…and it’s Hobbit times three!

Well after a few months of rumours its finally been announced that the in-production The Hobbit movies will now be a trilogy rather than ‘just’ two films. I was already bewildered at how The Hobbit was going to be two films- the ‘why’ was simple enough, it was an obvious ploy to double the box-office takings/DVD sales/Cable TV sales. Turning it into three films just makes it all patently obvious. It’s just an excuse for everybody involved -Studio, cast, crew, director, EVERYBODY- to milk the last possible dregs out of the Tolkien cashcow.

If they were to have stated that they were keeping The Hobbit to two films but adding another Tolkien-based film for release a year later, and calling it something else, then fair enough I’d give them the benefit of the doubt but this is just ridiculous. It smacks of a Studio that made a fortune off the LOTR trilogy trying to maximise the profit haul. The Hobbit a trilogy? Who are they trying to fool? The book is a simple children’s fairytale and vastly different in tone, scope and length to The Lord Of The Rings. It would have made a nice little fun movie to accompany the rather darker and epic LOTR trilogy. But Peter Jackson, who managed to inflate King Kong from a simple and short  ‘thirties b&w adventure flick into a huge action/romance/monster epic just doesn’t seem to know when to stop. My worry is that his King Kong, which was an ‘okay’ movie when all is said and done, had little in common with the original film other than the fact it starred a giant ape, and The Hobbit may well suffer the same fate: that the final bloated trilogy of original tale and Tolkien appendices etc will have little in common with the simple charm of the original Tolkien book.

Commerce versus art. To think each of the three Hobbit movies will no doubt get multiple (theatrical and later extended) DVD/Blu-ray releases just makes the stink even worse.

Makes George Luca$ seem something of an amateur, and didn’t think I’d ever be saying that about the milking of a franchise!

Box Office Curios

Here’s some bang up to date box office figures for the curious; all figures are worldwide gross. Doesn’t really mean anything, as I’m loathe to equate a film’s quality with its box office returns,  but there’s a few interesting tidbits-

Prometheus has grossed $300,258,261 on a budget of $130 million. So it likely broke even and slipped into minor profit, depending on what the marketing costs were, and no doubt cable/DVD/Blu-ray will add to the coffers in the Autumn. Enough to greenlight a sequel? Hard to say, but in truth the film did rather well for an ‘R’-rated picture; had it been a PG-13 or something it likely would have earned much more (and to be honest I can’t recall much intense horror in the film anyway other than the last third of the script).  The studio may well be wondering what might have been, had they released a pg-13 version at cinemas and let Ridley produce the ‘R version for home video.  I guess if Ridley could agree to a lower-cert sequel it’d be a safer bet. I just hope its done enough to warrant investing in a Directors Cut for 2013 that may fix issues with the film. And yes, I’d like to see a sequel, see where Ridley goes with it. Another scriptwriter though, please…

John Carter has grossed $282,778,100… a tidy sum that’s surprisingly not far shy of Prometheus’ gross. And yet John Carter is perceived as a monster failure? Well, the film’s budget of $250 million has much to do with that, as it would have likely needed to take in something above $500 million to clear its costs. But it clearly found an audience, just a pity the film-makers couldn’t have reined in the films budget- I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Hollywood needs to come back down to Earth as regards the budgets of its big movies. Surely a John Carter movie costing $130 million like Prometheus wouldn’t have looked all that different from how it turned out?  A little less cgi wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. Shame really, as I really liked the film anyway and would have loved to have seen it launch a franchise. John Carter was the nearest thing to a Star Wars movie for many years (it was everything the prequels weren’t) and I’d have loved to have seen those characters in further adventures.  Well, there’s obviously no way a sequel will appear, and indeed its one film I can confidently predict will never get the remake treatment (at least until James Cameron makes another Avatar movie). Still, Disney’s post-John Carter bank balance woes was no doubt somewhat saved by….

The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble for us here in old Blighty), which all on its own rescued Disney’s bacon, grossing a mind-boggling $1,459,756,789. That’s a lot of digits to type in and just crazy money when you really think about it, I mean it was a good movie, but that good? Well, it clicked with everyone, it seems, and no doubt partly had both the 3D ticket prices and ample return viewings to thank for its success (I really can’t see many people returning to see Prometheus, for instance, but a film like The Avengers clearly had fans revisiting its pleasures). On a budget of $220 million I guess Disney execs were rather worried following John Carter’s numbers, and clearly indicates the kind of success that John Carter was aspiring to.

The Amazing Spider-man (the one film here I haven’t seen yet) has so far grossed $616, 161,774 with plenty of wind in its sails just yet. On a budget around $230 million its slipped well into profit and no doubt further adventures are on the way.

Is it just me though that thinks these budgets are getting somewhat crazy? It makes Ridley’s comparatively pedestrian-looking budget for Prometheus something to consider, as it was an impressive-looking movie. Is it all the cg fx spectacle that makes the films so expensive? I guess all the other films were very cg-intensive.

A stab at Immortality?

Sometimes I think I watch too many films. I am sure I watch too many films, too many tv series. I sometimes have the temptation to not watch any new films for six months, clear the decks so to speak, let the dust settle, get some distance from it all. Of course, its impossible. There’s too many films I’m looking forward to. But I find I watch so many films these days that many of them tend to blur into a background noise of memories of scenes, settings, faces, an accretion of many different movies.

