Movie Review: TESLA

★ ★ 1/2

Such is the latent tragic power of 19th century genius Nikola Tesla that he remains an enigmatic figure of fascination, as Michael Almereyda’s offbeat biopic suggests.

In 2003, a group of founders including the now infamous billionaire Elon Musk launched Tesla Motors Inc, what would later become Tesla, and emerge as the world’s foremost provider of electric vehicles and clean energy in the modern world. Musk’s well known aspirations as one of this centuries technological pioneers, not to mention his eccentric reputation, all stem from the influence of the original Tesla, the tentacles of his unique, imaginative and ultimately rejected scientific concepts stretching across more than a century. Almereyda’s take on the man’s life, the first dramatic biopic after a recent 2016 documentary (and indeed an appearance by him in Doctor Who), is designed to remind us of his genius.

Inevitably, however, this being an Almereyda picture, Tesla refuses to be a straight down the line, traditional historical portrait, and rather an avant garde, often wilfully navel-gazing depiction of lost greatness.

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Movie Review: SHE DIES TOMORROW

★ ★ 1/2

Anxiety is a monster, especially unchecked, and Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is the ultimate expression of the condition as a horrific construct.

Based in no small part on Seimetz’ experiences, and funded thanks to her role in the remake of Pet Sematary, she crafts a personal, if often quite ponderous, picture. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), so named after Seimetz in case the autobiographical aspects are unclear, has just bought a house in Los Angeles but is crippled by a strange sense of existential dread, convinced that she will, as the title suggests, die tomorrow. Her friend Jane (Jane Adams), who calls to congratulate her, at first finds her unnerving conviction ridiculous but slowly she succumbs to the same escalating feeling of doom. Almost akin to a virus, Amy’s unshakeable belief ripples across her circle of friends and contacts before building to devastating consequences.

You might feel She Dies Tomorrow is, from this description, a low-key horror movie. It’s not. Nor is it a comedy, as has been billed. It’s neither, and both, and unable to figure out quite what it is, all rolled into one.

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Movie Review: THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

★ ★ 1/2

Dementia serves as a cruel indulgence in Sally Potter’s latest introspective wallow, The Roads Not Taken, a short but thankfully sweeter film than her last.

Potter is, to put it mildly, a hit and miss director, though to just call her by that title is to dismiss the powerful, all-consuming role she plays in her films. In this one alone, she writes, co-edits and scores the film, besides directing. She plays one of the main parts too in The Tango Lesson. A film by Potter really is, soup to nuts, a film by Potter, and The Roads Not Taken is no exception. She brings most of her pictures in tightly – this is eighty minutes, her last film The Party a mere seventy-one. There is a welcome economy to Potter’s work, a brevity which other filmmakers would do well to import, but despite this a film by Potter often feels longer than the running time. Again, The Roads Not Taken, an intentionally fragmented, insular and personal work, is no exception.

Leo (a somber Javier Bardem) is a middle-aged man suffering from advanced dementia as he is visited by his loyal daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), and the film charts the course of their journey across one day, as Molly takes Leo for medical checkups and must cope with his physical and psychological deterioration in public and around professionals. Simultaneously, while trapped in the mental prison of his condition, Leo plays out several parallel versions of his past, including a life in rural Mexico with his ex-wife Dolores (Salma Hayek), and a visit to Greece, alone, where he becomes obsessed with following a group of young women, one of whom reminds him strongly of his daughter. A third parallel life, which would have seen Leo living with his male partner (played by Chris Rock) in New York, was filmed but cut from the picture entirely. 

Potter’s film nonetheless interweaves these three journeys for Leo as he tries to contextualise his experience with great difficulty.

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Movie Review: TENET

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Tenet is the first film in which Christopher Nolan winks to the audience that he, too, understands what a Christopher Nolan film is.

How else to explain that John David Washington’s lead character is not just referenced as The Protagonist, but he describes himself as such at multiple points during the film. Washington’s mysterious, super-trained, probable CIA spy describes people he fights as ‘antagonists’ and positions himself directly at the centre of a narrative in which Nolan culminates everything you would expect from him as a director.

A high concept idea which glances toward the realm of science-fiction, mind-bending physics, powerful technology, concepts of futurism born from theoretical ideas, relentlessly thundering sound design and practical effects where possible. If Nolan appreciates he is making the most ‘Nolan’ movie ever, in contrast to Dunkirk which eschewed his penchant for dialogue driven escapism, then The Protagonist ultimately has a level of hyper-awareness core to his nature.

