The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

gbuThe biggest news/contention regards the new release and remaster for Sergio Leone’s magnificent epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a matter of colour timing. Like many HD releases of catalogue titles, the remastering process seems to have invited a shift in the ‘look’ of the film. In this particular case there’s been a concious decision with a bias towards the yellow, giving the image a rather golden tint throughout. Very often colour-timings tend to move towards the blue, perhaps indicative of current fashion/sensibilities in cinematography- the move towards the yellow in this case is perhaps to give the film something of a sepia tone in line with its period Western setting, but who knows? One of the annoying things about these changes is that they are done without any announcement, let alone any explanation- the films are simply released as if ignorant of the inevitable outcry from purists. I do wonder who authorises these changes, particularly in cases such as this where the director has died and cannot voice an opinion.

To be honest, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is such a great, great film – likely my favourite Western- that any colour issues are almost immaterial. It was a great film on my family’s black and white CRT back when I saw it on a tv-broadcast pan and scan version decades ago. It was still a great film on fuzzy VHS and later widescreen DVD. On this Blu-ray it remains an absolutely fantastic film – it just looks somewhat different. I even think, on the whole,  it looks fine- the warmer palette really suits some sequences, and any negatives are roundly balanced by the simply astonishing level of detail in the image brought out by the remaster.

But of course, clearly some purists won’t be happy. Its a pity the original theatrical cut wasn’t included, perhaps boasting the original colour timing (this release is of the now-standard extended edition). I guess this is an example of how lucky we Blade Runner fans were with the multidisc Blu-ray we got a few years ago with all the cuts included. To many it may have looked like overkill- redundant that some of the earlier versions may seem (the Final Cut is really pretty definitive, fixing continuity errors that have bothered fans for years), its only the original theatrical and directors cuts of Blade Runner that really look like the film we saw all those years ago. There’s still things that look a little strange to me when watching the Final Cut.

So I guess I can understand why some fans of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are so aghast at what has been done to their beloved film. Its a funny thing these days; so many different versions/cuts of films, now different colour-timings are added to the mix, as well as new foley effects etc. Is there ever a truly definitive version of any film anymore? In anycase, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is such a monumental film, with such a classic cast and score… its certainly one for the Ages, and I still maintain it looks gorgeous on this Blu-ray.

 

 

 

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Star Wars OST audio cassette

100_5489A long, long time ago on a Birthday far, far away… well, February 1978 to  be exact, on my twelfth birthday (don’t do the maths, honestly, its too depressing), I was given this copy of John William’s Star Wars soundtrack on audio cassette.

Star Wars didn’t get released over here in the UK until late 1977, in London anyway, with it coming out into the regions some weeks later in early 1978, when I finally got to see it that same month of February as my birthday.  I loved the film, loved the music… well, its hard to explain the impact of Star Wars back then to people so inured these days to so many summer blockbusters.

Back then, soundtracks were pretty much the only way to ‘own’ a piece of a movie, a way to relive the film experience. Actually owning a copy of the film, on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray or whatever was something undreamed of. But yeah, my parents may have thought it a rather odd present choice of a young boy in England, but I really wanted the soundtrack. I chose to have it on cassette rather than vinyl simply because my parents had bought me a radio cassette player for Christmas a few weeks before, and after all, cassettes were The Future, weren’t they? No pops, scratches, clicks or jumps which records could be hindered with (so here we are decades later with vinyl enjoying a resurgence and most everyone under twenty looking at this wondering what the hell that plastic box is in the picture here). Yeah, and green plastic- even back then it looked a little unusual. I have to wonder, as the soundtrack was likely bought on vinyl more than on cassette, how many of these green things are still floating around.

100_5490Birthday presents come and go and they naturally vanish with time, but I made sure never to lose this cassette. No way I was ever losing this little beauty over the long years since. Its funny how you get attached to the oddest things. Of course as the years went on and the audio cassette format faded away this odd little guy started to become not just a reminder of a childhood birthday but something of a relic of a lost age, another defunct format. You’d think I’d learn, but we seldom do, as other media formats -Betamax, VHS, DAT, etc came and went. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Star Wars just goes on and on of course- I have VHS and DVD editions of the films themselves up in the loft and the Blu-ray box on a shelf behind me. Only being able to relive the film by listening to the score through headphones seems such a distant time.

100_5491I later bought the Star Wars soundtrack album on vinyl anyway, several years later in a sale (why exactly, I’m not even sure), and of course much later on compact disc in expanded form, but this little cassette was where it all started-  my first soundtrack. Which, when I think about it, is something of a Big Deal. It started an interest and appreciation of film scores that would last the rest of my life (my birthday present the following year was John William’s Superman: The Movie soundtrack, this time on vinyl- what wonderful years they were for soundtracks). This interest resulting in hundreds of CD soundtracks piling up all over my house. No doubt the CD format itself will follow the audio cassette into obscurity too, as has been threatened for years. That’s really rather depressing, especially considering just how many of them I have and all the time I’d have to spend converting them into mp3/digital files for posterity/future playback…

 

The Swimmer (1968)

swimmerThe Swimmer is a pretty astonishing, strange and  disturbing film. I first saw it many years ago on a late-night tv screening on a Friday or Saturday night, and it has, frankly, haunted me ever since. Its an arthouse movie by way of The Twilight Zone, starring a major Hollywood icon. There is just something about it- its something of a dream, richly nostalgic, full of joy of life at first but eventually slipping into a suburban nightmare. Very much like the kind of short story the great Ray Bradbury would write. Its a disturbing film that lingers in your head for days.

