Decent Ben Wheatley movie shocker!

free12017.72: Free Fire (2016)

Frankly, I didn’t see two things ever happening; one, me ever watching a Ben Wheatley film again after the frankly execrable A Field in England and High-Rise, and two, ever admitting I enjoyed a Ben Wheatley film. Well, colour me surprised, thanks to Amazon Prime putting this film up to watch and the cast enticing me in (Sam Riley, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor… I mean, Christ, it’s a cast to die for, really…). Ben Wheatley’s name on the credits hardly seemed a factor. Lucky me, because this is one of those films that goes with its almost one-line premise and actually delivers a little cracker. And hey, it’s nearly Christmas. Perfect.

Both A Field in England and High-Rise were competently-made high-concept films that drowned in pretentious arthouse shenanigans – Free Fire actually reminded me of 1970s John Carpenter. In a similar way to how Carpenter would skillfully craft a classic film from simple b-movie ideas with Assault on Precinct 13 or Halloween, here Wheatley shoots (unfortunate turn of phrase, all things considered) a taut, funny action-drama from a simple set-up.

Its 1978 and a bunch of IRA members meet some arms dealers in Boston to buy a van load of machine guns. A varied and eclectic group of misfits and crooks, the tense dealmaking collapses into a violent stand-off in an abandoned factory, with the two sides in a violent conflict that lasts through the entire film. Yeah, its one long gun-fight and most of these goons ain’t going to walk out of the showdown. Its simple, it’s effective, it’s littered with great dialogue, performances and twists and turns. Sure, it’s not perfect, certainly not as cool or as hip as thinks it is but for a Ben Wheatley movie it’s quite surprisingly brilliant.

It’s a decidedly pulp film just lacking the widescreen elegance of Carpenter in his prime or Tarantino’s witty dialogue or Scorsese’s gritty realism (Scorsese actually features in the films credits as a producer) but its a ball for the ninety minutes it lasts.  Maybe it was a case of extremely diminished expectations (I call that the Wheatley Factor) but I really quite enjoyed it. Great fairly mindless fun and yeah, a great, great, cast. The wrap party must have been an absolute ball.

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Napoleonic California: The Terror

terror32017.71: The Terror (1963)

An impossibly young Jack Nicholson plays a Napoleonic officer with a lazy californian accent, Boris Karloff plays a reclusive Baron with a shady past (with a twist straight out of leftfield) and Dick Miller plays his tough-guy servant as if he somehow stepped straight off a tough New York street. Its one of those old films full of utterly bizarre casting, a cheap-as-chips exploitation b-movie (Karloff filmed his scenes in just four days, using sets from Corman’s previous flick, The Raven, I think, just before they were torn down) that doesn’t make any sense at all.

And yet there is a certain charm about it. Partly it is that fun, twisted casting. It is strange indeed to see Nicholson phoning-in a performance so early in his career, or maybe it’s just that he isn’t taking any of it as seriously as Karloff, who clearly relishes it like it’s his crack at Shakespeare (but that was true of Karloff in every film). Any historical accuracy is purely coincidental, simply adding to the dreamlike sensibilities of the confused script and the vibrant, richly colourful lighting that reminded me of ’60s Star Trek.

Indeed, it’s almost shocking to reflect that as a ghost story (before it veers off into something else) this film almost works, in spite of all that is so wrong about it- the plot-holes and inconsistencies lend it an air of dreamlike strangeness that threatens to make it a much better film than it is. But of course, it’s all accidental, a combination of rushed and fractured shooting and a script that looks like it was cobbled from out-takes from other scripts (like the sets themselves, evidently, as many props and scenery look like leftovers from earlier Poe films by Corman). With its cast and strange sensibilities it’s a rewarding curio, if nothing else.

