Dagon wakes: Underwater (2020)

underw1I’ll be honest, I was predisposed to enjoy this film just because of the setting, and the surprising nods to Lovecraft only sealed the deal, so this possibly isn’t the most even-minded, judgemental of reviews. We’re just predisposed to like certain films, I guess.  James Cameron’s The Abyss, for all its faults, is one of my favourite films, and William Eubank’s somewhat ill-fated Underwater (what, not even a DVD release over here?) is like some kind of sequel or perhaps more precisely an  ‘anti-The Abyss’. In Cameron’s film our bold aquanauts meet Spielbergian good-guy aliens who just want us to play nice on the surface, whereas in Underwater our aquanauts meet up with beasties who want us to frak off and die horribly, but both films share the same blue-collar workers in the depths/gritty hardware/grungy reality tropes which nod back to Ridley Scott’s truckers-in-space Alien. The hardware is great in Underwater, particularly the deep-sea suits that they have to wear in order to survive the pressures of the depths and trek across the desolate ocean floor- they are hugely impressive and convincing.  

Underwater initially unfolds like an Irwin Allen disaster movie, with a bunch of survivors trapped in a stricken deep-sea mining platform trying to get back to the surface. The setting is well realised -if vaguely uninspiring/overly familiar, in a Deepcore/Nostromo kind of way- and the characters reasonably defined, our angst-ridden, moody heroine Norah (Kirstin Stewart) surprisingly androgynous as far as traditional heroines go. She manages to find some survivors in the ruins -Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), and wise-cracking comic relief Paul (T J Miller) and after a finely directed claustrophobic crawl-through-the -wreckage sequence they hook up with station commander Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) who has managed to see off the last of the crew in twenty-two surviving life-pods. Lucien and two other crew -Liam (John Gallagher Jr.) and Emily (Jessica Yu Li Henwick)- having now run out of lifepods are trying to find some other way off the station, and Norah and her bunch join the effort.  

underw2My biggest gripe regards the film is that it has clearly been edited down to its bare-bones: it literally starts with a bang, with the drilling station stricken by disaster. It’d be like starting The Abyss with the Deepcore rig being dragged to the edge of the, er, abyss, or Alien starting with the Nostromo landing on the planetoid.  We are not given any time as viewers to acclimatise ourselves with the setting or the premise or the characters, we are just thrown into it and the pace never really lets up over its slim 95-minute running time. The only real information about where we are and whats going on is given during the title sequence in the form of text/news cuttings, and that’s it- clearly this is a deliberate info-dump device which is bookended at the end, too.

This obviously betrays the film as a film of its time, as attention-deficit disorder viewers obviously have very valuable time that they don’t want to waste with movies establishing characterisation and drama in the old-fashioned ways, they just want to get to the action and then go out for a drink and pizza. Very often this kind of thing is done in films to disguise plot holes and bad logic- JJ Abrams is a master of this and Rise of Skywalker possibly the most heinous culprit of late- and its a pity, because Underwater doesn’t really have too many plot-holes it needs to hide away and it could have done with more running-time to establish its characters in more, er, depth (sic). Its hard to care for characters if you don’t know them, and while the film does manage to clearly define them as individuals it only does so by making them unfortunately very simplistic and one-dimensional. The brevity also damages the atmosphere of the film, lacking the time to deepen the mood and tension. Like many-if not all- modern films, Underwater lacks a really good score too: its score by genre veteran Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts is functional at best, and lacks the cloying, disturbing atmosphere, of say Elliot Goldenthal’s similarly-themed Sphere soundtrack.

So while I thoroughly enjoyed Underwater for what it is, there is always a frustrating sense that it could have been more, and that it betrays itself as a possibly troubled production (it was apparently finished in 2018 but left on the shelf for a few years waiting release). While I suppose I’m fooling myself to think there’s possibly a longer, superior extended Directors Cut out there that we’ll never see, I think I’d be right in thinking that if this film had been made in the 1970s or even 1980s, it would be two hours long and better-paced with proper character beats and an improved sense of tension. Like many modern films, this film in its final guise almost feels like a highlights reel, and its likely inevitable that if a studio starts cutting a two-hour movie to ninety minutes, it’ll keep the expensive effects sequences and cut the character stuff.

