Red Notice (2021)

rednoteThere’s two ways of considering this film, and its rather like a Rorschach test for film fans. Either you see it as a harmless bit of mindless, leave-your-brain-in-the-kitchen bit of fun to while away a Friday night via Netflix, or you see it as an annoyingly typical, horribly insulting waste of $200 million that only further exemplifies the current state of the entertainment industry and film as an artform. 

Where do you think I sit on either side of that fence? Have a guess.

Somehow this stupid film cost more than Villeneuve’s Dune? How is this even possible? Well, maybe a lot of that has to do with the three stars allegedly each pocketing an absurd $20 million, that’s $60 million gone straight away. Hey, score one for diversity, at least the girl has gotten paid as much as the boys, and as far as screen-time is goes, she’s actually gotten paid more than them as regards a dollar-per-minute ratio is concerned, so hey, go girl. But none of the three is actually making any effort in this- its almost a distressingly cynical effort from all concerned (does effort go out the window whenever one learns that Netflix is footing the bill? Or was this picture actually destined to be a normal theatrical release at one point?). Ryan Reynolds plays Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson plays Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot plays Wonder Woman sorry Gal Gadot. There’s no acting in this. Mind you, in their defence, its possibly true there’s no characterisation actually fleshed out in the script which any of them could have worked with, but all the same, they are phoning all this in in the grandest Bruce Willis tradition. They turn up, look gorgeous, speak their lines, and move on. The attention to craft of someone like, say, Robert De Niro when he appeared in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull etc seems like a lifetime away. 

It exemplifies all the very worse of Netflix. The platform does some good stuff, as does Amazon etc but really, if Netflix finances/buys this kind of rubbish simply to compete with the big boys or pretend its a player like any of the Hollywood major studios, its missing the point of playing the game. Or maybe it isn’t, maybe I’m fooling myself. Netflix’s biggest issue is that it doesn’t really care how good anything it puts up streaming on its service actually is (a second season of Another Life is proof enough of that), it just cares about subscriber numbers. And the brutal truth about subscriber numbers is that, as Disney is possibly learning, they don’t actually have anything to do with the quality of what you are streaming, its more about just having new content streaming and the perception of the service having a steady flow of something new to watch on a Friday night.

In my depressed moments, I’m resigned to the fact that as far as the mass average of Joe Public that is Out There in suburbia, nobody actually cares whether something is any good or not. None of this stuff is even going to be remembered in five or ten years time, and hell, at some point probably the streamers will start pulling content because what is the point having it there hidden away behind all the algorithm’s of the service front end if only two or three people watch any of it, never mind all of it, during January 20th 2027? Films are disposable, just like streaming music and television shows etc. its all a passing distraction for people numbed by the banality/pressures of life in the 21st Century. 

What any of this has to do with Red Notice, I’m not sure. Or maybe it has EVERYTHING to do with Red Notice. In any case, I’ve wasted far too much time writing about this nonsense already. I only wish I’d bought that 4K box of the Indiana Jones films, I’d love to be able to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark tonight in glorious 4K to remind myself of the good old days when even a fairly modest love letter to simple b-movie matinees of old could turn into a classic for the ages. Films like Red Notice may pretend to be ‘homages’ to adventure flicks like Raiders but really, they are kidding themselves, they are nothing like. Raiders is 40 years old now and still a film I love to re-watch; who on Earth will be re-watching Red Notice in 40 years time? Who will even remember it exists?

The Dune Sketchbook (Hans Zimmer)

dune sketchbookGiving us our first real glimpse of what will be the musical soundscape of Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune film, WaterTower music have today released the first of what will ultimately be three Dune albums from Hans Zimmer. This first one, The Dune Sketchbook, is a pretty substantial one, one hour and forty-two minutes of what I presume are sonically finished (they certainly are not demos), works-in-progress musings and expansions of themes and motifs that we’ll hear on the official soundtrack (released September 17th, apparently).

