Retro review: Monsters: Dark continent

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In 2010 Gareth Edwards came bursting onto the scene with Monsters. It was a remarkable effort for the writer and director’s debut feature film, not least because it had the appearance of a huge Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster when in fact it was an independent film with a budget under half a million dollars, which still sounds a lot but pales in comparison to other contemporary monster films. For instance, Edwards’ next feature Godzilla (2014) had a budget of $160 million and the cgi is pretty much indistinguishable.

Monsters had a tiny crew with the very talented Edwards taking on multiple production roles and it was shot guerrilla style meaning that they didn’t always have permission to film and many of the extras just happened to be in the area they were filming. So even without considering the originality of the film itself it is apparent that this film is incredibly interesting for fans of cinema.

Despite the title and the amazing special effects, this film wasn’t really about the alien creatures that the director added in to the Mexican skyline in post production. Instead the Rogue One director has stated that he intended to create a film about humans and how life goes on after a devastating event, he created a film that begins years after most monster movies end, and the result is a film which is almost mundane and ordinary compared to other apocalyptic science fiction but nonetheless has this extraordinary backdrop. This might not be the film for you if you are a typical monster-movie fan.

Five years later, the film got a sequel with the fairly ridiculous subtitle “dark continent” and it was almost universally panned. The film actually passed me by during it’s initial release although I am a big fan of the aforementioned Monsters. Gareth Edwards didn’t return to direct this although he was an executive producer. It seems his involvement may have been very limited however by his commitment to Godzilla (2014) and some have linked his absence to the failure of the film.

One unfair criticism of Monsters: Dark Continent is that it doesn’t focus on the monsters or make much use out of them. This is a very odd invention of a war film with a few monsters thrown in for seemingly no reason. But to follow in the footsteps of it’s predecessor it had to normalise the monsters, it was right to make them part of the scenery. It’s a shame however that the war story at the heart of this film isn’t very exciting or thought-provoking. It’s quite boring and that long run time feels even longer. Unlike the earlier film, it’s hard to care about the characters or relate to their situation. It’s not even very clear what they are trying to achieve or what they are fighting for, which I guess could be a political point about war. Still, there’s nothing to enjoy in this film as there was with Monsters.

Monsters (2010)  green-gun-icon

Monsters: Dark Continent (2015)  gun-icongun-icongun-icongun-icon

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Trainspotting/T2 double review

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After watching T2 Trainspotting last month I left the cinema in awe and wonder, having watched what I would describe as a masterpiece in tone, writing and beautiful cinema-making, and I made a resolution to revisit the 1996 original, both to re-experience the special quality of the first film, driven by the incredible nostalgia ignited by T2, and also to see whether retrospectively the film lives up to its reputation and matches the sequel in quality of filmmaking. Yes, you read that right. I wanted to see if Trainspotting was as good as the sequel.

Every review compares the new film to the predecessor. It’s impossible not to reference the Danny Boyle classic since this film is a nostalgia trip for fans of the original and a personal project for the director and the actors to return to the characters and the story that represent such a key point in their career. There is so much love for that film that it stands to reason that there would be enormous pressure on a sequel and that most critics would be pessimistically hoping the new film would meet expectations rather than entertaining the idea that it might be better. I wouldn’t want to say that either film is better but I would say that Danny Boyle has grown as a director getting better and better. I spent a good hour of T2 amazed at every single sequence, every shot was perfect and as I say the result was beautiful. That’s not an adjective I would use for Trainspotting.

At this point I should say that prior to watching T2 I only saw Trainspotting once and it was several years ago. It wasn’t quite 21 years ago though as I would have been 7 years old and probably not the right age to appreciate this dark, tragic and comic, hard-hitting drama. After watching the film a second time, I can tell you that the film still packs a punch and even on the second viewing it still manages to shock, but to say the film isn’t any less relevant would be a lie. The film is still brilliant but what made the film so culturally significant was how it became embedded in popular culture, how it shaped British cinema, how it summed up a culture at that time. It would be foolish to try and recreate that film today.

