Writing

The Satan Bug (1965)

For a time between the 1950s and 1970s, the golden age of British thrillers, according to writer Mike Ripley, there were few names bigger than Alistair MacLean. In 1962, originally under the name Ian Stuart and then under his own, MacLean had another success with the novel The Satan Bug. So it was perhaps unsurprising that, on the back of the success of the cinematic adaptation of The Guns of Navarone, that Satan Bug received the Hollywood treatment. Not only that, but with one of the premier action directors of the era at the helm: John Sturges.

Sturges, along with scriptwriters James Clavell and Edward Anhalt, crafted an intriguing thriller out of MacLean's novel. Satan Bug tells the story of government agents, including George Maharis's Lee Barrett, racing to stop the use of a bio-weapon (the titular Satan Bug) after its theft from a secret government lab. In going through the mechanics of the lab, and the efforts of Barrett and agents of a government agency known as SDI to keep its product from being used by a madman, Satan Bug is an early techno-thriller, coming nearly two decades before the term came into use. That said, in keeping with much of MacLean's work, such as the aforementioned Navarone and Where Eagles Dare (released three years later), the plot is convoluted with a tale of crosses, double-crosses, and hidden identities. To the point that there are places where it becomes just a tad ludicrous, especially when the eventual villain has their reveal. For the most part, the film remains engaging and, especially in its closing minutes, suspenseful.

It's also quite well made for the mid-1960s. Fans of mid-century design, architecture, and fashion will have a field day with the film from its depictions of everything from secret labs to homes and locations across California. Some of the background plate work hasn't dated well, which is sadly true of many films made before and after this time, though the film can boast some impressive aerial photography in its climax. The proverbial icing on the cake is the score, a still early one from the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, who shows even at this stage of his career how to build action in suspense to elevate what's happening on screen.

Where the film is perhaps most mixed is in its casting. George Maharis is just a little too bland for the role of agent Barrett, being not so much a character as someone going through the motions as scripted. More successful is Richard Basehart, then best known for his role on TV's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, as a scientist involved with the secret project and Dana Andrews as General Williams who is leading the effort to get the stolen bio-weapons back. Anne Francis does well as the film's sole female character, there more as a love interest that isn't necessary than a proper heroine though her presence is certainly a welcome addition to the film. There's an early film role for Ed Asner as one of the villain's henchmen and even a non-speaking supporting appearance by James Doohan who would fame shortly after the film's release as Scotty on Star Trek. Except for Maharis, the cast is dependable and works well, though it's not easy to point to any standout performances in the film. Indeed, the best way to describe the cast is serviceable if unremarkable.

All told, The Satan Bug is an intriguing, overlooked, but by no means classic thriller. It does have its definite pluses, including Sturges' direction and benefits from a solid score from Jerry Goldsmith. It also stands, alongside films such as the 1950 British thriller Seven Days to Noon, as among the first examples of the cinematic techno-thriller. And with conspiracy theories about killer viruses cooked up in labs being in our current culture, even our political discourse, it's also as timely as ever.
Writing

The Dogs of War (1980)

Basing a film on a bestselling novel can be a recipe for success. Or not, as the case might be. Novelist and former journalist Frederick Forsyth had a proven track record on both page and screen, such as The Day of the Jackal. So it's perhaps no surprise that his 1974 novel about a mercenary coup in Africa should get the cinematic treatment. The result was John Irvin's 1980 film The Dogs of War, a film that, on paper, had a lot going for it.

For one thing, it's source material and director. Forsyth's novel offered readers a crash course in the world of mercenaries and shady business dealings in Africa, yet did so in a way that was immensely entertaining with a cast of characters and plots to entice the reader. Director Irvin, meanwhile, was coming off the success of his BBC TV adaptation of John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which took audiences on George Smiley's hunt for a mole inside of British intelligence. Have crafted an engaging labyrinthine thriller from le Carre onto the screen, Irvin was a perfect choice for bringing Forsyth's novel to the screen.

