Party like it’s 1989: Pet Sematary

pet1I saw Pet Sematary back in 1989 at the cinema, and while I enjoyed it the thing I took most from it was the films gorgeous, ghostly score by a then-new rising star among film composers, Elliot Goldenthal: the score was part-Poltergeist, part something else entirely, and was a big part of the film’s success for me. Strangely enough, I’ve never seen the film again since… which raises the question-  just how well does it hold up today?

Well, I must say it’s really rather mixed. Biggest issue for me (but possibly a bonus for others) is the fact that the screenplay was written by the books author, Stephen King. Now, what makes for a great, engrossing horror book is quite different to what makes a great, engrossing film- books and film are entirely different media and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other, in just the same way as some things that work in a Marvel comic just don’t in a Marvel movie. The Pet Sematary film would be just perfectly fine without Victor Pascow’s ghost, persistent ghoul that he is, dropping in with regular ghostly warnings, or daughter Ellie’s own warning nightmares- it’s all quite unnecessary and threatens to tip the film into parody (it’s just a pity Ellie didn’t warn daddy not to buy the house in the first place). In the book I’m sure it’s all harmless and part of the creepy fun (it’s been a long, long time since I read the novel- well before I saw the film*) but in the film it’s just a little too much on the nose, more subtlety would have been preferable to me and helped avoid the film tipping into the fantastic. Also, does Rachel really need the hokey subplot about her deformed sister Zelda and the guilt over her death complicating things even further? Fans of King likely differ from my opinion, feeling that the film is more authentic as a King film, but it reminds me of King’s disdain for Kubrick’s The Shining, which works brilliantly as a horror film in its own right but differs from King’s source novel. Kubrick knew what worked in film, and must have struggled with some of King’s material- the film has a life all its own, as it stands, but is not by any means Stephen King’s The Shining- its really Kubricks, and that’s how it should be.

Coming back to this film after near thirty years and being older (maybe wiser) I must say, I was surprised just how thoroughly nasty and unnerving Pet Sematary is. The central premise- childhood experience of death, mortality and the overwhelming parents grief from losing a child and the almost blasphemous, Frankenstein-like horror of bringing loved ones back from the dead- it’s quite heady stuff and genuinely unsettling. King’s excess in having scary dead sisters, friendly ghosts offering dire warnings and chummy old men with dark secrets they just can’t keep to themselves just threatens to overload what should be a chilling and very personal horror. Its a relentlessly morbid film, for all its faults, and as far as horror films go, I find that oddly rewarding.

What really doesn’t help the film is some of the casting- both Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby, pretty as they are, are pretty dire, hopelessly wooden and not helped by sharing a shocking lack of chemistry while they try to carry off some of King’s dialogue and plot twists. Its almost hilarious how they are completely out-acted by then-two year old child actor Miko Hughes as their unfortunate son, Cage. He’s cute, charming and natural in ways that Midkiff and Crosby simply aren’t. To be fair to them, they would likely have benefitted without the film’s insistence of them having ghostly visitors and guilty childhood baggage.

Pet Sematary reminds me that Stephen King’s work exists in a world all of its own- hugely popular as his books may be, most of the time the situations and characters have no similarities to how real people would behave. I guess he can get away with it in books but in film, I really think he’s pushing it, and that’s where this film suffers for me. Sure, have a young family suffer a terrible tragedy and yes, let the grief and terror push them into trying to beat death and nature to a horrible end, but don’t chuck in the horror equivalents of the kitchen sink regards ghosts and nightmares and deformed sisters etc. In just the same ways as dead is sometimes better, so less is often more.

*I was a huge fan of King’s books back in the day, but over the years his prolific nature (and lack of a decent editor) meant I simply couldn’t keep up, and haven’t read much of his work for some years.

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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.

 

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.

 

Bohemian Rhapsody 4K UHD (2018)

bohem1.jpgWell, you can’t accuse the producers of this film of letting the truth get in the way of a really good story. Basically a sanitised story about the great rock band Queen, it definitely is not a warts-and-all biopic of its frontman Freddie Mercury. The fascinating drama I expected, of drugs, sex and rock and roll and living life to the max isn’t really here. Instead this film follows a somewhat pedestrian, formulaic narrative of four outsiders creating a legendary rock band, ts various plot threads leading to a somewhat dubious finale in which the band single-handedly saves Live Aid, the recreation of which is pretty astonishing (but as a finale it feels too obvious/manufactured).

So in some ways it does seem to be a terribly wasted opportunity- on the other hand, though, it’s simply a great yarn simply told, with an absolutely killer soundtrack of classic songs throughout. Its pretty much nigh on irresistible.

I’m not a die-hard fan of the band so I’m certainly no expert, but I’m pretty certain some of the timeline is questionable, and to be honest there was a point midway through at which I just felt I was being taken for a mug but should just go along with it. The film feels more of a rock and roll fantasy than a docu-drama, and the way it manipulates with close-up shots of smiling, happy faces towards the end, tieing up any loose ends with valedictory character beats for Freddie’s freinds, family and colleagues, feels awfully… managed, even cynical. We’re going to have a happy, positive flag-waving finale even though we know where Freddie’s own story is ultimately heading: it’s only a movie and this one isn’t going to end like Philadelphia (which may be a pity, really, because that was deeply powerful, and maybe this film might have benefited from doing that- but this just isn’t that movie).

