Proxima (2019)

prox2Single-mother Sarah Loreau (Eva Green) is a French astronaut preparing for a year-long mission aboard the ISS, and in the final weeks leading to the mission she finds that her relationship with her eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant) is threatening to fall apart as the child starts to resent her mother for leaving her.

Proxima naturally reminded me of the similarly-themed Lucy in the Sky, in which Natalie Portman delivered a fine performance as an astronaut returning to Earth after a Space Shuttle mission finding herself unable to resume the normal life she had left behind. Proxima flips things around somewhat, dealing with the lead-up to a space mission and the toll it takes on personal relationships, but it shares topics such as women working in what is usually accepted as a mostly male-dominated profession and the unique pressures women face having to prove themselves equal. Proxima is clearly the superior film as it defttly navigates the many arcs running through it without being overly preachy or melodramtatic. For me, if it falters at any point its when Sarah abandons her pre-flight quarantine (essentially endangering the mission and her fellow crewmembers safety) in order to have one last important night with her daughter, to finally make peace with her and the situation they are caught up in. Emotionally, it works and acts as something of a crescendo for the film, but intellectually its sets up all sorts of alarm signals, which is unfortunate, because on the whole the film is quite remarkable for being both character-driven and involving, but also authentic in how it portrays the beaurocracy and administration around an astronauts career and the physical and intellectual intensity of their training. Being an astronaut is not a normal job, leaving the Earth is not a normal event, but men and women have to navigate the normality of family life and the bizarre enormity of what they are doing in their careers. Proxima explores the pressures that are perhaps not wholly unique to a woman, but it does offer intriguing observations of what particulalrly effects a mother, and the drive that ensures a woman can succeed in her life aspirations in what might be assumed to be a male-dominated career. The film stumbles a little in places but on the whole it suceeds really surprisingly well.

Eva Green is absolutely terrific, as might be expected. She’s one of the best actresses working today, and its hard for me to think of a bad performance of hers in anything I’ve seen her in (even if her choice of roles sometimes does her few favours- 300: Rise of an Empire for one). I remember how brilliant she was in the short-lived (and rather oddly under-appreciated) series Penny Dreadful, which sets me thinking that there’s another few Blu-rays up on my shelf that I should be watching again sometime (that watchlist is endless, frankly). The chemistry between Eve and young Zélie, who plays her daughter, is really quite affecting and it absolutely lends the film some greater intensity and sense of reality. Their rapport feels natural and real and its something that can get quite overlooked sometimes: its one of those things that viewers can often take for granted but if the chemistry isn’t there, or if it feels forced, it can really undermine any drama.

I think its to be welcomed that film-makers suddenly seem interested in the human side of space travel (Proxima is wholly set on Earth with no sequences set in space other than stock footage), and films like First Man, Lucy in the Sky and this indicate that there is plenty to explore. Some TV shows have explored this too and oddly enough don’t appear to have been as successful as their film counterparts  (The First, starring Sean Penn was an interesting attempt that got cancelled after one season), wheras I would have thought an episodic format would have been a benefit. I would be fascinated to see a project with the emotonal/intellectual gravitas of First Man or Proxima combined with the scale and ambition of maybe a 2001: A Space Odyssey – well okay, thats maybe unfair, but then again, why? Why shouldn’t we be able to expect that of our current film-makers (what on Earth is James Cameron doing making sagas about blue Aliens when he should be tackling something with real importance, scale and ambition)? I suppose setting my sights more realistically, I’m thinking something with the reality of First Man or Proxima doubled with a film like The Martian or Mission to Mars: you know, get a sense of real drama and humanity in there with the hardware and spectacle. In space, you don’t need aliens or monsters to get viewers excited, the human story that got you there should be enough, and the impact of the experience on the human psyche and heart is a subject rich with possibilities. 

21 Bridges

21bIt seems a bit daft to praise a film for being an old-fashioned thriller, and perhaps to make allowances for any minor shortcomings because for once here’s a film without lots of CGI or action-packed caped capers- but you know, there was just something so endearingly comforting about this film: sure I could guess some of the ‘twists’ and some of the casting seemed to telegraph some of those twists, but on the whole this was thoroughly entertaining and such a breath of fresh air it was easy to make such allowances.

