Ratched (Season One)

atchedposterThis was brilliant and appalling in equal measure.

Firstly, and here’s why I waited until now to watch it (this originally dropped on Netflix in September last year) – what’s the preoccupation with prequels and origin stories? This series could be about anyone, they could have written about an original character and told the exact same story, it didn’t need to be Mildred Ratched of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It could have been any nurse, in any asylum, in any place (in fact it probably is, as the film took place in Oregon, not this series’ California), and the character as far as I recall (its been many years since I last saw the film) was not some super-heroine needing an origin story.

So what gives? Is it all just about having a ‘hook’, a gimmick, to hang a series over, to make ‘selling’ it easier?  Is this where we are now with getting anything greenlit by a studio? Are creatives so bereft of ideas that they have to mine all their film collections looking for any possible narrative hook to spin from? Or is the only thing studios/streamers understand now the Marvel MCU/Disney Star Wars school of carpet-bombing an IP for any possible spin-off?

To add a further mix of confusion, this is essentially a remake of Ryan Murphy’s second season of his American Horror Story, which was titled Asylum, and even stars one of that season’s stars, Sarah Paulson, as the titular character Mildred Ratched. Like Asylum, Ratched is full of bizarre characters, crazy situations, gory deaths, violent ends: a delirious cacophony of excess. People are lobotomised, boiled, shot, burnt, impaled, stabbed, smothered…

Not once but several times did I shake my head and comment to my wife “these characters are all monsters.” You could argue there is not one redeemable character or anyone slightly approximating ‘normal’ here at all: a rogues gallery of misfits and oddballs. Indeed it has a pretty formidable cast lining up as these freaks: Judy Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Sharon Stone, Vincent D’Onofrio, Corey Stoll, Amanda Plummer, its a pretty cool bunch of character actors competing in the chew-the-scenery stakes, and I’d argue the show actually gets stolen by Sophie Okonedo who plays a patient with multiple personalities: she is absolutely the best reason to watch this show. She’s a murderous female Two-Face multiplied by ten and I could watch her in a show of her own (hey, maybe this show has already got its own spin-off sorted).

One sequence has a prisoner on Death Row being taken to his execution room, the viewer having been shown in slow graphic detail the process of said execution via lethal injection. Once in the execution room however, the waiting Governor Wilburn (D’Onofrio) gleefully pulls aside a white sheet covering the apparatus to reveal it has been replaced by an electric chair. The prisoner shrieks in horror as he’s strapped in while Wilburn reaches to the power switch and fries his victim- here’s a politician who gets his own hands dirty for the votes.

You either accept the camp, pulpish fun of it all being written in big thick crayon or snort in disgust and reach for the off button: as much Wretched as Ratched. For my part I actually enjoyed it but I admit feeling a little guilty about that- I was watching it aghast at some of the twists and turns feeling I was being had most of the time. A character is shot in the stomach and near death one minute and a few scenes later is up and walking around fine (the scenes in between being about another character on the run from the police and caught the next morning only adding to my confusion re: the passage of time). You just cannot take it seriously as it stumbles over plot holes and characters doing bizarre 180’s just because it suddenly suits the plot (such as there is one). Usually you get an interest in a character just before they get murdered in horrible fashion but the six characters that survive to the end of the finale are thankfully the best and hint at great possibilities for a second season.

I was a fan of Murphy’s American Horror Story show and rate Asylum as its best offering by some margin, so watching a Greatest Hits remake of that show was pretty perfect for me. Murphy would be no doubt horrified at me lazily summarising Ratchet as Asylum MkII but it appears pretty clear to me. I’m just mystified why they likely wasted so much money getting the rights to the Mildred Ratched character at all, any links to the film appear pretty tenuous to me so far and it would be no worse being something wholly seperate, unless the second season ties things up somehow. But tonally, this is definitely more American Horror Story than One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by a very considerable gory margin.

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.

Casino 4K UHD

casinoWhile the step-up from Blu-ray to 4K UHD is not as easily noticed as the upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray (although a worrying number don’t even notice that difference much either), sometimes catalogue titles are released in which the upgrade is clear as day. A truly great 4K release can have amazing detail and grain, giving a wonderfully textured ‘look’ and HDR brings the whole image to life in a way that can often take the breath away. 

Such is the case with Martin Scorsese’s Casino– set mostly in the bright lights of Las Vegas the film benefits from HDR in such a way that the film arguably gets a whole new lease of life, and indeed watching this I almost felt like I was watching it for the first time. Its quite a revelation. The wisps of backlit cigarette smoke, the dazzling reflections of light bouncing of surfaces, the bright lights, the neon… the image really pops, and of course that is augmented by the uptick in detail, the texture that is added to everything from fabric in clothes to the plush carpets and furniture, the WCG adding extra verve to the bright colours. 

Casino is perhaps understandably going to be forever in the shadow of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a deliberately cooler, rock and roll rollercoaster of a ride than this somewhat darker, more intimate film. I have always had a bit of an issue with Scorsese’s gangster films making their characters more palatable for audiences by making them cool, indeed almost heroes that the audience roots for, relishing in their violence and ill-gotten gains rather than condemning the monsters that they are. Casino re-adjusts that balance somewhat- Robert De Niro’s Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein is always more businessman than gangster, the mob really a means to an end, but Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro is indeed all monster, a mob enforcer who gets seduced by Vegas’ riches and undone by his greed (its never enough, he’s always after more, proving his own worse enemy). Nicky’s final demise remains one of the most brutal and harrowing scenes ever put on film, despite being not as graphic as one might recall. The surprise in the film is the amount of focus it gives Ginger, Sam’s girlfriend and later wife who is always on the edge of self-destruction, played incredibly well by Sharon Stone in what is likely a career-best performance.

