The Limehouse Golem (2017)

golemThe Limehouse Golem has a problem: I guessed its secrets fairly early on. I guessed who the Golem was and why the murders were happening. For a film that is centrally a Victorian murder mystery, that’s something of a problem, especially if I’m not alone in rumbling the game so early (otherwise I suppose I’ve watched far too many movies and its getting too easy to ‘read’ them).

Fortunately for this film, there are pleasures here besides that central mystery. Set in a benighted, misty Victorian London the film is sumptuously staged; rich in gaudy colours and vividly ruddy murders, with a production design to immerse in really. This is, to be sure, a filthy London that you swear you could almost smell. Not quite a Tarantino take on Charles Dickens, but its halfway there and gives a suggestion of what that might be like if ever the Ripper took Tarantino’s muse.

Of course, whatever the films faults, Bill Nighy leading a movie is something to be cherished, frankly, and he’s in fine form here as John Kildare, a detective brought in to work on a murder case that seems doomed to failure in just the same way as the Jack the Ripper case would in real London a few years later- the parallels between the cases are deliberate throughout. Kildare is an outsider in the force and knows full well that he is a scapegoat for a nervous London and furious press. As he investigates the brutal and eleborate murders he becomes convinced that his case is linked to that of an imprisoned Music Hall singer, ‘Little Lizzie’ Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) who is on trial for the poisoning of her failed playwright husband, John Cree (Sam Reid). Kildare is certain she is innocent and that by proving it he can also solve the mystery of the Golem’s identity, but time is of the essence, and Elizabeth destined for the gallows soon.

The cast is pretty great, particularly Cooke who has a great charm and charisma as she struggles to succeed in a man’s world. Sam Reid is good as her slippery no-good cad of a romantic interest/husband who is also Nighy’s Golem suspect. Music Hall superstar (and Elizabeth’s friend and mentor, as well as another of Nighy’s Golem suspects) Dan Leno is played with fragile grace by Douglas Booth. The rest of the supporting cast are commendable too- indeed, the problem with the film isn’t the production values or the cast or the direction. Its the script that awkwardly seems to telegraph too much.

It also suffers by comparison to stuff like the (sadly cancelled) Penny Dreadful television series that shares its pulpish gaudy charms; and also the period detective dramas of Peaky Blinders. Back when I first saw the trailer for this film I thought, who would want to make a film of this and why would they think it would prove a success at the cinema in particular?  There is throughout a feel of redundancy, that maybe we’ve been here before, and to be fair, those television shows have production values arguably equal those of this movie with the benefits of longer airtime for character development etc. Maybe this is just the wrong time for a movie about Jack the Ripper-style Victorian murders. Another period BBC series, sure, but a movie?

But whatever my caveats, its enjoyable enough and the performances shine, so certainly its well worth a watch.

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All the Money in the World (2017)

all1Here’s the thing about Ridley Scott films- with a catalogue of great or at the very least memorable films to his name, particularly his earliest films like Alien or Blade Runner, or perhaps later efforts like Gladiator, its difficult for any new addition to the list being given a break, or accepted as just being an average movie. There is this weight of expectation attached to them, as if every film he ever makes has to somehow measure up to his greats- sure, it’d be wonderful if they did, but its really an unfair expectation, isn’t it.

Besides, (reduce to a whisper)  I always suspect directors get too much credit anyway, so perhaps its unfair to saddle them wit all the blame too. In just the same way as its the players on the pitch in a game of football who get, or fail to get, a result, as much as the manager on the touchline who gets credited for masterminding a win or blamed/sacked when things go awry, on a movie production there are too many factors that effect how a film turns out for it to be fair that a director gets lauded or pilloried depending on the final product. I suppose much of this treads into auteur theory, with directors treated as the author of movies as if they created a film themselves- I suspect films are much more collaborative than that.

One thing I will say for Ridley Scott films, as I’m speaking clearly as a fan here who has followed his career since 1979 reading interviews in Fantastic Films way back then, is that he is a consummately formidable technician. His later films may not artistically or thematically match his first films, but he shoots them extremely well, speedily and on budget, demonstrating such control its something to marvel at in a world in which so many films go over-schedule or over-budget or dragged down by re-shoots.  Ridley gets the job done. The studios must love having him at the helm- box office be damned, at least they know a film is going to get made on  time and with solid quality, and The Martian has proved he still has hits in him.

