The Finest Hours (2016)

finest12016.66: The Finest Hours (Amazon VOD)

This one was a pleasant surprise. Sinking pretty dismally at the box-office (pardon the pun) to fairly lacklustre reviews, this Disney-produced period adventure is based on the true story of four coast guards who braved a terrifying storm of 60-foot waves in a small motor lifeboat to save the remaining crew of a 500ft oil tanker which had been split in two by a cataclysmic storm in 1952. It is a story of incredible bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, of man pitted against nature. The leads are pretty great, the effects spectacular and the stunts quite scary- it’s quite a good film that probably deserved better success (it is certainly superior to In The Heart of the Sea).

Maybe the problem is that it always feels very safe and familiar. Limited by being faithful to the true events perhaps, it seems to follow the pattern of films like The Perfect Storm, cutting from the perils of the sea to loved ones waiting for news back home. Its supposed to invest audience empathy but here it really only serves to distract from the dramatic events at sea. A sub-plot involving our hero’s girlfriend crashing her car in the snow may be true to historical events, I don’t know, but it only seems to dilute the tension and unnecessarily pad out the running time. Another problem is that the films nominal hero, coastguard Bernie Webber, is a modest and unassuming guy (a bit of a stretch for Chris Pine, you’d think) and the lead protagonist on the doomed tanker, engineer Ray Sybert ( a brilliant understated turn by Casey Affleck), is likewise a quiet outsider amongst his crew- these two characters are two unlikely leads to carry a big movie. Both have to rise above their own natures to survive, but it’s generally quiet heroics as opposed to the usual crowd-pleasing showboating we usually get in movies.

finest2There is always a sense though, whatever the films problems, that its heart is always in the right place as it tells its almost too-fantastic-to-be-true story, and that the story really is remarkable enough to ensure the viewer can likely forgive the film it’s odd pitfall. The first sudden revelation of what has happened to the tanker is a genuinely shocking moment and from then on the film is pretty gripping. Then again, I’m always a sucker for these true story flicks, so maybe people’s mileage may vary.

Period details seems fine; indeed at the close of the film the credits run over photographs of the characters and actual locations from 1952 to underline how faithful the film was. Perhaps that faithfulness is what ultimately undermines the film from breaking those familiar tropes that might irritate some viewers, but I’d rather put up with that than them invent stuff simply to artificially increase tension and spectacle. Yes it sometimes feels formulaic and the sequences back on land can irritate rather than elevate, but on the whole I’d say this film is well worth anyones time. Maybe more Sunday matinee material than it really needed to be, it remains a great story fairly well told, certainly not as bad as some reviews said. Yeah, a pleasant surprise.

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Blade Runner 2 update

br2Well its been a few months, time for another update before I close the curtains and hide from the outside world to avoid any real spoilers. Most details are being kept refreshingly secret (and I hope it stays that way for several months to come), but there’s been a bit more news of late about Blade Runner 2 (still lacking an official title), currently in production in Hungary. In production– I confess it seems so weird, thinking that a sequel to Blade Runner is currently being shot. I’m certain that watching this film next October will be the most surreal experience of my life- its like reality has taken some weird twist into a distorted dreamland. But yeah, its in production, its real.

A little while ago we got a few examples of pre-production art that infers the film will maintain the tone of the original film, such as is in the image above. I was surprised by this as I had assumed the film, set decades after the 2019-set original, would have its own ‘look’ and feel- I almost expected them to go the Minority Report route visually and maybe they will, but that image above does look very Blade Runner.

As the film is shooting there have been more cast details, most recently news of Jared Leto being a late addition. I quite like Leto onscreen but he has a weird rep behind the scenes that is a little disconcerting. Other additions include Dave Bautista, Sylvia Hoeks, Barkhad Abdi, Ana de Armas, Carla Juri and Lennie James. Seems a pretty solid cast is being brought together, multicultural and quite European (as the original was shot in Hollywood it was mostly an American cast). They join the already announced Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright and Mackenzie Davis.

