Yesterday, Pt.2

Well, yesterday’s whimsical post hardly merits as a ‘proper’ review so here goes with a few more thoughts.

lovesongsDuring the late-seventies, my Dad had an 8-track deck fitted in our family car. It was second-hand and came with a selection of albums on 8-track: for those happily ignorant of it, the fotmat was a bulky plastic-cartridge monstrosity from the mid-sixties when it had become popular in cars, but hey, it beat listening to the radio. One of the albums that Dad had bought with the 8-track deck was The Beatles compilation, Love Songs, and this was, other than hearing isolated songs on the radio over the years,  my first real experience of hearing the bands music. I remember that summer holiday in particular, very well, Dad driving the family to and around North Wales listening to that album over and over- some amazing songs on that compilation (considering how defintive a collection it was, it always seemed odd to me that it was discontinued in the early 1980s and never released, officially at least,  on Compact Disc).

It would be many years later when I eventually bought all the Beatles albums on CD and became fully familiar with their music, but across all those albums, its those love songs, heard many years before over and over during that summer holiday, that remain the most poignant to me: they were the soundtrack of that childhood holiday and listening to those songs always brings a smile of recollection. I can’t say I’m a die-hard devotee of the band or their music- much of it is brilliant, the rest either admirable or embarrassing but never inbetween. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m a child of the ‘sixties but I was far too young to have experienced Beatlemania or the years during which the bands music was new and revelatory. The Beatles music is always something of a history lesson, of another (my parents) generation.

yestrAnyway, what has anything of this got to do with Yesterday? I’m not sure. My overall impression of the film is of how slight it was. Its really one of those films that you can tell was born of a single-sentence idea (“what if the Beatles never happened, but one person could remember them?”) and strung into a full movie. Its a clever conceit that initially is quite arresting when you consider how much of a lasting impact the Beatles has had on pop music and pop culture. Someday someone will make a film about a world in which Star Wars never happened and old geeks will gush about how much the film franchise meant to them and how much the film/s changed movies and film culture, I just hope it will have a bit more depth than this thing does.

Yesterday is fine for what it is: its a romantic comedy, liberally laced with great songs from the Beatles. But thats all it is: which is fine, as I say, thats clearly all its intended to be. I suppose my issue with the film is what it isn’t, which is my fault entirely: I just expected some revelation, some Twilght Zone-like moral twist. Not anything dark, it could have been quite life-affirming. I just expected some reset button returning Jack Malick to the real-world suddenly wiser about what is really important (i.e. his best freind Ellie), as if the Beatles songs were teaching him something other than how to become rich on someone elses talent.

I thought that last theme was brilliant by the way: maybe the film  is really some subtle allegory for how so much modern culture is built on the talents of those who came before: hell, its like some incisive commentary on JJ Abrams whole career for a start, and the whole Hollywood machine making reboots and remakes and belated sequels ad nauseam. I like to think that was deliberate and quite brilliant, on which level Yesterday is pure subversive genius, but thats really just me pulling one of the stunts of that Shining documentary Room 237 and its marvelously deranged theories.

Danny Boyle has stated that 40% of the films budget was spent on acquiring the 17 somgs that they used in the film. Considering how the film ultimately served as a pure love-letter to the band and what the music meant to those who remembered it in a world utterly devoid of said music, its rather sad that some seriously wealthy individuals or music moguls insisted on taking that money. Yesterday tries to say that music can aspire to be something ‘more’ and should be for everyone, but such noble sentiment feels undermined as the real world maintains that this still comes at a price, afterall.

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Party like it’s 1989: Field of Dreams (4K UHD)

pris2Another 30th anniversary, and another 4K UHD release of an old favourite- this time Field of Dreams, a film blessed by one of James Horner’s best and most intimate of scores, and a story/screenplay that makes it the best Ray Bradbury movie that isn’t actually based on a Ray Bradbury story. Like Rod Serling’s early Twilight Zone episode, Walking Distance, this feels so much like a Bradbury tale it’s almost from some kind of fantasy uncanny valley.  As someone who spent much of the 1980s devouring much or Ray Bradbury’s short fiction and later novels, quietly laughing and shedding a tear at just the right moments with each turn of the page, Field of Dreams was, to quote the characters, not just incredible, it was perfect.

