The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

2017 #28
Colm McCarthy | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

The Girl with All the Gifts

When George A. Romero invented the zombie subgenre in the ’60s, he was more concerned with allegory than blood ‘n’ guts. The latter has come to dominate, as it has with so much of the broader horror genre, but from time to time there’s still room for thoughtful contributions more befitting Romero’s legacy. This low-budget British film, adapted from a young adult novel, is one such effort.

As the film opens we’re introduced to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl who sits in a concrete bedroom treasuring her photo of a kitten. Then soldiers enter and, at gunpoint, strap her to a chair, before wheeling her to a classroom with similarly restrained children. It’s just the beginning of a fantastic first act, full of atmosphere and intrigue as this world is rolled out before us. The less you know the better, though the chances of going in so cold that it’s a total mystery are sadly slim. If you’re intrigued enough already to check out the movie on my recommendation alone, stop reading now! Go watch it! If not…

So, as it turns out, we’re in the near future and a fungal disease has turned most of humanity into zombie-like creatures known as ‘hungries’. They spend most of their time in a dormant trance, but the smell of uninfected blood sends them wild and chompy. Melanie and her classmates are children who are infected but ‘normal’ — unless provoked, when they too turn into ravenous fiends — and they may hold the key to a cure. They live on an army base, but, when it’s overrun by hungries, Melanie and a ragtag group of survivors — including Paddy Considine’s sergeant, teacher Gemma Arterton, and scientist Glenn Close, who’s obsessed with finding a cure at any cost — hit the road in search of safe haven.

On the road

In the A.V. Club’s review, Katie Rife asserts that “once this initial premise is revealed and The Girl With All The Gifts leaves the base… this intriguing twist on zombie lore becomes subsumed by postapocalyptic road-trip cliché.” Well, yes and no. There are certainly some familiar beats, but I felt like those just gave a narrative shape to contain otherwise interesting ideas. I haven’t seen enough zombie movies to vouch for The Girl With All The Gifts being 100% original, but I’d certainly not come across some of its ideas before. That goes for both the way it handles the zombie action (though, of course, there are only so many ways you can depict the monstrous undead) and the social commentary, which, as much as anything, tackles the way children and adults interrelate.

The eponymous girl is fantastic — Melanie is an interesting character, and an interesting type of character too. She’s fantastically played by Sennia Nanua, who may be a talent to watch out for in future (I say ‘may’ because, per IMDb, she’s not got anything else coming up). The more familiar supporting cast are as superb as you’d expect. Glenn Close brings plausibility to what could’ve just been an Evil Scientist role, while Gemma Arterton provides the film’s heart as a motherly teacher. Paddy Considine’s role is best appreciated once all is said and done — he seems to be just the gruff soldier type, but snippets of his backstory are revealed right up until the end, revealing new layers to his character.

Special school

Director Colm McCarthy, a veteran of copious amounts of British TV (Spooks, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders, and much, much more), keeps the focus on the characters while also giving their world a fantastic sense of scale. The film was made for a pittance (for comparison, it cost about half as much as a single episode of Game of Thrones) but looks incredible. There may be some blurry edges on green screen shots and things like that, but I’ve seen less convincing effects work in movies that cost 50 times as much. Some of the footage was captured by flying over the remains of a town left to rot after Chernobyl, which lends a veracity to the post-apocalyptic vistas (and presumably saved a tonne on CGI). In terms of places you can actually take actors, it was partly filmed in Birmingham, which seems to be becoming a go-to location for dystopian / post-apocalyptic cityscapes (Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One also shot there last year).

The zombie genre is an overcrowded one nowadays, even if you exclude the innumerable direct-to-DVD knock-offs, but there’s still space for well-made movies that can put the familiar tropes to greater use. The Girl with All the Gifts is an impressively mounted and performed production, and is worth watching if just for that horror-thriller kick. However, it also has something to say. I imagine Romero would be pleased.

5 out of 5

The Girl with All the Gifts is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Blair Witch (2016)

2017 #66
Adam Wingard | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Canada & USA / English | 15 / R

Blair Witch

Twists in movies come in all shapes and sizes, but rarely do they come in the marketing. This latest film from the writer-director team behind You’re Next and The Guest was initially promoted as The Woods, only for its true name to be revealed at the first public screening. Quite neatly, during said screening they switched all the posters in the lobby for ones featuring the real title. It’s a shame it wasn’t possible to give every viewer that “oh shit, it’s a sequel to The Blair Witch Project!” surprise, because it’s probably the most interesting thing about the film.

Set however-many years after the original movie (and ignoring the first sequel, just like the rest of us have), it’s about the younger brother of one of the original missing documentary-makers, who comes to believe that his sister is still alive, somehow, in those woods, all these years later. So he sets out with a couple of friends to investigate, and of course one of them documents it, using all sorts of cameras — handheld, body mounted, even a drone. So, yes, this is once again a found footage movie. Well, they are all the rage.

