Heaven’s Gate (1980)

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It is of course impossible to separate the film Heaven’s Gate from the story behind it: the hubris and extravagance of its director that sank a studio with the films critical and financial failure. Whenever budgets of movies start to spiral upwards and films fail at the box-office, there is nearly always some aside or reference towards Michael Cimino’s film.  Its almost a given, in decades of film reviews and film commentary, as a shorthand for describing a film-maker running amok with a spiralling budget that results in a financial meltdown.

Certainly the story behind the scenes is more interesting than anything actually on the screen. The root concept follows a very typical  ‘seventies anti-establishment agenda, debunking the myth of the American Dream via the true story of immigrants being slaughtered by rich cattle barons who are abetted by the political establishment. Its a story full of potential that is, bafflingly, utterly wasted by Cimino; the most remarkable thing about this film is what he gets so wrong with a tortuous, vacuous script without any involving characters or pacing. I’d hazard a guess that this film was dead in the water at script stage. Maybe Cimino tried to save it by making it so big, so enormous.

From the very start its clear that this is a film in Epic mode that is quite completely out of control. Cimino certainly had a wild time with his blockbuster movie play-set. A prologue is set in 1870 in Harvard, where students graduating full of hope in America’s post-civil war future are given a speech by one of the college leaders about their responsibility in the outside world, how they must use their education and influence to better the lot of their country and its people. Its a final lesson lost on deaf hears, and is clearly intended to be a foreboding for what will follow but its importance is lost, overshadowed by a subsequent huge extravagant sequence of dancing and festivities that is wildly excessive and really quite unnecessary.

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We cut to some twenty years later, and one of those students, James Averil (Kris Kristofferson), now a Marshall, is on a train arriving at Casper, Wyoming. Disembarking, Averil finds the chaotic town full of European immigrants who have come in search of the American Dream, and noticing lots of hired guns in town, stumbles upon the schemes of the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association. This is a group of wealthy landowners and businessmen with various East Coast interests who are intent of ridding themselves of these immigrants by drawing up a death list of said immigrants and hiring gunmen to do their deadly work. It is clear the Establishment, right up to and including the President, sanctions this operation and the hired guns are abetted by the Army. If this were a normal film, we would be maybe fifty minutes into it with the dramatic events shortly to unfold, but no, this is Heaven’s Gate– its taken over two hours to get  even this far. Its long, long, long, and frankly interminable.

Now, I don’t mind long films, but this is so badly paced it feels endless. Scenes go by seemingly forever at such a funereal pace it makes 2001 look like a Transformers movie. Many of the scenes, long as they are, are utterly redundant. Much of it is frankly incomprehensible. There are too many dialogue scenes in which we cannot even understand the dialogue.There is a frenzied town meeting late in the film where the immigrants all get together to discuss what to do with the gunmen soon to arrive. They shout and argue and scream and yell at each other in foreign languages making it impossible to understand what they are saying, or who each of them are. I was incredulous at this point. I could not believe what I was watching. There is zero viewer involvement here, its just baffling what Cimino was trying to achieve/say here. Likewise whenever there is any kind of action in the film, its so clumsily shot and edited its hard to ascertain what’s even going on.  I’m sure I saw one person dead then alive moments later. Its such a mess.

Very little seems to move the plot forward, or establish any empathy with wholly unlikeable characters, even the poor immigrants, who we are surely intended to feel sympathy for. There are too many dialogue scenes that do and say nothing at all. They just happen, go on forever, and then end. Characters come and go, some reappear later on, some don’t. Kris Kristofferson’s James Averill is the nominal hero of the piece, but he’s an ineffectual jerk who aimlessly sulks around, drinks too much, sleeps with a whore that he is besotted with, while failing to do anything at all to halt the (eventually) unfolding horror. Its impossible to like him, and he’s supposedly the hero. What chance has any film with such a jerk in its central role?

Its almost as if the film is a lesson on how not to write a movie, cast a movie, shoot a movie, record sound for a movie, and edit a movie. I don’t think I have ever seen such a huge film staged so poorly, made so badly. Its a stinker, frankly, and deserves all the criticism it got.

