Lucky (2017)

lucky1This was a delight; one of those little films in which, well, very little happens, other than character moments and observations of the human condition- you know, the stuff we seldom see in film these days. I can’t say its perfect, I thought some of it was rather forced and I didn’t ‘buy’ everything, but the good easily outweighed the bad. Its Harry Dean Stanton in one of his last films, for goodness sake, and any criticism I have regards the film is about the supporting cast and some of the script choices: Harry is perfect in this, you can tell it was largely written for him, little nods to his own life history scattered in the details. Mostly its a one-man show, and that’s when the film is at its best. Harry should have stayed in his house watching daytime telly, smoking and drinking too much coffee, sometimes cussing the television inanity. That would have been film enough for me.

Lucky is a sad, melancholy film; its also rather sweet, thankfully without resorting to the saccharine, a tricky balance. Its got a ninety-year old beloved actor playing a ninety-year old loner contemplating his own mortality, realising that everyone and everything and everyplace he knew or knows is either gone already or will be. David Lynch is wonderful, the rest of the cast is okay, but Harry towers over all. The fact that he passed away just a few months following this film’s release just makes it all the sadder.

Every time I see Harry Dean Stanton onscreen… I hear Ry Cooder music. Can’t escape it. That’s Paris, Texas and there is no escaping it, its like Cooder was sound tracking Harry’s face and not the movie. There were a few moments in this film in which, because of the similar desert setting and Harry’s endlessly craggy, lived-in face, that I almost thought this might be some kind of unofficial sequel, in just the same way as Jack Lemmon’s character in Glengarry Glenn Ross seems to be The Apartment‘s CC Baxter decades after the Billy Wilder film, ruined by the darkside of the American Dream.

And hey, this has got Dallas and Brett together again some 38 years after Alien. How weird is that scene: its possibly one of the films weakest, and doesn’t really fit in, I suspect, but hey, its got film nostalgia/event soaked up in it. You just can’t help but smile and wish it was a longer scene, just to live it a little more. And marvel with some horror at the 38 years.

Revisiting Contact (1997)

contact2I have a fascination with space travel, alien civilizations and our own place in the Cosmos that dates back to me as a kid watching Star Trek. Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Carl Sagan’s book and tv series Cosmos only reinforced my conviction that we are not alone, that we should watch the skies and being alone in this vast universe is surely a big waste of Space. 

I never read Carl Sagan’s book Contact. I’m not entirely sure why, it seems a strange omission but life is weird like that, we make some choices which, looking back, don’t entirely make a lot of sense.   

So I don’t know what differences exist between Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film and the original book, or whether it is wholly faithful. It feels like something Carl Sagan would have written; certainly it has novel ideas and extrapolates from scientific ideas a plausible premise about First Contact. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter to me, although now that I consider it I really should catch up with the book sometime. Its enough that the film was, when I saw it at the cinema back in the day, and remains today watching my Blu-Ray copy, a pretty strong and quite satisfying film. 

Its perhaps a wee bit melodramatic, a little too Hollywood… maybe its just that its a product of the 1990s. I think it would have benefited by being made several years ago with a less emotive director, someone like Denis Villeneuve, really- its no mistake that the film I kept on thinking about while watching Contact was Villeneuve’s own First Contact film, his superb Arrival from 2016. Arrival is a better film by some margin, I think, but I would dearly love to see what someone like Villeneuve might have made of something like Contact, given the material and a big cinematic toybox.

I was oddly disturbed, funnily enough, when I considered that the last time I had watched Contact was before Arrival existed- this was the first time watching Contact in which Arrival was in my thoughts, and it made me consider the strange thing it is of re-watching films over the years. We are different, the world is different, the cinematic landscape is different: and that later point is perhaps the most telling of all. Films made decades later with better technologies inevitably have some bearing on whether a film still holds up years down the line. For one thing, I seem to remember the visual effects of Contact being pretty cutting-edge back in 1997; its funny how much some CG effects have aged spectacularly badly. Many of Contact’s visual effects hold up pretty well, and some of them, er, really don’t look good.   

