Film review – Alien (Director’s Cut) (Ridley Scott, 1979)

I’m not sure exactly when I first saw Alien. I’m sure I was far too young. I know this because I remember I was really sad I couldn’t see Alien 3 at the cinema. I’ve calculated that I was eight years old at the time. Why was I gutted? Because I’d already seen the first two films and didn’t want to wait.

Yes, that’s right. Somehow either my mum was supremely lenient or we pulled a fast one on her and managed to get a VHS copy of both films.

Looking back on the 1979 debut, it’s easy to see what the appeal was for a eight-year-old. Sure, the heart of the film lies in a character-driven plot and it’s powered by Scott’s unwavering ability to build suspense. At the time I wasn’t sat there thinking “Well, Parker and Brett have an agenda now because of this pay dispute, so this is going to get really interesting.” No. I was looking at the alien, the guns, the space travel and the explosions.

All of these things are, unquestionably, of great appeal to a child. Or, at least, they were to this child.


It was great, then, to finally see this masterpiece of cinema on the big screen as part of Alien Day. As an adult. And, completing the circle, with my mum as well. 

It’s a film that deserves to be seen on the big sceeen, away from disturbances that home viewing might detract from the experience. 

The film was originally released in 1979, in the midst of the wave of hysteria for space-based films created by Star Wars. However, it is very much the antethesis of the 1977 space opera. The distant past setting is replaced with a not-too-distant future. The bright and open planets are replaced with a singular, isolated spaceship. The droids played for light relief are dropped in favour of a malfunctioning synthetic human with a hidden agenda.

Indeed, whilst the film may have seemed like a lucrative prospect for 20th Century Fox after Star Wars, Alien owes a lot more to films like Jaws or Forbidden Planet in both tone and pacing.

It is a film about isolation, playing on the claustrophobia of being trapped in the middle of nowhere and allowing your survival instincts to take over. 


Jerry Goldsmith’s score, conducted by Lionel Newman and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, may be one of the most perfectly-suited film scores ever crafted. It starts off exactly where the audience do at the beginning of the film – somewhere between romanticism and intrigue. As the horror unfolds, the score increases in intensity and loses any sweetness it ever had, heightening every moment we see on screen.

The set design and the Alien itself was famously designed by surrealist artist H. R. Giger. It’s as iconic as the film itself, critical to the story and heightening the horror when we eventually see the creature fully formed in the final act of the film.

It was a hard act to follow and they’ve spent 38 years trying to reach the heights of the original film. James Cameron’s sequel may be preferred by some, but for me you simply can’t compare that to the original. They are in the same universe but are completely different genres, one wrapped in suspense and the other all-out action.

Film review – Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927)

For all its technological achievements and successes as a great tale, William A. Wellman’s 1927 cinematic epic is remembered for one thing – it’s the first film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

The ceremony was far removed from what we know today. The winners were announced three months before the ceremony and it was a much smaller affair than the modern interpretation, with the awarding of prizes taking around fifteen minutes to complete. Wings actually won a prize called “Outstanding Picture”, later renamed to Best Film, making it famous at the expense of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The latter won the similarly-named “Unique and Artistic Picture” on the same night, though on the night it is unlikely this was treated as a runner-up prize.

Wings concerns two love rivals – Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) – who are fighting for the attention and affection of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Jack’s persistence is so committed that he fails to notice his tomboyish next-door neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow), despite her continuous effort to get him to notice her. They enlist in the Air Service as trainee fighter pilots. It covers their time in World War I as they complete training, launch into their first battles and become close friends.

It is perhaps a simple plot by today’s standards, but it’s often not the premise that makes a film great but the delivery. This is close to perfection.

Films like this may have been wonders when they were released, but few stand the test of time and allow enjoyment and excitement for the viewers today. Indeed, we are now 90 years further on in cinematic technological advancements and there isn’t a single person involved with the film that is alive today.

The world of cinema should be eternally grateful that Paramount decided to invest £900,000 in restoring this picture. The results are worth considering so you know exactly what you’re seeing and hearing.

