Stand By Me and counting the years

standQuite how it had taken so many years for me to finally watch this film is quite beyond me. Its not as if I never read Stephen King stories or watch the movies based on them- quite the contrary. And yet it has taken so many years- Stand By Me was released back in 1986, which is what, 34 years ago, now. I suppose its nice that even after watching so many films over the years, there are still some genuinely good ones waiting for me to catch up with them. Films are patient. There’s great ones waiting for all of us.

That length of years is frightening, though. For instance, does anybody else think its scary that the length of time since the film came out is more than the distance in time between the films original release and when it was set, in 1959- a gap of just 27 years. So the narrator looking back and telling his tale is looking back 27 years, and me, I’m now 34 years distant from when the film came out. I imagine viewers in 1986 thinking that the films period setting was a distant time ago, and yet here I am now…. crumbs.

It just lends the film a certain feeling, seeing some of those actors -Will Wheaton, Richard Dreyfuss, Corey Fieldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, John Cusack- all looking so young, not to mention the added poignancy of seeing River Phoenix. Just on the evidence of this one film, its clear that he was an actor of considerable merit and screen charisma, destined to be a future star possibly as great as Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp… who knows where his future might have lead? As it turned out, he didn’t have that future, because he died of a drug overdose just 7 years after Stand By Me was released.

So Stand By Me is like some kind of impossible bubble of spacetime with those actors so incredibly young, the kids with their whole lives ahead of them… and me, sitting here in 2020 watching it for the first time. Suddenly appreciating why people have praised the film and sometimes remarked to me “what? You’ve never seen that yet?” in disbelief. The realisation that I have only watched it now because of something of a whim, having noticed the 4K UHD edition in a sale for £9.99 and thinking, maybe its worth a punt, maybe its as good as people say, and the film might cheer me up. We all need cheering up in these uncertain times. Chalk up one more positive to Covid19 then.

stand2Its a lovely little film. Hardly perfect but still, very good, and certainly one of the better Stephen King adaptations. Naturally it reminded me of American Graffiti, not just because Richard Dreyfuss features in both: the films are cinematic cousins, really, both period films about growing up, and how they used Rock n’Roll songs to form a soundtrack. I thought Jack Nitzche’s score and its use of the Ben E. King song was particularly fine, delicately done. Hey, American Graffiti– now there’s a film I really should find time to watch again.

Me, now, wondering what in the world I was doing back in 1986 that meant I was too busy to go watch this film or catch it on VHS rental or watch it on television showings over the years since. 1986 was the year Aliens came out, wasn’t it. And The Mission, and Day of the Dead, Poltergeist 2, Big Trouble in Little China… and Howard the Duck. Those were the films I watched at the cinema that year. Its funny how I remember years by what films I saw, sometimes its the only sense of perspective of time that I have now.

But that’s how films trick you, and release dates in particular- Stand By Me may have been released in late summer of 1986 in America, but digging around a little I discover that the film wasn’t released over here in the UK until early 1987. We forget it was a bigger world back then, and releases of films were spread across several months over International Territories.I remember one of the most exciting things about having a region-free DVD player when they came out in the late nineties (mine was an American machine with a transformer the size of a house brick) was that we could see films at home that still hadn’t even been released in the cinemas over here. So sure, Stand By Me was released back in 1986 in America but for us in the UK it was 1987, the year I went to watch other films like The Fly, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Innerspace instead. That’s just how I count the years.

 

 

In the Shadow of the Moon

shadowThis latest Netflix acquisition is a sadly flawed sci-fi flick posing as a police procedural thriller. Its got a neat idea but suffers from an ill-judged execution and strangely utterly wastes Michael C. Hall in a supporting role that really goes nowhere.

An intriguing prologue takes place in 2024, teasing a dark future in which Philadelphia is on fire, streets littered with debris, buildings smashed and an odd-looking alternate stars and stripes flag falling in the wind. We then cut to 1988, and a night of strange deaths with victims dying of bleeding-out of their noses, eyes and ears as their brains literally turn to mush- a result, it is soon deduced, of strange puncture-wounds on their necks. Police officer Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) pushes his way onto the case, infuriating his brother-in-law Detective Holt (Michael C. Hall), but the case is soon closed when the suspected murderer – a black woman in a blue coat- is killed evading capture, but when copycat murders occur nine years later, the mystery deepens, especially when it is discovered it seems to be the same, ‘dead’ woman committing the murders.

The film is episodic in nature, each chapter jumping nine years into the future and nights of repeated murders all matching the same method and suspect. Lockhart is a Detective by the time the second set of murders occur, and each chapter finds him increasingly unhinged and at odds with those around him as his wild theory -that the murderer is a woman from the future- forms.

shadow2I suppose one way to look at this is as an extended Black Mirror episode, or maybe something from the X-Files, but it also feels like something of the great old Kolchak: The Night Stalker, in which our unhinged hero is increasingly at odds with his common-sense peers. It has a great premise but its episodic construction, while understandable, hinders the flow of the story.

