Adrift (2018)

Adrift, based on a true story of a woman in 1983 surviving being set adrift at sea following a disastrous encounter with a hurricane, is competently made but suffers from being all too familiar. Which is odd enough, thinking about it, as it’s a remarkable enough story but it does seem like we’ve seen it before- most recently in films like All Is Lost or older films such as Castaway. Certainly in many ways this film is no worse than them, or other similar survival at sea thrillers. Its well made with a decent cast, great cinematography and effects. Its just a little unfortunate that it feels, well, so familiar.

Funny, though, when watching films like this- I keep thinking about Jaws, about how difficult that film was to get made, the logistical and technical challenges of filming out at sea, and how well films manage it now. I wouldn’t suggest it was anything easy, I guess it can still prove to be a nightmare, and at least in something like this they weren’t contending with a giant mechanical shark. All the same though, the underwater photography is particularly fine here and the effects work involved in the wide expanses of sea and the storm sequences is all very impressive.

Its a shame the film doesn’t fully engage. Its effective enough, but not really enthralling or as tense as it might have been. Perhaps it is the films structure that undermines it, the post-storm wreck and ensuing crisis being broken up into flashbacks that establish the characters and their past. A more conventional chronological set-up might have been better; might have encouraged our empathy more, but I suppose the way its done is an attempt to encourage a sense of mystery and interest and ensure the central ‘twist’ works (although I guessed it before it came).

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The Wandering Earth (2019)

This is almost infinitely bonkers. I don’t even know where to start regards reviewing it. If I were to suggest its best bits compared to the worst excesses of Armageddon, and that it also just went beyond that in featuring almost blatant lifts from Interstellar and Gravity and The Day After Tomorrow and Sunshine, becoming some kind of sci fi Disaster Movie Greatest Hits package, well, I guess that would just about sum it up and make the rest of this post quite redundant.

Its not that I haven’t seen anything quite like it, it’s just that, well, I have, but it was spread across several movies, and this thing condenses it all into a two-hour effects marathon that just assaults your eyes and intelligence in ways that even The Transformers movies stumbled at. I remember everyone scoffing at the science of Gerry Anderson’s Space:1999 back in the 1970s, and here we are with somebody suggesting that, well…

The sun is dying (Sunshine) and the only (?) hope for humanity is to pilot Spaceship Earth by, er, strapping several thousand huge bloody engines to it and letting rip, er, breaking out of orbit and literally flying the planet Earth to another star. Wait, just pause and digest that a moment, they are taking the Earth on a two-thousand year journey out of the solar system across interstellar space to another star. Okay. This also involves building a huge spaceship to lead the way with a Chinese astronaut sacrificing his family duties in order to step up and do his astronaut duty (Interstellar/Armageddon) and leaving his estranged children rather pissed off. Earth of course plunges into winter as it moves further from the dying sun (The Day After Tomorrow) and as the cities above plunge into icy horror (Snowpiercer) the remnants of humanity live in gigantic underground cities, busy maintaining and fueling the massive rockets on the surface pushing the planet into space. Unfortunately there has been some miscalculation or freak act of interplanetary gravitational mechanics because the Earth is moving too close to Jupiter (2001 etc) and is caught into its gravity well and planet Earth’s journey to another star (no, I can’t quite get my head around the sheer audacity and stupidity of that) is threatened to be cut short by the Earth plunging into Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

It really is that insane, and I haven’t gone into the details about giant trucks on Earth or the HAL9000-wannabe up on the spaceship or the disparate groups and arcs running through the film. Its like someone took the sci-fi writer’s handbook of credibility and chucked it into the bin. A hugely successful blockbuster in its native China, it seems to have slipped onto Netflix out of nowhere and is quietly gathering some notoriety as being the film to make Michael Bay seem the very definition of restraint. I suppose the one good thing about it appearing in the West so quickly on Netflix is that it nixes some damn fool in Hollywood deciding to make a Hollywood remake. Its not to suggest that Hollywood could have done it any better or worse- one thing I can say about this film is that it definitely puts Chinese film-making on the map, technically at least, as it’s certainly up there with the kind of scale of effects spectacle previously the domain of the major American studios. Sure, it does look a bit too much like videogame cutscenes much of the time, but that’s true of some Hollywood stuff too.

Its just a shame, really, that instead of being uniquely Chinese and its own thing, it spends so much effort clearly mimicking Hollywood and recent Pop Culture excess, but on the other hand, it is refreshing to see a film in which its someone other than the Americans saving the world. Thinking about it, it perhaps indicates the future and real world order- I suppose in the Victorian era, it would have been the British Empire saving the world, in the last century it would have been America saving the world, but in this new millennium power is clearly shifting, and perhaps its true that it will be Asia and the Chinese that will step up in future apocalyptic movies to save the world.

Its stupid. Its a blast. I felt a little dirty after sitting through all of it. I mean, really, it’s almost insulting, how daft and spectacular this thing is. But it’s certainly something. Just not really sure what it is. Crazy, yes, certainly. Lousy. Noisy. Eye-candy. Its the film that almost makes Armageddon seem like an arthouse movie. Perhaps there will be a sequel where they take a wrong turn near Saturn… I mean, considering the film’s huge success in its home territory a sequel is surely inevitable, it’s just I’m rather scared at where they will take the next one.