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Fifty Great films: 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001bContrary to the Love Conquers All message that festers Chris Nolan’s Interstellar, the message of Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent 2001: A Space Odyssey is rather more profound, albeit rather harder to define. Indeed, even after all these decades people are still arguing about it, and as I have  re-watched it over the years I still find myself changing my mind about what the film means. Sometimes I think the Monolith is an Alien artifact and 2001 a story of aliens shaping our evolution- other times the Monolith is God and 2001 is a bold religious movie disguised as science fiction. The films very strength is the vagueness that some find so infuriating. One thing I am certain of however, we will never see a science fiction film ever so serious and ambitious ever again- something only further cemented by the recent release of Interstellar. Its not that Interstellar is particularly bad, its just films in general- the scope and ambition of films now falls far below what Kubrick was attempting back then.

Sobering thought though- discussing Interstellar with my friends at work who saw it with me, I compared the film with 2001 and was surprised that they hadn’t seen 2001 at all. Well, I dread to think what this generation would think of 2001‘s glacial pace and obscure plot- films over the decades have gotten faster and simpler, and 2001 is clearly the very antithesis of what the consensus of a ‘good’ film is these days, so I hesitated to recommend it. Would my work colleagues have even gotten past the Dawn of Man sequence? Likely not. Yet some of them clearly felt Interstellar was a great science fiction film.  Hades in a handbasket.

2001 of course is not a film for everyone and had its many detractors even when it was first released in 1968. I can’t imagine what the impact of the film was back then, what it must have been like back then seeing it  for the first time. Nearest thing I can imagine is Star Wars in 1977 or Blade Runner in 1982. Maybe Gravity last year? Alas, these days its more about what a film shows (the technology used, cgi /3D/Imax etc.) than what a film says. 2001 had such a lot to say about our history, our future, the dehumanisation inherent in technology. 2001 was the first truly serious science fiction film with A-list credentials/production values- science fiction was generally the domain of the b-movie before then. I know there are exceptions to that but it was an attempt at real science rather than, say, Forbidden Planet‘s fantasy. 2001 remains the grandest vision of any science fiction film, almost fifty years after it release.

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I first saw 2001 on the BBC over one Christmas- 1979 or possibly 1980, I can’t remember which- and I remember John Brosnan writing afterwards in Starburst magazine vehemently condemning the BBC’s treatment of the film’s original widescreen format. It didn’t get any better on home video, Brosnan no doubt later venting further wrath with the films’ treatment on VHS. Anybody else reading this own a copy of the film on VHS pictured here? It was back  in the very earliest days of video sell-through. I don’t recall if it was a retailer exclusive in Woolworths, but that’s where I had my copy from- there were loads of old catalogue films (John Wayne films mostly) . It was,as usual for those days,  a horrible pan and scan version with fuzzy  colours (a travesty when you consider the work that went into the film, its framing and cinematography), but it was still a remarkable thing back then being able to own a personal copy of a film, particularly one like 2001.  But yeah, it sure was ugly. A reminder of how spoiled we are now with the excellent version on Blu-ray we have now.

Interstellar (2014)

inter2I’m not quite sure what to make of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. On the one hand its a bold, intelligent and epic movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe, and on the other hand, its an incredibly flawed, dumbed-down and infuriating movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe. How can it be both things at once? I saw the film in Imax (if you see the film, it HAS to be in Imax) last Tuesday and have refrained from writing this post, preferring instead to consider the film for awhile, discussing the film with colleagues at work who I saw the film with. Over the past few days I’ve started to reflect more on what the film does well than its flaws, but I’m still worried this post will swiftly degenerate into a confusing morass of conflicting thoughts…. its that kind of movie.

