Contains some spoilers for both films
It’s hard to believe that when Blade Runner first came out in 1982, it was a major flop. These days it stands as one of the acknowledged great films of the 20th century, but that’s only because history has been reedited in hindsight. At the time it struggled to find an audience, with cinemagoers more interested in the user-friendly likes of Star Wars and ET – The Extraterrestrial than the dark, confusing fare of The Thing and Blade Runner. The very thought that the latter’s reputation would grow to the point where it could spawn a sequel 35 years later could scarcely have been more absurd – which just goes to show how hard it is to predict the future. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains spoilers, although hopefully not the really big ones.
With the Christmas and New Year revels behind us, this week I finally managed to haul myself to the cinema and see the latest instalment of the Star Wars saga. Miracle of miracles, despite the fact that Episode VII: The Force Awakens has been on release for three weeks now, I had somehow successfully managed to avoid even a whisper of any significant spoilers in the meantime – a feat that might well end up ranking as my most successful accomplishment of the year! – and I was duly rewarded with a completely unsullied viewing experience despite my tardiness.
Rather than play games and withhold my verdict to the end of this review, let’s start with the conclusion: this is a really enjoyable film. Exciting, emotional, funny and thoroughly entertaining, it barely pauses to draw breath even once during its 135 minute running time. The Force Awakens manages to recapture almost all the magic of the original trilogy while purging all that went wrong in the prequels.
I’m confident in saying that it’s almost certainly the best Star Wars film that anyone could possibly have made in 2015. Many congratulations to director JJ Abrams for managing to both keep the same feel of the 1977 original film while at the same time bringing a thoroughly 21st century updating to the pacing, look and feel, stunts and FX. That is one incredibly tough balancing act to accomplish – actually almost impossible, I would have thought – and he’s achieved it with aplomb.
So all these things considered therefore, I have no hesitation in proclaiming Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens to be a very robust … four star movie. Read the rest of this entry »
Short Takes: Doctor Who And The Daleks (1965), Capricorn One (1976), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) [Blu-ray]
It’s a typical British summertime, which is to say that the weather has rather broken down and it’s turned cool, windy and showery – all of which creates ideal conditions for watching some old favourites on DVD and Blu-ray. I don’t have a huge amount to write about them, so I’ve made a triple-play combo post to cover what needs to be said …
Doctor Who And The Daleks (1965) [Blu-ray]
Not an episode of the television series, but rather a spin-off theatrical movie starring Peter Cushing and Roy Castle which adapts the show’s first seven-part Dalek serial by Terry Nation into a 79-minute feature – and to be honest, the story benefits from the compression. To simplify things for the overseas audience, the main character isn’t a mysterious alien Time Lord but an eccentric English inventor who actually goes by the name of ‘Doctor Who’, a tweak which tends to send die hard Who fans into apoplexy. For all that, Cushing is very engaging in the role and Castle is a great comedy sidekick; the part of Barbara (Jennie Linden) is rather watered down but 12-year-old Roberta Tovey is a very sound child performer giving the character of Susan a beyond-her-years maturity. Of course it’s the Daleks who are the true stars of the show and this is the first time they were ever seen in colour on the screen – and they look absolutely terrific. In fact the whole thing looks wonderfully expensive, especially the huge petrified forest set. The Blu-ray restoration does a lovely job in these scenes but can look a little beige and washed out in other areas and isn’t quite as good as I’d hoped for from the high definition upgrade; the sound is inevitably a rather limited mono affair. Extras from the old DVD release (an audio commentary by Linden and Tovey, an hour-long documentary on ‘Dalekmania’, a trailer and a few other odds and ends) are joined by a too-brief feature on the restoration process.