I’m not really one for buying soundtracks ahead of a films release; I remember hearing the The Empire Strikes Back album before it came out over here in the UK (I seem to recall it came out before the film did Stateside, too), and have found I much prefer seeing a film ‘fresh’ and experiencing the music at the same time as the rest of the film.

But the idea of The Dune Sketchbook seemed an intriguing one, and presumably much of what I’ve heard here will be different in the film and much of the actual score re: themes, motifs etc will be missing from this. Its also quite possible that these versions will be more rewarding than the official soundtrack counterpart, as these pieces are not constrained by the whims of film editing etc. and have been given plenty of room to ‘breathe’.

LOTS of room: some of these tracks are very long. The album has nine tracks but they are really each more lengthy musical essays or suites than simply ‘tracks’: the two best pieces, I See You In My Dreams and House Atreides are substantial: the first is eighteen minutes long and the other just shy of fourteen. I remember entire soundtrack releases totalling less music than that of just those two tracks. There’s some very good stuff in the other tracks (Pauls Dream and Moon Over Caladan spring to mind) while in others Zimmer slips into less easy-listening, experimental sound design, but its all quite fascinating stuff, even when it descends into the very weird. There’s an atmosphere to it all that is very promising: its not scoring in the traditional John Williams/Jerry Goldsmith sense that is sadly missing today, but it does have a clear identity and sense of self which is quite refreshing. That said, I’m sure people more familiar with Zimmer and his colleagues doing the ghost-writing will have fun picking out bits similar to earlier scores like Gladiator or Dunkirk etc.

That being said, I did sense a distinct Vangelis vibe to some of it, particularly the two standout tracks I mentioned earlier. I suspect Zimmer still had some of his old keyboards handy that he’d pulled out of storage for the Blade Runner 2049 score, because there is a Vangelis feel to some of those electronics weaving through the voices. Also reminded me of the Tron Legacy score (which itself nodded somewhat to Vangelis with its ‘old-fashioned’ analogue synth pads etc). Indeed, the voices that are a big part of the score’s soundscapes (at least the experimental workouts here) remind me of Vangelis’ work with Irene Papas: latter parts of the track I See You In My Dreams which feature a woman’s voice in an unknown (native Fremen?) dialect weaving through electronic drone reminded me of the Vangelis/Papas track Song of Songs from their Rapsodies album (which is a brilliant albeit obscure album) and also Vangelis’ See You Later album, in how Vangelis featured spoken and sung vocals in that album’s partly dystopian music. 

The House Atreides track breaks out into a bold anthemic piece that will inevitably remind some of Braveheart’s James Horner score (or indeed Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica music) but to me pointed almost directly to Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire score, particularly the triumphant swells of Eric’s Theme (possibly even more so in Vangelis’ re-recording album for the London play from a few years back). I’d never imagined music like this for the Atreides but it does make perfect sense; its noble, heroic, clearly signifying the hope and tragedy of what befalls them: an emotional quality totally missing from, say, the David Lynch film.

I’m not suggesting Zimmer is being a plagiarist here, its just that I’m hearing plenty that I like, especially as I’m such a huge Vangelis nut. This album is certainly worth a punt for those curious, and while I’ll be leaving the official soundtrack proper until I’ve seen the film, I’m sure I’ll be listening to this a lot in the meantime up to the film’s release. On the strength of this album I think its very easy to get just all the more excited regards what Zimmer has been doing for this film: it could be great. 

Really, at this point, is there anything negative one can say about Villeneuve’s film other than its a Part One currently without a Part Two? You can almost touch the hope and positivity about the film, its difficult not to get swept up by it. If this film turns out to be as great as it might be and still flops at the box office… ugh, I can’t bear to imagine.