Holbrook is fine but the writing does him few favours. Strangely, I kept thinking of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and how Richard Dreyfuss’ character became increasingly obsessed and lost his job, home and family in his pursuit of answers. Its a very similar arc to that of Holbrook’s character here but handled much more convincingly and smoothly. The problem with even a great premise such as In the Shadow of the Moon has, is that it has to be grounded in some kind of reality, and it just gets more ridiculous and far-fetched in order to maintain what is essentially a very small tale, when Holbrook learns who the murderer is. I’m sure the central conceit thrilled the writers when they came up with it, but they have a really hard time making it work.

So anyway, spoilers ahead for this last bit:

shadow3One thing did bug me- if the time travel idea of being limited to single nights on nine-year periods going backwards was a ‘thing’ then surely the antagonist going further backwards each time (first 2015, then 2006, 1997, finally 1988) surely each time she was having to also wait nine years in the future for the stars to align in order for her to go back again? So if she was 30 in 2024 and travelled back to 2015, she would be 39 when she turned up in 2006, and 48 in 1997, and 57 in 1988?  So she should have been an old woman in 1988, and getting progressively younger every nine years as Holbrook naturally got older? But of course if the killings were intended to change time and avert the disaster of 2024, as they did so how would she be able to use her Time Machine in 2033, and 2041 etc if the ‘future’ (i.e. her ‘present’ kept being revised for good or ill?).

Agh, that’s the trouble with these Time Travel movies. They are often fun but can be very silly when you think too much about them. I guess you should just go along with it, in just the same way as I had to, say, with Avengers: Endgame. In the Shadow of the Moon is well-intentioned and always rather fun, so well worth a watch, but its execution really was flawed.

Mind, it offers an intriguing prospect for a sequel- the killings were all ‘justified’ because the victims could all be linked to the terrorist movement that caused a civil war in 2024. So its all based on a point-of-view, and the film conveniently ignores the fact that the victims were innocent when murdered, only guilty of future crimes. So what if someone from the future used that same methodology of changing the future by killing ‘good guys’ in the past to ensure the bad guys got their civil war instead? Or was that the Terminator movies?

 

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.

 

Polar (2019)

polarThere’s a certain modern angst in Netflix’s latest film release, Polar– Duncan, the ‘Black Kaiser’, is a middle-aged assassin nearing retirement but his employer Blut has his own eyes on the assassin’s hefty pension pot, and in the grand tradition of the corporate world screwing over the small guy, Blut puts out a contract for his super-team of assassins to retire Duncan permanently, and ensure that Blut takes the pension pot for himself.

That premise of being screwed-over by the corporate world is pretty much the best that Polar has to offer, because other than that, its ridiculously silly style-over-substance that suffers from appalling execution (sic).  Unsurprisingly, it’s based on a graphic novel which betrays its lack of subtlety or considered thinking- you can get away with things in comics, no matter how ‘adult’ they like to pretend to be, that movies just cannot manage. Polar comes across like a Tarantino-wannabe, straining to be cool and stylish and broken with jarring acts of violence and gore and a bodycount that might seem fun and exciting on a comic page but just seems preposterous and extreme up on the screen.

So yeah, Mads Mikkelsen is clearly slumming in this, but perhaps he can be forgiven for attempting a shot at the superhero/comicstrip genre, as everyone else seems to be doing it. He lends Duncan a certain weight and pathos that the film is quite undeserving of- his character is haunted by his violent past and unable to relate properly with normal, civilised folk, and prepares for retirement up in the wintry north in a log-cabin, spending his nights renting movies and getting drunk. He buys a puppy for company and its an indication of how violent/silly/stupid the film is that within minutes he’s shot the dog dead in what the film thinks is a moment of humour. Okay, as a dog owner I’ll put my hands up- no film that kills a dog for a laugh or dumb shock is going to get a pass in my book, but in  some ways this is the least of the films issues.

Every character seems to be a caricature, crass and insulting to anyone over the age of fifteen. Sindy is a bombshell assassin who seduces her victims with sex, whose one-liner “its blowjob time” (or something to that effect) is signal for the rest of her team to creep up on the victim and blow his head off while he’s distracted by Sindy’s antics- ‘blowjob’ being the films clever double-entendre which indicates how sophisticated it gets. Matt Lucas plays Blut like the most despicable Bond baddie you could ever imagine, a monstrous over-the-top villain straight from the world’s worst Panto. Its so ludicrously OTT that it’s impossible to take him or his threat seriously, even when he tortures Duncan for days in his torture chamber in tiresome collages of blood and gore.

I was totally unprepared for a cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, of all people. I can forgive Mads for having a stab at this comic-book nonsense, but what on earth is Dreyfuss doing slumming in this? Is this an indication he’s destined to start appearing in all sorts of such nonsense for a fast paycheck as his own pension draws near? Say it isn’t so, Richard. The guy who starred in Jaws and CE3K deserves better. Hollywood owes him better parts, better films, period.

So anyway, if you’re sitting with (several) beers and are in the mood for gory mindless antics and don’t mind being taken for a schmuck, you need look no further, Polar will satisfy you no end. No doubt a sequel gets announced next week.