Yet, the film faltered to a sizable extent. Much of that isn't the fault of Irvin but the screenwriters, Gary DeVore and George Malko. To be fair to them, getting Forsyth onto the screen isn't easy, as the writer himself is said to have discovered when adapting his later novel The Fourth Protocol to the screen. The problem, writing as someone who finished reading the book not 24 hours before seeing the film version, is how little of it made it to the screen. The basic plot is more or less there, yes, but for much of its length, The Dogs of War film bares the slimmest resemblance to The Dogs of War novel. In itself, this isn't a bad thing, as the film is its own animal, and has to be simply due to the change in medium. What DeVore and Malko did was take an intriguing story and lose much of the motivations and details that made Forsyth's tale so rich and replace it with cardboard characters and a lack of detail. Indeed, without reading the novel, why the whole coup takes place, or the final twist, won't make a lick of sense. Instead of an engaging, driven narrative, the film is like watching a group of dancers perform without backing music, and it loses much of its effectiveness in the process.

The film, though, has plenty to offer viewers, whether they've read the novel or not. Irvin's direction captures, as it did in for le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a sense of grim reality to the events the film portrays, even when the script doesn't. Between Irving and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, they find in visuals an equivalent to Forsyth's prose, selling the reality of these places scattered across three continents. Irving also excels in the film's bookending well-staged action sequences, including an impressive shot just before the opening title card as a plane takes off as an airfield is under bombardment. Irving also tapped his Tinker Tailor composer Geoffrey Burgon for the score, who delivers a score that captures the tensions and even excitement of events portrayed. For all its faults on the scripting level, let there be no doubt that The Dogs of War is a well-made film.

It's a film that also has an interesting, if underutilized, cast. Christopher Walken would not have been my first choice as a reader for the role of lead mercenary Shannon, but, to his credit, the intelligence Walken brings to his best performances serves him well here. His fellow mercenaries are quite a cast of stock characters, including All-American man of action Drew played by Tom Barranger,  and a small but early film role for Ed O'Neill. Hugh Millais brings a sense of menace to British businessman Roy Endean who hires Shannon while Colin Blakely brings an air of intrigue as the nosy journalist North. The cast is rounded off by JoBeth Williams as Shannon's ex-wife, Winston Ntshona in a role not unlike his part in the similarly themed film The Wild Geese, and appearances by character actors Robert Urquhart, Shane Rimmer, and Terrence Rigby (also a Tinker Tailor veteran) in small roles. And, with just a couple of lines, an early screen role for Jim Broadbent. Though no one's character, with the possible exception of Walken's Shannon, is well-developed, the cast does well all things considered.

Perhaps The Dogs of War could have been a first-rate film, a classic even. What it is, thanks mainly to its script, is a decent thriller, albeit one that feels like it's missing something. Even so, it remains an immensely watchable, if flawed, piece of work.
Writing

The Sum Of All Fears (2002)

Starting in the 1980s, the novels of Tom Clancy proved to be massive bestsellers. In the 1990s, Hollywood made a trilogy of blockbuster films from three of them, seeing first Alex Baldwin and then Harrison Ford take on the role of dauntless CIA analyst turned occasional man of action Jack Ryan. Yet, after 1994's Clear and Present Danger, the film series stalled. After eight years, though, Ryan returned to the cinema in a new, younger form, with an adaptation of Clancy's The Sum of All Fears.

That new, younger Ryan was Ben Affleck. Following in the footsteps of Baldwin and Ford was a large order and one that Affleck, on the back of a string of successes, should have been able to fill. Instead, Affleck comes across as rather bland in this part, despite the good looks and intelligence he has. It's a performance that traverses between the extremes of being ineffectively wooden and cringeworthingly shouty. The scene in the White House Situation Room about midway through the film perfectly demonstrates the issues with Affleck's Ryan. Where Affleck is more successful in his interactions with Morgan Freeman's CIA director early on, or in his scenes with Bridget Moynahan as Cathy, where he can play either the fish out of water or charming boyfriend. So, while he might have been Clancy's favorite of the initial trio of Ryan actors, Affleck's Ryan comes across the weakest of the screen Ryans to date.

