3 Days to Kill (2014)

The acclaimed directors McG and Luc Besson team-up to make a thrilling film… no, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Lucas and Spielberg teaming up for Raiders. Those were the days…

Goodness, those WERE the days, weren’t they? Look at us now: the Mouse owns Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar. Anyway, I digress; back to McG and Besson and….

Who calls themselves ‘McG’ anyway? That’d be like Spielberg using the moniker of ‘SS’ (er, okay, maybe not…) or Ridley Scott signing himself off as ‘Directed by Ridders’. Whoops. I’m digressing again.

Its always this way when I’m struggling to find anything to say about a movie. 3 Days To Kill: well, its terribly juvenile, quite insultingly silly. Its a spy caper of sorts, about some Yanks living in Paris and bringing with them violent gunfights and car chases, with maybe a European twist (that’d be the purple bicycle). Its something to do with the CIA and terrorists with a nuclear bomb, or parts for one, and in particular a creepy terrorist with an accountant. Ethan Runner (Kevin Costner) is a Secret Service agent with a license to kill (wrong franchise?) only he’s getting on a bit and is suffering a terminal illness (we know this because he coughs and suffers blackouts/dizzy spells at inopportune times). I spent the film hoping he’d suffer a dizzy spell/blackout whilst spending the night with his sexy wife/ex Tina (Connie Nielsen) because I thought that might be funny to see a tough-guy killing machine rendered impotent by illness but maybe that’s more suited to a Woody Allen spy caper. But I digress. Back to the plot, such as it is. With only weeks/months to live, Ethan has come to Paris to attempt to reconnect with his estranged family and his daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) because he’s had some kind of epiphany watching old home movies (this film is really deep). Anyway, Ethan is suddenly offered a miracle cure for his illness by his new CIA handler, Vivi, offering him new hope so in-between his clunky attempts to reconnect with his estranged family he fills any spare time with chasing down his old adversary and smashing up Paris.

I’m not certain what’s dafter; the timely magic syringe or Amber Heard as Vivi DeLay, Ethan’s teenage new handler. Well,, okay, obviously its Amber Heard and she’s not quite a teen. But she’s terrible. I suppose to be fair, its a fairly thankless role. She’s some desk-jockey turned espionage savant/poor-man’s Sharon Stone. Actually, its the kind of role that Sharon Stone would have brilliant for- smart, beautiful, sexy, dangerous, experienced, she could have chewed up the scenery and left Costner begging for mercy. Instead, Vivi is the usual pretty, incredibly well-dressed vacuous young whipper-snapper who has done nothing but breezes around like a… what’s the term… a Mary Sue, that’s it: imagine Rey from the Disney Star Wars movies bossing a deadly assassin around who’s old enough to be her grandad, and you’re watching thinking, how come she’s not going out and doing the dirty work herself, she’s so obviously perfect? And yeah, maybe thinking like me, ‘where’s Sharon Stone?’

This is such a silly movie that’s absurdly confident that it should be taken seriously; it tries SO HARD. It fails so spectacularly. Such a shame what happened to Kevin Costner- no actor with his credentials deserves to be in films like this. But it pays the bills I guess.

Hidden Figures (2016)

hiddenfigHidden Figures is based on the real-life stories of three female African-American mathematicians who suffered from racial and sexual prejudice when working for NASA in the early years of the US space program, for which they played a vital role in the race against the Russians. If that makes it sound like a dark and gritty subject, then I’m describing it wrongly- although it can be unsettling and get the blood-pressure rising (I vented at the screen a number of times at the racial prejudice exhibited by some white characters in the film), it is nonetheless a very positive, life-affirming and warm film which serves as a perfect antidote for our times. I haven’t enjoyed a film quite as much as I did this one in quite awhile, and its a wonderful reminder of why I love movies. Sometimes they can just leave you with such a buzz. Priceless in this day and age.

I’m sure there may be technical goofs and factual errors, dashes of artistic license etc but the hell with any of that, sometimes a film is just such wonderful storytelling and drama that I don’t care: this isn’t some stolid documentary, this is a film with heart and soul and passion and some really fine, standout performances from the leads (Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) with a surprising weighty gravitas from Kevin Costner that reminds what a great screen presence he can be.

Its great, I couldn’t praise it enough. Its funny, informative, emotional, transcendently uplifting and inspirational: absolutely terrific.