As it is, after a very limited cinema release earlier this year, Underwater has been dumped on digital rental services here in the UK, without even a DVD or Blu-ray release (never mind 4K UHD). Hey, its not exactly a genre classic but it deserves better. A film like Underwater, as dark as it is, can be particularly hurt by compression issues when streaming it, and to be frank it looked pretty horrible in some of the more frantic murky sequences on the Amazon stream I watched it on. Just another reason to bemoan the move away from physical formats- what a brave new world we have to look forward to, film fans. 

  

The Post (2017)

the postWhile this film has a commendable and important story to tell, one quite timely with what is going on in American politics today, unfortunately this film is weighed down by issues of its own making: if ever a film could be described as Oscarbait, this is it. You can see it in the starry cast, the stirring John Williams score, and all Spielberg’s old worst habits. Slow, ponderous cranking-in of the camera during solemn and oh-so-important monologues (hey! Oscar! its me!), manipulative score… (I don’t like using the word ‘manipulative’, all films are manipulative, its what they do, but some are worse than others).

When Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) leaves the courtroom in triumph, the camera pans down in a long crane shot following her down the steps, and suddenly the crowd she walks through are all women, and all are giving her silent, admiring and supportive stares, as if suddenly the film has become a hymn to feminine self-empowerment.  The achievement is real, the sentiment is fine, but the execution is as clumsy as anything Spielberg put us through in his early years. Its a really ham-fisted and ill-judged moment that yanked me straight out of the movie, an example of Spielberg at his worst.

Perhaps the films lofty ambitions got the better of Spielberg and his team. Certainly the story should be enough, its a good story and yes, relevant to our times, but goodness its self-importance is overwhelming. There’s a sense throughout that this isn’t ‘just’ a movie, that there’s something else going on, and its got everything to do with Awards season I fear. Pulled away from that with the distance of time, it leaves the film feeling awkward. I’m quite surprised to see Spielberg in this (dare I say cynical?) mode.

So, not a terrible movie, but yes an awkward waste of all the talent involved that leaves it feeling oddly amateur.

 

Cinefantastique, July-August 1982

I’ve waxed lyrical before about the old film magazines I used to buy as a teen – Fantastic Films, Starburst, Starlog etc- and how things have changed so much in the internet age. We have so much information now, and of course docs and commentaries on discs, that some of the mystery of movies has been lost somewhat. Film mags were like little glimpses into a hidden world. I’d pore over photographs and read interviews and look at pre-production art (the paintings of the late Ralph McQuarrie for Star Wars was likely my first experience of that). I loved reading all that stuff every month, read them, then re-read them. I’ve kept most of my old mags and many of them are stored up in the loft out of casual reach but some are handy and I sometimes get them out for a read. The news articles are glimpses of the publishing date and what was going on, the reviews sometimes funny in hindsight, sometimes perceptive, but always the behind the scenes stuff is priceless, even now.

20160528_164507-1So anyway, I picked up an issue of Cinefantastique to read, the double-issue of Blade Runner and Star Trek: Wrath of Khan. Reading the article about Blade Runner really took me back. That film was so big, so mysterious and magical to me back then. It is so odd to read interviews likely taken in 1981 talking about creating this incredible world of 2019 that must have seemed so long away at the time, and here we are now, with it just around the corner.

It was quite intense though, re-reading this article from 1982; I was experiencing the same old-forgotten feelings of awe and wonder I used to feel about Blade Runner back then.  Feelings triggered by the spread above or the one below that featured a Syd Mead painting that was printed everywhere at the time but always fascinated me.

I used to stare at it; the colours, the design-work… all that ambition and work that went into that film. The detail and layering that Ridley Scott employed- its rather usual now, as films are now more sophisticated generally than they were back then, certainly regards art-direction. People seem to forget how ground-breaking and important Ridley Scott’s work on Alien and Blade Runner was, how much that has impacted everything we see today- it wasn’t just how ‘pretty’ the photography and imagery was, it was all that layering and detail. It looked so real.

