It’s alive!!!

life12017.41: Life (2017)

I was always overthink movies. I know I do- especially those misfires that frustrate or are nearly great. Case in point: Life, a sci-fi thriller about scientists trapped on the ISS with an alien. Crikey, even that summary makes it sound bad- to be clear though, Life isn’t as bad as you might have heard. Admittedly it doesn’t need the A-list acting talent involved -indeed a cast of unknowns might even have been better- but that’s likely partly how the film and budget got greenlit anyway (studios love ‘names’ attached to give the  marketing boys a hand). At anyrate, the good cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada) being under-utilised by an undercooked script is not really what scuppers the film.

The best way to approach this film is as a b-movie with excellent production values, and as such it is a pretty solid, albeit partly frustrating sci-fi adventure. What I do like about it is how it functions in much the same way as those 1950s b-movies inspired by fears of radiation and Cold War-terror of alien menace and nuclear war. This film in thirty years will likely inform historians of modern anxieties regards our place in the universe and alien life.

The problem with this film is that it is far too easy -and lazy- to just summarise it as being another poor-man’s Alien. Yes, it does rather degenerate into that but here’s the thing about this film- it’s such a wasted opportunity; it could have been much more, particularly with this cast.  It should have been titled ‘The Fermi Paradox‘ (yeah I know, tough sell at the multiplex) because what it suggests and portrays is an answer to one of the biggest questions facing us today, but instead this film never even mentions it. Midway through the movie I thought- I know where this film is going, and they are going to say it soon…. but they don’t. It just needs one scene, one exchange of dialogue, and it could have made it a better, more profound movie. Instead the opportunity sales right by as if the scriptwriters never saw it coming.

The Fermi paradox is simply this- the universe is vast, and with all we learn about the tenacity of life in the harshest regions of the Earth, and the discoveries of so many worlds orbiting alien stars increasing the statistical probability of other habitable worlds and with that the likelihood of other  lifeforms and intelligences in the universe the question becomes not so much is there life out there but rather where is everybody?

In a weird way, this film offers up a solution to that question.

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The premise itself is intriguing. A robotic probe is returning from Mars with soil samples that are to be tested for signs of life on the ISS. It isn’t really explained (and this is one of my issues with the script) but I would imagine that back on Mars the robot probe detected something or the samples are particularly promising, because the ISS has been modified to be a safe laboratory to test the samples without risk of bringing the samples/organism to Earth. It could, after all, turn out to be as deadly as anthrax if let loose in the terran environment. The ISS crew and the station mission has been wholly redesigned for this duty over years of planning. Of course there is indeed more to the sample than originally hoped/feared, but it wouldn’t be a movie without that. This isn’t just ‘life’ – it is a particularly dangerous critter that will wipe out everything alive on Earth if it gets down from orbit- every human, every animal, every plant…. everything.

Here is the solution to the Fermi paradox in a nutshell. Life evolves. Life-forms develop and die out, destroyed by changes in environment or replaced by or out-evolved by other subsequent life-forms. In the film the scientists postulate that the creature brought back from Mars has lain dormant for thousands, perhaps millions of years. It can survive ultraviolet radiation, the intense cold of space and the harshest, slimmest of atmospheres. But they don’t raise the next possibility- what if it was not indigenous to Mars? What if it was extrasolar, brought to our solar system, and Mars, on cosmic winds, carried by dust or on a meteorite. What if it is a life-form that has existed millions of years, a life-form that like a virus is spread through space destroying other life forms and civilizations in its wake? What if the answer to the Fermi paradox is simply that there is nobody there anymore, because this thing destroyed it. And we are next. Alas, this film raises speculation about alien life but never rises the Fermi paradox or how what they have found informs a possible cautionary answer.

