Predestination (2014)

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Predestination is a film about time travel and moreover the role of fate and freewill in a time travel story. Its also a film about an alternate reality, which it never states but becomes rather clear as the film progresses- it doesn’t reflect our world, but rather the future world envisaged by Robert Heinlein in 1958 when he wrote his short story All You Zombies (a title which infers a completely other kind of movie altogether). The world is partly familiar, but also strange, a little ‘off’.  The space program, in a 1970s more advanced than ours, sends male astronauts into deep space for months at a time, necessitating the recruitment of  female cadets, whose purpose is to relieve these male astronauts’ sexual frustration on their long journeys. Perhaps a progressive idea to the young James T Kirks out in the Space Corps, I’m not sure what that says about what sexual politics and feminism were like in the ‘fifties back when the story was written, but credit to the film-makers with being consistent regards being faithful to the original story. Its easily something that might have been dropped or tweaked to be more PC-friendly. Contrary to the short story, I think its in the movie to make us feel uncomfortable and sympathise with the plight of the films heroine.

pred2The main thrust of the premise concerns secret Temporal Police, who move through the last decades of the 20th Century stopping particularly bad crimes from taking place. One of these police, played by Ethan Hawkes, has become obsessed with stopping the crimes of ‘The Fizzle Bomber’, whose bombings over years culminate in a terrible attack on New York in 1975 that leaves many dead.  Following a prologue in which Hawkes is thwarted by the bomber and left horribly disfigured requiring extensive reconstructive surgery in ‘the future’, we find Hawkes working undercover in a bar in 1970s New York resuming the hunt for the terrorist. Hawkes strikes up a conversation with one of his customers. Drawing out more information as part of a bet, Hawkes convinces the customer to recount the bizarre story of his life. What this has to do with the bomber is not at all clear, but the story is a remarkable, dark, twisted tale, eventually causing Hawkes to share his own story too. Cue lots of challenging, mind-bending twists and turns as a mystery unravels and we discover their fates are connected through time, finally leading to the revelation of who the Fizzle Bomber is.

pred3As time travel movies go, Predestination is a superior entry in the genre. Its a film with a complex narrative that rewards careful attention with a self-consistent logic that is unnerving and dark, thoroughly justifying its film-noir production design and lighting. A fairly low-budget film shot in Australia, its remarkably well made considering its story unfolds in the 1940s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, each decade vividly brought to life with a slightly skewed, alternate-world sensibility. No doubt enjoying the freedom the low-budget affords the film, the cast are excellent as impossible characters in an impossible world. Ethan Hawkes has perhaps never been better than he is here,his character world-weary and beaten by the psychic toll exacted from his pursuit of his quarry through time. Sarah Snook is nothing less than a revelation, one of the finest performances I will likely see this year. I can’t tell you why  (you have to see the film and then you’ll understand why I can’t elaborate), but she is simply astonishing, raising the film to a whole other level.

Predestination is a great little movie and one that will surely gain cult status. I half-expected Ex Machina to be the only intelligent sci-fi film I’d see this year, so I’m pleased to say that it has fine company here. Predestination is up there with Gattaca in my estimations, oddly enough another sci-fi film with a great story and great performance from Hawkes.

Released soon on Blu-ray here in the UK, it seems the UK disc is missing some extras so I bought the French disc from Amazon. Released by Sony over there with a lengthy documentary and excellent picture, it loads up with all the menus etc in English so is an ideal alternative for pretty much the same price as the UK edition. Certainly worth a blind-buy if the premise intrigues you, I’m sure a rental will have you soon reaching for the Blu-ray anyway.

 

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It’s not even a movie (not in the old sense): Mockingjay Part 1.

mock1I remember back when The Empire Strikes Back was released, back in the summer of 1980; it was criticised by some for having a poor structure. Films generally have a beginning, middle and end (at least they used to- these days some films are more like serials that might make perfect sense when viewed in a Blu-ray boxset but prove rather more problematic viewed as individual entries). My reference to TESB however isn’t chiefly because it was the middle part of a trilogy, moreover it was how the film was structured itself. I recall John Brosnan pointing out in his TESB review in Starburst that in an ordinary movie, the battle of Hoth would have been the grand climax. Instead it was placed in the first third leaving everything beyond it rather anti-climatic, even the duel between Luke and Vader (which itself, when you think of it, ends without any real resolution). Back at the time I was your typical teenage Star Wars-nut and thought Brosnan was talking nonsense; TESB was even better then the first Star Wars in my eyes, and Brosnan’s talk about film-structure flew over my head. But over the past few years I’ve thought back to Brosnan’s comments.

