1995 and a Waterworld mystery

waterworldA friend at work lent me a copy of Arrow’s recent release of Waterworld on Blu-ray, as I’d confessed to never having seen the film before, odd as that may sound, but, you know, some films slip us by. Well, back home Claire told me we had indeed seen it before, but I insisted I hadn’t. I mean, I honestly could not remember any of it, other than maybe the odd scene that I stumbled upon when it was aired on tv over the years (for awhile, it seemed to aired all the time on various cable stations etc, and even then I never sat down to watch it).

So Claire went off to find proof- and returned with her diary from 1995, which indeed confirmed that we had indeed seen it, at a Showcase Cinema on August 22nd, 1995. Which I honestly cannot remember, at all. Can a film be that bad, that forgettable, that it just fades entirely from memory? It still baffled me, as I could not remember it at all- indeed, it felt all a little bit scary. Is this how it begins, losing your mind?

Strangest of all, Claire had a list in the back of her diary of all the films we had seen that year at the cinema- 34 of them. Yeah, that’s right, 34 of them. I don’t think I see that many films at the cinema in a decade now. My only excuse, we were courting back then, before we got married and settled down to domesticity and the joys of home cinema. But 34 films? Crikey. While my eyes water at the state my wallet must have been in back then, here’s the list, just for curiosity sake: When  A Man Loves A Woman, Timecop, Stargate, Nostradamus, Shallow Grave, Natural Born Killers, Interview With The Vampire, Leon, The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women, 101 Dalmatians, Nobody’s Fool, Outbeak, Legends of the Fall, Apollo 13, In the Mouth of Madness, Don Juan de Marco, Judge Dredd, Braveheart, Waterworld, First Knight, Congo, Batman Forever, Species, Die Hard With A Vengeance, Delores Claiborne, While You Were Sleeping, Pocahontas, Mortal Kombat, Haunted, Jade, Crimson Tide, A Walk in the Clouds, Babe.

Well, there’s a few there I can barely remember either. There’s a few I would like to forget but can’t.

As for Waterworld, well, we watched it Saturday night, and other than one or two scenes, such as the dive down to the submerged ruins (which I swore I recalled from stumbling onto a tv showing, to be honest) it absolutely failed to ring any bells memory-wise. It was like I was absolutely watching it for the first time. It was utterly bizarre. Unless Claire had gone to see it with some other fella I must have just wiped that film from my memory completely in some kind of post-traumatic shock. Well, yeah, it was a pretty forgettable film, so that would be part of it- that, and nearly 24 years.

The time to lock me away in a padded room is when I forget I ever saw Blade Runner, obviously.

 

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Avanti! again

avantiSo I returned to Billy Wilder’s Avanti! again. Its widely considered one of Wilder’s lesser films, and of course when compared to some of his greatest films (a list, remember, that includes Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard) I suppose that’s inevitable, but the film has a certain charm that draws me to it, perhaps more so than some of those ‘greats’ oddly enough. The fact that it stars Jack Lemmon is likely part of that, since he’s one of my favourite actors. But Avanti!… is strangely magical.

Even when it was first released, back in 1972, it was considered old-fashioned which was understandable looking at that era of 1970s American cinema – your Godfathers, Taxi Driver, Jaws, The Exorcist etc. But the funny thing is that once divorced from their original release, films like Avanti! (and certainly you could include Its A Wonderful Life alongside it, decades earlier) become utterly timeless in a way their contemporaries can’t. Avanti! is also so endearing, it really feels like love, my affection for it. Its a little bubble of romantic, sweetly funny joy and has frozen in time a sense of time and place forever. Revisiting Avanti! is just like revisiting a favoured place or fondly remembered friend that you haven’t seen in a long while.  It doesn’t hurt that the film features a gorgeously romantic score by Italian composer Carlo Rustichelli that can literally break your heart or laugh with joy- it plays almost throughout the film and gently seduces you without you even knowing it’s doing it.

