Crimewave’s Slapstick Noir

crimewavepicOk this was pretty horrible. I think Sam Raimi’s Crimewave created a whole new film genre that I’d call Slapstick Noir and killed that ill-thought genre stone-cold dead. What a terribly bonkers movie.

And yet… isn’t Crimewave everything that Spielberg’s 1941 was, too, except that Spielberg’s farce was a big-budget WWII comedy and Raimi’s a low-budget 1980s-set crime comedy? I really disliked 1941 though I know it has its fans, but really, all the daft excess and slapstick humour in 1941 is so similar to that of Crimewave they could be filmic cousins (they even have dance-numbers). 1941 is clearly the better movie, because at least it maintains an even tone and kind of works as a comedy, whereas Crimewave is very uneven, is all over the place tonally and mostly falls flat as comedy (there’s nothing worse than a comedy-film where the comedy itself crashes with a repeated horrible thud). Crimewave is awkward and (mostly) unfunny with the oddest performances (I’ll never watch Brion James in Blade Runner in quite the same way ever again).

The best thing regards Crimewave is that its such a 1980s movie: it has that cinematography and cast and style and fashion that marks it of that decade and that’s something I really warm to anyway. The film doesn’t work at all, really, but it just oozes that 1980s feel, so much so that while I watched it on Indicator’s new Blu-ray edition, I could imagine the tape reels rattling when holding a VHS cassette, putting it in the player and hearing the gear mechanism pulling the tape into the player. The film even has the old Embassy Pictures logo at the start. It almost feels wrong, somehow, owning and watching this film on something as fancy as a Blu-ray disc.

So anyway, Crimewave: I should probably note what it is about (if its about anything at all, but here goes). The films opens on Death Row with inmate Vic Ajax (Reed Birney, an actor who here alarmingly resembles a young Les Dennis (no, really)) about to be executed for murder. While Vic protests his innocence, we see several Nuns tightly wedged into a car racing through deserted streets, a clearly unusual image and some indication of the tonally off-kilter film to follow. As Vic is escorted to the electric chair he whines about his ill-fortune and tells his story, the film going into flashback to tell the story proper. Vic’s boss, Ernest Trend (film producer Edward R. Pressman), has stumbled upon a scheme of his business partner to sell their store to a sleazy heel, Renaldo (Bruce Campbell), who intends to turn it into a strip-joint/bar, and leave Trend with nothing. Trend hires an Exterminator business out of the phonebook (!) to exterminate both his partner and Renaldo: these Exterminators are crazy maniacs Faron Crush (Paul L. Smith, who I instantly recognised as the Beast Rabban from Lynch’s Dune) and Arthur Coddish (Brion James) whose murderous pitfalls prove the central drive of the film when their murder-spree gets out of hand. Vic gets caught up in the nightmare whilst trying to date the girl of his dreams, the beautiful albeit disinterested Nancy (Sheree J.Wilson), with the help of a pocketbook how-to guide.  As the film progresses, the body count ramps up and Vic ends up blamed for all of it. If only the Nuns can save him…

The thing is, written up like that its the kind of thing that inevitably pulls in the curious. Its not a bad story- wildly implausible of course but that’s partly the point. The performances though are so wild and all over the place, and the humour falls flat so often with such heavy thuds, that it really is something of a disaster. It only dawned on me mid-way through the film (I must have been slow on the uptake last night, but it had been a long day) that the film is really a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon. Smith and James seem to ‘get it’ and are the most successful elements (albeit possibly most off-putting, personal mileage may vary) in the film, crazy cartoonish caricatures chewing up the scenery with wild abandon, accentuated by dubbed dialogue and sound effects. Something like that Joe Dante section in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Once the viewer grows accustomed to what’s going on and what the film is intending to be to tell its tale, then one can accept and possibly even enjoy the film on its own terms. Certainly I could see a lot of the wild humour of the Evil Dead films: unfortunately while the Evil Dead flicks had their horror and gore to form their bedrock and perspective, Crimewave doesn’t, unable to establish what it is- indeed its clear the filmmakers themselves possibly didn’t have a clue themselves.   