Enemy (2013)

enemypostrrThe final shot of Denis Villeneuve’s surreal Enemy had me jumping out of my chair- its absolutely shocking and terrifying. I’m not certain what that shot actually means, because the film is something of an enigma, reminding me throughout of early Cronenberg movies. There is the weird sense of not knowing what is reality, and of a character having the fabric of reality pulled from under him: in Videodrome (1982), this is caused by a signal in a pirate video feed affecting the characters brain, while in Enemy it seems to be a video rental recommendation that triggers the main characters crisis. And of course the idea of twins/dominant personalities etc reminds of Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Enemy is a relentlessly dark, fascinating film and another example of just how impressive a film-maker Villeneuve is.

However, if you don’t like spiders, it might be best to give this film a wide berth, because it uses spiders as a major part of its surrealist imagery. The film opens at a clandestine sex show being witnessed by a group of men: after a woman apparently masturbates to orgasm in front of them, a second woman stands naked but for high heels, a menacing-looking tarantula spider then unveiled at her feet. One of the attendees, Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal) can only look through his fingers, evidently more scared of the spider than aroused by the woman or sense of danger. The scene ends with the woman apparently about to crush the spider under her heel. Spiders will become a regular motif during the film, usually haunting dream imagery- we see a giant spider over the city, a naked woman walking down a corridor with a spider’s head, and that final shot where I nearly lost my lunch. Spiders mean something. There also seems to be a visual motif for webs- whether it be the fractured glass of a window in a car accident, or in the street cables/telephone wires in the sky. 

enemy2If you have not seen this film, it might be best not to read the remainder of this post if you intend to give it a go, because I’m going to spend much of the rest of this trying to decipher the film and unravel what it might mean (albeit having only seeing it once, I’m likely wide of the mark). As well as certain Cronenberg movies, this film also reminds me of David Lynch movies, particularly my favourite, Mulholland Drive. Enemy is a mystery, a masterfully obtuse film that only suggests that it can make sense, that there is an internal code that can be used to decipher any meaning. For all I know, there may not be any solution.

Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a college professor living in a quiet, rather monotonous, uneventful life in Toronto. He doesn’t seem to have any freinds or much of a social life, and he seems unable to really connect with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent) other than on a basic physical level- they don’t seem to talk and he seems more attentive to marking his course work: they have an argument and she leaves. He seems so emasculated he doesn’t go after her. 

(Adam’s lectures concern “bread and circuses”, how totalitarian states placate the masses through diversions of entertainment, such as the coliseum of Rome: does this also reference diversions such as the sex show frequented by groups of men we see at the start of the film? Or indeed the virtual escape of films and cinema?)

A colleague at the college recommends a film, Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, and while Adam replies “I don’t like movies” (which may have further implications later on), when Adam passes a video store he rents the film out. He watches it, and then during the night wakes up from a strange dream and goes back to his laptop and plays part of the film again, upon which he realises one of the extras playing a hotel bellhop looks just like him (albeit minus Adam’s beard). Its not clear if he missed this when first watching the film, or if the film has changed- or perhaps if Adam is now imagining the likeness, ‘seeing’ this face in the background of a scene (triggered by the nightmare?) and a sign that he’s beginning to lose his grip of reality. Or perhaps he’s remembering?

Looking up the films credits, he investigates the actor who looks like him- discovering that this apparent twin is Anthony Claire, stage name Daniel Saint Claire, an actor whose talent agency is (conveniently/suspiciously/alarmingly) nearby. Clearly beginning to obsess over this strange doppelganger, Adam gets into the talent agency, is mistaken for being Anthony, who hasn’t been seen there for awhile, and is given a package marked for Anthony’s attention which reveals Anthony’s address (we will later discover that the package also contains a key, which likely links directly to the opening scene at the sex show, which possibly infers the whole film is some elaborate loop or one that holds multiple loops within one greater loop). From the address on the packet Adam divulges Anthony’s phone number and calls it, but Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers- she mistakes Adam’s voice for that of Anthony, and believes he is playing a prank call on her. At first amused she becomes frightened by Adam’s refusal to ‘fess up to the prank and abruptly ends the call. When Adam marshals the courage to ring again, Anthony answers, angry at who he believes is a stalker.