Funnily enough (as in funny peculiar rather than funny ha-ha), I watched this from a Network screening on Channel Four which I recorded over the Christmas season, complete with commercial breaks etc. (which I zipped through with some aplomb- like riding a bike, you never forget speedy use of the remote). Watching films this way is something I so rarely do now, as I noted when I caught Deep Impact again several days ago: must be a sure sign that it was Christmas. I remember being curious about Hidden Figures back when I first saw a trailer years ago, I’m not sure why I didn’t buy it when it dropped on disc release as its subject matter (the 1960s space program) is a fascination of mine, but probably it was back when I was trying to rein in my reckless buying of discs, certainly of blind-buying them. The irony that I now have to search out a 4K UHD copy because it turns out I completely fell in love with the darn thing does not escape me.

Anyway, if like me you were negligent in not catching this film earlier, do yourself a favour and give this unapologetically feel-good film a go. I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it. In this age of Covid, we sorely need films like this to warm our hearts: consider it an antidote to the lockdown we’ve just been dropped into again.

Party like it’s 1989: Field of Dreams (4K UHD)

pris2Another 30th anniversary, and another 4K UHD release of an old favourite- this time Field of Dreams, a film blessed by one of James Horner’s best and most intimate of scores, and a story/screenplay that makes it the best Ray Bradbury movie that isn’t actually based on a Ray Bradbury story. Like Rod Serling’s early Twilight Zone episode, Walking Distance, this feels so much like a Bradbury tale it’s almost from some kind of fantasy uncanny valley.  As someone who spent much of the 1980s devouring much or Ray Bradbury’s short fiction and later novels, quietly laughing and shedding a tear at just the right moments with each turn of the page, Field of Dreams was, to quote the characters, not just incredible, it was perfect.

In just the same way as Alien is possibly the best Lovecraft film ever made, in how honest and sincere it is in conveying the alien horror of his best tales, so Field of Dreams is the best Bradbury film ever made- the fact that neither author had anything at all to do with the original source materials of either movie matters not one jot.

So anyway, I had to pinch myself a little this past weekend- I was a very lucky ghost watching The Prisoner of Second Avenue in a new HD master on Blu-ray and the following day a new transfer of Field of Dreams, splendidly brought to 4K UHD disc. While the disc will never win any awards or standout from the 4K UHD crowd, it’s the best the film has ever looked- a quick spin of the original Blu-ray disc reveals how limited that old edition really was, hampered by a lackluster print/master which in comparison really highlights the improvements in this new 4K disc. The image is more stable, the detail and filmic grain more defined and the colour depth really improved- HDR is mostly subtle and all the best for it, only really vivid in scenes with neon street lighting or in the baseball field at night.

The film, of course, is something of a marmite picture; often described as a male-weepie or adult fable, it’s a charming and finely-judged film that is really quite subtle – I think it will be interesting to rewatch Always, also from 1989, and similarly old-fashioned and gentle in spirit, to see how Spielberg’s less subtle hand fares (a bargain-bin blu-ray sits waiting on the shelf as I type this). I was naturally predisposed to fall for this film simply because it evokes so much of the magic Bradbury’s old Americana fantasies, but this shouldn’t detract from the qualities of the cinematography,  the performances (Kevin Costner is at the top of his game and James Earl Jones a greater joy everytime I rewatch this), the sublime score, the deft direction.  It has the feel of lightning caught in a bottle- a film has naively nostalgic and innocent as this shouldn’t have worked in the 1980s and beyond, but like Capra’s Its A Wonderful Life, it’s rather gained a timeless life all of its own.

The Highwaymen (2019)

highwayThere was something missing in this one. Its hard to put my finger on it- it was serviceable enough, if overlong, but somehow there was something just… off, somehow. Maybe it was a sense of an A-list cast just cruising- not exactly phoning it in, but maybe, veterans as Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson are, they just sensed that something wasn’t working.

There is, for instance, a suggested subtext (and not even suggested really, but quite open at times) of the passing of  the torch, of the old meeting the new, of the old boys having one last mission, one last hunt, in the face of progress with technology and new systems replacing our heroes’ tried and tested instinct and grit. But it isn’t really examined or elaborated. Its not that I was expecting some kind of self-interrogation or self-doubt that, say, Unforgiven‘s William Munny had with his ‘one more job’… but, well, maybe I was. Costner is certainly capable of delving into Texas Ranger Frank Hamer’s soul, and the long bloody years of his past, but instead he cooly approaches this hunt for outlaws Bonnie and Clyde almost ignorant of the ghosts of the past. Maybe I was expecting some conflict, some sense of haunted isolation or being haunted by the past which simply wasn’t necessary here. I was just expecting some other movie. It happens.

