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Posts Tagged ‘1990s’

Were you aware they’d done a remake of Point Break? I’m guessing it’s really not a very good movie, seeing as it’s so obscure. When I first became aware of it the other day, my immediate thought was ‘that’s a pretty new movie to be getting a remake’ – but then, of course, I thought about it and realised that Point Break – the Kathryn Bigelow version, that is – is thirty years old this year. Thirty! I can scarcely believe it.

On the other hand, while all great movies have a timeless quality, that doesn’t preclude them from also being essentially of the time they were made, either, and there is something quintessentially early-90s about Point Break: it’s not brash and excessive like an 80s movie, but neither does it have that slightly chilly slickness you get in a lot of films from the following decade. The sense of a changing of the guard is only emphasised by the presence of iconic 80s heart-throb Patrick Swayze (in a very questionable but also authentic hair-style) and also Keanu Reeves, a man for whom the 90s were a defining decade.

The film opens with scenes of Swayze hanging ten and catching waves (etc), and looking majestic doing so, while Reeves struts his stuff on the FBI academy firing range. Keanu is playing football-star-turned-rookie-FBI-agent Johnny (made-up name) Utah, whose first assignment sees him join the bank robbery section in Los Angeles. Utah is a bit buttoned-down, but not yet a fully-fledged pen-pusher like his boss. He is partnered with a world-weary veteran named Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) who has become a laughing-stock around the office: charged with catching an elite gang of robbers nicknamed the Dead Presidents, Pappas has become convinced that they are surfers, based on their schedule (they’re only active in summer, California’s surf season) and a few shreds of forensic evidence. Someone needs to go undercover on the beach and see what’s going down…

Well, it’s obviously not going to be Busey, so Keanu buys a board and is soon getting surfing lessons from a nice young woman named Tyler (Lori Petty). Through her he has his doors of perception well and truly opened up when he meets top surfer, free spirit, and near-as-dammit spiritual guru Bodhi (Swayze) and his gang of followers. Not only that, his buttons are loosened, his screws are undone and he takes to wandering about inside the FBI building carrying his board. He even turns up late for a raid after some night-surfing (and a spot of the old whoa-ho with Petty) takes the place of the recommended early night. But could Bodhi and his pals be getting up to more than some extreme sports?

It sounds rather generic when you write it down that way, and indeed one of the things that makes Point Break such an intriguing movie is the fact that it has almost exactly the same basic plot trajectory as the original The Fast and the Furious film while still feeling like a stylish and classy film for grown-ups, right down to the central character dynamic. One plot summary I’ve seen of this movie suggests that Keanu finds his mission complicated when he falls in love with Swayze’s ex-girlfriend. The film itself is rather more ambiguous on whom the exact object of Keanu’s affection is, something which Hot Fuzz recognised with typically forensic accuracy when one character summarised a key sequence: ‘Patrick Swayze has just robbed this bank, and Keanu Reeves is chasin’ him through peoples’ gardens, and then he goes to shoot Swayze but he can’t because he loves him so much and he’s firin’ his gun up in the air and he’s like ‘ahhh!” It’s all very subtextual, naturally, but Swayze is very sinewy and macho and Keanu is still at that point where he’s often sort of blankly bovine and – there’s not really another mot juste in this case – pretty.

Nevertheless, Keanu is showing signs of improvement, and this is surely the first film to establish his potential as a genuine action movie star: he runs and fights and chucks himself about with great aplomb. And he always has that same Reevesian charisma – he is a still point of total calm on the screen, which you somehow cannot help but fill with your affection for the lad. At one point in Point Break, the film (which has hitherto been relatively restrained and naturalistic) requires Keanu to hurl himself out of a plane in flight, without a parachute, and apprehend his quarry in free-fall. Even at the height of Bondian absurdity, Roger Moore was excused this sort of thing, but Keanu – well, he doesn’t exactly sell the bit outright, but he makes you indulge the film in it.

Of course, if we’re talking about pretty – and yes, this is a fairly shallow and spurious bit of linking – then we should also mention that Lori Petty is in this movie too. She always struck me as someone extremely smart and watchable, but – on the face of things, at least – the failure of Tank Girl dealt her career as someone who could lead a movie a mortal blow. Here, you just wish she was given a bit more to do than be a plot device: as noted, the central relationship in the movie is between Reeves and Swayze, so she ends up sidelined and barely appears in the third act of the movie.

Most of this is chasing and shooting, which Bigelow handles with her characteristic muscular efficiency: she’s had a distinguished career, but one where good films just haven’t had the success which they deserved, with some quite substantial gaps in her filmography as a result. On one level Point Break feels like it occupies some peculiar narrative space between The Lost Boys and The Fast and the Furious – Patrick Swayze (who surely gives the best performance of his career here) as the somewhat unlikely missing link between Kiefer Sutherland and Vin Diesel – but at the same time the film has a class and a quality which elevates it above the level of simply being a popcorn genre movie. I’m not sure it has any genuine depth to it, but it certainly gives that impression. A great thriller, deserving of its cult status.

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There are some films which have a particular significance in my memory – not necessarily because they are especially good, or poor, or interesting, but just because they came along at a particular time in my life and burned their way into my memory. For instance, there was once a time when I did not – mutatis mutandis – go to the cinema once or twice a week. I went along now and then, when there was a film that looked particularly interesting, but I didn’t actively seek out things to go and watch. (I suppose this is how normal people approach going to the cinema.)  This didn’t change overnight, but there were a number of times when I recall it dawning on me that going to see a film I didn’t know much about could actually be a really great and rewarding trip out.

I feel obliged to make clear that Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible is not such a film. Well, not exactly. Here’s what was happening: it was the summer of 1996, and relations between your correspondent and the people he was living with were at a bit of a nadir. I had taken to going out of the house very early and staying out all day, simply to avoid them, until the university term ended and they all left. Friday, the day before the great departure, finally rolled around, and unable to face another marathon stint in the library or the bar I went to into town and decided to go to the cinema. I’d always enjoyed the legerdemaine in the plotting of the old Mission: Impossible TV show, and I expect I would have seen it eventually, but as it happened it had just opened that day: seeing a film on its day of release was a new experience for me then, but one which seemed rather agreeable.

De Palma’s film opens with a deliberately misleading set of titles, evoking the style of the TV show very nicely (needless to say, Lalo Schifrin’s immortal theme blasts out too). We encounter Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), head of the CIA’s Impossible Mission clever-tricks squad, receiving an exploding cassette on a plane. It seems that a rogue CIA agent is about to steal a very important Maguffin from the US embassy in Prague, and Phelps and his team are to nab the miscreant in the act.

Phelps’ team includes his wife Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), technical bod Jack (an uncredited Emilio Estevez), posh Brit Sarah (Kristin Scott Thomas), a slightly nondescript character played by Ingeborg Dapkunaite, and (in the old Martin Landau master-of-disguise role) Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). There is a lot of sneaking into the embassy, wearing of rubber masks, the deployment of clever gadgets, and – rather subtly – establishing the rapport between the various members of team.

