The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

stigmata“She was a redhead and he liked redheads; they were either outrageously ugly or almost supernaturally attractive.” 

Thankfully I still have quite a number of Philip K Dick novels to read; the guy was nothing if not prolific, with a huge body of work. Reading a PKD novel or story for the first time is a very welcome treat, but it can prove to be addictive. Once you’ve experienced PKD’s rather unique mindset, you find its rather seductive, and as you’ve finished one novel or short story, its all too easy to reach for another. Another ‘fix’. Which is an interesting analogy considering that The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which I’ve just read and was originally published back in 1965, is a story partly about addiction and drug-induced hallucinated alternate worlds. And God. And aliens. Well, God as an alien, infecting the realities of those who try the new drug that this God has brought from deep space. Sounds odd? Welcome to the mind of that genius visionary Philip K Dick.

The funny thing about PKD, is that its easy to get the impression he is making up the story as he goes- its not often that I ever get the feeling anything is really planned out or reasoned before he wrote it. I may well be wrong, but it does seem that he simply takes a proposition or turn of thought and runs with it, sees where it goes. There’s a sense of chaos under everything, as if anything could happen next. One of the best things about his stories is when he indeed pulls the rug from under you, suddenly twists the story into a new direction. Usurps your expectations and, most of the time, your sense of reality. You think its one thing, and then it turns into another.

stig2In the case of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, you find yourself wondering if what is happening to the characters is ‘real’ or just another hallucination, like dreams within dreams, layers of hallucinatory experiences. Time has little meaning- someone under the influence of the drug might be unconscious for just minutes in the ‘real world’ but years or even decades could go by in the strange hallucinatory world he/she might find themselves in – indeed, even trapped in, as Palmer Eldritch/God proves to be rather dangerous and threatening in his/its own attempt at survival.  Is reality being infected by God, as he manifests himself everywhere like some kind of virus, a multitude of Palmer Eldritch’s, or is it just another fantasy? Is it God that has infected Eldritch or some alien approximation? I often think PKD is always writing on the edge, reconsidering where he is going, threatening to go racing off in some other path entirely on a whim. It makes his stories rather challenging but also greatly rewarding.

There’s certainly no way there will ever be a film based on The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But I’d love to see one.

 

Hail the King

2017.38: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

Into The Depths

2017.37: Leviathan (1989)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life’s A Beach

dunkirk2017.36: Dunkirk (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half Man, Half Ant, All Terror!

matinee2017.35: Matinee (1993)

One of the few Joe Dante films I hadn’t seen, I admit I’m spectacularly late to the party with this one. As it turns out, it’s an utterly charming film that deserves a reappraisal- it may turn out to be one of Dante’s very best. It has the feel of The Burbs, and if you enjoy that film, I’m sure you will love this one. It has that same gentle tone of warm comedy and pokes fun at its characters and its situations- anyone who grew up watching the sci-fi b-movies made in the 1950s, full of Cold War paranoia and wild fears of radiation will find much to enjoy with its film-within-a-film, Mant! which serves as a delicious tribute to all those old movies (“oh, Bill….!”).

And of course, being a Joe Dante picture, there are plenty of actor cameos from other Dante films, which offers a great drinking game for genre fans- it is like meeting old friends and it is fun noting them and the other Dante films they appeared in. It even has a great little score by Jerry Goldsmith that serves to remind us how much films have lacked since his passing, and how much soundtrack music has changed for the worse.

What surprised me was just how substantial the film is. It doesn’t just poke fun at old 1950s b-movies, it recalls with some sincerity the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and an era when nuclear apocalypse was a very real fear. There is a wonderful juxtaposition of the real crisis and the real drama, reflected in  the exploitation of horror movies of the time with their giant insects and science gone horribly wrong.

Sometimes films are made and released at just the wrong time, and for no fault of their own fail to find an audience. Thankfully, sometimes they eventually get their due and I suspect that this Arrow edition on Blu-ray will ensure that Matinee is now discovered by genre fans who missed it first time around, if only they will give it a try. Certainly it is a must-see for any Joe Dante fan. Why in the world is he no longer making films?

 

Two greats lost

Sad news today concerning the passing of Martin Landau and George Romero (good grief, as if losing one wasn’t enough, we lose two greats over one weekend).

spasemartinSpeaking as a Brit who grew up in the 1970s, Martin Landau will always be Commander Koenig in Gerry Anderson’s tv series Space:1999. I loved that show when it was first on; it was dark and serious and huge. And like all Anderson shows, it had a killer main title sequence, one of the best to this day.  Over the years it has perhaps not aged very well, but the adult me appreciates its 2001-inspired design and cutting-edge miniature effects, and also the irony of a logistics expert being put in charge of Moonbase Alpha just as all the shit cuts loose. Koenig is the anti-Kirk; intentional or not, it makes for fascinating viewing and it’s fun seeing Koenig so clearly out of his depth and clutching for solutions like some modern-day politician. The less said about the second season the better but the first certainly has some brilliant moments and it remains uniquely positioned as a tv-response to 2001- there’s nothing else quite like it.

