Stalker (1979)

aka Сталкер

2018 #100
Andrei Tarkovsky | 162 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

Stalker

Described by the blurb on its Criterion Collection Blu-ray release as “a metaphysical journey through an enigmatic post-apocalyptic landscape”, Stalker is… probably that… I guess…?

Adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which, according to critic Mark Le Fanu in Criterion’s booklet, is more hardboiled pulp than artistic thinkpiece), it follows a professional ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky) — someone who can enter and navigate a mysterious restricted area known only as the Zone — as he guides two latest clients, a depressed writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and an inquisitive professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone and to the attraction at its heart: the Room, a place which is rumoured to grant a person’s innermost desires.

That’s the plot, anyway. Considering it’s over two-and-a-half hours long and I just summarised most of the story, you know it’s About more than that. But suffice to say I didn’t get it. It’s just some blokes wandering around, being depressed, occasionally philosophising about bugger all; then the ‘stalker’ chap is depressed even more by his clients’ attitude at the end, for some reason; and then we see his kid has telepathic powers because… um… People think director Andrei Tarkovsky’s previous sci-fi film Solaris is slow and obtuse, but it’s pacy and its meaning is crystal-clear compared to Stalker. Indeed, watching this just made me want to watch Solaris again — that was a slow Soviet sci-fi I actually found thought-provoking and interesting. One inspired thought I will credit it with is the notion of what “innermost desire” actually means. We might think we know, but do we? If the Room grants, not what we choose to ask it for, but our true innermost desire, then it reveals the truth of our self to us… and we might not like what we find.

Some blokes being depressed

The film “resists definitive interpretation” says Geoff Dyer in a featurette on Criterion’s Blu-ray. It’s “a religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself […it] envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings,” adds the blurb. Oy. So is it profound or just pretentious? I think the lack of clarity — the lack of definitive interpretation — can be used as evidence for both sides. Its acclaim would suggest most think it profound, so I’m the one missing something. That’s always possible. Also, I’m always wary of calling something “pretentious” — that’s become too much of a catch-all criticism for people who don’t understand an artwork and want to blame the work itself rather than their own intellectual capabilities. So we’ll have to settle on me just not understanding it.

Some of it does look good, at least… which is handy when long stretches of it are just staring at things in unbroken takes (there’s something like 142 shots, which is about one cut every 88 seconds). Whatever the film is or isn’t trying to say, I feel fairly certain it didn’t need to take so much time to say it.

Equal parts Annihilation but without the exciting stuff, privileged white male angst, and flicking through a photo album of deserted urban environments at someone else’s too-slow pace — with strange dashes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and X-Men Origins: Jean Grey for good measure — Stalker is… definitely something.

2 out of 5

Stalker was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

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Blindspot 2019

I already waffled on a lot at the start of my 2019 WDYMYHS list, so if you’ve not read that then do check it out for a full introduction to what this is all about.

The relevant part, though, is that this is a list of 12 films I should’ve seen but haven’t that I must watch this year — and, because I’m doing both WDYMYHS and Blindspot, that’s 24 films I must watch. Whereas the WDYMYHS selection contains 12 films chosen by consulting lists of great movies to find what the consensus feels I should’ve seen, these Blindspot choices are simply personally selected from my DVD/Blu-ray collection. Nonetheless, I do try to add a bit of variety to the mix, with different countries, genres, and eras represented.

Anyway, here’s what I picked out this year, in alphabetical order…


All the President’s Men
All the President's Men


The Breakfast Club
The Breakfast Club


Les diaboliques
Les diaboliques


Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler


Dracula
Dracula


The Ipcress File
The Ipcress File


The Killer
The Killer


The Player
The Player


Rififi
Rififi


Rope
Rope


Scott Pilgrim
vs. the World
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World


Starship Troopers
Starship Troopers

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler is actually a two-part film (why so many online sources insist on listing it only as one movie when it seems to have been originally released as two, I don’t know), so you could argue I’ve given myself 25 films to watch for these challenges this year. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? Only time will tell…

What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019

A new year, a new challenge… or, rather, an old challenge with new components.

Yes, for a seventh year I’m setting myself the goal of watching 12 specific films I really should have seen but haven’t.

And, because I’m a crazy madman, I’m doing it twice — i.e. 24 films.

I’ve been doing two of these lists since 2017 (separated as “Blindspot”, which you may’ve seen on other blogs, and my own version, “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” (aka WDYMYHS), which is the same thing by a different name), but previously only put ten films on the second list. Well, I got into such a rhythm of watching these films during 2018 that it felt weird in November and December after the WDYMYHS list had run out. So, I thought for 2019 I’d go all-in and do two full lists of 12.

