Apostle (2018)

apostle2Welsh director Gareth Evans, famous for his action double-whammy The Raid and The Raid 2, returns with an absolutely batshit-crazy horror/torture-porn oddity that is likely destined for some kind of cult status someday. It is totally off the rails, nonsensical and baffling and frustrating and brilliant in perhaps equal measure. At over two hours its about thirty minutes too long and its script needs a few rewrites and perhaps a few sub-plots taking out, but its a fascinating film to watch simply because it just defies convention, as if Evans was trying to test how much free-reign and control Netflix was willing to give him. Turns out he was given pretty much complete freedom, which likely works against the film in the long run but does make it something of a curio and hypnotic experience. You just don’t know where its going next.

Disorientation is the heart of the film: Dan Stevens, having left Downton Abbey well behind him now, plays main protagonist Thomas Richardson, a twisted and troubled man who in some abrupt and deliberately (?) vague flashbacks is set on some vague mission to save his kidnapped sister from a vaguely-defined religious cult based on a vague remote island off the undefined mainland. Yes, it is all very vague: Thomas is the kind of unreliable fulcrum that H P Lovecraft sometimes used,  whose narrators were possibly as crazy and untrustworthy as the cultists they bumped into. Thomas is twitchy and haunted and reliant on drugs and stares balefully from under his tightly-knitted brow and grimaces bearing rotting uneven teeth. Something about Steven’s performance kept bugging me until I realised that he was channeling actor Sam Neil, as if deliberately mimicking Neil’s mannerisms in films like In the Mouth of Madness and Jurassic Park etc.  Its a role that perhaps might have actually suited Nic Cage although that might have proved to be unwatchable for me. Eventually we learn why Thomas seems so fucked-up but its perhaps one revelation too many at that point.

The island of Erisden holds a religious community run by cult-leader/prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and it all seems very Wicker Man with a medieval twist, but there are visual hints dropped in that suggest something genuinely supernatural is going on in the background, a deeper threat/horror than the cult itself. Again, perhaps in a further nod to Lovecraft fiction, layers and layers of mystery are revealed as the film progresses, so much so that it reminded me of the Call of Cthulhu RPG that I used to play many years ago. Ultimately there are perhaps just too many layers, too many revelations and twists and turns for the film to really manage successfully. I had the feeling that it could have been two completely seperate films but that Evans just threw it all into the crazy mix to see what came out.

apostle3I understand the film is set in 1905, but I don’t believe it states this implicitly onscreen (although I may have simply missed it) and while it is obviously a period film it does seem to have a dreamlike quality, particularly on the island which is genuinely like some medieval setting with torture devices straight out of some dungeon of horror/Roger Corman Poe flick starring Vincent Price. Strange camera angles occasionally add to the weirdness as do sudden outbreaks of violence- as might be suggested by the director’s previous films, Apostle is very graphic and violent in places and there is plenty of gore to satisfy horror-fans. Thomas has to swim in a subterranean river of blood at one point so that will give some indication of its crazy excesses.

The weird thing is, how I’m writing this possibly suggests its a much better film than it really is. This film is in no way wholly successful. As I’ve noted, its too long and really quite disjointed with perhaps too many characters and sub-plots. That being said, I do think it may be destined for cult status as such odd/flawed films often can be and it might actually reward with successive viewings.

So anyway, a very interesting experience and another indication that Netflix Originals can be very worthwhile. I’m not sure how this film might have fared as a cinema release, but dropping onto a streaming service to watch at home during a wet and windy Autumn night its pretty much perfect. I’m just a little frustrated that a disc release might have benefited from a commentary track which explained some of the film-making decisions. I don’t know if Netflix could manage seperate audio streams or provide seperate versions of content with audio-commentary tracks; likely there is insufficient demand for that kind of content but it something that I will certainly miss with the future veering away from physical releases.

Mandy OST by Johann Johannsson

mandyostListening to Johann Johannsson’s final score, a twisted and disturbing work drenched in sadness, misery and darkness, is certainly a sobering prospect. It is hard to seperate it from the perspective of the composer’s sudden passing earlier this year. As an unintended footnote of the man’s career it is stark and unforgiving. In some ways it is quite unlike his other work (although hints of it’s darkness are strewn across many of his works) but the almost unbearable melancholy of the love theme -one of the saddest love themes to grace a movie- betrays the score as being that of Johannsson, while the ’80s electronic soundscape of the final track ‘Children of the New Dawn’, presumably the end title (I haven’t seen the film yet), evokes the John Carpenter scores of that era so authentically its hard not to do a double-take at the credits.

