s sister service, MI5 in the excellent Britz, and he can do cold and merciless, having already played villains (Bond really needs cold and merciless. Even Roger Moore showed it sometimes!). He’s also currently a year younger than Craig was when Casino Royale came out, making him the perfect age.

In the same article, Broccoli’s co-producer and half-brother Michael G Wilson says that “You think of him [Bond] as being from Britain or the Commonwealth”, so if Ahmed’s not interested there’s a fella who’s just moved to Canada and is looking for work… Better get some acting lessons, Harry.

Quick TV shout-out. Sex Education is back on Netflix for its second series (the link is the trailer for the first series, for those who haven’t seen it). Very, very, very rude (there’s a lot of, ahem, biology…), but the very definition of hilarious and heart-warming. It’s filmed in an idyllic South Wales setting and it’s always sunny, so the warming you feel won’t just be toward the characters. Oh, and the music is stonking.

Okay… in the Midsommar review, I mentioned maybe doing a list of favourite horror films. I worry about such lists, they’re a little arbitrary and I’m bound to miss things out. But as we’ve just entered a new decade and as the state of the world has given us a golden age of horror not seen since the Seventies, I’ve compiled a list of, in my very humble opinion, the best horror movies of the 21st Century so far.

This is based on the characteristics I talked about in that review. Horror films should scare or disturb. The recent crop of more sophisticated horror films with loftier pretensions are represented here, but only ones that have chills at some point. So, by definition, this is a very personal list. Also, there are some notable exceptions. A lot of other lists of this type have featured pictures like Shaun of the Dead, Cabin in the Woods, and Drag me to Hell, all great films. But they’re examples of probably my all-time favourite genre, comedy-horror (hello again, Evil Dead II!), so they don’t really belong on this list, which is about scares. American Psycho came out in 2000 and is a bonafide classic, but despite the gore and the murder, it just doesn’t feel like a horror movie, It’s primary goal isn’t scaring the shit out of you, it’s more a dark psychological/sociological thriller with black comedic tinges. Likewise, another instant classic made some lists: Annihalation (2018). It certainly has horror elements, particularly in certain incredible scenes, and it arguably occupies the hallowed SF/Horror ground of The Terminator or Aliens, but most people wouldn’t describe either of those films as horror either. Finally, there are films like Martyrs (2008) that I have no shame in admitting I plain wimped out of. If a film is an endurance test just to get through because of horrific gore and violence, it’s not really what I’m looking for. Yes, some of these films are gory in the extreme, but the primary goal is fear, not vomit. Again, it’s a personal choice.

Here we go then, in very rough ascending order:

Wolf Creek (2005)

I thought hard about putting this on the list. Both Triangle (2009) and Rec (2007) are clearly better films, and learning subsequently just how closely Wolf Creek is based on real events has to make you question the taste and decency of it. But the fact is, it just scared me more than those two movies. John Jarratt is absolutely outstanding as Mick Taylor, it’s a truly disturbing performance in a film that just feels horribly, well, real. An Australian fella once said to me (of this Australian film) “Ah, mate, that film is fucked.” He’s not wrong.

Vacancy (2007)

Look, maybe I’m biased (I spend a lot of time alone in hotels), but this was one of those accidental late-night TV discoveries that scared the absolute frigging pants off me. The ending is a bit lame, but the simple concept and execution do enough to add to the always-increasing number of filmic reasons to stay the hell away from American motels. It’s like some bizarre post-1960 Hollywood conspiracy to drive the American tourism industry into the ground. Similarities with any recent bestselling novels are, I’m sure, entirely coincidental.

The Witch (2015)

Robert Eggers takes the freakier, disturbing portions of The Crucible and turns it into a dread-soaked nightmare that brings the reality of living in an earlier age to life. A film that elevates the horror movie to something more profound. Outstanding.

30 Days of Night (2007)

Superior to the comic on which it’s based, this brutal, bloody, nasty answer to the Twilight series makes vampires scary again.

Kill List (2011)

Really not for the faint-hearted, this, from the brilliant British director Ben Wheatley (never made a bad film and, somewhat bizarrely, attached to direct the next Tomb Raider movie) takes the simple and obvious premise that – despite what Hollywood tells us – hitmen are scumbags, then goes into darker and darker territory. Best to know little going in, but be warned, it is extremely gory and grim in places.

It Follows (2014)

Now we’re getting there. No gore here, just dread, fear, and excellent film making. Taking elements of earlier stories, most notably J-horror in the idea of a disease as a curse become manifest, this is a brilliant, stylish experience that will linger with you long afterwards, much like the antagonist.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Yes, the sequels sucked. Yes, it led to way too many inferior found-footage movies. Yes, it led to Mark Kermode rightly ranting about lazy “Quiet… quiet… BANG!” filmmaking on a regular basis, but it’s still brilliant. Again, no gore, just a simple idea done well that will scare the shit out of you as assuredly as skydiving after a laxative overdose. Loved it.

Get Out (2017)

Among other things, this is the best social horror film ever made. I say, ‘among other things’, and frankly one of those ‘things’ is that this is objectively the best film on this list. It’s a masterpiece. It’s an awkward and uncomfortable fact to me that it didn’t scare me as much as some other films, but it is the unquestionable pinnacle of using a genre film to deal with important issues. It is absolutely frightening, it is utterly brilliant and frankly, if you only watch one of the films on the list, it should be this one.

