Film

Top 10 of 2021: MOVIES

Happy New Year!

I’m starting 2022 by looking back at my top 10 choices for the best movies of 2021, the year in which we rebounded from the ever present Covid threat by returning to cinemas, allowing us to experience the kinds of pictures we were spared of in 2020.

It’s been a fascinating year and, as always, film choices subjectively differ among many a reviewer. Here were the pictures that both affected me the most, and seemed to contain the greatest artistic measure, from 10 through to number 1.

Would love to know your thoughts as to your top 10 choices…

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Film, Writing

Film Review: DUNE – Part One (2021)

Fear that Dune might not meet expectations was, for a long time, the mind killer. Thankfully, that slow death has not come to pass.

Much has been written, on an anxious level, suggesting that the much-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel should not have been divided into two-parts, a la the recent take on Stephen King’s It, for fear that Dune’s first half might underperform and thereby leave this magisterial tale unfinished. Regardless of box office, one wonders as to the logic of this thought process. Dune has quite clearly been devised, soup to nuts, as a two-part project, and Denis Villeneuve here takes the time he needs to both construct the world around the desert planet Arrakis and the central story of young Paul Atredies with two films in mind. This is not the complete Dune. This is, to quote Zendaya’s Chani, “only the beginning”.

In that sense, we have to approach Dune as such, and judge Part One on the merits of being an incomplete story. Perhaps the greatest strength of this first half is that it contains a beginning, middle and end that satisfies, even while concluding with everything but a ‘to be continued’ legend. Villeneuve successfully manages to introduce Herbert’s vast, complicated futuristic universe, and establish the broader narrative concepts and themes, while providing a rounded cinematic experience. For the first of a two-part story, this is no mean feat, and his achievement lies as deeply in a visual and auditory as it does a structural sense. Dune is a frequently breathtaking, often arresting feast for the eyes which warrants the format it was designed to embrace – IMAX.

It is rare to find filmmaking so assured, so cohesive and so faithful to deeply beloved and classical source material while at the same time providing such a cinematic experience. Dune is a stunning piece of work in that context, one that could well be for the ages.

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Film, Writing

Film Retrospective: HANNIBAL (2001)

20 years on from the year 2001, I’m looking back at some of the films across the year which stood out as among the more interesting, and year-defining, pictures…

This week, released on the weekend of February 9th, Ridley Scott’s Hannibal

One of the more telling aspects about Hannibal’s occasionally troublesome production is the fact that almost nobody, outside of director Ridley Scott and producer Dino de Laurentiis, truly believed in the story.

Released in 1999, Thomas Harris’ sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, which took him over a decade, was more than highly anticipated, thanks in no small part to Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation released that same year, 1988. Due to whip smart, suspenseful direction from Demme and memorable turns from Jodie Foster and especially Anthony Hopkins as the eponymous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs swiftly established itself in popular culture as a tense piece of modern, procedural, psychological horror, inspiring future cultural phenomenon’s such as The X-Files and establishing its main female lead as a feminist heroine.

The moment Harris elected to devise a trilogy around Lecter, which became eventually a ‘quadrilogy’, the film adaptation was a foregone conclusion. Hopkins had won an Oscar for his deliciously unnerving, playful performance, revitalising his career in a stroke. The film launched Demme into the big leagues and even boosted the already successful Foster’s career. Lambs became one of the signature, iconic pictures of the 1980s, which meant any follow up would be overcome by a weight of expectation, as befits any sequel to a beloved movie or property long after the fact.

What surprised everyone involved, however, was Harris’ story for Hannibal.

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One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

TV Review: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Return of the Speckled Band’ (1×06)

As befits the traditional sitcom format, particularly the British sitcom format, the final Series 1 episode of One Foot in the Grave comes with no great moment of cathartic realisation for Victor Meldrew. Life goes on.

Whether the series would go on at this point was an open question. Critics remained divided, as they had been all series, about whether One Foot would become a classic or be consigned to the far more cluttered wrecking yard of failed British sitcoms. This being the era before online discourse, it was down to the print newspaper and their in-house critics to gauge the pulse of comedy, and while papers such as the Daily Mirror, the now-defunct Today or the Daily Express were favourable come the end of Series 1, others such as the Independent or the Daily Telegraph were quite the opposite. Christopher Tookey in the latter remarked that he felt the series offered “in general, a distorted and depressingly old-fashioned view of old age”.

