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.

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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.

Love, Death & Robots (2019) Pt.1

Well I never saw this coming- its strange in this Information Age when something just drops suddenly (in this case, on Netflix) as if from nowhere, and it just amazes. Love, Death & Robots is a sci-fi anthology series of eighteen animated shorts ranging from just six to seventeen minutes in length, with a list of producers that includes David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club etc) and Tim Miller (Deadpool) and some of the very best animation studios from all around the world. As its an anthology show each  episode is seperate so they can be watched in any order, which is an approach I’ve taken. I’ve watched three episodes and while the stories may not be groundbreaking, the visuals truly are- this stuff is jaw dropping, frankly, especially in 4K and Dolby Vision, which helps those visuals leap from the screen. So anyway, here’s my take on this first three-

dsr2“Beyond the Aquila Rift”: I started with this one because the synopsis -a space crew wakes up from cryo-sleep to find they’ve gone way, way off course, seemed intriguing and the art style from the image alongside the synopsis looked like pretty sophisticated photo-realistic CG. Well, that image didn’t lie- this looks pretty phenomenal and features the first graphic CG-animated sex scene that I think I’ve ever seen. The sex, it seems, is a common theme that runs throughout the Love, Sex & Robots anthology – this is clearly some kind of love-letter to the 1970s Metal Hurlant magazine (and later Heavy Metal), the series as visually opulent as the artwork featured in that magazine in its prime. I watched this thinking back to that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie (which I always had a soft spot for). It was a reminder that that last years Amiga 500 is this years ZX Spectrum, because time marches on and so does CG animation. We’re still in Uncanny Valley territory but its really impressive and the design work leaves it looking like a Mass Effect movie (no bad thing that, and I suspect there is going to be a videogame-visuals trend in some of this series). As for that story, well, its based on a sci-fi short and while its twist hardly startles, I did appreciate some of the touches in the direction and visuals- indeed, at the end the big reveal is gently teased through use of light and shadow in a very clever way, the lighting catching parts of a character’s form to suggest one thing before the horror unfolds as it moves further into the light. This episode is one of the longer ones, and while it pushes the limits of its story, its short enough not to out-stay its welcome, thankfully minus any padding- likely due to the cost per second of all that rendering time, which may benefit the series as a whole. Anyway, having dabbled, I was hooked. Seems Love, Death & Robots may dominate my weekend- I followed this episode with…

dsr1“Three Robots” : Based on a short story by John Scalzi, it features our three titular robots enjoying a tour through a post-apocalyptic landscape, apparently on a holiday checking out the sights of what humanity left behind. Visually it’s in a similar photo-realistic vein as “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, but has a gentle humorous vibe rather at odds with the desolate scenery littered with skeletons. This is a much shorter episode and benefits from this – even at this point I’d suggest that the way the series just lets episodes runs their natural course without arbitrarily setting a minimum of 20 minutes, say, is one of its biggest strengths. This episode is really quite fun with a nice twist that left a smile on my face.

dsr3“The Witness”: With this very short episode, it’s clearly all about the visuals rather than anything like a story- it’s basically just a chase scene, but one that is just simply jaw-dropping visually, really cementing the Heavy Metal feel of the series. Written and directed by artist Alberto Mielgo it’s possibly a glimpse of the future of animation- lovely touches like dodgy focus, blooming exposure, camera crash-zooms and jitter, almost as if Mielgo got himself a virtual go-pro and shot some scenes from inside a computer simulation. It has a tactile, you-are-there feel, how frantic and energised it is. I expect most people get distracted by the semi-nudity etc but I was swept away by the setting, the buildings etc. Its breathtaking, frankly- not photo-realistic but somewhere between that and hand-drawn anime. Reminded me of one or two of the better Animatrix shorts. I haven’t seen Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse yet but this did seem similar to that in style from what I remember from that film’s trailer.

So Love, Death & Robots seems pretty solid so far. Really enjoying it.

Ugly Alien

alien4kHere’s a definite pre-order, one of my favourite films of all time, in 4K UHD. But what an ugly bloody cover. What is it with cover art these days? I would have hoped, considering how niche/film collector-oriented that premium discs on 4K are in these streaming-dominated days, that the studios might consider showing some effort, if only in releasing catalogue films with their original poster art (which is something after all that would likely appeal to original fans and collectors). Instead we get all sorts of nonsense (can’t say I was particularly impressed by the recent 4K Superman: The Movie either, much preferring that films original Bob Peak art) and this Alien one seems  particularly bad. It doesn’t represent the dark mood of the original film at all. A really missed opportunity considering how definitive 4K discs are supposed to be in representing the films at their very best (and in all likelihood in the final physical format that the films will ever be released on). Sure, ultimately its the film that counts rather than the box it comes in, but the whole point of physical is how it looks and feels as a overall package. alien4k2I’m really a fan of going back to original poster art (particularly with catalogue films, as in the old days, posters were usually given some thought and attention compared to the routine photoshop clones we get today). The original Alien poster was stark, menacing, and dripped mystery and warning while being very enigmatic. And the film was never all about the Alien itself in my book- it was the setting and the mood and the characters.

So anyway, my copy of Alien in 4K is obviously ordered but I do wish they had given some thought to that cover- or perhaps offered a double-sided sleeve with the original art on the reverse to allow the alternative if required?