That said, in the filmmakers defence, the production of the film was an utter mess and Sam Raimi himself, and indeed many of those involved, disowned the movie entirely. Their first major studio click, the filmmakers were completely at odds with the Embassy Pictures executives, the indie-film freedoms of The Evil Dead leaving them unprepared for everything entailed with a studio picture with its the union system. Their choice of lead was refused (Bruce Campbell intended to play Vic but relegated to minor player Renaldo), the filming went out of control with some of the cast purportedly worse for wear due to drug problems, and the studio took over the picture in post, vainly trying to save the film in the editing room. 

crimewave indicatorIndicator’s Blu-ray is typically high quality- it embarrasses better films with its wealth of supplements which include two audio commentaries and various interview featurettes, most of which I’ve barely skimmed through. I’ve written before that some bad films can be more interesting than good ones, and while that’s not entirely true here, I am certainly curious about listening to the commentary tracks (what I have heard of them from a brief sample seems very interesting). Its definitely difficult to recommend a film like this- I am sure it has its fans but I’d caution anyone coming to this film blind as I did. Still, one can’t have enough Bruce Campbell films in their collection, can they? Besides, Brion James alone is worth the price of this disc, possibly the strangest and most horrifyingly nuts performance I’ll see all year… hopefully (I don’t think I could stand another one).

 

One, Two, Three (1961)

oneOh dear. I suppose all directors have their ‘off days’, Hitchcock did (particularly in his later years), so has Spielberg, Ridley has had a few (although his have always looked pretty) so its understandable that the great Billy Wilder would too. Its just that, although I haven’t seen everything -or indeed even the majority- of his output, certainly nothing pre-1940, this is the first of his films which has had me responding with a “ugh, that was pretty terrible.” Indeed, with Wilder’s track record and all the great films of his that I have enjoyed, this film really came as something of a shock, how bad it was. No, I really didn’t care for this one at all. So it would seem that Wilder was only human after all.

I think part of the problem may be its age- a typically sharp-witted comedy, I’m sure, I think part of the problem with this film is that its cultural references, no doubt topical at the time, are inevitably lost and puzzling to viewers such as myself coming to it fresh with the perspective from 2020. Its been close to sixty years, after all. Its still disappointing though- I don’t think the comedy of Some Like It Hot, The Apartment or the Fortune Cookie, for instance, have dated pretty much at all since they first came out. But One, Two, Three just feels dated, anachronistic. Maybe its the madcap pace of the thing- its deliberately a rapid-fire comedy, Wilder and his regular script partner I A L Diamond consciously pushing the pace as far as they could- its relentless really, and ultimately quite tiring, exhausting. When the one-liners drop like lead it just makes the fast pace increasingly irritating. The heightened pace is equalled by the heightened caricatures of the characters, the exaggerated performances. Crucially however, considering its supposed to be a fast-paced comedy, it commits the sin of simply not being at all funny.

Really, I find it quite alarming that this film is how Wilder followed his magnificent The Apartment, one of my favourite films.

I don’t know why, but I find myself comparing this film to Spielberg’s 1941, it seems to suffer the same pitfalls, the exaggerated characters and general hectic pace of the storyline. Maybe you either buy into it or not, maybe its one of those ‘marmite’ films, and maybe One, Two, Three has its fervent fans in just the same way as 1941 seems to, but its telling I didn’t enjoy either of them.

Still, speaking as someone who will defend the oft-maligned Irma La Douce against its detractors, it was a big disappointment. I think its telling that Irma followed One, Two, Three because I can tell it shares some of its irreverent humour and style, you can see a connection between the two. So why does Irma work for me and One, Two, Three doesn’t? Is it as simple as the casting of Jack Lemmon? Maybe it is. I can’t say I was particularly enamoured by James Cagney in his leading role in One, Two, Three at all- indeed none of the cast really caught my eye, they all felt ‘off’ somehow. Everything in this film feels ‘off’, its like nothing works at all.

