The Expendables 2

expend2The first Expendables movie from a few years back was like an action fanboy’s wetdream- it seemed just too good to be true; Stallone! Statham! Willis! Schwarzenegger! There must have been action fans giggling like hyperactive schoolgirls during the church scene with Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger together. That the film actually turned out okay (something of an A-Team for the Steroid Generation) was something of a surprise, and the film cleaned up at the box-office and on home video making a sequel inevitable.

Here we have more of the same, but louder, bigger, dafter, with Jean-Claude Van Damme  as the ultimate Panto villain. Indeed there is a distinct smell of the Pantomime about this film (he’s going to kill him! oh no he isn’t! oh yes he is!) and taken as a dumb action romp it largely succeeds. I won’t go into the plot; with a bodycount in the hundreds, who cares about the plot? Bodyparts are flying around faster than the one-liners. With a few drinks (and I can only imagine what the drinking-games are with a film like this)  this is great entertainment, with even more Willis, more Schwarzenegger, and 80’s icon Chuck Norris added to the mix too.  And Van Damme does make a pretty good villain, thereby improving on the first films one major failing. About all we are missing is Dirty Harry miscounting his ammo in all of the bedlam (feeling lucky, punk? Oh no he isn’t!).

But it can also be seen that, for a film that gathers such iconic action stars of the past few decades, it doesn’t deliver anything meaningful and in that sense has to be seen, alongside the first film,  as something of a missed opportunity. It could have been a serious, massive heroic film (imagine what James Cameron might have done with a cast such as this), but instead the film-makers have opted for the cartoon approach. Still, all things considered, this may have been the smart move anyway, as most of the guys are looking a bit long in the tooth nowadays and something too serious may have just came off as forced and silly. There’s only so much crashing through walls a guy due a bus-pass can get away with. At least with the approach that The Expendables films have taken, you laugh with them rather than at them. I guess that the films should be looked at as a celebration of the action stars of the past, and the movies that they made- on that count, for anyone who loved watched all those action films on VHS in the ‘eighties, the Expendables films are a blast. This second film, even on Blu-ray, even looks like you are watching an ‘eighties film on VHS- either its deliberate or this has a shocking transfer. But still, taken for what it is, its great entertainment. I’d love to see a third movie. Come on Stallone, just one more. Please?

 

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Total Recall (2012)

totalLate in 1981, the author Philip K Dick was invited to EEG, the facility where most of the Blade Runner visual effects were being produced. Dick never lived to see the film released, and never saw the complete film- however during that meeting he was shown about 20 minutes of footage, most of it the fx work done by EEG.  Dick was shell-shocked, stunned by it.  The visual effects supervisor David Dryer recalled, “Let me tell you, that was one of the most successful moments of my career. Dick went away dazed.”

I can only imagine what Philip K Dick would have thought had he seen the 2012 incarnation of Total Recall, somewhat loosely based on his short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”. Visually an uneasy hybrid of Blade Runner and Minority Report (with some I, Robot thrown in), its visuals would likely have simply blown Dick’s mind and left him a gibbering wreck.  Regardless of the films other qualities, its a remarkable-looking film, and indicates how far films have come since 1982, and also how hard it will be for Ridley Scott to make his Blade Runner sequel and still stay ahead of the curve.  Total Recall is incredibly stupid but it looks just how a Blade Runner sequel/remake would likely look.

But it is incredibly stupid.

It’s the future. Chemical warfare (Do Androids Dream’s World War Terminus?) has wiped out most life on Earth, and only two territories capable of sustaining life remain: The United Federation of Britain  and The Colony (present-day Australia), linked by “The Fall,” a high-speed transit system that cuts through the Earth like a Jules Verne fever-dream (neither territory seems to be within a Dome or anything, so why they are immune from the blight affecting the rest of the world isn’t clear, and betrays the inherent lack of logic and thought in the film- its best not to think too hard whilst events unfold.)

Workers from The Colony travel to the UFB via The Fall to construct  police robots that assist human law enforcement in the high-tech police state. A worker from The Colony, Douglas Quaid (Collin Farrell),  married to emergency worker  Lori (Kate Beckinsale), awakens every morning with a recurring dream of another woman, and of them being chased by unknown assailants. Quaid visits Rekall, a dream-parlour where false memory implants spice up the humdrum lives of the populace (what’s humdrum about Quaid’s life is open to question; Lori is a sexy, beautiful wife and his life is hardly mundane, commuting to work through the centre of the Earth everyday, but nevermind).

As anyone who has seen 1990’s Total Recall will be expecting, Quaid’s visit to Rekall goes horribly wrong, the process partly re-activating Quaid’s ‘real’ memories, revealing that he is, in fact, a super agent. Single-handedly killing twenty armed law enforcement officers who come to capture him, Quaid goes on the run, learning  his life is a lie and his identity an implant.  And the woman of his dreams is very real.