But my very favorite memory of Landau remains his remarkable turn in Crimes and Misdemeanors. He’s absolutely fantastic in that film- he really deserved some recognition awards-time for that. It’s a deep and thoughtful film (Woody Allen’s best, for me) and Landau is just incredible.

And of course we also have the news that the Godfather of the Zombie Genre, the great George A Romero has passed away too. It’s a little unfair, but it’s probably only natural that when I think of Romero, I think of Dawn of the Dead. My God, what a film that is. Back in the video-nasty period of the 1980s, an uncut VHS copy of Dawn of the Dead was like some kind of holy grail for horror fans. I remember first watching it, thinking it was the greatest horror film I’d ever seen- so dark, brutal, graphic, twisted and funny. So clever too with its social commentary (as timely now as ever- it just needs shots of zombies with mobile phones to bring it bang up to date).

Of course there was more to Romero than Dawn, and even zombies (although, bless him for embracing it rather than looking down on it or its genre fans). I loved Creepshow. That was so much fun, and he did many great films. Just none quite as great as Dawn for me. That film was just the right film at the right time; it became something more than just a film. It represented something.

Yeah, a very sad news day. We keep on losing these great names that we grew up with. It is only natural I guess as the years march on and we ourselves grow older but it never gets easy- there is a weird feeling of my own past slipping away.

 

All Aboard the Zombie Train

train12013.34: Train to Busan (2016)

Train to Busan is a thoroughly entertaining Zombie movie- it can’t be said that it really offers anything new to this post-Dawn of the Dead/28 Days Later/World War Z genre, but what it does deliver, it delivers well, with plenty of thrills, gore and spills. What else could you possibly want from a Zombie movie?

It’s curious, considering how the tv Zombie juggernaut The Walking Dead seemed to be suffering from such lethargy and tiredness with its most recent season, that this film still manages to be such a fresh, kinetic experience. WTD aside, it’s not as if we never see Zombie films etc these days- they are pretty much everywhere and yet this film feels so original and entertaining. Certainly the backroom staff of TWD would do well to see this film and heed its lessons- namely, maintain pace and maintain the threat: it’s the end of the world after all. The tv show seems more concerned with fellow humans being the real danger and the zombies just background noise- almost becoming incidental to the show, an occasional diversion for a little gore and action when the daily politics of survival become tiresome. It is almost becoming boring.

Train to Busan is not at all boring. An outbreak from a pharmaceutical lab or chemical factory (I may have missed details, it seemed vague, but no doubt it will be clearer on a second viewing) is getting out of hand and threatens South Korea with a Zombie Apocalypse. It’s almost as if this was some Far-East spin-off  from the World War Z movie from a few years back, which strikes me as being a pretty neat idea, letting film-makers from around the world write and shoot movies telling what happened in their locales during WWZ.  Could have been a very interesting and enjoyable franchise.

Anyway, it’s the dawn of a Zombie Apocalypse and an infected human gets onboard a train just as it begins its long journey. Instantly this train journey becomes a microcosm of what is happening out in the big wide world- a varied cast representing various age groups and areas of society, trapped in the restricted space of the train carriages as the zombie infestation takes hold and the brain-hungry critters work their way through the train. It rather reminded me of the great Snowpiercer; in some ways this is that films horror cousin. There are some great set-pieces and the film surprises, given its fine sense of claustrophobia, how it opens up the sense of scale at times, particularly near the end.

It’s good fun, and there is such a lot to enjoy. The acting, the twists and turns of the witty script, the make-up, editing and visual effects. Brilliant stuff, the only negative about the whole thing is I worry about the eventual Hollywood remake being announced someday- it seems almost inevitable, sadly. Starring the Rock, no doubt.

 

The 2017 Selection Pt.5

coll4My efforts to restrict disc-buying seem to be working. Maybe it is the lull before the storm, but this post is my first ‘2017 Selection’ update since April, some three months ago, so I must be doing something right.