Neither man seems aware the other even existed, and they are indeed quite identical (Anthony now sporting the beard too) and each gets mistaken for the other: actually, however, the men’s personalities are quite tellingly different, Adam quiet and introverted, Anthony confident and assertive. Perhaps they are two facets of one personality, broken.

Now, strange things seem to be happening with Time in this film- in this respect it feels rather like a Christopher Nolan movie. I may be wrong about this, and having only seen the film this one time I cannot be certain, but I think the film is actually some strange loop, or loops within loops. And clearly, I’m not at all certain we have a reliable narrator, and that things we are seeing can be relied upon as ‘real’. Although the film seems to suggest the two men are two separate individuals, each living in seperate, quite distinct apartments with different women, I have to wonder. Helen berates Anthony for an affair, claiming that he is seeing ‘her’ again- I think she is referring to Mary.  Also, Adam searches a box of photos at home and discovers one of him in which half the photo has been cut out, hiding the second person in the photograph: later when he gets in Anthony’s apartment, he sees the same photo, now whole, on display in a frame, with the photo revealing the second person to be Helen. Are we witnessing two time periods, with Adam/Anthony losing his mind and slipping between the two? Anthony pursues, and has sex with, Mary; Adam sneaks into Anthony’s apartment and has sex with Helen (the latter suspecting who he really is but being attracted to him).

Anthony goes to visit his mother (Isabella Rossellini!) who congratulates him on having a proper job and no longer wasting his time trying be a successful actor. So was Anthony an actor who gave it all up to be a history professor, when he ‘becomes’ Adam, if that’s the case, which of them ‘belongs’ in the past and which in the future? I began to think my seperate timelines/multiple personalities theory had some weight, but its doesn’t completely hold true.

A complication is that Helen is as mystified/horrified by the implications of her husbands doppelganger as the men are themselves- Helen visits the college and chances upon Adam, who does not recognise her, they have a conversation in which Adam thinks he is simply making small talk with a stranger, and he leaves, upon which she calls Anthony on her mobile and he answers, wondering where she is, apparently elsewhere- but of course we cannot see Adam as he has gone into the building and may have answered the phone himself, now adopting Anthony’s personality. Helen is upset, can’t understand what is going on- unless of course she KNOWS what is going on, and that she knows that he is suffering from a multiple personality disorder or some kind of schizophrenia, fearing perhaps he is not taking medication and he is slipping back into twin personalities/getting confused. 

The cast is uniformly excellent. Its possibly the finest performance I’ve seen from Gyllenhaal, and the women are brilliant (although Rossellini basically has just a cameo, its a very pleasant one). An intrusive, yet ambient score grates as it gets under your skin sonically; the visual effects are convincing (and at times horrifying). The ending suggests Villeneuve could make one hell of a horror film someday.  

It is a confusing, fascinating, quite disturbing film. Its some kind of genius. It again demonstrates that Villeneuve is without any doubt one of the most exciting and interesting directors working today: his filmography is really quite remarkable. Enemy displays some familiar fascinations of Villeneuve- the lingering shots of the city skyline, of buildings and location, remind of Polytechnique and Blade Runner 2049. The dark mood and slow pace reminds of most every film of his; but of all his films, Enemy feels unusual in its absolute morbid darkness, its Cronenbergian sense of unreliable reality. Maybe its an alien spider invasion movie, an arachnoid Invasion of the Body Snatchers and our protagonist is the only one who realises what is really going on. Maybe its a nod to Lovecraft’s From Beyond or Philip K Dick’s Valis, and Adam is glimpsing (through the spider images) reality pushing in on the ‘bubble’ of our perceived reality. Who knows? All I know is that the film creeped me out and really got under my skin.  

