I saw Spectre days after the eager-beavers but still before some people, so here are my spoiler-free thoughts

It’s been quite the year for spies on the big screen: mega-success for Kingsman, high praise for Mission: Impossible 5, comedy from Spy, the TV-ish thrills of Spooks, and you may’ve missed The Man from U.N.C.L.E. — based on its box office, most people did. But now we come to the biggest of them all: Bond. James Bond.

Chances are, if you’re interested in a review of the 24th Bond movie you’ve already read one. Several, probably. Nonetheless, as both a blogger and a Bond fan who saw the series’ latest instalment this afternoon, I’m compelled to throw some of my initial spoiler-free thoughts out there. Plus, in places, commentary on those other reviews.

For starters, if you have read any other reviews, you’ll know it begins with a helluva pre-titles sequence; perhaps the only part of the film to have attracted unqualified universal praise. A big opening action scene has become one of the series’ most iconic elements, and Spectre contends (against stiff competition) to be considered the best yet. Too stiff, in my view. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic opener, with one of the entire series’ best shots, but the very best of them all? That’s just hyperbole because it’s the newest.

It leads into the title sequence — another of the series’ most famed elements, of course. No details, because I know that I wouldn’t want anyone to spoil it for me, but I thought it had some strong imagery without being amongst Daniel Kleinman’s very best work (GoldenEye, Casino Royale, Skyfall). Sam Smith’s insipid song is slightly less irritating in context.

Most reviews will also contain a version of one of these two comments: either, “they’ve finally brought back the classic Bond formula, but integrated into the Craig-era style — how wonderful”; or, “they’ve merely brought back the classic Bond formula, albeit in the Craig-era style — what a regression”. You only have to look at the Rotten Tomatoes pull quotes (at the time of writing — these will surely change once US critics oust UK ones from the front page) to see this played out. It’s true that Spectre is much more like one’s idea of a “classic Bond film” than any of Craig’s previous films were, but it didn’t strike me quite so much as it clearly struck others. As to whether that’s a deliberate filmmaking choice which has succeeded beautifully, or a case of lazily falling back on (or being unable to escape) the series’ tropes… well, your mileage — and appreciation — will vary. Considering both Craig and Mendes have mentioned in multiple interviews that they were deliberately bringing back more of the familiar Bond elements (something Craig had been hoping to do gradually ever since Casino Royale jettisoned most of them; indeed, I believe he’s mentioned it regularly since that time, too), I think we must conclude it was a deliberate decision. So the question becomes: do you approve of that decision? If you didn’t like Bond pre-Craig, or think the time for such things has passed, then probably not; if you’re a fan of the series as a whole, however, it may be a welcome return for some recently-absent familiarities.

For all its modernism, there’s one aspect which the Craig era has always had in keeping with earlier Bonds: the casting of the villain. After the Brosnan era gave us Brit Sean Bean, Brit Jonathan Pryce, Brit Robert Carlyle, and Brit Toby Stephens (even if some of them were playing foreigners), Craig’s films have stuck to the older formula of casting a respected/famous European: Dane Mads Mikkelsen, Frenchman Mathieu Amalric, Spaniard Javier Bardem, and now German “European actor du jour” Christoph Waltz. The double Oscar winner is on fine form at times, but there aren’t quite enough of those times. Again, without aiming to spoil anything, I’d say he’s not so much underused as misused.

Action sequences are naturally fantastic, the best coming in the alps. Thomas Newman’s score is as bland and unmemorable as his work last time, while Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is strong, but not quite as striking as Roger Deakins’ in Skyfall. According to most reviews, M has the best line and biggest laugh. I have to say, I’m forced to guess which that line is, because neither of the two contenders I’d put forward provoked much response in my screening.

The real downside comes in a muddled third act, which suggests the Sony leaks were right: either this is the one they criticised for not being good enough, or it’s the written-during-production replacement. Either way, it feels off the ball. Further discussion next time…

I must also mention that Madeleine Swann’s name is a reference to Proust, because I believe it’s beholden on every reviewer to point this out to make sure you know they got the reference. Well, I did too. Now I want a cake. And if you’d like to watch someone eat a Madeleine, check out Blue is the Warmest Colour. (Too far?)

Oh, and I must get in a pun along the lines of, “what were you exSpectreing?”, or “we’ve been exSpectreing you, Mr Bond”. I guess mine should be, “I exSpectred something more.”

My spoilersome full review of Spectre is available here.

