Tuesday, 22 January 2019

IO (2019)

I mentioned, in a recent post other works coming out in the near future, that a Netflix film called IO was coming out on the 18th of January. This film had some gorgeous looking shots and a really good trailer. Not to mention a poster which made it look like it would be very entertaining.

So did IO take us to the Jovian system and back?

We begin on an Earth very different from our own, where, as explained by the overarching narration, the atmosphere has turned against us. People asphyxiated in their sleep or choked to death in the streets during toxic storms as the world changed. In response, humanity organized a massive exodus in 100 shuttles to a preexisting station that was built to harness energy from Jupiter's moon Io. Mankind had left Earth behind.

Not all of humanity though. One notable dissenter was Dr. Henry Walden (Danny Huston) who believed that mankind could learn to evolve and thrive, even on this new toxic Earth. He and his family stayed behind, establishing themselves at higher altitudes to escape the toxic weather and study the new world they found themselves in and try to adapt.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Retro Review: Rebecca (1940)

Recently I had the absolute pleasure to watch 1940's Rebecca directed by none other than that supreme suspense shooter, Alfred Hitchcock. As perhaps is no secret, I'm a huge fan of retro films, whether colored or black and white. Alfred Hitchcock of course, is a film giant who is well known for his mystery and suspense. The book which Rebecca is based on is - criminally I am told - unknown by the greater public nowadays. Penned in the 1930s and published in 1938 by Daphne du Maurier, it tells the tale of all the tragic goings on at Manderly, the ancestral home of the de Winter family.

That the book was an amazing success would be an understatement. Going from smash hit to box office in two years is pretty exceptional in this time period. What was also exceptional was that Alfred Hitchcock, who wanted to make the film more 'funny' was told no. One just didn't do that to Hitchcock! With that in mind however, Hitchcock still delivers his classic thriller drama and shows off some amazing camera work in this film! It won two Academy Awards, and in 2018 it was chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Beginning in the South of France (as one does in the 1930s when dealing with the British upper crust) at Monte Carlo, we come across our nameless protagonist (Joan Fontaine) as she serves as a paid companion to the stuffy and overly chatty Edythe Van Hopper. One morning, while out for a stroll, she oversees a man she assumes is moments away from commit suicide, so she calls to him. The man, visibly annoyed, tells her to mind her own business, but does not jump.

She next encounters him with Edythe, and learns that he is in fact Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Oliviere) the heir of the great de Winter family. Our nameless protagonist is timid and used to being pushed around, and Max, as he likes to be called, is forceful in his ways. However, he takes her on a whirlwind romance and, unexpectedly, asks her to marry him.

From there, she is whisked away to the Manderly estate, the realm of the great de Winter family. There she is introduced to the eerie Mrs. Danvers, the matron of the household staff and begins to see that tragedy haunts the halls of Manderly. A specific specter lingers over her as well, that is the ghost of Maxim's former wife, the eponymous Rebecca.

The film does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension from the opening shots, to the claustrophobic moments where we zoom in on a character's face to see their terror written plainly across it. The atmosphere and the acting is all geared towards making you fear for the poor nameless protagonist as she is thrust into a new world which is strange and alien to her, and one haunted by a vengeful dead woman.

Fontaine portrays her nervous and bewildered character well. She has nervous ticks, slouching and constantly rubbing her hands together when feeling stressed. Cringing away from others, but especially the terrifying Mrs. Danvers who proves to be her indomitable adversary.

Mrs. Danvers (played by Judith Anderson) becomes a horror in her own right. While outwardly severe and at least maintaining the facade of the new Mrs. de Winter being in charge, she bullies and cajoles Maxim's new wife and attempts to drive her away. She is fanatically loyal to her former employer, even after her death.

Rebecca is a phantom in this film. Having died one year before the events of the film we know her only by her reputation and the effect of even mentioning her to Maxim has. Her rooms in the West Wing are all off limits, and maintained by Danvers as a mausoleum to her deceased employer. Her grace, beauty, and effortless excellence is often commented upon in relation to our poor nameless protagonist.