This is significant, because after a smooth start, the mission begins to go pear-shaped in a very terminal way: one by one, the Impossible Missionaries are crushed, shot, stabbed and blown up. The important Maguffin is nicked, and the only survivors of the carnage, it would seem, are Hunt and Claire Phelps. It transpires the whole mission was part of a bigger, more devious scheme: CIA director Kittridge (Henry Czerny) believes there is a traitor in the IMF, and all that has gone before has been an attempt to flush out the mole. As Hunt seems to be the last man standing, he looks somewhat compromised.

However, this is not the kind of thing Hunt is wont to take lying down, and – for the first time, but absolutely not the last – he goes on the run from his own people in an attempt to identify who the traitor who killed his friends is. Some slightly knotty exposition ensues (well-handled by the script and direction), with the following results: he does a deal with arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave), whereby she will manufacture a meeting with the mole, in exchange for him breaking into CIA headquarters and stealing another copy of the same Maguffin as earlier.

This all enables a rather pleasing structure to the film, which is essentially built around three big set-pieces done in the style of the original TV show – the initial shenanigans at the embassy, the raid on the CIA, and finally some fairly unlikely goings-on in and around the Channel Tunnel as Hunt finally confronts the bad guys. The second of these provides the film’s most iconic image – after scrambling through the (surprisingly capacious) air vents at the CIA with Jean Reno, Cruise ends up operating a computer workstation while dangling on a wire from the ceiling – while the third sends the film for the first time off into more generic Hollywood action movie territory – Reno ends up flying a helicopter down the (equally surprisingly capacious) Channel Tunnel, with Cruise hanging off one of the skids.

I think it gets the balance between being like the TV show and being cinematic just about spot-on, although others had a different opinion: amongst them Peter Graves and the other original members of the TV show cast, who were invited back (to get killed off). I suppose I can understand the source of their chagrin – in the end, it’s hardly reverent towards the characterisation of the source material, even if it gets the substance pretty much right.

Yet it also felt very contemporary back in 1996. Nowadays, it’s not exactly dated, but the film’s near-fixation with computer hacking and the internet does feel very much of its time. It also serves fairly well as a snapshot of actors who had recently made an impression in other successful films – Reno was fresh off Leon, Scott Thomas had recently done Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Ving Rhames (who’s gone on to appear opposite Cruise in all the subsequent films in the franchise) had played a key role in Pulp Fiction.

In the end I think this is an extremely efficient and polished movie, rather than a truly great one: it has that slickness one often finds in Tom Cruise projects, and Brian De Palma seems relatively restrained: there are hardly any of the bravura touches or outrageous bits of showing-off that sometimes characterises his work. And yet I remain extremely fond of it – I saw it twice more that summer, and remember listening to the soundtrack endlessly, as well. I suppose I remember it so warmly because it marked a point, more or less, at which things lightened up for me – and also because, immediately afterwards, I was in such a good mood I hung around in town and saw Wayne Wang’s Smoke, one of my first real art-house experiences (or so I recall, anyway). Another time, another life – but still pleasant to recall.

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One fine day in the summer of 1995, I finished my university finals. Nearly everyone went off to get wrecked in celebration, but not I: even back then I find that I was dabbling with the abstemiousness which has now become my standard operating procedure, while other habits and tendencies were beginning to manifest themselves: I left my peers in the bar that lunchtime and went off to the cheapest of Hull city centre’s three cinemas, which was a place that gave one the chance to catch up on films that had come out a few months earlier at the now-unbelievable price of only £1.50 a ticket. So, you may be wondering, what did I see? Well, I caught the afternoon showing of Leon. And then, feeling almost dizzy with the heady knowledge I would never have to answer an essay question on epistemology again, I saw the teatime show of Interview with the Vampire. And finally, with the words ‘what the hell!’ distinctly resonating in my brain, I saw the movie version of Stargate in the evening.

My main recollection of that day is an inexorable decline in the quality of the movies, to be honest: Leon remains a film I really like (I still think it’s far and away Luc Besson’s best work), while I’ve never been able to get on with Stargate in any of its incarnations, to be honest (this despite generally being well-disposed towards Roland Emmerich’s SF movies). But what of Interview with the Vampire, first released in 1994 and directed by Neil Jordan. Well, I tend to like Jordan’s stuff, or perhaps it’s better to say I usually find things to enjoy in his films: I liked the visual style of The Company of Wolves and the sheer bonkersness of Greta, for example.

I have to say, though, that I found Interview with the Vampire to be slimmer pickings than most of his work – which was a surprise to me, as I have been a fan of vampire movies since discovering Hammer horror in 1987, at least. Mind you, I also found Anne Rice’s source novel to be pretty heavy going – I think I originally bought the damn thing second-hand in 1998, bounced off it a couple of times, found another copy in a ‘free books’ box outside the neighbours’ house fifteen years later, and finally ploughed through it then. (A review of the book is here.)

Any version of this story you care to mention concerns the life (brief), death (very brief) and thereafter (extremely lengthy) of a vampire named Louis (played by Bradley Pitt), who is telling his tale to a Studs Terkel-esque writer (Christian Slater). Louis, by his own account, is driven to the verge of suicidal madness by the death of his wife and child in 1790s Louisiana, at which point he crosses the path of a hedonistic vampire named Lestat (Tom Cruise). With Louis’ permission, Lestat brings him over to his side of the street, with the promise of immortality and eternal youth…

Yes, I suppose we’ve all wondered what we would do with such a gift. What Louis mostly does with it is brood and complain, although occasionally he takes a break in order to complain and brood. Apparently he doesn’t like drinking human blood, which leads one to wonder why he agreed to being turned into a vampire in the first place. God knows why Lestat puts up with him (this is not a healthy relationship). Lestat decides that having a child will save their partnership (not the first time someone has made this rather suspect decision) and turns a young plague survivor named Claudia (Kirsten Dunst, in her movie debut), and the three of them pass many years brooding, complaining, and thinning out the local population.

There’s a good deal more in this vein (sorry) but it has to be said that this is not a film with a particularly strong narrative line. The only thing that makes it a conventional narrative (as opposed to just a series of episodic vignettes) is the persistent focus on Louis’ relationship with Lestat. Possibly one of the reasons I’ve never been a particular fan of this film is that it takes all the trappings of a traditional vampire movie but uses them to tell what’s basically a story about a dysfunctional relationship – a bit like the Hunger Games movies, which come on like dystopian SF thrillers but turn out to be something more nuanced and introspective.

The thing that makes Interview with the Vampire rather unusual for a big-budget studio movie is that all those Gothic horror trappings are basically there to hide the basic subtext of the story: which is that of a man forming a relationship with another man, and becoming part of a hidden subculture which more traditional folk sometimes find either alluring or revolting. The main character feels terribly guilty about his new lifestyle. Needless to say both Pitt and Cruise look – how best to put this? Androgynous isn’t quite the right word – somewhat ambiguous in this movie, with lovely flowing long hair and clear complexions. In short, this is surely one of the gayest films to come out of a major studio in the 20th century.

I said something similar in the review of the book, and, as you may have seen, someone took issue with this, suggesting that Rice’s vampires transcend conventional notions of romance and sexuality. Hmmm, well, maybe. The thing is, any sane person writing about vampires is going to use them as a metaphor for something – to do anything else would be to perpetrate vacuous fantasy – and it’s worth mentioning that at one point Rice rejigged the story so that Pitt’s character would be a woman, to be played by Cher. Her reasoning? She assumed that Hollywood would be too homophobic for the story as she wrote it. I’ll just put my case down here, shall I?

