Film review – Arabesque (Stanley Donen, 1966)

“Our only hope is to make it so visually exciting the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on”. This damning statement by director Stanley Donan about the film ‘Arabesque’, as recalled by cinematographer Christopher Challis in his 1995 memoirs ‘Are They Really So Awful?‘, explains quite a lot about the final product. It had reportedly already cost $400,000 to have the script rewritten several times, partly due to the casting of Gregory Peck instead of the preferred choice of Cary Grant in the lead role. The result is a film that is almost the definition of style over substance, with a feeling of a real missed opportunity to something truly special.

The confused and therefore confusing script centres around Professor David Pollack (Grant), an expert in ancient hieroglyphics. He is approached aggressively by Middle Eastern Prime Minister Hassan Jena (Carl During) and his ambassador to Great Britain, Mohammed Lufti (Harold Kasket), who offer him £20,000 to solve a hieroglyph-based riddle, the answer to which is highly urgent. Pollack is forced to work inside the mansion of shipping magnate Nejim Beshraavi (Alan Badel), where he also meets the infinitely distracting Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), though he quickly realises that he will be killed once he has solved the riddle and decides to escape, with Yasmin in tow, triggering a chase across the brilliantly-captured 1960s London.

Stanley Donen had risen in popularity in the 1940s and 1950s following a prolonged successful run of musical films, primarily with MGM. Having made his name as a Hollywood choreographer in the 1940s, he helmed such classics as On The Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Funny Face (1957) and The Pajama Game (1957). He was, by the end of the 1950s, regarded as one of the great directors from the golden era of Hollywood.

Donen then set his base in London, a move that coincided with the breakdown of his marriage to Marion Marshall. This film is one of a handful that were produced during Donen’s British period, which defined a decade of his career throughout the 1960s. The period was a fruitful one, yielding such films as 1960 ‘Once More, with Feeling!‘ and ‘Surprise Package’ (both 1960), ‘Charade’ (1963), ‘Two for the Road and ‘Bedazzled (both 1967) and the now-hard-to-find camp comedy ‘Staircase‘ (1969).

Arabesque‘ could be seen as Donen’s attempt to make a film in the style of Hitchcock, with the feeling of a political suspense mirror reminiscent of ‘Torn Curtain‘, which had been released in 1966. If it was, it was a failure, with any feeling of suspense being lost amongst a clumsy plot that is tricky to follow.

For all the failings of the plot, the sheer beauty of Sophia Loren cannot be escaped. Dressed in the exquisite fashion of Christian Dior, she is the perfect example of elegance in film. Indeed, it is a point the studio and director were clearly keen to underline, with a special note during the opening credits that reads “Miss Sophia Loren’s wardrobe specially created by Christian Dior”. One can’t help but contrast this with the epic failure of Donen’s final box-office release ‘Blame it on Rio’, which feels comparatively devoid of any artistic merit and relies on smut and nudity to progress the plot.

To begin to enjoy this film, one must suspend the entirely noticeable fact that there are a handful of Arabic characters that feature in the film, none of whom are of Arabic descent. It’s something that simply isn’t commonplace in 2017, which may be jarring to the modern viewer, though cinephiles will surely have to cope with much worse as they explore further back into the history of cinema.

Whilst the first two acts plod from plot twist to excruciating plot twist at a terrifying rate that feels both too fast and too slow to elicit any kind of positive response, the same cannot be said of the final act. It is here that we are finally rewarded for sticking with the film and are rewarded with a chase scene across some famous landmarks that feels as spectacular as any of Donen’s dance routines of his early career.

The question remains whether or not the audience should be made to work for around 90 minutes for such a pay-off, but regardless of this fact there is enough going on here to warrant a viewing. It’s not so much style-over-substance and style-then-substance. If you’re happy for this imbalance as the two factors are tragically compartmentalised, then you’ll find a fairly decent piece of cinema awaits you.

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Film review – Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)

Where’s he got that leotard from? Why doesn’t he just sleep with the alien girl? Why is he so dedicated to the earth girl when they’ve know each other ten minutes? Why did they do so many tracking shots?

If you’re sat there pondering any or all of these questions, then you may well have been watching Flash Gordon. Maybe, like me, you were on holiday with a VHS player and only a handful of of videos to play on it, of which 80% were James Bond.