The search for extra-terrestrial life always made perfect sense and great importance to me. As Arthur C Clarke put it,  “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Contact doesn’t voice it in the same way, it leaves that argument unspoken and I keep on thinking that Jodie Foster’s character, our central heroine, Ellie, should scream that sentiment out at her loudest voice: how can any one of her detractors critiquing her obsession with SETI deny it? Contact seems more concerned with arguments of Faith, examinations of Faith, either in God or Science and its a bittersweet stroke of genius that Ellie’s First Contact experience ultimately becomes a matter of Faith. Are we believers (of course we are, we saw what she saw) or are we non-believers (did we really just see what she thinks she saw)? I think the film would have been incredibly brave had it just left it that way- instead it tips its hat with a reveal that Ellie’s digital recorder may have recorded just static- but it recorded eighteen hours of it, which validates Ellie’s claims. It feels a little too literal, too obvious to me, I think I would have preferred a vaguer conclusion. I think what I’m getting at is that Contact is still an enjoyable and fairly strong film- it just isn’t sophisticated enough, for me today. Maybe its too literal. 

contactThe films constant tension between God and science, between Faith and Empirical Evidence is both its most interesting dynamic and its most irritating. It keeps on forcing its way in. It feels like something Carl Sagan would have written, even if he always seemed quite dismissive about anything Divine- God always seemed too simple a solution for Carl. My suspicion, having not read the book, is that a lot of the films preoccupation with God and science are from the Hollywood direction, not the book, but hey, I could be way wrong and should-have-done-my-research.

The cast is really good. Jodie Foster is great as Ellie, and its wonderful seeing Tom Skerritt as the  boo-hiss villain of the piece, scientist/bureaucrat/bastard David Drumlin. James Woods of course could play the frankly despicable -if wholly believable- government senator Kitz in his sleep, and seeing him in this I wonder again why we see so little of him these days (has he retired?). How wonderful, too, is John Hurt as tech magnate S. R. Hadden (and me suddenly realising he’s a fellow Alien colleague of Skerritt, and yep they both die in this film too). Really, the cast is one of the films strengths. Even a rather young-looking Matthew McConaughey, who always irritated me in the film and still does -too cool, too self-confident, too sexy, too Hollywood- has the novel perspective gifted from his later roles, particularly Interstellar, a film that assumes intelligence but is frankly quite behind Contact in that regard (Interstellar’s twist that the ‘aliens’ are our future selves communicating via a Cosmic Bookcase is just… I’m always rather lost for words). 

As I’ve gotten older my own faith, as it were, that it would surely be just a matter of Time before SETI found some evidence of an alien signal and proof of neighbours in the Cosmos, has not been realised. Years and decades went by and the euphoria of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was eventually worn down by mundane reality. When that film originally came out I read something by someone remarking that the events of CE3K had they happened would have been kept secret, we -the public at large- would never have been told, it was an event just too big, too huge. It would change too much, so such revelations would be hidden away for our own safety. Reading that as a kid, I dismissed it with my usual youthful enthusiasm, but as I’ve gotten older and more jaded… partly I think, how do you keep such secrets secret in this Information Age, but then I think, grow up. They can hide anything.

Maybe something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind couldn’t be made today. Its message of Good Aliens after decades of Hollywood alien invasions felt quite radical at the time, even if its sentiments proved short-lived with Alien and Independence Day and so many others reasserting the alien’s rightful place of outsiders and menace. Are we ready for First Contact? Robert Zemeckis’ film suggests that we’re not, and its possibly right, but its a great question to ask and ponder over. For my part, a recurring problem for me every time Contact finishes, is that its somehow pressed some magical ‘reset’ button worthy of 1960s television- there is no mention of the alien technology just sitting waiting to be used again, or the various applications of that technology that would filter down into military and civilian use. Ellie is even back at her old job listening for signals again. James Woods dismissing the whole thing as an elaborate hoax by some high-tech industrialist is like some kind of magic trick, and its that one moment in which Contact becomes, at the last moment, utterly stupid.