On the positive, the picture is absolutely crystal clear. Many segments of the film were unseen for years by the general public, and whenever Wings did surface it was in a severely compromised form. A duplicate negative was found in Paramount’s archives, though this too suffered from significant damage baked into the print. However, digitising the original negatives and painstakingly restoring the film has done wonders for the visual experience. Credit must be given to Executive Director of Restoration Tom Burton and the team at Technicolor Creative Services for such a wonderful result, utilising tinting techniques of the era for added authenticity.

This has been matched up with a new recording of J. S. Zamecnik’s original score by Dominik Häuser and Michael Aarvold. The score was for a 14 reel version of the film that was edited down to 13 reels for the theatrical and roadshow release. Therefore there was a portion of freedom given to the scoring pair, but it is clear the right decisions have been made at each step, as evidenced by the moving results contained on the restored masterpiece. 

Controversially, the sound features sound effects that match to the visual image. Will McKinley has written a fantastic article about the positives and negatives of this, arguing both sides of the toss in a far more eloquent way than I could manage. It’s well worth a read. For me, these additional sounds are 100% in the score and I can see the restoration team’s predicament. If they omitted them it would sound more “authentic”, but only in as much as it’s what a modern audience expects from a 1920s sound film. This score was steeped in innovation and, like the technological risks taken in shooting the visuals, was way ahead of its time. I’m happy the music sticks to the original score, and if you don’t like it you can try an alternative option on the disc (provided by Gaylord Carter), or even mute the whole thing!

Utilising the trainee pilot angle, director Wellman was able to draw on his experience as a First World War pilot to create some absolutely astonishing sequences. They were all filmed on brilliantly blue but cloudy days, which gives the planes some scale and improves the dynamic nature of the dogfights. 

There is also a cinematic first in the film, with the first onscreen man-to-man kiss. It comes in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a film. David has become stranded behind enemy lines and steals a plane to return home. Jack, already believing his friend has died, is on a suicide mission to take down as many enemy pilots as possible to help the war efforts, in careless abandonment of his own safety. Miraculously he survives his plan, shooting down innumerable enemy aircrafts. On returning, he spots one last pilot heading towards the Allied base. He goes in for the kill, without knowing that it is in fact his best friend David. When he lands and seeks the enemy to seal his victory, he realises what he has done. As David dies in Jack’s arms, the complex emotions get the better of them and there on screen is the first same-sex kiss, albeit perhaps accidental. It simply couldn’t have been cut or reshot – it’s integral to the plot and seals their respective positions in their friends’ lives.

The Masters of Cinema team are the perfect choice to take control of such a historic release. There are three bonus features on the Blu-ray disc: one covering the restoration, one that puts the flight aspects of the film into context and one that covers the legacy of the film. The accompanying booklet is full of additional information and essays on the film and director. It just fits the gravitas deserved of the film.

That we can now sit in our front rooms and see a film of this importance in such high quality is a wonderful feeling. The history of cinema is too important to simply let go. It’s fantastic that an entire new generation have the opportunity to see where cinema started and Wings certainly represents a significant piece of the puzzle.

Film review – Going in Style (Zach Braff, 2017)

Director Zach Braff’s latest comedy “Going in Style” might feel like a lighthearted caper on the surface, but there are some pretty real issues at its heart. Its three main characters are all men in retirement age who have been left without a pension fund due to a restructuring to their previous company. Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Al (Alan Arkin) decide to step out of retirement and risk what lives they have left by plotting a daring bid to knock off the very bank that absconded with their money.

The film starts off a little meek, with a bank heist that feels soft and with some forced humour. Fortunately Caine’s Joe is there to ferry us through a scene that is there out of necessity rather than for great cinema.

It doesn’t really start to make any impression until the three legends are on screen together. These are actors that have shown countless times throughout their respective careers that they can handle a rich gamut of acting styles and there is a sense of playfulness amongst them. Seeing Alan Arkin’s ridiculous run replayed on CCTV had this viewer, and the rest of the screen room, in fits of laughter.

