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The Awakening & The Woman In Black June 27, 2012

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , add a comment

The return of old-fashioned gothic horror, first with The Awakening and then The Woman In Black, is certainly welcome after the horror genre threatened to self-destruct from torture-fests and hand-held pov horrors.  Both attempt to tell old-fashioned ghost stories; The Awakening is set in 1920’s England, and is the story of a woman ghost hunter/sceptic (she has never found a ‘real’ one) who arrives at a secluded boys boarding school where the children are haunted by the ghost of a child, and The Woman In Black,  set in a similar timeframe (I can’t recall if has a specific date), concerns a solicitor who in the course of his duties with the estate of a deceased client finds a village terrorized by a vengeful spirit, the ‘Woman in Black’ of the title. Mysteries are unravelled and horrors unearthed. 

Both films are fairly accomplished with fine performances by A-list talent. Inevitably they both tend to collapse a little as they go on- The Awakening pretty much collapses under the weight of increasingly bizarre revelations and is finally undone by an ending that is, frankly, a somewhat perplexing WTF? I watched the last five minutes three times and never really got to the bottom of the ‘is she or isn’t she…?‘ I won’t go into it as its something of a spoiler but I’ll welcome any explanations from wiser viewers than me. I think it was ambiguous to the point of absurdity myself.

Regards The Woman In Black, I also felt the ending let it down. I guess it was telegraphed all through as it wasn’t really a surprise… was the lesson one that vengeful spirits never forgive or that the love of a good woman (dead or alive) can save us? The casting of Harry Potter (sorry, Daniel Radcliffe) in the lead role was no doubt a marketing triumph, and he fairs quite well, but really, he’s miscast to be honest. He’s just  too young, at least in appearance, to really carry off the role of  a haunted  widower of four years trying to piece his life together.  It’s certainly an effective thriller/chiller with plenty of jumps and nervy moments; I think both The Awakening and The Woman In Black are assisted in this by their period settings. 

Anyway, regardless of any misgivings and various failings, both films are effective additions to the  horror genre and I hope it leads to more of the same in future. I just hope future efforts are, well, just a bit more stranger and a bit more hardcore, if that makes any sense?  

In Time June 24, 2012

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Andrew Niccol’s cautionary classic Gattaca is required viewing for anyone interested in dystopian sci-fi movies; a vision of a future transformed by genetic engineering and eugenics, it’s one of the best sci-fi movies of the last twenty years but it hardly rocked the box-office- indeed, I often refer to it as the finest sci-fi movie no-one’s ever heard about. Frighteningly plausable, its the kind of movie that hangs around in your head for days and weeks afterwards.  Its also ravishing to look at with an excellent script and bewitching score. Pretty much perfect.

It was also Niccol’s debut feature, which marked him as a talent to watch- alas, his further features betrayed that promise. Case in point, his latest film In Time;  another vision of a dystopian future, here the central conceit is that scientists have discovered the secret of immortality, and now Time has replaced money as the unit of wealth.  Of course, in order for any currency to have any value, it has to be limited, which is the catch to what would otherwise be a utopian world of immortality. Basically, in practice immortality is reserved only for the very rich and powerful.  When people reach the age of twenty five they no longer age (at least the film has a reason for the cast being all young and beautiful), and can stay that way in theory forever- but a digital glowing clock on their right forearm begins ticking down. The clock starts with one year left, and when it reaches zero, the person dies.  More Time can be earned, like money would be, by work,  but the complication is that everything -food, water, clothes, rent- costs Time off this clock. Time can be transferred between people, so it can be given, but can also be stolen, or, if you come from a wealthy family, amassed into centuries.

So In Time is basically a story of the haves and have-nots, and the inequalities in society;  replacing the monetary wealth and poverty of our world with a near-future of beautiful rich people who will live forever and the millions of the poor underclass doomed to early deaths. 

It’s a clever idea once you get your head around it, an allegory for our own wealth-dominated society, and could make a decent movie- but not this one. Unfortunately Niccols take the idea and turns it into something of a clunker, in which our superhot hero Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), angered by the untimely death of his mother becomes some kind of Robin Hood, robbing Time from the rich in order to redistribute it to the poor, thereby threatening to derail the entire system. The Sherriff of Nottingham here is  veteran “Timekeeper” Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), who chases Salas and his superhot girlfriend Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). Sylvia is from a super-rich family but she’s bored with her life of plenty or has gotten a conscience, or just fallen in love with this bit of rough that has entered her life… I don’t know, it all quickly unravels and becomes awfully daft. The pacing seems to be wrong somehow- it just races by so quickly, and without solid background/screentime the characters all come across as morbidly self-obsessed and unsympathetic (there also seems to be a lot of posturing and overly-crafted direction), and random plot-lines such as some nonsense about Salas’ dead father, or Sylvia being betrayed by her own father, come and go. Of course super-rich/superhot Sylvia will fall for Will, we don’t doubt it for a moment and they fall in love in an instant- its that kind of movie. By the time the film ends I just didn’t care about anyone or anything, I was just glad it was over. In hindsight, the cringe-worthy sequence early on of Salas and his mother (a superhot Olivia Wilde) running towards each other as she runs out of Time and dies in his arms as they finally embrace, telegraphs how the rest of the film will play out; very much style over substance.