Perhaps the best scene in the whole film is one where we are tracing Rebecca's last steps. Almost done entirely in narrative, with the rare presence of an actor, it uses the camera, props, and the rising and falling in the voice of Maxim to stage and follow the scene. In this scene, we get a sense of the never seen character, Rebecca. It is, put simply, a masterpiece of film. You are lead around and can practically picture the character there, even though you never once see her directly in the film. The narrative is so gripping and intense with revelation that you cannot look away.

Hitchcock of course, does an excellent job setting atmosphere with his work in the film. From creepy dissolves where Mrs. Danvers ghostly face fades menacingly into another object, to well cut footage of characters in states of shock, anxiety, or grief. With less camera angles than a modern director could manage without, he uses easy shots to capture your attention and fix you on specific points within range, all the points he wants you to see. His method of shooting the film "in camera" was designed to make the film one seamless production from start to finish. He rejected some of the more melodramatic suggestions of the producers and manages to create a grand spectacle of cinematography.

Of course, the film is not completely faithful to the novel. While there is heavy emphasis on the perfect nature of our ghostly Rebecca and the emphasis is on our nameless protagonist, each fall short of du Maurier's vision. Her work wanted to emphasize how different Rebecca was from the standard female protagonist (while also making her something of a victim) and using our nameless protagonist as a victim of her society, being dominated by her husband, who must have things just so. This sadly is not picked up on by most, and the protagonist becomes attached (perhaps from Stockholm Syndrome) to Maxim and hopelessly devoted to him.

Oliviere plays the forceful and haunted Maxim well. Blustering between goodnatured enthusiasm to temperamentally domineering, going into a frenzy when he is reminded in almost any way of the dead Rebecca. His brooding nature is revealed gradually throughout the film, but he is never anything but controlling in his mannerisms.

The supporting cast is well rounded, from Maxim's devoted servants and to his manager and friend Frank Crawley. They all bring their subtle and powerful moments to the story.

The score, while appropriate for a 1940s audience, will probably grate and frustrate a 21st century audience. Relying on string music to bring in the tension, it is appropriately discordant at times, while also seeming confusing and out of place at others. It was an issue in evolution and though I do understand how it is supposed to work, I find that my ears just don't like string music in supposedly comforting scenes vs tense ones.

Rebecca, though, is a great film if you're looking for something suspenseful and shocking. The twists are all amazing, and you will be on the edge of your seat as our poor nameless protagonist tries to unravel the mysteries of Manderly. Another retro film I encourage you to see.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Some Quick Streaming for January and February

Just in the last few days I've learned of some interesting series and films coming up. I'm hoping to share them with you so you too can enjoy what promises to be a fascinating few hours of Netflix and streaming.

Firstly, we have the History Channel. True to form, having moved on from history and WWII to aliens and conspiracies is broadcasting the historical drama Project Blue Book which will be a 10 episode series following Josef Allen Hynek who in real life was involved with the aforementioned Project Blue Book, one of several studies undertaken by the US to determine the existence of UFO's and whether or not they were real.

The subject of constant investigation and curiosity, it will I think, make for some interesting watching. Whether the History Channel will continue its proud tradition of mucking about with real history remains to be seen though. However, a perusal of the real Project Blue Book does make for some interesting reading all its own.

Secondly we have the Netflix film IO which premiers January 18th. Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth made toxic by global warming, humanity has largely evacuated their home world to colonize the Jovian System, specifically Io. Some however, have been left behind. We will be following the efforts of Sam (the daughter of scientist Henry Walden) and another survivor named Micah. They are hoping to make it to the last launch of a rocket leaving for Jupiter. The question is whether they can survive the toxic wasteland which used to be Earth to get there.

On January 25th we get the absolutely bonkers action flick (adopted from the graphic novel of the same name) Polar. A retired hitman, settling into a life in a remote Alaskan town, only for the assassin company he worked for to try and 'appropriate' his retirement policy by trying to kill him and kidnapping his one friend. He goes on a rip snorting bloody string of vengeance in a familiar trope, but one that looks like it will be simply epic.

In February we have two spooky ones coming out.

Firstly is one which I had the pleasure of seeing on Halloween a few years ago. Happy Death Day was Groundhog Day meets Scream, which was an admittedly amusing combination. Now we have a sequel just in time for Valentine's Day. Happy Death Day 2 U. With a similar premise, but now more people are effected by the Ground Hog Day like experience, and maybe this will try answering the weird issues which surround how it got started in the first place.

