Visual Artist

Films

The Lego Movie (2014) & The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)


I felt after I really enjoyed both reviewing and watching the first Lego Movie (2014) that I should check out the sequel that was released last year. It’s only fair that both the original review for the first film be included before I consider the sequel. I’ve not gone back for a revisit as I’ve just not had the time with all the other films I’ve got to watch in various platforms, that I guess will come with time.

There was once a time when I had all but one pack to complete the Indiana Jones-esque Egyptian series of Lego, the large temple to go with the sphinx that opens to reveal a skeleton. I was so close. Then came the Rock-Raiders which I had only one part of, then the game too, that was just when Lego was starting to commercialise, not that I really noticed it. Today we have everything from Lego The Simpsons to The AvengersIt feels to me that the idea of children and now adults using their imagination to construct their own worlds is being restricted by the ever-growing series of cash-in sets. Then came along The Lego Movie (2014) which seems like the biggest cash-in/sell-out of it all, with another one in the works, a Batman spin-off too. What happened to the good old fashioned Danish toy company that has been making Lego for over 50 years.

Putting my thoughts to onside about the current state of Lego which for me was so more about building house-boats and caravans as a kid (not the most imaginative for an artist I must admit, they were the best ever though) that came out of a yellow bucket with a square four block lid on top. That was were the real fun for me, pouring out the bricks onto the carpet and seeing what I could build. And that is the essence of this film. It pulls away all the cash-in series to go back to the roots of the company, the play-well, the imagine and create, once you’ve followed the instruction book which can be read by anyone in any country you can dissemble to create whatever came into your head.

The Lego Movie is a celebration of all that I’ve just said really, and most of the world who has seen this film will agree, anyone who has played with the toy and got a real buzz from it, playing for hours on end. As we follow what could the most generic of the City series figures, a builder Emmet Brickowoski (Chris Pratt) who has for years followed the rules, well the instructions as long as he has been assembled. Lets talk in Lego terms for this review, it just makes sense to. Not thinking beyond the page, unlike others around him who like either sausages or fries, they all have a particular passion, not one passion for everything. He’s a sheep follow the herd blindly not seeing past the end of the booklet to see what else is possible for himself. Well except for a double-decker sofa so friends can come over and watch a film with you. You’d need a super massive TV for that to work or even a projector maybe.

Emmet the bland builder accidentally gets himself involved in what could be the end of life for him and Lego-kind as we know it on meeting Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who is on the hunt for the special one as prophesied by the great Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) as laid out in the prologue to the film. When Emmet discovers he is the chosen special one a lot of pressure is put on him to perform, to do good on his new title in front of the master builders (an array of figures from the heaps of series of Lego from Batman to Milhouse Van-Houten to the 80’s spaceman. Everyone and everyone is there, all having a moment in the lime-light. Which is part of the wider commercial universe they have created. All these can build using their imaginations, something that Emmet is seriously lacking after years of following the instructions, conforming to the society he is a part of.

I could go on about the plot, which for me spends time in the Old West for a time before darting all over the place, animated perfectly, if there was ever going to be a Lego film it would have to have this level of detail, the lightness of touch. Nothing is left to chance, even the water is made up of Lego single circles (again Lego lingo). From the same studio that gave us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009). It’s heaps of fun with the sensibility of Lego central to the film. With the threat of the world being frozen with super-glue close at hand, to live the live of a theme-park, which would stop creativity dead in it’s tracks. We must remember the power of imagination, how it allows us to get carried away, to create and build whole worlds, even with a few bricks.

When we pull away to the real-world, which was a brave yet natural progression, to see the toy as it actually is the argument between father and son is played out, to play with the bricks, or to glue them frozen which defeats the object of toys. The danger of reaching adult-hood where we can lose that creativity, to move away from ‘childish’ things. Something I have seen before when action figures are collected in hope they stay in the packaging in the hopes that it will increase in value, we forget what toys are for, to play with.

I started off talking about how I view the current state of Lego which I feel has lost it heart with sets for every film franchise under the sun which restricts to a point imagination of the player. Yet on the other side of the argument with those figures in your hands the story continues  so it’s not all bad, The Lego Movie is living proof they are thriving, even in the hands of a major film company. I just can’t see where a sequel can go, except as the ending suggests an invasion from Duplo, the film is perfect as a stand-alone for me.

If you could take away one clear message from the first Lego movie, it was the power of imagination and the freedom of play, allowing that to drive what you make and do creatively. Something that is central to my practice, the playfulness of my work. Looking forward to the unexpected yet predictable sequel to a runaway hit we have another message that’s more focused on siblings at play.

We saw at the end of the first film the teasing of Duplo being introduced into the more sophisticated world of Lego as constructed by Will Ferrel’s dad before being handed over to his son. Who now has to contend with his sister, being younger the baby/toddler version of the toy to symobilise her. Another battle has to be fought. That’s the basic premise for The Lego Movie2: The Second Part (2019), that then jumps 5 years; nicely into the present day where both have grown up to a point where they will eventually learn to share and collaborate in order to play together. That’s the crooks of the films message. It’s just the getting there that’s not as enjoyable as before.

With a lot of sequels they always come back to experiment further with what really worked the first time round, as they explored a new idea around the central idea of the Danish toy company of “play well” to hopefully give us something new or build upon what has gone before. With the rivalry of brother and sister, one that I know myself, being the older brother to a sister I can relate in part to the central relationship, but my building skills are no match for the Finn (Jadon Sand) and Bianca (Brooklynn Prince) who have the time, space and money to go crazy with their creations. It’s these two creators who early on come to blows after a heart felt beginning that went so badly.

