Maleficent (2014)

malefWeird thing watching this film, it seemed like the blu-ray player was on fast-forward or something,or somehow skipping chapters. It was just, well, odd. Its a nice film and everything but, well, it seemed edited down to within an inch of its life as if in some mad drive to get it down to as near to 90 mins as possible. Unfortunately it has a result that the film lacks much substance, or  the subtext that it perhaps would otherwise have.There is a good film here, but also one that might have been great. As the narrative moves forward years race by, characters come and go and never return (Sleeping Beauty’s mother is woefully treated in particular) and before you know it, the film is over, suffering because of the films alarming brevity. Its all very pretty but rather vacuous (hmm, something that could be said of so much Hollywood product).

It certainly has great credentials. Angelina Jolie in superb scenery-chewing form as the titular character in a striking make-up design created by Rick Baker, no less. A visual style and photography that is never less than breathtakingly beautiful, with a sublime score by James Newton Howard that harkens back to the pastoral beauty of Debussy and Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score for the similarly-themed Legend.  It has such a lot going for it but ultimately stumbles. A lack of faith on Disney’s part, perhaps? There is certainly all the signs of a troubled production and plenty of second-guessing in post.

Perhaps its the script. As the title would suggest, the film is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty but from the perspective of the evil Maleficent. Or not so evil in this case, as again we bear witness to the modern world’s very PC-friendly revisonist view that bad people aren’t really evil, but rather misunderstood and victims of circumstance themselves. They’ll be telling me that Darth Vader is really a Good Guy deep down next, wait- oh yeah, they even turned that black-clad harbinger of Evil of The Empire Strikes Back into a good guy -with mother issues, no less- too. Agh.

So Maleficent is hardly anything new there. The problem with this film though is that while it does an acceptable  turn at explaining her fall from sweet flying fairy into dark vengeful witch, it lessens the impact by skimping on the surrounding characters, particularly short-changing Stefan, the cad who steals her heart -and eventually her wings in his drive for power and glory, Stefan is left a simple two-dimensional character when the script could have given him some depth and pathos as he realises he left behind what he really wanted in favour of a kingdom and life that left him unfulfilled. They are two childhood friends and later lovers whose fates are entwined forever, their romance turning to bitter betrayal- there is plenty to chew on, particularly when they meet again over the years after. They share a history that is pretty much mulched into a simplistic black and white tale when it should have perhaps been one of regret and what might have been. The funny thing is, the seeds of such complexities and depth are clearly there, its as if they were filmed but just that they are missing in this edit leaving the film rather disjointed.

But fairytales are just for kids, right? We don’t need any complexities and depth of character in a film that is meant to sell toys or amusement park rides something. I feel a dark trembling in the Force, kiddies,  Disney even now producing Star Wars 7...

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Alien: Isolation

alienisolation4.0Its not often  that I comment on videogames on this blog (have I ever?), but certainly in this case there is an obvious film-related element. I’ve been playing this game since its launch on PS4 and have to say its pretty extraordinary- particularly because I’m such a fan of the original ALIEN. Its also the most intense and scary videogame I have ever played, and I’ve been  playing these things since the heyday of the old Atari VCS. Its so intense infact that I’ve only been able to play it in short spells of an hour or so and with gaps of a few days inbetween. Seriously. The damn thing is freaking me out. Its been a few weeks now and I’m hardly a third of the way through (currently on level 5 in the medical area being stalked by the titular character)- I’m absolutely adoring it but treating it with caution. My nerves are frazzled. I talk about it at work and start feeling myself tensing up. Best videogame based on a movie? Most likely.