The BBC showed Interview with the Vampire the other night, and the following evening their late movie was Behind the Candelabra, which is either one of those coincidences or evidence that someone in scheduling has a sense of humour, for if you do accept that the primary subtext of Jordan’s movie concerns a gay relationship, then the throughlines of both it and the Soderbergh film are strikingly similar, with Louis as the young semi-innocent and Lestat as the preening older man (Lestat does play the piano in a couple of key scenes, as well). Of course, what may keep the film from being wholly embraced by the LGBT community is that one of the main drivers of the plot is that Louis spends most of the movie feeling terribly guilty about being a vampire (i.e. gay) and most of the vampires (i.e. …oh, you get the idea) are nasty, bitter, bitchy types.

None of this is really why I’m not a particular fan of this film – there are lots of different ways of doing vampire movies, from Nosferatu to Near Dark to Captain Kronos, for the vampire metaphor is unusually adaptable. I think it’s mainly just the style of the thing, which feels very much like the work of a novelist rather than a screenwriter: a bit too much reliance on voice-over for exposition, and a fondness for characters telling each other things rather than doing things. All mouth and no trousers, really.

All the moments you remember from the film have much to do with the script: they’re visual rather than narrative. Jordan mounts a very impressive movie with a real sense of style about it, and gets a really good performance out of an eleven-year-old Kirsten Dunst. None of the performances are what you’d call actively bad; Antonio Banderas gets one of his better early English-language roles (now I think of it, it would be fascinating to see Almodovar’s take on this material). Tom Cruise is… well, he’s in his ‘give me an Oscar’ mode, which he is wont to slip into in this kind of prestige production (perhaps we should be grateful he mainly does thrillers these days), and his performance is just pitched a bit too high.

I feel obliged to say, though, that it’s still a damn sight better than the sequel. But if we’re going to look in that direction, it is interesting to note that if What We Do In The Shadows (both movie and TV show) is spoofing anything in particular, it’s this movie (the episodes with the vampire council make this particularly clear). Not many things this year have made me laugh as often or as hard as the What We Do… TV show, so I suppose Interview with the Vampire deserves credit for that. Fairly faint praise, I admit, but sometimes you have to take your damnation wherever you can find it.

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It is, of course, very nearly a truism that professional creators of horror fiction generally turn out to be the nicest, sweetest bunch of people one could ever hope to meet. The people who finance horror movies may be exempt from this, unfortunately: this is the thought which inevitably crosses my mind when the logo for Dimension Films crosses the screen. This is, or was, a mini-studio which started life as a sort of off-shoot from Miramax, with the intention of making the sort of disreputable but remunerative genre pictures that just weren’t classy enough for the parent studio. The association with Miramax means an association with Harvey Weistein, and there is of course a rather sick irony in his reluctance to associate himself too closely with horror and exploitation – on screen, at least.

I would have pegged Dimension Films as an outfit which got going in the mid to late 90s – I would have sworn that Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood were both Dimension productions – but no: the studio launched itself on an unsuspecting world in 1992, starting as it would continue with a fairly undistinguished sequel (various entries in the From Dusk Till Dawn, Halloween, and Children of the Corn series would subsequently appear under the Dimension marque). That very first film was Anthony Hickox’s Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth.

The geographical ambiguity which formed such a peculiar part of the atmosphere of the first two films is instantly banished, as we are clearly in the Land of the Good Old Uncle US of Stateside right from the off (exactly where is left slightly vague, but it looks like it’s meant to be New York City). We meet nightclub entrepreneur, artist, womaniser, parricide and psychopath J.P. Monroe, who is clearly a man who believes in the value of a well-stringed bow. Monroe is played by Kevin Bernhardt, who in turn is a man who – I would wager – believes in the value of writing one’s own Wikipedia page (or at least paying someone else to write it) – a big deal is made over how many screenplays Bernhardt has had produced, but on closer inspection an awful lot of these are uncredited, star Orlando Bloom, or have titles not likely to inspire confidence in their quality (Jill the Ripper, for example). Just about the only ones an even vaguely average person will have heard of are the last two Rambo movies. But I digress.

Anyway, Monroe is looking for fixtures and fittings for his nightclub and pops into an art gallery, where he finds the ominous pillar which manifested right at the very end of the previous film. He decides it is just the ticket and picks it up for a bargain price. Next, we find ourselves in the company of plucky young reporter Joey (Terry Farrell, still probably best known for six years in Deep Space Nine and for playing the cat in the American pilot for Red Dwarf). She is hanging around the emergency room when someone is rushed in impaled on barbed chains: the chains duly animate and gorily tear the poor unfortunate to pieces, but this should at least reassure latecomers that they really are watching a Hellraiser movie.

Joey befriends the victim’s companion, a lost soul named Terri (Paula Marshall), who reveals that they came from Monroe’s club – and also that, while there, they managed to acquire a puzzle-box like the ones which drove the stories of the first two films. It turns out this box was embedded in the pillar, and investigating the gap it left leads to Monroe being injured and his blood falling on the pillar (yeah, there’s a lot of quite elaborate and contrived exposition in this movie). Well, to cut a long story short this wakes up Pinhead, the sado-masochistic Cenobite, whose head is sticking out the side of the pillar.

Doug Bradley, who plays Pinhead, displays an impressive capacity for chewing the scenery even while technically being part of it, as he lures Monroe into indulging in his darker vices. Needless to say he has his own agenda, which revolves around not being stuck in a piece of set decoration. Joey, who has been doing her research into the previous films (this includes a very brief and slightly bemusing appearance by Ashley Lawrence as Kirsty), has basically figured all of this out too, although she is helped by the shade of Captain Spencer (Bradley again), the man who was transformed into Pinhead. (For what’s basically a pretty dumb movie this one does have a lot of complicated back-story, too.)

It turns out that the residual presence of Spencer, along with being bound to the box, meant that Pinhead was originally constrained in his funny little habits and could only terrorise and torture people who actively sought him out. Now the rules have changed, however, and if Pinhead does get out of the pillar he will be able to carve a bloody swathe across the world.

As I have suggested, there is a lot of pipe-laying in the first half of Hellraiser III, and I would usually suggest this sort of thing is only justified if it sets up a really spectacular climax and conclusion to the movie. Unfortunately, the first half of this film is the better part. I feel obliged to make it absolutely clear that I am using ‘better’ in a relative sense, and that the relation in question is that between the first half of Hellraiser III, which is pretty bad, and the second half, which is terrible.

The first thing you notice about this movie is how glossy and American it seems: the transatlantic feel of the first couple of films has gone completely. There was always something a bit awkward about that, but at least it gave them a distinctive atmosphere. This is much more of a generic American horror film, and that does seem to have been a deliberate choice. It seems to be trying to establish Pinhead (who wasn’t a lead character in the earlier films) as someone they could build a franchise around, rather like Freddie Krueger or Jason Voorhees. The immobile Pinhead who can only talk is actually quite interesting, almost a tempter in the classical sense, but once he is wandering around laughing maniacally and randomly slaughtering crowds of complete strangers, he very quickly becomes boring. The Chaotic Evil Pinhead is simply very dull compared to his earlier Lawful Evil incarnation.