As we see from the Emmet and Wyldstyle they are living in a dystopian future very much referencing Mad Max; Fury Road (2015), which they have built to hide from the ongoing attacks that caused years of rebuilds. It feels pretty lazy to make such a direct reference to a film that a 10 year really shouldn’t have seen. However it’s the film-makers vision that is speaking to the audience. Finn is reflecting the situation in his work with the intent of deflecting future sisterly skirmishes, by making it as unattractive as possible. Everyone has adapted by Emmet who still lives in hope and full blown colourful bricks and all the possibilities. He’s criticised for not growing up or adapted to this new world. Is that an attack on him or a request to understand what’s going on around him. Has he decided to build his house as a sign of denial or hope for a better future. Knowing Emmet a perpetually positive person I’d say hope.

For a hopeful guy he has a nightmare that turns out to be a vision of the future that he must try to prevent called Mammageddon – the first of the obviously blurred words that the original handled so well. Here they are so obvious that it’s just lazy. When mentioned that Wyldstyle, Batman and a few others are captured to the Sistar world, they have through the Stairgate as if we still have no understand of this distorted Lego language from the original. I grew tired of them being over used to stress what was happening. Some of the travelling scene seemed confusing, maybe I’m not the intended audience for the jokes?

Visually the standard of animation and rendering is just as impeccable, there’s not so much showing off this time, as we now know this world so it becomes a continuation instead. I felt that they drawing a lot more from the Warner Brothers back catalogue than they had last time – licensing issues I guess. If anything I was expecting more Duplo from the promotion that came with the film, instead it was a chance to promote ranges aimed at girls rather than boys. A carefully disguised advert to promote to a wider audience maybe? We also have a version of the smash it “Everything is Awesome” which now is knowingly reworked in the final act of the film that has seen everyone finally be reunited before the film breaks free of the Lego world to that of the children.

When we enter the real world things start to break down for me, it’s more about the Lego, not the kids. They are the ones who make it possible but more time is spent here than we really need to. This isn’t Toy Story where we know the toys share the same world but have a secret life away from the humans who play with them. If anything it spoils the film from being a fun animation that explores the idea of collaboration. When we see that the fight between the Emmet and his friends vs. Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) and co whose intentions for a long time are confusing to us are just the warring children at play before the play becomes a real battle between the siblings. Entering the real world breaks the constructed 4th wall in the film to seek a resolution more than it had done 5 years earlier only sparingly to show what’s been happening. It pulled me out of things too much.

With all the on the nose distorted words I couldn’t stay in the world as well as before, the magic had been broken to a greater extent. The writing was too obvious and the jokes just tried too hard to really land. There were some really fun moments, but once you know the formula they try too hard to repeat it to lesser effect each time. I honestly had more fun with The Lego Batman Movie (2017) which I couldn’t stop laughing it. It didn’t break away to our world, it stayed within with some great writing and jokes that delivered to the end. The Second Part was too aware of what had gone before and just exploited it too much, with a message as well meaning as it was felt too heavy handed. I can forgive the original as it worked so well. Sadly this is a case of going to the well too many times, I won’t be going back for a third time, I’ll stick with the original thanks.


The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)


Before I begin this review, I acknowledge that Woody Allen has become a divisive figure in recent years. Without getting into the politics of the accusations that resurfaced in connection with Dylan Farrow. I feel that I can carry on watching his films as I both thoroughly enjoy them and can separate them from his private life. I know that others can’t, which I understand and respect.

Since my first review of a Woody Allen film, the more recent Cafe Society (2016) I’ve been able to see a good few more of his films, allowing me to build up and understanding and passion for a director who has fallen out of favour with many for obvious reasons. For me on balance I can still feel comfortable watching his work, sure there are scenes that he should be ashamed of, such as the jokey rape discussion is Play it Again Sam (1972) to the far too young girl friend in Manhattan (1979). This comes with changing attitudes of the time. We should however not disregard these film, being able to take a step back and understand them in context of when they were made.

With my increased interest for Allen I have made a larger dent in his nearly 50 year back catalogue if work. I’m far from seen them all, with a few that I want to see before others. Such as the experimental Zelig (1983) that pushed a development on special effects that allowed for a mockumentary about a chameleon like person to be appear in numerous photos and footage. Blending him into the fabric of historical archives to produce a comedy that pushed the possibilities of narrative with direct influences to Forrest Gump (1993) that used the same technique with more finesse to weave Tom Hanks into some of America’s modern history caught on camera. Allen 10 years earlier saw the raw potential to have fun with digital special effects very much in their infancy. Zellig is a scream of a comedy that creates a character that wants to be loved at the cost of his own personality being lost at the cost of conformity, to be loved by all but not by himself.

You could say that The Purple Rose of Cario (1985) is a development of the special effects, but far more refined and not focusing on the effect to drive the narrative forward, becoming a device to allow it to go in a new direction and change the life of cinema-goer Cecilia (Mia Farrow) who chooses to escape to her local cinema during the Great Depression and from an abusive husband (Danny Aiello). She’s a woman who wants more than she has without the means to get there. She could easily be seen as a female version of cineaste that is Allen allowing her to live out a dream he had when he was developing his own pallet at the cinema as young man. Also that of many countless other cinema-goers has longed to be swept away by the worlds that film constructs and projects in the darkened screens where films come alive. I guess this is why I was drawn to this film. Also the clip that was featured in the 2011 documentary that featured the film as they worked their way through his career. I was drawn to the image of a young Jeff Daniels breaking free of the cinema screen to join Farrow in the audience. Literally breaking the fourth wall to be with a spectator.