Maybe I’m playing it differently to many. Some of the reviews were so negative I regretted my pre-order (ALIEN games have a fairly bad history as videogames, to be frank, the best I can remember dating back to the ZX Spectrum) but thank goodness that I didn’t. Games reviewers be damned, this thing is an experience, indeed,  for a fan of ALIEN, this is such a pinch-me-am-I-dreaming experience its almost bizarre. Its everything I ever hoped an ALIEN-based game could be. The art direction, graphics, sound effects and use of the Jerry Goldsmith score is so perfect, so accomplished, it just takes my breath away. Much of the time if I think I’m free from the Alien hunting me or the attention of the Company Androids menacing the station, I just wonder around taking in the experience, almost in a Virtual Reality way (if ever they get one of those VR headset thingies adapted for this game watch out).

They have even modelled the original Nostromo sets for some DLC- I’ve spent all my time with that just wandering around the mess-room and the bridge (oh, thats where Ripley sits! There’s Ash’s workstation!) and the medical bay, like I’m stepping into the movie. It really is extraordinary. In the words of Philip K Dick, I keep asking ‘How is this possible?’Its like being able to walk into Ron Cobb’s production drawings and paintings, starring at the glass cubicles containing the space suits, the magazines scattered around… its quite an achievement. If they had a mode that dropped the Alien and the other characters in which I could just wander around the station exploring its nooks and crannies, I’d be the happiest guy in the world.

Has Ridley Scott seen this, I wonder?

Gotham

gothamI’ve watched the first two episodes of the new tv series Gotham, and a few things spring to  mind. Firstly, just how great the show looks, particularly in HD (people waiting for the inevitable Blu-ray box are in for a treat). Even today after so many quality tv shows, I always find myself surprised to see such movie-quality visuals and production values on a tv programme. I guess its impossible to shake of the memory of those cheesy  1970s shows I saw a kid. But yeah, the show looks gorgeous, from the sets and costumes to the cgi-augmented cityscapes (the city of Gotham has exteriors/skylines equal and even superior to what we saw in most of the Batman movies). I particularly appreciate that the production design nods towards Anton Furst’s wonderful work on Tim Burton’s Batman as much as it inevitably does towards Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Its got a nice pseudo-noir/1940s ‘look’ to the colour schemes of the various sets that Burton’s film featured.

Where the show doesn’t fair quite so well so far is in its storyline/general plot. It all seems overly familiar really, with a lack of real punch or surprise. Not formulaic, exactly, but I have to wonder even at this early stage how long the show will be able to sustain itself over a number of seasons. The series is basically a ‘prequel’ to the Batman saga of the movies and even (at a stretch) the 1960s tv show. It begins with Bruce Wayne being orphaned, a traumatic event familiar to comics readers and film-fans the world over, but instead of seguing a decade or so to when Wayne finally returns as the Caped Crusader, this show tells the story of those intervening years in Gotham, in which the young Detective James Gordon tries (and ultimately fails) to clean up the corrupt, crime-ridden city. Fine for one season, maybe two, but beyond that? I don’t know. Consider me sceptical at the moment. If, say, a period of time was clearly passing (that season two took place five years after season one, say) then yeah, I could see it working, as we would at least see Bruce Wayne changing as he drifted more towards his playboy image whilst gestating the Batman. As it is, he’s likely to be a rather irritating young kid for quite some time before he’s likely to become remotely interesting. Maybe a scene or two during the series, of the Batman years later remembering something that is elaborated back in Gotham’s own timeline over several episodes, would help (the Dark Knight walking through Arkham Asylum, say, and pausing at a villains cell before launching into the show proper, which elaborates on that villains background?). Well, this last point brings up something else….

Gotham is evidently more interested in exploring  the origins of the villains than Batman, with a number of them already being featured, particularly the Penguin. Now, I’m no expert on Batman lore (I was more into Marvel than DC as a kid) but I thought the whole ‘twist’ about Batman was that it was the very existence of the Batman that seemed to bring about the rise of all those nutty Arkham residents. You know, this crazy billionaire dressed as a bat fights crime resulting in the criminals then behaving as crazy as he does (hence the Joker and the Riddler and all the rest). The very actions of the Caped Crusader creates and reinforces the crimes/actions of the criminals that he fights. This tv series seems to shake off that concept by bringing up the crazy super-villains long before the Batman comes onto the scene. Its as if its saying that Batman will one day be the cure, when really he’s part of the problem.