Frozen (2010)

Yep, there are two recent films called Frozen, one the all-conquering Disney cartoon from 2013, the other a brutal, terrifying survival horror from 2010. For the love of God, do not confuse the two on your children’s watch-list unless you want to do untold psychological damage and use their college fund for a lifetime of therapy instead. This Frozen basically takes the botched premise of 2003’s Open Water and turns it into ninety minutes of nerve-shredding “How the hell would I get out of this?” tension. In most other horror movies, you can come up with an answer. In this one, with its all too feasible situation, you’re trapped up there with the protagonists until the bitter end.

The Eye (2002)

Don’t watch the (dreadful) remake. This is the stuff. There’s a quote from Ain’t it Cool News in that American trailer for this masterful Korean film that says, “This is what horror should be like”. Amen to that. If you’ve ever been chilled by a ghost story told around a campfire, this is like someone taking that feeling, distilling it, and mainlining it through your eyeballs. Truly chilling, brilliantly simple.

The Ring (2002)

Okay, so it’s a remake of a superior film, Ringu, but since that came out in 1998, I can’t put it on this list. This American version adds a lot of pretty unnecessary filler and if you’ve never seen either, then I’d recommend the original over this every time. But as remakes go, this is bloody good. And honestly, I saw this first anyway. It remains one of the few films that left me shaken after I’d left the cinema. Once again, the premise is simple. Also, not for the first time on this list, the film story (based directly on Ringu) outstrips the original source material, the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki, from which it differs in many ways, notably the eventual cause of death. Once again, like most of the higher entries on this list, it doesn’t rely on gore, although it certainly has some shocking, affecting images. Most importantly, however, and the reason this tops the list is the sheer fright. In the poetic profanity of the Big Yin himself, Billy Connolly: Jesus suffering fuck, this is scary!

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Midsommar Review

Carry on Screaming. About Morris Dancing.

So, Ari Aster. On his Wikipedia page, the American director is described as being obsessed with horror movies. In 2018, he released Hereditary, its masterful trailer drawing me in as surely as Freddy Krueger is pulled into a teenage dream. It’s disappointing then, that the most interesting thing about the film turned out to be the debate between Mark Kermode and Robbie Collin.

I was firmly in Mr Flappy Hand Kermode’s camp (Hello to Jason Isaacs, etc.). The first half of Hereditary was great. Really great. It was creepy, uncomfortable and filmed with brilliant flair. It looked at things unsaid, on pauses in communication that reveal much about things that can never be spoken. It created a world steeped in dread and fear, not of the other, but worse, of the people closest to you, the people you love. It was outstanding. And it culminated in the most viscerally shocking scene I had watched for a long time, a moment of true horror in a horror film. Then… then it degenerated into a ridiculous, schlocky, painfully un-scary load of nonsense. The goodwill earned in the first half was wasted. Yes, it made sense and followed its internal logic, but it was so far removed from the character-driven chills of the first half, it felt like a completely different, lesser, movie.

Kermode was in the minority with his opinion. Many people liked and were scared by Hereditary. There’s a pattern here when a horror film succeeds and enters the common conversation. Just like Ari Aster, I love horror movies, love to be scared. I’ve watched a lot of horrors, seeking another hit of delightful fear. While Hereditary was far from the most successful Hollywood horror that year (Halloween and A Quiet Place did better, for example), it became the most successful release for its distributors, A24. A lot of ‘ordinary’ people watched it, not just hardened horror nerds.

I vividly remember the concern on my landlord’s face when she found my videotape of Evil Dead II in the VCR she’d lent me. Even the title is disconcerting for non-horror aficionados, particularly since the original film was infamously declared a ‘video nasty’ in the Eighties. Some of us go looking for films that others wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot severed limb (ten severed feet?). So, when a horror movie breaks through into the mainstream consciousness, a Paranormal Activity say, or a Saw, then it damned well better be scary to work for those of us who enjoy horror regularly. The ‘normal’ cinema-goers on the other hand, who rarely watch this kind of thing and go see it out of curiosity, will likely have a lower threshold for cinematic fright, so the popular word of mouth gets louder and a vicious cycle is created. People were talking about Hereditary as if it was the scariest film ever made, for heaven’s sake. No wonder Kermode, who wrote his PhD thesis on horror fiction, and has repeatedly called The Exorcist the scariest film, wasn’t a fan. Of course, it’s silly to call any film the ‘scariest ever made’, because fear is subjective. Some people fear clowns, some are terrified of spiders, some people have been to war and seen real horror so the rest of us don’t have to. The Shining tops many lists of scariest films and though I love it, think it is clearly, objectively brilliant, I don’t recall ever having been scared by it. At some point, I might write my own list of most frightening horror films, chances are you’ll disagree.

So, Hereditary was a victim of its own hype. If anything, I found the second half laughable. But it was remarkably well made and did have that one moment of pristine horror.

I watched Midsommar in my perfect setting for a horror: at home, alone, at night, with all the lights off and the curtains open, just in case some gibbering monstrosity decided to thrust its face against the windowpane. After the Hereditary experience, I was a little sceptical, but the word on the street was good and I really, really wanted to like this and to be scared.