In fairness, the first Blair Witch was the father of found footage, so it only makes sense to retain the form. However, I’d argue that everything that worked about the original movie did so because of how it was filmed — that the cast had been put in that situation ‘for real’ and the filmmakers were fucking with them. It gave it all a rough plausibility, which is largely what made it scary. Conversely, this Blair Witch feels scripted and constructed from the off. That’s fine for most movies, even found footage ones, but here it stands in sharp contrast to how the original worked, and I think it undermines this movie. Almost everything feels inevitable, and you know all the important stuff will be captured on camera (at least one major stunt in the original film was missed because the scared actors didn’t happen to point the camera at it).

A deserted house in the middle of a creepy forest? What could possibly go wrong!

As a horror movie, it does achieve moments that are kind of scary, but they’re undercut by a certain obviousness. I mean, of course a deserted house in the woods is scary when you know there’s a murderous witch inside and you’re limited to seeing it only from one character’s torchbeam-lit perspective. The whole movie is powered by similarly cheap jump scares: friends creeping up on each other; cameras glitching whenever they’re turned off; or, indeed, on — that kind of thing. The only genuinely terrifying bit, at least to me, was a final-act crawl through an underground tunnel. This is not a good movie for claustrophobics. And it only gets worse when you learn they made the actress do it for real.

In some ways Blair Witch is just a remake — a bunch of young people running around in the woods from something scary that we don’t see. Early on it seems like it will bring something interesting to the party with its use of new technology to update the concept: whereas in the original they had one simple video camera, here there are ear-cams with GPS, webcams they can mount in trees, even a drone. Sadly, none of these contribute anything except more angles for the editor to use. Plot-wise there’s a shiny new twist, though I wonder how many people guessed it a long time before the end. Credit to the filmmakers for not overplaying it — it’s there just to be noticed; it’s not highlighted when it’s revealed — but I was so expecting it that such credit doesn’t get them far.

Eh, that's a bit of a reach

According to, er, themselves in their commentary track, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett actually had a lot of interesting ideas about and explanations for the inexplicable stuff that’s going on in the movie. Unfortunately, they buried these notions so deeply in the finished work that it feels as if they’re not there at all; and now there’ll be no sequel to expound upon them, and the guys were in such a bitter mood when they recorded the commentary (within days of the film being a critical and box office flop) that they don’t explain them, apparently out of spite. Well, I guess we’ll have to take their word for it, then.

Maybe if they had bothered to explore the implications of their new tossed-in ideas then there’d be something to appreciate here, but instead it’s just 80 minutes (and it feels longer) of shaky footage of people running around in the dark. I suppose that, as a horror film, some of it works in the most literal sense of being scary in the moment. But it doesn’t feel earned; it doesn’t feel like it’ll be haunting me later, in the way the most effective horror movies do — in the way the ending of the first Blair Witch did.

2 out of 5

Blair Witch will be available on Netflix UK from tomorrow. It’s also currently available to rent on Amazon UK at a discount for Prime members as part of Prime Day.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

2016 #180
Dan Trachtenberg | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

10 Cloverfield Lane

After Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a car crash, she awakens in a basement chained to a wall. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), tells her he’s saved her life: a massive attack has taken place and they, along with an acquaintance of Howard’s called Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), are in Howard’s self-built bunker to hide from the deadly fallout. But Michelle only has Howard’s word as evidence these attacks happened at all, or that their aftermath is lethal, and can he be trusted?

For most of its running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a good psychological puzzle. Michelle has little choice but to trust her captor(s) / quarantine-mates and little chance to investigate the truth for herself, try as she might. I must say I never felt a particularly palpable sense of tension, despite the varied and regularly renewed attempts to make Goodman a threat, but it nonetheless works as a characterful mystery-driven single-location thriller. And then…

We’ve all read reviews where a critic (or blogger!) will write something like, “it would benefit from being 10 minutes shorter”. That sounds very precise and therefore clever, but it’s really a number plucked from thin air. No one who’s written a sentence like that has actually sat down with a film, noted all the bits they’d cut, added them up, and then presented that total in their review. It is, at best, intuition (at worst, it’s random and thoughtless). However, with 10 Cloverfield Lane I can say exactly how much needs to be cut: 9 minutes and 10 seconds. To be exact, those’d be the 9 minutes and 10 seconds between a (spoilery) revelation and the credits rolling.

Roomies

There’s no need to go into detail here — if you’ve not seen the film it’s a massive spoiler; if you have, you surely know what I’m talking about. This climax feels wholly unnecessary and like it belongs in a totally different movie. Tonally, and in terms of the main plot points that drive the story, it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie we’ve just watched. If you cut that bit out, it wouldn’t make the rest of the film any less satisfying. And because it’s so unnecessary, I found it intensely irritating.

The bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very solid contained psychological thriller, undoubtedly deserving a strong 4-star rating. Then the final ten minutes happens. It’s so misjudged, in my opinion, that it overshadows what’s come before, to the point that I’ve taken a whole star off my rating.

3 out of 5

Split (2016)

2017 #62
M. Night Shyamalan | 117 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

Split

Once-fêted writer-director M. Night Shyamalan surprised a lot of people in 2015 by finally beginning his long-awaited comeback (a day I think it’s safe to say many thought would never come) with low-budget high-concept horror The Visit. Then earlier this year he surprised people again by delivering another long-promised return. Well, he surprised people who didn’t find it out on the internet the day after the darn thing came out, anyway. For that reason (plus the newsworthy announcements that have followed in its wake), this review presumes you know Split’s last-minute twist.

And, like many a twist before it, once you know what’s coming it can’t help but colour the entire film. What’s unique about Split’s reveal is that, really, it shouldn’t — it’s a bonus extra-textual connection, not a traditional twist that forces you to reassess the narrative you’ve just seen. The problem, I suppose, is that it’s a distraction; or it was for me. I spent the entire movie with a background awareness that this was in the same universe as Unbreakable, which meant that (a) I was hyper-attentive for anything that suggested a link before the closing cameo (I didn’t see anything significant; I think the similar posters are probably the cheekiest thing), and (b) any tension about whether or not James McAvoy’s character will turn out to have (semi-)supernatural powers dissipates, because of course he will — that’s the world we’re in.

Oh, you!

This is why having twists spoiled is bad. I guess journalists felt that as it wasn’t a twist inherent to the film’s narrative — not like, say, The Sixth Sense or Fight Club — it was OK to shout about it online with uncommon speed. In fairness, the later news that the trilogy-completing Glass is in development means that, even if they had kept schtum, anyone waiting on Split’s digital/DVD/streaming/etc release was likely to have the connection blown anyway. But I didn’t want to be having a conversation about the point at which discussing spoilers is permissible. That’s a distraction from the film itself, which does it a disservice. But then, so’s knowing the ending before you start.

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think I’ve fairly judged Split yet. I was too busy thinking “OMG, Unbreakable sequel, yay!” Still, it’s easy to spot several plus points. The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy makes for an engaging heroine, her character quiet but assured, more capable than the bolshy but kinda useless classmates she’s imprisoned with. Even as a twist-spoiled viewer is waiting for the inevitable reveal that, yep, McAvoy has powers that are going to manifest, there’s tension in when and how and who’ll make it out alive.

Making it out alive?

However, the really exceptional part of the movie is McAvoy’s performance. I don’t know how accurately or sympathetically the film handles the science of his character’s condition, but his embodiment of the role — of all the roles — is superb. The multiple distinct personalities aren’t created just by putting on a silly voice or funny costume; McAvoy changes the way he holds himself, the way he stands and moves, the way his face expresses. It’s the kind of performance that in a different kind of film would’ve been all over awards season.

I feel bad for not entirely assessing Split on its own merits, but equally I can’t help it — the thing that most excites me is where it promises to go next; the full-blown sequel to Unbreakable that many people (myself included) have been hoping would come for the best part of two decades. Maybe once that’s been and gone I’ll be able to revisit this and take it as a standalone piece.

4 out of 5

Split is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

2016 #147
Don Siegel | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | PG

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

A sci-fi thriller about a stealth alien invasion using human duplicates (clue’s in the title), this original film version of the oft-remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers is best not at genre-movie chills, but at evoking and commenting on paranoia and what causes it.

Thematically, the narrative of insidious outsiders slowly replacing good honest people with braindead versions who are on their side has been read as either anti-communist or anti-McCarthyite, with some critics claiming the framing story (more on that in a bit) changes it from the latter to the former. Allegedly none of these themes were intended — not by the author of the original story, the screenwriter, the producer, or the director. Which doesn’t mean you can’t see them there. Indeed, director Don Siegel felt the anti-McCarthy subtext was inescapable, but he tried not to emphasise it. Whichever reading you prefer, or none, the sense of unease, distrust, and lurking danger that the film creates are a peerless reflection of paranoid feelings.

Although I deemphasised the genre aspect above, that doesn’t mean it lacks for sophistication there either. It’s as much a thriller as it is science fiction, and more mature in that regard than what’s commonly brought to mind by the phrase “50s sci-fi movie” (whether that’s fair or not). The way the mystery slowly unravels — the calmness of it; how even our heroes unwittingly allow some of it to happen — sucks you slowly deeper into its anxious grip. (“Slowly” being a relative term, because this is a short, quick movie.) Nonetheless, the most outright SF elements — the plant-like pods that the clones emerge from — are suitably creepy. Not in themselves, but when they first burst open and the bodies inside begin to ooze out… Though not strictly a horror movie (at least not as we’d define it today), those moments are chilling.