In just the same way as Alien is possibly the best Lovecraft film ever made, in how honest and sincere it is in conveying the alien horror of his best tales, so Field of Dreams is the best Bradbury film ever made- the fact that neither author had anything at all to do with the original source materials of either movie matters not one jot.

So anyway, I had to pinch myself a little this past weekend- I was a very lucky ghost watching The Prisoner of Second Avenue in a new HD master on Blu-ray and the following day a new transfer of Field of Dreams, splendidly brought to 4K UHD disc. While the disc will never win any awards or standout from the 4K UHD crowd, it’s the best the film has ever looked- a quick spin of the original Blu-ray disc reveals how limited that old edition really was, hampered by a lackluster print/master which in comparison really highlights the improvements in this new 4K disc. The image is more stable, the detail and filmic grain more defined and the colour depth really improved- HDR is mostly subtle and all the best for it, only really vivid in scenes with neon street lighting or in the baseball field at night.

The film, of course, is something of a marmite picture; often described as a male-weepie or adult fable, it’s a charming and finely-judged film that is really quite subtle – I think it will be interesting to rewatch Always, also from 1989, and similarly old-fashioned and gentle in spirit, to see how Spielberg’s less subtle hand fares (a bargain-bin blu-ray sits waiting on the shelf as I type this). I was naturally predisposed to fall for this film simply because it evokes so much of the magic Bradbury’s old Americana fantasies, but this shouldn’t detract from the qualities of the cinematography,  the performances (Kevin Costner is at the top of his game and James Earl Jones a greater joy everytime I rewatch this), the sublime score, the deft direction.  It has the feel of lightning caught in a bottle- a film has naively nostalgic and innocent as this shouldn’t have worked in the 1980s and beyond, but like Capra’s Its A Wonderful Life, it’s rather gained a timeless life all of its own.

A Perfect Allison Williams Double-bill

perfect2Allison who? I hear you ask. Well, that’s a very good question really. I was watching The Perfection last night, and you know how it is, you’re watching a film or tv show and you see a (usually pretty) face and you think, I’ve seen that bloke/woman (delete as appropriate) before, but where? I watch a lot of films, not as many as some, sure, but a lot, and this kind of thing happens all the time. Its what mobile phones and the internet are for, right, to avoid this kind of thing becoming a mental meltdown spoiling what you are watching, but I prefer it to be a bit of a game- pause the damn thing (it’s what pause buttons are for, right?) and just debating with your other half “what the hell have we seen her in? Its something recent, I’m sure, but…”

Too many movies/tv shows. Its all getting a blur at the best of times.

So anyway, this occurred watching The Perfection, a strange horror/thriller flick on Netflix- whenever Allison Williams was onscreen, and it was, like, all the time because she was the star of the damn thing and it was really bugging us. So twenty minutes in we hit the pause button and wracked our brains and eventually, as it does, it came to us- she was in Get Out, another horror/thriller film that we saw a few weeks ago but which I hadn’t gotten around to reviewing here.

So, probably an ideal opportunity to review both films, or at least offer a few thoughts about each whilst considering the artistic qualities of she who is named Allison Williams.

Now, Allison, let’s get this right off the bat- she’s pretty, and she looks an awful lot like Daisy Ridley (Rey from the latest Star Wars trilogy) and Keira Knightley (The Pirates of the Carribean and a lot of other more forgettable stuff) so I suppose I could be forgiven for thinking that she fits a certain casting profile of what’s trendy in films now regards female leads. Now, the spin here is that while I’d likely be correct in thinking that, I’d also have to admit, she’s pretty good, possibly even a better actress, although she comes from a television show background (not something that carries the stigma it used to in the 1970s, certainly) and hasn’t had the break into blockbuster territory that Misses Ridley and Knightley have enjoyed just yet. At any rate, she was pretty damn good in Get Out, and even better in The Perfection– maybe she benefited from limited roles but she manages screen presence and charm and carries herself pretty well. I suspect we may see more of her in future and in later years people won’t be stumbling upon this post wondering “Allison who…?”.

