Tag Archives: Film

Above Us Only Sky Movies

AUOSM-01Sky TV began broadcasting in the UK in February 1989. My parents signed up to it almost straight away, which I’ve always considered to be strange. They’re by no means what I’d call early-adopters, but for some reason they were at the front of queue on this occasion. We had a big overseas trip to the USA in 1988, and then we were the first household we knew to get Sky, so maybe things were just really good financially around then.

As well as watching The Simpsons from the very first week it aired, Sky also introduced me to WWF when it broadcast Wrestlemania VI in April 1990. But the biggest effect Sky had on me was through its movie channels.

Prior to Sky there was only the four terrestrial TV channels and the local video shop (the most magical of which was Azad Video at the bottom end of Yorkshire Street in Oldham). Nothing else. No internet, no streaming services, just a barren wasteland of entertainment. If you missed a film on TV, or couldn’t find it in the video shop, you just didn’t see it. Full stop. VHS cassettes seemed to be this mystical thing that somehow brought the magic of Hollywood into your living room. I can’t even remember people owning films on VHS. We had a couple – The Sands Of Iwo-Jima and It’s A Wonderful Life – but these didn’t interest me at the time.

AUOSM-02Enter Sky Movies. First included for free as part of the initial subscription, the channel then became encrypted in February 1990. From memory, I seem to remember us getting the decoder before we paid for Sky Movies, and so there was a period of time when I would land on the channel and just hear the audio with no image. The magic was there, but it was behind a curtain, just out of reach. The scrambled image was a strange, new version of white noise, unlike anything you could normally see through the TV aerial if you landed on any channels other than 1, 2, 3 or 4.

When we finally got the smart card, which decrypted the channel, it was like the floodgates opening. I watched films all the time. And when I wasn’t watching them, I’d tape them to watch later. Blank VHS cassettes quickly became an expensive commodity; gold-dust when you had to decide between which film to keep and which to tape over: Sophie’s Choice or Rambo III. My parents even bought some of those tacky cassette covers that made them look like hardback novels on your bookshelf. Hmm, is that a first edition of Nicholas Nickleby? Oh, no it’s Three Amigos followed by Spies Like Us.

I’d get home from school, and watch films I’d taped over the weekend. I have a strong memory of sitting at my parents’ awful wagon-wheel coffee table, watching Lethal Weapon while I dunked McVitie’s digestives into a massive mug of coffee. That’s the thing you really need when you’re 11 or 12 years old: caffeine and the best of the current action movie genre. Who needs sleep?

AUOSM-03Another time, I remember getting up early one morning to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando. My older brother had watched it the prior night, but way past my bedtime. But it was taped for some reason, so I simply woke up at 7am on Saturday morning and watched it. My Mum walked in during the family-friendly scenes when Schwarzenegger is eating peanut-butter sandwiches with his daughter, and so she didn’t seem to care that I was watching a film well above my age. Thankfully she missed the opening credits when the bad guys, posing as garbage men, assassinate one of Schwarzenegger’s old army buddies with Uzis.

Not every film I saw in those days was a winner. There were plenty of turkeys, and the number of films they showed at any one time was pretty limited. So films would be premiered and then repeated often. But what a problem to have: your own private video shop. Happy days!

The films weren’t all blockbusters, and some of my favourites were the smaller productions that Sky had obviously picked up on the cheap: yes you can have *Batteries Not Included and Innerspace, but you have to take The Manhattan Project, Supergirl and Howard The Duck. I’m just annoyed I somehow missed 1989 duffer Collision Course, starring Jay Leno and The Karate Kid’s Pat Morita, until I caught it recently with a big smile on my face.

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Of course, I watched all the Schwarzeneggers and the Stallones, but I also watched the lesser-known Chuck Norris and Rutger Hauers. In no particular order, here are ten early Sky favourites that resonated with an 11-year old finally able to feed his addiction to film:

AUOSM-051. Three Men And A Baby (Leonard Nimoy, 1987)

It’s probably the biggest hit on this list, and not particularly a favourite, but it’s one of my earliest Sky memories where I can recall hearing the audio over the encrypted white noise picture. How cruel, being able to hear Steve Guttenberg, Ted Danson and Tom Selleck trade wisecracks, but not being able to see the horrific pastel colour-scheme of their apartment. It’s a nice little film, and the irony of the film being directed by Mr. Spock, on the subject of babies – usually the field of Dr. Spock – is not lost on me.

