"I understood that reference": Passengers, Kong: Skull Island, and the pitfalls of paying homage to cinema's past


On the surface, recent Hollywood offerings Passengers and Kong: Skull Island appear to have little in common other than being mainstream blockbusters; the former being a sci-fi vehicle for current hot properties Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, whilst the latter offers the latest reboot for the titular giant ape. But they share a curious trait, one which you might not expect to see in such standard Hollywood fare: both contain a number of prominent allusions to past cinema, ranging from the unmistakeably iconic to uncompromisingly cult.

Passengers' most obvious reference point is The Shining - the bar on the starship Avalon may as well have been taken straight out of the Overlook Hotel, complete with Michael Sheen's android barman Arthur replicating Joe Turkel's Lloyd in appearance if never in creepiness. Perhaps less surprising for a film set in space are references to both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running; but there are also definite links to a less immediately obvious bedfellow in Cast Away at points throughout Morten Tyldum's film.

Whilst Kong: Skull Island by definition draws on past Kong films - John Guillermin's 1976 remake feels like the strongest influence - it arguably more often evokes Apocalypse Now both visually and narratively, a connection reflected just as strongly in the film's promotional materials. Other Vietnam war movies of the '70s and '80s are inherently referenced, partly thanks to the fact that Kong: Skull Island is set in the period immediately following America's involvement in the conflict. But Jordan Vogt-Roberts also includes some more obscure and surprising references: Mark Kermode was particularly delighted to find that a reference to notorious Italian horror flick Cannibal Holocaust was entirely intentional, and the director himself has confirmed that Kong chowing down on a giant octopus is a deliberate nod to Park Chan-wook's Oldboy.


With their film geek credentials established, however, both Tyldum and Vogt-Roberts do precisely nothing with them. After an intriguing opening half, Passengers opts for 'Fishburne ex machina' at the end of its second act, followed by a race against time to avert disaster as derivative as it's possible to create. Kong: Skull Island meanwhile proceeds to both figuratively and literally waste a talented cast in favour of railroading the establishment of the MonsterVerse, the latest attempt at a cinematic universe which will eventually lead to Kong squaring off against the newly rebooted version of Godzilla.

The homages are therefore rendered empty, their apparent foreshadowing of some intertextuality with cinema gone by ultimately amounting to nothing. The iconography on display essentially becomes a meaningless checklist for those who appreciate it, reducing their viewing experience to something akin to Steve Rogers in the first Avengers film enthusiastically acknowledging his understanding Nick Fury's allusion to The Wizard Of Oz. Sure, you recognise the references, but what's the point if they're just there for you to let others know you spotted them?

In fact, including such bold references to iconic cinema with no thematic or narrative payoff actually damages these films more than if they hadn't included at all. If Tyldum hadn't taken so many visual cues directly from The Shining, it might not feel like such a disappointment when Passengers eventually pitches its tent so firmly in such woefully generic action sci-fi territory. If Vogt-Roberts (and the marketing team) hadn't pushed Apocalypse Now so blatantly in front of us, the blow of finding out that the film is ultimately yet another rushed franchise starter made with several sequels already in mind may have been a little easier to take.

Perhaps most disappointing, in Kong: Skull Island's case at least, is the thought of the film that we could have had. Are the brief flashes of such cult offerings as Oldboy and Cannibal Holocaust remnants of a far more interesting film that Vogt-Roberts really wanted to make? Unless the director chooses to confirm or deny this, we'll probably never know. Sometimes, however, it seems fair to say that the ignorance of not being able to say "I understood that reference" might indeed be bliss.


By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a contributing editor at Film Intel. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. When he's not writing about films here, Ben is usually writing about films - mostly Shakespeare adaptations - for his PhD. He's also on and Twitter.

Notes from Doc/Fest 2017: Whitney: Can I Be Me

Ben Booth writes from Sheffield Doc/Fest, the UK's premier Documentary festival, taking place this year from 9th-14th June.


Nick Broomfield's new Documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me had its first UK screening at Doc/Fest in Sheffield.

The film follows Whitney Houston's highs and lows over her 20-something year career as a pop artist and is one of Nick Broomfield's first steps away from the 'sound boom' style. The film follows her progress, downfalls and other problems as she begins to become famous, using mainly archive footage and archive recordings, along with much never-before-seen 1999 World Tour footage.