011641211.jpgSo anyway, let’s start with the film clearest in my memory because I saw it last night: The Perfection. This is a something of a revenge/horror thriller that delivers on the shocks and gore but also on the modern tendency of scripts to just break down under scrutiny. I have been reminded before that all film is like that- it’s the plot holes that are filled by the scripts that enable the drama and twists etc and that most films fall apart when really given consideration. So we can forgive all that to some degree. I mean, it’s a little like thinking back on all the carnage in the John Wick films and wondering where all the cops are, particularly in New York considering Wick leaves a wake of bodies akin to a terrorist incident and the frenzy of police and ambulance sirens would surely be up on live News casts etc while it’s still going down. So filmgoers should always suspend disbelief with the proverbial pinch of salt and consider it all part of the fun.

In the case of The Perfection, its perhaps to consider it a modern fable, a kind of adult morality tale, clearly something rather diverged from any reality any of us are familiar with. Its a b-movie posing as something more sophisticated, which it really isn’t, and in this way it reminds me of several other films, like Velvet Buzzsaw, for example, or the recent Suspiria. Child prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) was a budding master cellist who had to leave a prestigious musical academy when her mother fell ill, and now years later following her mothers death she reconnects with her old tutors and the academy and the star pupil that replaced her and has lived the fame and success that Charlotte was denied. There’s a similar jealousy/animosity/sexual tension that featured in the superior Black Swan, as Charlotte and new star Lizzie (Logan Browning) reconnect. They start an affair as Lizzie takes a well-earned break from performances but something feels a little ‘off’ and its soon revealed that Charlotte really has a few scores she means to settle before the film is over.

To reveal much more would certainly break into spoiler territory, and as I endeavour not to do that when posting about new or fairly recent releases, I won’t go much further here, except to say that it’s got a few left-turns and surprises and is pretty good, except that it really can’t resist going just a few steps too far. Its not a unique criticism, I mean its true of so many contemporary films and tv shows- the drive to shock and surprise and entertain in modern material just can’t help but stretch credibility. The Perfection is, ironically given its title perhaps (whoops, cheap shot right there) is, alas, far from perfect, but it’s reasonably good fun while it lasts. Best to approach it for what it is, a b-movie at heart, and accept it on those terms.

geto1It is also, in a way, reminiscent of the original Twilight Zone tv series, something I was also thinking of when I watched Get Out a few weeks back,  Both films can be considered as simple Twilight Zone-like pitches. In Get Out‘s case, its a film about Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black guy whose relationship with white girl Rose (yep, Allison Williams) comes under some nervous scrutiny when he meets her family one weekend at their rural family home. “Don’t go to a white girl’s parents’ house!” he is warned by Rod, his conspiracy theorist best friend, whose wild fancies are initially played for laughs but it transpires he’s right to be afraid for Chris. Its all a little like The Stepford Wives or Twin Peaks, regards a dark underbelly hidden beneath what on first glance is a pleasant, law-abiding if overly conservative white American community out in the sticks. I was reminded of some of H P Lovecraft’s stories, in which cultists would preserve their essences in ‘Saltes’ through which they might achieve some immortality or life beyond death by occupying the bodies of later descendants – Get Out chooses to follow a more scientific route to explain what’s really going on, but it’s essentially the same.  Its well acted and staged and is a pretty good thriller, and like the best Lovecraft fiction, it had me grimly pondering the really nasty undercurrent of what was really going on – on reflection it’s really horrible how people were being replaced by others in their bodies and for how long it had been happening (I prefer Lovecraft’s more fanciful somewhat mystical methodology than the brain-swapping silliness the film hints at, and I think the film would have functioned as  a great HPL film had it gone that way).

So anyway, there’s two films featuring Allison Williams. I’m sure there will be plenty more, and maybe with the next one I’ll recognise her straight away and won’t be distracted by wondering where I’ve seen that face before…?