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Life looks pretty spectacular in places, and is always convincing in how it depicts the hardware, and the creature is horribly fascinating when it is onscreen – indeed it’s a notably successful alien creature most of the time- very nasty. On the whole this is a very successfully mounted film, particularly considering its not too-excessive budget (something around $60 million I think- certainly not as high as it might have been). It really is a case of a film having the cast, the budget and honest intent to be worthwhile, but let down by the script. It is so frustrating to think how good, how profound, this film could have been had it been as well-scripted as, say, Arrival was last year. There is a tantalising feeling that this film needed more time in gestation, it needed to evolve into a better script.

I guess this failing is easily noted from the start, with a wholly awkward set piece from the outset in which the returning probe has been hit by space debris and is off course and needs an action/effects sequence of the ISS changing its orbital path in order for an astronaut spacewalker to capture the hurtling probe with the ISS service arm. Its an unnecessary and unwieldy sequence that was there because the film-makers evidently thought thats how to get audience attention from the start; some big ‘event’/action sequence. But it’s not properly handled and  I think it lacks proper context- we can’t really feel any tension because we don’t know the crew/characters or the mission yet, which is partly handled via some clunky voiceover dialogue/exposition that doesn’t work at all. Better to have just calmy started the film with an explanation of the mission, the characters and calmly depict the probe docking and the samples transferred to the lab. Establish the setting, the mission parameters, the characters. Then let the shit hit the fan. And maybe, maybe midway when the scientists (who don’t really for a moment convince as scientists, that’s another problem) realise what they have on their hands, have one of them suggest, even in an offhand manner, that maybe they have stumbled on why SETI has never detected intelligent civilizations in space. Offer the tantalising -and scary- possibility that we really are the only ones listening, that there is no-one else. That we are really special. And yes, really in danger.

Alas, it seems that Life does not aspire to be the serious sci-fi flick that I think it could have been; indeed, perhaps a modern-day version of Alien is really all that was intended, and I’m simply over thinking a shallow movie. But it is certainly no disaster and certainly worth a rental.

 

 

All Aboard the Zombie Train

train12013.34: Train to Busan (2016)

Train to Busan is a thoroughly entertaining Zombie movie- it can’t be said that it really offers anything new to this post-Dawn of the Dead/28 Days Later/World War Z genre, but what it does deliver, it delivers well, with plenty of thrills, gore and spills. What else could you possibly want from a Zombie movie?

It’s curious, considering how the tv Zombie juggernaut The Walking Dead seemed to be suffering from such lethargy and tiredness with its most recent season, that this film still manages to be such a fresh, kinetic experience. WTD aside, it’s not as if we never see Zombie films etc these days- they are pretty much everywhere and yet this film feels so original and entertaining. Certainly the backroom staff of TWD would do well to see this film and heed its lessons- namely, maintain pace and maintain the threat: it’s the end of the world after all. The tv show seems more concerned with fellow humans being the real danger and the zombies just background noise- almost becoming incidental to the show, an occasional diversion for a little gore and action when the daily politics of survival become tiresome. It is almost becoming boring.

Train to Busan is not at all boring. An outbreak from a pharmaceutical lab or chemical factory (I may have missed details, it seemed vague, but no doubt it will be clearer on a second viewing) is getting out of hand and threatens South Korea with a Zombie Apocalypse. It’s almost as if this was some Far-East spin-off  from the World War Z movie from a few years back, which strikes me as being a pretty neat idea, letting film-makers from around the world write and shoot movies telling what happened in their locales during WWZ.  Could have been a very interesting and enjoyable franchise.

Anyway, it’s the dawn of a Zombie Apocalypse and an infected human gets onboard a train just as it begins its long journey. Instantly this train journey becomes a microcosm of what is happening out in the big wide world- a varied cast representing various age groups and areas of society, trapped in the restricted space of the train carriages as the zombie infestation takes hold and the brain-hungry critters work their way through the train. It rather reminded me of the great Snowpiercer; in some ways this is that films horror cousin. There are some great set-pieces and the film surprises, given its fine sense of claustrophobia, how it opens up the sense of scale at times, particularly near the end.

It’s good fun, and there is such a lot to enjoy. The acting, the twists and turns of the witty script, the make-up, editing and visual effects. Brilliant stuff, the only negative about the whole thing is I worry about the eventual Hollywood remake being announced someday- it seems almost inevitable, sadly. Starring the Rock, no doubt.