Oh well, we’ll just have to see how the show goes. Its certainly promising and has quite surprised me, for all its faults. When the show was first announced I thought it would be a disaster and I still think the jury is out on all these prequels (it certainly didn’t work in the case of Caprica, even though I quite liked that show, or The Terminator Chronicles). As it stands, I think had it been runs of  ten or twelve episodes each year, akin to HBOs model, it may have had a very good chance of working. But 22 episodes a year? I don’t know, I thought that was a failed concept these days after how HBO had  demonstrated such success with shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones etc. Just how do you maintain a high quality over 22 episodes, over so much airtime and so many scripts? Can it even be done these days (God knows Marvel found it tricky enough last year with its Agents of Shield show)? Time will tell I guess.

Spidey to suffer ANOTHER reboot?!

Oh, No! Not AGAIN!!!
Oh, No! Not AGAIN!!!

Well it seems a surprise but maybe it shouldn’t be. Rumours seem to be circulating that Sony is intending to give Spider-Man another reboot. The fact that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 made less box-office than its predecessor seems to have gotten the executives nervous.

For myself, well, I had problems with the film (as my review last month will testify) but there was still much to like in the film, particularly Andrew Garfield’s performance and the films take on Spidey in action (especially in the first half). The problem with the film was its mad fascination with franchise-building, simply unnecessary back-story and seeding numerous villains for a Sinister Six spin-off. If only Sony had tried to just make a single good movie rather than a launchpad into other films/stories. No doubt they were enviously looking at what Marvel Studios have been up to and wanted more of the same. This is the most irritating thing about trilogies/sagas- if they end up aborted (Golden Compass, I’m looking at you) then it undermines the individual films and all that went into them.

I find it extremely irritating that rather than own up to their mistakes and make a good ‘proper’ Amazing Spider-Man 3 with maybe one genuine villain (Dr Octopus, please stand up) and the good things from the second film (i.e. Garfield), it looks like we are going to be getting another reboot, complete with yet another tiresome origin story and romance arc (this time Mary Jane again?).

Nothing has been confirmed as yet, but signs do look ominous for anyone who wanted to see what happened next after the second Amazing film. Maybe a Spectacular Spider-Man trilogy instead? Poor Spidey- he deserves so much better…

Fifty Great Films: The French Connection (1971)

french1Staying in the 1970s for the second of my Fifty Great Films, I re-watched The French Connection last night, this time on Blu-ray. Actually, I should point out the disc is the second of the film’s Blu-ray releases, an American multi-region disc that restores the original ‘look’ of the film (the first Blu-ray release, which is the only one available here in the UK far as I know, had extensive ‘director-approved’ colour-timing changes that enraged purists).

Time has been very kind to The French Connection. It’s gritty docu-drama style must have been eye-opening back in 1971 and proved to be a game-changer for cop thrillers, and today over forty years later it stands, like Taxi Driver does, as an historical record of a time and place long gone. Those cars, the music, those almost apocalyptic streets! Its a sure sign that with the new decade films were changing, and that a New Wave was about to hit Hollywood-  the film has a sense of reality far removed from that of a Hollywood thriller of the time. This would follow through to a downbeat ending that must have seemed shockingly abrupt back at a time when the good guys always ‘won’ and the bad guys always got caught.

New York was such a seedy, broken city back then, particularly in the locations chosen for this film, and there is an air of authenticity to the whole thing that is endlessly fascinating. Of course, that isn’t hurt by the fact that the film is based on true events, in which two cops stumbled upon ties between New York mobsters and French heroin traffickers, their subsequent investigation leading to one of the biggest illegal narcotics seizures ever.