In some ways, it might be a case that Affleck had a cast around him that highlighted the problems with his performance. Freeman's CIA director Bill Cabot isn't a flashy role, by any means, but one which he imbues with a sense of presence and authority. James Cromwell's President Fowler offers the character actor a meaty role, one which explores the different facets of decision making both at times of peace and crisis, with Cromwell bringing presence and humanity to his performance. The film also proved the Hollywood breakthrough for Irish actor Ciarán Hinds, playing the Russian leader Nemerov in a role that could have been a walking cliche but, instead, Hinds brings a sense of humanity to as a man trying to avert crisis beyond his control. Bringing to life new versions of Clancy's characters are Bridget Moynahan as Ryan's girlfriend Cathy and Liev Schreiber as agent in the field John Clark, and it remains a shame that this would prove to be their only times in the roles. With the cast being rounded off by character actors including Michael Byrne, Philip Baker Hall, Alan Bates, and Bruce McGill, it's as strong a cast as any of the Ryan outings before it.

Beyond the cast, there's certainly plenty to recommend in terms of the actual production. Phil Alden Robinson proved an inspired choice for director, assembling a first-rate crew including cinematographer John Lindley. Between them, and the production design of Jeannine Oppewall, capture the behind the scenes, "you are there" feel of Clancy's novels and earlier films. The visual effects work on the film, some subtle in addition to more apparent sequences, come across well and have aged nicely, with the nuclear bomb detonation midway through being the film's set-piece. Finally, Jerry Goldsmith, in one of his last works, delivered a thoughtful and suspenseful score, one which highlighted growing tensions but also the hope potentially lost in the chaos. There's little doubt, then, that Sum of All Fears was well-made.

Perhaps the biggest problem the film has lies in its script and, consequently, in its pacing. Taking an 800+ page Clancy novel and turning it into something that runs two hours is not an enviable task, in the slightest. Even more so when one is both updating one published a decade earlier in a very different political climate and placing it far sooner in your lead character's timeline. The result is a functional adaptation of the novel, albeit one that feels like a Cliffnotes version of it, perhaps suggesting what it needed was a miniseries rather than a feature film. In doing so, the screenwriters left the film crammed to the gills with plot. In part, because the first half has to establish, in a somewhat convincing fashion, how tensions between the US and Russia in the post-Cold War era so quickly that they can lead to the brink of nuclear war in the second half. The result is a film that feels oddly slow in its first half in places, but with the back half having too much going on, racing from place to place. Something which left Clancy fans annoyed (and the author himself to obverse on the audio commentary that he was the author of “the book the director ignored."), and baffled many viewers unfamiliar with the book, ultimately serving neither audience well.

In the end, The Sum of All Fears proved not to be the sum of its parts. For as strong as aspects of it were, overcoming its lead actor or the issues in scripting and pacing. In a way, it's a shame that this proved to be a stillbirth for the revived franchise, which saw another reboot attempt before it moved to the small screen. Then again, given Affleck's lackluster Ryan, maybe we should be grateful that we're left with a film full of moments, but ultimately the sum of unrealized potential.
Writing

Our Man In Charleston

Espionage during the American Civil War, and Britain's role (or lack thereof) in the conflict, are topics that tend to go under-reported. Christopher Dickey's 2015 book Our Man In Charleston reveals an unlikely connection between the two, and one which very likely changed the course of the war. That connection would be Robert Bunch, a British consul in the city of Charleston and who, in the era before defined intelligence services, was also its chief spy on the ground.

Covering the 1850s and well into the war, Dickey reveals how Bunch infiltrated the pre-war society of this Southern city at the heart of two things that would define the conflict to come: slavery and succession. In doing so, like Churchill's Irrequalars in Washington and New York during World War II, Bunch worked to help steer South Carolina legislators (and his bosses in both Washington and London) and limit the trade, all the while endearing himself to those in Charleston society. Indeed, Bunch was so successful that he became seen as such an ally to the Confederate cause that no less than Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward accused him of being a partisan for them, raising tensions between the Union and Her Majesty's government.  It's a journey that takes the diplomat across much of the country as it then was, and exposes opinions and events often overlooked.

