The 2019 List: March

Well, another month already.

TV Shows

30) The Umbrella Academy

34) Stranger Things Season One

35) Love, Death & Robots

40) Brooklyn 99 Season Five


31) Free Solo

32) Bohemian Rhapsody

33) The Predator (2018)

36) Voice From the Stone

37) Await Further Instructions

38) Triple Frontier

39) Mirage

41) Wheelman

42) Paddleton

It occurs to me that in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to life, the universe and everything is the number 42. Which just happens to be the number I’ve reached with Paddleton. So anyway, whatever that means. So 42. In three months. That’s some kind of record for me, I think. And of course that doesn’t include re-watches, which this month includes Game of Thrones Season Six (which I didn’t post about) and stuff like The Big Lebowski (which I did). I also re-watched Arrival the other night, on 4K UHD this time around, which I really should write about because it remains a wonderful film and one of my very favourites of the last decade. Its always nice to step back from new stuff to relax with old favourites. A bit like what the guys do in Paddleton. Maybe that’s the answer to life, the universe and everything, at least for movie lovers- just rewatch your favourite films.

Paddleton (2019)

paddleton1Paddleton is a surprisingly affecting, lovely little comedy drama starring Ray Romano and Mark Duplass as two middle-aged neighbours who have become best friends, sharing a love of pizza, jigsaws and badly dubbed kung-fu movies. They are outsiders, a sense cleverly reinforced as they repeatedly play a made-up game of paddleton at an abandoned drive-in. The decaying ghosts of better days that lingers in the faded paint of the facades mirroring their own greying stubble and lined faces. Underachievers, seemingly neither of them having friends outside of each other, nor family to speak of, and stuck with mundane and unfulfilling jobs, the world has passed them by but they seem fine with it. There is a lovely and convincing routine in their evenings eating pizza and watching movies, it feels real.

The film begins soberly enough (considering its billed as a comedy) with Michael (Duplass) diagnosed with cancer. After some tests confirm the prognosis is bad, Michael decides that rather than suffer, he wants to take control of his situation and end his life on his own terms. Andy (Romano) is conflicted by this, he loves his friend and wants to support him, but he’s clearly terrified at losing his only friend and being left alone. So no, this clearly isn’t a belly-laugh comedy.

What it is, though, is a tender and well-directed story with two really good central performances- Romano makes quite an impression, as I’m more familiar with his Everybody Loves Raymond sitcom hi-jinks from years ago, and his acting chops here really surprise- it’s really fine work. I watched a Louis Theroux documentary series several months ago about assisted suicides in America which was deeply involving and upsetting, which only intensified the drama and reality of this film. I think it raised this film to some other level really, being aware of the tragic real-world behind it.

So, this is a wonderful little film, quite affecting and emotional with two great performances. Considering the really dark subject matter, it was very enjoyable and something of a surprise treat- I think Netflix would be wise to pursue this kind of low-key American drama film-making rather than all the blockbuster stuff.  Paddleton is billed, yes, as a comedy drama and it does work as such (there is some humour amongst the sadness and tenderness) but it also serves as a focus, I think, for some very real issues.

Wheelman (2017)

wheelman.jpgWheelman is a perfect late-night comfort food for anyone who fondly remembers 1970s thrillers or gritty films like Bullitt. It wears its inspirations proudly, right from the start with the drop-shadow text used for its title credits, its anamorphic lenses distorting its out-of-focus city lights and the Taxi Driver-like lingering shots of the car bodywork reflecting the streetlights and pebble-dashed by rain.

I’m not going to suggest that this admittedly low-budget b-movie is a classic of its kind, but it’s a welcome throwback to a sort of low-key film-making that I enjoy, without any OTT hysterics of huge stunts and CG augmentation.  With a small cast you could almost count on one hand it’s almost like a stage-play, with the majority of the film firmly taking place inside the getaway car driven by the titular Wheelman, played by Frank Grillo in one of his best performances that I’ve seen. Most of the character conflict is via his handsfree mobile phone (one of the technological nods that so clearly makes it of our time, for all the aesthetic nods to the 1970s thrillers it aspires to), and Grillo is the core of the film and its success really stems from his performance.