Bumblebee (2018)

bumbDescribing this as the best film of the Transformers franchise is likely the very definition of faint praise, but there you go, and here it is- Bumblebee, the best film of the increasingly moronic franchise. That being said, the film is still dreadfully formulaic with a predictable plot and tiredly formulaic characters, but at least it has heart, in a reasonably affecting lead and some great ’80s songs (even if that is, hey, so Guardians of the Galaxy, isn’t it?).

So the biggest question about Bumblebee is, what is it about the 1980s? You know, films either made in the ’80s or set in the ’80s, they seem to be in a league of their own, they just seem to have a headstart on any film set in, say, the present-day. Is it all just heady nostalgia? If it was just that, sure, films like Bumblebee and television shows like Stranger Things would appeal to people like me (hey, the clue is in the name of this blog) but would it really spell huge mainstream success or critical appeal? The ’80s were quite awhile ago now, and the young ‘uns going to the cinema these days weren’t born back then. So what makes the 80s so cool, and is it just that the fashions and the music were actually better back then? Is that a fact now?

Is it the escapist appeal of a simpler world that is without the internet or mobile phones or social media which so inconveniently complicate  the scripts of films set n the present day? 

I don’t know, really, but as Frank Finlay’s character noted in Lifeforce (hey, itself of the ’80s – even the bad films from that decade are great) I sense a pattern emerging here. Or a disturbance in the Force (hey, another ’80s film –  I think I should stop now).

Perhaps I should condemn these ’80s-set films for following the JJ Abrams School of Film-making, which is to just simply steal the tropes of so many Amblin/Steven Spielberg films of that decade and try to get away with it by saying “oh, it was INSPIRED by” or “I LOVE those old movies!”. Maybe I should condemn modern audiences for flocking to the familiar and encouraging said practises by making such films and TV shows such successes. Maybe there is really nothing new under the sun. 

In any case, Bumblebee proved pleasant enough fluff; indeed mostly harmless. If I were scoring films with stars these days, the film would almost get five for the scene where Bumblebee spits out the cassettes of The Smiths and Rick Astley, when the film avows that we have to have some measure of integrity when fawning over ’80s pop culture.  

Jaws 4K UHD

jaws4kYou never know until you actually sit down to watch it, but every fan can relax, this is great. Another substantial 4K edition of a classic movie: Jaws looks fabulous in this new 4K release. Details are amazing, right down to the fabric on the clothes and textures on objects, and the HDR adds a vibrancy and depth to the image that is almost startling. Best of all, while grain is evident, it doesn’t degenerate into mosquito noise on my OLED as it tends to at times during other 4K editions of some classic films. I doubt the film looked anything near as good as this as when I saw it at the ABC in town back in 1976, or over the years since on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray etc… yeah, this is one of THOSE films that we just crave in whatever new format comes along. Well, I’m certain this is the last time.

Fantastic movie, mind. In my opinion its Spielberg’s best, by some margin. Maybe it was the adversity of the nightmarish shoot he had, filming this back in 1974 (well documented over the years in documentaries that appear on this disc- indeed, special features ported onto the actual 4K disc, we’re truly spoilt with this one). There does seem some pattern in film history with directors producing their best work in the face of great trial, which makes me wonder if they unconsciously coast somewhat when everything goes swimmingly (sic). Not that any of them would admit to that, but maybe some thrive under pressure, and its certainly true that Spielberg, forced to look at other ways of approaching the shark attacks when Bruce proved to be a troublesome star, improved the film no end by adopting a rather Hitchcock-like method. At the same time, it allowed the character actors to do their best and truly shine, avoiding them being overshadowed by any monster effects. There’s a sense of reality to the film that grounds it, regardless of the rather ridiculous premise.

The War of the Worlds (2019 BBC Mini-series)

rwar1The Good: I quite liked the title sequence. It had the flavour of the old Quatermass or Dr Who shows, rather dark and foreboding – I thought the period movie-reel footage was a nice scene-setter and helped establish the time-frame of the show, which in itself was a welcome decision returning to the source novel rather than re-imagining it for contemporary time frames the same way that the George Pal and Steven Spielberg versions did. I think I quite liked the title font (hey, I’m trying to find the positives about this turd, its tricky).

