Party like it’s 1989: Always

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Big Lebowski 4K UHD

big2There’s something wonderfully endearing about this Coen Brothers film, that gives it the feeling of a warm blanket- its a film to wrap yourself in, enjoy the great cast, the wonderful dialogue, the gentle whimsy of it all. Nothing feels, well, convincingly real somehow- it’s all very dreamlike, a fable, or perhaps an adult fairytale. Even though it’s only twenty years old, it feels oddly old-fashioned, a reminder of a period when I saw films like this and Boogie Nights and Magnolia– great films, I was being spoiled back then and I didn’t appreciate how much. Its curious how much these three films in particular shared a common cast, how, say, Aimee Mann turns up in a cameo in this and then her songs form such a backbone to the mood and soundtrack of Magnolia.

Indeed, maybe it’s those twenty years but there is such a tangible feel of the ‘good old days’ here. Hearing Shawn Colvin’s cover of Viva Las Vegas over the Big Lebowski end-credits was a call-back to me buying her albums back then; I was a huge fan of her Fat City album in 1992, and have bought all her albums since, but hearing her voice here was a sudden jolt. I don’t recall her song from watching the film before. Yeah, I know, twenty years. Its a bit like how surprised I was to see Aimee’s cameo, I didn’t remember it at all. Aimee was another favourite singer of mine from that era (discovered from her featuring in Time Stand Still, from Rush’s 1987 album Hold Your Fire (it’s one of my favourite songs)) so again, rewatching this film brings back all that stuff.

Where did all those years go? The cast, too, is a blast from the past- Jeff Bridges has always been a favourite, but I’d forgotten that Philip Seymour Hoffman was in this- he looks so young here, so while it was a shock seeing him here, it was also a painful reminder of his untimely passing.  Of course he’s one of the cast members who turned up in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Christ he was a brilliant actor. He’s kind of young and bubbly in The Big Lebowski and it’s a sweet role for him. John Goodman nearly steals the film, which is saying something considering the cast around him- I think this is possibly one of his best performances, it just clicks. I suppose much of this is the perfect chemistry between him, Bridges and a shockingly young-looking Steve Buscemi (what a cast this film had!). The scenes these three have together (“shut the f–k up, Donny!”) are brilliant slices of perfection.

So anyway, The Big Lebowski– maybe you’re here to see how the 4K UHD holds up. It looks brilliant, a fine example of what the format can add to catalogue titles. Maybe stating that the film has never looked so good is beyond stating the obvious- detail is great, colours are vibrant. There is a lovely texture to it, the grain being captured and maintained without any DNR that I could see. There is a nice use of HDR in this too, which is something people look for, while forgetting that these films originally didn’t have any HDR treatment either theatrically or on DVD or Blu-ray releases. It certainly adds a nice vibrancy and ‘pop’ but I do sometimes wonder if its wholly warranted- it works here anyway, not distracting at all, it just adds to the visual quality of the film.

I only bought the film before on R1 DVD back when it first came out, and haven’t seen it in years, so can’t really comment on how it compares (an unfair comparison anyway, really). I did try the accompanying Blu-ray, which I hadn’t seen before. This is an old disc so based on an old master, but it’s where all the extras lie hence it warrants its inclusion with the UHD.  Even with the Blu-ray being automatically upscaled to 4K (any comparisons I make between Blu-ray and 4K are hamstrung by this) its clear there are issues with the master or encoding with the Blu-ray. It looks pretty ugly. Ouch, I sound like a 4K snob.

Regardless, I’m sure The Big Lebowski would work brilliantly on VHS on a b&w television. Its just a great film. The dude abides, indeed.

On that last thought, if I admit to feeling guilty even mentioning it, can I get away with wishing for a ‘twenty years later…’ sequel?  I just can’t help but be curious regards the dude now, what the hell would he think of America, and the world, where would he fit in, how would he even survive, out on the fringes, on the outside looking in on the current madhouse? I think we need the dude.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

clov12016.59: 10 Cloverfield Lane (Amazon VOD)

10 Cloverfield Lane is a very effective thriller, with a taut script and an excellent cast. As its title suggests, it is loosely connected to the original monster movie Cloverfield (just how loosely I won’t go into). Thankfully however this film drops the found-footage stuff and is a wholly more traditional film, and much the better for it.