As night falls on New York City, two obviously military-background criminals Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch) perform a heist on a closed restaurant that escalates quickly in all the wrong ways- the restaurant’s storeoom is full of millions of dollars worth of uncut drugs and the two perps have to shoot their way out when cops apparently stumble on the heist. They leave a bloody trail of destruction that leaves seven officers dead and a citywide manhunt closing the city down until 5 a.m. Summoned to the scene, Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman), a cop with a perhaps unfair reputation for being a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ kind of law enforcer, is given the task of hunting down the two cop-killers – but Andre is immediately suspicious that not everything seems to add up.

Directed by Brian Kirk, whose resume of television shows includes episodes of Game of Thrones, Hard Sun, Penny Dreadful and Luther, this is a taut, relentlessly entertaining film with some brilliantly staged action sequences. Its paced quickly enough to mask some of the plot contrivances but not enough to make it as obvious as, say, a JJ Abrams flick does. Quite often I caught myself comparing it to Die Hard or Witness, it was that good- well, maybe that was me getting a little carried away, but I really did enjoy it. It seemed so refreshing to see something so traditional as a police thriller with a great cast and a simple, direct plot in an era in which we are assaulted by OTT superhero flicks or ludicrously explosive blockbusters.

Dare I suggest its the perfect Friday-night-in movie for our trying times?

21 Bridges is available on DVD and Blu-ray and streaming on Amazon Prime.

 

The Frankenstein Chronicles Season One (2015)

frankenst1I’m certain it dates back to my childhood love of the Hammer horror films airing on tv- particularly the Gothic horrors of its Dracula and Frankenstein films, but I do love period Gothic horror. There seems something pure about it, something authentic about horror stories set in periods where the world was still unknown and uncertain, when science had so few answers and God (and the Devil) had a monopoly on the rest. Its partly why I think Lovecraft stories work better in the period in which they were written -1920s/1930s America mostly- and just feel wrong transposed to the modern day as they have been in so many film adaptations.  Set a horror story in Victorian times when mortality and religion hangs over all, and the drama and mystery pretty much becomes easy.

I am a little late coming to The Frankenstein Chronicles– two seasons have already aired, here in the UK on ITV’s slightly obscure Encore channel with a corresponding low audience (the fragmented state of current television distribution is something of a concern these days). A third season apparently looked unlikely but Netflix have picked up the show with (hopefully) a bigger audience in the offing, leaving the door open for financing a third season if it proves a success. Netflix seems to be coming to the salvation of so many troubled shows, why not another?

On the evidence of this first season, I’d say it deserves that wider audience and corresponding success. The series proposes that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1818 was not wholly a work of fiction, but was based on some real scientific experiments going on that Shelley herself was associated with. After a grisly corpse comprising of the parts of eight missing children stitched together is discovered washed ashore on the Thames, Inspector John Marlot (Sean Bean) makes some terrifying and monstrous discoveries of scientific experiments ushering in a Godless world. Marlot’s investigation leads him through a London of poverty, disease, grave-robbing, political machinations and scientific horrors as he discovers that Shelley’s novel was not entirely the work of fiction its readers assume it was.

The premise is tantalizing and offers more possibilities than you might think. Sean Bean of course is great, his increasingly life-worn and hounded expression as he gets older fitting in well with the troubled character of Inspector Marlot. In a similar way to how the excellent Penny Dreadful series mixed real history with characters of historical fiction, so too does The Frankenstein Chronicles blur the lines between history and fantasy. Marlot, for instance, encounters Mary Shelley and William Blake, weaving them into the web of the Gothic horrors that the show concerns itself with.

Blessed with a fine evocative score and some really impressive production design and cinematography, there really is much here for horror fans to chew on. I suppose the series is old news to many, but the  the show now appearing on Netflix offers a welcome opportunity for the rest of us to discover the show and also perhaps encourage a third season. And yes, we also have that bonus of a second season to enjoy immediately afterwards too.

The Limehouse Golem (2017)

golemThe Limehouse Golem has a problem: I guessed its secrets fairly early on. I guessed who the Golem was and why the murders were happening. For a film that is centrally a Victorian murder mystery, that’s something of a problem, especially if I’m not alone in rumbling the game so early (otherwise I suppose I’ve watched far too many movies and its getting too easy to ‘read’ them).

