Film Flops I Have Seen (2)

I am continuing this series of film flops with this completely unnecessary remake, from 2004. As a child, I went to see John Wayne starring in ‘The Alamo’, in 1960. It was a more-or-less factual account of the famous defence of the Alamo Mission in 1836, against the superior Mexican forces led by Generalissimo Santa Anna.

For some reason best known to themselves, Touchstone Pictures, and producer Ron Howard, decided to do a by-the-numbers remake, 44 years later.

They scraped together a decent, if far from stellar cast, including Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid in the main roles. Both leading men had been in far better films, and it is fair to say that both were in the autumn of their film careers. It is also fair to say that the ‘target market’ for such a film had already seen the 1960 original, probably many times. And like me, they undoubtedly retained a fondness for it. Besides that, it was on TV all the time, dirt cheap on DVD, and there was zero demand for it to be remade.

From anyone, anywhere.

Disney refused Howard’s over-optimistic budget, and the original cast members Russell Crowe and Ethan Hawke left during the financial arguments. The director insisted on complete historical authenticity, and many details were changed from the John Wayne version. Deciding on presenting a ‘serious’ view of the Alamo battle proved to be the film’s undoing.

The critics didn’t like it. The public didn’t like it. Too much detail, too much talking, and action sequences that were not as exciting and involving as the 1960 film. With the critical panning, the audiences stayed away in droves. It wasn’t 1960 anymore, and they had all seen bigger and better historical blockbusters. Then there was that John Wayne original. It was undeniably a better film. More stirring, more involving, and overall more exciting.

The film lost a fortune. It cost $107,000,000 to make, and took less than $23,000,000 worldwide, including DVD sales.
That left it at number six, of the all-time film flops.

I watched the film the year after its US release, and can only agree with the critics, and the public. Another pointless remake.

Will they ever learn? I suspect the answer is “No”.

Book Review: Call Drops

When is a book not really a book? When it has just 79 pages, it is a stretch to call it a book. I read this in one bedtime session, and it felt a lot more like an elongated short story, rather than a novella. But it only cost 99p, so I’m not complaining.

This is marketed as a ‘horror’ story. But it’s not really horrific. It is sinister, that’s for sure, and in a good way.

The writing is very good. I was drawn in to the main character immediately, and the sense of a time and place are very well illustrated too. Perhaps because I write a lot of short stories and fiction serials, I sensed immediately that this was heading for a ‘big twist’, and long before the reveal, I knew what the ending would be. But none of that is a bad thing, as the idea behind it is well-constructed, and I could easily believe the story in that genre.

Vincent Preece is a self-made man. He built and sold a business, and is enjoying the fruits of his wealth. But all is not well. His wife and daughter have deserted him, and he lives alone in a huge house, with nothing to occupy his time.

One day, he is wandering around a boot-sale market, and he buys a strange old mobile phone for £10. Back home, he discovers that the phone has no battery, no sim card, and seemingly no way to connect to any network. But he likes the look of it, so keeps it around.

And then one day, it rings…

Vincent gets mysterious messages, but the calls drop out before he can question the caller. Each message tells him a dark secret, one he feels he must act upon.

This is nicely paced, and manages to cram a lot into those 79 pages.

Despite guessing the end, I really enjoyed it.

Just been watching…(112)

Snowpiercer (2013)
***No spoilers***

I watched this film a long time ago. It was late at night, and I admit I had consumed some wine. I remember thinking it looked good, and enjoying the big-name cast. Then last week, I read a review of the film on the blog of the lovely Abi.

That jogged my memory, and I decided to watch it again, courtesy of Netflix.

The general idea is that scientists on Earth decide to stop global warming. They do this by adding a newly-discovered chemical to the atmosphere, designed to reduce the temperature considerably. Of course, it doesn’t go as planned, instigating a worldwide ice age that kills off most of the life on the planet. The last remaining humans are surviving aboard a very long train, the Snowpiercer of the title.

The train is designed and owned by the man known simply as ‘Wilford’. He has invented a self-perpetuating engine, and the train runs a circular route around the world, taking one year to complete each circuit on a specially-built track. Inside the train, social structure is tightly maintained, with a poor underclass right at the back, and the wealthy and influential closer to the front. Those at the back are forbidden from moving forward, policed by a private army that controls them rigidly. They are fed a ‘protein jelly’, and kept in relative darkness, regularly counted and ordered around.

Their treatment causes stirrings of rebellion of course, and they look to two leaders to organise a revolt. One is the elderly sage, Gilliam. (John Hurt) A wise spiritual leader, he is assisted by the tough warrior, Curtis. (Chris Evans) The people at the back of the train are a mix of types and races. Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Black, alongside the white people. Those nearer the front, the soldiers, and the privileged few, are mostly white of course.

So we have a post-apocalyptic thriller, with overtones of a concentration camp film, and also making some statements about racism, equality, and the desperation of mankind in a near-impossible situation. “Seen it all before!”, I hear you cry. I know. But this time, it’s on a train!

