The Midnight Sky (2020)

midnightskyclooneyGeorge Clooney stars in and directs this $100 million film for Netflix, which also features Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo and Kyle Chandler. Clooney has described the film as Gravity meets The Revenant, and while that does sound rather enticing, The Midnight Sky utterly fails to reach the heights of either of those two films, and any comparison does this film no favours at all. Clooney acts in this film as if he can carry it by the sheer force of will in his performance alone (he’s really pretty good) but of course he can’t, which is a shame. The curious thing is that he’s not only acting like he’s in some other (better) movie, but he’s also directing it too. I often thought when watching the film, did George really read the script?

The Midnight Sky is a soft-focus Apocalypse, its an End of the World thats pleasantly cosy, without all the death or the misery or even any explanation of what the nature of The End of All Things was. It all happens off-screen, referred to in a piece of opening text as ‘Three weeks after the Event’ which has left George Clooney all alone in an Arctic Research Facility. Even when he is asked by astronauts travelling back to Earth  regards what happened, he replies “I’m afraid we didn’t do a very good job of looking after the place while you were away” which is just so vague its doubly infuriating that the astronauts don’t press him on it. As if bad house-keeping is sufficient excuse for destroying the planet. Was it Nuclear War, or plague, or some environnmental disaster?

Clooney has decided upon a ‘Show Don’t Tell’ approach to this film, intending ‘The Event’ to be something vague and mysterious, and this approach runs throughout the film in all kinds of ways, such as his character’s illness that requires frequent transfusions and medication- unfortunately the source material isn’t strong enough to support that approach. Its a brave decision on Cooney’s part undermined by the material he has to work with. The film is actually based upon a novel, Good Morning, Midnight written by Lily Brooks-Dalton and adapted here by Mark L Smith: I have no idea how many of the films issues were down to the book or Smith’s screenplay.

I think the film would have been far better served had it been supported by narration, something along the lines of “It was three weeks after The Event, after everyone had left: they are probably all dead now. Up here we always felt isolated, like we were the last people alive in all the world. I guess that might be true now. The radios are dead, the silence total, there’s no-one out there. I’m all alone.” Perhaps thats too on-the-nose, but I only wrote that example just, on the fly, but it sort of sets things up better than the film does, and I think narration would have better served the plot than flash-backs that are so awkward, they only give away the films ‘twists’ too early.  Those twists themselves, by the way,  stretch credibility beyond breaking point, but by the time they get revealed there’s little doubt the audience is beyond caring.

The Midnight Sky is ultimately undermined by its lack of internal logic and cohesive thought: a pregnant astronaut is allowed to do a deep-space EVA, when her foetus would be at the mercy of cosmic radiation. We are expected to believe that when ‘The Event’ occured, no-one at NASA had sufficient duty of care to send a message to a deep-space mission returning to Earth to warn the crew of the disaster. We are expected to believe that a moon is discovered orbiting Jupiter that is fit for human colonization (take a look in books for how much space radiation is blasting around the Jovian system). We are expected to believe that not just five astronauts can fly a space mission to and from the Jovian system, but that two alone can do it just as fine too. That they might have sufficient supplies to return to that moon and survive on it.

Its really very disappointing – because maybe not all of those problems could have been addressed with a good script rewrite, but some of them could and moreover should have, and surely there’s little excuse for so many issues (and more I haven’t raised) to have slipped through the screenplay stage prior to photography. This is one of those films that on paper seems such a candidate for success, featuring a good cast and high production values (visual effects from ILM, no less) and yet has such a problematic, fundamentally broken script that it all feels a waste of time, effort and talent. I’m probably hopelessly naïve about how they make movies, but I cannot understand how anyone thought the script worked in any way at all, or how anyone could decide it was ready to go into production. Maybe they thought they could fix it in the edit, but no edit no matter how inspired or brilliant could fix such a broken script as this has.

