Film, James Bond, Partisan Cinema

Partisan Cinema: OCTOPUSSY (1983) – From Orlov to Putin

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, I look at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Just this last weekend, as of writing, I ticked another milestone off my cinematic bucket list. In this case, it was watching Octopussy on the big screen.

Much like catching Pokemon, my intent is to try and see every James Bond film on a cinema screen across my lifetime, especially those which were released before my birth. Octopussy was the first Bond movie filmed after I was born, shot during the same summer I came into the world: 1982. The 13th Bond film, and Roger Moore’s penultimate outing, Octopussy is considered outside of 007 die hards such as myself a cinematic relic. It would never make any film critics list of the greatest Bond pictures. For many, it is a creaking, close to pastiche example of Bond lethargy as Moore’s ageing lothario limped toward old age.

While especially catching it on a broader canvas made apparent that John Glen’s picture is rather critically underrated, and deserved of some level of reappreciation, Octopussy also stands out on a political level. Though 007 producer supremo Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli might have long protested that the Bond pictures were apolitical, he was lying to himself first and foremost. Every single one of them made before 1995 reflected the Cold War, with Octopussy no exception. Yet in this film, the political scheming by forces within the Soviet Union, Britain and Bond’s seemingly eternal geopolitical nemesis, is far more overt thanks to the inclusion of one character: General Orlov.

Looking back now, long after the end of the Cold War, with almost 40 years distance, what fascinates is not just how much Orlov stands as an artefact of a lost era, but rather how his Russian zealotry makes Octopussy far more relevant in 2022 than anyone might have expected.

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Causality Loop, Star Trek: Picard

Causality Loop: Schrödinger’s Guinan in STAR TREK: PICARD

In this semi-regular column looking at time travel in fiction, Causality Loop explores the interesting paradox of the Guinan character in the recent second season of Star Trek: Picard

BEWARE SPOILERS for Picard Season 2.

A tried and tested Star Trek trope, time travel is the principal gambit behind the second season of sequel series Picard.

The mechanics of how it works are largely a magical combination of Star Trek mechanisms, from the slingshot effect around the Sun first seen in 1986’s fourth movie with The Original Series crew, The Voyage Home, with a liberal dose at the same time of the Borg Queen’s temporal vortex abilities we saw in the Next Generation’s second film First Contact. It’s all designed deliberately to evoke the nostalgia of those earlier means of time travel without needing to delve into any kind of logical temporal theory.

Where things get complicated is over the question of Guinan. One of TNG’s most beloved supporting characters, played with enduring mystery by Whoopi Goldberg since the late 1980s, we see her return in season premiere The Star Gazer in the early 25th century before, once the La Sirena crew go back to the year 2024, she gets a new bit of youthful casting in Ito Aghayere, portraying a Guinan who hasn’t yet met Jean-Luc Picard in the early 21st century.

Does this contradict Star Trek canon and the established timeline? Possibly. Possibly not. Let’s just call her, for now, Schrödinger’s Guinan.

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Season Reviews, The Pentaverate, TV

THE PENTAVERATE is a kind but comically calamitous relic of a bygone age (TV Review)

The funniest thing about The Pentaverate is the timing of its arrival for Netflix, given how under the kosh they currently are in terms of value for money.

Recent reports have seen Netflix’s stock value plummet following news that they have lost a considerable subscriber base as the ‘streaming wars’ heat up with a consolidated Disney and Amazon, a critically rising Apple, and a looming WarnerMedia on the horizon. All media analysis points to one conclusion – Netflix might still be top dog but they can no longer rest on their laurels. Content is not simply enough any longer. Their strategy of throwing as much as they can at the streaming wall and seeing what sticks is not generating them dozens of Stranger Things’ or Bridgerton’s. What they’re ending with up too often is projects like The Pentaverate.

No one is likely to dispute that Mike Myers is funny or certainly has been funny. Wayne’s World has aged well and is now considered by many as a cult comedy classic of the early 90s. Austin Powers, while broader, albeit just as hit and miss, landed squarely inside the ‘Cool Britannia’ fondness for the 1960s that came to bear in the late 1990s, fondly lampooning the James Bond series and 60s cultural norms with great success. Myers is a one-trick pony in many ways but you know what you’ll get – cheeky charm, irreverent asides, teenage boy scatological set pieces and gurning, cod-Spitting Image caricature. You’ll either go in for that or you won’t and The Pentaverate is entirely more of the same.

The difference is that in the age of Netflix, of streaming, Myers’ repertoire of jokes is rapidly wearing thin.

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Season Reviews, Star Trek: Picard, TV

STAR TREK: PICARD (Season 2) is a frustrating, contrived wallow in nostalgia

If ever proof were needed that the writers and producers of modern Star Trek study what audiences think and feel about their shows, then Star Trek: Picard’s second season is most assuredly it.