There are many moments in the film that are repulsive. The controversies are not just plain to see but are pounced upon and stretched as far as they can go, not for the sake of selling tickets but to aim for truth and a real sense of tragedy. But for all the horrible emotions this film stirs there is a real heart and likability to the cult classic, whether you’re from Leith and know first hand the world these characters inhibit, or you’re American, middle-class and privileged. I believe that everyone can relate to these characters and considering the dark circumstances they represent that is astonishing. Boyle’s superb use of music and the undercurrent of dark humour probably has something to do with it.

The tone created in that original film was fantastic so it is surprising that a completely different tone is established in the sequel. Actually it’s not that surprising given I already said it would be foolish to recreate Trainspotting today. T2 is nostalgic and self-referential, written for fans of the first film, made to revisit the 1990s fondly and bring back pleasant and not so pleasant memories, but it is also a very different beast, a film that has no intention of emulating its predecessor or copying the past. This is not like Jurassic World or The force awakens, both of which play on nostalgia and end up being remakes of their predecessors (very good remakes but still remakes). No, Danny Boyle has taken what would inevitably be a central focus in this film, the ideas of nostalgia and ageing, and made this the key themes in his new drama. This film doesn’t share the same hard-hitting subject of the earlier masterpiece but it is nonetheless a brilliant exploration of getting old and not growing wiser, of returning to face your demons and of struggling with change and no change.

I can easily understand why some critics feel that it doesn’t live up to the first film. But in truth, comparing the two films as I have done, is a little meaningless. If not for the continuous references to the earlier work, the two could be seen as entirely separate works. And I saw the film with people who hadn’t seen the first film who seemed to enjoy it enormously. I doubt in fact that they would have shown similar admiration for the other film, which is overall a much harder watch. T2 is still dark and comic but probably funnier in tone and slightly less controversial. Popular music is as ever with Danny Boyle put to excellent use but to my mind this film is far more polished and shows a wealth of experience that has amassed over the last two decades. But as I say it is churlish to compare the two.

The insider: 1999 retro review

This is my second retro review, one of a series of posts which will review films that were released years ago, possibly just a few years old or possibly decades. I will most likely be reviewing them because I have just seen them on television for the first time, in which case they will be new to me and possibly very old to you, but whether my viewing is a first-time watch or a revisit of an old classic, my review will place the film in a modern context, assess how the film has aged and possibly draw comparisons with more recent offerings.

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The Insider received almost universal praise from critics in 1999 and was nominated for many awards including oscars for best picture, best director, actor and cinematography. But I’m afraid I would describe it as passable entertainment at best and therefore condemn it as being neither good nor bad enough to watch and not really interesting enough to be worthy of any busy persons life.

So to be fair, the acting is good all round and Russell Crowe probably deserved his nomination, although Pacino really bulldozes his way into the leading actor position. The film tells the interesting story of Jeffery Wigand who appeared on the news programme ’60 minutes’ in the mid-90s to reveal secrets of the tobacco industry despite the legal efforts of his former employers, and indeed the film makes the story interesting. But I challenge anyone who saw the film in 1999 to recall anything about it a decade or two later.

It’s a long film with some reasonable tension and a few nicely moody scenes but it’s really relying on plot and acting, which as far as I’m concerned may as well be a play. Context may also be an issue here as this film came out in the fairly recent aftermath of the real events that inspired it. I’m sure that the revelation of the tobacco industry actively making their cigarettes even more addictive was genuinely shocking in the 1990s but 20 years later we’ve come to expect far worse from big tobacco and other big business. The Insider is supposedly telling the story of Wigand but even then more interest was paid to the journalist Bergman and his fallout with CNN, in other words the cover up by the media gave the story more legs, which certainly is still relevant in today’s climate.