“Why do you have two lists of 12 rather than one list of 24?”, you may ask. Fortunately for you (or unfortunately, if you don’t care), I’m happy to answer. I started doing WDYMYHS as a 12-film challenge before Blindspot came along, but for my 10th anniversary in 2017 I decided to do ‘both’ — the regular 12-film challenge, plus a ten-film one, marking my blog’s 10th anniversary by selecting one film I really should’ve seen from each of the previous ten years. That went well, so I repeated it in 2018; and that went well too, so I’m making it that little bit trickier this year (9.09% trickier, to be precise).

The exact difference between the lists is that Blindspot is a ‘free choice’ of 12 films I personally feel I should’ve seen, whereas WDYMYHS is selected by analysing lists of great and/or popular movies to try to determine a consensus view of what I’m a fool to have missed. I vary which lists I consult, and how much value I put in them, year by year (to some extent, anyway). This year, the formula to calculate these picks was based on the three Top 250 lists that are tracked on iCheckMovies — the ones from IMDb, Reddit, and FOK! — plus They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s 1,000 Greatest Films. These lists were factored with various weightings to give the films a score. Then I applied a couple of rules: films had to appear on at least two of those lists, including at least one out of IMDb and TSPDT; I had to already have access to them (either on DVD, Blu-ray, or if they’re currently streaming on Netflix/Amazon/etc); and, as usual, no repeat directors. That led to a load of high-scoring films being passed over (I had to go as far down as #32 for my 12th pick).

After all that, this is what I ended up with, in the order they finally scored (from highest to lowest)…


Ikiru
Ikiru


Untouchable
Untouchable


The Gold Rush
The Gold Rush


Life is Beautiful
Life is Beautiful


All About Eve
All About Eve


Sherlock, Jr.
Sherlock, Jr.


The Thin Red Line
The Thin Red Line


Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut


The Red Shoes
The Red Shoes


Cool Hand Luke
Cool Hand Luke


The Royal Tenenbaums
The Royal Tenenbaums


Memories of Murder
Memories of Murder

Some noteworthy exclusions…

  • To Kill a Mockingbird actually made the list (in 6th), but it was on my list in 2015. I once had the rule that a film only had to sit out one year before being available for reinclusion, but, I dunno, I like mixing it up. But if I don’t watch it anyway during 2019, I might let it back in for 2020.
  • If I hadn’t ruled out films I don’t own, the “true top 12” (i.e. based on score alone) would’ve included In the Mood for Love, , Cinema Paradiso, Andrei Rublev, Come and See, and A Separation.
  • If I didn’t rule out repeat directors, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid would’ve been in 8th place.
  • If I’d kept the “must own/have access to it” rule but allowed films that were only on one list, it would’ve included Dangal, Taare Zameen Par, Ordet, Ugetsu Monogatari, and Fanny & Alexander.
  • Finally, if I’d had to own it and have it on multiple lists, but it didn’t have to be on IMDb’s or TSPDT’s, then Scott Pilgrim vs. the World would’ve been the 12th film.

Of course, just because something got cut out of my WDYMYHS, doesn’t mean I couldn’t choose to include it in my Blindspot picks…

Gangster Review Roundup

In today’s roundup:

  • City of God (2002)
  • RocknRolla (2008)
  • Scarface (1983)


    City of God
    (2002)

    aka Cidade de Deus

    2017 #100
    Fernando Meirelles | 129 mins | DVD + download* | 1.85:1 | Brazil & France / Portuguese | 18 / R

    City of God

    What better insight into my film watching habits than this, a movie I’d been meaning to get round to for the best part of 14 years (ever since it topped Empire’s list of the best films of 2003, around the same time as I was getting into film ‘seriously’, i.e. as more than just “movies I like to watch”). Plus, it was one of my Blindspot picks back in 2015 (but didn’t get watched, obv), and it was the highest ranked film on the IMDb Top 250 that I’d not seen — all good reasons why I made it 2017’s #100.

    Adapted from a novel that was based on real events, it tells the story of how organised crime grew in Rio de Janeiro’s Cidade de Deus favela — the “City of God” of the title — from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. The main thing that struck me watching it now is how much it reminded me of the TV series Romanzo Criminale — both are basically about young people taking over and running all the crime in a city. The fact that they’re also both inspired by true stories (the series depicts a criminal gang in Rome through the ’70s and ’80s) is intriguing for different reasons. They also share certain stylistic similarities, I think, in particular the almost documentary-like visuals. The series came later, of course, so if one did inspire the other then this isn’t the copycat.

    At the risk of turning this into a review of something else, I must say that, while Romanzo Criminale is a favourite of mine (I included it in my 2017 list of Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years), City of God was a work I admired more than loved. Nonetheless, for anyone who likes crime epics, this is a must-see (but, uh, so is Romanzo Criminale).

