Blonde Nightmare

blonde1Blonde, 2022, 166 mins, Netflix

I must confess, impressed as I was by Ana de Armas in BR2049 and Knives Out, I would never have imagined her ever playing Marilyn Monroe, and when I first heard of her casting for Andrew Dominik’s Blonde I was quite incredulous. Still, what do I know, I thought Ben Affleck was going to be a disaster as Batman and he turned out to be the best incarnation of the caped crusader I’ve yet seen. So it turns out Ana de Armas is the highlight of Blonde, with an absolutely arresting performance which should get attention come awards season unless the films more notorious elements hold it back (I don’t think the Academy appreciates the Hollywood Dream Factory being portrayed in a bad light).

Blonde seems to be getting a mixed response from critics. To say I enjoyed it actually feels wrong, I mean, how can anyone actually enjoy something as dark and unrelenting as this film? But I did, in as much as I thought it was very good indeed, fascinating and unnerving with great performances and lovely art direction and attention to detail. Its powerful and intense stuff. Watching it just a week after seeing Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis felt rather curious though; two biopics of such iconic people in such close succession, and both being so grim. I’ve noticed critic Mark Kermode describe Blonde as a horror film, and he’s absolutely spot-on, but to be honest that was my experience with Elvis too. Baz Luhrmann’s film itself felt like a horror film, it’s Col Tom Parker a predatory character with devilish eyes something like a killer in a 1980s slasher movie. I remember feeling quite down after watching Elvis, it wasn’t as uplifting as I’d expected it to be, instead feeling disturbed by Parker and Tom Hank’s very effective turn, the film felt less of a celebration of Elvis Presley’s life and more a tragedy.

So here comes Blonde and its pulled the same trick, examining the misery and nightmare of Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe’s life in such an unrelenting way its operating at some other magnitude entirely. The dark side of Hollywood is hardly a surprise to anyone now, surely. We’ve all read revelations of the misdoings of superstars of old that was covered up by the Studios, and the Harvey Weinstein saga depressingly reminded us how little things have changed. Hollywood is a dark place that destroys people just as much as it makes people into superstars. Many of the ‘revelations’ within Blonde are hardly going to be new to anyone familiar with Marilyn Monroe’s life story, and in some respects it actually holds its punches. We don’t see as much as I’d expected regards the Kennedy brothers and the mob and how Marilyn was caught up in that, nor does the film suggest anything about her death: it might have been accidental, it may have been despairing suicide, but there’s no intimation of actual murder.

I’ve seen Blonde come under fire, particularly from her adoring fanbase, for not being more of a celebration of Marilyn’s success, showing what makes her such an icon today, her relationship with the camera in all her movies and photo shoots. There may be something to those criticisms, but in  the films defence, its simply not that movie- it’s like pro-shark activists criticising Jaws for showing sharks in a bad light. Blonde is deliberately and absolutely a cautionary tale. If anything, it makes the good in Marilyn’s life, those performances (in Some Like It Hot, for instance), actually seem even more extraordinary considering what was going on behind the scenes. Considering Norma Jean’s childhood and all that came before Hollywood itself, I think her achievements and the fact she remains such an icon today are something to be marvelled at, no doubt.

I’m not the first or likely the last to have noticed a Lynchian undertone to the film- the excellent soundtrack score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave sounds like, and functions like, an Angelo Badalamenti score, and of course the storyline mirrors that of Twin Peaks and in particular Fire Walk with Me‘s portrayal of Laura Palmers dark descent. Had Blonde actually been a David Lynch film, would it be getting some of the criticism Andrew Dominik’s film is getting? Possibly not; audiences would perhaps have more of a mindset of what to expect, and Lynch is adored for making films about the dark underbelly of America, he’s practically fireproof. I don’t think Andrew Dominik is as bulletproof as Lynch, but I think its admirable that in today’s Hollywood Dominik got to make the film he wanted to make.

Another Bonfire of the Absurdities

Lou1

Lou, 2022, 107 mins, Netflix

Silly me, could tell from the start: I think the pre-credits Bad Robot logo animation was the giveaway, supreme purveyors of utter tosh as they are these days, that Bad Robot logo screams Proceed At Caution and yet I still didn’t press the exit/stop button, especially when this thing appears to be another Netflix Original (boo/hiss/shudder).  I don’t know, maybe I’m a sucker for films set in the 1980s, maybe the warm feeling of First Blood-derived nostalgia for action dramas set out in wild woods got the better of me, but as the plot contrivances and preposterous coincidences dropped with loud clunks I could feel my will to stick to the bitter end start to wane, but stick with it I did, right to the (indeed bitter) end. 

Lets keep these things positive for as long as I can: Allison Janney is great.