Mackenzie Davis has been speaking a little about the project. Regards the original, she says that “…it’s been my favourite movie for as long as I can remember… I can’t believe I get to be a part of it. (Villeneuve’s) enthusiasm and love for it has made the whole thing so exciting. I had friends from university who called me when the news first came out saying, ‘It’s so crazy, you had been talking about this when we were 19 that if ever a Blade Runner sequel came out it would be your dream job.’ And then it happened. It’s truly insane to me.” I guess it’s another reminder of how influential the original has been amongst the film community over the decades, no matter how it flopped back in 1982.

Vangelis, who has his first album for several years out next month, is definitely not involved this time around. As widely expected, it has been confirmed that Jóhann Jóhannsson has signed on to write the score. Oddly enough, like Vangelis,  Jóhannsson has a solo album being released next month (Orphee, which sounds great by the way from what I’ve heard of it). While publicising Orphee,  Jóhannsson has made a few comments about Blade Runner 2.

He has revealed he has visited the set and already started working on the score, and like Mackenzie Davis is a big fan of the original. “I saw [Blade Runner] when I was 13, the year it came out, and it had a huge effect on me. I was already a big fan of Philip K. Dick’s novels, so I knew the original. Obviously the film is very different from the book, but I was a huge fan from day one and it’s a film that’s hugely important to me in terms of both being a visual masterpiece – this amazing world that Ridley Scott and his team created – and also in terms of the music and the sound design, which is tremendously strong and which was very memorable at the time when I saw it. This is true of many people of my generation who experienced that film, it had a deep impact on them.”

Arrival,_Movie_Poster“Denis I tend to start very early in his process,” he says of scoring films. “I start working on the music when he starts prepping the film. When he starts shooting I’ve usually started collecting material and putting together ideas and starting the process of finding the sound of the film. This is a long process that can take many months and I like to start early in order to send things to Denis while he’s filming.” Jóhannsson has also scored Villeneuve’s sci-fi film  Arrival, which is released in November. Arrival (previously Story of Your Life) is a fascinating prospect- it will be so interesting to see how Villeneuve handles a genre film with his Blade Runner 2 on the horizon. Which raises the thought- can you even imagine the pressure he must be feeling?

The most recent news concerning Blade Runner 2 was actually something tragic and a reminder of all those people behind productions that usually never hit the headlines- a construction worker has been killed whilst dismantling a set on which production had been completed at Budapest’s Origo Studios. A statement by Alcon Entertainment stated that he was a local employed by a subcontractor to dismantle the set, he wasn’t a member of the film-crew and production has continued, having already moved on to the village of Etyek in Hungary where they were filming at the time of the accident.

So how long can the secrecy hold? How long before the marketing department get loose of their chains and start dropping set photos and teaser trailers out? I guess that will be when I try to stop thinking about the film and start actively avoiding any details. Or do I just give up avoiding those details, will it even be possible? I rather like it how things are now. It’s nice knowing the production has a great director, a fine cast and a backroom staff that seem to have a handle on the project and how important it is, but it’s also nice not knowing any further details, like the plot or what characters the cast are playing. Blade Runner 2 may be a project many of us Blade Runner fans never expected or really wanted, but at the moment it could be all things; great, horrible, brilliant. It could be anything.

The Big Short (2015)

big1.jpg2016.65: The Big Short (Amazon VOD)

The world is a cesspit of lies and corruption, fraud and criminal activity in the financial markets aided and abetted by the political elite who themselves profit from the status quo, and the governing bodies that instead of policing the system sit back and allow things to spiral into financial apocalypse. It sounds like an over-the-top Oliver Stone movie, but instead its the premise of The Big Short, a riveting film that has the form of a factual comedy drama akin to The Wolf of Wall Street but is in reality more of a horror movie.