The Wheelman is a getaway driver for a bank robbery, hired through a third party for a job involving two robbers he doesn’t know- he’s doing the job to pay his dues to the mob from when he spent three years in prison (the mob presumably looked after his family on the outside). However he gets double-crossed by the third party and played as a pawn in a mob war, racing through the night-time city chased by the waring mob factions and the bank robbers (who he was instructed to leave behind once they loaded the boot with the $200, 000 stash).  Its partly a car-chase movie, partly a noir, partly a thriller. He doesn’t know who to trust and his family starts to get threatened and pulled into the drama- its a fairly brisk film at barely 80 minutes and is all the better for it. Its mean and lean, just like those 1960s/1970s thriller its first-time director Jeremy Rush is obviously fond of.

Its not hugely ambitious (it’s no Baby Driver or Drive, for instance, in terms of its stunts etc) but it’s perfectly formed for what it is, within its budget. I really quite enjoyed it as a relaxing, undemanding b-movie thriller and its well worth a watch.

37 Years From Home

etWell, here’s a twist. I’ve finally succumbed and ordered La La Land’s two-disc edition of the E.T. soundtrack. Released back in 2017 to celebrate the film’s 35th anniversary (as if I needed reminding I’m getting old) in an edition of 5,000 copies, La La Land revealed last week that the last batch of 500 copies have arrived from their manufacturer. So it seemed that the time was nigh to finally pull the trigger. Considering I’ve brought most of the other John Williams expansions of the last few years (really a quite remarkable run of discs/scores) buying this one was inevitable, but I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with this little critter in particular. The music is fine I guess (I had the original soundtrack release on cassette, eventually, once it dropped into a bargain bin) but it’s the damn movie, and the fact that it was such a flip-side of Blade Runner, both in style and in popular and critical response. Well, I guess I have to admit I bore a grudge for all these years, but I really struggled to even watch the film over those years since, considering it full of  Spielberg’s worst traits and excesses. I have a Blu-ray steelbook that I bought for some strange reason years ago that I have never watched.

But it does seem weird and rather silly on my part that the  music has always been lumped in with my general apathy for the film. Maybe this edition will make me warm to its charms. I will say this- listening to John William’s great scores again over this past few years of expansions, what has perhaps impressed me most is how well they have aged, and how well they stand up to the current crop of what passes for film scores these days. Jaws 1 & 2, The Fury, CE3K, 1941, Dracula, Superman: The Movie, The Empire of the Sun, and to a lesser extent Hook, are superb works that really shine brightly now that their style of film scoring has apparently become so redundant of late.

If only Vangelis’ Blade Runner score had received such care and attention for its own 35th anniversary. Well, I guess there’s always the fortieth anniversary (if we’re still buying music on CD by then)….

What Remains of Edith Finch

edith3I don’t write about video games here very often. Which is a little strange, considering I’ve played them since Space Invaders on the Atari VCS back in 1979 and have owned most of the consoles that came out since, over the years. But anyway, I suppose this means that a game has to be something really special to warrant a comment here.

So What Remains of Edith Finch– what a lovely game. Maybe ‘game’ is the wrong description- this was more of an experience. I think this genre of game is called a ‘walking simulator’, and basically consists of the player, through a first-person perspective, exploring a richly detailed creation, usually uncovering some kind of mystery or larger narrative by just looking around and, well, your natural curiosity tells the story. The genius of these games is how subtle they can be, and how the player doesn’t feel ‘forced’ to follow any direct path. At its best, any progression should feel natural and honest, and it can be surprising how intense the experience can be.

