Robocop (2014)

robo14It’s impossible to watch this film without the 1987 original being on your mind. Paul Verhoeven’s classic movie was such a perfect film, part action-thriller, part satire, part commentary of the times in which it was made, a remake/reboot seems so unnecessary, other than as an opportunity to make some easy money from an established IP and fanbase. Indeed MGM has tried to run with the franchise with inferior sequels and tv series for so long and with such limited success, that in retrospect a remake was inevitable.  But it just feels so wrong, especially with it so toned-down with a PG-13 rating (a 12-cert over here) to maximise the films potential audience. The extreme violence of the original was part of its message, part of its success, neutering it like this just feels wrong.

The biggest crime of this film is its inability or unwillingness to really bring anything new to the table, other than a typical cgi polish brought to the proceedings (the original’s budget was limited and fx rather ropey but that’s since become part of the old-school charm of it). Biggest contention for me is the humanising of the title character. The original Rob Bottin design was more machine than man, but this new version looks more like a bloke in a metal suit. This humanisation is furthered by Murphy always knowing who he is, maintaining his personality, memory and emotional ties, while in the original, Murphy was dead and only fragments of his memory/personality remained. At the original film’s end, he may reply “Murphy” when asked for his name, but he isn’t really Murphy at all, just adopting a dead man’s name. In this 2014 version, he is always Murphy, always a good cop, and eventually rejoins his wife and child, a vindication/outcome denied in the brutal original.

Perhaps I was never an impartial viewer. That 1987 original and its long shadow just can’t be escaped. While I can understand the materialistic/corporate sense of trying to reboot the original, it just remains wrong in an artistic sense, especially when its so sanitised as this. It may not be a really bad movie, but it remains a pointless movie, as far as I’m concerned anyway. I’ve no idea if it was successful enough to merit a sequel of its own but I rather hope not.

 

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Portrait of TJ

100_5492Friends of ours lost their dog  TJ over the Christmas holidays following a short illness. I drew this picture of her for them from a photograph, came out pretty well considering its my first piece of artwork in years. This photograph doesn’t do it many favours -taken before it was quite finished, it also loses some of the detail/colour range of the original, but gives some indication of how it would finally look. It will be framed and mounted on a wall with some other portraits I did for them in the past, its drawn a little loosely as it will be viewed from a distance of several feet.

Strange Vinyl from the Garage…

Here’s a few weird vinyl things from the archives (i.e. the garage) that I unearthed Indian Jones-fashion recently…

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The Empire Strikes Back ep by Meco. Not quite in the disco groove of his original Star Wars disc, this remains a fantastic re-imagining of some of the themes from possibly the finest soundtrack, ever. Some of the tracks resurfaced on CD a few years ago but Meco couldn’t resist tampering with it, alas (maybe he was going for the authentic Star Wars/George Lucas ‘experience’). In a strange precursor to all those VHS copies of the pre-Special Edition Original Trilogy that we keep in the loft, this vinyl ep seems to be the only way to hear the original versions of Meco’s music. Nowhere near the hit that the original Star Wars disc was, this was actually something of a rarity here in the UK, especially in those pre-Internet days when you had to trawl through record stores looking for stuff. This copy actually belonged to a friend at the time who later gave it to me when his interest in all things Star Wars waned (i.e. he grew up- don’t know what that says about me still owning it decades later, but…) . Great music though- Meco’s medley featuring the themes for Darth Vader and Yoda was brilliant.

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Here’s an album also The Empire Strikes Back-related. After the success of Star Wars releases years before, with TESB  albums the RSO  label went a bit nuts (two versions of the soundtrack, the Meco disc,  a Boris Midney disc, even a jazz album). This is a story album- basically the film soundtrack (dialogue, music, sound effects) edited to tell the story of the film with a narrator to fill in the gaps/transition between scenes. These things may seem odd now, but back at the time they were really quite popular. The three Star Wars films all had one, as did The Black Hole… of course actually owning copies of films was impossible back then, so being able to listen to an abridged  version was as near as fans could get. This disc had a gatefold sleeve to help ‘see’ the film alongside the audio presentation.  Tried taking a picture of it without much success but hopefully you’ll get the idea…

