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A J. Black

Pop-culture writer/geek @cultural_convo. Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/ajblackwriter Podcast: @wemadethispod. 1st book coming 2019. Occasionally go outside.

The Girl on the Train (2016)

Adaptations of novels to film are notorious in having two schools of thought once the picture is released – those who read the novel, and those who didn’t. Mine is the second camp, though my fiancee did, and she assures me The Girl on the Train hasn’t survived the transition from page to celluloid well.

A bestseller list hit from debut novelist Paula Hawkins in 2015, The Girl on the Train was fast-tracked into production once the rights were snapped up by Hollywood. They thought they had another Gone Girl on their hands, David Fincher’s well constructed adaptation of Gillian Flynn twisted mirror on the trauma of marriage in 2014 being both a critical and commercial hit. Hawkins’ work has, on paper, plenty of the same psycho-sexual thriller elements which pitch these kind of novels as modern day versions of 80’s or 90’s sex-based thrillers that Joe Eszterhas would pen and Paul Verhoeven might direct.

Would that the film version of The Girl on the Train be so visceral. Tate Taylor, best known for emotional American drama The Help, has neither the perverted, steaming fantasy of Verhoeven or the slick, poised understanding of Hitchcockian thrills of Fincher. What could have been a modern Rear Window meets Fatal Attraction ends up being a damp squib, a plodding, leaden and un-focused film which at just 110 minutes feels more like 180. You have to wonder if it takes skill to direct and edit such a slog of a picture from source material known by many to move with far more impetus and grace.

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The Girl With All the Gifts (2016)

Intentionally moving away from many of the familiar tropes of the modern zombie movie, The Girl With All the Gifts makes its own statement as a horror picture all about children, nature and the dehumanisation of humanity.

Unusually for the production of a film based on source material, the book director Colm McCarthy adapts his movie from was written in tandem by novelist M.R. Carey, who also penned the screenplay to his adaptation. These circumstances allow for the picture to not only remain very faithful to the source material but have the fresh confidence to adapt and chart its own course, with the full involvement of the creative mind behind the project. How often do adaptations fall short because they miss the point or stray too far from the book? The Girl With All the Gifts is quite the opposite, and hits as a result.

What strikes you immediately about McCarthy’s film is how it treats the wider situation the world finds itself in. If you know the basic elements of the story going in, you know Britain at least has been overcome by a fungus strain of virus, which can infect humans via blood or fluid transmission, and turns them instantaneously into ‘hungries’; zombies, effectively, monstrous creatures who devour anything in their path and can move at speed. Only pockets of humans appear to be left, including the military officers inside the countryside British base where Carey’s story begins.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

If Rise of the Planet of the Apes was about the hubris of man bringing on its own self-destruction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes switches the gears to focus much more heavily on ape society, and how unwitting leader of their new civilisation Caesar can rule and govern a world alongside what’s left of humanity.

Following the critical and commercial success of Rise in 2011, it was expected that Rupert Wyatt would continue and develop the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the rising planet of the apes into the almost inevitable sequel. The plan between he and producer Rick Jaffa was to build back toward the story of the 1968 original Charlton Heston movie, in which his lone surviving astronaut ultimately finds himself on a future, post-apocalyptic Earth which apekind have inherited; indeed in Rise we see the launch of the Icarus, the very same space mission to Mars, more than suggesting we were heading back to a probable remake of Planet of the Apes – ignoring Tim Burton’s poor 2001 attempt.

Suddenly, Wyatt left the project late in 2012 when 20th Century Fox’s planned release date of May 2014 was deemed far too close to write, produce and direct what was already announced as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, especially considering the sheer amount of CGI work needed to put Caesar and his world on screen. Matt Reeves, still riding the success of sort-of indie, sort-of found footage, sort-of blockbuster Cloverfield in 2008 and at that point developing a Twilight Zone feature remake, was drafted in as his replacement. Reeves very much took the ideas Wyatt laid down in Rise and evolved them in a way one suspects differently from how Wyatt himself would have gone.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

One of the most interesting cinematic franchises of the last fifty years, Planet of the Apes makes a vibrant and fascinating return in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which classes itself as a reboot while holding true to the spirit of the original movies and charting its own modern day course.

Rupert Wyatt’s reimagining charts a very similar course to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes from 1972, the fourth of the original five film series after Charlton Heston famously shouted down those “damn dirty apes” in 1968’s seminal Planet of the Apes. In Conquest, the world’s pets have been destroyed by a lethal virus in the early 1990’s (here the series’ past, but the filmmakers’ future), which leads humans to begin domesticating apes as a replacement. The film even features an ape named Caesar leading a rebellion and the shouting of the word “NO!” as the first human word uttered by an ape.

Pointedly, Rise is not a remake of Conquest. It seeks to take certain essential pieces of that film’s DNA and place them in a contemporary context. This was deemed a necessary step after the critical and commercial failure of the first attempt to reimagine the franchise in Tim Burton’s awfully misjudged 2001 remake, Planet of the Apes, which sought to re-tell the Charlton Heston film for a new audience. Burton should have known better but his film fell in that strange nether zone of Hollywood blockbusters which was the early 2000’s, in which big budget cinema seemed locked in an awkward transition between brainless 90’s fare, the advent of popularised CGI, and a dearth of talented filmmakers wielding serious cinematic money.

