The 2020 List: May

Well, there goes May, a month of sitting in the comfort of a sitcom bubble and an impromptu Hammer film (mini)-marathon. It rather feels like, in viewing terms, everything suddenly put on hiatus (mirroring life in general, I suppose).

June seems to be promising, though, with highlights next week likely being watching Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in 4K, and the 4K edition of Jaws is arriving tomorrow too. Hey, that’s hands-down a pretty special line-up right there, I’m frankly salivating at the prospect. I’m tempted to dust off my 4K disc of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to follow on from them, and maybe the 4K Superman: The Movie. And how about the 4K disc of Alien to wrap things up? Some sort of film festival: certainly beats any of the tv schedules.

Regards that Alien disc, I was looking at it on the shelf yesterday and that cover art they used still seems bloody ugly to me. I was pondering whether to swap the 4K disc with the Blu-ray disc in the Alien Anthology set, use that instead, and thinking how that makes me seem like some kind of nerd who needs to get out more (in these current times, that’s almost funny). That Blu-ray set of the Alien movies dates back to when the main studios still made some effort with packaging: I actually looked up when I bought that set and discovered it was October, 2010. That’s when I slipped into a moody funk, horrified at how time seems to rush by- its been ten years, nearly, since that set came out?  And THATS when I suddenly remembered that J.W. Rinzler’s great book The Making of Alien came out summer last year and, er,  I never finished it…. That’s a scandal right there, and something else to add to the, er, to-do list…

TV Shows

68) Still Game Season One

69) Into the Night

73) Still Game Season Two

76) Still Game Season Three

77) Still Game Season Four

78) Still Game Season Five

80) Still Game Season Six

81) Still Game Season Seven

82) Still Game Season Eight

83) Still Game Season Nine

84) Still Game Live 2014

85) Tales From the Loop Season One

Movies

67) The Scarlet Blade

70) Dracula AD 1972

71) X: The Unknown

72) The Abominable Snowman

74) The Satanic Rites of Dracula

75) The Quatermass Xperiment

79) Stand By Me

86) Life After Flash (Doc.)

The Thing returns looking awfully pretty

thingYou’d have to have been around in 1982 to understand why this seems to be a Big Deal for me. Quartet Records have announced a remastered edition of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for John Carpenter’s film, and while it doesn’t feature any additional music -or indeed inclusion of the roughly ten minutes of electronic underscore added to the film by Carpenter and his then-frequent collaborator Alan Howarth- it does instead feature the original album cover art used on the vinyl release back in 1982. I loved this cover back in the day and its meant that the original vinyl release has remained a valued possession all these years.  It just always seemed to encapsulate the film and the music better than any other art used to promote the film or soundtrack editions ever since, and it will be great to finally have a CD release featuring it. The music will probably shine from its restoration and remaster, too, and the added news that Jeff Bond, who always writes entertaining and informative liner notes, has prepared this editions new liner notes ensures I’ll have to get a hold of this one, even if saner and wiser folks will be scratching their heads wondering what on Earth is the big deal.

Naturally, we’re living in an age of mp3s, downloads and streaming, and the value of the ‘overall package’ of art and liner notes must seem immaterial to most, if not utterly prehistoric – and 1982 does seem some kind of prehistory to many I guess.

May the 4K be with you: Rogue One

rogue4kHere in the UK there seems to be an exclusivity deal running at the moment between Disney and Amazon, that ensures that the 4K editions of the Star Wars films are limited to the boxset  of all nine ‘Skywalker Saga’ films which means that those of us who just want the Original Trilogy films, or Rogue One (which hasn’t been released over here in 4K at all), have to shell out for the boxset, wait for the inevitable single-disc releases when the exclusivity deal ends, or go the import route.

Initially, I was fine waiting out, but as I’m stuck on a two-week vacation at home (where I’ve been stuck for eight weeks already on lockdown, working from home) I figured maybe I should treat myself. Avoiding the scalpers on Ebay (I love The Empire Strikes Back but £45 for a copy of it on 4K? Get the frak out of here, that’s LaserDisc-era nonsense) I sourced Scandinavian copies of Rogue One, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (that’s my idea of a Star Wars trilogy) that actually even cost a bit less than they will likely do when released over here, and with English packaging they are no doubt pretty identical, too, other than the certificate logos (which are smaller than ours, as a bonus, and off the spine too) and that they are minus slipcovers. So all good. Rogue One and Star Wars arrived yesterday, with The Empire Strikes Back on the way and due early next week.

