HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon > First Man

fe2m2It shouldn’t come as any surprise, really. In some respects, any comparison between a high-quality twelve-part mini series and a two hour-plus Hollywood movie is going to be rather unfair, if only because a twelve-hour series is going to have much wider scope to give the Space Program its proper due. In First Man‘s case, it is perhaps doubly unfair because, contrary to some of the marketing, in many ways the Space Program and moon landing are almost incidental to the main focus of that movie.

Having watched, and enjoyed  First Man (albeit with some reservations that I may come to later in another post), I went home and was unable to resist finding out my DVD of HBO’s glorious mini-series from 1998 (has it been so long?). I cued up my favourite episode, the wonderful ‘Spider’ (episode 5) and its subsequent episode ‘Mare Tranquilitatis’ which covers much of what First Man does. What a fantastic two hours it was- First Man paled by comparison, frankly.

The music. The cast. The sheer joy. Mind, it was a sobering experience- a 55″ OLED does no favours for DVD. The show looks quite utterly horrible. Here starts the campaign to get somebody at HBO to remaster the series for a HD release on Blu-ray (and okay the campaign probably ends here too, but I can dream). Some of the model-work holds up (just) but the CGI effects have aged as badly as a Babylon 5 episode, and could do with a fresh rework. It would be a shame to let the rest of the series suffer for this poor image quality and dated effects, because it could likely hold the series back from gaining a new appreciative audience. Strangely overlooked over the years since it first aired (its a series largely lost under the shadow of HBOs bigger hits like The Sopranos, Band of Brothers etc)  I still think it is a remarkable project and a largely definitive account of the Apollo program. Maybe HBO plan to so something with the show next year, as a freshly remastered broadcast to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing would seem a marketing man’s daydream.

 

 

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Missing (1982)

missing2Such a odd experience, sometimes, revisiting ‘old’ films that you haven’t seen in many years. The films are the same but we aren’t- we are older, wiser, have more personal experiences that impact on our viewing experience. At least, that’s the way I see it- how else to explain this rather revelatory experience of re-watching this film after so many years? Admittedly, my previous experience of this film was a television broadcast with commercial breaks , which wasn’t ideal. Now, on Blu-ray, it was a whole different thing- yes, it was clearly a very good film before but now… now it is a rather profound, terrifying and almost brutally heartbreaking work.

I can only assume that now I am older and more wise of the world that its message is all the more powerful and effecting, I was surprised by just how terrifying it is; the sense of being isolated and powerless in the face of a brutal state and clear crimes against humanity going unpunished. Perhaps when I was younger and watching it before, I had felt that this was something of the past and events such as depicted in the film could not happen anymore, but the last few decades have taught me otherwise. Sadly, Missing is as relevant as it ever was.

Missing is based on a true story, of the disappearance, in September 1973, of American journalist Charles Horman (John Shea). Living in Chile with his wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) the couple and their freinds get caught up in a nightmarish military coup that, unknown to them, is secretly sponsored by the US Government, and Charles disappears. His father, Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) a conservative New York businessman arrives in Chile a few days later to try to help Beth discover what has happened to Charles and where he might be. In the face of a increasing runaround by staff of the American Consulate, Ed begins to lose faith in his government and the integrity and protection he assumes is due an American citizen.  Although the film is decades old now and the true events fairly well known (albeit increasingly forgotten today) I won’t go into any further details regards the twists and turns of their efforts, as the film deserves to be seen ‘clean’.

missing3.pngJack Lemmon, of course, is s good as I remembered- when he finally receives the confirmation of his worst fears, I swear you can visibly see his heart breaking. Its a typical understated performance and I so miss him in movies today; he had a gift for portraying an ‘everyman’ that seems rather lacking in films now. Rarely do actors do ‘subtle’ like Lemmon managed, even if its just in the way he moves and walks or glances at people talking to him. Sissy Spacek, meanwhile, is actually a revelation-an actress I really haven’t seen much over the years (must be something to do with the films I choose to watch), I was really impressed  by her performance here; its really quite endearing and I think I’ll have to look up some more of her work.  She certainly manages to hold her own against Lemmon and she complements him very well.

The soundtrack by Vangelis is measured and understated – a product of the Greek composers’ prime it is a lovely reminder of his craft during his superior Nemo Studios era. Typically of him, its an unreleased soundtrack, barring a main theme that turns up on collections (a track which is actually, I believe, a re-recording by Vangelis himself).  The popular main theme familiar from those collections is a tender and heartfelt piece that kicks you in the stomach by the films end but is a minor part of the actual score. I suppose you have to be a decades-long fan like I am to appreciate that old Nemo Studios sound that he used to have, but its certainly a nostalgic element that improves the film no end. Its a wonderful score that is the soul and tender heart of the film.