The Wandering Earth (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sci-Fi Short: FTL (2017)

Here’s a YouTube link to a 15-minute sci-fi short, FTL, that won a few awards last year. It isn’t wholly convincing- its really more a tech demo, I think, a proof of ability on the part of the writer/director Adam Stern who has a visual effects background from some tv stuff like Almost Human and Childhood’s End. So inevitably it works more as a tech exercise than a dramatic one. It features Ty Olsson in the lead, a face you will likely remember from all sorts of tv stuff over the last few years. Sort of a cross between Gravity and Interstellar, maybe its something that might have been expanded into a movie if some studio saw sufficient promise in it. On the other hand, it just goes to demonstrate that fairly ambitious stuff like this is no longer the preserve of major studio blockbusters as it was back in the Original Trilogy days of Star Wars. Worth a look, anyway-

Salyut 7 (2017)

salyutcThe image above tells you all you really need to know about the Russian film Salyut 7: visually it’s quite astonishing, throwing images such as that above, depicting the rescue mission launched into space breaking out of the clouds, up onto the screen with as much gloss and sophistication as most of the visual effects of Gravity, the previous high-water mark for space visual effects.  Its really quite astonishing how the quality of visual effects is getting so ubiquitous- I remember when there was a huge difference between the effects work of, say ILM or EEG, and everyone else, back in the day. Computer imaging and the presumed use of the same software packages has been quite a leveller, and no longer do films necessarily have to boast huge budgets to get premium visuals.

Salyut 7 was something of a surprise discovery for me, just stumbling upon it on Amazon Prime. Curiously, it even appears there in two formats- as a two-hour movie, and also as a two-part drama of two one-hour episodes. Imagine showing BR2049 as a two- or three-part miniseries. I don’t know why, must be some vagary of the films financing and distribution- I see it has recently turned up on blu-ray in some territories (Germany even getting it in 4K).  I think it would be a pity if here in the UK the film is relegated to an almost VOD release rather than the more prestigious limited-theatrical or disc-based release that would get it wider attention, and which it deserves. That said, kudos to Amazon for picking it up. This thing feels like it came from nowhere and I lapped it up.

salyutaBased on true events that occured back in 1985, in which a daring mission was launched to rescue the Salyut 7 space station that had suddenly suffered a fatal malfunction, this film is, literally, like a Russian version of Apollo 13 complete with Gravity-level visuals. If that doesn’t wet your appetite then this is not for you. Its a riveting and powerful film of human triumph over adversity. Those Gravity-like visuals really intensify the you-are-there feeling, greatly enabling the tension of the events and hinting at the possibilities for other spaceflight dramas in the future. I have always maintained that a definitive film about the Apollo missions would be spectacular and cannot fathom why such a work has never been made up to now, other than the superlative HBO series From The Earth to the Moon (a series oddly overlooked these days which really deserves a HD release). 

Salyut 7 is also, alas, perhaps too slavish in its attempt to mirror the success of Apollo 13 as a dramatic work, suffering from the same faults that Ron Howard’s film did in its targeting of drama and emotional involvement, and following too closely the narrative structure and tropes of the earlier film. I noticed that the surnames of the two cosmonauts launched on the rescue mission are different to the real men, as if to excuse the dramatic license used to ramp up the tensions and their soap-opera backgrounds (arguments and conflicts that likely never really happened, a ‘sin’ that Apollo 13 committed also). That said, I guess you have to forgive dramatic license- these are films, dramatisations, rather than documentaries, afterall.  At its best, this film actually recalls the successes of The Right Stuff.

The cast is pretty good, the film is naturally in Russian with English subtitles, I’m certain some nuances of performance escaped me, but the language certainly enables the sense of time and place, that, say, a European movie with an English cast could never capture. The music fits awkwardly, however, part ambient noise (another nod to Gravity) and part overly-bombastic orchestrations that feel rather OTT- indeed the score is one of the films few stumbles. The Russian source music (rock songs etc) used in a similar way to the songs in, say, The Martian, really feels amusingly amateur too, maybe it’s all a bit too Eurovision for my tastes. I suppose that raises thoughts about the localisation of films, the dubbing/subtitling/use of music licenses. Most people will likely have no issue with it.

salyutdOn the whole though, this is a great space movie. And two days ago I’d never even heard of it. I thought this was the Information Age. What a strange, strange world- the Russians should hire another publicity company, maybe. In any case, anybody who enjoyed either Apollo 13 or Gravity will likely really enjoy this film, and I’m sure many will be surprised at just how technically adept the film is too. If only the script could have been quite as authentic as those visuals are, with less of the hyperbolic dramatics that cinema so often demands.  I’d certainly like to see a disc release here in the UK, I’d be tempted to pick it up as I’m sure it would only improve on a blu-ray presentation.