It also boasts an absolutely wonderful score by Bear McCreary. There is a lot of the feeling of The Twilight Zone watching this film, and much of it stems from McCreary’s Herrmann-esque, evocative score. It immediately places us into a particular sense of mood and place, of a 1950s, 1960s tonal quality, quite non-contemporary. It’s so refreshing to watch a modern film that isn’t saddled with a Hans Zimmer-like score, and it is interesting that this is from McCreary, one of the most exciting talents in television scoring over the past ten years (Battlestar Galactica, Da Vinci’s Demons, The Walking Dead, Outlander etc.).

So anyway, this review is old-hat for many since it’s months since the films theatrical release, so I guess spoilers are ok. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is literally driving away from some unspecified relationship woes when she is run of the road in an accident. She awakens in a strange, spartan room – an IV attached to her arm and a brace on her knee that is, alarmingly, chained to the wall. She’s greeted by her captor, a man named Howard (John Goodman), who claims he’s saved her life. He tells her there has been an apocalyptic event, and that he has brought her to his survival bunker. Immediately there is something ‘off’ about Howard. He describes the event on the surface as an attack; maybe by the Russians, but casually also suggesting it was maybe by the Martians. At any rate, the surface has been rendered uninhabitable, and Howard, MIchelle and his other guest, Emmett (John Gallagher) have no choice but to wait it out – maybe a year or two.

As time passes, Michelle begins to doubt Howard’s version of events, but various things seem to corroborate it- Emmett himself witnessed the beginning of the attack and fought for entry to the shelter, and when Michelle gets a glimpse of the outside world she sees a bloodied, poisoned woman desperately trying to gain entrance herself. Howard is evidently unhinged and his story is crazy, but this is afterall a Cloverfield movie- should Michelle really risk everything to get outside and what will she find if she gets out there?

clov2Winstead is terrific in this. She really deserves better and more substantial roles in future genre films- she’s vulnerable but strong too, with a great physicality to her role that really brings to mind Weaver’s Ripley in Alien. Winstead is that good (but then again, I also thought she was the best thing in that The Thing prequel some years back). Goodman is naturally as dependable as ever, and it’s nice to see some of that old disarming charm of his (remember Always?) with the hints of deranged darkness he brings to his role here.

By the time the film ends and (most) of its secrets revealed in a final twenty-minute flourish, I was left with a desire to see more of these Cloverfield films. They could become a great little franchise of Twilight Zone-like stories. That does however come with one caveat- yet again we see here a JJ Abrams project that really harkens back to older originals than really doing something new and unique. He did it with Super 8, Star Trek, The Force Awakens and here The Twilight Zone- he seems adept at reinventing or reinterpreting old material or classic pieces of mainstream culture for new audiences (the Herrmann-like score by McCreary is surely no accident here, and the claustrophobic setting of the shelter has all the hallmarks of The Twilights Zone‘s adept use of working within its limited television budgets) but where is the really new stuff? Is there really nothing new under the Bad Robot sun?

 

 

The Monuments Men (2014)

Still from Monuments Men2016.24: The Monuments Men (HD Streaming)

In this post-Saving Private Ryan film landscape, it is actually rather odd that The Monuments Men is so surprisingly lightweight. Evidently this is deliberate, but it leaves it feeling like two different movies. On the one hand, it is visually stunning, using quite extraordinary effects work to place the protagonists in the middle of post-D Day wartime Europe. It looks like an epic war movie, and so much another Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers, a gritty war movie like, say, the same year’s Fury, and yet the twist is that it’s actually nothing of the sort. Director Clooney is trying to weave a more intimate, family friendly, life-affirming tale about the true story of Frank Stokes (Clooney) who gathers a group of art experts and scholars on a mission to save Europe’s greatest works of art from being destroyed in the chaos of the Allied invasion and German retreat.

The cast is pretty impressive – no, strike that; Clooney has assembled a frankly fantastic cast that includes Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett and Hugh Bonneville. Clooney is no doubt hoping that casting such heavyweights will allow their screen personas to inform the scantily-sketched characters spread thinly across the films short but busy running time. It doesn’t really work- seeing such great actors with lightweight roles seems a bit of a waste, but I guess it engenders rapid audience empathy. Its just a pity the characters aren’t more rounded or convincing.

It does seem that the film spreads itself too thin trying to tell too much of a story, that it needed editing down. In its defence, it’s clear that the film is trying to be faithful and respectful to the true story and mindful of not shortchanging anyone. It’s a similar situation to Everest. Sometimes you try to be fair to everyone and it turns out detrimental to the film as a whole and ultimately fails the original objective.

