Month: August, 2022

The Railway Children Return

Verdict: An old-fashioned romp that doesn’t quite leave the station.

Britain’s wartime children being squirrelled out of harm’s way from Hitler’s bombs seems, on the surface, a quaint notion—one that this film awkwardly stows among its more pointed subject matter. Director Morgan Matthews’ (X+Y) latest film, which is a sequel to Lionel Jeffries’s 1970 original The Railway Children, is an Enid Blytonesque adventurous romp through wartime Briton where we are to forage among the lashings of larks and giggles to find a worthy wartime message.

Set in 1944 (some decades after when Nesbit’s original The Railway Children book is set) the film follows a group of children who have been evacuated to rural Yorkshire. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of nostalgic nods, most notably Jenny Agutter, who played Bobby in the original film, reprises her role, now as a grandmother. There under her watchful eye the children squabble, have food fights, play in the mud, and other boisterous hijinks. When they skip away over the lush green fields towards a train yard the story finds its narrative purpose as they cross paths with Abe (Kenneth Aikens), an injured Black American GI hiding in an abandoned railway carriage.

While the screenplay is in tonal lockstep (superficially, at least) with the original, it seems clear that writers, Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers (both who write mainly for the small-screen) want this story to break free from the original’s naive charm. And although they do their best to make this story current, their over-pandering to contemporary mores feels shoe-horned and strangely anachronistic.

Among this awkward mix of buoyant charms and earnest weight is Morgan Matthews’ relatively uninspiring direction which is, thankfully, rescued by an enthusiastic young cast along with stalwarts Jenny Agutter and Tom Courtenay (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) who briefly deliver some worthy table-side soliloquies. Certainly, at surface level The Railway Children Return will delight fans of the original and if you can stomach the misplaced virtues that billow from this fluffy period piece, then all aboard.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

House of the Dragon

A Timeout (special issue) essay

A little over a decade ago I was broadsided by a new series. It was a mythology of biblical proportions accessibly presented as popcorn tv with a blend of high-fantasy, gritty realism, and deeply dramatic cinematography. It was bloody, brutal, and the onslaught was undeniably thrilling. Yes, Game of Thrones was born and it operated as the small-screen diatribe of our time.

Early in the series, you were told, quite unequivocally, not to warm to your favourite character. Stupidly, I snuggled into Ned Starc (played by Sean Bean). He was compassionate and quietly assured—an easy character to side with. But his fatherly morals and warm authority were cruelly ripped from me. I should’ve known better—Sean Bean rarely plays characters who live. But Ned Starc’s death felt worse than most. In “that scene” where the boy-king Joffrey gleefully danced around Ned with giddy delight, ordering his beheading, I sat watching in disbelief. It was my Lady Di moment—a “where were you when Ned lost his Head” event.

And so with every new character that I invested myself in—and their subsequent death—it felt like the warm veneer of fantasy was crumbling away and exposing the cruel reality of the world around me. How could I feel this way? These were fictional characters. The water-cooler talk soon revealed that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way and it became apparent that despite its fantasy setting Game of Thrones was holding a mirror to society. Sure, there were other shows that made their viewership question the world they live in, some more insightful even, but none of them had this much universal clout. Game of Thrones was a cultural phenomenon—an immensely popular show screaming to its audience that the world you live in is not all peachy. It told us that people are flawed, often given to cruelty, power-hungry and with little moral compass.

Such was the modus operandi of Game of Thrones. It was merciless yet honest, and I along with my water-cooler buddies were dragged through the muck and diseased-ridden scapes populated by notorious leaders and duplicitous people. Media commentator Matt Zoller Seitz once described Game of Thrones as the last water-cooler TV show. It was the last bastion of appointed television. He was right. We aren’t discussing other television at the same depth anymore, because we are all on a different page watching different shows within our fractured mediascape. Instead of Ned’s beheading, the Red Wedding, or the Battle of the Bastards we are now discussing something more complex and in some cases worse—the real world.