Er, that actually… yeah, that might be it. Janney plays Lou, fiftyish ex-CIA superwoman in hiding on Orcas island, just off the Pacific Northwest. Its a fairly ridiculous character really, a sort-of female Nobody, and that’s maybe as far as the script goes, but Janney has a sense of conviction and cold detachment that fits the character and lends a degree of plausibility.  She’s a taciturn, no-nonsense old dear with a talent for killing, you know, a sort of All-American Grannie with a talent for guns and knives. Lou’s only companion is a brilliantly obedient dog with a superpower that is somehow putting up with his mistress’ glorious bitchiness. Did Bad Robot think this would be a franchise?

The film starts on a dark and stormy night (no, seriously) with Lou grumpier than usual having emptied her bank account and written a suicide note, finally putting a shotgun to her mouth when, wouldn’t you know it, just in the nick of time as the thunder crashes and Lou is about to pull the trigger and end the movie early, a young woman, Hannah (Jurnee Smollett), who is renting a trailer home from Lou, suddenly bursts in screaming her child has been abducted. 

Hannah knows who has stolen her daughter- its her estranged husband Phillip (Logan Marshall-Green), an ex-special forces soldier (stifle yawns, please) who was abusive to Hannah and a danger to their daughter Vee (Ridley Asha Bateman) but who is supposed to be dead. Seems Phillip faked his own death to lull Hannah and the police into a false sense of security. We the viewers are fully aware of how bad this mad bastard is because he’s already killed Hannah’s new boyfriend, who picked him up thinking Phillip was just some lowly hitch-hiker caught out in the rain (some guys are so gullible and can’t tell a crazy bastard from soggy lowlife). What we don’t yet know, and that Hannah doesn’t know either, is that Lou isn’t just some random landlord renting out a mobile home to single-mother Hannah, she’s actually Hannah’s mother-in-law, an ex-CIA spy and badass middle-aged killing machine who’s been waiting for her psychopath son to make his move, and who now has to track mad Phillip through wild woods in a storm to save her grand-daughter. Oh yeah, this time its not just personal, its maternal, baby. The awkward script gradually unwraps the twists with crashing thuds that stretch credibility beyond breaking-point; as is usual these days in modern cinema, the scriptwriter doesn’t know when to stop and just runs on towards farce.

Of course at this point I’m struggling to keep up as I studiously tick off the absurdities. There’s immediately a great part when they load up Lou’s Arsenal of Death (every hero/heroine worth their salt has a secret stash of doom-mongering) and rush out to her station wagon, which dutifully fails to start as is the wont in tense pursuits like this. When Lou opens up the bonnet we see a bomb that looks like something out of the Adam West Batman tv series dutifully ticking down to zero so Lou has sufficient seconds to leap to safety before it explodes. If the bomb was triggered by Lou lifting the bonnet, wouldn’t it be better to have just gone off immediately, rather than give a convenient ten second countdown? Am I really meant to think about stuff like that? Of course not. Likewise I’m not supposed to question why Hannah doesn’t collapse into a fit of panicked hysterics at this point, what with it being the middle of a storm, her daughter kidnapped by her mad dead husband, trucks blowing up… seems Hannah is a bit of a no-nonsense badass herself when the chips are down. Its amazing how characters in films are so down to Earth, steady-thinking and believable in a crisis, especially the women.  

How I miss women like Lambert in Alien, the wonderful Veronica Cartwright losing her shit and endearing her to sympathetic viewers forever. Sure, we’d all like to be heroes like Liam Neeson etc but we know we’d really collapse into a hysterical panic like Lambert, bless her.

Philip isn’t alone, he’s recruited two of his special forces buddies to assist him, said assistance being, er, waiting in an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods. Must confess the script lost me a bit with this part. Lou and Hannah are tracking Phillip and come upon the cabin where two beefy killing machines are waiting for Phillip but he isn’t there yet, if he ever intended to arrive and meet them there at all, and yet Lou is tracking Phillip which would…. Nah, don’t think about it, its just an excuse to give Lou an opportunity to beat the shit out of two huge blokes in a hand-fight to the death. Yeah sisters, this time grannies are doing it for themselves. 

What is this, Ghost? Ageism coupled with sexism? I should be ashamed.

Actually its not a bad bit of action choreography, Janney handles the physicality well, but when a six-foot-plus beefcake punches her in the face I expect her jaw to break or teeth to fall out and when he kicks her into a wall I expect her hip or back to protest but nah, she’s cool, its those two special ops guys we should be worried for, they are clearly outmatched, somehow. Its getting to be a bit of a trope, women beating the shit out of guys twice their size/half their age. 

What is this, Ghost? Yet MORE ageism coupled with sexism? This is beyond shame.

