May in Review

…So May is already over. Five months in the bag already? The older you get, it seems, the faster time flies. At this rate it’ll be October 2017 and Blade Runner 2 in no time at all- now there’s a scary thought.

May was something of a strange month really. I chose to rewatch some old faves rather than wholly concentrate on new stuff, so only managed seven new films/shows, but it was nice to revisit a few titles (and while I don’t count them as ‘new’, three of them were on blu-ray discs that I hadn’t watched before so my ‘to-watch’ pile of unwatched discs has been minimized somewhat). I guess too much of my time was spent playing the new Doom video-game (which is a brilliant reboot of an old-school shooter, by the way, but a bit of a time-sink).

Anyway, here’s the list of May’s posts-

  1. Fight Club
  2. 2016.37: The Fall of the Roman Empire
  3. Se7en
  4. 2016.38: Agent Carter Season 2
  5. 2016.39: In The Heart of the Sea
  6. 2016.40: The Hateful Eight
  7. 2016.41: Stoker
  8. The Shawshank Redemption
  9. The Green Mile
  10. 2016.42: Calvary
  11. 2016.43: The Imitation Game
  12. Mr Robot OST Packaging
  13. Not Quite A Theatre of Dreams
  14. Cinefantastique, July-August 1982

Well, Calvary had a lucky escape, being ‘beaten’ to the worst item of the month by the deplorable Stoker. Best of the month (and I’m referring to ‘new’ stuff obviously as Se7en (or is it Shawshank?) beats them all) is The Hateful Eight, but it hardly had much competition this month so it rather feels like I’m damning it with faint praise. Here’s hoping June is a better month.

One curio about this month is the number of long films in there- it doesn’t really have any bearing on how many films I actually watch, but Fall of the Roman Empire, Shawshank, Green Mile and The Hateful Eight are all very near to or over the three-hour mark. So it was a month for looong films.

 

 

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Cinefantastique, July-August 1982

I’ve waxed lyrical before about the old film magazines I used to buy as a teen – Fantastic Films, Starburst, Starlog etc- and how things have changed so much in the internet age. We have so much information now, and of course docs and commentaries on discs, that some of the mystery of movies has been lost somewhat. Film mags were like little glimpses into a hidden world. I’d pore over photographs and read interviews and look at pre-production art (the paintings of the late Ralph McQuarrie for Star Wars was likely my first experience of that). I loved reading all that stuff every month, read them, then re-read them. I’ve kept most of my old mags and many of them are stored up in the loft out of casual reach but some are handy and I sometimes get them out for a read. The news articles are glimpses of the publishing date and what was going on, the reviews sometimes funny in hindsight, sometimes perceptive, but always the behind the scenes stuff is priceless, even now.

20160528_164507-1So anyway, I picked up an issue of Cinefantastique to read, the double-issue of Blade Runner and Star Trek: Wrath of Khan. Reading the article about Blade Runner really took me back. That film was so big, so mysterious and magical to me back then. It is so odd to read interviews likely taken in 1981 talking about creating this incredible world of 2019 that must have seemed so long away at the time, and here we are now, with it just around the corner.

It was quite intense though, re-reading this article from 1982; I was experiencing the same old-forgotten feelings of awe and wonder I used to feel about Blade Runner back then.  Feelings triggered by the spread above or the one below that featured a Syd Mead painting that was printed everywhere at the time but always fascinated me.

I used to stare at it; the colours, the design-work… all that ambition and work that went into that film. The detail and layering that Ridley Scott employed- its rather usual now, as films are now more sophisticated generally than they were back then, certainly regards art-direction. People seem to forget how ground-breaking and important Ridley Scott’s work on Alien and Blade Runner was, how much that has impacted everything we see today- it wasn’t just how ‘pretty’ the photography and imagery was, it was all that layering and detail. It looked so real.

20160528_164528The Cinefantastique article, like the Cinefex one about the films effects, was a goldmine of imagery and information about this incredibly powerful film (it remains my most intense experience at the cinema) that somehow, at the time, was so quickly forgotten when it had failed at the box office.