It hints that perhaps new directions for the composer lay ahead of him- perhaps a reaction to his rejected BR2049 score? Then again, and its a grim game to play, but listening to some of the moodier, menacing and almost experimental tracks I have to wonder if there’s actually indication here of what some of BR2049‘s score may have sounded like, some of its atonal horror harking back to some of the original Vangelis score’s underscore. Which seems at odds to reports of Villeneuve thinking that Johannsson’s score was too much a deviation from the Vangelis original, so likely I’m wrong here (and unless the rejected score gets released someday we’ll never really know).

In any case, while its hardly easy listening there is something rather hypnotic about the terrible darkness of this music, especially in relation to it being the composers final work we are likely to hear. The sadness wallows within and about the music, dreadfully.

The Post (2017)

the postWhile this film has a commendable and important story to tell, one quite timely with what is going on in American politics today, unfortunately this film is weighed down by issues of its own making: if ever a film could be described as Oscarbait, this is it. You can see it in the starry cast, the stirring John Williams score, and all Spielberg’s old worst habits. Slow, ponderous cranking-in of the camera during solemn and oh-so-important monologues (hey! Oscar! its me!), manipulative score… (I don’t like using the word ‘manipulative’, all films are manipulative, its what they do, but some are worse than others).

When Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) leaves the courtroom in triumph, the camera pans down in a long crane shot following her down the steps, and suddenly the crowd she walks through are all women, and all are giving her silent, admiring and supportive stares, as if suddenly the film has become a hymn to feminine self-empowerment.  The achievement is real, the sentiment is fine, but the execution is as clumsy as anything Spielberg put us through in his early years. Its a really ham-fisted and ill-judged moment that yanked me straight out of the movie, an example of Spielberg at his worst.

Perhaps the films lofty ambitions got the better of Spielberg and his team. Certainly the story should be enough, its a good story and yes, relevant to our times, but goodness its self-importance is overwhelming. There’s a sense throughout that this isn’t ‘just’ a movie, that there’s something else going on, and its got everything to do with Awards season I fear. Pulled away from that with the distance of time, it leaves the film feeling awkward. I’m quite surprised to see Spielberg in this (dare I say cynical?) mode.

So, not a terrible movie, but yes an awkward waste of all the talent involved that leaves it feeling oddly amateur.

 

Hold the Dark (2018)

hold1This is a particularly frustrating movie. Elegantly crafted with taut direction, excellent cinematography and a superb cast, its efforts are completely undermined by the lack of a cohesive screenplay- it is literally (sic) all over the place. It begins with a slow, steady pace that is quite hypnotic and purports something quite dramatic and important is coming, but then fails to deliver.

Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who once write a book about living among wolves in the wild, is contacted by a young Alaskan woman, Medora (a rather hauntingly sad Riley Keough),  whose son has been taken by wild wolves. She doesn’t expect Core to find her son alive, but hopes he can track down and kill the wolf that took him. Curiosity piqued by her letter (and the location of her remote village being not far from his own estranged daughter, an awkward subplot) Core arrives at the woman’s house and finds the young attractive woman living alone, life-worn and jaded, evidently suffering from a post-trauma illness related to her son’s disappearance.

So far so good, but the film immediately betrays its tendency to farce when Core wakes up during the night to find a naked Medora walking towards him wearing a wooden wolf-mask. She wordlessly slides alongside him and places his hand around her own throat, as if inviting punishment or some masochistic sex game that Core declines. Now, an ordinary man might go straight to his car the next morning and return to the relative sanity of civilization, but instead he goes on a dangerous trek in search of the wolfpack that has allegedly stolen three children from the village.