You simply cannot take your eyes off Gene Hackman in this film- his presence dominates everything, and his performance rightfully won him the Oscar for Best Actor. Really, you cannot take your eyes off him. There is an extraordinary truth to him in every scene; he looks so beat-up and life-worn, a flawed,  middle-aged cop working on rough streets- I cannot imagine any Hollywood ‘star’ in such a role these days. Well, to be fair, there’s not many so-called stars in Hollywood these days with the lived-in looks of Hackman, most of them are far too pretty-looking and ‘perfect’. Hollywood these days seems more pre-occupied with fantasy and the ‘ideal’ than the gritty realities of films like this.  Co-star Roy Scheider is as capable and wonderful as he ever was, but this is Hackman’s film, no question.

Scheider of course had the success of Jaws still ahead of him- what a thought that is, what a decade the 1970s was! Indeed, when one considers that Hackman’s subsequent films that decade would include The Poseidon Adventure, The Conversation and Superman: The Movie.. wow, you gotta love those 1970s. It all started with The French Connection though, and its a riveting performance that shines brightly still. Hell of a film.

Fifty Great Films: Chinatown (1974)

chinatown1Ah, that gorgeous Jerry Goldsmith score…. Watching Chinatown again (this time on Blu-ray) having not seen it for a few years…. I wonder what is left to say, after so many years, about such a universally recognised classic film-  well, its certainly a great film. One of the greats, to be sure, which had me thinking about writing a group of posts as I watch/re-watch what I consider to be fifty great films. Hell, at the very least its a great excuse to re-visit some old faves. So Chinatown is the first.

Chinatown is one of those films that just seems to have come together at the right time at the right place. Everyone involved, cast and crew, is at the top of their game and that strange synchronicity occurs, in which something truly great is created as if by some strange alchemy of art and craft and business and circumstance. I had almost forgotten just how great and nuanced an actor Nicholson once was. Here he is just at the right age and at the right place at the right time to be JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes, in just the same way as Robert DeNiro was perfect as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Some guys are just born for a part. And Jerry Goldsmith, at the height of his powers, knocking this score out in just nine days. Good grief. Robert Townes screenplay… John A Alonzo’s cinematography… the cast… its all motion picture gold.

Watching it again I was rather oddly reminded of Blade Runner, which would be made less than a decade later; another film greater than its parts that the passing of time just enriches somehow. But maybe that’s just me referencing Blade Runner again… (yeah, you can be sure Scott’s classic will be amongst my top fifty). But Chinatown just, well, seems to share Blade Runner‘s feel somehow. Chinatown is as much about its sense of place and time as it is about its characters (its 1930s LA as much a character of the film as the 2019 LA of Scotts’ future noir would be in its own film); events unfold carrying the protagonist along, the pace is slow, measured… Jack Nicholson’s weary J J ‘Jake’ Gittes seems as aimless as Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard. They are both trapped in worlds and lives they don’t really control, victims of fate; witnesses of the films events- I guess that’s the whole film noir/future noir vibe.

A summary of the story almost seems perfunctory, incidental. In 1930s Los Angeles, cop-turned-private eye JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) makes a living from sleazy divorce cases, and is called upon to investigate Hollis Mulwray, the head of the Department of Water and Power, whose wife believes is having an affair. The case seems like straightforward adultery – but a mystery soon unravels and Gittes finds he is way over his head in something much murkier and deadlier. Each time he thinks he has a grip on things a new piece of evidence seems to undermine his expectations, a revelation setting off another bombshell/twist until we reach the devastating, inevitable conclusion. Its a dense film – it is, thank God, one of those films that if you walk out and miss five minutes then you have no hope of returning to it and still following it, or at least of picking up its nuances. It certainly reveals much in repeated viewings, although there is a sense of recurring nightmare here, when we know what’s coming, but somehow forlornly hope events will change for the better (but of course they don’t). Its a great, great film, a study of futility and corruption and human greed and sordid depravity and of coldness. The good guys don’t always win, the innocent don’t always get justice, the bad guys don’t always get punished. Sometimes you just can’t do anything, you are simply a victim of inevitable fate. The last line spoken lingering for a long time  in the viewers mind after the film concludes-

“Forget it, Jake… it’s Chinatown.”