What follows is the fantasy of two people, one real the other completely fictional that wants a life outside of what we learn is an existence of perpetually repeating the plot of the film. Whenever the film is projected the characters relive the plot to the letter, as if it’s another live performance, all word perfect, everything is seamless. Until a character created by newcomer Gil Shepherd as Tom Baxter notices Cecilia has been in the audience a number of times. Taking this as a sign and an opportunity to break free from the endless cycle he and the rest of the cast are caught in. It’s a celluloid trap that they accept as a reality and an existence created by the light of the projector.

This freak occurrence is immediately noticed by the audience and the characters as they see Baxter talk to Cecilia, shocked and surprised by the experience. Her escape from reality is mirrored by his escape from her fantasy. The two worlds should only exist in the confines of a darkened screen. Causing the film to come to a halt, the characters break their roles to react to this breach of their world and the cycle of the narrative. Shouting out to Baxter and even the staff at the cinema. The cinema manager is lost for a solution as to how he can fix the film so that everything will return to normal. Simply switching the projector on and off is seen to be fatal to the characters who really need him back to complete the plot and ensure they are in tact. There’s a built in set of laws to this projected world. Also interestingly they are all aware of the producer Raoul Hirsch (Alexander H. Cohen) as their creator, the role of the director and writer are dismissed or not even written. The importance of him allowed them to exist, to know their dialogue and cues in the film. Allen does not see the director as being an auteur or terribly that important. As much as he demands artistic control over his work you don’t feel that this is reflected in this depression era world.

The only other person from Hollywood who comes close to this is in the actor Shepherd whose required to restore order before more prints of the film begin to cause trouble for the film makers. An up and coming actor who gave his all to the role of Baxter us very concerned, after his career is threatened by the incident and the potentially bad press. His reality is very real and in danger. Whilst Baxter himself and his very limited experience of the world as defined by Hirsch and his employees have given him enough agency to interact with Cecilia who comes to fall for him, whilst coming to realise his own perception of the world. He’s not meant to be part of it but can’t let him go. Acting as an escape from her own awful domestic situation, that is shown in broad strokes with Aiello. 

I’m reminded of The Last Action Hero (1993) when a child enters the fictional world of Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who then breaks into ours. Basically Purple Rose for children and overloaded with that leaves you with a headache at the ended. It’s not as playful, trying to do too much during the run time, instead of focusing on a few ideas it goes too deep. Allen has a lighter touch, the immediate effect of the act of exiting a narrative and how the fictional interacts with the real. The notion of escapism is very much in both of the films, taking us into a fantasy that we would all like to play out at one time or another, to even cross over into their world and the effect we would have on it.

With Rose of Cairo we live out an audience fantasy, complete with the knock-on effect of a character entering into our lives. Maybe our dreams should stay on the silver screen, allowing them to play out over and over again where there’s no chance they can be touched by the realities we. We know that those dreams will remain in tact.


The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)


The past few months I’ve been volunteering, building up my experience of working with children and young people as I set up my own workshop. During that time I have been able to see the range of abilities of those I’ve worked with. Some clearly struggle, some haven’t even chosen to do art or just feel they are suffering because they can’t achieve what others in the class can do with real ease. When I see those with real talent coming through I its real joy too, celebrating that with them. A visiting artist giving them an extra boost to their confidence. Whilst I make sure to celebrate and encourage those who struggle or need the extra push to do more. Some even need to be held back as they finish work as you can see it becoming overloaded with content; something that will come to them with experience.

During that time I’ve not met the next Van Gogh or Warhol, just talent that needs to be nurtured, when I can I asked if they are carrying on developing their talents. I spoke to one student who clearly had talent in GCSE art, but had decided to drop it in favour of Graphics to pursue a career in Games Design. I could see he had a talent, an understanding of composition and was open to new ideas. I understood and respected his decision, leaving him to pursue his dream. What I would never do is take the route that Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) takes in The Kindergarten Teacher (2018) a Kindergarten Teacher who notice a poet prodigy in her class.

On discovering the 5 ½ old Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) she’s taken aback by his mature ability to construct and recite poems that would usually happen in adults or young people. His lack of life experience at his tender age is no barrier to the profound prose that he’s able to compose. Naturally she wants to encourage this talent, when his nanny Becca (Rosa Salazar) picks him up, Lisa does what any supportive teacher would do. Discuss the poem and suggest ways to nurture this ability when at home. Usually this is where the interaction begins and ends. Record and celebrate the poems that you hear and leave it there. For Lisa a mature student in a poetry class, aspiring to culturally enrich herself, poetry is way she’s chosen. Her ability is limited only able to produce derivative material that produce negative criticism from other students.

The opportunity to use one of Jimmy’s poems is too tempting to ignore, sharing it with her peers resulting in a perceived breakthrough of talent that surprises her teacher Simon (Gael García Bernal). It’s a daring move that no teacher would ethically do, stealing the work from a child and passing it off as her own. I’m reminded of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) in Yesterday (2019) who passed off the songs of the Beatles as his own. To be fair to him he was existing in a reality where he was one of a few that could remember that they existed before a worldwide blackout. Leaving him with the burden of this secret knowledge, does he share it with the world and take all the credit or come clean and explain his position as best as possible. For a while he rides the wave of the worlds ignorance, rising to great heights of overnight fame before his own guilt and personal life force him to reconsider what he wants in life. Lisa’s exists in our world that comes with all the consequences of her actions.

She just chooses a path that’s ethically murky. From waking up Jimmy during nap time for private conversations to becoming his nanny. Gyllenhaal plays a woman whose lost all sense of morality as she strives for a life that she aspires to at all costs. With a husband who she’s distant from, teenage children who want to follow their own paths. She wants better cultural things for them, ignoring what they want. All her energy goes into the enrichment of Jimmy instead whose young enough to not know any better. Focusing her daily energy on him to prepare him for a poetry slam. All sense of reality slowly goes out of the window.