This recent Blu-ray release of the film from Indicator is as top-notch as we have come to expect from them.  While the film’s master used isn’t a new one, its soft-focus, almost gauze-like picture (think Superman: The Movie, Days of Heaven and other films like that) probably wouldn’t benefit hugely from a new 2K or 4K remaster (and who’s going to do that for a film like Missing?) but it looks very good, has a gentle grain and solid colour. The mono soundtrack is fine; the dialogue is clear and the sudden crack of gunfire in the Chilean streets can still make you jump.

The extras, of course, are the real reward for investing in this disc release and they are very good; two pseudo-commentary tracks which are actually archive interviews (one with director Costa-Gavras in 1984, the other with Lemmon from 1986) which run under the film. Some accompanying featurettes include an appreciation piece by actor/director Keith Gordon which runs longer than you might expect, some interviews with the director etc. and a very special doc has an interview with the ‘real’ Beth, Joyce Horman. A charming and erudite woman,  with still photographs of the real Charles Horman and his father, she explains the truth behind the film and shares memories of the making of the film and its impact over the years- including litigation against it. This last doc lasts nearly half-hour and as you might imagine is utterly riveting, worth buying the disc alone for.

If you have never seen Missing, then this release is the perfect excuse to correct that folly, and if you have, well, I’m sure you likely own this disc already. In all honesty, Missing is actually a much better film than I remembered, and I shall no doubt be returning to it often.

1982: a hell of a good year for movies.

The Netflix Convenience trap

Another day, another Netflix Original. Really its getting a little crazy how these films are dropping onto the service now. I was thinking that its a glimpse of the future but I guess that future is here now and cannot imagine how much of a seismic shift this is proving to be in the corridors of power in studios over in Hollywood. Of course there is a market for big studio blockbusters and the big-screen experience but it does make me wonder what it means for other kinds of movies now. Is it simply reinforcing the troubling tradition of idiotic/simplistic bombastic spectacles at the multiplex , and relegating interesting and challenging dramas to streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon? Throw HBO dramas into that mix and its either an exciting or scary time for movie lovers. I’m not certain where I am on the subject but do think its troubling, particularly for people like me who still enjoy buying films on physical media and experiencing commentary tracks and other material supplementary to the main course of the film/show itself.

There was a news item last week that claimed that Netflix constitutes 15% of total global net traffic- adding traffic from You Tube and embedded material on websites, video amounts to over half of total net traffic. With the rise of 4K the demand for bandwidth can only get higher- and what of the impact of Disney’s own streaming service touted for next year and its eventual rise to global domination? I suppose one question that arises, is can the infrastructure from broadband providers cope with and prove reliable under all that demand? Will the public continue to be willing to shell out for multiple avenue streams or will things start to go bump for someone, somewhere in the cable/satellite network business?

What does it mean for cinema attendances with all these movies, good and bad and indifferent,  admittedly, dropping onto ever-bigger televisions as if by magic and leaving lazy audiences increasingly reticent regards making the effort to go to the multiplex? How many people didn’t bother to go see BR2049 at the cinema simply because they thought they’d wait for it to drop onto their television? The unfortunate truth is no film company is going to spend $185 million on making a movie if its just going to end up on streaming services as that avenue stream simply isn’t cost-effective.

In a way, I’m getting guilty of just the same thing now, as very often I’ll reason that if I’m likely to buy the film on UHD disc anyhow, I may as well save the expense of buying a cinema ticket and just wait for the disc. I’d also argue the viewing experience on a 4K UHD at home is superior to the experience of watching a film with a bunch of morons who can’t avoid their mobiles for longer than ten-minute intervals anyway, but that’s a whole other subject. Or maybe it isn’t.  Going to the cinema is a bit of a crapshoot, and has been for awhile. Its also getting rather expensive, too.

So that brings us back to the convenience of Netflix and how our access to and consumption of media continues to rapidly change. Its like the VHS revolution all over again in some ways. The rise and fall of Blockbuster Video might be a cautionary one for current content providers though.

 

Apostle (2018)

apostle2Welsh director Gareth Evans, famous for his action double-whammy The Raid and The Raid 2, returns with an absolutely batshit-crazy horror/torture-porn oddity that is likely destined for some kind of cult status someday. It is totally off the rails, nonsensical and baffling and frustrating and brilliant in perhaps equal measure. At over two hours its about thirty minutes too long and its script needs a few rewrites and perhaps a few sub-plots taking out, but its a fascinating film to watch simply because it just defies convention, as if Evans was trying to test how much free-reign and control Netflix was willing to give him. Turns out he was given pretty much complete freedom, which likely works against the film in the long run but does make it something of a curio and hypnotic experience. You just don’t know where its going next.