Okay, good points first then. This film is utterly, utterly beautiful. The camerawork felt a bit showy, to begin with, but once things get going, it settles into a playful variation of the floating camera technique (think those early shots in Alien, when the camera drifts around the ship, giving a creeping feeling of things hiding just out of shot). This style works well to enhance the creepiness and sense of dislocation. The colours are vibrant, the architecture remarkable and there’s a strong sense of geography, you always know each location’s relation to everything else. It is stunning to look at, so much so that I couldn’t turn it off even if I wanted to (spoiler: I did). Aster and his cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski must be praised. Every single frame is gorgeous.

The acting is great. Florence Pugh increasingly reminds me of Kate Winslet, not just physically, but also her acting style and ability. Be in no doubt, this is high praise. Jack Reynor is very good as her boyfriend too, particularly in those subtle moments which Aster excels at, those silences that speak volumes. Supporting roles are filled by the like of the ever-dependable Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place). They do well with what they’re given.

Aster has described this as ‘technically a contribution to the folk-horror sub-genre’. To give him his due, he also talks about this being a different film entirely and seeking to confuse and confound his audience. I am really hoping that one day I’ll watch this again, look at it more deeply and end up loving it. I look forward to writing a contrite re-evaluation on this site. But the fact is, it was marketed as a horror movie. Any worthwhile story seeks underlying themes, but the surface intention of this, it seems clear, is to be a horror movie. And to warrant a deeper assessment, surely a work of art must succeed in its aims? Or at least come close?

There is one section where I worried there might be animal cruelty. That was the closest I got to being scared at any point and it made me realise that I didn’t care about any of the human characters, no matter how good the acting.

As I said, horror is subjective, but unless you avoid horror movies like the plague (in which case, why would you watch this), I can’t imagine anyone being scared by Midsommar. For a start, the minute you say, ‘folk horror’, you know where it’s going. True, the journey is more interesting than the destination, but even those who haven’t seen The Wicker Man know how it ends. Edward Woodward, though, gets a growing sense of unease along with the audience after he arrives on Summerisle. The moment the protagonists of Midsommar arrive at their destination, it’s clear they’re surrounded by batshit crazy lunatics.

There’s some gore about halfway through. It might gross you out if cat food gives you nightmares, but frankly, the scene was both so predictable and so ridiculous, I started giggling and struggled to stop. It was the start of a climb up a pretentious mountain of guff. All I could hear was Eddie Murphy whispering “GET OUT!”.

There was one moment of horror when pausing it to eat, I realised I was only half-way through a two-and-a-half-hour film! Are you freaking kidding me? Two and a half hours of Morris dancing, screaming, swinging, eating (there’s a LOT of eating), arguing, moaning, willies, fannies, pubic hair, flowers, hallucinations, meaningful gazes and utterly humourless nonsense. It’s boring and patently not scary.

Ari Aster is a great filmmaker. He has real talent and will make amazing pictures, but I’d love to see him make a drama or perhaps an SF movie, rather than a horror.

If you want a true modern folk-horror experience, try Kill List or The Ritual.

As for me, the next horror movie I’ll try is Crawl. A ninety-minute cheesy, gory Jaws rip off, by the look of it. Bring it on!

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JoJo Rabbit Review

Like a darkly funny joke at a funeral.

(Mild spoilers for early scenes in the film.  The short version is: go see it, it’s fantastic).

There’s a scene in JoJo Rabbit in which a ten-year-old boy is forced to look at the hanging corpses of people executed as traitors. That might be the best way to sum up this blackly funny film.

Taika Waititi’s best known previous films as director are Thor: Ragnarok, which was a standout Marvel movie and Hunt for the Wilderpeople in 2016, a superb and painfully funny picture. So, when the hilarious trailer for JoJo Rabbit came out, with its tag line about ‘Going to war on hate’, my tickets were as good as booked.

JoJo is the film’s protagonist, a ten-year-old German boy in the Hitler Youth. You soon learn that the film is set close to the end of the war, so you may know the fate of many young German boys at that time. In the film, JoJo has an imaginary friend, like many kids. Except his imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler.

I didn’t really appreciate from the trailer just how heavily inculcated in Nazi propaganda JoJo is, but of course, by the time he’s born, Hitler had already been in power for two years, so he’s steeped in filthy racist lies and proudly considers himself a Nazi.

What happens from there on isn’t hard to guess and in any case the second trailer gives away much of the plot, but the way the story is told is wonderfully different. Film makers have long sought to convey that war is hell, that fascism is terrifying, evil and self-defeating. Equally, there is of course a long tradition of mocking Hitler, going back even before he gained power. British propaganda subsequently gave us the ‘one-ball’ song, among other things. It was originally written around the start of the war and many people can still recite it now. It’s referenced in the movie. Hollywood embraced this parodying early on with the Three Stooges and Charlie Chaplin. Mel Brooks obliquely joined the ridicule later with The Producers.

What JoJo seeks to do, is convey all of this through the perception of a young boy. The film is classified as a 12A in the UK, so that perception goes to the way the story is related as well as how it is received. Of course, this is hardly the first film to attempt to examine these themes through the eyes of a child. Christian Bale’s haunting performance in Empire of the Sun comes to mind, as does The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and Life is Beautiful. Of those, only the latter attempted humour to bear the weight of the horrific reality and for me, it didn’t work. JoJo is explicit from the outset; you see through the eyes and the sense of humour of our young hero. If that means the humour is childish, so be it. Not everyone will like this, some will find it puerile. I thought it was hysterical, I absolutely loved it.