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.

Godzilla vs Kong must wait

godzillakongI want to watch Godzilla vs Kong (released this week on home rental) but I think I’ll save my £16 to put toward the 4K release in mid-June. The studios just haven’t got their rental pricing right for these new hybrid-release movies: the only film I could conceivably be suckered into paying that price for a rental for would be Villeneuve’s Dune if I absolutely can’t see it in a cinema come October.

I understand some premium level of pricing is inevitable and even necessary but I can’t see how its really going to work regards recouping the mounting costs these films have while waiting for release. How can they possibly break even whatever they charge, so shouldn’t they be aiming for something more towards the impulse-rental level? Maybe something like £10 would be sweet spot enough to tempt those like me in to giving it a rental and get sufficient rentals enough to be worthwhile. I don’t know.

My worry is where all of this leaves these franchises once the dust clears. How in the world Dune Part Two ever happens is quite beyond me, and I’m rather worried about the gap in time between the productions if they even get Part Two greenlit next year (Dune was completed last year). Will Villeneuve be enthusiastic following the HBO Max nonsense, or will he jump ship as Christopher Nolan is rumoured to have done?

You know, all this actually makes me thankful, in a weird way, that BR2049 proved a box-office failure back in 2017. Had it been successful enough to warrant a third entry in the Blade Runner franchise, it would possibly have been caught up in all this, even had it been still in pre-production. How do ‘big’ films get made in times such as this? 

The 2021 List: January

I’m back. Well, I’ve not really been away, just side-lined by work and life. I’m sure anyone reading this appreciates just how strange life is getting, and how we’re getting worn down. Its really quite relentless, and most nights now I’m so tired in the evenings I don’t have energy to concentrate enough to even watch a film, let alone write about it. Maybe I just need a holiday (ha, ha) – ain’t that the truth/sick joke (delete as appropriate). Its been  more than two years since my last holiday anywhere, and my booked holiday in May (which was deferred from May last year, for reasons obvious to everyone) is looking as unlikely as Vangelis releasing an anthology of his unreleased soundtracks headlined by a complete Blade Runner. Or him ever releasing that Juno to Jupiter album.

So what have I been watching? Not included on the list waiting for your perusal below as its not finished until next Wednesday, is Season Five of The Expanse, which has been quite brilliant. As someone who championed this series way back when I had to import the Blu-rays to watch it, its great to see the show having some critical success before it ends next year. Amazon saving The Expanse from its third-season cancellation is the rescue Farscape deserved but never got. Anyway, more on that next week/month/when I get to write about it.

toastJanuary is a hell of a bleak month, and Lockdown is just making it all the bleaker. I’ve been retreating to sitcoms, mostly Toast of London, a show from a few years back that I vaguely recall noticing but never watching. Finally watching it thanks to the Netflix algorithm bringing it back to my attention,  its quite funny and quirky and I enjoyed it enough to binge all three seasons of it, but not enough to write a post about it. There’s that energy-sapping thing again. I don’t know. There was a feeling of biding time watching it; I knew I should be watching something more worthwhile but it was low-effort, making little demand of me. I’ve just moved on to another feast courtesy of the Netflix algorithm, an American sitcom titled Superstore, currently watching season one. There’s five seasons of this show and I never knew it even existed until I started watching it last week. I think this is what’s called Sitcom Hell. I need to find some escape.

