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
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
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
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
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
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
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
An in-depth look at my (and many others) favourite Star Trek film, which recently screened at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse:
Of all the films in the Star Trek franchise, THE WRATH OF KHAN from 1982 is usually cited as the best. There are plenty of reasons why that is the case, but there is a strange logic at work here. Current wisdom dictates that, in order to be successful, a film franchise based on a pre-existing property like a TV show needs to steer clear of anything requiring more than a cursory knowledge of the source material, so as to attract a bigger audience.
Yet STAR TREK II did precisely the opposite; it delved back in to the series mythology, resurrecting a half-forgotten villain of the week. It focused on the characters as much as the science-fiction story, and still delivered a smart, emotional sequel that resonates with viewers over thirty years later. How could this be? Wasn’t it a risky strategy to court the fans rather than an indifferent wider public?
Full article: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan | TAKE ONE
Pity poor José Padilha. Not only did he earn the scorn and suspicion of the entire internet by signing up to direct this remake of Paul Verhoeven’s memorably savage sci-fi satire (taking over from Darren Aronofsky), but he must now endure the final product being measured up to its classic 1987 predecessor. The comparison inevitably doesn’t do his version many favours, but neither is it the total write-off many wanted or expected. In fact, ROBOCOP 2.0 emerges as the second best ROBOCOP movie ever made; but then after so many dud sequels and TV spin-offs, that wasn’t a terribly difficult accomplishment.
Full review: RoboCop | TAKE ONE
Following swiftly in the footsteps of 12 YEARS A SLAVE and MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM comes yet another real life tale of human brutality and endurance. After a very shaky start, THE RAILWAY MAN emerges as a modestly moving portrayal of psychological trauma and unlikely reconciliation. But Jonathan Teplitzky’s film is hamstrung by miscast stars and some extremely uneven editing, which negates much of the story’s emotional impact. What remains are honourable intentions and a reliably strong performance from Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, whose book about his experiences during World War II has been adapted by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson.
Full review: The Railway Man | TAKE ONE