Just as at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there would be no going back, and maybe the REALLY interesting films, in both cases, would be the films telling us what happened next, but neither CE3K2 or Contact 2 ever happened. Sometimes film-makers get away scot-free.

Big Bad Mama (1974)

bbm6Wow, I really enjoyed this, but feel guilty for doing so. A bawdy sex-comedy/crime drama set during the American Depression, its a trashy Roger Corman b-movie from 1974 full of geeky pleasures, not least being Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, William Shatner, and Alien‘s Captain Dallas, Tom Skerritt, featured in a film together. Its just so bizarre seeing them sharing scenes, Shatner with Star Trek a few years behind him and Skerritt with Alien a few years in his future. My inner geek screaming out ‘its Kirk and Dallas- together!’ as if its some majorly important cinematic event.

But there are plenty of other things going for it. For one thing, it stars Angie Dickinson in a genuinely great ‘I’m better than this movie’ performance from just before her role in the seminal ’70s tv show Police Woman– but I’ve never seen her in anything quite like this before. Although in her early forties at this point, she features in several nude scenes in this film which get progressively more graphic as the film progresses- it’d be a brave career move for any woman today, never mind one back in 1974, which seems an unusual decision as she was already a well-known actress, but it probably makes this one her more famous/infamous movies. The film also features genre stalwart Dick Miller, who is always a pleasure to see on film, as an increasingly frustrated FBI chases our heroine throughout the movie.

bbmSo anyway, we’re in Texas in 1932, and Wilma McClatchie (Dickinson) is so frustrated by her life of poverty and wanting more for her two daughters, that she stops her youngest daughter’s wedding during the wedding service.  They race away from the Church with her bootlegger lover but during an encounter with two FBI agents, Wilma’s lover is killed. Wilma and her daughters carry on her dead lover’s bootlegging business and progress onto an ever-daring crime spree. They get caught up with a bank robber, Fred Diller (Skerritt) and they commit several robberies together, and Wilma and Diller become lovers. During a later robbery, Wilma meets a charming but disreputable gambler William Baxter (Shatner) who falls into the gang and replaces Diller as Wilma’s lover. Diller is annoyed but turns his attentions to Wilma’s daughters, eventually bedding them both and getting the youngest pregnant. Wilma decides she has to make one last con to set her daughters up for life which involves kidnapping a wealthy heiress, but the FBI are closing in.

bbm1So there’s lots of sex, and lots of violent gun-play and chases. Its tawdry stuff filmed with a very low budget but it somehow has a lot of charm too, particularly from its ‘seventies feel with lots of actors familiar to anyone who saw much ‘seventies American television shows. Indeed, its a surprisingly strong cast all round, but I have to wonder what Shatner was doing in this. He is very good though, and cast rather against type, as a no-good scoundrel who’s a coward and a liar, albeit hindered by a not very good wig. I suppose Star Trek was years behind him and was just an old sixties tv show at that point; back then the show was clearly in the past and never going to have any future and Shatner had to get acting gigs wherever he could. There is good fun to be had here though- considering Kirk’s weekly amorous encounters in Trek, its a bit of a chuckle here to see him in bed with Dickinson and she declining his advances in favour of a book.

bbm5Skerritt by then had a few minor movies behind him but was still very much trying to work his way up the ladder to stardom by whatever role he could get, and while there’s little here to suggest what awaited him, there is indeed some fun seeing him being such a lothario bank-robber, bedding first the mother and then her two children. Career-wise the best was yet to come for both of the male leads, and of course Dickinson herself was soon to land a major acting part in her television show Police Woman. So this exploitation b-movie is almost a time-capsule, a moment in time in all three careers that stands out almost like some kind of reality check- actors have to eat, as they say.

