Midnight Special (2016)

midnite1.jpg2016.61: Midnight Special (Amazon VOD)

Like Super 8 a few years back, Midnight Special displays its inspirations clearly- it’s very much kin to Steven Spielberg’s seminal CE3K and ET, and also John Carpenter’s Starman. Indeed, while it often looks like a Spielberg film it also feels like a Carpenter film because of an electronic score by David Wingo that sounds very much from a Carpenter film of that period. Midnight Special just overflows with this sense of being an artifact from circa 1977-1982, the danger naturally being this can bring to mind better movies. I guess it shares common ground with so many other cinema-referential films of late, such as Super 8 – films harking back to the films that influenced current film-makers. A generational thing then, and further sign I’m getting old when so much of the films I grew up with winds up in ‘new’ films, even the ones that aren’t reboots?

That being said, Midnight Special is, on a whole, quite superior to stuff like Super 8. For one thing it doesn’t feel so reverential, and does try to do something new even though it eventually falters. The first half of the film is its strongest, with the mystery holding the most attention; two adults are on the run having kidnapped a young boy, and they are being chased by both Government forces and agents of a strange religious cult. Having pretty much been dropped into the middle of a chase movie with X-Files undertones, its fun trying to unravel the backgrounds of the characters and what is really going on and why. Inevitably the film can’t really maintain the mystery and its reveals aren’t as imaginative or original as one would hope. That said, it’s a great thriller for most of its running time even if the conclusion leaves us asking more questions than is perhaps healthy for what I believe is a standalone picture.

The cast is pretty great, except, unfortunately, for Kirsten Dunst. She plays the childs mother, Sarah, and there really isn’t any conviction in her portrayal of motherhood, or indeed any chemistry between her and the child’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon)- it is a huge vacuum that the film doesn’t really recover from. I don’t know if it’s simply the script at fault (in Dunst’s defence, it is a fairly underwritten part) or miscasting, but somethings wrong and the film suffers for it, losing the emotional core that, say, ET had. Other than that, there is plenty to recommend in this film- a fairly low budget affair (something like just $20 million) it’s certainly more imaginative and entertaining than most of this summers blockbuster releases.

 

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Outlander Season One

outlander2016.60: Outlander Season One (Amazon VOD)

Outlander eventually becomes more than what you’d expect from its first few episodes. Indeed, I dare say many people (well, men, anyway) will have watched the first half-dozen episodes and had quite enough of it, thinking its just a feminist take on Braveheart, or a Mills & Boon romance with softcore sex instead of swoons and lingering glances. I’ll be honest, I was almost like that myself, but on the advice of a friend who recommended it I stuck with it and I’m glad I did- by the end of the first season, Outlander becomes something else entirely. What begins as a historical romance with time travel elements is granted a much larger canvas and becomes rather dark and brutal. Infact, by the end of the season it feels like a completely different show, a remarkable feat over its sixteen episodes, and it is a fine example of the advantages of having all of a season available to watch immediately. If it had been a matter of waiting several weeks for the ‘bigger’ story and complexities to emerge many would perhaps have given up on it.

I know nothing of the books, you understand, although I believe there are several. I came to Outlander much as I did Game of Thrones, quite ignorant of the storyline or where things would eventually be going, and I’ve really no idea how faithful the show is to the books.

Shortly after the end of World War II, war nurse Claire Randall  (Caitriona Balfe) is on a second honeymoon with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) in Scotland, trying to rekindle their marriage following how each have separately suffered the horrors of war. Frank is doing some research into his family history, particularly that of a military leader who was something of a scourge of the Scottish two hundred years before. Claire is very much a ‘modern’ woman; intelligent, confident in her sexuality and her place in the world. Incredibly all this is  suddenly thrown to the wind as Claire, intrigued by some ancient standing stones on a nearby hill,  finds herself transported through time to Scotland in 1743 and forced to marry a Scottish Highlander named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). The first half of the series details Claire coming to terms with Highland life and attitudes of 1743 whilst trying to find a way back to her own time and her ‘original’ husband. As time goes on she finds herself falling in love with young Jamie and at the same time falls under the twisted attentions of Franks despicable ancestor John Randall (also played by Menzies).