On the face of it, this could have been a great film. There’s a classic comic book as the source. The cast is, for the most part, absolutely brilliant. Then there’s the unforgettable titular theme song by Queen.

Yes, it’s easy to be critical of it now. It’s almost 40 years old and time has not been kind to the flimsy costumes or the flimsier scenery. These are of the time and can partly be forgiven.

But there are things that you just can’t get past. Gilbert Taylor acted as cinematographer. This is a man who worked on Star Wars just three years prior. Between him, director Mike Hodges (Get Carter) and editor Malcolm Cooke there was a much more impressive final product to be had. Some clumsy edits reveal mistakes in actors’ takes, whilst tracking shots do little to hold the imagination when it seems a wider angle could have been taken.

The dialogue is intentionally camp but winds up feeling unintentionally humorous. This results in confusion over certain lines that may or may not have been intended as jokes. There’s an excruciating scene between Flash (Samuel J. Jones) and Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) that not only feels embarrassing but also fails to provide any motive for either character. In particular, our hero seems to have developed a sort of honour-bound dedication to Dale (Melody Anderson), a woman he had only met a couple of hours before and knows nothing about.

For campiness, it’s impossible to beat the American Football fight at the start of the film. Why, oh why…

Indeed, overall there is very little in the way of character development and the viewer is left to piece together the well-intended plot from what we are left with.

There are two types of film that become cult classics. Some are under-appreciated gems, or at least were when they were released (see Big Trouble In Little China, The ‘Burbs or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Others attain cult status because they flopped or were never that good in the first place (Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, or every film by Ed Wood). Unfortunately, Flash Gordon falls into the latter category.

It’s a real shame because my memory of the film was hazy but certainly positive. It is now somewhat tarnished, just like the VHS copy I watched. Fitting, really.

Film review: Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

When Christopher Nolan’s latest project was announced to be a big-screen interpretation of the famous evacuation of the Allied troops from Dunkirk beach in May 1940 during World War II, it seemed like an unusual choice. His recent output has concentrated on science fiction and fantasy; between directing the Dark Knight trilogy and his subsequent involvement with the Man of Steel films, he also found time to craft two epic science fiction films in the form of Inception and Interstellar.

A war epic felt like a shift into reality. Whilst nobody could doubt his credentials, such a film would certainly rely more on realistic-looking non-CGI special effects. It’s also true that getting these effects wrong would have ruined the authenticity of his art.

dunkirk

In the run up to the release, the controversies and concerns trickled over the media, though they were far outweighed by the plaudits from those lucky enough to see the film in previews.

One of the biggest concerns was the casting of pop singer Harry Styles in one of the lead roles. I can confidently say that any worries about his ability to act are completely unfounded. He does an excellent job in his debut role.

The entire cast are excellent. The most well-known amongst them – Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy – need no praise to confirm their ability. It is the newcomers that really shine, amongst them Fionn Whitehead and Tom Glynn-Carney. The latter is a real coup for Nolan, having only acted on stage previously and even then in small quantities. He clearly has a bright future ahead of him.

Visually, the film is stunning. Everything feels real, rom the harshness of the conditions to the shock of the relentless attacks, and contributes to the most stressful and involved journey I’ve been on during a film since The Revenant. It is an ordeal from start to finish, with the stress reflecting in a small way exactly what the soldiers were going through at the time.

Nolan has made a bold but effective choice in the non-linear storytelling method utilised. It is told in three intertwining parts that slowly converge into one storyline. In ‘The Mole’, the soldiers stranded on the Dunkirk beach (Styles, Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard) have a gruelling week-long escape story as Branagh’s Commandor Bolton repeatedly tries to execute an escape route for his men. In ‘The Sea’, Rylance’s Mr Dawson takes his son Peter (Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) across the English Channel on a leisure boat to rescue evacuees, picking up an unnamed British soldier (Murphy) along the way, in a story that spans one day. In ‘The Air’, Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot Farrier’s story takes one hour to complete as he and Pilot Officer Collins (Jack Lowden) take out enemy planes in their Spitfires. As these play out, we often see visual reminders from the other storylines that serve to anchor each one alongside the others. The stories feel inextricably linked from the start, but it’s a joy to see them play out so perfectly together.

