The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

deaddontHere we go, another zombie flick- do we really need another? Well, I liked the setting, and its offbeat, rather kooky feel, which was a little like a Zombie Twin Peaks. If that sounds great to you, then its possibly worth a watch- it certainly appealed to me; oddball characters in a rural, remote setting, there was a lovely mood there. But it doesn’t hold together. The weird thing was, the gentle, almost affectionate tone of the place (“Centerville”) and its laidback characters (this film has a great, albeit terribly wasted cast- Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover etc), seemed quite at odds with some of the grisly, graphic gore, feeling rather like two different movies.

The problem for this film was, if it was a comedy, it wasn’t particularly funny; certainly amusing rather than hilarious, and if it was intended to be a horror film, well, it stumbled throughout. In all honesty, it has all been done before: Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead was both more knowingly arch regards commentary on zombie flicks and also much funnier, while George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was far better with the social commentary. Director Jim Jarmusch is rather heavy-handed here with the zombies returning to favourite old haunts and habits of when they were alive, commentating on consumerism and waste – its fine but it was old years ago, and Romero was much more subtle with it. 

I was also confused by some of the plotlines, as characters seemed to come and go- three children, for instance, escaping from a zombie-infested child detention centre find a house for shelter and aren’t returned to again, its like the screenwriter forgot them and left that arc completely hanging. Other characters are followed for awhile -the three ‘Cleveland Hipsters’- and then we find later them dead, their grisly fate occurring offscreen which may have seemed an arch commentary on horror tropes but just left me feeling… not frustrated exactly, but so many of the cast are just thrown in and then wasted. And I’m still not certain there was any point to Tilda Swinton’s creepy funeral director turning out to be samurai sword-wielding alien who calls a flying saucer to come pick her up. 

In the end, I was left wondering “why?”, you know, what was the point of the whole thing? There’s certainly some reward from the kooky feel of the place and the characters but its all quite wasted- I suppose its a case of the director not really being the right guy for this particular genre mash-up. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else Jim Jarmusch has directed, but I gather his background is more arthouse, indie material than this kind of thing: I suppose how this turned out would be akin to someone like Terrence Malick making a horror film or a sci-fi film- an intriguing idea but not necessarily resulting in a successful movie. Maybe Dan O’Bannon was more of a genius than anybody gave him credit for. 

The Dead Don’t Die has recently arisen from its box-office grave and shambled onto Netflix here in the UK. Possibly worth a shot at Halloween, maybe.

 

The Wave (2015) & The Quake (2018)

thewave2The Wave is a Swedish/Norwegian production, a disaster movie set amongst some of the most beautiful natural scenery one can imagine, and a thoroughly entertaining film which is perhaps, like The Tunnel, only let down by its reliance on those over-familiar tropes which disaster movies always seem to rely on. So we are introduced to a family unit and the central protagonist of the film, Geologist Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner) who alone seems to pick up on signs of an impending disaster and is finally vindicated, sadly, when a mountain pass collapses into the fjord Geiranger, creating a deadly tidal wave 85-metres high that rolls down to a scenic town (and the hotel where his wife works). 

So as far as tropes go, we have Kristian’s unconvinced work comrades, who fail to heed his warnings. We have his marital friction with his beautiful wife Idun (Kathrine Thorborg Jo) who resents him prioritising his work over his family (and possibly also the new job he has taken, which they are in the process of moving home for), and his tense relationship with his teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and his younger daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande, who possibly steals the movie). Inevitably when the disaster occurs and Kristian is proven right, his family is split up and he has to try to ensure their safety by going into danger and saving them from the episodic dramas, surviving all sorts of related dangers ensuing from the tsunami.

While the film feels formulaic and over-familiar (its a lot like the rather glossier San Andreas, but lots of others too) it wins-out thanks to its refreshing, frankly, European setting and its good cast which doesn’t really fit the usual Hollywood mould- none more so than Joner, whose hound-dog everyman is a very ordinary-looking scruffy hero.

Technically the film is pretty well accomplished, with some surprisingly successful visual effects and convincing physical effects, like semi-submerged sets, water damage etc. The episodic nature is just the way things tend to be in these films (we have to get from here to there, and we have to get past this obstacle there etc) and its perhaps unfortunate that the film finally just oversteps the drama with a nod to The Abyss and a drowning/death scene that really slips, as the one The Abyss did, into overwrought nonsense that threatens to spoil everything. 

