Annihilation (2018)

AnnihilationIts a pity that Paramount decided to sell Alex Garland’s quite brilliant Annihilation to Netflix for international markets rather than risk financial woes with a cinema release, but considering what films are successful out there these days and what cinema audiences seem to prefer it’s a perfectly understandable decision, sadly- not one I agree with, but I can understand their thinking.  The film is certainly a tough sell and demands a lot from the audience, including patience and a willingness to do some work, and the ending is indeed, while I won’t go into spoiler territory, something that must have made the execs nervous.

That all said, this film finally got me subscribing to Netflix and I’m so glad I did- this one film worth a months subscription alone (and hey, I get a free month first anyway). While I’m sad that I won’t be able to watch it on a big screen, I’m glad I won’t have to suffer the irritating mobile phone habits and other moronic behaviour that is infecting modern cinema audiences, instead thrilling to this brand new film in the comfort of my home. Maybe this is the future for serious science fiction films anyway- while its wrong to think of BR2049 as a failure (sure it didn’t break even, but it did pretty well considering its length/certificate/intelligence) and no Netflix deal might have saved it, there is certainly an argument to be made to leave the cinemas to the mindless blockbuster spectacles.  You just have to manage the budgets a bit more effectively, I suppose, and question if BR2049 and Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune simply have to be huge to tell their story or if instead its possible to go with a smaller scope.

ann2At any rate, Annihilation is a wonderfully intelligent, thought-provoking and emotionally demanding science fiction film. In places its as horrific as Carpenter’s The Thing, in others as fascinating as Villeneuve’s Arrival, in others as disturbing as Kubrick’s The Shining and as mystifying as his  2001: A Space Odyssey. If that description doesn’t make this film essential to you then I pity you. Its pretty wonderful and the fact that a studio doesn’t think that it can release a film such as this in cinemas is pretty damning, really. But here we are, its 2018 and cinema and television and how we watch films is changing all the time (I sincerely hope we get a disc release with a commentary and other extras eventually).

Like in Arrival, there is a real sense of something truly alien and strange in this film, something transformative about the experience of watching it. There all sorts of subtexts and mysteries playing within it. Is the visitation that creates the Shimmer, a region of expanding space that threatens to eventually consume all the Earth, an event of Extra-Terrestrial contact or of a religious one, or both? Is the film actually about our bodies betraying us, the horror of cancer, of having no control of what is within us, makes us?  We see tantalising glimpses of something utterly alien and beyond human understanding, and yet at the same time the horrors are familiar, internal ones. Transformation from self-destruction, everything that lives, dies, and we lose everything, even our minds, eventually, given Time. And even Time betrays us.

Beyond that, I won’t say anymore about this movie. I think it’s wrong to spoil any of this movie and I hope everyone gets to see it unaware of the secrets/pleasures ahead of them. In awhile I’ll return to this film in more detail but for now, yeah, it’s as good as everyone says and I hope everyone who wants to gets to see it (not everyone has Netflix or wants it). While just sitting down to watch a new movie still playing in cinemas Stateside was something of a pleasure it is also something of a poisoned chalice for fans of serious science fiction or adult film making in general. Is this, afterall, the future? And it can’t be denied, no matter how much I enjoyed this film, it would have been an immeasurably more powerful experience in the cinema.


Atomic Blonde (2017)

atomicClearly an example of style over substance, I nonetheless really enjoyed this one- no doubt partly because I enjoyed the John Wick films so much and this has a distinct whiff of being John Wick from a female perspective (oddly timely, I guess, if you can look past the sexual objectifying thats going on throughout). Certainly, from where I’m looking, Charlize Theron is far easier on the eye than Keanu Reeves (can I get away with mentioning that in this day and age without offending someone?), and she handles the physicality of the role very well indeed- she looks gorgeous and you rather believe she’s deadly too the way she carries herself in a fight Those fights are well choreographed and pack a real punch (sic), and the film succeeds, in just the same way as the first John Wick  did, to revitalise the action flick genre. Seems the era of Bruce, Arnie and Sly is well and truly over, and there’s a new boy and girl in town. Indeed, recalling Theron’s film-stealing turn in the recent Mad Max reboot, she’s scored again here in spite of originally seeming more of a serious actress than an action girl. Ridley perhaps miscast her in Prometheus, I think she’d have carried that film better as Dr Elizabeth Shaw on the evidence of her physicality here.