avanti ostSome people have issue with the films languid pace and think it runs too long- clocking in at 2 hours and 24 minutes it is perhaps a little indulgent but when its a film you love, you just enjoy the extra time to wallow in it. As it is, rewatching it this time I felt the ending came just too soon, feeling rather abrupt. I wanted more of Lemmon and Juliet Mills (who in particular is so achingly bewitching and beautiful here), more of the island, the Rustichelli score, the gentle comedy Its one of my regrets that at the end, when Lemmon and Mill’s new lovers agree to repeat the routine of their parents and meet again at the islands hotel the next summer, I won’t ever be able to see it, rejoin their affair or see the adventures each yearly rendezvous brings. I want to feel what they feel, again, and again, but its locked away (well, at least I have the DVD and the Blu-ray and the soundtrack). We can but dream of what happened the next year, and the one after, and the one after that…

I came back to Avanti! by way of a German blu-ray that matches a US release from a year or so ago that was region-locked. Why we have to rely on German HD releases of quality films like this I don’t know- I would have thought this kind of thing (anything Wilder, frankly) was a sure thing for boutique labels like Arrow or Eureka over here. As it is, the two short cast  interviews included are slightly marred by burned-in German subs but the film itself is perfectly fine with English soundtrack and optional player subs. The HD image is a little problematic, likely derived from the same source/master as the earlier DVD but it looks fine with stable grain and no DNR: a fine filmic image with superior detail to the SD version. No doubt a fresh new master would sharpen things up better still and enable some improved colour ‘pop’, but really, a new master for a niche film such as Avanti! is unfortunately highly unlikely (but I’d like to be proven wrong).

I learned from the interview with Juliet Mills that the part of US STate Official J.J. Blodgett, played by Edward Andrews in the film, was originally written for Walter Matthau, but at the time Billy Wilder and Matthau were having a feud which nixed the actor appearing in the film. In hindsight you can tell it was written for him, some of that dialogue just drips for Matthau’s personality and comic timing, and him in it would just have made Avanti! even more perfect. Chalk that bit of casting up as another of movie history’s great ‘what ifs’.

 

Superman Again!

supestmJust when you thought it was safe to swear off expensive soundtrack purchases (the expanded Thin Red Line arrived on Thursday -yay!) La La Land land the sucker punch that is a 3-disc Superman: The Movie set.  Remastered from the original 2-inch, 24-track music masters no less, the leap in sound quality is said to be extraordinary (well, they would say that, naturally, but..) and the 3-disc set includes the original album assembly that I had on vinyl for my birthday back in (whispers) February 1979…

So here we are again, Superman: The Movie, some forty years later. Oh man, me and this music. While the Star Wars soundtrack, that I had on tape for my birthday the year before, probably launched me on my love of soundtrack music, it was without doubt the Superman score that cemented it- I must have played that album so many more times than I ever played Star Wars. Superman was just incredible, so soulful and romantic and exciting – I used to play the Fortress of Solitude track over and over in the evenings, just letting its mystical, almost-ambience wash over me. Curiously enough, I hadn’t actually seen the film either ( I had a choice between a cinema visit and a skateboard, and my only defense is the peer pressure of all my mates having skateboards) so when I listened to the score, it was my own images and daydreams rushing through my head, so I have pretty intense memories of listening to it.

Oh well. Here we go again…

Hereditary (2018)

hered1

Hype springs Eternal, especially with horror films, as the 2017 reboot of IT would testify, and it rings true with Hereditary, too, unfortunately. Thinking about it, I suppose it really depends upon what you want from a horror film. Scares, sure, they would seem a prerequisite, but anyone can do scares in movies (well, jumps anyway) – it’s mostly a question of manipulation, timing and throwing a loud ‘boo!’ on the soundtrack. Trickier, really, is establishing a sense of mood and dread, and here Hereditary scores pretty highly. This is a horror film that drips mood and the threat of scares, delivering plenty of creepiness and shocks, which is likely why it received all the hype and positive word of mouth it did.