If the film feels sharp, it is partly due to an intelligent screenplay from Theodore Melfi. He has shone a light on members of the older generation previously in his debut screenplay for St. Vincent, in which Bill Murray is forced to come out of a figurative retirement from life (he is spiralling in alcoholism and gambling addiction) to refocus on looking after a young neighbour. This was achieved with a deft touch that allowed the humour to eminate from an otherwise dark script, which itself was adapted from the screenplay of a film of the same name directed by Martin Breft in 1979.

This is not the film that any of the stars will be remembered for, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.

The plot left me feeling angry about the way older people are treated by society. So, whilst the jokes and humour are forthcoming, there is always a sense that the film has a lot more bubbling under. It’s credit to Zach Braff that he got the balance just right.

Film review – The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2017)

James Gray’s latest film has been described by various parts of the media as an instant classic, with continual praise being steeped upon it from all angles. “Sublime”, “the revelation of the year”,  “a rare piece of contemporary classical cinema.” All phrases used to describe “Z”.

The only thing I can relate to less than these words is the film itself, which I found to be a veritable snoozefest.

The true story revolves around British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). Pawcett was a member of the British army who, at the request of the British Royal Geographical Society (headed up by Ian McDiarmid), goes on a mapping expedition to the border between Bolivia and Brazil just after the turn of the 20th Century and finds a hitherto unknown tribe. The film tells of his initial and return trips there, along with his relationships with his peers, his expedition team (including an unrecognisable Robert Pattinson), his wife (Sienna Miller) and his children (one of which is eventually portrayed by Tom Holland).

Team Beardward!


Ironically, “Z” doesn’t tread brand new cinematic ground. It has the feel of a film that was made many decades ago. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. For when The Artist paid tribute to film’s silent era, or when La La Land paid tribute to the great MGM musicals, we remembered great experiences we’d had enjoying films throughout the ages.

I know “Z” feels like an old film, but I don’t think that old film is any good.

Sadly, with so much time to think about the film between the interesting parts, it becomes easy to over-analyse, a subconscious decision my brain made to keep itself entertained. The heart of the issue may well be Hunman himself, or the character he is portraying. 

It can’t be his fault – we already know he’s a good actor. So the blame should lie with either the director or the writer. Unfortunately for James Gray, he is both.

Too often we skipped over interesting parts of his life. The Great War is skipped over and we get a snapshot in the form of him leading a troop into battle in the Somme. It’s actually one of the highlights of the film, portrayed without any Hollywood bravado, but we are left to guess about critical developments in his personality, the strain left on his family, and the strengthened relationship with his companions Henry Coston (Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley).

This companionship is sadly dropped before the third act gets going, which is a shame as it’s the part of the film that really held my interest.

The strange result is that we end up with an over-long story that feels lethargic, which covers a man’s desire to further his family name and his military career, his strained relationship with his wife and children, his growing relationship with his expedition companions and a small amount of professional rivalry with a fellow explorer. 

We get both too much and too little, which is a great shame. 

There’s enough to keep the interest, but somehow it doesn’t feel right.

Film review – Logan (James Mangold, 2017)

THIS ARTICLE IS FULL OF SPOILERS

Hugh Jackman is, in the superhero film world, a living legend. There has never been a single actor or actress that has achieved relentless success across so many different films in this genre, making a character his own and developing it into one of the big guns instead of just part of a team. Like the character Wolverine, the actor behind him seems like he’ll play the part forever.

And yet we come to Logan, a wisely-timed and fitting ending to the franchise and Jackman’s input into the character. It’s hard to believe it but this is the tenth time we’ve seen the character – seven X-Men films have now been made, along with three Wolverine-focussed standalone films. It seems impossible to think anyone will fill the role, meaning this could be the last time we see the character for many years, possibly ever.

It could well be the best superhero/mutant-hero film ever made.

