The Wave (2015) & The Quake (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Aniara (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boat (2018)

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

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

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

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

3 Days to Kill (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invasion Day (2013)

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

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

 

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

An Ecstasy of Plot Contrivances: Honest Thief (2020)

honest1Honest Tom Dolan (Liam Neeson) has a secret life as a notorious bank robber (“the In and Out Bandit”) who through the love a good woman (Annie Wilkins, played by Kate Walsh) decides to do the right thing by Annie, assuage his conscience and turn himself in. Two FBI Agents who think he’s a fruitcake aren’t convinced, so Tom hands them the keys to his storage where he tells them they will find boxes of money from his robberies. They don’t take Tom with them, so that they could arrest him upon finding the ‘proof’ of Tom’s story, or if there is no money and Tom’s proven a hoaxer then charge him with wasting their time, BECAUSE. 

Well, because they are going to steal the money for themselves.

Later, having been double-crossed by the two FBI agents who have subsequently framed him for the murder of another, Tom gets Annie on a Greyhound bus to get her to safety out of town. He sees her get on the bus but walks away before it drives off, BECAUSE.

Well, because Annie is going to get off the bus and go back to her storage locker business as she’s remembered CCTV footage of the FBI agents stealing away with Tom’s money will be on a memory stick there. While she’s there the two FBI agents, looking for the same memory stick to destroy proof of their guilt, find her and the chief bad ‘un, Agent Nivens (Jai Courtney) beats her within an inch of her life, but runs away without completing the deed BECAUSE.

Well, because Tom has to be a hero and get her to hospital before she bleeds out or something. And then he has to get her out of said hospital BECAUSE.

Well, because she’s obviously still in danger from the bad agents who still have to silence her, so she’s got to be rescued from the hospital by Tom, who is on his own vengeance trip at this point (because its a Liam Neeson movie and vengeance is written into every script by contract). Agent Nivens goes to the hospital to finish her off but finds a good FBI agent in Annie’s room, protecting her, and he storms off, snarling (we know the good FBI agent is a good guy because he’s got a cute dog and every dog-owner’s a Good Guy). Hospital security isn’t a thing though, so when Tom arrives a little later he walks straight in, finds her room with his bank-robber’s sixth sense* and luckily Annie is in there no longer under guard BECAUSE. 

Well, because the good FBI agent has to go and walk his dog because Tom has to save her, silly, so he simply walks out of there with her and puts her in a bed in a nearby hotel and she heals pretty quick BECAUSE. 

Well, because she ‘s the love interest and the film isn’t over yet, so she’s up and about by morning, having a) been miraculously healed by Tom’s nursing and b) watched Tom fabricate some bombs as part of his revenge for being wronged by the dastardly Feds and its all something to do with his military service and his dad who died while rich guys got richer which is why he robbed the banks in the first place, because that where the rich guy’s money was being kept and…

Tom is some kind of Bank-Robbing Rambo (movies are proof that military service really sets people up for civilian life) and he knows where Agent Niven lives so wires it up with bombs whilst Niven is sleeping and… he lets Niven get out before blowing the shit out of his big house (in which thankfully no-else was living BECAUSE well that would make Honest Tom a murderer) and none of the neighbours comes out to witness the conflagration BECAUSE.

Well, because its a pretty bad and obvious CGI shot and the house is really just fine it never blew up and I’ve just broken the fourth wall here. 

Ah its a Liam Neeson film. Do these things even have fourth walls anymore?

*Bank robber’s sixth sense allows for said robber to guess the exact colour and shade of paint inside the abandoned retail outlets next door to his bank targets, so that after he has robbed the bank by tunnelling from the retail outlets he can redecorate said retail outlets so no-one would ever guess how he got in and out of the bank BECAUSE.

Well, because he’s the “In and Out Bandit” who was never caught until he gave himself in for the love a good woman. 

Honest Thief, should you hate yourself enough that you want to watch it, is currently showing on Amazon Prime.

The Unthinkable (“Den blomstertid nu kommer”) (2018)

unthinkNow this was a totally absorbing film from out of nowhere, which I stumbled upon on Amazon Prime presumably because, as its a foreign film, some algorithm spotted I’d watched the subtitled apocalypse film Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula prior. and figured I might be up for another. So here we go with a Swedish character drama/end of the world thriller that may not be perfect but is really very satisfying. 