All the books that would be written when the film was eventually reappraised were years away back then (though I have always wondered why no-one ever produced, in the long years since, a definitive ‘Art-Of’ book for Blade Runner). I used to re-read these same articles over and over in the years before any of that happened. Naturally as the years have passed,  some of the interviewed people are no longer with us, but it’s interesting too to see on-set photos Ridley Scott at work (he looks so young!) and read his comments and know how his career later progressed. He was intending to keep on making these incredible genre films back then, but the failure of Blade Runner and Legend put paid to that. I remember though, back at the time, reading this stuff- imagine, Ridley Scott following up Alien and Blade Runner with other ‘adult’ genre films, and George Lucas still busy with the Star Wars films (it wasn’t a Trilogy back then, we thought there would be several of them), Spielberg making genre films like CE3K, Raiders, ET… what an amazing time that was, some kind of Golden Age or something, I was just too young to really ‘get’ it.

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As an aside, regards these magazines being time-capsules of when they were printed, this issue of Cinefantastique also featured articles on Fire & Ice (Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature he did with Frank Frazetta), Something Wicked This Way Comes (prior to all its release/re-edit problems), Videodrome, the original Hawk’s The Thing, and a spread of McQuarrie paintings from a film still titled Revenge of the Jedi. Short features on upcoming films like Xtro, Brainstorm. Poltergeist, Firefox, Greystoke are a reminder of what else was going on and what would be future VHS rentals. They were good times indeed.

I mentioned this issue also featured Wrath of Khan– here’s a photograph from that issue that really got me excited when first reading it. The effects boys at ILM uncrating the Enterprise miniature from Star Trek: TMP prior to shooting Khan’s effects. God, that kind of stuff really blew me away back then- I mean, this isn’t just a model- this is the bloody Enterprise. Its funny considering the access to so much behind the scenes stuff we have with special features on discs and the internet now, but things like this photograph were mind-blowing back then.

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Not Quite A Theatre of Dreams…

20160528_164030-1Found this old photograph in our local newspaper. A blast from the past- the old Odeon Cinema in town.

This, folks, is where the magic used to happen. This is where I saw Star Wars and CE3K back in 1978, The Black Hole in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back later in 1980, and a pretty mind-blowing (at the time) Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back double-bill prior to the release of Return of the Jedi (possibly in 1982 or 1983, I’m not sure). People used to queue outside around the corner in long lines, whatever the weather- there was no reserved seating, it was first-come, first-served.

I remember back when I saw that Star Wars/Empire double-bill, I got there with my mate a few hours before it was due to start and we couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t a queue- was I ever that young and innocent, and those two films such a big deal to me, that I couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t any crowds? Then again, there was no VHS or home video of any kind back then; the opportunity to rewatch a Star Wars film was a rare thing, a Big Deal. And of course, this was long before those Special Editions, these were the Real Deal (not that we knew it back then- Ignorance is such bliss).

There were just three screens- one main one (Screen One, naturally) with two much smaller ones added under the main screen’s balcony seating (what was originally the stall seating before the cinema was split into three screens). As a sign of how things changed since, it seems odd now to recall that back then people could smoke in there- non-smokers sitting on the left side, smokers on the right side (not sure what the logic was in that, but Screen One was pretty large with a huge vaulted ceiling that took care of most of the horrible smoke). It was such a beautiful art deco building, inside and out; I wasn’t old enough to really appreciate it back then, but the ornate plaster scroll-work that decorated and embellished the walls and ceiling was always something amazing to me.

Sure the seats were old and creaky and frayed if not actually empty of most of the original stuffing, the projection system hardly crystal-clear, and the sound system may have been stereo but the speakers usually groaned and farted like a Monty Python sketch under the strain when things got noisy. I guess we’d be spoiled by multiplexes years later but I rather miss some of the atmosphere of that old place. Films were events back then, and the walk up stairs from the ticket office booth into a plush lobby with seats and film posters always seemed ‘classy’, and walking up the next set of stairs into the balcony seating of Screen One and its darkened Theatre was always a thrill. I rather miss the place. I’d love the opportunity to relive that whole moviegoing experience.