And the train is good. Despite a stellar cast, including those already mentioned but adding an almost-unrecognisable Tilda Swinton, and the reliable Ed Harris, the train is the star. It feels at all times as if they are on a real train. The different sections, getting ever grander closer to the front, are very well imagined, and the exterior shots of the train in the snow and ice covered landscape are beautifully rendered by CGI. So, is it a good film?

Not really. That will teach me not to watch a film very late at night with red wine on board my system. Despite that great cast, some well executed set pieces, and the marvellous train, it often feels just plain silly. And it is ultimately pointless too. There are much better post-apocalyptic/dystopian dramas out there. This one looks a lot better than it actually is.
Unless you like trains, of course…

Just Been Watching…(111)

Spotlight (2015)
***A true story, so spoilers do not apply***

Another film I am late to, one that got huge praise from critics and viewers at the time.

This looks at the real-life events surrounding a famous investigation by a team of reporters working at The Boston Globe newspaper, around 2001. The ‘Spotlight’ team are tasked by a new editor to expand their research into allegations of historical sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area. They are told to take it all the way up to include the church hierarchy, including the powerful Cardinal Law.

Initially looking into the actions of a dozen or more priests since 1976, it soon becomes clear that almost one hundred priests were involved in this sex scandal, and that their crimes were covered up by not only the Catholic Church, but also by some police officers, and influential lawyers. They expose the corrupt system of pay-offs to victims, and the way that the guilty priests were moved around, or given long-term leave.

Many people conspire to obstruct the investigation. Records are ‘lost’, others sealed, and the team members become frustrated when they can get few victims to cooperate, and no help from any of the former perpetrators. The dogged reporters will not be put off, and put their own lives on hold as they work all hours, and travel around to demand access to paperwork, or try to get statements from those involved. Despite finding out that some of their own friends had stayed silent after being abused, and the team receiving threats from influential people in Boston, they keep going until the story is finally published.

I thought that this was an excellent film. Despite being very ‘wordy’, and having lots of characters to keep track of, it is never confusing or dull. And even though I knew the outcome before the film started, the tension stayed with me throughout. The locations are authentic, and the casting near perfect. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, and Rachel McAdams are completely convincing as three of the journalists, and the campaigning lawyer who steers them with tips in the background. The script is sharp and realistic, and even though the subject matter is potentially distressing, none of the actual abuse is ever featured, or even discussed in detail.

A satisfyingly intelligent film, and very relevant in the 21st century.

Just Been Watching…(110)

Outlaw King (2018)
***Historical events, so spoilers do not apply***

I watched this film on Netflix. I believe it is only available there.

Another hot afternoon saw me with windows open and curtains closed, deciding to watch a film to take my mind off the uncomfortable humidity.

This is an historical drama set in 14th century Scotland, showing the struggle of Robert Bruce to become the King of Scotland, and to unify his country against the occupying English army of Edward The First. It begins with the surrender of the Scottish lords to Edward, and shows the bickering between the clans and nobles of Scotland over who should be regarded as the highest family in the land. They eventually agree to pledge themselves to Edward, and to pay his taxes. In return, some are granted lands, and Robert is given a pretty English wife, the daughter of a brave knight.

But the peace is shaky at best, and when news arrives of the capture and execution of William Wallace, (think ‘Braveheart’, sort-of) Bruce decides to try to unify the Scots against England once again, and to proclaim himself King of Scotland. When the young prince Edward is sent with a large English army, things don’t go well for Bruce, and he is forced to escape and seek refuge in the islands, accompanied by a small bad of loyal soldiers. His wife is captured and held prisoner in London, and more clan rivalries surface, with some Scots refusing to join him in any more battles against the English.

But if you know your history, then you know that he tried, and tried again, eventually raising a large army. With Edward I dying in the north on the way to confront Bruce, his headstrong son takes charge of the massive army, and he heads into Scotland determined to defeat the Scots once and for all. After the English have raped and pillaged all over Scotland, Bruce gathers more followers, and he picks an ideal spot to confront his enemies near Loudon Hill, in 1307. After a huge victory for the Scots under Bruce, the young Edward II is forced to retreat, and never again manages to conquer Scotland.

Well, here we have a very ‘old-school’ historical epic, that often feels as if it could have been made in the late 1960s. But that’s not a criticism. Wonderful location shooting, magnificent scenery, and beautiful widescreen cinematography makes this film a joy to watch. Granted, it is only ‘based on’ real events, so we have to allow for some minor inaccuracies and assumptions. But period detail is nothing less than perfect throughout, and the battle scenes show the reality of the brutal style of 14th century warfare.

We get a great cast, with some outstanding British actors, and American heart-throb Chris Pine does a great job as the troubled Bruce, complete with trying a Scottish accent.

I thought it was really good, and I enjoyed it much more than the overblown antics of ‘Braveheart’.