But for me it lacked any logic, any sense, and the increasing hysterics of the family started to descend into farce long before the film reached its rather Pythonesque conclusion. I think any horror film works best if it can establish some sense of normalcy and then raise the stakes as things go wrong but right from the start the main characters are over the edge, nothing really seems normal and it just goes wilder as it goes on. Okay, here be Spoilers, so here’s a warning, although I’m one of the last few to get around to having seen Hereditary:

A text card states that Annie’s mother has died and the film opens on her family at the funeral. Annie (Toni Colette) is really rather unhinged from the off, and while Colette’s performance has been widely praised it just seemed too crazed for me, leaving her nowhere to go but further Out There. Gabriel Byrne is cast as her husband Steve and he’s utterly wasted here, and fails to have any discernible chemistry at all with Colette, not the only casting crisis of the film (which I’ll turn to later). Events get increasingly nuts (sic) around Steve and he just does nothing in particular, really. The couple’s two kids are frankly peculiar- ten year old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) behaves very oddly cutting off dead birds heads (foreshadowing there, I think) and making odd clucking sounds with her tongue, while teenage Peter (Alex Woolf) mopes around looking permanently terrified, stares forlornly at a girl he fancies and gets high on pot. Normal?

Would any mother insist on sending a ten year old girl with a deadly food allergy to an unsupervised high school party with Peter, and would Peter, intending to smoke pot and hook up with girls at said party, so easily agree to his sister going along? How many high school parties take place in huge luxurious mansions and how many teenage hosts bake fresh cakes in the kitchen (loaded with nuts, naturally)? So without Annie insisting that they take an Epi Pen along with them, when his sister eats the wrong kind of cake and starts to react badly, instead of calling for an ambulance Peter, having already smoked some pot, decides to put his sister Charlie in his car and race through the night to hospital.

So Peter has an accident on route, decapitating, no less, his sister. He then calmly drives home, and goes to bed, leaving his sisters headless corpse on the backseat and her head at the roadside. So next morning whilst he is still in bed Annie goes out to the car and finds her daughters corpse (well part of it) and screams her head off (sic).

Where are the cops in all this? Surely someone finds poor Charlie’s head on the roadside? Surely Annie and Steve have to explain to the police, or even more likely, demand an explanation from the police, regards how Charlie lost her head and died? Manslaughter charges anyone? Driving under the influence? Poor parenting taken to task? Peter’s punishment seems to be that he has to bike to school in future. Indeed, he returns to school soon enough, has a seizure and is sent home having nearly smashed his head to a pulp on his desk. Hello? Hospital anyone? Counselling? Maybe the cops would be interested?  Do they do Social Workers in America, are they a thing over there?

What really sent the film off the rails for me was the frankly bizarre casting of Ann Dowd as Joan, a woman who befriends Annie and sets her on the course of amateur seances and chatting with the dead. I mean, after stints in The Leftovers and The Handmaids Tale as crazy women with dark deeds in their minds, it’s like putting up a red warning light as soon as she appears. Terrible casting- I like Dowd and she was excellent in The Leftovers as a leading figure in a dangerous cult, but this is taking typecasting to some other level. Its lazy and its predictable- is anybody in the audience remotely surprised when it transpires that Joan is up to no good? Its getting so that everytime I see Dowd in something I audibly groan. She’s great at that kind of role but come on, she’s gone to the well too often, its run dry, it’s getting boring now.

It later transpires that Annie’s mother was a Satanist and she spent her life trying (and failing) to bring a demon to the world. It would seem that her Satanist colleagues dug up her body (when Steve is informed of the grave desecration, he decides not to tell Annie- I mean come on, someone’s dug up her mom for goodness sake) and somehow put that body in the family attic without anyone in the family twigging that strange Satanists have been in the house (other than somebody at one point wonder about a bad smell in the house).