That being said of course, All the Money in the World was troubled in post-production and required substantial reshoots,  a scandal involving allegations made against original star Kevin Spacey causing him having be replaced. The fact that, had it not been so well documented, watching the film you would have no idea that Christopher Plummer was a late replacement is a pretty formidable testament to the quality of Ridley Scott’s professionalism. Simply as an exercise in last-minute film-making its pretty jaw-dropping that the film even works.

The film was also pulled into the argument over inequality of pay between actresses and their male co-stars.  When Ridley and the studio decided the film could not be released with Spacey still in the film, he recast with Plummer but this triggered a clause in  Mark Wahlberg’s contract, which had co-star approval. Wahlberg, or his team of lawyers and agents, simply stated that he would not approve Plummer and attend re-shoots without an additional payment of $1.5 million, essentially holding the film to ransom. Co-star Michelle Williams didn’t have that clause in her contract so attended the re-shoots for something like $80 a day. To add further salt in the wound, Williams told the USA Today that “”I said I’d be wherever they needed me, whenever they needed me. And they could have my salary, they could have my holiday, whatever they wanted. Because I appreciated so much that they were making this massive effort.” Thinking about it, this film got such a beating you could argue it was one of those cursed productions you sometimes read about. I read later that Wahlberg donated his fee to Times Up, but I’m sure most of Hollywood wishes they had his management team.

(It might be interesting to note regards the inequality of actors pay that Wahlberg’s original fee for the film was $5 million -itself much less than what he is usually paid-  and Williams $625,000).

all2So having written all that, I realise that I written nothing really about the film itself. Well, considering all the hysterics surrounding it, I must say I was surprised how good it was and how much I enjoyed it. Clearly its one of Ridley’s lesser films but its nonetheless a solid piece of work graced by some fine performances, particularly Plummer who is frankly astonishing considering he was a last-minute replacement in scenes shot in just 10 days. His octogenarian billionaire, at the time the richest man who had ever lived, is a fascinating character and Plummer clearly relishes the role in every moment on screen. Its impossible to say what Spacey originally brought to the role but its hard to imagine the film is any the lesser without him. You might be forgiven for expecting Plummer’s scenes to feel rushed and perhaps feel ‘off’, be technically inferior to the original shoot but they actually become the cold icy heart of the film and its finest asset.

The film is based on  the true story of  the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) in 1973,  and the increasingly desperate struggles of his mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to ensure his release when his grandfather refuses to pay up. While the kidnappers threaten to start sending the boy back in pieces, his grandfather spends his money on paintings instead and his time gleefully monitoring ticker-tape reports of his ever-increasing wealth.

Wahlberg is perhaps miscast in the film. He plays Fletcher Chase, one of Getty Sr’s negotiators who Getty tasks with bringing the boy home without giving the kidnapper’s any money. In a traditional Hollywood thriller with someone like Wahlberg in the role, you’d perhaps expect something like a Taken movie to ensue as the guy does what a guy has to do to bring the boy home and let the body count be damned. But as this is based on a true story and that didn’t happen, it seems a bit of misdirection on the film-makers part. As it is, left without kick-ass action Wahlberg sort of drifts around looking a little lost. Why spend all those millions on him if he’s not doing what he usually gets paid all those millions to do?

WIlliams is very good, with a captivating performance that almost measures up to that of Plummer. Together they rather tease the classic movie that this might have been, but really its not a bad film at all. Ridley Scott captures the sense of period as brilliantly as ever, making it look so easy,  and moves the plot forward with the efficiency he is so famous for now, until the film ends in a climactic hide and seek sequence that almost feels like its from some other movie. The real center of the film is Plummer’s performance and this strange real-life Citizen Kane, which rather unbalances a film whose drama should revolve around the kidnapped boy. I suspect there are two films here, and its that second film made in the re-shoots that steals it.

Sarah’s Key (2010)

sar1Sarah’s Key is a rather harrowing film about the  arrest of thousands of French Jews in the summer of 1942 by French authorities- a young girl,  Sarah (Melusine Mayance), tries to save her brother by locking him in a bedroom closet, thinking she will return soon. In the present, an American journalist, Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) living in Paris learns that her new home is the flat the Jewish French family once lived in and becomes obsessed with tracing the family’s fate. As Julia pieces the few remaining traces together into some kind of narrative, flashbacks vividly show what happened as the young Sarah tried to escape and get back to her trapped brother.