Atomic Blonde looks and sounds quite gorgeous, shot on digital with an ultra-stylized look (neon-drenched one minute, dreary grey the next) that will be familiar to most- when it ‘pops’ it ‘POPS’, and the 1980s setting allows lots of music from the period to be liberally applied to every scene. As might be expected, the plot is fairly thin -it is set mostly in East Germany of 1989 just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and both sides of the Iron curtain are after a list of agents that threatens to extend the Cold War if it gets in the wrong hands. To be honest, the plots almost a macguffin in the best Hitchcock fashion, as it didn’t really matter,  and to be honest I didn’t quite understand the logic of the films twists and turns at all.  Its a Russian list which a Russian is selling to the West, but the West doesn’t want the Russians to get it because it could cause the deaths of lots of Western assets. But surely its Russian spies on a Russian list, not a list of Western assets that the Russians need to get hold of, and there’s a double-agent on the list who wants to derail the whole deal in the most long-winded way and there’s a French female operative who doesn’t really fit in but she’s just there for Charlize to enjoy some lesbian sex thrills with… I don’t know. Ultimately it really doesn’t matter, it just sets up lots of fights and stunts and double-crosses. There’s a last epilogue twist that is perhaps one twist too far (actually there’s two twists there -first she’s a double agent working for the Russians and then she’s a double agent working for Langley, and neither makes sense).  Its no classic spy flick, anyway. but I suppose it’s really just an action flick posing as a spy flick, so maybe it gets a pass.

Besides, the cast, while somewhat wasted, is pretty great- John Goodman, Toby Jones, James McAvoy all ably support Theron who is, yes, great in the main role. Its hardly demanding stuff but it is what it is. Complaining about it would be like bitching about a Star Wars film being all effects and wasted actors…. oh, wait…

I expect this film was designed, as so many are these days, to launch a franchise and I certainly wouldn’t mind another outing for Charlize in another one of these.  I suppose that depends on its box office, so we’ll see. A better script that develops her character beyond the ‘beautiful-but-deadly’ protagonist demonstrated here would be nice to see.

Salyut 7 (2017)

salyutcThe image above tells you all you really need to know about the Russian film Salyut 7: visually it’s quite astonishing, throwing images such as that above, depicting the rescue mission launched into space breaking out of the clouds, up onto the screen with as much gloss and sophistication as most of the visual effects of Gravity, the previous high-water mark for space visual effects.  Its really quite astonishing how the quality of visual effects is getting so ubiquitous- I remember when there was a huge difference between the effects work of, say ILM or EEG, and everyone else, back in the day. Computer imaging and the presumed use of the same software packages has been quite a leveller, and no longer do films necessarily have to boast huge budgets to get premium visuals.

Salyut 7 was something of a surprise discovery for me, just stumbling upon it on Amazon Prime. Curiously, it even appears there in two formats- as a two-hour movie, and also as a two-part drama of two one-hour episodes. Imagine showing BR2049 as a two- or three-part miniseries. I don’t know why, must be some vagary of the films financing and distribution- I see it has recently turned up on blu-ray in some territories (Germany even getting it in 4K).  I think it would be a pity if here in the UK the film is relegated to an almost VOD release rather than the more prestigious limited-theatrical or disc-based release that would get it wider attention, and which it deserves. That said, kudos to Amazon for picking it up. This thing feels like it came from nowhere and I lapped it up.

salyutaBased on true events that occured back in 1985, in which a daring mission was launched to rescue the Salyut 7 space station that had suddenly suffered a fatal malfunction, this film is, literally, like a Russian version of Apollo 13 complete with Gravity-level visuals. If that doesn’t wet your appetite then this is not for you. Its a riveting and powerful film of human triumph over adversity. Those Gravity-like visuals really intensify the you-are-there feeling, greatly enabling the tension of the events and hinting at the possibilities for other spaceflight dramas in the future. I have always maintained that a definitive film about the Apollo missions would be spectacular and cannot fathom why such a work has never been made up to now, other than the superlative HBO series From The Earth to the Moon (a series oddly overlooked these days which really deserves a HD release). 

