The Report

report2Adam Driver- strikes me he’s the Disney Star Wars equivalent of the prequel trilogy’s Natalie Portman: an actor far better than the Star Wars saga (and risible scripts/dialogue) deserved and whose talent thankfully ensures a career in film in the future, leaving that galaxy far, far away way back in the rear-view mirror. I’m writing that as a fan of those Star Wars films too: really, with actors like that in them, the Star Wars films really should have been so much more.

So The Report– well, this is the kind of film that I find deeply fascinating and worthy, but which always sends me into a depressed funk about the state of the world and how horrible and duplicitous politics and positions of power can be. It joins a list of films like Spotlight, The Parallax View, Missing, The China Syndrome, JFK, All The Presidents Men, and many others, films examining the noirish world that we are living in. Some of the films are based on fact, some are fiction, but nonetheless sobering reminders of the shades of grey that obscure the black and white, right and wrong that we would like to think are sacrosanct and immutable but clearly aren’t.

With a mouth-watering cast that includes Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Michael C Hall, Ted Levine and Corey Stoll,  The Report is an ice-cold thriller in which idealistic Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) is tasked by Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) to lead an investigation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program which operated  following the terrorist attack of 9/11. Jones leads a small team which uncovers over a six-year inquiry, the  lengths to which the nation’s top intelligence agency went to destroy evidence, subvert the law, and escape oversight and justice into its methods of torture when interrogating suspects. The film is a little stodgy at the start, taking a little while to get going, but soon becomes riveting stuff. In just the same way as I felt after watching Spotlight, its so refreshing to see a film like this, harking back to the halcyon days of 1970s American Cinema, one without any Hollywood hysterics and drama. The performances are great, thankfully understated and nuanced, and once the start of the film is out of the way, the narrative moves fluidly and really does fascinate. The characters ultimately sit behind the events themselves and the grim facts brought forward. I thought this was a great, thought-provoking (if somewhat depressing) film.

One further observation: its almost a pity that this film is up on Amazon Prime (as its a Amazon Studios film) and therefore as far as I’m aware unlikely to appear on disc. In the old Golden Days of DVD, this kind of film would appear on disc with all sorts of featurettes, docs and perhaps commentary track to further debate and expand upon the films subject. In this brave new world of streaming, we get the film and that’s it, nothing more. Oh well, time to get Old School and read books or something…

The Report is currently showing on Amazon Prime.

The Aeronauts

aero1In September 1862, in the industrial town of Wolverhampton, Aeronaut pioneer Henry Coxwell piloted a balloon for Dr James Glaisher, a scientist employed to make meteorological experiments at dangerously high altitude. Glaisher’s last barometer reading recorded a height of 29,000 feet after which he lost consciousness in the thin air and extreme cold (at one point reaching -29C). Coxwell only averted complete disaster when, having lost all sensation in his hands, he managed to pull the valve-cord with his teeth before losing consciousness, ensuring the balloon would return to the ground and their lives saved. Later calculations established that at the pinnacle of their ascent they achieved a record altitude of 35,000 – 37,000 feet.

You’ll have noticed from the image I’ve posted at the head of this post, though, that The Aeronauts is not that story.  Out goes Wolverhampton (and as a Wolverhampton lad myself, that smarts) and out goes Henry Coxwell, replaced here by beautiful young and dazzling Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), female Aeronaut trying to atone for the tragic death of her husband in an earlier ballooning accident. Meanwhile Glaisher, portrayed by handsome young and dazzling Eddie Redmayne as a struggling outcast trying to prove his theories to his dismissive and condescending peers, was actually a 52-year old founding member of the Meteorological Society who was hired by the British Association for the Advancement of Science to fly in the balloon.

Well I’ll cut The Aeronauts some slack. We should not expect the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, from movies. Even historical dramas play rather fast and loose with the facts. Its all part of converting what can be dry events into exciting drama, ensuring it works as entertainment, something at which The Aeronauts certainly works. Its a very interesting, exciting and dramatic film that works brilliantly well. I actually think what is most interesting about The Aeronauts is what it tells us about our modern society. I suppose the choice to rewrite a male character as a woman was most likely just a cynical, if understandable, commercial decision to reunite Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne who had earlier starred in the successful historical biopic The Theory of Everything.  I guess the idea of teaming up the duo for another period drama seemed like a sure winner. On the other hand, its a deplorable rewriting of history to further social awareness agendas regarding the portrayal of women.