Extreme gardening

The impact of this sequence is supported by the black-and-white photography, which helps obscure any cheapness or amateurism to be found from the era- and budget-restrained special effects work. But such photography benefits the film as a whole, too, with some great film noir visuals during nighttime scenes. Siegel had previously helmed several such crime pictures (and would go on to a couple more) and it’s clear those skills crossed over. It also works very nicely with the film’s paranoia — what’s lurking in the shadows?

In some respects it’s amazing Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as successful as it is, because the studio chose to dick around with it in a couple of ways. Originally the film had some humour, which (as I think we all know by now) definitely can have a place in a horror movie, generally to help manage tension levels. Despite successful test screenings in which the audience screamed or laughed as appropriate, the studio ordered the humour be cut. I guess they then felt they’d made the film too glum, because they next ordered the addition of bookend sequences, against the wishes of both the producer and the director. It’s clear these couple of scenes were shot much later, with much less care given to their quality. They do somewhat detract from the pervading pessimistic, bleak, increasingly hopeless tone — which was why they were added, of course, so at least in that respect they’re a success.

Those late additions aren’t bad enough to ruin the film, however, which still comes away as a well-made exercise in tension.

4 out of 5

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

2017 #67
David Lynch | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

This review contains major spoilers for both Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me.

When Twin Peaks was cancelled, co-creator David Lynch quickly realised he wasn’t done telling stories in that world — probably because he’d just ended the TV series on a massive cliffhanger, having only recently refocused his attention on the show after a period of absence. Within a month of the series’ end, he’d secured a deal to produce a big-screen continuation. Along with one of the series’ lead writers, Robert Engels, Lynch cooked up a plan for a trilogy of movies that would explore some of the series’ leftover mythology — primarily, the mysterious and otherworldly Black Lodge. The first of these movies would begin by revisiting the aspect of Twin Peaks that had brought it so much attention in the first place: the murder of Laura Palmer.

Unfortunately, Lynch had misjudged the public’s appetite — or, more likely, didn’t particularly care about that, but nonetheless what people wanted didn’t line up with what Lynch made. The resulting movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, was not a success. For fans of the TV programme, the tone didn’t match, most of the regular cast didn’t appear, and, on the surface at least, it was a story about events they already knew, rather than a resolution to the series’ cliffhanger. For non-fans, it didn’t seem to stand alone in the way a ‘proper’ movie should. Lynch had won the top prize at Cannes just two years earlier, but now the screening of Fire Walk with Me was booed; so was the press conference. Reviewers were similarly unimpressed. The film flopped at the box office. The intended trilogy stalled with its first instalment, and Fire Walk with Me went down as a poorly-regarded failure, unquestionably one of Lynch’s worst films.

Lady in red (room)

Well, opinions change. Nowadays you’re just as likely to see someone contend that Fire Walk with Me is the pinnacle of Lynch’s career as you are to see someone express the view it’s his nadir; perhaps even more likely. From what I can gather, a quarter-of-a-century’s distance has allowed people to become more understanding about what it was Lynch was actually trying to achieve with the film; that it is, despite what the title might lead you to believe, as much “A David Lynch Film” as it is “A Continuation of The Popular Mainstream TV Series Twin Peaks”.

In both of these respects, there’s an awful lot to unpack. It’s a continuation and expansion of the ongoing Peaks story (and certainly not a conclusion to it), with pieces that lead up to Laura’s murder, pieces that expand on or continue stuff from the series finale, as well as brand new mysteries and puzzles. Simultaneously, it stands on its own two feet as a depiction of — and, in its use of horror, allegory for — the terrors of domestic psychological abuse and incest. And before all that it starts with a half-hour prologue in which a cast of character we mostly don’t know investigate a murder that die-hard fans might just about recall from its fleeting relevance to the series’ earliest episodes. And David Bowie turns up for a bizarre cameo that goes nowhere. In many respects, Fire Walk with Me is not an easy movie.

It is a rewarding one for those prepared to dig into it, however. Again, that applies to both levels the film is functioning on. It may not directly continue after the events of the series, but there are a couple of hints and nods towards the events of the finale and what happens next, as well as a lot of general additions to the mythology. And as a films about abuse, it’s not just a depiction of events, but is attempting to in tap into how that actually feels, psychologically — as Lynch has said, it’s about “the loneliness, shame, guilt, confusion and devastation of the victim of incest.” It must do this successfully because Sheryl Lee has said that, “I have had many people, victims of incest, approach me since the film was released, so glad that it had been made because it helped them to release a lot.” Bravely, it’s also a bit about the abuser, presenting him with, if not sympathy, then some degree of understanding — to quote Lynch again, it deals with “the torment of the father – the war within him.”