Extinction (2018)

ext1Oh dear. Irritation would be the better title. Okay, I’ll admit it- its the kids. They were driving me NUTS. The youngest has a cuddly toy which you just know is going to be left behind at the most inopportune moment and cause a trip back into danger to go back for it, the eldest daughter is a sulky teen who seems to live in an elevator until all hell breaks loose and the screaming starts. Actually, I would imagine the casting process basically involved a line-op of budding child actors asked to scream and cry on-camera on request. Shed enough tears and scream and cry until you go purple and and chances are you’ve got the gig.

Coupled to the children from hell are the stupidest adults I’ve recently witnessed onscreen. Even the nominal hero of the film, Peter (Michael Pena) is pretty dumb throughout- maybe that’s an attempt at realism on the screenwriter/directors part, because lets face it, people are generally stupid, and tend to panic under stress, but hey, we’ve all seen plenty of alien invasion movies, haven’t we? When an alien invasion force comes out of the sky with searchlights stabbing at windows for signs of life, and starts shooting the shit out of anything they see that moves, you don’t stand there gawping out of the panoramic window for ages, right? I mean, you’d also head for ground level too once you saw the rest of the city in flames, you wouldn’t head for the roof to find that, once there, there is nowhere else to go except, er, down.

Okay, I should cut the film some slack. Its maybe refreshing, even, to see people doing stupid stuff and being generally useless at fighting aliens. I probably would if not for those bloody kids.

extSo anyway, the premise is fine for a movie that is actually more Twilight Zone than Independence Day. Peter, an engineer, is having trouble sleeping. He keeps having nightmares that are fairly apocalyptic and its effecting his marriage and his work, where anything seems able to trigger a waking ‘vision’ (a desk lamp flickers the wrong way and boom he’s back in Doomsday). It gets so bad he’s walking out at night and he sees lights moving in the sky and no-one else can see them. Is he going crazy?

Just when the jury is in and he’s destined for a visit from the bug-squad, the sky lights up late one evening and an alien invasion force arrives, blasting the shit out of everyone that moves and laying waste to the city. So Peter’s visions were of the future, somehow?

So the majority of the film becomes a family Die Hard/Irwin Allen disaster flick, with Peter having to get his family and some freinds to safety (thankfully Peter’s wife is an architect or planner on the council and knows about some tunnels hidden beneath the city). They of course have to get past homicidal aliens and through the ruins of the building and the city plaza beyond and somehow keep the wailing hysterical kids quiet for more than five minutes.

There is, thankfully, a mildly diverting twist that sort of explains much of what precedes it and almost saves the film. But by then the execution of it all has just sunk it. I won’t go into that twist for the sake of it spoiling the film for anyone who hasn’t yet watched it, but if you’ve seen any of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone’s you’ve probably seen something much like it before.

Not the best Netflix Original then, but likely not the worst either. I would just note an observation that, again, the film ends in a fairly open-ended manner just begging for a sequel (although perhaps not quite so abruptly as the ironically-titled How It Ends), which is either mirroring how theatrical releases seem to be structured these days, particularity blockbusters,  or that the origins of this project lie in the television series arena.

 

Gerald’s Game (2017)

geraldsgame1The beautiful Carla Gugino, who really deserves more movie roles,  takes center-stage and thrives in this interesting film adaptation of a Stephen King thriller. As usual with Kings output, Gerald’s Game takes a killer premise and runs with it – a married, middle-aged couple having marital problems, Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), hope to respark their marriage whilst on a weekend away in their remote beachside second home. Gerald has had the idea of spicing up their redundant sex life by handcuffing Jesse to the bed and indulging in some role play. Things get out of hand and Gerald suffers a heart attack and dies, leaving Jesse handcuffed to the bed.

Unfortunately, as usual for much of King’s output, the author can’t resist straining the limits of plausibility and credibility.  For much of the film everything is fine- the awful predicament that Jesse is in seems at first embarrassing and silly but soon becomes a real and dangerous situation, and its fascinating as her plight begins to shatter her psyche and she ‘sees’ and has ‘conversations’ with visions of her husband and her own, free self,  while her husband’s body is being eaten by a wild dog that enters the house. She starts to recall traumatic events from her own childhood that informs her present situation. Its all very interesting. And then we see Death standing in her room.

geraldsgame2I won’t go into anymore for threat of spoiling the film for anyone who intends to watch the film, but suffice to say while the film is still rewarding and worth a watch it does suffer from just taking a few steps too far as is Stephen King’s wont.