aero2Twenty years ago, I suppose Felicity Jones would have played a female James Glaisher and Eddie Redmayne would have played Henry Coxwell, who would have been haunted by the past death of his own wife in a ballooning accident and would have achieved absolution by ensuring the safety of Glaisher in the record-making attempt. You know, write a female role into the film but ensure its a male hero who saves the day. Instead, Redmayne plays an ambitious albeit out of his depth scientist ill-equipped for his experiments and only saved by the bravery and fortitude of our heroine. There’s nothing wrong with that, its just interesting where we are now with role-models and their depiction in film and television: female empowerment and the emasculation of traditional male archetypes,  YouTube is full of noise about all that, whether it be in the Star Wars films or Dr Who or just about anything else these days.

Away from the noise of revisionary history and social sexual agendas, The Aeronauts works very well even if it suffers from predictable dramatic tropes. Felicity Jones is very good – indeed, quite brilliant, reminding me of just how good she was back in Rogue One. Redmayne suffers from a character trapped in those hackneyed predictable tropes of having to believe in himself against the derision of his peers (eventually winning grudging respect and praise at films end, especially when his biggest detractor relents and applauds him) and during the ascent dramatically taking a back seat to our heroines heroics. The photography and visual effects depicting the ascent is utterly beautiful and arresting (I’m sure a 4K UHD disc would be gorgeous, but the 4K stream on Amazon is no slouch) and there’s plenty edge-of-your-seat moments to maintain interest whenever the drama threatens to suffer one too many flashbacks.

Its just a pity that the many achievements of the film might be overshadowed by some of that revisionary work made in the telling of the story.  I worry a little that the film so casually misinforms when it purports from the outset to be ‘based on real events’  when its really just a historical fantasy, and while perhaps no worse for that, film-makers should have a little more respect for the reality.

It occurred to me when watching this film that it was an idealistic drama of what should have happened in a perfect world, rather than what really happened. That raises a question though:  is there really any harm as long as the public are advised its not really as ‘true’ as it infers it is, or is there harm in that pretending? Women were terribly marginalised in what was very much a man’s world back in 1862, and while we have thankfully moved on since then, I think its dangerous, if not just disingenuous that we pretend things were better than they were. Oh well, its only a movie!

The Aeronauts is currently showing on Amazon Prime

Seeking Westworld Fidelity

mibLast night I rewatched the last episode of Westworld season two. With season three coming in just a few weeks, I thought that as its been nearly two years now since the second season originally aired, I could do with a refresher to get me up to speed. Ideally I should watch both season one and two beforehand, and maybe I’ll still have a go at that, but with everything else going on, the odds against managing a complete rewatch are huge, so I went with the season two finale.

Silly me. Of course it was confusing. The episode tied up many of the various threads running through that season, but naturally on its own it left me floundering, clutching at what I could still remember from the series when I first watched it. As I remember, even when it first aired with the season fresh in my memory, it rather confused me. But it did manage a very good tease for the third season.

Westworld is a very good sci-fi show. Its perhaps a little too convoluted and obtuse for its own good, the play-through of several timelines concurrently often more confusing than illuminating, but I really do admire the ambition of the show. I like having to work at stuff. I find it challenging and refreshing. I have high hopes that the third season will reward my faith in it, and certainly the trailers have looked very promising. I’m reminded of Fringe, in that Westworld seems to be transforming into a different show entirely to the one it was when it began. I find that exciting.

The coda at the end of the episode was as fun and compelling as I remembered. We are in some (possibly far-distant) future, in which The Man In Black (a genuinely fantastic Ed Harris, its worth watching this show for him alone) is in some dusty ruins under the park, being interrogated by his daughter Emily, who he killed in an earlier season two episode. Death isn’t necessarily death in Westworld, as we have learned before- indeed, a secret purpose to Westworld was delivering immortality for the filthy rich who could afford it (shades of another genre curio, Altered Carbon, there). A subject’s intellect is captured and stored, and then placed into a ‘host’ simulacrum body and tested repeatedly for ‘fidelity’. The idea is that the restored individual thinks they are real and not a copy- once they begin to suspect the reality, the intellect rejects its situation and fails, breaks down, goes insane. The word ‘fidelity’ in the context used here is perfect but chilling, and the standout episode of the season (and one I really must rewatch) concerns the attempts over several decades of testing to restore James Delos, the owner of the Delos corporation whose quest for immortality was the real force behind the Westworld theme park and its research into AI. That particular episode was brilliant, and there are shades of it here. The Man In Black asks his dead daughter “How many times have you tested me?”, to which she replies “It’s been a long time, William. Longer than we thought. I have a few questions for you. The last step’s a baseline interview to allow us to verify.”