AUOSM-062. Feds (Daniel Goldberg, 1988)

Former U.S. Marine Rebecca De Mornay turns up to FBI training academy to find her roommate is the bookish wimp Mary Gross. The pair help each other out in their attempt to become FBI agents, until they eventually outwit the privileged male chauvinists in their class. I recently showed this film to my wife, and she really enjoyed it. It’s aged quite well, genuinely funny and doesn’t feel steeped in the 1980s too much.

AUOSM-073. License To Drive (Greg Beeman, 1988)

In the greatest film starring both Corey Haim and Corey Feldman (yes, I’m looking at you, The Lost Boys), Corey Haim fails to get his driving licence, which he was counting on to impress a girl at school. He decides to take her out for a date anyway, in his Granfather’s classic car, and hilarity ensues. It’s not the greatest film in the world, but the two Coreys have such a chemistry, it’s hard not to like them. Craving mashed potatoes while pregnant, and driving to the hospital in reverse gear are both deserving of a mention.

AUOSM-084. Men At Work (1990, Emilio Estevez)

Another one that got a recent re-watch, to an enthusiastic reception from the wife, who had been oblivious to its charms. Emilio Estevez writes and directs himself and brother Charlie Sheen in a dark comedy about two Californian garbage men who get into trouble with a local gangster. Excellent performances all round, not only from the two leads, but from Keith David in a role that is tailor-made for his angry, anti-establishment attitude. This, for me, has the same hit-rate of one-liners as classic comedies like Some Like It Hot and This Is Spinal Tap, and the small-town plotting provides an enjoyable rollercoaster ride with a similar feel to Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.

AUOSM-095. Invasion USA (1985, Joseph Zito)

After the Missing In Action films, Chuck Norris seemed to carve out a niche for himself in the 1980’s action hero market. Unlike Stallone and Schwarzenegger, he’s not a massive bodybuilder, instead possessing the kind of body you might expect to see on a friend of your Dad’s. In Invasion USA he, you guessed it, single-handedly prevents an invasion of the USA from Communist Latin-American guerrillas. This, to me, is the archetypal Chuck Norris film, leading to bigger productions like The Delta Force, Braddock: Missing In Action 3 and Delta Force 2: The Columbian Connection. And given the state of the world these days, and the ongoing threat of terrorism, it’s a wonder that this film hasn’t been remade in the post-9/11 world.

AUOSM-106. Runaway (1984, Michael Chrichton)

Tom Selleck’s the good guy, Gene Simmons from Kiss is the bad guy. There’s loads of scary robot spiders, and bullets that can now follow you around corners. Ropey sci-fi films were ten a penny throughout the 1980s, but this one always seemed to have a bit more charm than others. Set in a near future where cops track down runaway robots (sound familiar?), Tom Selleck and his moustache must battle their fear of heights in a finale that takes place on a skyscraper construction site!

AUOSM-117. Stakeout (1987, John Badham)

Quite a few of the films we watched in the early days of Sky were chosen by my Dad. And he seemed to enjoy this action comedy, where two cops (Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez) stakeout a pretty girl’s apartment, a bit too much. There are plenty of hi-jinks between the pair, and with their police colleagues, and the threat of ex-con Aidan Quinn to Madeleine Stowe provides the dangerous element of the film. The concept of pairing a mature star with a younger actor was very popular around this time (The Colour Of Money, 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon), and the success of the film led to a less-celebrated sequel in 1993.

