Terminator: Genisys (2015)

 

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Alan Taylor directs Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney in this sci-fi reboot of the classic time travelling killer robot from the future action series.

Mindless entertainment. I’m well aware this is a film with problems. Yet I like the opening half hour where the original film’s timeline is turned into a sandbox for twisty action sequences, I love ageing Arnie (bad jokes and all, “Old… Not Obsolete”), I think the Golden Gate Bridge chase sequence is thrilling if pointless, Emilia Clarke may be miscast but it is hard to hold that against her in her cute little leather jacket / ponytail hero outfit, and the trailer spoiled “surprise” that John Connor is the nano-infected antagonist this time around would have been a hoot if kept under wraps and better utilised. This was a pure popcorn, throwaway rush both times I saw it at the cinema. On the small screen the less forgivable negatives become more glaring. Jai Courtney isn’t just a charisma vacuum, isn’t just NOT Michael Biehn (nor even Anton Yelchin)… he’s just too well nourished and suntanned to be a frazzled guerilla survivor of a robo-apocalypse. Those last two action sequences are ropey CGI fests… wacky races with helicopters followed by the longest ticking clock countdown since Roger Moore’s heyday. Is Genisys salvageable?… Yes. I think if Reese was either recast or killed off at the midway point, our new little diddy Sarah Connor would have been given room to stand out and feel more badass, less bad grades. Equally, an extra 10 minutes of the John Connor / Skynet hybrid landing in the 2010s and impressing the Dysons wouldn’t have hurt. In fact, if the narrative shifted focus in the second half entirely to Jason Clarke programming and defending the birth of Skynet, warding off Arnie and the gang’s terror attacks then the film would have purpose and uniqueness. The elements are there for a more consistent and vital entry… instead we get some neat T-800 moments and another unexplored dead end cliffhanger for a series that used to be a cinematic sci-fi high point.

6

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Deadpool 2 (2018)

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David Leitch directs Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin and Zazie Beetz in this sequel to Deadpool, where the Merc with the Mouth has to save a kid from a time travelling anti-hero. 

Fair to say I wasn’t the first one’s biggest fan. And for the first act it looks like DPII is going to pound us with exactly more of the same. Obvious schoolboy jokes, an overbearing Cinema Sins style live commentary, grating smugness, flashy yet uninvolving action, weirdly inappropriate emotional moments… Everyone’s back, to the film’s detriment, almost as if they are so unsure what the franchise’s “winning formula” actually is and therefore they are scared to lose any previous element in case the whole thing deflates. Weasel, Dupinder and Blind Al really don’t need quite so much screentime. Reynolds gets more emoting sans mask… albeit covered in make-up that makes him look like a geriatric Ryan Reynolds who has wandered out of a care home in search of extra pudding. Yet midway through there is a series of killer jokes involving the newly formed X-Force’s first mission, powerless Pete’s heroics being a high point. That’s followed immediately by an utterly inspired action sequence showcasing Domino’s powers. Leitch gets to show off his John Wick honed mastery of smash and crash and Zazie Beetz, as the hyper lucky mutant, marks out her stall as a future star to watch. She’s incredibly relaxed, charming and sexy. It is a marked improvement from the incessant fanboyish snark of the uninspired first film. Sure, Brolin’s Cable feels a little lost in the mix and Reynolds is given far too much rope to piss about in the finale… but as a one-off entertainment this sequel won me over effortlessly in a way the first tried far harder to do.

6

 

Beat the Devil (1953)

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John Huston directs Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones and Robert Morley in this international crime comedy about a group of desperate emigrants trying to secure uranium mining rights in Africa. 

Laugh free comedy, bloodless double crossing capering and a decent cast working at half steam.

3

Somersault (2004)

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Cate Shortland directs Abbie Cornish, Sam Worthington and Lynette Curran in this coming of age drama about a sexually active young girl who runs away to an off-season ski town. 