Now, I may have it wrong, the film is obtuse to the point of making no sense at all, but it appears that said Demon is inside Charlie and this is why she behaves oddly and she has to die so that the Demon can escape her body, and that Peter has to die so that the Demon can enter his. One person has to die to lose the Demon, another die to be possessed by it? Did Charlie have to die before the Demon could enter her body in the first place, and was it a Satanist that put the nuts in the cake? When you really think about it, nothing in Hereditary really makes much sense. Annie’s mothers decomposing body up in the attic (for whatever reason) is apparently headless and for some reason Annie starts crawling on ceilings acting really unusual after begging Steve to burn one of Charlie’s notebooks and set himself alight in the process. He burns like a Human Torch but doesn’t singe the wooden floor much less burn the house down.

hered2DId I mention that the family also just happen to have a big treehouse across the drive that doubles as a ritual meeting room for the Satanists? DId I see Annie decapitate her own head with cheesewire and then her headless body float through the air into said treehouse?Is that her mom’s also-headless body kneeling alongside her own before the now Demonic Peter?

People took this film seriously.

Sully (2016)

sully.jpgIt seems to me, particularly with films such as this, that Tom Hanks is our modern-day equivalent of James Stewart- an actor whose onscreen persona is one of moral integrity and doing the right thing. I don’t think we have screen icons like there used to be in the grand old days of Tinseltown (empty and false as they might have been in reality), but Hanks seems to buck that – the cynic in me rather suspects it might just be Hank’s crafty choice of projects/collaborators, or maybe his publicity team, but the other part of me just thinks he’s a genuinely nice guy which reflects on his roles.

I still think he would make a fantastic Bond villain, if only for the shock of casting him against type.

Anyway, I often thought about the great James Stewart whilst watching this film- had this been made back in his day it would have been the perfect role for him. As it is, it’s perfect for Hanks, and possibly the easiest piece of casting for any movie project this decade.

I’ve obviously come to this film rather late, but I must confess it was much better than I had expected, which had been a dry, by-the-numbers account of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s heroic aversion of an air disaster. I well remember the events of January 15, 2009, when a US Airways flight was struck by a flock of birds soon after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. With both engines destroyed, the stricken plane’s veteran pilot glided the stricken plane onto the surface of the Hudson River, the first-ever successful water landing of a jet airliner, and saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew.

It would have been easy to just introduce some of the passengers back-stories, and that of the crew, prior to the flight and then let the events unfold like any other disaster movie (indeed like those old Airport movies of the 1970s). But the film wasn’t the simple retelling of those events that I had expected, as I didn’t really know the full story; instead the film focuses on the days afterwards and the air investigation into the near-disaster, which threatened to lay the blame on Sully and end his career as a passenger pilot- completely at odds with both the public perception of him as a hero and the idolization of the press who loved the ‘feel-good’ story. As the film’s narrative of the investigation progresses we see the graphic account of the fateful flight I’d expected, but broken into sections/perspectives as its framed by the investigation and scenes of Sully trying to come to terms with the traumatic event.

Commendably the film, directed by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t idolize Sully, but rather portrays him as a guy doing his job in extreme circumstances and somehow coming through. Sully certainly seems a reluctant hero overtaken by events. It is, no doubt, still a feel-good story but it’s grounded with some drama and surprising twists. Much better, and more balanced/complex, than I had expected. Nice one.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

alita1If there’s an uncanny valley in Alita: Battle Angel, it is surprisingly not the CGI heroine (although individual viewer’s mileage may differ on that) but rather in the hokey script which stumbles through plot contrivances and in particular a stodgy not-quite-the-end finale, mostly from its need to set up further adventures/movies. Its become a necessary evil in modern blockbusters, unfortunately, that studios and filmmakers are not investing in single movies anymore- it’s all about franchises. I must say my appreciation of this film would have been improved no end if it had just had those old fashioned things; a beginning, a middle, and an end. But this is not to say that Alita: Battle Angel is unique in this, it is something that all blockbusters seem to suffer from, whether it be a DC movie, a Marvel movie, a Star Wars movie, just about any kind of blockbuster/tentpole release- they are all strangled by it. Maybe some people walk out of these movies excited at the possibilities of all the teases for what’s next, but I just find it incredibly frustrating and I think it handicaps the movies.

