Short Treks: Calypso

calypsoI haven’t watched the season two opener for Star Trek: Discovery yet, but I did watch one of the Short Treks on Friday that Netflix has finally put up over here, and it was awfully ‘meh’. Technically it was well done, the sets and effects work pretty terrific and the acting is fine but the story was cringeworthy even for Trek. Set a thousand years in the future with the Discovery abandoned for centuries… yeah that’s a great premise right there but dear lord what they went and did with it…

Calypso is basically a love story. Craft is a warrior castaway whose lifeboat stumbles upon the Discovery, and the ships AI computer has evolved over the thousand years to become, well, typically ‘human’ and a strange love story unfolds, complete with Zora (the AI) loving old 20th Century movies starring Fred Astaire and creating a Holo-version of herself that can dance with Craft and… ugh. There are some very firm similarities to the Officer K/Joi relationship from BR2049 here, both in plot and in physical execution. Sure technically it’s polished but this story is so old and, limited by the short running-time, so limited it just feels like Trek at its very worst: safe, predictable, cosy, embarrassing- yeah, thats modern Trek right there.  I mean, someone gives you the premise of jumping a thousand years into the future and someone stumbling upon the Discovery, abandoned somehow for centuries, and the show locks itself off from any reveals about the galaxy or the Federation a thousand years hence by becoming an intimate, ahem, love story between a stranger and an AI. Maybe I’m missing something somewhere, but there was a time when Star Trek was brave and bold- no wonder I adored Babylon 5 so much back in the day.

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Feeling the Glow of a Netflix Binge

glow1.jpgIts been a rough few weeks, and particularly the last few days. It may not be the healthiest way to escape the realities of the world, but we retreated to Planet Netflix yesterday and this afternoon, watching the entire second season of Glow over the two days (eight episodes yesterday, the final two today).

I’m sure somebody must have a blog somewhere entitled ‘Adventures in Binge-Watching.’  It’s illuminating, how so many shows now are surely designed specifically for binge-watching. I certainly don’t think it’s as simple as just instantly dumping an entire season of a show on a service, whether it be Netflix or Amazon or iplayer (the BBC, who you’d think would be above such shenanigans, did it last year, putting up all the first series of Killing Eve on its iplayer service while concurrently airing the show on a traditional  weekly schedule on its ‘normal’ channel), and just expecting that people will devour it all at once. I think these modern shows are deliberately designed for binge-watching, whether it be the serial-arc writing across a season or the teasers/cliffhangers that are placed at the end of each installment.

There has been a subtle shift evident in structure. In the ‘old days’ of commercial episodic television, the writing required a sting or tease every twelve minutes or so, to signal the ad breaks and ensure that viewers stick around (and through those paying ads) to see what happened next. These days, the writing is more akin to a movie, with similar pacing, negating the need for those artificial twelve-minute stings and enabling a better flow- albeit with those old stings/cliffhangers being placed at the end of each episode. Similarly Netflix reinforce this by having a 5-second countdown to automatically start the next episode automatically: there’s been more than a few times that a new episode automatically begins and I think, ‘oh well, since its on I’ll just give it ten minutes to see what happens’ and then -boom- that next 40 minutes is toast and the whole ep has gone by.

Anyway, Glow was terrific. I’ll try to get a proper review posted sometime, but it’s definitely superior television- well scripted, acted, directed, funny, sad, and set in the 1980s. I’m a sucker for anything set in the 1980s. Here in the UK the 1970s were particularly grim and for my generation at least, the 1980s were our 1960s. Great films, cheesy films, great music, cheesy music, okay, sure, mostly cheesy television, and yep, lousy fashion, sure, but crikey, we even had totally amazing comics (Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, for cryin’ out loud- nothing has come close since). Maybe its because I’m looking back from the particularly dystopian vantage point of 2019, but looking back, the 1980s were mostly great. And yeah, Glow is great.

 

Ghost Stories (2017)

ghost1.jpgThere are some genuinely creepy moments, and old-fashioned scares, in this horror anthology movie- indeed, for awhile I was pleasantly reminded of those old Amicus movies that I loved years ago. Initially I was wrong-footed by a titles/prologue sequence that seems to break the fourth wall and suggested that the film was a found-footage/pseudo-documentary piece- it’s only after this that the film settles down into a traditional film format that I was able to relax into it. I don’t know if this distracted others or if it was just me, but there’s something wrong with all this and it handicaps the film somewhat- I’m surprised the film-makers didn’t revisit it (there’s stuff going on in camcorder footage of a Jewish celebration and ensuing family discord that seems to have no impact on subsequent events at all).