Fortunately for this film, there are pleasures here besides that central mystery. Set in a benighted, misty Victorian London the film is sumptuously staged; rich in gaudy colours and vividly ruddy murders, with a production design to immerse in really. This is, to be sure, a filthy London that you swear you could almost smell. Not quite a Tarantino take on Charles Dickens, but its halfway there and gives a suggestion of what that might be like if ever the Ripper took Tarantino’s muse.

Of course, whatever the films faults, Bill Nighy leading a movie is something to be cherished, frankly, and he’s in fine form here as John Kildare, a detective brought in to work on a murder case that seems doomed to failure in just the same way as the Jack the Ripper case would in real London a few years later- the parallels between the cases are deliberate throughout. Kildare is an outsider in the force and knows full well that he is a scapegoat for a nervous London and furious press. As he investigates the brutal and eleborate murders he becomes convinced that his case is linked to that of an imprisoned Music Hall singer, ‘Little Lizzie’ Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) who is on trial for the poisoning of her failed playwright husband, John Cree (Sam Reid). Kildare is certain she is innocent and that by proving it he can also solve the mystery of the Golem’s identity, but time is of the essence, and Elizabeth destined for the gallows soon.

The cast is pretty great, particularly Cooke who has a great charm and charisma as she struggles to succeed in a man’s world. Sam Reid is good as her slippery no-good cad of a romantic interest/husband who is also Nighy’s Golem suspect. Music Hall superstar (and Elizabeth’s friend and mentor, as well as another of Nighy’s Golem suspects) Dan Leno is played with fragile grace by Douglas Booth. The rest of the supporting cast are commendable too- indeed, the problem with the film isn’t the production values or the cast or the direction. Its the script that awkwardly seems to telegraph too much.

It also suffers by comparison to stuff like the (sadly cancelled) Penny Dreadful television series that shares its pulpish gaudy charms; and also the period detective dramas of Peaky Blinders. Back when I first saw the trailer for this film I thought, who would want to make a film of this and why would they think it would prove a success at the cinema in particular?  There is throughout a feel of redundancy, that maybe we’ve been here before, and to be fair, those television shows have production values arguably equal those of this movie with the benefits of longer airtime for character development etc. Maybe this is just the wrong time for a movie about Jack the Ripper-style Victorian murders. Another period BBC series, sure, but a movie?

But whatever my caveats, its enjoyable enough and the performances shine, so certainly its well worth a watch.

A Nocturnal Vertigo

noct12017.44: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

This film may not be perfect, and it may not completely reach for what it strives for, but goodness me, I have to salute the ambition behind it, which is a rare enough thing to find in film these days. If anything it is this very ambition that may undermine it- crafted like a work of art as much as a mainstream movie, the film is exquisitely shot and framed but there’s a sterile coldness to much of it -likely deliberate- that distances the viewer from it (although it’s certainly not as emotionally detached as a Christopher Nolan film, say). Just getting through the main title sequence would be too much for some (and what it even adds to the film, or says, is a matter of conjecture).

Suffice to say that this film is no less than a modern-day Vertigo; a romantic, psychological thriller laced with awful sadness, regrets and loneliness that may leave you thinking about it for days. To complain that it doesn’t reach the heights of Vertigo (sic) is of course nonsense- Vertigo is a timeless classic that we may never see the likes of again. At least Nocturnal Animals aims high enough to deserve comparison – a fine compliment as it is.

noct2Nocturnal Animals is structured as a film within a film within a film- a fascinating puzzle to explore and obtain meaning from. In a sterile environment of empty spaces, Amy Adams is Susan, who lives a life of wealth and comfort as an art dealer, with a luxury home, beautiful (if increasingly distant) husband, servants and personal assistants. She seems to have it all- but seems to be realising she lacks fulfillment. A package arrives one morning containing the proof copy of a book written by her ex-husband, Edward, entitled Nocturnal Animals, which is dedicated to her. Having a quiet weekend whilst her husband leaves on business to New York (we soon learn this is a cover for his affair with a mistress), Susan reads the book, and we witness her minds-eye picture of the book as a film within the film. This book/film is a noir-ish pulp potboiler of tragedy and revenge in which she pictures her husband as the protagonist and her younger self as his wife. Bookended throughout all of this are her recollections, triggered by reading the book, of her past relationship with her husband -how they met, their affair and how their marriage painfully (for him) ended,  a timeline which is almost third film in itself. The difficulty in weaving these three timelines so well, so each informs and reveals things about the others, is something that deserves some consideration, and it’s  quite a feat that it works so well and that we always seem aware of ‘when’ things are happening, what is real and what is the book’s fiction. Actually, now that I think about it, that ‘real’ is pretty much subjective in itself, as the reality is Susan’s reality, the past as she sees it, just as the book is how Susan sees that. Revelations slowly unfold until we arrive at a painful finale that is both discomforting, frustrating and yet somehow perfect. There is a revenge in the real-world just as there is in the novel.