I can’t say I understood much of it, no matter how often the film breaks the fourth wall to stop and explain in layman’s terms the terminology (mortgage bonds, collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps) being used by the bankers and investors in the film. Maybe that’s the point- in the film, it’s alleged that even the bankers themselves didn’t really understand what was going on, they just thought the party would never end. It is all smoke and mirrors, tricks and lies. Maybe it would make more sense on second viewing but I must confess there were a few moments it all seemed to be going way over my head. As it is, it remains a thrilling, fascinating ride that is all the more terrifying because it is all based on recent events that we all witnessed and to some extent have suffered by.

The strong cast (Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling) are all great and no doubt their names attract viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in a tragi-comedy about financial collapse. Maybe a more serious, 1970’s-style investigative drama like Spotlight would have served to make a more daunting film- instead this comedy is more about the elite partying into the apocalypse with our protagonists caught in the chaos and disorder, our witnesses and conscience (at least Carell’s character- Carell is brilliant as the Worlds Angry Man left mutely stunned when he discovers he was right all along).

One of my problems with The Wolf of Wall Street was chiefly that, entertaining as Scorsese made its tale of excess and corruption in Wall Street, there wasn’t enough of a reality-check; coverage of the real losers in its tale of financial whizzkids getting rich at the expense of others. He seemed to be fascinated by the big houses, fast cars and beautiful women- yeah, the exciting and entertaining stuff, sure, but I just thought he owed us more social commentary, more balance. I think we get that in The Big Short because as the apocalypse looms it is clear who is really going to suffer- and it isn’t those engineering the global meltdown. At the end of the film there is a depressing summary of what happened post-meltdown, who was held accountable and what has been done to ensure it cannot happen again (in America at least). Pretty much no-one and nothing, it seems.

Let’s just hope we don’t get a sequel in ten/twenty years time.

The Paperboy (2012)

paperb12016.64: The Paperboy (Film Four, HD)

I haven’t the foggiest. It suckered me in with the cast and by the time I realised what I was watching I decided to just grit my teeth and see it out to the bitter end. One of the most bizarre films I have seen in many a moon, this seedy tale of southern guilt/ pleasures/ secrets is told by Macy Gray (!) in flashbacks to 1969. Trailer trash Nicole Kidman (!) has fallen in love with prison pen pal John Cusack (!) and enlists the help of idealistic journalist Matthew McConaughey (!) to find evidence to ensure the wronged convicts release from his trumped-up murder charge before he fries on the electric chair.  The journalists younger brother Zac Efron (!) insists on wearing very little other than tight undies and becomes infatuated with Kidman. McConaughey isn’t bothered by Kidman’s sultry charms as he’s more interested in black men, a particular guilty secret that leads to no good as even as late as 1969 the swinging sixties haven’t really arrived in the Deep South. Oh, did I mention that McConaughey’s sidekick is David Oyelowo? Or that there’s a beach scene in which Kidman pisses over Efron to save his life?

Really, this is one of those brilliantly bad film disasters that has you wondering if it will be quickly forgotten or maybe turn into a cult classic in twenty years. I remember I used to think LifeForce was terrible- well it is a bad film but it’s turned into one of my favourite guilty pleasures, so maybe The Paperboy will work similar magic on audiences over the years.But not me, I’m sure.

It’s a bewildering, crazy film. A drinking game in which you take a shot whenever Efron slips down to just his indies would have you unconscious midway through the film. Not being judgemental, but I bet this film has a huge gay following. I guess I should think it’s novel and refreshing to see a film that is more interested in a guys body rather than that of its female star, but it’s really quite surreal.

Indeed it’s weird how the film turns from an investigative mystery, into a coming of age story, then a social commentary on racism in the South, then a film about sexual guilt, then finally a full-on horror slasher flick in its finale. Its clearly a sign of a film that doesn’t know what it is. All I know is it is truly, truly bad, but strangely worth watching if only for the bizarre experience of watching something just so thoroughly odd with such an A-list cast slumming in it. Utterly mad.

