The economics of Hollywood misery

The critics are blaming the films for the poor box office this year so far. While they have a point (we could always do with better films) I think they are missing the main cause- the ticket prices. At my local Cineworld, the cheapest price for my wife and I to see a film, during the afternoon, is £18. It gets rather more expensive in the evening, and then there are the usual premiums for 3D and 4D, Imax etc*. The ticket-prices can get pretty eye-watering. In some cases it could be £40+ for us both to go see a film. Which is just plain crazy. I know that it’s an evening out and alternatives can be equally or indeed more expensive, and I know Cineworld and other chains have loyalty programmes that reduces prices a little if you subscribe/spend more/go more often (it’s frankly bizarre to see cinemas getting away with doing the same direct debit/rental schtick that tv providers on cable and satellite have managed rather than just, er, stick to lower ticket prices for everybody). But really -most of the blockbusters are rubbish and hardly worth £5 a ticket. And other arthouse/indie films hardly get a look-in even at the multiplex: they’d rather have the same film doing a four-screen rotation.

£30+ for two of us to go see a movie in the evening, putting up with noisy audiences who need to chat through the film or text on their phones or check facebook/twitter or whatever the hell they are doing glued to their brightly distracting magic little screens in the dark, and those who demonstrate lousy bladder control by getting up and going to the loo during the best bits of a bloody film.

Or:  £15 to buy the film on disc and watch as many times as I like in the comfort of my own home without the moronic distractions. Or much less to just rent the thing via streaming (Life was £1.99 on Amazon Prime, which probably had something to do with me quite liking it.) Do the math Hollywood. I don’t think simply making better films is the answer. Is it a case of audiences voting with their wallets because the films are lousy or simply that it is just getting too expensive?

*(Of course, if you’re expecting audiences to cough up £9 – £21 a ticket to watch a two-hour movie, they want plenty of bang for their buck, which is no doubt why so many big loud stupid blockbusters do the rounds these days. And why even critics darling Dunkirk feels it is necessary to spray water in people’s faces and throw them around in their seats in 4D showings.)

 

 

 

The 2017 Selection Pt.6

2017 selection 6Just a few additions to mention – and looking at the release schedules, it may be a little while (certainly September/October) before I start adding to the list again- barring any sales. Probably just as well with the backlog of stuff to watch and tv seasons in progress.

So anyway, what do we have? First, Kong: Skull Island, which I reviewed in an earlier post. I really enjoyed this and I’ve since watched the disc again, and yep, the film still works like a charm. Great stuff.

Next we have season two of The Expanse, which like the first season last year, I have had to import on blu-ray from the States thanks to the vagaries of broadcasting these days. The first season originally wasn’t picked up by anybody here in the UK, but with the second season in the can Netflix added both seasons to its roster (which doesn’t help me as I’m an Amazon Prime boy for my sins and I refuse to subscribe to every channel/outlet under the sun). Anyhow, I really enjoyed the first season -sort of a successor to Babylon 5 and the BSG reboot by way of Game of Thrones–  and am really looking forward to watching this. The discs this time around even have some decent extras, including commentaries. I have, however, decided to rewatch season one first as I’ll be damned if I can remember all the fine details of the plot from over a year ago. So a review may be a little while off yet.

Next along comes Arrow’s excellent blu-ray edition of Future Shock; a brilliant documentary about the creation and history of the galaxy’s greatest comic (at least, it was back in the day when I read it), accompanied here by hours of extras (extended interviews and the like) that more than makes it a mandatory purchase even in this era of trying to curtail my disc buying. I reviewed the doc last year when it aired on Film Four and am glad I never bought the DVD version, because I hate double-dipping and this edition is the definitive one. I’ve watched some of the addl featurettes/sections and extended interviews and it’s absolutely zarjaz.