 

Black Summer- Season One (2019)

blacksummrBlack Summer is a prequel/spin-off from Z Nation, a zombie horror series I’m not familiar with which airs on the SyFy channel (in the States, I presume, although it’s available here on Netflix?). At any rate, after suffering through another season of The Walking Dead, this thing is a breath of fresh (albeit decaying) air. Where The Walking Dead spreads interminably slow storylines over sixteen-episode seasons which are themselves split in two chunks of eight, Black Summer is just eight episodes and the whole thing lasts less than five hours- most episodes last under 40 minutes and the last two just 25 and 20 minutes. This brisk running time keeps the pace up and noticeably serves the story- the finale has every reason to be just 20 minutes long, and isn’t saddled with 20 minutes of padding for the sake of maintaining the traditional run-time (most of the time it seems entire episodes of The Walking Dead are padding just to maintain the sixteen-episode format of each season).

But enough about The Walking Dead– that show is made utterly irrelevant having watched Black Summer. This thing is like some high-octane zombie horror that maybe John Carpenter might have fashioned in the early ‘eighties. Set some six weeks into a zombie apocalypse in which the world is teetering on collapse, its as desperate and scary and tense as you could hope as chaos reigns and civilization disintegrates. To strain one last comparison, it’s the End of the World to The Walking Dead‘s soap opera of surviving the Apocalypse and bringing America back.

We are thrown right into the nightmare without any character backgrounds or introductions. There doesn’t seem to be any right or wrong as long as you survive another day, and the threats are as much other desperate humans as the wildly rabid-like undead. Everything is stripped back to the tense life-or-death moments of fight or flight or the confusion of who can be trusted. Its a little like a zombie Game of Thrones, funnily enough, in which every decision has consequences and any character can suffer a sudden death out of nowhere.

There’s just sufficient character moments -and the cast are all pretty much great- to ensure that we care what happens. Even the utterly incompetent Lance (Kelsey Flower) who at one point tries to pretend the apocalypse isn’t happening by burying himself in a random book while the sounds of death draws near, and seems to stumble from crisis to crisis in spite of himself doing everything to get himself killed, fosters some grudging empathy. He often seems to be a waste of air but I’m often reminded that there is a strange reality to his ineptitude, he’s some kind of Everyman offering the reality of what we would be like in the apocalypse. While we’d like to pretend we’d be more like Spears (Justin Chu Cary) or Rose (Jaime King) in the blind horror moments, we really know we’d be rabbits in the headlights like Lance.

This a great show and its format is perfect for Netflix- it’s an easy binge watch over a weekend and I hope it proves to be successful enough to warrant another season.

Malevolent (2018)

mal1An American brother-sister team of ghostbusting scam artists who swindle gullible bereaved people, have repatriated to Scotland, home of their late mother who used to hear voices/see ‘things’ before cutting out her own eyes and killing herself some years ago.  Angela (Florence Pugh) is growing tired of the scams/developing a conscience/starting to ‘see’ things herself, but elder brother Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) owes money to some vague mob and one last job that promises to pay double is his way out of trouble. Unfortunately for the siblings and their two friends who assist them, this last case involves a sadistic multiple torture/ murder in a children’s foster home and there’s more than just ghosts they need to deal with- the original torturer/killer is on the loose…

Well, if anything that seems even remotely realistic and reasonable to you, then, well, I’m sure this film is for you. Me? I nearly choked on my cup of tea several times as the twists and coincidences piled up. In the films defence, its a low-budget horror film in an already busy market place, so I guess there’s a tendency to pile on the dumb horror as quickly as you can. Not that there’s really much horror- a few jump scares, lots of low dark synth mood music and the usual torture porn that passes for creepiness/tension these days.  Considering its set in 1989. it doesn’t really feel like it’s set in that decade at all, and if I were a cynic I’d suggest it’s just a plot device to maroon our heroes in a desolate old building having no mobile phones to call for help. Oh go on then. Its absolutely just a lazy/simple contrivance to keep mobile phones off the menu.

Florence Pugh, who was so good in Lady Macbeth awhile ago, looks utterly bored here.  Maybe she’s too pretty? It seems unfair to blame her for being pretty, but her character is basically a blank slate/porcelain doll that’s devoid of any interest, so her coolly detached looks are all she’s got. When you’ve got no empathy for the lead actress, you know a film is in trouble, and the supporting characters are even more cardboard/unremarkable. When the bad stuff starts to happen and the bodycount starts to climb, it’s hard to even care or feel any interest at all, so certainly tension is lacking.

Ultimately it’s all very predictable, so much so it’s hard to shake the feeling you’ve seen it all before, maybe in an old 1970s movie you’ve otherwise forgotten. I think they let anyone make movies these days- maybe that’s the problem with much of this Netflix Originals stuff; Netflix just wants something to fill the airtime and are a bit too generous with the money, so anyone with a script and a camera can make a quick buck.

