The Circle is the world’s number one tech business, a Facebook-Google-Apple mash-up led by a kind of Steve Zuckerjobs (Tom Hanks). Young intern Mae (Emma Watson) scores a dream opportunity to work for the firm, but the dream quickly turns into a nightmare. The set-up is compelling: the darkside of social media and modern technology, the invasion of people’s privacy and the loss of anonymity, as perpetrated by floppy-haired, latte-supping, trendy technologistas, under the guise of techtopian idealism.
Sadly, a well-realised world deserves a well-realised film. Most characters are cardboard cut-outs that we don’t care for. The development of Emma Watson’s character is illogical; the more she suffers the folly of this Brave New World, the more she seems to buy into it. And the ending is unfulfilling and makes no sense; Mae’s reaction is the literal opposite of the logical end point of her story arc. Watson does the best she can, and Tom Hanks is compelling, but the lack of through-line in the script makes for a frustrating what-might-have-been mess.
An isolated area of countryside is cut off from the world by an eerie shimmering light which surrounds it; no one who enters “the shimmer” is heard from again. Communication in and out of the shimmer is impossible. And with the shimmer slowly growing in size daily, engulfing the surrounding area, the government is called in to carry out a classified investigation under the guise of a chemical clean-up operation.
An all-female team, led by a biology professor (Natalie Portman) and a psychologist (Jennifer Jason) Leigh, each with their own agendas and ulterior motives, are the latest to enter. The world they find within the shimmer is an Alice-in-Wonderland, LSD trip gone wrong. A nightmarish hallucination, which is both utterly unlike anything you’ve seen before, and completely convincing.
The film is a genre-defying science fiction-horror-thriller-psychological thriller-creature feature which shares genetic strands with Sphere (1998), Event Horizon (1997), Contact (1997), and Cloverfield (2008). But this is all par for the course for writer-director, Alex Garland, whose previous accomplishments include Ex Machina and 28 Days Later.
This film is tense and, yes, genuinely scary. A horrifying slow-burn with some first rate acting.
I’m a big Star Trek fan. “Bitterly disappointed” by the way Star Trek: Enterprise was given short shrift in marketing and timeslots, and then summarily cancelled after four seasons, is an understatement of how I felt. And that was in 2005; I had barely lost my virginity back then, whereas now I am a married man with thick tufts of chest hair that drip with testosterone. Yes, twelve long years I’d been in purgatory waiting for even a sign of a new Star Trek series — until last year, when the announcement was made. But I couldn’t get my hopes up as it wouldn’t be the first big project to get canned. Yet here it is, at last. Star Trek: Discovery aired last night on Netflix. I can’t wait to watch episodes one and two tonight (right after I finish grooming my manly facial hair). But I’m nervous — will it be a Game of Thrones (=perfection), or a Stargate Universe (=all gear, no idea)?
A new Trek series was sorely needed to fill a particular gap. Not only is it a massive franchise with a hardcore fanbase, but the success of the recent films means there might be a new non-Trek audience primed and ready — although, in all fairness, the enthusiasm for the new films has kind of fizzled out now. But whatever.
The other reason why a new series is needed is that all previous Treks existed in the years BBG. That is, Before Battlestar: Galactica. That show was epoch defining and heralded the dawn of a new era (the 2004-2009 version, not the campy 70s thing). It moved us into a brave new world. Yes, yes, yes, it had all the secks, violence, and swearing (if “frack” counts) that now typify shows like Game of Thrones. But it was the format that set it apart. Gone were the 20+ episodes a season, countless dud eps which basically filled space, and the one-off episodes that didn’t advance the central plot of the series — if there even was a central plot. We were into a new world where quality triumphed over quantity; ten episodes of pure, relentless, story. One story arc for the whole show.
All previous Treks existed in this BBG world. This is outmoded and isn’t how TV works anymore. To make it worse, back then, the budgets were also poor, lending a kind of crummy homemade look to much Sci-Fi; I remember even as a twelve year old cringing at how the solid metal armour of the Jaffa in Stargate: SG1 would betray it’s Styrofoam prop nature and literally bend in a fight. Also, the quality of the acting has gone up: just try to remember TV before the Kiefer Sutherland thrillride 24; big film stars just did not do TV, it was a step down. How times change!
Visually, Star Trek: Discovery looks phenomenal. But we’ll just have to see if it is a matter of style over substance. As a Trek disciple, I hope to goodness the show is great and gets a good long run. Otherwise, by the time they come up with a new Star Trek series, I’ll probably have regrown my virginity, for I’ll be a shrivelled, middle-aged man.
Fire in the Sky is the 1993 screen depiction of the 1975 alleged alien abduction of lumberjack Travis Walton while out working with his crew. A slowburn, the film is notable for its focus. Rather than gratuitious shots of ETs, the drama revolves around how the disappearance of a local man affects a small town. His crew are villified as murderers, and mob tyranny ruins their lives as the towns tears itself apart.
This film seared itself into my memory as a kid. The petrol station scene (I won’t ruin it) genuinely disturbed me. And the tension throughout builds to that sequence: the single most believable portrayal of an alien abduction I have ever seen. As utterly convincing, visually impressive, and skin-crawlingly disturbing as it was when I saw it some twenty-odd years ago.