Lastly, Ghost in the Shell, which I saw at the cinema back in April and was intrigued enough to buy on disc. It holds up very well on second viewing- probably improves in fact, if only because distractions of the original anime  are less of an issue when you know what is/isn’t going on with the plot and can consequently relax and enjoy it for what it is. It’s certainly spectacular to look at and well worth a rental.

 

Returning to Ghost in the Shell

g2.jpgBack in April I saw the live-action Ghost in the Shell at the cinema. While I found it a little frustrating in places, I enjoyed the film enough to buy the blu-ray, which I watched yesterday.

Visually the film is perhaps even more impressive on disc than it was at the cinema (maybe that says something about my Cineworld): the effects and art direction are very, very impressive. Indeed, some of the visual effects of the city augmented with live action (say, with Scarlett Johansson walking down a street or sitting on a rooftop with the streets below her) are pretty astonishing, how photorealistic some of this stuff is getting. As an effects showcase or visual spectacle, this is a major achievement, really bringing the original anime to life. I think I’ll be able to rewatch sequences over and over, just soaking up all that detail, in just the same way I did with the original Blade Runner decades ago- it’s that good.  I also like how we see odd-looking characters and background stuff going on that are not explained. Its there to either be ignored or pondered over (I prefer the latter), adding little to the plot but it’s all part of that layers of detail stuff.

There is one scene, based on one from the anime, in which the Major and Batou are standing on a boat just offshore with the futuristic night-time city blazing neon behind them, which is just jaw-dropping, really, how seamlessly everything is integrated- the camera moves, the lighting of the characters, the city behind them softly out of focus. Its that stuff that impresses me more than the whizz-bang effects stuff really. It’s slow and quiet but so disarmingly perfect.

g1Deficiencies in the plot are less of a hindrance second time around, and my misgivings over a lack of empathy with Johansson’s Major are no longer the issue I felt at the cinema. It seems a deliberate choice to neuter the character emotionally- a result of having no memories and being as much an object created for a purpose  as her being an individual person. She is told she has a ‘ghost’ or soul in her fabricated body but she doesn’t feel it. She isn’t convinced she is a ‘real person’ until she has unearthed the truth about the girl she used to be. It’s rather similar to Robocop, in which even though Murphy has the memories of his past life, he is no longer that same person; his Robocop personna being subtly different, whatever his name/memories may say. It’s hardly Blade Runner-level layers of subtext but it’s interesting, even if it possibly damaged the movie regards audiences empathising with her emotionally-challenged personna/performance. As I say, less of an issue for me this time around, but even I noticed it at the cinema, feeling oddly disengaged from the proceedings. Mind you, part of that may have been from familiarity with the anime. I guess I may well feel the same watching Blade Runner 2049– how the hell do I just enjoy the film experience of that film and not get caught up in the cold objectivity of the fact of it being a sequel to the original and being utterly distracted by it?

So anyway, not a bad movie anyway, and a good first entry regards setting up the background of the Major and her future cyberpunk world. Would have been nice to see it progress to a second and even third film, expanding the story as the anime did in its own sequel and tv offshoots.

A quick trip to Box Office Mojo reveals the painful statistics though- Ghost in the Shell cost around $110 million to make (not bad, considering) so likely needed around $250 million to see a profit- the film completely tanked in America, only managing just over $40 million. The foreign total was more impressive; $129 million, but not enough to limit the damage of that woeful American take. So, no more Ghost in the Shell movies then. Likely no live-action Akira either. Good or bad thing?

One observation. Between HBO’s recent Westworld examining in such adult fashion the ‘what is it to be human?’ question and the nature of artificial memory and freewill/slavery as well as it did, and this Ghost in the Shell nailing that whole future-cyberpunk visual vibe, what’s left for Blade Runner 2049? In some ways, I have to wonder if the Blade Runner sequel is too late- a new generation of films/television has picked up the baton of the 1982 movie and moved it forward with some success.  Here’s hoping that it still has something new to say.

 

It’s alive!!!

life12017.41: Life (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

life3

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

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

life5

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

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

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

 

 

Sinbad!