Television

Most ill-conceived reboot of the month:

2. Black Narcissus (BBC Miniseries)

Sitcom ‘comfort food of the month’ (lockdown special):

6) Toast of London Season One

7) Toast of London Season Two

11) Toast of London Season Three

Sexed-up Downton Abbey of the month:

15) Bridgerton Season One

Female Space Messiah Award:

9) Star Trek: Discovery Season Three 

Films:

The Good, and the even Better:

3) Proxima (2019)

4. Hidden Figures (2016)

5) The Garment Jungle

8) The Lineup (1958)

16) The Wages of Fear (1953)

The Distinctly Average:

10) The Gentlemen (2019)

12) Sputnik (2020)

14) The Wackiest Ship in the Navy (1961)

The Utterly Woeful:

1) The Midnight Sky (2020)

13) Outside the Wire (2021)

So that’s sixteen titles, split between six seasons of TV shows and ten films. Regards re-watching stuff, apart from the fantastic Millennium Actress that I did actually post about, I did re-watch The Two Towers, the second film of the LOTR trilogy, part of the 4K UHD boxset that came out late last year and which I seem to be struggling to get to actually watch, never mind actually writing about. I watched The Fellowship of the Ring over the Christmas period, and while its proving a struggle, strangely, to get around to watching all three films (possibly its because they are the extended versions which makes it awkward to schedule, in all honesty, with everything else going on) its been very interesting, returning to what is quite possibly the last genuinely great blockbuster trilogy ever made, and seeing how well they have aged (or not).  I intend to possibly expand upon this in a future post once I’ve managed to watch The Return of the King, which, on my apparently monthly schedule will happen in February. Some people managed marathons of the LOTR in a single day, or over three consecutive days- I haven’t even managed it over three weekends.

It has occurred to me that the sheer bravura of shooting all three films back-to-back might be something we never see again, considering the state of theatrical exhibition in this Covid World. We are in a situation now in which traditional blockbusters are not economically viable and are being delayed one or even two years waiting for some kind of stability regards exhibition. Where this leaves Villenueve’s Dune and its ‘will-they-won’t-they’ second film completing its story is anyone’s guess. At some point if things don’t change, more of these films will end up relegated to streaming premieres such as those Warner have announced for HBO Max in America, and what that means for studios cutting their losses and plans for 2023, 2024 etc is really a concern.

So anyway, that’s January. Looking towards February, well, its anyone’s guess how that month will likely turn out. Indicator’s second Columbia Noir set is due out so I look forward to getting into that, having so enjoyed the first set. And I have a pile of unwatched films on the Tivo etc and waiting on Netflix and Amazon, if I can ever muster the enthusiasm to watch any of it. Or indeed the time, due to working at home proving particularly problematic of late. We’ll just have to see. Oh, and its possibly going to include my biggest non-event of a birthday in all my 55 revolutions of the sun. That should be curious, although as a bonus it sees me jump up a group on the Vaccination schedule. Life. Is. So. Strange. Now.

COVID-Vac-priority-tiers

Polytechnique

polytechnique

Denis Villeneuve’s harrowing Polytechmique was his third film, and watching it for the first time now, following all those films that came after – Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049– its really quite fascinating seeing one of his early works and spotting within it all those signs and precursors of his later work. Indeed, with its stark urban landscape frozen in snow and blizzards, in some ways this film most closely resembles BR2049, but it certainly confirms Villeneuve’s fascination with place, and landscape, being characters in his films just as much as the actors. Perhaps this is something he took from watching Ridley Scott’s films (he was certainly the ideal director for a Blade Runner sequel).

Polytechnique is based upon a real event- a massacre in a Montreal school in 1989, but it obviously also indirectly references so many school shootings before and after. Shot in stark black and white its an unforgiving, brutal film that is at the same time curiously delicate, an usual combination that reminded me of Arrival and BR2049 in how it all feels weirdly poetic even though its so damned disturbing. The violence is quite restrained but so sudden its really quite shocking; indeed, when watching it, the film feels really violent but really its more suggestive than graphic. Clearly Villeneuve wanted to do justice to the victims of the massacre and deliberately avoided being sensationalist or in any way exploitive. It’d be so easy to make this a violent horror film depicting the same terrible events, but that might well indirectly glorify or even validate the actions of the killer, and Villeneuve really wants to focus on the students without defining them by the events they were caught up in or the killers helpless rage at the world.