I liked the conceit of continuing the story beyond after the Martians themselves perished (where the story usually ends), instead showing us the world after the war, and those trying to survive and reestablish civilisation- it seemed to offer something a little new. That being said, it infuriatingly made no sense whatsoever as from what I remember in the novel the red weed perished alongside the Martians, killed by the same micro-organisms and bugs of Terran nature that saved humanity. The suggestion that the Martians were infact killed from eating contaminated humans (themselves infected by a typhoid outbreak) and that the red weed (and the Martian Terra-forming) would continue unabated until scientists (well, okay, Amy, our heroine) dumbly figured out that we needed to battle the red weed with the same Typhoid disease etc. was just an incredibly stupid way of doing it.

Er… that’s about it for the Good.

The Bad: Pretty much everything else. The silliness and reliance and poor CGI spectacle was infuriating. I hate nonsensical production design, like the Martians themselves- three-legged monsters that looked like rejects from Pitch Black or any other creature design in the tired-out style of Patrick Tatopoulos, which had fiendish-looking claws etc. but no way (I assume) of actually piloting or even building the War Machines they used to attack the Earth or indeed build the Spaceships to invade it. They didn’t even have opposable thumbs (a requisite of using tools, writing etc) or mouths to communicate with (instead some silly proboscis to eat with).  Sure, they looked creepy, but as a scheming intelligent inter-planetary life form able to build huge war machines and space ships, it made no sense whatsoever. It seems to be where we are now; silly writing, silly design, nothing thought-out.

war1

war2Likewise those spaceships/canisters- hardly large enough to contain a Martian, never-mind the Tripod War Machines that they use to wage war on humanity. I think Spielberg’s movie, as I recall, had some ridiculous conceit that the machines have been buried under the earth for millennia waiting for the invasion to commence- this BBC edition, per its general intelligence level, didn’t feel the need to even bother explaining it. We’ve got some silly spinning levitating sphere that burns people with a heat ray and then the Tripods show up from nowhere.

The flash-forwards to the Red Earth were jarring and managed no real purpose. I assume it was a decision in the editing stage, an attempt to establish some sense of mystery or foreboding but it just irritated me personally, taking me out of one situation into another, and as I have mentioned earlier, typically for this show that Red Earth sequence when it came ‘proper’ in the final episode never really made any logical sense anyway.

The Ugly: Well I feel like I’ve devoted to much of my time and effort on this show already, but  lets see- the cast felt wrong, the pacing was all wrong, the effects were sub-par (which I don’t usually mind, as I can manage my sense of disbelief regards visual effects as long as the narrative is interesting enough, but this one wasn’t). The oddest thing was the period setting, and what it offered visually and narratively (simply not having the narrative bogged down with excuses why they couldn’t use their mobile phones or the Internet etc) was completely wasted. There was no real sense of tension nor terror. It wasn’t so much a War of the Worlds as a skirmish with a few villagers and dumb scientists when all is said and done. The leads of the show,  George (Rafe Spall) and Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), share absolutely zero chemistry. We are supposed to believe that charisma-less drip George is married to another woman who cruelly refuses to grant him a divorce and that Amy is pregnant with his child. We are supposed to believe that this frustrated love affair between these two lovers is the soul and heart of the entire drama. Instead its this hopeless void, ensuring we simply don’t care about either of them. Considering everyone seems to be starving and dying in the Red Earth five years after the War, Amy not only doesn’t seem to lose any weight, its alluded to that she may have been one of the very last women to have given birth, and its up to Amy and her scientist buddy to finally figure everything out and save the world from the red weed.  Its such a good thing that Amy is around to save us. There’s some very 21st Century anti-Colonial message shoved down our throats towards the end that’s as hackneyed as anything else across the turgid three hours but I won’t comment on it, its just one last example of the kind of thing that ruins modern Dr Who too.

No wonder it took the BBC so long to finally air the thing, it was obviously so bad they were wondering where to dump it in the schedules, so they went ahead and spoiled Christmas.

Pre-Crime Doesn’t Pay: Minority Report

minorityLa La Land has just released  Minority Report as the latest in their series of expanded John Wiliams soundtracks; its not a score I’m particularly fond of so I’ll be saving my money on that one, but the news did get me deciding it was past time I dug out my old Blu-ray and gave the film another watch. Its been years since I’d seen this last.