At the very least it’s a pleasant experience not being assaulted with explosions and aliens in a modern space movie- I’d love to see more like this, and it’s nice to see Russian cinema demonstrating its ability to measure up to Hollywood and give us a different flavour. I wonder if the time has come for Russian cinema to return to Solaris?


Listening to: Ben Lukas Boysen

SpellsA few words about a recent discovery of mine- German composer and sound designer Ben Lukas Boysen, whose two albums Gravity and Spells have been on repeat play over the last few weeks, a somewhat fragile and moody soundtrack to my lengthier-than-usual commutes to and from work. I’m not sure exactly what I’d call it- classical ambient, maybe? Its hard to define. Basically he merges programmed piano pieces with delicately-structured soundscapes of real musical instruments and textures of electronic sound to create wonderfully evocative, rather dark and sombre pieces.  Full of echoes, delays and other manipulations of the music/sounds, yes, it is ambient but it also feels rather more than that. What I’m getting at is, if it is indeed ambient, then it is superior ambient (‘ambient’ is a musical genre that gets somewhat abused these days post-chillout etc and its easy to become tired of it and feel its all getting rather redundant, actually good ambient being quite a rarity).

The funny thing is, I couldn’t possibly tell you where I spotted this music or how Boysen came to my attention, it just seemed to fall into my lap whilst surfing the ‘net. Likely its from a recommendation on Amazon, having purchased Johann Johannsson music in the past, as in tone and mood it certainly has some kind of kinship. Maybe it’s just the magic of the internet- I’m always finding stuff like this by accident, lovely discoveries that might otherwise pass me by. In a way, they already have- Spells dates from 2016 and Gravity originally from 2013. Boysen has plenty of other works available, soundtracks etc, that he has created over the past several years, and I expect it will be interesting exploring much of it over the next few months. I love these musical journeys into something new.

gravityOne thing I will just add; the best place to order these two albums from (either on download or the old-fashioned physical cd that I prefer) is from the website of his label, erased tapes. where you’ll get some additional bonus tracks as well as downloads in FLAC etc as opposed to vanilla mp3. Its also a nice place to listen to samples etc. if you’re just curious. I’m certain that anyone who loves the music of Johann Johannsson (still can’t believe he’s gone) or ambient in general will find much to enjoy in Boysen’s music, particularly in these two albums.

Europa Report

europa32017.33: Europa Report (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Jungle Book (2016)

jungle12016.97: The Jungle Book

I’ve never seen Walt Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book, other than the clips they would endlessly re-run every Easter on Disneytime (anybody else remember those?), so in some ways I came into this one in a rather unique (I would imagine) poston of not knowing what to expect. These live-action remakes that Disney are doing are quite clever really, rather like the remakes/reboots that Hollywood in general is so keen on these days. They seem to be working quite well too, on the evidence of this one; such a pity that The Black Hole remake seems to have stalled- if ever a Disney film deserved a (better) remake, its that one. In anycase,  this film benefits greatly from modern technology giving it a fresh angle, in just the same way as the recent Apes reboots have for Fox.

Its also ironic, that speaking as someone who bemoans the amount of cgi trickery and how it mucks about with quality film-making, it must be said that the 2016 Jungle Book (inspired no doubt by some chap watching Life of Pi a few years back) would have been quite impossible without cgi. The technology can be responsible for some pretty remarkable film-making, such as Pi and stuff like Gravity. Indeed most films -and particularly much television too- benefits hugely by cgi; like any tool, it just has to be used well. Its just too easy to miss-use it I guess. Its funny, I remember much the same argument being made about those ILM effects back in the original Star Wars era.

Is it the fault of cgi that screen-writing seems to have suffered so greatly over the past twenty years or so? I mean, it has to be partly to blame, mustn’t it. Its too easy to replace drama and carefully orchestrated plots and character arcs with loud explosions and flashy spectacle, and that’s such a shame as films -particularly blockbusters- seem to have degenerated into amusement rides rather than ‘proper’ (as I would call it) epic storytelling like the 1959 Ben Hur.