Its an intriguing storyline and open to development beyond that of the 1990 film- indeed, averse as I am to remakes, this was one I actually didn’t mind, open to the possibilities of the film. But alas it turns out this film doesn’t really intend to do anything other than amplify the violent man-on-the-run premise of the original, whilst ditching all the 1990’s film’s references to Mars presumably because, well, every film set on Mars tends to bomb (John Carter, anyone?). Once Quaid has visited Rekall the film is off on one long chase sequence and lots (and lots) of action. Some of it is truly astonishing. As a dumb action sci-fi piece it works very well, but the 1990 film already nailed that anyway, which makes this 2012 edition fairly redundant. By the films latter stages it even gets a little boring, as the cartoon chase/action stuff dominates everything and whatever slim plot/mystery there was evaporates in the face of  the spectacle. But it is rather enjoyable if you leave your brain elsewhere, and I give the film a big thumbs-up for setting much of it in a futuristic police-state London, complete with Big Ben and red buses, as opposed to locating everything in a future LA or Chicago or New York or similar.

Farrell is pretty good but also pretty much wasted- he looks like he would have been great in a ‘proper’ (serious?) Blade Runner sequel/remake but any muscle-bound action star could have managed the part he is given here. Shame. So anyway, worth a look but with a cautionary nod towards switching your brain off first- just enjoy the ride and the pretty pictures.

Three Grail Soundtracks of 2012

The guys over at the filmscore monthly forums have a word for their most wished-for and cherished soundtracks; they refer to them as their Grails. Its a term usually reserved for those titles that, over the years, have gained an almost mythical standing, usually due to rights issues or ‘lost’/destroyed recording masters. Hollywood has not always seen soundtrack scores as marketable commodities outside of the film itself, and cost-cutting or negligent archiving has resulted in many scores being lost forever. Over the past few years however researchers have discovered many scores thought lost to the ages, and as Hollywood studios recognise a new revenue-stream from old films, specialist labels like Intrada, FSM and La La Land Records have released many gems as limited-edition CDs.

startrektmp12012 has seen the release of three items that might be considered ‘Grails’ of mine. The first one was early this summer with the release of La La Land’s three-disc edition of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I have loved this score ever since I first heard it when seeing the film back in 1979, and subsequently bought the vinyl soundtrack album and later on further incarnations on CD. It’s a rich and powerful symphonic work that deserved a better film- indeed, I’d contend that the score is the best character in the film, its such an important element to the flawed, overly-rushed-to-release movie. This three-disc edition of the soundtrack is a dream come true to its fans; the complete score is spread over two discs, followed by several early pieces discarded from the score as themes were revised and redone, accompanied by the original 1979 album sequence. This latter section is important, as it arises that the album was mostly re-performed music conducted by Goldsmith during the scoring sessions, so the album we heard for so many years was not the score as heard in the film. Disc three features a further 74 minutes of alternates, rehearsals and related oddities such as a Disco-flavoured instrumental single that is a sobering reminder of the era the film is from, and a song by Shaun Cassidy based on the love theme. Sometimes when I see the disc sitting on my shelf I have to reach out and pick it up in a ‘pinch me I’m dreaming’ kind of moment, just to check its real. After so many years waiting for someone to release the full score, to see it done so well and so complete, with all those unknown extras and sumptuous liner-notes in an extensive booklet, well, its a remarkable release.

As I write this I have a framed print of Frank Frazetta’s Conan painting “The Destroyer”, that I ordered from Frazetta’s own mail-order enterprise several years ago, hanging on the wall above me. Its a wonderful, amazing work of art that dates back to the original paperback covers Frazetta painted in the 1960s when REH’s barbarian became hugely popular. The ‘Howard boom’ that was fueled by Frazetta’s art and subsequent comics success of Conan culminated in 1982’s Conan:The Barbarian directed by John Milius and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film was quite successful and shot Schwarzenegger to Hollywood fame. Some thirty years later, the films wonderful score by the late Basil Poledouris remains one of the greatest scores of its time. Budgetary limitations on the film resulted in it being released in mono, impacting on the power of the films score and soundtrack during screenings, but the original album presented its highlights in stereo giving fans a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. The budget also impacted on the size and ability of the orchestras playing the music itself but to be honest I hardly noticed that whilst playing the score over and over. The album became the soundtrack to many RPG sessions and background music to my many paintings during my art student days.