First time I watched this on release the small town setting and twee twinkly soundtrack felt cliched. But it has aged quite well, powered by a glacial visual sense that evokes a sensual, worn world of woollen clothing, motel rooms and frozen farm land. The acting is solid but Shortland explores the youths’ uncertain sexuality with a tactile sensitivity. Cornish’s adorable yet fragile lead kid slowly figuring out that easy seduction isn’t the best long term foundation for happy relationships is essayed elegantly. She feels constantly at risk – financially given her near homeless status, and emotionally given just about everyone else’s degrading assessment of her. Watching her silently consider prostitution or oblivion as her options run low is devastating.

7

While We’re Young (2015)

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Noah Baumbach directs Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and Adam Driver in this urban comedy about a middle aged couple who befriend two youthful hipsters. 

A glossy and grating comedy of manners that slips into an awkward All About Eve for documentary filmmakers rip-off in it second half. Charles Grodin has a small role which improves the insubstantial soufflé slightly.

2

Caligula (1979)

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Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione direct Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy and Helen Mirren in this pornographic retelling of the mad, bad and dangerous to know Roman emperor’s life. 

I have been having an accidental mini McDowell season the past two weeks. He’s cropped up in lots I have watched. An actor who always cuts a big shape on screen whether the scene demands it or not, his reputation rides on his infamy of starring in proper transgressive classics like If… and A Clockwork Orange at the start of his career. Ever since then, he’s had the occasional success (Time After Time, his small but integral role in TV’s Our Friends in the North) but more often than not his CV is littered with flops or low budget villainy or villainy in flops. His acting style is shock and awe, a squawky aggression, a mischievous terror. His boyish looks gave way to grizzled malevolence seemingly over night. You can see a lot of the best and worst of his OTT work in Caligula. The prankish risk taker larking about in the nude with a face of focused concentration, as if every step of the childish dance he is reenacting is sacred. The startled wounded baby bird plea straight to camera when things don’t go his way. The instantaneous shift from gleeful predator to told off, contrite school boy when in the presence of Peter O’Toole’s murderous adoptive father. For an actor as gaudy and settled in his strengths to get lost in any production is a rarity. Like him of not, McDowell is a strong flavour, yet one utterly overpowered by the writhing, rape chaos of Caligula. A Penthouse production of a Gore Vidal script – it is neither a romp nor prestigious. The nudity and intercut hardcore sex is unalluring. You get used to a dick or tit being in every frame after the first ten minutes. Much of what is on show is awkward and unappealing, the opening act is particularly grotesque and forced. Paired with a studied debauchery and violence that is grimly sadistic. McDowell tries to cover up this cold meat view of decadence and orgy by pretending his mad ruler is having the time of his life… but even his gleeful misbehaviour eventually grows grating. There’s things you’ll see in Caligula that have never reached mainstream cinema again…but porn and exploitation movies have lensed it all far more attractively, understanding simple titillation and entertainment are more exciting than excess, gilt and grit. Ultimately, Caligula proves an overlong chore with brief unsettling glimpses of dirty horror.

3

Movie of the Week: Back to the Future Part II (1989)

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Robert Zemeckis directs Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Thomas F Wilson in this alternate timeline spanning epic sequel to the Eighties box office smash. 

We didn’t care too much about spoilers back in 1989. Batman being a restrictive 12 certificate, Bond being for 15s and over (Licence to Kill indeed!), by default the return of Marty McFly was the big release of our summer. And we had been collecting the packs of Topps trading cards that came with ten images from the film and stick of fruity hard bubblegum for months before.

Our eternally incomplete collections gave us fragments of what was coming. We knew Marty was going to 2015, we knew something had gone wrong and that butthead Biff was in charge, we knew somehow we were going back to the first film too. Yet when Alan Silvestri’s score took over (it is reprised unmercifully throughout, rarely a scene ending without being punctuated by those airpunching horns, and this is exactly what I want from a great movie theme) we were swept along and how it all unfolded thrilled me and my 10 year old mates. I absolutely loved it.