But on the whole, The Wave works and was successful enough to warrant a sequel, The Quake, in which Kristian’s family find themselves at odds with yet another natural disaster…

So three years have past and the thquakeposterEikjord family unit is more fractured (maybe an unfortunate description, considering what comes) than ever: Idun is divorcing Kristian, who has remained in Gerainger, ridden with guilt for having not successfully warned everyone about the disaster depicted in The Wave, while she with the children have moved to the safer (yeah, good luck with that) location of Oslo where she has a new job in a plush high-rise hotel in the city (whoops). Kristian is finally called to Oslo when a colleague who had reached out to him with vague concerns is killed in an Oslo Tunnel collapse. Investigating his colleagues death with the help of the deceased man’s daughter Marit (Kathrine Thorborg Jo), Kristian discovers indications that a major earthquake is about to strike and as usual, nobody believes him until it happens.

The problem with The Quake is really the same as that of The Wave, except that unfortunately for this film, the sense of over-familiarity is only intensified by it happening to the same family (natural disasters for the Eikjords what bad vacations were for the Griswolds). In what is possibly an acknowledgement of this, the raised stakes here actually result in a real cost, and not all of the Eikjord clan survive this one, a surprise loss that doesn’t really land as possibly intended, but, you know, it at least answers some of the plausibility issues some viewers may have.

Like The Wave, the technical side is very accomplished, and the set-pieces are largely just as thrilling as in the first movie, but they do seem more ridiculous/Hollywood than the more grounded reality of the first film (allusions to San Andreas only more pronounced, here). Curiously, while The Wave had a certain unwise nod to The Abyss, this film has a particular set-piece that features a certain nod to a moment in the second Jurassic Park movie that pushes the term ‘homage’ perhaps a step too far, which is unfortunate because I don’t know why these two films felt the need to nod back to Hollywood blockbusters at all. The films are far better when being more their own thing, but maybe it was inevitable making films like this and feeling the need to compete with glossier Hollywood product.

Both films are pretty good though and well worth anyone’s time, particularly if one has an affinity to the disaster movie genre. I only wonder what the plausibility is of Kristian turning his hand to amateur astronomy and discovering an asteroid on collision course with Norway…

 

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Aniara (2018)

ANIIWell, this was rather bleak- trust a cautionary Swedish sci-fi to suggest that Despair Conquers All rather than Hollywood’s usual Love Conquers All nonsense. It was also quite brilliant, a sci-fi film which is High Concept to its very core. Aniara isn’t perfect by any means, but its absolutely one of the most engrossing sci fi films I’ve seen for quite some time. When the end credits rolled, I was quite dumbstruck, aware that I’d watched something really quite extraordinary. Again, it isn’t perfect- a few performances don’t quite ring true, there are one or two gaps in logic, a few fairly minor plot-holes likely down to being faithful to its 1950s source (and how space travel was envisaged back then), but its easy to forgive all that when the film as a whole succeeds so well.  

Based on a 1956 epic poem from the Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, its a really ambitious film that imagines the possible end of humanity at the macro level (humanity abandoning a destroyed Earth to seek possible survival on Mars) and the micro (the steady disintegration of a closed society of colonists trapped on a doomed space vessel). The Aniara is an implausibly gigantic colony ship that ferries survivors from Earth to a life on Mars, but this usually routine three-week voyage is interrupted by a catastrophic impact of space debris, damaging the ships engines and sending it wildly off course. The ships captain desperately attempts to maintain calm when he reveals to his passengers that the incident threatens to extend the voyage by as much as two years while a route back to Mars can be found. 

The beauty of Aniara is how mundane this future is. The colony ship is like a modern cruise ship, a hotel in space full of restaurants and arcades and clubs and theatres designed to entertain colonists for a three-week trip and presumably distract them from the cold reality of space travel and the hard life awaiting them on Mars. But following the incident that damages the Aniara, it is now an enclosed society within a fantasy façade, as if the colonists are suddenly trapped in a failing Disneyland during an Apocalypse. Its the Earth they thought they had all escaped in microcosm, dying all over again.

Aniara throws in ruminations of our place in the cosmos, the passengers increasingly fragile human psyches struggling to cope, collapsing in the face of Eternity and the vastness of the void that has trapped them. It purports an AI which elects for self-destruction rather than continue suffering the pain of increasingly damaged minds it is designed to heal. This subtext, of a suicidal AI unable to face its fate, is mirrored in the reactions of many of the colonists. As time wears them down and the Aniara’s enclosed, trapped society threatens to collapse, the whole fragments, people turning to religion and cults, the sheer physical escape of orgy’s or drugs or drink, while the more desperate souls taking the brutal path of anxiety, depression and suicide. 

