Revisiting Contact (1997)

contact2I have a fascination with space travel, alien civilizations and our own place in the Cosmos that dates back to me as a kid watching Star Trek. Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Carl Sagan’s book and tv series Cosmos only reinforced my conviction that we are not alone, that we should watch the skies and being alone in this vast universe is surely a big waste of Space. 

I never read Carl Sagan’s book Contact. I’m not entirely sure why, it seems a strange omission but life is weird like that, we make some choices which, looking back, don’t entirely make a lot of sense.   

So I don’t know what differences exist between Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film and the original book, or whether it is wholly faithful. It feels like something Carl Sagan would have written; certainly it has novel ideas and extrapolates from scientific ideas a plausible premise about First Contact. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter to me, although now that I consider it I really should catch up with the book sometime. Its enough that the film was, when I saw it at the cinema back in the day, and remains today watching my Blu-Ray copy, a pretty strong and quite satisfying film. 

Its perhaps a wee bit melodramatic, a little too Hollywood… maybe its just that its a product of the 1990s. I think it would have benefited by being made several years ago with a less emotive director, someone like Denis Villeneuve, really- its no mistake that the film I kept on thinking about while watching Contact was Villeneuve’s own First Contact film, his superb Arrival from 2016. Arrival is a better film by some margin, I think, but I would dearly love to see what someone like Villeneuve might have made of something like Contact, given the material and a big cinematic toybox.

I was oddly disturbed, funnily enough, when I considered that the last time I had watched Contact was before Arrival existed- this was the first time watching Contact in which Arrival was in my thoughts, and it made me consider the strange thing it is of re-watching films over the years. We are different, the world is different, the cinematic landscape is different: and that later point is perhaps the most telling of all. Films made decades later with better technologies inevitably have some bearing on whether a film still holds up years down the line. For one thing, I seem to remember the visual effects of Contact being pretty cutting-edge back in 1997; its funny how much some CG effects have aged spectacularly badly. Many of Contact’s visual effects hold up pretty well, and some of them, er, really don’t look good.   

The search for extra-terrestrial life always made perfect sense and great importance to me. As Arthur C Clarke put it,  “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Contact doesn’t voice it in the same way, it leaves that argument unspoken and I keep on thinking that Jodie Foster’s character, our central heroine, Ellie, should scream that sentiment out at her loudest voice: how can any one of her detractors critiquing her obsession with SETI deny it? Contact seems more concerned with arguments of Faith, examinations of Faith, either in God or Science and its a bittersweet stroke of genius that Ellie’s First Contact experience ultimately becomes a matter of Faith. Are we believers (of course we are, we saw what she saw) or are we non-believers (did we really just see what she thinks she saw)? I think the film would have been incredibly brave had it just left it that way- instead it tips its hat with a reveal that Ellie’s digital recorder may have recorded just static- but it recorded eighteen hours of it, which validates Ellie’s claims. It feels a little too literal, too obvious to me, I think I would have preferred a vaguer conclusion. I think what I’m getting at is that Contact is still an enjoyable and fairly strong film- it just isn’t sophisticated enough, for me today. Maybe its too literal. 

contactThe films constant tension between God and science, between Faith and Empirical Evidence is both its most interesting dynamic and its most irritating. It keeps on forcing its way in. It feels like something Carl Sagan would have written, even if he always seemed quite dismissive about anything Divine- God always seemed too simple a solution for Carl. My suspicion, having not read the book, is that a lot of the films preoccupation with God and science are from the Hollywood direction, not the book, but hey, I could be way wrong and should-have-done-my-research.

The cast is really good. Jodie Foster is great as Ellie, and its wonderful seeing Tom Skerritt as the  boo-hiss villain of the piece, scientist/bureaucrat/bastard David Drumlin. James Woods of course could play the frankly despicable -if wholly believable- government senator Kitz in his sleep, and seeing him in this I wonder again why we see so little of him these days (has he retired?). How wonderful, too, is John Hurt as tech magnate S. R. Hadden (and me suddenly realising he’s a fellow Alien colleague of Skerritt, and yep they both die in this film too). Really, the cast is one of the films strengths. Even a rather young-looking Matthew McConaughey, who always irritated me in the film and still does -too cool, too self-confident, too sexy, too Hollywood- has the novel perspective gifted from his later roles, particularly Interstellar, a film that assumes intelligence but is frankly quite behind Contact in that regard (Interstellar’s twist that the ‘aliens’ are our future selves communicating via a Cosmic Bookcase is just… I’m always rather lost for words). 