From the moment Sam Rockwell’s Captain K appeared, I nearly gave myself an aneurysm from laughing too hard. I’m biased in his case; I’ve never seen a performance of his I didn’t like. He even manages to elevate garbage like Charlies Angels and Iron Man 2 by being so damned funny. The performances are all excellent. I wasn’t 100% convinced by Archie Yates as JoJo’s best friend Yorki, but his earnestness is the point really. They consider themselves Nazis, but they’re also ten-year-old children, as one of the film’s best lines says, revealing the heart of the film. Scarlet Johansson gives the most likeable performance I’ve seen from her. I had never warmed to her, but after her turn here and in Marriage Story, I’m going to seek out more of her work. There are some deeply moving scenes between her and JoJo. JoJo himself, played (in his first film) by Roman Griffin Davis carries much of the weight of the story on his young shoulders and his Golden Globe nomination was well deserved. Taika Waititi himself plays Hitler, albeit a ludicrously handsome and tanned version. He’s hilarious throughout, but appropriately menacing and repulsive in certain scenes. Apparently, he directed parts of the film in costume, which gives even Stanley Kubrick a run for his money in the intimidating/unhinged director stakes…

Cinematography is quietly beautiful. In particular, some of the scenes between JoJo and his mum linger long in the mind. The music is magnificent throughout. I was familiar with The Beatles German recordings, but it’s another song, also recorded in German and inspired by lovers kissing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, that has the most emotional impact.

The film never shies away from the reality of its setting. Some of the scenes are bleakly horrific. You could argue they don’t sit well with the humour (which includes one groanworthy pun I dare you not to laugh at, regardless). You could argue that, but I strongly disagree. The film humanises Nazis. Some people might be uncomfortable that notion, but it’s much more dangerous to reduce them to comic book villains, which many – arguably the majority of – films do, particularly Hollywood films. JoJo idolises Hitler when we meet him and is proud to be a Nazi, but you never see him as a caricature or a stereotype, he’s a living, breathing human being, doing what ten-year-old boys do, often hilariously. So, when it comes to the scene I mentioned at the start, with victims of hanging, it hits you all the harder for it. You’re forced to confront the appalling reality with him. But the lovely thing is that there’s always another laugh, just around the corner.

This film will make you laugh as hard as it makes you cry. That’s entertainment, right?

It laughs in the face of an unspeakable evil at a time when that evil feels closer to returning than at any time since. It takes well written, multi-dimensional characters and uses them to mock obsessively fanatical monomaniacs. It exposes the moronic, dangerous lies that led to the Holocaust and it does all this in a way that is both accessible to and appealing to kids. Sure, there’s a good argument that Schindler’s List should be mandatory viewing at schools, but Waititi has made a film that school children are more likely to want to watch.

It won’t be for everyone, but everyone will find something if they look. JoJo Rabbit is wonderful.

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Review

Restores balance to the Force. Well… kind of.

Spoilers ahead for all movies in the Star Wars saga.

JJ Abrams has been equivocal, but as soon as the opening crawl appears in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, you hear the deafening click of a reset button.

Whatever your feelings about The Last Jedi, it was clearly a departure from The Force Awakens. Both films were criticised for diametrically opposed reasons. The Force Awakens (TFA) was virtually a scene by scene remake of A New Hope (or, the original Star Wars for the uninitiated). That annoyed some fans, but it did make the film more accessible – and successful. Then, The Last Jedi (TLJ) managed to drive at least half of the fanbase into a frothing rage by going out of its way to be different. We had Luke Skywalker tossing a lightsaber like a spent spliff, milking a giant alien, attempting to murder his nephew and generally being extremely grumpy. We had radical new Force abilities, including Leia’s invisible space suit. And shock horror, we had an Asian-American lady who drove little boys into apoplexy for some reason. I’m not sure whether it was by not being skeletally thin or by not being white. Whichever, Kellie Marie Tran’s Rose Tico has arguably been treated rather like Jar-Jar in this new film, with her screen time radically cut from the previous movie. While I don’t recall her character adding a great deal to the story last time, there is an unfortunate whiff of moral cowardice in this decision.

Anyway, in the new film, most of TLJ is dumped over a cliff, just like that lightsaber. This is mostly an enjoyable film, entertaining, thrilling in parts, beautiful to look at, well-acted. But it’s set itself an impossible task by being positioned as the final film in the Skywalker saga. Could any film ever satisfy that weight of expectation? It’s been (as acknowledged with an in-joke in the movie) forty-two years since Star Wars changed cinema. That’s not an exaggeration, it’s not hyperbole. As a piece of filmic imagination, it has dominated pop culture for each of those forty-two years. “I am your father”, the Force, lightsabers, heavy mechanical breathing… these things are cultural touchstones. You would have to travel very far to find someone who didn’t understand a reference to at least one of these things, not to mention the obvious impact on Hollywood itself, blockbusters, merchandising and so on.