Salyut 7 is also, alas, perhaps too slavish in its attempt to mirror the success of Apollo 13 as a dramatic work, suffering from the same faults that Ron Howard’s film did in its targeting of drama and emotional involvement, and following too closely the narrative structure and tropes of the earlier film. I noticed that the surnames of the two cosmonauts launched on the rescue mission are different to the real men, as if to excuse the dramatic license used to ramp up the tensions and their soap-opera backgrounds (arguments and conflicts that likely never really happened, a ‘sin’ that Apollo 13 committed also). That said, I guess you have to forgive dramatic license- these are films, dramatisations, rather than documentaries, afterall.  At its best, this film actually recalls the successes of The Right Stuff.

The cast is pretty good, the film is naturally in Russian with English subtitles, I’m certain some nuances of performance escaped me, but the language certainly enables the sense of time and place, that, say, a European movie with an English cast could never capture. The music fits awkwardly, however, part ambient noise (another nod to Gravity) and part overly-bombastic orchestrations that feel rather OTT- indeed the score is one of the films few stumbles. The Russian source music (rock songs etc) used in a similar way to the songs in, say, The Martian, really feels amusingly amateur too, maybe it’s all a bit too Eurovision for my tastes. I suppose that raises thoughts about the localisation of films, the dubbing/subtitling/use of music licenses. Most people will likely have no issue with it.

salyutdOn the whole though, this is a great space movie. And two days ago I’d never even heard of it. I thought this was the Information Age. What a strange, strange world- the Russians should hire another publicity company, maybe. In any case, anybody who enjoyed either Apollo 13 or Gravity will likely really enjoy this film, and I’m sure many will be surprised at just how technically adept the film is too. If only the script could have been quite as authentic as those visuals are, with less of the hyperbolic dramatics that cinema so often demands.  I’d certainly like to see a disc release here in the UK, I’d be tempted to pick it up as I’m sure it would only improve on a blu-ray presentation.

At the very least it’s a pleasant experience not being assaulted with explosions and aliens in a modern space movie- I’d love to see more like this, and it’s nice to see Russian cinema demonstrating its ability to measure up to Hollywood and give us a different flavour. I wonder if the time has come for Russian cinema to return to Solaris?


Our favourite films (Part One)

I’ve tried this sort of post before, in which I write about my favourite films and why they are my favourite films. Its a subject that really does interest me. There are good films, great films, average films, terrible films, we can judge films and drop them into one of those categories but whether we fall in love with them or not… something happens. Some connection. Its easy to explain why I might love a really good film, quite another to explain why I love a film that I know intellectually is pretty bad.

It is also true, I think, that our favourite films say everything about us. I’ve often thought that you can tell a lot about someone by looking at the books on their bookcase -presuming of course they even have a bookcase, or read books, which nowadays isn’t necessarily so- and that logic works just as well for someone with a film collection on DVD or Blu-ray that might reside on a shelf. Although, God knows, it would have to be a hell of a big shelf to house all my films on disc… okay then, imagine you have a shelf for your ten or twenty favourite films. What would they be?

This part is kind of fun, if sometimes frustrating. Ten or twenty favourite films. Its not really as  easy as you might think. Well, naturally, one film on that shelf of mine would be Blade Runner, my very favourite film that I have carried around with me since 1982, such a long time it seems it’s existed forever. Its not the best film ever made but it is my favourite….

Yeah, let’s be clear here: these are favourite films, not what you should  consider to be the best films ever made. That’s two seperate lists, really. I sound like some kind of film geek here, but it’s an important point. I know most of my favourite films are not perfect, and are nowhere near as important in the grand scheme of things as many other films. Now, some of my favourite films are indeed great films (that’s ‘Great’ with a capital ‘G’) which is a happy coincidence but that’s really all it is, coincidence.