Why do some of us love films so much, is that even healthy? I read somewhere a comment that film fans were people escaping from reality, that only someone dissatisfied with their own life would spend so much time vicariously living through films. That such people should stop watching so many films and spend more time attending to their own, real lives. That life passes us by as we sit in darkened cinemas and living rooms watching and re-watching too many films.

A friend of mine watches John Carpenter’s The Thing once or twice a month. That can’t really be healthy. He’s now taken to something similar with the recent prequel movie. Must be something he likes about ice, snow and monsters. But it’s surely verging on the obsessive. How many hours of his life has he spent re-watching the same scenes over and over, what’s the point of that? Is it a way for his brain to switch off, lull itself into a dull semi-aware state as he sits there- is there even a medical condition for that?

Are we escaping reality when we watch so many movies, or watch the same movies too many times? Is that what we ‘get’ out of them? Is it just a more immediate, more passive alternative to simply reading a lot of books, and pretty harmless? Is it the sensory overload of vision and sound, the orchestrated spectacle, the drama, the excitement, compared to our humdrum daily lives, our powerlessness in the face of depressing news, the corruption in banking, tax-dodging elite, the lies of politicians?

We can’t mend the world, so we escape it? Are films simply our subconscious escape from reality? If so, that surely cannot be healthy. Or maybe it is. Go with the flow, bend with the wind, escape into a movie rather than rage hopelessly at the mad world we live in. Perhaps the ‘Powers That Be’ actively encourage this. They encourage the whole Celebrity culture and entertainment industry domination of our lives simply because it makes us more passive, easier to manage and control. The Romans gave the masses the arena and Blood and Circuses. Our leaders and elite give us Television and cinema, hundreds of channels of mindless gameshows and soaps and reruns of old favourites to appeal to our nostalgia, and multiplexes and DVDs and blu-rays.  Its a wonder we don’t go mad or numb from the overload of so much data; never in the history of humanity have people been assaulted by such a constant stream of sensory data, whether it be films, television, Internet, mobile phones.

Which raises a related point about things like this blog. Why write about the films, what’s the point of all these blogs and forums? Who on Earth out there is even remotely interested in what I think of films? What makes me even remotely qualified to judge, to criticise? I have never made a film, never will; so how can I moan about James Cameron’s Avatar or pick faults with some of Prometheus or The Dark Knight Rises? By extension, not just me, my question includes everyone like me who writes blogs and forum posts. Our ideas are set adrift and are lost in the constant Internet fugue, most of it utterly redundant, a waste of time and effort. And ultimately, Time is the most precious commodity any of us have.

The Internet is abuzz with rumour and opinions, of rants and applause. And much of it is utterly worthless. Yesterday I was browsing youtube and came across a video tour of some teenagers bedroom. I was utterly perplexed by it. Why would people want to watch a tour of some teenagers bedroom, complete with audio commentary of the posters on the wall, the clothes in the wardrobe, the xbox and pc on a desk, the ipods and cameras on the shelves? Why would anybody get a camcorder and record that stuff, post it on the Internet, think anyone would be interested? I don’t understand. Its like the world has gone mad. There’s videos of guys showing off their latest DVD and Blu-ray purchases. I mean no disrespect to people doing that stuff, of having their own channels for placing videos unboxing their latest purchase or whatever rocks their boat, but really, what’s the point? Its all so inane. Or maybe its just the loneliness of modern life. Assailed by so much media and adrift in communities of strangers, maybe its a reaction to it, to raise Our Voice somehow above all the general noise.

Maybe its as old as writing our name on a tree or stone. I’m here, or I was here, before we all join the other forgotten ghosts of history. A stab at immortality.



Blade Runner Titles at last…

Very surprising news has arisen this week concerning the new Vangelis compilation, The Collection, that is released on CD next Monday (already the mp3 edition is out in some territories, but as an official Old Bugger I’ll wait for the physical disc, thankyou). The track Blade Runner Main Titles that was assumed to be the same track previously released on both versions of the official soundtrack album has turned out to be somewhat different. Extended by a few minutes, it features the music from the film’s ‘proper’ main title (heavy drum/bass reverbs with the main theme layered over)- this is music never released before, other than on bootlegs. I was always annoyed that the previous official releases of the soundtrack never featured this music, despite both having a track entitled Main Title– it has always been one of my favourite moments from the score. I will never forget sitting in the darkened cinema back in 1982, not having a clue what I was in for, and being instantly thrown into this darker than expected, dystopian vision by the foreboding Vangelis music that accompanied the films opening titles. Having it available officially at last is wonderful news, and the definitive Blade Runner music compilation just one more step closer. There’s just one more piece that I really long for- the percusion/synth underscore when Deckard and Rachel talk in his kitchen (music triggered by Rachel saying “I’m not in the business, I am the business”; its a very moody and tense, fragile piece of music. Well. Maybe one day. We keep on getting closer to a ‘proper’ Blade Runner soundtrack release.