While somewhat perfunctory in execution this remains a tense film with a surprisingly downbeat ending. I suppose it leads you to think that the final outcome will be a vindicated Julia meeting a still-living old Sarah, but this isn’t that comfortable or life-affirming. In this sense, it feels more ‘real’ and is all the more effective. The fairy tale of traditional movies leads one to expect one outcome and when it turns out another, it feels much more convincing and satisfying albeit less pleasant.

The performances are fine but the film really belongs to Mayance as the spirited young Sarah. Thomas, who I’ve followed since her stint in Polanski’s Bitter Moon many moons ago (sic) is rather wasted unfortunately, with a fairly needless b-story of an unplanned pregnancy that perhaps offers some sense of closure at the films end. But what a surprise to see Aidan Quinn in this. I don’t think I’ve seen him in a film since the great Legends of the Fall back in 1994.  I always liked him as an actor and looking back its so strange he was never a bigger ‘star’ than he became. Perusing IMDB, its clear he’s kept busy and had some success but its certainly odd that I’ve not stumbled upon him in a movie in all these years since. So bizarre seeing him just appear (somehow I hadn’t noted his name in the credits) like some ghostly blast from the past.

 

Geostorm (2017)

geo1Wow. This was truly terrible.

I remember seeing the trailer for this back in October last year when I saw BR2049. It was clearly an overblown CGI-dominated spectacle with an incredibly dumbed-down plot… basically the very opposite of BR2049. So I had no interest in watching it, figured I’d get around to it eventually, expecting very little.

This film took my lowest expectations and yet still managed to fail those expectations. By some margin. Hands down, this is the definitive film for watching credibility crash through the floor. I can’t believe this film even exists, its so nuts. Really, its like it is dropping whopper WTF moments every page of the script, its almost tragic.

First, the casting of Gareth Butler as some super-genius scientist/engineer who has built a global space-based system of satellites that controls the Earths weather systems and protects human civilization from environmental disaster. Wowza. Butler as a killing machine/super solder/spy maybe but a genius lab rat? What kind of casting is that?

But lets go back a minute. This film supposes that all the Earths nations have suddenly put aside their differences to pull together and build a space station that looks like something out of Star Wars and a network of weather-station satellites. So the film expects me to accept that a) global warming/environmental change is accepted globally, b) that world peace is an inevitable result of that and c) we suddenly can build Star Wars-level space stations in orbit and d) develop weather-controlling sciences.

This is, like, inside the first ten minutes during a wise-ass child’s monologue voice-over (child turns out to be Butler’s daughter, obviously, and yes, she’s wiser than most of the dumb adults, go figure).

So Gareth Butler gets sacked. Butler gets divorced. Despite his genius credentials instead of dropping into a hi-tech job he’s unemployed living in a trailer. His brother (!) gets put in charge. Things start to go wrong and people that spot whats happening get mysteriously killed. Butler gets hired again to try to fix the mess as he’s the guy that built the super-space station and he’s the only one who knows how it works. Suspicions point to the President of the United States (Andy Garcia in slightly sleazy politician mode). Just so happens that Gareth Butlers’ brother’s girlfriend (stay with me) is a Secret Service agent  that protects the president (!) so they go kidnap the president while all hell breaks loose in orbit as Butler tries and fails to fix his now disaster-inducing system. While weather disasters befall the cities of the world it turns out that the real culprit is the president’s Secretary of State played by Westworld‘s MIB (!) himself, Ed Harris, who has some crazy scheme of wrecking every other nation in the world and thus leaving America in charge of a new World Order with himself the new president. Or something like that, its not clear how wrecking the world economy and climate can ensure American survival never mind superiority.

Sure the effects are spectacular but its all for nothing. It doesn’t involve and it doesn’t really even impress, its just vaguely cartoon theatrics involving less-than paper-thin characters going through hysterical motions. Geostorm is everything wrong with modern Hollywood blockbusters and if it wasn’t so stupid and inept it might even be insulting: its a disaster movie in more ways than one, and actually makes Armageddon seem like a classic movie. I’ve already wasted more than enough time writing about it. Best forget this horrible silly movie even exists. The Day After Tomorrow was so much better than this.

