Minions (2015)

min12016.47: Minions (Blu-ray)

Minions is decidedly lightweight, even for a Despicable Me spin-off.  On the one hand it is simple, harmless fun, complete with a fair few laughs, and absolutely perfect for its infant target audience- indeed, it is quite relentless in how it targets that very young demographic.  Naturally there is the inevitable trade-off that, unlike, say, a Pixar film, while it keeps the young ‘uns thrilled this film can be considered rather lacking in its entertainment value for adults (but I quite enjoyed it, so I don’t know what that proves).

But that feels a bit like complaining about a Star Wars film having too many references to The Force or too many space dogfights. Minions is simply a kids movie- I’m cautious to describe the two Despicable Me films as sophisticated, but they were clearly family films aimed at both kids and adults alike (and even then, were hardly in the same league as Pixar). Minions aims a bit lower than that. It is what it is.

That said, it looks awfully pretty. The animation is smooth, bright and colourful and, yes, really quite gorgeous at times (some outdoor scenes in London are near-photo realistic), and it’s generally very impressive- indeed the image really ‘pops’ on blu-ray. The quality of the animation and detailing/lighting is such that its rather a shame that the film isn’t more sophisticated story-wise. There is some lovely art-direction and design work that makes the most of its 1960s aesthetic- its this stuff that will likely appeal most to adults as its no doubt utterly lost on the films target audience. And the jokes work. I mean, thats the whole point of a film like this. The script is largely predictable and formulaic, but its not trying to be anything else.

I sound like I’m apologising for the film, don’t I?

You see, there is an elephant in the room. And that is the box-office. I was just curious, after seeing the film, about how it did money-wise considering I know it had mixed reviews and is agreed to be the lesser of the Despicable Me films.  It did pretty good… well, a bit more than pretty good. In fact it earned $1,159,398,397 worldwide according to Box Office Mojo, which is much more than either of the (superior) Despicable Me films that preceded it. And rather more than the Batman vs Superman juggernaut managed earlier this year. Which just goes to show, on the basis of Minions performance, you can’t aim too low regards demographics. A lesson not lost on the film-makers or no doubt Hollywood, much to the chagrin of all those critical reviews. I guess we should be scared. Maybe films like this are more dangerous than they look.

 

The Expanse: Season One (2016)

ex32016.46:  The Expanse – Season One (Blu-ray)

Blade Runner was originally not intended to have a post-credits crawl-up setting up its scenario- indeed at one point it wasn’t going to be set in any particular place or have any particular date. Instead it was going to drop the audience into its world and leave them working to make sense of it all, but the studio and/or film-makers got cold feet, so we got the crawl up and the ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’ legend that doesn’t really work at all (indeed, it never really did even back in 1982). Maybe they were right to do it, but even in 1982 I missed that brave conceit of letting the audience do some work. The fact that they maintained that crawl-up and setting for the Final Cut version of 2007 quite mystifies me and is the one negative about that otherwise definitive version of the film.

So why do I mention that film again, in a post talking about a new sci-fi tv show? Well, The Expanse does have a short text intro, but otherwise it bravely throws the audience into its remarkable future world and simply leaves the audience to it. It’s a bold gambit for a new series and one that, for me, pays off handsomely. This show refuses to hold your hand; you are thrown into the 23rd Century and its likely four episodes before you really ‘get’ what the show is and the story it is telling. Before that, you are left to it, trying to make sense of the societies and rival factions and who might be good, who might be bad, and whats really going on with the derelict Scopuli.

Bizarrely still not picked up by any broadcaster here in the UK, even now, several months after it aired in the States, The Expanse is the  best science fiction show I have seen in years. With all the channels we have over here now, it is a complete mystery that this show hasn’t found a broadcaster yet. Weary of waiting for the world to make some sense, a few weeks ago I caved in and imported the Blu-ray, surely a sign that some broadcaster was about to announce UK airdates (typically as soon as I got it through the letterbox). And yet no, not even my purchase of the blu-ray set has mystically triggered anything, but you can’t say I haven’t tried. What gives?

ex3My all-time favourite science fiction series is the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series from awhile back. Which at the time surprised me no end, as I wasn’t a fan of the original, am weary of reboots in general and didn’t expect anything special at all. Of course I was completely wrong  -this was one reboot that was a total success. It was gritty and realistic, had brilliant production design, great writing, a fantastic cast and likely the most thematically complex score of any television series, ever. It ran for five great years and actually managed a deeply satisfying end (for me, anyway, although I know some fans were put off by it).