I well remember back in 1989 walking into a record store in Birmingham and seeing the Vangelis-Themes compilation up in the new releases display. Well, a new Vangelis release was always a pleasant and unusual surprise, especially back in those pre-internet days when news was scarce regards Vangelis so you never got any warning. But I cannot describe my mixture of shock and joy when I looked at the tracklist on the back of the CD case and noticed it included the End Titles and Love Theme from Blade Runner– the first time any of the Blade Runner soundtrack had been released. Well I think I had what is commonly referred to these days as a nerdgasm; really I was utterly floored by it.

Ever since the film was released with the ‘available on polydor records & tapes’ on the end credit crawl I had searched endlessly for the soundtrack album to  no avail. It was only sometime later that I noticed in a short news item published in Fantastic Films the official confirmation that there would be no soundtrack album released after all.  No-one really knows why the release was pulled, only that it was pretty much at the last minute and at Vangelis’ behest. Various theories range from money wrangles, bitterness about how the editing of the film ended, industry politics…. the official word was that Vangelis was concerned at flooding the market with too many albums and becoming known more for soundtracks than his own studio work. I never bought that; this coming from the guy who, prior to Chariots Of Fire, would release two or even three albums in a year. There was always, I thought, something more to it. For myself I have always felt that, had Chariots of Fire not won him an Oscar or sold such huge numbers, we would have seen both a Blade Runner album and more studio work in the years since. Indeed, a cassette bootleg was doing the rounds at conventions following the films release that would likely indicate how the soundtrack would have turned out- possibly it was sourced from a promo copy of the actual album. Having never heard it I can’t say, but the tracklist would seem to be a better album than any of those eventually released officially, and more of a ‘traditional’ soundtrack that fans were expecting and never got.

I was commuting to work back in 1994, passing time in a newsagents whilst waiting for my connecting train when I noticed a music trade newspaper/magazine with a headline about Vangelis releasing the Blade Runner soundtrack at last. Well that blew me away just as much as the Themes album had some five years before. By now it was twelve years following the films release and its box-office/critical failure, and thanks to VHS , network showings and discovery of the workprint version, the film was getting a new lease of life, culminating in the Directors Cut version of the film (as it turned out, it wasn’t really a Directors Cut at all, but I digress).  It was the period when the film changed from being a genuine cult, unloved and forgotten by everyone, into an established classic that was suddenly championed by all- it was like losing something somehow, something personal- suddenly the film had become everybody’s.

Well, the film lost its annoying voiceover but in an annoying twist of fate the soundtrack gained the voiceover – Vangelis choosing to drop some music, add ‘new’ music and layer dialogue and fx over it all. Very irritating at the time, I can understand to an extent Vangelis’ logic regards it being an album and a listening experience, but really, it was not the soundtrack I was looking for. Beyond the choice to hide music behind dialogue and fx,  the choice of music was eccentric to say the least. The Main Title wasn’t anything of the sort (rather it was the music that tracked the flight to the Pyramid) and how one earth Vangelis could leave out The Prodigal Son Brings Death, one of the highlights of the score, bafflled me completely. However it has to be said its a great album, with fantastic music that we thought would never be officially released at all; Blade Runner Blues, Tales Of The Future… painfully it seemed it was the best we would likely ever get. Interestingly, we never actually got the complete End Titles, as both the Themes version and the 1994 album version were edited versions, each also mixed differently (the Vangelis film original being a 7-minute track bafflingly shortened for both releases).

Fast-forward to 2007 and the film’s 25th Anniversary. With Warner sorting out a new rights deal with the owners of the film, Ridley Scott managed to correct the erroneous belief that the Directors Cut was anything of the sort by creating The Final Cut, releasing it to much fanfare and even further reappraisal by the critical community. As part of the merchandising tie-ins on DVD and Blu-ray, another edition of the soundtrack was released, this time a 3-disc set. Trumpeted as the definitive release, there would be again a sting in the tail when it eventually saw the light of day. I’ll be honest, back when news filtered on the ‘net that Vangelis had created a 3-disc edition, I thought it was too good to be true, and I would be proved right. The first disc would be the 1994 album, dialogue and all, with a second disc of extra tracks (with some music not used in the final film) and a third disc of all-new music ‘inspired’ by the movie/original score. Truth be told, the second disc proved to be an excellent album of music familiar from the movie and other music that was sort-of ‘prototype’ score, which was a fascinating glimpse of how Vangelis worked out ideas and approached the soundtrack back in 1981. I’d have been happier had the first disc ditched the dialogue and fx and presented the music ‘proper’ but nevermind.  As for the third disc, it was fine for a Vangelis album, but it was hardly a Blade Runner soundtrack. But of course, even across these three discs of material, some music remained unreleased, and  in particular Vangelis chose not to release the ‘proper’ film’s main titles music. After so many years and so many attempts at releasing the score, I decided that was that, and that the remaining material would never see the light of day beyond the bootlegs.

And yet here we are with the main titles at last being released on a new compilation. How strange is this odyssey of the Blade Runner score being released? Back when I was searching the albums in HMV in 1982 I would never have believed that some thirty years later some of it would still have yet to see the light of day,much of the music released only in piecemeal fashion over several releases. Maybe within ten more years the rest will see the light of day. Time will tell.

Where’s the love for BRAINSTORM?

Where’s the love for Brainstorm?