Yeah, its a Bingo Hall now. Has been some twenty years, probably longer than that now that I think about it, so all that moviegoing experience has been long gone. We’ve gained a lot technologically from the multiplex way of doing things, but we have lost some of the atmosphere of old cinemas like that one.

Mr Robot OST packaging

mrrobotostJust a quick post to mention the utterly sublime packaging thats been revealed for the two-volume release next month of Mac Quayle’s score for season one of Mr Robot. Anybody who owned an Atari VCS back in the 1980s will be gushing over this design work, from the silver slipcase design to the game cartridge-inspired CD case. Even the disc itself has been given some thought (as anyone who saw the show will recognise).

I ordered the discs a few weeks ago as the music (80’s-style electronica) was sublime and one of the things that impressed me most about the series, but this packaging reveal is the icing on the cake. Wonderful stuff. Its a good argument for the superiority of physical media over downloads when stuff like this is done. Pity the Blu-ray wasn’t given the same treatment.

mrrobotost2

I’ll do a review of the two volumes when they are in my hands next month. They look great, don’t they?

The Imitation Game (2014)

im22016.43: The Imitation Game (Amazon Prime/VOD)

It is tempting to suggest that The Imitation Game is all about Benedict Cumberbatch’s pretty extraordinary performance as Alan Turing, the mathematics prodigy who is recruited to work at Bletchley Radio Manufacturing to covertly crack the German’s Enigma coding machine. Cumberbatch is brilliant at showing a vulnerable side to so many of his characters- even during Shakespeare’s infamous character-assassination of Richard III in the recent Hollow Crown series. It is likewise demonstrated in the vulnerability and warmth in his generally cool and aloof Sherlock Holmes. With Alan Turing he works similar magic portraying an eccentric, socially-challenged genius who can make more sense of numbers and cryptography than he can people, while trying to hide his homosexuality that always threatens to destroy his career and make him a social pariah. It’s a fascinating performance and I can understand all the media attention to it during awards season (unfortunately the film arrived at the same time as Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything- two career-highlight performances of two real-life scientists, what’s the odds? There’s a stat the real Turing might have found interesting to fathom).

Fortunately there is more to The Imitation Game than a great central performance, and while on the subject of The Theory of Everything, I actually think The Imitation Game is the better film, whatever one thinks of the merits of the two star performances. It benefits from a clearer focus on what the story is.  The Imitation Game brilliantly conveys the world of code-breaking and spycraft during World War Two, and is centered on Turing’s work to create a machine capable of quickly performing 159 million permutations to break the German Enigma code that’s changed daily. Turing’s proposed solution proves to be a leap of thinking and technology that seems quite insane to his co-workers and superiors.

im1The film establishes the high stakes by showing war footage and explaining the astronomical numbers of lives at risk, both on the frontline and on the homefront, with the Allies losing the war. The  importance of breaking the Enigma code is paramount and the tension is palpable, but for Turing it’s not just simply a matter of building his machine- it’s maintaining his position long enough to succeed, and being able to communicate with and manage his team without the whole project collapsing around him. As Turing’s work on the machine progresses, the film uses a framing device set in 1951 and flashbacks to his childhood to further delve into Turing’s character and background. In other films this can often threaten to derail the pace and distract from the core plot, but The Imitation Game manages to get the balance right.

The film isn’t perfect though. Although the film pursues the fact of Turing’s homesexuality in a society in which it is illegal, and makes great weight of it, it could be argued that the film nonetheless skirts around it for fear of upsetting less liberal viewers. We never see Turing in a relationship with a man and there’s nothing even approaching a gay sex scene, so other than showing him socially awkward amongst people there’s little to really imply he is gay other when he admits it or the framing device concerning a police investigation in 1951. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see a film in which a character’s homosexuality isn’t bashed over your head with graphic scenes. Besides, a subtext to the film is all about secrets and Turing’s attempts to keep that side of his life private.

On the whole it is a very entertaining, thrilling and inspirational film blessed with a great central performance and a fine supporting cast. While some may criticise how the film skirts around the central issue of homesexuality, its nontheless a sober reminder of how much society has moved on and changed for the better in the decades since. The injustice of what happened to Alan Turing and his status as a war hero whose work arguably saved millions of lives is an important story to tell, and on the whole this film does this exceedingly well.