In doing so, Dickey (and Bunch as his subject) offer up a refreshing outsiders perspective on the lead up to the Civil War and its early years. For all the claims that succession and the war weren't about slavery, the reports from Bunch, quoted at length, show otherwise. For the circles that the diplomat moved in included those keen on the re-opening slave trade from Africa, something that had continued illegally with inbounded ships often brought into Charleston Harbor, described by Bunch to his bosses in sometimes graphic and nauseating detail. As the book suggests, it was the unwillingness to budge on re-opening the Middle Trade, combined with Bunch's reports, that may have cost the Confederacy the legitimacy and arms it so desperately craved from Britain. It's a sobering history lesson and one that deserves a chance to be read.

Overlooked, too, is Robert Bunch's contribution to history. His story reads, with all the detail Dickey brings to it, like something out of spy fiction: the right man in the right place at the right time to change the course of history. In Charleston in the 1850s and early 1860s, a seemingly unassuming diplomat was just that, and his story deserves telling.

With Our Man in Charleston, it has been at long last.
Avatar

The Rhythm Section

The Rhythm Section was a film a long time coming. First announced in 2017, and made by Eon, the filmmakers behind the James Bond films, it looked to be an intriguing sideways step into the genre by the company. Yet the film was here and gone in the blink of an eye, and it's only been with it coming to streaming that this reviewer had the chance to see it.


So was it worth the wait?


Unquestionably, it's a film that had plenty going for it. There's Blake Lively, for example, as its protagonist Stephanie Patrick, a young British woman whose life has gone on a tailspin dive following her family's death in a plane crash. A crash that, three years later, she learns from a journalist wasn't an accident but a terrorist bombing. The film is very much a revenge thriller thanks to that revelation, but it's also the journey of Lively's Patrick from a depressed drug-addict prostitute to a woman with just enough skill to keep her from getting herself killed. Indeed, Patrick is a refreshing protagonist for the very reason that she's an outsider who, once she gets a bit of training, gets thrown into the field without turning into a flawless killing machine. Indeed, it's only through sheer luck at times that she manages to make out in more or less one piece, battered, bruised, and never entirely sure if her path is the right one. It's Lively's performance that keeps the character from being, as the character of Jude Law's Boyd, puts it, "a cliche," and into someone worth following, at least for 106 minutes.


The film's got other things in its favor. Sean Bobbitt's cinematography offers plenty of visually appealing elements, particularly during a lengthy section of the film set in Scotland. You'll find no better capturing of the harsh but beautiful side of that country this side of Skyfall than you will here. There are also some nicely staged action sequences, including a car chase in Tangiers that we see entirely from inside the perspective of Patrick's getaway car, which puts a nice spin on a potentially cliched sequence. It's a wonderfully visceral experience on the small screen that would have been interesting to see in a cinema. Likewise, the film has a large but engaging supporting cast including the aforementioned Jude Law as the former MI6 operative who takes Patrick under his wing when she tracks him down, Raza Jaffrey as the journalist who sets events in motion, and Sterling K. Brown as her eventual contact the ex-CIA agent turned information broker. Combined with direction from the award-winning Reed Morano, one would have thought the film would be a sure-fire hit, surely?


Unfortunately, not. The Rhythm Section has two significant issues, which rather weakens it. The first lies in its pacing, with the film's opening hour being rather slow, overloaded as it is with exposition that undermines both performances and that wonderful cinematography I mentioned. Once the film gets into its latter 45 minutes or so, it suffers from the exact opposite problem, rushing along from one action sequence and character beat to the next, with a pair of significant plot twists becoming essentially throwaway moments without any weight to them. It leaves the film feeling oddly disjointed, if not confusing.


That's something that likely has to do with the second issue I alluded to earlier. When I read that the film had been adapted from the opening novel in a series, the film's odd-pacing clicked into place. The Rhythm Section suffers from a problem that many a would-be franchise opener suffers from: namely, trying to tell an origin story at the expense of telling a compelling narrative. Even though it's comparatively short at 106 minutes, it's a film that feels significantly longer thanks to an overloaded front half, which leaves the back half feeling rushed and short-changed.