As I’ve gotten older my own faith, as it were, that it would surely be just a matter of Time before SETI found some evidence of an alien signal and proof of neighbours in the Cosmos, has not been realised. Years and decades went by and the euphoria of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was eventually worn down by mundane reality. When that film originally came out I read something by someone remarking that the events of CE3K had they happened would have been kept secret, we -the public at large- would never have been told, it was an event just too big, too huge. It would change too much, so such revelations would be hidden away for our own safety. Reading that as a kid, I dismissed it with my usual youthful enthusiasm, but as I’ve gotten older and more jaded… partly I think, how do you keep such secrets secret in this Information Age, but then I think, grow up. They can hide anything.

Maybe something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind couldn’t be made today. Its message of Good Aliens after decades of Hollywood alien invasions felt quite radical at the time, even if its sentiments proved short-lived with Alien and Independence Day and so many others reasserting the alien’s rightful place of outsiders and menace. Are we ready for First Contact? Robert Zemeckis’ film suggests that we’re not, and its possibly right, but its a great question to ask and ponder over. For my part, a recurring problem for me every time Contact finishes, is that its somehow pressed some magical ‘reset’ button worthy of 1960s television- there is no mention of the alien technology just sitting waiting to be used again, or the various applications of that technology that would filter down into military and civilian use. Ellie is even back at her old job listening for signals again. James Woods dismissing the whole thing as an elaborate hoax by some high-tech industrialist is like some kind of magic trick, and its that one moment in which Contact becomes, at the last moment, utterly stupid.

Just as at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there would be no going back, and maybe the REALLY interesting films, in both cases, would be the films telling us what happened next, but neither CE3K2 or Contact 2 ever happened. Sometimes film-makers get away scot-free.

UFO (2018)

ufo1A poor man’s Arrival, or a teen Close Encounters, pretty much sums this one up. The casting of Gillian Anderson would seem a stroke of genius, even if it does inevitably turn out to be a relatively minor role- the irony of casting one of the two X-Files stars in this does appear to hold a rather meta-narrative curio over proceedings. The comparison to both Arrival and CE3K though are naturally very obvious but quite instructive too. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is one of my favourite science fiction films of the last few decades and I’ve rewatched it several times now, but its only when you see something like this UFO film that you an really appreciate just how special Arrival is- likewise, it informs just how good Spielberg’s Close Encounters is too.

Its not so much that UFO is particularly bad- its fine enough for what it is. I would suspect that it owes a lot to Arrival in particular, as it uses mathematics as a narrative crux in just the same way as language and linguistics was the central theme of Arrival. Both films establish the presence of aliens from the start- the plots of the films rather about what the aliens want to tell us, or the difficulties in communicating with them.

The plot is patently a combination of both Arrival and Close Encounters: Derek (Alex Sharp) is a brilliant college student who is fascinated by reports of a UFO sighting at Cincinnati airport, using his mathematics expertise to deduce a message in static which interrupted general airport communications and mobile phone services during the short event. Derek has been ‘primed’ for this fascination due to a childhood UFO sighting of his own, but this quickly becomes a Roy Neary-like obsession as he realises a cover-up is in progress, an obsession that threatens to derail his studies and relationship with his girlfriend Natalie (Ella Purnell). When he deduces that a mysterious countdown seems to be in effect, he has to enlist the help of his mathematics professor, Dr. Hendricks (Gillian Anderson). Derek races to unravel the mystery before time runs out, with FBI special agent Franklin Ahls (a sadly under-utilised David Strathairn) on his heels.

Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Personally I’d have been more interested had Gillian Anderson (ageing professor feeling her best work is behind her) had been the central protagonist, galvanised by a discovery by one of her students too young to realise what he had stumbled upon. While that’s possibly the perspective of my own middle-age talking, I do think that would have been a better movie. For one thing, Anderson is (with the possible exception of Strathairn) the strongest actor in this film and it needs her gravitas, and its hard to really identify with an antisocial and slightly irritating teen/young adult protagonist lacking any real need for redemption. The plight of Roy Neary, middle-aged father and husband caught up in events he cannot understand, is the central drive of Close Encounters, and the lonely and socially-weary linguistics expert Louise Banks trying to come to terms with being caught up in world-shattering events is the core of Arrival. Maybe a maths lecturer would be too close to Arrivals linguistics lecturer, I’ll concede that.  I suppose the biggest problem UFO has though is how it ends, which teases much but lacks the grand conclusions of both Arrival and CE3K– its one of those films that, when it fades to black, you just know the credits are up next, the finale lacking any sense of satisfaction. I didn’t hate the ending, but it did leave me feeling mildly irritated that I’d rather wasted the last ninety minutes getting there.

In the Shadow of the Moon

shadowThis latest Netflix acquisition is a sadly flawed sci-fi flick posing as a police procedural thriller. Its got a neat idea but suffers from an ill-judged execution and strangely utterly wastes Michael C. Hall in a supporting role that really goes nowhere.

An intriguing prologue takes place in 2024, teasing a dark future in which Philadelphia is on fire, streets littered with debris, buildings smashed and an odd-looking alternate stars and stripes flag falling in the wind. We then cut to 1988, and a night of strange deaths with victims dying of bleeding-out of their noses, eyes and ears as their brains literally turn to mush- a result, it is soon deduced, of strange puncture-wounds on their necks. Police officer Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) pushes his way onto the case, infuriating his brother-in-law Detective Holt (Michael C. Hall), but the case is soon closed when the suspected murderer – a black woman in a blue coat- is killed evading capture, but when copycat murders occur nine years later, the mystery deepens, especially when it is discovered it seems to be the same, ‘dead’ woman committing the murders.

The film is episodic in nature, each chapter jumping nine years into the future and nights of repeated murders all matching the same method and suspect. Lockhart is a Detective by the time the second set of murders occur, and each chapter finds him increasingly unhinged and at odds with those around him as his wild theory -that the murderer is a woman from the future- forms.

shadow2I suppose one way to look at this is as an extended Black Mirror episode, or maybe something from the X-Files, but it also feels like something of the great old Kolchak: The Night Stalker, in which our unhinged hero is increasingly at odds with his common-sense peers. It has a great premise but its episodic construction, while understandable, hinders the flow of the story.

Holbrook is fine but the writing does him few favours. Strangely, I kept thinking of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and how Richard Dreyfuss’ character became increasingly obsessed and lost his job, home and family in his pursuit of answers. Its a very similar arc to that of Holbrook’s character here but handled much more convincingly and smoothly. The problem with even a great premise such as In the Shadow of the Moon has, is that it has to be grounded in some kind of reality, and it just gets more ridiculous and far-fetched in order to maintain what is essentially a very small tale, when Holbrook learns who the murderer is. I’m sure the central conceit thrilled the writers when they came up with it, but they have a really hard time making it work.

So anyway, spoilers ahead for this last bit:

shadow3One thing did bug me- if the time travel idea of being limited to single nights on nine-year periods going backwards was a ‘thing’ then surely the antagonist going further backwards each time (first 2015, then 2006, 1997, finally 1988) surely each time she was having to also wait nine years in the future for the stars to align in order for her to go back again? So if she was 30 in 2024 and travelled back to 2015, she would be 39 when she turned up in 2006, and 48 in 1997, and 57 in 1988?  So she should have been an old woman in 1988, and getting progressively younger every nine years as Holbrook naturally got older? But of course if the killings were intended to change time and avert the disaster of 2024, as they did so how would she be able to use her Time Machine in 2033, and 2041 etc if the ‘future’ (i.e. her ‘present’ kept being revised for good or ill?).