Amy Adams. What can I say? Another amazing performance which, like the same years Arrival, deserved but somehow didn’t get a nomination. Perhaps there is some truth to the theory that having two deserving performances actually did her a disservice by spitting her vote?  Nonetheless these two films have raised her to some kind of remarkable level of craft and leave me keenly anticipating any film she appears in.

Special mention to Abel Korzeniowski’s beautiful, soulful score- as major a character in this film as Herrmann’s score is to Vertigo, performing much the same function. It’s a haunting work that is sparse but incredibly powerful. Korzeniowski is some kind of genius at this kind of stuff, whose romantic, haunting and yearning music served similar duties in the excellent Penny Dreadful tv series. It reminds me of John Barry as well as Herrmann. If only this quality of music was the norm and not the exception to film-scoring these days! This is of the quality we used to get in the 1970s, richly emotional, layered scoring. The film would be much lesser without it.

 

 

Dorian Gray (2009)

dorian2017.9: Dorian Gray

The moral of this story is- don’t make a deal with the devil, and you can have too much of a good thing. If that sounds nothing new, then that sums up the somewhat limited appeal of this movie.It is the familiar old story The Picture of Dorian Gray retold, er, yet again. It really is a case of a movie being haunted by the familiar.

Very often the argument (such as there is one) for movies to revisit old stories and earlier movies is the new technologies available- usually these days cgi imaging opening possibilities unavailable to earlier films. While this argument works for movies like the recent Planet of the Apes series reboot, it’s hard to tell where any such argument lies with something like Dorian Gray (although, unfortunately, this film too cannot resist one too many trips to the cgi effects sin bin at the films end, with the painting threatening to come to life like some liquid Terminator). I guess modern-day censorship sensibilities allow films such as this to be more graphic about the debauchery and excess that the title character succumbs to, but even then, time has passed it by, with  material such as this casualy screened on television cable networks.

Indeed the last point is even more telling for Dorian Gray, as its more than just a little curious coming to this film having previously watched the (sadly missed) gothic horror series Penny Dreadful, which this film actually predates.  Dorian Gray suffers from looking and feeling so much like Penny Dreadful while being inferior to it- a sure sign of how far television is moving these days as that series looks superior in quality by some margin.  Moreover, there is also the issue that Penny Dreadful features Dorian Gray as one of the series’ major characters. It only reinforces the feeling of having seen it all before.

Its a shame. But then again, I’m coming to it as someone in 2017 watching a 2009 movie for the first time, so my comments may be unfair as they cannot help but reflect having seen the superior Penny Dreadful prior. Its not a bad watch by any means, and the cast are pretty good; Ben Barnes is a beautiful forever-young Dorian who starts as a naive newcomer to the social elite who is channeled to an ill-end by the hedonistic Lord Henry, played by Colin Firth in one of his better roles. Abetted by a pleasant turn by Ben Chaplin who plays the artist whose work inspires the ill-fated deal with the devil, on the whole it’s a fine-looking film with a good cast. Its not a bad film, it just feels so unnecessary.

Penny Dreadful Seasons 2 & 3 OST

penny2I’ve been listening to the soundtrack cd of Penny Dreadful‘s second and third seasons, a welcome antidote to all the Christmas songs that have assaulted us over the past few weeks. This 2-disc set only arrived a few days before Christmas, continuing an odd and coincidental tradition of mine of having a soundtrack turn up just before the Holidays (years past, it would be soundtracks like Jerry Goldsmith’s Freud score or the Star Trek TOS soundtrack box-set arriving just before Christmas that would give me cause for celebration).