We love the films we love for all sorts of different things. It might be the time in which we saw them, what they meant to us at the time, it might be how they made us feel, what emotional connection they made with us, it might be the connection they give us with the past and when we first saw them, the people we saw them with, the people and the places they remind us of.

So in my case, what would that shelf over there look like if I just put my very favourite films on it? Blade Runner, The Thin Red Line, Vertigo, The Apartment, Citizen Kane, The Assassination of the Outlaw Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Taxi Driver, Its A Wonderful Life, Once Upon a Time in America, How to Murder Your Wife, Glengarry Glen Ross, Alien, Jaws… it’s pretty easy at the start, but once you start limiting oneself to ten or even twenty, it gets pretty hard when you start to realise which films you might be omitting.

Hmm. This really needs more thought.

I think back to a list I made back in the early 1980s, I think I even have it somewhere in the back of a notebook up in the loft. It had a lot of films from that period of time. Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, The Empire Strikes Back, Citizen Kane, 2001… with time, all these lists can be embarrassing. What, I loved that film? I haven’t seen it in years! You know how that goes. I don’t expect we should love, say, the same ten movies for all our lives. There’s plenty of new ones to usurp old ones, afterall, or at least, you’d like to think there might be. Wouldn’t it be boring if there was nothing new to fall in love with and undo the sanctity of the list?

The list says everything about who we are NOW, and old lists, if we kept them, say everything about who we were THEN.

Films can be incredibly tangible, powerful connections with the past. Take Ridley Scott’s rather low-key film White Squall. Certainly, it’s not one of my favourites, I recall only mildly enjoying it when I first saw it. But, and here’s the but- I remember seeing it with my fiance the afternoon before we were to be married. More clearly than the actual movie, perhaps, I remember walking out of the multiplex cinema into a big car park and it was raining, a real storm in fact and remember thinking about what was happening the next day (the big day turned out fine, by the way). I have not seen the film since, not since that day so many years ago. Why I’ve never watched it again I’m not sure, but I am absolutely certain that if/when I do ever watch that film again, it will throw me right back to that afternoon and walking out into that storm.

I think my favourite films are like that. Films I have made an intense emotional bond with, and with which I connect in all sorts of ways and engender all sorts of memories and nostalgic connections with. The best films, our favourite films, they are a part of us, which is why it’s more an emotional connection than an intellectual one. I am pretty sure music buffs will say its just the same with their favourite albums and songs.

Whenever I think of Blade Runner, I’m not really thinking of the 2007 Final Cut, although that is clearly the definitive version. I’m really thinking of that original voiceover version, staying in the old ABC cinema to watch it twice that first Saturday afternoon, watching it in a double-bill with Outland early in 1983 (and being shocked at someone walking out midway through Blade Runner), and having it on a VHS (ahoy, pirate!) copy for Christmas 1983, and darn near wearing that damn thing out. I remember staying up late on Boxing Day, the rest of the family asleep upstairs, and me watching Harrison Ford entering the Bradbury building, the eerie music, the moody lighting, just wallowing in it, thinking it was the best Christmas present ever.

So anyway, I think this all deserves more thought and I’ll return to this a little later, perhaps with a selection of my favourite films and what makes them favourites.

Anybody out there got ten, or even five favourites that they can easily share?

The Full Treatment (1960)


full2So here we go with the fourth film in Indicator’s second Hammer box, The Full Treatment. If I were to be brutally honest and ranking the four films in preference, this film would be third on the list, but nonetheless this has quite a lot going for it. In essence it’s a very odd and strangely ‘modern’ film regards its sensibilities, with all sorts of subtext, intentional or otherwise.

The film begins quite brilliantly, really grabbing the viewer with the immediate aftermath of a road accident, depicted in some graphic detail. Immediately following their wedding, racing driver Alan Coulby (Ronald  Lewis) and his Italian wife Denise (Diane Cilento, who is quite brilliant in this film) have been involved in an head-on collision with a truck, killing the truck driver and throwing Denise clear into the road with superficial injuries. Alan Coulby, however, has suffered severe head injuries. Several months after the accident, Coulby is released from treatment and attempts to get his life back on track by taking the honeymoon that was originally curtailed by the accident.