But that sounds like an old bugger whingeing about the disrespectful masses who wouldn’t dream of watching anything from the pre-Spielberg era of motion pictures and film-makers who have no intention of educating them.We are where we are.

So anyway, Jon Favreau’s rather remarkable new Jungle Book is quite the wonder. As someone who grew up in the ILM bluescreen era, for whom these cgi wonders are still eye-popping so long since Jurassic Park changed the movie landscape, much of the imagery and trickery on show is utterly astonishing. It looks quite ravishing, and I always watch this kind of stuff wondering what Hitchcock or Kubrick would have made of it (sorcery, maybe, but what wizards they might have been handling a toolset such as this in their movies?).

Newcomer Neel Sethi is something of a particular wonder as Mowgli, though, a mote of humanity in a cgi landscape whose bubbly personality and sense of pure innocent wonder is quite charming and steals the show from the effects boys.  His performance is a wonder when one considers what the live-action shooting of this film likely entailed (i.e. nothing at all like what the finished film looks like). Vocal casting of the animated characters is pretty spot-on too, with Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, and particularly Idris Elba as the villainous Shere Khan all very impressive and largely equal to the cgi visuals. The jungle feels real, although it most likely is utterly virtual. I have the impression that, like Avatar and Gravity before it, this new Jungle Book is a stepping-stone to something; I’m not sure exactly what, but there is something up ahead, a particular film in ten years time maybe, that when it hits will blow people away and people will trace its lineage backwards to stuff like those films, in just the same way that the Flash Gordon serials led to Star Wars. In anycase, this new Jungle Book is fine entertainment, one of the real achievements of 2016.

Nobody intended to make a bad Hobbit trilogy, but….

Thats a whole lot of Hobbit...
Thats a whole lot of Hobbit…

I’m not a film editor, or a cinematographer. I wouldn’t know how to stage a scene or design a set suitable for filming. I wouldn’t know how to produce a film or organise all the various departments that make a film, or even organise the on-set catering for a days shoot. And moan as I do about CGI, I wouldn’t know where to start regards designing or executing an effects sequence. So I can only imagine how annoying it must be to an artist or craftsman or director or producer when someone like me on the internet moans about their work or states that a film they worked on is terrible. Any idiot can voice an opinion about a film these days; a domain once dominated by professional critics has been swamped by all sorts of blogs and videos of teenagers stating their unreasoned opinions. And I do sometimes wonder if that’s to the detriment of films as a whole, that we are now getting the films we deserve because the voice of Joe Public is affecting the film-makers and the studios and their decision making.

Good films have suffered by the advance word of mouth of the loudest idiots who might have their own undisclosed and biased viewpoint. Bad films have triumphed simply by aiming at the lowest possible common denominator and then championed for it by that same denominator. I have sometimes thought that film-critics are just talentless hacks making a living off the work of others (the film-makers), under the misguided belief their opinion carried any particular importance- but multiply that by the genuinely untalented people sharing their sometimes mindless and unreasoned views on the internet and it becomes rather something scary.

I’m a part of that with this blog. I’m just a very small voice in a cacophony of opinion, praise and vitriol. I don’t expect my voice to be heard by anyone particularly important, although I did get a very nice comment from one of the editors/producers of Fantastic Films magazine when I praised the mag in my previous blog some years ago. I just love film, both as a serious art-form and a piece of entertainment.  It can be mindless fun or incredibly thought-provoking or emotionally devastating, utterly disposable or something to be treasured. But how much weight my opinions carry, or even should carry, is hardly worth thinking about. I couldn’t make a film (although I like to think I could script one, which is why bad scripts and plot holes particularly occupy me in my reviews) but I know what I like, or at least, I like to think I know a bad film when I see one. I also think I try to see the best in a film; that no matter how cynical a film-maker can be, that no-one really sets out to make a bad film, and that most bad films at least have something going for them.