 

Who liked Trainspotting too?

t2b2017.30: T2 Trainspotting 2

This was great. I’m not a big fan of the original film- I watched it back when it first came out on DVD and never since; maybe it was just too harrowing to watch, too far removed from my own experiences to really fathom out the fuss (nearest thing I’ve had to drugs is a paracetamol, I’ve never even smoked or even gotten badly drunk). But T2, set and filmed some 20+ years after the original, is more akin to the world I know, with its jaded characters reunited and suffering the anxieties and crises of middle age. The funny thing is, watching this sequel has finally gotten me keen to watch that original film again.

The original Trainspotting was, from what I remember, full of youthful anger, of characters on the edge of life and a youth culture feeling impervious to the Big World; T2 has characters taking stock of their lives, their regrets and sense of waste, feeling beaten down by a world bigger and harder than their youthful selves had realised. In that sense, I could certainly relate to it more easily. I’m not sure its a better film- it doesn’t feel as bold and unconventional as the original, but then again, the whole zeitgeist has changed and this is a different world now. This really is a continuation.

I would go so far as to suggest that T2 is the perfect kind of sequel, reuniting the original cast and creative team, with nice cameos and a sense of real respect for the material, locations and characters. It doesn’t feel like the kind of cash-in so many sequels seem to be- I only hope Blade Runner 2049 feels so authentic and sincere as this one did. There are powerful, poignant moments here and it does raise particular issues unique to our times which the original couldn’t. I really liked the use of (sometimes quite sophisticated) flashbacks to imagery from the original. And mock Super 8 footage of events prior to that original film too, really adding a poignant sense of reflection and nostalgia/age. There is some really clever film-making here, and it again demonstrates Danny Boyle’s clever eye and deft touch in storytelling.

Yeah, I really enjoyed this and I’ve no doubt I’m going back to the original again. I’d even quite like to see a T3 someday too; I’m sure there is more of a story to tell and perhaps a bigger part for some of the characters unfortunately (though understandably) given some short shrift here, like Kelly Macdonald’s character. Yeah, bring it on boys. After all, with how fast times and politics change these days (Scottish Indyref, Brexit, Trump, terrorist attacks, hung elections…) I’m sure there isn’t any need to wait so long before making the next one- it would be welcome yesterday.

The Take (Bastille Day)

take12017.13: The Take (2016) – Amazon Prime/VOD

The Take is one of those films… well, its enjoyable enough. Its an action thriller set in Paris, in which an apparent terrorist plot to set off bombs during the French national holiday Bastille day celebrations is in fact an elaborate ruse in the Die Hard tradition to disguise the real bad guys motives to steal a fortune during the ensuing chaos.So its instantly familiar, and its stunts and action sequences have a Bourne Identity-feel to them too, only reinforcing the seen-it-all before feel about the whole enterprise. It is competently made and it all seems very sincere, but that familiarity undermines it all.

If nothing else, it offers a glimpse of what a James Bond movie might have been like with Idris Elba in the starring role (although my wife thought he was channeling his BBC tv-character Luther through the whole thing). His CIA agent however is, like all of the films characters, woefully paper-thin, and while Elba does his best he can’t lift the character into anything really interesting. He is something of a rogue, doesn’t conform to procedure and authority figures well, can handle himself in a fight- what this film desperately needs is some character beats, to get under his skin, which it fails to do.  Possibly it’s a ninety-minute film that really needed to be two hours long, but its so cautious of modern viewer’s attention spans it lacks conviction enough to give that thirty minutes of character beats and narrative foundation. If this were a film made in the 1970s I’m sure it would have been more substantial. In 2016… keep it slick, keep it quick. So we get the explosions and chases and fights and shoot-outs but that’s about it. Pretty vacuous, but efficient.

Unfortunately for the film, it will likely be most widely remembered for the timing of its cinema release prior to real-life terrorist acts in France that caused it to be pulled from cinemas there. As silly as some of these films seem to be,  it’s clear that their plots are uncomfortably close to reality and an indication of how messed-up our world is.  Its a cautionary reminder.