Brainstorm must have the most beautiful, visually arresting title sequence of any film I’ve seen. Over a screen of darkness pierced by glistening shards of static, a choir sings accompanied by rising strings, breaking into an orchestral climax as, in a burst of shimmering lights and spinning geometric shapes, the title ‘BRAINSTORM’ breaks onscreen, curving and expanding outwards as if in 3D. The image is simply breathtaking, always has been. Its beautiful work.

Mostly remembered for being Natalie Wood’s last film (she died during its production), Brainstorm was a commercial and critical failure on its release and has been largely forgotten in the years since. Released now on Blu-ray, the disc is non-surprisingly barebones, just dumped on disc without hardly any consideration.  But here is a film that deserves so much more; no matter how deeply flawed the film is, its one with great ideas, considerable ambition, and one hell of a story behind its making, seeing as it was Wood’s last film and that it ended Douglas Trumbull’s directorial career.

Two brilliant research scientists, Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) and Lillian Reynold s (Louise Fletcher),  have developed a revolutionary device to record and share other people’s experiences; sights, sounds, even feelings.  The technology will revolutionise communications and has seemingly endless possibilities – both good and bad. Michael’s marriage to Karen (Natalie Wood), a product designer,has broken up, and they are in the process of selling their family home and parting forever when a breakthrough with the invention leads to Michael and Karen working together on developing a working prototype of the device. Demonstrations of the tech are given to the board and financers with great success but it comes under the scrutiny of military paymasters who decide to take over the project for military applications.  Lillian Reynolds, already suffering ill health, is stressed by the developments and one night  suffers a fatal heart attack in the laboratory- realising she is dying she puts on the device and records her final moments, the device still recording data after she has died.  Michael decides he must play the tape Lillian left him, but his boss (Cliff Robertson) shuts him out of the project and outlaws the tape, the military taking over completely. Michael and Karen, reunited by a shared empathy gained through the tech prior to Lillians death, have to work together to thwart the military’s schemes,  and get access to the tape and play Lillians’ post-death experience.

It’s such an intriguing storyline, asking such amazing questions about identity, emotion, empathy and, yes, death. To its credit the film actually attempts to answer many of those questions and while it may fall short it should be championed for at least trying.  In today’s cgi-dominated fx era, the visual effects may have lost some of their impact but that shouldn’t detract from the achievement back in the optical-fx days of bringing to the screen the post death experience of reliving ones life, experiencing a representation of hell, and a celestial rise towards a visualization of Heaven- in a mainstream Hollywood movie no less. But beyond the flashy visual fx spectacle there is a real drama here, albeit hampered by a flawed script and the production problems that would hinder the films completion for two years.

Brainstorm was also an attempt to actually advance motion picture technology, in both the filming and projection of the medium, in a similar way to how James Cameron did with Avatar in 3D many years later. Trumbull had developed a new filming technology named Showscan, which basically involved filming and projecting film at 60 frames per second. Trumbull had questioned why films continued after several decades to persist with the 24 fps standard, and found through experimentation that 60 fps was an optimum frame rate for fooling the human brain and creating images of astounding clarity.  I remember back in the late ‘seventies an interview with him in Starburst magazine that described the process and its advantages. Images were claimed to have an incredibly fluid, three-dimensional quality; imagery of the projection screen being pushed from behind actually looked like the screen was physically being pushed by someone behind the screen, rather than being a projected image of it. The costs however of completely revamping cameras and lenses and also cinema projection systems was highly prohibitive however, particularly back in a time when cinema attendances were struggling.

Trumbull intended Brainstorm to be a vehicle for the technology, filming ordinary scenes in 35mm at 24 fps as usual but then switching to 65mm Showscan at 60 fps for scenes of the Brainstorm device scenes, so that audiences would have suddenly heightened experiences intensifying the sequences.  But the costs were simply too prohibitive, the technology perhaps just too far ahead of its time (now, some four decades later, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is being filmed at higher fps with technology similar to Trumbull’s original Showscan).  Trumbull had to resort to  a cut-down version of his original approach; he shot the objective “real world” sequences in 35mm with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio; the subjective “brainstorm” sequences were originated in 65mm and with a 2.20:1 ratio. Cinema presentations, particularly with 70mm prints, must have been quite impressive (albeit not as mindblowing as Trumbull originally intended); the 70mm and 35mm scope release prints had the 1.66:1 footage pillarboxed within the wide frame, the image suddenly opening up into full widescreen for the subjective shots .

The new Blu-ray attempts to recreate that cinema experience by showing the 35mm sequences pillarboxed (black borders above, below and either side) and only going ‘proper’ widescreen for the subjective shots. I also believe that the 35mm material was recorded/played in mono, with the audiofield widening into an exaggerated stereo surround effect for the 70mm shots to further heighten the impact.

On a big cinema screen it must have worked, but on a home television screen it doesn’t fare so well, even though its an admirable attempt and quite enlightening. I first saw the film on VHS back in1984 so have never really been able to experience it that way until now. Unfortunately the majority of the film being so pillarboxed leaves the impression of watching something on youtube, betraying the HD advantages of the format and the mono sound and deliberately ‘flat’ photography only enforce it. Perhaps a dedicated new HD remaster would have solved such issues but of course, no-ones going to go to such trouble for Brainstorm. It’s a wonder it has gotten any HD release at all, and I’m grateful for what we’ve got.