Most of the second half is just dull and stupid too, to be honest. For all the flaws in the earlier films, they have moments which are genuinely eerie and twisted and somewhat transgressive. Hellraiser III is just a dumb slasher movie which vaguely gestures towards the subtlety and style of its forebears: when the script came in and the producers got to the scene with Cenobites wandering through New York, fighting the police department, they should have sent it back with a very strongly-worded note. One must presume Clive Barker himself only became involved once post-production was underway, for all that the film has a ‘Clive Barker Presents’ credit and he is an executive producer.

Here is the odd thing: Hellraiser III does have a coherent and functioning story – just a pretty stupid and dull one. Nevertheless, in this regard it still scores over the second movie, which is a narrative mess. But it lacks the extraordinary and relentless visual style of Hellbound, the imperative to bombard the viewer with grotesque and surreal images. Only a couple of moments even come close (Pinhead’s disgusting sacrament, for example). The closing scene, with an entire building taking on the form of a puzzle-box, promises a rather more inventive basis for the next sequel – but as it turned out, they went for the apparently compulsory ‘in-space’ installment next.

What positive things can one find to say about this film? Well, Doug Bradley is always a watchable presence as Pinhead (maybe a touch less so as Spencer) and most of the supporting turns are not what you would call actively bad. But most of it is just lazy studio sequel-mongering of the worst kind. The main achievement of Hellraiser III is to make Hellraiser and Hellraiser II look rather better by comparison to it.

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It’s never a good sign when you sit down to watch a movie and then, several minutes in, discover you’re actually watching an entirely different movie to the one you were thinking of. Sometimes things just blur together and get mixed up in the great pop cultural pond we all, to some extent, swim in. Mind you, sometimes film-makers hardly seem to be doing themselves any favours.

Peter Hyams’ The Relic opens with some South American tribespeople doing their ritual thing, while being observed by a concerned-looking foreign anthropologist. He is John Whitney (Lewis van Bergen), and after the tribe feed him their special sauce and show him an interesting-looking statue Whitney becomes rather agitated and heads for the docks, where his various finds and samples are being loaded for shipment back to the USA. But there has been a mix-up, leaving him in apparent despair…

Hmmm, all very ominous, and when the ship arrives in the port of Chicago six weeks later the police are bemused to find that the entire crew seems to have disappeared. Closer investigations led by boss cop D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) uncover a few dismembered corpses and severed heads floating in dingy recesses of the ship. As is apparently SOP, the Chicago PD dismisses this as some kind of drug-related incident. (No wonder South American people get so annoyed about their continent always being stereotyped as a lawless gang-ridden hell.)

Yet another week goes by and we finally arrive at the setting for most of the rest of the movie: the Chicago Museum of Natural History, which employed Whitney. We meet whip-smart evolutionary biologist Margo (Penelope Ann Miller), who, this being a Hollywood movie, looks like a model, and various other characters about the place. One of them is a crusty but lovable old scientist played by James Whitmore, but if he has indeed been cast just as a call-back to Them! it’s not dwelt on at too great a length. Whitney’s boxes have finally arrived but just seem to be full of funny leaves and bits of a broken statue.

Then, and you might think about time too for a lot of setting-things-up has gone on, one of the night security guards at the museum is discovered with his head ripped off and the brain inelegantly extracted and partly devoured. Even in Chicago this is not normal, and D’Agosta quickly spots a connection with what happened on the ship. The museum is locked down and a search launched – but the board of the place have powerful friends and want it reopened in a hurry, mainly because they are having a gala to celebrate the launch of a new exhibition and the great and the good of the city will be there. Can the police guarantee their safety with a brutal, possibly inhuman killer lurking somewhere on the premises? (Clue: no.)

I have to confess, I only watched The Relic because it was on a free streaming site and because Guillermo del Toro and Mira Sorvino are people who tend to do interesting work. Hang on, A, you may be saying to your screen, what the hell have Guillermo del Toro and Mira Sorvino got to do with any of this? A very good and fair point. Could it possibly be that I have got the 1997 monster movie The Relic, directed by Hyams and starring Miller, mixed up in my head with the 1997 monster movie Mimic, directed by del Toro and starring Sorvino? It would explain why I was sort of expecting giant beetles which never really appeared, but beyond this I will maintain a dignified silence.

Mind you, The Relic is fairly generic stuff even in its better moments: I kept having flashbacks to other movies like Arachnophobia and Q: The Winged Serpent (too many severed heads will have that effect on a person) – also, and this may sound weird, films like The Poseidon Adventure. One of the things that keeps The Relic from being an entirely formulaic monster mash is that it attempts a rather unexpected genre fusion with the classic disaster movie formula – it’s not just about a brain-eating monster on the loose in a big museum. It’s about a brain-eating monster on the loose in a big museum during a ritzy opening gala with various important and wealthy people on the premises, for whom being devoured is not normal.

And to be fair, once the movie reaches this point, it does acquire a certain sort of energy and interest, and it perks up a good deal. The problem is that this point arrives about 60% of the way through the movie. Can you imagine what Die Hard would have been like if the terrorists had only arrived 60% of the way through? Or The Thing, if the dog had only turned into an alien well into the second half of the movie? Perhaps you begin to see the problem.

The thing about The Relic is while it does have a reasonably good monster design, decent performances and a script with moments of inventiveness and wit, there’s something fundamentally cack-handed about the script. The pacing, structure, and exposition are all a bit fluffed, and it may just be that the film is trying a bit too hard to be clever. Most monster films like this one just start off with someone finding an egg somewhere remote, but The Relic is all over the place talking about genetics and viruses and hormones and the hypothalamic region and tribal customs. Is it all strictly necessary for a film in which the sweet spot is watching anonymous actors have their skulls munched upon? If it is, then The Relic doesn’t do a good enough job of convincing me of that.

You know, I like The X Files and I like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which are really the things that the early sections of The Relic reminded of the most – but in the end I didn’t really like it as much as either of those. The problem in the end is that a lot of it feels so generic and written-by-formula that it’s almost stale, while its innovations just end up a bit confusing and maybe even a bit silly. The odd good moment, but I’m betting that Mimic must be at least a bit better than this.

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Sometimes you come across or rediscover a film which time or a sense of familiarity have led you to forget the sheer weirdness of. I’m not necessarily talking about very obscure, fringe films dealing with odd subject matter, but those very occasional examples of someone high-up at a big Hollywood studio having a bit of a brainstorm and greenlighting a project that, by rights, had no business even going to script stage. When one of these films is a monumental success, the suit responsible is hailed as a visionary film-maker and usually goes on to a lucrative career making the same kind of movie over and over and over again. But it doesn’t change the fact that the initial film was still a bit weird at the time it was made. Most often, though, the film either flops or does okay, inspires no great raft of imitators, and we are just left with an eye-catching freak of a film.

