james debate
james debate

Sunday 24 October 2021

Created by Hwang Dong-hyuk
Network Netflix
Starring Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon
Genre Survival Drama
Running Time 32-63 minutes

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“The exciting thing for me would be if the next Stranger Things came from outside America... right now, historically, nothing of that scale has ever come from anywhere but Hollywood.” These words, spoken in 2018 by Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos can't help but come to mind when watching Squid Game. Ever since they moved into original content, Netflix have poured an impressive amount of resources into the development of world cinema and foreign language productions. Many of these have even met with notable success (see Dark, Money Heist), but none have yet had the global impact of a hit like Stranger Things. Those words loom now, because with Squid Game it appears that the moment has finally arrived.

To say that Squid Game has been a success would be a gross understatement. Number 1 in 90 countries, 117 million viewers in its first month. Squid Game has blown past the record set by Bridgerton to become Netflix's all time most watched series at launch. Not just for foreign language productions, but for all Netflix productions. It is hard to overstate what a remarkable accomplishment this is, for a subtitled Korean series without any actors or production team who are known in the west to have smashed records and become the biggest thing in global entertainment is absolutely unprecedented. How did this happen, and is the hype deserved?

The concept is simple. A group of destitute, desperate people are invited to compete in a series of games with the promise of a cash prize large enough to clear all their debts and generally solve all their life problems. Each game is based around a popular children's game. The catch: if you lose the game, you die. As far as critiques on capitalism go, it's fairly on the nose, but it gets better. 

Part of the mystique about Squid Game comes from its unlikely path to production. Originally written more than a decade ago by writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk, then a struggling writer going through a self-described low point in his life,  much the same as his characters in Squid Game. At the time, the script was rejected by every studio as being too extreme, too unbelievable, and so he put it aside. When Netflix finally picked up the project as part of its push into non-English media (the concept apparently deemed more believable in the 2021 age of class division and social media), it spurred this romantic image of of the struggling writer having his long-gestating project finally realised, but in truth this isn't really accurate. In the years since, Dong-hyuk has gone on to become quite a successful filmmaker in South Korea, with a number of significant hits to his name. He came into this project as a distinguished and recognised name in his home country.

Netflix, for their part, backed Dong-hyuk to the hilt, bankrolling Squid Game to the tune of $21million. This has allowed for a level of production that is up there with the biggest American series, and provided Dong-hyuk with the means to secure the absolute cream of the crop of South Korean actors. I'm not going to pretend to be overly familiar with Korean cinema, but my understanding is that this cast features a wide array of some of the most recognisable names in the region. Series lead Lee Jung-jae in particular is extremely well known in Korea as a charismatic romantic lead, a sort of George Clooney equivalent. His casting here as a desperate miscreant represents something of a casting against type. An exception to this is Jung Ho-yeon, a Korean model of moderate notoriety embarking on her very first role in acting. This breakout performance has seen her instantly transformed into a global superstar, her Instagram followers increasing from 300k to more than 20 million in just two weeks. The former relative unknown is now set to become a global ambassador for Louis Vuitton.

So why has Squid Game become such a global phenomenon? The first thing is the marketing. The cryptic imagery, the masks, the colours, even the name, is immediately arresting. It grabbed my attention as soon as it came up in the Netflix queue even though I had no idea what it was, and I'm sure I am not the only one. It stands out. Squid Game has an incredible sense of style about it that carries into the show itself. Its contrast of bold, over-saturated colours and children's games against bleak subject matter and extreme violence is striking - it brings to my mind a similar series, Utopia, which also stood out for its visuals and brutality.

The style is what hooks you in, but what keeps you watching are the characters. These characters are all distinct, larger-than-life types, brought to life through sharp scripting and consistently superb performances by its A-list cast. Even the unlikeable characters are hugely entertaining and irresistible to watch. You will become very attached to these characters, which makes the brutality of the series' narrative beats hit all the harder.

But ultimately you can't look any further than Dong-hyuk himself. The man wrote and directed every episode of this series, a rarity for such a big production, and he has crafted a world that is utterly absorbing, full of mystery, and stylishly presented. He has written a fantastic lineup of characters and expertly crafted an emotional narrative that ties them all together. It's compelling stuff, an excellent series that fully deserves all the hype. Great credit must also be given to Netflix, who have poured so much money and effort into supporting international production. That confidence is paying dividends now and has vindicated years of Netflix strategy.