The Falling (2014)

2015 #141
Carol Morley | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 15

Inspired by real events, The Falling stars Game of Thrones’s Maisie Williams as Lydia, a 1960s teen with an awkward home life who is a student at a repressive girls’ school. She’s best friends with the popular and charismatic Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh, next to be seen as the lead in Lady Macbeth (which seems to have bugger all to do with Shakespeare)). When Lydia starts fainting for no apparent reason, it leads to a fainting epidemic at the school that no one can explain. Is it caused by illness? Fakery? Something psychological? Or possibly even some kind of dark magic?

On Amazon Instant Video (where it’s available free to Prime subscribers from today), The Falling is billed as “a mesmerising psychological drama”, which isn’t too wide of the mark. However, presumably because of the prominent pentagram on the cover image there, all of the “customers also watched” recommendations are called things like The Exorcism of Molly Hartley, The Houses of Halloween, Haunt, Demonic, and Sinister House, or are other obviously-cheap-trashy-horror-looking films with less blatant names (like The Canal, Awaiting, and Robert (chilling!)). No wonder it has a low user rating if it’s a “psychological drama” being mainly watched by people who choose to pay to watch that kind of low-rent horror crap!

The Falling is certainly not low-rent horror crap. Is it a horror movie? Not really — there are no monsters, no jump scares, none of the obvious tropes; but it does have a distinctly unnerving air a lot of the time, and there are definite references to and hints about some kind of mysticism playing a role. It’s often incredibly atmospheric, with some beautiful cinematography courtesy of DP Agnès Godard and effective editing by Chris Wyatt. Writer-director Carol Morley has kept the pace and tone slow, in an enchanting rather than ponderous fashion, but it’s a “not for everyone” pace nonetheless. For me, it only really lost its way as it moved into its final stages. Without wanting to spoil where it goes, in my opinion too much was explained, but at the same time it explained nothing.

Indeed, I feel it might’ve fared better overall if it had stuck with the magical-realist / folk horror / olde-worlde magik styles it veers towards early on. But then Lydia says she’s a rationalist, and I suspect Morley is too, and so they well know that such things as spells and lay lines have no bearing on the real world. If one wants to present the possibility of a real-world explanation for the film’s events — and, as they were inspired by actual events, I presume Morley does — leaving things at “because magik” isn’t going to cut it.

The immediately obvious explanation — certainly as far as the school’s teaching staff are concerned — is that the girls are faking for attention. One comment-review on a website asserts that “one of the central questions of the film is whether or not the girls were faking their illness,” before going on to outline how this could’ve been improved to make the film into an “entertaining thriller”. I think this is a prime example of reviewing what the reviewer expected or wanted rather than what they were given, because it didn’t seem to me that the issue of fakery was the “central question” here. Of course, that’s only my interpretation of the filmmaker’s intent, so no more or less valid than this other commenter’s; but I really don’t understand how you can watch The Falling and think it was anyone’s goal for this film to be considered an “entertaining thriller”. It’s simply not that kind of movie.

An element I do think was at the forefront of consideration is sensuality and sexuality, which plays a large and significant part in the film. Pretty much any movie bar “bawdy high school comedies starring obvious twentysomethings” seems to veer away from schoolgirl sexuality these days, wary of inevitable “OMG u a pedo” reactions, I guess. Sexuality does not equal pornography, though; and, as I alluded, here it’s played out as much through a heightened, tactile sensuality. It does probably ‘help’ that it’s a film written and directed by a woman — it would carry a very different, more Lolita-ish air if it had been written or directed by a man. What exactly it’s saying with all this is arguably as mysterious as the cause of the fainting epidemic, but then it’s all tied together: teenage years are a period of sexual awakening, of course, and if you’re in an environment where nearly everyone is of the same gender, and where such things are massively repressed… well, how is it going to manifest itself? If “sex” is somehow the cause of the fainting, it’s not because sex is bad, it’s because there’s no other appropriate outlet for it.

Or maybe that’s got nothing to do with it at all.

A lot of this has to be carried on the shoulders of a relatively young cast, but all are capable. Maisie Williams is by far the best known of the girls, though viewers of Ripper Street will recognise Anna Burnett. She was good in the Victorian detective series, but she’s even better here. Williams gives a strong performance too, afforded the ability to show some range and variety from Arya Stark (unlike her appearance in the currently-airing Doctor Who two-parter-that-isn’t, for instance). There’s also a quality adult supporting cast, including the likes of Maxine Peake (in an initially quiet but ultimately key role), Greta Scacchi, and Monica Dolan, while Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole acquits himself well in the subtly complex role of Lydia’s brother. Best of the lot, however, is Florence Pugh. Reportedly discovered when The Falling’s casting directors visited her school, you can see why she’s quickly been snapped up for a leading role. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood come knocking looking to make her the next Kate Winslet/Keira Knightley/Gemma Arterton/etc “English rose”-type lead in some blockbuster or other.