I could go on about Logan Marshall-Green; he in no way convinces as a mad, bad, lousy son/terrible husband/awful father… (yeah this guy ticks all the toxic-male boxes, the script does him no favours at all). This is a diabolically pantomime villain who seems to blame everything on mom, and thankfully moms here to sort the wee upstart out, even if she has had a pick-axe shoved in her chest (yeah… really, action movies have to tone down the comicbook silliness; they get more violent but that violence only results in a token sense of hurt;  Lou should be rasping blood out of her lips and gushing bubbles from her chest but hey, as John Brosnan assured us decades ago, its only a movie, stupid).  

Anyway, I’ve wasted far too much time already writing about this nonsense. Should have been better, but these jokers at Bad Robot just don’t know when to stop with the stupidity, and Netflix will buy anything in its craving for new content. So here we are. Lou 2 next year? Bring it on, I hear those pesky Russians need sorting out.

On the trail of a complete and utter b—–d.

rogue1Rogue Agent, 2022, 115 mins, Netflix

Devastatingly handsome, smooth-talking bastard Robert Freegard (James Norton) is a bartender one minute, a car salesman the next, but the job’s are just a cover, as he’s really an MI5 spy. He recruits agents to assist him in his war against terrorists, following him around the country, sometimes falling in love with him, usually giving all their money to him. But he’s too good to be true, girls. He’s a fake. He’s a conman. This guy is the Hannibal Lecter of Tall Stories, a sociopath with a brilliant intellect, an uncanny ability to charm women, sleep with ’em and scam ’em-  utterly irredeemable. The T-1000 of smooth-talkers, the police cannot stop him. Only a woman can: Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), one of his victims who loses a fortune to him and then abandons her career as a lawyer in order to show the police how to do their job and bring Freegard down before further vulnerable women are conned by him.

There is a type of movie which… well, a type of movie that holds a certain philosophy, which is that all men are either bastards, or quite incompetent. This is one of those movies. To be fair, the bad guy is indeed a total utter bastard, and shockingly, its all based on a true story. But… well, you have to take everything with a wee pinch of salt. Rogue Agent is unfortunately blunt at times: especially with regards men being incompetent, whether it be a father giving away the family fortune in a vain attempt to help his wayward daughter, or a detective tasked with tracking Freegard down. When a film casts Clem Fandango from Toast of London (Shazad Latif) as a witless police detective who can only bring Freegard down through the help of Alice and another woman, FBI Special Agent Sandy Harland (Edwina Findley), well, while it may be a man’s world, its perhaps just as well that sisters are doing it for themselves.

I suppose it could almost qualify as a genre, maybe: just name any movie in which the men are useless and it takes a woman to save the day (hello, Disney/Marvel etc). Anyway, this is one of those movies, and they usually ruffle my feathers but in this case, I’m with the ladies. This ‘rogue agent’ is a complete and utter bastard. Based rather incredibly, as I have mentioned, on a true story, it concerns the antics of conman Robert Freegard, who posed as an MI5 agent to trick, coerce, kidnap, seduce and rob his victims who were usually -albeit not exclusively- female.

Its a great, stranger-then-fiction story that deserves a better film; Rogue Agent is nowhere near as sophisticated as it should be. Norton is very good as Freegard, albeit he’s inevitably more beautiful and masculine than the real Freegard was, but the film never tries to explain where he came from, or why he does what he does- he remains an enigma, unknowable. Likewise, Arterton is possibly ill-served by an underwritten character- again, a very beautiful person, the films only indication that she’s somehow vulnerable to Freegard’s antics is that she smokes a lot; I mean, that’s as sophisticated as it gets- we can tell she’s a little unhappy and susceptible to a mans attention because she smokes too much.

I appreciate I’ve possibly overdrawn the ‘beautiful characters’ angle, but really, for a film with such a bizarrely fantastical story, its a shame that it pushes over the edge of implausibility even further by making the two stars so pretty and, well, perfect. I can see why casting a guy who can be as smooth as James Bond might make his skills as a conman seem more plausible and its possibly sexist of me to suggest that Arterton is too gorgeous for the role, but when she dresses up for her first date with and she see a Bond Girl in the mirror… Agh. Maybe that’s just me.

So anyway, not a great film but not a bad one either, certainly worth a watch if only to experience the totally stranger-than-fiction story that will leave you quite incredulous, especially when you finally learn what happened to Freegard afterwards. Be careful out there, ladies.

The Gray Man: Action flicks need a reboot

gray1The Gray Man, 2022, 122 mins, Netflix

The Gray Man isn’t terrible- I’ve certainly seen far worse Netflix Originals – Outside The Wire, Red Notice, The Woman in the Window, Father Christmas is Back, and the recent Interceptor immediately spring to mind – but it is sadly typical of so many films these days, especially from Netflix, who still seem to be preoccupied with competing with the Hollywood Silver Screen Big Boys (any explosion you can do, I can do bigger). The worst thing about it is how it ably summarises where the action film genre is right now, a kind of film that badly needs a reboot. We still seem to be caught in a post-Bourne Identity wave of action films, something that infected Bond and much every film with a big stunt and fight sequence in it. Some films, most notably the John Wick series, seem to have made their own niche and proved successful with it, but most everything else seems to be floundering with ever-more sophisticated and increasingly ridiculous stunt and fight sequences that inspire unintended laughter rather than respectful awe.