Broomfield's usual style of following people around with a camera is out and in comes interviews with Houston's close friends and mother. The narrative mainly centres around her relationship with Bobby Brown and the impact it had on her career and her personal life. As the film progresses, we learn more about her relationship with her close confident Robyn and how she influenced her tour and her life, to apparently try to keep her safe.

The film opens with an emotional drone shot of the Beverly Hilton, as the 911 call from security is played to the audience. After the opening we are led through Houston’s life with many of her close friends and family, but we also get to meet the people who moulded her career to how they apparently wanted her to be. We hear from her drummer and musical director as he explains how he had to sit on stage night after night and watch Houston’s back muscles move back and forth like a body builder as she quite literally had to strain herself to sing. The camera cuts to footage of her rolling her eyes as she winds up to sing the chorus from I Will Always Love You.

The film is a big step for Broomfield. It feels a lot more like a film that's made for the big screen, which is a move away from the handheld, DIY, feel of his early films such as Kurt And Courtney (1998) and Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer (2003). In these early films Broomfield uses just a cameraman and himself on the boom mic; one of many reasons people were inspired by him to make documentaries, including myself. If you are looking for that, or the controversial nature of films such as Fetishes (1996) or Sex: My British Job (2013) then this may feel like a step in a different direction. If you want an informative, intimate feel as to how Houston lived her life and how it ultimately led to her death, then this offers many positives.

As the film progresses you start to feel more connected to Houston as an artist. As her career begins to grow, the groups of hangers on start to grow. We hear from her bodyguard who stated he submitted a report on the 1999 World Tour stating that she was beginning to quite literally kill herself and the people who were providing her with drugs and other vices needed to be removed from her life.

The little facts are also there, as you would expect. One of the makers of the 1992 film The Bodyguard explained how the acapella beginning of I Will Always Love You came to be. Kevin Costner takes credit for that one. Apparently he approached the filmmaker and said that the song would be better if there was no music during the opening, a decision which has since become iconic.

Dogwoof are on board as distributors, and as I know from previous Doc/Fests they often bring out the heavy hitters here, which go on to big things at the winter's Oscars.


Prevenge - Blu-ray Review

'Takes a genuinely original high concept and turns it into a sub-90-minute feature that's really bloody good'.

There are all sorts of reasons to admire Alice Lowe's directorial debut Prevenge. There's the fact that Lowe is on both writing and leading lady duties alongside directing, doing at least two of these whilst also being heavily pregnant. There's also the fact that the vast majority of Prevenge was filmed in Cardiff in under two weeks on a relative shoestring. But, perhaps most importantly, it's a film which takes a genuinely original high concept and turns it into a sub-90-minute feature that's really bloody good. That high concept - expectant mother Ruth (Lowe) goes on a killing spree seemingly under the orders of her unborn child - is undoubtedly Prevenge's hook, something which Lowe never forgets and plays to her advantage throughout.

Her work with Ben Wheatley in particular has clearly influenced Lowe's approach to making her own film: both the tone and subject matter are somewhat similar to those of Wheatley's jet black comedy Sightseers, which Lowe both co-wrote and starred in. Whilst Prevenge regularly has a dark sense of humour, however, it feels first and foremost like a cult slasher flick. Lowe regularly infuses her film with the spirit of old school horror, with the unnerving soundtrack from electronic duo Toydrum adding to the sense of low-budget retro splatter even though the film's moments of bloody violence are in fact isolated and relatively understated. The relentless focus on Ruth's point of view and state of mind works well, with Lowe skilfully keeping the audience guessing just how much of what we're witnessing is all in Ruth's head until the very end through both her direction and performance.

Whilst the full story is unfolded with patience, where Prevenge perhaps falls down most often is in its narrative structure. Ruth's path from one murder to the next too often feels disconnectedly episodic, with some of her victims given little opportunity to become anything more than caricatures. Lowe seemingly does this to retain a sense of ambiguity as to how and why Ruth has chosen her victims, and indeed whether we should sympathise with them or not, but as more about Ruth's own circumstances is revealed throughout the film it's hard not to crave a more fleshed out target for her to hunt down. Tom (Kayvan Novak) is the closest Lowe gets to this, although the development he receives still feels only partially successful. 