“No, there is another….” The Beguiled.

beguiled172017.70: The Beguiled (2017)

There was a story going around the internet, back when Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven was doing the rounds in 2016, that it was being marketed in America as a wholly original movie that deliberately avoided referencing its 1960 original (or the 1954 Seven Samurai that preceded that). It may indeed have been wholly apocryphal, but I did mention the film to a colleague at work who was completely unaware there had ever been a 1960 film, so I guess the misinformation age is alive and well and maybe the marketing boys pulled it off after all.

I only mention this because I wonder how many viewers have watched Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled with no knowledge of the 1971 original. Or how many watched this thinking it seemed rather familiar somehow.  I wonder only because I would imagine one’s enjoyment of this film mainly rests on familiarity with the 1971 film.

This 2017 The Beguiled is a ravishing beauty to watch, with a sense of mood and time and place that is almost tangible, and is surely a fine achievement. The darkness is pervasive, the setting almost a character of the film itself. Viewers unaware of the shadows of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood hanging over it will likely find it fascinating and surprising and dramatic; however, as someone quite familiar with the 1971 film, while I admire this new versions aesthetic I have to ask what else it brings new to the table. Or maybe that is simply because i have seen the 1971 film before and therefore have the new film at an unfair disadvantage. But why remake a film if you are only updating the premise with fancier visuals? Or maybe that’s the entire reason you remake a film these days, whilst Hollywood remains vacant of new scripts and ideas.

In anycase, somehow in spite of its fine cast (on paper, a mouthwatering proposition) I found its characters oddly disaffecting and difficult to distinguish (or maybe it was just the dark candlelight). Colin Farrell is not as charismatic as Eastwood either. Perhaps the unusually short running time of barely more than 90 minutes harms the piece, as it really feels almost like an abridged version. Somehow I felt it was missing some depth of characterisation. Or maybe I was just comparing it to the 1971 original too much. Ghosts of old films seldom rest easy in this age of so many reboots and remakes, as beguiling as they may seem.

beguiled 17b

A Tarantino Trek?

taratrekRather illogical this one, Captain.

I don’t know, Spock, perhaps if your Vulcan mind could consider a more…. emotive, human, crassly commercial  point of view….

Dang blast it, Jim, I hate to agree with the green-bloodied oaf but this time I think he’s right. I’m a surgeon, not a damned film critic, but the guy behind all those foul-mouthed violent self-indulgent pulp movies putting words in MY mouth? Sounds like I’ll being calling Spock the alien muthaf—–kr we all think he is in every f—n scene.

Gentlemen, Tarantino’s heroes are the very epitome of cool, and I haven’t been cool since the 1960s – he rescued Travolta’s career, after all, and God knows after the past few Trek movies, my career needs rescuing.

Hell with you square cats, Tarantino is a man who knows how to objectify women and I’m tired of this communications console, I so need objectifying. I’m black and sexy, dig, and I want some of that sugar he gave Pam Grier. ‘Uhura Unchained’ sounds groovy.

Ye Canna let him do it, Captain, he’s liable to make some kind of Natural Born Trekkies movie and I dunna think the ship can take it- I can give ye maybe ten more minutes at Warp 7 and then I’m muthaf—-n out of here with Dr McCoy.

Really, Mr Scott, I find your outburst sickeningly emotive and hardly conducive to solving this quandary. Whilst I have my reservations, after what JJ Abrams did to us I hardly think Mr Tarantino could do any worse, I only think-

Dang blast it you heartless muthaf—-kn pointy-eared waxen-faced alien b—d you sold us out, didn’t you?

No, Doctor, I merely thought it’s time I became the star of this show and I’m certain Mr Tarantino will see the logic of my proposal.

Damn it, Spock, I’m your Captain. And I love you.

Out of the seat, muthaf—r, this Vulcan’s taking over.

 

 

 

A Good Year?

We’re rushing into that time of year when we all start to realise that the year is fast becoming a whole new last year, and inevitably begin to take stock. For my part, it’s begun to dawn on me that it hasn’t been a bad year at all for movies.