Indicator’s recent box-set (the first in a series of Harryhausen sets) contains UK blu-ray premier’s of the Sinbad trilogy, with the usual great special features we have come to expect. I may struggle to get through those extras, but the films? Well, I’ve no wish to add to the ‘to watch’ pile, and I intend to justify every 2017 purchase by actually watching them, so this past week it’s been a Sinbad triple-bill at Ghost Hall…

7thvoy1The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

The oldest of the three films, it shows its age in places but also likely benefits from that age in its bold, technicolour-drenched, almost gothic stylings that lend it a similar charm to the best of Hammer of that period. The comic book-styled colours, and deep dark shadows are particularly vivid and atmospheric-it looks like a timeless European fantasy, unfortunately handicapped by the casting of two incongruous American leads- the bland Kerwin Matthews as Sinbad and a frankly terrible Kathryn Grant (who thankfully retired from acting soon after). The film is enlivened considerably by Torin Thatcher as the villain, Sokurah. He chews up the scenery and hugely improves the film- a towering over the top pantomime sorcerer, a joy to witness. He’s about the only human aspect to match up to Harryhausen’s wonderfully imaginative stop-motion creatures. The increased grain of the process photography doesn’t do the film any favours, especially in this beautiful new HD master, but the imagination and craft in the design, building and animation of the creatures is brilliant. The film remains a timeless classic and is served by a spectacular Bernard Herrmann  score that is probably the finest musical accompaniment to any Harryhausen feature.

golden12017.40: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

As the prefix above suggests, somehow I’d never seen this Sinbad film before. The surprising gap between this film and its predecessor results in a new cast and an initially disorientating change of approach. The cast is a definite improvement- John Phillip Law as Sinbad and the gorgeous Caroline Munro as his voluptuous love-interest. Initially Law struck me as an odd-looking Sinbad but I warmed to him considerably as the film went on; a good actor with great screen presence. Munro… well, she doesn’t have to act, she just looks incredible and I always had a crush on her as a young lad- well, what young man in the 1970s wouldn’t? You’d have to be a Vulcan with green blood in your veins not to fall under her spell. This is actually one of her better performances/movies, and as I’d never seen the film before a genuine treat.

The change of approach with the movie is also a bit surprising but quite commendable. It has a bigger budget and a more accomplished scale and style; less European fantasy and more real-world Arabic adventure, helped no end by some great location shooting. Harryhausen’s creations are as fantastic and memorable as ever, but by now his stop-motion technique was showing its age and limitations in the photographic process all the more apparent. Certainly the leap in grain and the impact on mattes leave the film suffering in HD. It’s a great pity but the beauty of these films is that they are such fun and so imaginative in design that you can easily forgive the limitations in the fakery. It’s still movie magic and few cgi creations have the heart and soul of a Harryhausen creation.

And I still haven’t mentioned Tom Baker as the villain, another evil magician, Koura. Less the panto villain of Thatcher’s Sokurah, Koura is more ‘real’, more genuine, and Baker is brilliant. This film was great, possibly the best of the three and I look forward to delving into the discs special features.

eyetiger1Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Oh dear. Horrible. Time (and Star Wars) finally caught up with Harryhausen, and although fans will always forgive the faults inherent in his stop-motion effects, this time the film around them was truly terrible. It’s also likely why this boxset exists- I can imagine genre fans rushing to buy 7th Voyage and, having now seen it, Golden Voyage, but really, how many would fork out hard-earned dosh on nonsense like Eye of the Tiger? I watched it once for completists sake having watched the other two, but now this disc is back in the box where it will stay. Sure, a Sinbad box makes sense but really, it’s surely the only way this film would ever sell.