Its the last time I ever buy these films, I’m sure – which seems a curious way to rationalise it, considering how many times I’ve bought Star Wars films, and I’ve limited my spending to these three – as I say, what I consider to be a pretty perfect trilogy. I think the only way they could ever tempt my wallet again is by releasing the original unaltered theatrical editions but that’s so unlikely at this point I’m safe to say this is the last time. To some it would make more sense to have ordered Return  of the Jedi, too, but I had issues with that film even back in 1983 (revisionists may cite the Prequels or Disney saga films as the points at which the rot set into Star Wars, but for me it will always be Jedi, when Lucas clearly lost interest and wanted done with it all). Part of me wonders what the experience of Jedi is even like now that JJ Abrams pissed all over it with his The Rise of Skywalker nonsense, but I have the Blu-ray boxset to try that out someday, if ever the fancy takes me.

I’m clearly stuck in a rut buying 4K editions of my favourite films, even if I do usually wait for the sales to come around. I’ll work that out eventually.

rogue2So anyway, I watched Rogue One on 4K last night and it was gorgeous, absolutely spectacular.  Shot on 6K cameras, and then given a full 4K Digital Intermediate, the film looks remarkable on this disc. Star Wars and Empire will both no doubt suffer in comparison (although hopefully improving on the earlier HD releases) but this film is just ‘wow’ near enough all the way through. Stunning detail from the costumes and props to the sets and the visual effects work, and the HDR really adds depth and ‘pop’ to make the whole thing look vibrant.

I hadn’t watched the film in quite awhile, so it was interesting to watch the film and reappraise it. Its not perfect and stumbles at times -the first third of the film feels awkwardly put together, as if its edited highlights of a longer film/treatment- but on the whole its a fantastic Star Wars movie, with great characters and a great plot. Unlike the Star Wars saga films, this film really has the feel of authentic Star Wars, in how it looks and sounds. Sure there’s quite a lot of fan service but it all supports the story rather than distracts from it, serving the film in a similar way to how such fan service aided Blade Runner 2049 and more recently Doctor Sleep.

What made me really curious about it, though, is all the things they did so right in this one that they turned away from or got so wrong in the other Disney Star Wars films. How did Solo, for instance, turn into such a mess, and while this film features a female protagonist and a racially diverse cast it does not labour any wokeness to such an extent that it irritates as it did in The Last Jedi. Here it feels inclusive and supportive, not dominating anything to the detriment of the plot. What also helps this film is that through that awkward first third and onwards, the film just gets better and better as it goes, building to a tremendous climax that is spectacular but also emotionally involving in ways that most Star Wars films aren’t. I was also struck by how well staged and choreographed the climactic space battle is compared to those of The Force Awakens or The Rise of Skywalker. Again, one has to wonder what lessons weren’t learned, or why Rogue One did some things so well that others stumbled with. Maybe its the personnel involved. I won’t necessarily suggest that the films director Gareth Edwards was wholly responsible, as the film was rumoured to have a troubled post-production with considerable reshoots required that I think he wasn’t involved with, but that’s a story we may never really know unless someone gets permission to write a candid book about it.

The music score was really great too, I’d forgotten how well that worked in sounding like a Star Wars movie but having its own identity, too, something even maestro John Williams struggled with in the last trilogy.

When Rogue One finished with its grand tease of the opening of Star Wars I had to refrain from having a very late night and spinning up the Star Wars disc. Maybe tonight then. Must say, I haven’t enjoyed anything Star Wars this much in ages.