It’s an intense experience as we watch a teacher with her heart in the right place for her pupils take a dark turn of good intentions that leads her to criminal actions. Jimmy has become a vessel to live out her dreams of cultural fulfilment, wanting to be part of something that his father doesn’t want for his child. Wanting to encourage a normal childhood, instead of the perceived instability of a creative person. As much as I was disturbed by the actions of Lisa who spirals out of control it was strangely gripping too. Making for a film that pushes the boundaries of what we female characters do on screen. Also subverting what is traditionally a female profession of teaching the its extremes.


Deadwood: The Movie (2019)


The last half of this year I’ve been catching up on Deadwood the TV series, which I was recommended back at art school but thought I should concentrate on the films rather than getting bogged down in boxset after boxset. It’s only been since the arrival of the the TV movie that I thought that even before watching it I should watch the boxset before I even attempt the film. Feeling it’s better to know what came before I even jump in. I read that there are particular episodes to watch for plot points, why not watch the whole thing. From just watching this epic TV series that was cancelled in its prime I enjoyed the rich use of language, instead of all the usual cliches there’s an insistence on using the correct grammar of the time. As I have learned the F-bomb and it’s many variations were used far more commonly in the 1800’s than now. From the first few episodes I could see there was a power struggle going on for the gold mines. Before turning to issues such as succession into the Union of America, all the political implications that come with that reality for a town that is basically under the control of a few men – Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Cy Toliver (Powers Boothe) who basically ran the town to their own advantage. All before the third seasons story arc devoted to the threat of power from the all powerful prospector George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) who threatened the very existence of the town.

I’ve not even mentioned the colourful population, mixing historical figures who lived or passed through the town, giving then series a rich connection to Wild West history, blending with fiction and newspaper accounts from the town. I could find very little to criticise about Deadwood, if anything I wanted more, to see it run longer than its short screen life. As season 3 began I watched more intensely than before, just dropping in when I could to see what was going on from week to week to see whose neck was going be slit next.

Deadwood: The Movie (2019) set 10 years after the last events, although made 13 years after it was cancelled, a year or two either side doesn’t really matter as we get to catch up with the whole town on the day it joins the state of South Dakota, bringing them even further towards the progress that is rapidly cross over the states of America. We arrive by train bringing with us both Hearst, now a US senator for California and Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) who both left at the close of the final episode bringing all surviving characters back to the camp. Progress is indeed happening for the town/camp as and it’s coming thick and fast. Yet for some old habits die hard…or not at all.

As we find each of the characters flashbacks are used in the first hour to remind reviewers of past relationships, acts and deals that have been done. For me it wasn’t all that helpful, more a hinderance, my fault there. Subtly used to cover ground that could have been wasted in what is essentially an extended episode of the Western drama. They are free of the restrictions of TV back in the mid 2000’s which Deadwood was leading the charge in recreating these extended arc plots. The creators of the show have done well to get most of the cast back to return for this to happen. The location and sets are meticulously recreated, nothing has been left to chance, before expanding upon it to reflect the passing of time. I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought about recreating it myself in cardboard form.

Now is a chance to tie up loose ends and see how those ends have taken our characters. Firstly we found a dying Swearengen who has been diagnosed with kidney failure, with only days to live. Bullock who was thought to have lost the election is now town Marshall, whilst the weaselly E.B. Farnham (William Sanderson) is still the mayor and runs the hotel across from the Gem. Somethings never and should never change in a town that seems to resist change if it doesn’t benefit the few in power. I’m glad that the relationship between Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) has been picked up and still working in a time that would have frowned upon them. Whilst the depiction of Mr Wu (Keone Young) has not really changed, but it could be argued Chinese people it reflects the treatment of this race.

The main focus of the film was the ramifications of Hearst’s effect on the town, Trixie’s (Paula Malcomson) attempted assassination of the ex-prospector who hasn’t given up his greed for land and being done wrong. A resolution was needed really to account for the guilt and grief that she has been feelings. There’s still plenty of bad feeling for the corrupt senator, who could easily be seen as the Trumpian figure of this world. We also had a return to the bloodshed, with a much loved figure being shot in hopes of a land-grab by Hearst, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the camp that soon retaliate in a town that doesn’t easily forgive as it does forget.

It’s classic Deadwood in HD and I’m not complaining. With all the resolutions going on, there’s still plenty to shock you in this camp. I feel that it’s a much needed proper conclusion that was never achieved before in the third season, that did it’s very best to deliver a season long plot that did deliver but needed a fourth to really see how things ended. This TV movies goes a long way to showing what could have been done. I wish more time was spent with some characters, mainly the women of the camp, and supporting cast members who fell to the sides as we focused on resolutions which was the main purpose of the film. That being said it was a satisfying return to the camp.


Border/Gräns (2018)


I’ve been aware of Border (2018) since it was reviewed earlier this year, not really paying it much attention. Yet the still that came with the review stuck with me. The seemingly deformed main characters that are that make the film stand out wouldn’t leave me. In a world that now rightly embraces differences within society I was becoming more curious about the film. Blending genres of fantasy, crime and LGBTQ into a quasi fairy tale that left me taken aback by the beauty and cruelty of this film. Following Tina (Eva Melander) who works as a border force officer, acting mainly on a heightened sense of smell that can pick up on emotions, a human polyraph that we see doesn’t fail. Pulling aside passengers as they walk pass. She’s a natural in a world that otherwise fears her for her otherness. Living deep in the Swedish forests with Roland (Jörgen Thorsson) her dog training lodger with mixed intentions. And a father (Sten Ljunggren) with early onset Alzheimers.  She has a way to communicate with nature that leaves us in awe of her abilities.