This is key to Tenet’s palindromic construction, one replete with a narrative that bends in on itself thanks to the fascinating, ‘Nolanian’ gambit of ‘time inversion’ or a level of reversed ‘entropy’. “Don’t try to understand it” suggests Clemence Poesy’s scientist early on, and that’s Nolan speaking to his audience. Just go with it. Allow the inversion to pull you along because it does, for the most part, make sense by the end.

Many will be telling you that Tenet is a puzzle box that leaves you baffled and while, granted, several rewatches might be necessary to get it all straight, as ever in a Nolan film the pieces are in front of us to be observed. His continued prestige, his belief that we want to be fooled, is the key to how he constructs his pictures. In this case, however, The Protagonist—as the inversion himself of an archetype—is clued into the game. He may not understand it all until the end but he knows, at least, that he has a role to play in the grand tapestry of the tale.

These constructs, and the sheer, epic, bravura joy of seeing Nolan weave everything together, is why Tenet is—Dunkirk’s side step notwithstanding—Nolan’s best picture since The Dark Knight.

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Film Review: BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC

★ ★ ★

The good news is that while Bill & Ted Face the Music isn’t excellllllent!, it certainly is far from bogus.

Frankly, it should have been. Resurrecting a series almost three decades after the previous picture is hardly a recipe often for success. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey are so inextricably tethered to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that the idea those characters, and that world, could be revived seems unfathomable. Surely too much has changed? Are we not too cynical to embrace the sweet-natured, MTV generation, latent stoner-kid reverie of films that could not more epitomise the comfort of America’s cultural hegemony at the end of the 20th century if they tried? As it turns out, that is kind of why Bill Preston and Ted Logan’s third outing works so well.

The original films were infused with innocence, trading on established cultural cliches that Western audiences understood and appreciated. Bill and Ted were less dim-witted than amiable, optimistic teenagers who simply wanted to play music, hang out and be excellent to each other, and those films pointedly project their kind, collegiate mindset in the direction of a utopian future that seemed achievable to an America sailing out of the long Cold War. Bill and Ted literally inspired a future build on concepts of friendship, goodness and learning, almost antithetically to their middle-class ‘dude bro’ avoidance of school and learning, which underscored the point: being yourselves, being happy, partying on and caring for one another can make a better future.

It therefore fits that Bill & Ted Face the Music, thirty years on into a decaying century, actively attempts to throw such a utopian mindset in doubt, but counters the prevailing mood by suggesting we can, actually, do better.

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Movie Review: I USED TO GO HERE

★ ★ ★ 1/2

One wonders if Gillian Jacobs is not exorcising some Community demons by taking the lead role in I Used to Go Here, which works as an extension of her name-making sitcom persona.

While stars of television drama often make a fairly seamless transition to the big screen, stars of iconic sitcoms can find the move difficult. Community, arguably, carved a niche in popular culture over the last decade as one of America’s biggest sitcoms, and Jacobs was a consistent part of the ensemble across all six seasons. With the persistently rumoured big screen version still mere fantasy, Jacobs hasn’t had the broader platform to portray her character Britta Perry that could have boosted her status as an actor. She has worked steadily developing her own projects as a director and appearing on both the big and small screen, but Kris Rey’s feature is the first example of Jacobs carrying a movie.

It makes a degree of sense that Jacobs chooses to parlay a proportion of the Britta character into I Used to Go Here, where she plays newly-published fiction writer Kate Conklin, a woman buoyed by her achievement but losing at life. Her book tour has been cancelled due to poor sales, the New York Times gives her a scathing review, and she’s recently split from an unseen fiancé who appears to have very swiftly moved on. Listless, Kate is invited by David Fitzpatrick, her charming writing professor at her Illinois alma mater (played by a roguish Jemaine Clement), to do a reading of her book and observe the creative writing students in his class with a view to taking a permanent position. Fuelled in part by the student crush she had on David, returns to her old yards, only to realise that the halcyon youth of college and promise have faded, and the experience reinforces her own uncertain place in the world.

This description does not match the tone of I Used to Go Here, which rather than a dour existential examination of youth’s decay, instead projects rather a hopeful message wrapped around a leisurely, relaxed sensibility, if boasting a slightly uneven tone at points.

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How does DJANGO UNCHAINED look, revisited, in 2020?

In an upcoming episode of my podcast Motion Pictures, I revisit Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, one year on from his ninth film being debated, discussed and dismantled by a hungry film-going populous. We discuss several of the film’s controversies, including how Tarantino represents Bruce Lee and ultimately approaches diversity in general… which brings me to his seventh movie, 2012’s Django Unchained.