conanThe music in the film is integral to the whole, particularly as for much of the film, dialogue is kept to a minimum. The film being pretty much wall-to-wall music, over the years, many fans began to ask about that music missing from the original album. It transpired that the original score elements had been lost or destroyed, leading to the composer himself abandoning his own efforts to release a more complete soundtrack album. Varese released a slightly-expanded edition using additional cues with fair to middling sound issues. Recently a remarkable re-recording, that had the blessing of the composer prior to his death, was made correcting problems with the original recording, and it was believed this would be the last word on Conan. And yet film  music fans have of late have become used to the adage ‘never say never’. After so many years of fruitless searches, the complete original score on 2″ 24-track reels surfaced at last and has resulted in a three-disc edition from Intrada. Whilst not as authoritative as the Star Trek:TMP set, as Conan was not such a major Hollywood production, nevertheless this release is another Grail for me. The Prometheus label’s re-recording wins hands-down on both performance and sound quality (although its differences are not always ideal) but this new Intrada edition is, after all, the actual original soundtrack, warts and all, and something we fans had believed lost forever. There are even nearly thirty-minutes of early alternates that are a complete surprise, featuring a spine-tingling version of the track  Orphans of Doom, and it includes the 1982 album sequence as a fine highlights version and reminder of what used to be. Fans might be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed/weary of so many editions of the score, particularly following the Prometheus set, but yeah, its another ‘pinch me’ moment for me.

Finally, the third Grail soundtrack release for me this year is La La Land’s breathtaking 15-disc box of the Star Trek: The Original Series scores. Its everything; the complete music for all the episodes of the three-year original series, including some sound effects and even music not used in the show. Over 17 hours of nostalgic joy. As someone who, as a kid, was simply in spellbound love with this show, this release, some 45 years after the show aired, is  just monumental. I only wish I could comment further, but unfortunately my (very expensive but to hell with the cost, it’s the original Star Trek! Its Christmas!) box set is, according to the USPS tracking website, still stuck in a sorting facility in New York. Has been for getting on for a week now, so yes, I’m getting rather concerned (although its insured, thank goodness) and yes, it looks like one big Christmas treat that I will not be getting this year, drok it.  So I’ll have to comment further when I actually get the damn thing, and in the meantime just drool and dream over the gorgeous pictures of the set. Agh.

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The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)

bond50Working my way through the Bond50 Blu-ray box, I’ve finally reached the first of the Bond films that I had never seen before- Roger Moore’s second outing as 007 in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Never seen it before, despite many ITV airings over the years- how weird is that? About as weird as finding out Lulu sang a Bond theme song. Never knew.

The weird feeling of unreality hearing Lulu sing a Bond theme carries on throughout the film- its a strange one. The whole thing feels rather rushed, and as the previous film, Live and Let Die, was released in 1973, it would seem evident that as this was speedily made and released just a year later, quality  would take something of a dive. There is definitely an apparent lack of ambition with this film. Moore doesn’t seem to be even trying, remarkably phoning-in a performance already, just two 007 films in. Thank goodness then for Christopher Lee, playing the films villain,  assassin Francisco Scaramanga- Lee is actually very good and pretty much saves the film from being a disaster.  He deserved a better Bond film really.

Oddly, I found myself actually rather enjoying it. Perhaps because I was watching it for the first time, perhaps because, as it is a Bond film I have heard little of  I really didn’t expect much.  It certainly seemed a better film than the insipid Diamonds Are Forever. The truth is that I kind of expect the Bond films not to age very well, particularly when compared to Daniel Craig’s  superb three 21st century outings, and indeed as I have commented regards Diamonds Are Forever, not even Connery’s Bond is immune from that.  At least The Man with the Golden Gun dispenses with much of the gadgets and comic excess that can ruin Bond films, and its  plot (Bond believes he is the next target of Scaramanga, a deadly assassin who never fails) is interesting and refreshingly free of megalomaniac villains with armies of henchmen intent on destroying the world/western civilisation.

Its lesser Bond, yes, but on first viewing at least, hardly the bottom of the pile. Films like this are the perfect reason for the existence of the Bond 50 set. I cannot imagine anyone buying this film separately but as part of a reasonably-priced 22-film collection its hardly something to cry over. The duds actually make the greats more great.

And yes, that’s the 93rd ‘new’ film I have seen this year. Time is running out, but I’m inching closer to the 100.

Too Many Movies! (Part Five)

Aha, here we go carrying on the list of the movies I’ve seen for the first time this year… and its looking like the magic 100 may yet alude my grasp... (damn you Lovefilm! Why did I have to cancel my subscription too soon?)

81) Chronicle

82) The Immortals

…oh boy what a stupid style-over-substance movie! Was there a script or just stage suggestions and fx storyboards? To think  films like John Carter get slated and yet things like this…

83) Man On A Ledge

…I suffer from vertigo; I really don’t like heights, so I can only imagine how excruciating (in a good way) this film would have been had I seen it at the cinema. As it is, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Cracking stuff. Actually had me thinking about Die Hard, quality-wise.