 

The Reels of Fate

manin12017.10: The Man in the High Castle Season Two (Amazon VOD)

The Man in the HIgh Castle, based on Philip K Dick’s Hugo-award winning book, has a killer premise. Its the early ‘sixties, and we are in a world in which the Nazi’s won the race to create the Atomic Bomb and in so doing won the Second World War. After the Germans dropped the bomb on Washington DC,  America capitulated and the country was divided between the Germans in the West and the Japanese holding the Eastern seaboard. Hitler is still alive but his health is failing, and various Nazi factions are positioning for power ahead of the political chaos that would follow the Führer’s death. The alliance/truce between the Germans and the Japanese is fragile, threatening to collapse into war, a war the Japanese cannot possibly win as they still do not have the technology to make an atomic bomb. Meanwhile, strange reels of film displaying events that have not happened, some in which the city of San Francisco is nuked, some in which the Allies won the war instead of the Axis, are being secretly distributed. What do they mean? Where are they from? Are they alternate pasts, alternate futures? Why does Hitler collect and study them? Who is the Man in the High Castle who has allegedly authored them? How can the films be ‘real’?

I had my doubts, but I have to admit, with season two, this series has really hit its stride. After the gripping pilot, season one took a long time to find its way and didn’t totally convince me, but this season picks up most of the arcs from the first series and takes them on to what turns out to be a very satisfying conclusion. Indeed, if the show had been cancelled (thankfully it hasn’t, a third season has been commissioned) then I must confess I’d have been pretty satisfied how things finally panned out. Most of the major threads are resolved, more questions answered than you might expect, and the stodgy pace of the first season replaced with a fairly swift run towards its finale. In some ways it seems to mirror how the series Caprica turned out, but from a different perspective- Caprica was one long season split into two, aired over two years by its network, the first half suffering from a dull pace from world-building and setting up arcs, the second half picking things up and resolving them at a better pace, but slaughtered by having a twelve-month gap in between, whereas The Man in the High Castle is two short seasons made over two years that forms a whole.

main3Its nice to see a series actually deliver rather than stretch things out further and tease viewers over multiple seasons. We see Hitler’s sickness progress to its inevitable conclusion, the conspiracy amongst his Nazi followers reach fruition, the threat of global conflict between the Axis superpowers reach its zenith, and a tragic twist that likely brings the arc regarding John Smith’s sons illness to an unfortunate end. Its the repercussions of these that will follow in season three, no doubt, rather than simply a continuation of them. Add to that some delightful new teases in the final coda and the second season ends with some style. Much improved over season one,  I’d urge anybody who gave up on the show to return to it- I do think much of season two causes the viewer to reconsider season one in hindsight; it informs much of what may have seemed wrong with that first seasons pace. Had the two seasons been an old-fashioned 22-episode single season it would have been a very solid whole, and I’d advise anybody starting the show to watch the two seasons together.

Its also refreshing to watch a modern show that doesn’t resort to nudity and violence to justify its worth or gain notoriety from such. In many ways The Man in the High Castle is an old-fashioned drama and quite reserved. Violence is very restrained and much of the conflict is from the opposing viewpoints and political ideals. Its very much a drama about ideas, and in so doing remains faithful to Philip K Dick’s works. There’s a number of ‘shifts’ in reality that honours themes prevalent in much of the authors output, disorienting viewer and character alike. Its wonderful that we actually end up rooting for the bad guys to save the world, undermining preconceived notions about whose side we are on and the story we expect the series to be- those same bad guys who save the world are still monsters. And yes, although season two offers resolutions to many of the first two season’s arcs, plenty of mysteries remain.