    5 out of 5

    * Possibly because it’s just been sat on a shelf for over a decade (possibly just through sheer bad luck), my DVD was corrupted about halfway through and I had to, uh, source another copy. ^

    RocknRolla
    (2008)

    2017 #146
    Guy Ritchie | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK, USA & France / English & Russian | 15 / R

    RocknRolla

    In my review of Snatch I commented that its contemporary reviews were along the lines of “oh, Lock Stock again”, and yet now it’s pretty well regarded. My memories of RocknRolla’s contemporary reviews are “oh, another Guy Ritchie London gangster film — isn’t it time he did something new?” And yet, it now seems to be pretty well regarded. Not as much as Lock Stock and Snatch, but better than you’d think “Guy Ritchie does the same schtick for a fourth time” would merit.

    Well, it is a case of Ritchie doing his usual schtick (thank God he did eventually move on, at least applying the same broad MO to some new genres), but a cast that includes the likes of Idris Elba, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Tom Wilkinson, and Thandie Newton can’t help but elevate the material. Gerard Butler is ostensibly the lead, front-and-centre on the poster, but the movie follows the standard Ritchie template: an ensemble cast in a variety of story threads that bump into each other and overlap in different ways at different times. Even if the specifics aren’t the same as his other films, and the cinematography is more slick and big-budget than the grimy ’90s indie visuals of his debut and sophomore flick, the general style feels very familiar.

    Ultimately, I enjoyed it more than Snatch, but maybe I was just in the right mood — I mean, like I said, they’re all fundamentally the same kind of thing.

    4 out of 5

    Scarface
    (1983)

    2018 #14
    Brian De Palma | 170 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 18 / R

    Scarface

    Brian De Palma’s in-name-only remake of 1932 gangster classic Scarface follows Al Pacino’s Cuban immigrant Tony Montana as he rises up the ranks of organised crime in ’80s Miami. As it turns out, it’s not easy being at the top.

    A near-three-hour epic (what is it with gangster movies being three hours long?), interest is sustained through Pacino’s wild-eyed performance, De Palma’s slick direction, and a story that at least has enough incident to merit that length. Also, early-career Michelle Pfeiffer, who gives a good performance as Montana’s increasingly miserable gal but, frankly, could just stand there and still keep half the population interested.

    Apparently a favourite movie among rappers, I guess some people get the wrong message from Scarface. I suppose the stylishness with which it’s produced has the side effect of idolising the lifestyle Montana and co lead, but the way it gradually crumbles and destroys everything should be a pretty clear indicator of how such things actually go. Still, it all makes for a heady mix.

    5 out of 5

    Scarface was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

  • Rocky (1976)

    2018 #57
    John G. Avildsen | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Rocky

    His name is Sylvester Stallone. He’s the star of a new film called Rocky. He has been described as handsome, tough, talented, sexy, sensitive, dynamic, and brilliant. He’s been compared to Brando, Newman, Pacino, and De Niro. He’s been called “a top contender for an Academy Award”.

    His name is Sylvester Stallone, but you will always remember him as… Rocky.

    So goes the narration to Rocky’s original trailers and TV spots. We don’t get trailers like that anymore, do we? Now we just get Bryce Dallas Howard pretending to roar like a T-Rex while encouraging us to join Odeon Première Club. (I’ve been forced to sit through that far too often, and I’ve only been to the cinema four times this year.) But I digress. The narration also indicates the road Stallone could’ve gone done — imagine if he’d made a career writing and starring in movies like this, following through on all those comparisons the trailer made, rather than going down the action meathead route. A weird thought now, isn’t it?

    If you’ve never seen Rocky, you might assume it’s broadly similar to the films Stallone would mostly go on to star in, but it isn’t, really. It’s the story of a smalltime coulda-been boxer left slumming it, when, through sheer luck, he gets a shot at the big leagues. Yes, it’s an underdog sports film — the movie that “inspired a nation” (as a friend once said to me, “inspired them to do what, I don’t know. Get up and turn it off, probably”) — but it’s staged with a level of realism that such fantasies don’t normally reach for. And it’s certainly nothing like the indestructible super-action-hero of sundry later Stallone vehicles.

    Meat, standing in for a head

    Indeed, Rocky manages to both embody what we now think of as ’70s-style filmmaking — gritty and cynical and kinda miserable — with the other side of ’70s filmmaking — the decade that, between the likes of Jaws and Star Wars, gave us the populist blockbuster as we know it. So, on the one hand, Rocky lives in a dingy little bedsit, spending his days enforcing for a loan shark and plodding the derelict streets of a decrepit city; on the other, he still has hopes and ambitions, and these come to pass when he’s selected to fight world champion Apollo Creed — a real underdog sports story. This duality carries through right to the end (spoilers!): our hero loses the fight, your typical “’70s” downbeat finale; but he also goes the distance, an achievement no one else has managed, and he gets the girl. Considering the movie we’ve just watched, it’s a perfect climax: it maintains the film’s two apparently-irreconcilable (but demonstrably reconcilable) tonal halves right to the very end.