I was recently talking to my brother and he set upon trashing San Andreas as a truly terrible, worthless film. I started feeling rather defensive about the film, although my own review here on this blog awhile ago was pretty negative, and rightly so- its not a very good film. My point regards San Andreas was that while the script was daft nonsense and most of the actors seemed to be just in it for the pay cheque (and that must happen more often than we like to think), Alexandra Daddario, at least, seemed to be making some effort, perhaps because she thought the film could be good or if only because she reasoned that the film was her big break in movies. Some of the effects work was spectacular, particularly the physical stuff which is largely forgotten in these days of CGI. It wasn’t a very good film, it didn’t offer anything new or challenging- it was mostly just popcorn entertainment and, yes, cynically so with a bad by-the-numbers script. But was it a terrible film?

Is it realistic of us to expect all war films to be a Schindler’s List or The Thin Red LIne? Should standards be that high? Is that at all realistic in what is, essentially, an entertainment business? Or are we complicit in Hollywood making bad films simply by watching them, or in my case, seeing something good in a bad film and forgiving that film being bad if only because, well, a pretty actress seemed pretty good or was making some effort in it with her performance?

No-one works in a vacuum and there must be so many forces in play that conspire to make a ‘good’ film ‘bad’. There’s likely a lot of people working their absolute hardest to make a film the best that they think it can be, only for it to wind up in the DVD bargain bin in twelve months time. And yes, there’s a lot of people just going through the motions just doing it to pay the mortgage or buy a new sports car/yacht.

Which all seems to be a long-winded way of getting to the subject of this post- The Hobbit trilogy, the story of which seems to have finally come to an end with the Blu-ray release of the extended edition of the third entry, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

….er, where’s Bilbo? Wasn’t it supposed to be HIS movie..?

Well, let’s be clear on one thing- The Hobbit films are not terrible films by any means. A lot of gifted artists and craftsmen worked on these films and they are a feast for the eyes and ears, like the LOTR films before them. The actors all do pretty good jobs- some of the work is excellent. Yet there’s a ‘but’ hanging in the air whenever people talk about The Hobbit films. Some people love them. Some people adore the Hobbit films and see little wrong with them. What could be wrong with another excursion into Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth? As for it being a trilogy, the more the better.

For the rest of us, well…

Was it too much of a good thing?

The LOTR films… they just… amazed me, basically. I’d read the Tolkien books many years ago and loved the Radio 4 dramatisation that transformed so many Sunday lunchtimes years before with what I was sure would be the definitive LOTR. But films? It was surely one of those unfilmable projects. And yet Peter Jackson, somehow he pulled it off. They were just magnificent. Yes, Tolkien purists had much to frown upon, but surely even they had to admit, that as films they were pretty damned amazing and could have been much, much worse. And even more astonishing, as good as the theatrical versions were, Jackson every year served up extended editions that just made them even better (although to be fair there are some that much prefer the theatrical versions). Okay, maybe there were a few issues and wrong turns but on the whole the films were sincere. We’d all heard the tales of earlier, aborted LOTR film-projects, of Sam being recast as a female hobbit and other characters altered to ensure an optimum audience demographic, of changes that made it less Tolkien and more, well, Hollywood. We’d all seen earlier fantasy films like Krull and Hawk the Slayer and Willow and Conan and how blatantly silly it could all look when things went wrong. I mean, Dwarves and Elves and Wizards and Orcs… on paper its wonderful but onscreen? Jackson’s LOTR took the Star Wars route. It took itself very seriously and while it diverted in places on the whole it at least felt fairly faithful to Tolkien’s work, certainly more faithful than we might have realistically hoped. As a body of work, as a trilogy, it was as magnificent as anything we could have hoped for.

hob1Bear in  mind where I’m coming from with this- I grew up in the age of stop-motion dinosaurs and blue screens and matte lines and grainy matte shots and static matte paintings.For the new generation, well, anything goes, the sky is the limit with effects technology now. For my generation, some of the things we have now, whether it be LOTR or Gravity or The Matrix, its just astonishing stuff. Unfortunately I’d suggest the sophistication of scripts and storytelling have been left behind by that tech- perhaps even taken a step backwards. But certainly it brings to mind Batty’s speech in Blade Runner, “…the things I’ve seen… you.. people wouldn’t believe”. We have digital characters now. Digital characters who at times seem to ‘act’ better than the ‘real’ characters they share scenes with. What used to be static process shots extended by paintings on glass have been replaced by sweeping camera moves through virtual worlds, of virtual sets featuring virtual people.

