In The Heart of the Sea (2015)

heart1.jpg2016.39: In The Heart of the Sea (Blu-ray)

Back when Ron Howard’s In The Heart of the Sea was released at the cinema to lukewarm and often hostile reviews that turned me away from a planned cinema trip, I was intrigued enough by the premise to read the book by  Nathaniel Philbrick from which much of it is based. Philbrick’s excellent book examines the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry and the true story of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a monstrous sperm whale, an event which inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. The book is a great read- gripping and horrifying in its detail, whether it be the bloody mechanics of whaling at the time or the awful act of sucking the marrow from human bones in a desperate effort to survive a horrible ordeal. That it is based on true events makes it all the more incredible- I had to wonder how anyone could make a bad movie based on it.

Well, In The Heart of the Sea may not be a truly bad movie, but neither is it the film the book deserves. I have written before of my opinion that Ron Howard is at best a competent director, and never is that truer than here. This film is functional and nothing more. It tells its story with a stupefying indifference.

In The Heart of the Sea is a film that lacks any passion,  any genuine vision, point of view or commentary. Having been so enthralled by the book, I found this to be utterly perplexing but with Howard involved perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Technically the film is fairly impressive, albeit its visuals suffering from too much colour-correction labouring its period setting (whose idea was that? It looks horrible) and reliance on sub-par CGI effects (which will age horribly, I’m sure). It is the human story, the drama, that is utterly lost here. These were real people, and their nightmarish ordeal really happened. They deserved much more than this film.

Much like last years Everest, this is a film that tries to relate events concerning several characters and by trying to tell all their stories, ultimately fails to do any of them proper service. And also like Everest, it’s a film that tries to make the nightmarish almost palatable. Everything is kept at arms length, even the moments of cannibalism, which is treated in such a trite and PG-friendly way that I found it quite appalling. This is a film that should have been a tale of greed and a barbaric industry, and of a struggle against indomitable fate with humanity pitted against a giant beast and the whims of indifferent nature. It should have been quite terrifying. At the very least, it should have been as enthralling as ‘Gravity at sea’ might sound. Maybe that was the original pitch?

Unlike the book, the film is unnecessarily bookended by sequences involving Melville searching out and recording the story from one its survivors, Thomas Nickerson, who reluctantly tells the story for money. The framing device is clumsy (indeed, it looks like something tacked onto the film in desperate reshoots) and handicaps the film, a major misstep. And the meeting never happened, so there goes any historical ‘truth’ from the very start. Its an immediate indication of where the film is headed.

The over-the-top colour correction makes everything look artificial, particularly the CGI effects, almost like it’s some kind of adult fairytale, and some of the casting is… well, its all very competent but Chris Hemsworth really has too much cinematic baggage for his casting here to really work. The guy was Thor and The Huntsman  for crying out loud, both over the top, larger-than-life heroes but this needs something more nuanced and it’s also clearly a convenient  carry-over from Howard’s previous film, Rush (in which he played a charismatic James Hunt). He doesn’t strike me as being the ‘proper’ Owen Chase that I read of in the book- rather it’s blatantly convenient, mainstream casting.

Other things irritate. The sense of the passing of time (these whaling expeditions took years) isn’t handled very well, nor the sense of claustrophobic space of these men stuck for weeks/months together without setting foot on dry land. The film-makers can’t resist dropping historical exactness for drama, such as when The Essex is crippled and sunk by the whale. In truth the ship foundered for days and the crew had to force themselves away from it knowing their only course of action- setting out in their three whaling boats with limited provisions-  was likely suicidal. The film goes all Hollywood here, with the Essex exploding into flames and the survivors narrowly escaping the conflagration whilst getting the last supplies. It’s irritating, seeing stuff and knowing it didn’t happen like that. Likewise the whale here is transformed from the roguish reality to the nemesis of Melville’s Moby Dick- actually following and further threatening the survivors on their trek to salvation. Was Howard and the rest more interested in remaking/rebooting Moby Dick than actually telling the original true story of the Essex?