Set in the world 2029, the film finds Logan worlds apart from his former self. Hiding out in a disused smelting plant in New Mexico, he is working as a chauffeur whilst hustling for prescription drugs for Professor X (Patrick Stewart), whom he lives with alongside Caliban (a surprisingly sincere Stephen Merchant). He is tracked down by a mysterious woman named Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who is trying to get him to take a young mutant girl named Laura (the brilliant Dafne Keen) to specific co-ordinates in South Dakota before Transigen finds her to either kill her or take her back into their shady mutant development programme. The company, which we have previously glimpsed in X-Men: Apocalypse, is headed up by Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), whilst they are hotly pursued by head of security and leader of the Reavers Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).

Jackman reportedly took a pay cut to ensure this film received an R-Rating in USA. The result is certainly the most brutal cinematic portrayal of Wolverine yet, with no holding back on any of the gruesome details. It is certainly not a kids’ film. Jackman looks battle-worn from the start, the reasoning given that the adamantium is now poisoning his body and losing its regenerative abilities. His best cure is to drink alcohol, which may mask the pain but won’t cover the endless scars across his body.

The perfect muse for Jackman’s final turn as Logan is Patrick Stewart, reprising one last time his Professor X character. Now in the midst of a horrific battle with dementia, he struggles to keep control of his telepathic abilities. What is really interesting here is that it is a study of people at the end of their life who are losing their usefulness to society. Okay, this is shown in the most extreme manners when someone has superpowers, but the poignancy is still there for everyone to see.

To add extra emotional weight to the film, the young girl is revealed to be the kind-of-daughter of Wolverine, in that she shares some of his genetic make-up. In the greater comic book storylines she is X-23, who first appeared in 2003. Whilst not strictly his daughter, this is a clever plot device as it means the two characters are immediately drawn to one another, despite their tendency to mistrust those around them.

It may be masquerading as a film about mutants but this is so much more – a character-driven drama about old age and retirement.

Inevitably, the ending is upsetting, as we see our titular hero sacrifice himself to ensure the safe passage of his daughter. The final scene, especially the final shot, is absolutely perfect.

A fitting end to one of the greatest film characters of our time.

Film review – 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2017)

To mark 2017’s International Women’s Day, I dropped into the cinema to catch 20th Century Women, a film with three powerful and independent women at the heart of its plot. A triple Bechdel Test passer, the film indeed avoids the usual cinematic tropes and instead explores how men are often defined by the women around them.

In 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman) is a 15-year-old boy who is lacking a father figure in his life. His mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) has been long-single, but lives in a luxuriously huge house that she has converted into a sort of commune, in which lives a young female photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and an emotionally-detached carpenter and handyman William (Billy Crudup) who is renovating the house for her. Julie (Elle Fanning) is a girl with whom Jamie is unrequitedly besotted; she wishes for him to remain as a friend only whilst she has a series of never-seen male sexual partners.

Mike Mills has cultivated an intelligent film from his own original script, describing it as a love letter to the women who raised him.

It’s the sort of quirky and intimate story that can only be crafted from ones own experiences, with two fingers up to the notion that boys need fathers and girls need mothers in order to be raised properly. Interestingly, whilst there are innumberable films that explore fathers being thrust into the role of both mother and father figures to both boys and girls, the concept of a group of women creating a support network for growth of a teenage boy feels wholly fresh and quite important.

The standout performance in a solid cast comes from Greta Gerwig, who I have seen in several films previously and never been excessively impressed with. This time, she is absolutely mesmerising as a young woman who is recovering from cervical cancer. We learn that the cancer was probably linked to her mother’s Diethylstilbestrol (DES) drug treatment during her pregnancy. She has been effectively disowned by her guilt-stricken mother, unable to cope with the fact she feels responsible for causing her daughter’s cancer. As a role, this is no light task, and Gerwig is at times totally breathtaking in her performance.

It is strange that the boy whose life the story revolves around eventually turns out to be a supporting character to the three leads. It is a lovingly-created film that is as relatable to mothers as it is to sisters of brothers and as it is to sons. With characters this believable and brilliant performances across the board, this is a film well worth seeing.