Happy families

One thing that straddles both sides of the film, I think, is that It goes a long way to ‘redeeming’ Laura Palmer. In the series she’s the all-American good girl homecoming queen who we quickly learn wasn’t so good under the surface, spending her time partying hard with drugs and promiscuous sex. At one point it seems like she was just a wild child who got in too deep. Now, I forget if the series eventually made clear that she let herself be murdered in order to stop a malicious demon from possessing her, but, even if it did, it’s a few lines of dialogue. Here, we see the real, severe struggles she was battling while trying to maintain some kind of normal life, and how hard she fought against them. She was, actually, just an ordinary girl, forced to face extraordinary circumstances.

Conversely, this is almost exactly why some people disliked the film: because it took how Laura Palmer appeared in the series, as kind of a notion or concept that the town projected their values and issues onto, and made her into a real person, who was consequently as messed up as most teenagers are. Essentially: Laura Palmer was more interesting dead than alive. I have two thoughts on this. One: Laura wasn’t exactly leading a normal life, so there’s definitely something in seeing how she ended up how she did; what her psychological state was like. Two: perhaps it’s entirely the point that the reality and the legend (particularly the legend built around someone tragically cut down too young) are not the same thing; that the reality is not as great as the notion. That sounds like a particularly Lynchian theme to me.

All of this added depth to Laura is driven by a remarkable performance from Sheryl Lee. Originally cast to play a corpse and a photograph, Lynch liked her so much they created a role for in the series (as Laura’s lookalike cousin Maddie), and she gets an even meatier role here. Even though viewers of the series already know the answers that Laura only discovers during the film, Lee’s performance is so powerful, particularly when enacting fear or terror (no one instils fear in the viewer quite so well as Sheryl Lee looking terrified by something off camera that we never see), that we are horrified along with her. There’s also a power in seeing something play out that we’ve previously only been told about — the reality of it happening is more horrendous than the facts we’ve heard.

LAWNa Palmer (get it?)

This is partly why Fire Walk with Me has a distinctly different tone to the series (which, as noted, probably didn’t help win people over). It’s still full of quirky surrealism, of course, because it’s a David Lynch film; but the lighter, funnier, chirpier elements have all been excised. This is a dark, dark movie. One suggestion I’ve read from a fan is that the TV series was from Agent Cooper’s point of view, hence it emphasised the small-town charm and optimistic worldview, while the film is from Laura’s perspective, so it’s altogether grimmer and more fatalistic. This may not have been deliberate on the part of Lynch and co, but it certainly makes some kind of sense.

Which road the imminent Twin Peaks revival will walk, obviously no one outside of the production yet knows. But the other week it was widely reported that Lynch had said Fire Walk with Me would be essential to understanding the new series. I think some people who surprised by this — the vestiges of the film’s original negative reception, perhaps — but, having just watched the film, it feels like a bit of a “well, duh” statement. Fire Walk with Me is often summarised as being just “the last seven days of Laura Palmer”, which makes it sound like it’s wholly related to a mystery that was wrapped up in the original series. It’s more than that, making huge contributions to the series’ ongoing mythos, as well as a couple of hints about events in and after the original finale — unless those were going to be completely ignored by the new series (which doesn’t sound like Lynch to me, not to mention that it would surely irritate fans), then of course Fire Walk with Me is important!

One thing that’s probably never getting explained is that Bowie cameo. His character was one of the things inserted by Lynch and Engels to build on in the proposed sequels — yes, rather like all those films that adapt the first novel of a series and fill it with foreshadowing, assuming they’ll get to make the rest, but never do. Reportedly Bowie was lined up to appear in the revival, but died before he could film any scenes. Whether that particular mystery will be explained some other way, or be left forever as a dangling thread in Twin Peaks’ complex web, obviously remains to be seen. So too the disappearance of Agent Chester Desmond, as actor Chris Isaak isn’t part of the extensive cast list they’ve announced. But then, maybe they’re keeping some secrets there too…

He's here to blow our minds

There’s so much more that could be said about Fire Walk with Me. About ‘fake Donna’, for instance — actress Moira Kelly standing in as Laura’s best friend, Donna Hayward, because original actress Lara Flynn Boyle was unavailable — and how there’s a camp of people who think she might actually be better than the original (me included). About the significance of time (there’s a definite clock motif; several clear references in dialogue; it’s technically a prequel but with sequel pieces; there’s definitely a few bits of time travel going on; and so on). About the Lil scene, which may or may not be a dig at over-analytical fans; indeed, that whole prologue is like some kind of inversion of Twin Peaks. About the Pink Room sequence and its seedy artistry. About the interpretation that Bob is a shared fiction, concocted by both Leland and Laura to help that pair of troubled souls deal with the horrors they’re living through (you may think Leland deserves no sympathy, but the series made it fairly clear that he had been a victim of abuse himself…)