A lot changed in 2005 & 2006 with both Batman Begins and Casino Royale, respectively. Those films, one made by an auteur and the other a stalwart, helped fashion the blockbuster landscape into one where talented filmmakers seemed to have a handle on quality scripting as well as major set pieces and computer generated effects. Rise took a big cue from Begins especially in quite how Wyatt, fresh of the low-budget but critically impressive The Escapist (2008), imagined reimagining the Apes universe and grounding the concept in more of a natural storytelling perspective than a high-concept vision of the like Burton tried and failed to achieve.

Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver is the kind of movie that could only be made by a gigantic fan of movies, and specifically the kind of stylish action pictures that characterised a film education born of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. That man is, and always has been, Edgar Wright.

Wright has taken the traditional path to making a film like Baby Driver, which feels like the pinnacle of everything he’s learned and developed cinematically since he made his first major picture, Shaun of the Dead. That wasn’t his first feature technically (that honour goes to 1995’s little known A Fistful of Fingers) and after several TV directing gigs, largely of comedy, Wright came to prominence with cult TV series Spaced in the late 1990’s, which began his signature partnership with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

Spaced has endured in the public consciousness because it was ahead of its time; a post-modern encapsulation of self-referential ‘meta’ on TV, crammed with cinematic allusions and references (heavily on Star Wars). It was a TV show made by a group of creatives who understood cinema, the touchstones, winks, nods and history. Pegg and Frost took that into their acting careers but Wright retained it for his directorial one. Shaun of the Dead was a comic roast of the George Romero zombie movie, Hot Fuzz did the same for the buddy action flick and The World’s End gamely tried, and failed, to do so for the alien invasion movie.

The so-called ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ with his old mates were safe bets for Wright. It was British comedy territory he knew and, to an extent, helped create. 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World was his first taste of bigger Hollywood, American filmmaking, and quite how his kinetic, punchy, self-effacing style would connect with that level of filmmaking. Boasting a major cast, a beloved comic-book source material and a ton of retro video game in-jokes, Scott Pilgrim has remained divisive; loved by some as a cult curio, hated by others, and many still probably never got around to seeing it.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is probably the cheekiest title Marvel have ever given one of their films, simply for the fact the subtitle is both literal and figurative. Spider-Man, probably Marvel’s most famous superhero alongside the Hulk, finally comes home with Jon Watts’ entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Sony Pictures have owned the rights to the character for many years and have made repeated attempts over the last fifteen to launch a franchise with our friendly neighbourhood web-slinger. The first time, under Sam Raimi’s direction, we had the original Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. There he fell in love with Kirsten Dunst’s Mary-Jane Watson and battled the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus and Venom (plus half a dozen more in the third film it seemed). Poor critical buzz partly put paid to a planned fourth Raimi Spider-Man film after 2008.

Then came the reboot. Out went Raimi, out went Maguire. In came upcoming star Andrew Garfield as Peter and Marc Webb, best known for the divisive (500) Days of Summer, behind the lens. Emma Stone joined as Gwen Stacy, the other well-known Peter Parker love interest, and this time he battled a new Green Goblin and, again, thanks to the power of sequelitis, half a dozen bad guys including Electro in the second film, which also Sony planned to use as a backdoor way of teeing-up a Sinister Six spin-off movie. Despite how the two leads impressed, the knives were again out critically and any chance of a trilogy died a swift death.

The famed Sony hack was the first indication they were hatching plans with Marvel to bring Peter Parker into the MCU. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out in 2014 and just two short years later, at the start of 2016, another rising star in Tom Holland popped up to portray the character in Captain America: Civil War. In a film rammed with established superheroes, within a story very much in the middle of an ongoing story arc eight years to that point in the making, Holland shone brightly immediately in his extended cameo. He *was* Spider-Man, and he was back where he always should have been.

It Comes at Night (2017)

Touted as potentially the best horror movie of the year, It Comes at Night is selling itself short to be branded in such basic terms. Horrific it can be in places, but complexity is the deeper truth Trey Edward Shults’ second picture holds at its core.

On the week of the film’s release in the UK, there has been a controversial article in The Guardian discussing the supposed nature of a new sub-genre It Comes at Night falls into: post-horror. Simply defined, these are horror movies which move past the need to scare in the conventional sense, rather soaked in existential dread and drawing you into a themed, tense, slow-build narrative. Get Out, this year, is cited as the clearest example of ‘post-horror’, as is David Lowery’s upcoming A Ghost Story. The term, however, is a poor misnomer; as a good friend of mine aptly put it to me today, “horror is horror. End of”.