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Meco’s huge hit with Star Wars a few years earlier had everyone trying to make money out of film scores, attempting to turn them into pop hit singles. This was a time long, long ago kiddies when there was such a thing as 7-inch 45rpm singles, the market for which was huge, culturally as well as financially- people by the millions used to tune into a top-40 countdown every Sunday.  Anyway, history lesson over, I feel old enough as it is. This oddity somehow surfaced on a market-stall in Willenhall, of all places. No doubt inspired by Meco’s Star Wars-themed music, this 12-inch single by some guy called Nostromo (a monicker inspired by Alien) tried to turn John Barry’s main theme for The Black Hole into a hit dance single, which of course it didn’t. Oddly, the b-side was an original piece titled ‘Gom Jabbar’, the significance of which utterly escaped me at the time. Kudos to the first comment that reveals where that song gets its inspiration from, and if anyone knows who the hell Nostromo is/was feel free to enlighten me.

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The beauty of 12-inch vinyl albums of course, particularly for movie soundtracks and the like, was the large reproductions of film artwork. It’s something we lost with reducing things down to the size of a compact disc. Album covers could be such beautiful things just to stare at when you were holding a big 12″ cardboard sleeve in your hands- a gatefold even better (I have the 2-disc/gatefold TESB soundtrack and its more than just an album, its a work of art/genuine souvenir of the film, with a booklet and everything, simply gorgeous).  Case in point, the soundtrack album for Logan’s Run, a great Jerry Goldsmith score graced with this extraordinary artwork. I believe its by Charles Moll, an artist who doesn’t seem to have done much other film poster work, mores the pity. I have to wonder if Moll designed the distinctive logo too, I presume so. The film itself may have been naff, but the bright colourful poster somehow evokes so much of 1976. At first glance it may seem cluttered, but close-up the artwork is tight and clean, highlighting objects and moments from the movie; I’d love to see what the original artwork looked like, what size it was. They certainly knew how to sell movies in those days, I miss great film posters like this, the 1970s were a great period for film posters.

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One last pic for now- this is the stark, arresting cover from the soundtrack album The Thing from 1982. The Thing always seemed to struggle for artwork on theatrical release, VHS, DVD and now Blu-Ray. Its one of those films that artists/marketing teams always seemed to struggle with. But to me they nailed it from the very start- I just love this cover design and think its such a perfect poster for that brutal horror classic. I gather its from the original pre-release in the USA, and got buried after the film tanked on its theatrical run. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, and I think this is great, but when the film died at the box-office I guess it was easy to blame the marketing. Damn it people, it was that bloody E.T. that killed The Thing (that long-necked critter killed Blade Runner too). Far as I know, this poster design was never used for any subsequent soundtrack release on CD or on any home video format. Don’t know about you, but I think it would look great on a Blu-ray edition. Hell, even further reduced on CD, its simple enough to work.

Well that’s it for now- maybe I’ll get some more albums out later. Oh go on then, one more. This is most likely (as far as I remember anyway), my very first record, which my parents bought for me from Woolworths back in the very early ‘seventies. Its another of those story albums. Can you imagine how cool that cover was to a kid about six years old?

 

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Barry Lyndon (1975)

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There’s a theme shared by both Barry Lyndon and 2001: A Space Odyssey. In both films we see humans dwarfed by their surroundings, by the immensity of space and mechanical artifice in 2001, and that of rural landscapes and immense interior spaces in Barry Lyndon. Director Stanley Kubrick seems to be telling us something about our place in the world at odds with our sense of self-importance, that our moods and concerns and loves are transient and unimportant when seen against the reality of time and space.  Barry Lyndon reinforces this theme with a stark epilogue at the end of its long three-hour running time, a brutal piece of text that reads – “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”  How typical of Kubrick; instead of Love Conquers All, rather Death Conquers All, making all our efforts and gains redundantalmost utterly dismissing any importance to the films events or the characters we have just shared those hours with. Life is cruel, and  it seems, quite pointless. The point Kubrick seems to making in this Historical drama, is that this is true of every era, of every people; everything that seems important and permanent is in fact temporary and will fade away. As will our own world, our own civilization. In the true scale of things, nothing means anything.