Miss Sloane (2017)

 

miss sIts a terrible thing, sometimes, that films do not exist in a vacuum. This week there was another horrific incident in an American High school in which ten people, eight students and two teachers, were killed. Mass shootings and gun control are an insanity that seems to blight America endlessly and the inability of the American justice system and its politicians to get a grip on the problem is so perplexing and anger-inducing. The police chief there has since condemned elected officials who “called for prayers, and will once again do absolutely nothing.”

How oddly ironic that I chose to watch Miss Sloane this week, a film which again I knew nothing of prior to watching it but which turned out to be concerned with gun control in America and a political system unable or unwilling to do anything to protect its citizens.

Jessica Chastain is one of the most interesting and impressive actresses working today, and her title role here is as fiery and commanding as they come. She plays Elizabeth Sloane, a Washington lobbyist, as driven and as ruthless as anyone you will have seen- blistering, bravura stuff. Here is a character with no hidden life behind the mask- she has no time for romance or family or freinds, she is driven to win in her career and that’s all there is, winning.  There is nothing else. In that sense, it could be said that her character is one-note, with no endearing qualities, but its fascinating nonetheless and Chastain is pretty extraordinary. This is one of those films, for good or ill, where the central performance is everything, and to Chastain’s credit, it feels genuine- the genius of her performance and ability..

So, Sloane is a woman driven to win and she becomes seduced by the intellectual challenge of a no-win situation. Sloane leaves her successful job in order to take on a challenge that everyone says she cannot win- taking on the gun lobby to get a gun control bill passed into law. She isn’t emotionally driven by any moral outrage, any personal feeling of right or wrong, merely challenged by an impossible target. And she means to win against the odds.

Director John Madden has crafted a fine drama-cum-thriller and a chilling examination of a broken political system of cheats, bribes and personal ambitions outweighing any naive drive to ‘serve the people.’ The politicians are all on the take, the journalists are sleazy and corrupt, Washington seems to be a pit of vipers and charlatans. Power and wealth and status corrupts and there seems little hope. The public horror at High School shootings and other massacres at gunpoint seems a trifling inconvenience to a gun lobby able to control politicians who should instead be serving the people. The madness of the current state of American gun control with children killed in schools and a political system unwilling or unable to do anything about it seems inconceivable but its real. This film does a fine job of explaining the machinations running in Washington that ensures its easier to buy a gun than get a license to drive a car.

While its refreshing to see a film more interested in tension and mind-games than explosions and wild stunts, this film does display a glossiness and slick sense of style that separates it from the old-school grittiness of the seventies thrillers that it perhaps attempts to emulate. Although, that said, I guess Washington, being a center of political power and wealth, likely really is that facile and image-concious today, in just the same ways as the gritty, sleazy New York of the ‘seventies has been replaced by a polished Disney city of lights, and dreams.

There’s just something that feels wrong when everyone looks so perfect and beautiful. Its that feeling I get these days whenever watching a movie with Tom Cruise in it- he looks so perfect that he never looks like he’s lived the ‘life’ that the films like to pretend he has. Its a little like that with Chastain here- Sloane is ruthless and as chilling as ice if you get on the wrong side of her but she also manages to look so perfect and beautiful and so immaculately dressed – perhaps its all part of her charm offensive and a tactic/weapon in her arsenal, but it feels a little off, a little too Hollywood. That feels like I’m criticizing Chastain for not being overweight or being too beautiful, which is wrong in this day and age, I’m sure. I don’t intend to seem like a sexist pig here. Its just that my reality isn’t that perfect. Then again, if you saw all those movers and shakers, elite rich and famous, that attended the Royal Wedding yesterday, maybe it is reality, its just not mine.

Or maybe that’s just me reading too much into it. This is a perfectly fine political thriller with a genuinely outstanding central performance and is well worth watching, particularly with the news this week and so many weeks, sadly. This film suddenly is more relevant all the time, when in a better world it wouldn’t be.