20160528_164528The Cinefantastique article, like the Cinefex one about the films effects, was a goldmine of imagery and information about this incredibly powerful film (it remains my most intense experience at the cinema) that somehow, at the time, was so quickly forgotten when it had failed at the box office.

All the books that would be written when the film was eventually reappraised were years away back then (though I have always wondered why no-one ever produced, in the long years since, a definitive ‘Art-Of’ book for Blade Runner). I used to re-read these same articles over and over in the years before any of that happened. Naturally as the years have passed,  some of the interviewed people are no longer with us, but it’s interesting too to see on-set photos Ridley Scott at work (he looks so young!) and read his comments and know how his career later progressed. He was intending to keep on making these incredible genre films back then, but the failure of Blade Runner and Legend put paid to that. I remember though, back at the time, reading this stuff- imagine, Ridley Scott following up Alien and Blade Runner with other ‘adult’ genre films, and George Lucas still busy with the Star Wars films (it wasn’t a Trilogy back then, we thought there would be several of them), Spielberg making genre films like CE3K, Raiders, ET… what an amazing time that was, some kind of Golden Age or something, I was just too young to really ‘get’ it.

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As an aside, regards these magazines being time-capsules of when they were printed, this issue of Cinefantastique also featured articles on Fire & Ice (Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature he did with Frank Frazetta), Something Wicked This Way Comes (prior to all its release/re-edit problems), Videodrome, the original Hawk’s The Thing, and a spread of McQuarrie paintings from a film still titled Revenge of the Jedi. Short features on upcoming films like Xtro, Brainstorm. Poltergeist, Firefox, Greystoke are a reminder of what else was going on and what would be future VHS rentals. They were good times indeed.

I mentioned this issue also featured Wrath of Khan– here’s a photograph from that issue that really got me excited when first reading it. The effects boys at ILM uncrating the Enterprise miniature from Star Trek: TMP prior to shooting Khan’s effects. God, that kind of stuff really blew me away back then- I mean, this isn’t just a model- this is the bloody Enterprise. Its funny considering the access to so much behind the scenes stuff we have with special features on discs and the internet now, but things like this photograph were mind-blowing back then.

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1976, the year it all started…

1976. Simpler times, especially if you were a kid. Batman was being re-run on the telly. I was reading Marvel Comics like crazy. Starsky and Hutch on Saturday nights on BBC. There was a drought that long hot summer. And there was that damned scary shark…

When all is said and done, I write film reviews on this blog, and you read them, because we love movies. I was wondering the other day about just when it all started for me. For most of us it’s an easy thing to state when we fell in love with movies, we know the moment well. Its usually a key moment when we ‘click’ with a certain movie, when it makes an impact on us on an emotional level. ‘Emotional’ because that’s the real kicker with any movie, at least for me- you can rationalise, on an intellectual level, the quality of a film, but where any film makes its real impact is surely on an emotional level; how it moves you, that’s where any movie really leaves its mark on you. Its why an undisputed classic like Citizen Kane may not be your favourite film- Kane is a great film easily admired but it may not have touched you in quite the same way as an intellectually inferior movie like a Ghostbusters or ET or Great Escape or Ben Hur did. Favourite movies are not always great movies, but they are often the reasons why we love movies.

JAWS1For me, it started with Jaws. Those of you who moan about waiting three months for a home release and are accustomed to simultaneous (or near as damn it) world theatrical releases might be alarmed at the Cinematic Dark Ages of the previous millennium when cinemagoers had to wait months just for films to cross the pond from America into our cinemas. American summer releases were often winter releases over here. So it was with Jaws, not arriving until 1976 here in the UK (It think it was actually Boxing Day 1975 for London, but it would take some months for it to eventually move out into the rest of the country… things were so slow back then!). So 1976 was when all this movie nonsense started for me. I was ten years old.