Considering it came out in 2002, when Spielberg was well into his grown-up, more adult-orientated, ‘take me more seriously’ period, Minority Report is surprisingly juvenile. Indeed its a really mainstream, rather dumb science fiction film posing as something highbrow and dark. Its quite surprising to see how it poses as a science fiction future-noir film, with the obvious nods to Blade Runner, Gattaca etc, but all the time maintains Spielberg’s routine safety-net of warmth and lack of edginess.

I could go on about the films horrible ‘nice’ ending with its comfortable message that the good guys win and the bad guys don’t, and how it all feels like bullshit. I prefer to watch Minority Report safe in the knowledge that everything once Anderton is Haloed is just a fantasy in his imprisoned head. I prefer to imagine that after Anderton is ‘victorious’ the film should segue to a cut ‘real’ ending that features Sydow’s villain seen heading up a flourishing National Pre-Crime department with suggestions that in future any non-authorised, say, anti-establishment thinking will become a crime too. You know, something genuinely dark that pulls the rug from under the audience.

Because anyone who thinks its not a WTF moment when the crime-scene stuff (like Anderton’s gun, the murder weapon for goodness sake, or his bag of original eyes) is just put in a box of his personal belongings so that his wife can go all vigilante and just walk into the prison to free him… I mean Jesus in a handbag, that’s so crazy it deserves all the contempt it can get.

I was always troubled by the premise that the whole drama about the expansion of the Pre-Crime unit going National with the three Pre-cogs was nonsensical. How would it even work? Those three Pre-Cogs would just go into meltdown if they had to ‘read’ all the Nations dirty murderous minds, and I don’t believe there was any method of making more Pre-Cogs (a few times they are described as miracles). I actually think the script missed a trick there- if the actual conspiracy that Anderton and Agatha was uncovering was that a secret government department was canvasing medical records for children with nascent psi-abilities and was snatching them for genetic experiments to develop their talents and turn them into Pre-cogs, that national expansion thing would make sense and, more importantly, tie into Anderton’s personal history of his son being snatched. Immediately that back-story takes more importance, and there’s a nicer ending in which Anderton finds his son alive in a lab or indeed being enslaved as a Pre-Cog. The irony of his son’s disappearance being directly linked to his job and vocation, thus undermining his whole life/career, would be a lovely noir twist with which the film would justify its adult future-noir aspirations.

But hey, I’m doing Hollywood’s job again. They pay scriptwriters and producers a hell of a lot to not come up with ideas like this.

 

 

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.

 

Reboot Fatigue

Well, its not just reboots, I guess sequels/prequels and other spin-offs could all be lumped into the same category, as they are all pretty much the same thing. As I wearily suffered the further death-throes of the Predator franchise this weekend, I was reminded of just how many of the movies I saw in my childhood continue to linger around in some shape or other. We’ve had Alien films, Predator films, far too many variations of web-slingers and caped crusaders. Warner Bros continue to struggle with bringing back The Matrix. No doubt we are due another incarnation of the Batman. We have seen yet another Halloween (well, I haven’t yet but I guess I will see it eventually), there’s a new Top Gun in the works, more Godzilla and King Kong, more Avatar, another West Side Story, more Bad Boys, more MIB, another Terminator timeline, and even (perhaps unlikeliest of all) a Passion of the Christ sequel, which goes to show those folks that own the rights to Spartacus that even a crucifixion needn’t spell the end of any franchise.

I’m told that a remake of Jacobs Ladder has been shot. That’s just so wrong, I just hope it’s some kind of social media filmnut modern myth, or that its as bad as I fear and that it languishes in a film vault somewhere, so bad that even Netflix refuse to bail it’s studio out.

Name any Disney animated classic and I’d say its a safe bet it’s getting a live-action remake soon (anyone else see a blue Will Smith playing the genie in Aladdin and freak out a little? There ain’t nothing someone won’t do to make some money).

