Spectral (2016)

spec1.jpgIt was quite surreal, in all honesty- there was a moment where a military team on a rescue mission in a war-torn ruined city entered a building in search of survivors of an earlier battle, when it dawned on me that they were walking through the Vegas hotel where Deckard was hiding out in BR2049. “Whoops,” I muttered as the illusion of the film was suddenly broken, “this thing was filmed in Budapest.”

I think Deckard kept it tidier, mind.

Spectral was a pleasant few hours- certainly much better than I had been expecting. Tagged as a ‘Netflix Original’, as in a few cases now that is a little disingenuous. Spectral was originally a full-blown theatrical movie but Universal got cold feet upon seeing the final film and stalled its release, and Netflix came to the rescue of Universal/Legendary Pictures saving them the added costs of distribution and marketing. Rather similar to what happened with Annihilation I guess, although that got a theatrical distribution in the States at least. Welcome to the future of making/selling movies.

Spectral wasn’t likely to have set the cinema world alight I suppose, but its a pretty solid effort with big-screen production values so certainly surprised me somewhat- I later l;earned of its not insubstantial $70 million budget and yeah, its certainly all there (indeed, as BR2049 likely found later, shooting in Budapest, Hungary helps your money go a long way). I suppose that it could even be argued that the film actually deserved a theatrical shot.  While it would perhaps be easy to criticize the script for some failings, that would almost seem a little unfair, as the film is simply what it is – a sincere and unapologetic mashup of Predator, Aliens and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (a film I have always had something of a soft spot for), with visuals probably inspired by modern videogame culture- Gears of War a particular example.

spec2So while it feels very familiar (and yes, the shooting locations ensure it even looks a little familiar, although in this case this film got there first) it most importantly also seems very sincere and well-intentioned rather than a cynical knock-off. Its a decent sci-fi romp with a decent cast, plenty of action and surprisingly impressive production values. I wouldn’t compare it to a classic like Alien but it does have that same feel of a b-movie lavished with a-list talent.

There is also something oddly comforting and nostalgic, even, about a simple sci-fi movie that doesn’t feature characters in spandex and capes or overblown CGI battle sequences, and I’m pretty certain that I will revisit this film again in time. Its just ironic and a further sign of our times that I expect a disc release will never happen and re-watches will depend on it being available on Netflix in the future- a further glimpse of the inevitable anyway, I suppose, if physical media continues to decline. I don’t find thinking of that future particularly comforting.

One further thought- I’ve never really been a subscriber to the old adage that a ‘name’ actor sells a movie, but I do wonder that if this had somehow starred, say, Tom Cruise it might have had a better fate/bigger success akin to, perhaps, something like Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow.  Certainly Universal might have been more bullish about the films possible success and not sold it to Netflix. That being said, I always like to see films with different actors away from the predictable casting norm, and the cast here all account of themselves well.

 

 

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Big Bad Mama (1974)

bbm6Wow, I really enjoyed this, but feel guilty for doing so. A bawdy sex-comedy/crime drama set during the American Depression, its a trashy Roger Corman b-movie from 1974 full of geeky pleasures, not least being Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, William Shatner, and Alien‘s Captain Dallas, Tom Skerritt, featured in a film together. Its just so bizarre seeing them sharing scenes, Shatner with Star Trek a few years behind him and Skerritt with Alien a few years in his future. My inner geek screaming out ‘its Kirk and Dallas- together!’ as if its some majorly important cinematic event.

But there are plenty of other things going for it. For one thing, it stars Angie Dickinson in a genuinely great ‘I’m better than this movie’ performance from just before her role in the seminal ’70s tv show Police Woman– but I’ve never seen her in anything quite like this before. Although in her early forties at this point, she features in several nude scenes in this film which get progressively more graphic as the film progresses- it’d be a brave career move for any woman today, never mind one back in 1974, which seems an unusual decision as she was already a well-known actress, but it probably makes this one her more famous/infamous movies. The film also features genre stalwart Dick Miller, who is always a pleasure to see on film, as an increasingly frustrated FBI chases our heroine throughout the movie.