Hans Zimmer’s score is effective in unsettling the viewer throughout. It was explained recently in a fascinating article on Business Insider. “There’s an audio illusion, if you will, in music called a ‘Shepherd Tone'”, Nolan informed them. “It’s an illusion where there’s a continuing ascension of tone. It’s a corkscrew effect. It’s always going up and up and up but it never goes outside of its range. And I wrote the Dunkirk script according to that principle. I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there’s a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals. So there’s a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we’ve never been able to achieve before.”

This effect is never more evident than during the final climactic moments as the score track ‘The Oil’ plays out. It’s simply breathtaking.

Christopher Nolan has made a career out of crafting cinematic experiences that feel part of one person’s vision. Like other contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson or Nicolas Winding Refn, they are experts in their field partly because viewers can watch their films and within seconds recognise their work. They are auteurs. That Nolan seems to be achieving this in such a wide gamut of genres is all the more remarkable.

Dunkirk is a film you have to see right now. It is the film you have to see right now.

Film review – Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

There aren’t many moments in cinema where you start to watch the opening scene and an uncontrollable giddy smile engulfs your face, such is the joy of what is unfolding on the screen. It needs to be a brilliant idea, executed to perfection and in a language that speaks to you.

Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s latest cinematic masterpiece, achieves just that. But the moment I knew it was a truly great film was when I realised the credits were rolling and my smile hadn’t left.

Oh, Baby!

The titular Baby is played by the young Ansel Elgort, who many will recognise as Caleb Prior from the Divergent film series. Baby is a young man who suffers with tinnitus, a whistling hum in the ear, which he got from an initially mysterious childhood incident. He works as a getaway driver for a heist masterminder named Doc (Kevin Spacey), who counts amongst his rotating team of goons a highly-strung Bats (Jamie Foxx), passionate love birds Buddy (John Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Eddy No-Nose (Flea). Lily James also stars as a waitress named Deborah.

To drown out the noise, Baby has a series of iPods to suit his moods. These are essentially soundtracking his life with a mixture of classic tunes that also serve as the soundtrack to the film, from Beck to Sam and Dave, The Commodores to The Damned.

It is these playlists that also serve as the film’s soundtrack, with sounds and visuals perfectly in sync with one another. For fans of music, and in particular soundtracks, Baby Driver is an absolute dream. The music is the backbone, catalyst and cherry on the icing, all at the same time. It’s a remarkable achievement.

If the opening sequence seems familiar, Wright used the same scenario in 2003 for the music video he directed for the track ‘Blue Song’ by Mint Royale. This hit the music airwaves mere months prior to his directorial breakthrough Shaun of the Dead, but watching it now you can see he probably had the idea for Baby Driver in his head as a starting point.

One of the best examples of how perfectly it works comes during the opening credits, when the first job has been completed and Baby goes to pick up some coffee from a shop near to their hideout. As Bob and Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is played through his earbuds and the backdrop becomes subtly flourished with graffiti, shop names and visual signposts, it was clear that something special was unfolding before my eyes. That this was done as a one-shot makes it all the more beautiful.

The film goes far and beyond being just a glorified music video. The car chases are breathtaking from the get-go, and there’s no let up as the story progresses. They’re believable and easy to follow, with no cheap cuts to hide poor editing and hide continuity – something of an epidemic in cinema in the 21st century.

Many of the actors are a little out of their familiarity zones with their characters, but it’s obvious that the likes of John Hamm and Jamie Foxx are taking great pleasure in being allowed to indulge their acting abilities. Kevin Spacey may be on more familiar ground, but it doesn’t make for poor viewing in the slightest.

I think her name is Debra! Or Deborah…

There’s a great use of the song ‘Debra’ by Beck in a scene that cements Baby’s relationship with Lily James’s waitress. They’re both stuck in a rut and in need of a route out, so their inevitable desire to be together is an expected story arc. Only Edgar Wright would, at this point, think it was a good time to drop in a song about a man wanting to have a threesome with two sisters. It’s a hilariously sweet moment that comes just at the right time in the film, softening up the audience before the rollercoaster second half of the story.

The fact that Elgart spends the opening thirty minutes dressed in an outfit that is very reminiscent of Han Solo shouldn’t be overlooked either. Elgart came close to being cast in Disney’s upcoming problematic Han Solo standalone film, before being overlooked in favour of Alden Ehrenreich. It’s clear that the coolness of Harrison Ford’s character is something Wright was trying to remind the audience of. However, Wright recently denied the connection in a Twitter Q&A, saying that the similarity was purely coincidental.