In a strange way, that odd structure of TESB would prove rather prophetic though. Films really don’t have that beginning, middle and end anymore; not always anyway. Of course TESB had not just put its traditional grand climax in the first third, it also ended on something of a cliffhanger,.Again, this was very unusual at the time, but Star Wars was famously based on old movie serials, so people could get their heads around what Lucas was doing. But I don’t think anyone back then could have predicted how films would eventually make TESB look rather normal, its then-odd structure rather mundane. Imagine Lucas saying back then “someday, all films will be made this way”- people would have thought he was crazy, his huge successes at the Box-Office notwithstanding. But now, people have become used to films lacking any real resolution, indeed, some entire films are just a tease for the next one. Were people coming out of screenings of Interstellar thinking that all their questions will be answered in the next one, only to be frustrated when informed that’s it, its just Interstellar, that was The End, there is no sequel?

I was thinking about all this watching the most recent film in The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay Part 1. I don’t know much about the books, but I understand that there are three in the series and the third book Mockingjay is being split into two movies. Its all very The Hobbit (not forgetting the last Harry Potter.book being split into two or indeed the next entry in the Divergent series).

I won’t go into how cynical it all seems regards maximising ticket sales in cinemas or further along with the DVD/Blu-ray sales. What concerns me is how it effects the individual films themselves. Mockingjay Part One is not a bad film, indeed, in some ways its the most interesting of the Hunger Games series I’ve seen. But it is inevitably hamstrung by the decision, right or wrong, artistic or purely business-based, to split its original book’s story into two. Essentially Mockingjay is, by its very nature, the beginning and part-middle of a bigger story. There is no resolution here. Characters are being introduced, arcs being set up, that will not come to fruition until the second part. It makes for  very frustrating experience, especially in light of having to wait another year for the conclusion (I much preferred how Warners managed the two Matrix sequels, released, as I recall, only six months apart?).

hob3Moreover, I do think the second part itself will also suffer, as these films usually do. It won’t have much time (or feel any need) to set events up, it will likely leap into the storyline in a rush to the grand finale. That might be fine, or indeed welcomed, by fans, but it won’t really be functioning like a ‘proper’ movie. It’ll be the second part; the middle and end to a larger story. Maybe I’m alone in thinking in how annoyed I was by the beginning of the third Hobbit movie, leaping into the Smaug attack on Laketown, shoving a noisy climactic sequence into the beginning of a film where I should have been settling into it, not having my senses assaulted from the very start. For myself, that entire sequence was ruined by not having any build-up. CGI suffers without dramatic storytelling around it as it is; here there was no build-up of tension, no raising of dramatic effect, no context. It was just “Bang-here we go, have a visual effects reel before we start the movie proper!” That sequence should have been the end of the second film, giving that film a much-needed climax, and the third film allowed to set up its own arcs/storyline for its own climax. Good business for Warner/MGM maybe but lousy artistic sense; it spoiled two movies and crippled what should have been a highlight.

Mockingjay Part One rather meanders through two hours (!) leading to an inevitable tease promising a ‘proper’ conclusion that leaves it inevitably wanting. It doesn’t function as an exercise in traditional storytelling. Being split itself in two surely risks alienating its audience- I wonder how many people stayed away, preferring to wait until Mockingjay Part Two is released? I was tempted to delay watching the Blu-ray until the second film gets released on disc next year but my curiosity got the better of me. But even then, to (eventually) watch the entire Mockingjay story will require something like four hours over the two parts. What is the sense in that? Does the storyline deserve that much screentime, can it carry all those hours? How many people will ever watch both in one sitting? Is it always doomed to be two parts over (at best) two consecutive nights? Would it just work better as a two and a half-hour movie, or even one approaching three hours in one whole, with its own beginning, middle and end? Don’t we as an audience deserve that? Shouldn’t we be demanding that?