Outlander Season Three

out3One of the odd things about watching Outlander is that it’s one of those shows which no-one else in my social circle is watching. Which is weird, considering how ‘big’ a cultural event the series is worldwide and how popular the books are. No doubt much of the cause of this is the fragmented state of television distribution these days, and this being on Amazon Prime over here. I can only imagine what it would be like in the old days when something like this might have aired on a major terrestrial broadcaster like the BBC. Its surely what they call ‘watercooler television’, but I have to wonder how much of a thing that even is these days, with some shows isolated by their distribution in certain territories

So it often feels like I watch Outlander in a total vacuum. Imagine watching Game of Thrones and knowing no-else who was watching it. No rumours to discuss, revelations to marvel at, no spoilers to avoid from those who have already seen episodes or read the source books. Even just the experience of being outside the fanbase. I’m well aware that Outlander is very popular, but all of that seems to be outside of my cultural ‘bubble’. I feel so feel remote from it, a benefit is that avoiding spoilers is the easiest thing in the world, but a negative is that I suspect I’m missing out on some of the fun. And who doesn’t like sharing their favourite shows?

So here we have season three of Outlander, and yes, it is very good and well worth watching, in some ways a contender to Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and other popular juggernauts of the tv landscape. It is extremely well made, with a great cast and very good scripts. I gather it follows the books rather closely, and each season, while following an overall arc, does seem pleasantly self-contained with satisfying conclusions to the interior minor arcs of each season. Also there is a fairly distinct difference between seasons which makes the show fresh and interesting- Season 2 went to France and Season three goes on the high seas with nautical episodes, eventually winding up in the West Indies. Again, this is no doubt from following the books and the books themselves taking the lead in moving plot and setting forward (twenty years have occured between the start of season one and the end of season three- compare that to the lack of progression that hurts The Walking Dead over, what, eight seasons now?).

It also is blessed with a musical score by Bear McCreary that clearly demonstrates how much Game of Thrones is sorely lacking musically. Its big. lyrical, emotional, and perhaps while not as astounding as his BSG work remains one of the highlights of his career and for television scoring in general. Many movies (particularly the Marvel ones) could benefit from scoring like this. Outlander has a musical identity that is unique to itself and the soundtrack releases are well worth checking out.

Bonfire of the Digital Vanities

Regular readers may have noticed that more and more of my reviews are of tv shows and movies watched via streaming rather than on disc. Its something I’m becoming very aware of. Ever since the start of 2017 I have tried to limit my spending on discs, if only to try get control of space issues and to stop buying discs that sit on the shelf unwatched. To some degree I’ve succeeded in that (and yes, failed too, as so many anime series boxsets will testify to) and the fact that so many posts are about streamed films etc must be a mark of some kind of success. Certainly 2018 has seen a big change and me subscribing to Netflix now as well as Amazon Prime can only mean its a trend that will continue.

This year I have bought the following on disc- BR2049, Thor Ragnarok, Indicator’s Hammer Vol.Two box, Charley Varrick and Experiment in Terror. That’s all, and we are fast approaching April now.

But I would hate to see the physical disc format fading away and I do much prefer owning my favourite films on disc. I think the inevitable future of ‘streaming only’ is a pretty dark one for some of us- I read recently of rumours that Apple are intending to discontinue music downloads and go completely the monthly subscription route. Don’t know how true it is, but it does have a ring of truth and inevitability to it. Where music goes, film and tv are sure to follow. Imagine having to pay a monthly subscription in order to watch your movies- I suppose we are already halfway there- instead of watching them on disc whenever you want. Some may argue there is no difference but I’d contend that there is one, certainly regards extras (although even on-disc that’s something studios are bothering less and less with), picture quality, and even just the ownership and ease of access issue- what happens when the Internet goes down? I’ve had a few experiences in the past where the digital copies of films that came with discs seem to have disappeared from my digital collections, so it would seem that digital license doesn’t necessarily last forever (drok it, even my Blade Runner: Final Cut, which for some reason shows in my collection but will not play).  Now, these digital copies are just bonuses really that I never watch but the fact that they can disappear is just more wood for the bonfire of the digital vanities, surely.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like my films and tv shows on disc in just the same way as I still buy music on CD. But it’s getting harder all the time. If you want to watch The Man in the HIgh Castle without prime, forget it- there’s no disc option so no way, even if you watched it on prime, that you can add it to your cherished tv box-set physical collection no matter how much you may love it. Even the old habit of buying your favourite sitcoms/comedy shows on dvd (Frasier etc) is getting impossible with more recent stuff- I love The MIddle but there’s no disc release of that show anywhere. Increasingly the only way to access stuff is via subscription.

We’ve been so spoiled by VHS sell-through, DVD and Blu-ray it’s hard to fathom going back to the bad old days, but it all may well come back. Will the time one day come when you will never be able to buy a Star Wars movie?  Man, thats so 1970s.