AUOSM-128. F/X2: The Deadly Art Of Illusion (1991, Richard Franklin)

Another wildcard action hero in the ‘80s was likable Aussie Bryan Brown. Finding worldwide fame in 1986 as Tom Cruise’s mentor in Cocktail, followed by another key supporting role in Gorillas In The Mist led to Orion Pictures investing in a sequel to 1986’s slow-burner F/X. Brown plays Rollie Tyler, a special-effects artist, who uses his creations to outwit bad guys with his cop buddy Brian Dennehy. It’s the perfect action film fodder for an 11-year old. Special effects in films at that time were heralded as an art-form in themselves, and the concept of including these effects as weapons in an action film seemed very clever at the time.

AUOSM-139. Deadly Pursuit (1988, Roger Spottiswoode)

Known in North America as Shoot To Kill, this is a film we first rented on video and then watched many times when we got Sky. Tom Berenger, riding high from his cold-blooded turn in Platoon, partners with Sidney Poitier’s FBI agent to track a killer hiding amongst a group of fishermen in the forests of Washington state. The film currently has a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (from 14 reviews) and is deserving of a rewatch. I remember showing this to the wife about ten years ago and it didn’t land with any weight, but I’ll give it another go.

AUOSM-1410. Adventures In Babysitting (1988, Chris Columbus)

Another film with an alternate title (A Night On The Town), this might have been the film I watched the most on Sky Movies. It seemed to be playing around the clock and so its combination of hi-jinks and mild peril made for an accessible film for young and old. In Chris Columbus’ directorial debut, Elisabeth Shue plays the titular babysitter, trying to keep everything together as she takes her adolescent charges into downtown Chicago to pick up her best friend. There are a few parallels between this film and Columbus’ eventual masterpiece, Home Alone – both films have a similar tone with children operating in an adult world, and both feature those children foiling bumbling criminals. Home Alone is easily the superior film but this one’s worth checking out.

2017 Best Picture Nominees – Ranked From Worst To Best

Oscars Academy Awards
Every year I try and see all of the films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s a fruitless campaign – most people I know here in New Zealand don’t really give a hoot, and are just waiting for the next popcorn blockbuster to arrive after the awards season has ended. I like the annual challenge though; it keeps me sane.

BlunderOn some years I’ve managed to see them all before the awards ceremony – easy to do when there were only five films nominated. They increased this to a maximum of ten films from 2009 onwards, and so a mixture of late New Zealand release dates combined with increasing ticket prices and having children, has made this more and more difficult each year.

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This year, I’ve finally finished watching all nine nominees, just a month or so after the awards. It’s nicer to see the films before the awards, just so that the awards themselves don’t affect your opinion, but I’m happy just to have seen them. Here are the nine films ranked from worst to best, in my humble opinion of course:

Fences9. Fences (Denzel Washington, 2016)

In an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1985 play of the same name, Denzel Washington directs himself in the lead role opposite Viola Davis as his long-suffering wife. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a film not only so dull, but with such an unlikable lead character, it’s a wonder they didn’t develop a new category for it. Denzel has played unsavoury characters before (Training Day, American Gangster), but his portrayal of Fences’ Troy Maxson really takes the biscuit.

Maxson is a failed baseball talent who now supports his family in the 1950s by collecting the city’s garbage. He takes out his insecurities and anxieties on those around him, and with many speed bumps along the way, the film is ultimately a tale of redemption and forgiveness.

My main gripe about Fences is that it’s an adaptation from a stageplay – always a marker of a boring watch. Adaptations from plays always fail to feel cinematic, and Fences is no exception with the film taking place in only a handful of locations. As a result, the drama is as boxed in as the characters find themselves.

The other unfortunate result of a stage to screen adaptation is in the language. Stageplays usually have a very particular rhythm, a specific beat, and this can be jarring on film. I really struggled through the first act of the film – essentially a one man show, as Denzel does nearly all the speaking without letting up, designed to keep theatre audiences engrossed but not ideal for keeping cinema audiences entertained.

Viola Davis is as watchable as always, in a Best Supporting Actress-winning role, but even she doesn’t have much to do except for one particular Oscar-baiting scene in which she reacts to one of the film’s major plot points. Denzel seems to sleepwalk through his performance, but I think my appreciation of him diminished after seeing a few interviews where he came across as bitter – almost angry – at his low chances of being recognized as Best Actor or Best Director.

