Red Lights (2012)

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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?

 

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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.