Having missed the film in cinemas during 2012 (I have no idea why), I first enjoyed Django in the spring of 2014 and hadn’t seen it since, so with Tarantino back in the mind’s eye, it felt like a good point to take another run at a film that Spike Lee openly pilloried for the use of the ‘n’ word at the time, part of an ongoing back and forth with QT about how he portrays people of colour. I wondered if Django Unchained might have taken on new shades in the tumultuous shadows of the second half of the 2010’s.

First though, here’s what I made of it back in 2014 on first viewing…

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Movie Review: BABYTEETH

Rarely do you see the overpowering presence of grief played out in advance of death, but Babyteeth quietly conveys an unfolding tragedy with an edgy, uncharacteristic confidence.

The debut feature from director Shannon Murphy, based on a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais (itself adapted from her own stage play), Babyteeth centres on Milla (Eliza Scanlan), an Australian teenager terminally ill with cancer who by chance meets young, ragged drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace), who crashes into the middle-class life of Milla and her disaffected, slightly broken parents Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), aiding an emotional and sexual awakening for Milla as she teeters on the edge of her own existence, and adds to the cauldron of tragedy Milla’s parents are repressing and restricting as they face down the inevitable.

This description makes Babyteeth sound more incendiary and overtly dramatic than it actually is, as Murphy’s film eschews melodrama where possible in favour of slowly decrypting Milla’s traumatic journey to acceptance, contrasted with her parents inability to cope with the devastating loss ahead of them. It is far more of a mournful coming of age story than anything else.

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HOST is the next step in found footage horror

Found footage is my favourite genre of horror. Truth be told, horror isn’t my go to genre generally when it comes to film, and I appreciate purists may baulk at a movie like Host, but it’s catnip to me.

Host appears to have caught the imagination of the huddled masses this summer, starved as they are of new content for the most part thanks to the Covid-19 enforced lockdown. It has been trending across social media for a few weeks. It is in pride of place on horror streaming service Shudder. It even was featured in a segment for The Economist, appearing on its daily podcast The Intelligence (which I heartily recommend for a current affairs snapshot), which is where I first heard about it strangely. Not in the pages of Fangoria or even something as highbrow as Sight & Sound, but rather a publication dedicated to examining society through the lens of economics. It could appear a bizarre fit but it perhaps suggests that projects such as Host, and the found footage lineage they are part of, can often serve as a financial boon to the horror genre, and can break out into the mainstream, as it appears Host has done.

What Host certainly does, even if in a relatively minor way, is continue the tradition of found footage not just in the world of lockdown but also within an advancing age of interactive technology used for day to day communication.

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GLADIATOR: an epic, bravura examination of Pax Americana (2000 in Film #18)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of May 5th, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator

One of the defining films of the 2000’s, Gladiator might also be the first epic piece of blockbuster American cinema released in the 21st century.

It had been decades since Hollywood had produced a film like Ridley Scott gives us here. The sword and sandals epic went out with the birth of the New Hollywood movement in the late 1960’s, which swopped the pomp and exuberance of languid historical epics such as The Fall of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra, even Stanley Kubrick’s superior Spartacus, for a leaner, grittier and more contemporary cinematic aesthetic. By the time cinema once again dipped its toe in grand storytelling, the blockbuster gave birth to fantasy, science-fiction and adventure which, again, put paid to audiences wanting to see large scale historical recreations of the ancient world. A decade earlier, Gladiator would have struggled to even be made.

Stepping into the new millennium, Scott nevertheless saw an opportunity, as DreamWorks pictures believed there was the space to develop a revision, a reimagining, of such classical Hollywood storytelling for a new age. Saving Private Ryan two years earlier, which revolutionised how to depict the visceral nature of World War Two, arguably inspired how Scott and DreamWorks envisaged bringing the harsh world of the ancient Roman Empire to life; a world filled with war, bloodshed and a copious lack of sanctity for human life in the face of a populous bating for blood. The space was created for the very Spartacus-influenced tale of Maximus Decimus Meridius, the beloved Roman General who sees his family murdered by envious new Emperor Commodus, before slaying his executioners and fighting his way up through the gladiatorial pits of Rome to challenge the very notion of Empire itself.

What strikes me, looking back with two decades distance, is not just how impressive Gladiator remains in vision and scope, even if at times it falls into melodrama, but how it speaks even more potently now than then about what the film was really about: America at the end of the 20th century. It continues the refraction we have seen thus far in 2000 in American cinema about the nation’s legacy and place in the world.

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