But I will say this; I really rather enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel. Much more than I expected. But it could really have been so much better, too, which really bugs me, and I suspect repeat viewings may not be too kind when some of those plot contrivances start to wear thin.

alita2.jpgSo the good, then? Well the visual effects are pretty extraordinary, frankly. Alita herself, a stunningly rendered CGI character based on motion-capture by actress Rosa Salazar is a surprisingly engaging and emotive antagonist  whoops, protagonist (if she was an antagonist it might have been a more interesting movie but hey ho, that’s just my typo). Clearly the whole film depends upon it, and she works- she really works. Many people were querying her large eyes (faithful to the anime, I expect, which I am not familiar with) but the funny thing is, it’s those eyes that work the magic and helps convince. The whole film is a triumph, visually, the world-building quite extraordinary in places. It certainly convinced me far more than the similarly CGI-dominated Ready Player One did (indeed it’s a better film entirely). Its definitely brilliant eye-candy and if this film on 4K disc doesn’t sell UHD televisions nothing will- I am sure many genre fans currently sticking with Blu-ray (or, heaven forbid, DVD) may finally take the plunge to upgrade for this film (if the film takes their fancy).

The problem, though, is that script, which is really a pretty clunky series of coincidences piled upon coincidences with a few twists via swings of character that aren’t really earned. Considering that this film has been in development hell for decades (a long-gestating James Cameron project that he was likely delaying for the technology to catch up with his vision, only for it to be sidelined for his Avatar films) I’m disappointed by the script- it certainly had the time to fix its fundamental problems and like so many sci-fi epics before it, isn’t really worthy of all the effort given it by the technical wizards.

I also think it suffers from the same problem as Disney’s John Carter did back in 2012: it’s all too familiar now. In the same way that John Carter suffered from comparisons with Star Wars and Avatar and many other films that actually were ‘inspired’ by that films own original source material of decades before, so does Alita: Battle Angel suffer from comparison with, say, Elysium or Altered Carbon (utopian city floating over trashcan city) or the live-action Ghost in the Shell (cyborg augmentation and huge CGI metropolis) and all sorts of others, whether it be the slo-mo CGI action stunts of the Matrix films or some of the real boy/robotic tensions of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Certainly there have been so many cyberpunk-styled films now that they threaten to descend into parody, which is a shame and probably a necessary evil at this point (its like bemoaning a Star Wars film for featuring am elaborate space battle, or a Western having guys riding horses). Its almost inevitable that the future city looks very Blade Runner at times.

For all that, though, yes I did enjoy this film. There’s a curious heart to the main character’s over-familiar concerns of identity, of what is machine, what is human and all the Pinocchio subtext that Spielberg rather did to death in the aforementioned A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and if this film feeling like the first half of a larger story does grate somewhat when the end credits roll, well, I guess that’s just where we are now with these films. I rather hope we get to see another one to tell the rest of that tale, but again, these days you never can tell what’s destined to be a hit, and a flop, we just have to wait and see those box office figures.

Assassins Creed (2017)

ass.jpgEver since this film was announced I’ve been curious to see it. I was a huge fan of the first Assassins Creed videogame, it felt like a breath of fresh air and something genuinely new. Sure, some of the story was daft in a ‘Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code’ kind of way, but it was a gaming experience that clearly lended itself to a cinematic treatment. Cast news etc during the making of the film seemed impressive and the intent was evident to make the proverbial ‘first good videogame movie.’

When the film came out, it quickly became apparent something was wrong and I chose not to go to the cinema to watch it, and even when it came out on disc I steered a wide berth, when in years past it likely would have been a blind purchase- but my curiosity remained. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to watching it, and the reviews and word of mouth seem pretty much right.