We have, after all, seen the release of Blade Runner 2049, and it was everything any Blade Runner fan could have hoped for.  Its struggles at the American Box Office, as if in direct opposition to wondrous reviews, just add more to it somehow, an added pathos. If nothing else, it likely means we won’t have to worry ourselves silly over a third entry anytime soon. Maybe. Alcon did spend a lot of money for the rights, and it is still a well-known IP, so I’d rule nothing out- maybe we’ll see a smaller, less-blockbuster-budget outing next, or even a series on some cable channel.

Beyond the long shadow of BR2049, which has frankly ruined me for any other cinema outings this year (I saw it THREE times!)  and leaves me rather burned-out in the face of another Star Wars entry (still not excited, and it’s only weeks away now), there have been some pretty nice surprises this year. Genre films like Logan, Kong: Skull Island and War for  the Planet of the Apes have all impressed me greatly. Even the live-action Ghost in the Shell was rather fun with a lot to offer once you get your head around a live-action GITS existing in the first place.

On the tv front, things may have been even more impressive- Westworld was fantastic, as was The Leftovers, but another long-remembered favourite (with just as huge expectations/fears as the big-screen’s BR2049), the new Twin Peaks, proved to be utterly sublime. 18 hours of prime David Lynch, a labour of love as scary and bemusing and funny and baffling as anything he ever did. David Lynch at his very best, on tv for goodness sake- who needs cinemas? I just got the blu-ray box this week, can’t wait to plunge into it all over again (just want to rewatch Fire Walk With Me first this time).

The latest Game of Thrones season suffered from its headlong rush to the finish line of season eight. It was just three episodes too short and risked jumping the shark with a few of its questionable plot-turns. Here’s hoping the last season delivers when we finally see it. Back on the movies front, Ridley risked losing the plot along with his nerve, when his Prometheus 2 became Prometheus 1.5 with 0.5 of an unnecessary Alien prequel thrown in. Maybe he was right about Giger’s alien being all done- if Ridley can’t make the Alien scary again, who can? Meanwhile while Marvel soared (particularly with the triumphant Spiderman: Homecoming) DC floundered yet again with the frankly risible Justice League. Maybe an Ultimate Cut will fix that… who knows?

So yeah, an interesting year and one that 2018 will struggle to live up to, I suspect. Afterall, new Blade Runner films and Twin Peaks series don’t come along every decade, do they, nevermind every year. Hell, if those two projects were the only worthy efforts of the year, it would still have been a Good Year.

And I haven’t mentioned the new two-disc Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtrack on its way across the pond, possibly in time for Christmas….

A Day for Heroes: Patriots Day

patsy.jpg2017.65: Patriots Day (2016)

On the face of it, Patriots Day is a great, taut thriller recounting the dramatic events of the Boston marathon bombing of 2013. Even for viewers fully aware of what happened, the film manages a relentless sense of tension as everything unfolds, and it’s certainly very efficiently staged.

However, it’s also a Hollywood movie, so it’s filled with all sorts of well-known faces, and this may just be my own personal thing, but it always distracts me somewhat from what should be a riveting docu drama account when I see some guy from the latest King Kong film or Justice League or those mobile ads on British tv. It’s no fault of the actors themselves (and indeed it’s great seeing Kevin Bacon doing some proper acting for once), but just seeing their faces pull me out of it all a little, whereas it might be thoroughly engaging with a cast of unknowns. There’s an awful lot of distracting cinematic baggage being carried around in some of these scenes.

Moreover, I clearly have a problem with Mark Wahlberg, a guy who irritates me in most films he appears in, and moreso here when I learned his character is entirely fictional in this film. His character is obviously a construct to enable the narrative flow of the events to centre on one character that the audience can ‘root’ for, but unfortunately it feels… I don’t know; manipulative? All films are manipulative, but a film like this that purports, quite rightfully to some degree, to be very accurate in depicting the events and those real people who were caught up in in it, to then throw up a main antagonist who didn’t exist…. I don’t know. Maybe me real problem is my dislike for Wahlberg. For me he is Wahlberg, always Wahlberg, an extremely limited actor who somehow remains very popular with audiences and is a very successful producer (if only he’s remain behind the camera).  It doesn’t help that some of his speeches here are so on the nose and awkward, or that he always seems to be where something is happening (its as if he has a twin, how he manages to pop up all the time). He’s unnecessary, he’s irritating. It’s like he’s there just to bankroll/sell the movie, which is a shame, the subject should be enough.