I have to wonder if I dislike the film partly because of my familiarity with the book. Probably. But the film surely seems rather broken to viewers who have not read it. There is something missing- the script feels perfunctory, it lacks any insight or real point of view, the casting is uninspired and leaves many ‘stars’ with little to do, and the box-office-minded censorship that tones down the real horrors ironically bleeds out any real drama. It’s a poor effort really and just a shadow of what it should have been.

 

Agent Carter Series 2 (2016)

carter12016.38: Agent Carter Series 2 (TV)

Ah, it’s that time of year again. I finally catch up with a series backed-up on my Tivo when word arrives that it has been cancelled. Which is a pity, as I quite enjoyed season 2 of Agent Carter and looked forward to seeing some of its outstanding plot-threads resolved in a series 3.

It’s tempting to think that the Meta-Story stuff that Marvel Studios is so accomplished at in their movie series has leaked into its tv stuff, but really it’s more a case of the movie franchise copying post-Babylon 5 television. So anyway, there’s a few arcs that will fail to ever get resolved. Its the most annoying thing about some of these tv series- certainly the ones that get cancelled. Its like what happens at the movies when a John Carter bombs at the box-office; you always have to wonder at whatever happened next and what might have been. So yeah, the lesson here is clearly don’t make anything with the name ‘Carter’ in the title. It stacks the odds against you from the start.

I remember when stories had a beginning, middle and an end, and that was it. Sure there’s some limitations to storytelling with that approach, as ‘bigger’ stories that arc over seasons like in shows like Game of Thrones and Babylon 5 offer unique rewards and possibilities. But yeah, it’d be nice for a show to wrap things up properly without teasing stuff. I’m just about to start watching The Expanse, a well-regarded space opera that has intrigued me for months but hasn’t been aired over here in the UK yet (I finally folded and imported the Blu-ray). It’s really tempting fate as its just one series in with an ongoing storyline in print that could take years to unfold. You start watching new shows like The Expanse almost as an act of utter blind faith.

So farewell Agent Carter, failing some resurrection via Netflix maybe, which I suppose can’t at present be discounted. The show followed the adventures of Peggy Carter after Steve Rogers ‘died’ in Captain America: The First Avenger. A period piece, it had a rather unique feel for one of the many superhero series invading our television, and ‘looked’ great, particularly in the second season which moved Peggy Carter over to LA. Sure it was fairly light but it was fun. I wasn’t convinced by series one, but the second series seemed rather more confident in approach (this view seems to be at odds with wider prevailing opinion though). The cast was likeable and I enjoyed the sense of humour- Agents of Shield grinds on with a withering sense of endless self-importance but Agent Carter never took things too seriously. Set in the period before Carter became one of the founding members of S.H.I.E.L.D. it had a delightful sense of time and place and a sense of where it lay in Marvel continuity.

I suspect that the quality of the show wasn’t the cause for the show’s cancellation. Hayley Atwell had just signed-on to a new series of her own (Conviction) which would have led to inevitable scheduling problems for Atwell shooting any further Agent Carter series.  Viewer figures were down this series so maybe audiences are tired of diluted Marvel on tv (certainly tv stuff can never match the big-screen Marvel outings). Maybe there is just too much comic-book stuff on tv now (I’ve given up on Arrow this season myself, can’t see my interest in The Flash progressing to another season, and I’ve never bothered with Supergirl or Legends of Tomorrow). At least a lack of any series 3 gives me more time for some films or something. God knows there’s plenty other stuff on the backlog. Black Sails, Mad Men

 

 

 

Se7en (1995)

se7enSe7en (Blu-ray)

There’s not really much to be said about Se7en (is it ‘Seven’ or ‘Se7en’ anyway?)– it is David Fincher’s dark masterpiece, a film up there with the very best films of all time.