The Falling is an odd film, really; though in many respects that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Some will love it; many will despise it. Personally, I felt a lot worked very, very well, but the bits that didn’t, well, didn’t. For what it’s worth, I ranked it 3.5, aka 7, on sites that have half-stars or are out of ten. It would’ve been a solid 4 if not for those niggles, but equally they’re not so bad to drag it down to a 3. Some viewers seem to put the niggles aside entirely and push it up into the 4.5 or even 5 margin; for others it doesn’t work at all, dragging it down much lower. Everyone’s reaction to any film is completely subjective and personal, obviously, but this is the kind of film where it’s more true than others — you can’t pigeonhole it like you can a superhero actioner, or a rom-com, or, well, most movies, to be honest. It’s part high school coming-of-age drama, part supernatural thriller, part kitchen sink drama, part arthouse tone poem. How well that uncommon mix works is entirely down to the individual viewer’s personal predilections.

For me, it’s the kind of film that, with time and subconscious reflection, I may come to remember more fondly and be keen to see again, or all but forget. It’s the kind of film I could, without even re-watching it, re-evaluate and want on my year-end top ten, or could see on my top ten contenders long-list come January 1st and wonder, “dear God, what was I thinking?!” It’s the kind of film I’m not sure I wholly liked, but I’m glad I’ve seen.

4 out of 5

As mentioned, The Falling is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video from today.

Dreams of a Life (2011)

2015 #151
Carol Morley | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & Ireland / English | 12A

In 2006, the body of 38-year-old Joyce Vincent was found in her London bedsit, surrounded by Christmas presents and with the TV still on. Sad, but largely unremarkable, were it not for the fact that she’d been dead for three years.

Carol Morley’s documentary attempts to uncover the story of Joyce’s life, and how it reached a point where no one noticed she’d been gone for so long. It’s told mainly by her friends and colleagues (her remaining family, perhaps unsurprisingly, declined to take part), who paint a picture of an attractive, outgoing, personable woman; but also one who was a social chameleon, adapting to her current group of friends, and sometimes disappearing for months at a time. Later, her life seemed to follow a more tragic path, though details are scant for various reasons.

As it goes about encapsulating a life that ended so tragically, Dreams of a Life is surely one of the most heartbreaking films you’ll ever see. Consequently, I don’t quite understand the negative reaction you’ll find in some comments sections online, because I thought it was unmistakably powerful and affecting. I know this is a review of the film rather than other people’s reactions to it, but, well, as much as I found the film insightful and upsetting, some of those reactions angered me, so let’s have a go at them anyway.

Some people seem to view this as little more than a detective mystery, and are frustrated that Morley ‘chose’ to leave out details. I guess such critics have no understanding of things like confidentiality (when it comes to why Joyce was in a women’s refuge and what she disclosed there), rights to privacy (if the family don’t want to be interviewed, you can’t force them), the realities of investigating a real-life case (maybe some people who knew her in those final years just don’t want to be found), or human decency (Joyce led a fragmented life that came to a terribly sad end, and all you can think about is why she didn’t leave a few more clues around for you to deduce what happened and why?!)

Some people outright refuse to believe the story. “It’s implausible no one noticed her bills hadn’t been paid for so long.” Well, that’s what happened, kiddo. Whether it seems plausible to you or not, it obviously occurred. I don’t wish to tar an entire nation with the same brush, but the people who find these parts incredulous often seem to be American, generally because certain things work differently in the UK to the US. There’s a certain type of person who seems to believe the entire world operates in the same way as the US (not just Americans — thanks to the overabundance of US films and TV, it’s been observed around the world that there are people who think their own country has the same laws/rights/etc as the US), but obviously that isn’t true, and this is a case in point.

On the more considered side of the internet, there’s a reasonable debate to be found about the filmmakers’ right to tell the story at all. Joyce kept her life story secret even from some of her closest friends, and yet here it is being picked over in a movie for anyone to see. Is it moral to do such a thing? Should she not just be left in peace? Are the extraordinary circumstances of her death a good enough reason for this level of prying? Surely her death and how it came to occur needs to be understood, though, and surely the only way to do that fully is to examine her life. But is that not the business of inquests and the like, not films? But then, the filmmakers seem to have dug up information the inquest didn’t get close to unveiling. Perhaps the question is, when does society’s interest justifiably overtake the rights of the individual? Does it here? I’m not sure. Maybe.