 

Years on, Solaris still confounds

sol1Solaris (1972) Blu-ray

I understand Solaris‘ cinematic cousin, 2001: A Space Odyssey, quite well: a Monolith, a construct of an alien civilization, or an alien entity or AI itself, teases mankind forwards on the evolutionary path, teaching man-apes the use of tools in order to kill. Jump forward to another technological test of when the man-apes are evolved enough to discover a buried monolith on the moon. This monolith in turn raises a further test by transmitting a signal which tests whether the man-apes are advanced enough to travel to Jupiter. Jump-cut (and here I’ve cut out a whole sub-plot regards a homicidal Hal computer) to Jovian orbit where another monolith invites an evolved man-ape to journey across the infinite to a physical transformation into a Star Child. It’s all quite elegantly simple really, humanity has been taking taking some kind of alien test since the Dawn of Man.

Solaris, however is another matter. Even though I have read the Stanislaw Lem novel it is based on, the film Solaris itself is a different entity to its source and remains a fairly cryptic work, albeit a fascinating one. The film is so frustratingly slow and so willfully poetic -all pluses for advocates of the film of course- that it makes Kubrick’s 2001 seem like a conventional fast-paced thriller. Attention spans be damned, this film’s long, long shots  will test most peoples patience- boring or mesmerizing, that is the question.

Maybe it is both.

Indeed, while people who dislike 2001 for being slow-paced can at least confess to enjoying its spectacle and technical polish, that can’t be said of Solaris. Solaris doesn’t do spectacle, or futuristic trappings of traditional sci-fi imagery. It is very low-fi, almost low-rent; the effects are minor and largely ineffectual compared to Kubrick’s wizardry. 2001 displayed a physical, technological odyssey from cave to orbit to lunar landscapes to  Star Gate. Solaris displays a very internal odyssey, as director Andrei Tarkovsky was clearly not interested in making a sci-fi film, and is rather scathingly bored with traditional sci-fi trappings of technology or prediction. We know, physically, where we are at all stages of 2001, the mechanics of space travel minutely displayed – in Solaris, we never even know where the alien world is or even how we get there.The odd thing is, none of that is really important.

sol3The central plot, such as it is, concerns a scientific outpost studying an alien planet that appears to be sentient. For decades the mysterious alien world has befuddled the scientists sent there, so much so that only a handful remain and, as they are now behaving quite strangely, and the project’s purpose is being questioned, a psychologist is being sent there to appraise the scientists and the progress of the mission.

The irony of Solaris is that its protagonist, psychologist Kris Kelvin, is possibly the very worst person to send to the alien world and judge the outpost studying it. He’s clearly damaged goods having something of a midlife crisis. Living with his father, he wanders his childhood haunts as if keen to re-capture the innocence and happiness of those days having suffered painful tragedy in his adulthood (the suicide of his wife) .

Kelvin is hurtled off to the alien world of Solaris- somehow alive, intelligent, and yes, utterly alien to human understanding. What, after all, does Time itself mean, or human mortality, to an entity millions, perhaps billions, of years old? The few remaining scientists at the station orbiting Solaris, at their wits end after decades of failing to understand or communicate with the alien intelligence, have begun experiencing strange visitations on the station. Kelvin arrives at the station and soon encounters a visitation of his own- in his case, his long-dead wife. Cue long sequences of soul-searching and anguished guilt as the film considers what is human, what is fabrication, what these visitations mean, whether humanity can ever really understand what Solaris is. Indeed, not so much whether humanity can ‘know’ the alien, but really if the alien can ever ‘know’ the human. Is Solaris even aware of the humans studying it?

What I find most rewarding about Solaris, and 2001, is that it is science fiction on the grandest scale, the greatest of ideas. No robots or ray-guns or evil monsters here- this is no space fantasy, this is science fiction, in the greatest tradition of the literary genre.