So anyway, that’s the first several episodes and pretty much predictable stuff, albeit well-acted and impeccably shot and produced, with an endearing Bear McCreary score that might, given a few seasons, equal his best work in Battlestar Galactica. During the second half though the show takes a dark turn and really develops, revealing the books to be somewhat akin to Game of Thrones with game-changing twists and bold character arcs. As I haven’t read the books I’m several seasons behind so have no idea where the story goes from here -although thankfully has I have come to the show rather late, Amazon has season two on stream so I don’t have long to wait.

It is quite remarkable though, how the show changes from your average romantic potboiler into a Scottish Game of Thrones drama, really pulling you in and usurping expectations. The acting is great with a really excellent supporting cast, but Balfe and Heughan are particularly good in deceptively tricky roles, with a genuine chemistry and sense of conviction in this strange romance that could have seemed plain silly. There is a grittiness to it that surpasses the romance-novel plot at its heart. So yeah, well worth a watch, particularly if it’s the kind of thing you might dismiss due to early misconceptions.

 

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

clov12016.59: 10 Cloverfield Lane (Amazon VOD)

10 Cloverfield Lane is a very effective thriller, with a taut script and an excellent cast. As its title suggests, it is loosely connected to the original monster movie Cloverfield (just how loosely I won’t go into). Thankfully however this film drops the found-footage stuff and is a wholly more traditional film, and much the better for it.

It also boasts an absolutely wonderful score by Bear McCreary. There is a lot of the feeling of The Twilight Zone watching this film, and much of it stems from McCreary’s Herrmann-esque, evocative score. It immediately places us into a particular sense of mood and place, of a 1950s, 1960s tonal quality, quite non-contemporary. It’s so refreshing to watch a modern film that isn’t saddled with a Hans Zimmer-like score, and it is interesting that this is from McCreary, one of the most exciting talents in television scoring over the past ten years (Battlestar Galactica, Da Vinci’s Demons, The Walking Dead, Outlander etc.).

So anyway, this review is old-hat for many since it’s months since the films theatrical release, so I guess spoilers are ok. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is literally driving away from some unspecified relationship woes when she is run of the road in an accident. She awakens in a strange, spartan room – an IV attached to her arm and a brace on her knee that is, alarmingly, chained to the wall. She’s greeted by her captor, a man named Howard (John Goodman), who claims he’s saved her life. He tells her there has been an apocalyptic event, and that he has brought her to his survival bunker. Immediately there is something ‘off’ about Howard. He describes the event on the surface as an attack; maybe by the Russians, but casually also suggesting it was maybe by the Martians. At any rate, the surface has been rendered uninhabitable, and Howard, MIchelle and his other guest, Emmett (John Gallagher) have no choice but to wait it out – maybe a year or two.

As time passes, Michelle begins to doubt Howard’s version of events, but various things seem to corroborate it- Emmett himself witnessed the beginning of the attack and fought for entry to the shelter, and when Michelle gets a glimpse of the outside world she sees a bloodied, poisoned woman desperately trying to gain entrance herself. Howard is evidently unhinged and his story is crazy, but this is afterall a Cloverfield movie- should Michelle really risk everything to get outside and what will she find if she gets out there?

clov2Winstead is terrific in this. She really deserves better and more substantial roles in future genre films- she’s vulnerable but strong too, with a great physicality to her role that really brings to mind Weaver’s Ripley in Alien. Winstead is that good (but then again, I also thought she was the best thing in that The Thing prequel some years back). Goodman is naturally as dependable as ever, and it’s nice to see some of that old disarming charm of his (remember Always?) with the hints of deranged darkness he brings to his role here.

