Calibre (2018)

calibreAnother Netflix Original film- actually, I wonder if when reviewing films such as this if I should apply seperate criteria to them. Not that they are exactly straight-to-video films with all the b-movie connotations of the VHS era that applies, but clearly neither are they, generally speaking, big movies that you would watch at the cinema. Although we are all paying a subscription every month for Netflix so are, yes, paying to watch them, neither are we paying cinema ticket-prices or digital-rental prices, especially when, if we watch enough of them in a month, that subscription price basically makes the price of each film pretty much negligible.

I guess what I’m saying is, if they are almost essentially free, how much slack should I possibly cut a film, if any? Or alternatively, is it fair to judge a film like Calibre against some other big-budget Hollywood thriller? Maybe that’s a debate for some later date.

Calibre, meanwhile, is a very good, very effective thriller- it would be rather easy, albeit lazy, to describe it as being like Deliverance in Scotland, but it is, so there you go, I went and did it. Two freinds, one of whom has a wife who is expecting a baby (what is this, two films in a row now, is there some kind of pregnancy trend/trope going on under my nose here?) go to the Scottish Highlands for a hunting trip. After a first night at the remote locale having some unwise, drunken misadventures with local girls that complicate things later, they go out on the hunting trip and things go horribly wrong.

The leads, Jack Lowden and Martin McCann, are very good, and the taut script and direction offer ever-increasing tension. It really is quite palpable and riveting at times. Initially attracted to the film because of its locale (my annual holidays in the Scottish Highlands ensure I love to watch films set up there) the setting is really hardly incidental to the plot, to tell the truth- it could be set anywhere fairly remote, be it a wilderness area in America or some isolated spot in Eastern Europe. The whole isolation/mysterious/suspicious locals thing is the driving force- indeed, for awhile there I was almost expecting the film to slip into Wicker Man territory, but I’d be spoiling things going into much further detail so I’ll leave it there.

Special mention for Tony Curran, too, who is simply great here. I had that nagging ‘where have I seen him before?’ thing bugging me throughout the damn thing, and it was only later that I released he was one of the regulars in the tv show Defiance a few years back (under considerable make-up, to be fair to my ignorance).

Well worth a watch, anyway. If Netflix could perhaps apply some quality control to all these Netflix Originals that would ensure decent films like this get produced more often, then I think the whole Netflix Originals/b-movies/Hollywood mainstream comparisons would largely be a moot point. This is a great little thriller and I’d love to see more.

And yes, all that Scottish scenery is great, too.

 

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How it Ends (2018)

howitendsIts an unfortunate title, How it Ends, because my biggest gripe with this film is, er, how it ends. I really don’t want to spoil the film for anybody but, er, it doesn’t really, er, end. It just… stops, somehow. Dishearteningly, it really feels like it pulls a ‘end of part one’ on the viewer without any warning. I have no idea if a part two is or was ever intended, or if its just the ending that the film-makers originally wanted without any cynical ‘we can spin another film from this’ ploy. But it ends badly, and rather undermines the entire enterprise.

Thinking about it, I could easily summarize this film as simply being a Cloverfield wannabe.  Infact, if it were a Cloverfield movie, I’m sure it would get a better reception than it probably will, Some of the vagueness and conceits in this film are just a part of what seems to make that Cloverfield franchise ‘tick’ and without that attachment leaves this solo effort failing.

It doesn’t begin particularly well, to be honest; handsome designer-stubble/perfect hair hunk Will (Theo James) and beautiful/perfect hair Samantha (Kat Graham) are hopelessly in love having a idyllic life in Seattle. Everything is so perfect, they are going to have a child- their only problem is that Samantha’s father Tom (Forest Whitaker) is an ex-marine who doesn’t really think that Will is worthy of his daughter. While on a business trip in Chicago, Will pays Samantha’s parents a visit, intending to ask Tom for his blessing for the happy couple to be married. The meeting doesn’t go well, but then some Cloverfield-like event occurs over on the East Coast knocking out all communication and power, a disruption that spreads across the country and closes down all air travel. Tom and Will form an unlikely pair as they jump in a car and drive across the country to ‘save their girl’, beginning to form a bond of respect and friendship as they risk life and limb as society starts to break down in the face of this unknown/unspecified global disaster.

Yeah, its very Cloverfield. We see military jets fly overhead, travel networks are shut down, trains of military equipment and personnel travel East, we see the smoking wreckage of crashed airplanes. Any hick with a gun decides to go all Mad Max over gasoline and towns close themselves off from unwelcome visitors.  It all rather formulaic and bland, oddly enough,, but for some reason I’ve always had a soft spot for these post-Apocalyptic road movies; there is something almost irresistible about seeing how easy civilized behavior breaks down and society snaps. Seeing some ordinary guy struggle to do the right thing and just survive out of his usual comfort-zone can be a dramatic plot device:  guess its a male right-of-passage thing.