Of course, I’d seen many films as a kid but this was something else. My Aunt Lydia (now no longer with us, sadly) and her boyfriend (later husband/uncle) took me along on a Saturday afternoon to see the film. By this time the film was a massive phenomenon, merchandise was everywhere (I recall I was reading the paperback around the time when I saw the film) and it already clearly had a huge cultural impact- the delayed release over here actually only prolonged and intensified this. That delay -and films running at cinemas for a much longer period back then- has made me think. Nowadays films come and go in hardly any time at all, so we don’t seem to get such a scale of media saturation now. FIlms seemed to stick around longer back then, funnily enough, and home video releases now seem to have made films more disposable. I was in a supermarket the other day and quite recent films were already in a bargain bin of DVDs, which quite alarmed me. Jaws was a huge cultural event, and even some years later when it had its first tv premiere, I remember it still being a huge media event, featuring on the cover of the TV TImes. Films seemed a Bigger Deal back in the day. In my life, I think the only other film with a similar cultural impact as Jaws would be Star Wars a few years later (well, 1977 in America, 1978 over here).

I’ll never forget that Saturday afternoon. Indeed, to this day I cannot watch Jaws divorced from those memories, those feelings that screening engendered in me- everytime I’m pulled back to that cinema experience. Its funny how sophisticated audiences are now, everyone seems to laugh at the rubber shark, but it was never like that for me or indeed most audiences at the time. For us that shark was real. Of course, the film scared me shitless. But it wasn’t gore or anything graphic, it was more the anticipation, the fear of the unseen, the threat in those watery dark depths. I think the sophistication of audiences now… well I think they’ve lost something. Everything is so literal now. Thanks to cgi there’s no need to tease or hint, everything can be visualised up on the screen and from a storytelling standpoint and audience experience I think something has been lost. Sure it’s great to see such huge impossible things on screen these days but does it really now have to be so… complete?

The genius of Jaws is in its editing, and what is unseen. Most of this wasn’t at all intended, it was rather a triumph against adversity. The shark didn’t work, and many of the shots Spielberg wanted couldn’t be done, even with the shoot extending from some 55 days to 159 days. The shoot was a nightmare and Spielberg worried his career was already over. But all the disasters and technical problems that resulted in the production being forced into working around a non-functioning fake shark proved to be the making of the film. John Williams turned in an incredible score that provided all the tension that the fake shark couldn’t- you didn’t need to see the shark; you could hear its threat just in the music; it’s Pure Cinema, something much more effective than a contemporary authentic-looking cgi shark might ever be. Indeed Jaws is one of Spielberg’s best films simply because it has to be held back by its technical limitations; Jaws is Speilberg in Hitchcockian mode and he’s all the better for it. He can’t fall back on Douglas Trumbull or ILM excess to carry the picture. Consider the difference between Jaws and the excess of 1941. Needless to say, Jaws is my favourite Spielberg film- maybe not his best film, I appreciate that his later films have their merits- but certainly my favourite. When the film got released in cinemas a few years ago (2012 was it?) I naturally made sure to see it on the big screen again.

kk1It was such an intense experience back on that Saturday afternoon in 1976. Is it any wonder that it triggered an interest in that magical artform that has continued to this day? It was surely no accident that later that year I bought a paperback copy of Logan’s Run with the films gorgeous artwork catching my eye, or a paperback book about the making of that year’s remake of King Kong. The latter would prove to make a particular impression on me, as it would open my eyes to all the behind-the-scenes stuff that happened in order to get those films made. The following year I’d start buying magazines like Starburst which regularly featured making-of articles and interviews with directors and actors. But 1976 is when it all started. And of course, a little film titled Star Wars was just around the corner…

Indiana in the snow…

indy1“Well the weather outside is frightful…”

You know how that song goes? Well, this past weekend the blizzards and cold that have shook the UK gave me the welcome opportunity to stop in and warm myself with red wine and the Indiana Jones Blu-ray box set that I was bought for Christmas. Watched the four films over the weekend with two on Saturday and the other two Sunday. What marvellous fun. Better than braving the snow anyway.

And fun is the operative word here, because that’s what they are all about- harmless fun and adventure, and watching them one after the other really swept me away in the escapist adventures.  Everyone knows what a classic film  Raiders is, but I actually relented and finally enjoyed Temple of Doom, my most ill-liked episode in the series before now. Partly because this time it actually immediately followed Raiders in a double-bill, it was also no doubt assisted by the HD treatment, because on Blu-ray, Temple truly shines, with bold comic-book  imagery with intense sweltering colours and deep shadowy blacks. It really amazed me how gorgeous it looked.