Maybe I’m cursing the Bourne films too unfairly- its likely just as much the trend for costumed superheroes that’s causing all this, and the action-film’s apparent need to compete with all that wall-shattering, bullet-proof nonsense of costumed nutters with silly powers. Oh, for the days of Die Hard

Some six-foot giant of a thug punches me in the face, I’m likely to have a fractured jaw, fewer teeth, serious concussion and a bruised swollen countenance lasting months. I know movies are the land of Make Believe but its getting crazy what happens to our action stars now – guys who may be ‘professional killers’ but who lack the powers of your average Kryptonian. They survive stabbings, gunshot wounds, being thrown through glass windows, falling from great heights, car crashes, explosions… I know, I sound like a killjoy hellbent on spoiling everyone’s fun, we all like our heroes to be a little larger than life, that’s part of the fun of action movies, but surely its gone too far, its getting more into parody now. You don’t need to make something like an Airplane! or Top Secret! comedy to ridicule current action-film tropes; The Gray Man is already it.

To be clear, The Gray Man is everything it was intended to be. Its some kind of action/ spy thriller in which a secret agent (codename ‘Six’) from some covert group operating within the CIA stumbles upon a conspiracy that causes him to question the ‘rightfulness’ of his actions and the integrity of his superiors, going on the run and subsequently pursued by every killer in the Uber Assassins Handbook in a global chase that decimates cities and a castle, killing hundreds, maiming thousands. Naturally everyone is beautiful and sexy, muscle-toned  and well-dressed, even some of the bad guys. Its a spy fantasy on some level astronomically beyond even the daftest Roger Moore 007 flick.

Its competently acted, has some great, albeit increasingly preposterous stunt sequences, wasting some $220 million with absolutely ruthless efficiently. On one level, one has to admire it.

gray2But its also so woeful. Ana de Armas seems to be increasingly wasted in these dumb support roles which are a) one dimensional and b) repeatedly daft with her beating the shit out of guys twice her size. She’s very pretty and apparently the Face Of The Moment, but there is depth to her as an actress -demonstrated in BR2049 and Knives Out– that is lost in all the carnage of these action flicks she’s slumming in. There seems to be a dominant male fantasy lately, as per No Time to Die and so many others, that seems to suggest that slim beautiful 5 ft 6 inch women can beat up musclebound brutes without creasing her designer dress (her cameo in No Time to Die was more silly than anything else to me but the fans seemed to love it).  I don’t know if its some kind of delirious, devious  Girls Can Too movement working away in the shadows but… hell, there’s plenty of instances in The Gray Man that I’m scoffing at six-foot hunks doing stuff, never mind fragile beauties… am I being sexist here? Should I shut up before I get trolled?

Chris Evans chews up the scenery in some fruitless attempt to out-act his moustache. He’s probably revelling at the opportunity to over-act in every scene he’s in: its not his fault, its exactly what’s being asked of him, he’s a cartoon bad guy in a Marvel movie posing as a semi-serious spy movie. I mean, that’s basically what The Gray Man is. The Russo dudes weren’t hired by coincidence. Yes its not a great movie but it is exactly what it is intended to be and very proficient at it. I’m questioning why it seems every action film is like it these days. Its so big,  So noisy. It takes us all over the world, spending huge amounts of Netflix money on a script that doesn’t warrant it (but isn’t that true of most every Hollywood movie and television show these days?). As for Ryan Gosling, I have the worrying feeling that this whole film is just some kind of audition for him being cast in an MCU flick.

I wonder what Martin Scorsese thinks of this film.

Mrs Hemsworth saves the world

interceptInterceptor, 2022, 99 mins, Netflix

I get it: the joke’s on me, I paid for this. Chris Hemsworth is sitting on his private beach somewhere with his beautiful wife and chuckling “cheers, Ghost!” as he sips his cocktail partly funded by my Netflix subscription this month. I finally figured out that beard by the way- he hasn’t been able to look himself in the mirror long enough to get a shave.

Not that I should give Hemsworth any credit for feeling guilty about Interceptor, a film (I’m using that term loosely here) of which he’s a producer, that stars his wife, and in which he features in a cameo that’s either hysterically funny or horribly self-indulgent, and most likely a desperate attempt to raise this horrible film’s profile for his buddies at Netflix.

Nah, Chris doesn’t feel guilty sunning himself on that beach. Guilt doesn’t come into it for our Hollywood types. I still can’t quite figure it out- he doesn’t need the money, she doesn’t need the money; she’s a beautiful and I’m sure charming lady who does not deserve this movie- its the kind of film that can (should) torpedo anybody’s career behind and in front of the camera.