And the Marvel films continue to storm the box office, so there’s no end in sight for the comic-book/superhero genre. Must confess I reckoned on that particular bubble having burst by now, more fool me. Not that I think those films are bad, they are wholly entertaining for the most part, but they are hanging an uncomfortable shadow over film-making in general. Mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery in tinseltown, and you can see studios trying to shape their own properties in the Marvel mould all the time- no film gets made now without an eye on the five that could follow it.

Of course I’ve moaned about this kind of thing before here, in many posts over the years. And nothing I write will be anything new or cause any change, but the last few days have had me in a pretty dark mood.

I love movies. Have done most of my life, probably even before Star Wars blew me away back in 1978, but I generally mark that film as the cause of all those many thousands of hours watching films since. There is considerable truth in the argument that Star Wars saved the film industry (back then, cinemas were going the same direction that pubs are going now) but there is also some truth to the argument that Star Wars was the start of films becoming more business than art. Well, thats a sweeping generalisation, as films have always been business, whatever Hollywood historians may say, and the Oscar never did mean anything beyond Hollywood politics. But the quality of American Cinema of the 1970s and what amounts to American Cinema is today is telling. Where is our next Taxi Driver? Our next Godfather or Apocalypse Now? Our next Three Days of the Condor? There’s probably more chance of them turning up on HBO or Netflix than there is them turning up at the local cineplex.

(So no, Mr Spielberg, I love most of your films but I think you may be wrong trying to keep Netflix away from the Oscars, as if those ‘awards’ really mean anything anymore).

The deep irony is that the film I am most looking forward to, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, is not just one film but two, and is a (sideways) remake of not just a 1984 film but two mini-series that followed it. At least it’s not a remake of a classic film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, instead it returning to a property that merits another attempt, as the Lynch film was horribly flawed. I suppose you could correctly argue its based on the book, not the Lynch film, but as the makers of the Dredd film found, it’s always hard to break the shackles of earlier film attempts.

Hopefully Dune will be great. But I am certain that there are many other fine science fiction books, old classics and new ones unknown to me, that would make fantastic movies, if only some studio had the nerve to take a punt on one. Unfortunately, it would be easier if it was already a comic or a tv show or old movie that somebody already knew.

Instead, more sequels, more reboots, more remakes. Mind, in a world where so many ‘new’ properties crash and burn, its inevitable I suppose. I remain curious regards Mortal Engines (disc pre-ordered), as it at least looked pretty different, but maybe it was too different, as it managed a paltry $83 million worldwide on a purported $100+ million cost ($250 million to just break even?). Films, I think, cost too much money today, and I imagine that’s where the real problem lies. BR2049 managed nearly $260 million worldwide, a respectable figure for an adult, cerebral  sci-fi film based on a 1980s flop- but it unfortunately cost $150 million to make, muddying the prospects of any future films.

(I adore BR2049 but even I would contend it would be just as fine had its ambitions had been reined in a little bit into a $100 million film- but then again, it’s just what these films cost now, the scales are enormous, just the cast alone. And who’s going to go out and watch a film with a cast of unknowns, is that even a thing anymore?).

I am curious regards box-office though. I’d love to see home video sales/digital rentals/downloads added to a films initial box office, as I suspect that might be quite illuminating, but we never see those figures, don’t know why (or maybe I’m not looking in the right places).

Anyway, how did we get here? I’m off on some weird tangent again. Oh yes, reboots etc.

Mark Wahlberg is going to be The Six Billion Dollar Man, apparently. I think I’ll stop right there, and rest my case. Be assured however, this Reboot Fatigue post will no doubt get a sequel all of its own, or maybe a genuine reboot. Its sadly inevitable, just like I Spit On Your Grave: Deja Vu (I nearly choked on my toast when I saw that trailer, who the hell thinks up this garbage?).

 

 

 

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

legtarazanCaught this on Netflix last night. At least it didn’t cost me anything (Netflix subscription notwithstanding, at least it wasn’t a rental or disc purchase). What a woeful, ill-judged film this was. Ignoring the shambolic script, the actual presentation, with sweeping circular camera moves that always irritate me and excessive use of painterly (unconvincing) CGI landscapes and characters, was really pretty poor. As for that script… well, let’s be fair, it’s hardly a finished script- it feels like a rough draft and it may be a fault of the editing that it seems so bad, or maybe the editing looks bad because it’s trying to fix the script problems in post.