So after the success of LOTR,  The Hobbit seemed inevitable, mired as it was in rights issues. Eventually it would happen, if only so the people with the rights could turn those rights into money. After all, thats all the rights were for anyway, and greed conquers all, at least in the film industry.

But The Hobbit isn’t The Lord of the Rings. As seriously as fans might treat it, it’s just a children’s story, a fairly simple fantasy of a quest involving a Hobbit and Dwarves and a magic ring and a dragon. Its fun. It never had the gravitas of Tolkien’s later opus. It was an exciting, three-hour film at most. When it was announced as two films, I figured it was envisaged as a pair of two-hour films, so the whole thing would be four hours- maybe a little excessive but I thought it might ease any pacing issues a single film might be saddled with. I expected a bright, breezy treat, a pleasant diversion to complement the LOTR epic.

hob2I was wrong of course. What was actually intended was a ‘proper’ prequel to LOTR; something ultimately as reverential and serious as that trilogy. It became less Tolkien’s The Hobbit and more something else. Finally even two films would not be enough and it was turned into three. I won’t debate the obvious arguments on whether this was an artistic decision or a cynical financial one. To me the ultimate sin was a betrayal of basic storytelling;  in my eyes, what should have been the finale of the second film (Smaug attacking Laketown and the conclusion of that whole Smaug section of the tale) being moved to the start of the third film, crippling the second film by taking away its thematic endpoint and handicapping the third with a major sequence divorced of all build-up and context.

The sad part about it is that, to  be honest, The Hobbit films are pretty good films. I quite like them. I just think there’s too much of them. There is some great work both in front and behind the screen.But the films being made into a trilogy, and saddled with characters and character arcs and sequences not at all contained in the original book, have generally left a bad feeling about them, certainly a shadow of negativity. A feeling that they might have been great, had they just been The Hobbit, just been two films at most, just told the original story without the excessive ties being planted to bring it into line with the trilogy that follows them. There’s an unfortunate ‘what might have been’ over the whole project that LOTR wasn’t hampered with. I say unfortunate as it’s inevitable that the whole debate distracts from the films and what they do well. Some of the acting is great and what isn’t is often due to characters and situations being altered to better manage the whole ‘trilogy/prequel to LOTR’ thing, or simply because some characters shouldn’t even be in it at all. Even the LOTR extended editions cut scenes/events/characters from the story that bettered it overall. The Hobbit seemed to go the other way entirely, saddling it with stuff that should never have been scripted, let alone shot, to the detriment of the film/s as a whole.

The cynic in me thinks its just about the money. The Hobbit, for me, needed to be smaller, more intimate, a separate entity from LOTR. I just suspect that the money took over the project, that it suddenly became too big, too epic. I mean, really, pretty much a whole film dedicated to just the big battle? Tell me its not about putting more bums on seats, three sets of cinema tickets compared to two or even one, three sets of DVDs and Blu-rays as opposed to two or one (die-hard fans buying both theatrical and extended editions have bought six releases on either format in order to ‘own’ The Hobbit?). The cynic in me thinks the money wins because artistically The Hobbit wasn’t better for being three films as opposed to two or one. There’s probably a fan edit doing the rounds even now that tightens things up to a three-hour version, maybe it could be tightened even more, it’d be interesting to see. I think its a shame. Nobody set out to make a bad Hobbit trilogy, but it just kind of turned out that way. Maybe the project just got out of control, became too ambitious, lost its roots (a very simple book). It isn’t terrible, there’s plenty of good in them. Two good films anyway. But three was just pushing it too far.

Well, at least that’s what I think, for what it’s worth…



All Is Lost (2013)

all1It’s curious how some movies share plots/themes with others. Sometimes its clearly a case of rival studios making competing films that are different spins on the same story- Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are pretty much the same film but each with opposing approach (the former overly serious, the latter tongue-in-cheek fun). It happened years ago regards extinction event/deadly asteroids with Deep Impact and Armageddon (again, the former rather serious while the latter deliriously camp fun). Sometimes studios balk at launching expensive rival projects (usually one wins the box office and the other loses it) which results in one getting canceled (Baz Luhrmann’s Alexander project giving way to Oliver Stone’s film). But I guess its possible that films with similar subjects get made independently and ignorant of each other.