Are they bored? Is that what it is? They got nothing better to do than find some writer with one of the most stupid stories ever, featuring some of the dumbest plot twists and most risible dialogue and then make it for next to no money at all and flog it to Netflix, because Netflix is like the Patron Saint of Money for Hollywood types? Oh loosen up, Ghost, its just a bit of fun. I wanted to star my wife in a film where she saves the world so my kids can say hey, mom’s cool too.

Part of me wants to laugh, part of me wants to get angry. Angry at all these Hollywood creative types and their indifference to any kind of quality control as long as there’s a pay cheque. Maybe the bigger question is was there ever any integrity in Hollywood?

There’s a part of this film where Mrs Hemsworth, shot in one arm and suspended under a sinking oil rig by her one good arm clutching to a metal rung performs a preposterous stunt that had my wife threatening to throw something at the screen. My wife is calm and meek and not often disposed to physical violence against TV screens. It takes extreme provocation to have her losing her shit at a movie.

Me, I’m finding it hard to forgive. Not my wife losing her shit (fear not, my OLED is still in one piece) but I’m finding it so hard to forgive anyone involved in this train wreck of a film (I’m still using that term loosely), but you know, above all else I blame myself for watching it. There’s a Netflix algorithm that probably cites this film as a major success and has greenlit several sequels featuring -hang on, what’s her name?- Elsa Pataky as Captain JJ Collins.

A film doesn’t have to be any good, it can be absolute shit, but as long as enough idiots stream some of it -not even all of it- then its deemed a success and we get more of the same. Something has to be done regards how this all works. Its pretty damning and Netflix needs to ensure some better kind of quality control, or they will deservedly continue haemorrhaging subscribers.

Interceptor is bad. Its very bad. Its worse than very bad. Have a very good look in the mirror Chris. And apologise to the missus (yeah, yours and mine).

Rewatching The Crow

crowfireThe Crow, 1994, 102 mins, Netflix

Saturday night I watched Alex Proyas’ The Crow, for the first time in… possibly twenty years. The gaps sometimes between viewings of films never fails to be a mixture of surprise and alarm for me, if only because the years pass and accumulate so quickly.

Naturally some, possibly most, people watch a film once and that’s it, they never feel any need to revisit it. Alternatively, some people can watch some films far too many times than can be possibly healthy, and the reasons for returning to films like that can be many. I suppose its often less to do with the film and more to do with the pull of nostalgia for the original time when we first experienced a film, whether it be a childhood favourite or a formative experience when growing up (usually in teenage years). In the case of The Crow… well it’s a film I watched back in 1994 in the (incredibly now a car showroom) Showcase Cinema and later bought in those heady days of importing R1 DVDs. Two things spring to mind: those were fun days going to the Showcase with my future wife every week, and boy, DVDs were so special – you know, actually owning films, in widescreen format, in great quality, with lots of special features, it was all new back then, especially as I’d never experienced anything of the laserdisc era. Who’d have thought DVDs would be so replaceable by so many new formats, given time?

the crow cdThe Crow has been on my mind a little while because late last year Varese finally released its soundtrack score in a complete edition 2-CD set (decades overdue but hey, we’re STILL waiting for the official complete Blade Runner…). I couldn’t resist it and have listened to it several times since – its a great score, dark and melancholy and with beautiful, often heart-rending music, richly thematic, something all too rare these days. Hey, even the song playing over the end titles (a trend I hated back then, much preferring the carefully-constructed end-title suites written by composers like John Williams) was a lovely piece that really worked for the film, and felt a part of the whole. Whenever I’ve listened to the CDs I’ve often thought it’d be nice to watch the film again (I don’t have it on Blu-ray, and the days of me playing my R1 DVDs -even if I could find the box they are in- are long gone). Anyway, I noticed that its popped up on Netflix so hey, bravo for streaming services (not something I write here very often!).

But sticking with the film’s music a little longer- electronic drones drenched in reverb, guitars, children’s choir, women’s voices, ethnic instruments… its a score that was ahead of its time and subsequently imitated numerous times over the years. I found it interesting in the CD booklet that Graeme Revell refers to Blade Runner‘s score, as The Crow‘s ‘world music/multi-cultural’ approach always reminded me of Vangelis’ opus.  Both films sound rather ‘outside of time.’

So anyway, back to rewatching the movie. Has The Crow aged well? Its hard to say, really. I suppose its a wonder the film even got released at all:  The Crow is always remembered for Brandon Lee’s tragic death (from an accidental gunshot wound during the filming), and it was only able to be completed by then-cutting edge use of computer graphics patching scenes together using various shots of Lee, body-doubles and careful composition of scenes, in a similar way to how Gladiator would later be completed following the death of Oliver Reed during filming in 1999. You can see the trickery in places but on the whole it works well- its nothing too distracting.