Her life begins to change when she meets and pulls aside Vore (Eero Milonoff) who shares more than a passing resemblance to Tina whose suspicious of him, discovering he’s carrying maggots and mealworms, nothing to really raise concern beyond her initial smell. We’re left wondering if they’ll ever meet again beyond this formal meeting. Her view of the world is slowly changing.

The film takes a dark turn when she stops a gentlemen who we learn is carrying pornographic material. Bringing her into a world of police surveillance, brought into help on a case by Agneta (Ann Petrén) whose curious of Tina’s ability to smell emotions on others. Instead of letting her go as an oddity she joins the team as they investigate suspected child pornography. Her view of the world is slowly beginning to change as she explores it deeper than before.

The film moves back to Vore a loner who grabs food and sits alone, an outsider who prefers it that way, wanting little contact from others. I really want Vore to meet Tina again and gives the audience a chance to learn more about them both. We don’t have to wait long before he passes through Border patrol, where Tina takes him aside when we finally learn that Vore may not be of interest officially yet to Tina a personal journey is about to begin. Could he be a living life of seclusion due to his perceived deformities. She’s drawn to the otherness of him and wants to learn more. She soon invites him to stay in her guest house.

Things start to become more clear for her when Roland takes his dogs away for a show, allowing her to learn more from the stranger. A journey of tender and painful self discovery begins, with a combination of painful first kisses to to what could have been an awkward sex scene thats strangely wonderful and aggressive. She’s blossoming into someone new that’s entering a world that we navigate with her. It’s disturbing, painful and sensitively handled as she learns who she really is and her position in the world. A Troll, a creature in Swedish mythology that are feared by humans. Coming in various sizes, here they take a Neanderthal form. A history is written for her that sees them as oddities that were once studied by humans to the point of their deaths whilst under study.

The child pornography case that Tina has been working on comes close to home as they begin to question the couple they have arrested, linking them to Vore who has made little effort to live among humans. Instead seeing only evil in them, he has been exploiting that nature to take revenge for his own treatment by human hands. Leading Tina to really question her own position in life, her past and her future, how will she live in the same world as ourselves.

It’s a dark world that has been created by director Ali Abbasi who along with wonderful special effects and make-up team have blended the fantastical mythology of Sweden with the darkness of human depravity to give us something magical. It really is a fairy tale but not for the faint hearted, the closest comparison is Tale of Tales (2015) which bathed in the make belief more than the real. Here a balance has been struck which left me not wanting to leave Tina as she embarked on a new path at the films close.


Dark City (1998)


I didn’t know what I was going to get when I sat down for Dark City (1998), opening with touches of the cityscape of Fritz Langs Metropolis (1927) being used overtly blended with Tim Burton’s studio built Gotham city almost 10 years previous to the release of Dark City. A major part of the initial draw was the fact that what I was seeing on the screen for the first few shots was actually there, real not reliant on CGI still in its infancy used for a few shots. We are bathing in a film noir-esque cityscape that suddenly stops at the stroke of midnight. Everyone falls asleep, cars stop in traffic, life comes to a temporary pausing in this unnamed city. Whilst John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in his bath, unaware of what’s happening around him. His whole life and sense of reality is about to be shaken and reshaped over the course of the film. Trying to figure out how he got to this point, with no clear memory of what’s just happened.

Elsewhere a mad scientist Dr. Daniel Schrebe (Kiefer Sutherland) is trying to keep tabs on Murdoch whose one of his patients, trying to warn him that the police will be after him for the latest murder of a prostitute. A man hunt is on for Murdoch, who has no knowledge of the killings, it’s a frantic race for either Schrebe or Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) to reach him first. The key being his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) is barroom singer in the archetype of the femme-fetale with a contemporary edge.

Everything is rather fast-paced as the race for Murdoch get’s underway. The first ones to meet him are neither Schrebe or Bumstead, but Hellraiser-esque figures in bowler hats that find him on a bridge in-front of a billboard. These figures known as The Strangers (not that imaginative really) have the ability to manipulate the world around them to their advantage as they try to reach Murdoch. The question is why do they need him, what does he mean to them. We later see how during one pausing of life at midnight once again that a family living in a working classic house is transformed into a more stately building, with finer clothes, not forgetting the painful injection in the forehead that we later learn alters the memories they will have to come into line with the new reality they will wake up to. A far more extreme version of The Truman Show (1998) that relied on the compliance of actors to listen to an ear piece to ensure that Truman (Jim Carrey) is kept unaware and manipulated into staying in a purpose built environment, all for the benefit of reality TV. Something that is not a concern of The Strangers lead by Mr Book (Ian Richardsonwho ensure every change is carried out meticulously.

All these changes are witnessed by Murdoch whose beginning to understand the world around him is growing when he finally meets Schrebe. With a fascination for a childhood memory for Shell Beach, a location that is known by others but soon leads to frustration, getting there is far harder than first thought. The first crack in a system that is essentially a giant laboratory for social study by The Strangers. Another major revelation is that Murdoch has the same abilities as The Strangers, a race that use psychic manipulation to control the world around them. It’s not really explained how he has the power, but does that really matter. Director and writer Alex Proyas has constructed a densely packed world that references so much of cinema’s past, from noir to darkest horror and science fiction, blended together to create a reality that we could still question today.

The now low-fi special effects allow for a more physical world to be created. The angular buildings are easier to manipulate and believable, even 20 years later it works because everything in this Gilliam-esque world makes sense. A combination of 1940’s and 1990’s style that becomes timeless. Continually bleak until a conclusion that breaks the rules of goodie vs baddie fights, after a few of The Strangers are defeated before Mr Book is taken on in a bizarre battle in the sky. Leaving the majority of this alien race still possibly alive, it’s never really explained to the audience. There’s a natural fixation with Shell Beach that we learn was just an implanted memory from any number of constructed lives for Murdoch before his powers developed. Breaking through this walled world to manipulate it for the better. Bringing the first rays of sunlight to a Pratchett-esque disc world that floats in space.