So anyway, Patriots Day is, with some reservations regards polemic politics/patriotism and certain casting choices, a very good thriller and a commendable film about recent real-life events. It’s a pity that the British film industry hasn’t yet found it worthy to make a film about similar events in our own country, but films about a bear seem to be an easier sell to a country depressed enough about Brexit etc.

 

 

We don’t need another Watchmen… do we?

watchmenIt seems quite crazy to be even considering this question. As someone who was blown away by the film during its cinema release in 2009 and subsequently brought the film on Blu-ray in its theatrical, directors cut and Ultimate Cut, I simply cannot understand why anyone would ever want to remake/reboot it… especially when only eight years have gone by. It feels like the ink is still wet on the page, the paint still wet on the canvas.

And yet Damon Lindelof (who, okay, I will cut a little slack following The Leftovers) is working for HBO at creating a mini-series of Watchmen, presumably as a big-budget replacement for HBO’s soon to conclude phenomenon Game of Thrones (as if Westworld didn’t already fit the bill).

Watchmen is perhaps the classic, definitive comicbook. It’s like the War and Peace of superhero comics. I know some have had reservations (or downright hatred) of the film version, but far as I am concerned, the damn thing was definitive. It did everything right. It was faithful (to the extreme) to the comic- set in an alternate 1980s America, it had a fantastic cast that was incredibly close visually to the comic. It even portrayed Dr Manhattan naked, pretty amazing for a mainstream Hollywood superhero film. They even did the pirates comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter as an animated cartoon and included it in the Ultimate Cut which runs for something approaching four hours. I mean, it may have its faults, but being unfaithful or disrespectful to the original is not one of them (unless you are one of those that criticises the film for just that).

To me, it was bloody amazing and I still pinch myself that it even exists, and that they went to all the trouble of filming that Under the Hood doc and the Pirates animation and all the rest that it did so right. A bit like the Blade Runner sequel we got this year, it just seems too good to be true, even now. When you consider how the DC superhero films have struggled these past few years it’s clear how badly wrong the Watchmen film could have turned out. But it didn’t. It turned out great.

So why even revisit Watchmen, nevermind so soon? It just feels redundant to me, when HBO could be going off and working on all sorts of other intellectual properties. In anycase, the film Watchmen hardly set the world afire so it’s rather tempting fate, like pushing more good money after bad. I don’t know. In a world of remakes and reboots, this feels the most unnecessary one of all.

They’ll be telling me that hack JJ Abrams is involved next, and this special circle of hell will be complete.

Facepalm Hell: Tomorrow, When The War Began

tomm2017.64: Tomorrow, When The War Began (2010)

Oh boy. This is one of those films that you just know is going to be bad, the premise is… well. You know all those teenager-oriented flicks we’ve been inflicted by over this past decade? Here’s another one. We’re in Australia, and seven teenage freinds from a small town go on a camping trip. They have a great time, but what they don’t know is that while they are out in the wilds without any internet or mobile phone signal,  Australia is being invaded by a mysterious Asian superpower. Returning home they find that they are at war and their townsfolk and families have either been imprisoned or murdered. There’s only one thing for it, the seven teens must wage all-out war and free their country. Fortunately, although Australia has fallen, none of the Asian invaders can shoot straight.

Wait, what?

I don’t know, I may have missed some details from going dizzy slapping my face with my palm. Good grief this is pretty horrifyingly stupid.  Attractive lead female secretly has crush on Asian guy from school, invites him to camping trip, and you won’t believe this but… he secretly likes her too. Another girl, a gorgeous dizzy blonde from a rich family (yawn) goes on the trip, has no experience with boys but is bravely confident one day some boy will ask her out… do you think one of the boys in the group has the hots for her? One girl comes from a strict religious background and refuses to resort to violence- will she compromise her beliefs when her freinds are in mortal danger and she suddenly finds herself holding an automatic rifle?