Brainstorm commenced principal photography in September 1981,  but there was quickly tension on set, Christopher Walken somewhat at odds with his director regards the approach to filming. There were reports of  Douglas Trumbull  losing control of the actors. As the production fell  behind schedule, many felt that Trumbull was far more focused on the film’s technical challenges rather than the performances of the cast. Personally I find that odd, as one thing the film does have to its credit is fine performances from its main cast, particularly leads Louise Fletcher, Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood. However, writer Robert Stitzel claimed that “…it was chaotic because of Trumbull’s complete lack of control over what was going on, and Walken was pretty much directing his own scenes and doing his own thing.”  MGM studio chiefs were understandably rattled and started to have serious concerns about the film.

Further complicating matters were reports concerning the chemistry between Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood; not that there wasn’t any, but rather that there was perhaps too much chemistry. Rumours soon surfaced of an affair, and even reached the ears of Wood’s husband Robert Wagner causing him to break filming of tv show Hart to Hart in order to fly to the Brainstorm filming locations. There was scandal in the air.

By November, the cast and crew returned to Hollywood to complete filming at the MGM studios.  After Thanksgiving, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner decided to spend the holiday weekend aboard their yacht, the Splendour.  On the night of November 28  Natalie Wood went missing, and the following morning her body was found floating in the water nearby. It was later decided that under the influence of alcohol Wood had gone on deck in the night and fallen overboard, hitting her head in the process, likely knocking herself unconscious and drowning in the water. Wood’s death was a shocking event that rocked the entertainment industry, and as Christopher Walken was also onboard the yacht that weekend, rumours of the onset affair circulated, setting speculation and tabloid stories wild. To this day, speculation and rumour continues, with the accident being re-examined by authorities only last year.

Naturally Wood’s death  left the film with an uncertain future. Already nervous about the film’s problems, MGM siezed the opportunity to simply write the film off, shutting down the production and claiming on the completion insurance with Lloyd’s of London to recoup all incurred costs.  Trumbull however claimed that the film only had three weeks of shooting left, with the majority of Wood’s scenes in the can, and fought against the studio for the opportunity to finish the film. Somewhat bitter negotiations then followed, as Lloyd’s investigated as to whether or not the film could indeed be completed; it was, but it took some two years. MGM refused to finance completion of the film, but a deal was settled in which Lloyd’s paid around $7 million for the film to be completed.

Brainstorm was finally released at the end of 1983, some two years after Natalie Wood’s death, with a title card dedicated  to her memory at the end of the credit crawl. Reviews were mixed at best, the film flopped. It is said that Christopher Walken has never seen the finished film.

Douglas Trumbull may have won the battle to get the film finished, but it left him bitter about the whole experience and he  would never direct a movie again. “I have no interest…in doing another Hollywood feature film,” said Trumbull at the time. “Absolutely none. The movie business is so totally screwed-up that I just don’t have the energy to invest three or four years in a feature film. Moviemaking is like waging war..”

Back in 1984 when I first saw the film on a VHS rental, I was totally blown away by it. I was utterly swept up in the grand ideas, the emotion; I recall completely believing it, convinced at films end that there was life after death and that our striving to get to the stars was simply an unconscious drive to get to Paradise.  So it was somewhat a bewildering crash back to reality when the tape ended and the tv switched to the BBC and a Paul Daniels magic show. Talk about coming back to Earth with a bump. But still, I was so enthused about the movie. The cast was great (it was the first time I had ever seen Walken or Fletcher in a movie, and both are outstanding), and the James Horner score just totally blew my mind.  I spent all the money I then had on buying the soundtrack album on vinyl, a TER release that I still have today. To this day I still think it is Horner’s best score and champion the need for the original soundtrack to be released in complete form (the soundtrack album is a re-recording).  The visuals and the music have great power; indeed some of the best moments of the film are pure cinema- particularly the Michaels Gift To Karen sequence, in which Horner’s score takes centre stage and the film becomes a Terrence Malick movie, as Michael & Karen achieve an empathic understanding by sharing each others memories of their courtship and marriage. It’s simply magnificent cinema, powerful stuff.

Of course the film isn’t perfect; it is clunky in places. The script is predictable, even formulaic at times, some of the characters don’t ring true. But if it ultimately fails then at least it tries and fails. Over the many years I have watched the film many times, and in truth sometimes it seems not to have aged well. But then I watch it again and it feels like a breath of fresh air. A middle-aged cast, a stirring score, grand ideas; there’s much to be said for the film, and it has to be said some of the most interesting films are the failures, the films that don’t succeed, films like this years Prometheus.  The Brainstorm Blu-ray release just out in the States is region free but as already noted is a mixed affair. It is indeed very enlightening to view it (via the changing aspect ratios/pillarboxing) per it’s cinema presentation (VHS was a horrible pan and scan travesty the likes we have thankfully forgotten since DVD brought widescreen to the masses), but it really needed a proper new remaster I think. A Trumbull commentary would have been wonderful but considering his views on the industry that’s perhaps not surprising, likewise the lack of any featurettes.

Where’s the love for Brainstorm?

One For The Money

Never was there a more apt title, particularly as I’ve read that Katherine Heigl was paid something in the region of $15 million to star in it (and took a producer credit too). One For The Money is a bloated mess of a movie that somehow cost something like $40 million to make and yet looks and feels like a tv-movie of the week. Indeed there’s nothing here that the average cop tv show of the ‘seventies couldn’t have done much better.  Lightweight to the point of floating off into the stratosphere, this was a pretty dire romantic/comedy/thriller with a plot so aimless I lost track by the mid-way point.