Its also a very unsettling work- there is something very nervy about an ordinary-looking scene, almost like something out of Mad Men, suddenly invaded by characters in Nazi uniform, or the Nazi banners with the Swastika billowing in the American breeze and dominating the New York skyline. Likewise the evil ideology of the Reich and its perceived superiority of its Master Race and genetics is quite harrowing, particularly in some of the offhand comments made by characters- things that might be lost if the viewer isn’t paying due attention. A worldview and alternate history is slowly established, and the world is increasingly horrific- not in a brutal, in-your-face kind of way, but in a subtle, almost insidious way. Shots of Gestapo officers looking out of panoramic windows on to the New Berlin of Hitler’s dreams -realised with quite impressive photo realism and clarity by the shows effects teams- are the stuff of nightmares.

manin2The show isn’t perfect, but any faults I had with the first season have mostly been fixed with this second season. The scripts are more focused, the acting is excellent and the music score really quite sublime. Its very much improved and I’m really looking forward to season three. I only wish it might turn up on Blu-ray sometime; the show deserves a wider audience than it is likely getting on Amazon and I’d appreciate the opportunity to own it on disc (the possibility of commentaries are intriguing to say the least). Above all else though, this show deserves a bigger audience- more people should have the opportunity to see it, something that can be said of many television programmes these days.

 

 

Sci-Fi Short: Citizen in the Temple

citizen2017.8: Citizen in the Temple (2015) – Amazon VOD

I have a feeling this review might take longer to write than it took to watch. I’m beginning to think there’s much more on Amazon VOD than immediately apparent, as I stumbled upon this short movie by accident. Citizen in the Temple is a short (25 mins) sci-fi film by Jason Huls, and is I believe a MFA thesis film, so its strictly an amateur piece with a very low budget (it didn’t make its target goal of $7,500 far as I can tell, but as it got made it clearly broke even some other way or got made for less).

Its probably best to judge it as a demo reel, or a proof-of-concept piece; “look, I can handle actors, I can stage an action sequence, I can handle effects, I can handle prosthetics,” that kind of thing. As such, it pretty much works. As a piece of storytelling though, it doesn’t really hold together, and its a bit unfair to audiences to tout it as a finished short film, because it doesn’t feel like it- it feels exactly like a demo reel.

Which is frustrating, as even with its meagre resources and limited running time, if it was scripted as a play, as a piece of intellectual ideas or a character piece, it might have worked very well. Too much of the running time is wasted on cgi effects shots that would have looked poor in Babylon 5‘s day, instead of just shooting an actor on a basic set emoting about his situation and convictions. With low-budget stuff like this you can’t compete with the ‘big boys’ and cgi stuff like greenscreen sets etc is just boring and cartoony when its done on the cheap, stunts and fight scenes can’t help but feel nasty and rough, but what you can do is ideas and character, that stuff costs you nothing.

Hell, I could have polished this script overnight myself. This could have been good, but the script wasn’t really about telling a tight, focussed dramatic character-piece, it was about setting up visuals and sequences to demo technique and ability.So it is what it is, and works for what it was intended to be. I guess. I feel like I’m being unfair being critical.

As it is, its all pretty vague, throw-the-audience-into-it stuff. We are on another planet, resources are scarce, and it’s basically a 1984-like totalitarian state with rebels trying to feed the poor and starving who are cast out beyond the city walls in the wilderness. Citizens in the city are ruled by the Consortium, its laws enforced by Templars, Jedi-like priests who employ Terminator-like drone cyborgs to do their dirty work. Its all very much like Rush’s prog-rock epic 2112 from their 1976 album, with plenty of Star Wars and Matrix references thrown in, not to mention the nods to Blade Runner in the city shots… its all very derivative. I guess you could play a drinking game watching this taking a shot with every ‘homage’ but you’d likely be too drunk to see the end.

Of course, I’m being wholly unfair. It was likely shot for less than the cost of a new car in very little time with most of the props and costumes made by keen amateurs, and it’s obviously a stepping-stone/demo reel for everyone involved both in front and behind the camera. Its short, and its free (on Amazon Prime) so whats the problem? Well, the old Twilight Zone tv series showed decades ago that decent sci-fi could be done in 25 minutes with a pretty-much zero budget. This short film fails to heed the lessons of all those many Twilight Zone episodes. Its all there; how to make a thoughtful, intriguing sci-fi short. You don’t need to stumble at the flash/bang/wow. Keep it to the ideas. Imagination can do the rest.