Following a tense standoff with the wolves when he finally tracks them down, Core struggles through the barren icy wilderness back to the village to find Medora’s home deserted. Exploring the house he enters the cellar and discovers the body of her missing son, wrapped in a sheet. So Medora’s story of wolves is a lie, she killed her son herself and has gone on the run. Following a segue to a violent scene of desert warfare involving Madora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) who seems as proficient killing his own colleagues as he is terrorist insurgents, the villagers seem to be at odds with the local police when Vernon arrives back home intent on killing anyone (villager, police, coroner) who gets in the way of him hunting down his wife. A bewildered Core  is trapped in these proceedings like a rabbit in headlights and seemingly cannot escape them.

hold2As the events become wilder, less and less of what happens is explained and I suspect, looking back on it, that I may have missed the point. There is certainly a horror-genre subtext with hints at paganism and unexplained phenomena, indeed perhaps even Lovecraftian undertones. Perhaps there is something of Innsmouth transposed to this arctic, icy landscape. Or perhaps that is just my imagination filling in the blanks left by the increasingly vague, reason-less story.

At any rate, its is a beautiful-looking film and it features some shocking twists and some violent action scenes that are dwelt upon in slow graphic detail. Unfortunately its very ambiguity proves to be, for me, its downfall, as credibility seems to rapidly slide in its last half-hour. Perhaps it is about the darkness of the long Alaskan night staring back at the humans frozen in its landscape, an Apocalypse Now-like tale of staring too long into the abyss. Or maybe there is something genuinely Lovecraftian seducing some of them (or maybe I’m filling in the gaps too much). Perhaps, ultimately, the film tries to overreach itself. I am sure many will watch this film and be enchanted by it, but for me it became a frustrating experience following just one too many twists and turns. Certainly well worth a watch though and one of the better Netflix Originals that I have so far seen.

 

 

Solo (2018)

solo1While watching Solo, I was reminded of something I read a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away- in 1978, infact, and inside the pages of the Star Wars official collectors magazine that Marvel published back then. At least I think it was in that mag, it was a long time ago after all, but anyway, it was some comment referring to a review that cited Star Wars as being the first Western filmed in outer space. Solo is just that- a space western.

So in the spirit of laboring the space western allegory, lets look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of this Star Wars movie titled Solo.

First, the good. Well, its okay. If that’s damning it with faint praise, then so be it: its no disaster (In the words of fellow blogger Gregory Moss, it could have been worse) and certainly nowhere near as divisive as The Last Jedi proved to be. Solo doesn’t usurp franchise tropes or chronology as TLJ did-  Lucasfilm has (eventually, considering this films troubled production) crafted a stable, steady adventure with typically workmanlike direction from Ron Howard’s exceedingly safe directorial hands.

While some of the action stuff such as the opening speeder chase was fairly mediocre at best, I thought the train heist in particular was great -the strangely reduced colour-palette of the film actually helps the CGI enhancements look all the more real. Some of the imagery of the windswept characters on the roof of the train reminded me of the Frazetta covers for the Battlestar Galactica paperback novelizations of the late ‘seventies. I’m also glad that the finale was rather low-key, it was a refreshing thing for a Star Wars movie, I thought, especially as the CGI-fest Kessel Run was so boring.  If we’d cared more for the characters it might have been all the better, but that post-Kessel Run stuff was fine and suggested a second movie (which we’ll now never see) might have been worthwhile. Maybe Solo should always have been a mini-series rather than a movie?

Alden Ehrenreich is okay as a young Han, albeit never really convinces. I would have preferred to have seen Anthony Ingruber (already cast as young Harrison Ford in The Age of Adaline) or Ansel Elgort, who looked like a young Solo in much of Baby Driver, at least they might have physically matched Ford better. Although he performs well considering all the pressures and baggage placed upon him (its pretty thankless signing on for a role like this), Ehrenreich is clearly no Harrison Ford- if anything, he’s more a young Dennis Quaid, particularly whenever he smiles or turns on the charm (which reminded me, ironically, of watching Inner Space back in the cinema and thinking how Quaid could have played Han Solo back then). Although he never really convinces as Han Solo, thankfully this young Solo is not an obnoxious and irritating infant re: Jake Lloyd’s Anakin of The Phantom Menace. The art direction is okay (I always get a kick out of seeing original Star Wars-era Storm Troopers), the music feels like that of a Star Wars movie (indeed even is Star Wars movie music as it re-uses themes from the original scores).