What was distracting, at least this time around, was that the film seems to have been cut in several places; weird edits occur that makes it look like some of the violence or more graphic shots were cut, like something is missing. Whether anything has been cut, I don’t know; I assume this UK version is the same as the American R1 DVD disc I watched all those years ago; its not something I can remember from back then which is why it makes me curious now – it really rather felt like I was watching one of those ‘TV versions’ of films that were so common years ago (the TV version of Robocop for instance, is legendary). Maybe the film was always toned down a little from its original intent, in respect of Lee’s death.

The film also wears its ‘pop-video director’ vibe clearly; back then it possibly hardly seemed a thing at all, it was all the rage, but these days, with MTV and pop videos a more distant thing now, it seems to stick out more (I believe The Crow was Alex Proyas’ first film after years shooting pop videos). Too many slow-motion shots with over-powering music; it reminded me greatly of Highlander (1986) but on the positive side, there was some great use of music juxtaposed with the visuals at times. Inevitable visual nods to Blade Runner or Tim Burton’s Batman movie, regards endless rain and gothic art direction. I was such a fan of this film back in 1994/1995- its odd, with it being so long ago when I first watched it, the perspective from being in 2022 now. All those miniatures!

Director Alex Proyas certainly seemed to be someone to follow back then, and I simply adored his next film, the magnificent (if ill-fated, as I recall) Dark City that was one of the very best genre films of the 1990s, but his career sadly tailed off somewhat after that. Proyas skirted with major studio projects like I, Robot (a film I quite liked but don’t have any interest in ever watching again) but the bizarre casting for Knowing (Nicolas Cage as an M.I.T. professor!) pretty much ruined that particular film for me, and I never got around to watching Proyas’ Gods of Egypt at all. So it doesn’t seem that Proyas fulfilled the possibilities inferred by The Crow wowing me like it did in 1994.

I’m out of the loop somewhat regards The Crow, its been so many years since I last watched it. I’m not certain I ever watched the sequel and wasn’t even aware of the third or fourth films in that film series, or indeed that there was a 22-episode television series back in 1998. I must have been living under a rock or something, or maybe that’s just indication of so many straight-to-video films or television series ‘hiding’ on some obscure cable channel.

So anyway, I really quite enjoyed the film. Its such a sad film, inevitably so due to the circumstances during the making of it, the tragedy which seems to loom over most every scene. An unfortunate result is that its hard to really judge Brandon Lee’s performance, judging the line between narrative and reality but I still think a huge part of why the film works so well is Revell’s music; it seems to dominate everything. Which isn’t to say Lee isn’t excellent- his performance is really very good and I’m certain he would have gone on to considerable success in future films, but between what happened to him making the film and the music being such a symphony of melancholy, its really almost overwhelming. The Crow is a very dark gothic fable, a reminder that nothing is trivial, and there ain’t no coming back…. except maybe for movies.

The Man should have stayed in Toronto…

toronoThe Man From Toronto, 2022, 112 mins, Netflix

Yes, The Man should have stayed in Toronto and saved us all the pain and bother. Mind, I don’t deserve any sympathy, I really should have known better. Some films have ‘avoid’ written all over them, but fair play, the marketing boffins had managed an intriguing teaser/trailer that Netflix put up when one foolishly clicked on this film’s title. It showed a neat little scene in which Kevin Hart, wrong dude at the wrong cabin, finds himself mistaken for the titular Man from Toronto, master interrogator and torture-artiste, and he’s escorted into a basement where he finds a poor guy is strung up waiting his attention and nasty thugs waiting to enjoy the show. Talk your way out of that, Kevin.

Well, they clearly couldn’t stretch that gag for a whole movie…

But they try.

Isn’t it curious how some Hollywood peeps, at least until Disney stepped in, treated streaming as The Great Evil a few years back? Well, money talks I guess, and now streamers, particularly Netflix at any rate, seems to have been useful as a happy dumping ground for any Hollywood effort that looks to be a misfire (see most any ‘Netflix Original’ or numerous other examples over on Amazon). Maybe things will change now that reduced subscribers have cautioned Netflix to be a wee bit more mindful over how it spends money. The Hollywood cash-cow era may be drawing to a close, so I hope everyone’s luxury renovations are squared up and yachts paid for and beach houses accounted for.