The correlation is clear to see. Where Game of Thrones gave us political back-stabbing, violence to women, and disease, the real world gave us Trump, racism, the #metoo movement, and covid. It’s a confusing time to be alive and there are plenty of labyrinthine issues to navigate.

It’s been over a decade since Game of Thrones’s initial release and a lot of cultural sewerage has flowed since. Now, as I write this from inside the burned-out carcass of our post-Trump, post-Charlottesville, post-Weinstein and post(ish)-covid world, we are left with the desolate scorched reality of what to do with ourselves. How do we, as a society, pick ourselves up? What direction do we go? Will we bury our heads in our current “binge and purge” media consumption culture or will we find solace next to the water-cooler again?

House of the Dragon suggests we head back in time to find answers. Perhaps from there we can garner an understanding of how it all went so wrong—Examine the story that formed the Iron Throne, like an Old Testament reading of the Ten Commandments. House of the Dragon, a more parred down story than its predecessor, might indeed give us a series to rally around, bring us back to the church of the water-cooler to discuss, rather than binge and purge in our siloed pods.

Stylistically, the Thrones DNA is still there with many key players from the original series still behind the camera. And certainly, if the first episode is any indication, the signature violence and bare-asses haven’t been scrubbed away either. But it’s what you do with your ass that counts and there are a few indicators that suggest House of the Dragon will be a significant production of our time. From its inclusive casting of non-white and non-binary actors to the recurring thematic struggle against misogyny, the important question is if these are box-ticking exercises by the producers, or as I would like to believe, simply a reflection of the time we live in.

Indeed, the relevance of House of the Dragon in today’s society is wholly apparent and may very well return us to Shakespearean-styled appointment tv where a grandiose subject is made fit for a common schlub like me. I really hope so, because it seems to have plenty of things to say about our world. Like a prophet of doom, House of the Dragon may hold a mirror to our face once more, but once bitten twice shy, I certainly will be wary of investing myself too much into any one character for fear of another beheading. Maybe I’ll just side with one of the dragons instead.

Nope

Verdict: An entertaining head-scratcher that sometimes over-extends its reach.

Writer/director, Jordan Peele, has once again created a provocative filmgoing experience from a seemingly random set of cultural commodities. He’s a filmmaker not afraid to throw a lot at the screen. Some of it sticks, but the stuff that doesn’t never feels wasted, although often requires stepping back for better perspective. With Nope, his third feature, Peele has expanded his canvas, both metaphorically and literally. Where his first film, Get Out, was modest in reach, his second, Us, widened its scope and went bonkers across America. Now with Nope, he has gone otherworldly and stitched together a curious mix of pop-culture artefacts into a chilling sci-fi thriller western. Yes, it’s a bunch of things.

Daniel Kaluuya, Peele’s Get Out star, returns as OJ Haywood, who along with his sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer) run a California ranch where the horses are trained to work in nearby Hollywood. Early in the film, Emerald says to a film crew “Since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game.”—referencing the Black rider atop the horse of Edward Muybridge’s famous 1878 photography experiment, considered the first motion picture ever made. This racially-charged comment hits on one of the many themes that this film appears to push.

But the themes that follow are more esoteric and murky in their delivery. When OJ hears the howling wind in the sky above and the sound of terrified screams that spook the horses, he heads across the valley to investigate. There he finds the Western-themed tourist trap, run by Jupe (Minari’s Steven Yeun) and a horrific aftermath that shifts the film from straight-up sci-fi thriller into something deeper and more abstract.

While the plot is relatively straightforward, Nope’s meaning becomes increasingly muddled. It’s wholly apparent that Peele is trying to tell us something—but what exactly, remains cloudy and tantalisingly beyond reach. Commodification, exploitation, viewing and consumption are all themes explored by this film, but to what end, it’s difficult to tell given the vagueries laid down by Peele.

What is clear though is that Nope is an ambitious, vibrant, mix of genres and influences which, for the most part, is thrilling to experience even when it doesn’t hit the mark. But there is a heady, unquantifiable message buried deep within Nope’s dusty scape that renders it a chin-scratcher and might frustrate some viewers.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.