One criticism I will side with is that the film is sometimes frustratingly put together. The accounts of Joyce’s childhood and early 20s are jumbled up, flitting back and forth in time. The viewer has to piece together the chronology; a challenge for no particular reason. Dramatic recreations of her life are largely pointless, though arguably necessary in a visual medium. Actress Zawe Ashton portrays Joyce in her 20s and 30s, but any scene where she’s required to give a performance — to do more than just walk around in a dumbshow recreation of that life — feel too much like a needless dramatisation, not the fact-based reenactment you’d expect or want from a documentary.

Nonetheless, these flaws can’t detract from the fundamental power of the story being told. If you come away from this thinking not about how sad it was for both Joyce and the people who knew her (especially Martin, especially in the film’s final moments), or what you should or could perhaps be doing better in your life, but instead being angry that it didn’t satiate your ghoulish need for full and frank revelations… well, I don’t know what to say about you, but it wouldn’t be very nice. Through this incident, Morley and her interviewees are really making bigger points about our society and our relationships. It’s no one’s fault, per se, that this happened to Joyce, but that it can happen is horrendous.

5 out of 5

Dreams of a Life is on Film4 tonight at 1:30am.

Shallow Grave (1994)

2015 #105
Danny Boyle | 89 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English | 18 / R

The debut feature of director Danny Boyle was hailed on release for being a British film that wasn’t another period-piece literary adaptation. Instead, it concerns three ultra-chummy flatmates in contemporary Edinburgh (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox) who take in a fourth lodger, who promptly dies, leaving behind an insane amount of cash. Rather than report it, they dispose of the corpse and keep the cash. You don’t get much further from Merchant-Ivory than that.

Naturally, things don’t go swimmingly. The trio’s subsequent behaviour begins to cause ruptures among them; there are some Nasty Men looking for the cash; and when the remains are discovered the police get involved. It’s kind of a dark thriller, as it sounds, but also funny — the kind of film the ’90s specialised in, in some respects (think Fight Club, say). It’s also morally and emotionally complex, however. The flatmates aren’t the villains, they’re ‘us’, tempted to extremes by unusual circumstances. Consequently, it has that great discussion-generating feature of many a zeitgeist-y ‘watercooler’ film: what would you do?

Of course, it’s testament to the film’s quality — Boyle’s kinetic direction, the accomplished performances, the entertaining screenplay — that Shallow Grave endures past that initial ponderance to remain one of the Oscar-winning auteur’s best films.

5 out of 5

North West Frontier (1959)

aka Flame Over India / Empress of India

2015 #126
J. Lee Thompson | 125 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | U

British Army Captain Scott (Kenneth More) is charged with getting an Indian child prince and his American governess (Lauren Bacall) to safety as rebels attempt to murder him. With the palace under siege, their only hope is a barely-ready rust-bucket train engine, a single passenger carriage, and a long journey through enemy territory joined by a motley group of diplomats and hangers-on who’ve bargained their way on to this last train.

North West Frontier has been on BBC Two a couple of times in the last year or two (seven times in the last four years, to be precise), and on one of those showings I caught a few seconds and thought it looked fabulously shot — I confess, that’s the only reason I’d got hold of a copy. I’m so glad I did though, because it’s excellent stuff — a rollicking, action-packed, old-fashioned (in the good sense) adventure, full of peril, derring-do, chases and shoot-outs. In between all that there’s some great character stuff too. Judging from online reaction, some viewers seem to find these bits boring longueurs, but I thought they helped manage the pace and added to the whole feel.

In particular, it’s during those segments where you get to see that every cast member is excellent. More is surprisingly dashing as the heroic leader of this ragtag bunch on their ramshackle locomotive. Bacall is as feisty as you’d expect as the strong-willed, outspoken governess, creating an easy and perhaps-surprisingly plausible chemistry with More. For the rest of the cast, Herbert Lom seems to be channelling a little Peter Lorre as a critical Dutch journalist, Wilfrid Hyde-White is the perfect older English gent, I.S. Johar is fun as the train’s Indian driver, Ursula Jeans is redoubtable as the English lady forced to escape on the train by her governor husband, and Eugene Deckers is an arms dealer, who consequently no one likes but who remains unashamed of his trade. Through this prism there’s some discussion of the merits or otherwise of the British Empire and Indian independence, which some will judge to be extolling old-fashioned values, and others will take as little more than a (probably unnecessary) hat-tip in the direction of real politics.