Perhaps it would have been more interesting had it been a role-reversal, if it had been Samantha struggling to get across country to Will, or maybe that would have been too much ‘me-too’ and would have gotten shot down by the ‘too-pc’ brigade (sexual and social politics in media is getting to be a minefield of late).

howitends2I will confess that I nevertheless rather enjoyed it. The two leads are good value, albeit Whitaker is obviously just going through the motions and is largely wasted- a better decision script-wise might have been to incapacitate Will and have Tom fight to get the young man back to Samantha despite not wholly approving of him, if only for his daughters sake. At least that would have given Whitaker something to chew on. This is partly what is so frustrating about films like this- there are all sorts of things that the film-makers might have done to shake things up and make it more interesting and novel. As it is, any goodwill the film earns on the road trip through the apocalypse (there are some nice segments and character beats) is completely undermined by that awfully unsatisfying ending.

A Netflix original, I suppose there is some possibility that given enough views, whatever the reviews/ratings, this film may get that ‘part two’ which might actually save the damn thing via hindsight, but as it stands, I’d recommend this with caution. Its no disaster (sic) and while the casting is largely uninspired (whatever happened to casting ‘ordinary’ or average types?) the production values are pretty good for a $20 million flick.

The real issue is the open-ended nature of what the hell is going on (in true Cloverfield fashion, none of the global apocalyptic event seems to be explained- Aliens? The Chinese? Eco-disaster?) which leaves a bad taste in the mouth when one is expecting some explanation or resolution by the finale and it never comes. It really doesn’t feel complete, almost as if there is another reel missing or they just shot the movie chronologically and they somehow ran out of money.

The film does have its moments but it does really leave the impression that it could have been much more- a missed opportunity, certainly.

Film notes: Blade Runner 2049 Pt 1.

br2049sonyGlitchy, animated logos for Sony, Columbia pictures and Alcon Entertainment, like they are corrupted data or breaking down, play to a soundtrack that is instantly Blade Runner: drums drenched in reverb with plaintive high-notes recalling the sound of the CS-80 that was so much the musical soul of the original. The studio logos already hint that things are very wrong.

br2049columbWe don’t get any credits. Which is a shame, as I always liked those of Blade Runner, from back in the days when films took their time, and skillful choice allowed the mood of the music and the type-face of the credits to settle the viewer into the mood and tone of what will follow (in Blade Runner, the starkness of white on black, except for the blood-red film title, the dread of the Vangelis music – from the very outset, we know Blade Runner is not going to be a fun movie). But BR2049 is a long film, and the film-makers are not going to waste any time getting to it. We have waited 35 years, after all: a lot of tears lost in the rain.

Text  offers us a glimpse (some details will follow later in the film) of what has happened in those intervening years since 2019: following violent rebellions Replicants were prohibited and the Tyrell Corporation went bankrupt. A subsequent collapse of eco-systems threatened all life on Earth and a worldwide famine was narrowly averted by Niander Wallace, whose company then acquired the remains of Tyrell Corp and resumed Replicant production of a safer model guaranteed to ‘obey’. It does not refer to these new models as Nexus: refers only to pre-Wallace Nexus 8 models with indefinite lifespans who are still on the loose, and still hunted by detectives named Blade Runners.

A subtle nod perhaps to the (non-cannon? its hard to tell with so many multiple versions) theatrical cut of Blade Runner, in which during the ‘happy-ending’ version, Deckard referred to Rachel as having no termination date. She was, presumably, a Nexus 7? Were indefinite lifespans an attempt  to maintain obedience and order in an increasingly unstable/rebellious slave force?

To be clear: this 2049 is not our future. It is the future of the 2019 envisaged by Blade Runner, these films now an alternate universe, a tidy way of disparaging any criticism in our soon post-2019 world that we never got flying cars and humanoid slaves. It adds yet further weight to the original, no longer a work of future speculation but rather a picture of another, different universe. Perhaps one in which the Axis won World War Two, a cousin of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle? Already this new film informs and re-vitalizes the original. Blade Runner no longer a vision of the future but rather one of an alternate past.

br2049eye1br2049eye2In a clear reference to the first film, BR2049 opens with a  gloriously-photographed, magnified eye staring back at the viewer, echoing that of the original’s eye starring out at us with the Hades landscape reflected in it. The eye was of course a major visual motif in the original: the Voight-Kampff machine focused on it to help discern Replicant from human, the eye the window of the soul, betraying simulacra from authentic*.