By the time the film ends and (most) of its secrets revealed in a final twenty-minute flourish, I was left with a desire to see more of these Cloverfield films. They could become a great little franchise of Twilight Zone-like stories. That does however come with one caveat- yet again we see here a JJ Abrams project that really harkens back to older originals than really doing something new and unique. He did it with Super 8, Star Trek, The Force Awakens and here The Twilight Zone- he seems adept at reinventing or reinterpreting old material or classic pieces of mainstream culture for new audiences (the Herrmann-like score by McCreary is surely no accident here, and the claustrophobic setting of the shelter has all the hallmarks of The Twilights Zone‘s adept use of working within its limited television budgets) but where is the really new stuff? Is there really nothing new under the Bad Robot sun?

 

 

Red Lights (2012)

red1

2016.58: Red Lights  (Amazon VOD)

Here’s a question. I’d like to think that actors are basically honest. That actors sign-on to films hoping for the best, full of confidence in the script and the director…but  do they really just sign-on for the paycheck, getting involved in a problematic film just for the money? Sod the poor saps that pay to watch the film, just take the paycheck, do the gig and run?

Red Lights is a film about lies and deception. The irony being, is the ultimate lie and deception, a sort of meta-deception if you will, the one being these actors performing in such a bad film?

Because considering the talent in front of the camera, its rather alarming that this film turns out to be such a hackneyed, poor-mans bad X-Files episode.  Paranormal investigators Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) and Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) study house-hauntings and other supposed paranormal events, debunking said hauntings and fraudulent psychics.with cynical aplomb. Unlike the X-File‘s Mulder, neither seem to be believers, neither seems to believe they might actually discover something for real. Matheson perhaps wants to believe, wants to be convinced- she is a cynic with a tragic background (her son has been on life support for years but she can’t let him go -switch off said life support- without proof it would mean him going to a better place). Even Matheson is at a loss to explain what Buckley is doing wasting his time as her assistant. You can smell some kind of twist coming a mile off.

Cue the return of infamous blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) once a famous celebrity back in the seventies who has re-emerged from retirement for some incredibly  lucrative shows in Buckley and Matheson’s neck of the woods (handy that). Matheson apparently failed to debunk Silver back in the day and sees Silver’s return as some kind of personal affront. Also new on the scene is Sally (Elizabeth Olsen) as a student of the two investigators (they run some kind of college course on debunking fake psychics and Sally joins in on their efforts for extra credits or something). Sally seems to act as Buckley’s love interest and the audience’s POV (she’s handily often asking the questions the audience might have) but there’s surely some other purpose to her… except maybe not.

You see, that’s the problem with this film – for a little while its almost fun, you sense all sorts of twists and elaborate stuff going on but there really isn’t. Its like you are making up this better movie in your head as you watch it, expecting it to reveal its secrets like a M. Night Shyamalan film would, but it doesn’t. Matheson dies mid-film but somehow it isn’t convincing- it feels like a hoax to put Silver at ease for a spectacular reveal towards the end but, nope, she’s really dead. Likewise as Silver seems able to second-guess what our investigators are doing and his return seems to coincide with Sally’s arrival on the scene, I was always expecting her to be unmasked as a traitor who was working on Silver’s behalf throughout. But she isn’t and she wasn’t. She’s just a love-interest. And as for Silver being maybe the Real Deal, well, De Niro doesn’t seem interested in giving the character any nuances or anything, he’s clearly a bad ‘un and De Niro treats the role like some kind of audition for a Bond villain gig.

When the eventual twist does come it feels awfully empty and leftfield. Inferior to the ones being cooked up in audience heads as they are watching the film anyway.

What I cannot figure out though- the script was clearly problematic. It desperately needed a few more drafts to iron out its problems and actually add some genuine twists/motivations/arcs. What on earth did De Niro see in the part of Silver other than a paycheck? Sigourney Weaver may not get too many decent roles these days but surely she doesn’t need the money so badly to get caught in thankless roles like that of Matheson here? I don’t know. I really don’t know. Films like this, films so absurd and broken and frankly pointless and empty, simply don’t deserve this kind of talent, such decent actors in such bad roles. What’s going on? Is it really just about the money, even for veterans like De Niro and Weaver?

 

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

stb2016.57: Star Trek Beyond (Cinema)

Here was me thinking that this couldn’t possibly be any worse/more stupid than Star Trek Into Darkness (do these Star Trek reboots have the worst titles imaginable, by the way?) and then Star Trek Beyond goes and proves me wrong.