Which was doubly frustrating, though, because this film was definitely not about Bonnie and Clyde – perhaps even refreshingly so, they were always on the periphery, their actions seen from a distance, generally even avoiding their faces. I don’t think they ever even spoke. The focus was purely on the two retired Texas Rangers brought back to hunt them down- Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson), and yet the focus was wasted, we hardly really got ‘into’ them. I was expecting more intimate self-reflection, of the perspective of old age on youthful folly/waste/questionable deeds. We are told to question the public adoration that Bonnie and Clyde received from the poor (some kind of celebrities back then, as if subject to a mythic Robin Hood status) but we are not told to question the system or the lawmen that represented it. Costner is a Good Man. The outlaws are Bad. It feels very black and white where I was hoping for more shades of grey.

Deepwater Blues

deep1.jpg2017.21: Deepwater Horizon (2016) – Streaming, HD

Deepwater Horizon seems symptomatic of modern Hollywood to me.  Its fine for what it is, but it is clearly reshaping a tense and disturbing real-life story into a fairly formulaic mainstream entertainment flick with huge stunts and explosions straight out of a standard blockbuster thriller. Its rather a shame, as it begins with a docu-drama approach that ensures some level of reality as it displays the routines of working on drilling rigs; rostered weeks away from home, the transport offshore, the mechanisms of the rig etc. The safety culture and pressures on that from the corporate side, regards making a profit on huge investments. Its interesting, if somewhat mundane in how it is portrayed.

deep2But of course this is no dramatic examination of corporate greed or safety measures being cut; its really a disaster movie. So the film seems to transform midway and it’s an uncomfortable transition. As extraordinary as the visual effects and the set-pieces are when the shit hits the fan, its nonetheless all too much like the ending of a Marvel superhero movie.  Mark Wahlberg is, as always, Mark Wahlberg, and the film fails to recover from the fact that he simply cannot ‘be’ anything other than who he ever is in a film. Maybe that’s just a personal thing of mine, but he seems to be an actor who, well, seems to bring the same personna to every film he does.  He’s supposed to be an Everyman Joe here, but he just seems to be the same guy from that last Transformers movie, complete with similar pyrotechnics. It needed someone like a young Jack Lemmon or Kevin Costner, but to be fair to Wahlberg I guess there is no real depth of character in any of the people portrayed here.

So for me the film really gets scuppered by  its casting and the pressure to ‘wow’ audiences with extreme explosions and spectacular effects. Imagine if Oliver Stone in JFK-mode got hold of a film like this- he’d have ripped the shit out of the corporate hacks involved and really intensified the injustice and tragedy that unfolded during and -most tellingly- after the event, through the ensuing environmental disaster and rather ineffective courtroom investigations that this film rather tritely passes over with hardly a mention.

Thats the biggest crime of this movie- it shows what happened, and quite vicariously too, but it doesn’t actually say anything.  A film like this, it should say something, yes? It doesn’t say anything about the environmental impact or the economic impact on the area or about the nature of human greed or human complacency, or corporate responsibilities. An Oliver Stone movie would have had plenty to say, I’m sure. Make people angry about shit like this, dammit. Don’t make a trite disaster movie, spectacular as it may be.

A different structure, say, starting with the disaster and then following it up with the courtroom stuff examining the procedures, safety issues and the injustices etc may have afforded a more rewarding movie. But that kind of movie isn’t what makes a blockbuster these days. Back in the 1970s, films dared to be political. Not anymore.

The Postman (1997)

post12016.62: The Postman (Amazon VOD)

Watching The Postman…. well, if nothing else, it demonstrates how tricky it obviously is to make something as successful, artistically and financially, as Dances With Wolves.

The Postman follows the template of Dances With Wolves so much its almost painful- it’s a Western in all but name, it features the same star, the same director, its nearly three hours long and is designed to be some kind of epic morality tale complete with a feel-good ending. Even after Waterworld the film must have seemed a safe bet for the studio (Costner was still a bankable actor at the time). Yet it stumbles at almost every turn- the star gives a by the numbers ‘I-just-have-to-smile-to-turn-on-the-charm’ performance, the direction is more suited to a tv movie than a Hollywood epic, the script is both underwritten and full of plotholes, the supporting cast seem to be floundering, unsure even of the tone of the thing, and the music generic and lacking all the subtlety and emotional contact of John Barry’s work. Its  just not a very good movie, and it really feels that Costner’s heart simply wasn’t in it. It’s never convincing or genuine, whereas in Dances With Wolves you can sense the desire and dedication in every shot, every scene, something completely lacking here.