First addition to the pile is the first season of Jessica Jones. I really enjoyed Daredevil earlier this year, and this is another of those Marvel Netflix shows. I bought it in a sale, and it’s still in the shrinkwrap. But I’m sure I’ll get around to it sooner than I do the second season of Fargo, which I have already seen on its network airing some time ago. I enjoyed the show immensely- it is terrific television, but here in the UK we are deemed unworthy of a Blu-ray release (another indication of the waning format?) so I bought a copy from the States, again, my purchase triggered by seeing it cheap. My Tivo currently has seven episodes of season 3 to watch, and the romantic in me would love to watch season two again beforehand but the realist in me knows that’s never going to happen. This Season Two set may languish unwatched for some months yet but it’s going to be a real pleasure to revisit the series again eventually. This season was one of the best tv shows I have ever seen, set in the Seventies with great source music and references to CE3K that still bring a smile to my face every time I remember them.

Next is Matinee, a Joe Dante film I have somehow neglected to see, in an Arrow release that finally dropped in price. Yes another purchase triggered by a sale. There’s a pattern clearly taking form here, promptly broken by Indicator’s recent Sinbad boxset, which I pre-ordered when it was first announced. Ray Harryhausen. ‘Nuff said.

Two more new releases follow, here two films that I failed to see at the cinema although I was rather tempted- my issue is, the price of two cinema tickets these days is more than the price of buying a disc, and if it’s likely to be a film I’ll enjoy enough to buy on disc anyway, well, why not save the cinema price and use it for the disc instead? It’s the kind of logic a Vulcan would be proud of – and only completely shatters if it’s a film I end up not liking, alas. Well, as anyone who read my Logan review the other day will know, sometimes it all works out fine.

Europa Report

europa32017.33: Europa Report (2013)

Hollywood doesn’t do low-budget sci-fi too much these days, if at all- it much prefers the big blockbuster bubblegum sci-fi that attracts the multiplex crowds looking for ever more-spectacular effects. Consequently the low-budget stuff is in the indie domain of late (if you can consider anything up to $30 million low budget) and unfortunately distribution complications in this indie domain can make them tricky to see: limited theatrical runs and exclusivity deals with Netflix and Amazon mean you can be shit out of luck if you are with the wrong distribution platform – and its isn’t being helped with disc releases getting rarer (and limited to territories) all the time.

So I’ve only now finally been able to watch Europa Report, even though it has been on my to-watch radar ever since I discovered that Bear McCreary was working on the soundtrack, with the film finally arriving on terrestrial television via Film Four.

Europa Report is another of those ‘found-footage’ pictures, sequences cobbled together from onboard cameras recording the mission and (eventually) transmitted back to Earth for people to figure out what happened after communications dropped out and the mission never returned. This central conceit works rather well -its certainly a neat way of justifying that method of film construction- but unfortunately, as usual it impairs character development and distances the audience from the events. It doesn’t help that some of the footage is constructed out of sequence too, which jarringly took me out of the film a little. Ultimately I have to say I would have preferred a more traditional approach, simply telling the story without being forced to weather the rather stiff POV of onboard ship and on-suit cameras.

europa2All that being said, the film is certainly no disaster and it is technically rather accomplished in its set-dressing and use of cgi. It may not be up the standard of that same year’s Gravity, but its budget is clearly nowhere near that film’s $100 million. I have a fancy that one day someone will make a ‘new’ quality space movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey and it may come from a direction other than the traditional Hollywood route, in just the same way as real-life space exploration seems to be being galvanised by private industry as opposed to NASA.

Frustratingly though, I have to say that I wish that Europa Report had adopted a more traditional film-making approach, and even, for that matter, had been chiefly set on Earth. A story about the backroom personnel and the astronauts families all dealing with the apparent mission failure, and perhaps an investigative storyline regards what happened and the revelation of the final transmission from Jovian space of all the missing onboard footage, unveiling all that happened, might have been more interesting. Imagine if it centered on a reporter who stumbled on a rumour of a sudden transmission a year after the communication failure, and of revelations being hushed-up in favour of expediencies required for a Europa 2 mission? Something of a 1970s political thriller building up to the final stark reveal of alien life and the icy world of Europa becoming something dangerous and cautionary?

It’s a fairly good effort though, given its inherent ‘found footage’ limitations (it’s the sub-genre that refuses to die, isn’t it).

I should also mention that it includes in its cast the recently-passed Michael Nyqvist; it’s the first film I have seen him in since he died, and it is rather sobering indeed to see him in this. He has a good part that probably deserved more screentime than he got, but that is all part of the limitations of the ‘found footage’ format. It isn’t his film- its simply that of anyone who seems to appear in front of one of those onboard cameras at particular moments. It would have been an interesting film indeed had it centered on his rather ‘background’ character throughout, particularly with how he dealt with a fellow crewmember sacrificing himself to save him. I think that’s chiefly what the film lacked, a central protagonist. We never really ‘know’ any of the characters, they are just cyphers, people stuck in a kind of ultra-expensive reality tv show that goes off the air rather abruptly.