Watching the films so close together was doubly interesting because I could see them in context and notice their close themes. Raiders is the clear adventure film, the sincerest homage to those old cliffhanger movie serials the films were inspired by. Structurally I still feel it isn’t perfect, as for an action adventure filled with all sorts of wild stunts and chases, it ends with a strange denouement, in which the hero simply closes his eyes and passively waits for the Ark to ‘do its thing’. All through the film Indy was the instrument of his own salvation, defeating ever-bigger foes and escaping ever-devious traps, but in the finale he is such a frustrating, strangely passive figure.  It smacked too much even at the time of its release like the ‘eye candy’ fx finale of Spielberg’s earlier Close Encounters, as if the spectacle itself was somehow the finale, ditching any possible dramatic action by the main protagonist. Still, time heals.

Temple of Doom is the dark child of the bunch, a particularly nasty piece and oddly misogynistic. At the time it didn’t really feel like a proper Indiana Jones film but in the context of the others it now holds its own. It still feels oddly uncomfortable though with the weak hapless Indians having to be rescued by the white man who falls from the sky like an avenging angel. Some of the imagery and action is still rather shocking though, what with stabbings, whippings, burnings, hearts ripped out and monkey’s brains for dessert. There were a few times during the film I wondered what Lucas and Spielberg were thinking, and what on Earth younger children make of it even today.

Crusade is the clear comedy of the bunch. Ultimately saved by the oddly effective chemistry between Ford and Connery (the latter who, despite the praise heaped upon him,  doesn’t in the slightest attempt anything like an American accent), the films suffers a few pitfalls from too much excess that hints at what was to come with the Crystal Skull (the burning plane passing them in the tunnel is one such WTF moment).

Ah, and here we come to the Crystal Skull,  the bastard child no-one really loves. For myself though I really quite like it. It’s weakened by crucial choices though. Chiefly, Shia LaBeouf is a maddeningly mediocre actor who is totally miscast as Indy’s ‘lost’ son Mutt-it’s funny how some films get damaged by being stuck with what was the then-current ‘hot’ star. Irritating as the character is, it’d be fair less painful with a better-cast actor in the part. I think Skull gets some unfair flack simply by it being handicapped by strange decisions like this. But in light of the other films, it’s not the disaster many would have it, many of whom rate the earlier films with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. I’m a sucker for just seeing Ford as Indy again, a character and body of work across the films that only Ford could manage so with such apparently effortless charm and charisma (I hope Disney don’t try to relaunch the series by casting a ‘new’ Indy; Harrison Ford is really the only true Indiana Jones and anything else would be heresey). And I love the whole Space Gods thing and all it’s pulp 50’s b-movie connotations. And having seen all four films over two days, I love the symmetry of the wedding, bringing Indy and Marion full circle at last. It works.

Thematic parallels- the bad guys always get undone by the very thing they crave for. In Raiders, Belloq and the Nazi’s are destroyed when they achieve their goal of capturing and opening the Ark. In Temple, Mola-Ram is betrayed by the stones that burn in his hands and send him plummeting to his death. In Crusade Walter Donovan achieves his goal of obtaining the Grail (or what he thinks is the Grail) and is destroyed by it when  he drinks from the wrong cup- Elsa meanwhile is unable to let the Grail go and falls to her death. In Skull double-dealing Mac is undone by his greed for gold, swept up in the vortex, whilst Irina Spalko  is undone in the very moment of attaining her total knowledge/power.

Likewise in all four films, Indy survives by being able to let go of the very object he craves. In Raiders he gets the girl by losing the Ark to the Government (and by closing his eyes as the Ark is opened he forgoes the forbidden knowledge he might otherwise gain). In Temple he gets the girl and gives the Sankara stone and its powers back to the villagers. In Crusade he regains a father by giving up the Grail and its promise of immortality. In Skull he gets the girl again (and this time a son, too) by forgoing the Alien powers/knowledge of the Crystal Skull.

Good films. Maybe not great films (other than Raiders, anyway), but yeah, good films. And great when watched close together like that.