 

A Flickering Truth (2015)

flick12016.95: A Flickering Truth (Amazon VOD)

Made by New Zealand director New Zealand director Pietra Brettkelly,  A Flickering Truth is a documentary primarily concerned with efforts to save and restore the contents of the Afghan film archive in Kabul, all but destroyed by the Taliban.

Early scenes are almost heartbreaking for any film lover- a filthy warehouse, walls and ceiling pockmarked by bullet-holes, contents choking under inches of dirt and dust, rusty film cans, loose spools of film scattered and twisted and torn and bleached by the sun. Fragile strips of film cast aside to ruin, a landscape for webs and spiders and cockroaches and ants. Nearby, a patch of ground where the Taliban forced workers to throw reels into a bonfire. Its hard to believe anything could yet survive.

This remarkable documentary film is an oddly disturbing reminder of the power of film imagery to conquer time and document historic events and culture. In truth, it is as much about the history of Afghanistan documented on those worn, scratched and faded reels of film as it is about the archive itself. Ghostly images from barely-surviving film  flicker like dreamscapes onscreen; lost times, dead people, vanished worlds. A history of Afghanistan that I had been utterly ignorant of unfolds before me in a sad, emotive series of images from news footage and dramas that reveals a sense of place and history previously unknown to me. There is an Afghanistan that is surprisingly bright and optimistic and Western, one that was lost in revolution and war and religious fervour that plunged the country into chaos.

Efforts to document and clean up surviving reels bear fruit, and the archive begins to take shape. The intention is to take some of the archive out to the provinces (if only those that are yet safe from the Taliban) and project it to the populace, to both educate and entertain, and reveal to the people a lost Afghanistan that they too may be as ignorant of as I. But of course, Afghanistan is still a politically turbulent and dangerous country, always on the edge of chaos and civil war.

flick2During the film we get to meet and get a sense of some of the people behind the archive- Afghan film-maker  Ibrahim Arify returns from his new life and family in Germany to oversee the project, exasperated and angry at what has become of the country he knew in the 1960s and 1970s. Caretaker Isaaq Yousif, who has been there for 31 years, somehow surviving the wars and the Taliban, and gardener Mahmoud Ghafouri, who helped save much of the archive from the Taliban. They are engaging characters who will be hard to forget- indeed its evident that Yousif could have been subject for a documentary all by himself, as he reminisces about old times and his youth when he acted like an American cowboy. He’s some kind of character from some other world but nonetheless quite charming.

There’s a human story at the heart of this documentary and a strong reminder of the power of film imagery. Its well worth seeking out- free on Amazon Prime but I’m sure widely available on rental. Lovers of film in particular will be entranced by much of the imagery. Its strange how you can just stumble onto little gems like this purely by chance. There’s something to be said for just idly browsing all those titles on Amazon once in awhile.

The Nice Guys (2016)

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2016.94: The Nice Guys (Amazon VOD)

While I really quite enjoyed this film, its clearly not as smart as it thinks it is, and its very evident that its trying awfully hard- maybe too hard. The loveliest thing in the world is a film that just ‘clicks’ with effortless ease- the perfect cast, the perfect director, the perfect script, when everything just fits its wonderful, but of course that’s also the trickiest thing to pull off, otherwise every film would be a Great Escape or Jaws. In The Nice Guys case, the shadow of Shane Black’s earlier Kiss Kiss Bang Bang looms large. Its clearly what this film aspires to be but it falls short- instead the film seems to be trying just too hard, leaving it rather unnatural and forced.