The closing films of the previous two trilogies had mixed fortunes. Return of the Jedi (RotJ) had the misfortune of following The Empire Strikes Back, still generally regarded as the best film in the saga. I’ll always be fond of RotJ – it was the first one I saw at the cinema. Anyway, what’s not to like? I know some people objected to the cannibal teddies, but they were often amusing little sods and great dancers, too. Plus, the conclusion to the story of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and the Emperor felt truly epic, the reflection of Sith lightning in Vader’s blank face mask revealing the bonds of fatherhood could overcome the grip of the Dark Side. Luke is an orphan who finds out his dad was a hero, then discovers he’s become the evilest man in the galaxy, then, when all seems lost, his dad saves him. For any kid, particularly one who lost a parent young, that story was always going to resonate.

Revenge of the Sith (RotS) had it easy. I know the prequel trilogy has its ardent defenders and I respect that. But let’s be honest, following The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones was always going to be a damn sight easier than following The Empire Strikes Back. As such, it’s probably higher regarded than RotJ in some quarters. Anyway, six films, following the rise, fall and rise again of one Anakin Skywalker, semi narrated by Alan Carr dressed as a gold droid and his three-legged dog-substitute buddy. While RotS could have ended with the EastEnders dum dums, RotJ feels like a conclusive ending.

Of course, Disney was going to build up The Rise of Skywalker as being the closure of the Skywalker saga… who could blame them? The fact is this film is great fun. It feels pitch dark in places as well, the revelation of the Emperor and his dark fleet, the amount of Force power on display on both sides, the cheat-death of Chewbacca. It’s emotionally satisfying, there are several tear-inducing scenes and some lovely cameos and call backs. There are plenty of worse ways to spend a couple of hours. If you’re looking for a fun time at the cinema, you won’t be disappointed. But as the conclusion to this saga? As the final film of the final trilogy of the most dominant film series in the lifetime of Generation X? Sorry, no.

I think it comes down to that reset button. The Emperors laugh at the end of the trailer was exciting enough to induce spontaneous incontinence. And sure, the filmmakers can certainly argue that there was a signpost to his return in TLJ. But when the crawl starts it all just seems a bit sudden. Hey guys, the Emperor’s back! He’s spent the last twenty-odd years in a kind of combined hospice/nursery for the terminally cackling. Still sounds like he smokes (despite locking Anakin into a giant vape suit all those years previously), and after careful reflection, he still considers planetary genocide the best form of diplomacy. Anakin died for nothing, his son pretty-much screwed everything up afterwards, then went into a monumental strop. CLICK!

There are things I really love about this film, I think. I will certainly be watching it again. Rey kicking all kinds of arse is great fun to watch, and the moment when you see the true scale of her power had me swearing out loudly in the cinema. The notion of choosing your own identity should be celebrated, I think. That struck almost as much of a chord with me as the daddy issues of 1983. But… with the clicking of that button, you are unfortunately reminded that the true Force behind this franchise is the great American Dollar, nothing more. Six films about the Skywalkers, then three tacked on which don’t – can’t – fully satisfy anyone apart from Disney’s CFO.

There are some odd things in this movie, too. Look, I loved Harrison Ford’s cameo. The sound of his voice off-screen had everyone gasping and having him say ‘I know’ was wonderful. But, Jesus, you think he could have shaved… The poor bastard looks like he’s been forcibly dragged on set from the golf bunker where he’d collapsed after a three-day drinking binge. The makeup team jammed an ill-fitting wig on him before he’s shoved, blinking, confused and maybe a bit scared in front of the camera. Adam Driver looks like he’s psychically communing with an angry dead tramp. And talking of Driver, the weight of the religious symbolism on his shoulders weighs more than two Death Stars. His dad is a spirit now, for a start, but that’s nothing. He dies by being pierced in the side. Not by a lance, but by a glowing sword in the shape of a cross. Then he’s brought back from the dead (arguably twice, and the second time he crawls out of a cave. Just saying). Once he’s back, he sacrifices himself to save everyone and brings someone back from the dead himself. Look, at least it’s not quite as on-the-nose as that guff in The Phantom Menace about a virgin birth, but still. Short of having him grow his hair out, grow a beard and maybe swap his funky black mask for a white hat it couldn’t really be any clearer – he’s a goodie now, guys!

That last point didn’t sit well. During The Force Awakens, the blatant remaking of A New Hope had me thinking, ‘Okay, we’re just getting a re-tread of the original trilogy.’ It seemed clear that Adam Driver would follow the path of Darth Vader, ultimately becoming a hero. But then he murdered his own father and arguably the most loved character of the franchise (trust me, kids in the 80s didn’t want to be Luke Skywalker – it was Han all the way). Surely there was no coming back from that. TLJ did some interesting things with Rey and Kylo and the ‘balance of the force’ felt like it was going somewhere interesting. It has, a little, but ultimately, we did just get the same story again, except while Obi Wan chose to sacrifice himself for a higher purpose, Han was brutally murdered. Ultimately, I suppose the message of this film remains the same as Return of the Jedi. Everyone can be redeemed and your parents love you, no matter what. That message had far more impact the first time, for a lot of reasons.

Kevin Feige taking over as the movie equivalent of a TV showrunner for future Star Wars films seems like a good move because it feels like this new trilogy lacked a clear direction. Personally, I wish they’d just leave them be, but hey, the dollars are strong with this franchise. Let’s just hope they don’t decide to make three more ‘Skywalker saga’ movies.