Its a fairly obscure movie, its strangeness pretty much condemning it to Cult status even back when it was first released, and it’s 1960s setting possibly limiting modern audience attention (I asked at work if anyone had ever seen/heard of it and got the usual blank response). And yet it features arguably Burt Lancaster’s finest performance. How can a Hollywood icons finest performance be lost in such an obscure movie? Its one of numerous questions raised by this enigmatic movie.

Its a hard film to review because it’d be too easy to reveal the films twists and conceits, and I’m certainly not here to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of such a great little movie. It really needs to be experienced with a clean slate, the viewer not knowing what is coming.

So, where to start?

Burt Lancaster stars as Ned Merril, the Swimmer of the title. He’s a middle-aged man who at the very start emerges from woods wearing only swimming trunks, entering the poolside garden of some old friends of his. He plunges into the pool and swims across, luxuriating in the water and the sunshine of a glorious summers day, reminding him of innocent days of his youth. He is far from home, further than he really knows. He looks down on the wooded valley below, his old neighbourhood, all those homes of old friends,  and reasons he can trek back home across the countryside from home to home, each of the homes having a pool that he can swim across and old friends to visit. An odyssey, an adventure like those of his youth! Swimming back to his own home and his loving wife and daughters that are waiting for him.

But already something is a little off- his friends haven’t seen him for a year or more, a spell of time that Ned seems ignorant or ambivalent about; they seem to exchange quizzical glances at some of Ned’s remarks. They ask where he has come from, what he has been doing; Ned doesn’t have a towel or shoes, just the trunks he is wearing. Where has he come from? Why is he so far from home? There is a mystery here. For the rest of the film the story takes an episodic form as Ned crosses the countryside swimming across each pool he finds, and revisiting old friends along the way; some are friendly, some far from it, and clues to the truth that Ned is ignorant of are slowly revealed. All the while the film proceeds with a dreamlike feel. Some of it is extraordinary- a sequence where Ned races a horse is a breathtaking combination of joyous acting, soaring music, beautiful photography and remarkable editing. Its the very cinematic definition of the exhilaration of being alive, an astonishing sequence of timeless cinema.

Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray (a US release that is thankfully region free)  is very impressive. The film itself is lovingly restored from a 4K scan, with vibrant colours and rich detail. The lack of commentary tracks is negated by a series of documentaries chronicling the making of the film totalling over two and a half hours, the original short story read by its author, stills galleries, trailers and informative booklet. Its a tremendous package for such a cult 60s movie; indeed if this isn’t one of the releases of the year come December I’ll be amazed. I haven’t been this surprised/pleased by a package since Arrow’s superlative Lifeforce from last year.

 

The Martian by Andy Weir

martianWhen I read the announcement several days ago that Ridley Scott’s next film (following his biblical epic Exodus) will be The Martian, based on a recent book by American first-time author Andy Weir, I was both surprised (had rather expected his next film to be Prometheus 2) and curious, as I had never even heard of the novel. Reviews on Amazon were mostly positive so I took a punt and ordered a copy- at the very least it would give me a break from my Game of Thrones marathon read (just started book three folks for those interested).

So The Martian arrived last Friday on a rainy afternoon and I picked it up to give a few chapters a go before starting my chores… and a few hours later I was still reading it (chores undone), already midway through it, thoroughly captivated by it. Okay, it won’t ever win any literary awards but good grief, as I read it I kept thinking, ‘this will make one hell of a bloody movie!‘. Its also one hell of a page-turner- if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was going out that evening, I’d have cracked on with the book and likely finished it in one sitting, something totally unheard of for me. It really is one of those ‘couldn’t put it down’ books.

Its got a killer premise- the third Nasa mission to Mars is beset by a mission-threatening sandstorm on its sixth day on the planet. Nasa informs the party to abort the mission and launch back  to orbit for return to Earth, but during the hazardous trip through the storm to the launch vehicle, one of the crew is left behind – presumed dead when he is struck by flying debris from the wrecked communications array and separated from the others in the storm, the life-signs from his suit indicating he is dead.

He awakes stranded on Mars, a space-age Robinson Crusoe- without any way to communicate with Earth, in a habitat designed to last  just 31 days. His crew-mates already on their way home, everyone on Earth believes him dead. “If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I’m screwed.” 

So anyway, I got back to the book at first opportunity the next day and completed it. I’d read the whole damned book in just two days. Weir obviously did plenty of research, and it certainly seems realistic and the technology plausible. He keeps the tension levels up with plenty of twists and turns, a tale of survival against incredible odds and the ending is great- it’ll bring the house down in cinemas.

As a pitch for a movie, its a no-brainer; its Apollo 13 times ten, hot on the heels of the hugely successful Gravity, and its clear what kind of a thrilling movie this might be if handled properly- indeed with Ridley Scott at the helm I’m salivating at the prospect. Its supposed to be coming out in 2015 which seems a bit of a quick turnaround considering that Scott hasn’t completed Exodus yet, but who knows? Matt Damon seems to be already attached so things are evidently moving with it. Whatever one thinks of the book, this really could be a great movie (I could see it in my head as I read it). Besides, if he’s busy with this, Ridley can’t crack on with that damned Blade Runner 2 project we’re being threatened with, so its a win-win in my book.