I’ll accept that Fences did come close to redeeming itself in its very nice final scene, but watching the film in its entirety had felt like such a chore. I even had to swallow it in 15-minute bite-sized portions in order to avoid being stricken with permanent narcolepsy.

Moonlight8. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins,2016)

The eventual winner of the Best Picture award – despite what Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway might say – Moonlight is a low-budget coming-of-age drama about a young black boy, Chiron, played by three different actors across three different stages of his life. The film also won for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali).

I was bored to tears with this film. It looked great, and the performances were fine, but the story just didn’t resonate with me. I’d like to think that the Academy awarded the filmmakers with Best Picture as recognition of what they managed to make with such a comparatively small budget (US$1.5m) and in such a short timeframe (twenty five days), but the cynic in me wonders whether the award was a political move to redeem themselves after the OscarsSoWhite contoversy of recent years.

Hidden Figures7. Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016)

A Sunday afternoon Hallmark movie by any other name, Hidden Figures tells the true story of three female African America mathematicians working at NASA during the early ‘60s space race. There’s nothing particularly exciting about this slow-paced film, and if anything the subject matter comes across as a little patronising to audiences (did you know, black people can be intelligent too?).

There is nothing particularly remarkable about this film, and if Moonlight wasn’t recognised by the Academy to tick a few diversity boxes, this one definitely was. The film’s inclusion in this list seems to prove that by extending the Best Picture category from five films to ten, there’ll always be a bit of deadwood in the mix.

Hacksaw Ridge6. Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson, 2016)

Hacksaw Ridge, directed by recovering alcoholic and practicing anti-Semite Mel Gibson, is a film of two halves. Another true story, the film concerns conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who enlists as a medic in the US Army during World War II.

The first half, a morality tale about Doss’ struggles through basic training, feels like it comes from the same Sunday afternoon Hallmark channel schedule as Hidden Figures. But then it turns into a war movie with a battle sequence turned up to eleven, deliberately intended to out-shock the beach landing opening of Saving Private Ryan.

The events of the final half of the film are so unbelievable that if it were fiction, it would be too fantastic to be taken seriously. A title card at the close of the film lists Doss’ achievements, and if anything the film can be accused of underplaying these accomplishments in order to retain believability.

Hacksaw Ridge is a good film, but not a great film, and only a shadow of what Gibson had achieved with the pure cinema of the last film he directed, Apocalypto.

Hell Or High Water5. Hell Or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016)

Voted as the best film of 2016 by New Zealand film critics, Hell Or High Water is a real head-scratcher of a nomination. Genre films tend to be largely ignored by the Academy – except in the technical categories – and so the inclusion of this unremarkable heist film doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The story of two West-Texas bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) and the two cops on their trail (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), Hell Or High Water could have been so much better, particularly with the acting talent involved. Taylor Sheridan’s script – despite a Best Original Screenplay nomination – doesn’t flesh out the characters very well, and the film felt like a wasted opportunity.

The one truly exciting sequence – involving a machine gun – was fantastic, and one of my favourite moments of 2016 cinema.

Arrival4. Arrival (Dennis Villeneuve, 2016)

As I mentioned before, genre films are usually ignored by the Academy, and none more so than Science Fiction. Arrival is slightly different to your usual sci-fi fare though, with a focus on the humanity of interacting with alien creatures.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner play scientists – a linguist and a physicist, respectively – who are enlisted by the US Army to make first contact with the inhabitants of one of twelve alien spacecrafts which have visited Earth.

The film has lots of new ideas, and a fresh approach to what is essentially a retread of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Plot holes aside – would they really have only sent a linguist and a physicist? What about a biologist at the very least? – the film was entertaining and engaging up to the last second, although I don’t think it warrants a Best Picture nomination.

Manchester By The Sea3. Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Selected as the Best Original Screenplay by director Kenneth Lonergan, and Best Actor in Casey Affleck, Manchester By The Sea is a tough watch. The film opens on loner Lee Chandler, a janitor with something ominous in his past, who is pulled back to his hometown after a death in the family.