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Back to the Future Part II is almost the perfect sequel. It remakes the first film in three seperate mini-adventures (future, alternative 1985, repeat 1955) while adding set pieces that up the stakes without copying them. Marty has to be chased around Hill Valley Square on a board… only this time it is dodging landing flying cars and on a hoverboard. He has to correct reality altering mistakes but instead of his own existence being under threat it is everyone else’s (no disappearing hand this time… we see the consequences of his temporal polluting with our own eyes and it is economic armageddon for his entire community). He has to chase around the finale of the last film, but instead of reuniting his parents and hitting a lightning bolt, he has to make sure he doesn’t disrupt any of these events from happening.

Like a bull in a china shop when one breakage means the end of all existence.

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A sequel, therefore, that delivers the familiar while subverting expectations, retreads old ground in a way that feels fresh and revolutionary. Compared to III, which is a more traditional adventure that transposes similar beats to a different setting, it feels like the black sheep of the trilogy.

If the set pieces themselves seem a little smaller in scale (one involves Marty hiding under a desk), it is because this is a film about exploring time travel itself rather than eras specifically. Both I and III spend time having larks with baby boomers and cowboys respectively, building action specific to that period / genre. Here Marty and the Doc are recklessly trying to keep everything else on track while stopping the worst anomalies from happening. How Reagan era Conservative of them. It opens the film up to a glimpse of next century for sure, but more importantly the complex improbability of weaving through time without causing harm.

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A maze where meeting yourself creates a system error that will unravel reality. A magazine getting into the wrong hands can kill your loved ones. Where being spotted by the bullies can make them an obstacle for another version of you. Marty hides under a desk, it is not exactly attacking the Death Star in an X-Wing, but we know being caught under that desk means failure, failure means chaos. A butterfly flaps its wings there’s a hurricane across the globe. Step on an insect in the past, mankind is destroyed. The wrong version of you gets knocked out by Biff and neither of you exists.

The 2015 setting was a selling point in the promotion. It had been our promised destination since the finale of the original 4 long years earlier. And we get the joy of seeing the familiar futurised. Nikes with automatic laces, wall screens with hundreds of simultaneous channels, the survival of the fax machine, and yes… flying cars and hoverboards.

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The FX work to achieve “2015” is complex but unflashy. There very rarely are shots gratuitously just there to showcase the miniature work and nascent CGI. Instead the bulk of the magic goes on in the background, as set dressing, unremarked upon and overwhelming, while the action, comedy, exposition and coincidences are acted out in the foreground.

The most revolutionary SFX involve make-up and frame cutting so that actors can interact with themselves fluidly. This is either played for laughs or, later, tension. The Amstrad 464 tie-in game had a puzzle level where you had to guide young Jennifer through her future house but you had to track the movements of others on the map. If she came face to face with herself or kids… GAME OVER. And that sums up the main risk the movie plays with. If you interact or interrupt yourself significantly in a different time period, then all is lost.

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Of course, Zemeckis took his ability to insert actors into shots who shouldn’t be there a little too far when Crispin Glover was replaced by an actor in a latex mask. Pay dispute… script dispute… yadda yadda yadda… Glover declined. So instead of writing him completely out or blatantly recasting, they obfuscated a stand-in George McFly. Effectively too, keeping him in reflective shades or the middle distance or upside down… all the time wearing a rubber Crispin Glover mask. But it does deprive us of Glover, one of the acting highlights of the first film (honours shared with Lloyd’s loveable mad scientist).