bbmSo anyway, we’re in Texas in 1932, and Wilma McClatchie (Dickinson) is so frustrated by her life of poverty and wanting more for her two daughters, that she stops her youngest daughter’s wedding during the wedding service.  They race away from the Church with her bootlegger lover but during an encounter with two FBI agents, Wilma’s lover is killed. Wilma and her daughters carry on her dead lover’s bootlegging business and progress onto an ever-daring crime spree. They get caught up with a bank robber, Fred Diller (Skerritt) and they commit several robberies together, and Wilma and Diller become lovers. During a later robbery, Wilma meets a charming but disreputable gambler William Baxter (Shatner) who falls into the gang and replaces Diller as Wilma’s lover. Diller is annoyed but turns his attentions to Wilma’s daughters, eventually bedding them both and getting the youngest pregnant. Wilma decides she has to make one last con to set her daughters up for life which involves kidnapping a wealthy heiress, but the FBI are closing in.

bbm1So there’s lots of sex, and lots of violent gun-play and chases. Its tawdry stuff filmed with a very low budget but it somehow has a lot of charm too, particularly from its ‘seventies feel with lots of actors familiar to anyone who saw much ‘seventies American television shows. Indeed, its a surprisingly strong cast all round, but I have to wonder what Shatner was doing in this. He is very good though, and cast rather against type, as a no-good scoundrel who’s a coward and a liar, albeit hindered by a not very good wig. I suppose Star Trek was years behind him and was just an old sixties tv show at that point; back then the show was clearly in the past and never going to have any future and Shatner had to get acting gigs wherever he could. There is good fun to be had here though- considering Kirk’s weekly amorous encounters in Trek, its a bit of a chuckle here to see him in bed with Dickinson and she declining his advances in favour of a book.

bbm5Skerritt by then had a few minor movies behind him but was still very much trying to work his way up the ladder to stardom by whatever role he could get, and while there’s little here to suggest what awaited him, there is indeed some fun seeing him being such a lothario bank-robber, bedding first the mother and then her two children. Career-wise the best was yet to come for both of the male leads, and of course Dickinson herself was soon to land a major acting part in her television show Police Woman. So this exploitation b-movie is almost a time-capsule, a moment in time in all three careers that stands out almost like some kind of reality check- actors have to eat, as they say.

Big Bad Mama is currently available ‘free’ to Amazon Prime members, and I stumbled onto it completely by accident, having never even heard of it before- maybe this is the biggest plus for streaming services such as this. There’s lots of old rubbish on Amazon but a few little gems like this one that I would miss completely if not for them sitting hidden away for me to stumble on. After a long day at work it made for a perfect Friday night viewing, its not a great movie by any means -its pretty lousy, really, but the amazing cast and the unique style of those old ‘seventies movies makes it an enjoyable 90 minutes (the cinematography alone is lovely). I see there’s even a sequel on Amazon Prime, that was released in 1987, but considering how the first film ends I cannot figure out how Dickinson manages to star in it too- something tells me I’m going to have to find out by pressing that ‘watch now’ button some night soon…

All the Money in the World (2017)

all1Here’s the thing about Ridley Scott films- with a catalogue of great or at the very least memorable films to his name, particularly his earliest films like Alien or Blade Runner, or perhaps later efforts like Gladiator, its difficult for any new addition to the list being given a break, or accepted as just being an average movie. There is this weight of expectation attached to them, as if every film he ever makes has to somehow measure up to his greats- sure, it’d be wonderful if they did, but its really an unfair expectation, isn’t it.

Besides, (reduce to a whisper)  I always suspect directors get too much credit anyway, so perhaps its unfair to saddle them wit all the blame too. In just the same way as its the players on the pitch in a game of football who get, or fail to get, a result, as much as the manager on the touchline who gets credited for masterminding a win or blamed/sacked when things go awry, on a movie production there are too many factors that effect how a film turns out for it to be fair that a director gets lauded or pilloried depending on the final product. I suppose much of this treads into auteur theory, with directors treated as the author of movies as if they created a film themselves- I suspect films are much more collaborative than that.