Big Bad Mama is currently available ‘free’ to Amazon Prime members, and I stumbled onto it completely by accident, having never even heard of it before- maybe this is the biggest plus for streaming services such as this. There’s lots of old rubbish on Amazon but a few little gems like this one that I would miss completely if not for them sitting hidden away for me to stumble on. After a long day at work it made for a perfect Friday night viewing, its not a great movie by any means -its pretty lousy, really, but the amazing cast and the unique style of those old ‘seventies movies makes it an enjoyable 90 minutes (the cinematography alone is lovely). I see there’s even a sequel on Amazon Prime, that was released in 1987, but considering how the first film ends I cannot figure out how Dickinson manages to star in it too- something tells me I’m going to have to find out by pressing that ‘watch now’ button some night soon…

A Hologram For The King (2016)

holgm22016.79: A Hologram For The King (Amazon VOD)

A Hologram For The King is a midlife crisis story, and your mileage for it might depend on your affinity for Tom Hanks and feel-good endings. I really enjoyed it, which rather surprised the old cynic in me. Part of it is likely down to the casting of Tom Hanks- his onscreen persona, defined over so many years now, leads you to have an instant liking for any character he plays in a film (I still say he’d make the most shocking and great Bond villain someday). You are almost predisposed to root for his character in this film from the very start.

The start, too, features the films highlight- a sequence in which Tom Hanks’ character, American salesman Alan Clay, appears in a mock-pop video singing Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime, the visuals and lyrics succinctly summarising his characters midlife crisis. Its unfortunate the film never surpasses that arresting first sequence.

A middle-aged failing businessman, recently divorced and unable to pay for his daughters college fees, Clay is in the figurative Last Chance Saloon on a business trip to Saudi Arabia to sell his bosses IT project (involving the holograms of the title) to the king. Naturally the film is about the crises he faces (amongst other things, he has a nasty lump in his back which may prove cancerous) and the strange characters and situations he encounters in this foreign land, while reminiscing about his own life and failures. “Do you ever feel you might have done it differently?” he asks himself and others. His doubts are reinforced by his own fathers rather scathing opinion of him ( a great, if rather brutally short, cameo from Tom Skerritt), and there is a sense that the failing here is not just of Clay but of the American Dream itself, with the American Empire suffering from Globalisation and the transfer of Economic power and wealth to Asia and the East. There is a sense of a Changing Of The Guard, of a transient world, and Clay is a little figure caught in it, as are we all.

So its very much a film of its time. Its interesting though to compare it to The Swimmer, in which Burt Lancaster’s Ned Merrill has suffered his own midlife meltdown following a divorce and subsequent career failure. The Swimmer is a much darker and fulfilling affair, lacking any real redemption for its protagonist. A Hologram For The King in comparison feels much more lightweight and rather suffers for having a happy ending almost out of left-field, in the form of a romance with his doctor and a fresh career opportunity in Saudi. A Hologram For The King gets away with it because, well, we all root for Tom, he’s a nice guy after all, and the film is, well, always lightweight and fairly comic.But its a vindication for Clay that feels a little too Hollywood, knowing how grimly some people suffer  on the wrong end of the American Dream. A Hologram For The King feels fluffy, whereas The Swimmer feels ‘real’, with something genuine to say about the 1960s America it was made in. I’m not sure, ultimately, what A Hologram For The King is really  saying or how that will resonate over the decades, but it is pleasant enough and is carried by Hank’s genuine charm.

Loving the Alien

alien1.jpgAlien (1979) – Blu-ray

So I watched Alien again. The last time I watched the film was just before Prometheus was released. Back then I was cautious about what Prometheus might be, what its effects on Alien might be. This time, well, I was pretty much of the same mind, watching it for the first time since Prometheus, wondering what it would like with the knowledge of Space Engineers etc sullying my experience of it.

I won’t go on about Prometheus, it’s a divisive movie and certainly not all it might have been. As time has gone on, I look back on it with a some disappointment- it is really two films conflicting for supremacy. Its partly a (‘proper’?) science fiction film about human evolution and how that was orchestrated by alien Engineers, and it is partly an Alien prequel, handicapped by having to put all those references to Alien in it whilst maintaining some kind of logic. I hope Ridley Scott’s next attempt, Alien: Covenant, gets it right next time by being either one or the other (it certainly seems to be going the route of  full-on Alien prequel, which isn’t necessarily a good thing in itself).