Is it a perfect production? Certainly not. The concept often strains credibility and requires a suspension of disbelief, the American VIPs who appear late in the series are abysmally written and performed (surprising given the Netflix funding and Hollywood connections), and the mastermind villain's ultimate goals and motivation is a bit superficial and unsatisfying (unless this gets developed further later on). None of that ruins the experience, however, or detracts from what is otherwise a hugely entertaining series.

I am excited to see where Squid Game goes next. With this compelling world, its distinctive imagery, and now a massive audience, they could have the makings of a major franchise on their hands if they want it.

Saturday 16 October 2021

Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Cary Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Produced by Michael Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Starring Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes
Studio MGM/Eon
Running time 163 minutes

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How will Daniel Craig's time as James Bond be remembered? A bold reinvention of a 1960s hangover? The last gasp of a dated male fantasy ill-suited for the MeToo era? At the very least it marked a change from what came before. Gone were the playboy antics of Pierce Brosnan, in favour of Craig's grittier, more physical blunt instrument of a man, while the gadgets and villains also saw a notable reduction in camp-factor. This was a more serious take on the character, initiated in the early 2000s, post-9/11 boom of big budget blockbusters taking on weightier subject matter and tone. The experiment bore fruit, with Craig going on to be the longest lasting actor to carry the 007 mantle, and the Bond franchise arguably bigger than it has ever been in terms of commercial and critical appeal.

By way of warning, this review may contain some light spoilers.

No Time to Die marks the end of that era, the last film of Daniel Craig's tenure and fittingly he has gone out with a bang. For Craig's swan song, Eon have assembled an array of impressively prominent talent behind the scenes. Hans Zimmer scores, Phoebe Waller-Bridge scribes. Most intriguingly, No Time to Die marks the first major film project for director Cary Fukunaga, a man known for critically acclaimed TV projects like True Detective, The Alienist, and Maniac. Eon have been bold in handing such an important project to someone with only minimal big-screen experience, but it has paid off. 

This is an excellent film overall. Compelling, entertaining, and gorgeously crafted for what might otherwise just have been typical blockbuster fare. No Time to Die is surely one of the most visually striking film in the Bond pantheon. The camera shots, pacing and imagery is a constant joy throughout. Fukunaga shows himself to not only have an eye for the spectacular, but a gift for captivating simplicity - for all the exotic locales and sweeping vistas, it is arguably the simplest of his set pieces (Blofeld slowly moving down a tunnel) that provides the most arresting imagery of the entire film.

Waller-Bridge's scripting is tight, for the most part, and injects some welcome levity back into a franchise that has been taking itself just slightly too seriously of late. While this still very much has the tone one would expect from a Daniel Craig Bond film, she does manage to slip the odd joke or visual gag into the mix in a way that allows her trademark wit to shine through in a way that is not overly gratuitous. 

No Time to Die also boasts some of the finest performances in the franchise's history. Craig has not been so compelling as Bond since Casino Royale, while Christoph Waltz takes his second chance at making a lasting impression as Blofeld (following the hugely disappointing Spectre). The supporting cast boasts a remarkably deep bench with Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Jeffrey Wright reprising their roles, while newcomer Lashana Lynch makes a headline grabbing impression as a black, female 007 (it should be noted, however, that the current scuttlebutt is that she will not be reprising this role going forward, despite the hype). 

Much attention will no doubt be on the main villain of the story, played by recent Academy Award winner (albeit one of the weakest in recent memory) Rami Malek. Malek, it has to be said, is somewhat bland and forgettable in this role. That is not entirely his fault, this just isn't all that compelling a villain, but one also gets the impression that he is a bit out of his depth here as an actor. Malek has been propelled onto the Hollywood A-list by his good fortune at landing so beloved a role as Freddie Mercury, but he won't stay there if his performances don't earn it.

There is some unevenness in the plot. The villain's motivations are not especially well thought out or compelling. The big bad MacGuffin that everyone is chasing has a somewhat fluid nature that adapts to whatever is most narratively convenient with little care for consistency or logic, and the narrative beats themselves sometimes just don't make much sense. It is established early in the film that Bond has become infected with this nano-weapon that everyone is chasing, but no one seems to be especially concerned about this until the final segment where Bond is, once again, infected, only this time it's suddenly a game-changing crisis. Particularly strange is how the film handles the character of Paloma, a CIA agent played by the magnetic Ana de Armas. Paloma gets a significant chunk of the film having her character and growing connection to Bond developed, only to suddenly disappear and never be seen again. Some very odd choices.

But perhaps I am expecting too much from a Bond film. These are only niggling concerns that do not detract from what is otherwise an excellent action movie - and note, this is an action movie rather than a spy movie. Whether you like it or not, one of the defining features of Craig's Bond is that (aside from the first movie) he is more of a comicbook superhero than a clandestine agent, but I can't fault a film for being what it is.