Intense is how I would describe my favourite game on the PS4 –  Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, another ‘walking simulator’ and a spooky and mesmerising work of real beauty. Genuinely a piece of art rather than ‘just’ a game, I found it to be a thoroughly engaging and really transformative experience as I explored a 1980s English village at the end of the world. It was so affecting that I can still recall moments in it as powerful as anything in a recent movie. Well, What Remains of Edith Finch is right up there with Rapture in quality, possibly aided, ironically, by it being a much shorter experience. I think a playthrough of this would take between two and three hours- which might seem a bit short, but the quality really makes up for it. This is a fantasy that can haunt your dreams and linger in your daylight fancies.

edith2.jpgWhat Remains of Edith Finch is a story about stories, of memories and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Its mostly a story about loss and grief, fairly heavyweight topics for a game, but quite enthralling here in an exploration of the past, of a family history, and what may be a curse. Through the games magical setting (unwrapping each memory/story room by room while exploring the Finch family home, deserted out on a misty, lushly forested island) the player experiences, through gameplay, the memories of each departed member of the family, slowly building a map of the Finch family tree and one final ‘twist’.

I would love to describe some of the pleasures and surprises of this game and its stories, and at this point with the game having been out for a few years I’m hardly in spoiler territory but really, I can’t do it. I just don’t want to risk spoiling anything of this beautiful experience- it looks utterly gorgeous and is blessed with a lovely soundtrack from Jeff Russo (who scored the Fargo tv series, as well as Altered Carbon) that complements those images. As I’ve gotten older and somewhat weary of the huge 100+ hour epic experiences and noisy violent gunfights of modern gaming, I’ve really leaned towards these more thoughtful games. You can lose yourself in them and realise part of the joy of videogames of old- back when they were new and we didn’t know what they could be, these are experiences to treasure and remember.

edith4.pngWhat Remains of Edith Finch has just recently been added to the Xbox Gamepass service, so is free to play for subscribers.  


Mirage (2018)

mirage1.jpgThis Spanish production now airing on Netflix as a Netflix Original (original title Durante La Tormenta) is a surprisingly satisfying entry in the time travel genre. As usual for these time travel/alternate timelines/time paradox movies, its very difficult to summarise the plot without it seeming too convoluted and/or, well, just plain daft. The trick with the best of them is to just suspend your disbelief enough to hook you in, and that’s what this film does quite well.  Maybe the fact that its a Spanish film with subtitles actually helps, because although the film has inevitable nods to 1980s Amblin films and Back to the Future in particular, it still looks and sounds very European, thereby maintaining a sense of originality and keeping some distance from the American genre that partly influences it.

So do I risk trying to unwrap the plot somehow without it seeming ridiculous? The basic premise concerns a strange electrical storm that settles over a suburban area in 1989, lasts for three days and then returns some twenty five years later, setting up a loop in time through which a young mother, Vera (Adriana Ugarte) is able to warn a twelve-year old boy, Nico, of an impending accident in 1989 and thus save his life. Unfortunately, her good deed of saving the boy has set up a new timeline, and she awakes no longer married to her husband and no longer the mother of a daughter. Indeed, while she has memories of her original timeline’s life, she has no memory of her ‘new’ life, and is desperate to somehow re-set the timeline and get her original life back- and more importantly the life of her daughter, who no longer exists. Complicating matters somewhat is a murder connected to the original death of young Nico, which threatens to dilute the central drama of the film with what initially seems a rather superfluous plotline that ultimately ties it all together.

On the whole its a successful yarn, albeit with a few plot contrivances that don’t really hang together too well in hindsight, certainly when given examination afterwards, but hey, at least this is a film that leaves you thinking by the end.  It handles its inherent paradoxes pretty well, and is an entertaining film- indeed, the cynic in me ruefully expects an American remake would have been on the cards had this not appeared on Netflix giving it the wider exposure it has no doubt received, making that Hollywood treatment largely redundant. Its a pretty good time travel adventure which is maybe a little overlong (suffering from trying to manage all those seperate plot threads, no doubt) with an emotional pay-off that doesn’t really connect (well, it didn’t with me) but up to that, its involving and has plenty of twists. Well worth a watch.