Surprisingly, it’s based on a book, which means either the book is pretty bad or the filmmakers recognised in its plot the basic building-blocks of a Costner vehicle and went off and did their own thing, as Hollywood is wont to do. The whole thing feels hopelessly generic and predictable, but you do get the feeling that somewhere in there might have been a pretty good movie.

Sometime following a vague apocalypse that has returned America to a wild west landscape, a drifter with a penchant for acting out bits of Shakespeare for food and shelter gets forced into the militia-force of General Bethlehem (Will Patton), an ex-photocopier salesman with delusions of building an Empire. The drifter escapes and stumbles upon a derelict postal van with the corpse of its postman inside. He appropriates the uniform and a bag of letters destined for the fortunately nearby town of Pineview, and  once there he is greeted with mistrust until the letters from long-lost relatives melts their hearts and he is treated as a saviour. The drifter is now The Postman (ta-da!), and in the spirit of his old acting gig he concocts tall tales of a revitalised postal network and reborn US Government heralding Better Times. Of course its just a ploy to get better treatment and eventually he leaves with new letters from the townsfolk for their relatives which he seems little inclined to deliver.

While its premise is pretty daft I found the central arc for Costner’s anti-hero drifter to be refreshing, albeit in execution the whole thing lacks the subtlety it needs in order to work.  The Postman doesn’t do subtle- everything is telegraphed well in advance and is so comfortably predictable,  you pretty much know what characters are going to do and say ahead of the film. You know The Postman is going to eventually feel guilty for wrongly inspiring hope in the people that he meets, and you just know they are going to suffer when General Bethlehem turns up with his expanding photocopier business, sorry, Evil Empire. And you just know The Postman’s inspirational tall tales and false heroism are going to create the very thing he is lying about.

Did I mention that this film is just shy of three hours long? What on Earth made them think this material merited that kind of epic length/treatment? Did they really think they were making another Western fable in the manner of Dances With Wolves? The film seems to go on F-O-R-E-V-E-R. The sense of relief when the last cliche is reached, the last agonising monologue, the last waving of the flag, the last hymn to the United States of America happens, is palpable. God only knows this must have seemed unbearable in the cinema- at home its still a grit-your-teeth butt number where time seems to pass oh so slowly.

The one thing this film has going for it is one of the most brazen ‘WTF were they thinking’ moments in cinema history when Tom Petty turns up as, well, Tom Petty, leading a settlement of good folk that helps save the day. I mean, it’s not Tom Petty playing a leader, it’s Tom Petty being Tom Petty the post-apocalypse leader.  Its so bizarre its almost worth the three hour running time. This film is crazy. Just plain crazy.

 

Dances With Wolves (1990)

dances1I well remember seeing Dances With Wolves back during its cinema release. It was a lovely cinematic experience that harkened back to an old kind of less cynical, pre-Leone Western while displaying some wisely revisionist respect towards Native Americans. It starred -and was directed by- one of the genuine rising stars at the time and marked a return to film scoring by John Barry (the way the film sounded no doubt helping its rather nostalgic feel). I loved the film and bought the soundtrack and later the film on VHS (yep thats how long ago it was!) and later still another VHS copy of the deluxe-boxed extended cut (back when extended cuts were more of a rarity than now). The film was hugely popular at the time and has possibly suffered a backlash over the years, before being triumphantly remade by James Cameron into a sci-fi epic (okay I’m joking at that last bit– or am I?).

Last night I watched the film again for the first time in something like twenty years. Twenty years– and this is a film I really liked; its scary how the years sneak past you; indeed, I’m certain the last time I saw the film was on VHS. I did buy a copy of the film on DVD but somehow never got around to watching it. This time I watched it on Blu-ray, a German steelbook that I imported for the two cuts and substantial extras that are incredibly lacking on our theatrical-only UK disc.

dances2What got me buying the Blu-ray and actually watching the film again was the release late last year of the complete John Barry soundtrack on a 2-CD edition from La La Land records. Listening to that gorgeous Barry music – better now than ever, and rarer now that Barry himself is long gone and film music has rather gone down the Zimmer toilet these past years- had me reminiscing about the film again. Similar to how listening to James Horner soundtracks following his death last year has me reaching for my Apollo 13 and Field of Dreams Blu-ray discs.