So, then: Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, released in the UK at least in 1997, which one reviewer even at the time instantly pegged as an extraordinary piece of folie de grandeur which could only have been made by mistake. It is a very odd film even in its conception: Hollywood is increasingly looking to peculiar places to avoid the strain of having to think up original ideas for films, but rather than a book, comic, theme-park ride or game, Mars Attacks! is based on a set of trading cards. Films based on knitting patterns or the assembly instructions for flat-pack furniture are only a matter of time, surely.

The tone is set by a garishly grotesque sequence depicting a stampeding herd of blazing cows (inspired by original card #22, Burning Cattle), which we are invited to assume is the work of a passing flying saucer before it zips off back to Mars. The credits roll as a veritable armada of Martian ships, lovingly styled in the retro 50s manner, launch and head for Earth, causing no small degree of alarm on our planet.

In charge of overseeing the response is US president James Dale (Jack Nicholson), who seems to have a sort of vague hope the arrival of the Martians will result in him looking good. Others are less optimistic. (To be honest, this film has about eighteen main characters, so attempting to describe and keep track of them all would be a bit futile; we’ll see how it goes.) Anyway, the Martian Ambassador ends up landing in the Nevada desert and the translation machine built by one scientist (Jerzy Skolimowski, whose career seems to get more bizarrely eclectic every time I come across him) assures everyone that they have indeed come in peace. Yeah, right. Then of course there is a mix-up with a dove, causing the Martians to furiously reach for their ray guns, and…

To be honest, the film kind of falls into a sort of cycle from this point on: the Martians gleefully inflict garish death and horror on the humans for a bit, shouting ‘Ack! Ack! Ack!’ to each other all the while, after which the humans desperately wonder what went wrong and make a plaintive attempt to contact the Martians and put things back on a friendly basis. The Martians clearly can’t believe how dumb the humans are, and propose another meeting, which will clearly just be another pretext for more neon-hued slaughter, at which point it all repeats. Along the way there are various charming tableaux clearly inspired by some of the original cards (e.g., #19, Burning Flesh, #24, The Shrinking Ray, and #36, Destroying a Dog), although – if you’re wondering – the plot of the movie only very loosely follows that of the original card series.

So you look at all this and think, well, it has a very distinctive visual sense – Tim Burton initially wanted the Martians created using stop-frame animation, but budgetary considerations meant CGI was used instead (some of it not fantastic to the modern eye) – and obviously the weird black comedy aspects of the story must have appealed to him, but still – how the hell did this thing get made? Quite apart from the grisly black comedy alien invasion storyline, the film is subversive and tongue in cheek and often just plain weird, never things the financiers of your typical Hollywood blockbuster will knowingly try to do. The closing moments of the film see the world recovering from the Martian onslaught, which has been repelled using one of the silliest plot devices imaginable – and the return to normalcy is symbolised by deer, birds, and other animals flocking around Tom Jones, who launches into a celebratory rendition of ‘It’s Not Unusual’. I have a lot of time for Sir Tom Jones, but on this occasion he is wrong: it’s not ‘not unusual’. Often it is simply peculiar.

At the time the film came out, it was less than a year after Independence Day, and the assumption was that this was intended as some kind of spoof or parody of it. My first thought would be that it’s extremely difficult to parody something not intended to be taken entirely seriously anyway, but there are a few shots which do seem to suggest this may have been the case. The two films likewise share a sprawling structure largely derived from disaster movies, with a commensurately large cast (apart from Nicholson, Mars Attacks features – deep breath – Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan (doing a very Hugh Grant-like turn – apparently Grant was first choice for the role), Danny DeVito, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lukas Haas, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Pam Grier and Jack Black.

However, it also seems to me that Burton is also doing a send-up of sci-fi movies from an earlier generation. This was only a year or two after Ed Wood, which recreated the ne plus ultra of bad fifties UFO films, so you can see why he might have this kind of idea. Certainly there are shots and sight-gags which are spot-on parodies or recreations of films like Earth vs the Flying Saucers and This Island Earth. But, once again, how many decent, ordinary film-goers are going to get a joke like that?

And there’s one more set of influences to be stirred into what’s already a very eggy pudding (not to mention an over-cooked metaphor): as well as playing the president, Nicholson also turns up in another role, as a Nevada property developer (who mainly seems to be in the movie to give Nicholson a chance to ham it up just the way he likes to). Coupled to some visual cues in the design of the president’s war room, and Rod Steiger’s performance as the rather hawkish general, it’s hard not to conclude that, on top of everything else, Burton was either attempting to replicate the tone of – or just homage – Dr Strangelove. This only succeeds as homage, if that: Burton has many fine qualities as a film-maker but the same kind of fierce, forensic intelligence Kubrick possessed is not amongst them and the film doesn’t have the edge or satirical power of Strangelove. (Though… I watch it now, seeing the ineffectual leader, insisting he will take control of the situation and demanding that schools and shops stay open… and I can’t help but be struck.)

Virtually no element of Mars Attacks! is consistently successful. Some parts of it just don’t work at all: there are a few dead wood characters and jokes that just fall flat, some of them a bit suspect. However, there are enough jokes that work, and the film has enough of a sense of mischief about it, for it to be quite watchable: there are some very game performances, obviously I like all the call-backs to B-movie sci-fi, and I think one of the film’s real flaws is that Tom Jones only turns up in the third act. Every time I return to it, I just find myself marvelling that someone read this script and said ‘Yes, this seems like a perfectly normal piece of commercial film-making: have $70 million!’ In a sane world it should not have been made. However, it is unusual to find evidence of an insane world which actually makes one feel slightly optimistic, for once, and I am quite glad it was.

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The film buyers at the UK branch of the Horror Channel have been busy again: this month’s bunch of ‘channel premieres’ even includes a lot of films you could unequivocally describe as belonging to the horror genre, which isn’t always the case. (They are only allowed to show actual horror movies and TV shows after 9pm at night, which leaves the question of what to put on for the other thirteen hours every day that the channel is transmitting. Much of this time feels like it’s filled with commercials for incontinence-concealing underwear – which you might think was an appropriate fit for what’s theoretically the scariest channel on TV, but it doesn’t quite feel that way – while most of the rest of it is occupied with repeats of different versions of Star Trek, unsuccessful-when-new shows like seaQuest and Space: 1999, and drecky Sci Fi channel movies with names like Megaconda and Annihilation: Earth.) This month they have picked up two of the Child’s Play sequels (definitely horror) and Tower Block (yet another low-budget British horror film). There also seems to have been a job lot of John Carpenter movies on offer, for they are also showing Starman (really much more of an SF romance) and his version of Village of the Damned (originally released in 1995).

Of course, John Carpenter is one of those people who deserves a regular slot on the Horror Channel (I would say the same about George Romero and Terence Fisher, amongst others), even though he is one of those people who… well, I’m not going to say he did his career backwards, because in the time-honoured fashion he started off with a brilliant film-school project (which, he acknowledged, did perhaps not look quite so brilliant as an actual movie), then did a low-budget horror film which turned out to be a money spinner, and so on. The thing is that after a few years of producing generally effective movies like The Fog and Escape from New York, he made The Thing: quite possibly one of his best films, but a major disappointment at the box office. Something seems to have gone horribly wrong at this point, for one can only describe his career post-The Thing in terms of managed decline: occasional flashes of inspiration, but a lot of unimaginative, undisciplined hack-work as well.