Its, er, not an optimistic film. I could easily summarise the film -and I’m sure many have- as Wall-E crossed with the original Solaris movie: indeed it really feels like its from some other era, back when sci-fi films were more cautionary, like Soylent Green or Silent Running, and yet it feels so very timely, reflecting our society and how we live, how we cope through seeking escape from our realities.

Its also one of those films that is made Great by its ending, which I can’t really explain here because I always try to keep my reviews spoiler free when I can, but you know, the ending is perfect. Comparing it to the end of Citizen Kane is possibly misleading, but if you know how that film ends, how its revelation makes the film truly great and leaves it lingering in your head for days afterward, then you might have an idea what I mean. There is no real twist or shock in Aniara‘s ending, but its the perfect denouncement, perfectly sensical and satisfying even if it isn’t exactly reassuring. But yeah, its PERFECT and its haunting me- you just cannot leave this film behind. 

The Boat (2018)

tboat2This film is so easily summed up (one can imagine the pitch): Stephen King’s Christine (one of my favourite books, growing up) out on the ocean. A fisherman, ‘the sailor’ (Joe Azzopardi) gets lost in dense fog, his small boat literally bumping into a luxury yacht in the murk. The fisherman calls out but nobody responds, and after tying his boat alongside, he explores the vessel and discovers the yacht is abandoned. Mystified, he moves to return to his own boat but finds it has become untethered and drifting away in the current, trapping him on the yacht. Convinced someone must be onboard after all (how else to explain his knots becoming undone), he sets on another search but again, he finds no-one. But he’s not alone.

Strange accidents and occurrences happen and it becomes clear that this yacht is a bitch (like Christine) or a bastard (like the truck in Duel) out to kill its unwelcome new crewman. Yep, the yacht is possessed; its presumably killed its previous occupants and the fisherman is next. The fog clears and, marooned on the yacht he tries to commandeer it and head for shore (wherever it is, as he realises he is lost out in the ocean and the radio doesn’t work).

Its a simple idea and at times a very involving character piece, but it struggles to maintain its premise for the length of a movie, labouring its concept (a section of the film with him  locked in a toilet cubicle inside the hold of the ship is more interminable than it is tense). I did like the film though. Its really haunted (sic) by too much familiarity to other books and films, but it certainly feels like it could be a great Stephen King novel that he has yet to write. I felt a little cheated that our lonely hero doesn’t find an old logbook which might possibly explain the mystery a little (which itself might have formed a flashback to help fill the running time, but that’s possibly where budgetary issues raise their head).

Stephen King didn’t just show how bad Christine was, he explained it, or at least suggested an explanation- The Boat leaves its evil yacht a mystery; call me a cynic, but I rather suspect this was a deliberate move by the film-makers to leave room for a prequel or sequel. How very post-Millennium.

Predator (4K UHD)

pred4kIts easy to forget, as time rolls on, just how wild and special the 1980s were for those of us growing up back then, and just how bloody good films were (I’m conveniently ignoring turkeys like Howard the Duck, admittedly, to make my point, but…).

Even ignoring the glorious summer of 1982 and its own remarkable crop of genre classics, we were graced with two Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones trilogy, Terminator, Robocop, The Abyss, Die Hard, Tim Burton’s Batman and so many others. We had Arnie, we had Sly, crikey, we didn’t know how good we had it: and I’m often surprised just how well so many of those 1980s films hold up still, all things considered, and are often clearly superior to all the remakes/reboots/sequels that they have been mined for over the decades since by an increasingly imagination-bereft Hollywood. Maybe films back then benefited from their photochemical, technological limitations, which grounded them in ways that contemporary films fail to be.

Case in point: Predator, a film which arguably looks better here on 4K UHD than it ever has, in a pretty gorgeous presentation: plenty of grain, yes, but also a delicious ‘pop’ graced from some of the highlights through HDR with a pleasing sense of depth and tactile reality. I rather felt like I was watching it for the first time, back in the cinema again. Of course, the image quality is only the icing on the cake: the film itself is a high-testosterone, gory and over-the-top majestic action spectacle, a high-octane b-movie. Tautly wound, it doesn’t waste a moment and its a magnificent example of Arnie in his absolute prime. Actually, I had to double-check the year Predator came out, because looking at Arnie’s physique in this film -he’s pretty huge- reminded me so much of his 1982 Conan The Barbarian (how dearly I’d love to see THAT in 4K) that one could be forgiven thinking he’d made Predator directly after that John Milius sword and sorcery epic.