Prevenge was released on UK Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 5th June 2017.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a contributing editor at Film Intel. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. When he's not writing about films here, Ben is usually writing about films - mostly Shakespeare adaptations - for his MA by Research. He's also on and Twitter.

House Of Cards' big moments are now the same moments that are killing the show


Towards the end of House Of Cards Season 5, a key character from several seasons previous is killed off, on-screen, by another major character. It is undoubtedly the season's biggest moment.

It is not, however, the season's best moment and it finishes off a second half of this year's offering that pales in comparison to the first.

Having replaced showrunner Beau Willimon with writers Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson, the season starts off strongly by finding new ways to excel at political drama in the context of a real-life America run by a fish-finger with hair.

Instead of a focus on the evils of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the show increasingly folds itself into constitutional minutiae. As Underwood continues to battle Conway (Joel Kinnaman), the type of millennial who thinks he's a millennial but isn't, Pugliese and Gibson successfully establish interest and investment in the smallest and most obscure of legislative pen spasms. It's thrilling, and tense, and with all of the skeletons in the cupboard continuing to wave occasionally, the first six episodes breeze by.

They are helped by the Conway character. Kinnaman still looks miscast, soporifically 'brah', as he Snapchats his way to obscurity. But that too is something Pugliese and Gibson turn to their advantage. Investigating masculinity through Frank and Claire is now dead, but in Conway the writers find life, questioning the American fascination with armed services heroism, and a lot more besides. Conway's wholesome exterior, shown as a sham from early on, crumbles in such a fratboy all-star way that he may as well be wearing polo and chinos. Perhaps it's obvious. It still works, and for a good while it works in a committed and sophisticated manner.

And then things change.

Already missing characters the show had dedicated multiple seasons to (Meechum, Danton - wow, Mahershala Ali is a big miss - Sharp, Dunbar - wow, Elizabeth Marvel is a big miss), Conway is suddenly marginalised. Hell, with apologies for a mild spoiler: he downright disappears from the halfway point. And House Of Cards goes back into distraction mode.

Because the big events in House Of Cards aren't what make the show matter. They drive narrative, but they are not, in themselves, strong story. What happens over the last two episodes of House Of Cards will thrill on initial face value. But it has no substance and those who have been with the series since the start are starting to learn that. The key character death is perhaps a little surprising in its presentation but many will reflect, with rolled eyes, that it was inevitable.

How long the show will take to play that death out is anyone's guess. Five seasons in, the show is still fixated on two deaths from the first season and a further from third, to the point where they now are the Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) character. His blandness passed for obsequiousness for a while. Now it is obvious that he is just the vehicle for those events. A walking skeleton in a closet. On current course Claire and Frank are headed in the same direction. The show will not be able to sustain that.



By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

The Lovefilm 'low priority' list's place in film society (and your heart)



For those of us still using the Lovefilm physical rental service - now owned and operated by Amazon - the 'low priority' functionality holds a level of psychological insight. If you have any meaningful number of films in your 'high' and 'medium' priority areas then Lovefilm's wonderfully obscure lucky dip algorithm is likely to leave your bottom third untouched, so to speak, begging a question around what purpose it therefore serves.

The list, at least for me, acts simultaneously as a cinephile badge of pride, a social engineering tool and a dedication to procrastination. It is full of a mixture of films that I probably 'should' see, films I have heard recommended but have no real desire to watch and a third category whose origins on the list are now as mysterious as the retrospective and belated success of Hanson.

The first category holds shame and satisfaction in equal measure. Picture your 'to watch' list, wherever it may be. Wherever it is, it is likely to be relatively unloved, unactioned and unlinked. You have titles on a list, but you rarely get close to watching them, except in the happy coincidence that one appears on Netflix or your streaming vehicle of choice. The Lovefilm 'low priority' list offers the illusion of progress. You'll never see the films on it, but at least there's a chance that someone will step in and decide otherwise. In placing a film upon it you create a chance, however remote, that the algorithm and Lovefilm warehouse pickers are going to conspire to decide that yes, this is the day you are going to be forced to sit through Requiem For A Dream. You have outsourced your cinephiliac credentials to hi-viz wearing deities in a warehouse in Peterborough. In this category my own incense-like offerings include Kurosawa's High And Low, Hotel Rwanda and The Pianist. Fan of any of those and think that I need to see them? Direct your prayers to the gods of shelf selection. I've done my bit.

