Will Poulter

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

30/12/18

We haven’t reviewed earlier episodes of Charlie Brooker’s excellent Black Mirror series, mainly because we don’t really do TV shows – but a couple of things feel different this time around. For one thing, with so many feature films making their debuts on Netflix these days, it seems more appropriate. And for another, Bandersnatch is something of a game-changer. This is an interactive story, heavily influenced by the ‘make your own adventure’ books of the 1980s and one in which viewers can participate. As the tale unfolds, we are faced with a series of simple decisions: should a character choose Sugar Puffs or Frosties, for example? Clicking on one suggestion or another will influence what consequently happens on the screen. It starts small but the choices become ever more dramatic as the story scampers along.

It’s 1984 and young Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) is an ambitious video game designer, who, after the tragic death of his mother, is living alone with his secretive father, Peter (Craig Parkinson). Stefan, when not spending time with his analyst, Dr Haynes (Alice Lowe), is developing a brand new game called Bandersnatch, which he takes along to major video game publisher, Tuckersoft, headed by ponytailed entrepreneur, Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudrey). At the initial meeting, Stefan is introduced to one of his video game designer idols, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), and is subsequently astonished to discover that the team like his ideas and want to offer him the opportunity to make it a reality.

But will he accept the offer? Well, that’s kind of up to you…

Bandersnatch is an astonishingly meta idea. As our choices send the action into deeper and ever more labyrinthine rabbit holes, it occurs to me that I am watching something that I am, however tangentially, able to influence. Rather than just being a passive observer, I am involved in the creation of a fiction. It gets even more interesting when characters I am trying to influence begin to disobey me. This is a genuinely exciting idea and it soon becomes apparent that the episode may require at least one repeat viewing to see if different choices will radically affect the outcome.

I’m not suggesting that Bandersnatch is one hundred percent successful. There’s a tendency to come up against buffers which repeatedly send you back to watch the same sequences over again – and I can’t help feeling that one particular outcome may happen in every version of the story – but Brooker deserves plaudits for coming up with this – and Netflix too, for having the chutzpah to finance it.

Where this concept may lead audiences in the future opens up fields for speculation, but to me it feels like an interesting first step. Watch this space.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Little Stranger

22/09/18

Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a curiously enigmatic and unsettling tale, and its transition from page to screen is profoundly satisfying. It’s a ghost story without ghosts, a horror film without real scares. And yet an uneasy sense of impending doom pervades the piece, and the tension in the cinema is almost palpable.

It’s 1948, and Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has returned from years of study and army-medic work to his Warwickshire hometown. He’s ill at ease here though, all too aware of his humble origins, and still obsessed with Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked as a maid.

Called to the Hall to minister to an ailing servant, Faraday finds himself drawn to the Ayres family: the ailing matriarch (Charlotte Rampling), who’s haunted by memories of her dead daughter, Susan; Roderick (Will Poulter), who’s struggling to cope with both the physical injuries and the mental stress he’s brought with him from the war; and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who – tasked with looking after them both – is bored and isolated in her idyllic country prison. But the relationships they forge are as unhealthy and demanding as the mouldering ancestral home, and it soon becomes clear that things are not going to end well.

This is a fascinating film, directed with the precision we expect from Lenny Abrahamson, following the award-winning Room. I like the careful slowness of it all, the repressed emotions that reverberate and shimmer. Domhnall Gleeson’s performance is wonderfully understated, the clenched jaw and tense body language testimony to just how much this man has to conceal: his past, his class, his raging desire.

Ruth Wilson is utterly convincing as the gauche Caroline Ayres, an unhappy blend of self-doubt and entitlement, both poor and rich, privileged and trapped. Of course, the whole film is a kind of commentary on class, on what it makes us and how we respond to it. And it’s as illuminating and disturbing as the shadows haunting Hundreds Hall.

The muted, misty colours of the post-war landscape mirror the shadowy ambiguities of the story, where we’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is supernatural or not. It’s frustrating, all this teasing, but that’s no bad thing: it only adds to the film’s potency. Truly, this is an enthralling film.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Detroit

30/08/17

Kathryn Bigelow’s angry howl of a movie deals with the infamous Algiers Motel Incident of 1967, one of the most shameful abuses of civil rights in America’s history. It’s certainly not an easy film to watch, but it’s undeniably powerful and recreates the events with an almost forensic eye for period detail.

Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is the luckless security guard who finds himself drawn into events at the motel after one of the residents plays a practical joke with a starting pistol, a joke that goes horribly wrong. A bunch of Detroit police officers, led by the openly racist Krauss (Will Poulter), enter the motel with guns drawn, determined to find the ‘sniper’ they believe is holed up there. Dismukes has the unenviable task of trying to maintain some kind of equilibrium amidst the rising tension, while Krauss, already in trouble for shooting an unarmed man in an earlier incident, is determined to make an arrest. The problem is, he isn’t particularly choosy about how he selects the so-called perpetrator.

The film quickly develops into a tense confrontation between the police and their captives, who are subjected to a terrifying ordeal that some of them, sadly, do not survive. The film then goes beyond the incident itself to examine the resulting trial and its woeful  verdict. Brit actor John Boyega plays Dismukes with dignity and steely determination and there’s a fine turn from Algee Smith, as a vocalist on the edge of stardom, whose life is suddenly and irrevocably affected by the events at the motel. But it’s Poulter who is the revelation here, playing a ruthless, smirking scumbag, a role that’s about a million miles away from his usual comfort zone. Clearly, Bigelow spotted something in that angelic face that was capable of portraying evil – and it’s interesting to note that the actor was attached to the role of Pennywise in the upcoming It before a change of director prompted him to bail out.

Detroit won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s long and harrowing and some liberties have been taken with the real story (the police officers’ names, for instance, have been changed, presumably in an attempt to protect the film-makers from lawsuits), but it’s nonetheless an important and profoundly affecting film that absolutely deserves to be seen and heard . I would strongly suggest that you grab the opportunity to do exactly that.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Revenant

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14/01/16

This time last year, Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu dazzled the cinema-going public with his quirky comedy, Birdman. Now he dazzles us again, with something entirely different – a bleak, gruelling historical drama, based on a real life story, a film that pulses with bone-jarring violence offset by eerily beautiful location photography.  The Revenant looks set to dominate this year’s Oscars and it’s clearly a hard-won victory. At times, the actors look as though they’re going through as gruelling an experience as their screen counterparts. Here is the life of an 1820s fur trapper in all its grimy glory. It doesn’t look an appealing way to make a living.

The story concerns an expedition into the American wilderness in the depths of winter. Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) is the team’s scout and he’s accompanied by his mixed-race son, Hawk (Forest Goodluck). Barely ten minutes into the action, the men are attacked by Arikara warriors and only a handful of them escape with their lives. Matters aren’t helped when, shortly afterwards, Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear (a prolonged scene of almost unwatchable savagery) and is left close to death. The team leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleason) decides to strike out for their home base and leaves Glass in the care of seasoned trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and callow youth Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Henry instructs Fitzgerald to give Glass a decent burial when ‘his time comes.’ But Fitzgerald is a survivalist. He murders Hawk and leaves Glass for dead, throwing him into a half dug grave and abandoning him to a slow and painful death. But Glass’s hunger for revenge somehow keeps him alive…

This is the second time the story has inspired a film. In 1971, Man In The Wilderness starring Richard Harris, used the basis of it but changed Glass’s name to Zachary Bass. Inaritu’s film actually sticks closer to the real tale and has the added advantage of Emmanuel Lubezski’s stunning cinematography, his fluid camerawork soaring and sweeping throughout the action to create an almost immersive experience. Often you’ll find yourself closer to the action than is strictly comfortable. In one scene, Glass’s breathing actually fogs the camera lens – in another, blood spatters the screen. And then there are sequences featuring Glass’s fever dreams, strange, hypnotic, almost hallucinatory. It all makes for grim but compelling viewing. Many will be repelled by the extreme violence and a scene where Glass takes refuge from the cold inside a freshly killed horse – yes, you read that right – isn’t going to sit well with any vegetarians in the audience. (Strangely, this isn’t as ridiculous as it might seem. It was an old buffalo hunter’s trick to keep warm inside the gutted carcass of a freshly killed bison. Like a fleshy electric blanket).

The Revenant is an extraordinary slice of cinema, an epic story of survival, of man against nature. If Di Caprio ends up lifting the best actor Oscar (despite speaking only a handful of lines in the entire film) I for one won’t begrudge it to him. I’d say he’s earned it, if only in the scene where he’s required to devour a live fish.

Unmissable.

5 stars

Philip Caveney