Its certainly no masterpiece though. Its a good film in many ways, but anyone going to see this expecting something as important and profound as 2001: A Space Odyssey is going to be disappointed.  Sets your sights more towards 2010: The Year We Make Contact or perhaps even Sunshine and you’ll be happier with it. If that sounds like a damning comment then there it is. The one thing I will say in its favour is that they simply don’t make many films with space exploration  as a serious subject so we should cherish Interstellar for all its flaws- we simply are not going to see another science fiction film like this again for some years to come. That makes its flaws all the more frustrating, obviously…

What annoyed me most about Interstellar? For all its touted vision, all the huge effects and scope and acting talent, what this film lacks is a commentary, a voice of its own. Its bloodless. For me one of the most interesting parts of the film is its first act, on the blighted near-future Earth and a humanity that is facing a long, slow extinction. Text-books are rewriting history (the Apollo landings were faked, claimed to be a successful ploy to bankrupt the Soviet Union), farming is the only thing that matters, there are no armies, no space programmes… but nowhere does the film state a reason for this End of the World scenario. Climate change? Global Warming? Rampant population growth? Is the film so afraid to be outspoken, afraid to alienate viewers by being political? With a premise like this , the film should be pissing people off, if only the current political establishments of this planet. Maybe it should be pissing all of us off, blaming us and our way of life for the blight. Have we killed the Earth? If so, do we even deserve to survive? The question isn’t even asked, as if believing that humanity is some innocent victim itself. There is an extinction event going on, God knows how many species already wiped out by the time the film begins, but no explanation offered, no reason or blame for it. We are meant to just accept it somehow. Its the reason for the odyssey that follows, and that’s all. The central premise of the film is stated as ‘Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here‘. It doesn’t ask why. Why are we not meant to die here, considering its us that fucked it up? The film should be asking do we deserve to survive, and the rest of the film demonstrating the answer.

inter3Doubly troubling is that everything is American-centric, a throwback to films decades past. There’s an irony that if its the free-capitalism and mass-consumption of the Western way of life that has destroyed the planet, its only the Americans that can save it. There’s no Big Picture here, despite the films huge subject. Beyond the rural land of Cooper’s farm, or the rather ridiculous subterranean hide-out of NASA, the big world picture is ignored. Bear in mind that as I write this in 2014, America and NASA cannot even get a man into orbit any more, in light of which the basic premise of the film (forget the Rest Of The World, America Can Save Everything) is insulting, frankly, in something that’s supposed to be so intelligent. Its more Armageddon than Contact, something I found quite surprising.

Some sequences are indeed jaw-dropping pure cinema, as one would expect of a director of Nolan’s credentials. When Cooper finally leaves home to pilot the mission to the stars, he leaves behind his young daughter begging him to stay. The music swells up powerfully, he drives off into the horizon, and as the music lifts up even more the picture cuts to the launch of the rocket, the magnificently bombastic Zimmer score propelling, simply willing the rocket into orbit. Its huge, exhilarating stuff, worth the price of admission alone. Indeed this may well be Zimmer’s finest score in years (it’s up there with The Thin Red Line in my eyes). But goodness is it loud. It drowns out so much of the dialogue some of these plot-points I’m moaning about may indeed have been addressed in the film, I perhaps simply missed it in all the noise. The sound design of this movie is problematic to say the least. It seems to be by design, but if so then I’m not sure it worked to the film-maker’s intentions.

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So once we get into space, and all the promised spectacle of a blockbuster movie, its surprising how mundane it all seems. Have we lost our propensity for awe? Its troubling that Interstellar lacks the sense of wonder or spectacle that the Birth of the Solar System sequence of The Tree Of Life had, or so much of Gravity had (indeed, much of the film looks spectacular but Gravity remains visually superior, and it must really irk Nolan that it beat him to it). Going further back, Kubrick’s 2001 had such a grace in its scale, a sense of the vastness of space, our place in it: the Discovery a dot in the vast blackness of the 70mm frame, and then the humans in turn dwarfed by the construct carrying them. Nolan deliberately avoids hero-shots of the ships, perhaps to maintain an intimacy, or docudrama approach, but this hurts the films sense of scale and majesty. Originally Steven Spielberg was lined up to direct this film, if he had, I don’t think the film would have suffered this particular failing.