It is one of three inelegant compromises in a near perfect film. The other obvious one being the “problem” of Jennifer Parker. Recast again… but more openly and pleasingly as Elisabeth Shue… the first film ended with her getting in the Delorean with Marty and the Doc en route to the new millennium. She’s treated as an inconvenience in the first act and left asleep on a porch for the rest of the trilogy. Obviously Zemeckis would rather she hadn’t come on the adventure so creates a get-out hatch to eject her from the plot. Poor show. Why couldn’t she join in on the fun? Help make the reams of exposition less monologue-y? Hell, what if she had a skill more useful than being Marty’s fated bride? Those options being beyond the writers’ imaginations, I bet they are kicking themselves that George McFly didn’t get in the Delorean at the end of Part I instead. Imagine the sci-fi geek witnessing the colourful utopia of 30 years hence then meeting his teenage self… What coulda, shoulda been…

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After a Mission: Accomplished in the future we return to 1985. At first everything seems normal. We notice subtle changes… Bars on Jennifer’s house windows, litter on the street, graffiti on the Lyon Estates signs, a wail in the distance. Marty climbs into his bedroom window. But it isn’t the McFly household anymore. Instead an alarmed young black family share his former room and the Dad is swinging his bat at the intruder. Time has been altered. We walk through an alternate “present” where the high school is closed, drive-by shootings happen, George is long murdered, Doc has been committed, Biff is a billionaire, Lorraine is his beaten trophy wife, Hill Valley is a casino and chemical dump town popular with bikers and it is all Marty’s fault.

Cinematographer Dean Cudney described the alternate 1985 as “the Biff-Horrific period”. It probably is most people’s key memory when BTTFP2 is accused of being dark. Biff from the future has given his younger self a book full of betting outcomes, stealing Marty’s idea and Doc’s time machine. And the result is Biff has become a Donald Trump style figure, one who has seemingly bullied his entire hometown into being a dystopian hellscape. Although there isn’t a lot of humour or action in this middle section it proves a vicious worse case scenario for the heroes to resolve. An early draft had Marty and the Doc reuniting with Sixties hippy version of George, Lorraine and Biff. You get the feeling the franchise could have been endless episodes of the same actors and incidents in different genres and milieus. This shocking twist kicks that weak, easy idea into touch.

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A quick moment to celebrate the brilliant turn by Thomas F Wilson in the series. As a recurring villian, he is daft yet brutishly cynical. Even when we see him struggle to make threats and avoid manure, he is always an antagonist who you fear. He gets laughs and shocks and I doubt anyone would have said no to watching a Biff Tannen spin-off in the 1990s. Like Glover, he is a lost star from the franchise. Someone cast him in a blockbuster soon.

So we travel back to 1955 to stop the almanac from being used. These days Terminator: Genisys, Batman V Superman and Ready Player One have all had stand out sequences where an old scene from a familiar movie is revisited by new characters. Like Mary Poppins going on holiday in animation, seamlessly characters interact with old footage filmed from four years ago. It had never been done like this before. The thrill of seeing key moments from the first film from a different perspective, and Marty dodging around the first instalment’s plot while using the setting as a playground for his new adventure. This is what a time travel film should be about.

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It also gives us one of the trilogy’s sweetest moments. Doc meets the Doc incognito, discusses weather experiments, hands him the correct wrench he needs. It somehow means more than that. Somehow hope and nostalgia and magic is infererred in this simple interaction. Probably due to Silvestri’s wonderful score twinkling away in the background like a relentless stalker.

And that final action sequence, a heist involving a moving car, a windy night and a fully charged hover board. After 45 minutes of increasingly intense near misses, Marty has that almanac but is being chased down a long tunnel by the faster Biff… there’s no way he’d make that escape from the pursuing car. Even in a fantasy film we know Marty is a goner by the mid point of the tunnel. The final inelegant compromise then and one that has fuelled various fan theories around Marty’s death… if you fancy an hour exploring the more fanatical corners of the internet.

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For a film that visits three different periods, BTTF2 is an incredibly lean adventure. Clocking in at a mere 108 minutes. It moves like a bullet and has no crowbarred in action, the set pieces all occur organically within the plot or not at all. It gives you no room to doubt it or be any less than gripped.

