Outside the Wire (2021)

Netflix has a something of a persistent problem with its ‘Netflix Originals’: its clear that they have lots of money to throw around at projects offered up to them and a really desperate need for new content on its platform. It must be a great time to be a creative in Hollywood right now.

Well, it was until Covid came along and rather derailed things, but what I’m getting at (Hollywood studios making hugely expensive blockbusters that it has no cinemas for notwithstanding), is that with Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney+ and countless other streaming platforms financing all sorts of productions (series and movies), it must be a good time to be a creative in Hollywood or anywhere else, for that matter. All sorts of productions that wouldn’t ordinarily have ever seen the light of day suddenly get greenlit as if by sheer desperation for content. Money is getting thrown around these days like there is some kind of goldrush. Content is everything in the streaming wars, but the real trick is, not just any content, it has to be GOOD content. There’s not much point spending millions on something rubbish that nobody watches or that is killed after the first weekend by word of mouth: you don’t want your streaming service to be considered the Happy Dumping Ground for stuff no other streamer wants and nobody watches.

But maybe Netflix didn’t get that memo. Or maybe they have so much money they don’t really care (Katee Sackhoff’s Another Life got a second season, for fracks sake). Its fairly obvious that Netflix has more than its fair share of material that is leaning on the ‘average to absolute rubbish’ scale. It needs to put more quality content up, and unfortunately Outside the Wire is absolutely not it.  It opens with an intriguing premise but slides into absurdity within very little time at all, in that manner that is beginning to seem peculiar to so many Netflix Originals. Like The Midnight Sky, another Netflix Original that I watched just a few weeks ago, there is something fundamentally wrong at the screenplay stage with Outside the Wire. Its a mess. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t make sense. But it went into production anyway: gotta fill that January 2021 slot.

Sure, its executed efficiently enough- I mean, it looks pretty good with decent production values and fairly well-staged action sequences, but that’s really just about it. The cast are much better than the material: in fact, there is more than just a suggestion that this is a case of guns-for-hire just doing their job, and a really poor b-movie project being elevated by the money Netflix is throwing around and the cast and crew that money attracts. Its the kind of project that as a low-budget b-movie in the 1980s might have been fun and worthwhile- elevated to a ‘big’ movie with its high production values, it just made the thing seem worse than it possibly might have.  If you’re going to hire Anthony Mackie, give him something to do. If you’re going to make him a cyborg/robot, have some point to it, some reason for that, other than to have him looking cool in numerous video-game-like action sequences doing superhuman stuff. As it was, I was much more interested in the “Gumps” that were being used as frontline mechanical warriors, and how ‘remote’ and ‘acceptable’ they made combat seem in just the same way as military Drones do. Why not have some commentary about that? Why not do something like what  THX 1138 did decades ago? Have a military operation and run a cost evaluation against it that goes up with every bullet fired and Gump lost and collateral damage amassed, and once the op exceeds its budget the top brass back home pulls the plug. You know, throw some social commentary in; surely that didn’t go out of fashion with Robocop

This, unfortunately, is some other totally different movie/nonsense that pretends to raise big subjects and themes but, er, doesn’t, really. It conjures up some future civil war in Eastern Europe if only so it can shoot the thing in Hungary and thus benefit from increased production efficiencies, because its setting narratively doesn’t really add anything or even make any sense, necessarily. Why would the US go into Ukraine in the future when it never has up to now, even when civilian aircraft are shot out of the sky? Why would Russia allow that and why don’t we see any Russian presence or dramatic tensions or threat from its border? It eventually posits a nuclear threat from hidden silos but by this point the film is laughably implausible and its hard to feel any real threat. And if out hero has worked out thermal rounds/grenades do the business against our renegade robot, how come the bad guys never managed to work it out?

Ach. I’ve gone and done it again, devoted too much time and too many words posting about a film that really doesn’t deserve it. You really need to sort out the Quality Control, Netflix. Simply throwing the dice just doesn’t cut it, not anymore- certainly now that Apple and Disney are getting in on the act.