De Niro of course was great back then, in retrospect at the height of his career (I’d argue he was on a downward slope ever after) and Pesci himself was never better. Following so soon their performances in Goodfellas, seeing them in the similarly-themed Casino seemed almost lazy casting, as if they were coasting, but in hindsight, from the perspective of 2021 I can see things differently now. Casino was seizing the opportunity of the time with two great actors being at the top of their game: it had to be made then, even if being made in 1995 just five years after Goodfellas, it was doomed to suffer from comparison.

On the surface, with its tight cutting, ever-moving camera and sublime soundtrack of iconic songs accompanying the visuals, the film seems very Goodfellas and this might be why it alienates some fans of that film- its a different kind of film in the guise of that earlier one, like a pretender almost. On its own terms however Casino may be the more accomplished of the two and really, its never looked a good as it does on this 4K UHD, finally having a rather arresting image to supplement its intense storyline.

Casino is a study of how we destroy ourselves, and Vegas seems to be a place that draws people in and exaggerates, intensifies that self-destruction: or at least it was until the mobsters were forced out and it was turned into a Theme Park for adults. I find it somewhat curious that the New York of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is long gone now, the film almost as much historical record as it is drama, its seedy, adult-cinema sin city since turned into a more palatable Disneyland and that’s oddly repeated in how the Vegas of his Casino movie also suffered that same fate. Reality replaced by artifice. Of course Scorsese’s New York of Taxi Driver was the real deal, whereas his Vegas of Casino is a recreation, but its one that looks quite glorious in this 4K edition.

The Last Seduction and the Shelf of Shame

seductWell, here’s a return to the Shelf of Shame, a series of posts in which I finally turn to a disc I bought but never watched (of which there are more than a few). This time around, its the neo-noir The Last Seduction, which I bought on Blu-ray back in 2015.

As a lover of film noir, its inevitable that any neo noir (a sub-genre which refers to films made after the traditionally accepted film noir period of the 1940s and 1950s, which share the noir sensibilities of those classic b&w thrillers like Double Indemnity, The Big Heat and Out of the Past) is usually right up my street, although inevitably neo-noir is a pretty wide-ranging term. An excellent example of neo-noir would be Lawrence Kasdan’s magnificent Body Heat from 1981.

I raise Body Heat as an example because its the film I thought of as I watched The Last Seduction– there is something so modern about each film’s femme fatale, in Body Heat‘s Kathleen Turner and The Last Seduction‘s Linda Fiorentino, who here portrays possibly one of films consummate screen bitches. Both films homage the noir of the past but also inform them with modern perspectives. I’m not sure those perspectives undermine anything, really they reinforce them in ways that the 1940s/1950s films could never get away with, whether it be the graphic sexuality of Body Heat or the sheer gender-baiting switchery of The Last Seduction. There was likely something quite revolutionary and scandalous  about The Last Seduction when it was released in 1994, because even now in 2020 it took me aback. 

To be clear, there is something quite astonishing regards Fiorentino’s performance, and something itself darkly noir about the fact that because the low-budget independent film was aired on HBO prior to that years Oscars, the actress was ineligible for Academy Award recognition (foreshadowing, oddly, recent concerns with films going straight to Netflix, etc). Fiorentino really is that good, an incandescent and fearless performance that burns the screen with its intensity. Basically, the central conceit of the film is that it switches what is traditionally accepted gender roles, Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory cynically using and abusing her men as casually as Sean Connery’s Bond ever did in those 60s spy capers (which will likely inevitably lead with cautionary audience warnings on television airings anytime now). Bond was a bastard who casually used women, and Bridget is a bitch who casually uses her men, enabling her body as her keenest weapon and totally emasculating  poor small-town nice guy Mike Swale (Peter Berg).  “You’re my designated fuck” she tells him, clearly stating the depths of his value to her. Later he moans “I’m starting to feel like a…” “Sex object?” she finishes. Poor Mike. He’s doomed from the start.

I’m sure that plenty of essays and possibly books have been written about the female empowerment personified by Bridget in The Last Seduction, how she subverts traditional gender roles with an attitude which was ahead of its time even as late as 1994. Hell, I thought Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct was a bitch- she’s got very little on Bridget other than a talent with an ice-pick.

So impressive is the actress in the film that its really quite remarkable that, as far as I can tell, Fiorentino’s career afterwards went down the tubes incredibly quickly- other than a turn in the first Men in Black movie, her list of screen roles is fairly ignominious, and she hasn’t acted in anything since 2009. Considering comparison, say, with Sharon Stone’s career, and that Fiorentino’s turn here remains one of the most iconic screen bitches/femme fatales in the history of Hollywood, that takes some doing. I gather she has upset too many people in Hollywood, perhaps suggesting that she’s far closer to the fiery character she played in The Last Seduction after all, or simply that maybe Sharon Stone was smarter playing the Hollywood game.

Maybe she stepped away from it, deciding she was better off away from movies and Hollywood. Who knows? Her career is almost like one of those “what-if?” movies that never happened but which excites film buff imaginations, and it lends The Last Seduction with an additional meta-story. In any case, in The Last Seduction, its always 1994, and Fiorentino the greatest bitch Hollywood ever had.