 

 

Tales From the Loop

tals2I can imagine Tales From the Loop proving a divisive series. Its a beautiful, slow, meditative anthology series based on the paintings of Simon Stålenhag, set in a strange alternate universe. Here its a 1970s (or 1980s? It could be either, really) USA in which strange mechanical creations, bizarre technology and weird phenomena seem treated by people as both fantastic and mundane: robots in the woods, strange alien artefacts rusting in the twilight air, snow falling upwards, or houses falling into the sky. Its as glacially paced as the snow and ice that features in a number of the episodes (possibly, the eight episodes span a year of changing seasons), exquisitely photographed and accompanied by a gentle, haunting score by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan that sounds more Max Richter by way of Johann Johannsson. It sets up a mysterious setting full of questions and refrains from giving any answers- any answers at all, really, which will upset some.

We are in an era of television hinted at by Babylon 5: multi-arc seasons that craft big, epic storylines that tease questions, gradually revealing answers, and often the value or worth of a show is measured by how good those answers and revelations/conclusions turn out to be. Game of Thrones teased a momentous War of Winter for several seasons and tripped over at the end; Westworld seems to be so convoluted in its questions and mysteries that the answers threaten to be even more complex than the original questions. Tales From the Loop seems to be deliberately focused the other way, a simplicity of sorts: always holding back any answers, strictly maintaining the mystery and best of all, refusing to offer any happy endings.

Tales From the Loop is overwhelmingly melancholic and sad. Characters take what they can from their experiences, at best learn something about themselves and others, at worst, well… they stand as confused and lost as us.

tales3So its quite refreshing- that sense of enduring mystery, I mean. If there’s any frustration from sad or confusing endings for each story, well, that’s possibly more from our experiences of being fed satisfying endings in other shows, our laziness of being fed meaning. On the other hand, it could be seen as being incredibly pretentious: individual mileage may vary. On the positive side, it doesn’t seem deliberately oblique for the sake of it: there seems to be a sense of internal logic behind everything, its just being withheld from us rather than deliberately nonsensical. The beauty is the sense of the alien, the unknowable. Also, the grimness of some of it -some characters have ill luck and ill fates- reminds me of how ‘nasty’ fairy-tales, particularly in their original forms, could be. Indeed, one could describe this series as a series of adult fairy-tales with a sci-fi bent.

The best episodes are those that bookend it: the two at the beginning and the two at the end proving the most rewarding. The central four are not without merit, and my issue may be more a matter of not fully engaging with the characters in those. It ensures that the season starts well and ends well, even though it is patently clear that we are no wiser, really, at the end than we were at the beginning. What is the Loop, what is its purpose, why is no Army chief or Government Agent taking it over, why does it all feel seperate from the rest of the world? Do answers really matter?

ales4I like that most of the stories end in open-ended ways, as if they are lacking ‘proper’ endings at all, almost as if the last reels are missing. No doubt this will frustrate some, but I think its really nice, how the episodes seems to end with a sigh rather than a bang. Its nice how background characters we see over a few episodes suddenly come front and centre, and how others lead in one episode and then appear in the background of a scene or enjoy a brief cameo in another, the season drifting forwards and backwards in time… deliberately so, as time often loops with itself in the series, almost a character itself. This is exactly the sort of project I could not imagine a traditional network making, the kind of thing that streaming channels (in this case, Amazon) seem to excel at. I hope we get to a second season next year (or whenever Covid19 permits) as I would love the opportunity to enter this strange spooky world of the Loop again.

 

Life After Flash

life1There is something really quite sad about this documentary; maybe there is something truly life-affirming, too. I’m stuck somewhere in between, really, considering it. On the face of it, it’s a harmless film about the actor Sam Jones who played Flash Gordon in the 1980 movie, and his life before and after the movie. He seems a charming guy who made some terrible mistakes and suffered for his ego, a self-confessed serial adulterer who made some ill choices in his personal life and followed bad advice career-wise, and seems to have eventually gotten his life back on track. He seems to have become quite a role-model for some, quite a change for someone who was such a jerk making the movie, walking away and refusing to go back after the Winter production break.

On the other hand, I think its more than just a little scary seeing how fixated people can be on a film that’s as lousy as Flash Gordon proved to be. Mind, every film has its fans and I have to be careful here- I’m quite self-aware enough of my own fixation on a certain 1982 movie (which is clearly a much better movie, by the way) to know that people do get a bit obsessed about things. When we’re growing up, we tend to latch onto things that make a marked impression on us, whether it be a book, a movie, a music album, a television series- we seem to identify ourselves through it, and over the years we seem to be unable to let it go. Nostalgia and having a tangible link to the past, simpler/happier times, seems to be the main culprit.