With The Expanse, the SyFy channel is trying to repeat the success and critical clout  that it managed with BSG. The odd thing is, The Expanse doesn’t really resemble BSG much at all- instead, it really harkens back to Warner Bros classic space opera Babylon 5.

I was a B5 nut back when it was first aired. It consumed my life for the five years it was on, right up to a series finale that, yes, brought tears to my eyes. B5 was an underdog right from the start- a low-budget, indie-sci fi epic at a time that Star Trek dominated the tv science fiction landscape.

B5 had cutting-edge CG effects that opened up the scale of what a genre tv series could be, gaining a huge canvas for its space opera of alien politics, ancient evil and intergalactic war. Writer/producer J. Michael Straczynski had a five-year plan, a vision for each season and the arc of an overall story, and barring a few detours he managed to tell the story he wanted to tell. The ambition of the thing is pretty amazing to this day and it remains a remarkable achievement, and it is only the troubles involving some cast departures and a poor season five (precipitated by JMS being told he had to complete the saga by close of season four and then actually getting a season five he hadn’t planned for) that weakens it compared to BSG. But B5 had moments the equal of anything before or since; moments of edge of your seat, WTF brilliance, from great character arcs to plot twists and awesome cliffhangers.

ex2Watching The Expanse, I frequently thought about B5. Its in the realistic sets, the costume design, the multi-cultural feel, the politics, the machinations of rival planets. The Expanse is everything a ‘new’ B5 would be- it’s really how B5 would look if it were made with the technology of today, albeit The Expanse doesn’t actually have any alien empires in it (as yet anyway- who knows where it is finally headed, certainly not me, as I’ve not read the books).

The simplest way to describe The Expanse, particularly as it has adopted the ten-episode series format so popular now, is that it’s a sci-fi Game of Thrones by way of Babylon 5. If that sounds interesting and worthy of your time, then you’d be right. Based on a series of books by James S.A.Corey (actually a pen name for two writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) the series benefits from having a solid story with a well thought-out background perhaps richer than you might expect on television. And yes, as it’s based on a series of books, there is evidently some overall masterplan for the story and where it’s going. The first season of the show is based on the first book, Leviathan Wakes, and I’m told it manages to adapt about three-quarters of it, leaving the remainder for the start of season two. It sounds odd, but people who’ve read the books seem to think the break before the end of the first book makes sense. All I know is that the end of season one left me slightly frustrated in a kind of good, “wtf happens next?!!” kind of way that has me itching to turn to the books, but I can see how it works. It leaves viewers curious and eager for more (and thank goodness there is a season two) but manages a rather neat way to close out the season that perhaps the remainder of the book lacks.

So anyway, whats it about? The Expanse is set in the 23rd Century. Humanity has colonized the solar system, but is not united like in, say, Star Trek -this is a more fractured humanity. The United Nations controls Earth, Mars is ruled by an independent military power, and the asteroid belt, home to vast resources that are vital to both Earth and Mars, is populated by working-class grunts eager to break free of what they see are their Terran/Martian oppressors. Tensions are running high as the series opens, with the three factions – “Earthers,” “Dusters,” and “Belters” – on the brink of war.

ex4The Expanse is part space opera, part detective-noir mystery, part political thriller. A young woman named Julie has disappeared, and a run-down/washout Belter detective, Joe Miller (Thomas Jane in terrific form), is assigned to the case. Miller gets drawn into a web of intrigue that spans the solar system and a conspiracy that could threaten all humanity.  The same conspiracy entangles a deep-space officer of a mining ship, James Holden (Steven Strait) whose encounter with a distress signal out at the rings of Saturn drags him and several of his crew into a chaotic series of events culminating in the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands, and possibly igniting all-out war. As Holden tries to makes sense of it all, his fate becomes entwined with that of Miller, and the two men find themselves working together to find out what happened to Julie and why her fate is central to the entire mystery.

After an initial number of episodes that stumble a little as the show establishes its rather complex web of political machinations and rival power-groups, the series really gets going and proves to be a thrilling and fascinating watch. Indeed, that stumble at the start is actually rather welcome, as the show deliberately drops the viewer into its future-world complete with odd languages and unspoken agendas leaving the viewer having to work at making sense of it all. It is an approach I found quite refreshing, and I have stated earlier its a great move and something that immediately warmed me to the series. Indeed it’s left me keen to rewatch the show now that it all makes more sense to me.