And as for the reason I watched, success: it’s beautifully shot, in widescreen Eastmancolor by Geoffrey Unsworth, showing off stunning scenery lensed in India and Spain (with studio sequences shot at Pinewood, naturally). It may not be famed as a big-budget epic, but there’s nonetheless an impressively grand scale, with wide-open scenery, some extravagant locales, and hundreds of extras to fill out a few sweeping battle charges. They also come into play in one of the film’s most striking sequences, set at the scene of a horrid massacre, where a spread of blood-soaked bodies surely stretch the film’s U certificate. I’ve seen this part of the film described as unnecessarily dallied upon, but I think director J. Lee Thompson is more conveying the atrocity of such a tragic event.

In the US, the film was retitled Flame Over India (and Bacall was given top billing, as opposed to More in the UK), while in Australia it was named Empress of India, after the central train. That’s the best title, in my opinion. Flame Over India is pretty meaningless (Bacall didn’t like it either) and North West Frontier is a bit generic and bland, but Empress of India indicates the country and has meaning… though as it’s not about an Empress you could argue it’s misleading and sounds too romantic.

North West Frontier, on the other hand, sounds like a Western — which was perhaps the intention: the film’s structure and story style is fundamentally a fit for that genre, albeit British-made and geographically relocated. The storyline immediately brings to mind John Ford’s Stagecoach: a gaggle of mismatched strangers are thrown together as they cross hostile territory, interspersing conversations and arguments with adventurous survival challenges. In a review I otherwise pretty thoroughly disagree with, Glenn Erickson at DVD Talk makes the same comparison and offers this insightful point: “It may be a blatant reworking of Stagecoach as the original story was co-written by John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s husband Will Price. The final screenplay [by Robin Estridge] was adapted from a script by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, the writer of eleven Ford films.” Sounds pretty likely, doesn’t it?

North West Frontier is a film I would certainly have overlooked were it not for some whim of fate. Thank goodness for coincidence and chance, then, because it’s a cracking adventure; one made, I think, with pure entertainment in mind. I rather loved it.

5 out of 5

North West Frontier placed 15th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of The Lauren Bacall Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Monsters: Dark Continent (2014)

2015 #115
Tom Green | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Ten years after the events of Monsters (according to the blurb, anyway — there’s no mention in the film), the infected zones have spread worldwide. Keen to quell the spread of the aliens, America have decided to do what they do best: bomb them all to hell, wherever they may be. In the Middle East, the destruction of lives and property — by both the monsters and US bombs — has led to insurgents fighting back against US troops, while the campaign against the monsters continues with little success.

In case it’s not apparent, this sequel to Gareth Edwards’ low-budget sci-fi indie-romance takes things in a completely different direction: we follow a troop of soldier mates (primarily Parkes, played by Sam Keeley — you can tell he’s the lead because he gets to deliver the sub-Apocalypse Now voiceover narration; but also other young British actors like Joe Dempsie (of Skins and Game of Thrones) and Kyle Soller (of Poldark)) as they’re shipped off for their first tour in Nonspecificstan, where they’re under the command of hardened vet Frater (Johnny Harris). The guys’ macho posturing is soon undercut by the realities of a combat zone, especially when they’re dispatched to rescue four soldiers left behind deep in the infected zone — or the IZ, as they of course call it.

For its genre-shifting pains, Dark Continent received exceptionally poor reviews: “disappointing”; “uncompromisingly boring and pointless”; “a clichéd macho fantasy”; “monstrously bad”; even “the worst sequel of the decade.” Oh dear. At the same time, respected genre expert Kim Newman gave it 4 stars in Empire. Has too much time spent with cheap DTV crap for his regular Empire column warped his perspective? (Radio Times also gave it 4 stars, but their film section disappeared into a haze of unreliable irrelevance long ago.) So is it the unconscionable disaster of consensus, or a misunderstood success? In my opinion, it’s somewhere between the two.

Let’s start with some other reviewers’ problems. An oft-cited one is the initial moral repugnance of the characters, but is it a valid criticism to say a movie about a bunch of macho dicks presents its characters as macho dicks? Because let’s not be kidding ourselves, the American military is not full of Guardian-reading lefties; it’s full of vulgar, unreconstructed young Blokes… like these fellas. Now, I’m sure I’m generalising — I’m sure they can’t all be like this — but I can believe plenty of them are. No doubt elements of their behaviour are more “macho fantasy” than reality (a hookers and coke party the night before shipping out?), but the fundamentals of their attitude are plausible.

If the film glamourised this we might be in trouble, but I don’t think it does. The aforementioned party looks scuzzy rather than fun, though I suppose some might disagree. More pertinently, the “war is hell” theme hits home pretty fast, and these posturing wannabes are torn apart by the realities of combat — in some cases, literally. Cue karmic punishment and/or a patch of soul searching and personality restructuring. This arc — a war zone taking a bunch of full-of-themselves oh-so-macho kids, then chewing them up and spitting them out — may be a little obvious, even cliché, but at least it does it. Anyone who thinks the film is glorifying their “macho fantasy” lifestyle has judged the film solely on its first act.