We’ve come a long way from Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. Actually, hold that thought- because that actually works for me when describing how much of a let-down Beyond and so many modern films are. You see, TMP may be long, slow and a wee bit pretentious, but even today it feels more of an ‘event’ film than something like Beyond. There is a sense of importance to the events in TMP. A tension, threat, almost a perverse sense of reality in how the characters and the sets/places/mechanisms are introduced and established. Nowhere more so than with the Enterprise herself, a genuine character in TMP. The Enterprise feels huge in TMP, whereas in Beyond it is dwarfed by just about everything, even driving into Yorktown as if it’s just being driven down the street. If the Enterprise looks small in TMP, its for effecting awe (i.e. to show the scale of the alien cloud/spacecraft). The shots of the Enterprise driving into Yorktown aren’t about establishing plot or a sense of awe, there’s only a sense of it being more throwaway CGI, something to impress just because they can do it, not because it really means anything. Vacuous spectacle. Crikey, I’m making out TMP to be some kind of classic- how far have we fallen? How low has Star Trek gone?

stb3 As usual, I’ll do a detailed breakdown/discussion after the Blu-ray release as I hate to spoil films, even ones as poor as this one. But… but…. well, does anyone really care at this point about something as stupid as these Trek reboots? Let’s just say… well, you recall Mars Attacks and how those pesky critters were beat by playing music at them? Kinda crazy but it worked because it was a comedy and daft fun and… well, they sort of pull the same gag here in Star Trek Beyond. I’m still rather incredulous, frankly. They wouldn’t pull that kind of rubbish in the ‘sixties show for fear of coming off as camp as the Batman tv show. Its the Beyond equivalent of teleporting Khan all the way from Earth over to Kronos in Into Darkness, or ‘hiding’ the Enterprise in an ocean-  it’s Star Trek jumping the shark yet again.

God I realise I must sound like an angry Trekkie, but what I’m suggesting is that the makers of the sixties show had more self-respect than this modern breed of Trek custodians who just think any shit goes, frankly. Well, thats the heart of it- its all so stupid. Destroy an alien fleet with loud rock music? A distraction involving hologram Kirk’s riding motorbikes (is it holographic sound as well, and how come each individual hologram races its own path around the objects and ditches/jumps)?

So here we are yet again talking about how stupid modern films and modern audiences are. Audiences accept this nonsense without walking out or yelling ‘foul!’ at the screen, so naturally film-makers exploit them all the more. And it does feel like exploitation. There is little attempt at internal logic or restraint in Beyond. Its just one excuse for a stunt/fight/visual effect after another. There’s little difference between these modern Trek films and stuff like the Transformers franchise.

stb2Which is pretty frustrating because there does seem to be at least some attempt to recapture the spirit of the original ‘sixties Trek (probably due to the involvement of Simon Pegg in the script). Indeed, in some ways its the nearest any Trek movie (Wrath of Khan likely excepted) has ever come to an episode of the original show. The cast are pretty good. I’m finally warming a little to Chris Pine as Kirk, and Karl Urban’s McCoy is as much a pleasure as ever, but as the original Trek films found, its difficult to be fair to an ensemble cast in individual films compared to doing it over several tv episodes. The late Anton Yelchin’s Chekov is sadly wasted, as is Sulu and even Uhura feel’s under-used here, but really that’s almost inevitable. Its not that the cast are just competing with each other for screen-time, they are competing with the CGI effects and all the stunts and spectacle that these modern films seem to think they have to present. I mean, the film has its moments, but the leaps of logic and convenience to tie all the sequences and set-pieces together are just astonishing.

The leaps of logic/coincidence are quite breathtaking- the big bad guy is searching for a part of his Alien Weapon of Mass Destruction that just happens to be in the Enterprise’s storeroom-cum-trophy cabinet, and the Enterprise just happens to be taking shore leave at Yorktown which just happens to be situated alongside a nebulae-cum-asteroid field (the film isn’t great at scientifically-correct astronomical events) which just happens to be hiding the planet where the big bad guy is hiding and even though we are assured the big bad guy ‘needs’ the alien artifact for his nefarious deeds he’s already got sufficient an arsenal to take down the Enterprise and all of the Death Star-sized Yorktown but instead coaxes the Enterprise into danger by fashioning some kind of distress signal/rescue mission… oh I give up. I mean, thats not spoiling anything, thats just the basic set-up. The real nonsense/contrivances jump up a later.