In Barry Lyndon, humanity seems to be losing something already-in conforming to social norms, marriage, religion, the individual is being swept up by the rules being formed by the world around him.  Society and convention is everything- when Redmond Barry is robbed by a bandit, both robber and victim behave with impeccable politeness. This society of 18th Century Europe has a structure all its own and the behaviour of humans within it obviously seems odd to us today, but it certainly looks and feels authentic as it claws towards the man-made artifice of our Modern Age and the Lunar city of 2001. Marriage is already something of a cold arrangement; there doesn’t seem to be any love or passion, just a ritual expected of the society that witnesses the highly formal proceedings. Redmond Barry of course gets married for the wealth and lifestyle he will gain-  Lady Lyndon perhaps hoping to replace her late much-older invalid husband with a dasher, younger, more romantic husband. Both are to be disappointed- Barry never really gets accepted by the high society he aspires to, and Lady Lyndon never seems to receive the passion she desires. Kubrick is not commenting on anything (and herein lies the root of the ‘coldness’ of his films) but rather reporting it; as if he were a documentary-maker with a time machine. Just as we observe (but hardly root for) the astronauts in 2001, in Barry Lyndon we watch people of the 18th Century with a cool reserve. Kubrick never asks us to root for Redmond Barry, indeed, he portrays him as a vain and selfish character who is rather deceitful and unlikeable. And of course, its all for nothing anyway; the very society and ornate landscapes of Barry’s world is doomed to fade like all those before and after it.

 

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For all the coldness of its central theme, it cannot be denied that Barry Lyndon is a ravishingly beautiful film; indeed, one of the most beautifully-shot films you are ever likely to see. Even the scenes of war and battle are beautiful to behold. Its a remarkable achievement, particularly so as this gorgeous cinematography is all in-camera. Films these days have their image altered in post to a huge degree; the image is essentially a lie, as the image can be brightened, darkened, contrast boosted, hues shifted, and individual areas, objects, everything, can be tweaked now in the computer to achieve the ‘look’ a director is after. The Final Cut of Blade Runner for instance often looks markedly different to the original films release, and many Blu-ray releases of catalogue films are greeted with consternation (see my post regards The Good the Bad and the Ugly a few weeks back).

With Barry Lyndon, Kubrick was clearly pushing film about as far as it could go. In order to appropriate the ‘look’ of 18th century oil paintings of the period, Kubrick endeavoured to shoot as much as possible in natural light (typically during the Golden Hour later so favoured by Terrence Malick), and in particular, even during the candle-lit  interior scenes. This was something considered impossible at the time, but Kubrick had a plan. Famously, Kubrick appropriated some old disused BNC cameras from Warner that were once utilised for the out-dated rear projection process, because they were the only cameras that could be adapted for a huge Zeiss lens designed by NASA for satellite photography which Kubrick knew he needed to achieve his aims. Cinematographer Ed Di Guilo  said “… it’s an extremely fast lens. It’s an f0.7 which is two stops faster than lenses that are even available today. Of course Stanely’s intention for these lenses was to shoot the famous candlelit scenes in Barry Lyndon. That being the case, he shot with the lenses wide open, f0.7. The consequence of that, he had practically no depth of field at all. It was quite a chore to do it, but of course the images were absolutely gorgeous.”

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One of the ironies of Barry Lyndon is that with all this beauty, the rather simple plot (the Rise and Fall of an Everyman), cannot measure up, is simply dwarfed by comparison, and this inevitably was an easy target for critics, who often attacked what they saw as a vacuous plot lost in a picture-book movie. Here was a criticism later used on the early films of Ridley Scott, and perhaps there with some justification, but with Barry Lyndon its rather an unfair criticism that misses the point of the movie. Yes, it is beautiful, and yes, the characters and their rather mundane concerns are lost in all that gorgeous scenery, but all deliberately so.  Kubrick has made an Historical drama that tells us something. The humans are indeed small (often literally so, in the framing of many of the shots),and are indeed leading pointless lives dominated by the social customs of their time, and no, we don’t particularly care for any of them. But that’s point of the film. We will suffer the same fate as that which we are viewing; we are viewing us, our world, ultimately equally as archaic and obsolete as the 18th Century recreated here. History will inevitably sweep everything away, all the wars and schemes and lies will all be for nothing. Barry Lyndon is a glimpse of how we will seem to those of centuries to come.