84) The Hunger Games

..I enjoyed this film, but its like the Rise Of The Planet of the Apes– its really just a tease for the next film. At least I guess as much, as I’ve no knowledge of any of the books, but this film seemed to end just when the story got interesting.  Really, its beginning to annoy me how many films are not complete, but rather first parts of a further story. ROTPA, The Avengers, The Hunger Games… I remember back when films had a proper beginning, middle and an END.

85) Safe

86) Jane Eyre

..no, I never saw any other film version of the story before I saw this, latest version starring Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikow, but goodness this is a beauty. I saw it on a DVD rental and it looked gorgeous,  beautifully shot- but would love to see it on Blu-ray someday. The film is apparently structured differently to the book so I would imagine its also somewhat different to earlier film versions. I found it fascinating and superbly acted.

87) The Cold Light of Day

..oh no! Henry (The Immortals) Cavill in another dire movie shocker. I hope that Man of Steel movie turns out better. Otherwise, he’ll be giving Nic Cage a run for the  ‘actor in most bad movies’ award.

88) The Raid

..as I didn’t see Dredd 3D, I can only imagine how close this film is plotwise. I guess I’ll find out in January. The Raid remains a nice low-budget action-fest with more than a few nods to John Carpenters early films, particularly Assault On Precinct 13. A number of times whilst watching The Raid I found myself wishing Carpenter still made brutal, simple thrillers like he used to back in the day.

89) Rec 3

…oh dear. I can see how the film-makers thought changing the tone of the series might be a good idea (and in itself a nod to Romero’s tongue-in-cheek zombie films) but no, didn’t work for me at all.

90) J. Edgar

91) Lockout

…incredibly, incredibly stupid. No, really, really, incredibly stupid. An assault on my intelligence. Kind of fun in a painful way.

91) Skyfall

..loved this. What a damn fine shape the Bond franchise is in these days. Wonderful.

92) Safe House

…and that’s it.  Still eight to go…

The Keep (1983)

the keepSaw this film many years ago, back in 1984 I think, maybe 1985, on a VHS rental. As I remember, I rather enjoyed it at the time, particularly the creature design. The premise seemed quite novel; set in World War Two, Nazis occupying a remote mountain keep unleash an ancient evil.  The film has been most notable for the fact that it was directed by Michael Mann (famous for Miami Vice, the classic films Heat, Manhunter etc) and also that the film is unavailable on current home formats due to rights issues (and an alleged campaign by Mann to bury the film). The other night it was on Film 4 so I set up the TIVO and have finally managed to see it again after over a quarter of a century- yeah, you know you’re getting old when you write lines like that.

Well, oh dear. This film hasn’t aged well at all. You can see the influence of Mann’s own Miami Vice tv series on this film; the slo-mo visuals, the electronic Tangerine Dream soundtrack. Miami Vice had a fine electronic music score by Jan Hammer breathing life into it, a heartbeat to the flash neon-drenched visuals. Mann was clearly aiming at something like that when he sought an electronic soundtrack for this period horror film. Back in the ‘eighties Tangerine Dream were extremely popular for (cheap?) soundtracks that were deemed ‘hip’ at the time. The group did soundtracks for films like Miracle Mile, Firestarter, and infamously supplied a replacement score for Ridley Scott’s troubled Legend utterly abhorrent to anyone who prefers the Goldsmith score it replaced. Its remarkable now that any of that TD stuff was popular at all- I have no real experience of their ‘pop’ albums, but their score work is dismal. The TD score to The Keep is that old familiar droning that is a poor fit for the period setting and yet also manages to make the film seem horribly entrenched in the ‘eighties.

The score doesn’t work, but neither does the film itself either. Its a mess. The acting is uneven at best, shocking at its worst, the script is shambolic, the editing confusing. Its clearly a broken movie. The films fans (and yes, incredibly, this film does have its fans) sees the mess and describes it as surreal, dream-like. Sorry folks its just simply bad film-making.  Now, I’ve read over the years that Mann fell out with Paramount Pictures, that his three-hour cut was edited down to under two-hours, that this was done behind his back. I suspect much of this talk is by apologists for Mann considering the fine films he made afterwards. Maybe there is a good film buried in the vaults somewhere but I doubt it, I doubt any Directors Cut could save this film.  Its just one of those situations where its unavailability on DVD or Blu-ray has lent the film something of a mystical status for some, as if its a  great film withheld from the masses. Well its not, its simply a bad movie perhaps best left in home video limbo. And seeing the influence of Miami Vice‘s style I wouldn’t grant Mann  immunity from the blame. Its just a wonder he had great films in him.