If this was intended to be the opener for a franchise, it's one that ultimately never quite delivers what's needed. Not that it isn't worth seeing, far from it. Lively's performance, the entire cast for that matter, along with the cinematography, and some nicely staged action pieces make it worth checking out. But, there's a lot of potential here that doesn't get put to its fullest use.


Perhaps the best way to look at this film, then, is to say, "Oh, what might have been..."
Writing

Their Finest (2017)

There's been a lot of films made about the Second World War over the years. Most of them have been what would be in the category of war movies exploring battles and generals, like last year's Midway, Sink the Bismarck, or the 1970 Oscar-winning Patton. Occasionally, however, some films offer a different perspective, exploring in fiction portions of the war, especially on the home fronts, that doesn't receive much attention. Their Finest, based on a novel by Lissa Evans, looks at the creative side of the home front and what it took to make a cinematic effort in a nation under literal siege.

First and foremost, this is a film about a film. Specifically, it's a fictional film about a fictional film. Something which, in itself, is rather interesting since it is also looking back on a very particular era in the history of British cinema, one which viewers are a witness to through the eyes of a young Welsh woman named Catrin Cole. This secretary turned inadvertent screenwriter becomes our guide as she finds herself involved in the creation of a film about two sisters and the Dunkirk evacuation as the Blitz rains down on the streets of London. One which might help to inspire an already war-weary people and which, as the Ministry ends up demanding, have an American in it to boot. It's an interesting way of looking not just at an interesting moment in British film history but also an intriguing moment of British history in general, something which works in the film's favor.

It's also a film blessed with a first-rate cast. Leading it is Gemma Arterton as the Welsh secretary turned scriptwriter, a role that highlights her charm and inner-strength, even while allowing her moments of self-doubt and vulnerability. Sam Claflin plays Tom Buckley, her cynical screenwriting colleague, and the chemistry between the pair is palpable, to say the least. Rounding off the lead cast is a scene-stealing Bill Nighy as fading matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard. The supporting cast, likewise, is well cast from Richard E Grant as a Ministry of Information bureaucrat, Rachel Stirling as a Ministry executive overseeing the film, Jake Lacey as the token American, and even a cameo by Jeremy Irons. It's a first-rate cast and one that director Lone Scherfig puts to fine use.

Their Finest also features some superb production values. Wartime Britain, from Blitz London to the coastal Devon, are recreated in their 1940s glory through a combination of location filming and the production design of Alice Normington. The costume work by Charlotte Walter likewise helps to sell the recreation of the period. More than recreating Britain at war, they also recreate a British film industry dealing with it, with viewers seeing filmmaking circa 1940 recreated, including a humorous scene where Nighy's Hilliard crashes a matte shot in progress. There's also a warmth to be found in the cinematography of Sebastian Blenkov and especially from the score by Rachel Portman, a warmth which finds itself in stark contrast when the film finds itself going into gray London days or moments of proverbial (if not literal) darkness. True, some of the London scenes seem oddly devoid of people, revealing perhaps limits of the budget to recreate the period, but when things work, they work.

What stands out about Their Finest, as much as its cast and how well made it is, is its tone. In some ways, this is something of a wartime romantic comedy, one that focuses on Arterton's Cole. In other ways, it's a dramedy about the making of a movie in extraordinary times. Certainly, the warmth in its performances and those aspects I mentioned above, offer up evidence for that. To say that was all the film had would do it a disservice. Indeed, some of the twists along the way, and a major one toward the end, offer up proof that what screenwriter Gaby Chiappe and director Scherfig had in mind wasn't to produce a predictable genre piece. Instead, the movie becomes an exploration, on the national and personal level, of trying to make art in dark times, in finding hope when none seems apparent. It's something that helps elevate the finished film even more because, to its credit, it has something to say.