Once the film slips into traditional horror-story territory it improves no end, and after seeing so many American horrors,  it’s lovely to see UK characters and locations in an old-fashioned horror story, in which very real, very ordinary people get caught up in genuinely unsettling situations. The film and its three seperate tales (albeit they are not quite as seperate as we are led to believe) are structured around the investigations of Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman, who co-wrote and directed the film with Jeremy Dyson). Goodman has devoted his career to exposing phony psychics and fraudulent supernatural claims. A childhood hero of his, Charles Cameron, who has been missing for years, suddenly contacts Goodman and tasks him with three cases of ghostly goings-on that cannot be explained: a night watch-man’s terrifying experience in an abandoned asylum, a young man’s car accident deep in some creepy woods and a father being haunted by the malevolent spirit of his unborn child. 

The tension during the horrific tales as they unfold is very well done- the film is not at all gory but is genuinely creepy and certainly it’s a refreshing nod to old-school horror films, where mood and atmosphere is superior to graphic excess. Other than that off-putting opening I really enjoyed the film and its ‘twist’ at the end, while perhaps not completely surprising or convincing, certainly honours the feel of those Amicus anthologies. Its a great old-fashioned ghost movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that- indeed, I’d love to see more of this kind of stuff. In just  the same way as science-fiction and fantasy films have become too persistent with graphically ‘wowing’ us by literally showing everything onscreen in CGI spectacle, so have horror films been persistent lately in graphically detailing all their gory horrors onscreen. Suggestion is sometimes a more powerful tool, no matter the CGI trickery that film-makers possess today.

2018 Review: December

So here we come to the end of the line for 2018, as December finally draws to a close.

Mandy – a decent Nic Cage movie? Its like my whole world-philosophy has come crashing down.

Witness for the Prosecution– Billy Wilder never fails.

Ant-Man and the Wasp– hey, this was quite fun and cunningly ingenious in its effects/execution. All too often these days we tend to dismiss visual marvels as ‘clever CGI’ as if that’s the simplest thing in the world, but sometimes I have to just step back and consider just how tricky some of this stuff must be to pull off. The damnedest thing is how they make it seem so, well, casual, almost.

Creed– this was particularly interesting, partly as a film in its own right but also as some kind of commentary on film franchises and our connections with them over decades, as if there was some kind of meta-reality at work. Possibly the farthest thing from the creators minds, or maybe not, but it did lend this film a particular sense of pathos that was quite effecting.

The First: Season One– a ‘Martian adventure turned into decent tv show’ shocker. I only hope we get to see a second season, because if this thing gets cancelled the irony will be written all over those inferior tv shows about Mars that got sophomore outings.

The China Syndrome– I appreciate he leaves some cold, but Jack Lemmon in a film I haven’t seen before is an experience I find irresistable and rather life-affirming, like an extra-special Christmas present- which was rather apt considering I watched this in December, I guess.

The Equalizer 2 – inferior to the original, but interesting enough to warrant its existence, and Denzel finally going the sequel route. Just goes to show, Hollywood gets them all, in the end.

Star Trek: Discovery – its a sci-fi series, Jim, but its not Star Trek, at least not as we know it. Shame that.

Cam– a surprisingly above-average thriller with a Black Mirror vibe.

Bird Box – while its apparently inferior to A Quiet Place, which I haven’t seen yet, I did enjoy this.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch – there’s really such a lot of meta-reality/nature of reality/PKD shenanigans going on in this interactive film, in which the interaction itself is some kind of commentary on the themes and subtext of the thing, really, its enough to induce a headache.

So anyway, that’s the end of this 2018 Review. I’ll leave the stats totals for number of posts/visits for another post later on, but the immediate big news, mind, is this- that Bandersnatch review was my 103rd review for something ‘new’ this year. Yes indeedy, strike up the fanfare- I passed the 100 milestone for just the second time ever on this blog.  Considering some of the things going on in the Real World Out There, on a personal level that’s really some achievement. And no, that doesn’t mean I’m going to target some damned fool number like 150 next year.

 

 

 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

Bandersnatch-NetflixThere’s a moment in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a film Netflix is touting as ‘an interactive film’ where young computer programmer Stefan (Finn Whitehead) in a moment of PKD insight becomes convinced he isn’t in control of his own actions and shouts out to The Big Unknown. That’s when a choice is offered to the film viewer and I opted for Netflix as my answer, and lo, a text message appeared on Stefan’s computer that he was being controlled by a viewer watching Netflix, an online streaming service. Of course from Stefan’s vantage point of 1984, this didn’t mean a hell of a lot, but for me it was a strange meta-reality commentary on all things PKD and The Matrix and the nature of reality and what films are now and possibly might be in the future.

How well Bandersnatch functions as a dramatic work is open to debate, but as an interactive experience and nod to PKD and 1980s culture its something of a marvel. The old-style WHSmith stores (crikey, those old carrier bags even more of a nostalgic nod than possibly intended with recent news of Government intent over here), 2000AD, Tomita’s The Bermuda Triangle on vinyl, the Thompson Twins and the grand finale (at least the one I experienced, as there are supposed to be five endings to Bandersnatch) of Laurie Anderson’s sublime O Superman, a song that sums up that whole era for me- so many moments had me cooing ‘awww….’ at the screen. Possibly the best was the Ubik poster coming alive. That would have blown poor Philip K Dick’s mind had he seen it, I think.