So No Time to Die follows the pattern of Daniel Craig Bond films alternating between good and bad (Casino Royale - good, Quantum of Solace - bad, Skyfall - good, Spectre - bad), and has earned all the plaudits that it is currently receiving. The story is not as strong or meaningful as Casino Royale (still the highlight of the franchise for me), but in terms of style it ranks among the very best. It will be interesting to see where Eon take the franchise next, but for now this makes for a satisfying and hugely entertaining goodbye to the Craig era.

Sunday 10 October 2021

Genre Rock
Label Island
Producers Shawn Everett

pressure machine the killers best new album 2021

When The Killers announced the upcoming release of their seventh studio album, mere months after their previous album Imploding the Mirage, it raised a few eyebrows. A big name artist releasing two albums in such quick succession is practically unheard of in this day and age. For The Killers, the gap between albums has generally been 3-5 years historically, so the announcement that they would be releasing a second album in less than a year was surprising to say the least. But any concerns that this would be a rush job or album of B-sides has proven to be premature. On the contrary, Pressure Machine represents arguably the band's most complex and ambitious release to date. 

The Killers' frontman Brandon Flowers has been known to say that he would never stop writing new material, were it not for the need to travel, tour and promote his previous work. So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that he has used his year of lockdown, with all tours and commitments cancelled, for precisely that. Nor should it come as a surprise that an album written amid such sombre circumstances would strike a decidedly more introspective tone than we have come to expect from his work.

Previous albums have covered a broad swathe of matters that largely strike you in the heart: love, family, destiny, spirituality, ambition, topics that are relatable to most, and powered them with lyrics that are evocative rather than nuanced. "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier," "The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun," "I saw the devil wrapping up his hands, he's getting ready for the showdown." Flowers is a master of this kind of songwriting. He has a spectacular eye for imagery and knows exactly how to hit his listeners deep in their gut. With Pressure Machine he takes much more of a  topical laser focus, attempting a sober and serious look at the struggles of small town American life, particularly in relation to the opioid crisis.

As a band that is best known for crafting songs as big, shiny objects, the more subtle nature of Pressure Machine's music may come as a shock to long-time fans. It's a bit like if filmmaker JJ Abrams decided that his next film should be an intimate portrayal of migrant workers during the Great Depression. That is not to say that The Killers have not previously dabbled in the intimate, but their past albums have largely been focused around the show-stopping anthems. Their most recent album, for example, featured tracks like Caution, My Own Soul's Warning, Dying Breed, and My God, each of which was a potential hit single with their broad, radio-friendly hooks and exhilarating tone. By contrast, Pressure Machine's music is much more of a slow-burn, without any obvious chart toppers and more understated, delicately crafted melodies. But while the music may not be as instantly impactful as some of their best known work, it does grow on you with repeated listens and its additional intricacy starts to shine.

On first listen, what stands out most from the music is how varied and textured it is compared to previous albums. Delicate keys and lingering strings, in addition to the usual jangling indie guitars. This is an album with a wide soundscape, from West Hills' raw outpouring of the soul, to the breezier country jam Quiet Town. In the Car Outside delivers some of the more energetic rock and roll that one would expect from The Killers and, in its climax, one of the best instrumental segments The Killers have ever produced. But perhaps the most impressive track is the title track Pressure Machine, a soft and soulful track of rare beauty. There is a lot going on her musically and it's often gorgeous. It is refreshing to see the band operating outside their usual comfort zone, exhibiting a greater musical dexterity than I think the band often gets credit. What surprised me, given the more understated nature of the music, was just how much these melodies got under my skin and stuck with me on repeated listens. While these songs may not have the visceral immediacy of those opening chords from Mr. Brightside, their subtle and timeless hooks nevertheless leave a lasting impression.

Where Pressure Machine doesn't quite succeed is in the lyrics. While Flowers' broad impressionistic style is effective in its own way, it's not especially well suited to this kind of discussion. The subject matter is one that demands insight, rather than evocative tugs on the heartstrings. Flowers has always been more of a poet than a piercing intellect and it makes for an uncomfortable fit with the vision of this album.

Pressure Machine marks an ambitious turn from The Killers, and delivers one of the band's most musically complex offerings, if not the raw excitement of their more famous hits. I suspect this is an album that could fly under the radar for many, failing to grab hold of the top 40 crowd, while struggling with critics that have historically been sceptical of the band's work. For those who give it a chance, however, they will find a powerful piece of work, with music that will surprise you in its longevity.

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