Nolan seems so distracted by time dilation and the years separating Cooper and his family back on Earth that the sheer physicality of space travel, the distances and the zero-gravity, food and air supplies, don’t seem to interest him. Even a film as derided as Sunshine had a greenhouse on its ship and a concious concern with supplies and survival. Interstellar is in such a rush to get to the wormhole it treats the odyssey to reach it (the wormhole orbits way out at Saturn)  as something ordinary, like a regular outing. We don’t have time, funnily enough in a three-hour movie, to really get a sense of the ship they are travelling in, establish its internal and external spaces, its functions. The crew leave Earth orbit, jump into cryosleep and wake up at Saturn minutes later. Sure, it moves the film forward but it loses so much grandeur and sense of awe, and once through the wormhole and we reach the Other Side, this sense of the ordinary continues, the prospective planets all (apparently) fairly close to each other, the astronauts tripping between them like in some kind of Star Wars movie. It’s necessary to keep the running time down, but it really diminishes the scale, which is odd, because this film is close on three hours long, and if that’s not long enough to maintain a proper sense of scale in a space movie, then are you doing it wrong? If sub-plots are forcing your hand condensing it all into three-hours, should it even be there?

Its as if they shot two three-hour movies and cut it down to one. Sort of like making a Peter Jackson movie in reverse.

I have endeavoured to keep as much of this spoiler-free as I can. People who have seen the film will have noted that I haven’t even raised certain elements of the film up. Derisive as I may already seem, I haven’t yet brought up a number of elements of the film that are really contentious. Bookcases and coordinates and surprise actors, rather problematic robot designs…  I’ll leave that for another day, perhaps when the Blu-ray comes out.

Suffice to say that while people still argue about what 2001 means, there’s no such argument regards Interstellar– its love conquers all. Yes, I’m afraid its about as high-concept as that. Which is not to say that its a bad movie, its just a frustrating one. Not quite worthy of all its ambitions. This post makes it seem as if I hated the film. I really quite liked it. I look forward to seeing it again. It just isn’t what we had hoped it would be, what it really should have been- a really great space movie. Nearly there, I guess.

Well, we’ll always have 2001...

 

Fifty Great Films: The Odd Couple (1968)

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Third in my occasional series of fifty great films is this wonderful comedy classic featuring one of my favourite actors, Jack Lemmon (and this certainly won’t be the only Lemmon film in that list of fifty greats). Some films you enjoy, some you admire, but some you just love, and for me, this is the latter. I can watch this film anytime.  You often hear the term ‘one for the Ages’ banded about regards movies but this is the Real Deal; this film is close on fifty years old now but its hardly aged at all- indeed, if it has aged at all, that’s only increased its charm as it calls out from the ‘sixties and its distant pop culture era. I’m sure that in a hundred years people will still watch this film and get a chuckle and marvel at the greatness of its two leads.

I have watched this film so many times over so many years and it never loses its appeal; indeed it just seems to get better and funnier the more times I watch it. Neil Simon’s writing is sharp and witty and knowing. There is an honesty to it. But what really makes this film soar is the partnership of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. There was a remarkable chemistry between these two actors, and they worked on several films together over the years, but were never better than in this film. Indeed I cannot think of a better pairing of two actors in any film, be it drama or comedy. There is a magic here, lightning caught in a bottle. I loved them in The Fortune Cookie and The Front Page and later in their twilight years in The Grumpy Old Men films but in The Odd Couple there are in their prime, and what a glorious prime it is.

 “I can’t take it anymore, Felix, I’m cracking up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow. “We’re all out of cornflakes. F.U.” Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar!”

Ah, wonderful stuff.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

edge1The cover-art of the Blu-ray (and I presume the DVD, although I haven’t seen it) betrays the problem that this film seems to have had- is it Edge of Tomorrow or Live, Die, Repeat?  When a film’s identity, its very title, seems to have an air of doubt about it, you know the marketing boys are in trouble. Here’s a film that is a very enjoyable action blockbuster with a bit of intelligence and wit about it starring one of the biggest male stars on the planet, with favourable reviews and word-of-mouth, and yet it still somehow fails to live up to box-office expectations. As a product, its fine, so is the problem simply that it wasn’t sold very well?