 

Calvary (2014)

calvary2016.42: Calvary (Amazon Prime/VOD)

Calvary seems to be a rather respected film. I’m a bit at odds with that opinion, as I really didn’t think much of it. To me it is far too deliberately oddball for its own good, treating its subject with an irreverence that is questionable. It isn’t as sophisticated as it thinks it is, and is far inferior to the kind of films it aspires to be (I suspect it is aiming at something like a Magnolia or Short Cuts, something like that). Tonally it is all over the place.

The central plotline is more than a little crazy (deliberately so?) – during a routine confession, one of Father James’ parishioners  reveals that when he was a child he was repeatedly abused by a priest and that in return said parishioner will kill Father James in seven days on the town beach. The parishioner accepts that Father James is innocent but suggests maybe that’s the point- better a dead good priest than a dead bad one (the abuser has passed away during the years since). Repeatedly during the film we see people moaning about priests and the Catholic church, as if the church and its priests are all guilty by association. Anyway, the central throughline of the film is the passing of those seven days and Father James coming to terms with his destiny on that beach at films end, as if he is atoning for the crimes of that unnamed priest.

The film skirts over some of this twisted logic like it does much everything else, and glosses over it with comic moments and eccentric casting (Dylan Moran, M. Emmet Walsh, Chris O’Dowd playing various oddballs). How is it that Father James is unable to recognize the voice of this parishioner of many years? Why has that parishioner decided to kill him now, what has changed over the years for him to arrive at this course of action? Why doesn’t Father James later obey his superior and call in the police? And who burns down the church later on (the intended killer revealing he didn’t do it)? Why is Father James the focus of the film and not the poor soul who was abused, why doesn’t it examine the abused guys fractured mindset and why he feels he has to kill Father James?

The one redeeming feature of this film is Brendan Gleeson; his acting here is fantastic. He quietly manages to infuse his character Father James with some depth beyond what the unfocused script gives him to work with. Yes, unfocused certainly seems to be the word for this film. Is it a thriller, a character piece, a political piece, or a comedy? Certainly other than Father James, everybody else in the film seems to be plain bat-crazy. Its like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest or the asylum scenes in Twelve Monkeys. Obviously humour is patently being raised here with such oddball characters, but to what end? To diffuse the thriller aspect, or to minimise upsetting parts of the audience, or to make child abuse palatable?

Is the film a character piece about Father James (if so it fails, despite all Brendan Gleeson’s efforts) or a comedy about people disenfranchised from the church? Is it a piece about the clergy’s failure to atone for and punish those who abused children in their care? Is this film somehow supposed to be responsibly raising that issue as some form of entertainment? Is it patronising? Is it suggesting that everyone who was abused whilst in the care of the church should go out and kill a priest? Of course it isn’t, but why then make a film as a comedy with that as the central plotline? I don’t know. I just didn’t get it.

 

The Green Mile (1999)

green1The Green Mile (Blu-ray)

Sometimes, looking back on the things I’ve watched, the connections seem obviously apparent. A few weeks ago I watched the first season of Mr Robot, a series that owes much (some would say too much) to the film Fight Club. So having had that film on a blu-ray sitting unwatched on a shelf for a number of years it seemed the perfect time to finally load it up and watch it again. Even while watching that film it seemed inevitable that I would then turn to another David Fincher film, his masterpiece Se7en.

Over the years I’ve bought films on Blu-ray (upgrading from VHS or DVD copies) usually because I’ve caught them on sales, pretty cheap, and put them on the shelf to watch when I’ve got chance, and they sit there for years while I spend my available time watching new films or films I’ve not seen before,

It is nice to rewatch some of my favourite films- as I have said before, it offers some manner of perspective when you watch ‘great’ or favourite films and compare them to current, ‘new’ films. And sometimes having watched some new films that turned out pretty bad (in this case, In The Heart of the Sea and Stoker) it is good to turn to something more… reliable.  So that’s why I watched my Blu-ray copy of The Shawshank Redemption the other night.

