Alien: Covenant (2017)

I’m back! Briefly, anyway. I couldn’t let a new Alien film arrive in cinemas and not review it, so I’ve dusted off the pencil and notebook and taken a crack at it. In short: entertaining but forgettable sci-fi, and something of a disappointment from Ridley Scott.

Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE felt like it was trying to be both a sequel to every Daniel Craig-era 007 entry as well as a big fat homage to the entire Bond franchise, but failed to do justice to any of them?

That sense of grasping overreach pervades much of director Ridley Scott’s newest slice of sci-fi horror, ALIEN: COVENANT. Intent on serving as both a sequel to previous entry PROMETHEUS (the sort-of-but-not-quite prequel to Scott’s original ALIEN) and a more traditional standalone entry in the canon, COVENANT tries to have its cake and eat it; the end result feels like a film with a personality crisis, with neither the scale and ambition of the former or the gut-wrenching chills of the latter. What’s left is a modestly entertaining excursion into familiar genre territory, which comes up short next to Scott’s classic, as well as James Cameron’s ALIENS and arguably David Fincher’s unfairly maligned ALIEN 3.

Full review: Alien: Covenant | TAKE ONE

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Early signs were distinctly unpromising for this beyond belated fourth entry in the post-apocalyptic car wars saga. Delayed from its original 2013 release date, dogged by tales of an overrunning budget, and losing its original leading man years ago, FURY ROAD seemed destined only to be the runaway favourite at next year’s Razzie awards. Surely nobody could fill Mel Gibson’s boots as the antipodean anti-hero? Surely the Max franchise had run its noisy late 70s/early 80s course? Surely director George Miller could have little else to say about the world with his most famous creation?

Let this be a lesson to all of us: never trust those early signs again. MAD MAX revs back on to the big screen in extraordinary style. At the very least a shoo-in for most exciting film of the year, FURY ROAD is both an instant action classic and a reminder of how cinema can refresh the parts other artforms just can’t reach.

Neither a sequel nor a reboot, Miller sidesteps the whole question and simply reintroduces the character afresh. Max (Tom Hardy, succeeding Gibson) is a variation on the Man With No Name, haunted by the death of his family, wandering aimlessly through the ruins of the world. As in the two previous sequels, he falls in with a group of innocent people seeking to escape the gang of thugs and psychopaths who rule the roost in the absence of any sort of government or law enforcement. In FURY ROAD he reluctantly teams up with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a “breeder” belonging to nutcase warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who has made a bid for freedom with Joe’s other female slaves/wives/concubines in search of her childhood home – the “Green Place”. Joe doesn’t take too kindly to her leave of absence, to say the least, and what follows is one of the longest and most memorable chase sequences in film history.

The formula might be unchanged and the plot as flat as the scorched landscape, but that doesn’t matter one bit. Once FURY ROAD gets going it barely stops for breath; with the basic set up out of the way, Miller is free to create the kind of inventive explosive mayhem that only a massive Hollywood budget can buy: bad guys pole vault across cars, explosive-tipped spears pierce cars and people, vehicles flip in every direction. The wide open spaces and clear blue skies of the Namibian desert, beautifully captured by cinematographer John Seale, mean there’s nowhere to hide. The view is spectacular.

But Miller doesn’t sacrifice everything on the altar of spectacle. The breathless set pieces follow one after another so quickly that there’s little time for much else, but he has still sketched a few significant roles, the meatiest of which goes to Theron. Shaven headed and sporting a mechanical prosthetic arm, her Furiosa nonetheless brings a compassionate, human dimension to the story, counterbalancing Max’s empty fatalism and Joe’s regressive patriarchy. The latter’s society treats women as livestock and keeps the general populace satiated with the occasional promise of water (perhaps the first time that water has merited as much importance as fuel in Max’s world). The other women, including Zoë Kravitz and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, are each given enough time to register independently as different victims of Joe’s abusive regime who have chosen to make a stand. The film ultimately suggests that women, and only women, can save civilization – a somewhat unlikely message to come from conservative Hollywood.

Max is almost relegated to a supporting role in his own movie; though Hardy does well, he isn’t given much opportunity to put his stamp on the role (and his Aussie accent comes and goes with a mind of its own). Nicholas Hoult fares better as Nux, one of Joe’s minions who tags along for the ride, but this is still a Mad Max movie through and through; as explosive and radical and fresh as he and his director have ever been.

Breaking the silence…

So as you may have gathered, things have been pretty quiet around here lately. That’s because I’ve taken some time out to adjust to becoming a parent for the first time (yay!). Fantastic though that is, it’s left very little time to spend writing about films. I hope to pick things up again over the coming months, but it may take a while. I’ve not disappeared completely – you can still follow me on Twitter – but the pace will be rather more leisurely, I suspect. Thanks for stopping by, and hopefully I’ll have some new stuff for you in the not too distant future.