The Penny Dreadful music, composed by Abel Korzeniowski, is a beautifully moody and atmospheric score. Horrible Gothic sadness, is how I’d describe it- calm and reflective moods and passionate, lovely passages of romantic interludes punctuated by brutal horror. Its a prime example of television music being more sophisticated and richly rewarding than the big-screen scores we get now in cinema. There are absolutely quite extraordinary moments in this score. Even people unfamiliar with the series would get something out of this music; it stands as a work of gothic music seperate from the series that spawned it and is an example of great scores still being written (just not for movies,the majority of the time). Indeed it’s likely my favourite score release of 2016.

I’m so glad this was finally released. The season one disc came out a few years back, but for some reason the second season soundtrack was not released when that season aired, and with the show being abruptly (and undeservedly) canceled after season three, I had doubts we would ever see it. Fortunately on the heels of an Emmy nomination (it didn’t win, alas) Varese Sarabande belatedly released seasons two and three together, which actually works well as a listening experience.

So anyway, it’s hardly seasonal music, but there’s nothing wrong with that when you are driving to work at seven in the morning on cold wintry mornings when all the neighbours are all still in bed on their Hols- this stuff  really gets you in a fine creepy mood for the chores ahead whilst thinking about everyone else enjoying their holiday.

No, I’m not bitter. Ho Ho.

Penny Dreadful Season Three

p32016.56: Penny Dreadful Season 3

I’m not really going to write in any detail about the series itself- if you haven’t seen it yet, please do, its a great show- so this will be pretty much spoiler free.

The biggest talking-point  regards the third season of Penny Dreadful concerns the fact that the show has been cancelled. The production company and showmakers all maintain that the series has ended as planned, that it was always going to be a three-season arc, that the story has been told. Fans however are not convinced, and I count myself amongst them.

Yes, a conclusion has been fashioned, even complete with a ‘The End’ text-card to underline it. But anyone who has watched the show across three seasons will be suspicious, and likely feel shortchanged. There is such a change of pace between the first two seasons of Penny Dreadful and its third season,  that I am struck by memories of Babylon 5‘s fourth season- with cancellation imminent, JMS had to squeeze plotlines from season 5 into season 4 in order to tell the complete planned story. You can feel that happening here. There’s just too much story, too many revelations that feel forced rather than earned, and new characters given short-shrift who should have had arcs spread into season four and possibly five (else why introduce new characters like  Lord Hyde/Dr Jekyll, or Catriona Hartdegen, at all?).

There’s an inescapable feeling that season three was greenlit with an undeclared proviso to wrap things up early, which forced the writers to rehash any original third-season outline and leap into closing things out. It feels too abrupt. It feels unearned. Indeed, it leaves us asking things like what was the point of Dorian Gray’s character at all, a character who’s arc has drifted on the edge of the main story for the entirety of season one and two, and indeed continued thus in season three, as if biding time for greater relevance at a later point in season four or five? Film-makers forget that audiences are more sophisticated now thanks to shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men and so many others- we ‘know’ how things are set up for later revelations/plots. We put up with vagueness or lack of immediate resolution because we know its likely coming later. In the case of Penny Dreadful, there is a sense of being robbed of that. We gave the showrunners the benefit of the doubt, and try as they might to give us an ending with season three’s finale, they let us down.

Showtime’s gothic Victorian horror was one of the best-kept secrets on television, and has suffered the same fate as another genre favourite, Hannibal. While I would still rate it as a superior show and worthy of watching, I have to say it does now feel a lesser show than it might have been, now that it has been seemingly cut short. Like Hannibal, it has some kind of ending, but alas one that doesn’t really feel satisfying.

If, as fans suspect, the showrunners had originally planned a five-season arc, then Penny Dreadful likely finishes the best way it could, all things considered. We got three seasons of a five-season story with a necessarily curtailed ending with arcs unresolved. If we are to believe the story was always intended to end at season three, then it’s bad, dreadful planning/writing, something that could never be said of the show before. So yeah, I yell ‘foul’.

If its low ratings, like Hannibal, then fair enough, but do not dress up the cancellation as something it isn’t. I simply cannot believe that Penny Dreadful was intended to run just three seasons, something I believe had never been intimated before by anyone behind the show. Penny Dreadful, and its fans, deserved better.