Anyway, I’ll say no more as that would reduce ones enjoyment of the show. I only hope it gets a UK airdate sometime soon/eventually. It really deserves it and it really is strange that it hasn’t been aired here already- maybe when season two nears early in 2017 in the States something will happen. In the meantime, there is always the Blu-ray set from the States (great picture naturally but alas woefully devoid of any extras) to get your fix if the show seems interesting to you. As for me? Those books seem awfully tempting…

 

Spotlight (2015)

spot12016.45: Spotlight (Rental/Amazon VOD)

Spotlight is quite a harrowing film, as it is based on the disturbingly-true investigation by staff  of the Boston Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ team into what is an initially local Catholic priest sex abuse scandal. In its gripping depiction of a newsroom unravelling a difficult and challenging story, in the face of  judicial, political and Church systems intent on covering it up, the film often recalls the great thrillers of the 1970s. Indeed, it often feels like a 1970s film, and in the cinematography even looks like a 1970s film- I’m sure it was all deliberate.

The direction of Tom McCarthy is steady and not as hysterical as it might have been in less assured hands. Yes, its dramatic, but it doesn’t take that too far, even when the scale of the investigated abuse goes from one to several abusers, from that to nineteen, and from those nineteen to a shocking eighty-seven in the Boston area alone, finally spreading out worldwide as it is discovered to be rampant within the wider Church. For me, it isn’t really the abuse that is as shocking as all the covering-up, demonstrating a particularly dark side of humanity that isn’t limited just to the Church itself, and the truth of the story is still something that almost defies belief.  It is commendable that the film maintains a sense of calm as it depicts the facts with some assurance, but really, this is the kind of film that can make the viewer angry just telling the facts, it doesn’t need to embellish them and thankfully it doesn’t.

spot2It’s difficult, and ultimately unnecessary, to point to any individual performance, as the film really is an ensemble piece and is great work by all. The cast evidently appreciated the importance of the film and thankfully don’t go ‘all-Hollywood’ with any over-acting, which could have been all too easy. It’s mostly very subtle and rather low-key, and there seems to be a real connection between the cast, demonstrating a real sense of the team camaraderie that must have existed in the real Spotlight team. That said, I have the sneaking suspicion that a cast of unknowns might have been just as successful and perhaps even better than having such well-known faces from other roles/films, but maybe that’s just me. In anycase, films like this always seem to need bankable actors in order for the film to get greenlit so I guess it is a moot point.

Spotlight is a very well-crafted modern thriller and a welcome change from what might have been an overly-dramatic, overly-preachy and very manipulative film in less capable hands.  Its informative, not exploitive, and I think thats the best praise I can give the film. But it is very disturbing, so don’t watch it expecting a ‘feel-good’ movie just because the Spotlight boys are successful by the end- any sense of victory is very much a bitter one.

 

 

Time of Eve (2010)

time22016.44: Time of Eve (Blu-ray)

One of the saddest things about anime is that the majority of people, certainly here in the West, are utterly ignorant of it, either because of the general impression that it is all giant robots and violent teenage fantasies, or that they are simply very strange Japanese cartoons as opposed to the more familiar animated features from Pixar or Disney. Its a great pity, as the best anime can actually be quite sophisticated, and challenge viewers perceptions of the world, or suggest unlikely possibilities, and even rank against traditional live-action for quality drama. Time of Eve is one such anime. It doesn’t have giant robots or any guns or violence- rather it is a fascinating character piece that gently raises some very interesting questions about identity and freedom.

Its the near future, and androids are widespread, functioning as servants in general society, as taken for granted as owning a family car. They look quite human, like the Replicants in Blade Runner, but are easily identified as they each have digital hologram rings floating above their head. Some owners treat their androids like slaves, while others become quite attached to them, treating them like friends or even lovers, which causes some consternation in society. Are the androids indeed just objects, appliances, or are they capable of something more, can they be almost human, with their own thoughts and needs, or is it just a case of owners anthropomorphising them, projecting their own failings and needs and even hate onto them?

One day a young man, Rikuo, notices that the family android, Sammy, has been acting strangely, disappearing for periods whilst it is out shopping. No-one else in the family pays the android any heed as long as its tasks are done. Curious, Rikuo finds a strange phrase recorded in Sammy’s activity log- “Are you enjoying the time of eve?”. He enlists the help of his friend Masaki, and traces Sammy’s footsteps to an unusual basement café hidden down a back alley.