Victor Danell’s The Unthinkable is a great little movie with epic pretentions, and its uneasy mix of the intimate (a dysfunctional family drama with an introverted young man, Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot) broken by regrets over his lost true love) and the macro (a doomsday thriller with exploding bridges, cars crashing like projectile weapons and helicopters falling out of the sky) creating a strange tension that in a sense hampers the film but is also quite fascinating; the friction between the two being quite jarring. Its almost like two movies edited together, separately each is perfectly fine (if each were expanded into two movies they would work quite well) but together they feel really, really weird.

Indeed its quite bizarre being lost in an intense European character drama one moment and then being quite utterly disorientated by unexplained death and carnage in the next. Gradually we learn that Sweden is being invaded by antagonists unknown and nobody, not the people in the streets, the politicians nor the military, seems to know what’s happening or why. There isn’t a declaration of hostilities or an Alien Mothership in the sky announcing planetary invasion. People get increasingly deranged (its explained only later as to why people’s behaviour gets odder) and events get more chaotic. Its strange and thrilling and the sudden shocks are genuinely disturbing. 

I would also like to mention the film’s particularly fine, emotive score by Gustaf Spetz, which really does support the film very well indeed. Its emotional, melodic analogue-synth beats (reminiscent of Nils Frahm music) are very fine and its thunderous action moments are quite sweepingly operatic at times, with a nice use of organ that reminded me of Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar. This is a score that succeeds in raising its film to a higher level and Spetz, who I had never heard of before, is to be commended.

unthink2The core problem with the film though is its nominal protagonist, who is introduced in the films disarmingly low-key first half-hour which is almost a movie within a movie. Alex is a self-obsessed, emotionally damaged young man who is bullied at school and suffering a miserable family life with his parents bickering and eventually breaking up. His whole existence is fairly horrible, frankly, and the only ray of light in his life is his deepening friendship with Anna (Lisa Henni) who shares his love of music. Alex’s feelings for the pretty Anna seem to be reciprocated, except her mom gets a job far away and they leave before Alex gets the courage to reveal how he really feels, taking Anna out of his life seemingly forever. More misery for poor Alex!

The issue for the film is that after all this, Alex is clearly damaged goods; after a flash-forward of some ten years we see Alex is now a successful musician, but he behaves pretty much like a selfish jerk whose hobby is lashing out at the world. He’s older but still immature, it seems, anger always simmering under the surface. Its perfectly understandable, possibly quite realistic, but dramatically it makes him a difficult protagonist to root for, especially when throughout the film he keeps making bad decisions. Within minutes of us catching up with Alex as a musician, we learn his mother has died (more misery!) in some alleged terrorist bombing attack that actually prefigures the imminent invasion, and that he is so disenfranchised from his short-tempered father Bjorn (who has a storyline of his own through the film, having been left behind by his wife and later his son, and whose conspiracy theories eventually appear to be vindicated) that Alex refuses to advise Bjorn of his estranged wife’s passing: forgiveness not being one of Alex’s character traits.

But while this emotional soap-opera might seem a little frustrating as far as giving us someone to root for and identify with, it does kind of work. Although Alex is a strange and unusual candidate for a movie hero, there is a curious sense of reality to him, even when he makes selfish or odd decisions. Mind, the latter isn’t wholly confined to Alex- many characters make unusual decisions and often come off worse because of them. But there is an odd reality about this: too often in movies, characters act like movie characters rather than real people, with decisions and acts of courage that conveniently serve a movies plot but often don’t ring true of the foolishness of ‘real’ people. In The Unthinkable, characters make a snap decision under pressure and are dead because of it minutes later. As a viewer it frustrates a little because we sometimes ‘know’ the decisions are foolish but that doesn’t make it any less believable, because in real life people are often dumber than in movies. Its just unusual when a character makes a left turn when the movie standard is one to the right.