It did occur to me that, with very little effort, this could have been turned into a really effective, really funny comedy spoof of all those teenager-based movies and of course the film Red Dawn which it so closely resembles, but instead it is dreadfully earnest and completely, shockingly serious. This is no doubt due to the fact that it is based on a series of books written by some guy named John Marsden which I have been happily ignorant of up to now. I guess they are great reads for teens who feel misunderstood and under-appreciated and feel capable of curing the world’s problems, but I doubt they are great for adults who have lived in the real world and grown up, and they certainly don’t seem to make for great movie-making. As this film was released back in 2010 it seems it didn’t set the world alight and lead to further films, so at least we should be thankful for that.

Simply Amazing

spider12017.63: Spider-man:Homecoming (2017)

This was brilliant. There’s no-one more tired and weary of reboots than I, but this third attempt at bringing Spider-man to the screen just goes to prove the old adage that yes, sometimes the third time’s the charm. More than that, the gap in quality between this film and Justice League, which I suffered through just a few days ago, is remarkable. If Justice League is a lesson in how not to make a superhero movie, then Homecoming is a lesson in how to do it right. It may not be perfect, but it comes awfully close.

Indeed, after so many Spider-man movies during the past decade or two, this should have felt tired and formulaic, but instead thanks to the expert input of Marvel Studios it’s so fresh you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the very first cinematic outing for our favourite web-slinger.

The pace is great, the characters endearing, the fun-quota high, there’s plenty of laughs, plenty of drama, some brilliantly staged action sequences with high-quality visual effects, and it even manages to throw in a decent villain with a great character arc of his own (without making him a tragic villain or something).  And yes, there’s an ending high on action but low on frenzied CGI with a dramatic confrontation between two characters. Yes, no CGI monsters or huge explosions or armies of bad guys, simply exalting instead in a face-off between two characters. So refreshing to see a superhero film dialing it down a little – sometimes less is more.

tinkererIn tieing the events of this film with the aftermath from the New York battle in the first Avengers movie, the writers pull off a fine trick of explaining the origins of two of my favorite Spidey villains, the Vulture and the Shocker, without them feeling dated or silly. And if my eyes don’t deceive me, was that guy re-engineering the alien tech the Tinkerer (he’s an alien disguised as a human way back in one of the very earliest issues of The Amazing Spider-man)?  The way that explains how the bad guys manage to adapt the alien tech and create the Vulture’s wings and the weapons etc, whilst also nodding to the origins of the comic from way back in the early 1960s, is just sheer genius.

There is such a sense of internal logic to this film and its character arcs. Michael Keaton almost steals the film as the Vulture, but of course Tom Holland more than holds his own as Peter Parker and Spider-man (contrast this with DC fumbling the job of portraying both Clark Kent and Superman in the last few DC films). I sincerely hope they don’t bring the Green Goblin into this series and instead bring back the Vulture (particularly as he knows Peter’s secret identity and now has a grudge to settle).

The funny thing is, although everything works so well, it’s telling how different this film is from the original comic. Back in the 1960s comic, Peter Parker was a nerd ostracized by his classmates and nothing ever really seemed to go right for him, every issue ending on a downer, whether it be Spider-man being hated by the public and hunted by the law, or Peter himself failing to get the girl or falling deeper into money problems. Homecoming‘s Peter Parker has a date with a girl, has a close buddy who stumbles upon his secret identity and assists him,  and has a ‘hot’ Aunt instead of the elderly Aunt of the comic. Maybe I should be yelling out “heresy!” but I think all the changes from the comic actually work. It also helps distance this film from the previous films that may have been more faithful to the comic.