Based on a popular series of books (eighteen of them, I’m told, which would infer great popularity but I’ve never heard of them, guess I’m out of the cultural zeitgeist for sure), featuring a sassy, badass rookie bounty hunter by the name of Stephanie Plum, One For The Money was evidently an attempt to launch a series of movies aimed squarely at a female demographic- it’s a typical ‘chick-flick’ movie.  But why a major Hollywood movie? Why not a tv show?  I can see how the format would have well-suited a tv series (something as light-hearted as Chuck, for instance) and the way it sets everything up it just feels like a pilot for a tv-show. Up on the big screen it seems rather vacuous and pointless. There’s no attempt at art here, or any pathos, it’s just very dumb fun, and you get the feeling its everything the film-makers wanted it to be, a movie made with expectations as much toward video sales as cinema tickets, as much towards Sunday afternoon Network tv showings as an audience in front of the silver screen. I’ve hardly seen a film more ‘straight to video’ than this one.

When did Hollywood start aiming its aspirations so low? I remember back in the ‘seventies when Star Trek:The Motion Picture was being advertised- the words  ‘The Motion Picture‘ really meant something back then. Regardless of how the actual film turned out, when it was being made there was a chasm of difference between a tv series/tv movie and a Hollywood Motion Picture (well, there at least seemed to be).  But things have changed so much since then. There doesn’t seem so much of a gap between television and movies anymore (indeed, Cable Television in particular can be argued to surpass in quality what is seen in a cinema these days).

That One For The Money could be so lightweight and yet somehow cost $40 milion and still feel like a tv-movie, well, there’s clearly something wrong. I’m not suggesting it had to have a $100 million budget and loads of bang and fx and stunts etc, but really, I’m suggesting it shouldn’t have been a movie at all. It should have been a tv pilot.   If  I’d paid £16 to watch this at the cinema with my wife I’d have felt I’d been robbed; even for a Blu-ray rental it felt like a wasted hour or so, but I can hardly imagine how I would have felt departing a cinema having paid to watch this. There was just the impression that no-one was really trying, as if it were just about the pay-packet for the cast and crew, and perhaps an easy buck for the studio jumping on a popular book series.

Most distressing of all though- Katherine Heigl isn’t a bad actress, and she’s certainly easy on the eye, but really, $15 million? Is the world mad? The more I read about the inflated salaries of Hollywood’s supposedly A-list talent the more I shake my head at the insanity.  I don’t blame Heigl particularly;  God knows so many others are getting paid similar amounts, the numbers they are paying the likes of Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler are just shocking, frankly, considering their ‘talent’ and the horrible films they are in.  Is Hollywood so awash with cash that it can waste dollars like that on a generation of actors that are, frankly, utterly inferior to those of past generations?  I’m sure some directors could make an entire movie for $15 million, and a better movie than One For the Money at that.

Prometheus on Blu

Reports are coming in regards the Blu-ray release of Prometheus due early October.  The French Amazon site reveals something of a mixed bag really- some three hours of documentary material/featurettes are possibly more than the film actually deserves, and fifteen minutes of deleted scenes are a tease, frankly, as there is tellingly no word of any Directors Cut. The film is being released, by the looks of it,  in original theatrical 2D/3D versions only.   This pretty much nails my hope that we would see an extended cut that might fix the issues I had with the theatrical release ( a double-dip in 2013? Well, they just love to milk us for more dough, eh?).

It’d be annoying buying the current version which is, in my mind, a broken movie, as there is still likely every chance of the DC being released at a later date (Fox may be replicating the Avatar release strategy), but it’d be fascinating to see all those docs- Amazon France is reporting that there will be screen tests, the viral promos, a two-hour making-of and all sorts of stuff.  Plenty to keep fans happy no doubt.  Certainly the Ridley Scott commentary might be interesting; I don’t know how candid he might be about the film or his thoughts regards any missing footage destined for a later edition, or indeed an eventual sequel. Perhaps we’ll know by October how likely that sequel might be when the dust has settled on worldwide box office returns . Maybe the plan is to release the theatrical cut in October and if worldwide box office is good enough by then, announce a sequel and come up with a DC to tie in with that sequel in three/four years time.

That’s a lot of ifs and maybes, but darn it,  I was sure a DC might fix the film like Ridley did with Kingdom of Heaven. I’m annoyed that we’re not getting it, but hardly surprised; such things take time after all.  Wishful thinking eh?

Vangelis, “China”

1978 was a particularly productive year for Vangelis at the height of his creative powers, recording Opera Sauvage and China, and also Odes, a collaboration with Greek singer/actress Irene Papas  that featured contemporary interpretations of Byzantine and traditional Greek folk songs using electronics and modern instrumentation (well, modern in 1978 anyway).  Opera Sauvage is a particularly fine album, a soundtrack for a French documentary series, in style it is very similar to his later Blade Runner score (and is a good entry point into the Vangelis back catalogue for people who enjoy the Blade Runner film and music).