I’ve used a lot of esques in this review because I can see countless influences throughout the film that like many other films of the late 1990’s that questioned the reality of the world around us. Do we really have free will, are the memories we have truly our own. Is a greater power above working in our favour or simply using us as part of a grand experiment. In a decade that was generally trouble free in the West there was nothing to question but our reality as technology began to race ahead of us at the close of the century. A new millennium was on the cusp with both fears and great possibilities that would and continue to change our lives, for better or worse I’ll let you decide.


About Time (2013)


If I’m honest this year has been the first one in which I’ve actually seen both Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999). You could say I’ve bowed to pressure to watch these films or I’ve just softened with age to think it’s about time to check them out. I was captured by the buoyant and very English dialogue of Richard Curtiswho for years felt trite and cliche. I could watch Blackadder, and put up with The Vicar of Dibley for a few years because I knew who the writer was, thinking he was attempted to be too contemporary, it felt forced. Now I found it to be just typical of his style and just sit back enjoy them all. Both Funeral and Hill just worked for me now I guess in part because I’ve reached a point in my life where I wanted to see what the fuss was about, and that I just don’t care about that attitude anymore. I felt the same about Lionel Richie for a long time until I thought s*** it, why not, now I’ve seen him twice in the past two years and sing along to his songs in the car. Yeah I’ve definitely softened. As much as I now enjoy Curtis’s writing, I draw the line at the Bridget Jones trilogy, which I think is a step too far right now. I did however want to catch About Time (2013), which I remember had a time travel element about it, which at the time of release I wrote off as a gimmick and let it drift by. After seeing Curtis’s earlier films this year I had to finally watch it.

On the surface of About Time it could be about anything besides time travel, set in contemporary UK, a middle class family and a white single young man whose about to have his life unfold. It looks like any other film penned by Curtis, as I discovered from his BAFTA screenwriting lecture I found on Youtube, writing what he knows is just that, love from a middle class background, can’t fault him from straying from his own experiences. Yet only a few scenes in after the introduction of a seemingly normal family of older parents with grown-up kids about to leave home, for 21 year old Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) he’s about to discover that all male members of his family can time travel. His father (Bill Nighy) reveals to him this last fact of life during his last summer before he leaves for a job in the law up in London. All it takes to travel back in time (not forward to the future, that would be crazy) or change history, just have the ability to change things in his own life. With these few restrictions he starts to learn how to navigate the next chapter of life with a completely different perspective compared to other young 20 somethings.

The first things he wants to do is fall in love, which hasn’t been all that successful up to this point. First trying to get together with his sisters friend Charlotte (Margot Robbie) that doesn’t quite work out, even when he does use his new found ability. He’s learning how he can change things if only just slightly. Already aware of how he can affect others around him. Through these early jumps back in the film that he’s finding his feet with his feet as he time travels. Each time is perfectly captured as he either leaves the frame or finds a dark cupboard to focus his energy. At this point it’s fun to see how his effect on the world and those around him can be so positive. If only George Bailey could have done this in It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) it would have removed the need for the second class angel altogether.

It’s a blind date, literally… where we first see things get really serious for Tim as he wants to make things happen, knowing that he can’t really use his ability to fall in love his does his best without. We hear the voice of Mary (Rachel McAdams) as her and her friend are chatting together on a double blind date. It’s equally awkward to hear and fun to watch as just for a moment he’s had a stroke of real luck, let’s hope he can keep hold of this and see her again. That’s before his frustrated playwright of an uncle angry about the poor reception of his play on opening night, down to one of his actors forgetting their lines at the close of the play. Tim takes it on himself to eventually rectify this error, which in turn results in him not meeting Mary. He like the audience is learning just how carefully he has to tread in order to get what he wants and still keep everyone happy.

Cue an extended section where after multiple attempts he finally get’s the girl and they start what becomes a long and lasting relationship, marriage and all the children that come with that. That’s not really a spoiler when you look at how he faces the obstacles in his life, choosing carefully how he should or shouldn’t use his ability to change the past of those he loves in order to save them. He’s going above and beyond. A patriarchal figure without even knowing it, juggling the lives of his family, we see he really cares for them, which is really endearing to the audience. Sometimes the effect doesn’t have the desired results that at times had me wondering how all his actions would effect his own personal timeline. This is where the sci fan in me came out, wanting to ensure he could balance out the causes and effects of his actions. He like anyone else just blagging it as we all do through life, just with one extra ball in the air.

Of course there are some plot holes and issues, from how Mary begins with an English accent before slipping and staying in an American accent for the remainder of the film. I forgave that as they make a lovely couple. To the fact that Tim seems to be a lawyer who’s super talented at 21 and is soon working in the courts, he’s smashing things at work. An aspect of his life that is only populated by his buffoon of a friend Rory (Joshua McGuire). We are also given a few more lines to explain how certain situations can’t be altered via time travel or caused by it as we progress. At times that either felt lazy or natural, depending on the scene. These are all small really in the grand scheme of a film that is both deeply touching, yes schmaltzy and funny all in the right balance.  I’m definitely softening in the past year or so, allowing me to enjoy this wonderful film that got me thinking about how we should treasure the ones we love and the time we have with them. That’s a wonderful message to take away from a film that makes life feel good again, when all the c*** we have to deal with make you want to go back in time and fix those moments that could alter things for the better.