Fire Walk with Me is so many different things all at once that it’s almost a mess of a film. But Lynch knows what he’s doing, if not entirely then at least to a significant degree. Plus it only becomes more interesting and complex as you continue to think and read about it after viewing. Perhaps, after the new series, it will slot into place even better, and its significance in the overall scheme of Twin Peaks will become even clearer. Maybe its critical rehabilitation has a few steps left to take yet…

4 out of 5

Tomorrow: the missing pieces.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

2017 #69
Ridley Scott | 122 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, Australia, New Zealand & UK / English | 15 / R

Alien: Covenant

Following in the footsteps of half the other Alien movies (and “following in the footsteps” is definitely a theme when it comes to this movie), Alien: Covenant introduces us to a group of people who are the crew of a spaceship. This particular lot are on their way to establish a colony when a mid-flight disaster awakens them to deal with the damage. At the same time they detect a distress call from a nearby planet — a planet that looks even more suited to supporting human life than the one they were headed for. Changing course, they find suspiciously human vegetation growing on the planet, but are soon beset by terrible things. Well, it’s an Alien movie — I’m sure you can guess where most of this is going.

I say it’s an Alien movie, but really it’s a Prometheus movie. I don’t think that counts as a spoiler, does it? It’s no secret that Michael Fassbender is back. Sure, he starts the film playing a new robot, but did anyone really think that meant his old character wouldn’t be rocking up too? Sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone, but, c’mon. Besides, it’s clear that — despite the initial set dressing — Ridley Scott is far more interested in the concepts that launched Prometheus than he is in creating another Alien movie. The franchise-friendly stuff powers the slow-burn opening and the final act adrenaline rushes, but in between Scott reconnects to themes leftover from the apparently-aborted Prometheus trilogy.

Fit to burst

Now, I’ve already professed to be avoiding spoilers, but suffice to say that if you put Prometheus, Aliens (as opposed to Alien), Blade Runner (yep), and Frankenstein into a blender, then poured the resulting mixture into a novelty tie-in glass from the Star Wars prequels, you’d get Alien: Covenant. Weirdly, it’s the Prometheus stuff in that blend that tastes finer than the Aliens stuff. In fairness, that’s because it’s complemented by the notes of Blade Runner and Frankenstein.

Still, it’s a mixed bag. The scenes of characters chatting hold more interest than the action sequences, which feel a little perfunctory, remixing bits of previous movies with little impact, and are too dark to really appreciate (though I should withhold judgement on that last point, because they looked gloomier in the film than they did in the trailer, so perhaps it was just my cinema?) There’d be no shame in Covenant working as just an action and/or horror movie, if well made — that’s what the films that originated this franchise are, after all — but Scott is interested in exploring something more profound. The problem is that the attempted profundity comes from characters standing around and explaining the plot and/or themes to each other. It’s further undermined by slightly sloppy construction, one that places a key flashback at entirely the wrong moment (coming much earlier than it should, thereby spoiling a later reveal), and a last-minute twist that will be easily guessable to anyone who’s ever seen another movie.

In space, no one can see you look worried...

Worst of all, however, is that this film just didn’t need to be made. As with Prometheus before it, do we want to know where the eponymous beasties come from? It ruins some of their mystique, especially as the answers feel oddly mundane. This is not something further films are going to fix, either; though at this point they may as well keep going until things join up properly to the original Alien, because hey, why not?

Alien: Covenant is better than Prometheus because at least the character don’t act like total imbeciles who should know better. On the other hand, it’s worse than Prometheus because it scrubs out any ambiguity that film left about the Xenomorphs’ origins. Sometimes a mystery is better than an answer.

3 out of 5

Alien: Covenant is out in the half the world (including the UK) now, and is released in the other half (including the US) from tomorrow.

Prometheus 3D (2012)

Rewatchathon 2017 #10
Ridley Scott | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

Prometheus 3D

80 years in the future, a starmap found in some caveman paintings provokes a trillion-dollar mission to the other side of the universe so that the world’s stupidest scientists can (spoilers!) get themselves killed.

It is, by complete coincidence, 4½ years to the day since I first and last watched Prometheus, and this revisit has of course been inspired by its just-released follow-up, Prometheus 2: Extraterrestrial Boogaloo Alien: Covenant, which I’m seeing tomorrow. Frankly, most of my original thoughts on the film still stand. To summarise: it has some really good bits, but then it stops making sense and turns into a braindead blockbuster that doesn’t bother to properly explain its own plot, never mind the potentially-interesting sci-fi ideas it initiated early on. Apparently the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes do clarify some of the plot holes and gaps in character motivation, but other stuff is just plain stupidity on the part of the characters. Or, rather, the writers. Well, one of the writers, at least.