Somehow none of these trilogies/serials feel like ‘proper’ movies any more, but splitting the individual parts of these trilogies/sagas into two just makes it even worse. Where will it end?  A three-part Hobbit movie? Ahem.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

olympus1Its big and its loud and its dumb, and yes, its Die Hard 6 in all but name. Frustratingly so, because that Die Hard reference isn’t just an indication of the genre, its an indication of the actual plot and its twists and turns- it mirrors the Die Hard template so completely you’d be forgiven that the seizing of the White House is actually a ruse and that there’s a bank situated next door, or that the White House basement itself has a safe full of priceless jewels.  Its one of those movies that does everything by the book- its characters, its plot, its action sequences. There’s no surprises at all. There’s no harm in it- this film is simply what it is. It’s Die Hard In The Whitehouse, minus Bruce Willis, of course. You can imagine the pitch to the studio and the film lives up to it. Its a dumb action romp with, well, lots of action. But it is incredibly, incredibly lazy.

There’s a section where a helicopter full of hostages/terrorists leaves the  White House lawn and two security guys are watching- one of them vents his frustration, obviously to mirror the audience’s feeling and heighten the tension, the other responds, “Its ok, there’s a tracker on the helicopter!”. Of course in a real situation both would be calm and both would be aware of the tracking device, but in the movie its all about the dialogue explaining stuff to the audience. This film isn’t attempting to mirror reality at all. Watching it we are in a parallel universe, a movie universe in which characters verbalise their internal reasoning, their feelings and motivations, and in which everyone is such an idiot that everyone else has to explain everything to them because that’s the way things are explained to the audience too- the dialogue explains everything that we see, so much so that at times its like its a commentary track.  Its lazy but its how these movies work. Across town where the acting President (played of course by statesmanlike Morgan Freeman) has his emergency briefing room with dozens of aides and military staff, the screen is full of goggle-eyed actors wincing and groaning and shaking their heads at everything they see and hear during the movie, heightening tension and yes, aides with dialogue that explain everything stage by stage to Freeman and the audience, and of course if anything goes ‘right’ they are whooping and applauding- its another way of the movie telegraphing everything to the audience. Its very lazy and condescending but its all straight out of Scriptwriters 101.

And of course its that parallel universe where the President is noble and good and heroic. He’s the man who does the Right Thing. He’s in no way a conniving political creature trying to survive in a sea of corruption and vested interests. And this is America the International arm of Justice and Good, not the America that interferes and undermines democratically elected governments to further its own political machinations. And all the Bad Guys are foreigners, and even the one treacherous Bad American  realises he’s done wrong and does right at his very last. Man, imagine Oliver Stone making this movie! Now that would be interesting!

For all that, this isn’t a bad movie, just a depressingly familiar one. Its strange that its true worth isn’t as entertainment but rather for how it betrays how so many films are made these days. It really is a lesson in how plots are strung out, character arcs set-up, how dialogue and voice-overs can replace good storytelling by ‘fixing’ bad storytelling. How actor’s reaction shots can inform how the audience should be feeling or thinking. Its all manipulation. For all that, its just an action movie. And it could have been much worse.

The film also has one last lesson: success bears repeating, so this film having proven popular enough to warrant a sequel is getting one set this time across the pond in our own dear old London. Brittania Has Fallen doesn’t have quite the ring to it so I do wonder what kind of title the spin-meisters have set for it (actually, I just looked, and it has the sadly unimaginative title London Has Fallen). As for the plot, well, I guess we all can hazard an idea but I’m certain it will be… rather familiar.

The Haunted Palace (1963)

hp1One thing can be said of Vincent Price -and its a trait shared by the great Peter Cushing, too- is that he acted in his horror b-movies as if he was performing in a classic Shakespeare play. Its one of the reasons I love his movies so much- no matter how cheesy and dated they might seem now, at their beating, bloody heart is Price, a huge presence on the screen exuding the aura of a mighty thespian reciting Hamlet. Horror fans just love their sneered at, b-movie genre treated seriously by anyone, especially back prior to when The Exorcist made horror movies respectable. Price, like Cushing in his many Hammer pictures on the other side of the pond, makes the films worthwhile all by himself, made a pleasure just by his presence- Price had such charm and wit and conviction in what he was doing. One of the greats.