Similar to Han Solo? Wright is denying any links.

I just can’t be effusive of the film enough. It’s something I could watch time and time again and I’m certain I’ll be getting enjoyment out of it for years to come.

Baby Driver could well be the greatest film of Wright’s illustrious career. If you’ve not been taking notice yet, now’s the time.

The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach, 2017)

Ellie Kendrick may be familiar to most as Meera Reed in Game of Thrones, but she has been extremely busy outside of Westeros with a series of challenging roles on stage and off. Her latest appearance, this time as the star of drama feature The Levelling, sees her take on the complex character of Clover, a British girl who returns to her farmhouse home after the unexpected death of her brother Harry (Joe Blakemore).

The tone of the film is inevitably dark and the setting is as grim as it is claustrophobic. The whole film plays out entirely within the confines of the farm, as Clover is forced to come to terms with what has happened whilst also dealing with a tattered relationship with her father Aubrey (David Troughton), a man who is either unable or unwilling to open up emotionally and would rather just carry on as if nothing has happened.

You may be forgiven for a reluctance in diving head-first into this film. When the main star is also a bit character in one of the biggest television series of all time, there is a nagging thought that she may have been cast solely to appeal to fans of Game of Thrones. Certainly the cynic in me can’t get past the fact that the timing of the release has been chosen to cash in on it; it is a matter of weeks before it enters its seventh season.

To presume this would be wholly wrong. Kendrick delivers an absolutely phenomenal performance, swaying between headstong frustration to childlike confusion. It’s a great showcase of her talents and a great piece of evidence that there will be life in her career beyond the final season of Game of Thrones next year.

Writer / director Hope Dickson Leach does well with the location of the film to let the audience know that this is a place that is almost uninhabitable. There’s no respite from the damp, grimness of the untended farmhouse and its surrounding land. The fact that she has achieved so much in her debut feature should be enough for the industry to take note. There’s a lot of talent here.

The subject matter may not appeal to some and may be too challenging for others, but this is definitely an emotional journey worth going on.

Film review – Mindhorn (Sean Foley, 2017)

Julian Barrett and Simon Farnaby have come together to create a brilliantly British comedy in Mindhorn, with the pair co-writing and co-starring in a story about a washed up actor who can’t let go of his former glories.

Barrett takes the role of Richard Thorncroft, who is better known as the titular TV detective Mindhorn. Twenty-five years after his show was axed, disgraced Thorncroft is desperately in need of a fresh angle to kick start his career. The love of his life and former co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis) has now married Clive Parnevik (Farnaby), who was previously a stunt double for Mindhorn. When a police investigation into a probable murderer called Paul Melly (Russell Tovey) takes a bizarre turn, Thorncroft is brought on board to help talk to the man and discover the real truth.

The jokes come thick and fast, though many could be easily missed for those not tuned into this style of comedy. Plenty of the beats come from Alan Partridge and it does feel like a variation on the script for Alpha Papa. This isn’t a bad thing at all. Incidentally, Steve Coogan appears as a rival and former co-Star of Thorncroft named Pete Eastman.

The story is quirky, but comedies live and die on the amount of laughs they deliver. In this sense, Mindhorn soars. From the nuanced references to 1980s British television, to cringeworthy moments largely shared between Barrett and Farnaby, it is hilarious from start to finish.

Foreign markets are yet to experience the brilliance of the film. If I’m honest, I’m not sure how it will land. The humour is distinctly British, whatever that means. Mind you, it’s more accessible than the likes of Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh, which all enjoyed global audiences, so hopefully I am wrong on that front.

This isn’t the kind of film that rises to the top of the charts on its first week of release. Instead, I’m predicting it will follow the path of Anchorman and Hot Rod to become a comedy sleeper hit that people will talk about in a few years’ time.

Do yourself a favour and get in on the act now. You can’t handcuff the wind.

Film review – Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

I have to lay out some home truths before we start. After five years, it appears the dust has settled and most of us have decided Prometheus was a pile of rubbish.

The Alien prequel was a return to the helm for Ridley Scott after a 33-year hiatus. Despite the anticipation, the disappointment amongst the hard-core fans stemmed from some convenient plot points that seemed to allow progression of the story despite not really making sense (“Why did she run in a straight line?”, “Why did the navigator guy get lost?”, “She’s just had a caesarean… how is she running?”).

