Sitting through Seat 25…

..isn’t easy. Its not that its a bad film, its perfectly fine, except that the whole piece is hooked on a premise so silly, it just seems to flounder on the brink of farce. Which is such a pity, because its clearly well-intentioned, its that the script just lacks that certain polish that, er, a ‘proper’ ending or consistent internal logic might provide.

seat25Faye Banks (Madeleine Cooke) is trapped by her life: unfulfilled in her marriage, stuck in a soul-crushing office job working with people she doesn’t connect with, feeling unloved and estranged by a father who is emigrating to another country. Faye can see the days blurring into one another and she needs to get out, escape. Fortunately she wins a ticket to Mars.

Ah, Mars; apparently the ice caps have melted and Mars is warming up, gaining an atmosphere, and alongside it a magnetic field that shields the planet from any communication to/from Earth so no-one can actually see what is happening or how or why. An (apparently Scottish) entrepreneur has reacted to this by financing a one-way mission sending a bunch of settlers to Mars-  twelve men, twelve women, presumably engineers and scientists and experts. Accompanying these bold explorers will be another: a member of the public who wins a competition for the twenty-fifth seat on the flight.

There is a delightful flight of whimsy about this, something Ray Bradbury might have suggested in his Martian Chronicles, and in the 1950’s he may have pulled it off: but no-one can get away with a premise such as that in 2017 when people are still getting beaten up by photocopiers and driving banged-up noisy cars. Its just too silly. Mars is just too far away, getting there too difficult, the possibility of the Red Planet Terra-forming itself habitable unlikely in millennia never-mind the space of several years, the cost of getting there so great you’d never just give a ticket away to just anybody, or risk an Average Joe (or Josephine) with the responsibility.

Doubling even that, Faye wins the competition and doesn’t tell anybody. She doesn’t quit her horrible job and the horrible little people that work there, she doesn’t tell her husband who’s solution to their marital strife is trying for a baby. Faye just mopes around waiting for the competition results to go public, all the time getting bullied and ridiculed by almost everyone in her life. One of the problems with the film is that Faye cannot articulate what she is feeling or thinking; she internalises everything and mutely watches everything from the outside, in. She isn’t exactly an active participant in her own story.

seat25bWhat the film does well is portray the existential crisis of modern life, the general apathy and helplessness of people. Faye’s neighbours have a marriage as messed-up as her own: the wife bemoans her lack of a sex-life, resents her husband staying at home to look after their child while she goes to work. Faye’s work-colleagues externalise their own personal resentments by picking on and ridiculing solitary workmates, making false allegations of perversion against one man that causes him to get sacked. People trapped in horrible lives, daily nightmares of pointlessness.

Mars represents freedom, and escape, clearly the solution to all Faye’s problems, a road to another, better life. But it isn’t real: its Faye’s daydreams, looking out of her bedroom window and seeing Earth, below, as if she is already in orbit, or losing herself in dreams of walking on a Martian surface that is obviously just a beach tinged in orange light. Its romantic and perfect, not cruel and deadly.

I think Seat 25 really missed a trick regards the most elegant solution for the silly Martian fantasy it proposes: it should all be in Faye’s head. None of it should be real; the film should have pulled a Brazil-like twist in revealing that Seat 25 was the number of the park bench where Faye spends her lunchtimes from work. We all feel the need to escape, sometimes, and we all have our ways of doing it. Faye’s may have been a little more extreme but it was nonetheless valid- in a crazy world, just go crazy; half of Phillip K Dick’s fiction would echo such sentiment.

Seat 25, however, just goes all the way, and too far to maintain any credibility. Like a bubble floating in the air, it floats there for awhile, looking pretty and perfect, but all bubbles burst in the end.

Seat 25 is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

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.

1982

As I write this, 35 years ago.

Half a lifetime ago I guess. I was sixteen.

I remember, walking with a group of friends (most of whom I have not seen in decades- in that pre-social media era freindships had a habit of splintering off forever,  lives spinning off like shattered shards of glass). We were walking to another’s house on the other side of our council estate, to play Dungeons and Dragons (we were RPG-junkies for a few years back then). I remember walking down a street as we made our way across, talking about Blade Runner, thinking about the film’s year of 2019. Worked out how many years ahead it was, how old I would be in that year. A time so long-distant to a sixteen-year-old! 2019 was some incredibly far-off shore, a distant alien landmark, way past that other notable year, 2001, that figured so highly in our geek estimations.

It’s odd to consider that Kubrick’s special year was such a landmark to my generation and those before us-  2001: A Space Odyssey! Those very words were exciting, powerful, they carried some kind of arcane meaning. People now, kids, likely look back on it as just any other date, just another old movie. For us it was something bigger than us, something evocative of a space-faring future ambition. We had visions of returning to the moon, going to Mars. Even in 1982 it all seemed a matter of when, not if.