Unfortunately Coulby is something of a broken man- he is too traumatised to drive, which, considering his earlier prowess as a racing driver, would be doubly emasculating (Denise has to drive them to their honeymoon destination, with Coulby a frustrated passenger) and is rendered impotent by an unnatural urge to strangle his wife whenever they attempt to be intimate or share physical contact. He stares at his trembling hands, compelled to do his wife harm whenever aroused, as if his hands belong to someone else. Driven (sic) to distraction by all of this, he is prone to violent outbursts and rages. This proves to be a difficulty for the film, the character as written is a pretty unlikeable lead which impacts the films ability to foster much sympathy for his predicament. Instead we feel for Denise and view Coulby almost as a villain, which is likely not the films intention.

The film does feel quite subversive with the sexual undertones of his murderous urges and jealous rage, I would think someone like Verhoeven or Cronenberg could fashion a quite riveting modern thriller from this material. Its quite surprising to see a Hammer film of this period having some nudity, too- we see Denise swimming naked in the sea or having a bath infront of her husband, quite clearly liberated and confident of her own sexuality and body, which again is at odds with her husbands feelings of emasculation and his horror at his body betraying him when he loses control of his hands and they do Denise harm.

There is a wonderful twist towards the third act, in which Alan and the viewer actually believe that he has indeed possibly killed Denise and he goes on the run, following a blackout. While I doubted that a films of its era could actually follow through with this possibility, its nonetheless an unnerving moment of the film pulling the rug from under you and subverting expectations. For that alone, I rate this film quite highly. Maybe i’m ‘seeing’ too much in its subtext and themes, and the film does become somewhat pedestrian at the end with its fairly formulaic denouement but it isn’t enough to detract from its achievements before.

And of course the film has its interests beyond the film itself- the unfortunate fate of actor Ronald Lewis, which I dwelt upon in a recent post here and Diane Cilento who was soon famous more for being Mrs Sean Connery than her own acting career (which arguably suffered from that marriage).  Neither of the two really reached the heights they might have, but this film is a tantalising glimpse of a moment when both of them had all sorts of possibilities ahead of them.


The Snorkel (1958)

snorkelAnother in Indicator’s recent Hammer box of treats, The Snorkel is the third of the four that I watched and is clearly the lesser of them. Its a very strange, really odd film, in which a murderer’s incredibly elaborate method of killing his wife fools everyone into thinking it’s a suicide except for his step-daughter, Candy, who insists that her step-father killed her real father years before and has now killed her mother. Of course, no-one believes the child other than her pet dog, whose talent for sniffing out the chief murder tool (the eponymous snorkel) results in another canine movie death. Horrors!

Summarised like that, the film sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Its weird enough to engender some interest with some really odd-looking imagery in places, but on the whole in execution its pretty poor and unimaginative- efficient enough I guess, but nothing that really impresses. The main problem for the film is the casting of the lead – Mandy Miller as Candy doesn’t really impress, the fact that she seems too old for the part is a distraction throughout the film, and when the casting of the lead is bad, you know a film is in trouble. That said, the rest of the cast is pretty good;  Peter Van Eyck is a great creepy villain and Betta St John is terrific as Candys governess. William Franklyn is good value in a supporting role but as someone who grew up with Franklyn’s tv Schweppes ads in the 1960s/1970s it’s really just another distraction when you constantly expect him to wink at the camera and whisper “sschh, you know who.” I suppose if you’re unfamiliar with those ads you’ll be fine with him, I’m just perhaps showing my age.

What saves the film from ignoble failure though is the beginning and the ending- the beginning because it’s a slow, almost casually-framed murder shown in some precise detail to enable us to understand the crime taking place, and the ending because it’s really quite dark and morbidly reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, as Candy finally turns her step-father’s murderous schemes back upon himself. Indeed, the ending is so dark that the film performs a bit of a dodge by capping it with a bit of an epilogue that tones the horror down somewhat. In any case, that ending rather saves the film and makes it a worthwhile entry.