The second category, at least on my personal 'low priority' list holds numerous sub-categories headed by the 'films which have been recommended to me but look a bit too scary and/or shit'. This includes undoubtedly dubious Horror offerings such as the remake of Black Christmas and Cold Prey. This section though is my most valued. It presents refuge from the conversations with acquaintances and colleagues which begin with 'oh you're a film fan? You must see...' and end with someone telling you how wonderful the latest Underworld is. The reply 'oh great, I'll put it on my list', has never had less meaning, but at least you can avoid an awkward ten minute exploration of the themes held in Kate Beckinsale's leather catsuit, as well as the guilt of no such list actually existing. There is of course the odd chance in several-hundred that you will have to watch something recommended, but there's equal chance that by that point your time here may have passed, along with your time discussing Underworld and thinking that rolling the bottom of your trousers up is fashionable.

The true mystery of the low priority list lies in the vagrancies of human memory, understood only by those who eschew alcohol and place letters after their name, presumably forming a secret code which helps them to remember things which are beyond the rest of us. Why, pray-tell, is Nine on my list, when I don't remember it being particularly well reviewed and have no fondness for musicals? What worth is there in The Informers sitting on my list: a 2008 Thriller with a 5.1 average on IMDb and apparently very little going for it beyond a Bret Easton Ellis screenplay and Rhys Ifans as 'Roger'. Will I lose anything by never seeing Three Blind Mice, an Australian Comedy (possibly) with one single Amazon review (four stars!)? Who knows.

Removing those films though, some of which have been there since I signed up for Lovefilm many, many moons ago, feels somehow wrong. The list is mine and mine to bear alone and should the list decide to one day send me The Burrowers, a 2008 Horror featuring Clancy Brown, I will watch it, lest it be a hidden gem known previously only to a handful of cinephiles and Clancy Brown completists.


By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

All Science-Fiction roads lead to time, a concept Star Wars is yet to grasp


'Time was something that largely happened to other people; he viewed it in the same way that people on the shore viewed the sea. It was big and it was out there, and sometimes it was an invigorating thing to dip a toe into, but you couldn't live in it all the time. Besides, it always made his skin wrinkle.'

― Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time


Terry Pratchett understood time, or, perhaps more accurately, the importance of time in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

At some point, you are going to bump into it. You just cannot 'do' Sci-Fi for any length of time without addressing it. Some wizard somewhere will be playing with it. Something will happen that needs to be reversed. Some evil doer will use it as a MacGuffin to kick things off. Pratchett's understanding of how important time is to his Fantasy Discworld was so acute that he gave it a set of characters devoted to time (The History Monks) and made it central to, from memory, at least two novels (Thief Of Time and Night Watch). He's not the only example from literature to make this leap either and those in need of a more distinct Science Fiction example can do no better than Joe Haldeman's masterpiece, The Forever War.

In a similar way, and without going into detail, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, which I have only recently caught up with, deals with time. Villeneuve, undoubtedly now one of the greatest working directors around (Arrival and Incendies are five-star films), is a storyteller who knows the value of tenderness, and he approaches time in this way. The story is fantastic, but it is his approach which makes Arrival a classic musing on time and language and many things in between. Villeneuve gets it. Time is to be respected; to be centralised and deconstructed and considered again and again.

As well as Arrival, I've recently caught up with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Star Wars has a curious relationship with time in so much as it is central to the series' construction, but simultaneously ignored in any meaningful way. It is becoming the wookie in the room.

Rogue One shows the problems this is causing the franchise in the most demonstrable way yet. For one, this is once again a rehash of the standard Star Wars plot about rebel elements within the rebels, eventually coming good and socking it to the empire. At this point, that's to be expected, though it doesn't make it welcome or even, at large points during the narrative, enjoyable.