Capricorn One (1976) [Blu-ray]
Post-Watergate films in the 70s were understandably obsessed with paranoid conspiracy thrillers, and the writers of Capricorn One found perfect inspiration from the contemporaneous crackpot accusations that the 1969 Moon landings had been faked in a TV studio by NASA. Here they apply just that scenario to a fictional mission to Mars, with astronauts James Brolin, Sam Waterston and OJ Simpson pulled out of their Saturn rocket launch capsule at the last second and forced to go along with a hoax by their desperate boss played by Hal Holbrook. For the first half of the film it looks like they’re going to get away with it, despite a too-curious mission control technician blabbing about certain inconsistencies to a journalist friend (Elliott Gould, playing a cross between Philip Marlowe and Woodward & Bernstein) but then a devastating development transforms the second half into a nail-biting chase thriller across the arid vistas of the US south-west that includes some spectacular aerial photography by director Peter Hyams. Surprisingly given the film is almost four decades old it doesn’t feel anywhere near as dated as you might fear, and it’s still very effective in both slow-burn suspense and flat-out action modes with some great supporting and cameo performances from the likes of Brenda Vaccaro, David Huddleston, Barbara Bosson, David Doyle, Karen Black and Telly Savalas. Unfortunately the new Blu-ray high definition transfer from Network is a major disappointment: despite a clean image and some nicely vibrant and detailed outdoors desert sequences, so much of this looks flat and dull that it’s only a marginal improvement on previous standard definition DVD issues. You’ll need to have your remote control handy as the sound varies all over the the place, and there’s a prominent video encoding error two minutes in which while brief is still annoying. Extras-wise there’s nothing new on previous releases that consists of contemporary trailers and featurettes lacking any significant interest.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) [Blu-ray]
For some bizarre reason I didn’t get to see Raiders of the Lost Ark when it came out at the cinema, and I then carried on missing it for another 20 years thereafter, so the first Indiana Jones film I saw was Temple of Doom. Lacking its predecesor to compare it to I thought it was rather fantastic at the time and could never understand why it was always referred to as the least of the original trilogy of films. However, last week I watched it again for the first time in over a decade (and the first time in high definition) and was genuinely surprised to find myself deeply disappointed in it. Ironically my downwards reevalulation of the film goes in completely the opposite direction to that of everyone else, with Temple now being seen much more favourably today than it ever was during its original release. The action sequences are brilliantly staged and photographed of course, Spielberg not putting a foot wrong in that department from the opening set-piece in a Shanghai night club through to the climax in an underground mine; and Harrison Ford is very much on form and at his most charismatic as Dr Jones. Unfortunately the attempts to make his relationship with leading lady Kate Capshaw into a classic 1930s screwball affair never really came off, and Willie is such a weak ‘comedy female’ character screaming at everything and making a mess of anything she does that it even starts to feel worryingly misogynistic (don’t worry, Spielberg made it up to the actress – they’re married now.) The rest of the mainly ethnic cast are left saddled with playing racist caricatures as virtually everyone ends up as wide-eyed cultists (while the stiff upper lip British end up being the cavalry that saves the day) all of which means there’s none of the sense of developed supporting characters that make Raiders and Last Crusade such a rich and enduring delight. Away from the action and the screwball romance moments there’s also a jet black darkness running through the movie that’s quite remarkably inappropriate for a ‘family’ entertainment, with the film lingering far too long on some disturbing gross-out sequences than is good for it. As a result it loses its sense of fun and for all its spectacle I think these days I’d rather prefer the much-maligned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull over Temple of Doom. At least the Blu-ray can’t be faulted, with a top of the line video and audio presentation although you’ll need to get the four-film boxet for the full serving of copious extras other than the couple of trailers you get on the stand-alone release.
Considering this science-fiction blockbuster was based on a best-selling book and all-time genre favourite by Orson Scott Card, it’s amazing how little Ender’s Game seemed to trouble the box office when it came out last year, instead disappearing without trace in a mist of indifference from cinema goers, despite looking perfectly placed to benefit from the current mania of Young Adult dystopia thrillers such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. What was it, exactly, that put people off?
It might have been some highly provocative and controversial comments that Card himself made to the media about same-sex marriage just before the film’s release that saw him become something of a persona non grata in liberal arts circle and certainly made life difficult for the film’s PR team. I only know about that storm third- or fourth-hand and don’t know the details, so I’m going to avoid adding my ill-informed two cents’ worth about any of that; and I will also say that I have never read Card’s original novel so I’m not able to provide a compare-and-contrast between source and adaptation. This is going to be a basic ‘what it looked like on the screen to me with no baggage’ review. Read the rest of this entry »
Given that this film was given a very public dressing down by the head of the studio that produced it, I’d oddly had high hopes of riding to its defence. Said Ron Meyers, President of Universal Studios about Cowboys and Aliens:
Wasn’t good enough. Forget all the smart people involved in it, it wasn’t good enough. All those little creatures bouncing around were crappy. I think it was a mediocre movie. We misfired. We were wrong. We did it badly, and I think we’re all guilty of it.