It Comes at Night is not a horror film, and to declare as much is by no means suggesting it shouldn’t be. Horror is one of the defining genres of cinema, indeed it has been ever since people first married sound to image and realised the capacity to scare, such as FW Murnau in the original Nosferatu in 1922. Ninety plus years on, horror is one of the most varied and lucrative genres of film in existence, a genre ripe for fascinating experimentation and thematic depth. You can do almost anything in horror, as the most skilled filmmakers often prove. Much like Jordan Peele’s aforementioned Get Out however, Shults gives us a varied fusion of several different genres.

Preaching to the Perverted (1997)

Like many films made during the 1990’s with the benefit of retro hindsight, there is something enormously of its time about Preaching to the Perverted, while at the same time managing to still strike a naughty chord twenty years on.

The 90’s were an unusual decade. It had freed itself of the capitalist Republicanism of the Reagan era in the US and the culturally divisive powerhouse of Thatcherism in the UK which dominated a 1980’s filled on the one hand with bright Coca Cola ads, synthetic pop music and post-modern hairstyles, and on the other the depressing reality of stark union action in workplaces, crippling unemployment and a social mobility gap ever widening. The 1990’s saw a triumphant return, at least politically, for a spell of liberal democracy; New Labour came to power under the Tony Blair cult of personality the same year Preaching to the Perverted arrived, while the biggest challenge to trouble Bill Clinton’s presidency came, literally, under his Oval Office desk.

A decade recovering from austerity yet retaining the capitalist homogeny of American pop culture, wedged between a decade to come of post-9/11 political terror and a gradual return to the right-wing technocracy of the 2010’s. In other words, in the 1990’s, we never knew we had it so good. The same could be applied sexually too. Consider the amount of erotic thrillers that troubled Hollywood that decade – from Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct, Madonna and all the candle wax in Body of Evidence, and that frankly weird one, Color of Night, most memorable for an aquatic glimpse of Bruce Willis’ junk. Sex was all over American cinema that decade in perhaps more direct, skin-baring ways than we’d ever seen before.

Preaching to the Perverted is not an erotic thriller but it is one concerned with that mix of liberal democracy and where politics sits in the landscape of kink. Stuart Urban’s film is almost punk in a post-punk landscape, primarily through its central character Tanya Cheex (Guinevere Turner) putting two fingers directly in the direction of the BBFC and an Establishment it seeks, through its story, to reject and rebel against at every turn. There is something of a knowing, satirical wink throughout, admittedly; it’s not as angry as it could have been, nor is it absurd. It’s probably as close as you could get to a John Waters movie in the UK, though, and by its very nature that makes it wilfully anti-establishmentarian.

Carnage (2017)

As mockumentaries go, Carnage may well be the first one to genuinely lampoon the culture of veganism while also making a very powerful, liberal prescient point.

Simon Amstell is a British stand-up comedian, probably best known as former host of popular BBC music panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His first film as writer and director, Amstell doesn’t appear but provides near-constant narration as the omnipresent guide through a ‘future history’ where the vegan has inherited the Earth. Set in 2067, in a United Kingdom where the very idea of eating meat is an abhorrent abomination to an almost-utopian, youthful society, Amstell’s fake documentary tells the story of how we went from a savage, carnivorous culture to an enlightened, animal-loving species. If you’re laughing at the absurdity of this, that’s ok. That’s the intention.

And yet, Carnage is noticeably pro-vegan while being enormously capable of mocking the pretension of a following which, historically, has found itself tethered to the hippy, new age trail. Amstell, who wrote as well as directed this, is as keen to highlight the madness of being a meat-eater as well as enjoyably sending up the intense vegan legions who, in this future, are considered the norm. You may be surprised to hear Amstell, in doing so, utilises almost as much stock footage from a range of sources pre-2017 as he does future scenarios beyond the present day. It helps make his point.

Headshot (2016)

Headshot is a direct consequence of two distinct elements: the growing, exciting Indonesian film industry and the existence of The Raid and its even better sequel.

Exploding onto Western screens in 2011, The Raid: Redemption was both a career launching picture for star Iko Uwais and director Gareth Evans, but felt like an adrenaline-fuelled shot in the arm to a genre which, if not stale, perhaps needed the window opening. Evans and Uwais essentially trademarked the use on screen of Pencak Silat, a traditional Indonesian martial art which, according to Wikipedia, is “a full-body fighting form incorporating strikes, grappling and throwing in addition to weaponry.” In short, every part of the body is both susceptible to and used for, attack. This made The Raid a wanton fury of intense close-quarter combat sequences, packed into a tight, contained, building under siege story.

In continuing the narrative, after The Raid’s surprise hailing as a modern action classic by Western audiences excited for more, Evans with The Raid 2 switched gears to deliver what to many is considered ‘The Godfather of action movies’. Perhaps praise too high, but as with any great sequel it takes the composite blocks and builds on them, with shades of Michael Mann crime world complexity until Uwais is let completely off the chain for a barnstorming final succession of action sequences as his character Rama, quite literally, fights big boss after big boss in a video-game stylee. It’s as bravura as it is ridiculous, but both The Raid movies made their mark on modern action cinema and cemented Indonesia as a player to rival Hong Kong when it comes to slick, thrilling action pictures.