Having been something of a Villeneuve aficionado since seeing his film Prisoners, I’ve been very curious about watching his earlier works and was so glad that the BFI have finally been able to give this a well-overdue Blu-ray release for us here in the UK. The film looks excellent and the disc includes both versions of the film (each scene with any dialogue was actually shot twice, once in French and then again in English- I watched the French version with English subs as that is the most authentic). One benefit of this release being done now is that it improves on the original Region A release of several years ago by being able to include a splendid documentary Polytechnique: Ce qu’il reste du 6 décembre (2019, 52 mins), which was made for the 30th anniversary of the Montreal massacre, featuring interviews with survivors, witnesses and family members of those that died. Its an excellent companion piece to the film, really informative and demonstrates how much the film was faithful to the actual events; its one of those docs that just increases ones respect for a film.

And how much of a small world this world really is: the star (and a co-producer) of the film is Karine Vanasse, who is so familiar to me from her four-year stint as detective Lise Delorme in the crime thriller Cardinal. She’s excellent here, obviously made some years before that 2017-2020 series, but clearly showing she was destined for success back then. As for Villeneuve, well, its obvious he was a film-marker to follow by the quality of this film. This is a great release from the BFI and I’d heartily recommend it. It isn’t an easy watch and can be quite disturbing but its sensitivity to the events marks it as something quite remarkable.

Villeneuve talks Dune

Here’s a link to an hour-long interview that Denis Villeneuve made for the Shanghai International Film Festival discussing his upcoming Dune. Its a fascinating insight firstly regards some of the issues he is a having making the film whilst the Covid 19 Pandemic continues, and also his thinking and approach to the adaptation. The film is still coming, folks- I’m not entirely certain it will be this December though. Fascinating stuff.

Doctor Sleep = Shining Chills

drs1All being well I’ll post a review tomorrow, but having just seen Doctor Sleep, I just wanted to post my initial feelings: the spookiest thing about this film is how much it reminded me of BR2049. There were moments in Doctor Sleep -music cues, aerial shots details of which shall remain spoiler-free – that frankly gave me chills, and had me thinking about similar sentiments regards BR2049.

Denis Villeneuve’s film was that most miraculous thing, after so many decades, of being a perfect sequel to a film that never needed one. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was as different to its source novel as was Blade Runner from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, both films were met by fairly negative (scathing at times) critical response and subject to critical reappraisal over the years after, and both were self-contained and not in the slightest bit needed a sequel. Indeed nobody, I’m sure, ever really expected one for either film.

Yet here we are, both films have gotten really fine, respectful and sincere sequels that expand upon the original work while each treading a new path. Decades after. Its almost beyond bizarre. In a similar way to how BR2049 returned to the original source novel as well as the 1982 film’s rather distant adaptation of it, so does Doctor Sleep return to the original source novel of The Shining as well as the Kubrick film – in some ways both films turn the tone and themes back to the source in ways that enrich original and sequel. Of course Doctor Sleep is itself based upon Stephen Kings own sequel novel to his The Shining book, and I haven’t read either King book in all honesty, but it seems clear to me that this film is not simply that book, its clearly a sequel to both the widely different King book and Kubrick film, as well as the King Doctor Sleep book, and manages a brilliant balancing act.

It was just the strangest thing; watching BR2049 I had this sensation of the hair on the back of my neck standing on end, a kind of magical meta-reality going on, returning to that Blade Runner world after so many decades, and it feeling so authentic. I had that exact same feeling with Doctor Sleep, particularly two-thirds in when there are suddenly a few shots which… well, lets stay spoiler-free awhile yet. But wow. What a feeling. Its when pop-culture becomes something rather more than just pop-culture, when years in the real world are mirrored by years in the artificial film world, and there’s this weird clarity, almost, a feeling of meta-reality.

Anyway, I liked it.

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.