The irony is that The Return of the Speckled Band might actually be the funniest half hour of the series so far. While by no means vintage One Foot, it certainly feels like David Renwick manages to latch here onto several strong comedic threads and take them to some satisfying conclusions, in a manner the previous five scripts never quite managed to do. Two that stand out in particular are the recurring problem of the hat palmed off on Victor that he tries to rid himself of but keeps coming back to him, and Mrs Warboys with her chronic sickness which intertwines with what otherwise would have been an enormously random narrative of an escaped python quite brilliantly. We haven’t quite seen Renwick weave his plots this skilfully yet in One Foot, and it displays what the series is capable of.

The Return of the Speckled Band also, in a relatively quiet fashion, dovetails with the opening episode of the series in suggesting Victor is trapped in an existential spiral he can never quite escape.

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One Foot in the Grave, TV, Writing

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Return of the Speckled Band’ (1×06 – Series Retrospective #6)

30 years old in 2020, I’m going to look at David Renwick’s unique British sitcom One Foot in the Grave to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most innovative comedy series of all time…

We continue by looking at the sixth and final episode of the first series, The Return of the Speckled Band, which first aired on February 8th, 1990…

As befits the traditional sitcom format, particularly the British sitcom format, the final Series 1 episode of One Foot in the Grave comes with no great moment of cathartic realisation for Victor Meldrew. Life goes on.

Whether the series would go on at this point was an open question. Critics remained divided, as they had been all series, about whether One Foot would become a classic or be consigned to the far more cluttered wrecking yard of failed British sitcoms. This being the era before online discourse, it was down to the print newspaper and their in-house critics to gauge the pulse of comedy, and while papers such as the Daily Mirror, the now-defunct Today or the Daily Express were favourable come the end of Series 1, others such as the Independent or the Daily Telegraph were quite the opposite. Christopher Tookey in the latter remarked that he felt the series offered “in general, a distorted and depressingly old-fashioned view of old age”.

The irony is that The Return of the Speckled Band might actually be the funniest half hour of the series so far. While by no means vintage One Foot, it certainly feels like David Renwick manages to latch here onto several strong comedic threads and take them to some satisfying conclusions, in a manner the previous five scripts never quite managed to do. Two that stand out in particular are the recurring problem of the hat palmed off on Victor that he tries to rid himself of but keeps coming back to him, and Mrs Warboys with her chronic sickness which intertwines with what otherwise would have been an enormously random narrative of an escaped python quite brilliantly. We haven’t quite seen Renwick weave his plots this skilfully yet in One Foot, and it displays what the series is capable of.

The Return of the Speckled Band also, in a relatively quiet fashion, dovetails with the opening episode of the series in suggesting Victor is trapped in an existential spiral he can never quite escape.

Continue reading “ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE – ‘The Return of the Speckled Band’ (1×06 – Series Retrospective #6)”

Film, Writing

“Am I Not Merciful?!” GLADIATOR, Commodus and the Rise of the Populists

With Gladiator celebrating 20 years since it was released, I had some additional thoughts about the character of Commodus, expanding on my recent piece covering the film as part of my 2000 In Film series
We live in an age of populists. I’m sure you could name a few. A mixture of entertainment capitalists in the West and dictators in the East, with a few tinpot warlords in Africa and corrupt family dynasties in the Middle East. Sprinkled in between that are a few genuine democracies, sure, but the 21st century is not flying the flag for government by the people, for the people. I wonder, in part, if Gladiator saw this coming.
I wrote recently about the film as part of my 2000 In Film series, looking back the number one box office hits in Hollywood that are not a princely twenty years old, and in that piece I wondered about whether the villain Commodus reflected certain 21st century political anxieties that were facing down America at the turn of the millennium. The parallels between a particular US President, if you strip away the ancient Roman details, are quite striking. Yet Commodus as a character, and what he represents, goes beyond one man. He speaks to the rise of a leader who builds his strength and reputation not on trust, not on his own personal record or success, but on how he can make the people love him.