Perhaps the film isn’t clear enough on this point. Later, it does again flirt with values one might find inaccurate: Two survivors, hiding out for the night, talk about home. One recalls how, last time he was back, his daughter looked scared of him. The other asks why he doesn’t just stay home with his little girl? The first says he came to the IZ to fight to keep her safe. The other asks if he thinks they’re doing that? And just as it looks like we’re about to get a truthful, if obvious, moment where the characters admit that, no, this war is utterly pointless and has absolutely nothing to do with America or keeping Americans safe, the first guy answers, “yes, I do.” Really? Really?! At that moment it just feels queasily like right-wing propaganda, especially as the two characters in question have been positioned as our de facto heroes.

But stick with it for the final act and that character goes off the reservation. Again, Dark Continent presents us with a perspective distasteful to the politics of film critics (and me too — I’m not entirely absenting myself here), but then later shows that it doesn’t support that point of view after all. Now, I’m not making a case for this being a Clever Movie — the points it makes are nothing new, and they’re made in a form and through character arcs that are intensely familiar, so I can see justification for those criticisms (and such criticisms have been made). However, labelling it a testosterone-drenched war-is-fun propaganda piece for emotionally/socially underdeveloped males is somewhat unjust.

In a related argument, some have accused the film of going too far, glorifying things that deserve none. Partly this stems from reading the film as being pro the experience it conveys, which — as if I haven’t made it clear already — I think is a false reading. Early on, before they ship out, our ‘heroes’ attend an illegal dog fight that sets a pit bull against a dog-sized monster. It does not go well. There is maybe a little too much graphic detail at points. Even these distasteful characters don’t enjoy the ‘spectacle’, though; indeed, our main point of identification (Parkes, with his voiceover) looks away for most of the fight and is the most disturbed by it after, too. It’s a horrible scene, but it’s meant to be horrible. The counterargument goes that it’s unnecessary — no one in real life is having dogs fight alien monsters, so where’s the benefit to putting it on screen?

Later, in the war zone, there are more horrific situations and imagery that will certainly test your perspective. For example, the guys come across a school bus that was caught in an attack on some monsters. The bus is full of dead children, but our guys need to search it for water nonetheless. Is this unflinching in its realism of the brutality of war, or a step too far and just sick? Perhaps the sci-fi context again undermines the movie, because you can’t apply the “this is really happening” argument when there are giant monsters involved. But if the giant monsters are a MacGuffin to reflect real, current conflicts, then does this become something that is happening? Perhaps it’s a circular argument.

A more clearly accurate criticism concerns the presence of the titular monsters… or, rather, the lack of them. Far from being the film’s raison d’être, they are instead its MacGuffin. In reality, Dark Continent is just a Middle East war movie with some creatures adding a little flavour. Remove them completely and the entire plot would function just fine. That’s not a rash generalisation, I’ve thought it through: there’s nothing in this movie that couldn’t occur by setting it in Iraq or Afghanistan during their recent real-world occupations, and occasionally replacing the alien monsters with (depending on context) an IED or some natural wonder. Now, I’m sure this is part of the point — it’s an incredibly thinly-veiled analogy for the real Middle Eastern conflicts. But that veil is too thin. Anyone coming here for monster action will be largely disappointed, and anyone expecting an allusionary sci-fi commentary on American foreign policy will just find a commentary on American foreign policy.

Dark Continent is the debut feature of director (and, here, co-writer) Tom Green, who previously helmed half-a-dozen episodes of E4’s excellent “superheroes with ASBOs” drama Misfits and a three-part BBC One thriller that seems to be as forgettable as most three-part BBC One thrillers. Famously, the original Monsters was Gareth Edwards’ first film too: he wrote, directed, designed, shot, and did all the CGI for it single-handed, for $500,000. On the back of it, he was immediately given the keys to a $160 million Godzilla reboot and the first-ever live-action Star Wars spin-off movie (whose full title seems to change monthly, but is currently Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). Will Green be so fortunate? All those reviews suggest not.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Green does a bad job. The film is too long — tightening up the first and last 40-or-so minutes, to bring the total length down towards the original film’s 94 minutes, would’ve been beneficial; and that pointless wannabe-Apocalypse Now voiceover, which comes and goes before disappearing entirely, should’ve been scrapped in post (if not sooner) — but, otherwise, I think he’s produced a well-made film. It’s also prettily shot by DP Christopher Ross, making great use of location shooting in Jordan to create an authentic and beautiful desert landscape. Some of the battle sequences are enmeshed in rote hyper-grainy ShakyCam, but you can’t have everything. That’s backed up with excellent CGI. Not only does it place the various monsters convincingly in the landscape but, occasionally, the pairing of the classy photography and well-realised graphics make for something aesthetically beguiling.