The problem with Solaris is its glacial pace which even back in 1972 was slow, but now, compared to the pace of modern films, it seems a film from another planet. I consider myself a fan of the film but it’s certainly testing at times. On the whole the film rewards on each successive viewing but its pace makes rewatching it a rather daunting experience, which is why I’ve seen it far fewer times than 2001. Purists will yell foul, but a good thirty minutes, maybe even an hour, could be cut from the film and it would make just as much sense. Maybe it wouldn’t be as beautiful, or poetic… but I contend the film isn’t perfect, and is clearly inferior to 2001. I don’t mind it confounding, indeed, I rather like it being obtuse and subject to the viewers interpretation, but the presentation is clearly beyond sedate.Its more… indulgent. Yeah, maybe that’s the word. Ultimately, maybe Tarkovsky wasn’t the right guy to make a science fiction movie, maybe the film was simply beyond the technology of the day.

When I watch 2001, at the end I feel inspired, enthralled, the film always opening my eyes to a bigger world, a bigger worldview, a cosmic worldview. When I watch Solaris, I always feel rather… well, down at the end. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s because Kelvin at the end has simply retreated back to his childhood, literally so, as it is reconstructed on Solaris. He hasn’t evolved, or improved himself. He’s gone backwards somehow. He hasn’t embraced the cosmic, he’s retreated to his own private world, and his childhood. It feels negative somehow, rather than positive. But maybe that’s just me. I’m sure, like 2001, Solaris really means something different to everyone.

But it’s still a damned interesting movie.

sol2

 

Bridge of Spies (2015)

ST. JAMES PLACE

2016.63: Bridge of Spies (Amazon VOD)

Bridge of Spies is pretty spectacular, the best Spielberg film I have seen in quite awhile. Even someone familiar with the true-life story the film is based on will find the film enthralling. It’s chiefly thanks to a first-rate script (co-written by the Coen brothers no less, with Matt Charman) but what most impressed me was the craftsmanship evident onscreen. This is a surprisingly beautiful film. There is something remarkable in how the film recreates the period in which it is set- it looks absolutely ravishing, from the art direction to the cinematography to the flawless effects work. Best of all, Spielberg operates under quiet restraint- he isn’t too showy, emotions aren’t forced, camera moves aren’t so indulgent- stuff that hampered Lincoln for instance. A part of this is that it is also a rare Spielberg film -just the third, I think- that doesn’t feature a John Williams score (Williams being busy with a certain Star Wars gig).  The Thomas Newman score is nothing extraordinary but it does give the film a different ‘feel’ to a normal Spielberg picture and is understated enough to not draw attention (indeed I might be wrong but I was only first aware of the music some thirty minutes in).

The two leads are great. Tom Hanks of course is no surprise playing unlikely Superpower go-between James Donovan.He’s eased into a career of playing these noble, thoughtful and morally incorruptible characters for years and makes it look deceptively easy. It’s occurred to me that he would make a fantastic Bond villain- you know, casting him quite against type, set him up as a figure who you wouldn’t dream of being the orchestrator of global doom and then -Bam- I’m pleased to meet you Mr Bond. It gives me chills just thinking about a typically charming Hanks going all evil and chewing up the Bond scenery- maybe one day.

Anybody familiar with Mark Rylance (particularly in Wolf Hall) will perhaps be not at all surprised by how good he is as Russian spy Rudolf Abel, a soft-spoken, almost terrifyingly calm man who at the time the film is set becomes the most hated man in America (another possible Bond villain someday?). Abel is always a mystery and we don’t really get to know him but somehow an unlikely friendship and bond quickly forms between Donovan and Abel and it’s never short of convincing.  Its in the performances of the leads and the finely tuned script with some lovely dialogue and a sense of disarming humour (the influence of the Coen brothers, no doubt) even in the face of the Cold War nightmare threatening to unravel before us.

bridge2My only slight reservation is how the film displays the passing of time. From what I have read afterwards, Abel was arrested in 1957, Powers shot down in 1960, and the exchange happened in 1962, and yet I can’t really say that span of time was evident in the film. Maybe I was so swept away by the gorgeous photography etc that it passed me by- I certainly don’t recall any onscreen text ticking off the years, but maybe I was enjoying myself too much.

