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The home of writer & author A. J. BLACK

Adaptations of Frederick Forsyth novels quite possibly peaked too soon with 1975’s The Day of the Jackal, arguably the thriller writer’s most renowned work, far more so than The Dogs of War.

In some ways it feels unfair to compare the two, given they tread different geopolitical waters, but you always know what you’re getting with a Forsyth story. A global travelogue, international espionage and intrigue, a shady hero (or anti-hero) and lots of old, powerful men plotting conspiracies behind closed doors. John Irvin’s adaptation of The Dogs of War is right in that wheelhouse and does exactly what it says on the Forsyth tin, often indeed in a rather formulaic and forgettable way. Even the initial Shakespearean allusions and a flicker of post-The Deer Hunter psychological trauma for Christopher Walken’s central mercenary James Shannon isn’t really sustained as The Dogs of War descends into the muck and mire of shadowy corruption.

Ultimately, The Dogs of War as a piece doesn’t quite warrant the pedigree of those who have assembled before it in front of and behind the camera.

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There is an unexpected amount of talent involved in And Soon the Darkness, which could easily otherwise be considered a throwaway exploitation B-picture from late 60’s/early 70’s cinema, yet makes it a surprisingly effective piece of suspense.

The script is co-written by Brian Clemens and Terry Nation, for a start. Clemens was one of the key producers involved in developing cult 1960’s TV series The Avengers and would go on in the 70’s to develop horror and suspense tales on ITV with his successful series Thriller, becoming a major producing name in the process. Nation, famously, would create not just Blake’s-7 but also the legendary Daleks, Doctor Who’s most iconic race of villains who have become a key popular culture touchstone in science-fiction television over the last half century. Composer Laurie Johnson also created the well-known Avengers theme while director Robert Fuest was also ported over from the same show.

And Soon the Darkness therefore benefits from an array of talented individuals putting their talents to use on what otherwise is quite a stripped back, simple concept. Two young nurses on holiday, Jane & Cathy, played by Pamela Franklin (previously nominated for an BAFTA for her role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and Michele Dotrice (daughter of Shakespearean stage actor Roy, sister of Disney child darling Karen, and eventual sitcom star as Betty Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em with Michael Crawford), are cycling through the empty, northern French countryside and when one of them disappears, the other finds herself alone and surrounded by mysterious, shady locals in her efforts to discover the truth about what may have become of her.

Though not quite Hitchcockian in its construction and thrills, And Soon the Darkness uses this pedigree to construct a tale which steadily and quite skilfully unfurls.

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Peter Collinson is one of the lost, potentially great cult British directors who never was, for various reasons (principally his death at a young age), and while Fright is a flawed piece of work, you can see and feel the influence it had on 1970’s exploitation cinema, particularly in Britain.

Collinson is best known for 1969’s legendary crime caper The Italian Job, but that is a picture which most people primarily associate with Michael Caine as a key cultural touchstone of the Swinging Sixties, not to mention the iconic Mini Coopers. Unlike other pictures of the period, 2001: A Space Odyssey, say, which first and foremost people would associate with Stanley Kubrick, Peter Collinson was a mere component of The Italian Job’s success in the eyes of many and found his talent as a helmsman overshadowed by the colour and style of that picture. Had things turned in a different direction, Collinson’s follow up might have ended up more anticipated as well as venerated.

As befits someone who was prone to experimentation, Collinson completely changes tack with Fright, a picture about as distant from the Europe-hopping caper of The Italian Job as you could probably imagine. Susan George as a teenage babysitter looking after the young child of middle class couple George Cole and Honor Blackman in a big, old fashioned house, who finds herself terrified and menaced by Ian Bannen’s escaped psychopath. Collinson probably didn’t realise it at the time but Fright is, unexpected, a British forerunner of the American slasher sub-genre in the broader horror context that would be mainstreamed and popularised by Halloween at the end of the same decade, before spawning a legion of imitators and sequels that would define 80’s horror.

Why, in that case, is Fright not better known within both the annals of cult, horror or British cinema?

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When in 2012 the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, arrived on the landscape, it suggested a conclusion to a series which defied convention. Batman doesn’t simply defeat the villain and live to protect Gotham City another day. He has to die (or at the least the symbol of him has to die) in order to save his city, only not from a conventional villain we are often used to in comic-book cinema. Batman ‘dies’ to thwart a revolutionary.

The character of Bane, so memorably essayed by Tom Hardy, was as unprecedented an antagonist as Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is the iconic Joker in the recent film of the same name. Bane had appeared previously, in 1997’s camp, rubbery Batman & Robin, but as a brainless henchman who could do little more than bellow his own name; part of a movie which epitomised the pre-Nolan, indeed pre-Marvel, excess of a cinematic sub-genre which was considered as tacky and disposable as comic-books long were themselves – with a few notable exceptions, such as Tim Burton’s original Batman or Richard Donner’s iconic Superman. Yet even those films, as skilled as they are, were married to convention. DC Comics’ tortured or incognito superheroes would protect their cities from a villain bent on world domination or destruction, not to mention on unmasking their secret identities.