It is not revealed in the film, but the film-makers have since remarked that the eye that we see here belongs to Dr Ana Stelline. What is the significance of this? Does the fact that her eye, and the very last last line in the film (her observation, “Beautiful, isn’t it?) bookend the film actually mean anything? Does Ana ‘see’ what K sees? is there perhaps more to the code within the memories that she has implanted in so many Replicants? Or is her eye merely asking a question of the viewer, a demand of attention, or of an answer at the film’s end? We shall return to this later perhaps, for now we do not know of Ana or her importance to the plot.

br2049openWe see a landscape of solar farms, fields of solar arrays as far as we can see. This is California, 2049: an artificial landscape of metal and plastic devoid of life: a world of grey, almost calm, far removed from the acid rain and violently belching fire-stacks of 2019’s Hades landscape. The screenplay describes these solar farms as derelict; “All dead and abandoned to the dust and wind.” Watching this sequence knowing that they aren’t functional adds extra meaning- everything is collapsing; this is the end of the world.

Already the film is setting its agenda of expanding on the original- we are out of the city, reaching out to the world outside. A world that has visibly changed and yet also reflects the changes in our own world; this is our world seen through a prism of Blade Runner: a world of climate change and threatened environmental disaster made real.

A spinner car races through the grey sky. On board the pilot sleeps, finally awoken by an alarm- we do not yet know that this is Officer K or that he is a Replcant- but is this awakening akin to being switched on/activated, perhaps even literally so?**

The spinner car reaches a barren wasteland that almost looks like the surface of the moon, landing at a protein farm, a reference to the famine hinted at in the text introduction. This first scene is another nod to the 1982 film, albeit one perhaps only die-hard fans would be aware of; it is based on an un-filmed prologue written for the first film. A lingering shot of a pot simmering on a stove is full of reward for the die-hard fans who remember the storyboards of decades ago. The fan-service does not dominate the film, but clearly this film is a work of respect and care towards the original eagerly appreciated by fans who cannot believe that this unwanted sequel is as good as it is.

This sequence is shot in a largely static, restrained and rather monochrome manner- dark silhouettes framed by windows of pure light, this is perhaps the last time things will be as ‘simple’ as black and white for K. This sequence reminds me of Sergio Leone films, particularly the slow beginning of Once Upon A Time in the West– it feels like a Western somehow; the wooden, creaked floorboards and spartan, almost analogue building looking like a throwback to the 19th Century Old West.

br2049sappThe protein farm is being managed by Sapper Morton, a Nexus 8 combat medic who has been on the run since 2020.*** Morton washes his hands as if a slave to routine, and it is interesting that he then puts on some wireframe spectacles. Is his eyesight failing, the machine succumbing to age, or is it a reference back to Tyrell wearing his trifocal lenses, or perhaps part of an almost subconscious disguise,  as if masking the ‘window to the soul’, the eyes that betray a Replicant’s true nature?

All movement is slow, deliberate, the dialogue an almost delicate dance- Morton resigned, perhaps, to his fate, time finally having run out for him, K pleasant and polite, as if doing his duty with an element of regret. K says he would rather avoid the violent alternative although he no doubt knows it is inevitable. The violence when it is unleashed is short, sharp, brutal, Morton smashing K through a wall before K finally incapacitates him. K doesn’t seem as big as Morton but he is apparently more powerful.

Finally it is revealed that Officer K is indeed a Replicant, Morton condemning him for hunting his “own kind”. K doesn’t consider them the same, as his kind doesn’t run. “Because you’ve never seen a miracle,” Morton tells him, before K shoots him twice in the chest. There is a lovely moment here, as the camera shakes as Morton crashes to the floor. K looks a bloody mess, as beaten up as Deckard did in Blade Runner– I only remark upon this as back when Blade Runner was first released, it seemed so usual to have a hero get so bruised and bloodied as Deckard did, almost a hyper-reality (the blood from his cut lip spreading in his whisky glass…).