It is curious that the wife of Assassins Creed‘s Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, herself featured in a movie based on a videogame (the Tomb Raider reboot) and it largely suffered from the same problem that Assassins Creed does – it was just too faithful. There are both sincere and well-made but treat the source material with simply too much respect, becoming stilted and marred by too many action set-pieces intended to evoke moments of the videogame originals. Both films needed a life of their own, I think.

In Assassins Creed‘s case, the inherent daftness of the central premise is only accentuated by the film taking it all too seriously and elevating far too highly. This isn’t Shakespeare, and it isn’t even Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. I’m not suggesting being irreverent either, or even being a little camp, but it just seems to me that an adjust was needed. Right from the start and the opening text (that is largely I suspect for non-videogame familiar viewers) the tone is wrong: For centuries, the order of the Knights Templar have searched for the mythical Apple of Eden. They believe it contains not only the seeds of man’s first disobedience, but the key to the free will itself. If they find the relic and decode its secrets, they will have the power to control all freedom of thought. Only the brotherhood called the Assassins stands in their way… 

Maybe I’ve watched too many conspiracy films/tv shows and too many sagas with secret societies and well, maybe too many Dan Brown books/movies. Its all very pompous and apocalyptic and self-important. Better, I think, to have just introduced our protagonist to the mystery gradually, and the audience with him. Maybe eased off with the two warring factions of Templars and Assassins- the central premise of the story, that history can be re-experienced through genetic memory, is conceit enough for a film, I think. You can ‘buy into’ a lot of that other stuff fine in a videogame, in just the same way as you can all the mythology in comicbooks, say, but once you start translating all of that into movies, well, you’re risking all sorts of trouble. It becomes too larger than life, I think.

Which is a curious thing to consider- maybe it’s blowing things up onto a movie screen, with real actors and a music soundtrack and visual effects, all of that, maybe that’s artifice enough, that even subconsciously as a viewer there’s sometimes just too much suspension of disbelief involved with all the videogame paraphernalia on top of everything. Indeed it is the same problem comicbook movies have, managing to accept bizarre realities with people dressing up in weird costumes and defying all the laws of physics with their superpowers- its okay in a comic but in a movie it can all look a bit… weird, daft.

In any event, this film is structured strangely anyhow, with a strange quest (trace the fabled Apple of Eden) with indistinct reason (Templars defeat Assassins, ensure peace through the end of Freewill, whatever it actually means) and uncovering the strange lineage of our convict hero with Daddy issues. Its just a messy story awkwardly told, unless I was paying insufficient attention.  I suppose you just have to go along with all the nonsense, particularly when our baddie finally gets the famed Apple and, rather than use it to ensure World Peace etc, he waits for the annual Templar Convention in London to do it because he’s a sucker for a showstopper and the applause of his superiors. I mean, you’ve got the answer to Everything and the vindication of centuries of struggle and sacrifice and you just… don’t use it? I know it would have been the end of the movie, but, you know, why script it like that and leave it hanging like a big plot hole just sitting there bugging me for the rest of the movie.

Not that there was a lot of movie left after the bad guys attend their annual bad guy conference: most damning of all, the film fizzles to a halt, just stopping as if we are missing another twenty minutes and a ‘proper’ ending. Are we supposed to be left on the edge of our seats waiting for another installment? Well, that may be the cause, because there was evidently a franchise in mind with this film, a familiar blight of films now. You can’t just tell one, self-contained story anymore with a beginning, middle and end, no, it’s all a serial now, just more the pity when poor box-office cuts such prospects adrift.

So Assassins Creed was quite frustrating. A great cast, and some really nice action sequences and art direction, competently done generally, but undermined by a stodgy script laden with self-importance and lapses of logic. I also think the direction (or maybe it was the editing) was lacking at times, in simply telling the story. Its one thing to maintain a mystery, another to leave the audience lost not understanding what’s going on or why. Mind, it all seemed to make sense in the videogame.

But videogames aren’t movies, and movies aren’t videogames…