One thing I will say for Ridley Scott films, as I’m speaking clearly as a fan here who has followed his career since 1979 reading interviews in Fantastic Films way back then, is that he is a consummately formidable technician. His later films may not artistically or thematically match his first films, but he shoots them extremely well, speedily and on budget, demonstrating such control its something to marvel at in a world in which so many films go over-schedule or over-budget or dragged down by re-shoots.  Ridley gets the job done. The studios must love having him at the helm- box office be damned, at least they know a film is going to get made on  time and with solid quality, and The Martian has proved he still has hits in him.

That being said of course, All the Money in the World was troubled in post-production and required substantial reshoots,  a scandal involving allegations made against original star Kevin Spacey causing him having be replaced. The fact that, had it not been so well documented, watching the film you would have no idea that Christopher Plummer was a late replacement is a pretty formidable testament to the quality of Ridley Scott’s professionalism. Simply as an exercise in last-minute film-making its pretty jaw-dropping that the film even works.

The film was also pulled into the argument over inequality of pay between actresses and their male co-stars.  When Ridley and the studio decided the film could not be released with Spacey still in the film, he recast with Plummer but this triggered a clause in  Mark Wahlberg’s contract, which had co-star approval. Wahlberg, or his team of lawyers and agents, simply stated that he would not approve Plummer and attend re-shoots without an additional payment of $1.5 million, essentially holding the film to ransom. Co-star Michelle Williams didn’t have that clause in her contract so attended the re-shoots for something like $80 a day. To add further salt in the wound, Williams told the USA Today that “”I said I’d be wherever they needed me, whenever they needed me. And they could have my salary, they could have my holiday, whatever they wanted. Because I appreciated so much that they were making this massive effort.” Thinking about it, this film got such a beating you could argue it was one of those cursed productions you sometimes read about. I read later that Wahlberg donated his fee to Times Up, but I’m sure most of Hollywood wishes they had his management team.

(It might be interesting to note regards the inequality of actors pay that Wahlberg’s original fee for the film was $5 million -itself much less than what he is usually paid-  and Williams $625,000).

all2So having written all that, I realise that I written nothing really about the film itself. Well, considering all the hysterics surrounding it, I must say I was surprised how good it was and how much I enjoyed it. Clearly its one of Ridley’s lesser films but its nonetheless a solid piece of work graced by some fine performances, particularly Plummer who is frankly astonishing considering he was a last-minute replacement in scenes shot in just 10 days. His octogenarian billionaire, at the time the richest man who had ever lived, is a fascinating character and Plummer clearly relishes the role in every moment on screen. Its impossible to say what Spacey originally brought to the role but its hard to imagine the film is any the lesser without him. You might be forgiven for expecting Plummer’s scenes to feel rushed and perhaps feel ‘off’, be technically inferior to the original shoot but they actually become the cold icy heart of the film and its finest asset.

The film is based on  the true story of  the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) in 1973,  and the increasingly desperate struggles of his mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to ensure his release when his grandfather refuses to pay up. While the kidnappers threaten to start sending the boy back in pieces, his grandfather spends his money on paintings instead and his time gleefully monitoring ticker-tape reports of his ever-increasing wealth.

Wahlberg is perhaps miscast in the film. He plays Fletcher Chase, one of Getty Sr’s negotiators who Getty tasks with bringing the boy home without giving the kidnapper’s any money. In a traditional Hollywood thriller with someone like Wahlberg in the role, you’d perhaps expect something like a Taken movie to ensue as the guy does what a guy has to do to bring the boy home and let the body count be damned. But as this is based on a true story and that didn’t happen, it seems a bit of misdirection on the film-makers part. As it is, left without kick-ass action Wahlberg sort of drifts around looking a little lost. Why spend all those millions on him if he’s not doing what he usually gets paid all those millions to do?