So The Haunted Palace. This one’s a strange one, as its not Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace at all- its really H P Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Roger Corman was well into his cycle of Poe films at the time for AIP and here tried to branch out a little, but it was ultimately felt that the film masquerading as a Poe film would make it an easier sell, so the film is bookended by Price reciting lines from a Poe poem entitled The Haunted Palace and… well, there you go, another Poe movie.

hp3In some ways this is no bad thing. Much of Lovecrafts original story (one of my personal favourites of HPL, even though the author himself thought little of it) is lost in the adaptation, the film-makers clearly leaning towards the safety-net of their earlier stylistic Poe adaptations, so calling it The Haunted Palace seems fair enough. There is, however, just enough Lovecraft to make the whole thing worthwhile with quite a bit of the original stories unnerving horror proving effective. I have always thought The Case of Charles Dexter Ward would make a fantastic horror film if treated with the reverence it really demands and Palace rather proves it. Some of the references and hints towards the girls of the village being bred with whatever creature crawls up out of the subterranean pit are quite disturbing. Its also nice, frankly, to see a serious Lovecraft adaptation, after being assaulted by all those horror-comedies like Reanimator and The Beyond, which threw in humour and shovels of gore replacing the psychological horror of the original stories. At least in Palace, diluted by the censorship of the time as it is, the real horror of Lovecraft yet lingers and is given serious attention. This is a horror film without the laughs or OTT gore, and on the whole it works very well indeed. I also got a kick out of the characters having names from the original Lovecraft story- I know it might seem dumb, but hearing names like Joseph Curwen and Charles Ward and Dr Willet bandied about was a genuine thrill.

hp2The sets and general production values look far more impressive than the films actual basement-level cost, and really holds up very well- even when the sets at times reveal their true nature by looking somewhat ‘fake’ it gives the film a strangely dreamlike quality that only increases its effectiveness. The dungeon with its wooden staircase and its pyramid-like pit, however, is a triumph and is really effective.

The films prologue details a village uprising in Arkham, that results in the burning of evil Warlock Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price), who has been taking village girls into his lair and subjecting them to blasphemous ordeals. Just before Curwen perishes in the flames, he curses Arkham and promises them that their descendants will yet suffer his wrath. 110 years later, Curwen’s great-great grandson Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) arrives in Arkham, oblivious to his ancestors dark deeds, and takes up residence in the mansion that overlooks the town. Ward and his wife (an excellent Debra Paget in her last film prior to her retirement) are shunned by the town folk, except for the town’s physician, Dr Willet, who tells them that the horribly disfigured people that they have seen amongst the townsfolk are considered part of Curwen’s curse on Arkham.

The mansion seems to hold a particular hold over Ward- particularly the fireside portrait of Joseph Curwen that reveals an uncanny likeness to Ward. It soon becomes evident that the evil spirit of Curwen yet lingers in the mansion, slowly but surely taking hold of Ward’s psyche until the innocent Ward is utterly overcome. Wards wife is horrified but powerless as Ward begins to resume his ancestors evil work, including resurrecting Curwen’s own long-dead wife and offering Ward’s wife to the demonic creature of the pit. Price is of course marvellous in the dual role, at times shifting from innocent to pure evil in the blink of an eye. He seems to be relishing the part- well, of course he is. He’s treating it like one of the greatest roles ever written, as he always seemed to.

The Haunted Palace is a very effective and enjoyable old-style horror film. Fans of Lovecraft will particularly enjoy picking out the Lovecraftian elements from the original story, but on the whole it works simply as a very good horror film, certainly on a par with much of Hammer’s output. This is clearly a contender for my choice of this years Halloween viewing come October…

 

Gone Girl (2014)

gone1Gone Girl is a fine thriller, elevated no end by Rosamund Pike’s great performance which in most other years might well have been awarded an Oscar- she’s that good. On the face of it, the premise of the film is fairly simple- revolving around the mysterious disappearance of Amy Elliott-Dunne (Rosamund Pike) and her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) who increasingly begins to fall under suspicion of her possible murder. There is of course an inevitable twist but surprisingly this comes mid-way through the film, from which point the film almost becomes another film entirely. Its a good film but due to its nature its one I can’t discuss freely without heading into spoiler-territory.