Agh, that’s the trouble with these Time Travel movies. They are often fun but can be very silly when you think too much about them. I guess you should just go along with it, in just the same way as I had to, say, with Avengers: Endgame. In the Shadow of the Moon is well-intentioned and always rather fun, so well worth a watch, but its execution really was flawed.

Mind, it offers an intriguing prospect for a sequel- the killings were all ‘justified’ because the victims could all be linked to the terrorist movement that caused a civil war in 2024. So its all based on a point-of-view, and the film conveniently ignores the fact that the victims were innocent when murdered, only guilty of future crimes. So what if someone from the future used that same methodology of changing the future by killing ‘good guys’ in the past to ensure the bad guys got their civil war instead? Or was that the Terminator movies?

 

Party like it’s 1989: Always

always2Always is a film out of time. It felt out of time in 1989, and it feels only more so now. There’s a sense of witnessing a cinematic folly throughout. Its a self-indulgent Spielberg, a misguided ode to Hollywood of old, films that threw up escapist fairytales, the dream theatres of old providing escape from the harsh real world. Films still do that now, and they did in 1989, but not like Always. Always wears the mark of being ‘old-fashioned’ and sweetly sentimental like some kind of badge of honour.

Which is not to suggest there’s nothing to like here. Always looks gorgeous – breathtakingly so at times- with some absolutely phenomenal cinematography by Mikael Salomon, who incredibly also had The Abyss out in the same year. There’s something larger than life, something rather exaggerated about it which suits its old Hollywood sensibility.  I used to have the film on VHS, which really struggled with the vivid colours of the fires etc, but on Blu-ray the film really shines, indeed quite often while watching it I commented how beautiful it looked. There’s fine grain and the detail is quite exceptional in places, there’s a real sense of depth to the image. The film features some incredible real-world pyrotechnics and some really quite remarkable visual effects and miniatures.  The film also has some really fine performances in front of the camera too, with some moments that might raise the hairs on the back of your neck, they are that good: Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Audrey Hepburn, it’s quite a cast, and sometimes they really shine.

Of course, Always feels like an old movie because its based on one- its a remake of a Spencer Tracy 1943 film, A Guy Named Joe, which I’ve never seen. Its set during the Second World War in which Tracy’s war-pilot is killed in action is sent back down to Earth to guide a rookie pilot who meets (and falls for) the dead pilots love. Always transplants the story to 1989 and aerial forest fire-fighters, but always struggles to suspend audience disbelief. The characters seldom feel like real people, they always seem like characters from old movies.

When I first saw Always, back in 1989, it was during a matinee  one midweek afternoon and the screen was deserted- I may even have been on my own. I remember I was at a pretty low point in my life back then, and sometimes it’s important to qualify what we think of films by explaining the connections we made with them originally. I saw Always around the time that I first saw The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and both films are poignant reminders for me of that time, place, mood. Prisoner is a far better movie, but thirty years later both films are like old companions and feel important to me. Always seemed a little special because it has Richard Dreyfuss in the starring role, and he had starred in a few of my favourite movies growing up (Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). At the time I was unaware of his personal issues and it seemed such a rarity, seeing him in a film again, that I was rooting for him and the movie.  

always1Always doesn’t really work- its an ill-judged film in many ways and its ending in particular feels oddly rushed and awkward, almost like its a tacked-on ending as bad as the theatrical cut of Blade Runner had in 1982. I would imagine its just being faithful to the 1943 original, but even if it worked in A Guy Named Joe, maybe Spielberg should have felt the need to revise it, because it just feels wrong. Holly Hunter walks over to Brad (the less said the better) Johnson and Dreyfuss’s ghost shrugs and walks off into the worst matte shot in the whole film. The edits feel too tight, the visuals rough, the timing of the music doesn’t seem to match… I don’t know. Its probably not a reshoot but it feels like one.  In spite of that I rather enjoyed the film, almost reluctantly swept up by its old Hollywood charm and sentiment. And the music. I loved the music. Its one of my favourite scores by John Williams: the maestro in romantic, sentimental mode with nods to his Americana sweep of Superman: The Movie.