I’d forgotten just how good Predator is though. Its simply glorious stuff, even the cheesy, 1980s-at-their-worst stuff feels like a breath of fresh air after the last several years of anodyne Hollywood blockbusters. Stogie-chomping Duke (Arnie) and old war-buddy-in-a-tie Dillon (Carl Weathers) can’t say hello without flexing their biceps for a contest of physical prowess. Jesse Ventura chewing up the scenery along with his beef jerky. Big guns! Big explosions! Boy this film is loud. The glorious Alan Silvestri score that reminds just how great movie scores could be, and how much we’ve lost with what they have lately become. By the time Arnie yelled “Get to the Chopper!” I howled with joy and high-fived my wife. What a ride this film was in 4K. Absolutely thoroughly enjoyed it and there’s no better way to experience it than in this new 4K incarnation.

Recent Additions

P1110248 (2)Buying films on disc is still ‘A Thing’ but as you can see from the snap I’ve taken of my recent purchases, rather than new films my eye is in the rear view mirror and past films that I’ve seen before (and yes, bought before on previous formats). At least I’ve managed to resist the Indiana Jones set just recently released on 4K. No doubt its time will come eventually but one has to draw the line somewhere (sorry, Indy).

So anyway; I rationalised buying the Toy Story 4K box because I never bought Toy Story 4 on disc and this long-overdue box release is the most cost-effective way of going 4K on these Pixar classics. The Predator 4K box has just come back into stock at a reduced price (I missed the opportunity prior to Christmas) and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is just one of those films… well, I bought it on R1 DVD so many moons ago and then again on Blu-Ray… maybe this is the last time (my wallet certainly hopes so). As a film lover some films just, well, they drive us crazy and we lose all common sense and go all Gollum (“I must have it, my precious!”). Lastly I managed to pick up Murder on the Orient Express on 4K for less than a tenner- its a film I saw on a rental that I really enjoyed, and at the time I was wondering how gorgeous it would look in 4K so I’ll find out soon enough. I just noticed that I watched that rental nearly three years ago!

And here’s a shocker- I’ve actually gone and bought two films on digital. I know, I know, shock, horror, that’s Hell freezing over, but I couldn’t resist testing the water with some bargains on Amazon. I bought well-regarded indie sci-fi Prospect for 99p in HD, and a HD copy of Aniara, a Swedish sci-fi film that I’ve been curious about for just £1.99. I don’t think digital will ever be a Big Deal for me, I’ll always prefer films on disc but at those prices (must be the digital equivalent of the Bargain Bin), what’s not to like? If I watch something I absolutely adore I’ll just get the disc version and won’t have lost much financially. Mind, I still feel like I’ve crossed the Rubicon.

3 Days to Kill (2014)

The acclaimed directors McG and Luc Besson team-up to make a thrilling film… no, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Lucas and Spielberg teaming up for Raiders. Those were the days…

Goodness, those WERE the days, weren’t they? Look at us now: the Mouse owns Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar. Anyway, I digress; back to McG and Besson and….

Who calls themselves ‘McG’ anyway? That’d be like Spielberg using the moniker of ‘SS’ (er, okay, maybe not…) or Ridley Scott signing himself off as ‘Directed by Ridders’. Whoops. I’m digressing again.

Its always this way when I’m struggling to find anything to say about a movie. 3 Days To Kill: well, its terribly juvenile, quite insultingly silly. Its a spy caper of sorts, about some Yanks living in Paris and bringing with them violent gunfights and car chases, with maybe a European twist (that’d be the purple bicycle). Its something to do with the CIA and terrorists with a nuclear bomb, or parts for one, and in particular a creepy terrorist with an accountant. Ethan Runner (Kevin Costner) is a Secret Service agent with a license to kill (wrong franchise?) only he’s getting on a bit and is suffering a terminal illness (we know this because he coughs and suffers blackouts/dizzy spells at inopportune times). I spent the film hoping he’d suffer a dizzy spell/blackout whilst spending the night with his sexy wife/ex Tina (Connie Nielsen) because I thought that might be funny to see a tough-guy killing machine rendered impotent by illness but maybe that’s more suited to a Woody Allen spy caper. But I digress. Back to the plot, such as it is. With only weeks/months to live, Ethan has come to Paris to attempt to reconnect with his estranged family and his daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) because he’s had some kind of epiphany watching old home movies (this film is really deep). Anyway, Ethan is suddenly offered a miracle cure for his illness by his new CIA handler, Vivi, offering him new hope so in-between his clunky attempts to reconnect with his estranged family he fills any spare time with chasing down his old adversary and smashing up Paris.