Party like it’s 1989

I’m always slightly amused by studios and/or their marketing departments focusing so much on anniversaries when releasing or re-releasing films on disc. I’d buy a copy of Alien on 4K disc whatever year it came out, it doesn’t have to be the film’s fortieth anniversary, but hey ho, there you go. So anyway, this year we seem to be getting reminded of certain film’s 30th anniversaries this year- The Abyss appears to be getting a new 4K scan or master for release later this year (originally released 9th August 1989, I guess it will slip a bit later than that for a disc release in the Autumn), and Field of Dreams is getting a 4K disc release in May. Unannounced but surely coming is Tim Burton’s Batman, another film from 1989 (looking back, I always feel like 1989 was the year of Batman– it was all over the place in the media, a huge ‘event’ film in the same way Star Wars was). Before all these, Pet Sematary gets a 4K release next week, partly due to its thirtieth anniversary but also thanks to an incoming remake/reboot (hey, before you watch the new one, here’s the old one to watch first so we can make a bit more money out of it).

So anyway, its been getting me a little nostalgic for 1989, which on the face of it never occurs to me as a great year for films, but now that I think of it (and consider those 4K disc/Blu ray release schedules) I have to admit, maybe it wasn’t such a bad year at all. I used to go to the cinema quite a bit back then, and can vividly recall shedding a tear or two to Field of Dreams (in a good way, it’s not as if it was a terrible film or anything, I’d reserve that kind of emotional reaction to something like Black Rain), and coming out of a matinee screening of The Abyss into a full-blown storm, torrential rain lashing across the cineplex car-park in a tempestuous gale that was like I’d brought the film out there with me, one of those disorientating moments that last with you forever.

I remember watching Born on the Fourth of July and Glory on the same day. We went to see Born on the Fourth of July in the afternoon, went home to have a chip tea then went back in the evening to see Glory. Now, the funny thing about that was, we all expected July to be the better film, but were totally amazed by Glory, really swept up by it. It had a phenomenal score by James Horner, and a great score is something I always react to in films, no doubt a big part of why I enjoyed it so much. Another film I saw at the cinema that year with a great score was The ‘Burbs, and I remember scouring record stores looking for that soundtrack for months in vain. Yeah, it was a good year for soundtracks, as I recall, though it would take years for me to finally get a copy of The ‘Burbs score on disc.

Not every cinema trip was as thrilling, mind. 1989 was also the year of Star Trek V: The FInal Frontier, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and, yes, Black Rain, and The Fly 2. Not films I recall really enjoying at all. I remember coming out of Pet Sematary more impressed by the music than the film- I bought the Varese CD and years later the La La Land expansion, but never actually saw the film itself again at all. It was also the year of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a film I enjoyed at the time but has really worn thin on me over the years since. Its a funny thing, how films you were once wowed by later lose their charm, but films you didn’t ‘get’ the first time around sneak up on you (Munchausen is such a crazy maddening folly of a film I eventually couldn’t help but fall in love with it).

Thirty years, though- scary. Mind, I was looking up both Glory and Born on the Fourth of July online and they were released in December 1989 in the States, and it certainly wasn’t December when I saw them, so suspect it was later in 1990 when I saw them that day over here in the UK- release dates could be really staggered back then. After so many years it’s hard to remember very clearly, although I can remember sitting in the cinema at the time and looking over at my mate Andy after Glory ended, both of us shell-shocked by having watched not just two war films at the cinema that same day, but two damn good films at that.  It would never happen again- it’s funny sometimes, you just never know, in the moment, just how special/unusual or unique a day really is. They just come and go but perspective lends us clarity- and thirty/twenty-nine years, whatever it is, it’s certainly some kind of perspective.