Bless him, Williams does his best to lift the film and his score actually works some magic in places, moments that are spellbinding in that way that Spielberg/Williams collaborations most often were. But I don’t know if its the film’s leaning towards source music -lots of songs in this film- but the score often feels relegated to the background, more than a typical Spielberg/Williams film and the film suffers from it, mainly resulting in a lack of identity or ‘voice’. I remember buying the soundtrack album at the time and it being, as typical of the time, half songs and half score, pretty much (I expect the vinyl version -yeah, this film is that old- literally was songs on side A, score on side B (actually I just looked, and it was songs plus two score tracks on side A, the remainder of score on side B)).  

Watching it again now, I’d love to hear Spielberg’s thoughts of this film, whether he was satisfied with it -hell, he possibly thought it was brilliant and everything he hoped it would be- or if he would like to have done things differently or regretted the ending or something. I’m not certain he has ever voiced his feelings about his films -he never does commentaries- but I’d be fascinated to know. Always is generally considered one of his misfires, and it clearly doesn’t really work the way he intended it to. It isn’t a bad film, but it just feels ‘off’. I’d love to know if Spielberg feels like he failed, or what he got wrong. Or if he adores it as a personal favourite and the hell with what everyone thinks.

So Always is this weird film. Some of it is really sophisticated, with gorgeous cinematography and lighting, great actors and fine production design, a lovely score, but it just doesn’t work, hampered mostly by a clunky script that possibly adheres too strongly to the original film its based on (I really should watch that film). Films that fail likely teach its creative teams a great deal -or at least I’d like to think so- and maybe Spielberg became a better director because of it. I have to admit, I quite enjoyed rewatching it, even though it is so out of time that the film seemed rather older than the thirty years it is.

 

A 4K Ghost

Well, I’ve bought a new television. I’m now the (frankly amazed) owner of a 55″ OLED television and a new Panasonic UHD player- suddenly those few 4K UHD discs on the shelf have a purpose.

So soon enough I’ll start writing some 4K updates for a few films. Suffice to say I’m rather taken aback by the difference in quality. This OLED wasn’t cheap, even if it was a 2017 model- certainly the most money I’ve ever spent on a television, and I haven’t even gotten around to a soundbar or amp yet, that’ll come later I expect. But I’m pleased to report the step-up in image quality is substantial. After all, until you’ve experienced it you never really know what to expect, and its inevitably not going to seem a jump like SD to HD was, but you can certainly tell an improvement.

Changing from a 40″ LCD to this beast of an OLED, I have to say the size difference is as much an impact as the step-up in resolution and HDR. The first film I watched on UHD disc was Blade Runner 2049, which has a muted HDR palette by its very nature, visually its tone is pretty dour (beautiful melancholy I call it), so hardly a ‘hold onto your seats’ kind of movie, but the difference in screen size alone was something of a revelation. There was a sudden ‘heft’ to objects and miniatures that improved them by some margin. Roger Deakins’ photography, of course is just sublime- its a beautiful film that just blooms on a bigger screen. I’ll go into more detail in a seperate post, I expect, as I’m sure to revisit BR2049 as part of my ‘favourite films’ series of posts soon enough. I hadn’t quite got the image settings right when I saw BR2049 either, having fine-tuned them since, so a re-watch is inevitable.

A film that did ably demonstrate the possibilities of HDR is Thor: Ragnarok, the 4K UHD disc was pretty amazing. Little things like electric neon lights that suddenly burned brightly like something alive, or the lightning effects when Thor uses his God of Thunder powers late on towards the finale. Suddenly the screen popped like 3D without the glasses and overall the whole thing was rich in depth and spectacular colour.