If you're looking for an interesting way of looking at the Second World War homefront, Their Finest is the movie for you. If you're looking for one about filmmaking in days gone by, then Their Finest is likewise a movie for you. If you're looking for hope in dark times, and frankly who isn't these days, then it is also a movie for you. Because if anything will make you laugh and feel better for a couple of hours, it'll be sitting down for two hours and watching the cast and filmmakers put on Their Finest for you.

Writing

John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes

The alien invasion story is one that has both captivated readers and viewers while also receiving the periodical reinvention. Yet, there are tales, sometimes decades old, that continue to resonate. The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham is one such example and one that has lost none of its power since its first publication nearly seventy years ago.

In some ways, it's easy to look at The Kraken Wakes and think of it as an aquatic take on The War of the Worlds. It is, after all, a semi-journalistic account of an alien invasion in which our protagonists, husband and wife Michael and Phyllis Watson of the English broadcasting Company, are present for specific events while relaying others. Indeed, like HG Wells's work, the invaders arrive out of the sky in a series of curious fireballs. From then on, they are rarely seen but are a lingering menace over much of the novel, but with their appearance being all the more effective as a result. There's a definite lineage from Wells to Wyndham's tale, published the same year that a celebrated film version of the former was released.

To say that was all there is to Wyndham's novel would be to do it a disservice of the highest order. The Kraken Wakes is not the tale of a lightning assault upon humanity and the Earth as envisaged by Wells (or, indeed, director Rolland Emmerich with Independence Day). Instead, it is a slow invasion, one that occurs in three phases, which our narrator shapes his narrative around. What begins with fireballs and odd activity in the depths of the world's oceans leads to attempts at military assault, causing an escalation that leads first to land assaults as the invaders roll into coastal towns and, eventually, something that will be all too familiar to a twenty-first-century readership: (view spoiler). Wyndham offers readers a ringside view to the end of the world piece by piece, at the hands of an enemy largely invisible to us.

In other ways, this nearly seventy-year-old novel remains prescient. As the timescale suggests, this is a gradual process over the space of a few years. Through Watson’s account, we experience reactions to events as they get gradually worse, and how they cover events as journalists. They watch as the crisis builds with people taking only gradual notice of it and expert warnings being dismissed. Cold War tensions, too, come into play, hampering responses to events by governments and allowing some, such as the wife of one of the Watson's friends, to go on believing the Russians are behind things. With debates over climate change and other events taking place as I write these words in the spring of 2020, Wyndham's novel feels oddly prophetic at times.

While written in the 1950s, and having some of the trappings of the period, Wyndham's novel has a timeless and timely quality to it. It remains a unique tale of an extraterrestrial invasion, one that takes place largely unseen and which we are seemingly helpless to stop. And in part down to our inability and unwillingness to deal with things, something which is a little too easy to believe these days.
Writing

Pandemic (2007)

There's an old Chinese saying along the lines of "May you live in interesting times." As I write these words in late March 2020, the world is in the throes of the very real Covid-19 pandemic. At times like these, some have turned to screen depictions of such events, however, too close to home they may now feel. It's no surprise perhaps that this 2007 miniseries has received new attention, and for reasons which quickly become apparent.


Though dealing with a flu outbreak, which comes to be known as the Riptide Virus, there are plenty of echoes of what’s happening now. There's a team of doctors trying to contain the disease, often struggling with both patients and political leaders. There are scenes of panic buying and profiteering. The miniseries also shows what happens when members of the public choose to ignore warnings, breaking quarantines to get on with their lives. There's even a group of conspiracy theorists who end up insisting that the government is up to nefarious ends, despite all the evidence. We also get to see versions of what governments are now terming social distancing and see characters in self-isolation. And, in one scene that’s become eerily prophetic thanks to reports from Spain, the use of an ice skating rink as a makeshift morgue. It's clear that writer's Bryce (co-creator of Dark Skies, which I wrote about on here in 2013) and Jackie Zabel did some homework going into this, and it benefits the production, in particular with hindsight.