Still, his name carries enough clout to make it above the title of most of his movies (they are named on screen as John Carpenter’s…) and I suppose there remains the faint possibility of him actually making another really good movie at some point. People probably thought this about Village of the Damned, back in 1995, too. Like The Thing, this is an example of Carpenter giving his own take on a well-remembered film from years past – in this case, the 1960 movie of the same name, directed by Wolf Rilla.

The film opens with various panoramic shots of… well, here’s the thing. The movie is called, obviously, Village of the Damned, but the story has been transplanted to Northern California. Do they even have villages there? Is the term in common use? Because Midwich, as presented here, certainly looks more like a small town than anything else (we should probably not really dwell on whether Midwich is an authentic Californian place name). Anyway, various panoramic shots of the sea and the town, accompanied by what’s intended to be an eerie whispering sound. The implication is obviously that an unearthly force is swooping down onto the place. Unfortunately, despite the sound of the whispering, the noise of the helicopter which took these shots is still quite audible on the soundtrack, making the film seem clumsy right from the start.

The other versions of this story basically start in media res, but Carpenter opts to introduce a few characters before it all kicks off: so we meet stalwart town doctor Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve), schoolteacher Jill (Linda Kozlowski), town preacher Reverend George (Mark Hamill), and various others. It’s a lovely day for the school fete, although Alan, like Jill’s husband, has to drive out of town for a bit. While he is out of Midwich, something very strange happens as everyone simultaneously faints – even the pets and the local cattle. The effect seems strictly localised, but the authorities are somewhat flummoxed as hazmat suits and respirators give no protection. One of the first people to encounter the barrier was Jill’s husband, who crashed his truck and died as a result. This sort of weirdness in the mid-1990s obviously occasions a visit by black-clad government operatives, and on this occasion they are represented by Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley) as a doctor from the CDC.

After six hours or so the knockout effect lifts and the town seems to go back to normal (for the most part: there has been some collateral damage, as someone collapsed onto the barbecue at the fete, although this only seems to have been included so Carpenter can include a grisly ‘shock’ moment). The really weird thing only becomes apparent a few weeks later, when Chaffee learns he is about to become a father. That’s good news, isn’t it? Well, the doc is not so sure, as lots of other women having been showing up at his surgery in the early stages of pregnancy, including one who is pretty sure she’s a virgin and another who has not been active in that capacity for over a year. All the conceptions seem to date back to the day of the blackout.

In the end there are ten mystery pregnancies (down on the sixty or so in the novel, but I guess there were budgetary concerns) and all the women give birth simultaneously in a hastily converted barn. There are nine live births, with the other child being whisked off sharpish by a shocked-looking Dr Verner (needless to say there is another reveal later on concerning this). The children of the blackout grow quickly, and appear eerily similar, with silver hair. They seem remarkably composed for children, and always seem to get their own way. But then some people just can’t resist kids, especially when they have glowing eyes and psychic powers…

I have written before of my love of John Wyndham’s work, especially the ‘big four’ novels of which The Midwich Cuckoos is one. It is, at heart, a story about a very unusual alien invasion – or, at the very least, an alien visitation. However, Wyndham studiously avoids giving easy answers as to quite what the agenda of the force behind the alien births is, preferring to explore his usual themes of the co-existence (or not) of different forms of consciousness, and the ethics of survival. He disguises all this in a very English and understated story of life in a country village, with – initially at least – a lot of ambiguity as to exactly what is going on. (The Children look a little exotic, but they don’t wear platinum wigs and their eyes don’t light up; they can project their will onto others, but don’t actually read minds.)

The 1960 version of the film is less understated and more straightforward: Wyndham’s narrator vanishes from the story, the number of children is reduced, and they are given the mind-reading power which facilitates a more dramatic ending to the story. The script overseen by Carpenter is really a progression of the same process of simplification, with the additional factor that his reputation primarily as the director of horror movies seems to have pushed the film further in this direction: the story is punctuated by a number of ‘shock’ moments (like the one with the barbecue), but their impact feels oddly muted – even when the film goes into full ‘horror mode’, as in the sequence where Alley is compelled to dissect herself alive, it’s oddly anodyne and lacking in the visceral impact you’d expect. In the end the film is thumpingly unsubtle without ever being much fun. (Carpenter has defended this by saying a movie with a budget of over $10 million can’t be as extreme as one made for less money, as it needs a wider audience to be financially successful.)

What makes this especially odd is that John Carpenter is on record as an admirer of the book and the original film, and was apparently trying hard to resist attempts to alter the basis of the story. The plot point that other parts of the world also hosted similar colonies of unearthly children is stressed here in a way that it wasn’t in 1960, nor in the novel (at least, not to the same extent). Yet there are still changes, some of them more interesting than others. The Children seem pair-bonded, and the death of one of the infants means her intended partner grows up more susceptible to human emotion (this doesn’t go anywhere especially interesting). One thing Carpenter has to contend with that Wyndham didn’t is Roe v Wade, and the film does have to address the question of why the recipients of these strange pregnancies don’t at least consider playing it safe and having terminations. In the end the suggestion is that they are compelled not to by the same force which implanted them, which is probably the neatest available option.

In the end the film just doesn’t quite work, as most of Wyndham’s ideas and the atmosphere of his book have slipped away, to be replaced by undercooked shock moments and a fixation on the imagery from the 1960 film. To be fair, the cast do their best with it – one point of historical distinction I wish the film didn’t possess is that it was the last film Christopher Reeve made before the accident which left him paralysed. He does the best he can with the George Sanders role from the original, but it does feel like a journeyman performance. The same can be said for most of the acting here – the child acting is just about acceptable, but no-one really manages to do much with the thin material they’re assigned. Of them all, Linda Kozlowski probably comes off best, but this is not really saying much.

This is a fairly typical late-period John Carpenter movie, in that there are moments of visual interest but it never really takes flight as a movie – there is no subtlety and few ideas, just a collection of genre tropes being recycled. It brings me no pleasure to say this, but the sense of a burnt-out talent trading on past glories is difficult to escape. Far from a great movie, but – sadly – this is pretty much the case when it comes to a screen adaptation of John Wyndham.

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I occasionally make a wistful observation hereabouts concerning all the apparently great film directors and classic movies which I have yet to properly come to grips with – it wasn’t all that long ago that I’d never seen a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, for instance – and that small aspirational part of my brain (the bit that lies when I fill in questionnaires about my taste in books and films) should by rights feel good, as I can announce that another of the big names of world cinema can be crossed off the list – finally, I have caught up with a Pedro Almodóvar movie.

Well, I should qualify this by saying that Almodóvar is enjoying a fairly high UK profile at present, mainly because he has a new movie out – he’s still an arthouse darling rather than properly mainstream, of course, and so the new film is nowhere near as inescapable as Tarantino’s recent offering turned out to be – and I’m guessing that the revival of his 1999 movie Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) is connected to this. Still, if there’s one thing better than finally catching up with a film by one of the world’s great directors, I suppose it must be watching two of his films in the space of a couple of days.