The success of movies is always something of a crap-shoot. Some films have ‘hit’ all over them and make huge box-office, others have ‘hit’ all over them and sink without trace. The frustrating thing for film-fans is often the injustice of it. Good films fail (John Carter, Blade Runner etc) and bad movies (take your pick, but any Transformers movie is a good start) make obscene amounts of money. There just isn’t any reason to it. Some films capture the public’s attention, others don’t. Maybe the public are a tasteless ignorant horde of brain-dead morons who are suckers for loud spectacle.

Here’s the thing. They are usually very young. Its demographics. Going to the cinema is mostly a young person’s activity. Most people going to the cinema these days are a different generation to the one that grew up with Tom Cruise as a major star. For this generation, the names Sylvester Stallone or Arnold  Swarzenegger or Bruce Willis or, indeed, Tom Cruise, don’t carry the same street-cred or air of celluloid importance as they did (and still do) for, say my own age group (slipping towards age 50) or even  the age group before, now hitting their thirties. Is the problem simply that Tom Cruise’s status is beginning to wane, his name not quite able alone to sell an original IP with its own attendant problems regards marketing? I am always one to bemoan the number of superhero movies and remakes and sequels being made, but the perceived failure of movies like Edge of Tomorrow kind of reinforces the practices of Hollywood, the films that we usually get.

egde2I’m not going to suggest that Edge of Tomorrow is a great film. Its good, but nothing extraordinary. But of all this past summer’s ‘blockbusters’ that I have so far seen, its likely the best, and possibly the most, dare I say it, original (although that last point is with a few caveats, as it eventually seems to descend into a rehash of a Matrix movie by the end).

Its a weird film though. The basic premise is just plain daft. Aliens have invaded Earth and have taken over Europe and its up to the Brits to save the day. Its World War Two and the Normandy invasion all over again. Only in the near future. I admit that whole thing bugged me a bit; if this thing had been a kind of Steampunk alternate World War Two with advanced tech then that would have been fine, albeit too high-brow for the general film-going public (the irony is not lost on me considering how the film’s box-office turned out). As it is, it just feels wrong, the central proposition (even before we get to the time travel stuff) already on shaky ground. It may have worked against the Germans in the 1940s, but how do you keep a huge invasion force secret in the Information Age, particularly against space-faring aliens who can surely see what you are up to across the Channel?  How do us Brits, with our cut-down military and debt-ridden economy even marshal those invasion forces? How come the Yanks don’t just run the show? That said, while the central ideas may have been dubious, the presentation is quite convincing and impressive. The battle scenes are very good indeed, with some excellent action choreography, and it looks very cool- Saving Private Ryan in Exo-skeletons!

I have to admit I enjoyed the proposition that Tom Cruise is a coward more intent on selling this war than actually fighting in it. Reluctant heroes are much more interesting and it gives Cruise something a bit left-field for him. Once the action sets in he’s as capable as ever, but its certainly his quieter moments that I enjoyed the most. Meanwhile, Emily Blunt is something of a revelation. If this film doesn’t serve as some kind of audition for her eventual starring role in a Marvel Studios movie, well, there is no justice. She is just great as an action heroine, which somehow came as quite a surprise. She and Cruise also share some chemistry too. Its great casting.

edge3The funny thing about Edge of Tomorrow is that it has the structure of a video-game. Its really weird. Cruise re-lives the same day (the same video-game level) and changes his actions to get further and further into that level, each death causing a reset to that same checkpoint… it even looks like a FPS. Its like an alternate Tron or something. In some ways its the most authentic movie based on a video-game ever (except that, far as I know, it isn’t based on any video-game). Damned thing is, you’d think that would sell well. Go figure.

Its certainly a good movie and one I very much enjoyed. When it finished, my first thought was that I’d like to watch it again (rather ironic considering its own repetitive structure), which is not something I often think when watching new films these days.Sure its not perfect, and in truth its box-office wasn’t really all that bad (it was perceived as performing below expectations but it was certainly no Lone Ranger/John Carter failure). I think some longer character beats, and perhaps some examination on the impact reliving all  those events so many times would have on Cruise’s character psychologically…  but maybe that would have been a different movie.