    Another major part of the film is Rocky’s faltering attempts to woo a shy pet shop worker, Adrian (Talia Shire). Most of their relationship is beautifully portrayed — tentative, cautious, sweet, and quite touching — a complete 180 from how you’d expect a character defined as “a boxer” to behave. Unfortunately, one key moment hasn’t aged so well. There’s a scene at the end of Rocky and Adrian’s first date where he badgers her into going into his apartment, which she clearly doesn’t want to do; then, despite her obvious discomfort, he tries to get her to sit with him; when she won’t, he walks towards her and, hanging off an overhead pipe, looms over her, demanding to know what’s wrong; then, as she heads for the door, he stops her, one hand over the locks and the other against the wall, trapping her in the corner; and then he informs her he’s going to kiss her, but she doesn’t have to kiss him back, and then he does. And she kisses him back, of course.

    Adriaaan!

    This scene plays very, very differently in a post-#MeToo world than I imagine it has at any other point in the past 42 years. I mean, I’m sure some people realised its awkwardness quite some time ago — women before men, no doubt — but there’s no avoiding it now. And it’s an odd scene, because clearly the filmmakers know Adrian would be uncomfortable — as I say, her whole attitude portrays that; and I presume they know why she’d be uncomfortable too; and yet it still ends with her giving in to Rocky’s persistent advances. Well, I guess the best we can say is it’s of its era, but its content, and how it makes us feel about Rocky as a character, risks becoming a barrier nowadays. His behaviour doesn’t continue in that vein, thankfully… or is that actually worse, making such behaviour normal rather than a warning sign? Are such conversations relevant about a 42-year-old movie?

    Conversely, the film’s depiction of race feels kind of progressive. Most of the white guys we meet are bums eking out an existence, legally or otherwise, while the black guy (surrounded by a mostly black entourage, too) is successful, respected, dressed in finery, and in a position to offer the white guy a one-in-a-million shot at success. Maybe this contrast was just a coincidence, but it feels like it’s making some kind of point. Of course, once they get in the ring for the climax, the black guy is the “bad guy” and our hero is a white guy, so…

    Black vs white

    I don’t think Rocky was consciously built to sustain such readings, mind — these are just things that struck me while watching it in 2018. At heart it’s a straightforward, inspirational tale — “a charming, grimy and beautiful fairytale”, as John Simon described it in New York Magazine — about someone with unrealised potential getting a final shot. Arguably it gains more power from being semi-autobiographical: Stallone penned the screenplay (and later insisted on starring) as a similar last-shot attempt at his chosen career. It ultimately netted him two Oscar nominations, one for writing and one for acting, though he won neither — but then, what could be a more fitting mirror of the film itself?

    4 out of 5

    Rocky is on ITV tonight at 11:15pm.

    It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

    Review Roundup: 3 Long Films That I Didn’t Enjoy Directed by Martin Scorsese

    The title’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it?

    Those films were:

  • Silence (2016)
  • Casino (1995)
  • New York, New York (1977)


    Silence
    (2016)

    2017 #141
    Martin Scorsese | 161 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Taiwan & Mexico / English, Japanese & Latin | 15 / R

    Silence

    A re-adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel (previously filmed in 1971), Silence is gorgeously produced but torturously dull Christian propaganda. The plot is about two priests travelling to anti-Christian Japan to find their mentor, who’s rumoured to have renounced the Church, but really it’s about faith and the testing of it.

    The foremost of the two priests is Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), the kind of Christian who lets others die for his faith even as he doubts it. Like many a preacher before him, Rodrigues’ sin is pride — too proud of his faith, his culture, his rightness, his superiority, to consider another point of view; to bend to help others. Conversely, his accusers and persecutors lack compassion or fairness, torturing and killing from exactly the same position as Rodrigues: that their beliefs are correct, all others be damned. Well, of such things are all religious wars made, I guess. At least the Horrible Japanese are better than the Christians’ own Inquisition was: if people renounce Christianity the Japanese sometimes set them free; the Inquisition just used it as another reason to murder them. God, religious people can be shits.

    There are no good people here. The Christians are colonialists with a monomaniacal belief in their own faith. The Japanese are so set against it that they’ll torture and murder their own people just to get back at the Christians. It’s a world full of hatred. So much for the love of God. All this intolerance is as pointless then as it ever was before or has been since. If we just let others go on how they want to go on — live and let live — then the world would be such a nicer place.

    Rodrigues in prison

    For all the violent torture depicted on screen, the hardest thing to take is the film’s slow, slow, slow pace. It does have some theological points to make, but they’re thin gruel for the time it takes to make them — or, rather, the time it wastes before it really starts to consider them. If the first hour was a lot shorter it would improve the whole film; indeed, it would’ve made me better disposed to the rest. It does improve, but by the time it improved I was already bored and annoyed with it. Its best qualities by far are visual: as well as stunning cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, the whole production is beautifully mounted — the locations, sets, costumes, make-up, and so on, are all very well realised.