Logan Marshall-Green; Photographer select; Tom HollandAt any rate, this film was great fun, the very opposite of Justice League and I really can’t wait for further instalments if they manage to maintain this balance of fun, sophistication and sheer, well, joy.  Not all superhero films have to be dark and serious, and  while I’ve no doubt those future installments will lessen the humor and heighten the drama, Holland’s tenure is off to a great start.  But now I’m starting to sound like a fanboy (I do love the 1960s Spidey comics) so I’ll pack this in. This film may not be high art, but it is great fun though.

 

 

 

For the BR2049 Bookshelf

cinefexBack in 1982, I remember standing in the old Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham, upstairs in the magazine section. looking through Cinefex issue 9, which was devoted to Blade Runner. I very nearly bought it, but on limited pocket money funds decided to buy a few REH paperbacks instead, and maybe pick up the Cinefex at a later date. Damned fool I was. There was never any later date for Cinefex 9, as it quickly sold out and I spent years looking for a copy. Fortunately the issue was reprinted by Titan books in a hardback book many years later, which itself is OOP now and fetching rather large sums, so I did manage to eventually own and read it.

So, when I learned the latest issue of Cinefex would feature BR2049, I quickly ordered it, keen on history not repeating. It arrived a few days ago and it’s a pretty good read. It doesn’t look as if Cinefex devotes issues to single films as it used to (God knows there’s far more effects films these days than there used to be) so the BR2049 article shares the issue with articles on Dunkirk, The Dark Tower and the latest Kingsman film. Consequently the coverage isn’t as in-depth as it was for the original film (the issue also devotes a few pages to a pictorial of the original Blade Runner coverage from 1982, which is nice but does raise the forlorn wish that the issue might have simply been devoted to both films).

Of course in the good old days Cinefex coverage meant brilliant pictures of behind the scenes stuff, like models being built and matte paintings being painted on glass, and on the whole that’s all gone now thanks to CGI taking over. But BR2049 does feature extensive miniatures so there’s some nice pictures of that, amongst the CGI renders and wireframes that no-one on this planet can make exciting. I think the Cinefex article suffers from the cloak-and-dagger secrecy around the film prior to release, so although it discusses the creation of the 1982 Rachel, it doesn’t have any images to back it up, which have been made available elsewhere on the internet since the films release. Ultimately it’s a good article but not as exhaustive or complete as I would have liked, but hey, it’s different times now. We don’t even have the massive articles of Cinefantastique these days either. Progress, eh?

artbrA much more complete package, imagery-wise at least, can be found in The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049 book. Its an oversized (and consequently rather expensive, although Amazon have since reduced the price substantially) coffee-table book, that from the title might be inferred to be an art book but is actually more of a making-of book, dominated more by behind the scenes and production photographs than artwork. As a visual record and memento of the film and how it was made, it’s quite brilliant and everything a fan of the film could hope for. The imagery for the visual effects material is superior to the Cinefex article, although the text less substantial (so yeah, you really need both sources, unfortunately). The book also shares some of the limitations of the Cinefex article regards some of the more closely-guarded sequences (no imagery, again, of the CGI Rachel for instance).

It’s a brilliant book though. I might have preferred more substantial text but the imagery is breathtaking in the film so consequently that gets reflected here. There are some lovely behind the scenes shots and commentary about the film. It’s exactly the kind of book that I would have loved to see about the original film. Both are intensely visual experiences, and the Blade Runner ‘bible’ Future Noir is severely lacking in that regard. So maybe someone might write a more in-depth book about making BR2049 someday, who knows, but for now this will more than suffice.

george-hull-br6.jpgI almost wish one of the actors could have written a diary like Bob Balaban did for CE3K, that was a great book. Walter Koenig did a similar fly-on-the-wall book for ST:TMP. You don’t see that kind of book/coverage anymore but both were fascinating glimpses of the frustrations of making technically-demanding films and managing all the boredom behind the scenes. Yeah we get loads of DVD/Blu-ray featurettes on the best disc releases these days but that’s never as impartial/balanced coverage as one would prefer.