In hindsight, we were pretty stupid. But 1982, 35 years ago, it was another world.

1982 was a year for other worlds. Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Runequest, Gamma World. Well, I could go on and on about those RPG days. Back when the acronym TSR meant so much, Gary Gygax was some kind of genius, and Games Workshop was a gateway to incredible places- each of us of our group would pick a game system and create adventures we would later gather to play.  I ran a campaign titled Shadow World using the AD&D rules that went on for years. I still have books and folders of work I wrote for it, up in my loft- it was such a passion of mine that took so much time it’s hard to fathom now. I should have been out fooling around with girls but instead was inside my room dreaming up dark dungeons and evil sorcerers. Well, either that or reading or painting.

I read so much back then- Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert E Howard…

1982, Arthur C Clarke was still alive and writing, as was Ray Bradbury. Frank Frazetta was still alive. John Buscema and Gil Kane and Gene Colan and so many others I grew up with were still working in comics. I was reading 2000 AD in those days, the comic still in its prime. 1982 was the year they ran the 26-issue Apocalypse War saga in the Judge Dredd strip. Each week after reading each installment I was trading comments with my mate Andy in the halls of our secondary school. Block Mania, East Meg One, War Marshall Kazan, Stubb guns, 400 million dead... it was some glorious soap opera, a comicstrip punk-Charles Dickens that unfolded each week, and we would marvel and moan at the various turns of fate as the saga progressed.

I remember the threat of global nuclear armageddon was very real, so that Apocalypse War storyline seemed very pertinent. We actually went to war that year, an old-fashioned war: Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and we sent an armada to those small islands thousands of miles away that no-one had even heard of. I remember the daily updates on the news.

1982 was a very good year for films. Its why this blog has its name, for one thing.

Blade Runner, ET, Poltergeist, Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, The Thing, Mad Max 2, Conan.People often refer to it as the ‘summer of 1982’ and of course it was if you were American, but in other countries that incredible summer of genre films was spread out across the year, as releases were not so immediately global then. Wrath of Khan was here in July, The Thing in August (what madness was that?), Blade Runner and Poltergeist in September, Tron in October, and finally E.T. not until December when likely everyone had already seen it on pirate VHS. Video piracy-  how I first saw The Thing and Conan and Mad Max 2 (and The Exorcist, too, that Autumn).

I could never get my head around being able to watch films on-demand at the press of a switch. Even today it seems a bit weird, a bit like sorcery. In 1982 of course it was a slice of the future, but always over someone else’s house; at home we couldn’t afford a VHS machine until we rented one in late 1983.  Those dark Autumn nights of 1982 when we gathered over a freinds house when his parents were out and watched those VHS copies, they linger in my head forever, so intense it almost seems like yesterday. I giggled like some kind of idiot on first watching The Thing (it just seemed so extreme, in hindsight it was probably nervous laughter, not funny ‘ha-ha’ laughter, but I hadn’t seen Dawn of the Dead at that point). I detested Conan for not really being honest to the Howard books (though I made peace with it soon enough on subsequent viewings) and I remember being gobsmacked by the wild kinetics of Mad Max 2.

Backtrack a few months to Easter, 1982, and Tron: I remember playing an RPG over a freinds house and we paused to watch Disneytime on his portable telly. Imagine five or six of us enthralled when they showed a clip of Tron: it was the Lightcycle chase, and this little portable b&w television was suddenly a window into the future. Hell, I was still playing videogames on my Atari VCS and they were nothing like the cgi being thrown around in Tron. We had seen nothing quite like it, it was like something that arrived out of nowhere.

It was like that back then. Films did seem to come from nowhere. I remember every month going into the city to the specialist bookshops, reading all the latest movie news in the latest issues of Starlog, Fantastic Films, Starburst, Cinefantastique, Cinefex. Marvelling at the latest pictures, reading the latest previews/reviews/interviews. There was no internet, films were spoiled less and information harder to come by. Trailers were rarely seen (not available at a whim as they are now).

When I saw Blade Runner that September, I had never seen a single scene beforehand, hardly any pictures. I do remember a film-music programme on the radio on which I heard the sequence of Deckard meeting Tyrell- that was my only experience of that film beforehand. I wonder if that was why the film had such an impact on me back then? Nowadays we see so much, learn so much, before we even see a film. It steals the surprise somehow. It’s so hard to avoid these days.

Back in 1982, films kept their surprises.

 

 

Long Live the (Betamax) Flesh

vid1Videodrome (Blu-ray)

We’ll spice up this October Horror fest with a bit of body horror, and no-one does body horror quite like David Cronenberg. So its another welcome slice of the unwatched Blu-ray pile with last year’s Arrow release of Videodrome finally getting put in the player.