Though I'm not sure how I feel about this sequel, I'm very open to giving it a shot.

Secondly we have Velvet Buzzsaw which seems to be an intriguing look into the high art world through a horror lens. When an unknown artist is found dead, his works seem to come to life and exact grizzly revenge on those who used the art world for money. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and other amazing people such as Renee Russo and John Malkovich, it looks like it will be an amazing romp through the high art world with some bloody massacres in between!

So there's some good entertainment, terrifying and action packed, coming up. Stay tuned for it!

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Vice 2018: The Cheney Story

On December 27th, 2018, I went to see a film with my family which I had originally seen the trailer for in October. That trailer was for the film Vice starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell and San Rockwell, among others. Written and directed by Adam McKay (known for such classy films like Talladaga Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys). It purports to tell the narrative of the rise of one of the most infamous and powerful Vice Presidents in American history, the VP to Bush Junior, Richard "Dick" Cheney.

With its all-star cast, interesting subject matter, and definitely controversial interpretation of the VP, I was definitely interested to see the story it had to tell. The film begins by openly stating that they had a difficult time gathering information on one of the most secretive VP's in history, but they did their best.

There's a cold open where the VP is evacuated to the bunker beneath the White House in response to the September 11th Attacks, and where he gives unilateral authority to shoot down planes to Donald Rumsfeld, ignoring the fact that he does not have authority from the president to do so. Setting the stage in 1963, we see a younger Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) being pulled over for drunk driving.

A sudden flashback and flashforward is not the first time the film will play fast and loose with the timeline for 'artistic merit' so be prepared for a few jarring moves backwards and forwards. This all helped by our fictitious narrator,  Kurt, who relates much of Cheney's life and an interpretation of events.

We pick up with a tale of Dick marrying Lynne Cheney, but failing out of Yale and barely managing to keep a job due to a combination of alcoholism and constant brawling. Berated by his wife, he vows to do better. Jumping forward once again, we see he is a congressional intern and is falling under the wing of then economic adviser to President Nixon, Donald Rumsfeld. Under Rumsfeld's tutelage he becomes a canny political operator, and one of the few men who survives the Watergate scandal. Using this to climb the ladder of political power, he is knocked off by the election of Democratic President Jimmy Carter, stalling his journey into the seats of national influence, for now.

From here we see Cheney's emerging heart problems and his time going forward to becoming Vice President under George W. Bush. All narrated by our fictional narrator Kurt, whose role becomes much clearer later on.

Now it must really be noted that from here on out, the film, while it has made no bones about having a bias against Cheney, goes into overdrive to frame the various scandals surrounding the man as a bid to control American policy through a nitwit president.

McKay's work in the past with mostly comedies (and notoriously immature ones at that) shines through at times. Some of the jokes do feel weak and childish, but for a film coming from a primarily comedy producer and director, it is shocking he delivers some great scenes and chilling pieces of dialogue depicting this man. As someone who really doesn't like any of his previous work, that he manages to deliver moments worth of House of Cards is very impressive.

Despite the intention to create a dramatic film, elements of farce or parody seep in. Whether being overly dramatic intentionally or unintentionally, scenes seem written around what is amusing rather than what is going to grip the audiences attention. This creates mood whiplash in the audience as you may go from a scene portraying torture to witty asides by our narrator and intentionally comedic commentary. This can work, but here it feels as though McKay is sticking to his strengths.

While Vice does make sure it lines up with known facts, it has no problems with filling in the blanks about Cheney's motivations and actions with informed speculation. So anyone who was predisposed to like Mr. Cheney will find the film a total hatchet job, while anyone who is opposed to him will see it as a]well informed assessment of the man. The film even pokes fun at its obvious slant by taking a not so subtle swipe at the audience in an end credits scene.

Now we could debate the known facts, the innuendo and the speculation around former VP Dick Cheney forever, but that really doesn't answer the question of whether this film is any good.