Recommended post: Based on true events

As interesting as the story might have been at that time, the film offers very little impact watching in 2017 and I would struggle to remember any details this time next week. The film is obviously a big criticism of the tobacco companies, smoking in general, the integrity of big media companies and the corrupt system of that time, but it’s nowhere near as thought-provoking as Thank you for Smoking, which was released six years later, a film I can highly recommend and will always remember.

Left behind. 2014 Retro review

This is my first retro review, a start to a series of posts which will review films that were released years ago, possibly just a few years old or possibly decades. I will most likely be reviewing them because I have just seen them on television for the first time, in which case they will be new to me and possibly very old to you, but I will try and and offer a fresh perspective as well as guidance for those who may watch in future.

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And we start with a stinker from 2014, as Nicholas Cage films tend to be these days, one that you could say is an easy target and has no shortage of bad reviews already out there. With a score of 3.1/10 on imdb and just 2% approval rating on rotten tomatoes, it is obvious that Left behind (2014) is bad and I should have watched the other channel but you may say I’m a glutton for punishment, my philosophy is terrible films make you appreciate the best, and also to be a great filmmaker you must learn from the mistakes of others.

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But I didn’t just watch this turkey to be inspired by its failures, I was genuinely intrigued by its mythology inspired premise, the harrowing scenario of half the world’s population disappearing, an exploration of what it would be like to be left behind. I thought it would be at the least interesting, and even if the writers were committed to a personal view point on the Christian mythology, they could still offer a frightening and thought-provoking take on what it would be like to be left in this world after the rapture. For if you’re an evangelical Christian, the fear of being left behind must be greater than if you didn’t believe, the understanding of what it meant to be refused into heaven would surely be greater, so there are no better writers than those who believe in the rapture to convey the terrifying consequences of being abandoned by God and left without hope.

So it is actually a stunning achievement that this film manages to relay hardly any horror or suspense. The thought that I should repent for my own sins was never going to enter my mind in this film that is essentially about regret. The majority opinion is that this film is Christian propaganda for belief in the rapture, which for reasons explained above would not necessarily make this film uninteresting, but I’m not so sure the film is as committed to the mythology as much as the writers of film and novel. You see the film has to make us identify with its main characters or else how can we feel their suffering, how can we remain interested after the rapture has taken place, and yet these characters are also sinners and we need to understand why they have been left. The film falls drastically short of providing enough backstory and complex characterisation to allow the audience to either judge the characters, feel sorry for their predicament or care about their future. For me, the film holds back on judging the sinfulness or justifying the rapture. It offers several lousy reasons for being left behind, everything from gambling to following the wrong religion, and at one point questions why a loving God would divide loving families, and yet the whole film seems to have very little opinion on anything.

I think that the film is trying to be thought-provoking rather than preaching but it becomes much more of the latter very early on. In the opening of the film, one of the main characters asks why God would send natural disasters only to save some people and let others die and this is never truly answered although this very understandable reasoning of doubting God’s existence is the only reason given for at least one character not being invited to heaven. The film never has anyone question how unfair God is, hardly anyone seems to regret their life choices and even though there are people of faith and people who are kind also left behind, there’s no more sympathy towards them than other characters. Essentially the film is like a really boring weather warning telling you what will happen but not how to feel about it.

I watched the film all the way to the end, which means even with the slow pace and lack of tension, it wasn’t unbearable so if you have time for bad movies give it a go, but I’ll warn you the ending is particularly flat, setting up a sequel that will probably never see the light of day. Try not to mind the gaping plot holes and silly logic, this is a film that comes from taking the bible literally after all. I questioned why all children are presumed innocent when the bible says that you are born with sin and not all children are baptised. I question why after the rapture everyone left behind immediately starts looting and chaos so quickly escalates when so very few modern Christians take the bible literally and it would be hard to argue that everyone left would even be the worst of mankind. And seeing as this film fails to raise or answer many interesting questions, it falls down to the viewer to really try hard to think about the consequence and pitfalls of this Christian myth.