To be fair, it’s not helped by the film committing one of my very worst pet hates in film- it runs the opening scenes under the title credits. I hate that. I much prefer text over a blank screen, or over graphics, whatever, but not over the opening shots of a film. Worse than that, the film compounds this heresy by showing the closing titles over the closing scenes of the film. The plot of the film involves rescuing the prince from his curse, returning him to human form and ensuring his coronation before the time limit, and then just as our heroes are triumphant and we see the fruits of their labours, boom, full-colour text is processed over the valedictory sequence. Horrible. I hate it.

Another thing, no matter how bad Kerwin Matthews was in 7th Voyage, Patrick (son of John) Wayne is even worse. Its Sinbad channeling a young Clint Eastwood. Seriously, close your eyes and listen to him- maybe it is his American drawl, but he sounds like he is actually mimicking Clint. Its utterly bizarre, and quite out of keeping with a Sinbad fantasy. There seems to be little chemistry between himself and Jane Seymour too, and Seymour herself is a pale reflection of Munro’s sultry heroine of the previous film. It’s all pretty weak and insipid, frankly: the villain (a sorceress this time, with a son for a stooge) is much inferior to those of the first two films, and the direction fairly uninspired. Even the music score is a pale shadow of the Herrmann and Rozsa scores previous. No, I really didn’t like it. Why waste time with this when you can rewatch one of the previous two?

Zimmer’s Blade Runner…

br2049Ouch. Consider this possibly the first real negative news about the upcoming Blade Runner sequel: Hans Zimmer is working on the soundtrack. Not necessarily a case of ‘Johannsson out, Zimmer in’ (which really would be a case of the film jumping the shark in my view), but all the same, bit worrying. Sure, Zimmer has done some good scores, but these days much of it sounds like sound design rather than score (in order to get some emotion for Dunkirk they had to dig out Elgar for crying out loud).

To quote a new interview with director Denis Villeneuve: “Johann Johannsson of Iceland composes the main theme as planned. However, given the scale of the task, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer joined the team to help Johann. It’s hard to get to Vangelis’ angle. We have Johann’s breathtaking atmospheric sounds, but I needed other things, and Hans helped us” (Studio Cine Live).

I would much rather have seen/heard Johannsson left alone, doing his own thing and using his own voice to give the film, well, its own voice, like the film Arrival had. Too many modern film scores sound like Zimmer even when he didn’t do the soundtrack; his ‘sound’ is too pervasive and it can be argued has actually hurt film scoring in general. My one hope about Johannsson doing the score was that it would hopefully sound new, fresh, exciting, just as Vangelis’ score did back in 1982.  Besides which, I don’t think this film should even really have that Vangelis ‘sound’. This film isn’t Blade Runner 1982, its Blade Runner 2017 (well, I know it’s actually ‘2049’ but you know what I mean).

 

Beauty and the Box-Office Beast

batb1.jpg2017.39: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Why is there a new live-action Disney Beauty and the Beast? It is a valid question, surely. I can only imagine it’s something to do with making money- well of course it is, otherwise it would be about adding something new to the cultural zeitgeist of the 21st Century and, well, this ain’t. Its surely also rather more about furthering egos and careers at the same time as Disney continues its almost incestuous trend of rebooting its back-catalogue of animated classics (previously rebooting Cinderella and Jungle Book, and I suppose Sleeping Beauty in its Maleficent, although I’d give that film points for trying a new angle).

In many respects, this Beauty and the Beast is just another example of an ideas-adverse/intellectually deficient Hollywood in action. And I’m afraid to say, it works: depressingly, this film is the biggest-grossing film of this year, so far. Currently something in the region of $1.2 billion worldwide. So more Disney reboots seem inevitable, for one thing- if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say.

Watching this film was a somewhat bizarre experience of re-experiencing something I had never seen before. Indeed, at its worst, it seems to follow so closely the original 1991 film, its as if that film was a pre-vis animated storyboard such as they use on many films these days. At its best, the film diverts somewhat, with three new musical numbers and added back-story for some of the characters, the brooding feeling of deja-vu dissipating somewhat as something actually new appears.