 

It initially seems like the mother in All About My Mother is going to turn out to be Manuela (Cecilia Roth), for as the film begins she is living with her teenage son in Madrid. She is a nurse, but still has fond memories of her youth when she was an amateur actress. But then – and this is when summarising the plot gets a bit tricky, for there is clearly intended to be a big shock early on, the thing which launches the story proper – events conspire to put her life onto a different track. She finds herself returning to Barcelona, where she lived when she was younger, in search of her son’s father, whom she hasn’t seen since before he was born.

Up until this point it has been clear that this is a film made with great skill and subtlety, but now something new enters the mix and makes it especially distinctive. Manuela can’t find her ex, but bumps into an old friend named Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute whom she happens to rescue from being beaten by a client. As if this wasn’t a bold enough narrative step in all sorts of ways, Manuela’s attempts to continue her search see her getting involved in the lives of various other equally eye-opening characters – an on-the-way-up Penelope Cruz plays Rosa, a naïve young nun who has managed to end up pregnant by the father of Manuela’s child (who is, needless to say, another transsexual prostitute, this one with HIV). When Manuela stumbles into a job without really looking for one, it is as the personal assistant to an ageing lesbian actress (Marisa Paredes) involved in a somewhat fraught relationship with a much younger woman who is a drug addict (Candela Pena). Life gets complicated even without finding the object of her search.

As you can perhaps see, there is no actual shortage of candidates for the title role in this film – which appears to be an allusion to All About Eve, a film which two of the characters are watching while the actual title card comes up – and what makes the issue even more ambiguous is Almodóvar’s closing dedication for the movie, which is to ‘all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother’ – a fairly broad cross-section there.

That said, one thing the film is notably short of is unambiguously male main characters (there are a few minor male parts which make a significant contribution to the story), and you could certainly view it as an attempt to cover all the bases and include all aspects of both femininity and maternity, one way or another: under this reading, the whole film is a kind of extended meditation on the nature of motherhood and womanhood, one of considerable generosity and compassion. This is one of those very non-judgemental, essentially optimistic films we see all too rarely.

The other thing that makes the film so striking is something that I’ve alluded to already – overall, it has a warmth and naturalism to it that is very engaging, especially when coupled to the artful subtlety of the script. This does feel like a film set in some close analogue of the real world, with interesting things to say about it, and Manuela herself is a fully convincing character, brought well to life by Cecilia Roth. However, most of the rest of the characters are slightly outlandish, to say the least – any one of them would be the wacky or off-kilter supporting role in a more conventional film, and to have them all together here in the same film – sometimes in the same scene – is an interesting choice by the director. Then again, Almodóvar isn’t afraid to make this film a genuine melodrama, loading it with outrageously emotive moments, vastly improbable coincidences, implausible plot twists, and much more along the same lines.

His real trick is to do so without turning the film into something which functions only as an outrageous piece of over-the-top camp. There are elements of the story which probably don’t hold up under close scrutiny, certainly not as a piece of conventional drama – but such is the skill of the director and performers that the film remains genuinely engrossing and moving on those terms. It packs a genuine emotional punch in its key moments, despite everything I’ve mentioned; only at the very end does it seem to come a bit unravelled, with relatively little sense of closure.

This comes too late to genuinely impact on what is, by any standard, an extremely well-written and performed movie, which manages to touch on some quite profound subject matter without being unnecessarily didactic or profound. It is true that the truly remarkably subtle and intelligent movie promised by some elements of the opening sequence never quite materialises (a scene in which we see Manuela playing a role is closely paired with one where she finds herself in essentially the same situation for real), but there is a huge amount to enjoy and think about here regardless; this is an engrossing and rewarding film, clearly made for an intelligent and mature audience.

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How’s about this for a subtle way of sliding a blatant plug into one of these pieces: I have a piece in a collection of essays coming out later this year, concerning a fairly-well-known fictional character whose generally benevolent nature rapidly vanishes whenever he experiences a moment of perfect happiness. The editor of the collection asked me to provide a one-line biography of myself, and it seemed natural to choose a moment of perfect happiness of my own – tongue slipping slightly into my cheek, naturally. I went for eating a $60 cheeseburger high in the sky over Tokyo, in the 50th-floor hotel bar where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson sort-of hooked-up in Lost in Translation. (I refused to believe you could possibly justify charging $60 for a cheeseburger, no matter how nice the scenery was. Then I ate a $60 cheeseburger, and revised my opinion.)

It’s one of those questions which you can take as seriously as you want to, I suppose, and it is at the heart of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film After Life (the Japanese connection is mostly coincidental). This is one of Kore-eda’s earlier films, released in 1998, and one presumes it (along with a bunch of other Kore-eda films) is enjoying a revival off the back of the success of Shoplifters last year. I have to confess I had never heard of it until only a few days ago; this is not the kind of Japanese movie which generally lands an international distribution deal.

As the film opens, we are in what looks like an abandoned or semi-derelict school or hospital; two co-workers are casually making their way into the office, gossiping about people they have met while doing their jobs. It is Monday morning and the departmental supervisor thanks his team for their efforts, but observes they have a large number of clients coming in this week who will all need to processed as smoothly as possibly. So far the general atmosphere has been of a naturalistic fly-on-the-wall documentary, but as the team’s clients begin to arrive, walking into the reception area out of a misty white void, we perhaps begin to discern that not all is quite as it seems. The clients are a disparate bunch, perhaps skewing more towards the older kind of person, and the reason for this is revealed as they are taken into private meeting rooms for their initial interviews with the processing team.

All the clients are people who have recently died, and the place where they are (it is never named) is basically the ante-room to the next life. The new arrivals are officially informed of their change in status, and the purpose of the place is explained: the newcomers have three days to decide upon which of their memories is most important to them. This memory will then be recreated and filmed by the staff of the facility. At the end of the week, everyone will watch the completed films of their chosen memories, at which point they will pass on into eternity, taking only that single memory with them.

Most of the early part of the film concerns the various clients discussing their lives and the things they remember most strongly. One of them isn’t sure he has any memories he really wants to take with him; another, a slightly flaky young man, refuses to choose, despite the fact he will not be able to move on until he does. These two characters are scripted, but even as you’re watching the film it’s clear that some of these scenes are real people honestly talking about their lives (not actual dead people, obviously, but the fantastical context in which they are speaking does lend their stories a significance and gravity they might not otherwise possess).

As the film progresses, though, it becomes clear that this is more than just an inventively-disguised talking-heads documentary. The people working here have their own stories, too: they are not angels or spirits or supernatural beings, but people who have chosen not to move on. Some of them are better at their jobs than others, and they have their own relationships. The film focuses most on what seems like a very low-key romance between two of them, Takashi (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda). The film is as subtle as ever in the way it raises ideas without beating the viewer about the head with them – just why are they still here? Is it even possible for two people in such a strange state of metaphysical hiatus to have a meaningful connection of this kind? When the life-story of one of the new clients proves to have a personal resonance for Takashi, it begins to look very much like they can.

