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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Film, Reviews

THE BATMAN thrillingly provides a Gotham and Dark Knight for a whole new generation

There was a moment during The Batman in which it became clear the film was a great piece of cinema.

Following an attack that almost kills him, Batman is cornered by aggressive police officers looking to blame him for the Riddler’s reign of terror before he is assisted in an escape in which he rappels up through Gotham PD headquarters, crashing through to the roof before he abseils down into the murky city below. In and of itself, this could be a sequence from any Batman film since 1989 but it was the point where it dawned on me just how well Matt Reeves’ latest take on the Caped Crusader was working.

Because, let’s be honest, everything was stacked against this. DC Comics, one or two outliers aside, have had a torrid time of it in cinematic terms since the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s towering Dark Knight trilogy a decade ago. Ben Affleck essayed a fine Bruce Wayne across two (and a bit) dreadful Zach Snyder-led movies but Batman remained in the shadow of Nolan’s modernistic take on Gotham’s corruption and Bruce’s tragic heroic myth that felt, in many respects, quite definitive. There are always fresh avenues to take with a hero who has frequently reinvented himself but where could you go after those films and it have the same scale and impact was the burning question.

Snyder’s answer was bigger, louder and universal. Reeves provides a more satisfying response with The Batman by far.

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Season Reviews, TV

THE FEAR INDEX is a dry, melodramatic trudge through capitalist cliches

The Fear Index suffers from a difficult to resolve problem, namely: how do you make a show about arrogant, super rich people and it be in any way relatable to the audience?

Robert Harris is one of my favourite novelists of all time. Most of his works have been adapted for the big or small screen and continue to be – most recently Netflix’s Munich: The Edge of War (suffix added to distinguish it from the Steven Spielberg thriller, most likely). Yet I’m hard pressed to remember an adaptation of his work that matched the compressed thrills inherent in the way Harris tells his stories. Many of the screen versions of his books are austere and impersonal, not to mention staid.

I’ll say this for The Fear Index – it is never staid. Across four episodes telling the story of Dr. Alex Hoffman, a genius hedge fund billionaire in Geneva who, following an attack in his home, begins to uncover a strange conspiracy against him which leads increasingly back to himself, The Fear Index uses a contained, just over 24 hour time frame to its advantage in throwing Hoffman into a series of increasingly ridiculous situations that stretch credulity.

This isn’t exactly praise but while The Fear Index is not really any good, it is at least never entirely dull.

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Season Reviews, TV

THIS IS GOING TO HURT makes you feel the pain, humour and tragedy of modern British healthcare

Have we reached the point yet where we can collectively agree that the ‘clap for the NHS’ phenomenon during the height of the Covid pandemic was a tokenistic gesture at best? This Is Going to Hurt really brings home how unintentionally insulting our efforts were.

Not that Adam Kay’s adaptation of his best-selling memoir of the same name directly covers these events, or even references Covid, but across seven episodes it rather brilliantly brings home the stark reality of just what the National Health Service does on a daily basis. To say doctors, nurses, clinical staff and more go above and beyond is an incredible understatement. Kay’s series presents them, undoubtedly accurately, as modern heroes fighting against a system driving them into the ground.

One might suspect the resulting series would be a highly depressing journey through the darkest corners of hospital life but This Is Going to Hurt is no bleak episode of Casualty or existential hour of Holby City. Kay’s show manages to accomplish what his memoir did in balancing the melancholic and downright despairing with the deeply hilarious. His series can veer from razor sharp wit all the way to tragic, shocking consequences in a heartbeat, and does so without ever missing a step.

It is, quite simply, one of the finest depictions of the NHS we have perhaps ever seen on screen.

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Season Reviews, TV

THE BOOK OF BOBA FETT should have stayed in the Sarlacc Pit

Set to go down in television history as one of the most bizarre misfires in the streaming era, The Book of Boba Fett is both simultaneously absolutely fascinating and profoundly dull.

That is quite some trick from the creative forces within the Disney Star Wars family, who since LucasFilm was bought out in 2012 and the biggest science-fiction franchise in history was revived as one of the dominant multimedia IP’s, have presided over a distinctly mixed bag of content. For every The Force Awakens, you end up with what previously might have been termed a Rise of Skywalker, and from now on could well be designated as a Book of Boba Fett.

Quite how they managed to so staggeringly get this wrong is perhaps the biggest mystery about the whole project. It was steered by Jon Favreau, the primary mastermind behind The Mandalorian which, despite the flaws that show does have, is probably outside of The Last Jedi the most broadly critically acclaimed piece of modern Star Wars that we’ve seen produced, which has managed to seep into popular geek culture relatively swiftly. Star Wars stalwarts such as Dave Filoni are involved. Seasoned directors such as Robert Rodriguez. All of the creative building blocks are in place.

This is without even mentioning that the show is about Boba Fett. Is there, outside of Darth Vader, a masked character in pop culture history, certainly in the Star Wars universe, who has been so mythologised in the last 40+ years? So how, exactly, has his first significant dramatic storyline been so utterly, completely botched?

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Film, Reviews

DEATH ON THE NILE takes us on a pretty but vacant mystery tour

In some ways, Death on the Nile feels like a film that came out years ago.

Originally slated to arrive ‘P-C’, ‘Pre-Covid’, in December 2019, a slew of delays followed as the pandemic rocked the cinematic world and further pushed back Kenneth Branagh’s follow up adventure as the self-styled ‘world’s greatest detective’ Hercule Poirot, after his successful and largely critically praised debut in Murder on the Orient Express, until finally it has arrived—perhaps more appropriately—on Valentine’s weekend some two and half years, almost, late.

The project since then has been lurking in the press for all of the wrong reasons, be it Gal Gadot’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflictArmie Hammer’s blacklisting thanks to some troubling sexual peccadilloesor Letitia Wright spouting full blown anti-vaccination nonsense (which she denies). Some even wondered if the film would ever see the cinematic light of day or end up sent to the streaming doldrums of Disney+ as some kind of ‘premier exclusive’. Perhaps wisely, perhaps not, that didn’t happen.

Branagh’s film is undeniably a cinematic experience but that, nor the delay, prevent the finished product being a frustrating disappointment.

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