    To say Silence was not a box office success is an understatement: off a budget of $46 million, it took just $23.7 million worldwide, and only $7.1 million of that in America. I think it must’ve been promoted badly — I’m sure it’d appeal to the Bible Belt crowds who flock to that niche Christian shit that’s always turning up nowadays. And if you’re in any doubt that it’s meant to be a pro-Christian film: the premiere was held at the Vatican and it was screened early for 400 priests.

    2 out of 5

    Casino
    (1995)

    2018 #19
    Martin Scorsese | 178 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 18 / R

    Casino

    “A fictional story with fictional characters adapted from a true story,” as the film’s own credits describe it, Casino tells of the rise of Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro, of course) in Mob-controlled Las Vegas, whose life is made awkward by his loose-cannon Mob-enforcer best friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci, of course) and his tumultuous marriage to hustler Ginger (Sharon Stone).

    “There’s no plot at all”, says Martin Scorsese in an interview included on Casino’s Blu-ray (per IMDb). “It’s three hours, no plot. […] There’s a lot of action, a lot of story, but no plot.” Well, er, he’s not wrong. Casino seems to skip around at random, devoid of a throughline to guide its narrative. It flies off on so many different tangents, it takes a while to get a handle on what it’s about — if it’s about anything. Or possibly it’s about too much. For example, there’s a lot of “how the casino business works” stuff early on, which is quite interesting in itself but only some of it has any relevance later on; and eventually the film gets sidetracked wholesale into De Niro and Stone’s marriage woes, which are at best a subplot earlier on. Whatever it was supposed to be, I was never hooked and never engaged.

    De Niro blows

    Part of this is the film’s storytelling style — I didn’t know Scorsese was in the business of making visuals to accompany audiobooks. Well, that’s what Casino felt like. Naturally there’s skill on display (they’re very, very good visuals to accompany an audiobook), but the voiceover-driven style really alienated me. It makes the characters feel at arm’s length: despite De Niro and Pesci constantly taking directly to us, I didn’t feel like I was getting to know or connect with them, I was just being told about them. The endless narration constantly skims through events too, making it feel like a summary rather than an actual story. You might think that would give it pace, but it does the opposite: the first hour drags and drags, and then drags some more, and eventually this three-hour film feels every minute of it.

    I read one review of Casino that concluded, “I don’t feel like watching it again, but it certainly made me want to watch Goodfellas again.” I know the feeling.

    3 out of 5

    Casino was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

    New York, New York
    (1977)

    2018 #88
    Martin Scorsese | 156 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    New York, New York

    Once again, this is a lengthy Martin Scorsese movie that seemed terribly unfocused for so long that it lost me ages before it found what it wanted to be about. (Well, it predates the other two, but whichever order you put them in it’s looking like a definite pattern.)

    Starting on VJ Day in New York, it stars Robert De Niro as a wannabe musician and Liza Minnelli as a wannabe singer who wind up in a romance and co-dependent career, until one outshines the other. De Niro is playing an angry young man who has talent but whose temperamental nature may well get in the way of success — yes, it’s Any Robert De Niro Movie. But, wow, his character is annoying, and I imagine his actions are only getting more distasteful with time — the way he badgers and cajoles Liza into going out with him (something she eventually agrees to) is the kind of behaviour that gets regularly criticised nowadays (rightly). Well, I don’t think he’s meant to be a nice guy — the film seems to be about their tempestuous relationship and how that helps and hinders their careers — but I wasn’t sure the film knew how unlikeable he was.

    I wasn’t sure the film knew much of anything, really. Apparently much of the dialogue was improvised, which in turn made it a nightmare to edit into a coherent narrative, which would explain the messiness — everything feels overlong, unfocused, and increasingly dull. Consequently there have been several cuts of the film, with this being the longest “director’s cut” released in 1981. It has some good bits, foremost being the extended Happy Endings musical interlude, which at one point was ditched to create one of the shorter versions. I like the idea of this film being less long, but don’t lose the only really good bit!

    So good they named it irrelevantly

    Just to wind me up further, the content has fundamentally nothing to do with the title. I mean, it begins in New York, and when the characters go on tour they’d like to get back there, and eventually they do and so some more of it’s set there, and occasionally they’re writing the titular song (which, I confess, I was unaware hailed from this film — I assumed the movie was named after the famous standard, not that it spawned it), and in the epilogue Liza performs said song (post-2016 observation: said epilogue is gosh-darn similar to La La Land’s!) Anyway, my point is: this film could’ve been set almost anywhere and not affected anything much, so why the title?

    2 out of 5

  • Blindspot Sci-fi Roundup

    With my 2018 Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” selections now chosen, it’s about time I got on with reviewing those from the class of 2017 that are still in my “to do” pile. Here, then, are four more reviews of my 2017 must-sees, connected (as you may’ve guessed from the title) by all being works of science fiction.