But China is the jewel in the crown- its a little under-rated even amongst Vangelis fans (released in 1979 and his first on the Polydor label, commercially it was not a success, apparently) but it’s my absolute favourite Vangelis album.  If I had a time machine, I’d love to be able to go back and sit in Vangelis’ Nemo studio and witness him making this album- it’d be absolutely fascinating to see him creating this tour de force. There is something richly magical about the entire thing. The idea that it wasn’t a great success makes it just that little bit more special-  a bit like a cult movie, or a book that you love that no-one else has apparently even heard of. Vangelis would of course have huge success with Chariots Of Fire a few years later, but really, the Chariots music isn’t in the same league as China. If I ever got the chance to sit down with Vangelis, the album I’d love to talk with him about would be China.

It’s an album, as the title suggests, with a richly oriental ‘mood’ and feel; a virtuoso combination of percussion and electronics… each track is a tonal painting akin to the classical works of Debussy, and the album is utterly timeless, as fresh-sounding today as when I first heard it. Vangelis evokes the passion and atmosphere of a mysterious Eastern land with delicate percussion, ethnic instrumentation and increasingly sophisticated electronics. Chung Kuo is a powerfully impressive scene-setting opener, and  The Long March which follows is a wonderfully melodic piece that would often be heard on televison programmes concerning the Orient (curiously I think all CD pressings have the running-times for these two tracks -one segues into the other- completely wrong, another piece of Vangelis quality control going awry as with the Heaven & Hell tracks fiasco I mentioned in yesterdays post).  The Little Fete is a wonderful piece, an 8th Century Chinese poem read to a relaxing and evocative piece of music; kind of thing you’d sometimes hear on prog albums that no-one would really try nowadays.

Again, this album has a link with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos documentary series; the end titles of each episode would sometimes feature a different music track, and one night it had a wonderful piece that I instantly adored. I had the show recorded on audio cassette to listen to and replayed the music track over and over, utterly ignorant of what it was. Fast foward several months and imagine my joy when the music played during the second side of the China album! The track is Himalaya and is my favourite piece of Vangelis music, a long (near eleven-minute) sedate musical journey, not quite ambient, it floats on the air.  I never tire of this track- I guess it just ‘clicked’ with me. Its the album highlight and I have read that its one of Vangelis’ personal favourite pieces. I don’t know how true that is, but I like to think it means Vangelis and I have something in common!

Vangelis, “Heaven & Hell”

I still get chills whenever I hear 12 o’clock from Vangelis’ Heaven & Hell album. It’s a hauntingly  atmospheric piece, vaguely akin to those Ennio Morricone soundtracks featuring the voice of Edda Del’Orso. It’s light on the synths but rich with melody and grace; which is what most of the album is.  It dates from 1975 and Vangelis’ Nemo period, when he lived in London and operated from his private studio near Marble Arch.  Departing from his prog rock roots, this is a classical album really, a mix of (surprisingly few) keyboards, voice and percussion that would become a defining, and returning, sound for Vangelis with later works like Mask, Mythodea and soundtracks like 1492 and Alexander. Indeed, listening to Heaven & Hell you can hear where all those later works came from. It all comes across as a huge production, a battle between the forces of Heaven & Hell represented by the chaos of Hell and the serenity of Heaven; considering when it was produced its frankly a remarkable album and one of my very favourite Vangelis works.  It’s not neccessarily easy listening- Vangelis deliberately created a cacophony of sound to represent Hell, an inferno of madness that assaults the ears,  purposely at odds with the ethereal grace of the Heaven sequences, particularly that of Movement 3, which is the piece I first encountered, as it was used as the title theme for Carl Sagan’s wonderful Cosmos documentary series of 1980 (I guess Vangelis owes a great deal to Sagan’s show, as it utilised a great deal of Vangelis’ music; there was even a single released here in the UK of Movement 3).

The version of Heaven & Hell released on CD is pretty infuriating though, and has been in its various remasters, as the individual tracks from the original vinyl album have been merged into two single tracks, that mirror the albums side a/side b. So while I’m referring to tracks as 12 o’clock and Movement 3, or Intestinal Bat, it’ll really mean nothing to anyone buying the CD and being faced with Heaven & Hell Part 1 and Heaven & Hell Part 2, particularly as the suites force you to hear all the ‘hell’ and the ‘heaven’ mixed into long music tracks. Only longtime fans who owned the album will know what I’m referring to. Its a lazy and dispiriting situation, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Vangelis was behind it. Its all very well having the music tracks segue from one to the other but the CD should be enabled to go to the parts the listener wants to listen to. As an album its a powerful and mind-bending musical work but the listener should have the option to dip into it. Oh well, I guess that’s what mp3-editing software is for, and I’ve ‘edited’ down my CD rip into separate tracks- easily done but it shouldn’t have to have been done. There you go Vangelis my first moan, and not my last (you see, being a Vangelis fan is a very trying/rewarding/infuriating thing, as I’ll show when I feature other Vangelis works on this blog).

The album is ridiculously cheap on mp3; just £1.78 on Amazon.co.uk which just boggles me, frankly. Whatever happened to the music industry? No wonder a ‘proper’ remaster on physical CD will likely never happen, there’s no market for it anymore when you’re practically giving away mp3 versions of inferior masters/sample rates. Far cry from buying these things on vinyl and cassette back in the good old days and really listening to it. But anyway, before I digress into generation-gap ‘good old days’ nonsense, I’ll just point out if you’ve never heard this you really should, as the price of the mp3 is ideal  for a curiosity dip. You may hate it but you may really, really, really fall in love with it- and that’s got to be worth the risk, eh?