The connection between Shawshank and The Green Mile is clear and my turning to that film next seems inevitable. It is unfair though to directly compare The Green Mile to Shawshank, even though both are ‘prison’ films and both are period films, and both are adult fables. And of course both were written and directed by Frank Darabont.

To get the obvious out of the way, The Green Mile is no Shawshank– it is a lesser film, certainly. It is not a bad film, but The Green Mile is less grounded in reality than Shawshank, and suffers for it- it’s a supernatural film, and is therefore something more of a traditional Stephen King story. Perhaps because of this, it’s more difficult to invest oneself in- I can see the appeal of re-watching Shawshank as nauseam  (as some fans do) as there is much to get out of it; the friendship, humor and reward of perseverance demonstrated in it. The Green Mile though is actually a rather bleaker tale and most importantly doesn’t have a cathartic moment at the end.

Indeed, rewatching it again, I was taken aback by just how bleak it is- yes there is some humour, but there is a lot of pain and misery, as you might expect with characters on the brink of death both in prison and without. Hope runs throughout Shawshank, hidden though it may be at times, and the goodness of basic humanity is evident too- but there is little hope in The Green Mile, only the certainty death, and even miracles are rewarded with the Electric Chair. Even when death is uncertain, as we find protagonist Paul Edgecomb at the end of the film living an extended lifespan of perhaps even centuries, that uncertainty is almost a curse, and death something possibly that would be welcomed. Hardly as life-affirming a message as Shawshank was blessed with.

I do find myself wondering whether Stephen King ever considered writing a sequel to The Green Mile, giving Edgecomb another adventure/life-changing experience, perhaps as he nears his own end. Perhaps there might be a more life-affirming message there, perhaps some commentary on age and life, and perhaps a purpose for him as yet undisclosed in The Green Mile. There are still mysteries- just who was John Coffey, and where did he come from, how did he get his strange powers? In a way those mysteries (who was Coffey, what will become of Edgecomb) are a strength of The Green Mile, but they do handicap any sense of closure or completion at the end of the film. I’ve read of Shawshank being like a comfort blanket for viewers, a positive experience for all its own drama and darkness, but this is something that cannot be said of The Green Mile. People walked out of the cinema after Shawshank feeling uplifted, but when I came out of The Green Mile I remember feeling rather troubled.

The Green Mile ends with the miracle dead, and our hero having lost everyone that was ever of value to him, the world moving on in ignorance. No, The Green Mile is not a feel-good film.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

shaw1The Shawshank Redemption (Blu-ray)

For what it’s worth, I’ll start this by just pointing out that I saw The Shawshank Redemption at the cinema back on its release in 1994. I don’t know why I feel the need to point that out, but this film was such a ‘sleeper’ hit, only becoming popular on home video really, that it feels pertinent to mention that when there is so little ‘new’ to add about the film, as so much has since been written about it. It is now on so many people’s Top Ten lists it is easy to forget that the film took years to gain its audience and popularity.

I don’t think it is any accident that it reminds me so much of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, another perennial favourite that was ignored on its original release. Both films are life-affirming, and I think it’s fair to say that both films failed to get initial success because they sort of suggest they are going to be one thing, and then turn into something else. Frank Capra’s film seems overly sweet and simple at the start but becomes rather dark, and Frank Darabont’s film starts as if it is just another prison flick, when it becomes something more. And yes, both films champion the human spirit and having faith in oneself and in others, and both films are uplifting cathartic experiences.

Returning to the film after a number of years, and watching it for the first time on blu-ray, I was pleasantly surprised that it really is as good as I remembered. Sometimes films fade or disappoint when revisited after a space of time. Shawshank remains as vital and sincere as it ever was. The script is excellent, the cast engaging, the music score perfect, the direction remarkably restrained of any artifice or stylistic heavy-handedness. The film tells its story at a leisurely pace (over something like two and a half hours) but it never feels long. It feels just right, and the eventual finale is note-perfect and thoroughly deserved. There is, afterall, a simple reason why it is on so many people’s Top Ten lists. It is simply a damn fine film.