Having recently watched Fight Club due to enjoying the first season of Mr Robot (which shares much of its themes and content with Fincher’s film), it was no doubt inevitable that I’d then be reaching for this particular blu-ray. It is a dark, mesmerising thriller, so perfect it almost hurts. Well, I say perfect but it does go a little off the rails towards the end… did I just write that? It feels like a sin… no, it’s just that after the finer-executed, intense ‘sins’ we see created earlier in the film, the ‘lust’ one feels forced somehow. It doesn’t work, it pales compared to the others, almost descending into some standard melodramatic potboiler/horror mash-up, but it’s easily forgiven, as everything else in the film oozes perfection. Maybe that ‘lust’ sequence, and the casting of Spacey, maybe, just maybe is the film bending to more mainstream genre conventions, I don’t know, but other than that, this film is truly great: thats Great with a capital ‘G’. The acting, the photography, the make-up, the music, the art direction… it’s a dark, twisted work of art, superior film-making indeed, and almost perverse perfection.

The rain never ends. There is seldom any sunlight, or any warmth. The city feels like a city of the damned, as if its denizens are souls trapped in some circle of hell from which there is no escape. A feeling of dread pervades everything; there is never any inclination that anything remotely like justice or hope or salvation is even possible here. There is a feeling that we are watching a film from the ‘seventies, where characters seem like real people and their world is as real as ours, when anything is possible, even a bad ending, an inconclusive ending, a disturbing ending.  It’s a scary thing. It’s never anything remotely like an ordinary contemporary thriller (except maybe during that aforementioned ‘lust’ section).

Its like a bad dream, one returned to everytime we rewatch it. Watching this film I often think back on Alien 3 and its own horrible flawed beauty, and wonder what Alien 3 might have been had Fincher been left to make it unmolested by the studio suits. After the failure of Alien 3 (a film I always liked, even the ‘faulty’ original cinema cut),  Se7en had an incredible impact, a sense of revelation, vindication. Here Fincher seems to be in control over everything, and the results show. Yes it’s all style and atmosphere but…to criticise the film for that, almost feels like missing the point- it’s so integral to the piece, the atmosphere is actually one of the films characters, like the production design is in Blade Runner.  Se7en is something very close to perfect.

 

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

fall22016.37: The Fall of the Roman Empire (Network Airing)

Back when I saw Gladiator, people often seemed to talk about The Fall of the Roman Empire, and now I know why- the first twenty minutes or so of Gladiator is pretty much the first hour of The Fall of the Roman Empire. We meet Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), on a long campaign away from Rome battling the Germanic barbarian hordes. Vast dark forests, falling snow… just like in Ridley Scott’s movie. Noble Roman army Commander Livius (Stephen Boyd), who is in love with Aurelius’ daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren) is the man that Aurelius wishes his own son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), could have been. Surely I’ve seen this film before, I thought, only it starred Richard Harris, Russell Crowe , Connie Nielsen and Joaquin Phoenix? Indeed, other than the character of Livius being named Maximus in the Ridley Scott film, even the characters names are the same.

Aurelius is close to dying and advises Livius that it is he who Aurelius intends to be his heir. Unfortunately before Aurelius can put things in writing to ensure his wishes are obeyed, he is murdered by aides of Commodus and it is he who becomes Emperor.  It is only at this point that the two films diverge, Gladiator becoming a Ben Hur-inspired story of betrayal and revenge of a murdered family, whereas The Fall of the Roman Empire descends into something of a long-winded potboiler. At least we care about what happens to Maximus- in this film, Livius, by allowing Commodus to the throne without any argument, actually dooms Rome. Some kind of hero. Even at the end of the film with half the cast dead and Rome finally falling apart, all I could do was point at Livius and say “it’s all his fault!” With heroes like that, who needs villains?

The Fall of the Roman Empire dates back to the tail-end of the period of big historical/ Biblical epics that gave us Ben Hur,Quo Vadis, The Robe, Cleopatra and Spartacus and so many others. The Fall of the Roman Empire may actually have been responsible for ending that cycle of films because it is pretty awful and was a terrible commercial failure at the time (less than two million earned against a $20 million budget, a shortfall that was catastrophic).

The problem is the script. This is an overlong and dreary film- at something around three hours long it actually feels much longer. Its certainly is ambitious -its huge scale alone is testament to that- but the film needs some solid foundation to its spectacle. The cast all seem to be woefully miscast (Boyd is a good villain, but a lousy hero, for instance) and all at the mercy of the terrible script- the dialogue really is simply awful. Director Anthony Mann seems more interested in the huge scale of the production and getting it on the screen than looking after his actors and giving them any meaningful direction. Yeah, he put impressive visuals on the screen but it’s all for nothing, a warning for future directors of blockbusters that doesn’t seem to have been heeded.