So Alien. Well, thankfully I can report it isn’t ruined by Prometheus, even my favourite scene of the Space Jockey reveal. Fortunately Alien is its own thing, a utterly gorgeous Lovecraftian horror, and no meddling of the chronology/mythology can spoil that. To be honest I’m of a mind that everything else -prequels, sequels, everything- is all some other alternate universe anyway. Alien works best as its own, unique thing. Its a beautifully shot, wonderfully designed, perfectly cast/acted film about space truckers stumbling upon an alien derelict and unwittingly unleashing their own doom. Thats all that it is. Rather like fans of Jaws (and I count myself among them) can watch that film blissfully discounting the existence of its own horrible sequels.

Its the conflict between art and commerciality.  Each is a perfect work of art and each has been subjected to the normal Hollywood methodology of milking a successful property for every dollar it can make. As fans we are always tempted by the prospect of ‘more’ but rarely is that ‘more’ ever properly realised, rarely does that ‘more’ really mean more of what we love and admire. I think one example of where that worked was Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, or maybe Back to the Future 1 & 2, but such examples are rare (I rather hope Blade Runner and its as yet-unnamed sequel proves to be another, but we’ll have to wait and see).

alien2I think that what helps Alien remain so unique, so indomitably unaffected by Prometheus or the sequels  is that it is so much a product of the 1970s. It looks and feels and sounds so different to everything else that has followed. The cast is middle-aged, down to earth and ‘real’, they don’t seem like a cast of actors, and even the usual roles each performs seems against type (so very 1970s). Tom Skerritt’s Dallas is the nominal leader but he’s really an ineffectual one, laid-back to the point of being disinterested in what is to him just another job. That tired, job-like attitude to travelling between worlds infects most of the characters, at once a Dark Star-inspired commentary on the soulless astronauts of 2001 and riposte to the heroes of Star Trek.  If the audience expects Dallas to be the leader, the hero by example, the source of a solution, they are rather mistaken. In most of his decisions, Dallas is usually proved wrong. Its an example of authority being fallible, another ‘1970s thing’ I think in the post-Nixon era.  That last point is further echoed in the conspiracy of Ash and ‘the Company’ using the crew as expendable pawns in an investigation of the alien- it’s not a plot point really convincing or successful but its a further example of the film being a product of its time.

Of all the films that have followed it, I don’t think there has ever been as convincing an ensemble, it’s a major part of the sense of reality of the film.  Likewise the slow pace, or the (mandated by the limits effects tech of the time) strictly functional visual effects that don’t pull us out of the film by being ‘wow’ moments. The horror of the Giger-designed creature is more from what we don’t see than what we do. A film today would feel more inclined to show us everything and ‘wow’ us with impressive visuals, as Prometheus did. If characters in Alien behave dumb, we don’t really mind, they are ordinary people who are terrified or not aware of their real situation; if the characters in Prometheus behave dumb, its because they are stupid (or written badly).

And the Jerry Goldsmith score; what a wonderfully unsettling, perfectly toned work. Even the uses of his earlier score from Freud, something Goldsmith himself was annoyed by, seems perfect- that fragile, haunting melody that accompanies Dallas crawling through the air ducts (I bought the soundtrack to Freud on CD some years ago- it sounds very much like the score to an Alien sequel that never was).

Well here’s a reality check:  Alien is some 37 years old now. That fact alone feels scarier than anything in the bloody movie but yeah, 37 years old and yet to be equaled as a sci-fi horror film. I’m not going to suggest it is a classic like Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind or 2001 but its surely up there in that group of films as far as being  in a league of their own, never to be really equalled.

ff137 years ago… I remember picking up this issue of Fantastic Films, arrested by the image on its cover and the unsettling pictures inside of strange alien places and unusual-looking spacesuits. It was the start of a long love affair with what would be one of my very favourite films. I remember reading the Movie Novel of the film, in hindsight a remarkable way of experiencing a film that has sadly been made redundant by home video (I would have loved, and would still love, a Movie Novel of Blade Runner for example).

So Alien lives on, in spite of and utterly independent of, Prometheus and any of the other Alien-themed spinoff films. Its an unsettling, powerful piece of work that somehow transcends its b-movie origins. Long may it reign.