solo2Now, the bad. Its all a bit ‘meh’ if I’m honest. Not once does it genuinely shock or surprise or shake expectations of what a Han Solo movie could be. Indeed, it largely spends its time ticking boxes: Han meets Chewie, Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, we get a game of Holo-Chess in the Falcon lounge, we get to witness the Kessel Run. Han is a scoundrel yes but at heart he’s a good guy and does the ‘Right Thing’. Nothing new that happens in Solo can really be important as it cannot retro-actively effect the cannon- nothing new in Solo can ever be referenced or name-checked in The Empire Strikes Back or The Force Awakens. Han doesn’t make some mysterious comment about someone named Beckett in The Force Awakens, for example (and if these new films were being masterminded properly, maybe he would/should). So we never really get any dramatic suspense. Which leads us to-

The ugly? Misguided. Cynical. A production nightmare that was always doomed to fail, whatever its success at the box-office (is it really fair to saddle this finished film with the purported $300 million cost of combining its production with the abandoned original shooting of the previously fired directors?). A salient lesson to Lucasfilm of how to make/not make a Star Wars movie.

Well, that is the whole thing with prequels, isn’t it? Dramatically they are always flawed because we go in with knowing how things end up. Han can’t die, Chewie can’t die, the Falcon may get some dents but it can’t be destroyed, etc . Prequels inherently are hamstrung by the Magic Reset button- whatever happens during them they have to leave the status quo in place for subsequent editions in order to maintain continuity. And likewise, they are weighed down by unfair expectations, comparisons to better films back when Star Wars was new and fresh and exciting, better directors, better actors, all looked at through rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia.

Disney’s Star Wars films have a problem, and it isn’t competing against fellow franchise juggernaut Marvel- its the ravages of time. Star Wars is now in its fifth decade and the world has moved on. The Matrix films, good or bad, were a Star Wars for a new generation, and maybe the Jurassic Park films were too, and while the jury is out on James Cameron’s Avatar films, I suppose it could well be argued that the Marvel Studios films are indeed a Star Wars for today’s generation of film-goers. Lightsabres and Jedi and droids and everything else wrapped up in Star Wars dates back to the days of Disco and can leave some of us original fans labelled as dinosaurs.

I have no issues with Disney shaking things up with its Star Wars films- its just that The Last Jedi, in my mind, was the wrong place to do it. If you’re going to have Luke Skywalker in a Star Wars movie then he has to act for good or ill as his established character would. For instance, if Han Solo were alive in The Last Jedi, would Rian Johnson have gotten away with making him a craven coward? Whatever Rian Johnson eventually does in his proposed future Star Wars trilogy is fine by me as long as its genuinely new and seperate from the established canon. I do feel that Disney might have been better off leaving the Skywalker saga and the Jedi etc well alone and not making Episodes  7-9 at all.

In anycase, returning to Solo, these standalone prequels of course cannot do that- by their nature they have to play safe with continuity and what constitutes a Star Wars movie. I’m a big fan of Rogue One and think its a neat film from a neat idea. Solo– well, we never really needed a Han Solo movie, did we? Maybe the whole prequel thing lacks sufficient ambition- maybe they should have looked further back to the days of the Old Republic and then been freer to play looser with chronology if only because the distant past is vaguer.

Solo is what it is. I would have preferred a different lead. I would have preferred a different arc- why not have made young Han a genuinely bad guy and used the prequel story to redeem him, perhaps explain why the smuggler in the 1977-1983 trilogy has a decent streak deep down? Otherwise, whats the real point of a prequel, other than showing us what we know and have come to expect?

As it turned out, few people really wanted a Han Solo movie and it largely turned out as mediocre as everyone feared it would- albeit better perhaps than the production woes would have suggested. Its box-office failure means it will likely lead to a rethink at both Lucasfilm and Disney, and that might be a good thing in the long run. That does return me to a question I raised earlier- maybe it should never have been a movie, but rather a mini-series instead? After all, Disney will have its streaming service/channel next year. Maybe that is where the future of these standalone Star Wars movies lies, in mini-series form.