I’m not certain what’s dafter; the timely magic syringe or Amber Heard as Vivi DeLay, Ethan’s teenage new handler. Well,, okay, obviously its Amber Heard and she’s not quite a teen. But she’s terrible. I suppose to be fair, its a fairly thankless role. She’s some desk-jockey turned espionage savant/poor-man’s Sharon Stone. Actually, its the kind of role that Sharon Stone would have brilliant for- smart, beautiful, sexy, dangerous, experienced, she could have chewed up the scenery and left Costner begging for mercy. Instead, Vivi is the usual pretty, incredibly well-dressed vacuous young whipper-snapper who has done nothing but breezes around like a… what’s the term… a Mary Sue, that’s it: imagine Rey from the Disney Star Wars movies bossing a deadly assassin around who’s old enough to be her grandad, and you’re watching thinking, how come she’s not going out and doing the dirty work herself, she’s so obviously perfect? And yeah, maybe thinking like me, ‘where’s Sharon Stone?’

This is such a silly movie that’s absurdly confident that it should be taken seriously; it tries SO HARD. It fails so spectacularly. Such a shame what happened to Kevin Costner- no actor with his credentials deserves to be in films like this. But it pays the bills I guess.

Invasion Day (2013)

invdayInvasion Day (aka Dragon Day)… where to begin? China gets worried that America can’t repay its huge national debt so switches off every microchip ‘made in China’ through a devious backdoor wi-fi signal, practically killing every technological device in America. Cars fail, planes fall out of the sky, power-grids fail, mobile phones go dead, water supplies fail. America is under new management, people – sign up to China’s Red Brotherhood or forget ever having a shower again or your toilet flushing.

Its Red Dawn without the heroic fight back or without invading troops- literally, its an invasion movie without an invading army, which I suppose some might consider radical and ingenious, if only the film had a budget of any note or was executed at all well. Considering the Chinese Menace at the heart of the film its curious that I think there’s only one Chinese or Asian actor in the film (and I’m not certain if he even had any lines). The acting is terrible, the screenplay risible… its all pretty horrible. 

 

Should you really hate yourself, Invasion Day is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, further proof of the mediocre quality control of streaming services in their desperate need of content.

Farewell, Marooned

I’d watched Marooned (1969) once before; it would have been late-‘seventies, or early ‘eighties, certainly post-Star Wars, and on a network screening as part of a film-season of sci-fi movies, something which happened quite a lot back then. Over the decades since, I’ve occasionally seen moments of it again during subsequent television airings. Its not a film that has aged particularly well, even if it did win the 1970 Academy Award for Special Visual Effects, something which is perhaps indicative of how much of a game-changer Star Wars would be several years later. Its littered with numerous technical goofs, too, which unfortunately undermines much of the sense of reality the film gains by using NASA assets and locations.

Watching it again this one, last time (hence this being one of my ‘Farewell…’ posts) the thing that struck me the most, and which was evidently lost on my young self way back when, was the cast. Marooned has a pretty amazing cast, largely wasted, mind, in what quickly degenerates into formulaic melodrama, but seems to indicate some ambition behind the film: Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, David Jansen, James Franciscus, Lee Grant, Nancy Kovack and Mariette Hartley (who was a childhood crush of mine from her appearance in 1960s Star Trek). 

It is a pretty great cast, there, indeed- certainly one better than the material they have to work with, although it really has a great premise for a space movie, and indeed very prescient, predating the Apollo 13 mission of 1970 and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003, both of which lend a weight to situations in Marooned. Indeed, there are some moments which are so similar to moments in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 that one almost does a doubletake. A case of movie events mimicking real-life events that mimicked a movie. Likewise having read a book about the Columbia disaster and possible ways a rescue could have theoretically been attempted in better circumstances, its strange to see some of those proposals being dramatized in a film shot decades earlier. How extraordinary it might have seemed had Columbia’s crew been saved  in similar fashion to the rescue shown in Marooned.

What ultimately undermines Marooned is Hollywood’s understandable ignorance, of the time, of the space program and the mechanics of space travel, and of course natural technical obstacles for film-makers of the time (Kubrick’s 2001 notwithstanding). But certainly the public ignorance of the space program of the time is clearly evident as the film attempts to explain the what, where and how’s which would become largely commonplace years later but was quite alien and extraordinary in a world without digital watches or electronic calculators. 

Marooned strikes me as a film with a great, thrilling and enthralling premise that largely fails in execution- even after the popularity and success of the Apollo 13 film, there’s likely some traction in another film someday following in Marooned‘s celluloid footsteps- although I suppose one could cite The Martian as evidence that’s already been and gone.