Ad Astra (2019)


I came to Ad Astra (2019) with a lot of hope that this would be this years Sci-fi masterpiece, which I think is still going to be High Life (2018). There are plenty of positive reviews out there with only a smattering of negative ones, which I chose to ignore, hoping that all would be OK. Hoping this was going to be another Apocalypse Now (1979) which has just had it’s definitive directors – Final cut that I’m hoping to see soon. So in theory we should be getting the same kind of trippy experience through our solar system in the not so distant future that sees Earth having reached a point where they have mastered space travel within to become a daily occurrence. It’s all in a days work for the United States military Space corp, that Maj Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) who we meet working on a transmitter that pokes above the Earths atmosphere. A cool headed, almost emotionless soldier whose admired through the ranks for his level-headedness.

All that is soon to be tested when he learns of the reasons behind a series of electrical explosions caused by the effects of exploding anti-matter (incredibly dangerous stuff, if not handled carefully). News of his long-lost thought-to-be dead father is revealed to McBride. H.Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who left to lead a mission to explore the possibility of life away from Earth. Reports of activity are revealed to Roy who is hardly moved by what most people would be generally taken-aback by. Taking it instead in his stride, he leaves to start his classified mission. The latest in a long line of missions that have taken a toll on his personal life. And so begins the Mallickesque monologues get underway, used an extra psychological evaluations or log entries, we get too much by the end of the film that I just switched off from this aspect.

Visually I can’t fault the film, it displays a very plausible future where space travel is the very much the norm and we could get to Mars in a few hours (if you can afford it). The near-future looks achievable. We see very little of life outside of the military that Roy lives in. When we do it’s not far removed from now. This is one of the few saving graces of the film that goes painfully slow at times. You could go to the loo, come back and have missed very little of any importance to the plot, it moves that slowly.

A major failure in the film is having McBride being so cold for the majority of the film. We have only a few glimpses of his father before the final act to understand how he came to this state. Looking at Ryan Gosling‘s Neil Armstrong in First Man (2018) we had a much deeper understanding of the how the astronaut was so cool under pressure and how he had repressed his emotions, especially since the loss of his daughter. We had a stronger foundation to the character. McBride we have little go on, so how can an audience invest in him as he travels through space or over the length of the film.

I think part of my expectation for more was tangled up in it’s comparison to Apocalypse Now! which had far more going on as Willard (Martin Sheen) made his way through the Asian jungles encountering his own army becoming evermore dysfunctional as he searches for Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). That meeting in Astra was really a let down after some almost edge of your seat scenes that progressed the film towards the spaceship Lima where H.Clifford was now the sole member of the crew. Driven to carry out the mission at all costs. He too like Kurtz had lost all sense of reality, without that sense of danger of something spilling out.

What we got was just disappointing after Roy’s journey that began as a mission of military importance became a much more personal one. We do feel the cold frustrating bureaucracy of the military that potentially holds him back yet there’s little push back from them to feel it’s worth. The supposed emotional impact at the climax of the film is not really worth the pay-off.

There’s a lot here that is started but just not pushed far enough. It would help if you had a main character that you could engage with. At least he chose the right profession so he could be left alone at times. Visually it’s splendid, a conceivable future that leaned towards THX 1138 (1971) at times. Let down mainly due to the length allow action to unfold at a more leisurely pace rather than speeding things up in the edit.


Midnight Special (2016)


I remember listening to a summer edition of the Kermode and Mayo Film Review podcast. I always listen out for the TV movie of the week, see what the film critic recommends. Having looked at the list myself earlier that week I wonder what they will choose. That particular week we had Clarisse Loughrey who recommended Midnight Special (2016), a film that evoked fond memories for her. A real soft-spot for a film that was overlooked. I had to set record for this one. I tend to choose my films with the help of the IMDB recommendations, maybe Rotten Tomato’s is a better indicator (critically) however I like to go more with public opinion, am I going to be spend my time with a film with a decent rating or be bored and wish I had spent my time doing something else. Well I took a gamble here, which actually paid off.

What I thought would be a religious disaster film – getting my films mixed up, but also starring Michael Shannon turned out to be a little know reworking of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) which really surprised me. A wanted man Roy (Shannon) from a religious cult has teamed up with Lucas (Joel Edgerton) who are on the run with a young boy Alton (Jaeden Martell) who we meet hiding under a bed-sheet reading a comic book by flashlight wearing a pair of swimming goggles. In a room where all the light has been sealed out, nothing left to chance. The child treated with great care. All of this makes no sense just yet. Before cutting to a gathering of a late night service of a cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) whose lines are understandable cryptic, giving nothing away after an FBI raid. Just what is going on in this nocturnal world where anything can happen.

Slowly we see why all the precautions are being taken when the three men are on the road, with a callout for Roy they have to be careful. Travelling with a real sense of purpose, doing whatever it takes to reach their destination that night. Alton emits a blue light from his eyes that night, unable to control this phenomenon it’s the men who know what to do. Is he possessed by a higher power or the second coming? Either way he has to be handled with extreme care. We still don’y know but can see that the boy is precious cargo not to be left for long. Information at this point is being teased out in this quiet scenes.

I think part of the films IMDB rating comes down to the sparse and simple dialogue from writer/director Jeff Nichols that gives you very little on the surface. Instead we have to rely on the actors interpretation to relay a higher meaning. The emotional impact of what is a highly stressful time for these characters who are doing what they believe to be right and under the instruction of God. Nothing will prevent them from seeing Alton to where he needs to be safely. All the while the FBI are on the hunt to for Roy as they learn more about his purpose from passages from readings from years before. NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) is soon able to crack the code and wants to find the boy. When they join up with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) we start to learn even more. Still frustratingly cryptic at times. The boy is weak and needs to rest. Having the ability to bring down satellites and tune into radio transmissions. He indeed has some form of higher power going on within.