The Legend of Tarzan seems to want it both ways- retelling and retooling the familiar origin story in awkward flashbacks whilst setting itself ten years after Tarzan has returned to England as Lord Greystoke, thus enabling a sort of post-modern revisionism of the story/legend in much the same way as Spielberg tried (and failed) with Peter Pan in his movie Hook. Unfortunately, it makes the film feel as much Marvel as it does Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Its hard to measure the cynicism of the piece, from the casting of Samuel L.Jackson to give the film the uncomfortable feel of a buddy picture while making it also ‘hip’ and trendy,  to the awful waste of Christoph Waltz as the utterly one-dimensional chief bad guy and nemesis for Tarzan. As for Tarzan himself, Alexander Skarsgård acquits himself pretty well but is hamstrung with the stodgy script that fails to serve the character at all. There were a few times that I thought that the guy was a pretty good Tarzan but wasted in the wrong movie- I felt quite embarrassed for him.

legtarazan2The film seems too concious about retooling Tarzan for a modern audience more accustomed to the heroics of Marvel and DC superheroes than the heroics of old, with Tarzan’s swinging through the jungle CGI-hysterics looking too much like Spiderman swinging through the canyons of New York, and some of the one-on-one fighting looking pretty much like any other modern costumed caper. I’m left with the suspicion that the whole project is really a case of it being made simply to be ‘Tarzan for the CGI generation’ as if the film-making techniques (such as the rendering of CGi apes and other animals etc) of today are the sole reason to retell Tarzan’s adventures.

When the film finally closes and the credits start to the accompaniment of a pretty awful ‘pop’ song, the ugly cynicism is complete: this is a film that is all about product, and franchise, and making money. Maybe I’m being naive, I guess all films are about making money, but somehow the film-makers managed to sink $180 million into this – and it looks like all of $80 million managed to get onscreen, an indication of waste perhaps reinforced by the bewildering number of producers credited. Its so terribly knowing and cynical, it doesn’t seem to be anything about a decent story being told as efficiently as possible but rather the usual noise and spectacle that is inevitably ill-judged. By becoming calculatedly epic (the grand finale is a horror of all the usual bad CGI habits, with thousands of digital thespians and dodgy cartoon landscapes serving no good at all) and ignoring the intimate (the chemistry between Tarzan and Jane (a free-spirited Margot Robbie that perhaps feels a little too Lara Croft) never really convinces, despite, or perhaps because of, Skarsgård sulkily mooning over her all the time. When Jane is captured by the dastardly Christoph Waltz and Tarzan stoutly chases after her, it’s all very Last of the Mohicans but without the passion or tension. The predictable ending is inevitable.

 

Ready Player One (2018)

The problem with Ready Player One is that it is, essentially, four different stories, and the film-makers concentrated on the wrong one.

rp1aStory one: Its 2045, and its a dystopian world of economic collapse and (presumably) environmental disaster. People seem to be mostly poor and living in over-crowded shanty-towns, and unemployed. Everyone -and I mean, seemingly everyone– seems to spend their waking hours in a virtual world called The Oasis. Reality is so desperately depressing that escape is everything, even if its only virtual. But that, pretty much, is all we know about 2045. We don’t know any details of the social-political climate, who’s in charge, who’s paying the bills. The company behind The Oasis is the richest on the planet, worth trillions, but its not clear how it makes any money, because The Oasis seems to be free. The film doesn’t not examine why everyone feels the need to escape into a virtual world or how that might mirror our own current preoccupation with our ‘escapes’ be it films or television or video games. We see nothing of any counter-culture that might perceive The Oasis as a threat or blight on society and the world, or if humanity escaping to this virtual haven means it has given up on reality and we are all doomed. The Oasis is there, and everybody’s playing it- that is the world of 2045.

rp1bStory two-  genius recluse James Halliday (Mark Rylance), in the mid 2020’s creates a virtual world, The Oasis, that in a bleak and downward-spiraling world becomes a bright haven for a desperate humanity. Halliday was a solitary child who grew up a secluded life in the 1980s and whose only comfort was predominantly the 80’s pop-culture of that decade, and so The Oasis is dominated by that culture. Somehow this obsession seduces everyone who experiences The Oasis. It becomes a 1980s Heaven.