Affleck’s acting win is well deserved, and he’s as magnetic as ever in the title role, with slowly revealing flashbacks eventually disclosing the events that have made him what he is.

Affleck’s accomplishments were overshadowed by two lawsuits by female co-workers, who accused him of sexual advances during the filming of the hoax documentary I’m Still Here in 2010. Both cases were eventually settled out of court. While I’m always suspicious about such matters (there’s usually no smoke without fire), it does seem strange that two essentially unproven incidents were brought up seven years later to discredit his nomination – particularly by those who had no involvement at the time.

La La Land2. La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

If Moonlight was the blackest film among this year’s nominees, La La Land was undoubtedly the whitest. I usually dislike musicals, so I wasn’t expecting anything special from Chazelle’s film. But what a surprise – catchy songs, likeable characters and a nice script left me loving the film.

La La Land tells the story of two people who fall in love in modern-day Los Angeles, one a struggling jazz musician (Ryan Gosling), the other a struggling actress (Best Actress-winning Emma Stone). The accusations of Hollywood whitewashing come from the subject matter of jazz music – originally an African American art form – being explored by a pair of honkies, with only one black member of the cast (John Legend) in a minor role. Well at least they didn’t get Harry Connick Jr. to play that role!

I’ve been humming the songs in my head ever since I saw the film, and I’ve even contemplated buying the soundtrack – something I never thought I’d hear myself saying about a musical in the 21st century.

Of the two frontrunners for Best Picture, do I think La La Land is a better film than Moonlight? Of course I do. But do I think it should have won Best Picture? No, that should have been awarded to…

Lion1. Lion (Garth Davis, 2016)

Lion affected me greatly, and it was the first time in a long time I saw a film and then asked everybody I knew whether they had seen it or not. Most films released these days don’t speak to me as personally as Lion did, and it’s usually only foreign-language films that provoke that kind of personal advocacy in me (2007’s The Edge Of Heaven (Fatih Akin, Turkey), and  2006’s Tell No One (Guillaume Canet, France) being particular favourites).

An Australian production, Lion tells the true story of a young Indian boy, Saroo, who by a twist of fate becomes separated from the rest of his family in India at the age of five. Adopted overseas into an Australian family, an older Saroo begins the impossible task of searching for his long-lost family.

In the hands of an American production, Lion could easily sway into the same Hallmark channel territory as Hidden Figures and Hacksaw Ridge. Instead, the film feels like a foreign-language film (the first half of the film is actually in Hindi and Bengali anyway) simply by merit of being produced outside Hollywood.

Sunny Pawar is absolutely captivating as the young Saroo, and while Dev Patel’s performance as the older Saroo was recognised with a Best Supporting Actor nod, it’s surprising that Pawar wasn’t recognised also.

Definitely my film of the year, I’ll continue to recommend Lion until everybody I know has seen it. If you can get to the end of the film without a tear in your eye, then you’re dead inside.

Honourable Mentions
Not every film gets blessed with recognition from the Academy – some wouldn’t even want it, as it can be both a blessing and a curse – but these are my other favourite films from the year (in alphabetical order):

10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016) – a great, Hitchcockian thriller set in the confines of a bunker. Tense!

Deadpool
(Tim Miller, 2016) – Marvel Comics get sweary.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople
(Taika Waititi, 2016) – a funny, sweet slice of Kiwiana.

Midnight Special
(Jeff Nichols, 2016) – a wonderfully paced thriller harking back to classic ‘70s sci-fi.

Moana
(John Musker & Ron Clements, 2016) – Disney’s beautifully rendered love-letter to Polynesia

Sing Street
(John Carney, 2016) – a wonderful bit of ‘80s nostalgia from the director of 2007’s Once.

Split
(M.Night Shyamalan, 2016) – at last, a Shyamalan film we can all get behind with an outstanding performance by James McAvoy

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
(Gareth Edwards, 2016) – not without flaws, but a nice standalone war movie set in the Star Wars universe.

Zootopia
(Bryon Howard & Rich Moore, 2016) – another Disney animation to rival the best of Pixar’s output.

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