WIlliams is very good, with a captivating performance that almost measures up to that of Plummer. Together they rather tease the classic movie that this might have been, but really its not a bad film at all. Ridley Scott captures the sense of period as brilliantly as ever, making it look so easy,  and moves the plot forward with the efficiency he is so famous for now, until the film ends in a climactic hide and seek sequence that almost feels like its from some other movie. The real center of the film is Plummer’s performance and this strange real-life Citizen Kane, which rather unbalances a film whose drama should revolve around the kidnapped boy. I suspect there are two films here, and its that second film made in the re-shoots that steals it.

Listening to- Alien 3 OST

a3ost.jpgAfter a few delays at the label due to manufacturing plant issues (perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising how few places actually manufacture CDs in this age of downloads and streaming) I finally received my copy of La La Land’s expanded Alien 3 release.  To say its been a great listen over the past few days would be an understatement- its wonderful to finally hear all that underscore that was missing on the original album release (which is also included in this two disc set). The main set-pieces were all on the original album but it left an awful lot out (my personal gripe was the music when Ripley went to the canteen and was among the male prisoners for the first time, its a wonderfully tense and evocative piece). There is a lot of underscore and atmospherics which really give character and weight to the score, and a few surprises unheard in the film. I believe there is about forty minutes of music additional to that found on the original fifty-minute album, with another ten minutes of alternates as a further bonus (the full score assembly totals ninety minutes, which indicates most of the film had music).

Back in 1992 Elliot Goldenthals score was like a breath of fresh air- bold in its orchestration, daring in its use of atmospherics and downright Wagnerian in the brutality of its horror. All these years later it still sounds just as fresh and unique. I suppose Goldenthals absence from blockbuster film scoring has abetted in his unique musical ‘voice’ seeming so unusual and rare, but its clear that there hasn’t been such boldness in mainstream scoring since (the only thing I can recall offhand is perhaps some of Don Davis’ Matrix scores). It reminds me of Vangelis’ Heaven and Hell album in a way; not in content but in the way that the music contrasts moments of serene aching beauty with moments of cacophonous depravity.  Some of it is terribly haunting, emotional and sad and some of it quite terrifying and unsettling- I don’t think I could listen to this on headphones in the dark, frankly the subsequent nightmares aren’t worth risking!

Alien 3 as a film is still a divisive moment in the franchise (I’ve always been a fan myself but I know many felt robbed by it dismissing so much of what they thought was great about Aliens) but I’m sure few could argue that there is anything bad about the music. In this expanded form its clear how much it nods back to Goldsmiths original Alien score in inventiveness and mood and tension. Its a magnificent work and I’m so glad that I can finally, after all these years, put the two-disc Alien 3 set alongside my two-disc Alien release from Intrada on my shelf.  Just goes to show- everything comes to he that waits. Maybe its not too late for a complete Blade Runner from Vangelis after all.

Ridley’s Blade Runner Blues

Some interesting comments from Ridley Scott during recent interviews whilst doing the press for All the Money in the World (or ‘The One That Erased Spacey’).  Interviewed by New York magazine’s Vulture website the subject turned to the recent BR20149 and he seemed to blame the film’s box office failure on the film’s length:  [Whispers] “I have to be careful what I say. I have to be careful what I say. It was fucking way too long. Fuck me! And most of that script’s mine…  I shouldn’t talk. I’m being a bitch.”

br2049It set me thinking. I mean, Ridley may have a point about the film’s length- its 163-minute running time clearly put off some viewers, but would it have made it a better film? To me, the pace of BR2049 is part of the film’s appeal- its leisurely pace is that of a tone poem, a sad study of what is human, what is real. And it must be remembered that a chief criticism of the original Blade Runner, even today, is its perceived slowness, something I consider one of its successes.

But Ridley’s words made me think just as much of his last few movies. I recall on one of the behind the scenes docs, he made a telling comment that one has to be careful in the editing room of rewatching a film too much, of losing objectivity. I can’t quote him exactly, but he said something along the lines of ‘even the best jokes wear thin once you’ve heard them too many times’, and that it is too easy to over-cut a film, and cut some good stuff out, not because it isn’t working but simply because of over-familiarity, of seeing it too much, and it can actually hurt a film, cutting too much.