What perhaps doesn’t help is that there’s also just a wee sniff of over-familiarity with some of this film. Writer/director Shane Blacks penchant for throwing together mismatched  heroes for dramatic and comedy effect dates back to the Lethal Weapon films, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and others, and what was once novel and interesting smells a little formulaic now. There’s also something a little ‘off’ about the characters here, particularly Ryan Gosling’s Holland March, a private detective whose investigative instincts are rather blurred by alcohol which also muddies his parental judgement. He’s a hard man to sympathise with when he seems to shirk his responsibilities whenever there’s a bottle at hand. Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy fairs much better, a middle-aged amateur sleuth/enforcer who is going to seed with an ever-widening waistline. At least his heart (and sense of responsibility) is in the right place.His character is the center of the film, leaving Gosling to just flirt around him like an irritating jerk, with Goslings 13-year-old daughter clearly smarter than both Gosling and Crowe. Yeah, like that’s original, the kid outwitting the adults. Maybe that’s the point, I don’t know.

Set in 1977, the films production design is a real bonus, and some of the understated effects work -street scenes with billboards for Jaws 2 amongst others- is both really impressive and almost throwaway eye-candy (I guess most younger viewers are never even aware of much of the trickery at hand).There’s a great funky disco soundtrack that helps reinforce the sense of time and place, even though it feels very Boogie Nights at times (and that’s another film that seemed to effortlessly come together and do it so much better).

The plot… well, its pretty hard to fathom at the start and it doesn’t really reward the effort of deciphering it. I confess that while I was enjoying the 1970s vibe and the jokes, somehow I was a little bewildered at what was actually going on, and when everything is revealed and a few inevitable twists unfold, it ultimately doesn’t convince, so many coincidences just seem too daft for words. In the end, the  central mystery that forms the case that the Nice Guys are investigating doesn’t really hold true or drive the plot forward, leaving its episodic progression feeling uneven. Again, maybe that’s the point- maybe the case isn’t whats important.

The Nice Guys isn’t a bad film, its quite fun and will maybe get some kind of cult status someday due its leading actors, but in the end, it just doesn’t really work, it doesn’t click in quite the way that its forebears did. Maybe a Nice Guys 2 will finally crack it. Set it in the 1980s with a Miami Vice vibe maybe.

High Rise (2015)

high1.jpg2016.93: High Rise (Amazon VOD)

About the only thing this film seems to get ‘right’, that at least makes it interesting enough to stomach all the way through its interminable two hours, is its cool-1970s aesthetic; the sets, the costumes, the hair styles, its all like some kind of strange alternate-1970’s universe, as if its all set a few years after A Clockwork Orange. Its a beautiful, funky horror. Which rather makes it a curio when you’re watching it. The problem is, most of the time you’re watching it wondering just what the hell is going on. Narrative is not Ben Wheatley’s strength, clearly, as evidenced on his earlier film A Field in England, another film I loathed. Like that film, this film seems to have its fans, but this s just not for me- I thought it was horrible.

Basically, its a hipster-arthouse film that is all style over substance, and fails to have any genuine coherence or narrative, simply glorifying in a great (wasted) cast and that 1970s aesthetic. I don’t mind ambiguity or ‘working’ at enjoying a film,  but I shouldn’t be watching a film wondering just what the hell is going on, or why nobody just simply leaves the bloody tower block when the shit hits the fan. Internal logic is not this films strength.

I ‘get’ that its all a social commentary, based on a book from 1975 , with the tower-block acting as a microcosm of society as author J G Ballard saw it at the time, but as the chaos ensues and the ‘society’ breaks down due to tower-block power-cuts and social conflict between the haves and the have-nots, the film is so intent on being clever and faithful (I presume) to the book that it fails to function as a proper film. Why are everybody such raving sociopaths? The rich and the poor alike just seem to degenerate into morally-bereft thugs, rapists and robbers.

Just why does nobody leave the building when everything falls apart (the outside world ticking by nicely)? Nominal ‘lead’ Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has an affair with one woman, then another, and doesn’t seem at all perturbed when his first lover is beaten and raped or his second enlisted as a slave to the ‘masters’ in the penthouse suites. No matter what bloody chaos ensues, the police never turn up. A guy throws himself off the building, women are brutalised and raped. Its like there is no law. Its all so very inconsistent and illogical.  Typical Ben Wheatley.