Pandemic has other things going for it, of course. One of which is its large ensemble cast, taking in all sorts of perspectives. They range from Tiffani Thiessen's CDC scientist to French Stewart as her colleague, Eric Roberts as the mayor of LA, Bruce Boxleitner as his political advisor, Robert Curtis Brown as a slimy realtor whose cockiness helps spread the virus further, and Faye Dunaway as the Governor of California. The direction of Armand Mastroianni adds much to the piece, such as the series of quick cuts that visually show the journey of the Riptide Virus from an Australian beach onto the streets of LA. The score from veteran composer Kevin Kiner, while louder than it needs to be in places thanks to the mix, adds tension to the proceedings neatly as well. Given the made for TV budget, it looks and sounds pretty good across the three hours.


Not that the miniseries isn't without its faults, however. At three hours, it's perhaps inevitable there are parts of the Zabel's script that don't hold up or seem contrived. One particular subplot, involving Michael Massee as a drug baron who not only happens to be on the same flight as patient zero but who gets busted out of quarantine, only to then steal the anti-viral drug needed to fight the outbreak, comes across as convoluted. Indeed, it's purpose seems to be adding both a couple of action sequences and the overall running time. Others seem to fizzle out despite the attention given to them, like the aforementioned conspiracy theorists, for example. There's some casting that doesn't quite work too, such as Vincent Spano's FBI agent whose performance comes across as stiff and a little cliched, and some of the smaller supporting roles suffer in places from that as well. None of these are fatal flaws, by any means, though they do keep the miniseries from being better than it is.


On the whole, though, Pandemic is a solid miniseries. From a smart script to its ensemble cast and some neat moments of direction, there's plenty to recommend it for across its three-hour running time. Indeed, even with its flaws, there are parts of it that now feel eerily prophetic. Other times, you'll be thankful that some parts of it haven't come to pass.


Or haven't yet, anyway.

Writing

Midway (2019)

Since practically the dawn of cinema, there has been something about war films that have captured the attention of filmmakers and the public alike. Perhaps due to it taking place amid Hollywood's Golden Age, World War II especially has earned something of a prime spot. Midway, the latest film from Rolland Emmerich, proves that interest is still very much alive.

In looking over Emmerich's filmography, there are usually three things one can be confident about going in knowing. The first is that he can assemble an excellent cast, and Midway is no exception to that. To tell the story of a tide-turning battle and the man who fought it, he's assembled one that takes in a wide range. There are the comparatively fresh faces of Ed Skrein and Luke Evans as the lead characters, two naval aviators who take viewers into the heat of battle. Elsewhere, established character actors like Patrick Wilson take us into the back rooms, as do the likes of Dennis Quaid and Woody Harrelson playing Admirals Halsey and Nimitz, respectively, showing the strategies been laid out at the upper levels of command. The Japanese side of the cast is equally steadfast, lead by Etsushi Toyokawa as Admiral Yamamoto. Meanwhile, the civilian side of the war comes from Mandy Moore's character, the wife of Skrien's pilot, though it is something the film doesn't give much time toward portraying. On the whole, though, they do an excellent job bringing the history to life sincerely.

The second point of confidence is that an Emmerich film will be a special effects feast. Midway, too, scores on that point. From the attack on Pearl Harbor that comes a short way into the film to the Doolittle raid and the climactic ait attacks during the titular battle, the film does everything in its power to make viewers feel like they're flying alongside these men. Something which the film does with some fine CGI work that creates everything from early war Hawaii, to the ships and planes involved. Combined with all the other tricks of the trade, from the editing of Adam Wolfe to the score from frequent Emmerich collaborators Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser, the result is some of the finest aerial dogfights you're likely to see anytime soon.

The final thing on our Emmerich checklist regards the script. As has been the case throughout his career, but especially in the last decade or so, he's a director with a habit of getting ones full of interesting ideas but often cliched or merely functional dialogue. Midway, though based around historical events, does suffer from some of these faults as well, especially where its dialogue is concerned though the actors do their best with it, helping to mitigate the worst of it.