I’m curious to rewatch Bandersnatch and choose a different path/s to really put the test to its ‘interactive/multiple branches’ credentials but on first viewing it was damned impressive. Quite how Netflix managed the branching streams without incurring pauses for buffering etc is something of a mystery and, yeah, to be honest, one I’d actually like to avoid learning about, as if part of some unquantifiable magic.

It was quite apt, I suppose, as Black Mirror itself tends to comment upon and extrapolate on modern technology in dark and devious ways that the series used this interactive experience to tell its story of choice/freewill and the nature of its technology. Making the viewer a cog in the machine was quite ingenious. Whether in 2028 we’ll see a MI:9 that puts the viewer in charge of a (possibly CGI/virtual by then) Tom Cruise as he weaves through multiple paths of espionage and various twists of fate, and whether that would be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing is open for some other debate, but it’s possibly a insight into eventual possibilities.

Well, on the bleak side, there’s another nail in the coffin of good honest storytelling, maybe. We may have seen a glimpse of the future, and it’s something to do with keeping our hands on the remote, but not regards switching channels etc…

 

2018 Review: November

A few 4K UHD reviews  (Prince of Darkness and Superman: The Movie) opened the month, but as I’ve seen the films before on previous formats they didn’t count as ‘new’ reviews. Alas, that run broke with-

Pacific Rim: Uprising – A pale reboot in place of a ‘proper’ sequel, and a missed opportunity. Please don’t let them do something like this to my beloved BR2049.

You Were Never Really Here – Strange one this, I enjoyed it but it felt like it was an arthouse film too consciously trying to be a John Wick film, or maybe a John Wick film trying to be an arthouse film. In the end, it just fell somewhere in between.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Rather loved this. Typically wacky Cohen Bros film, only -gosh- a Netflix Original. 2018 will be forever remembered as the year of Netflix here at Ghost Hall.

Night of the Demon – This was simply brilliant, and another example that there are still great old movies out there to be discovered.

The Kominksy Method (Season One) – A very enjoyable (albeit all too Hollywood, but maybe that’s me being a miserable Englishman)  comedy series from, yes, Netflix.

Beyond Skyline – Beyond silly, but sort of fun, I guess.

So six new reviews, and a few posts about The Tree of Life (I saw the extended cut and really should have just given it a new proper review, but anyway, I really enjoyed it and waxed lyrical about it being like 2001), and a new Vangelis album, Nocturne, coming in the New Year like a late Christmas present, and in a strange case of history repeating, hot on the heels of a disappointing Jean Michel Jarre album. What’s new is old, or something like that. Bit like Christmas. Hang on….

 

 

Bird Box (2018)

bird1Netflix ends the year on something of a high, as this apocalyptic thriller is pretty solid stuff. Bird Box is based on a 2014 novel I have never heard of, and follows a reluctantly pregnant woman, Malorie (Sandra Bullock) on a journey to salvation over a five-year period during what is essentially the End of the World. Alongside Bullock, the film contains a pretty heavyweight cast (Trevante Rhodes, Tom Hollander, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich) with a fairly high-profile director, Susanne Bier at the helm. I appreciate Netflix Originals might always have a hard time escaping a stigma of ‘straight-to-video’ and ‘tv movie’, but projects like this really should help break that. Besides, it also suggests that movies like this, which aren’t necessarily box-office gold by any means, can yet get made in a cinema environment dominated by noisy blockbuster franchise stuff- indeed, I think some mixed reviews of this generally stems from people expecting it to be something it isn’t (i.e. a huge ‘event’ horror blockbuster). Its really a character-based thriller rather than the graphic apocalyptic horror some might expect- although, that said, the early scenes of society crashing down are pretty graphic and convincing.

The talent involved both in front and behind the camera certainly suggests that Netflix might be onto something, and that perhaps something genuinely great might be in the offing someday. Bullock is very good in this film, with an interesting character arc and an involving performance, clearly taking the project very seriously.

Very often I was watching this wishing that The Walking Dead series (by now having descended into self-parody) had taken this route- I always like the dramatic tension of taking desperate characters and putting them in an enclosed space with a very real external threat. In The Walking Dead, the outside threat of the zombies has become almost a routine turkey shoot, we don’t feel the threat or smell the decay or the fear of, well, the walking dead overcoming everything. At least in Bird Box the apocalypse is horrible and scary, and wisely doesn’t explain everything. There is an awkward moment when one of the characters expresses what he thinks the unseen monster/s are and explains he did his research on the internet, but on the whole the film manages everything superbly well. I like the threat being unseen and unknown and largely unexplained- its the physical and mental results of that threat that drives things forward and I think leaving it unexplained helps. It could be demons, it could be aliens, in the end, it doesn’t matter.