But was he abducted? Some have criticised the ambiguity of the film: it never gives us a clear yes-no answer. But I think this is the feature’s strength. The picture’s concern is how people cope with traumatic situations.
Still so fresh. Please give it a watch on Netflix.
Under the Shadow (2016) depicts a mother and daughter struggling to maintain a normal life in war-torn 1980s Tehran. After their father and husband is conscripted, Iraqi bombs start raining down. In a visually striking moment, one bomb lodges in the building’s roof: it doesn’t explode, but it seems to bring a mysterious evil with it that begins to tear the family apart.
This BAFTA award-winning horror has long been on my “must watch” list. Sadly, I’m no longer a freeloading undergraduate with cash and time to spare, so I couldn’t catch it at the cinema. Luckily, Netflix bought it — a surefire sign that the film was gold — and I got to watch it this weekend.
Called an “Iranian Babadook” due to its slow build and psychological horror element, this film holds a 7.0 on IMDB and 98% fresh on RottenTomatoes — rarely heard of scores for a horror. Foreign language? Check. Original setting? Check. Social commentary? Check. Mark Kermode approved? Check. It’s everything that a latte-supping cosmopolitan liberal like myself should love. And how I wanted to love it. But this was the single-handed most disappointing film experience I have had in years.
Where The Babadook was a nerve-shredding slowburn, Under the Shadow was just a patience-shredding slow. 82 minutes never felt so long. The film wasn’t awful: jaunts to the basement bomb shelter were creepy, the sound design was at times deeply unsettling, and the evil presence was original and truly scary. But unlike The Babadook which nigh-on perfectly balanced psychological terror, monster scares, and possible mental breakdown in a is-it-isn’t-it-real stylee, Under the Shadow just felt like a going-nowhere social commentary on the state of women in post-revolutionary Iran with a bit of bump-in-the-night thrown in. Tension wasn’t maintained, the film didn’t feel like it was headed anywhere, and our mother and daughter, strangely, never truly seem imperilled by the menacing presence. The picture juggles several themes, yet never delivers on any of them. Smaller productions often suffer from fewer rewrites, Under the Shadow is no exception: this is a screenplay crying out for another round or two of redrafting. It never fulfills the ample potential it hints at.
However, the acting, direction, clever construction, and originality save the film somewhat. Memorable, note-worthy, but sadly Under the Shadow just doesn’t hang together.
Under the Shadow (2016) sees a mother struggle to maintain a normal family life in war-torn 1980s Tehran amidst Iraqi bombs and a mysterious evil presence.
BAFTA award-winning, foreign language, original setting, social commentary, Mark Kermode-approved: everything a latte-supping cosmopolitan liberal like myself loves. Yet this Iranian The Babadook doesn’t quite work.
Where Babadook was a nerve-shredding slowburn, Under the Shadow was just a patience-shredding slow. Babbadook‘s is-it-isn’t-it-real psychological terror has been replaced with going-nowhere social commentary on feminism in post-revolutionary Iran. A truly scary “monster” and creepy apartment building can’t hide the lack of focus or peril. Disappointing.
In this post, I wanna share how I became a dedicated Star Trek fan.
Ever since I heard that a new Star Trek series (Star Trek: Discovery) was definitely for real actually happening, to be released this year, I’ve been super hyped and also a bit scared — what if it doesn’t live up to my hopes?
As you can tell, I’m a massive Trekkie… Or Trekker… whatever, I don’t care, but that’s for another post. In this post, I wanna share how I became a dedicated Star Trek fan.
I was born in 1984. When I was a kid, back in the dark days when the UK only had four channels and we heard mythical stories about how in America they had FORTY, the replays of the original Trekwere always on the telly at weekends. But I never paid attention. It was just another rubbishy show from the ’60s. It barely registered in my consciousness. I much preferred Land of the Giants(!)
Fast forward to age nine-ish. Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Trek reboot, had been running for several years and still I didn’t notice. And then one day, a season five episode came on: Cause and Effect. It involves the Starship Enterprise being stuck in a timeloop; the same catastrophe-tainted day keeps repeating itself. Think sci-fi horror version of Groundhog Day, or the film Triangle, but in space, and with dodgier make-up and production values.
I won’t ruin the episode for you. Check it out on Netflix! But it marks the sort of intelligent, mind-bending stories that were par for the course in Trek. Every time a new mindbender or time-travel flick comes out, like Looper, I love it. But I always refer people to Trek.
If you’re new to Star Trek, here’s a few more episodes you might want to take a look at (all currently available on Netflix):
The Visitor (Deep Space Nine, series 4 episode 2): another great time-travel episode.
Hard Time (Deep Space Nine, series 4 episode 18): the psychology of guilt and suffering.
In The Pale Moonlight (Deep Space Nine, series 6 episode 19): the hardship of keeping your principles in war.
Trials and Tribble-ations (Deep Space Nine, series 5 episode 6): a good example of the lighter-hearted side of Trek, which pays homage to the original series with some neat special effects.