Disorientation is the heart of the film: Dan Stevens, having left Downton Abbey well behind him now, plays main protagonist Thomas Richardson, a twisted and troubled man who in some abrupt and deliberately (?) vague flashbacks is set on some vague mission to save his kidnapped sister from a vaguely-defined religious cult based on a vague remote island off the undefined mainland. Yes, it is all very vague: Thomas is the kind of unreliable fulcrum that H P Lovecraft sometimes used,  whose narrators were possibly as crazy and untrustworthy as the cultists they bumped into. Thomas is twitchy and haunted and reliant on drugs and stares balefully from under his tightly-knitted brow and grimaces bearing rotting uneven teeth. Something about Steven’s performance kept bugging me until I realised that he was channeling actor Sam Neil, as if deliberately mimicking Neil’s mannerisms in films like In the Mouth of Madness and Jurassic Park etc.  Its a role that perhaps might have actually suited Nic Cage although that might have proved to be unwatchable for me. Eventually we learn why Thomas seems so fucked-up but its perhaps one revelation too many at that point.

The island of Erisden holds a religious community run by cult-leader/prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and it all seems very Wicker Man with a medieval twist, but there are visual hints dropped in that suggest something genuinely supernatural is going on in the background, a deeper threat/horror than the cult itself. Again, perhaps in a further nod to Lovecraft fiction, layers and layers of mystery are revealed as the film progresses, so much so that it reminded me of the Call of Cthulhu RPG that I used to play many years ago. Ultimately there are perhaps just too many layers, too many revelations and twists and turns for the film to really manage successfully. I had the feeling that it could have been two completely seperate films but that Evans just threw it all into the crazy mix to see what came out.

apostle3I understand the film is set in 1905, but I don’t believe it states this implicitly onscreen (although I may have simply missed it) and while it is obviously a period film it does seem to have a dreamlike quality, particularly on the island which is genuinely like some medieval setting with torture devices straight out of some dungeon of horror/Roger Corman Poe flick starring Vincent Price. Strange camera angles occasionally add to the weirdness as do sudden outbreaks of violence- as might be suggested by the director’s previous films, Apostle is very graphic and violent in places and there is plenty of gore to satisfy horror-fans. Thomas has to swim in a subterranean river of blood at one point so that will give some indication of its crazy excesses.

The weird thing is, how I’m writing this possibly suggests its a much better film than it really is. This film is in no way wholly successful. As I’ve noted, its too long and really quite disjointed with perhaps too many characters and sub-plots. That being said, I do think it may be destined for cult status as such odd/flawed films often can be and it might actually reward with successive viewings.

So anyway, a very interesting experience and another indication that Netflix Originals can be very worthwhile. I’m not sure how this film might have fared as a cinema release, but dropping onto a streaming service to watch at home during a wet and windy Autumn night its pretty much perfect. I’m just a little frustrated that a disc release might have benefited from a commentary track which explained some of the film-making decisions. I don’t know if Netflix could manage seperate audio streams or provide seperate versions of content with audio-commentary tracks; likely there is insufficient demand for that kind of content but it something that I will certainly miss with the future veering away from physical releases.

Mandy OST by Johann Johannsson

mandyostListening to Johann Johannsson’s final score, a twisted and disturbing work drenched in sadness, misery and darkness, is certainly a sobering prospect. It is hard to seperate it from the perspective of the composer’s sudden passing earlier this year. As an unintended footnote of the man’s career it is stark and unforgiving. In some ways it is quite unlike his other work (although hints of it’s darkness are strewn across many of his works) but the almost unbearable melancholy of the love theme -one of the saddest love themes to grace a movie- betrays the score as being that of Johannsson, while the ’80s electronic soundscape of the final track ‘Children of the New Dawn’, presumably the end title (I haven’t seen the film yet), evokes the John Carpenter scores of that era so authentically its hard not to do a double-take at the credits.

It hints that perhaps new directions for the composer lay ahead of him- perhaps a reaction to his rejected BR2049 score? Then again, and its a grim game to play, but listening to some of the moodier, menacing and almost experimental tracks I have to wonder if there’s actually indication here of what some of BR2049‘s score may have sounded like, some of its atonal horror harking back to some of the original Vangelis score’s underscore. Which seems at odds to reports of Villeneuve thinking that Johannsson’s score was too much a deviation from the Vangelis original, so likely I’m wrong here (and unless the rejected score gets released someday we’ll never really know).

In any case, while its hardly easy listening there is something rather hypnotic about the terrible darkness of this music, especially in relation to it being the composers final work we are likely to hear. The sadness wallows within and about the music, dreadfully.