I don’t know if this was the case with All Is Lost, that its similarities were accidental, but the most immediate impression whilst watching J.C. Chandor’s film is the feeling that you’re watching Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity transposed to the ocean. Indeed I rather fear that many viewers will be distracted by the sense of deja-vu and dismiss All Is Lost as a rip-off and inferior. This would be unfortunate really, because All Is Lost is a great survival movie and character piece that benefits from its real-world setting and the lack of cgi spectacle that dominates so much of Gravity. Gravity, by its blockbuster nature, raised the stakes to huge levels and at times threatened its suspension of disbelief -indeed, in my own reading of the film, I believe the characters all perish early on and the ensuing events are Sandra Bullock’s near-death/post-death experiences similar to Tim Robbin’s character in Jacobs Ladder (there are simply too many happy coincidences/nearby space stations to be wholly realistic). Everytime Bullock pulls herself up on the shore at the end I expect to glimpse a little girl (her dead daughter) just on the edge of the final shot.

All Is Lost may be destined to forever suffer in comparison to its big-budget counterpart and sit in its very long shadow, but this would be a great shame. Both are great movies- its just that one is much quieter than the other. There’s nothing wrong with that, surely- maybe something superior even. All Is Lost is far less a blockbuster and much the better for it. Its a much quieter film, and slower-paced. Very often I reflected that the film reminded me of the films of the ‘seventies with its pacing and quiet thoughtfulness. There is hardly any dialogue at all, just a few muttered expletives really- it’s all about what we see, an exercise in Pure Cinema, far removed from how many modern movies explain everything through dialogue.The soundtrack is restrained, the (very good) Alex Ebert semi-ambient score mixed well into the superbly effective sound design.

all3Robert Redford is excellent- he plays a nameless mariner (simply named ‘Our Man’ in the credits) who awakens to find water in his cabin- he discovers that his yacht has been holed by a rogue shipping container during the night (so there’s another similarity to Gravity– in both films it’s junk that causes the ensuing drama; is there further meaning to that in both films?). In the middle of the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean, the mariner’s ship floats in complete isolation with its navigational and radio equipment ruined by the impact. The immediate danger seems minor, as he separates his boat from the container and starts makeshift repairs, but it becomes apparent that the yacht is dangerously harmed and following an ensuing storm the mariner’s attempt to survive becomes increasingly desperate. It’s a tale of survival against ever-increasing odds, of man dwarfed by, and at odds with, mother nature- the endless desolation of the ocean as indifferent and cruel as the cold depths of space are in Gravity.

We don’t learn much at all about our unnamed protagonist, except that as the events unfold he begins to re-examine who he is, what he has achieved and who/what he leaves behind should he die. In a similar way to the events of Gravity, it becomes a transcendent experience, the increasing closeness of death forcing a reappraisal of oneself. I had a sense that he isn’t a very nice guy, that while we empathise with his plight, he has a past unknown to us that wouldn’t really cast him in a very good light were it revealed (in one of his lowest moments he writes a last note and it is tinged with regret). It’s a tour-de-force from Redford, who incredibly was in his late seventies when this was shot, and this could well be considered one of his very best performances. His is the only character in the film, and Redford has to carry it completely on his own (in Gravity at least Bullock had other actors she could play off from). The mariners calm confidence is slowly chipped away by the unfolding events and his worn face starts to betray the quiet desperation he feels as his survival becomes ever unlikely. Its a great performance from Redford and a fine demonstration that not every leading man in a movie has to be young, fit and apparently unmarked by life (the one thing that bugs me about casting Keanu Reeves in John Wick, for instance, is that he hardly looks worn by the life of a hitman).

So if you can shake off the nagging sense of deja-vu when watching it, I’m sure you will be rewarded if you give All Is Lost a try. I’m certain it will eventually turn up on television with little fanfare and people will discover it (Redford himself was very critical of the films marketing on its theatrical release and its disc release has been similarly under the radar). Maybe it’s one of those films destined for reappraisal in years to come.