We see a shot of K’s hands in the sink, washing clean a bloodied eye. Sapper Morton’s eye. K has cut it out of Morton’s head, its electric tattoo proof of Morton’s Replicant nature, and of K’s bounty.  Memories of Hannibal Chew’s laboratory, and Leon placing those grisly trophies on the technicians shoulders.

br2049farm.pngThere is a lovely shot next, typically understated as so much of this film is, deceptively simple yet utterly convincing, as K leaves the building and returns to his car. The world is dull and grey, and the only sign of organic life is a dead, skeletal tree. K dwarfed by the landscape, a perspective we will see repeated throughout the film

K enters his spinner. It looks old and worn and dirty and authentic, lived in. It feels real, doesn’t feel like an elaborate, sophisticated prop. Again, that sense of reality to all this.  “You’re hurt,” his superior, Lt.Joshi, notices when he calls in. “I’m not paying for that,” she states. Pure cyberpunk. Almost a throwback to the original Robocop (“I’m a mess”/”They’ll fix you, they fix everything”), and a reminder that everything has a cost.

brflowerSomething outside catches K’s eye. He walks out towards the dead tree, and finds an incongruous element of colour, a flower; a single, yellow cowslip, placed near the tree. It being there must mean something. There is a mystery here, and that colour signifies that the black and white world that K knows,  his purpose and place in that world,  is about to slowly be pulled away. He orders his pilotfish drone to scan the area, and it discovers something buried. “Get back here before the storm,” Joshi orders him, stating she will send a dig team to see what has been buried there.

br2049citybr2049cityshot3br2049cityshot4We cut to a series of effects shots, exteriors of a smog-enshrouded city, the outskirts deserted and devoid of life,  and K’s spinner flying through wind and rain. Grey light persists until the electric neon of the city centre dominates, and we catch a glimpse of a massive structure, the Sepulveda Seawall, another visual hint that everything has gotten worse. As the effects shots show K’s spinner reaching a huge mega-structure that is the LAPD headquarters, the audio plays his baseline test. “Subject: Officer K D6-dash-3-dot-7.
Let’s begin.” Echoes of the old VK-test, somehow, but this is stranger, all the more bizarre. It feels very 1970s, in a strange way.  It is unexplained how it works- this film does not feel the need to explain everything. K Passes. “Constant K” the disembodied voice announces.  “You can collect your bonus.”

Its curious that a Replicant in this world, employed by the LAPD, gets paid and has his own apartment with some sense of private life away from his function, his job. Likely this is how he maintains his psyche-profile and passes his baseline test, which is evidently method of detecting post-traumatic stress that might threaten K’s obedience and an early warning of a Replicant going AWOL or faulty. Replicants seem to a part of ordinary society now. Which makes one wonder who is human, who is not, in all the crowd scenes.

At any rate, K has in mind something to buy with that bonus.

Perhaps a scene has been cut here, for I suspect there may have been a scene in which K purchases his ‘anniversary’ gift for Joi from the market they visit later when he seeks to discover the provenance of the wooden horse sculpture. Doc Badger may have been someone K knew well, and looking at all the gadgets surrounding him and his illicit trading hinted at in that later scene, I believe it was he that K brought the device from. Who knows? That damn four-hour cut is a constant tease.

br2049streetCut to that gorgeous street scene, of a huge snow-melting machine clearing the slush from the road as K walks towards his apartment complex. Its beautiful and complex and perfect. Its so very different to Blade Runner and yet so very Blade Runner, a fine balance so clever its breathtaking how often this film carries it off. Again, it feels like we are seeing a real world, in which so much is hinted at or unexplained. Its simply ‘there’.

End of Pt.One

 

* The eye motif runs throughout Blade Runner and has been endlessly discussed over the years. As well as the eye staring back at viewers at the beginning, examples include Tyrell’s eyes hidden by thick trifocal glasses (echoed in BR2049 by Wallace being completely blind rather than just visually impaired),  eyes that were crushed by Batty in the Replicant’s rage. Hannibal Chew of course designed eyes, Rachel’s eyes glowed oddly at times, as if reinforcing her false nature. BR2049 continues this ‘tradition’ with the digital tattoos stenciled/imprinted on the eye under the lower eyelids, literally betraying the owners true artificial nature in an instant.

** If one were to assume Ridley Scott’s statement of Deckard’s Replicant status as correct or canon (I don’t subscribe to this view, but its fun to play mind games sometimes), one could consider the following reading- have Blade Runners always been Replicants, as if it takes  Replicant to catch a replicant? This would suggest that Holden was a Replicant (Bryant’s later comment that he can “breathe ok as long no-one unplugs him” would carry deeper connotations) and that Deckard was ‘activated’ upon Holden being destroyed/damaged, as a replacement. Activated on the streets of LA near the noodle bar, with false memories etc, Gaff would have been on hand to pick him up and take him to Bryant, to set him off on his mission/purpose. The start of the story for Deckard literally as he appears first in the film, everything fabricated: his apartment with the photos of an ex-wife he never had, false memories and souvenirs to cushion his emotions and keep him stable. A very paranoid reading, to be sure. Especially when one considers Wallace’s almost offhand suggestion that Deckard and Rachel were programmed by Tyrell to meet and fall in love. There is no freewill in this particular nightmare scenario that really is darker than dark.