Frankly, Snowpiercer, a film that told pretty much the same story but replaced the tower block with a train, did it all so much better, and managed to tell a coherent and interesting story too. High Rise looks beautiful and has an at times arresting soundtrack (Abba’s SOS will never seem the same again) but its a horrible mess of a film.

Magic In The Moonlight (2014)

magic1.jpg2016.92: Magic In The Moonlight (Amazon VOD)

There was a time that I loved and devoured Woody Allen movies. I loved the zany comedies of the 1970s and the more mature, dramatic comedies of the 1980s, but somewhere over the years the thrill faded. For me, Allen hit his peak with the wonderful Crimes and Misdemeanors, a crushingly bleak  fable about living in a Godless universe without punishment or redemption. Allen’s films could be dramatic and they could be funny, but they always seemed to have a telling observation of the world and how we live in it, our place in it. Crimes and Misdemeanors was something of a masterpiece to me, and is one of my favourite films, a summary of everything Allen had been saying and mulling over in his films before. With that film, to me he’d reached the apex of everything he wanted to say, stunningly scripted, brilliantly acted, with some gorgeous cinematic moments. Allen could have retired there and then, his cinematic immortality assured.

He didn’t of course- he just carried on making movies, something like one a year. With an output s excessive as that, there’s sure to be a few misfires, and this Magic In The Moonlight is just that. Crushingly so. Maybe Allen should curtail his output, just do one film every few years- after all, Blue Jasmine was a damn fine film  and evidence that with the right material he’s capable of so much. Its a tragedy that a guy who can make films as damn fine as that can churn out such forgettable lightweight stuff as this.

The irony of Magic In The Moonlight is that, well,  there’s no actual magic- its quite lifeless and devoid of charm. The title seems to be from a different film entirely. The story is as lightweight as you might suspect, and you can always guess where its headed, one of those cosy stories you can telegraph well ahead. But its alarming how little you care, how little real warmth and involvement there is. The film is a romance without any real chemistry between its lead characters, a handicap the film cannot possibly recover from. It doesn’t help that it seems to all take place in some kind of idyllic Hollywood fairy-tale universe as far removed from our present realty as one could imagine.

A period piece set in 1920s Europe, it depicts a celebrated stage magician, Stanley (Colin Firth, hopelessly adrift here), who is a proud materialist and debunker of spiritualism and purveyors of the occult. He is summoned by an old friend from childhood to the South of France where a wealthy American family is being ‘charmed’ by a young spiritualist claiming to be in touch with the recently deceased elder of the family. This spiritualist, Sophie (Emma Stone), is beautiful and the first-born heir of the family is utterly bewitched by her, intending marriage.

Stanley is supremely confident that he can uncover how Sophie is hoodwinking the family, and save the heir from being conned out of much of his fortune, but is utterly confounded by Sophie’s uncanny ability to ‘know’ things she should have no access to. Eventually he himself begins to fall for her and he announces that he has been wrong all along with his cynical materialism and that she is indeed the ‘real deal’. He sees the world in a different light, all his previous beliefs quite shattered, until a tragedy reaffirms his earlier bleak outlook on the universe and he realises that Sophie is not at all as innocent as she seems. But he still loves her. Whats a pompous irritating git to do?

That’s about it. The central problem is the casting and lack of chemistry between Firth and Stone (God only knows what the age difference is between them, but it shows). Without a romance to empathise with (indeed, all the characters seem fairly one-dimensional, from the dumb idle-rich American family to the irritating Stanley) its hard to get involved, and Allen doesn’t seem to have anything to really say either, which is the greatest sin of all in my book. Is this supposed to be some kind of ‘love conquers all’ kind of thing? Or some commentary on the fantasies we create around us to make life worth living?  I don’t know. I was left with the impression of a film shot with a script that was still in its first draft, quite empty and lacking of any genuine momentum or character. The actors have little to work with, and Allen seems to be just phoning it all in anyway.

A very sorry excuse of a movie really.  Crimes and Misdemeanors seems such a long time ago now, its almost tragic.