I haven’t seen Blade Runner yet, although I did sneak a peak at the first twenty minutes or so the other night. Haters of grain should stay away as this thing is a feast of the stuff and quite rightly so, its part of the pleasures of the film for me ever since the days of my second-generation VHS copy that I wore out in the early ‘eighties.  Again., I don’t know if its the size of the screen or the new detail or the added depth from the HDR (city-lights/neon signage/rain reflections etc) but Blade Runner hasn’t looked this good to these eyes since, oh, I don’t know when. Frankly the price of the television and player seemed justified by this one movie, and I can’t wait to watch the film all-through but I’m waiting the proper moment when I can give it due time and attention (and to be honest, this current heatwave isn’t helping- Blade Runner needs to be seen on a dark night with it ideally raining outside).

One thing I did note, mind, that the bigger screen suddenly makes clear, is little stuff like when Rachel first meets Deckard and she has a close up that drifts out of focus. I’m sure its evident on smaller screens etc but here its blatantly clear. I suspect Sean Young overstepped her mark a little, as she steps into focus initially but drifts out of focus as she slightly moves too far toward the camera.  The surprising stuff though is in scenes like Bryant showing Deckard the Replicant data- those shots suddenly look exquisitely beautiful, the graduations in tone and shade on Bryant and Deckard’s faces bathed in the soft blue back-light/CRT front-light are deeply detailed and nuanced, and the smoky atmosphere around them moodily effective.  Can’t wait to find the right evening to watch this movie, but like fine wine, movies like Blade Runner deserve the right moment.

So anyway, that’s my news and I hope to follow with more detailed reports about the pleasures of 4K in the future. Fingers crossed my panel keeps performing perfectly and I can find time to watch it (you’d be surprised how little I have had this television on over the past few days, but I suspect it’ll come into its own this Autumn).

ce3kuhdI’m just wondering how long I can refrain from buying a copy of the 4K UHD Close Encounters disc…

(’40th Anniversary edition’… I’m getting old- when you see packaging with blurbs like that about films you recall seeing at the cinema on their first release, its time to stop looking in that mirror).

 

 

 

For the BR2049 Bookshelf

cinefexBack in 1982, I remember standing in the old Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham, upstairs in the magazine section. looking through Cinefex issue 9, which was devoted to Blade Runner. I very nearly bought it, but on limited pocket money funds decided to buy a few REH paperbacks instead, and maybe pick up the Cinefex at a later date. Damned fool I was. There was never any later date for Cinefex 9, as it quickly sold out and I spent years looking for a copy. Fortunately the issue was reprinted by Titan books in a hardback book many years later, which itself is OOP now and fetching rather large sums, so I did manage to eventually own and read it.

So, when I learned the latest issue of Cinefex would feature BR2049, I quickly ordered it, keen on history not repeating. It arrived a few days ago and it’s a pretty good read. It doesn’t look as if Cinefex devotes issues to single films as it used to (God knows there’s far more effects films these days than there used to be) so the BR2049 article shares the issue with articles on Dunkirk, The Dark Tower and the latest Kingsman film. Consequently the coverage isn’t as in-depth as it was for the original film (the issue also devotes a few pages to a pictorial of the original Blade Runner coverage from 1982, which is nice but does raise the forlorn wish that the issue might have simply been devoted to both films).

Of course in the good old days Cinefex coverage meant brilliant pictures of behind the scenes stuff, like models being built and matte paintings being painted on glass, and on the whole that’s all gone now thanks to CGI taking over. But BR2049 does feature extensive miniatures so there’s some nice pictures of that, amongst the CGI renders and wireframes that no-one on this planet can make exciting. I think the Cinefex article suffers from the cloak-and-dagger secrecy around the film prior to release, so although it discusses the creation of the 1982 Rachel, it doesn’t have any images to back it up, which have been made available elsewhere on the internet since the films release. Ultimately it’s a good article but not as exhaustive or complete as I would have liked, but hey, it’s different times now. We don’t even have the massive articles of Cinefantastique these days either. Progress, eh?

artbrA much more complete package, imagery-wise at least, can be found in The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049 book. Its an oversized (and consequently rather expensive, although Amazon have since reduced the price substantially) coffee-table book, that from the title might be inferred to be an art book but is actually more of a making-of book, dominated more by behind the scenes and production photographs than artwork. As a visual record and memento of the film and how it was made, it’s quite brilliant and everything a fan of the film could hope for. The imagery for the visual effects material is superior to the Cinefex article, although the text less substantial (so yeah, you really need both sources, unfortunately). The book also shares some of the limitations of the Cinefex article regards some of the more closely-guarded sequences (no imagery, again, of the CGI Rachel for instance).