So, as a Star Wars fanboy, and therefore one of the most opinionated mofo’s in the galaxy, my recommendation for a truly enjoyable time with the saga following these new movies is this: There are now four essential films in the franchise to watch in order:

Rogue One

Star Wars (A New Hope)

The Empire Strikes Back

Return of the Jedi.

The other films are fine. I don’t feel that any of them add anything essential. Some people love them and I’m happy for them, but those people who seem to hate the new films really need to chill and remember, the original trilogy will be with you, always.

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Marriage Story review

Ren vs Widow. With singing, for some reason.

Marriage Story is an intimate account of divorce. That sounds clear enough, but this is quite a hard film to categorise beyond that. The film that most often comes to mind about divorce is Kramer vs. Kramer, which remains in my mind harrowing, haunting and hard-to-watch. Perhaps I’ll get around to reviewing it for this site, only forty years too late.

Anyway, Marriage Story is not Kramer vs. Kramer, not at all. While the custody battle over a child with an American child’s haircut is central to both films, Kramer explicitly took the husband’s side. Marriage Story, despite being based on writer/director Noah Baumbach’s own divorce, is carefully even-handed.

The background lives are also quite markedly different. In Kramer, Dustin Hoffman’s character was an advertising executive (as we all know, this is how Hollywood tells audiences that someone is a Bad Person and a Bad Parent, rampant product placement hypocrisy notwithstanding). In this, Adam Driver is the theatre director husband and Scarlett Johansson the actor wife. They work in a small theatre company in New York and the income levels feel about the same as the Kramers, but beyond that, they could barely be more different.

The couple in Marriage Story is arty. Way arty. Never criticise anyone for writing what they know, but if you were being cruel you could say that Kramer feels the more grounded film, because the lives are more relatable to many. But this remains an honest film with engaging characters.

Driver and Johansson are pretty good. It’s nice to see them both doing something outside of their respective franchises, particularly Johansson, who’s spent most of the last decade playing a leather-clad fanboy fantasy with all the character depth of a spilt bottle of hand lotion.

It’s unfortunate that there is an inescapably stagey feel to many of the scenes and the sense of both acting. It doesn’t quite feel naturalistic somehow and on reflection it really feels that Baumbach is there in the room, workshopping the scenes without ever quite vanishing from the frame. That’s not to say that the acting isn’t good – it is. I need to see more Baumbach movies to prove this, but my feeling is that the reason the scenes between Driver and Johansson feel this way is that the director is understandably using his film for emotional catharsis. It seems unlikely to me, for example, that the emotional explosion near the end of the film ever happened in reality, but rather he wrote that to come to terms with all the dark feelings the divorce inevitably engendered. You do have to wonder how he and Jennifer Jason Leigh, his real-life ex-wife, will handle that scene if and when their son wants to see it. That is for them, of course, and watching this you can be left in no doubt of the emotional bravery of putting this on the screen.

This stagey feeling is mainly apparent whenever the leads are dominating the scenes. The supporting work from Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as a pair of loathsome divorce lawyers are excellent. Alan Alda is (as is often the case) a wonderfully benign presence. Julie Hegarty as Johansson’s mother is just the right side of bearable as an irritating, interfering matriarch with good intentions.

There is a comically painful and awkward scene involving the serving of divorce papers which is typical of another big difference between this and Kramer. This film is funny. Despite the raw wounds on display, there’s a lot of genuinely funny humour. Despite my comments about staginess, you never forget that the painful divorce is happening in real life, with all the normal things that life throws at us. Except…

Going back to the question of what category the film sits in, it’s pretty clearly a drama. Some critics have praised it as genre-defying because it has the comedy, the drama, the melodrama and on a couple of occasions, it randomly turns into a musical.

Look, I’m not a fan of musicals. I don’t hate them and there are a few films that technically fit the definition of a musical that I love. But this was exemplary of what I don’t like about them. Genre-defying or not, there’s a time and a place to jump up and start caterwauling like a shit-faced uncle at a wedding. People do spontaneously sing whole songs from start to finish in real life, I’ve seen it happen more than once, but there’s a time and a place, right? Normally a time when you can’t feel your own face because you’re in a place with lots of whiskey, and are, you know, happy I haven’t met a whole lot of folks who start belting out the Great American Songbook while their relationships are catastrophically imploding. Just saying.

Anyway, it’s on Netflix, which has a great fast forward function, so don’t let that put you off too much. And if it’s your thing, it turns out that our proto-Sith Lord has a pretty good voice, so knock yourself out.

It will almost certainly make you cry, despite all the humour (although I’m not the most reliable indicator. I cry at bloody everything. Especially musicals). The scene that sums up what’s been lost is tough but beautifully handled. This is probably not the best movie to watch if your own relationship is in trouble, but if you’re solid, then it will make you hug your loved ones a little tighter.

Marriage Story then. Kylo Ren vs. Black Widow. With singing.

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The Irishman review

The boys are back.

Cards on the table, The Irishman was the film I was most excited about this year. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker comes close, but a movie directed by Scorsese, starring Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci was always going to be the Niagara Falls of mouth-watering prospects.

Anyone who really loves film and was of an age in 1995 cannot fail to have been electrified by the first on-screen meeting of Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. That diner scene remains thrilling to this day. Just two guys talking respectfully to one another, with an intense undercurrent of explosive violence. So much said and done with so little. A director just allowing two incredible actors to do their thing.