“Verify what?” he asks, no doubt suspecting, to which she answers, simply and chillingly, “Fidelity.”

Alas, this last episode of Westword is not enough for me; I haven’t sufficient fidelity to jump into season three just yet. More episodes will be necessary, no doubt, if I can find the time. Which strikes me as a little funny- time is everything in Westworld, character arcs happening in different timelines, and the mortal humans racing against time and death. Here’s me, challenged by time to re-watch this series- as many characters in the show do, I fear I have left it too late.

 

Oh Disney, say it ain’t so!

swAllow me to gripe a little. The Star Wars films -the ‘proper’ Star Wars films- are coming out on 4K UHD at long last. Usually these films finally hitting a format is something major, something to get excited about, but Disney don’t appear to be too excited. To be honest, I’m finding it hard to get too excited myself, either, because having brought the films on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray in the past, this time around I’d really just like to buy my favourite ones:  Rogue One, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and maybe get around to Return of the Jedi if the price was right or lowered in a subsequent sale. But I can’t. Its a box of the ‘Skywalker Saga’, episodes 1 through 9, from Amazon only, or its nothing, and certainly no Rogue One in 4K at all. That’s where we are at here in the UK.

I still cannot get my around the fact that here in the UK, on release day, nobody can walk into a shop and buy those 4K films, even if only in that box. Who could have dreamed that 4K releases of the Star Wars films will have never happened in regular bricks and mortar retail? Maybe physical releases have slipped into obscurity so far already that the fine folks at the remaining HMV stores won’t be too concerned that they cannot make money from selling them. In the old days a major release like this being restricted to Online only would seem crazy, but I guess the times they are a changin’.

The simplest conclusion of course is that Disney isn’t particularly interested, and if that’s what you’re thinking, then I think you’d be right: Disney+ seems to be whats really exciting the mouse these days. Disc releases are so much yesterdays news. Streaming, and subscriptions, seem to be where its at and physical media seems inconvenient at best, possibly on borrowed time at worst. When you can afford to ignore bricks and mortar retail, its clear that streaming is the future you’re really interested in.

I expect the single-disc releases (and a belated Rogue One 4K release) will happen eventually, a few months or so down the line – maybe Amazon’s deal is a six-month exclusive and everything will follow after. The individual films are available in other territories after all, but I’m reminded that there are several Pixar films on 4K that remain unreleased here in the UK (including my favourite, Ratatouille) and there seems no sign they are ever coming. On the evidence of some forums some fans are going the import route but that can be expensive (and putting up with foreign-language packaging seems a nonsensical argument for maintaining with physical media to me).  Me, I guess I’ll be voting with my wallet and saving my money.

And no, Disney, I won’t ponying up my dosh for Disney+ anytime soon either.

 

Returning to Annihilation

anni2Last night I re-watched Alex Garland’s Annihilation, this time on 4K UHD disc rather than streamed on Netflix. The film holds up very well indeed, and remains one of the very best science fiction films in recent memory. Its dark and sombre and horrifying and disturbing. The ending of course is challenging/refreshing/infuriating and I would imagine what people think of the film largely depends on how well they accept such vague and obtuse storytelling. Some of the best science fiction films (looking at you, 2001: A Space Odyssey) leave things open to interpretation and conjecture, leaving some work required from the audience.

What excites me most regards Annihilation‘s ending is that it maintains the sense of the alien, the unknowable, that permeates the entirety of the film. Throughout the film the nature of the Shimmer, its what and why escapes the characters caught up in it. In science fiction films of decades ago (or indeed not even all that long ago), a somebody, whether it be scientist or alien, would be obliged to explain everything in a long monologue to reassure viewers that they are not stupid for not understanding or fathoming it all out, but thank goodness films can be more mature now. Characters in Annihilation offer up suggestions but none of it is ever really taken for truth or final solution. There is a sense that Reality cannot be relied upon, something in the light and the air is wrong and changed and the creatures that exist in this swampish, wooded dreamscape are strange  and twisted. Time seems to pass differently, days can be lost from memory, A monster howls the last screams of one of its victims. Shapes shift under skin, plants sprout from arms, fingerprints shift into new patterns: our bodies betray us (simplest solution: its a film about cancer?). I love that this film leaves it open for me to think about, to ruminate over. There seems all sorts of possibilities and readings to consider on future viewings; I find that exciting. Lena keeps telling her interrogator “I don’t know” when questioned about what happened to her. I don’t know what happens either, but I can have fun thinking about it.