For my own personal taste, the way the film leaps back and forth throughout the timeline in delivering 'artistic' speeches seems a bit contrived, and sheds no real light on the supposed motivations of Cheney as a character. Cutting to scenes of his unruly younger years, spliced with his early years in the Nixon White House and accompanied by powerful poses of the elderly man we all know in the halls of power really don't add much to the film. Some attempts to inform his motives also fell a little flat, as they passed into parody territory which detracted from the film at inconvenient times.

Some scenes are darkly humorous, such as when Cheney's heart condition is often played for laughs to break moments of tension, or Rumsfeld's character is a hoot for how cynically irreverent he is. However, in some scenes, such as when the film breaks for Dick and Lynne to speak to each other in Shakespearian verse, go on too long and seem unflattering to the overall pacing of the film. (Though McKay has a thing for this kind of dialogue, and his ending scene echoing Richard III works well).

The acting, though, is phenomenal. Bale comes to life as this reserved, powerful and calculating character. You do feel as though he is playing a scheming, flawed and power hungry man which is echoed on by Adams portrayal of a powerful woman who seeks to advance through her husband, each using the other to bring their dreams of power and influence into a reality.

The supporting cast also bring this tense Washington gang together. Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld is an unexpected treat, as he goes from fawning mentor to betrayed underling across the decades. Bush Junior by Sam Rockwell is good, but genuinely unflattering to the former president. The pained portrayal of Colin Powell by Tyler Perry of a man trying to reign in the excesses of a power hungry cabinet member while obeying the orders of his President is endearing, and does make you feel for him despite the implication he was betraying his integrity by carrying out the tasks assigned to him. Justin Kirk as the scheming sidekick Scooter Libby makes one think of the dead eyed Steven Miller who goes to bat for President Trump every so often.

Though Bale and Adams steal the show, one cannot overlook the performance of Allison Pill as Mary Cheney. A story the film plays to the hilt is Cheney's unwillingness to compromise the support of his daughter despite her being a lesbian, something notably opposed by the right-wing Cheney also supports. Her support for her father and her initial troubled coming out are all powerful scenes, making the ending of that troubled relationship all the more meaningful.

Powerful performances as those delivered by Bale and Pill are why I think this movie ought to be seen. Bale is amazing on screen, jumping into this persona with gusto, which should be applauded. It really does deserve every award it has been up for.

Ultimately the film, though not without flaws, will be enjoyed based on the audiences political leanings. It has been divisive amongst critics for that reason, though I dare say not that reason only. Some jokes and scenes are legitimately hamfisted, some of the comedy fairly weak, and portions of the script could certainly have been improved upon. The acting saves it from being a mediocre, while showcasing a series of definitely award winning performances.

For Christian Bale's act as one of the most powerful VP's alone, this film is worth watching at least once.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

2018 Recap

I'm happy to say I have had a successful year in 2018. In recap I finished my goals for 2018 in writing (major submission of a novella to Tor) and began new goals, writing a horror anthology which I hope to release now in 2019, working on other short stories for submission, and increasing my blog output.

I also accomplished my goal of reading over 50 books this year, coming in at 51, though I quibble if reading a series of anthologies counts, I've been informed it should so I nicely just squeak over the line.

I'm setting a new goal for 2019, aiming for 60 books read. It's realistic and I hope to make a good dent in that goal in the coming months!

Projects coming up in 2019 now:
  • Completing my short story anthology for Halloween 2019, which includes the work in progress short stories Finiphobia, Priests of the White God, and adding two other stories, one a work in progress (which I aim to be longer) and the already complete The Disappearance of Wilson and these I'm aiming to release in October 2019!
  • Working on completing a travelogue of my time crossing the Pacific and back, which has been under way for about a year. It will chronicle my visit to Hawaii and Australia and my first time dipping my feet in the Pacific, with visits to Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, and Adelaide. Hopefully a short humorous piece. Tentatively preparing for a February release.
  • Work on other as yet secret projects which I won't reveal too much about. One is science fiction and another is a long term fantasy project. Both are hopefully going to reach novel length at 100,000 words.
These projects, among other things, should keep me busy through the coming year. Lots to do and much to be accomplished!

All in all 2018 was a very good year for me. Personally, professionally, and writing wise. Happy New Year everyone!