The first season was a defiant aberration even in the context of Star Trek’s modernisation. Ostensibly a character study, the first Star Trek series directly focused on a popular icon from the broader franchise, Picard was deliberate in just how determinedly it refused to play to the gallery of Star Trek expectations. We only saw Starfleet and the Federation in passing and they were reconceptualised, in the wake of the Trump Administration, as at best an insular, ignorant organisation driven by paranoia, at worst an openly corrupt government. There was no glistening starship our characters travelled on. No exploring new worlds.

This made sense, in broad strokes, given what Picard was designed to explore. Sir Patrick Stewart agreed only to return for a deconstruction of his legendary Enterprise Captain; aged, lost at the end of a century he no longer recognises, haunted by his inability to save a population formerly made up of ideological enemies from a natural catastrophe. Surrounding him with newly invented characters, placing him far from the world of Starfleet he was so closely associated with, the first season of Picard worked to take Jean-Luc on a journey to rediscover the spirit he had lost. A dark series, it dared to suggest the 24th century future fans had imagined after Star Trek: Nemesis was quite different from what would have been expected.

Which, in part, is why Season 2 immediately reverses track. Star Trek: Picard gives in to audience expectation, maybe even pressure, to try and tap not just a 1990s but also 1980s nostalgia for the franchise. It largely fails at both.

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Chivalry, Season Reviews, TV

CHIVALRY squanders the chance to decrypt misogyny & abuse in the entertainment landscape (TV Review)

#MeToo changed everything, certainly in terms of entertainment. Chivalry ostensibly has been designed to explore a landscape that was inch by inch evolving past ingrained sexism and exploitation but the hashtagged movement shoved over an enormous cliff.

It was a reckoning for the entertainment world a long time coming. Rocked in Britain at least by the even more ghoulish Operation Yewtree at the start of the decade, as long-standing national treasures were steadily outed as systemic child sex abusers following the horror of Jimmy Savile (which Chivalry co-star Steve Coogan will soon explore in The Reckoning, playing the monster himself), it was #MeToo that went global following the exposure of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein as a rapist and sex abuser of aspiring, and successful, actresses across decades. The floodgates opened.

Sarah Solemani, the co-star and writer opposite Coogan of Chivalry, has herself described instances where she too was objectified and potentially exploited by men in power (one anecdote recalls an unnamed fifty something director asking her youthful self to strip at a dinner to prove she was happy with on screen nudity), so she writes and portrays up and coming arthouse director Bobby from a position of understanding. She’s a woman in the entertainment industry – she’s been there. Which is why what Chivalry becomes across these six episodes is rather bizarre, given how it starts from a position of exciting, fresh and incisive comedy potential, and completely squanders it.

In short, Chivalry is two shows. The first is the one it promises to be. The second is the very cliche it has presumably been designed to deconstruct.

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Film, Reviews

THE BUBBLE is a vapid mid-pandemic dearth of wit or ingenuity

We haven’t quite entered the post-pandemic phase of movie making either creatively or indeed in how storytelling and Covid intersect. The Bubble, for our sins, will go down on record as one of the first examples.

Conventional wisdom since 2020 has been that audiences wouldn’t want to see Covid-19 reflected on cinema screens or generally in entertainment and are reaching for escapism. The world is too grim, too real, too tragic and desperate, that we want movies, TV and so on to not remind us of that. Rentals of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion might have spiked during lockdown but only thanks to how prophetic it turned out to be. Audiences, at that stage, the thinking went, didn’t want to see Covid beyond news pieces.

The climate now has started to change. Soderbergh’s Kimi, for instance, recently gave us a de Palma-style taut thriller in the shadow of the pandemic. Filmmakers and creatives are beginning to appreciate the possibilities, as Covid evolves into a virus the West learns to live with and adapt to, in reflecting how the pandemic has perhaps permanently changed our psychology, our habits, our world. We can likely expect across this decade a raft of projects that shine a light on Covid in myriad ways, be it drama, horror, science-fiction and, yes, comedy.

Which brings us back to The Bubble, a film that would not exist were it not for Covid. Another thing we have the virus to blame for.

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Essays, TV

We Are Like the Dreamers: Experiencing TWIN PEAKS

“The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art”. So said Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, and while she isn’t referencing Twin Peaks, her medication on perception is key to the experience of watching this unique, mind-bending series.

Many people I know have a long association with Twin Peaks to a degree I never have. They watched it either in subsequent decades since it premiered in 1990 or even perhaps at the time on ABC latterly BBC2 in the U.K., where it ran as a two season cult hit that though failing to be renewed, latched onto the public and cultural consciousness and never quite let go. I was just seven years old when David Lynch & Mark Frost’s series arrived, too young to step into the Black Lodge as a viewer but old enough to feel its existence somehow.