This café is called ‘Time of Eve’ which has a rule that humans and androids cannot discriminate one another. With their digital holograms switched off, it is quite impossible to distinguish who is human, who is android. Regular visitors include Akiko, a bold young extrovert girl, a couple named Koji and Rina, an old man and his foster child, and Setoro, a loner who comes in to read. And of course Rikuo’s family android Sammy. The café has to remain a secret, as androids are not normally allowed to disable their digital identifiers and mix with humans as if they were human themselves.

time1Fascinated by the place and its clientele, Rikuo repeatedly visits the café, and gets to know the bar lady Nagi and each of the regular visitors, learning their stories and deciding who is human and who is android, and whether the distinction even matters. He begins to get a particular insight regarding the androids and their place in society, and that perhaps the Time of Eve café might indicate the possibility for a better future. The film has an episodic format as Rikuo chats to each customer over succeeding visits and slowly builds to an emotional and satisfying conclusion (this episodic format is inevitable as the film is an expansion of a six-part OVA available online, but it doesn’t hurt the flow of the proceedings at all).

There is a lovely sense of place in Time of Eve; schoolrooms or city streets or family apartments are all lovingly painted and animated and the café in particular is cleverly designed, usually animated as a 3D CG background to the character animation. It’s all very clean and sharp, the design of the characters establishing their personalities well.

It is all very subtle and impressive really, and particularly in HD it is a beautiful-looking anime, but what really rewards are the intriguing concepts going on. Its really thought-provoking as it postulates the possibility of artificial sentience and Philip K Dick’s frequent examination of what it is to be human, or what that even means. With affectionate nods to genre predecessors like Blade Runner and THX:1138, as well as Isaac Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics its a fascinating little film with a few rewarding twists along the way. This anime is certainly much more successful than the Channel Four tv series Humans that aired here last year, which shares suspiciously similar themes- it’s unfortunate that the success of that tv show will likely forever leave Time of Eve hidden away largely unnoticed here in the West.

An anime to savour then, and at the very least it is worth checking out the original OVA (easily available with English sub on Youtube).

Revenge OST by Jack Nitzsche

Revenge_cdSometimes film scores surpass the films they are originally written for, listening experiences that reward long after the original film is forgotten or dismissed. I saw the Tony Scott film Revenge just once, and it was so long ago it was on a VHS rental. I actually rather enjoyed the film, and in hindsight I can see it was perhaps a more thoughtful, personal film than most of those Tony Scott made. Perhaps a bit more like his brother Ridley’s kind of films (Tony was a master of popular mainstream films- Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide… my own favourite being True Romance).  But I only ever saw Revenge that once.

Whatever I thought of the film though, it was the music score by Jack Nitzsche which really made an impression on me. A mix of acoustic instruments and synthesizers, it’s a haunting score blessed with a tragic, melancholy love theme that is just so achingly beautiful. Its up there with the very best (i.e. up there with Wendy Carlos’ love theme from the original Tron) but unfortunately as it was written for a film that is pretty much forgotten, I guess few have even heard it. The score as a whole works brilliantly well, the love theme running through it in variations. The electronics are a sign of the times but have actually aged very well.

The score was released back when the film came out in 1990, on the Silva Screen label. At the time cash was tight so I didn’t buy it, but managed to rent it from my town library and made a cassette copy, thinking I’d buy a proper copy when I had the money. Alas the disc went OOP and over the years has been sold for the kind of crazy prices that make your eyes water. And it’s a testament to the quality of the score that people have actually paid those prices.

Fortunately for those of us with a cautionary eye towards such expenditure, Dragons Domain Records in the US have now released the Revenge score newly remastered with some previously unreleased tracks. As these soundtracks releases usually are these days, it is in a limited edition of 1,000 units, so anybody out there who’ve been hankering for a copy of the soundtrack should take action quickly. The BSX Records website (www.buysoundtrax.com) is the place to go for those willing to import but a few European websites will be getting stock too.

Of course for those many readers who never even heard of or saw the film, or have long forgotten about it, all this talk about the music will likely mean nothing at all. Pop onto Youtube sometime and give it a listen, there’s quite a few videos featuring the love theme. You might find you’ll like it.

Strange to think, Revenge really doesn’t feel that old a film, and yet both its director and its composer have passed away over the years since.  I don’t know how highly Scott rated the film (years later he recut the film twenty minutes shorter, a version I’ve not seen so I can’t comment on its merits over the original), but Nitzsche considered the score one of his best works. I’d certainly agree with that. It’s a brilliant, haunting score and it’s great to see it available again- one of the soundtrack releases of the year in my book, and something I never expected.