But it is such a strange viewing experience, caught in some kind of Philip K Dick-style alternate reality, wondering what the bloody hell is going on. I knew very little of this film going into it, and actually wondered if it would have any musical numbers at all. In hindsight, I must have been some kind of bloody idiot. This is the 1991 Beauty and the Beast done in live-action, musical numbers and all… well, I say live-action; there is an awful lot of digital set-augmentation, digital characters and post-production tinkering of the image in general that at times it looks more animated than live-action, resulting in an almost painterly style to the image that, while it may be pretty to look at does actually make me wonder what actually defines as ‘live-action’ these days.

This 2017 edition is not a terribly bad film by any means, and it does have its moments, but its very existence is rather depressing, and it’s huge box-office success even more so, for what that success portends. I do find it very disheartening how easily the current generation of entertainment industry ‘luvvies’, from actors to directors to producers to craftsmen so readily exult in cannibalising the work and success of those that came before them. As if rejoicing that there is nothing new under the sun and how easy it is to retread paths already taken, basking in the box-office glow that all that audiences want is more of the same but with added sparkle.

I hate the new Star Trek reboots, despair at ‘new’ Alien movies and endless POTC films and Transformers films and all the rest. I really should be concerned that even my beloved Blade Runner is not impervious to current trends. They recently released a ‘new’ Spider Man film and I didn’t bother to even go see it; the thought never occurred to me- a sixth Spider Man film already, and the second reboot too, it just feels ridiculous.

Being a film-lover and writer of a blog such as this is, films like this Beauty and the Beast, as efficiently made as it is, and all the other reboots and remakes and sequels and prequels feels like a never-ending tide. Of course it is too sweeping a generalisation to suggest that this is all that there is, but it is all rather alarming. Yes there are ‘new’ films being made and not all reboots are pointless. But this tide is just getting stronger and I wonder how long it might continue or where it ultimately leads.

Hail the King

2017.38: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

kong1If Lara Croft was a photographer, then she’d look like Brie Larson in Kong: Skull Island. Not that Lara Croft: Tomb Photographer is a likely prospect for a future film/videogame, but its definitely the ‘look’ they were going for.

Kong: Skull Island is immense fun. Its one of my biggest genuine surprises of the year so far- its a film that from the trailers looked pretty lackluster to be honest, so the film didn’t really interest me too much- I gave it a miss at the cinema, as I expected it to be just another cgi snore-fest. Boy, was I wrong.

As it turns out, yes it is a cgi-fest in places but that cgi is very well done, indeed technically audacious and quite imaginatively executed with some thoughtful design choices and while it is a fairly dumb film,  its also great fun. The cast is great, the script witty and the direction has considerable flair. Its a far better film than I expected and really much, much better (and decidedly less calculated/by the numbers) than the recent Jurassic Park reboot.

Kong himself is huge here- I mean, crazily, ridiculously, mentally over-sized, but I suppose its all part of the intentional, over-the-top fun of the whole piece. This Kong is literally Godlike, a gigantic force of nature to finally put puny man in his place. This Kong won’t get beaten by humans in their war planes- this King tosses around helicopters straight from Apocalypse Now as if they are playthings. Its like monster-movie revenge for the 1933 original finale (and that of the 1976 and 2005 remakes); gloriously rewriting the traditional Kong story- I can almost imagine this being a Joe Dante movie, its so like Gremlins in how it has such naughty fun subverting conventions of earlier Kongs. Its glee could only be intensified had it somehow got a Jerry Goldsmith score similar to his riotous Gremlins score.Yeah, a Joe Dante King Kong movie- this is nearly it.

With credentials like that, this film is a must-watch. I can still hardly believe it, and can’t wait to watch it again. If they can keep the creative team together,  the Godzilla vs Kong mooted to follow will be an absolute riot. Hail the King indeed.