That scene has echoed through cinema ever since, most obviously in the films of Christopher Nolan. It is, of course, a big shame that both actors (especially DeNiro) have understandably entered a late stage period of shoring up legacies for their families rather than cinema, paying more attention to their income than the quality of their output, and their second pairing together, Righteous Kill in 2008 was a dreadful disappointment.

So, there was some trepidation going into this, but with Scorsese in charge and Pesci being coaxed back on to the screen, you’re in safe hands. Of course, how much you enjoy it depends on your tolerance for three and half hours of deeply unpleasant men smoking in dark rooms, interspersed with callous, bloody murder. Yep, we’re in Christmas movie territory…!

Look, you know what you’re going to get. You could say that if you’ve seen one gangster film, you’ve seen them all. More accurately, if you’ve seen The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, then you’ve seen every gangster movie or gangster TV series made before or since. Like many Scorsese films, this is essentially a character study of a psychopath. There has been some discussion about the silence of women in this picture, but Scorsese (just like Michael Mann, director of Heat) generally makes films for and about men, violent, often repellent men. The role of female characters in this film is to hold a silent mirror to the routine triviality of the men’s vile behaviour. Ironically, one of the most casually brilliant scenes in the film, where Scorsese expertly uses your experience and expectations of film against you, involves a woman sitting alone in a car.

So, how are DeNiro and Pacino together? Well, there’s nothing here quite like that scene in Heat. That’s fine, it’s a different film, we’re a quarter century removed now, and these are very different characters. Pacino manages to get through without doing the ‘HOO HAH!’ thing too much, but it works fine for his character, Jimmy Hoffa. The fact is, to paraphrase the Dark Knight, maybe you either die a movie legend, or live long enough to become a parody of yourself. DeNiro does his breathing thing a lot. They’re both so intense it sometimes feels like being trapped in a toilet cubicle with an angry, drunk granddad. On other occasions, watching them sit in cars together begins to feel like a weird, sweary version of Grumpy Old Men, just with a lot more people being shot in the face. They also share hotel suites together in pyjamas. There are people in some parts of the internet who will love that.

We can’t go on without talking about the digital de-aging. Yes, it’s distracting. It doesn’t ruin the film, by any means, but you can’t help but be acutely aware of it. In some ways, it’s a showcase. Much like how Terminator 2: Judgement Day moved CGI on to the next level after The Abyss, you can feel the same thing happening here when you compare it to Rogue One. In that film, it was a mistake to put Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher’s digital faces in the light too much. Here, the actors spend a lot of time in broad daylight and the improvement of technology in three years is clear. It doesn’t always work. Mark Kermode already pointed out that the de-aged faces still sit on what are obviously the bodies of old men – it’s clear in the way they move. Joe Pesci’s head looks alarmingly disconnected to the rest of him on several occasions. It can be bloody disturbing. There is a great horror film waiting to be made with this stuff. Mind you, having said that Joe Pesci is a scary man at the best of times. Al Pacino winds up most closely resembling his previous character of Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy, when he was buried under a ton of latex prosthetics and make up. And Robert DeNiro’s eyes are waiting. Urghh…. What in the name of all that is holy is going on with that? I had just finished the excellent Resident Evil 2 remake on PlayStation before watching this and the graphics are superb. Yet in the final cutscenes of the full ending of the game, it stood out to me how Claire Redfield’s eyes looked really wrong. Whenever anyone mentions the ‘uncanny valley’ between a real human being and a synthetic approximation of one, it’s always the eyes I think of first. When you’re playing a computer game, that is much less of a problem and you can just appreciate how good the graphics are, because fundamentally these are avatars, there to represent a real person rather than mimic one. But as soon as you take that technology and paste it on to a real person it becomes viscerally unsettling.

DeNiro’s digitally de-aged eyes were the most distracting thing in the film for me. At no point did they seem to belong to a human being. And it was impossible to look at them without wondering how on Earth the technology worked to keep trying to track his eye position and overlay them with CGI. They were the least convincing eyes I’ve seen outside of politics. It wasn’t such a big deal for other characters, who kept their own natural eye colour, but apparently Frank Sheeran had piercing blue eyes, so they decided to mimic that in DeNiro. It does need to be stressed just how much of an improvement this is over Rogue One, but it obviously has a way to go.

One final thing about this – it seems okay to me use this technology to make a decade spanning opus with two of our greatest living actors, but the recently announced idea of digitally resurrecting James Dean seems ghoulish, greedy, pointless and inherently wrong.

In every other respect, the acting, direction, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, the music (great to hear Fats Domino on the contemporary soundtrack in the year we lost him and the original music is perfect, too) it’s a masterpiece. Scorsese makes this look so easy. I mentioned the casual brilliance of an individual scene and it applies to the whole film, too. He instinctively makes everything work as simply and effectively as only a hugely experienced auteur like him can.

It’s funny too, in it’s own right. It’s a serious subject, sure, but don’t expect it to be po-faced or grandiose. Pacino is a naturally funny man and a few of the scenes will likely make you chuckle, such as a comically angry and extended conversation about fish.

So, The Irishman. If you’re a Scorsese, DeNiro or Pacino fan, you’re going to love this. It’s just great to be back with the boys. If not, then it’s not going to change your mind and you should probably find a better use of three and a half hours of your life.