On the other hand, it's the historical elements that make Midway stand out. In presenting what is essentially a Cliff Notes version of the early Pacific War, Emmerich and writer Wes Tooke pack a largely accurate history lesson inside an action movie. Viewers get to see battles going down, the decisions leading up to them, and what it was like to face life and death during them. It allows the film to cover a lot of ground in a mere138 minutes, something which isn't always to its advantage (as the short-shifting of things like the Doolittle Raid and an underutilized Aaron Eckhart can attest). Despite that, it's hard not to think of it as the best script he's had since at least 2012 and maybe even longer ago than that.

Indeed, one might go so far as to call it Emmerich's best film since that 2009 outing. It has all the ingredients of his better work, as well as some of the flaws, and tells a fascinating real-life story to boot. Along the way, it also proves one adage to still be true: that truth can be just as compelling, and stranger, than fiction.
Titanic

Beyond Titanic (1998)

Continuing the tradition ongoing for a decade now (at least over on IMDB but here also, at least to a large extent), it's time for another documentary or docudrama review on my birthday. For this year, I'm revisitng a rather intriguing Titanic documentary from the late 1990s:

The sinking of the Titanic was one of those landmark cultural events of the 20th century. It has reverberated throughout our culture, becoming a synonym for incredible size and great tragedy. It arguably reached even greater heights in the late 1990s when James Cameron's epic blockbuster film hit cinema screens. 1998's Beyond Titanic might seem on the surface to be capitalizing on Cameron's film but, instead, it does something far more interesting than regurgitating the facts and theories of the sinking once again.

Surveying eighty-odd years of the disaster in popular culture, the documentary instead offers up a compelling look at just why the diaster has stayed with us. Beginning with how word reached the world of the sinking in 1912, this is the story of how facts and confusion gave birth to the mythology around the Titanic. What's incredible is just how much the disaster reverberated even then, finding its way into the arguments made by and againt suffragettes to appearing in African American folk music. From there, the liner enters the world of cinema just a month of its vanishing beneath the waves. Once there, as the documentary shows, it would find life again and again in numerous movies and TV series across the decades.

Those films and TV series are a big part of why this documentary remains intriguing viewing even after twenty years. Here are clips from across the whole range of Titanic on screen, from the earliest surviving silent films to the Nazi propaganda film made during the Second World War. There are the better-known films from the 1950s like Fox's Titanic and A Night to Remember, the latter remaining among the best Titanic films (if not the best). There are the appearances it's made on the small screen as well from One Step Beyond to The Time Tunnel. And even a few places where the disaster got unlikely namechecks including The Rocky Horror Picture Show and novels like Arthur C Clarke's The Ghost of the Grand Banks or Danielle Steele's No Greater Love. Cameron's film, still playing in cinemas when this was made, gets a fair amount of screentime later on in it, in addition to having Victor Garber (who played Thomas Andrews in the film) narrating the piece. In 94 minutes, it takes in the width and breadth of Titanic on-screen with only one or two notable exceptions such as the 1979 miniseries SOS Titanic.

It also sports a good assortment of talking heads. There are cultural historians Steven Biel and Paul Heyer offering up explorations of the Titanic's appearances in political and popular culture. Historians such as Don Lynch and Charles Haas offer up historical perspectives on the ship itself and how books and movies influenced their own interest in the ship, as does Daniel Allen Butler whose book Unsinkable was very much in vogue at the time. There are perspectives with collectors, artists, actors who've appeared in Titanic related works including Bernard Fox and Tammy Grimes, and even Titanic survivor Melvina Dean. Dean's contributions are interesting as she discusses the effect of films like A Night to Remember and Cameron's Titanic upon her, including the efforts film studio publicists went to try and get her to attend screenings of the latter in the UK. Each of them, and others too help explore the ongoing fascination with the wreck.

Beyond Titanic continues to stand out from the crowded field of Titanic documentaries for just that reason. As Garber says in the opening narration, it seems as though the Titanic has never really gone away. With countless books, songs, and films about the disaster, it isn't hard to see why. For the overview it gives of how Titanic went from a tragedy to a pop culture phenomenon, and everything in-between, it remains well-worth watching even with everything that's come in the last two decades. After all, our fascination with it has yet to diminish.