Baby Driver

baby.jpgGeorge Lucas is naturally best-renowned for the impact that Star Wars had on the film industry back in 1977, but thats ignoring the pioneering use of source music in his earlier film American Graffiti– the end-to-end parade of rock and roll songs played on the radio formed an evocative and groundbreaking soundtrack/soundscape through the film that revolutionised the subsequent use of source music in film-making.

So I found myself thinking of American Graffiti whilst watching Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. The use of source music -updated from radio airplay to ipod/smartphone mp3 streaming, naturally- is as integral a part of what Baby Driver ‘is’ as much as the music was in Graffiti. Indeed, what gives Baby Driver its own identity is that its taken it one step further, with the performances and editing timed specifically to the beats of that infectious soundtrack of songs. In some ways it seems almost a much a musical as, say, La La Land.

So whilst it owes so much to a film from decades past it also comes across as being refreshingly original, and excitingly new. Perhaps it’s just a natural progression of how source music has become such an integral part of film over the years since Graffiti, particularly in how some sequences in films often seem to be pop videos in how they are shot , edited and soundtracked with pop songs. The clever conceit of Baby Driver is in how the central character needs the songs in order to function as the titular driver of the film, his skill for driving and spectacular stunts behind the wheel wholly dependant on the flow and beat of whatever he is listening to. Its almost genius in its execution.

baby2The fact that there is actually an involving and thrilling film independent of those frenetic chases is the biggest and most welcome surprise of the film. Indeed, the actual screen time of those car chases is surprisingly small regards the whole.

Alden Ehrenreich must offer something pretty special as Disney’s new Han Solo in his year’s Star Wars anthology movie, because Baby Driver is surely Ansel Elgort’s 2-hour statement for being the best young Solo that we’ll never see. He offers a vulnerability and charm that so often brings to mind a young Harrison Ford/Han Solo that its almost irresistible- intensified perhaps by his costume design in this film, practically wearing Solo’s Star Wars wardrobe like some cosplay nut. No doubt this was a deliberate ploy by Edgar Wright, Baby so obviously evoking the Han Solo look and the sense that Baby and his cars is like Solo and his Millenium Falcon. I recall back in 1977 the sense that the Falcon was like a hotrod in the stars- a novel thing back then so pedantic now. Wright must have been so aware of that when writing/shooting this film.

Isn’t it weird to be referencing old George Lucas films so much when discussing this film? It’s almost as if this film is a love-letter to Lucas, and makes me sadly reflect on how great a film-maker the 1970s George Lucas was (lets not forget the ingenious sound design of THX 1138 or the fact that the 1970s Lucas also cemented the Star Wars saga making The Empire Strikes Back and the creation of the matinee-throwback heroics of Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Is Baby Driver the last hurrah for Kevin Spacey in a mainstream Hollywood movie? I suppose only time will tell but this film is a welcome reminder of how great he is as an onscreen bastard (his offscreen credentials in that regard seems to have nixed his future career somewhat). His charisma and coldness here forms a fulcrum for the film; so much seems to revolve around him and he is so convincing it makes me a little sad that we will lose some great future performances/films re: his probable absence from film-making in future. That’s purely a selfish consideration as a fan of film though rather than any moral judgement on what the actor himself deserves- we’ll just have to see how all that plays out in future.

So soon after enjoying her performance in Cinderella, Lily James appears here as Baby’s love-interest, the charming if rather under-written Deborah. At least the two actors share some convincing screen chemistry,  the lovestruck youngsters evoking a clean cut version of True Romance‘s Clarence and Alabama (Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette). Who would have thought when watching Downtown Abbey that she, in particular, would be the performer whose star would subsequently rise in film?

Anyway, Baby Driver was a surprising blast- great to look at and listen to and a pleasure beyond its car chases and stunts. The clever conceit and importance of its music was exciting and at least felt original and new, which can’t be underestimated in this era of ‘me-too’ cgi blockbusters and superhero flicks.  And while I’d love to see where Wright could take the characters and that conceit with a Baby Driver 2, it’s so nice that the film feels so self-contained and wrapped-up, a new film that feels wholly of its own that doesn’t depend upon or tease a sequel or franchise.