It seems an odd omission for a film that at least feels quite authentic and realistic, in that events seem to play out in rapid succession when in reality half a decade passes by (Donovans children, for instance, don’t seem to age from the start of the film to its end). In anycase, I don’t think anyone comes to a Spielberg film for cast-iron accuracy and a sense of impartial ‘truth.’ As it is, Bridge of Spies is a great film regardless of accuracy; a thrilling tale splendidly told.

The Postman (1997)

post12016.62: The Postman (Amazon VOD)

Watching The Postman…. well, if nothing else, it demonstrates how tricky it obviously is to make something as successful, artistically and financially, as Dances With Wolves.

The Postman follows the template of Dances With Wolves so much its almost painful- it’s a Western in all but name, it features the same star, the same director, its nearly three hours long and is designed to be some kind of epic morality tale complete with a feel-good ending. Even after Waterworld the film must have seemed a safe bet for the studio (Costner was still a bankable actor at the time). Yet it stumbles at almost every turn- the star gives a by the numbers ‘I-just-have-to-smile-to-turn-on-the-charm’ performance, the direction is more suited to a tv movie than a Hollywood epic, the script is both underwritten and full of plotholes, the supporting cast seem to be floundering, unsure even of the tone of the thing, and the music generic and lacking all the subtlety and emotional contact of John Barry’s work. Its  just not a very good movie, and it really feels that Costner’s heart simply wasn’t in it. It’s never convincing or genuine, whereas in Dances With Wolves you can sense the desire and dedication in every shot, every scene, something completely lacking here.

Surprisingly, it’s based on a book, which means either the book is pretty bad or the filmmakers recognised in its plot the basic building-blocks of a Costner vehicle and went off and did their own thing, as Hollywood is wont to do. The whole thing feels hopelessly generic and predictable, but you do get the feeling that somewhere in there might have been a pretty good movie.

Sometime following a vague apocalypse that has returned America to a wild west landscape, a drifter with a penchant for acting out bits of Shakespeare for food and shelter gets forced into the militia-force of General Bethlehem (Will Patton), an ex-photocopier salesman with delusions of building an Empire. The drifter escapes and stumbles upon a derelict postal van with the corpse of its postman inside. He appropriates the uniform and a bag of letters destined for the fortunately nearby town of Pineview, and  once there he is greeted with mistrust until the letters from long-lost relatives melts their hearts and he is treated as a saviour. The drifter is now The Postman (ta-da!), and in the spirit of his old acting gig he concocts tall tales of a revitalised postal network and reborn US Government heralding Better Times. Of course its just a ploy to get better treatment and eventually he leaves with new letters from the townsfolk for their relatives which he seems little inclined to deliver.

While its premise is pretty daft I found the central arc for Costner’s anti-hero drifter to be refreshing, albeit in execution the whole thing lacks the subtlety it needs in order to work.  The Postman doesn’t do subtle- everything is telegraphed well in advance and is so comfortably predictable,  you pretty much know what characters are going to do and say ahead of the film. You know The Postman is going to eventually feel guilty for wrongly inspiring hope in the people that he meets, and you just know they are going to suffer when General Bethlehem turns up with his expanding photocopier business, sorry, Evil Empire. And you just know The Postman’s inspirational tall tales and false heroism are going to create the very thing he is lying about.

Did I mention that this film is just shy of three hours long? What on Earth made them think this material merited that kind of epic length/treatment? Did they really think they were making another Western fable in the manner of Dances With Wolves? The film seems to go on F-O-R-E-V-E-R. The sense of relief when the last cliche is reached, the last agonising monologue, the last waving of the flag, the last hymn to the United States of America happens, is palpable. God only knows this must have seemed unbearable in the cinema- at home its still a grit-your-teeth butt number where time seems to pass oh so slowly.

The one thing this film has going for it is one of the most brazen ‘WTF were they thinking’ moments in cinema history when Tom Petty turns up as, well, Tom Petty, leading a settlement of good folk that helps save the day. I mean, it’s not Tom Petty playing a leader, it’s Tom Petty being Tom Petty the post-apocalypse leader.  Its so bizarre its almost worth the three hour running time. This film is crazy. Just plain crazy.