Just Been Watching…(109)

Apostle (2018)

***No spoilers***

I saw this on Netflix, but it was widely released.

A period drama, set in 1905. Filmed in some stunning locations in Wales, and with some Welsh actors leading the cast. But it isn’t about Wales, or the Welsh. In fact, it is about a fictional religious cult, living apart from society on a remote island.

(Yes I know, you are already thinking ‘The Wicker Man’. So was I)

Troubled ex-priest Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) is tasked with travelling to join a secret cult, in the hope of rescuing his sister. She has been trapped there by the cult members, and has managed to smuggle out a letter to their father. They are demanding a ransom, but Thomas has his suspicions that they will just take it, and not free the girl. After a difficult journey, he manages to join the community, and finds it is led by the self-styled prophet, Malcolm. (Michael Sheen) In return for work, everything is provided for the cult members, as long as they adhere strictly to the teachings of the leaders, and follow all the rules.

Thomas has no intention of doing so, and is soon off investigating on his own. He finds secret tunnels, suspicious basements, and with the help of a young man he befriends, he breaks in to discover some very dark secrets. There is also trouble with the three leaders of the cult, with one hoping to take control of the island from Malcolm, and prepared to do anything to get that power. As they hunt for the possible spy inside their community, things get out of control, and the tension begins to rise to the gory climax.

With no spoilers, thats about all I can divulge. But on the way, the film-makers throw everything at the viewer. Grisly murder, lots of gore, torture machines, a soupcon of cannibalism, a spooky human ‘Goddess’, and someone resembling ‘Leatherface’ from ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. In fact the film is so derivative, it not only borrows from ‘The Wicker man’, but almost any classic Hammer Horror film you could mention. Pretty girls in peril, men deciding to combat corruption, and above all, a heroic character who will face any danger to save anyone worth saving.

Yes, it is incredibly ‘retro’, and sometimes feels as if it was made in the early 1970s.

On the plus side, it has those stunning locations, good widescreen cinematography, a few decent shocks, and a solid cast of mainly British actors. The well-known face of Lucy Boynton is thrown in too, to give us someone nice to look at. But it’s not really scary enough to be called a horror film, and not really dramatic enough to be a historical drama. It ends up not really knowing what it is trying to be, but is always pretty good to look at.

Not great, by any means. But I quite enjoyed it.

Just Been Watching… (108)

Annihilation (2018)
***No Spoilers***

I watched this on Netflix. But it was released in cinemas and is widely available.

Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh. A science fiction film set in the present day, with a top cast, and an interesting premise.

Naturally, I was going to watch this one.

An older-looking (finally) Portman plays the successful biology professor, Lena. She is still mourning the loss of her Special Forces soldier husband, Kane. (Isaac) His unit disappeared on a covert mission one year earlier, and he is presumed dead. Then one evening, he suddenly appears at the house. His memory of the past year is blurred, and his timeline skewed. He doesn’t know where he was, or how he got back. And he is also very ill.

When he collapses, his distraught wife gets an ambulance. But on the way to the hospital, they are hijacked by a black ops team, and taken to a top secret research base in a remote part of America. There, Lena discovers the secret that the government is keeping. There has been an ‘incident’, called The Shimmer. A large area has been taken over by an unseen force, inside a shimmering glow. It is growing at an alarming rate, and looks set to take over much of the region and eventually the whole of America. Everyone who has been sent in to try to find what happened has never returned.
Except for Kane, her husband.

Lena meets other women there, including the project director, Ventress. (Jason-Leigh) When she finds out that the team of female scientists is heading into the shimmer, to try to find the source of the power at an old lighthouse, she volunteers to go along.

So this is a film starring women. Isaac spends most of the film in a coma, with his role mainly played as flashbacks. The women are not chosen as eye candy, or to be dependent on male co-stars. They are all tough, intelligent, and have their own reasons for volunteering for the potentially suicidal mission. That made a refreshing change, I can tell you.

Once they enter inside The Shimmer, it is immediately apparent that something very strange is happening. Animals are familiar, yet mutated. The same goes for flowers and plants, which are out of place, yet growing abundantly. Some plants have even grown into the shape of human beings, and much of the infrastructure is being rapidly reclaimed by this ‘new version’ of Nature.

The team discovers that they have lost all sense of time. Their memories are affected, compasses and electronic equipment don’t work, and they are forced to rely on their wits to survive, as their spirits degenerate, and they begin to turn on each other. Only by getting to the lighthouse can they discover the truth about what is happening to the planet.

We are treated to a few shocks, a little gore, and a lot of intelligent concepts. We have to deal with DNA, the multiplication and duplication of cells, and how biology adapts to a given circumstance. Yet the viewer doesn’t need to have a biology degree to understand it, they just have to pay attention.

With a great cast on top form, special effects that are (mostly) very convincing, and a story that requires engagement from the viewer, I have to conclude that this was actually very good indeed.