    In today’s roundup:

  • District 9 (2009)
  • Moon (2009)
  • Her (2013)
  • Forbidden Planet (1956)


    District 9
    (2009)

    2017 #88
    Neill Blomkamp | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | South Africa, USA, New Zealand & Canada / English | 15 / R

    District 9

    We begin this roundup with two 2009 sci-fi thrillers that made the names of their respective directors. District 9 got the wider attention, being backed by Peter Jackson and receiving a Best Picture Oscar nomination (alongside three other nods), but I’d argue it’s ultimately the lesser of the two films.

    Although District 9 remains highly praised, co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s next two movies — Elysium and Chappie — haven’t gone down so well. Having seen both of those first, I feel like there are a lot of structural and tonal similarities between all three films, so it’s interesting to me how poorly the next two were received. Basically, they all start with some kind of societal sci-fi issue, explore that for a bit as the world of the story is established, then transition into being a shoot-em-up actioner.

    In District 9’s case, it starts out as a documentary about (effectively) alien refugees who live in a segregated community in South Africa. The obvious real-world parallels are, well, obvious. Then events transpire which make the idea of having to identify with those who are Other than us — of becoming affected by their culture — very literal. Then it turns into an achieve-the-MacGuffin shoot-em-up runaround. It’s done well for what it is, with some strikingly gruesome weaponry to give the well-staged shootouts a different edge, but that’s still what it is. Presumably it was all the rather-obvious allegory stuff that helped land the film a Best Picture nomination, and the fact the second half is a not-that-original humans-vs-aliens shooter was overlooked.

    Not so different. Okay, pretty different.

    For me, the clunkiest bit is the storytelling style it adopts. It’s a mockumentary… until it decides it doesn’t want to be so that it can tell its story more effectively… but then it sometimes slips back into mockumentary later on, most notably at the end. I found that distracting and formally inconsistent. I’d rather it had kept up the mockumentary act throughout or not used it at all; or, if you’re going to do both documentary and ‘reality’, have a point to it — show differing versions of the truth, that kind of thing, don’t just mix it together willy-nilly.

    All told, I found District 9 to be a mixed bag. The first half is excitingly original and interestingly ideas-driven, with allegory that is powerful if perhaps a little heavy-handed (I suppose that’s kind of unavoidable when you make a movie about segregation and set it in South Africa). The second half is just a shoot-em-up.

    4 out of 5

    Moon
    (2009)

    2017 #145
    Duncan Jones | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    Moon

    The other 2009 sci-fi debut feature was that of director Duncan Jones. Although it received no Oscar love it did get a BAFTA, but seems to remain less seen: it has almost half as many user ratings on IMDb as District 9. Personally, I thought it was the superior film.

    It stars Sam Rockwell as the sole inhabitant of a mining facility on the Moon. As the end of his tour of duty approaches, his investigation in a malfunction unearths a startling secret. To say any more would spoil things, though Moon gets to its reveal pretty speedily. Also, you may’ve guessed it from the trailers (I more or less did). Also, it’s nine years old now and you’ve probably seen it — though, as those IMDb numbers show, maybe not.

    If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth seeking out. Like so much good sci-fi, it uses its imagined situation as impetus to explore the effect on its characters (or, in this case, character) and what the human reaction would be in such a situation. Maybe this is becoming a cliché already, but it’s quite like an episode of Black Mirror in that regard. (Isn’t all sci-fi that puts a high concept through the ringer of human experience “like Black Mirror”? Such stuff existed before that series. That said, maybe there wasn’t as much of it.)

    It's like looking in a mirror. A black mirror.

    Jones marked himself out as a director to watch with his attentiveness to character in the midst of his SF setting, but also by helming an excellently realised production on a tight budget — the moonbase set looks great and the model effects are perfect. A major reason I reckon it’s clearly better than District 9 is this consistency of style and tone. It’s a film that better knows what it wants to be and how to achieve its intended effect.

    As for Jones, he went on to make Source Code, a solid follow-up, but then seemed to throw a lot of talent away on the risible Warcraft. Hopefully his forthcoming Netflix Original, Mute, will restore the balance.

    5 out of 5

    Her
    (2013)

    2017 #165
    Spike Jonze | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Her

    If Moon is “a bit like an episode of Black Mirror”, Spike Jonze’s Her virtually is one. Set in a highly plausible near future — which has clearly been developed from our current obsession with our phones, iPads, digital assistants, etc — it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lonely chap who gets a new operating system based around a genuine AI, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As Samantha develops, she and Theodore soon become friends, and then more.

    People often refer to the template of Black Mirror as “what if technology but MORE”, and Her definitely fulfils that brief: “what if Siri was genuinely intelligent and someone fell in love with her?” Also like an episode of Black Mirror, it’s as much about what this reveals about humanity as it is about the crazy sci-fi concept. It’s primarily a romance about a lonely guy who was hurt in the past finding a new connection, with the fact he’s falling in love with a piece of technology almost secondary. Even within the world of the film, he’s not some kind of outcast: we hear about other people who’ve fallen for their AI, and his friends unquestioningly accept his relationship as genuine.