READY PLAYER ONEBut Halliday, although the richest man on Earth at this point, is deeply unhappy, sinking into morose regret for what he considers is his biggest mistake- not having the courage to have a relationship with the one love of his life- KIra, who ended up marrying his one-time business colleague, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). His obsession in creating a virtual world seems to have stopped him from living properly in the real world, and he only realizes in his old age that reality is better than virtuality. Perhaps it finally dawns on him that his invention overtaking the world is detrimental, humanity obsessed by his virtual world and not dealing with reality’s problems. But instead of shutting down The Oasis or sharing his wisdom, he instead creates a magic virtual quest to find an Easter Egg hidden within The Oasis, involving three magic keys and clues and riddles that er, might do something like making someone fabulously rich. The he dies.

rp1d.pngStory three- Nolan Sorrento during the mid-2020s works as a lab/office assistant to Halliday and Morrow at Gregarious Games, the company that makes The Oasis. A lowly assistant who fetches the coffee, somehow this downtrodden rat becomes the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the second biggest company in the world and rival to Gregarious Games, as if his whole life has been one hellbent on revenge over his old bosses who didn’t care for his coffee. Seriously, his rise through the ranks to lead a rival company sounds a better story than anything else in Ready Player One. I want to see how he did it, because he’s patently a jerk and an idiot, but at least it’d be interesting to see the snake on his corporate climb and see the trail of misery in his wake.

rp1eStory four- uber-geek dead-end orphan Wade Watts spends all his time in The Oasis, his virtual alter-ego Parzifal trying to decipher the clues/riddles that will lead to the keys to Halliday’s fabled Easter Egg. He befriends Art3mis, a beautiful girl-avatar who fortunately is also a  girl in the real-world (and hey, incredibly pretty too although she doesn’t think so and she secretly seeks self-validation and the love of a good guy so you can guess where that goes) but she is also cool at videogames etc and together with his own group of teenage virtual super-heroes they go on a great adventure in The Oasis and try to thwart the attempts of IOI to secure the Egg and control of The Oasis for its own nefarious corporate ends. BIt like Harry Potter for videogame geeks.

So they went with story four and shoved the rest into dull exposition/skimpy background details. Maybe they went with the right choice. It looks pretty.

The thing is, all the attention seems to be on The Oasis and its spectacular CGI effects and all the nods to pop-culture references (there’s Robocop! look there’s Valley Forge from Silent Running! Look there’s a pod from 2001 hiding in the background! He’s driving a goddam Delorean! etc etc) and its really very boring surprisingly quickly. And as you might expect, its so full of crazy shit being thrown on-screen its hard most of the time to tell whats going on. I was surprised because I thought Spielberg would have demonstrated more control and keyed things back, but he seems too enamored of his CGI toys that he gets quite carried away. Bit like how Pete Jackson lost his shit on The Hobbit films.

Meanwhile in the real world there’s possibly a more interesting story or stories to tell but this isn’t that movie. This is Tron x100 (even though, ironically,I can’t recall an actual Tron reference, funnily enough) full of cartoony extravaganzas that made me yearn, funnily enough, for the Matrix films.

So its not a bad film. Its just pretty dumb. But I guess its just that kind of dumb spectacular blockbuster entertainment with one-dimensional characters and simple plot-lines and a comfortably-predictable story. But this is Spielberg. He made Minority Report, Close Encounters, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark– as far as pop-culture/ sci-fi/fantasy movies he’s much better than this. Maybe I should cut this film some slack instead of it bugging me for what it isn’t.

But deep down, I wish Joe Dante had made this movie. My God it would have been bloody incredible, I’m sure. Crazy, irreverent, clever. Everything that this film really isn’t, unfortunately.

(But it looks nice).