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Visually it really is quite spectacular. The sets are terrific and the photography really quite beautiful, particularly the outside location stuff- at times it looks quite modern. The scale is huge; The Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most impressive such films that I have ever seen- huge outdoor sets,with  vast armies of extras. The scale is quite breathtaking, particularly as it’s of the pre-CGI era when the massive crowds are real (an organisational nightmare I’m sure) and likewise the sets too. Sometimes I would look at some of the shots convinced it involved a matte painting but then the camera would move and the extras in the distance reveal its all indeed quite real. Incredible production design really- quite immense, but it only accentuates how terrible the story is. You don’t really care about any of the characters, none of them really convince. It’s a terrible mess of a film, well-intentioned that it may have been. A cast of thousands can be just as boring as a modern blockbuster with thousands of virtual characters. Maybe the film-makers thought that with such huge sets and vast extras that that would be enough, that their work was done. Alas, they hadn’t really started.

But it does really look beautiful.

 

 

 

Fight Club (1999)

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“The things you own end up owning you” – I think he’s seen my DVD/Blu-ray collection…

Oh boy- Fight Club is 17 years old this year. That’s really scary. I remember seeing it at the cinema, it was an amazing experience. I came out thinking I had just seen something new, something important. But 17 years ago? Where have all those years gone?

What is perhaps scarier is that it must be eight years or more since I last watched it. A film as good as Fight Club deserves to be watched at least once a year. Which raises a question: which films deserve to be re-watched at least once a year? If nothing else, re-watching really great films every year helps give a sense of perspective. You realise how bland current stuff is when you are constantly re-watching the really good stuff. So which films are that good they deserve to be re-watched every year;  Jaws? Citizen Kane? Ben-Hur? The Godfather? Fight Club? Well, Fight Club might be a contentious one. I’m a fan of the film and count it within my fifty great films list but it always had its detractors from Day One. God knows this film has it’s haters.

So anyway, I’ve now watched my previously never-watched blu-ray copy (yep, its one of those) of Fight Club. Now, I remember it being a good film, indeed a very good film, but really this thing just blew me away. Its funny and yes its violent and it’s full of both juvenile and insightful politicising and it’s dark and visually astonishing. I mean really, it’s so cleverly constructed/art-directed and filmed- anarchy and the decay of society has never looked so beautiful and horrible. Its like a work of art, of counter-culture. Or maybe it’s the very thing that it screams against. Its product (the irony of my disc copy being a ’10th Anniversary edition” not lost on me).

This dark, subversive satire is as sharp and brutal now as it was back in 1999- perhaps even more so, as the world we live in now is arguably much worse than the one in which Fight Club was originally made and set in. Yes, the film is a document of the world on the eve of the new millennium, but there’s nothing more telling that Fight Club is a pre-9/11 film than the finale with those skyscrapers being blown up and collapsing. There’s all kinds of things happening and being said in Fight Club that seems to have added meaning now. It almost feels like watching  different film, like it’s been loaded with all sort of additional baggage since 1999, there’s so many more reasons to flinch and mutter WTF? as the ways society and the world has worsened since 1999 informs the film.  And thats just above all the anti-consumerism stuff that’s as pertinent now as it ever was, particularly as the gap between the rich and the poor in society widens (“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact”).

This film has such great dialogue- whether you agree with its commentary or not, Fight Club must be the most quotable film outside of a Tarantino flick. The cast is brilliant. Pitt and Norton have never been better, and Helena Bonham Carter a revelation. She’s great in this.

There is such a raw energy to the film. Yes it’s a mainstream Hollywood film starring Hollywood A-listers directed by a major director for a major studio, but it feels like an indie, like guerilla film-making on some higher level than we’re used to. Some of the shots are as audacious as ever, some of the CGI a bit more dated than I expected, but on the whole it remains a spellbinding piece of work. Afterwards the question inevitably lingers, whatever happened to David Fincher? He never made anything as bold as this again. Well, not yet, anyway- I guess there is always hope.