Subtlety be damned, Yorktown is like a giant Death Star Soap Bubble, so big the Enterprise drives in like it’s running through a bus-lane to a service station. The bad guys armada is like a giant swarm of robots hustled in from The Matrix films. The explosions are huge. The (virtual) camera spins around from set-piece to set-piece, upside-down one minute, plunging down an abyss the next,  intent on making the audience throw-up. Its all very ‘big’, very much a spectacle, very noisy and whatever. Its clearly what film studios think sci-fi blockbusters have to be in order to satisfy modern audiences, in just the same way as the carnage within superhero films gets bigger and bigger with each variant. Just where are they all going?

Oh thats enough. I can’t waste anymore time on this nonsense.

 

 

 

Penny Dreadful Season Three

p32016.56: Penny Dreadful Season 3

I’m not really going to write in any detail about the series itself- if you haven’t seen it yet, please do, its a great show- so this will be pretty much spoiler free.

The biggest talking-point  regards the third season of Penny Dreadful concerns the fact that the show has been cancelled. The production company and showmakers all maintain that the series has ended as planned, that it was always going to be a three-season arc, that the story has been told. Fans however are not convinced, and I count myself amongst them.

Yes, a conclusion has been fashioned, even complete with a ‘The End’ text-card to underline it. But anyone who has watched the show across three seasons will be suspicious, and likely feel shortchanged. There is such a change of pace between the first two seasons of Penny Dreadful and its third season,  that I am struck by memories of Babylon 5‘s fourth season- with cancellation imminent, JMS had to squeeze plotlines from season 5 into season 4 in order to tell the complete planned story. You can feel that happening here. There’s just too much story, too many revelations that feel forced rather than earned, and new characters given short-shrift who should have had arcs spread into season four and possibly five (else why introduce new characters like  Lord Hyde/Dr Jekyll, or Catriona Hartdegen, at all?).

There’s an inescapable feeling that season three was greenlit with an undeclared proviso to wrap things up early, which forced the writers to rehash any original third-season outline and leap into closing things out. It feels too abrupt. It feels unearned. Indeed, it leaves us asking things like what was the point of Dorian Gray’s character at all, a character who’s arc has drifted on the edge of the main story for the entirety of season one and two, and indeed continued thus in season three, as if biding time for greater relevance at a later point in season four or five? Film-makers forget that audiences are more sophisticated now thanks to shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men and so many others- we ‘know’ how things are set up for later revelations/plots. We put up with vagueness or lack of immediate resolution because we know its likely coming later. In the case of Penny Dreadful, there is a sense of being robbed of that. We gave the showrunners the benefit of the doubt, and try as they might to give us an ending with season three’s finale, they let us down.

Showtime’s gothic Victorian horror was one of the best-kept secrets on television, and has suffered the same fate as another genre favourite, Hannibal. While I would still rate it as a superior show and worthy of watching, I have to say it does now feel a lesser show than it might have been, now that it has been seemingly cut short. Like Hannibal, it has some kind of ending, but alas one that doesn’t really feel satisfying.

If, as fans suspect, the showrunners had originally planned a five-season arc, then Penny Dreadful likely finishes the best way it could, all things considered. We got three seasons of a five-season story with a necessarily curtailed ending with arcs unresolved. If we are to believe the story was always intended to end at season three, then it’s bad, dreadful planning/writing, something that could never be said of the show before. So yeah, I yell ‘foul’.

If its low ratings, like Hannibal, then fair enough, but do not dress up the cancellation as something it isn’t. I simply cannot believe that Penny Dreadful was intended to run just three seasons, something I believe had never been intimated before by anyone behind the show. Penny Dreadful, and its fans, deserved better.