Or maybe I’m just distracting myself from the really horrific fact that the film is celebrating its 40th Anniversary, and all the years that entails for someone like me who remembers its original release (I wasn’t old enough to see it over here at it got saddled with a ‘X’ certificate at the time but I was so fascinated from the film magazines and the tie-in novelization etc). Seems every time a film gets announced its another sobering reminder (The Abyss finally seems to be coming on HD & UHD now that this year marks its thirtieth anniversary- I was listening to the deluxe soundtrack the other day and could recall buying the original OST cd and listening to it, as if it were only yesterday, only it’s not yesterday, far from it). I seem to marking my middle-age by all the films I saw in the cinema ‘back in the day etc’ hitting anniversaries that are really pretty sobering when I think about it.

 

Reboot Fatigue

Well, its not just reboots, I guess sequels/prequels and other spin-offs could all be lumped into the same category, as they are all pretty much the same thing. As I wearily suffered the further death-throes of the Predator franchise this weekend, I was reminded of just how many of the movies I saw in my childhood continue to linger around in some shape or other. We’ve had Alien films, Predator films, far too many variations of web-slingers and caped crusaders. Warner Bros continue to struggle with bringing back The Matrix. No doubt we are due another incarnation of the Batman. We have seen yet another Halloween (well, I haven’t yet but I guess I will see it eventually), there’s a new Top Gun in the works, more Godzilla and King Kong, more Avatar, another West Side Story, more Bad Boys, more MIB, another Terminator timeline, and even (perhaps unlikeliest of all) a Passion of the Christ sequel, which goes to show those folks that own the rights to Spartacus that even a crucifixion needn’t spell the end of any franchise.

I’m told that a remake of Jacobs Ladder has been shot. That’s just so wrong, I just hope it’s some kind of social media filmnut modern myth, or that its as bad as I fear and that it languishes in a film vault somewhere, so bad that even Netflix refuse to bail it’s studio out.

Name any Disney animated classic and I’d say its a safe bet it’s getting a live-action remake soon (anyone else see a blue Will Smith playing the genie in Aladdin and freak out a little? There ain’t nothing someone won’t do to make some money).

And the Marvel films continue to storm the box office, so there’s no end in sight for the comic-book/superhero genre. Must confess I reckoned on that particular bubble having burst by now, more fool me. Not that I think those films are bad, they are wholly entertaining for the most part, but they are hanging an uncomfortable shadow over film-making in general. Mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery in tinseltown, and you can see studios trying to shape their own properties in the Marvel mould all the time- no film gets made now without an eye on the five that could follow it.

Of course I’ve moaned about this kind of thing before here, in many posts over the years. And nothing I write will be anything new or cause any change, but the last few days have had me in a pretty dark mood.

I love movies. Have done most of my life, probably even before Star Wars blew me away back in 1978, but I generally mark that film as the cause of all those many thousands of hours watching films since. There is considerable truth in the argument that Star Wars saved the film industry (back then, cinemas were going the same direction that pubs are going now) but there is also some truth to the argument that Star Wars was the start of films becoming more business than art. Well, thats a sweeping generalisation, as films have always been business, whatever Hollywood historians may say, and the Oscar never did mean anything beyond Hollywood politics. But the quality of American Cinema of the 1970s and what amounts to American Cinema is today is telling. Where is our next Taxi Driver? Our next Godfather or Apocalypse Now? Our next Three Days of the Condor? There’s probably more chance of them turning up on HBO or Netflix than there is them turning up at the local cineplex.

(So no, Mr Spielberg, I love most of your films but I think you may be wrong trying to keep Netflix away from the Oscars, as if those ‘awards’ really mean anything anymore).

The deep irony is that the film I am most looking forward to, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, is not just one film but two, and is a (sideways) remake of not just a 1984 film but two mini-series that followed it. At least it’s not a remake of a classic film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, instead it returning to a property that merits another attempt, as the Lynch film was horribly flawed. I suppose you could correctly argue its based on the book, not the Lynch film, but as the makers of the Dredd film found, it’s always hard to break the shackles of earlier film attempts.

Hopefully Dune will be great. But I am certain that there are many other fine science fiction books, old classics and new ones unknown to me, that would make fantastic movies, if only some studio had the nerve to take a punt on one. Unfortunately, it would be easier if it was already a comic or a tv show or old movie that somebody already knew.

Instead, more sequels, more reboots, more remakes. Mind, in a world where so many ‘new’ properties crash and burn, its inevitable I suppose. I remain curious regards Mortal Engines (disc pre-ordered), as it at least looked pretty different, but maybe it was too different, as it managed a paltry $83 million worldwide on a purported $100+ million cost ($250 million to just break even?). Films, I think, cost too much money today, and I imagine that’s where the real problem lies. BR2049 managed nearly $260 million worldwide, a respectable figure for an adult, cerebral  sci-fi film based on a 1980s flop- but it unfortunately cost $150 million to make, muddying the prospects of any future films.

(I adore BR2049 but even I would contend it would be just as fine had its ambitions had been reined in a little bit into a $100 million film- but then again, it’s just what these films cost now, the scales are enormous, just the cast alone. And who’s going to go out and watch a film with a cast of unknowns, is that even a thing anymore?).

I am curious regards box-office though. I’d love to see home video sales/digital rentals/downloads added to a films initial box office, as I suspect that might be quite illuminating, but we never see those figures, don’t know why (or maybe I’m not looking in the right places).

Anyway, how did we get here? I’m off on some weird tangent again. Oh yes, reboots etc.

Mark Wahlberg is going to be The Six Billion Dollar Man, apparently. I think I’ll stop right there, and rest my case. Be assured however, this Reboot Fatigue post will no doubt get a sequel all of its own, or maybe a genuine reboot. Its sadly inevitable, just like I Spit On Your Grave: Deja Vu (I nearly choked on my toast when I saw that trailer, who the hell thinks up this garbage?).