Mark Huffam

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Alien: Covenant Review

Very Good

Master filmmaker Ridley Scott is back to continue the story 10 years after the events of 2012's Prometheus. And while this film carries on with the bigger themes about creation and identity, at its heart it actually has much more in common with the film in which he kicked off the franchise, 1979's Alien. Yes, this is a horror movie. It's slickly made and packed with engaging characters, and it gets gruesomely scary too.

The setting is somewhere in space in 2104, as the colonising ship Covenant carries a few thousand sleeping earthlings to a new world, tended to by the android Walter (Michael Fassbender). Then a space flare awakens the 15-person crew, and they hear a rogue radio transmission from a nearby planet that's eerily perfect for colonisation. Captain Oran (Billy Crudup) thinks it's worth checking out, potentially shaving seven years off their journey. First officer Daniels (Katherine Waterston) isn't so sure. But off they go, exploring the spectacular mountainous terrain, where they find a crashed ship and a city populated only by the Prometheus' android David (also Fassbender) and some creepy, acid-salivating creatures that he has something to do with.

The plot plays out like a slasher movie, as the crew members are picked off one by one, starting with the ones we don't know and building up to the starrier cast members. Each main actor gets to invest some back-story into his or her role, establishing relationships and personality quirks that hold the interest. Waterston is clearly the protagonist from the start, grieving over the death of her husband (James Franco in video clips) and showing natural leadership skills. Crudup is the impulsive captain who mellows into someone much more intriguing as the story progresses. And McBride has the other standout role as a tenacious pilot. But of course it's Fassbender who walks off with the film, excelling in scenes in which Walter and David engage in a kind of twisted bromance with nasty sibling-rivalry undertones.

Continue reading: Alien: Covenant Review

The Journey (2017) Review

Very Good

A fictionalised account of real events, this drama is reminiscent of Peter Morgan's work in The Queen or Frost/Nixon. Even though screenwriter Colin Bateman (Murphy's Law) aims more for entertainment value than pointed character drama, the film is solidly gripping, drawing plenty of brittle humour and complex emotion out of the story.

It's set in 2006, as peace talks about Ireland are taking place in St. Andrews. Prime Minister Tony Blair (Toby Stephens) is trying to orchestrate a meeting between mortal enemies Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) and Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney). But there's a hitch when Ian needs to return to Belfast for his 59th wedding anniversary party. In a surprise move, Martin insists on accompanying Ian, citing protocol as a reason. Seeing his chance, MI5 expert Harry (John Hurt) puts a plan in motion for them to travel to Edinburgh together to catch the flight, planting a cheerful young spy (Freddie Highmore) as their driver. The question is whether he can manipulate their journey and cause them to start talking.

As the ice between these stubborn men begins to thaw, the script contrives to push them together with things like a petrol stop, a flat tyre, an injured deer on the roadside and a time-wasting detour through the woods that's intended to break their silence. The two actors have a great time maintaining their bluster through all of this. Spall gives Paisley an imperious attitude that has cleverly wry undercurrents. His rant at a shop clerk about a declined credit card is delivered with biblical proportions. And Meaney has some heart-stopping moments of his own. Both actors clearly relish the snaky, engaging dialogue as they quietly reveal the real men beneath the tough public personae. By contrast, Highmore seems eerily charisma-free as their driver, but there's more fun to be had from Hurt, Stephens and others as hapless officials watching on hidden cameras.

Continue reading: The Journey (2017) Review

The Martian Review

Excellent

Just as people began to write off veteran director Ridley Scott after a series of merely OK movies, the 77-year-old casually releases his most entertaining film in years. This sci-fi adventure is lithe, humorous, thrilling and genuinely moving. In other words, it's one of Scott's best films, mixing eye-catching visuals with a story that resonates with both emotion and deeper meaning. And it's also a lot of fun.

In the very near future, the first manned mission to Mars is caught off guard by a sudden storm. With their ship in danger, Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders the crew to evacuate, but in the chaos botanist Watney (Matt Damon) is knocked away and presumed dead. As Lewis and her team (Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie) begin the long trek back to Earth, Watney wakes up alone on Mars and understands that he will need to survive until the next mission arrives in four years' time. But his habitat is only designed to last for 30 days, so he has a lot of work to do. Eventually, he thinks of a way to get a message back home to Nasa, letting them know he's alive. Now the experts (including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig) must figure out a way to rescue him before he runs out of food and water.

The story plays out on three fronts: with Watney using his expertise to survive, Lewis and her crew on their long journey back home, and the Nasa officials mounting a rescue mission. All three plot-strands are riveting, using convincing science to explore the conundrum while cranking up the emotional urgency of the situation. Intriguingly, the script never gives Watney a family back on Earth to sentimentalise things; the film simply doesn't need that. And Damon more than holds the audience's sympathy. He's funny, smart, tenacious and thoroughly identifiable, the kind of person we wish we would be in the same situation.

Continue reading: The Martian Review

Exodus: Gods And Kings Review


Good

Aside from impressive 21st century digital effects, this new take on the Moses story pales in comparison to Cecil B. DeMille's iconic 1956 version, The Ten Commandments, which is far more resonant and intensely dramatic. Biblical epics are tricky to get right, and Ridley Scott certainly knows how to make them look and feel terrific (see Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven), but his films are generally about the spectacle rather than the human emotion. So this version of the biblical story will only appeal to viewers who have never seen a better one.

It's set in 1300 BC, when the Israelites have been in captivity in Egypt for 400 years. Now rumours of liberation are circling, centring on Moses (Christian Bale), the adopted son of Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro), raised as a brother alongside the future Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton). When it emerges that Moses is actually a Hebrew, he is sent into exile in the desert, where he finds a new calling as a shepherd and marries his new boss' sexy daughter Sefora (Maria Valverde). Moses also has a run-in with the Jewish God, who appears in the form of a young boy (Isaac Andrews), challenging Moses to free the Israelites. As Moses attempts to spark a slave revolt, God sends seven horrific plagues to convince Ramses to let his people go.

The script struggles to have its cake and eat it too, finding rational explanations for the plagues and miracles while still maintaining God's supernatural intervention. It's a rather odd mix that demonstrates just how compromised the movie is: it's a big blockbuster rather than a story about people. Several elements work well, such as depicting God as a boy, although the screenplay never manages to make much of the female characters. And only Ben Mendelsohn manages to inject any proper personality as the weaselly overseer of the slaves. Bale and Edgerton both catch the complexity of their characters' situations, privilege mixed with personal revelations. But Scott is more interested in parting the Red Sea than taking them anywhere very interesting.

Continue reading: Exodus: Gods And Kings Review

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Mark Huffam Movies

Alien: Covenant Movie Review

Alien: Covenant Movie Review

Master filmmaker Ridley Scott is back to continue the story 10 years after the events...

The Journey (2017) Movie Review

The Journey (2017) Movie Review

A fictionalised account of real events, this drama is reminiscent of Peter Morgan's work in...

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The Martian Movie Review

The Martian Movie Review

Just as people began to write off veteran director Ridley Scott after a series of...

Exodus: Gods and Kings Movie Review

Exodus: Gods and Kings Movie Review

Aside from impressive 21st century digital effects, this new take on the Moses story pales...

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