But despite my basic opinion not changing, I’m posting about Prometheus again because this was the first time I watched it in 3D. Hailing from those brief couple of years where the term “post-conversion” was blasphemous, Prometheus was genuinely shot in 3D — and, however good post-conversion has become since then, I think parts of this film make a case for why doing things properly is still best. But I’ll come to that.

Building busy bridges

In general, Ridley Scott’s 3D mise en scène is exemplary, almost always placing objects and characters at various distances from the camera to emphasise and clarify the sense of depth. The busy layout of the Prometheus’ bridge helps this no end, making scenes set there some of the clearest examples. Even on less populous sets, Scott finds angles and compositions that offer nice dimensionality without slipping into being a vacuous 3D showcase. He frequently uses glass to good effect, creating an obvious separation between the clear material — be it a window, a spacesuit helmet, or a sleeping pod — and what’s on the other side, almost casually adding extra layers to any shot they appear in.

In terms of show-off effects, Scott never breaks the ‘window’ of the screen by having things poke out at the viewer, but there are still scenes where the extra dimension is really felt. The storm sequences are a perfect example, with bits of debris flying around all over the place. In-film computer elements like holograms or displays have their own shapely presence in front of, around, and distinct from the physical world they’re part of, making them seem all the more real. Perhaps most of all, the room-filling Engineer star chart David discovers looks great in 3D. My memory of it from the 2D version is an indecipherable array of lights filling the screen, which is probably because it was all perfectly in focus for the sake of the 3D. With that extra dimension, it looks like something worth marvelling at.

Maps to the stars

Having been shot ‘for real’, the 3D just gives everything, even dialogue scenes, a sense of space and distance. You can appreciate the gap between someone’s head and the neck-back of their spacesuit; or, in close-ups, the distinct (but not in-your-face) distance between someone’s nose and eyes and hair. Perhaps the most impressive element are textures, like the hieroglyphs David finds cut into rock, or even characters’ skin — at times you can ‘feel’ its surface, its pockmarks and pores. However good post conversions are, I’m not sure they’re ever that thorough!

Watching in 3D is never going to gloss over Prometheus’ more fundamental flaws — it’s never going to make up for issues with the screenplay or the edit (that said, I’ve heard it makes Transformers 4 considerably more entertaining, so maybe “never” is too strong a word). What you do get is a sense that effort was made to make the 3D experience worthwhile. It may be an inessential component of the movie (a virtual necessity when there will always be people watching in 2D, of course), but it’s one that nonetheless adds an appreciable extra dimension.

3 out of 5

Alien: Covenant is out in the half the world (including the UK) now, and is released in the other half (including the US) from Thursday.

Green Room (2015)

2017 #1
Jeremy Saulnier | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | English / English | 18 / R

Green Room

In my review of 2016, I asserted that Denis Villeneuve was “one of the most exciting directors working right now.” Here we have, if not the other end of the spectrum, then certainly a different angle on it: Jeremy Saulnier, perhaps the most overrated director working right now.

This, his third film, follows a struggling rock band who, in desperation for any work, take a gig at a remote club frequented and owned by extremist fascists. When the band see something they shouldn’t, the club’s violent owner and his gang try to kill them.

The main point everyone seems to make about Green Room is how unbearably tense it is. Well, I can imagine it might’ve been pretty tense if I hadn’t spent the whole time struggling to work out what was going on from all the mumbled dialogue. It’s not helped by much of the early chatter being music scene gobbledegook. Is this what watching sci-fi feels like to normal people? On one hand it doesn’t matter — the film is about the tension of the situation, not the vibrant wordplay. On the other, I was so distracted trying to decipher what was happening from the semi-unintelligible speech that I never really felt that fêted suspense.

Neither rock nor roll

The one time I did feel any real tension was right near the end. The form of the movie dictates that most of the cast are gonna get it, so it’s only in the closing stages that the final survivors (who are, naturally enough, the top-billed cast) may either win or finally be killed. The film has its indie-ness in its favour here, because you think that maybe the heroes will lose. Perhaps such a line of thought is me being too logical, not entering into the spirit of the fiction, but clearly the movie didn’t grip me enough before that point to feel anything sooner.

On the bright side, Patrick Stewart oozes class as the calmly in control villain, but I can see why he seemed to get pissed off at all the reviews/interviews going “OMG, this is such a departure for you!” Yeah, if your experience of his abilities extends no further than Star Trek: The Next Generation and the X-Men movies then this turn must be a revelation, but the guy’s got a long and exalted career playing all sorts of roles, on stage and screen. I’m not saying he’s bad here — he’s Patrick frickin’ Stewart, of course it’s a good performance — but I think some of the unreserved praise he’s received comes from a place of surprise at this role being a ‘departure’ for him.