The film - set before the first three Star Wars films and after the early-noughties prequels - has direct manifestations of the time conundrum as well, as Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher are resurrected as their younger selves, or at least sap-eyed, uncanny-valley approximations of the same. If Villeneuve is tenderness and Pratchett is awareness, Star Wars is a sledgehammer.

You can see why the producers are skirting the issue. It is easier to create a CGI solution to a time-based problem, or just to ignore it entirely, than it is to come up with an answer on the level of Star Trek (2009), to name another example. The establishment of narratives that both satisfy the requirements of time and create something new in that franchise, for all of its problems, should not be underestimated. The solution was complex and significant; it required a leap of faith from the audience and the studio, but we're talking about time here. No-one said it was going to be easy.

Star Wars next chance to move forwards (or backwards, or side-to-side) will come this December with a film now revealed as being called The Last Jedi. If the film actually sees the last of the Jedi then I'm a scruffy looking nerf-herder. At this points it looks like another time-related promise the franchise can't keep, anchoring it to an uncomfortable stasis which sees neither progress nor true retro enjoyment. The young Han Solo film has promising talent assembled around it, but would that it were so simple to go back that far, then Rogue One surely wouldn't have had to resurrect (at the time) one great and rely on another now departed for its emotional apex.

The sooner Star Wars confronts time head on, both on a contextual level, sorting out its own timeline and on a plotting level, admitting that time is an inevitability of Science Fiction, the more likeable, sustainable and aspirational the whole enterprise will become. In the meantime it is currently in danger of becoming a cultural spectre, drawing in audiences, yes, but creating a dissatisfying thematic Bermuda Triangle of prequels, sequels and reboots; a Dorian Gray painting of never-ageing disinterest, stuck only at the base levels of what is possible in Science Fiction. Not buying that argument? Read The Forever War and tell me that a plot that magnificently in touch with the vagrancies of passing decades wouldn't shake Star Wars up in the attractive and unpredictable ways it appears in desperate need of.



By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

Boyhood and Victoria; structural and formatic 'braveness' and the link to dull intertia


Though there may appear to be a growing number of structurally or formatically unique films (lets call them UFFs: Unique Format Films, mainly because who doesn't love a good acronym?), really they've always been here. Hitchcock's Rope is the most commonly cited example, but copious other examples are on offer of directors playing with established film convention.

Recent darlings of the idea in action include Birdman, Boyhood and Victoria. The latter two rankle in particular.

Victoria, in setting up its one take narrative, asks us to spend the opening salvo of the film (a good forty minutes) in the company of four drunk, generally unlikeable characters. If you've been sober in the company of drunk friends then you probably know the feeling. It's unlikely that you'll want to sit through it again.

Boyhood takes a different route to formatic innovation, by filming the same actors over an eleven year production period. The actor's development is linked to the character's... which is to say that they grow old and experience the mundanity of life (divorce, college, etc.). As some fellow sceptic said at the time (on Twitter, and I'm struggling to remember exactly who it was): 'it's easy to produce a film filmed over eleven years, if your only aim is to produce a film filmed over eleven years'.

The approach taken by both films ruins the established structure of a fiction by forcing you to confront the mundanity of reality and, as such, they largely fail.

Think about it. Thor, as featured in the Marvel films, probably needs to go to the loo every so often. During the course of The Hustler there's a period where Paul Newman's character must be asleep. Inside Llewyn Davis features a drive which, in real time, takes around twelve hours. We don't see any of those things because, largely, they are too boring for fiction.

Films are highly edited, asestheticised views of our world - that's why we like them. They pull together the entertaining bits, the frightening bits, the sad bits and the happy bits into two hours that matter.

To achieve their formatic 'braveness' Victoria and Boyhood make compromises when it comes to this approach and do little else of interest. They may be dressed up as daring and unique artistic choices, packaged into a reason to see the film, but ultimately they deny the film the success which could have been achieved if only the filmmakers weren't as constrained by their new shiny USP.

Would Victoria lose anything if the opening had been a tightly edited fifteen minutes of establishing the lead character as alone and somewhat lost in a foreign city, desperate for connection? When you look beyond the timescales of its production, is Boyhood really a compelling story, worthy of the praise it received from many quarters?

I would argue not. The UFFs, in my book, can largely uff off.



By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.