Anyway, I thought I’d start trawling through the Vangelis discography as he has a new compilation album out in a few weeks, and soon after an album of his Chariots Of Fire music that he’s reworked for the London stage show that cleverly/cynically (delete as appropriate) ties into the coming Olympics hysteria (no, I’m not a fan of our Olympics 2012. The media has gone bonkers over here). Well, for us Vangelis fans releases are pretty thin these days so anything new deserves to be trumpeted/celebrated, even if it is yet another compliation/sad marketing cash-in.

The glorious heyday of Vangelis’ Nemo era is long ago I’m afraid- so long ago, so clear, to quote the title of a song from Heaven & Hell infact.


More Blood & Thunder

I’ve been negligent on writing my further thoughts of this book (having finished reading it some time ago).  Well, to be honest, the word reluctant would be better than negligent- as if I’m feeling too defensive about it.  In REH fandom circles, Mark Finn is highly respected, and his REH bio is well-regarded, and quite rightly so. However, it’s also fanned the flames of the fan community against L Sprague de Camp’s Dark Valley Destiny, which I think is wrong. Now, I’m not going to defend De Camp’s erroneous views on Robert E Howard or De Camp’s notorious business practices/what he did with the Conan stories etc.  But Dark Valley Destiny is possibly a better book than Blood & Thunder, or at least better written, so that while many will argue that Blood & Thunder is the definitive biography of Robert E Howard, I would argue that that book is yet to be written.

Well, I guess that’s opened the invite for lots of trolling and my name on the REH forums to be roundly castigated. So I had better qualify that statement; you see, Blood & Thunder is like sitting down for a friendly chat with Mark, a warm fireside chat about Howard and his work. It’s all very pleasant and familiar. But it doesn’t come across as authoritative, well-studied or written as Dark Valley Destiny.  Of course, I know that’s a misguided assessment- Mark Finn knows his REH and his research is extensive. It’s just how its written- Dark Valley Destiny may come to all the wrong conclusions but it cites all it’s sources religiously, whereas Blood & Thunder doesn’t.  Dark Valley Destiny reads like an analytical, serious detached work, wheras Blood & Thunder reads like a book written by a fan, which of course it is.  Is that a weakness? Maybe not, but its hardly conductive to an impartial read (the fictional sections describing Howard during his life are as misguided and ill-placed as they seemed in Blood & Thunders‘ earlier edition, more akin to something from fandom than an academic work).

That’s the biggest problem with Mark Finn’s Blood & Thunder, if it is one (and some would argue it isn’t)- it is that the book is somewhat too defensive of Robert E Howard, and perhaps also his family, the latter being a particular problem for me.  I realise that this is because Mark’s mandate, self-professed, is to refute the many assertions triumphed in L Sprague De Camp’s earlier REH biography Dark Valley Destiny (mainly the one that REH was just plain crazy). B&T  has many good points arguing against some of DVD‘s misguided claims but I think it actually goes too far.

For instance, I have always been disturbed by REH’s parents. Hell, they’d disturb anybody. His mother Hester was ill for a very long time with Tuberculosis, for most of her life infact, and she long felt that life had dealt her many an injustice. Her marriage to REH’s father Isaac was strained, if not broken, for most of REH’s life, and she smothered REH with attention throughout his childhood and into his adult years. Isaac, meanwhile,  was something of a wandering spirit, always looking for the next big break, uprooting the family throughout REH’s early years, settling for short times in many places. REH never had a sense of place, of roots, or any lengthy childhood friendships.  This obviously all had a huge impact on REH’s character.

REH was only human. I’d like to think that, having read so much about him over the last three decades, and all his letters published by the REHF, I kind of know him as best it is possible to know a dead man who lived and died thirty years before I was born. He wasn’t perfect. He was, as I say, only human. A sensitive, often isolated man with an incredible  gift for telling stories.  He was a multi-faceted and gifted human being, and  I would love to spend an hour in his company with a cold beer. I don’t have to put him on a great pedestal in order to champion his work. I can live with some of his racism, his views on reincarnation, so much else- he was a product of his time and place. We all are. Of course he throws plenty of n-bombs in some of his stories; I don’t have to approve in order to enjoy the stories.

But there we are; Robert E Howard was a imperfect human being who lived a very difficult life in spite of his great gift for storytelling.  I know he would defend his mother and father and his homelife with great passion, but I also know that his mother, his father, his home, all doomed Howard to a misguided act of self-destruction and an unjust early grave. I often think that had he somehow continued his relationship with Novalyne, his one and only girlfriend, he might have survived the crisis he felt as his mother neared death. Novalyne could have saved him- that sounds a little like love conquers all.  But maybe it’s true; when their relationship broke up, Howard was doomed. He had no other life, only the one that had chained him down for so long, and plunged him into despair, with seemingly only one way out.

It is a fascinating story, and one that Blood & Thunder tells fairly well. Its just not the authoritative, definitive telling I would have hoped it to be. No doubt one that fans will enjoy- impartial readers may well wonder what the fuss is about, or where all the Blood & Thunder went.