The only point I can really make is regarding the film’s soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. David Fincher has seemingly become infatuated with ambient soundscapes in his movies (the pair having scored his last three movies now) and while it might serve Fincher’s purpose, I suspect you could run this film minus any of its music score and not notice any difference at all. Its that kind of score. Which is all well and good, but I prefer music that’s almost a character in the film; scores like Poledouris’ Conan The Barbarian or Hermann’s Vertigo or even, for a more recent example, Zimmer’s Interstellar. Music that is an integral part of the film and its sense of character- Reznor’s score here is more of a drone with the odd bit of tune hidden away in its mix, and is pretty much redundant. It is what it is. But the fact that Fincher seems to be more in favour of this style when his earlier films had such great scores as Goldenthal’s Alien 3 or Shore’s Seven or the Dust Brother’s Fight Club… well its rather disheartening.
gone2And really that’s my biggest beef with Gone Girl- Fincher himself. This is the guy after all, who directed Alien 3, the unfairly-maligned result of a troubled production that is a beautifully-shot elegy on death, moody and stark with great performances, wonderful music, great photography and sets…. its a great failure. Its got balls, and is easily the most interesting of all the sequels to Alien. This is the guy who directed Seven, as brutally dark a film as you’ll ever see, a fascinating thriller that’s pretty much the definitive serial-killer movie. Again, great score, great performances, beautifully shot, a film, again, with balls. And then of course we have Fight Club, one of the boldest, mind-bogglingly ballsy movies to come out of Hollywood, ever. The very least you could say of these movies is that Fincher was pushing the envelope, and proving himself something of a maverick director. If Alien 3 failed, it wasn’t really down to Fincher, and the workprint version at least hints at what might have been had the suits left him alone. His next two films were great, classic films.

I’m not going to suggest that his subsequent movies weren’t any good, I’m a big fan of Zodiac in particular, but Fincher seems to be settling down to a routine of thrillers that are competently made but nowhere near as bold as his early films. He seems to be mirroring the career-trajectory of Ridley Scott, whose own best films can easily be argued to be his first three, from which he himself settled into often pedestrian fare.

Gone Girl is a good film, but I have the feeing it would be just as good a film with anyone else directing it. Fincher should be making films only he could make. He should be making a Dune or Rendezvous With Rama or his own Unforgiven, by which I mean a genre film that turns things on its head and says something new. I don’t think his last few films have, and though I’d like to think his future projects will, at the moment that’s getting a little dubious. The promise of a Fincher film used to excite me, but that’s worn off now, sadly.

 

Farewell, Mr Spock….

Just a note to remark upon the passing on Friday of Leonard Nimoy. Of course he was more than just an actor who played Mr Spock- as an actor he played many notable parts other than the famous Vulcan, and demonstrated many other talents other than acting, such as photography and film directing, in his long career. But to many of us children of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, he will forever be identified as Mr Spock from the original tv series.

spockWhen the news broke I was at work, one of my colleagues seeing the news come up on his smartphone (a piece of tech that always feels very ‘Trek’) . Another colleague and this one an ‘original’ Trek fan (we old Trekkies distance ourselves from later generations of fans, as their own ‘favourite’ Treks tend to be the ones they grew up with, such as ST:Voyager  is amongst some of my work colleagues,) rang me up a few minutes later to inform me of the news. I’m sure there were many other similar calls that afternoon amongst fans… indeed, I dare day the internet went into overload as forums and websites and social media and news vendors broke the news. How much technology has changed and reshaped the world since that first series aired.

Whenever a major film actor or director dies, there seems to be a trend these days for fans to watch one of the deceased persons’ movies or tv shows as an act of memoriam or tribute. Its something I’ve often noted many fans mentioning on forums but have never done myself. But on Friday night when I got back home, I pulled down my Star Trek: TOS blu ray off its shelf and watched one of the episodes most notable for featuring Mr Spock in a central role- The Galileo Seven, an episode that has always been one of my favourites. Wonderful stuff.