Sadly, no matter how I wax lyrical about the virtues of Trek, nobody’s buying it. The rubber ears, the dodgy acting, the huge number of episodes where, yes, nothing really happens. Sadly, TV has moved on. There is no Trek that fits modern conventions. For example, series are now limited to around ten episodes a season, there are no “one-off” episodes, and it’s all about moving the plot forward. The closest Trek came to this, and arguably it was instrumental in pre-empting the current trend, was the Dominion War story arc from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (my favourite incarnation of Trek, for what it’s worth).
But now with Star Trek: Discovery, I hope a new Trek for a new televisual era will be born, a Trek that captures the imagination of the young as much as the new Star Wars films have, as much as that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation captured mine some twenty plus years ago.
Ah, the great tradition of the horror film remake: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, 2003), The Last House on the Left (1972, 2009), Carrie (1976, 2013), Poltergeist (1982, 2015) and now… Cabin Fever. When I first heard they’d be rebooting the thirteen year old Eli Roth flick, I thought it was an actual joke. The 2002 original was hardly a classic, and surely thirteen years was just too soon. At least with those dodgy English language remakes (Ring, Let Me In), there’s some vaguely-justifiable kind of point: more familiar actors, setting, language. Cabin Fever version 2016 might just be the most pointless remake ever.
I was at least hoping writer Randy Pearlstein would take Eli Roth’s concept in a completely different direction, give it a different spin: do a number like the Scissor Sisters did to Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb. But instead they’ve done a Madonna American Pie.
It really is the same film. A bunch of young adults go to a cabin in the woods but they all start getting mysteriously ill with a flesh-eating sickness: hence the punny title, Cabin Fever. The same horror shocks as the original (the razor scene, anybody?), the same OTT humour (violent hillbilly locals). But at least the lead characters in the Travis Zariwny directed reboot are not annoying. In fact, they’re quite believable — by horror movie standards, at least. I mean, one character does try to get help by peering in the window at a love-making couple, and promptly gets chased away for being a pervert, instead of just, y’know, knocking on the door. The slightly (like 10%) heightened realism affects the humour, too: the jokes just aren’t quite as zany and funny as the original (for example, there’s no sign of everyone’s favourite line “shootin’ niggas”).
All in all, I thought 2002 Cabin Fever was entertaining if pretty poor. I gave it two stars. 2016 Cabin Fever is still pretty funny, though not quite as much, and it’s still pretty horror-ish, yet slightly more believable. Good fun. A slight improvement over the original. But seriously: no more remakes of decade old non-classics, please. What next? A remake of Osunsanmi’s 2009 The Fourth Kind? Another Hitcher Reboot?
Nanny Cam is the tale of two parents, Linda and Mark Kessler (played by Laura Allen and Cam Gigandet), working impossible hours and struggling to raise their child. Downsize to just the two bedrooms, or find a nanny to raise their child for them? This is USA!, buddy; you know what the answer’s gotta be!
Unfortunately, super-nannies are hard to come by. But just as our young capitalists might have to consider no longer over-reaching themselves, in steps the too-good-to-be-true Heather (India Eisley) who is snapped right up. This being a film, and not real life, it turns out — oh plot twist of plot twists! — that the new nanny is too-good-to-be-true! In fact, she’s a possessive nutter hell-bent on wrecking the Kesslers’ perfect family.
Her evil behaviour, such as encouraging the daughter to funnel her creative energies into literature instead of the mother’s treasured violin (seriously), lead our couple to do what any couple would do: badly hide CCTV cameras all over the house and secretly watch literally nothing evil happen. This of course prompts the nanny to do what every jealous nanny would do in retaliation: drug the husband, in full view of camera, and ride him like a bull at the rodeo.
The plot twists come thick and fast. And the reason for Heather’s behaviour is the type of twisted genius that would make 2015 M. Knight Shyamalan cry with awe and envy, but 1999 M. Knight Shyamalan just cry.
The movie has a workable if not very original idea. It merely isn’t very well-made. I’m not sure if the actors are third-rate or whether they are just embarrassed to be taking part (which is my suspicion); either way, unconvincing lines are unconvincingly performed. Everything that’s wrong with the film can be summed up by its twist ending.
Femme fatale nanny on the coach after having made her daring (impossible?) get-away. Doddery old codger toodles up to her and says, ‘Excuse me, I hope I’m not bothering you. But he is so beautiful.’ Reveal: small new-born baby next to femme fatale. ‘Thank you. He’s called Mark. He’s named after his father’.
Why spoon-feed the audience? We’re not idiots. Just have her sat on the coach, quietly content, and then reveal the baby. We’ll put two and two together. And if you really must have the old codger dialogue (for whatever reason), just have our tempress say, ‘He’s called Mark’. Again, we’ll know that the husband is called Mark and this is likely his child. Don’t take a sledgehammer to the walnut and finish it with, ‘He’s named after his father’.
Dodgy acting, some unnatural and flabby film-school writing, this film is a mediocre realisation of an okay idea. At least Laura Allen is beautiful to look at — who would be tempted by the puppy fat of India Eisley, anyway!?