I’m pleased to report that Dances With Wolves holds up very well after what is now 25 years- it remains a lovely film. I don’t think it’s particularly dated at all (though some of the hair-styles betray a rather 1980s vibe that likely wasn’t intentional) and it’s a joyful reminder of Orion Pictures logos* and Costner as a young rising star (his career never maintained that 1980s-1990s trajectory of The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, No Way Out, Dances and The Bodyguard). And yes it’s a reminder of great John Barry music that graced so many other great films. Its warm and its funny and its thrilling and full of awe-inspiringly lovely landscapes.

Its got a genuinely wonderful script. The script just works, and is the great foundation of the whole film (reading the soundtrack CD liner-notes I sadly learned that Michael Blake, who wrote the screenplay from his own novel, died in May 2015 at the age of 69, another sign of all those years that have passed since the film was released). I wish every film these days had such finely judged scripts with great characters and character arcs and a message and everything. Yes the film was entertainment but it also had something to say about America and its past and the plight of Native Americans.

And the film had such time to breathe. It isn’t edited down to within an inch of its life to satisfy audiences with attention-deficiency disorders.

Maybe the 25 years have increased the nostalgia factor. It is a funny thing watching films that we grew up on, have strong memories of. Like music albums, songs bringing old times and memories rushing back, films can be such time machines too.

 

 

* same feeling I get watching the original Robocop and The Termnator. I wonder if we will one day get so warmly nostalgic about seeing Star Wars films with the 20th Century Fox fanfare after years of Disney Star Wars?

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Revisiting ‘Field of Dreams’ (1989)

fod1Continuing this impromptu series of getting around to discs that have been on the ‘to-watch’ pile for far too long, last night I watched Field of Dreams. I remember watching it at the cinema one evening a long time ago in another life, it seems- back when I had another job, a whole different career, when I was single… So much has changed in my life over the past twenty-five-plus years, but this film has been with me throughout that time; this film is a big favourite of mine, easily in my top ten. I have no interest in baseball but that sport is incidental to the films deeper themes about hopes and dreams, and forgiveness and belief. There is more wonder in its near-two hours than any $200 million CGI blockbuster spectacle.

For me its a good film that suddenly leaps into genuine greatness/perfection when Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella meets up with Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones. The two characters make such a great team, and the two actors share a great warmth and chemistry, its a wonderful partnership. The mystery of Ray’s quest gets really interesting at this point; suddenly its much bigger than simply building the baseball field on his farm. After both hearing a message to ‘go the distance’ when seeing a vision of a players baseball record, the two men go to Chisholm, Minnesota to track down Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) only to find he was the town doctor, who died years ago but is still fondly remembered by townsfolk. In a wonderful scene Ray goes out for a moonlit walk through the town and somehow finds himself in 1972, meeting the doctor who, himself having a restless night, found himself in need of a walk too. The two somehow meet across the space of decades and life and death and have a chat about past hopes/unfulfilled dreams… its like a scene from a Ray Bradbury story (and I love Ray Bradbury’s stories).

The temptation to explain the ‘magic’ of such events (the voice that sets Ray on his quest, the returning Baseball players, the meeting with Archibald that night, and all the rest that occurs) must have been great, as traditionally audiences like everything explained, but it’s all left unsaid, it just happens, Whats really interesting is a viewing of the film raised by James Earl Jones in the discs documentary, in which he suggests his character is itself a ghost all along, just like the baseball players coming out of the cornfield and Archibald’s younger self. Likely non-intentioned by the film makers, it gives events of the film such a sweet twist. You can accept this version or ignore it, but its there.

Such a great, magical movie. The cast is perfect, the dialogue wonderful, the characterisations warm and genuine, the score simply sublime. I was deep in my adoration of James Horner’s scores back then and buying them all on CD, and this score was as perfect as the movie seemed to be. God only knows how many times I must have played the CD of this film’s soundtrack back then.

Which lent a very real sense of sadness throughout my viewing of this film. It was the first time I have seen Field of Dreams following the death of James Horner. The score for Field of Dreams is such an integral part of the piece, its really the soul of the movie, the film pretty much scored throughout from the start to the end, and good grief, the man behind that music is gone now. Such an incredibly sad thing, watching the film, so much that was familiar now so poignant. Horner was so talented, so versatile and yes, creatively on fire back when Field of Dreams was made. With this film Horner was a very special part of a very special film.