    Such acceptance doesn’t translate into our current world, it seems. Although Her is generally very well liked, some people struggle to engage with it at all, and from what I can tell that mostly stems from them not being able to relate to Theodore and his situation, i.e. the very concept of falling in love with an AI is too impossible for them to even imagine. I can’t help but feel that says more about those viewers (for good or ill) than it does the film, which executes the storyline with a great deal of believability and heart.

    5 out of 5

    Forbidden Planet
    (1956)

    2017 #172
    Fred McLeod Wilcox | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Forbidden Planet

    This classic sci-fi adventure sees a spaceship crewed by blokes (led by Leslie Nielsen) land on the planet Altair IV to investigate what happened to a previous mission there. They find it inhabited only by Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his robot servant Robby, and his beautiful daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who perpetually wears short skirts and has a fondness for skinny-dipping. Turns out the crew are a right bunch of horndogs (they spend most of their time lusting after Altaira, tricking her into kissing them and stuff like that), but there are bigger problems afoot when the planet starts trying to kill them.

    Once it gets past everyone’s lustfulness (it feels uncomfortably like watching the filmmakers play out some personal fantasies), there are proper big sci-fi ideas driving Forbidden Planet. There are also some gloriously pulpy action sequences, like a fight against an invisible monster. It’s backed up by great special effects. Obviously they’ve all dated in one way or another, but much of it still looks fantastic for its time — the set extensions, in particular, are magnificent.

    Nothing's forbidden on this planet, wink wink

    Something I wasn’t expecting (but I’m certainly not the first to note) is how blatantly the film was an influence on Star Trek. You can even map the similarities between characters pretty precisely. Switch out the spaceship models and original-flavour Star Trek is all but Forbidden Planet: The Series.

    Although its gender politics have aged even less well than its special effects, and its story occasionally gets bogged down by stretches of explanatory dialogue (it sometimes feels like you’re watching the writer invent and explain his ideas in real-time), Forbidden Planet remains a mostly enjoyable SF classic.

    4 out of 5

    District 9 and Forbidden Planet were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Moon and Her were viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

  • What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018

    In an emulation of last year, in 2018 I’m setting myself the goal of watching not only a dozen Blindspot films, but also a decad WDYMYHS movies. Last year there was a reason for this (marking my tenth blogiversary); this year, I’m doing it just because it worked before.

    In another similarity to last year, my Blindspot list is a ‘free choice’ selected from films I either already own or have ready access to (i.e. they’re available on Netflix / Amazon Prime / etc), while my WDYMYHS list is chosen by mixing together lists of must-see movies to find those that consensus says I should’ve seen.

    To select this year’s ten, I noted films from IMDb’s Top 250 (or whatever they want to call it nowadays) that I already owned or had ready access to, then saw which were also on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s 1,000 Greatest Films. Then I narrowed that long-list to films that also helped complete a list on iCheckMovies. After ruling out Princess Mononoke under my old “no duplicate directors” rule (because I really wanted to include Nausicaä on my Blindspot list; and also because I’d already had a shot at Mononoke during 2015’s list), these were my final ten — listed here in whatever order they ended up ranked.


    Das Boot


    The Lives of Others


    Full Metal Jacket


    Stalker


    Amadeus


    Scarface


    Ran


    Casino


    The Elephant Man


    Rocky

    Exciting observation: six of them are from the ’80s. No idea how or why that came about.

    Blindspot 2018

    In an emulation of last year, in 2018 I’m setting myself the goal of watching not only a dozen Blindspot films, but also a decad WDYMYHS movies. Last year there was a reason for this (marking my tenth blogiversary); this year, I’m doing it just because it worked before.

    In another similarity to last year, my Blindspot list is a ‘free choice’ selected from films I either already own or have ready access to (i.e. they’re available on Netflix / Amazon Prime / etc), while my WDYMYHS list is chosen by mixing together lists of must-see movies to find those that consensus says I should’ve seen.

    Although this is a ‘free choice’ list, I did get a helping hand: I determined I wanted to include films directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman, but how to choose which from their lengthy and acclaimed filmographies? So I turned to iCheckMovies to see which were on the most lists, had the most favourites, that kind of thing. That produced clear frontrunners for each director, and they’re the ones I went with.

    Below are all 12 of my selections, in alphabetical order.


    The 400 Blows


    Attack the Block


    Big Fish


    Black Narcissus


    The Hunt


    Nausicaä of the
    Valley of the Wind


    Snowpiercer


    Strangers on a Train


    Suspiria


    True Romance


    The Wild Bunch


    Wild Strawberries

    Exciting observation: eight of them (aka two-thirds) are non-US productions. How cultured of me.