As you might guess, the film certainly looks good, and I’m not referring to the superhot cast; photographed by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins it looks gorgeous with a similar ‘look’ to what graced Gattaca, with sharp, saturated colours, while design-wise it reminded me of Alan Rudolph’s superior Trouble In Mind. Craig Armstrong delivers a decent score as usual. But all the talent in the world can’t save a film like this, a film desperately having an identity crisis (serious cautionary allegory or daft adventure/chase movie). Not a terrible movie but a wasted opportunity.

Jaws Returns June 22, 2012

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 3 comments

Here is one of those frankly unexpected treats that feel unreal even while you’re sitting in the dark watching the film being projected on the silver screen- Jaws returning to the cinema (a limited release to tie-in with a remaster/Blu-ray release in a few month time). Well, even though I’ve seen the film many times, and have the Blu-ray steelbook on preorder, how could I possibly resist the opportunity to see this film back on the big screen? Especially as its one of my favourite films and the scariest experience I ever had in a cinema as a kid back in 1975.

(Which is always something of a mystery for me- I was 9 when I saw Jaws back in 1975; my Aunt took me on a summer Saturday afternoon. I’d been reading the Peter Benchley book and the film was a huge summer event, the first of the summer blockbuster’s that became a routine trend for movies afterwards. Everyone was talking about Jaws; the iconic poster was everywhere, on tee-shirts, merchandise etc; the book was a bestseller. But how the hell did I get in? Yesterday when I saw it again the film had a 12A certificate- what the hell was it back in 1975? My Aunt must have snucked me in somehow, bless her-  I can’t imagine the certificate being any lighter back in the day. In anycase, no film at the cinema ever grabbed a hold of me like Jaws did back then, it scared me witless and I’ve loved it ever since.)

So anyway, Jaws back on the big screen. What a dreamlike, pinch-me-this-can’t-be-real kind of experience. A haunting flashback to the cinema experience of 1975. Spielberg’s best movie? Probably. While he no doubt progressed technically and some would therefore be able to point at more ‘accomplished’ movies,  I do think there is a boldness to Jaws, a sense of desperation born of the problems making the film and it being his first ‘proper’ big movie, and all the pressures that would involve. There’s a passion here derived from all the hard work by cast and crew. It has a gorgeous score by John Williams before such Williams scores became a typical Spielberg staple- here the score is fresh, unique, without those Spielbergismsthat would infect later scores. The film has a sublime, magnificent cast that effortlessly bring the superb script to life (such effortless, memorable dialogue- “We need a bigger boat”!). Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, overweight, balding, greying, unlikely stars in these times but back then heroes were more human, characters more down to earth, less iconic.  In particular,  love the 70s vibe to it. The mature cast (nowadays they would be so much younger and so much more beautiful/perfect), the pace (nowadays it would rush by with tight cuts etc), the photography, the fashion and the hairstyles, everything about it screams 1970’s summer. I guess that nostalgic element is what intensifies everything about the film for me. Also, in so many ways it is so innocent in it’s storytelling. There are no $10 million-dollar star actors here, no huge egos, and Spielberg was just another fresh young director when making it, hardly the legend he would become. There is a sense the cast and crew were just trying to tell a story, make a  good movie, before the days when such films would be all about making a blockbuster moneymaker.  Maybe its just childhood nostalgia talking, but the film seems so innocent somehow.

One more thing- on the big screen, the shark (restrictive as it was) certainly looks impressive; when it is attacking the cage the shots of the mechanical shark striking the cage have sense of mass on the big screen that belies it’s limitations. I think the film loses that on home viewing.