The Lazarus Effect (2015)

laz1Oh dear. Flatliners meets Brainstorm and it ain’t gonna be pretty. Its funny really, watching this so soon after rewatching 1989’s Pet Sematary, another film in which fools embark gladly on playing Frankenstein and things go very badly. It’s as if movies are made in some alternate universe in which no scientist has ever read Mary Shelley or watched any horror film about bringing back the dead. I suppose it gets points for resurrecting a dog first instead of a cat, but still, when the inevitable accident happens and our heroes are ‘forced’ by cruel circumstance to use their new science breakthrough on a human subject, it’s clearly not going to end well. One of the scientists teases us with the old adage that humans only use 10% of their brains, but only people paying the film 10% of their attention could be surprised how things turn out, it’s so routine and poorly telegraphed throughout.

Which is something of a shame, because the cast is pretty good -Mark Duplass (so good the other night in Paddleton), Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger, these are pretty impressive names, and the film even features Twin Peaks fave Ray Wise as a corporate bad guy to add some geek appeal, but its all for naught. They are stuck with a script that is Dead on Arrival, and no miraculous Lazarus Serum is going to resurrect this one.

It is so frustrating, because although the premise is inherently daft (scientists develop a serum that when injected into a corpses brain and activated by an electrical shock brings them back from the dead) it offers all sorts of possibilities but doesn’t even try other than suggesting that sometimes dead is better. No wait, wrong movie….

Lets try again- let’s say they do bring someone back, lets not saddle them with esp/telekinetic superpowers straight away, lets show her demonstrate her acting chops by dealing with being pulled back from Heaven (or Hell, it seems in this case) and returning to the living and all that psychological and religious baggage that entails. But no, I suppose that risks upsetting someone in the audience for ridiculing their belief system or actually making an empirical statement about Life, Death and the Beyond, so instead… lets make her eyes go spooky black and have her bump everyone off one by one. The irony is, even as a horror film this film fails, it simply cannot carry of any level of tension or scares.

Not so much a case of sometimes dead is better, then, but maybe that 1989s Pet Sematary (and Brainstorm and Flatliners before it) is better than previously thought. All things are relative, I suppose, and it does seem that you can count on new bad films showing old ‘bad’ films in a new, kinder light…

This is the End (2013)

theend.jpgBest part of this thing is when the credits come up and you realise that you’ve finally reached the end of the horror, at last. Overblown and shockingly inconsistent, this supposed comedy has very few laughs and struck me as being wildly self indulgent (kind of ironic as the whole premise of the comedy is that our six ‘heroes’ are six real-life self-entitled, self-indulgent celebs).  Of course, I probably wasn’t in the right mood (or inebriated enough) to watch the film or familiar enough with the so-called celebs or their work (Pineapple Express? No, never seen it, or even heard of it) to get half the jokes or references. Really, I was possibly the furthest from this film’s target audience so it’s almost unfair for me to review it.

I did like the last twenty minutes or so (‘The Exorcism of Jonah Hill’, if only) when  the film finally managed to get a few laughs going, so it wasn’t a complete waste of my two hours. Biggest joke of all, though, is that I read this films budget was purported to be some $32 million, and the film somehow grossed some $126 million, so that last joke’s on me.  I’ll go get my coat…

The Highwaymen (2019)

highwayThere was something missing in this one. Its hard to put my finger on it- it was serviceable enough, if overlong, but somehow there was something just… off, somehow. Maybe it was a sense of an A-list cast just cruising- not exactly phoning it in, but maybe, veterans as Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson are, they just sensed that something wasn’t working.

There is, for instance, a suggested subtext (and not even suggested really, but quite open at times) of the passing of  the torch, of the old meeting the new, of the old boys having one last mission, one last hunt, in the face of progress with technology and new systems replacing our heroes’ tried and tested instinct and grit. But it isn’t really examined or elaborated. Its not that I was expecting some kind of self-interrogation or self-doubt that, say, Unforgiven‘s William Munny had with his ‘one more job’… but, well, maybe I was. Costner is certainly capable of delving into Texas Ranger Frank Hamer’s soul, and the long bloody years of his past, but instead he cooly approaches this hunt for outlaws Bonnie and Clyde almost ignorant of the ghosts of the past. Maybe I was expecting some conflict, some sense of haunted isolation or being haunted by the past which simply wasn’t necessary here. I was just expecting some other movie. It happens.

Which was doubly frustrating, though, because this film was definitely not about Bonnie and Clyde – perhaps even refreshingly so, they were always on the periphery, their actions seen from a distance, generally even avoiding their faces. I don’t think they ever even spoke. The focus was purely on the two retired Texas Rangers brought back to hunt them down- Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson), and yet the focus was wasted, we hardly really got ‘into’ them. I was expecting more intimate self-reflection, of the perspective of old age on youthful folly/waste/questionable deeds. We are told to question the public adoration that Bonnie and Clyde received from the poor (some kind of celebrities back then, as if subject to a mythic Robin Hood status) but we are not told to question the system or the lawmen that represented it. Costner is a Good Man. The outlaws are Bad. It feels very black and white where I was hoping for more shades of grey.