I saw the film as a midnight screening and I remember coming out of the cinema buzzing with excitement. The film was, in my opinion, a return to form for the franchise after the overwhelmingly disappointing Alien v Predator films (which worked better as a toy line than as a film). It wasn’t a patch on the first two – Alien and its sequel Aliens – but probably stood alongside or better than any of the other instalments.

Yes, that’s right. I am a fan of Prometheus.

I went into an early screening of Covenant with the same kind of excitement and anticipation as I had five years ago. The advertising campaign has been nothing if not relentless, so finally getting to see the film on the big screen felt as much a trip to the cinema as it was a way to quench my carefully manipulated thirst for a next instalment.

The film is set in 2104, ten years after the main events of Prometheus and around twenty years before the events of Alien. The opening sequence, which features a reprisal cameo from Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, explores the themes of humanity’s desire to meet its creator. It could easily have been a part of the first instalment, but bridges the gap and reminds viewers of the unhinged nature of David, one of two robots played by Michael Fassbender.

The main body of the film focuses on a colonisation mission from Earth to to a remote planet Origae-6, aboard the titular spaceship Covenant. The main crew includes Captain Branson (James Franco) and third in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming expert and wife to Branson. Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) is a man of faith who is unexpectedly promoted to captain shortly into the mission. Michael Fassbender’s second character in the film is a synthetic android named Walter, a more advanced version of David. The crew also includes Chief Pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir) and Karine Oram (Carmen Ejogo). Aboard their ship is around 2,000 human embryos, with the purpose of populating their destination planet upon arrival.

After a neutrino shockwave hits the ship, the main crew are woken up to deal with the repairs on the ship. They are seven years away from their destination planet but a matter of weeks away from an alternative planet that appears to offer the same prospects as Origae-6. New captain Oram makes the decision to land on the newly-found planet, which turns out to be the one Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David set sail for at the end of Prometheus. Needless to say, the story goes downhill from here for our crew, with disastrous consequences.

Given the popular misgivings about Prometheus, I couldn’t help but pick fault with a couple of major issues with the decision making of the crew of the Covenant. Most glaringly, none of them seem keen to wear masks when they leave the spaceship, even though there’s no obvious investigations into how viable to atmosphere is to breathe. It just seemed odd that they were so confident only minutes after being so worried. Surely that’s rule number one for space travel?

All the people on the ship have a partner on there, meaning everyone is at risk of losing a loved one at every turn. This falls down, however, when you throw a couple of red coats onto the first expedition. Where were the devastated husbands and wives grieving their loved ones? Do they not get to show emotion because their rank is too low? I’m looking at Ledward here. Surely he has a wife or girlfriend on board?

Aside from picking nits, the film is genuinely a great effort, probably a lot better than Prometheus. There are a number of great nods to previous films – the face-hugger makes its comeback – and it feels like Scott has set out to make a crowdpleaser. That’s definitely not a bad thing.

The partner element is an intelligent way to add depth to all of the characters. Shortly into the main plot, James Franco’s Captain Branson dies, immediately answering the question of why he wasn’t featured more prominently in the advertising campaign (a missed trick in my opinion). This plunges Katherine Waterston’s Daniels into immediate emotional turmoil, though she quickly rises out of it and continues with her mission objectives.

Waterston has some big Sigourney Weaver sized shoes to fill in terms of taking the female lead role. I’m sure she has felt the pressures of her predecessor, though it doesn’t show on screen. She does a fantastic job and at times carries the film, acting as the sensible decision maker, the natural leader and the only one with the will to fight back when everything goes pear shaped. Sure, the strong and intelligent female protagonist is becoming a bit of a broken record in modern cinema, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Signourney Weaver in Alien is probably the best early example of it being done so well, certainly in terms of Blockbuster films in genres usually associated with male audiences.

The final act is wholly worth of the Alien canon, rescuing a film that at times had threatened to go off the rails. It’s here that Scott ramps up the tension and action, paying off the setup over the previous 90-ish minutes.

If the final 30 minutes is great, then the final ten seconds is utter genius.

If you have any misgivings about the Alien franchise, Covenant is the film that will bring you back on track.