Considering its humble origins the film handles the epic enormity of its action/disaster sequences with much success. I won’t dwell upon its low budget because I had no inclination of this when watching it- only later did I learn that it cost something in the region of just $2 million and was a Kickstarter with its crowdfunding backers listed in the credits. This film really punches above its weight and its low budget is quite irrelevant, except that Hollywood/Netflix etc could likely learn a thing or two. The sense of scale and the excellent use of practical and CGI effects is really to be commended, a sense of reality to the ensuing nightmarish events being maintained largely throughout.

Ultimately the epic scale returns to the intimate as most of the characters are reunited, at least temporarily as arcs come full circle; I hesitate to expand on this too much as it might undermine the films twist, which is related to a central theme about relationships and memory- and how important memory is, how it can overpower us and we can be slaves to it (while it also defines us). There’s a pay-off here though that didn’t really work for me- mainly because of how much of an unlikeable git Alex tended to be: how much the finale works depends largely upon how much one can empathise with Alex’s plight, and I ultimately couldn’t, really. I was more inclined to sympathise with Anna (Lisa Henni is really good). I suppose Alex’s arc is one that succeeds more on the intellectual level than it does emotionally, certainly for me anyway, but I do think the film is to be commended for trying to land an intimate, character-driven pay-off instead of one of spectacle. Perhaps my view may change on a subsequent viewing, and the film is definitely one I’ll return to; I really enjoyed it and its definitely worth a watch on Prime.  

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (2020)

t2bpI fondly remember Train to Busan, it was Die Hard on a Train (with Zombies!), and there was a point early on in this film, in what turned out to be a prologue before the main plot proper, when I thought that this film was going to be Die Hard on a Boat (with Zombies!). I figured that zombies would get loose on the big boat of refugees sailing to freedom and that, trapped on the ocean for three or four days in its race to salvation, it would be a claustrophobic thriller with lots of story breaks/crises (the engines are on fire! We’ve sprung a leak! Zombies in the Lifeboats! etc). In hindsight that might have been construed, possibly rightly so, as a lazy sequel, a very minor twist on established formula as most sequels are. Maybe the film-makers for Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula should be praised for trying something different, for upping the scale and having some ambition – essentially what they have done here is a similar trick to what James Cameron did with Aliens following Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic, more intimate original. Unfortunately though its possibly too much of a departure, because this film has lost most of what made the original so great.

I suppose this is the danger of coming into a film blind having no idea what to expect other than, er, lots of blood and zombies. I just didn’t expect it to be quite so much of a departure from the first film, especially when all of the changes leaves the finished production such a crushing disappointment.

So its not Die Hard on Another Train or Die Hard On A Boat; indeed its not Die Hard at all. This is more Escape From (a Zombie-Infested) New York/a (Zombie) Road Warrior/Fury Road and on that level, of some bizarre self-indulgent genre mash-up, its almost fun. Diminish your expectations and settle for a low-rent John Carpenter-inspired flick and I guess its really quite enjoyable. Well, it would be if it didn’t feel quite so much like watching someone playing a videogame. There is so much CGI in this film, particularly in the Mad Max-inspired chase through a zombie-infested city, that it rather degenerates into a cartoon; Final Fantasy: The Zombies Within maybe. The night before I watched Baby Driver and thrilled to its real-life car chases and stunts, which really put the woeful CGI here into sharp relief and all the worse for that comparison.

Maybe its the sheer scale of the thing, having so much CGI (at some points it looks like a Sin City-style greenscreen movie) and thus the sheer number of shots forcing the quality of it all downwards – it happens all the time, you’d think film producers would have figured by now that Less is More. The best films heavily reliant on CGI effects struggle to maintain credibility, here its quite beyond them, the physics and weight of most of the vehicle shots quickly degenerating into videogame nonsense and the CGI zombie hordes soon quite boring rather than anything threatening. Its a shame; if they’d just left it as an Escape From New York-inspired heist film trying to rob a bank in a zombie-infested/criminal militia-run city, a kind of Apocalypse Now journey into zombie heart of darkness, it could have been intense, thrilling, scary.

This film is everything but scary. Maybe that was largely true of the original, too but that film at least had thrills and tension. Instead this has a crazy grandpa, blubbing kids, a morose wooden hero… and lots of shades of other, better movies. Not a terrible movie but not far from it really: biggest sin of all is how much it looks like one of those FAQ/Walkthoughs of videogames one sees on YouTube. Movies should be more than that.