    Another Blindspot Review Roundup

    Following on from the roundup of four of my Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” reviews the other day, here’s another quartet.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Gran Torino (2008)
  • Planet of the Apes (1968)
  • Nashville (1975)
  • A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


    Gran Torino
    (2008)

    2017 #78
    Clint Eastwood | 116 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA & Germany / English & Hmong | 15 / R

    Gran Torino

    Clint Eastwood’s modern Western (thematically speaking), about a grumpy old loner who overcomes his inherent racism to bond with the immigrants who now dominate his neighbourhood and eventually come to their defence, is a well-liked film, generally regarded as a late career highlight for the director-star. I imagine it would play very nicely as a companion piece and/or counterpoint to his earlier Oscar-winner, Unforgiven — both are stories about old men in one final fight, essentially. Here, that comes with a subtext about the price that’s paid for standing up for yourself. It may be the right thing to do, and maybe it ends up with the right result, but the good guys really suffer to get to that point.

    While that aspect of the film is ultimately powerful, I was less won over by the actual filmmaking. It feels like it’s been jiggered around in the edit, with some odd bits where it just jumps into a new scene. Even before that, Nick Schenk’s screenplay occasionally features very heavy-handed dialogue, of the “explain what the character is feeling right now” variety. It’s especially bad when Eastwood just talks to himself in order to vocalise these points for the sake of the audience.

    Still, if you’re immune to such niggles then it remains a potent — and timely — tale of doing what’s right for the defenceless. Such themes never die, I suppose.

    4 out of 5

    Planet of the Apes
    (1968)

    2017 #96
    Franklin J. Schaffner | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / G

    Planet of the Apes

    The original instalment in the long-running franchise (it’s up to nine films across three go-rounds now, plus a couple of TV series) sees astronaut Charlton Heston land on a mysterious planet where apes have evolved to have human-like intelligence, while men are mute wild creatures dominated by their simian betters. And eventually there’s a twist that everyone knows, which is a shame because I bet it was pretty darn surprising before that.

    Coming to Planet of the Apes for the first time almost 50 years after its release, there’s an unavoidable quaintness to some of it, mainly the monkey makeup. It was for a long time iconic, but it’s been abandoned in favour of hyper-realistic CGI in the new movies and therefore shows its age. That said, while the apes may not be as plausible as those produced by modern technology, the performances underlying them are still strong. It contributes to what is really a parable about dominance and oppression; colonialism inverted onto a white man, that kind of thing. All wrapped up in a sci-fi adventure narrative, of course.

    Honestly, it’s not just the effects that have improved — as a piece of speculative fiction, I think it’s now been outclassed by the recent trilogy. It’s still a cracking adventure, but a bit “of its time”.

    4 out of 5

    Nashville
    (1975)

    2017 #111
    Robert Altman | 160 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Nashville

    Robert Altman’s low-key epic about 24 characters and how their stories interact, overlap, and collide across five days in the city of Nashville, Tennessee.

    The sheer scope of that makes it a tricky film to interpret. There’s a lot going on, much of it in snatched conversations and moments that leave it up to the audience to piece together what matters and why. Collision must be a theme: within the first hour there are three car crashes or near misses, and the climax is certainly a collision in its own way. I’ll be honest, this isn’t a fully-developed thought, so I’m not sure what the point of it might be. It’s a small element of the film, really — something like all the music being performed is much more obvious and therefore maybe more relevant.

    I guess I’m searching for meaning because the film in general is just casually observational of a bunch of characters meandering through a few days. Maybe there doesn’t need to be meaning — maybe that is the meaning. It’s certainly one way to interpret the finale. So, I kind of liked it — or, rather, admired it, perhaps — even if I didn’t necessarily ‘get it’.

    4 out of 5

    A Matter of Life and Death
    (1946)

    2017 #74
    Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger | 100 mins | DVD | 4:3 | UK / English | U / PG

    A Matter of Life and Death

    I finally get round to watching this on a ropey old DVD, and then they announce a new 4K restoration (which was released in UK cinemas earlier this month). Hopefully a Blu-ray will follow. It will be very welcome, because I imagine this film will look magnificent in properly restored HD.

    It begins with an incredible opening scene, in which an entire relationship is founded and ended over the radio in about five minutes. From there it’s the story of a World War Two pilot (David Niven) who avoids death by a fluke, then properly falls in love with the voice from the other end of that radio call (Kim Hunter) before the afterlife comes a-callin’ to take him where he was meant to be. Or maybe that’s all just a vision induced by the injury he sustained. Either way, he must argue his case to remain on Earth.

    It’s a grandly romantic film — it is all about the triumph of love over everything else, after all — but with a particular fantastical bent that I think remains unique. It has the wit to present a mildly irreverent stance on the afterlife, not taking the whole “life and death” thing too seriously. While the final result of the airman’s trial is never in doubt, the delight is in the journey there.

    5 out of 5

    Planet of the Apes, Nashville, and A Matter of Life and Death were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Gran Torino was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.