I suppose that’s the genius of boxsets like this- lesser films such as The Snorkel would never sell on their own, but bundled with a few other, greater films that share a similar theme its inclusion rather works, and enables its preservation in HD. I’ll clearly be revisiting the other three films before this disc is in my player again, but yeah, I’m sure it’ll get another watch someday.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

thorragWell I expected it to be good (message to self: why on Earth did you miss this at the cinema?) but I really didn’t expect it to be just this good. I mean, it’s crazy how apparently easy and effortless Marvel Studios make it seem- anybody at DC/Warners will tell you how hard it is to pull off such a naturally organic and enjoyable superhero movie. In a way, this film almost creates its own sub-genre of superhero movie, a sort of action/comedy mashup, in effect. Marvel by way of National Lampoon.

Which doesn’t sound such a good thing. I did wonder going in whether Marvel would be able to pull it off, toeing that awfully-shady line between comedy and farce that could have pulled this superhero caper into a terrible mess, but get away with it they did. Thor: Ragnarok is quite unabashedly wonderful fun, a glorious and somewhat affectionate tribute, visually, to the comic book genius that was Jack Kirby, whilst at the same time being full of knowing ‘winks’ to the superhero genre and the Marvel films in general. In some ways its one of the most sophisticated superhero films we’ve yet seen.

I thought Spiderman: Homecoming was pretty good, and pretty clever in how it revitalised Spider Man in the wake of so many recent films and the rather abortive reboot of a few years ago.  Thor: Ragnarok is of a very similar mould. Both films are light-years away from the foreboding and almost self-loathing of the recent DC movies that were so informed by the Watchmen film and its own graphic novel source. Watchmen is one of my favourite films so I’m not at all aversive to that approach, but it cannot be denied that Marvel are on to something with how it is approaching these movies.

My one note of caution- whilst both Homecoming and Ragnarok are great fun and a welcome breath of fresh air (it has to be said, Captain America: Civil War and the last Avengers movie were pretty dark and po-faced in places) Marvel will have to be wary of going too far down this light-hearted vein of comedy in their movies. They still need to maintain a weight of drama, for instance. Humor is a nice way of letting off steam and entertaining but it shouldn’t be the central crux of the superhero genre, and those films that tread too far into comedic territory risk only amplifying the inherent silliness of the whole genre.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, for some people, Thor: Ragnarok was their least-favourite Marvel movie, purely because of that humour.

But Thor: Ragnarok is just so much fun. Its nuts. Right from the start. Thor is talking to his jail companion, a skeleton, and the skeleton’s jaw drops, literally, at something that Thor says and… well, that was it, I was sold. Sure it’s daft, Sure there’s a lot of hokum and the usual plot contrivances and not every performance is perfect (I still have a hard time tolerating Jeff Goldblum in just about anything, but hey, at least they didn’t cast Nic Cage) but it’s just a pure joy throughout. It certainly isn’t dull. My God, it’s a Jack Kirby comic brought to vivid glorious blockbuster life. With quite a bit of John Buscema thrown in too, if I’m not mistaken. I mean, for that by itself it deserves to be ranked as one of the very best Marvel films.

Well, at the very least, it’s one of the most fun. I think I said that already, didn’t I?

Okay, if I have to be a sourpuss here, I didn’t like how they handled Odin’s passing- twinkly cgi fairy dust flying off into the sky? Please. It was the one miss step that I think the film made. Didn’t care for it at all. And yeah, Goldblum didn’t work for me, but he doesn’t in anything, for me, so that’s hardly this films fault.

It just looks too easy, too natural. I’m certain that these films are incredibly calculated, but at their very best, these Marvel films certainly don’t feel like it. An achievement in itself, I think, right there. At their very best, they feel loose, not contrived.

Now please, Marvel, bring on Howard the Duck. Please. Living in a world where Trump is president, something that surely even Steve Gerber could never have imagined, a Howard the Duck movie makes the most perfect sense in the world, and the guy who just made Thor: Ragnarok might be a good bet for director.