Which is not to suggest that The Monuments Men is a bad film. It’s a noble one, certainly, and tells an interesting and entertaining story, but as its characters split up and travel all over war-torn Europe hunting down the artworks stolen by the Reich, the film spreads itself too thin. The individual storylines become vignettes and I guess they are intended to inform the whole, but instead I felt that the scattered approach instead weakens it. We don’t really feel everything we are intended to feel. The film may have been better served by focusing wholly on one pair of ‘heroes’ but I suppose the counter-argument would be that wouldn’t be the ‘whole’ story. Clooney walks a tightrope here and falters- to further the analogy, while he doesn’t really fall off he loses his balance a few times, the film losing the grace it should have.

Yet some sequences are mightily impressive. There’s a particularly poignant Christmas scene, when a recorded Christmas message from back home involving  a warm Christmas song is played over a snow-swept Allied camp’s tannoy against visuals of wounded soldiers in a medical tent and one young man dying. It’s intimate and effective, a reminder of the contrast of the setting and the time of year and what our heroes are fighting for, and what they have at stake. It’s a well-written and directed scene, possibly the best of the film.

Elsewhere Clooney displays some skill at managing the great scale of things. He seems quite accomplished at knitting in the big effects shots and has a keen eye for composition. Its some feat to star in a film at the same time as directing it but he manages it well; its just a shame that the script, spread so thin telling so much, can’t afford more scenes as effective as the Christmas sequence, or characters a little more rounded and driven.

But what the hell, it’s a film with Bob Balaban in it (and he’s great, by the way). In my book, that makes it a film more than worth seeing, period.

Argo (2012)


argoOdd that I’ve only just gotten around to finally watching this Best Picture winner from 2012. Its rather weird watching a film that has won such awards, isn’t it? People likely watched and enjoyed it just as a good film beforehand, but once a film has that Oscar glory its quite another thing watching it for the first time. Suddenly its Best Picture, Best of the Rest, something special… Only, is it?

To be clear, this is a good film. A very good film. Its based on a true story- you know, one of those True Stories that are so larger than life and Crazy Bizarre that no-one could have possibly made it up. Set in late 1979 when Islamist militants stormed the U.S Embassy in Tehran, it concerns six embassy staff who escape the hostage situation in the embassy and manage to find refuge in the Canadian embassy. However their danger remains very real, as the Iranians eventually realise six Americans have gone missing and start hunting them down. If they are caught, the Americans will very likely be executed as spies.

The CIA  sets up an operation to get the six hostages out of Iran, which involves CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed the film) posing as a movie producer who is making Argo, a science-fiction film hot on the heels of the success of Star Wars.  With the help of Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez makes Argo appear to be a legitimate Hollywood enterprise, convincing the Iranian authorities that he is leading a six-person production crew searching for locations to shoot the film. The plan is for Mendez to fly in, link up with the six embassy staff, set them up as his film crew, ‘scout’ some locations in  Tehran and then fly them out on a commercial airline in full view of the Iranians.

argo2

Argo wears its period setting as a badge of pride, depicting the styles and mood of the late 1970s not only in the film’s art direction but also in how the film is shot, lending it the feel of a 1970s movie, right down to the typeface used on the films credits- it looks and feels and sounds authentic (filmgeeks will love spotting visual references to sci-fi films/iconic images/props of the period). Original footage from newscasts and archive material is edited in pretty much seamlessly, lending it a convincing docudrama feel, something only heightened during the film’s end-credits when it is shown just how close the recreated scenes compare to the real. Its all quite an achievement.

Its a very intense and affective thriller that only falters towards the end, when director Affleck lets the film slip into standard Hollywood territory, an edge-of-your-seat escape with the airliner being chased down the tarmac by gun-wielding militia in trucks. I guess you can forgive the film taking a few liberties with the story to raise the stakes/tension but its still regrettable. The remarkable story the film tells should be enough – is enough, surely- so it doesn’t really need to tip things further into the fantastic. Suddenly, and not without some irony, the sense of reality falters and you feel like you are watching just a movie. Its a curious misstep, but maybe the film getting Best Picture would indicate it was no misstep at all. Any film that sets up the premise of Hollywood saving the day and itself being the hero was pretty much a cert to win Oscar glory wasn’t it? I mean, these guys vote for themselves and everyone loves to be a hero.

Agh. Stop being such a cynic, eh? Good film.