Triple Frontier (2019)

tripleIts perhaps fortunate that I watched Triple Frontier in blissful ignorance of the pedigree of creatives behind it- in particular that it was directed by J C Chandor, who had earlier made two films I particularly enjoyed- All is Lost and A Most Violent Year. While I enjoyed Triple Frontier, it is clearly not in the same league as either of those two earlier films (in hindsight, maybe the casting of Oscar Isaac was a clue). From what I gather, Triple Frontier has had a long and protracted development history behind it (Kathryn Bigelow at one time marked to direct it, and a cast that at one time included Tom Hanks) – and it’s perhaps surprising that it has turned out as good as it has, or actually finally got made at all. At any rate, it’s probably not what I would call ‘a J C Chandor film’ in just the same way as several of Ridley Scott’s films were likely made as a ‘director for hire’ rather than a personal project (play a game, guess which ones). Which is a protracted way of me saying that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it quite so much had I been saddled with the expectations from the director’s name/past work. Sometimes you just have to judge a movie by itself, on its own terms.

So Triple Frontier (no, can’t say the title makes a lot of sense even after having seen the film) is a sort of old-fashioned action adventure/heist yarn, in which a bunch of embittered/financially challenged ax-Army Rangers buddies are recruited by one of their colleagues, who knows about a drug dealer down in a South American jungle whose millions of ill-gotten dollars could solve our heroes life problems. Hell, a premise like that, it could have been a great Predator sequel, but nevermind. So yeah, its part A-Team, part Sicario, part heist picture, part buddy picture, part man-against-nature picture. It should have been in all likelihood a terrible mess, and maybe it still is a bit of a mess, but it does actually work.

Sure, there are a few issues with the script, and characters making some odd choices just to further that script towards its various twists and plot-points, but that kind of thing can be inevitable from such a long gestation period and so many hands messing with it over the years. At any rate, the film does pack a few genuine surprises that I didn’t see coming.

It doesn’t hurt that it looks absolutely gorgeous. This is a movie with a capital ‘M’ and not at all what you’d expect – as I have noted before, some of these Netflix Originals are far beyond what might have been considered direct to video, or even tv movie, material, several years ago. There is some amazing location photography here and some great action sequences/stunt scenes. Maybe some of the visual effects don’t quite hold up to the scrutiny that this lovingly sharp and detailed image invites, but it really is quite cinematic. I don’t know what streaming compression Netflix is using but this film looked amazing in 4K, a real improvement on the fairly appalling compression artifacts and banding I suffered watching Voice from the Stone on Amazon a few nights ago.


Await Further Instructions (2018)

afiA low-budget British horror film, Await Further Instructions betrays such an amateur feel it’s almost like a student film. The script is all over the place, its ambition far beyond the budget – so much so it just looks silly and does more harm than good; the script, such as it is, should have been reined in to match what the budget could handle. When it starts it looks like it might  something like a good Black Mirror episode, but instead turns out to be more like a pretty bad modern Dr Who episode. Both are tv shows, which perhaps indicates how much of a ‘movie’ this movie, er, isn’t.

It’s Christmas, and the Milgram family unites to spend the holiday together in their pleasant unassuming suburban home. Tensions are strained however as they don’t really seem to get along- prodigal son Nick (Sam Gittins) has been away for a few years due to falling out with his dad, Tony (Grant Masters) who himself has issues of his own with Grandad (David Bradley) who bullied him as a child and continues to belittle him. Indeed Grandad is a completely horrible old git, and evidently a racist who does not approve of Nick’s Asian girlfriend, Annji (Nerja Naik) who Nick has brought along. Completing the ensemble are Nick’s incredibly stupid (and very pregnant) sister Kate and her almost as stupid partner Scott. Mom is of course just happy to have the family all together at last just as long as she can keep the peace. Cue arguments playing Boggle and comments about ‘bloody foreigners’.

So Christmas morning these charming characters awake to find that their house has been sealed off by a strange black metallic surface blocking all doors and windows. Phones, the radio and the internet are no longer working, and the tv only displays a text message: ‘Stay Indoors and Await Further Instructions‘. Something obviously Apocalyptic is happening outside and Dad takes charge to ensure every instruction that follows is dutifully obeyed.