I’m old enough to remember when Flash Gordon came out, the film part of a wave of post-Star Wars projects, in film and television that tried to capitalise on the sci-fi/fantasy boom. It was a wave that culminated in 1982 with films like E.T., The Thing, Tron, Blade Runner, Star Trek II, Conan the Barbarian, The Dark Crystal and others, but getting there, we suffered all sorts of misfires, like The Black Hole, Starcrash, Star Trek: TMP, Battlestar Galactica… and Flash Gordon was just one of them. They weren’t all terrible movies, but they all aspired to be the ‘next Star Wars‘ and they all seemed to find the magic of that 1977 movie hard to capture in a celluloid bottle- hell, George Lucas found it tricky enough himself.

I remember when Flash Gordon came out it did so to mixed, if not unfavourable reviews. From the start, its failures in narrative and execution seemed to be excused by its campness, its irreverent attitude, which to me at the time (at the tender age of fourteen) seemed woefully inappropriate. Star Wars was fun, but it took itself seriously. Flash Gordon seemed an unwelcome return to the sensibility of the Adam West Batman tv show of the 1960s. To me, it was almost an affront- sci-fi films had always been the poor-mans film genre, the stuff of tacky b-movies, and at last Star Wars had shown how it could be done, with quality production values and seriousness. People forget but it was such a huge thing back in 1978 when Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie took itself so seriously, treating its subject with some reverence. Flash Gordon seemed to be suggesting that no, this stuff is daft and silly, don’t take it seriously, its just kids stuff, which to my young self took as an affront. Maybe I was wrong, but Flash Gordon was the wrong film at the wrong time, certainly for me.

But I did like the music.

I remember an interesting conversation during my college course in the late 1980s.  We were on a trip down to London to see the galleries, staying in a hotel for a few nights, and we had a party in one of the rooms, and I’ll never forget a semi-drunk conversation when the topic of discussion turned to the Flash Gordon movie. At that point I’d long since moved on and forgotten the film, having dismissed it when it first came out, so I was surprised when one of the lecturers commented on it. “The film was pretty awful, really,” he admitted, “but the atmosphere in there (the cinema) was incredible. It was the music! The young people were going mad. It was like a rock concert more than a movie.”

life2The music saved Flash Gordon. Without that score it would have been another Starcrash, a cheesy and hopeless attempt to do another Star Wars. Well, the Alex Ross paintings did their bit, too. Ross is a huge fan of the movie and his beautiful paintings, used for publicity and DVD covers over the years, have done a big part of keeping the film in the public consciousness. Funnily enough, though, they seem to be paintings of a film that doesn’t exist, promising a film Flash Gordon isn’t. The film that Flash Gordon should have been,  maybe, like the teaser poster by Philip Castle that I recall seeing in an issue of Starlog thinking, ‘wow! That looks cool!’ only to find the film actually looked nothing like it.

life4Films like Star Wars were difficult back then, visual effects companies capable of executing stuff like that would be decades away, frankly, unless you could go to ILM and even then it was possibly beyond them, truly (but would have looked a whole lot better). As Dino would find a few years later with the 1984 Dune, it ain’t easy to execute that stuff convincingly.  Three Star Wars movies burnt Lucas out.

So anyway, I really didn’t ‘get’ Flash Gordon– certainly not in the same way as the many fans featured in Life After Flash did. It does seem a little bizarre, I mean, the film didn’t/doesn’t really deserve all that praise and attention, or does it? I suppose I’m getting back to that thing I wrote earlier, every film has its fans. There’s no accounting for taste, or what strikes a chord in someone at just the right time for it to leave a mark on them for the rest of their lives.

Funny how Avatar doesn’t appear to have had a similar impact upon its generation, isn’t it?