But yeah, great movie. And fantastic to see it on the big screen again. What a great idea by someone at Universal, they should bring back more older summer ‘hits’ like that.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture OST by Jerry Goldsmith June 18, 2012

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 2 comments

I remember, many years ago, back when I was at school, I had an art project that involved drawing/painting my street after dark. It was chiefly concerned with capturing the streetlights. So I dutifully waited until after dusk, preparing my artboard and materials, sitting at my bedroom window. To help capture an ambient mood I played The Cloud from Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek:The Motion Picture score. It’s funny how you never forget moments like that; I can recall as clearly as if it were yesterday, sitting there in the dark of a desk-lamp away off behind me, before the window, drawing the street below lit by streetlamps, listening to that strange, alien, moody soundtrack. I wouldn’t have thought it even possible when this year started, but here we are in June with possibly the most wished-for/dreamt-of/frankly impossible soundtrack release of the past ten or twenty years- Jerry Goldsmith’s complete score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, complete with 2 discs of early aborted music and alternates/obscurities, as well as the original soundtrack album for completists. At 3 discs and nearly four hours, its really the definitive soundtrack release, far superior to Varese Sarabande’s flawed Spartacus, another grail which was ultimately handicapped, in my eyes, by becoming, frankly, a crazy vanity project (there’s no discs of modern interpretations here, or dvd of gushing interviews or accompanying hefty book to lift the project out of the realm of ordinary buyers of soundtrack music).  No, La La Land’s incredible new 3-disc edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is just about the actual music, the original score, with enough extras to satisfy hardcore listeners but not so much to frustrate fans who just want the score.

Flawed as the film may be, you can forgive it all its faults because of its remarkable score.  The music score is a huge, varied, breathtaking opus; massively symphonic, stirring, emotional, at times eerie and alien. It responds to the epic scope of the production, an attempt to create an adult, serious sci-fi film more akin to 2001 than Star Wars. That it did this on the back of a popular, albeit long-canceled tv show was perhaps the only flaw in the grand plan, as such an overly-serious, ambitious approach was clearly at odds with the rather pulpish, fun and action-orientated show that the fans remembered and endlessly watched in re-runs. Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t really Star Trek (that would come with Wrath of Khan and it’s increasingly less interesting successors); but that’s not just a flaw, it’s perhaps it greatest strength. It’s slow pace and approach to the alien and unknown, while pompous and self-important, is also endearing today compared to our dumbed-down soap-opera sci-fi blockbusters.

It’s also pure cinema. Stuck in the fx-dominated period of the immediate post-Star Wars era, and fatally wounded by being a rushed production with an unmanageable deadline, the film was pretty much still unfinished when released in cinemas. Major fx sequences were not edited properly and were without sound effects- instead Jerry Goldsmith’s score had to try to complete the piece, carrying long sequences that were without dialogue or sound effects.  It gave Goldsmith a unique opportunity to compose long (perhaps even self-indulgent) pieces of thematic material, to compose music not dictated by quick cuts or action beats. It allowed the music score to truly shine. Even in 1979 many people balked at the seemingly endless voyage into the heart of the Cloud and the V’ger flyby… long fx shots that seemed to go on forever. But it’s pure cinema, almost experimental arthouse stuff, as if the grand fx are there only to serve the remarkable and elegant music, instead of the other way around. Images of space wonders to accompany the shifting gossamer melodies conjured by Goldsmith.

As someone who had the original album on vinyl back in 1979/early 1980, I have always loved the score- in my mind likely Goldsmith’s crowning achievement (and that’s saying a great deal when you consider some of the other masterpieces Goldsmith created in his career). I remember Matt Irvine, more famously remembered for his work as a modelmaker and fx guy on BBC shows such as Blakes 7, writing a soundtrack-review column in Starburst magazine. His review for Goldsmith’s Star Trek:TMP hit the nail on the head- he stated the music could easily be adapted into a proper symphony, so powerful and varied were it’s themes, the way the music builds and develops.  

I wonder what Matt has to say about this new release. Now that I think about it, this is the fourth time I’ve bought this soundtrack; first the vinyl, then the same album on CD, then the slightly expanded release in 1999.  It perhaps indicates my affection for the score, and how important it is. Now with this definitive 3-disc set we have the perfect edition, the one we fans wanted and hoped for, for all so many years. It’s really a little unreal, frankly. Available in a limited edition of 10,000 copies from internet dealer sites or from the label La La Land direct,  this one hits the spot. Soundtrack release of the year, no question; possibly even the decade.

Prometheus June 3, 2012

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 4 comments

Anti-climatic. I guess after so many years since 1982, waiting for Ridley Scott to return to the sci-fi genre, his eventual return was hardly going to live up to expectations. Kind of like Lucas returning to Star Wars with The Phantom Menace, but, hell, lets not cause a panic-  the WTF response to TPM is hardly warranted here. But after so many years of Scott saying that sci-fi movies are a dead genre and that he has simply been waiting for an interesting script… well, you have to wonder how many bad scripts he’s read to make  the Prometheus one look good enough to warrant his return to sci-fi. Because, sadly, it’s the script that handicaps this movie, and that surprises me as Scott really tends to work on his scripts; this one feels like a second draft, not finely-tuned enough.But that gives me cause for hope. Watching Prometheus I was reminded of my experience of watching Kingdom of Heaven at the cinema. It was a frustrating, by-the-numbers historical epic, with a lacking script, characters that didn’t seem to do much, a lack of involvement and empathy with the drama… and yet the Directors Cut version released on home video is a completely different beast, a truly great film and my third-favourite Scott movie. Vastly better than the one I saw at the cinema. I’m rather hoping that when Prometheus reaches our homes on DVD and Blu-ray this Autumn, it’s with a Directors Cut that fixes the problems I had watching the film at the cinema.