 

 

Blade Runner Anniversary

Blade-Runner-2049-0302Here’s a curio- today is the one-year anniversary of me seeing BR2049 on its opening night at my local cinema. I booked the tickets when on holiday in Scotland the week before and it led to a pretty exciting/scary week running up to the Thursday evening of October 5th. While watching Blade Runner back in 1982 remains the most intense cinematic experience of my life, watching BR2049 will likely always be the most bizarre. It was almost an out-of-body experience, watching it in a sort of detached way, as if none of it was real. Looking back on it, its clear I was really nervous after so many years of Blade Runner being an important part of my life and watching an impossible sequel that turned out to be impossibly brilliant. The experience was doubly weird as I went with my mate Andy who had seen the original with me back in September 1982- it was a little like a Twilight Zone episode or something.

I watched it twice more at the cinema (three trips to see the same movie? Frankly unheard of in this day and age) and must have seen it a dozen times since on Blu-ray and now UHD. Its still a fantastic, powerful movie and yes, likely my second-favourite all-time movie now- what a strange world we are living in. I keep re-watching it every month or so expecting the shine to wear off but it actually just seems to get better, and more impossible, every time I see it. The more I watch it, the more remarkable it seems that someone actually made a film so intelligent, slow, beautiful, so worthy of the original. Its funny, while I buy and watch so many movies these days, I seldom actually re-watch films quite as much as I used to years ago, but something about BR2049 keeps on pulling me back. And this one-year anniversary is just another excuse to watch it again…

Carlos Ezquerra

carlosdreddJust a short post to note my sadness at the recent news of the passing of Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra, whose remarkable work was a big part of my teenage years reading the British comic 2000AD.  Most famous for being the co-creator (with John Wagner) of Judge Dredd, Carlos did so much other great stuff too- notably Strontium Dog for sister comic Starlord and strips based on The Stainless Steel Rat books, as well as war strips for weekly comic Battle.

For myself, I’ll just say this- one my fondest memories from my youth is of reading the Judge Dredd epic The Apocalypse War week by week in 2000AD and sharing the weekly twists and turns with my mate Andy. A little bit like water-cooler television for us, we’d  each week marvel at the epic events and discuss what we’d read like people do over stuff like Game of Thrones now. Incredibly fast, Ezquerra somehow managed to single-handedly provide the art for an entire saga that stretched over six months. Several years ago I bought the Apocalypse saga collected in a handsome IDW hardback edition and re-reading it was such a great experience, it proved easily as good as I remembered it. Ezquerra’s storytelling was cinematic and peerless.

carlosdredd2

Carlos was some kind of genius and as others have wisely noted in comments over the past few days, easily deserves to be considered one of the very greats of comicbook artists, like Kirby and Eisner before him. Yeah, another one gone.

R.I.P.D. (2013)

ripdWhy do studios think that what might work for a comic-book, sophisticated as some of them are, will translate to a movie? To the extent that you would sink some $130 million into such a misguided and inept project such as this? Yes, I realise that the box-office of everything which Marvel Studios seems to touch provides the answer, but how many times do these comic-book films actually work? Green Lantern, Jonah Hex, so many DC movies…

I’ll be as lazy with this post as the film itself seems to have been- a Ghostbusters/Men In Black knock-off (which might work for a comic-book but seems awfully cynical even for Hollywood) that somehow manages the unforgivable sin of wasting Jeff Bridges in a starring role. The visual effects are surprisingly poor, the script woefully predictable and  the majority of the jokes misfire. Its all pretty dire really.  When I watch stuff like this I learn to appreciate Deadpool a little bit more.

The Neon Demon (2016)

neon1Typical of a Nicolas Winding Refn picture, this is a prime example in the school of style over substance film-making. Some might argue that this is an ideal approach for this film, as it focuses on the vacuous and image-centered business of modeling and advertising, but to me that is just excusing NWR for the sin of bad storytelling and making a film lacking any real substance. Its all smoke and mirrors. Yes its very impressive visually at times, and very stylish too, and its story of a 16-year old beauty being literally devoured by the fashion industry makes something of a curious adult fairy tale, but when its over it feels like a very empty experience. Patently pretentious, I finished the film feeling like I’d been taken for a ride, that the film was a joke, and that joke was on me.

Not for the first time either, regards NWR films, having suffered through Only God Forgives. Its seems that Drive was the exception to the rule. I think I shall steer well clear of future NWR films, they clearly aren’t for me.