Well, cue all sorts of bickering and fights and family politics and general carnage as the instructions become ever more provocative and testing. Dad does not seem to think it’s particularly odd that the house has been sealed off during the night without anybody being awoken by any loud construction work or trucks or workmen outside, or that nobody in authority thought to warn or advise of them. A bag of hypodermic needles is dropped down the chimney with precisely enough needles to inoculate the number of people in the house (remember, some of them are visitors not on any register)… wait, I’m thinking about it too much. It really does not reward thinking about it too much, because it increasingly collapses into nonsense and almost parody.

By the time the deaths start and the bodies pile up in the spare room, its beyond silly, and the climactic descent into body horror is hampered by just being too much with too little money. Its rather a shame. The actors have little to work with, the characters all very stereotypical and almost caricatures (did Grandad really have to be an old racist bully, or Dad a childhood bedwetter, or sister so remarkably stupid?). The script really needed much more work and more of a focus on the psychological pressures/tension in what is essentially a preposterous scenario. Maybe the family should have heard  noises outside, of explosions etc or sirens or maybe a car alarm or horn occasionally going off to suggest what may or may not have been happening outside in the street. Maybe somebody (a neighbour?) outside banging the barrier trying to get in, to reinforce Dad’s assurances that everything is fine and the family safer inside the house?

Anyway, here I go again writing too many words and divesting too much of my time reviewing what is essentially a pretty poor and supremely forgettable bit of nonsense. One for you lucky buggers who have not yet seen it to avoid, I think, and one for me to forget as soon as possible.


Voice from the Stone (2017)

voice2.jpgVoice from the Stone is a European-set mystery/ghost story… I think. Set in 1950s Italy, a nurse that specialises in helping children, Verena (Emilia Clarke, yeah, her with the dragons) is hired by moody sculptor Klaus (Marton Csokas, so brilliant in Kingdom of Heaven) to help his son Jakob (Edward Dring) who has not spoken since his classical pianist mother Malvina (Caterina Murino) died several months ago. They live on a remote beautiful estate with a grand old house, Malvina’s family being rich for centuries from the profits of working a quarry nearby that held a particularly fine stone. The quarry is now disused and flooded, and the house showing its age, the estate almost frozen in time as if unable to shake off the grand old days. Varena struggles to connect with the boy, who believes he hears his mother speaking to him from the walls. Is it possible that the house, and the boy, are indeed haunted by Malvina?

Its an intriguing premise for an old-fashioned ghost story, but I’m not sure this film really really wants to be a ghost story. Based on a book, I don’t know if this is a factor in the original work, but the film itself seems to be all over the place- not really helped by a lack of chemistry between Clarke and Csokas when a romance suddenly flares up between them, possibly engineered by Malvina who seems to be possessing the nurse. I say ‘seems’ because the film really feels like its in two minds- serious romantic drama or supernatural thriller, it can’t seem to decide which. By the end of the film. I wasn’t sure what was even going on. Was Varena herself going mad or was she really possessed? And was Malvina’s mother really a ghost or just some kind of projection of Varenas?  Maybe the film was trying to be sophisticated enough to have it both ways, leave it up for interpretation.

voice stoneIn anycase, it doesn’t pull it off, turning out to be a somewhat confusing mess. Which is frustrating because it looks ravishing and the cast is pretty good. I must confess to feeling a little ambivalent about Clarke, though- her range seems to consist of raised highbrows for confusion, frowned highbrows for intensity, and relaxed highbrows for mild amusement. LIke in Game of Thrones, I don’t think she’s really up to the material (something true of most of the younger thespians in that show, which is carried thankfully by all the older actors who elevate the material somewhat) – or maybe I’m just being unfair to her, maybe it’s just that I don’t ‘get’ what she’s doing.

Overall the film has a very fine sense of mood and atmosphere but this only carries it so far, and the confusing last half-hour really leaves a bit of a sour feeling of disappointment.  Perhaps it really wasn’t intended to be a horror film, but not for the first time of late, it feels like it was horror film made by film-makers who thought they were above such pulpish horror nonsense, and it just got away from them.