Life After Flash is an interesting documentary film- its surprisingly unfocused, really, neither an in-depth film about Sam Jones’ life after Flash Gordon, nor a film about the making of Flash Gordon and peoples memories of it, instead its really a mix of both, and seems to jump around a bit. Which is fine I guess. It does manage to get a surprising number of actors and production people involved who speak quite candidly at times, although unfortunately I’d suggest it lacks a certain critical perspective, but that’s possibly just me never having fully made my peace with the film. They guys talk about the film as if its a genius piece of art, instead of the camp mess that was saved by a Rock band’s unlikely music score. You either ‘get it’ or you don’t, I suppose, and I imagine Brian Blessed would enjoy bashing some sense into me with Prince Vultan’s hammer. Likewise those sections concerning Same Jones’ personal life is inevitably dominated by his friends and family that love him, so its hardly as candid as it possibly might be, but its not that kind of warts-and-all documentary, and Jones seems to have become a pretty decent guy. This documentary is clearly made by the fans for the fans, and with that caveat considered, its an enjoyable piece of work.

Life After Flash is currently available on Amazon Prime, and will be included on at least one edition of an upcoming 4K home video release of the film as a bonus feature.

 

Still Game, after all these years

stillgYou won’t need to be eagle-eyed when my summary for May gets posted to notice that this month I watched all nine series -59 episodes, missing just 3 specials not currently available on Netflix- of Still Game, a Scottish sitcom created by Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill, who also play lead characters Jack Jarvis and Victor McDade. Recommended by friends some time ago, we finally got around to watching this and, well, once it took it quickly became an irresistible binge, filling quite a few evenings. I may not be able to go to Scotland this month (my holiday cancelled thanks to Covid19, like many other people’s holidays this year, alas) but thanks to this show, a part of Scotland came to us instead.

Its inevitable, I suppose, with most of us self-isolating and staying at home, and sitting in-front of the tv looking for something to hopefully both cheer us up and momentarily allow us some respite from the current state of affairs, that we turn to ‘light’ material like this. Still Game certainly ticked all the boxes for us, an absolutely hilarious and surprisingly touching series. It concerns a bunch of pensioners living in the fictional area of Craiglang, Glasgow, focusing mostly on the two OAPs Jack and Victor and their acquaintances/neighbours. As the series unfolds over the nine seasons (shot from 2002 to 2019, originally ending with season six in 2007 the show eventually returned with seasons seven to nine between 2016 and 2019) we see more of their backstory and lives and the community of this blighted urban landscape. There’s a truth and honesty to it, a gentle warmth that’s similar to that of other popular British sitcoms like Only Fools and Horses. Okay, it may not be High Art, but at times such as this, its absolutely perfect.

As far as sitcoms go, for me Frasier always stands tall, but Still Game is pretty high up there. I suppose sitcoms are like comfort food; short bursts of funny, comforting, familiar material, whether it be shows like Steptoe and Son, Fawlty Towers, Bottom, Black Books, The IT Crowd, The Middle, Count Arthur Strong… The most popular one here in the UK is likely Only Fools and Horses, which is a genuine national institution and never off-air, it seems. Indeed part of a sitcom’s appeal is the re-watch, soaking it up again, the jokes becoming familiar but seldom tired (see Only Fools and Horses always being on, and the endless popularity of shows like Friends (no, never watched it), The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons on streaming services etc.) the safety and comfort of experiencing their situations and jokes all part of their charm and appeal. I’m sure during all this Covid19 nightmare many are retreating to their favourite sitcoms for escape. The last episode of Still Game ended on a bittersweet note- a vignette of the various characters literally fading away onscreen, old age finally getting the better of each of them, until only an ageing Boabby remains, still tending the bar, the old crowd all gone. All things fade, I guess. As endings go, it was surprisingly sad, but maybe perfect, too. Having only ‘known’ these characters for the last few weeks, I cannot imagine how it must have felt for longtime fans from all the years the series was on the air.

For my part, never one to be permanently reliant on streaming etc I’ll be investing in a DVD boxset of Still Game soon enough (added bonus: the complete box also includes the three specials) to place alongside my Steptoe and Son, Frasier etc sets. Yeah, there’s me going on about too many discs on the shelves and I’m adding another set. Go figure.