I do think Dark Continent is better than most reviews give it credit for, but it’s not exactly a movie of the greatest or most original insight, and — their added visual interest aside — it didn’t need to be a Monsters movie. Indeed, if it had just been a straight Middle East war movie, perhaps some critics would’ve been kinder, because at least they would’ve known what they were getting. If you liked the first film then there’s absolutely no guarantee you’ll enjoy this — it’s not the same kind of film at all — but the worst sequel of the decade? Not even close.

3 out of 5

Monsters: Dark Continent is released on UK DVD, Blu-ray and VOD today.

Before Dawn (2012)

2015 #86
Dominic Brunt | 82 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

Before DawnDirected by Emmerdale actor and zombie aficionado Dominic Brunt (who also stars), from a screenplay by Emmerdale writer Mark Illis based on a story by Brunt’s wife, Joanne Mitchell (who also co-stars), Before Dawn is a mash-up between remote-farmhouse zombie horror and kitchen-sink relationship drama.

The story sees struggling couple Alex (Brunt) and Meg (Mitchell) leaving their kids with her mother and heading off to the aforementioned remote farmhouse for a reconciliatory weekend. As they clash and argue, we see the signs around them that All Is Not Right… until suddenly they’re being chased by the undead.

Unfortunately, Brunt and Illis aren’t quite up to pulling off the film’s original concept. The relationship drama is lightweight, with nothing strikingly new or engaging about it, just rote “couple argue but maybe love each other really”-type shenanigans. It also takes way too long to get going. The scene saying goodbye to the kids is interminable, with nothing to add to the narrative or characters. I guess it’s trying to establish a rapport between the parents and their kids, designed to pay off later, but it offers nothing you wouldn’t get from literally showing that they have kids. If you want us to have an emotional investment, give us some emotion, not just instructions about bedtime and requests for hugs. Then there’s the wannabe-artsy shots of driving, and… just get a wriggle on, yeah?

Cross countryAmateurish production values often let the side down. I don’t think Brunt’s direction would be too bad were it not for the cheap camerawork, although the action scenes are overrun with ShakyCam. There are some very good bits late on: the developments that come as a result of a stranger’s arrival; a phone call with the kids; perhaps even the very end, which is a bold climax.

Incidentally, no part of the plot has anything to do with something occurring “before dawn”, so I presume the title is a riff on Before Sunrise (relationship two-hander) and Dawn of the Dead (zombie movie) — in which case, the title goes from being oddly meaningless to quite neat. In that respect, it might be the best thing about the film.

The inherent idea of cross-pollinating these two genres isn’t without merit, so it’s a shame it’s come to pass in this fairly weak film. Maybe someone else will try it again someday.

2 out of 5

What We Did on Our Holiday (2014)

2015 #26
Andy Hamilton & Guy Jenkin | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

What We Did on Our HolidayOutnumbered: The Movie” is the pithy way to describe this comedy from writing-directing duo Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (the pair behind the successful BBC sitcom), which sees divorcing parents Doug and Abi (David Tennant and Rosamund Pike) playing happy families when they take their three children to Scotland for the 75th birthday of his dying father (Billy Connolly). Their separation is a secret from the extended family, and who better to keep a secret than three young kids?

It’s hard to miss the Outnumbered parallels early on, as a middle-class London family with two girls and a boy (a mere inversion of the series’ two boys and a girl) battle with the kids’ oddities as they try to load the car for a road trip. There’s a suspicion that Hamilton and Jenkin are returning to their half-improvised TV show’s early glory days, when the natural kids said funny things and the adults had to react. If anything, however, the more Kids Say the Funniest Things: The Sitcom tendencies of early Outnumbered are toned down for this movie, which (like later seasons of the series) is very story-driven much of the time.

This comes particularly to the fore in the second half, following a midway ‘twist’ that threatens to turn the rest of the movie on its head. Doug and AbiFor some, the shift may scupper things. For me, it only makes it better: the story’s pathos and emotion are brought into focus, and the humour becomes all the funnier for punching in as tonal relief. It often seems to me that movies struggle to stay amusing for a full feature running time (there’s surely a reason all TV comedy comes in 30 minute chunks), but this story allows Hamilton and Jenkin to spread the laughs out a little without them feeling few or far between.