The Man From Toronto is a lamentable effort. An action-comedy that makes The Hitman’s Bodyguard look like a bona-fide classic, and HItman’s Wife’s Bodyguard look nowhere near as lazy as it seemed at the time. Maybe that’s all I really need to say on the matter- this is one of those films that one can easily imagine the pitch and the studio guys nodding sagely imagining another easy hit. But you can’t make movies by-the-numbers like that… well, you clearly can, but it doesn’t guarantee success like some think it might. But to the extent of sinking $75 million into something as cynically calculated as this? One can imagine “We got Hart!” ” We got Statham!” “We got that guy who directed Hitman’s Bodyguard!” “We can’t lose!” “Statham’s out- but Harrelson’s in!” “That cutey from Big Bang Theory says she got a few days free to shoot a few scenes!”  At least it wasn’t a huge success: whatever would have been next, The Man From Tipton? Yeah, I bet somebody had their eye on a franchise: The Man From Dallas, The Man From London, The Man From Paris…”ker-ching, baby they almost write themselves!”

Oh well. This is one to avoid, really, and another poor addition to the burgeoning pile of sub-standard Netflix content. I suppose this proves a timely addendum to my recent post about streaming; the way the game used to work, it was all about the amount of content rather than said content actually being any good. But maybe if any positive can come of something like The Man From Toronto, its that it may play some part in things changing. Netflix can’t remain the happy dumping ground for Hollywood misfires, it simply has to exercise some QC when it gets its wallet out- or subscribers may keep on leaving, and without the streaming option being quite so easy, maybe Hollywood itself will exercise a bit more care too. Well, one can dream…

The game’s all rigged

squid3Squid Game Season One, 2021, nine episodes, Netflix

I’m late to the party as usual (this show originally dropped in September last year), but I’m pleasantly surprised- Netflix’s survival horror/blood sport thriller Squid Game is actually worthy of the hype. Its part thriller, part satire, part crushing examination of the human condition – its both sophisticated and banal;  a quite remarkable combination. Its worldwide popularity – I believe its become Netflix’s most popular show, ever- suggests that its tensions of a growing underclass unable to get a job or pay their bills, lost under ever-growing debt, desperate enough to risk their lives for a windfall, has struck a chord in many. Makes one wonder the state of the world today if so many can so readily accept the premise of the poor killing each other for the entertainment of the minority wealthy ultra-elite.

So is Squid Game the television show of our times for our times?  What does that say of our post-Covid world, and of the evidently growing disparity between the rich and poor? There must be something universal about it, for it to be Netflix’s biggest show ever. Is life as rigged as the game depicted in this series, in which 456 enter, and only one can survive and win?

Its the old 1970s television show It’s A Knockout by way of the Roman Coliseum, or Takeshi’s Castle where failure equals death. Its The Hunger Games arguably without a hero to root for (we do root for someone but he’s hardly a hero, at one point betraying his friend and possibly the viewer too).

I’m not going to suggest that the series is perfect but it is very, very good. The cast is excellent and the art direction very impressive; the scale of the thing suggests that its a very expensive production. There are genuine surprises and shocks, moments that frustrate, moments that disturbingly remind us of those schoolyard politics we wish we’d forgotten. One of those shows full of cliff-hangers (its surely designed for binge-watching, no small part of its success I imagine) that lingers in ones head for days afterwards. Makes a nice change from that stuff that’s immediately forgotten,

I just wish it was a one-off, because I rather despair at what its success will make it- a major Netflix franchise, no doubt. Multiple seasons possibly diluting its impact, merchandising and spin-offs breeding contempt. But maybe that’s the final lesson of the show- if you’re dealt a bad hand, the misery of the game of life never ends.

It’s Dark in here

darks1Dark Season One, 2007, 10 Episodes, Netflix

I think I may be losing it; genre shows before never confused me like this one does- maybe its because it’s a German production, and its a cultural chasm or something, but there is something almost impenetrable about Dark. I don’t really mind shows being mystery boxes if they are done well, and there’s little reason to suggest this is actually one NOT done well, but nonetheless I got rather frustrated by this. I enjoyed it, certainly- but there was an undercurrent of what I believed to be unnecessary confusion throughout this first season that troubled me, and stopped me from thinking this was as good as it could have been, while being plagued by the suspicion that the failure was entirely mine.

At times I just felt like I needed a map, or a diagram, to ensure I knew who was who: I thought watching it in the original German would actually help with this, with me reading the names in the English-subtitled dialogue etc but it was a genuine struggle, and one that I felt should have been unnecessary. I kept wondering was it me, or the show (how it was edited etc), or the translated dialogue steering me wrong. In the old days of the original Twin Peaks show, the weekly instalments helped, being able to re-watch episodes I recorded on VHS and ponder over each one before the next followed- maybe binge-watching a show like this does shows like this a disservice, and of course, me avoiding spoilers meant I had to stay away from the possible hand-holding/explanations of the Internet- but should a series need that hand-holding and road-mapping? Twin Peaks always made sense, at least as far as knowing who was who.