Into The Depths

2017.37: Leviathan (1989)

levi4For any genre fan of my age, the cast is to die for: Peter Weller (Robocop, Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Naked Lunch), Richard Crenna (Rambo 1, 2 & 3), Amanda Pays (Max Headroom), Daniel Stern (DOA, Diner, Blue Thunder), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), Meg Foster (They Live)… A cast like that, you’d think Leviathan would at the very least be a poor-man’s The Abyss with a gloriously nostalgia-filled 1980’s genre cast- forget the movie, just bask in the nostalgic joy of seeing these stalwarts of 1980’s-era genre film and tv in something ‘new.’  Well, as ‘new’ as a film can be when you watch it for the first time when it is, what, something like 28 years old. You have to make allowances I guess, and just, yes, enjoy the nostalgia.

But it is so bad it isn’t even that- indeed, it’s just a stark reminder of just how good Alien, The Abyss and The Thing were, because this film is a horrible imitator of all three- a dodgy replicant, if you’ll forgive another reference to Blade Runner here, and a reminder that the fondest memories of actors can be sullied by the reality that they appeared in bad films too- talent no indicator of quality.  Actors are just working people looking for jobs/gigs, jumping from film to film, tv show to tv show. Just as long as it pays. Rarely the job turns out to be something classic or memorable. Over the years we tend to remember the good ones and forget/ignore the rest- well, this is clearly one of ‘the rest’.

Leviathan came out originally in 1989 at around the same time as Deepstar Six and The Abyss, imitation clearly the sincerest form of flattery and that year undersea thrillers were the next Big Thing (except it wasn’t, all three films failed at the box office). Well, I loved The Abyss, but steered clear of the other two. Until now, with Leviathan rising up from the depths and dragging me back down with it.

A deep-sea mining base on the ocean depths stumbles upon the sunken wreck of a Soviet vessel and unwittingly becomes contaminated by the genetic experiments that were taking place before the Soviets evidently scuttled the ship to destroy/hide their grisly work. The opening half of the film seem overly familiar but also almost gently quaint, in how the scene is set and the motley characters established- its all very Alien– indeed, the Alien nods in particular seem endless and continue behind the camera- Ron Cobb was a production designer, so the sets look like the Nostromo and indeed Deepcore from The Abyss (which he also worked on), and the score was by Jerry Goldsmith (although to be fair, it sounds nothing like his Alien score). But you know, as guilty pleasures such as Event Horizon (and better efforts like Sunshine) will tell you, there is nothing wrong with starting a sci-fi film with nods to Alien- it can almost be cosy and reassuring. The cast is along the lines of so many ensemble films like Alien, we see them at work, we see them come upon the derelict, watch them enter and stumble upon a horror that they unwittingly bring back aboard their own ship whereupon after a lull the true horror begins…. wait, what film am I watching here…? You get the idea.

But Leviathan is vastly inferior, not just to Alien and The Thing, but to both Event Horizon and Sunshine too- and if that statement makes you nervous then good for you, you’ll know to never give in to nostalgic temptation and ever give this film a try. Well, here’s one I took for the team then.

levi2Seeing Peter Weller and Amanda Pays and Richard Crenna back ‘in their prime’ as it were is always something good, but this film can’t even be saved by pleasant surprises such as seeing Amanda in the shower in her underwear, a reminder of something of a crush I had back in the day watching her in Max Headroom (God, I’d long forgotten, was I ever that young?)It’s really a pretty empty and banal film all told, sodden (well, it is underwater) with cliches and predictable plot points and general stupidity. Nothing really surprises, and to be honest it is the awful execution of everything- the cinematography and lighting (the sets are shot in such an unimaginative way devoid of tension or atmosphere), the creature effects are laughable (even with Stan Winston’s crew involved). In truth, the best thing about Leviathan is that it makes you appreciate the achievements of films like Alien and The Thing even more. It makes you realize just how difficult those films must have been to make and how much they just get so right. The casting, the photography, the music, the pacing, the visual/creature effects… they get so much so right, and that why they are deemed classics, decades later, when imitators like Leviathan just sink (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Life’s A Beach

dunkirk2017.36: Dunkirk (2017)