Something fell out of the sky and infected reality with something like cancer, multiplying, creating and destroying without reason, likely without concious intent.

We cannot grasp the real size of the universe or our place in it, and can never really ‘know’ what an alien would be like, or think, if it thought at all. All too often aliens are depicted in film as dudes with Californian accents and a desire for the nearest hot chick (I didn’t intend to reference the opening of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 but I think I just did) and I much rather films go the Giger’s Alien route when they can (the biggest crime of Prometheus is trying to dispel the 1979 films bloody mystery).

So anyway, Annihilation is bloody brilliant. Absolutely loved it. This time I had the added bonus (as I have the film on disc) of being able to watch the extra features and was surprised to discover that they are pretty substantial, totalling close to 90 minutes all told and being really quite informative and not the EPK filler we usually get these days. Behind the scenes footage of some key sequences with insights from cast and crew, some of the pre-production work and as usual Garland is quite open regards how he adapted the original novel (a journey “from suburbia to psychedelia” is one of his observations) and his thoughts on the cast (shame there wasn’t a commentary track though, I suspect Garland would be a great company for a run through the film, but the lack of commentary just perpetuates the mystery I guess).

Great film, though.

UFO (2018)

ufo1A poor man’s Arrival, or a teen Close Encounters, pretty much sums this one up. The casting of Gillian Anderson would seem a stroke of genius, even if it does inevitably turn out to be a relatively minor role- the irony of casting one of the two X-Files stars in this does appear to hold a rather meta-narrative curio over proceedings. The comparison to both Arrival and CE3K though are naturally very obvious but quite instructive too. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is one of my favourite science fiction films of the last few decades and I’ve rewatched it several times now, but its only when you see something like this UFO film that you an really appreciate just how special Arrival is- likewise, it informs just how good Spielberg’s Close Encounters is too.

Its not so much that UFO is particularly bad- its fine enough for what it is. I would suspect that it owes a lot to Arrival in particular, as it uses mathematics as a narrative crux in just the same way as language and linguistics was the central theme of Arrival. Both films establish the presence of aliens from the start- the plots of the films rather about what the aliens want to tell us, or the difficulties in communicating with them.

The plot is patently a combination of both Arrival and Close Encounters: Derek (Alex Sharp) is a brilliant college student who is fascinated by reports of a UFO sighting at Cincinnati airport, using his mathematics expertise to deduce a message in static which interrupted general airport communications and mobile phone services during the short event. Derek has been ‘primed’ for this fascination due to a childhood UFO sighting of his own, but this quickly becomes a Roy Neary-like obsession as he realises a cover-up is in progress, an obsession that threatens to derail his studies and relationship with his girlfriend Natalie (Ella Purnell). When he deduces that a mysterious countdown seems to be in effect, he has to enlist the help of his mathematics professor, Dr. Hendricks (Gillian Anderson). Derek races to unravel the mystery before time runs out, with FBI special agent Franklin Ahls (a sadly under-utilised David Strathairn) on his heels.

Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Personally I’d have been more interested had Gillian Anderson (ageing professor feeling her best work is behind her) had been the central protagonist, galvanised by a discovery by one of her students too young to realise what he had stumbled upon. While that’s possibly the perspective of my own middle-age talking, I do think that would have been a better movie. For one thing, Anderson is (with the possible exception of Strathairn) the strongest actor in this film and it needs her gravitas, and its hard to really identify with an antisocial and slightly irritating teen/young adult protagonist lacking any real need for redemption. The plight of Roy Neary, middle-aged father and husband caught up in events he cannot understand, is the central drive of Close Encounters, and the lonely and socially-weary linguistics expert Louise Banks trying to come to terms with being caught up in world-shattering events is the core of Arrival. Maybe a maths lecturer would be too close to Arrivals linguistics lecturer, I’ll concede that.  I suppose the biggest problem UFO has though is how it ends, which teases much but lacks the grand conclusions of both Arrival and CE3K– its one of those films that, when it fades to black, you just know the credits are up next, the finale lacking any sense of satisfaction. I didn’t hate the ending, but it did leave me feeling mildly irritated that I’d rather wasted the last ninety minutes getting there.