So anyway, the Prometheus I saw at the cinema. Where did it go wrong, and where did it go right?

Well, it felt rushed. Not dark enough. Didn’t really have much of a score. Few characters were utilised enough, it was just swamped with too many of them.  Compare that with 1979′s Alien; Alien has a long, slow pace. It’s dark. It has a cold, haunting, wonderful score. It has just seven main characters and we know who they are, what they do, what they are thinking. I don’t know who half of them in Prometheus are, or what they do, what they are thinking. They are all very bland, and, for scientists, pretty stupid. Kane could be forgiven for peering into the alien egg, but these guys play with strange alien life-forms and seem bemused when the life-forms turn on them!

And there’s one of my biggest problems. Since when did alien life become so little a deal? These are supposedly scientists; an alien life form should be an awe-inspiring,  momenteous thing for them. Not a “hey, look at this little critter!” moment. I presume that in this future world we have not once encountered an alien life-form or intelligence. That in over a hundred years of SETI and looking for life, we have found nothing, heard no signals, just silence. So you would think that on launching an expedition to a distant star system (‘where no man had gone before!’ and all that), and upon finding gigantic constructs on an alien world, and actual remains and artifacts, there would be some commentary on how momentous this all is, how important it is. Just one of the characters might have said, “whatever all this is, nothing will be the same again!” You know, these guys are destined for the history books, they should know that, feel it, comment on it. As it is, Prometheus doesn’t address it at all. Nobody takes a step onto the alien surface as if that itself was important, or looks up at the alien sky with its Sauturn-like planet hanging there and comments on it. They don’t even look up! They land, and without waiting for safety checks or anything they jump into their rovers and race across the road to the Alien structure as if its a Sunday afternoon stroll. Lazily written stuff.

And the space travel feels fairly humdrum; no doubt these humans are the furthest from Earth any hman has ever gone. May as well be a weekend trip to Jupiter the way these guys go on about it.

Infact, I would go so far as to say that Prometheus compares rather unfavourably with Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which is possibly my favourite sci-fi movie of the last ten years or more. I have returned to Sunshine several times and have found it a very rewarding film, with lovely homages to Alien, 2001 and others. Compared to Prometheus, the actors and characters they portray are quite superior in most respects. They seem fully-rounded, distinct, believeable. The portrayal as space as a cold and dangerous place, and the importance of the mission, is handled very well. It is beautifully shot, and often shots linger on faces, expressions, reactions, just long enough to express things the dialogue doesn’t. The music score is powerful. Compare all this to Prometheus, where we get to ‘know’ few of the characters, most are not fully-rounded, the pacing feels off, the script seems weak, the music score fairly anonymous.

This all makes it seem like I hated the film- not so, I quite enjoyed it, but even while watching it, it was frustrating me (much like, as I have said, Kingdom of Heaven some years before). The production design was good, the fx were good, and a minority of the cast (most notably Michael Fassbinder, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron) were excellent. I just have a nagging feeling I didn’t see a quite-finished movie. I’m sure there is a really good film in here.

And I haven’t even gotten to the elephant in the room- the Space Jockey. Anybody who has read my earlier post about Alien will know of my reservations concerning Prometheus‘ tackling of the Space Jockey and its mysteries. Well, I think my reservations were well-founded. Turns out that the Space Jockey was just a giant bald guy in a spacesuit. Thats just so wrong I just don’t know where to start. All that lovely Giger design, that strange, bizarre creature with its twisted bones and biomechanical form, and it turns out its a giant in a suit. The whole point of Alien was that everything was, well,  so Alien, so inhuman, strange, terrifying.  Well, thats all out the window. I’d have more time for it if it had revealed that these big bald guys aren’t the engineers at all, but are themselves just engineered foot-soldiers, servants of the engineers ‘Space Gods’  proper that are never revealed.  As it is, the idea that its all just these bald guys flying around the galaxy creating life then going back and destroying it (like, er, whats the point of that?) I mean, come on.

Oh, and Prometheus isn’t scary at all. Not in the slightest. And I thought it was supposed to be?

Hmm, maybe I’m trying to like Prometheus because of my sense of, well, fan-based loyalty to Ridley. I have a thought though that maybe, like Lucas returning to Star Wars, Ridley returning to sci-fi wasn’t such a good thing afterall. Maybe its just not that good a movie.Well,  I think I need to see it again. I need to see an extended, better, Directors cut for sure.

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