Gravity (2013) Imax 3D

gravity-movie-posterYeah, you read that right; Ghost has been back out to the movies, and a film in 3D at that. That sound you hear is the world halting on its axis and Hell freezing over. Well, I guess if I was going to succumb to the evils of 3D after all these many months of avoiding it, it would have to be because of something special. That’s what GRAVITY is; something special. But is it a movie? Even when watching it I had the impression I was less watching a movie, more experiencing an event. If GRAVITY has any shortcomings then they are clearly in the more traditional movie arena, things like plot, characterisation… but such things hardly matter when the damn thing looks and sounds so utterly overwhelming, particularly in Imax. If I ever watch any 3D movie ever again, I’ll be sure to make certain it’s on Imax.

Oddly enough, criticising GRAVITY for not having a truly great plot or characterisation seems almost redundant. In that respect, its much like that granddaddy of sci-fi films… and I’m not talking AVATAR.

GRAVITY may be the nearest thing to our generation’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I guess that might seem like just so much hyperbole but I think its a valid comparison. Kubrick himself, I think, when talking about 2001 described the medium itself as the message, if any, of the film. It was Pure Cinema. Conventional film-making techniques, such as narrative, plot, characterisation, dialogue, were left behind by Kubrick. 2001 was an experience to be see, to be heard…  and GRAVITY is like that. Its a sensory overload.  The story is perfunctory, almost incidental.  The genius about GRAVITY is that while so many blockbusters are huge entertaining thrill-rides that are ultimately as un-fulfilling as the popcorn being chomped on by the audience, this one has something of a soul and intelligence to it nonetheless. But regardless, its utterly beautiful. Every single shot is utterly convincing and a work of art. Its like magic, almost. Hell, make the Blu-ray barebones guys, I have no interest in any commentary or making-of featurettes, just leave the illusion, the magic there.   The film is that good.

???????So yeah, comparisons to 2001 are inevitable, even beyond the similar subject matter. 2001 has many meanings to many people. It can have a different meaning each time you see it. Its the ‘true’ history of man, from Ape to Starchild. Its how inhuman and souless that the future of artificial orbiting worlds and moonbases and AI makes us.  Its how utterly unknowable true Alien Intelligence will be. How small is our place in the Cosmos. How boring and mundane Space travel might actually be. That perhaps we should be careful not to lose our humanity as we leave the Earth. 2001 can be all that, and none of them.

GRAVITY isn’t really that profound, or trying to be, I suspect, and me making such comparisons between them is likely unfair to GRAVITY.  GRAVITY’s meanings… well, I’ll leave that to the inevitable multiple viewings ahead on Blu-ray next year. Maybe its just about how deadly and strange space really is. Maybe its just about the grieving process, of letting go, of Rebirth. I think I’ll keep this Spoiler-free so won’t dwell on any of this too much, but if you haven’t yet seen the film, skip this paragraph completely, but… well, here’s the thing that’s been bugging me:  does what we think we see in the film in its latter stages really even happen? There’s a moment late in the film, something happens, and, well, I really thought that the film had imploded, Jumped The Shark. Anyone who has seen the film knows what I’m on about.  Its clearly something unreal, a vision even, or visitation, but even when everything apparently returns to ‘normal’. I have to ask- I had my doubts even when watching it, but I haven’t seen or heard anybody else pick up on it;  what are we watching, towards the end?  Are we back on Earth at the end, or in Heaven? Maybe its all literally happening as we see it, but I’m not so sure. I half-expected to see a little girl standing, waiting on the shore-line at the end of that final shot.

But anyway, if this film doesn’t clean up all the technical Academy Awards then the Oscars is even more redundant than I had thought. And here’s the strangest, craziest thing of all, that I’ll leave you to ponder with even as I am shocked to realise I’m writing this- Sandra Bullock here deserves a nomination at least. If she won Best Actress I wouldn’t mind at all. She’s that good. There. I’ve said it, and my reputation flounders in that statements wake. But she is very good, and yes the film really is that good. Film of the year.