Review: The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Science-fiction is a notoriously tricky genre in which to age gracefully. Sincere attempts to depict the future have a fair chance of being openly mocked within a few short years, while plots that deal in visitors from outer space or tampering with the laws of nature tend to be reflections of present day concerns, often being overtaken by events in the real world, leaving them as half-forgotten relics of a bygone age. But a select few, through skill or luck, seem to become only more relevant down the years, defying their age as they continue to deliver their messages since audiences first laid eyes and ears on them.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (unconnected to Robert Wise’s similarly groundbreaking THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, released ten years prior to Val Guest’s effort) is an outstanding example of just such a film. Its craftily sensationalist title disguises an intelligent, intimate and beautifully executed story about the prospect of the human race accidentally, but deservedly, signing its own death warrant. Some parts may have aged less well than others, but any film that explored man-made climate change (admittedly to an extreme degree) and realistically painted the prospect of planet-wide extinction almost a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis was clearly thinking ahead.

Full review: The Day the Earth Caught Fire | TAKE ONE

Review: The Wind Rises (2014)

The much-publicised final film from the pencil of Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, THE WIND RISES is a thing of rare and delicate beauty. A fanciful biopic of pre-war aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, this ode to the power of hard work, ambition and dreams frequently bursts with a love for art itself as the starting point for something greater. Perhaps Miyazaki found something personal to connect with in the story, but he could hardly have chosen a more suitable subject to sign off with. It’s a film that charms from beginning to end.

Full review: The Wind Rises | TAKE ONE

Review: Godzilla (2014)

After his low-budget sci-fi drama MONSTERS became a hit on the festival circuit, director Gareth Edwards was given the job of reviving Toho’s most famous franchise, and he doesn’t stray far from his earlier film’s successful template. As before, glimpses of prehistoric behemoths lumbering across the skyline play second fiddle to the human drama taking place on the ground. At its best, this new GODZILLA delivers a big screen spectacle anchored in the real world but flecked with flourishes of Lovecraftian horror; yet its parts are more interesting than the whole.

Full review: Godzilla 2014 | TAKE ONE

Review: Blue Ruin (2014)

BLUE RUIN is a stripped-down conveyor belt of tense and twitchy action, and announces the arrival of a first-time director with plenty of promise. Jeremy Saulnier’s low budget revenge drama may not have much in the way of plot or characterisation, but it is a superior specimen of the ‘lean and mean’ school of thought: aiming to keep the audience on the edge of their seats with a minimum of fuss or pretension, and with an ever-present threat of violence hanging in the air. A strongly sympathetic lead performance from Macon Blair as a man both created and destroyed by an ongoing cycle of violence goes a long way to keeping things interesting.

Full review: Blue Ruin | TAKE ONE

Review: Locke (2014)

Joining a select group of films distinguished by confining themselves to a single location (see also: LIFEBOAT, PHONE BOOTH), LOCKE is less a Hitchcockian thriller than it is a subdued, emotionally-driven drama which just happens to take place entirely within a car. In fact it is more audacious than either of its aforementioned brethren, as we only ever see one character onscreen – that of Ivan Locke, played by a bearded and be-Welshed Tom Hardy. The only other characters are voices at the end of his phone (played by a surprisingly strong supporting cast), and it is through these conversations that we learn why Locke is making this particular journey.

Full review: Locke | TAKE ONE

Review: Starred Up (2014)

Led from the front by an astonishingly aggressive performance from Jack O’Connell, STARRED UP gives the British prison film exactly what it needs: a kick up the arse. A gripping look at life behind bars in a UK prison, as well as an examination of a father-son relationship on life support, David Mackenzie’s film is a welcome reminder of what British cinema can accomplish when it has something vital to say. Even though the script eventually succumbs to stock characters and contrivance, STARRED UP offers a disturbing portrayal of criminals who are all too used to being forgotten on both sides of the fence.

Full review: Starred Up | TAKE ONE

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

After a slight stumble with Thor: The Dark World, Marvel’s ambitious cinematic universe project gets back on track with this robustly entertaining follow-up to Captain America: The First Avenger. By upping both the political and action stakes, and giving plenty of time to each of the various supporting characters, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have delivered a slick and exciting espionage thriller that engages the brain as much as the adrenaline. It may not be perfect – the action is a bit choppy, and veers into overkill towards the end – but this is still a strong entry in what is unquestionably a golden age of comic book adaptations.

Full review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Film @ The Digital Fix