I remember watching Ridley’s Kingdom of Heaven at the cinema and being thoroughly disappointed by it- it was empty-headed pretty nonsense, every bad habit of Ridley’s thrown into one vacuous historical epic. And yet his directors cut of Kingdom of Heaven, restoring really important footage, is simply brilliant, and is one of his best films (in fact, I’d rate it right up there behind Blade Runner and Alien, and like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment or Hitchcock’s Psycho,may be remembered as Ridleys last great movie).

The irony is, that theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven didn’t fare particularly well at the box office and got a general savaging from the critics, so what did that shorter cut achieve? There are numerous times when I have eulogised about how great the film is, to be scoffed at by others, and I have to ask them what version they saw. Its like there are two seperate movies with the same title and cast.

Thankfully, this is not true of BR2049; we got its directors cut and the critics loved it and I’m sure when people finally get around to seeing it on home video/streaming they will be pleasantly surprised by it or reconsider it on subsequent viewings. Sure, some will rally against it pace and length, as its more a ‘seventies movie than a present-day movie in some of its sensibilities.

God knows I’m a huge fan of Ridley’s work and have defended him so many times- I can always find something worthwhile in most of his movies, indeed even The Counsellor, which is widely pilloried, is a pretty good film to me, particularly in its extended cut.  I do find it annoying these days though, how how a film is perceived can often depend on which version one saw. In the old days, there was only one version of Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane, West Side Story or Casablanca (barring regional censorship). We didn’t need two or three seperate versions to tell a story.

Moreover, I do wonder if some of Ridleys comments stem from his ire at BR2049 being perceived by some as being actually superior to his original. Maybe he has been stung by such views, or the lavish critical praise for it in the wake of less-favourable reviews of his last few movies. Maybe I should take a leaf out of Ridley’s book….  I shouldn’t talk. I’m being a bitch.

 

 

Bring Him Home: The Martian (extended cut)

marty2017.75: The Martian Extended Cut (2015)

While it’s debatable just how much ten minutes of footage can impact or benefit a film (I suppose fans of the cocoon sequence in the first Alien might have an interesting opinion), I must say I certainly enjoyed this repeat viewing of The Martian, and perhaps this was aided by that ten minutes of extra footage. Mostly tweaks/extended scenes, nonetheless I think that while it may not have improved the film greatly, I did appreciate the additional shots of Mark Watney’s emaciated figure towards the end, clearly establishing the physical ordeal and impact of his lengthy stay on the red planet, and some of the other character beats littered through the movie.

Indeed, I think the extended cut (note it isn’t called a ‘Directors Cut’, I wonder what is the distinction?) does improve the film, and the fact it’s only ten minutes extra footage means the film doesn’t slip into the longer attention-span/pacing issues pantheon of extended cuts that, say, leave me still preferring the theatrical cut of Dances of Wolves or Apocalypse Now.

One of the biggest impressions from rewatching this film is just the observation of how good a Ridley Scott film it is, just how good he is given a decent script. Tellingly, the film is not one he himself developed; instead its one he was hired -onto during development and it clearly benefits from his keen eye and visual techniques whilst not being harmed by some of his aesthetic choices idea-wise that probably harmed Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. It makes me think about the case of Terry Gilliam and The Fisher King (but also the case that a John Carpenter movie was never a ‘real’ John Carpenter movie when he was simply hired-in to direct some studio project) . The distinction is sometimes lost these days between a film-director as a film-maker and perhaps as an auteur/director whose sole ‘vision’  or voice dominates a film for good or ill. Film-making is a collaborative enterprise and I think some directors would be advised to be more directors than producers, and perhaps leave professional writers etc to do their jobs. But what do I know? I’ve yet to see if Luc Besson dominating the Valerian movie resulted in a great or flawed movie, but yeah, it just makes me wonder.

It still feels wrong feeling thankful that Ridley Scott didn’t make BR2049, but as that film clearly had a great script etc maybe it would indeed have turned out okay directed by Ridley- but would Ridley have been unable to resist insisting Deckard be revealed as a Replicant, forcing that personal view onto the other film-makers less inclined to agree with him (or an actor for that matter)? Ridley still has great films in him in the right circumstances, as evidenced by the successes of The Martian.  It’s quite possible some viewers/critics are of the opinion that it is in fact his best movie, period.