…and there’s more

After watching Fair Game and blogging about it here, I was on a history kick. Next, I watched Rebellion, an RTE TV series from 2016, released to mark the hundred years since the Easter Rising. One of the Gleeson boys stars, along with a group of talented Irish and English actors. It makes a clear effort to be even-handed in its portrayal, though as always, the creators necessarily made artistic revisions. The sets, costumes and period details are good, and it’s well shot, but sadly it was a leaden, flat-footed telling of one of the most important and dramatic moments in Irish history.

For a start, there were too many characters. I was struggling with the affair between the English Under-Secretary and his Irish secretary. I’m assuming it was there as a metaphor, but when his ghastly wife showed up and the secretary had to live with her, I lost interest. That’s one of several plot strands that doesn’t add much to the narrative, and the whole thing could have done with a tighter focus, and more clarity on the events leading to the rebellion, the first major one in over a century. Irish history is complex and deserves to be better understood, especially in Britain, where ignorance of it at the highest levels has contributed once more to a dangerous time for citizens across the 32 counties. It’s a shame that this wasn’t more compelling. It’s unlikely to draw many in.


Having said that, it was an absolute frigging masterpiece compared to Don’t Breathe (2016).

When I started this blog, I said everything I watched was ‘good entertainment’. In truth, writing this review was more entertaining than watching Don’t ‘bloody’ Breathe. I realise I’m swimming upstream here (it made a fortune and was very well-reviewed. A sequel is en route), but Mother of God, this was execrable bilge. The plot is, as wiser people than me have spotted, a straight flip of the Sixties Audrey Hepburn movie Wait Until Dark, wherein the world’s most beautiful blind lady fights off crooks in her home. Here, we have three (and I use the word after careful consideration) assholes who routinely break into people’s homes. They do this because one of them has a father who runs an alarm company, which for some reason means he has keys to all his client’s homes, as well as the ability to override their alarm systems with remote control. Yeah, I wouldn’t buy an alarm from this dude, either. We first join them in a burglary, during which one of them pisses on the floor. He’s supposed to be the most criminal of the three, because he deals with the fence and supplies gas (uh-huh, gas) and drugs to help with the break-ins. Also, he’s black.

The two white assholes are more complicated though. The rich kid (you know, the one with all the advantages in life because his dad, though clearly incompetent, runs a successful business) is conflicted. Well, I say that, but what I mean is he hesitates for around 30 seconds of screen time before going ahead with the next burglary. Also, he’s in love with the final asshole, a girl. We’re supposed to empathise with her because her mother is abusive, and she has a kid sister. Well, y’know, that describes a lot of people. They don’t all rip people off though.

But wait… the house that they break into belongs to a blind guy. A blind guy who we see dragging a woman down the street by her hair in the opening shot. Soooo… the plot of this movie is that three assholes break into the house of a blind asshole. A blind asshole who you later find out raped the woman with a turkey baster. I’m not making this up. Someone did. God help us.


Much more fun was The Climb (2019) written, produced by, and starring Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin as Mike and Kyle, two lifelong friends. It’s marketed as a comedy-drama. I found it hilarious from start to finish. None of the drama is heavy or laboured, but it still has something interesting and worthwhile to say, even if what that amounts to is ‘people are complicated, and relationships are hard’.

It starts with a revelation on a biking holiday in France, and we revisit the pair at various big events in their lives afterwards. To say Mike is a difficult person is… well, remember Simon Pegg’s character from The World’s End? Your getting close. There are no androids or aliens in this though, it’s a very grounded, real film. But it’s hysterically funny in places. There’s a gag involving a certain piece of British culture that had me roaring.

And that’s it for now, folks.


My Line of Duty blog will go live at the same time as this today and will also be at Live for Film.

Until then … !


If you want to watch any of the films and the TV series reviewed:

Rebellion series one – Netflix

Don’t Breathe – Amazon Prime

The Climb – Amazon Prime (paid, but on special offer for £1.99 when I watched it)

Spring!

Astronomical Spring 2021 started on Friday, and while clearly no-one has told the weather that, I’m happy to welcome her here. The Pagan fertility festival officially starts on Friday 2nd April, although what that means for school calendars in 2021, I have no idea.

I can’t believe it’s still not quite a year since the ‘official’ start of the first UK lock-down on 23rd March 2020. People keep saying that time has lost all meaning… but time only has the meaning that you apply to it, anything beyond the universal inevitability of entropy, anyway. Time is a social construct. Sundials may have been with us since almost the beginning, but mechanical clocks are only about 700 years old, and the US didn’t have a national time system until 1883, at the behest of the railroads. Individual cities just kept their own time.

‘Worlds’ as we know them are created and die with the ebb and flow of relationships. My Wife nearly died before I met her. The world I know and love never would have existed. But, when it was really bleak, and it looked like she wouldn’t make it, her mum went to the stream where they often used to walk the dogs together, just to remind herself that no matter what happened, this would still be here, and so would all their memories.


I thought about that recently when I took my own dog for a walk on the Malvern Hills. It’s all too easy to forget that this is on my doorstep:


Even geological time is the blink of an eye to the universe.

Days, seasons, years, pandemics, worlds… there’s always another one starting or ending. Nothing is permanent.


Bit deep for a ‘film blog’, I know, but hey.

See you again soon!

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