It’s a brilliant book though. I might have preferred more substantial text but the imagery is breathtaking in the film so consequently that gets reflected here. There are some lovely behind the scenes shots and commentary about the film. It’s exactly the kind of book that I would have loved to see about the original film. Both are intensely visual experiences, and the Blade Runner ‘bible’ Future Noir is severely lacking in that regard. So maybe someone might write a more in-depth book about making BR2049 someday, who knows, but for now this will more than suffice.

george-hull-br6.jpgI almost wish one of the actors could have written a diary like Bob Balaban did for CE3K, that was a great book. Walter Koenig did a similar fly-on-the-wall book for ST:TMP. You don’t see that kind of book/coverage anymore but both were fascinating glimpses of the frustrations of making technically-demanding films and managing all the boredom behind the scenes. Yeah we get loads of DVD/Blu-ray featurettes on the best disc releases these days but that’s never as impartial/balanced coverage as one would prefer.

Midnight Special (2016)

midnite1.jpg2016.61: Midnight Special (Amazon VOD)

Like Super 8 a few years back, Midnight Special displays its inspirations clearly- it’s very much kin to Steven Spielberg’s seminal CE3K and ET, and also John Carpenter’s Starman. Indeed, while it often looks like a Spielberg film it also feels like a Carpenter film because of an electronic score by David Wingo that sounds very much from a Carpenter film of that period. Midnight Special just overflows with this sense of being an artifact from circa 1977-1982, the danger naturally being this can bring to mind better movies. I guess it shares common ground with so many other cinema-referential films of late, such as Super 8 – films harking back to the films that influenced current film-makers. A generational thing then, and further sign I’m getting old when so much of the films I grew up with winds up in ‘new’ films, even the ones that aren’t reboots?

That being said, Midnight Special is, on a whole, quite superior to stuff like Super 8. For one thing it doesn’t feel so reverential, and does try to do something new even though it eventually falters. The first half of the film is its strongest, with the mystery holding the most attention; two adults are on the run having kidnapped a young boy, and they are being chased by both Government forces and agents of a strange religious cult. Having pretty much been dropped into the middle of a chase movie with X-Files undertones, its fun trying to unravel the backgrounds of the characters and what is really going on and why. Inevitably the film can’t really maintain the mystery and its reveals aren’t as imaginative or original as one would hope. That said, it’s a great thriller for most of its running time even if the conclusion leaves us asking more questions than is perhaps healthy for what I believe is a standalone picture.

The cast is pretty great, except, unfortunately, for Kirsten Dunst. She plays the childs mother, Sarah, and there really isn’t any conviction in her portrayal of motherhood, or indeed any chemistry between her and the child’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon)- it is a huge vacuum that the film doesn’t really recover from. I don’t know if it’s simply the script at fault (in Dunst’s defence, it is a fairly underwritten part) or miscasting, but somethings wrong and the film suffers for it, losing the emotional core that, say, ET had. Other than that, there is plenty to recommend in this film- a fairly low budget affair (something like just $20 million) it’s certainly more imaginative and entertaining than most of this summers blockbuster releases.

 

1941 (1979)

1941a2016.52: 1941 -Extended Cut (Blu-ray)

1941 isn’t bad. Its terrible. This extended cut is no improvement either- there’s  146 mins of badness compared to the theatrical version’s 119, so there’s just even more bad movie, which of course cannot possibly be a Good Thing unless you are, inexplicably, a fan of this film. There are fans of this film, right? There must be (every film has its fans, after all), but I’m certainly not one of them. 1941 is supposed to be a comedy, and it isn’t even funny. Thats some kind of crime, surely.