Midway though our happy ending, the Doc gets hit by lightning. The Delorean disappears. Do we end on that shock cliffhanger… No, we get a trailer for Episode III. Sure, it renders the cliffhanger a little obsolete but if you have your final part already in production then why not showcase it to those most likely to buy a ticket next year. Parts II and III being filmed back to back mean lots of the big moments coming in the Wild West were foreshadowed or set up here subtly. “Nobody calls me chicken!” Fair enough, that’s a thing now.

9

 

The Circle (2017)

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James Ponsoldt directs Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and Karen Gillan in the techno thriller about a social media app that begins to dominate one of its latest employee’s life. 

James Ponsoldt is becoming one of the key cinematic documenters of the 21st century experience. Though The Circle is his most prescient work yet it fails to reach the uncommonly high emotional intelligence of Smashed, The Spectacular Now or The End of the Tour. Yet his depiction of modern working environments, insidious apps and a generation of sharers and commenters is… pretty fucking accurate, a few accentuations aside. Shame that it never really reaches for a gripping third act and that Watson is again insipid in a role that lacks agency or consistency. Though maybe that weak willed, vacuous flip flopping protagonist is the harshest satirical blow landed.  If so, that’s a damning indictment on millennials. A film that captures its moment in time perfectly, without doing anything particularly entertaining with that accuracy.

6

Doomsday (2008)

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Neil Marshall directs Rhona Mitra, Craig Conway and Bob Hoskins in this futuristic sci-fi actioner about an anti-hero cop who has to mission into quarantined Scotland to deal with cannibal and cult tribes who have been abandoned there for decades.

Escape From New York to Aliens to Excalibur to Road Warrior. So blatantly unoriginal that it transcends its actually thievery. For viewers of the right vintage this is akin to  passing in and out of a series of cult 80s VHS classics; watching the best bits, then blacking out while someone else changes the tape and lines up the next movie’s iconic set piece. It is not perfect, some of the imagery is flat and the combat sequences are way too overedited, but it hits the sweet spot more often than not. A manic villian turn by Craig Conway helps. For energy, gore and punch this matches the 30 year old favourites it jukeboxes through gleefully.

7

My Top 10 Post Apocalyptic Movies

1. Mad Max 2 : Road Warrior (1981)
2. Children of Men (2006)

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3. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
4. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
5. Planet of the Apes (1968)
6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
7. Return to Oz (1985)
8. Snowpiercer (2012)

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9. Wall-E (2008)
10. Logan’s Run (1976)

 

Seabiscuit (2003)

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Gary Ross directs Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire and Chris Cooper in this historical drama about an underdog racehorse who captured the imagination of the US public during the Great Depression. 

I’m always surprised that Seabiscuit doesn’t come up in conversation more often. To me it shares so much with The Shawshank Redemption, a perennial choice for other people’s favourite movie. It has the same richly realised period sheen. The same lost era Americana fablesque quality. The same masculine sentimentality and wallop of tragedy. It is a film you can watch with all the family, yet deals with grief, depression, unemployment, disability and the restrictive unfairness of free market economics. It also has tremendous race sequences that use a combination of undetectable CGI and stunt jockeys to put you right in the saddle during the breakneck speed battles. Seabiscuit the horse makes a cute conduit for four intertwining strands. Cooper as a last cowboy drifter type, realising that America (and his way of life) is losing its freedom of movement. Bridges as a tycoon looking for a new challenge, one that will distract him from his grief of losing a son. Maguire as a young man brutalised and abandoned by the economic crash, whose skill on a horse is his meal ticket but one that is becoming less and less valid as he ages. Finally, of America as a whole recovering from mass unemployment. This final strand is voiced in a Ken Burns documentary evoking narration, giving the pleasing manipulations we witness a syrupy weight of historical import. It proves to be a quality, feelgood, adult experience… one that maybe goes around the track of failure and comeback one time too many to be a truly perfect experience… but you can’t blame Ross for letting the truth get in the way of a great story.

9