Revisiting Baby Driver (but in 4K!)

bb4kLast night I finally took my 4K disc of Baby Driver out of its shrink-wrap and rewatched the film. My original thoughts are here, from back when I watched the film on a rental from Amazon- I enjoyed the film immensely and purchased the 4K disc when it featured in a sale not long afterwards (ah, the good old Zoom days…) but isn’t it strange when it takes so long to rewatch even a film one enjoys? Baby Driver is one of those clever films that just clicks, a twist on the musical genre and a brilliant reinterpretation of the use of source music in films that dates back to American Graffiti. If anything, I enjoyed the film so much more this time around- no doubt because of the image quality of the 4K and perhaps even more so its superior sound too. Yeah, streaming is okay but its definitely sub-par in so many respects.

And of course, in another example of the argument for physical media, they may not be on the 4K disc, but there’s lots of special features on the accompanying Blu-ray disc bundled with the 4K. This includes two commentary tracks which I think will prove to be highly informative regards the use of the music and the decisions regards selection.

I read recently that Edgar Wright has spent lockdown finishing the script for Baby Driver 2 (which I presume involved listening to his entire music collection and writing for specific tracks/beats) so I look forward to seeing what comes of that. Baby Driver is a fairly self-contained film and doesn’t need a sequel but I’m certainly open to more if its as good as the first film. I also see that Ansel Elgort (who should have been hired by Disney to play Han Solo in its Solo flick) is starring in Spielberg’s West Side Story due in December; he’ll be absolutely huge after that if it proves as good as it hopefully is.

King of New York (1990)

kingnewykAbel Ferrara’s King of New York is a highly-stylized exploitation mob movie, about New York drug lord Frank White (Christopher Walken) released from prison and intent on regaining his criminal empire. Shot mostly (possibly entirely) on location it has a gritty, docudrama ‘look’ which is undermined by just being so stylized and overly… maybe manipulative is the wrong word, but its a brazen shock-for-shocks-sake film, so much so that with every establishing shot of a new scene you expect to see a sudden moment of violence from anywhere. Its almost exhausting at times and this ultimately works against it- it doesn’t feel ‘real’, the characters almost being gratuitous caricatures, whether they are mobsters or cops. Supreme over all of this is Christopher Walken as Frank White, a typically riveting performance when the actor was in his prime, dominating every scene and clearly a league apart from the rest of his cast. It is a good cast, mind, with players destined for big things afterwards: David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, Steve Buscemi, Giancarlo Esposito, but its telling that each (with the exception of Fishburne) are largely under-used by a screenplay that skirts the surface and offers little substance or depth. White is almost permanently accompanied by two women who are both bodyguards and possibly lovers but I don’t think we even get to know their names, never mind get an inkling of what they are thinking or their background/history with White. Often it has the feeling that there’s a prequel movie that the director assumes we’ve already seen. Its pulp fiction, entirely exploitation, feeling no need for any depth.

It really has the feeling of a 1980s VHS rental; you know, the down-to-basics, often violent thrillers that thrived in the home video market when people could rent out the kind of unedited films that couldn’t be shown on network television. In that respect its a pleasant kind of throwback movie, but it lacks any kind of sophistication of message or execution: indeed its so intent on shocks and taking any excuse for a graphic shootout that it becomes rather convoluted and confused, which is really quite ironic. We don’t really understand White, or get under his skin, suggestions of his Robin Hood-style ethics (his drive to finance a neighbourhood hospital) unexplained, which is a pity considering Walken’s ability and screen presence. Perhaps Ferrara wanted to maintain some element of mystery to White’s background and intentions, but I think much of this issue is the films drive to shock. White will suddenly pull out his gun and shoot an adversary simply for the surprise and thrill of the sudden violence, when really the film should perhaps pause for some kind of dialogue that deepens the drama or suggests White’s motivation. 

So King of New York is clearly a film of its time, and rather suffers from its pulpish, shocker roots: a stylish b-movie (it certainly looks pretty good). Its dated by its electronic score that again is very of its era but I suppose this is, for its fans, all part of the films charm, and I can understand why the film has something of a high reputation among those who saw it back when it first came out. Watching it in 2021 though its really something of another story.