During the 1990s, Twin Peaks became an American import that was discussed in hushed tones as a modern classic, something dark, horrific and deeply strange, almost akin to the boom in schlock horror of the period where VHS tapes were king and satellite broadcasts were just penetrating the mainstream. It was not long afterward, around 1995, that I discovered The X-Files—still a lifelong passion—without truly understanding as a teenager the pervasive effect FBI Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation into the death of teenager Laura Palmer had on the show I rapidly fell in love with.

Years went by. Decades. I watched so many series recognised as American classics, beyond my penchant for science-fiction. Breaking Bad. The Sopranos. Mad Men. The list went on. Twin Peaks lurked, however, at the back of my mind, continuing to latch on. References abounded, references I didn’t get. And when the series came back in 2017 for The Return, a long gestated third season, I missed the boat. Was I afraid of it? Was it just too legendary, too impenetrable? Was I terrified it wouldn’t match the expectations?

Last year, the time came, during the second Covid-19 lockdown. It was time to walk with fire. It was time to order some cherry pie. It was time to let the past dictate the future.

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Film, Reviews

DEEP WATER un-erotically fails to recharge a lost genre

If there is a film genre that has gone the way of the dodo in recent years, it is the erotic thriller which Deep Water director Adrian Lyne practically solo-propagated between the 1980s-1990s.

He lensed some of the best and most renowned. Fatal Attraction, probably the signature example of the genre that isn’t Basic Instinct. 9 & 1/2 Weeks which turned Kim Basinger into the Hollywood sex symbol of that decade. Indecent Proposal, which did similar for Demi Moore at the turn of the 90s. They are films which even if people haven’t seen these days, they are ubiquitous cultural touchstones within cinema that recall a different age. You might have flickering memories of Moore being seduced over a pool table or Glenn Close the bunny boiler.

Lyne last made a film, a lesser well known vehicle in the genre called Unfaithful, twenty years ago exactly, at a time not just cinema but media at large was undergoing the early beginnings of the metamorphosis we have seen in the 21st century. Some critics have suggested the decline of the erotic thriller, both Lyne’s classier big budget efforts but equally a litany of cheap, fairly sleazy soft core knocks offs which now litter Amazon Prime Video, was down to the internet’s proliferation and liberation of pornography out of the back alley stores and onto people’s desktops and laptops.

There could well be some truth to this. Are we aroused in the same way as we enter the 2020s? Lyne’s return with Deep Water looks to answer this question.

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Film, Reviews

FRESH is a ghoulish gourmet of dating horror

Online dating has been ripe for the horror treatment for a good few years now and while Fresh takes an, if you will, fresh approach to such a world, it builds on pictures that came before.

Go as far back as 1999 and you have Takashi Miike’s Audition, which surely put a legion of would-be romantics off seeking solace in dating websites ever again. 2017 was a banner year for this, giving us It Follows, where Maika Monroe is punished for sexual freedom by a terrifying force, and also Get Out where Daniel Kaluyya’s online-met girlfriend turns out to be part of a deeply white supremacist American family. To date online in the world of cinema, outside of the rom com, is to abandon hope all ye who enter.

Fresh, therefore, becomes part of a lexicon of films that square the focus on the peril young women face from not just online dating but toxic misogyny and the underlying fear that men are dangerous. As a fellow captive tells Daisy Edgar-Jones’ unlucky in love Noa, “it’s not our fault… it is always theirs…”. Mimi Cave’s directorial debut nonetheless takes a scalpel to what could have been a rather dour and conventional, exploitative tale and peppers it with strangely romantic & twisted black comic gusto.

Even if it doesn’t turn you off online dating forever, it might make you think twice about swiping right next time.

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Film, Reviews

THE ADAM PROJECT is the derivative, sentimental Netflix algorithm hard at work.

We sure did something to warrant two films in the space of a year starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Shawn Levy, but what that is remains an open question.

The Adam Project arrives hot foot in the wake of Free Guy which, last summer, projected Reynolds into the virtual reality world of a plucky NPC who gains self-awareness, free to evolve into a slick action badass able to win the heart of Jodie Comer’s gamer girl. Free Guy had something of an old-school blockbuster about it, fuelled up with 21st century visual aesthetics, and though not always successful in the ambition it had, Reynolds was compelling and enjoyable in a role that, to a degree, cast him against type.

Arguably, ever since Deadpool turbocharged his career after the failure of Green Lantern and a fairly plodding cycle of comedies and action vehicles, Reynolds has understood that the best on-screen persona is one combining his natural propensity for all-American sarcasm with an ironic self-deprecation, even geeky subtext, which endears him to an audience beyond his matinee idol good looks. Levy understood this equation in Free Guy. He doesn’t quite get it with The Adam Project in the same way.

This is not as successful or interesting a film. Indeed, The Adam Project is yet another example of how the Netflix algorithm just isn’t to be trusted.

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