The comparison to Encounters is incredibly strong here, we see a group, yes smaller that follows without a shred of a doubt to an undisclosed destination – sorry no mash potato playing around here. We have a gathering of the military in hopes of trying thwart the boy who could be a weapon of mass destruction. The fear of the unknown is strong in America’s defence who would rather destroy than try to understand. Unlike those in Steven Spielberg‘s sci-fi classic that followed numerous people make a blind pilgrimage across  the country, with only the faith of something or someone who can only be positive. The authorities more open to the possibility of life beyond our planet back in 1977, co-operating on the rare chance of something positive coming out of it. Usually it’s all guns blazing at the unknown.

For Alton he comes to understand his purpose in life, not the second coming, but a lost soul who needs to be reunited with his own kind. At the expense of leaving his family and all he knows behind. This is the reason Spielberg wouldn’t make his classic film today. Having since married and had a family. Made at a time when he was reacting to his father leaving his mother and younger self behind. The roles are reversed in Nichols film, the child leaving behind the parents to grief for a child who didn’t die but leave for another life that he was predestined for. It makes for a more profound conclusion that itself is very ambiguous nothing is really resolved, we simply see the repercussions beginning.

It’s not a perfect film in terms of script, but you can’t really judge it on that alone. Looking closer you have a film that echoes a stone cold classic that continues to work, relying on that naive sense of wonder that drives us all to keep looking, to imagine what if. Performances are understated allowing the plot to drive them forward in a confusing situation that just moves along building up the emotionally power and sense of wonder about what is to come. A sensitive translation of parental grief to a sci-fi setting that works for all, you’d have to be heartless not to be moved by this film.


Neither Wolf Nor Dog (2016)


There are very few pro Native American films and when they are you really have to check who the filmmakers agenda’s. Are they trying project progressive position that respects these native nations. For the best part of a century their cinematic depiction has been bordering on poor to racist at times. Rarely do we get to see a fully fleshed portrait of any of those Nations. It seems they will always be portrayed as the victims in need of help from the white man. That happens to a degree in Neither Wolf Nor Dog (2016) however you have to go beyond that initial position. Based on the premise for author Kent Nerburn who wrote the book of the same name published in 1994. Who has stayed on to write the screenplay we have maintained and honest look at the making of the film. It doesn’t sugar coat or deal with cliche’s that we associate with Native Americans.

I came to this film having read a few books already from their perspective. A few of those have been based on recommendations from authors and even Natives themselves to broaden my understanding of their position today. After reading I can understand how they resist “Getting with the programme” position, it ignores a whole history, upheaval and near eradication of a whole race. There was never a political policy of genocide, i my reading it was a combination of racism, poor military control and a deep seated hatred nationally towards the aboriginal culture of North America. It’s these actions that have left an understandably bad taste in those nations now cooped up on the worst or remains of the open land that they now call home. The reservations which are now home to 2% of the American population that, living on 1.3% of that land. I could go on saying how screwed over they are but I’d be preaching to the converted.

Neither Wolf Nor Dog (2016) has one position – to retell the origins and the writing of Nerburn’s book, giving Dan (Dave Bald Eagle) and other Lakota Sioux living on Lone Pine Reservation, California. If anything there’s a shifting of positions going on and an awakening to understand the other. Nerburn known for an earlier work that came out of an open collaboration on another reservation, Dan requests that the author come and visit his home in the hopes of writing his peoples history. Much like John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks. Ironically for the Native History to reach a wide audience it takes a white man to pen the memoir. But it’s more than that, it’s a history of a people that is finally being put on the record. If History is thought to be written by the victors, what happens to the losers, who records events from their perspective?

At first Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney) is apprehensive to take on such a task, at this point he’s not made a career as a writer. How can he record the history of a culture without fully understanding them. He enters a state of writers block before coming back with a trite introduction that uses all the possible cliches in the book. He misses the point completely offending those who he’s trying to represent. What follows is a really hard journey lead by Dan’s nephew Grover (Richard Ray Whitman) who pushes him to his limits of mental strength to understand the culture and those around him. For the audience – mostly white and British in my screen, we were on the same journey of discovery. Just what are we supposed to see in order to understand and properly engage with Native Americans.

It takes a long road trip through what remains of Lakota country for Nerburn to him to start reaching his enlightened state to write his book. Spending time immersed with Dan’s family. Not just the standard tribal traditions that films have depicted countless times before. Instead showing him the reality of life on the Res. I knew of the alcoholism and wide-spread poverty that is synonymous with the Reservations of the U.S. The author is not a passing tourist or a missionary trying to help them. If he wants to write about them he really has to be coming from their perspective.

Neither Wolf Nor Dog finely balances black comedy with the heavy hand of history hanging on the other side. There’s no running from the facts, the battles and mistreatments of their ancestors. They are dealt with sensitively and more importantly from Native perspective, which really matters here. Without lecturing the audience, who were probably aware of at least some of this awful history. Putting a human face on it makes one hell of a difference.

The budget has been spent primarily on the script that holds this cheap film together. Sweeney delivers a decent performance as the frustrated writer. It’s the Natives that really are the heart and soul of the film. Without a feather or dance in sight, both Whitman and especially Dave Bald Eagle who brings with him a charming sense of comedic timing, the wise old elder that finely balances the comic and more tragic moments. He’s one of the last links to a history that if not recorded will be lost forever. If anything I now want to read the book that inspired the film to see how this journey translated from word of mouth, the traditional the preferred method of carrying on their history. Now that history can be shared with a wider more ignorant audience willing to learn of an often overlooked people.