Stoker (2013)

stoker1.jpg2016.41: Stoker (Film 4, HD)

Perhaps its a case of the wrong expectations. I was under the (misguided, as it turned out) impression that this was a horror film. Maybe it was the title and its associations with a certain author. Well, its not a horror film- but it is something of a horror.

Style over substance- its something we see so much of now. Maybe its used by film-makers eager to distinguish their films from everything else in the market. I don’t mind it when its used with some kind of restraint, but I do have an issue with it when it interferes with basic storytelling. Terrence Malicks films are ones which I generally enjoy, but he certainly does cross the line sometimes. Likewise David Lynch, although something as genuinely great as his Mulholland Drive certainly benefits from its stylistic extravagances, demonstrating a voice all its own- but then again, it clearly has the substance to back up any stylistic excess.

Stoker, I’m afraid, doesn’t. It’s running-time is interminable; by thirty minutes I was awfully close to giving up on it, which doesn’t happen to me very often. I can usually watch any film, no matter how bad, to the often bitter end. Stoker stretched my patience. There is a story here but it is buried under endless strange edits and scenes that go nowhere/do nothing, moments where the sound effects dominate for no particular reason.

Stoker is the story of a family secret that devours all, and a coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl whose strangeness is merely an indication of a psychological problem that manifests -eventually- in a murderous appetite fed by her charismatic long-lost uncle, who arrives at the outset of the film during the funeral of her father. Told like that, the film sounds interesting, and if the film had simply told that story, then yes, it might have been a success.

Alas, the central mysteries aren’t really even presented as mysteries, they are almost inconsequential to the film, lost in the murk of the stylistic choices that swamp everything. The film opens at the funeral of the girl’s father, and instead of elaborating on the man’s mysterious death, suggesting a darker mystery for the audience to engage with and unravel, its simply passed over. Only later as the family secret is finally revealed does the significance of the fathers death appear evident, by which time I was pretty much past caring.

The cast is fine but in an effort to make them all seem rather odd and David Lynchian the film loses any empathy from the audience. I really didn’t care what happened to India (Mia Wasikowska), the oddball teenager preoccupied with focussing on the films audio track, or her mother Eve (Nicole Kidman) who is self-centered and soulless. The only interesting character is India’s long-lost uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who is very much channeling Anthony Perkins from Psycho and clearly up to no good.

It actually reminded me a little of Twin Peaks. I don’t know if that was a conscious thing by the film-makers, but it did occur to me that all the oddness and obfuscation was very much in the vein of the first series of that tv show. Perhaps if I had been aware of this from the start I might have enjoyed the film more, but as I was expecting something of a gothic horror I was derailed somewhat. In anycase, I don’t think there is really any excuse for deliberately bad storytelling so this film was a pretty poor misfire to me.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

hate12016.40: The Hateful Eight (Blu-ray)

The Good:

Its beautiful to look at. Its got a great central story, interesting characters, some brilliant casting (Bruce Dern- wonderful!). Its prime cinematic immoderation- fans of Tarantino will adore it. The Morricone score is great (not Oscar-worthy great though), the lifts of out-takes from his score to Carpenter’s The Thing feel oddly perfect. There’s some great tension. There’s a brilliant two-hour film in here.

The Bad:

Does it really need to be a Ultra-Panavision 70mm film? While the format does suit Westerns with their wide-open spaces (I’m thinking of films like Dances With Wolves here, or Sergio Leone’s epics) Tarantino doesn’t really have the eye for widescreen composition of, say, John Carpenter, and once we leave those wide-open spaces and we are confined to Minnie’s Haberdashery, the film becomes much more intimate and that extreme-wide framing rather redundant.

Some of the acting does slip into the over-indulgent. I don’t think Tarantino ever advises his actors to tone it down a notch. Maybe he should.

The Ugly:

It’s loooong. The eventual bloody finale is great but it is an awful loooong time coming (I’m concerned at what repeat-viewing will be like). Would less be more? Some of that casting isn’t so great- (the ever one-note Michael Madsen, sorry but what the hell is he doing in this?). Tarantino’s dialogue feels as unreal as ever- probably works better on a page than it does in a film.