The three kids aren’t as instantly memorable as Outnumbered’s — there’s no Karen (for my money, one of the greatest sitcom characters ever) — but that’s not to sell their talents short. They may not get the same volume of funny lines, but they’re wonderfully naturalistic and un-stage-school-y. As the eldest, Emilia Jones has the most to do, bridging the gap between the kid-like young pair and actorly adult (much as Jake did on TV, indeed). She’s already been in Doctor Who, Wolf Hall and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, and will soon be seen amongst the starry cast of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise. One to watch? Maybe.

The adult cast are no slouch either, mind. Oscar-nominee Pike is the headline now the film’s being released in the US, with the always-popular Tennant joining her as the other nominal lead. Arguably they’re the straight men to both the kids and the array of comedy actors in supporting roles, idealised fun granddadincluding the likes of Ben Miller, Amelia Bullmore (getting the best subplot), Annette Crosbie and Celia Imrie. The real grown-up star, however, is Connolly. You get the sense he’s as scriptless as the kids are, improvising away with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, like some kind of idealised fun granddad. The scenes with just him and the kids are certainly one of the highlights, among the most amusing and the most affecting.

I wouldn’t have really objected if What We Did on Our Holiday had no higher aims than being Outnumbered: The Movie, though trying to recapture the alchemical comedy gold of the series’ early days may well have been a hiding to nothing. Hamilton and Jenkin are on a slightly different tack here, however, even if fans of the series may find it’s a variation on a theme. It’s a theme that stands repeating though, and by mixing in musings on loss and change and how, sometimes, the innocence of kids is more grown-up than the formality of adults, the writer-directors find enough to make their feature debut stand on its own merits.

4 out of 5

What We Did on Our Holiday is released in US theaters tomorrow, and is available via all the usual home entertainment choices in the UK.

Blitz (2011)

2015 #58
Elliott Lester | 93 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK, France & USA / English | 18 / R

BlitzJason Statham plays the kind of copper who wakes up on his sofa in the middle of the night, immediately pours himself a whiskey in a mug, then goes out and beats up three youths who were trying to nick a car, in this godawful crime novel adaptation.

The plot is something to do with someone killing police officers, seemingly at random, but don’t worry about that because there are multitudinous reasons not to bother watching it. It feels like it was made for TV in the ’70s — the quality of the dialogue, the attitudes, the performances, the visuals… Not just the ’70s, even, just any cheap “for blokes” production from before the millennium. Throwback entertainment can work — though we tend to call it “retro” and play it tongue-in-cheek — but Blitz just feels dated.

The writing is, unsurprisingly, awful. It’s adapted from the fourth novel in a series, which apparently explains why some of the supporting characters (Zawe Ashton’s in particular) engage in pointless subplots barely connected to the main narrative — in the novels, it’s an ongoing thread spanning multiple books. Why did it get left in? Presumably because writer Nathan Parker doesn’t know what he’s doing. He did also write the acclaimed Moon though, so who knows.

The running manAt least it has some so-bad-they’re-good one-liners — “Aren’t you going to take any notes?” “Do I look like I carry a pencil?” Unfortunately, their presence meant the thing Blitz most reminded me of was A Touch of Cloth, Charlie Brooker’s Naked Gun-esque police procedural spoof. After that notion embeds itself, the whole film feels like a straight-faced spoof, where nothing that occurs can possibly have been meant to be taken seriously.

Surprisingly, the cast is filled out with some really good (and/or recognisable) actors slumming it: David Morrissey, Paddy Considine, Aidan Gillen, Luke Evans, Mark Rylance. Yes, Mark Rylance. Mark “Wolf Hall” Rylance. Mark “greatest theatre actor of his generation” Rylance. Mark bleeding Rylance! Why, Mark? Why?!

The cast might make you think this is an above-average Jason Statham movie. It isn’t. In fact, even by the standards of Statham’s usual work, this is bad. Avoid it.

1 out of 5

Blitz featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! (2012)

2014 #133
Debbie Isitt | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | UK / English | U

Nativity 2David Tennant replaces Martin Freeman as the teacher of a primary school class who enter themselves in a Christmas singing competition in this part-improvised sequel to the endearing 2009 hit.

Sadly, lightning doesn’t strike twice. A talented cast (also including Joanna Page, Jason Watkins, Ian McNeice and Jessica Hynes, all of whom are underused) struggle with an over-padded story, which leads to a climactic concert full of charmless, cringeworthy songs. There’s some sweetness from the kids, but not enough to paper over the cracks.

It’s no wonder last Christmas’ second sequel (with another new, bargain basement, leading man) flopped badly.

2 out of 5

Nativity 2 featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.