When the film first made clear the rules of Kore-eda’s afterlife – specifically the part about only being able to take one memory with you, stuck in a moment you can’t get out of (to quote U2) – I have to confess it didn’t sound to me like a very good deal; what kind of life can be summarised by only a single moment or memory? But perhaps this is not the point. Quite what that point would otherwise be, I’m not sure, although the film does suggest that most people just choose moments of special happiness for them. Perhaps the implication is that people get the afterlife that they choose for themselves, whether that be one of bliss or self-flagellating guilt and remorse. It’s a slightly worrying idea and one which feels disturbingly plausible.

In all other respects, Kore-eda’s clearing house for the great beyond is a very appealing concept. I couldn’t help thinking of the grand conception of heaven in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, with its enormous escalators, great clocks, pristine uniforms and so on; Kore-eda’s alternative feels rather like a somewhat under-funded branch of the social services – the roofs leak, the place clearly hasn’t been decorated in ages, and there’s a slightly shambolic quality to everything from the film reconstructions themselves to the brass band that accompanies the clients to the climactic screening. I found it undeniably charming, and very much of a piece with the rest of the film, which opts for low-key, understated naturalism throughout. You can imagine the Hollywood remake of After Life: it would be all soaring string sections and luminous CGI dissolves, with Important Life Lessons being crammed down the audience’s throat; none of that is here and it is what gives the film its enormous, gentle charm.

The original title of After Life was Wandafuru Raifu, which translates into English as Wonderful Life (Japanese is sometimes less challenging as a language than people think). However, this isn’t obviously an update or riff on Frank Capra’s much-loved seasonal favourite; it has none of that film’s darkness, nor its implicit imprecation that we should take the time to be grateful for what we’ve got. This is a film about quiet reflection and acceptance, almost wholly non-judgmental and enormously humane and warm. It is genuinely a bit of a treasure.

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(Yes, I know, I know: you wait years and years for reviews of NASA-themed films and then three come along in a row. Ridiculous, isn’t it?)

Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 is not the usual stuff of the Sunday afternoon revivals which I am so often to be found enjoying at the Phoenix in Jericho. The Vintage Sundays strand normally limits itself to either classic or cult movies, with recent seasons focusing on films by Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Studio Ghibli. All solid stuff and more-or-less guaranteed to attract a crowd. They’ve chosen to follow this up, however, with a season of ‘Space’ films, possibly to connect with the release of First Man – and so the revival schedule has been filled with a fairly eclectic mix of titles including The Right Stuff, Moon, Alien, and the original Solaris, concluding with the year’s second showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Apollo 13 fits in rather nicely with the rest of that bunch, despite the fact it is rather more mainstream and modern than the typical Sunday classic. That said, it is one of those movies which is perhaps older than you think – 23 years, at the time of writing – and one which perhaps did not get quite the critical plaudits it deserved.

The film opens with a swift recap of the main beats of the Apollo programme prior to the Apollo 13 mission: specifically, what later became known as the Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts were killed, and the triumph of the successful Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. As the story gets going, Pete Conrad’s Apollo 12 has successfully completed its mission, and the onus is now on Apollo 13, to be commanded by Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks). Lovell and his team have been bumped up the schedule by an unforeseen medical problem, and he and fellow astronauts Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingley (Gary Sinise) are working against the clock to be ready.

Lovell is determined that the mission will go ahead, despite some inauspicious omens – the thirteenth Apollo, due to launch at thirteen minutes past the thirteenth hour, and enter lunar orbit on the thirteenth day of the month. But the bad luck just keeps coming – Mattingley is exposed to measles only days before the mission is due to launch, and Lovell is forced to replace him with the back-up pilot, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).

Apollo 13 launches as planned, although there is a technical issue with one of the booster engines. ‘Looks like we’ve had our glitch for this mission,’ says someone in Ground Control. To say they are mistaken is an understatement: a routine procedure to stir the contents of one of the Command Module’s fuel tanks results in a significant explosion and the loss of electrical power in the spacecraft.

The mission almost immediately becomes one not of landing on the Moon, but somehow managing to get the astronauts back to Earth alive. Efforts on the ground are overseen by no-nonsense flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), who is insistent that failure is not an option. But the list of challenges faced by NASA is immense…

(I would do the usual ‘Spoiler Alert: they get home safely’ gag here, but for one thing I used it with First Man just the other day, and for another Ron Howard recalls one member of a test audience being very unimpressed with the movie, complaining about the predictable Hollywood ending and saying it was unrealistic that the crew survived.)

I suppose you could look at the relative failure of Apollo 13 at the Oscars and argue that it’s just more evidence that the Academy simply doesn’t like space films (I wouldn’t really call Apollo 13 science fiction, despite the fact it was treated as such by some elements of the media at the time). The 1996 Oscars were a good year for costume dramas and gritty realism – Braveheart and Leaving Las Vegas were two of the higher-profile winners – and I suppose there was also the issue that Tom Hanks had won Best Actor twice on the trot just recently, and nobody could face the prospect of another of his rather idiosyncratic acceptance speeches.

Yet this is a notably good film, an example of the Hollywood machine working at its best. This is a film which is polished without being too glib or slick, and one which knows how to tell a story without becoming melodramatic. (I believe numerous small changes were made to the real course of events, but nothing too outrageous.)

Walking to the bus after watching the revival of Apollo 13, I asked the intern who had accompanied me why they thought it only took 25 years for a movie about the mission to be made, while Apollo 11 ended up waiting nearly half a century. They admitted it was a good question (well, naturally), and after some thought suggested it’s just a more interesting story.

Well, I would agree with that, of course. ‘The mission goes almost exactly as planned’ is not a thrilling hook for a movie, which may go some way to explaining a few of Damien Chazelle’s more unexpected creative decisions in his Armstrong movie. The Apollo 13 story, on the other hand, offers a gripping ‘brave men struggling to get home alive’ theme, plus many opportunities for showcasing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of NASA in overcoming the numerous problems faced by the crew (the sequence in which a gang of junior NASA staffers are given the job of working out how to build a functioning oxygen filtration system out of, basically, a pile of junk, apparently inspired the long-running TV game show Scrapheap Challenge).

And the tone is pretty much what you would expect, too – respectful, patriotic, carefully very mainstream. The film opens with voice-over from Walter Cronkite, for many years the most trusted man in America, and the subtext is clear: this is what really happened in this story, the definitive historical version. In this respect it’s quite different from the more artful approach taken by Chazelle, even though the subject matter is obviously similar – some characters appear in both movies, most notably Armstrong, Aldrin, and Lovell himself.

It was actually slightly startling to watch this movie again and see Tom Hanks looking so young (relatively speaking). This movie was made at the time he was cementing his image as the great everyman of American cinema, not to mention one of the great screen actors of his generation, and he leads a very good cast with considerable aplomb. While most of the film is focused on the fact that this was, in the end, a successful rescue effort, Hanks never quite lets you forget that this is, on one level at least, a rather bittersweet story – Lovell never got to go to the Moon in the way so many of his peers did.

In the end Apollo 13 is simply a very technically proficient film, driven along by excellent production values and performances, with a solid script at the heart of it all. It is certainly one of Ron Howard’s best films, but then my issue with Howard has always been that he is one of those safe-pair-of-hands guys, rather than someone with a distinctive artistic sensibility of his own. I was glad to see Apollo 13 again and happy to watch it on the big screen, but I would still say this is a very good piece of commercial film-making rather than a truly great movie.

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