The Post (2017)

the postWhile this film has a commendable and important story to tell, one quite timely with what is going on in American politics today, unfortunately this film is weighed down by issues of its own making: if ever a film could be described as Oscarbait, this is it. You can see it in the starry cast, the stirring John Williams score, and all Spielberg’s old worst habits. Slow, ponderous cranking-in of the camera during solemn and oh-so-important monologues (hey! Oscar! its me!), manipulative score… (I don’t like using the word ‘manipulative’, all films are manipulative, its what they do, but some are worse than others).

When Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) leaves the courtroom in triumph, the camera pans down in a long crane shot following her down the steps, and suddenly the crowd she walks through are all women, and all are giving her silent, admiring and supportive stares, as if suddenly the film has become a hymn to feminine self-empowerment.  The achievement is real, the sentiment is fine, but the execution is as clumsy as anything Spielberg put us through in his early years. Its a really ham-fisted and ill-judged moment that yanked me straight out of the movie, an example of Spielberg at his worst.

Perhaps the films lofty ambitions got the better of Spielberg and his team. Certainly the story should be enough, its a good story and yes, relevant to our times, but goodness its self-importance is overwhelming. There’s a sense throughout that this isn’t ‘just’ a movie, that there’s something else going on, and its got everything to do with Awards season I fear. Pulled away from that with the distance of time, it leaves the film feeling awkward. I’m quite surprised to see Spielberg in this (dare I say cynical?) mode.

So, not a terrible movie, but yes an awkward waste of all the talent involved that leaves it feeling oddly amateur.

 

Hold the Dark (2018)

hold1This is a particularly frustrating movie. Elegantly crafted with taut direction, excellent cinematography and a superb cast, its efforts are completely undermined by the lack of a cohesive screenplay- it is literally (sic) all over the place. It begins with a slow, steady pace that is quite hypnotic and purports something quite dramatic and important is coming, but then fails to deliver.

Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who once write a book about living among wolves in the wild, is contacted by a young Alaskan woman, Medora (a rather hauntingly sad Riley Keough),  whose son has been taken by wild wolves. She doesn’t expect Core to find her son alive, but hopes he can track down and kill the wolf that took him. Curiosity piqued by her letter (and the location of her remote village being not far from his own estranged daughter, an awkward subplot) Core arrives at the woman’s house and finds the young attractive woman living alone, life-worn and jaded, evidently suffering from a post-trauma illness related to her son’s disappearance.

So far so good, but the film immediately betrays its tendency to farce when Core wakes up during the night to find a naked Medora walking towards him wearing a wooden wolf-mask. She wordlessly slides alongside him and places his hand around her own throat, as if inviting punishment or some masochistic sex game that Core declines. Now, an ordinary man might go straight to his car the next morning and return to the relative sanity of civilization, but instead he goes on a dangerous trek in search of the wolfpack that has allegedly stolen three children from the village.

Following a tense standoff with the wolves when he finally tracks them down, Core struggles through the barren icy wilderness back to the village to find Medora’s home deserted. Exploring the house he enters the cellar and discovers the body of her missing son, wrapped in a sheet. So Medora’s story of wolves is a lie, she killed her son herself and has gone on the run. Following a segue to a violent scene of desert warfare involving Madora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) who seems as proficient killing his own colleagues as he is terrorist insurgents, the villagers seem to be at odds with the local police when Vernon arrives back home intent on killing anyone (villager, police, coroner) who gets in the way of him hunting down his wife. A bewildered Core  is trapped in these proceedings like a rabbit in headlights and seemingly cannot escape them.

hold2As the events become wilder, less and less of what happens is explained and I suspect, looking back on it, that I may have missed the point. There is certainly a horror-genre subtext with hints at paganism and unexplained phenomena, indeed perhaps even Lovecraftian undertones. Perhaps there is something of Innsmouth transposed to this arctic, icy landscape. Or perhaps that is just my imagination filling in the blanks left by the increasingly vague, reason-less story.

At any rate, its is a beautiful-looking film and it features some shocking twists and some violent action scenes that are dwelt upon in slow graphic detail. Unfortunately its very ambiguity proves to be, for me, its downfall, as credibility seems to rapidly slide in its last half-hour. Perhaps it is about the darkness of the long Alaskan night staring back at the humans frozen in its landscape, an Apocalypse Now-like tale of staring too long into the abyss. Or maybe there is something genuinely Lovecraftian seducing some of them (or maybe I’m filling in the gaps too much). Perhaps, ultimately, the film tries to overreach itself. I am sure many will watch this film and be enchanted by it, but for me it became a frustrating experience following just one too many twists and turns. Certainly well worth a watch though and one of the better Netflix Originals that I have so far seen.