Essays, Movie Reviews, Movie Reviews - 1993

Last Action Hero (1993)

Last Action Hero is both ahead of its time and perfectly positioned *within* the era it was made, such is the paradox of a forgotten curiosity of 1990’s action cinema and the stratospheric career of Arnold Schwartzenegger.

Here’s my story and why I’m writing about Last Action Hero some twenty five years on from its release. I was 11 years old when Last Action Hero was released in cinemas, in the US one week after Steven Spielberg’s decade-defining Jurassic Park. In theory, I was the perfect age to consume a film which is entirely about the youthful obsession of a similarly-aged child, Austin O’Brien’s Danny Madigan, with action adventure cinema. Jurassic Park I badgered my parents to take me to see three times yet I didn’t go anywhere near Last Action Hero. It didn’t even register with me. It has taken me until age 36 to actually sit down and watch it, and this is after spending at least the last twenty years being an enormous fan of Schwarzenegger’s movies and career. Last Action Hero was always the Arnie film I missed.

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Alias

Alias – ‘Truth Be Told’ (1×01)

It is easy to forget, for all the subsequent success with the Mission Impossible, Star Trek and now Star Wars mega-franchises, that the pilot episode of ABC’s Alias remains one of the best things producing and show-running supremo J.J. Abrams has ever done. ‘Truth Be Told’ is a blistering sixty five minute opening to a rare TV show – one which comes on the face of it fully packaged, fully formed, and with a confidence and spring in its step that belies its quiet, low-fi origins. There is more to this package, and how it was created however, than meets the eye.

Think back to 2001. Had anyone heard of Abrams at that point? He was established – a proven Hollywood screenwriter with credits such as Michael Bay’s Armageddon or Harrison Ford vehicle Regarding Henry, not to mention four seasons of teen drama Felicity as a show runner. Those movies were nonetheless famous for their stars and directors, not the glasses-wearing megamind of Abrams bashing away at the words, and Felicity was never particularly that big of a hit – I’m not sure it ever even aired in my native UK, and if it did it went largely unnoticed. Alias was the series which put Abrams, and most of his writing staff, on the map. The first season of his spy drama races out the gate with fast-paced, stylish storytelling, which crucially never forgets to place character at the heart of every beat, every scene and every plot-twist. ‘Truth Be Told’ is B-movie, pulp action with significant heart and soul.

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Alias

Alias (Series Overview + Reviews)

Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television. The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.

Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.

Not Alias.

It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.

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Movie Reviews, Movie Reviews - 1989

The Abyss (1989)

James Cameron is an unusual director, in many ways, and The Abyss underscores this quite keenly. Despite the fact Cameron has made some of the biggest motion pictures of the last almost four decades, you consistently still feel the pull of his Roger Corman-training, his B-picture origins on movies such as Pirahna after spending years as a Corman student, helping put together his beloved but schlocky contributions to cinematic history.

Cameron took plenty of those lessons, those touchstones, and threw them into his movies across the 1980’s & 1990’s with such arrogant bravura, such relentless chutzpah, that he crafted movies which by all accounts probably shouldn’t have been as critically successful as they were. The Terminator in 1984 is a B-movie with the style, smarts and cutting wit to rise above its origins, while Aliens saw Cameron perhaps at his egotistical directorial best, remarkably for only his third picture. The Abyss feels like his first attempt to make a film which can’t be defined, clearly, as a James Cameron movie, and it’s probably why it’s amongst the worst of his efforts.

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Movie Reviews - 1995

Waterworld (1995)

Excess is probably the word to best associate with Waterworld. The excess of Hollywood in the 1990’s. After the blockbuster formed at the tail end of the 1970’s thanks to the efforts primarily of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the 1980’s saw the phenomenon largely dominated by Olympian action heroes or stars whose names towered on the poster above the title – Schwarzenegger, Ford, Willis, Stallone, Snipes. Alternatively, sequels and franchises began to form and dominate – Bond continued making money, joined by Indiana Jones, Star Wars of course, Star Trek back from the dead, and a whole surfeit of sequels which evolved into trilogies, and continued the trend into the 1990’s. That decade, nonetheless, added an extra dimension.

Waterworld is indicative of the mega-budget ‘high concept’ which had crept in over the last decade and really bore fruit during the 90’s. A high concept movie, essentially, was a picture you could boil down in one, easy for a movie studio executive to understand soundbite. Waterworld’s, without question, would be ‘Mad Max on water’. Simple, clear, readable. Everyone had heard of Mad Max, a successful trilogy itself early in the 80’s. The idea of trying to replicate the success of George Miller’s desert-based post-apocalyptic action series would have seen the bean counter’s eyes kerching with dollar signs. Waterworld smacks of a high-concept, money-making exercise, taking this one-line idea and bulking it out into an event blockbuster.

The irony, of course, was how expensive Waterworld ended up being. A year later, Independence Day revitalised the alien invasion B-movie with a high-concept, simple idea which, schlocky as it may have been, reaped the rewards in dividends. Though chock-full of CGI, some of which at the time was stunning to audiences, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as Kevin Reynolds’ fourth collaboration with star Kevin Costner, given the amount of water-based sets which needed to be constructed in order to adequately sell the idea of a futuristic world where the polar ice caps have melted, consigning the ‘ancient’ world we live in now to the sea bed. Though a picture designed to make big bucks, Waterworld ultimately became one of the biggest critical and financial disasters of its decade, or indeed any decade.

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Essays

The Handmaid’s Tale: Has 1990’s TV Paranoia Returned?

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Have you been unsettled lately watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, a set text certainly in the UK for English A-Level students which has never entirely left the academic consciousness, is now being talked about everywhere. Why? Because it’s scaring people half to death.

Not many people may be aware that it had been adapted before Hulu turned it into a hit TV series. In 1990, German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff—one of the New German Cinema wave of the late 60’s and early 70’s which included better known luminaries such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog—directed a cinematic version with the late Natasha Richardson in the central role of ‘Offred’, the titular handmaiden forced into indentured sexual slavery in the largely infertile Christian hegemony of Gilead, formerly the United States. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, no less, but later worked to have his name removed from it.

What matters is that very few people remember The Handmaid’s Tale has ever been committed to celluloid before Bruce Miller’s adaptation for Hulu, which has very quickly gained critical and commercial traction on both sides of the Pond. If it’s not quite water-cooler television on the level of Game of Thrones, for example, then it’s gaining viewers and significant commentary amongst people as it airs. In the US, Season One ended in June and in the UK, it’s about to end next week. The response has been the same: a deep sense of unease.

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