Every great director has a bad movie inside of them and I guess this was Spielbergs- maybe there’s a few other films of his that might contend for this dubious accolade but I can’t really think of one, unless maybe the excesses of Hook or the romantic schmaltz of Always gets your blood boiling.  For me I think 1941, the whole misguided, badly-executed mess of it, is Spielberg’s Folly, just like George Lucas’ Howard The Duck a few years later. Films that… well, the idea of them is interesting but the execution is sadly pretty woeful and dire.

You wonder why some great ideas for films never get made and turkeys like these do instead, but at the time its all about the clout of the director- and after Jaws and CE3K, Spielberg was on a roll and he could have gotten a documentary on Kleenex greenlit. So 1941 was made.

I’d love to have been on-set during filming. What on earth made the cast and crew think that shooting guns and yelling loudly amid big explosions constituted the very heights of cinematic humour? I mean, thats about all that 1941 is- blazing guns and huge explosions, and Japanese soldiers disguised as Christmas trees. The prologue’s nod to Jaws is nice of course but its all downhill from there. John Belushi’s Capt. Wild Bill Kelso is just plain nauseating, strutting around onscreen as if he is somehow funny rather than just plain irritating, and the film wastes huge impressive sets and a fine 1970s cast, and -worse- a vintage John Williams score completely.

Sure, the dance hall set-piece is technically impressive but Spielberg would do all that so much better -and funnier- in the prologue of Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. That latter observation is telling, because the one good thing about 1941 is that it apparently educated Spielberg, made him a better (and more frugal) director. Its likely we owe 1941 that at least. But thats about all, frankly.

I bought this damn thing on disc (cheap, mind). But yeah, I bought it. Makes ET look like Shakespeare or something…

 

Not Quite A Theatre of Dreams…

20160528_164030-1Found this old photograph in our local newspaper. A blast from the past- the old Odeon Cinema in town.

This, folks, is where the magic used to happen. This is where I saw Star Wars and CE3K back in 1978, The Black Hole in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back later in 1980, and a pretty mind-blowing (at the time) Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back double-bill prior to the release of Return of the Jedi (possibly in 1982 or 1983, I’m not sure). People used to queue outside around the corner in long lines, whatever the weather- there was no reserved seating, it was first-come, first-served.

I remember back when I saw that Star Wars/Empire double-bill, I got there with my mate a few hours before it was due to start and we couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t a queue- was I ever that young and innocent, and those two films such a big deal to me, that I couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t any crowds? Then again, there was no VHS or home video of any kind back then; the opportunity to rewatch a Star Wars film was a rare thing, a Big Deal. And of course, this was long before those Special Editions, these were the Real Deal (not that we knew it back then- Ignorance is such bliss).

There were just three screens- one main one (Screen One, naturally) with two much smaller ones added under the main screen’s balcony seating (what was originally the stall seating before the cinema was split into three screens). As a sign of how things changed since, it seems odd now to recall that back then people could smoke in there- non-smokers sitting on the left side, smokers on the right side (not sure what the logic was in that, but Screen One was pretty large with a huge vaulted ceiling that took care of most of the horrible smoke). It was such a beautiful art deco building, inside and out; I wasn’t old enough to really appreciate it back then, but the ornate plaster scroll-work that decorated and embellished the walls and ceiling was always something amazing to me.

Sure the seats were old and creaky and frayed if not actually empty of most of the original stuffing, the projection system hardly crystal-clear, and the sound system may have been stereo but the speakers usually groaned and farted like a Monty Python sketch under the strain when things got noisy. I guess we’d be spoiled by multiplexes years later but I rather miss some of the atmosphere of that old place. Films were events back then, and the walk up stairs from the ticket office booth into a plush lobby with seats and film posters always seemed ‘classy’, and walking up the next set of stairs into the balcony seating of Screen One and its darkened Theatre was always a thrill. I rather miss the place. I’d love the opportunity to relive that whole moviegoing experience.

Yeah, its a Bingo Hall now. Has been some twenty years, probably longer than that now that I think about it, so all that moviegoing experience has been long gone. We’ve gained a lot technologically from the multiplex way of doing things, but we have lost some of the atmosphere of old cinemas like that one.