These are the voyages of the starship Fascism

Labelling Saulnier the most overrated director currently working may be a bit harsh. It’s not that he’s a bad filmmaker, or even that he makes bad movies per se, but neither Blue Ruin nor Green Room have done very much for me, despite the adulation they’ve received elsewhere. Maybe if he continues this titular trend and next makes, I dunno, Red Mansion, which sounds like it might be a Gothic chiller, maybe then I’ll like him.

That said, I think Green Room is definitely more effective at its goals than Blue Ruin was. Even if I still think Saulnier is overrated, this is a step in the right direction.

3 out of 5

Review Round-up

Over the last ten-and-a-bit years I’ve prided myself on reviewing every new film I see. Well, at the start it was less pride and more just how I did things (and most of those early ‘reviews’ were only a couple of sentences long), but as I’ve maintained it for so long I’ve come to pride myself on it. However, of late my backlog has reached ridiculous proportions, and is only expanding.

But I’m not giving up just yet, dear reader — hence this round-up. There are some films I just don’t have a great deal to say about, where all I’ve really got are a few notes rather than a fully worked-up review. So as in days of old (i.e. 2007), I’ll quickly dash off my brief thoughts and a score. Hopefully this will become an irregular series that churns through some of my backlog.

In today’s round-up:

  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
  • Under the Shadow (2016)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
  • Dazed and Confused (1993)


    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
    (1965)

    2016 #167
    Martin Ritt | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    John le Carré’s famed story of crosses, double crosses, triple crosses… probably quadruple crosses… heck, maybe even quintuple crosses — why not?

    The storytelling is very slow and measured, which I would guess is not to all tastes — obviously not for those who only like their spies with the action and flair of Bond, but even by Le Carré standards it’s somewhat slight. That’s not to say it’s not captivating, but it lacks the sheer volume of plot that can, say, fuel a seven-episode adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Quite how the forthcoming miniseries from the makers of The Night Manager intends to be more than a TV movie… well, we’ll see.

    There’s also some gorgeous black and white photography, with the opening sequence at Check Point Charlie looking particularly glorious.

    5 out of 5

    Under the Shadow
    (2016)

    2017 #12
    Babak Anvari | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / Persian | 15 / PG-13

    Under the Shadow

    Be afraid if your doll is took — it could be the Iranian Babadook.

    Honestly, for all the creepy quality on display in this UK-funded Iran-set psychological horror, I don’t think labelling it as something of a mirror to The Babadook is unfair. It’s about a lone mother (Narges Rashidi) struggling with an awkward child (Avin Manshadi) while a malevolent supernatural entity that may be real or may just be in her head attempts to invade their home. Where the Australian horror movie invented the mythology for its creature afresh, Under the Shadow draws from Persian folklore — so, same difference to us Western viewers. The devil is in the details, then, which are fine enough to keep the film ticking over and regularly scaring you, be it with jumps or general unease.

    The Babadook may have done it better, and certainly did it first, but Under the Shadow remains an effective chiller.

    4 out of 5

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
    Out of the Shadows

    (2016)

    2017 #29
    Dave Green | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

    This first (and last? We’ll see) sequel to 2014’s Teenage Mutant Michael Bay Turtles ends with a cover of the theme from the original animated series, just in case you weren’t clear by then that it’s aspiring to be a live-action version of that particular cartoon.

    For one thing, there are appearances by a lot of popular characters who are primarily associated with that iteration of the franchise. For another, parts of the film have a very “rules of Saturday morning cartoons” feel — people thrown from a plane are immediately shown to be opening parachutes; all of the villains survive to fight another day; that kind of thing. They’ve clearly made an effort to make it lighter and funnier than its big-screen predecessor. The downside: they’ve gone a bit too far. The tone of the screenplay is “kids’ movie”, which isn’t a problem in itself, but Out of the Shadows retains the dark and realistic visual aesthetic of the first movie, plus enough violence and swears to get the PG-13 all blockbusters require, which means the overall effect is a little muddled.

    While it’s not a wholly consistent film, it does work to entertain, with funny-ish lines and kinetic CGI-fuelled action scenes. I must confess to ultimately enjoying it a fair bit… but bear in mind I was a big fan of the cartoon when I was five or six, so it did gently tickle my nostalgia soft spot.

    3 out of 5

    Dazed and Confused
    (1993)

    2017 #53
    Richard Linklater | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Dazed and Confused

    Writer-director Richard Linklater has said that with Dazed and Confused he wanted to make an anti John Hughes movie; one that showed teenage life was mundane and uneventful. So here’s a movie about what it’s like to hang out, driving around aimlessly doing nothing. Turns out it’s pretty mundane and uneventful. And most of the characters behave like dicks half the time, which isn’t exactly conducive to a good time.

    Despite that, some people love this movie; it’s often cited as being nostalgic. Well, I can’t say it worked that way for me. Indeed, I’m kinda glad I didn’t know those people in school…

    3 out of 5