In much the same way as Field of Dreams always seems to me to be the perfect Ray Bradbury movie, though he never wrote the story it was based on, so Videodrome always feels like the definitive Philip K Dick story. Okay, PKD never dealt with deviant sex or body horror in his stories, but Videodrome’s faltering sense of reality and perceptions of time and self, and its dysfunctional every-man hero, seems to be pure Philip K Dick. As chief protagonist Max Renn’s reality disintegrates you’re never sure what’s real or what isn’t, increasingly hallucinatory sequences twisting reality so far that, for much of the movie, the viewer is questioning everything he sees and the nature of reality itself. Indeed, one of the characters, Brian O’Blivion, is actually dead, only existing on hundreds of videocassettes in a sort of virtual existence: what could be more PKD than that (memories of his Mercer-ism from his story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep spring to mind)?

Decades after its release, the film remains a visceral experience, tactile in its analogue horrors (fleshy, ‘breathing’ videotapes and CRT televisions), compared to the digital-streaming world we live in today. There is something cosy and familiar about the old technologies of my youth, loading cassettes into top-loading video players, video drop-outs and tracking errors.Its also incredibly prescient too, with television ‘lives’ more ‘real’ than reality, predating celebrity culture and having hundreds of satellite/cable channels- back when this was released, the UK only had four channels and I don’t believe any of them were 24-hour transmissions, either. Feels like a different world.

Tim Lucas in his commentary track refers to a circular element of the film that was new to me- he describes the final shot of Max shooting himself in the head being followed by the start of the film with Max waking up in his apartment, stirred back to reality by the voice of his assistant’s wake-up message on his television. Its a new interpretation of the film to me and quite a seductive one. A very-noir horror, Max caught in a never-ending loop of hallucinatory reality. Videodrome is still a startling, strange and mystifying film, and James Woods is utterly brilliant. Great stuff.

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.

The Swimmer (1968)

swimmerThe Swimmer is a pretty astonishing, strange and  disturbing film. I first saw it many years ago on a late-night tv screening on a Friday or Saturday night, and it has, frankly, haunted me ever since. Its an arthouse movie by way of The Twilight Zone, starring a major Hollywood icon. There is just something about it- its something of a dream, richly nostalgic, full of joy of life at first but eventually slipping into a suburban nightmare. Very much like the kind of short story the great Ray Bradbury would write. Its a disturbing film that lingers in your head for days.

Its a fairly obscure movie, its strangeness pretty much condemning it to Cult status even back when it was first released, and it’s 1960s setting possibly limiting modern audience attention (I asked at work if anyone had ever seen/heard of it and got the usual blank response). And yet it features arguably Burt Lancaster’s finest performance. How can a Hollywood icons finest performance be lost in such an obscure movie? Its one of numerous questions raised by this enigmatic movie.

Its a hard film to review because it’d be too easy to reveal the films twists and conceits, and I’m certainly not here to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of such a great little movie. It really needs to be experienced with a clean slate, the viewer not knowing what is coming.

So, where to start?

Burt Lancaster stars as Ned Merril, the Swimmer of the title. He’s a middle-aged man who at the very start emerges from woods wearing only swimming trunks, entering the poolside garden of some old friends of his. He plunges into the pool and swims across, luxuriating in the water and the sunshine of a glorious summers day, reminding him of innocent days of his youth. He is far from home, further than he really knows. He looks down on the wooded valley below, his old neighbourhood, all those homes of old friends,  and reasons he can trek back home across the countryside from home to home, each of the homes having a pool that he can swim across and old friends to visit. An odyssey, an adventure like those of his youth! Swimming back to his own home and his loving wife and daughters that are waiting for him.

But already something is a little off- his friends haven’t seen him for a year or more, a spell of time that Ned seems ignorant or ambivalent about; they seem to exchange quizzical glances at some of Ned’s remarks. They ask where he has come from, what he has been doing; Ned doesn’t have a towel or shoes, just the trunks he is wearing. Where has he come from? Why is he so far from home? There is a mystery here. For the rest of the film the story takes an episodic form as Ned crosses the countryside swimming across each pool he finds, and revisiting old friends along the way; some are friendly, some far from it, and clues to the truth that Ned is ignorant of are slowly revealed. All the while the film proceeds with a dreamlike feel. Some of it is extraordinary- a sequence where Ned races a horse is a breathtaking combination of joyous acting, soaring music, beautiful photography and remarkable editing. Its the very cinematic definition of the exhilaration of being alive, an astonishing sequence of timeless cinema.

Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray (a US release that is thankfully region free)  is very impressive. The film itself is lovingly restored from a 4K scan, with vibrant colours and rich detail. The lack of commentary tracks is negated by a series of documentaries chronicling the making of the film totalling over two and a half hours, the original short story read by its author, stills galleries, trailers and informative booklet. Its a tremendous package for such a cult 60s movie; indeed if this isn’t one of the releases of the year come December I’ll be amazed. I haven’t been this surprised/pleased by a package since Arrow’s superlative Lifeforce from last year.