Populists are, at the heart, complete narcissists. The very nature of the word ‘popular’ stems from the Latin and has a strong connection, in fact, to Rome. The adjective populāris is described as “pertaining to all or most of the people, belonging to or used by the common people (as opposed to the military, the aristocracy, or the senators)”, and that sums Commodus up to a tee. He seeks absolute rule, backed by the military, yes, and supported by the Senate, sure, but has a leader he does not expect to be beholden to any of them. They, and by definition the people they support, are designed to support *him*, and if they don’t they, like Maximus, are considered a threat to Rome, and by extention to “the people”.
In that, we can see strong parallels between the world Commodus wanted to create in Gladiator and the political landscape of the early 21st century.
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2000 in Film, Film, Writing

GLADIATOR: an epic, bravura examination of Pax Americana (2000 in Film #18)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of May 5th, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator

One of the defining films of the 2000’s, Gladiator might also be the first epic piece of blockbuster American cinema released in the 21st century.

It had been decades since Hollywood had produced a film like Ridley Scott gives us here. The sword and sandals epic went out with the birth of the New Hollywood movement in the late 1960’s, which swopped the pomp and exuberance of languid historical epics such as The Fall of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra, even Stanley Kubrick’s superior Spartacus, for a leaner, grittier and more contemporary cinematic aesthetic. By the time cinema once again dipped its toe in grand storytelling, the blockbuster gave birth to fantasy, science-fiction and adventure which, again, put paid to audiences wanting to see large scale historical recreations of the ancient world. A decade earlier, Gladiator would have struggled to even be made.

Stepping into the new millennium, Scott nevertheless saw an opportunity, as DreamWorks pictures believed there was the space to develop a revision, a reimagining, of such classical Hollywood storytelling for a new age. Saving Private Ryan two years earlier, which revolutionised how to depict the visceral nature of World War Two, arguably inspired how Scott and DreamWorks envisaged bringing the harsh world of the ancient Roman Empire to life; a world filled with war, bloodshed and a copious lack of sanctity for human life in the face of a populous bating for blood. The space was created for the very Spartacus-influenced tale of Maximus Decimus Meridius, the beloved Roman General who sees his family murdered by envious new Emperor Commodus, before slaying his executioners and fighting his way up through the gladiatorial pits of Rome to challenge the very notion of Empire itself.

What strikes me, looking back with two decades distance, is not just how impressive Gladiator remains in vision and scope, even if at times it falls into melodrama, but how it speaks even more potently now than then about what the film was really about: America at the end of the 20th century. It continues the refraction we have seen thus far in 2000 in American cinema about the nation’s legacy and place in the world.

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Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt VIII – ‘By the Book’

As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

One of the key aspects to the character arc of James T. Kirk across The Wrath of Khan is how he, as Dr. McCoy puts it toward the beginning, hides behind rules and regulations as a way of insulating himself from his own lack of inertia. Following the Reliant’s ambush, and the death of young a Starfleet crewmen who represent the next generation, Kirk has nowhere else to hide.

It has been oft-discussed in analysing Star Trek about how frequently the Captain of the ship puts himself in unnecessary risk. Jean-Luc Picard jokes in Star Trek: Nemesis how his first officer, Will Riker, is a “tyrannical martinet” for never allowing him on away missions. By that point, Star Trek can laugh at its own history, across multiple series and Captains, of the figurehead throwing themselves into the fray – and this is precisely what Kirk does once the Enterprise reaches space station Regula 1, upon hearing no word from Carol Marcus or her people.

Across The Wrath of Khan, Kirk has been challenged by regulations, or he has enforced them with company drills or refusing to take command from Spock upon joining them for the training cruise, and the green, curious Lieutenant Saavik has been there repeatedly to query any attempts to not go “by the book”, as Spock later describes it. Saavik here quotes General Order Fifteen: “No flag officer shall beam into a hazardous area without armed escort” as a justification for joining the away mission, and Kirk knows in this case she is not going by the book herself.

You sense in Nicholas Meyer’s writing a clear distrust of extreme, enforced regulation. Once Kirk throws those self-enforced shackles off, he starts to rediscover the swagger and humour he displayed in The Original Series. He begins to embrace that deeper humanity, even in the face of the kind of chilling horror he encounters on Regula 1.

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