While I’m unable to watch the 4K disc in this package (a regular refrain going forward into 2018, I’m sure) I will say this release/double-dip does benefit from a solid bunch of extras, including a commentary and a fine series of docs produced by Charles de Lauzirika whose name on a doc always means quality (and to whom I will always be indebted to for the stupendous Blade Runner Final Cut release several years ago). The visual-effects breakdowns alone are enough to make me reassess the achievements of this film and the ‘genius’ of Ridley and his team- so much taken for granted is the result of huge amounts of trickery (they even CGI’d his beard in on some shots, it’s bizarre, where were the make-up crew?). Some interesting Q&A discussions involving NASA staff regards the real exploration of Mars round out a great all-round package.

So if nothing else, my estimation of The Martian, towards which I was always a little reserved, has improved no end. It’s a great film with a hell of a lot going for it, and whilst the extended cut’s differences/additions are perhaps not substantial enough to be an essential purchase for those happy enough with the film in its original form, I do think its an improved movie and the extras package finally gives the film the treatment it deserves. And who knows, maybe the film really sings in 4K with HDR etc.- for me that will be a pleasant discovery for some other time down the road.

A Good Year?

We’re rushing into that time of year when we all start to realise that the year is fast becoming a whole new last year, and inevitably begin to take stock. For my part, it’s begun to dawn on me that it hasn’t been a bad year at all for movies.

We have, after all, seen the release of Blade Runner 2049, and it was everything any Blade Runner fan could have hoped for.  Its struggles at the American Box Office, as if in direct opposition to wondrous reviews, just add more to it somehow, an added pathos. If nothing else, it likely means we won’t have to worry ourselves silly over a third entry anytime soon. Maybe. Alcon did spend a lot of money for the rights, and it is still a well-known IP, so I’d rule nothing out- maybe we’ll see a smaller, less-blockbuster-budget outing next, or even a series on some cable channel.

Beyond the long shadow of BR2049, which has frankly ruined me for any other cinema outings this year (I saw it THREE times!)  and leaves me rather burned-out in the face of another Star Wars entry (still not excited, and it’s only weeks away now), there have been some pretty nice surprises this year. Genre films like Logan, Kong: Skull Island and War for  the Planet of the Apes have all impressed me greatly. Even the live-action Ghost in the Shell was rather fun with a lot to offer once you get your head around a live-action GITS existing in the first place.

On the tv front, things may have been even more impressive- Westworld was fantastic, as was The Leftovers, but another long-remembered favourite (with just as huge expectations/fears as the big-screen’s BR2049), the new Twin Peaks, proved to be utterly sublime. 18 hours of prime David Lynch, a labour of love as scary and bemusing and funny and baffling as anything he ever did. David Lynch at his very best, on tv for goodness sake- who needs cinemas? I just got the blu-ray box this week, can’t wait to plunge into it all over again (just want to rewatch Fire Walk With Me first this time).

The latest Game of Thrones season suffered from its headlong rush to the finish line of season eight. It was just three episodes too short and risked jumping the shark with a few of its questionable plot-turns. Here’s hoping the last season delivers when we finally see it. Back on the movies front, Ridley risked losing the plot along with his nerve, when his Prometheus 2 became Prometheus 1.5 with 0.5 of an unnecessary Alien prequel thrown in. Maybe he was right about Giger’s alien being all done- if Ridley can’t make the Alien scary again, who can? Meanwhile while Marvel soared (particularly with the triumphant Spiderman: Homecoming) DC floundered yet again with the frankly risible Justice League. Maybe an Ultimate Cut will fix that… who knows?

So yeah, an interesting year and one that 2018 will struggle to live up to, I suspect. Afterall, new Blade Runner films and Twin Peaks series don’t come along every decade, do they, nevermind every year. Hell, if those two projects were the only worthy efforts of the year, it would still have been a Good Year.

And I haven’t mentioned the new two-disc Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtrack on its way across the pond, possibly in time for Christmas….