I really hope this new mini-series is as good as the trailer promises. I like the noir bleakness of the staging that is, dare I say, a cinematic reflection of the brutal tensions between Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Blood will be spilled I’m sure.
I’ve loved The Walking Dead (2010-2022) since it started. It might be the only show I’ve watched as it was broadcast, week after week. That said, I found the final season a little uneven. Actually, for me, the show started getting patchy following the disappearance of Rick Grimes. The Walking Dead was always Rick’s story. He was the baseline, the moral centre, through which all the other characters flowed. Seen through that prism, and the coming attractions from TWD universe, it could’ve been a case of too many chiefs.
First thing that struck me when I saw the trailer, and the accompanying poster, for Dead City was the obvious references to the seminal Escape from New York (1981). It’s hard to miss. Apparently it’s deliberate. Showrunner Eli Jomé told Slash Films “these are more, I would say, contemporary horror references, but a little further down the line”. As well John Carpenter, Jomé also invokes Walter Hill’s equally iconic The Warriors (1979). For me both of these films are foundational, and made a massive impression on me as a youth. It’ll be interesting to see how deep Dead City’s homage goes.
Darren Aronofsky makes challenging, thought provoking, films that live in the moment of gasping breath, just after you’ve been punched in the gut.
The Whale (2022) isn’t as viscerally bombastic as Mother! (2017), nor does it have the frenetic chaos of Requiem for a Dream (2000), instead it stares unflinchingly at loss and grief and self-destruction.
Online english teacher Charlie (Brendan Fraser) grieves the loss of his partner, the love of his life, by eating. He carries the crushing weight of his grief as pounds of flesh, hanging off his body like hundredweight bags of offal, suffocating his organs, straining his heart, and crushing the breath from his lungs.
Charlie is killing himself with calories. He knows it, his only friend Liz (Hong Chau) knows it, but when food is a compulsion, and binging until you vomit is routine, death is all but inevitable.
Before that happens Charlie wants to reconnect with his estranged daughter, the smart but angry Ellie (Sadie Sink). She’s sixteen, hasn’t seen her father since he left, and is angry at him for abandoning her. Hurt she tries every way possible to reject him, but Charlie refuses to give up on her.
Sinks performance is powerful. Complimented by Ty Simpkins as the evangelical Thomas, and Chau as Charlie’s friend, nurse, and confessor. Samantha Morton is beautifully brittle as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary, hardened by life’s disappointments. But the film belongs to Brendan Fraser. He is unflinching as the positive but self-destroying Charlie. Somehow he finds the funny in the rawness of his grief, there’s something in the eyes, in the soft tone of his voice, remaining vulnerable and strangely optimistic despite his imminent demise.
Samuel D. Hunter’s screenplay is demanding, emotionally complicated, often pulling in contradictory directions. Liz cares for Charlie, loves him, but facilitates his eating, and is ultimately assisting his suicide.
Aronofsky has taken Hunter’s screenplay, and the stage play it’s based on, and concentrated the visuals for cinema, wringing them tight until the colours have faded, taken on the pallet of sweat stained furniture.
I thought during the opening minutes, there was a technical problem with the film’s brightness, until I realised Charlie is a shut-in, he never goes out, never opens his curtains. This gloominess is more than just atmosphere, it’s designed to make the light, when it finally floods in, feel ethereal.
Similarly Aronofsky has cropped the film’s aspect ratio, reduced the frame to accentuate mass. When Charlie stands, lumbers to his feet, balancing, unsteady, imminently crashing to the floor, he’s as wide as he is tall, filling the almost square four by three frame.
All of this works to make a uniquely cinematic experience. It’s hard to imagine getting the same punch watching it on a domestic screen. There’s something about the scale in the cinema, projected high, huge, that is brutal.
Patrick Somerville’s adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s book is not your usual walk through the apocalypse. A deadly flu ripping through the population, killing almost everyone on the planet, is pretty standard. A story connecting multiple timelines, mapping the interconnected lives of an actor, his wife, their son, with an artist, mentor, actress, and healer, is not. Neither are the links each has with the enigmatic Station Eleven, a graphic novel that takes on an almost mystical significance in their post-pandemic world.