 

Listening to the Last Man On Earth

om1Today I’ve been listening to the FSM disc of Ron Grainer’s The Omega Man score. Maybe it was due to listening to the Silent Running score before Christmas, but I’ve been meaning to dig out this CD for several days now, as its another 1970s soundtrack that sounds quite unlike anything else you might hear today. Its funky and jazzy and is sprinkled with elements of pop and orchestral music… its such a melting-pot of different kinds of music it shouldn’t really work but it does. Its also, yes, utterly of the 1970s. Not that this dates it particularly but you always know it’s from some other era entirely from the one we are living in. It feels a little like a time capsule.

There’s a few other CDs in my collection from the 1970s that ‘feel’ rather apart from the John Williams/Jerry Goldsmith/John Barry scores that are likely more fondly remembered from genre films of that decade. Fred Myrow’s Soylent Green score for instance, which shares the kind of folksy, funky sound and jazzy source cues of The Omega Man in places (the ‘Prologue/Opening Music ‘ track is one of my favourite pieces of film music from that entire decade) and Lalo Schifrin’s unrelentingly melancholy score for George Lucas’ THX 1138. These scores and their ‘music of the future’ (at least as they saw it then with limited budgets and orchestra sizes)  are, incredibly, fast approaching half a century old now- THX 1138 dates from 1970, The Omega Man 1971 and Soylent Green 1973. Music of the past that used to be the music of the future- it’s a funny thought; odd to think it’s how they thought the future would sound.

I think THX 1138 came closest to sounding like the future- it’s about the perfect soundtrack to world events of January 2017.  So dark and depressing… makes the Last Man On Earth of The Omega Man sound distinctly jolly.

John Carpenter October film..?

hall2Halloween (1978) – Blu-ray.

Well, October’s a fairly topical month to be watching horror films, and if you are going to watch a John Carpenter film in October, then odds are it’s going to be Halloween. Fortunately I had a copy of the blu-ray 35th anniversary steelbook sitting on my shelf in the unwatched pile, so not only did it tick off another October horror movie but it also got that infamous pile down by one.

There’s not much to be said about Halloween, its surely all been said already. Separated from its iconic status over the years and its franchise of endless sequels and reboots (which beyond Halloween 3 I have never watched), the 1978 film remains a great little horror movie. Its a small, lovingly-crafted, nicely acted, wonderfully scored horror film. Like Alien and Jaws, it’s a great film that begat many (often inferior) sequels but remains perfect all in itself. Its a lesson in tension and the implied threat of violence- indeed, in gore/violence terms it’s a very restrained film, and its also a masterclass in using the widescreen frame in its shots. Carpenters films -particularly his early ones- are beautifully composed, he really knew how to use the widescreen frame.

hall1Donald Pleasence- isn’t he wonderful in this? He was always a great talent that graced genre films like THX 1138 and Escape From New York, and channeled all sorts of Peter Cushing vibes in this, perhaps his most famous role as Dr Sam Loomis. He was the kind of actor we seldom see these days, but his twitchy, nervous bald Everyman convinced he’s hunting the Devil Incarnate (and who’s to say he isn’t?) is a joy here as he is in most everything, really. I miss him, and as with Peter Cushing, with his passing we as film-fans suffered a major loss that grows more pressing as the years pass.

One thing I will note regards this 35th Anniversary disc -and I don’t know if this appears on the films many other home editions- is a great little documentary, The Night She Came Home, which features Jamie Lee Curtis attending a Halloween/horror convention and spending a weekend meeting and greeting fans, the proceeds going to a hospital charity.  Apparently she distanced herself from horror fans and the Halloween fanbase for some years so her attendance here is a rare event and warranted this video record. Its a nice doc. I quite like this kind of thing, related to the film on the disc but not restricted to being a making-of talking heads piece, rather it’s a fly-on-the-wall look at the event, the actress, the fans who share their stories regards love of the film etc, and we see other actors and behind the camera staff from the film series. Its not often I really bother with extra features on discs these days (much to my shame) but this was a nice one that sucked me in immediately after watching the film.

 

 

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