Surely that’s harsh? Given a great premise (cowboys coming face to face to alien monsters!) and a wonderful cast to die for (Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown) could it really be that much of a letdown? Well unfortunately, it turns out that Mr Meyers was pretty much spot on with his assessment: this is simply a very mediocre film.
Sometimes you stir in two unusual ingredients (in this case, blending western and science fiction genres) and you end up with something extra-special. But sometimes you just find those ingredients actively turn against each other and you end up instead with something significantly less than the sum of the parts. This sadly is very much the latter.
So what exactly goes wrong? For one thing, the aliens are little more than undercooked “impact players”: for most of the movie they appear out of no where with no warning, attack, and then disappear again. Director Jon Favreau (who did so well with Iron Man) apparently does not intend to try and induce tension or excitement in these scenes at all, and so while they’re loud and startling and well executed, they’re also brief and jarring rather than thrilling and suspenseful.
But what these scenes definitely do manage to do is to make the rest of the film – the western/cowboy sequences – seem flat and dull by comparison. You’re waiting for the next appearance by the aliens instead of being allowed to immerse yourself in these sequences, which seem like just so much time-filling artificial scene-setting before the main event but are in fact the vast majority of the film. It doesn’t help that these scenes are slow paced and seek to breath life into characters that are achingly crude stereotypes. Where character arcs and plots are set up, it’s painfully obvious; the pay-offs for each when they come are therefore thuddingly dull and awkwardly delivered when they finally arrive late in the film. It feels like a box-ticking exercise: story strand for the sheriff’s grandson? One scene set-up, one scene fulfilment. Check. Next.
It’s as if the writers know that they need to have interesting and rounded characters and emotional stories to carry the film, but simply have no idea how to do it except by applying the most exceedingly obvious western clichés plucked from every cowboy film they’ve ever seen. Crusty, bad-tempered land owners with a wastrel son and a noble but despised half-American Indian “adopted son,” cowardly bar owner, mysterious stranger with no name – you get the idea. It’s all the more odd how amateurish all this clunking script construction feels when you see that the script is written by Star Trek reboot writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (although the warning sign is that they were also guilty of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen!) along with another longtime JJ Abrams collaborator Damon Lindelof of Lost fame. Maybe the clue lies in that the trio are among seven who share the story credits – too many chefs is usually the sign of a kitchen in crisis.
All this means that even when things hot up in the final reel with some half-decent action sequences, the whole thing still feels trite and airless. It’s as if having taken the studio’s money, everyone suddenly realised they were obliged to follow through and deliver it – competently enough – even though their hearts were no longer in it. At least Daniel Craig gives a solid performance at the centre; Harrison Ford simply looks old and embarrassed to be working with such wavering, inconsistent material while Sam Rockwell is oddly anonymous. Two of the most promising characters – those played by Keith Carradine and Paul Dano – exit far too early in proceedings. Olivia Wilde is the obligatory female presence, here playing a role seemingly fashioned after Gandalf but significantly less believable in an underwritten and developed part.
A protracted epilogue delivers nothing of any importance, and then the credits roll. It hasn’t been a particularly bad film; you can’t get exercised about how dreadful it is. There’s just a deep sigh as you reach for the off button, an inescapable feeling of melancholy and disappointment – of millions of studio dollars and two hours of one’s viewing life that could have been spent on something far more deserving than this display of rote filmmaking by numbers.
On the Blu-ray: a perfunctory number of extras underscores how much everyone wanted to be done with this project and not spend too much more time on it if they could help it. Picture-wise, the exterior desert scenes look wonderful: sharp and bright and detailed and a pleasure to look at, with the CGI effects well integrated into them. Less successful on my set-up were the night time sequences (and there are several) which appeared murky, dusty, soft and undistinguished, with less than solid blacks and too many details bleeding into the general gloom.
I guess it’s a two-star film. Rent it if you will, but don’t hope for anything too much and maybe that way it will surpass your expectations and give you a half-decent night’s viewing. You won’t miss it when you’re done and you hand it back, though.