To describe it as complex undersells what unfolds.
Twenty years after the pandemic, the Travelling Symphony makes a living performing Shakespeare’s plays to communities of survivors. I have a feeling this troupe of “strolling players” trundling through the decaying remains of civilisation, atop horse-drawn RVs, is something Shakespeare would recognise. The Symphony’s wondrously staged productions, and gloriously inventive costumes, tease meaning from the harshness, a living “Museum of Civilisation” connecting with the past, keeping a dying culture alive.
Not everyone shares the Symphony’s reverence for the time before. The Prophet (Daniel Zovatto) has a more antagonistic relationship with life past. It’s in this tension, between all things pre and post pandemic, between those connected with civilisation, and the “post-pan” children, for whom the world before is a myth, that the drama unfolds. When the Symphony repeats the mantra “we don’t leave the wheel” they’re not only talking about the route they take, the communities the perform to, but the culture they cling to. If Shakespeare is culture, written down, Station Eleven is the return to, the re-emergence of, the oral traditions of storytelling, of keeping history.
It’s the culture gone full circle.
Narratively inventive, the story’s fluid relationship with time, jumping back and forth, weeks, month, years before and after the pandemic, leaves the feeling of memories alive in your mind. For the infant and adult Kirsten (Matilda Lawler and Mackenzie Davis), the Symphony’s best actress, they’re more than just memories, they’re real and active, alive. There’s a sequence, you might call it a dream, where younger and older Kirsten are together, fully engage, talking to one other, communicating across time.
This dynamic approach to storytelling brings depth to apocalypse.
The Little Things (2021) feels like a film from another time. Yes it’s set in the early nineties, but it’s more complicated than that.
Rural policeman Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) returns to Los Angeles on routine business, where he gets drawn into the hunt for a serial killer, that may be connected to one of his old cases.
Washington does that brooding thing as the man haunted by personal and professional mistakes. Jared Leto is in full needs-a-wash-creepy mode as the suspected serial killer. And Rami Malek is all clean-cut confidence as the lead investigator, who looks like a child next to the seasoned Washington.
John Lee Hancock complicates this standard procedural with hints of coverup and vigilantism, that has the good doing bad for good reasons.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022) is a fairy tale, a kitchen-sink Cinderella story, in the tradition of those energetic comedies made at Ealing Studio throughout the nineteen-fifties.
Salt of the earth cleaning lady Mrs. Harris, irreplaceable in an unseen kind of way, falls in love with a couture Dior owned by one of her employers, and resolves to get one for herself.
Hard work and good luck conspire to get Mrs. Harris (Lesley Manville) the money she needs. There’s a small reward for handing in a precious ring, added to a lump sum from her backdated widow’s pension, that’s put with the winnings from a sneaky bet. Quicker than you can say, I will go to the ball, she’s clutching a small fortune, as tightly as her dreams of a dress, arriving in Paris just in time to crash the latest Dior show.
If fortune favours the bold, naivety, persistence, and a kind heart favours Mrs. Harris, letting her win over the younger members of house Dior, and wrangling the second best dress of her dreams. Her first is nabbed by the snobby wife of a businessman, who’s petty frock grab is as pouty as her sullen daughter.
As the dress comes to life, so does Mrs. Harris, slowly discovering her joie de vivre for the first time. Part of me wishes it wasn’t a dress bringing her out of her shell, animating her. It feels patronising for her to be defined that way. Which is perhaps why it’s set in the nineteen-fifties? It’s less plausible outside of that frame.
Mrs. Harris is an unapologetically optimistic film, old inspiring young, breathing new life in the old, all spurred on by Mrs. Harris and her indomitable spirit. This optimism comes with a side order of nostalgia, appealing to ideas about our past that just aren’t real, but it is a Cinderella story about a beautiful princess, in a stunning frock, finding her prince.
Truth is, for all of its faults, I was charmed by a warm hearted film.