My long-standing opinion of Christopher Nolan is that he is very similar to Stanley Kubrick, in that he is very technically adept with the logistics and craft of film-making, but doesn’t really have the skills to facilitate the dramatic aspects. His films are cold and clinical, more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. Further to this, I must make the point that on this intellectual level, Nolan’s films are inferior to Kubrick’s if only because Nolan doesn’t make such interesting films as Kubrick did.  Nolan’s space epic Interstellar is vastly inferior to Kubrick’s 2001, for instance.

This opinion is in no way revised following watching Dunkirk, a film clearly impressive as a work of logistics and craft but as lacking in emotional content (despite the endless hysterics of Hans Zimmer’s noisy score) as anything Nolan has done. It is a very good film and one easy to admire- the sound design is quite extraordinary and many of the visuals highly impressive, but as with most (if not all) of Nolan’s films, I have to question any emotional involvement with any of the characters, any sense of really knowing anybody. The characters seem to be pieces on a chess board moved with clinical precision without really knowing how or why they are there- their mindset or purpose or what makes them tick utterly unknown, almost as if they were the monoliths of Kubrick’s 2001.

Which is not to suggest that Dunkirk is a bad film. It is just that there is a hollowness in Nolan’s films that I find personally frustrating that precludes his films ever really achieving the greatness that so many critics seem so keen to label them with. Of course comparing Nolan’s films with blockbuster fodder such as the  Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, they are practically high art and deserve all the accolades they get, but films can be more. I do worry that such inevitable comparisons elevate Nolan’s work to a stature they don’t truly deserve, for we are where we are in film entertainment and we truly do lack the serious film-making talent of people like Kubrick.

dunkirk2When I watched Dunkirk at my local Cineworld, there was an advert for films in Imax and 4D and 3D, as if all audiences are after is sensory overload and the thrill of the new, whether it be cgi spectacle or the actual methodology of viewing, etc, as opposed to quality drama or acting. It matters if your seat shakes, it seems, or the sound is all around you or if the image is huge or reaches ‘out’ to you in 3D, more than if the film is well-written and directed with skill and dramatic flair or acted well. In some ways Dunkirk is symptomatic of this trend. It is very loud and visually impressive with plenty of ‘wow’ moments and the soundtrack relentlessly hammers at you as Zimmer tends to at his worst (more sound effects design than scoring, here) but does it really involve on a deep level? Do we ever really get to ‘know’ these characters or what makes them tick, really care whether they live or die? Dunkirk portrays an event but what does it say to us about that event?

So Dunkirk is ultimately a frustrating experience, at least for me. Yes I could well praise its editorial conceit of telling three seperate stories over three time-periods that interact with each other at particular moments of the film, or note Nolan’s evident fascination with such plays with time in several of his films. But beyond its success on an intellectual level, does it ever really facilitate any more emotional involvement than a simple chronological telling might have managed? Early on I was distracted by continuity errors in lighting and time of day until I realised what Nolan was doing with his three timelines/stories. No doubt it’s a tricky feat what he was pulling off and many critics adore Nolan for that kind of stuff but I have to wonder what his films gain with it.

So anyway, Dunkirk is a good film but I hesitate to heap the praise upon it that others seem to be rushing to. Maybe I’m missing something. I am sure this film will be very successful at the box office and many will simply adore it. But I fear that there is a trend in film these days to elevate the technologies of film-making over the decades-old basics of good storytelling. Maybe Kubrick would have loved these new tools and made films inferior to Nolans, I don’t know. I just have to wonder what are we losing with everything we gain?

And yes, I hope that Nolan finally really achieves greatness with his films when he realises the skill of empathy and emotional content as much as his skill with logistics. To be fair, that’s a film I really want to see., and I dearly hope to see it. Someday. Dunkirk just isn’t it.