Its a decidedly PC-era film about a decidedly un-PC era, leaving me wondering if there’s a danger nowadays of us rewriting history simply to make it more palatable. I’ve read and heard of some pretty incredible stories of bands and rock stars in the 1970s- drugs, sex, wild parties, great music, monumental fights, terrible scandals; but how much of that can you get way with now without upsetting/insulting/horrifying the tender audiences of today’s more enlightened society? I’ve read of some of Freddies parties, the wild debauchery of which could be hugely extravagant and ridiculous but there is little to suggest that here other than people getting drunk and playing music loud. Then again, we might know that it all happened, but do we need to see it, does it add anything to the narrative in a film where we aren’t really getting into who Freddie was? Instead he remains an icon, and something of an enigma- and a fantastic performer and musician. I just think its a little unfortunate that the film is so obviously intent on protecting Freddie and his legacy when it doesn’t really need to- his fans know everything and love him all the more. He was human, flawed and fragile and hugely charismatic and talented- we get a glimpse of the ‘real’ Freddie but not all we might have in a more daring film.

But what the hell, it’s still a hell of a story.

 

 

The Big Lebowski 4K UHD

big2There’s something wonderfully endearing about this Coen Brothers film, that gives it the feeling of a warm blanket- its a film to wrap yourself in, enjoy the great cast, the wonderful dialogue, the gentle whimsy of it all. Nothing feels, well, convincingly real somehow- it’s all very dreamlike, a fable, or perhaps an adult fairytale. Even though it’s only twenty years old, it feels oddly old-fashioned, a reminder of a period when I saw films like this and Boogie Nights and Magnolia– great films, I was being spoiled back then and I didn’t appreciate how much. Its curious how much these three films in particular shared a common cast, how, say, Aimee Mann turns up in a cameo in this and then her songs form such a backbone to the mood and soundtrack of Magnolia.

Indeed, maybe it’s those twenty years but there is such a tangible feel of the ‘good old days’ here. Hearing Shawn Colvin’s cover of Viva Las Vegas over the Big Lebowski end-credits was a call-back to me buying her albums back then; I was a huge fan of her Fat City album in 1992, and have bought all her albums since, but hearing her voice here was a sudden jolt. I don’t recall her song from watching the film before. Yeah, I know, twenty years. Its a bit like how surprised I was to see Aimee’s cameo, I didn’t remember it at all. Aimee was another favourite singer of mine from that era (discovered from her featuring in Time Stand Still, from Rush’s 1987 album Hold Your Fire (it’s one of my favourite songs)) so again, rewatching this film brings back all that stuff.

Where did all those years go? The cast, too, is a blast from the past- Jeff Bridges has always been a favourite, but I’d forgotten that Philip Seymour Hoffman was in this- he looks so young here, so while it was a shock seeing him here, it was also a painful reminder of his untimely passing.  Of course he’s one of the cast members who turned up in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Christ he was a brilliant actor. He’s kind of young and bubbly in The Big Lebowski and it’s a sweet role for him. John Goodman nearly steals the film, which is saying something considering the cast around him- I think this is possibly one of his best performances, it just clicks. I suppose much of this is the perfect chemistry between him, Bridges and a shockingly young-looking Steve Buscemi (what a cast this film had!). The scenes these three have together (“shut the f–k up, Donny!”) are brilliant slices of perfection.

So anyway, The Big Lebowski– maybe you’re here to see how the 4K UHD holds up. It looks brilliant, a fine example of what the format can add to catalogue titles. Maybe stating that the film has never looked so good is beyond stating the obvious- detail is great, colours are vibrant. There is a lovely texture to it, the grain being captured and maintained without any DNR that I could see. There is a nice use of HDR in this too, which is something people look for, while forgetting that these films originally didn’t have any HDR treatment either theatrically or on DVD or Blu-ray releases. It certainly adds a nice vibrancy and ‘pop’ but I do sometimes wonder if its wholly warranted- it works here anyway, not distracting at all, it just adds to the visual quality of the film.

I only bought the film before on R1 DVD back when it first came out, and haven’t seen it in years, so can’t really comment on how it compares (an unfair comparison anyway, really). I did try the accompanying Blu-ray, which I hadn’t seen before. This is an old disc so based on an old master, but it’s where all the extras lie hence it warrants its inclusion with the UHD.  Even with the Blu-ray being automatically upscaled to 4K (any comparisons I make between Blu-ray and 4K are hamstrung by this) its clear there are issues with the master or encoding with the Blu-ray. It looks pretty ugly. Ouch, I sound like a 4K snob.

Regardless, I’m sure The Big Lebowski would work brilliantly on VHS on a b&w television. Its just a great film. The dude abides, indeed.

On that last thought, if I admit to feeling guilty even mentioning it, can I get away with wishing for a ‘twenty years later…’ sequel?  I just can’t help but be curious regards the dude now, what the hell would he think of America, and the world, where would he fit in, how would he even survive, out on the fringes, on the outside looking in on the current madhouse? I think we need the dude.