Its all rather unfortunate that the films last third, whilst no doubt faithful to King’s novel, rather completely spoils the film as it seems to take some strange turn into Twilight Zone territory and a few too many coincidences. Perhaps it would have been better to suggest things rather than have them so literally explained away, or imply that some things were not real but rather results of Jesse’s fragile mind. You know, leave things a little ambiguous, leave it for the viewer to decide. As it is, it’s all very in-your-face and literal, which is such a pity. Carla Gugino is pretty magnificent throughout and deserves a better film, and Bruce Greenwood, too, is pretty great in what turns out to be a more substantial role than you might at first expect.

I guess I would have preferred it to stay the psychological thriller it seems to be rather than the standard Stephen King horror potboiler  that it eventually reveals itself to be. The pay-off just doesn’t feel right or deserved, and it left me feeling a little frustrated, frankly. It could have been damned good, instead it’s simply okay. Pity.

Sci-Fi Short: Citizen in the Temple

citizen2017.8: Citizen in the Temple (2015) – Amazon VOD

I have a feeling this review might take longer to write than it took to watch. I’m beginning to think there’s much more on Amazon VOD than immediately apparent, as I stumbled upon this short movie by accident. Citizen in the Temple is a short (25 mins) sci-fi film by Jason Huls, and is I believe a MFA thesis film, so its strictly an amateur piece with a very low budget (it didn’t make its target goal of $7,500 far as I can tell, but as it got made it clearly broke even some other way or got made for less).

Its probably best to judge it as a demo reel, or a proof-of-concept piece; “look, I can handle actors, I can stage an action sequence, I can handle effects, I can handle prosthetics,” that kind of thing. As such, it pretty much works. As a piece of storytelling though, it doesn’t really hold together, and its a bit unfair to audiences to tout it as a finished short film, because it doesn’t feel like it- it feels exactly like a demo reel.

Which is frustrating, as even with its meagre resources and limited running time, if it was scripted as a play, as a piece of intellectual ideas or a character piece, it might have worked very well. Too much of the running time is wasted on cgi effects shots that would have looked poor in Babylon 5‘s day, instead of just shooting an actor on a basic set emoting about his situation and convictions. With low-budget stuff like this you can’t compete with the ‘big boys’ and cgi stuff like greenscreen sets etc is just boring and cartoony when its done on the cheap, stunts and fight scenes can’t help but feel nasty and rough, but what you can do is ideas and character, that stuff costs you nothing.

Hell, I could have polished this script overnight myself. This could have been good, but the script wasn’t really about telling a tight, focussed dramatic character-piece, it was about setting up visuals and sequences to demo technique and ability.So it is what it is, and works for what it was intended to be. I guess. I feel like I’m being unfair being critical.

As it is, its all pretty vague, throw-the-audience-into-it stuff. We are on another planet, resources are scarce, and it’s basically a 1984-like totalitarian state with rebels trying to feed the poor and starving who are cast out beyond the city walls in the wilderness. Citizens in the city are ruled by the Consortium, its laws enforced by Templars, Jedi-like priests who employ Terminator-like drone cyborgs to do their dirty work. Its all very much like Rush’s prog-rock epic 2112 from their 1976 album, with plenty of Star Wars and Matrix references thrown in, not to mention the nods to Blade Runner in the city shots… its all very derivative. I guess you could play a drinking game watching this taking a shot with every ‘homage’ but you’d likely be too drunk to see the end.

Of course, I’m being wholly unfair. It was likely shot for less than the cost of a new car in very little time with most of the props and costumes made by keen amateurs, and it’s obviously a stepping-stone/demo reel for everyone involved both in front and behind the camera. Its short, and its free (on Amazon Prime) so whats the problem? Well, the old Twilight Zone tv series showed decades ago that decent sci-fi could be done in 25 minutes with a pretty-much zero budget. This short film fails to heed the lessons of all those many Twilight Zone episodes. Its all there; how to make a thoughtful, intriguing sci-fi short. You don’t need to stumble at the flash/bang/wow. Keep it to the ideas. Imagination can do the rest.