Essentially, Dark is a drama about several families in a small German town which is situated close to a nuclear reactor, spread between three (maybe more) distinct time periods specifically separated by 33 years. Its part soap-opera, part crime mystery, part time-travel drama. 2019 is initially the ‘present day’ and then we see the same people in 1986 when similar events (involving missing children) occurred and later in the season we are in 1953: so children we see in 1953 are parents in 1986 and (usually) grandparents in 2019, and naturally in each period the characters are played by a different cast. Time seems to pass forwards the same, chronologically, for each time zone, so if its Nov 20th in 2019 its the same day in 1986, or at least, that’s how I think it transpired although looking back I think an episode does switch back a few days so…

So while the premise is fascinating it is always confusing, and for most of the season we don’t even get any text telling us which year we are in, we have to pick it up from visual clues, essentially fashions or the cast onscreen (other clues are music on the soundtrack, 80s pop songs etc) and then guessing how these characters relate not just to each other but their older variants, say in 2019 or their younger variants in 1986. Throw into the mix characters who seem to appear in the seperate time zones without any visible change re: ageing etc and one just gets… lost, frankly. I thought one character was somebody’s daughter and then learned she wasn’t, she was somebody else’s entirely and then couldn’t work out whose parents I was seeing, or who was married to who…

Its always rather fun to some extent, getting lost, and its often a pleasure to be left to flounder a little and not have everything explained in dialogue (as is the wont of most Hollywood product these days) but my patience started to wear a little thin at times. The overall mystery starts to make some sense as the series goes along but I have to admit that the undercurrent of confusion never really left me, and I’m sure I missed some things simply because I was wrong about who was who. Inevitably it had to have some impact on my enjoyment of the series. I’m going to take a little break before plunging into the second series (Dark is spread over three seasons), so I’m just hoping it gets easier as it goes.

A Lovecraftian Videodrome

archive81Archive 81 Season One, 2022, 8 Episodes, Netflix

Archivist Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is offered a job restoring a collection of damaged videotapes recovered from a New York building fire of 1994. As he painstakingly restores each tape, playing each one to convert them to digital files for his mysterious boss/benefactor Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), Dan finds himself gradually opening up a mystery. The tapes were made by a documentary filmmaker, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) and are a record of her investigation into a demonic cult before she died in the fire. As the horrifying mystery unravels across the tapes, Dan realises he is caught in a new conspiracy linked to those events of 25 years ago: and begins to doubt his sanity, or even reality, as the past and present begin to blur and the images on the monitor screens seem to take on a strange life of their own.

Archive 81 is one of those shows that seem to come out of nowhere- there is so much content dropped weekly on Netflix, I often wonder what I miss, never mind those shows that I KNOW I’ve missed that I haven’t gotten around to yet, like both seasons of The Witcher, all three seasons of Dark, its a list that is getting silly: there is only so much time. Is that the true legacy of the streaming wars- not so much watching everything we want to, but just somehow managing what time we have the best we can afford?

So to Archive 81 then; this is one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. How curious that having been blown away by Midnight Mass toward the end of last year that this year opens with another great horror series? Archive 81 is genuinely creepy and disturbing with some very effective twists and surprises and a brilliant premise that is part Videodrome, part Lovecraft – throw in some reality-shifting Philip K Dick and its a killer combination. This thing caught me right from the beginning, with its wonderful, moody soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs) and it just didn’t let up. Maybe part of it was the sense of nostalgia, with its use of videotapes and other arcane forms of media bringing pangs of longing (the scene where someone rips the shrink-wrap off a Scotch blank VHS tape!) that nobody born post-millennium can ever hope to understand. I’ve seen people look at old audio cassettes wondering what they are for or what they do: I wonder what they think about these plastic bricks housing brown tape.

So the premise is great, the scripts for each episode were all very good, the characters interesting, the casting excellent, the mood relentlessly tense. Its a brilliant eight-episodes-over-three-nights binge watch but then… but then… Well, you know what’s coming, don’t you. The only thing that spoiled Archive 81 was, they didn’t stick the landing- the ending was nowhere near as satisfying as that of Midnight Mass, and proved something of a let-down. Not that it wasn’t good, its just that… well, it wasn’t an ending.

The showrunners felt the need to leave things open for a second season, teasing us instead of… Well, its hardly anything new in the world of television. I suppose so many shows get pitched and never see the light of day, its got to be tempting that, once you’ve got the greenlight you try keep it going as long as you can. But I did feel it compromised Archive 81, robbing it of the finale it deserved- you know, like a finale that had a definitive ending, damn it. You can have that and still leave a cheeky tease, but how episode eight ends…

They could have been a little smarter, and maybe braver. I rather suspect we’re just going to get a  Archive 81 Season Two, but you know, we could have gotten Archive 82 or Archive 88 instead.

Don’t get me wrong, its not a deal-breaker and Archive 81 is absolutely worth your time but while its very, very good, its just frustrating that it could have been bloody great. What is it with storytelling these days? Is ‘The End’ becoming something like a dirty word now?