Nolan’s Batman films entirely changed that paradigm. They played off the success of particularly the X-Men franchise, which deigned to take seriously its spandex-clad meta-humans and wrap their colourful, science-fiction worlds with real social and political undertones. From Batman Begins, in which Nolan re-conceptualises Bruce Wayne’s origin story without breaking from canon, through to The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan charts a clear and definable arc not just for Batman but for Gotham City itself. Each of the trilogy has the hero, the villain, the supporting players and the other major character – the city. Gotham. A representation and microcosm of our world today. Nolan’s chief interest in Batman was not simply recapturing Joel Schumacher’s cod-60’s derring-do, but using the Caped Crusader and his world as a framework to show the corruption and self-destruction of modern capitalist democracy.

While a film lacking the breadth, scope and grandeur of The Dark Knight trilogy, Todd Phillips’ Joker picks up the gauntlet Nolan laid down in this respect. It feels like the natural yet grotesque culmination of Nolan’s revolutionary thesis.

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Hosted by author Duncan Barrett, Primitive Culture is a Star Trek history and culture podcast we co-created in 2017 on the Trek FM networking, looking at the 50+ year old franchise through the lens of our world today.

In this episode, Duncan and I discuss the difference between revivals and reboots on television, particularly in Star Trek – how The Motion Picture revived the 60’s TV series and the manner it did so in the late 1970’s, through to how it filtered down into the 80’s, quite how JJ Abrams rebooted the franchise in the late 2000’s, and whether Discovery and Picard fall into these camps.

A good, free-ranging discussion, this one, with lots of discussion about Trek old *and* new, with some speculation along the way…

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Somebody on Twitter suggested the tagline for Gemini Man should have been “where there’s a Will, there’s a Will” which not only made me laugh but also could aptly describe Ang Lee’s rather uncanny picture.

Gemini Man infamously resided in Hollywood’s so-called ‘development hell’ for two decades, with Darren Lemke’s idea snapped up by producer Jerry Bruckheimer as far back as 1997. It filtered through multiple directors over the years such as Curtis Hanson and Joe Carnahan, not to mention a galaxy of Hollywood megastars including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, even at one time, err, Chris O’Donnell. The list goes on. It even cycled through half a dozen writers – Billy Ray, Andrew Niccol, Brian Helgeland. Gemini Man, in other words, has been through the wringer across twenty years in which mainstream cinema has significantly changed, not being made principally because studios didn’t believe the technology to duplicate a younger version of their headline star was quite there.

Fast forward to the late 2010’s, a world of VR headsets, advanced home computer devices and CG technology which can paint a picture like Avengers: Endgame, in which a legion of superheroes go to war against a super-villain and his space army. If ever there was a time to make Gemini Man, it was now, yet who two decades ago would have imagined Ang Lee—principally a darling of thoughtful character-driven deconstruction—as the director to develop such a high concept as international assassin Will Smith doing battle with his younger, cloned self, all part of an insidious conspiracy within the Defence Intelligence Agency to develop the next generation of soldier hardware. This might have ended up in the hands of a Tony Scott or Roger Spottiswoode had it been made earlier.

The answer lies in the fact Gemini Man, for all it’s action thriller trappings, secretly wants to be a philosophical family drama. It just spends much of the running time trying to convince you otherwise.

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While billed as a Breaking Bad movie, El Camino falls between two stools. With a two hour running time and a solo Netflix slot, along with an element of theatrical release, Vince Gilligan’s film technically fits the bill of a motion picture but, ultimately, El Camino never misses a step in how it syncs up with its parent show.

Gilligan reputedly had the idea of how to continue the story of Jesse Pinkman, Aaron Paul’s hapless dropout turned meth-cooking, streetwise junkie, while shooting the final season of Breaking Bad back in 2013. He kept it under wraps until they approached the 10th anniversary of the series before electing to push ahead and make it happen, alongside production of still-airing prequel series Better Call Saul. Gilligan has consistently now played in his Breaking Bad universe for over a decade and while Better Call Saul is yet to reach an end point, El Camino very much draws a line under the post-Season 5 future of Breaking Bad. This is the coda you never imagined you needed.

Or perhaps you may have thought along the same lines as Gilligan, who always wanted to know what happened to Jesse after he escaped Neo-Nazi captivity thanks to his old mentor Walter White in series finale Felina, screaming away in torment at the wheel of the titular Camino to an uncertain, open-ended future. Walt’s fate had long been sealed as Breaking Bad’s complicated anti-hero protagonist but Jesse, often, served as the vulnerable, manipulated humanity at the heart of the series. To have him escape horrendous suffering and deep psychological trauma and not find out what became of him does, in retrospect, feel like a lost opportunity. El Camino very much takes advantage of that.

As a result, Gilligan gives us closure, maybe as much for himself as Jesse Pinkman.

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