*** Dave Bautista is a revelation here, in a powerful and emotive performance that lingers long into the film. Everyone involved in this film seems to have elevated to their A-game for this project. This film hardly needs a prequel or sequel but whenever I see this scene I am struck by how fascinating a prequel would be (film or book) detailing Morton’s experiences on the battlefield and then escaping and hiding out in these wastelands.

New Suspira

 

This is one to look out for. Headlines regards Quentin Tarantino watching the film and being reduced to tears, or actress Chloe Grace Moretz citing it as the closest thing to a modern Stanley Kubrick movie, certainly have me more than intrigued. But this teaser trailer though really has be fascinated/excited by the possibilities. If that music score with its Wendy Carlos The Shining-vibe translates over to the actual movie, then consider me sold and queuing in line at the cinema this Autumn. This looks amazing.

Blade Runner 3

…its funny how reading headlines on the internet can suddenly cause you so much consternation and alarm. Yesterday I was taking a break at work and was browsing the web for a few minutes to try clear my head a little and I stumbled upon a site teasing a new Blade Runner film. It wasn’t, actually, anything new, merely a bit of news circulating back at the start of this year about Ridley moaning about the length of BR2049, where he thought it went wrong and possibilities about a further Blade Runner sequel, where he would take it.

The headline seemed to infer that Ridley Scott was going to take over the reigns of Blade Runner 3 and shoot the film he thought BR2049 should have been. The curious thing was, my heart sank like a stone at reading it. I mean, years ago, the idea of Ridley making a sequel to Blade Runner would have excited me (just as the idea of him making another Alien movie), and I admit, first time I read he had stepped back from Blade Runner 2 I thought it was a mistake letting some other director have a go. But now? Oh man.

I was actually relieved to discover this was old news nixed in the interim by BR2049‘s poor box-office. The idea of Ridley taking on Blade Runner 3, and no doubt all that would entail in bringing Harrison back or establishing without any doubt Ridley’s assertion that Deckard is a Replicant… for a few moments I was filled with actual dread.

And this interested me, once reason had settled. How things change, and how I almost feel that Ridley Scott messing with Blade Runner could be considered toxic. It almost feels dishonorable even thinking it, never mind writing it. Ridley, afterall, is what made the original film such a classic- his eye for detail and visuals back then. Maybe its just fallout from Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but these days I just prefer him leaving well alone. Which is unfair, really, as by all accounts it was Ridley with Hampton Fancher who came up with the story for BR2049 and he deserves every credit for that.

I just can’t shake my own wonder at that crushing feeling of despair I felt, though, at the sudden thought that Ridley was going to make Blade Runner 3. Just goes to show, be careful what you read on the internet… yesterday for me it was a little like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Very scary.

…and another…

ditko.jpgWoke up this morning to more sad news; the American comicbook artist Steve Ditko, co-creator of Marvel’s Spider-Man, has passed away at the age of 90. Its the kind of news that can’t help but colour the remainder of the day.

By all accounts, Ditko was something of a recluse who shunned publicity and harkened from a time when artists and creators were ill-rewarded for their work- his creation of Spider-Man in the 1960 with Stan Lee should have made him fabulously rich, but didn’t (Marvel of course has gone on to make a fortune from the character over the decades from the comics, merchandising and movies). Ditko also co-created Doctor Strange, and I noted with some satisfaction that the recent Doctor Strange movie had visuals that referenced the trippy images that Ditko conjured up for that comic. Like a lot of comic artists of that era (Kirby, Buscema, Kane, Colan etc) Ditko had a unique visual style all his own.

Ditko’s original Spider-Man strips are likely the definitive Spider-Man (although as I grew up I preferred the John Romita period for the more ‘sophisticated’ stories of their time, today the DItko era is clearly the most evocative). If I find time today I will reach for my Marvel Omnibus of the Amazing Spider-Man that features Ditko’s run on the strip and re-read one of those glorious issues that I loved so much as a kid reading the British reprints in the early 1970s.

But yes, sad news, and again, as I noted in my previous post, another great icon/name of my youth and cultural-scape has passed. I know its an inevitable side-effect of my own ageing, but it remains awfully depressing that so many of them are fading away. Two consecutive posts such as this are lousy reasons to write here, and I sincerely hope a third is a long time in coming….