 

Solaris (2002)

Caught an airing of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris in HD on the TCM channel. Far as I know, the film has never had a HD release on Blu-ray anywhere in the world, so I was curious to see how it looks in HD. One word- beautiful.

solaris-planetOh go on then, another word- exquisite.  If its indeed true that there has never been a HD disc release of this film then that needs fixing pronto. Maybe Arrow Films might give it a go? I believe Solaris is a 20th century Fox release, and Arrow have licensed a few Fox titles in the past (Big Trouble in Little China springs to mind for one). If anyone one from Arrow ever reads this- make it happen, please.

Regards the film itself, it still holds up very well. Indeed, while it may be inferior to the 1972 Russian original (albeit more accessible), it remains a film that gets better with age. Its a slow, meditative film, an oddity back when it was released and only more so now as films get faster and louder with every summer season. I’ve always maintained that Alien entities are Unknowable- Star Treks friendly biped aliens with bumpy foreheads and perfect English are all well and good, but proper science fiction dealing with Alien contact should always be more 2001/Solaris than Star Trek. The biggest mistake Prometheus made was trying to explain the mysterious Space Jockey and the derelict craft from the original Alien. Contacting and understanding an Alien should be more like getting to chat with God- these are entities so utterly Alien they are, frankly, beyond our comprehension.

Which is the beauty of Solaris. Its generally accepted that the planet Solaris is alive, an Alien entity that can only communicate with humans through their memories and unconscious desires/fears… by taking corporeal form in the shape of loved ones, whether dead or left behind on Earth, the Alien Solaris attempts to understand our form of life, our physicality, mortality, our sense of space and time. Its possibly more it trying to fathom us out than us figuring it out, a fascinating realisation that to Aliens, we are as Alien to them as they are to us.

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I believe producer James Cameron (once slated to direct this film, thank goodness that didn’t work out) commented that the film was originally much longer, that it was drastically tightened up. I’d love to see that longer version. It occurs to me that Solaris would benefit from the tv mini-series approach of the recent Fargo series. I’m certain most fans of the Coen brother’s cult movie were horrified at the prospect of it being transferred to a television series but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the year, possibly even superior to the original movie, The story of Solaris spread across a ten-episode miniseries, with more characters on the space station and hence more visitations and encounters, and more time to ponder man’s place in an increasingly strange universe, would be fascinating. Of course, there’s as much chance of that ever happening as there is a longer cut of Soderbergh’s film being released- a huge fat zero.

Noah (2014)

noahNoah is a remarkable, but rather flawed, film. For most of its running time its quite fascinating but also jaw-droppingly clunky and dumb, as if the sheer scale of the thing was too much for director Darren Aronofsky. Big budgets and huge scale can very often be at odds with intimacy and artistic vision. Everything seems huge and loud and spectacular, losing the focus of character and insight that made earlier films like The Fountain feel so personal. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the simple fact that it even got made, and then released in the version we now see -a case of a director getting away with a wildly ambitious project hot on the heels of a successful  release (in this case, Aronofsky’s hit thriller Black Swan).

The ecology/environment and religious dogma/mania, were major themes in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, and I think its a pity Aronofsky didn’t get to work out his anxieties on those subjects in a film of Dune instead of Noah. Because Noah is the Biblical story by way of a science fiction blockbuster. We are in a destroyed world with the existence of a Creator being Fact rather than any matter of Faith. Giant rock monsters walk the Earth, literal Fallen Angels, and the Wrath of God is Absolute and unwavering. There is no forgiveness or love from the Heavens, only a Divine Retribution for the transgressions of an entire species. Noah (Russell Crowe) acts as an unquestioning agent of God’s purpose, even to the point of  being willing to sacrifice his own family.

There is a subtext running throughout regards just how crazy Noah himself is, reminding me of the more successful/subtle depiction of madness in Black Swan, but its also clear that with a nominal reverence to the subject matter the film isn’t out to beat-up/character assassinate Noah to any great degree. Its notable that from the very start, Noah is one apart from the rest of his fellow men- he is alienated from common society, he and his family on the Outside. Is he chosen by the Creator because Noah is an environmentalist or because Noah is outside of the Common Man, a Biblical Travis Bickle? NOAHDisenfranchised, alienated, living a rather aimless existence of day-to-day survival, he is quick to seize the opportunity of Purpose, particularly Divine Purpose. I kept watching the film wondering if some comment was being made about Religious Dogma in our modern world and the resultant fragmented societies and violence we see on the news everyday, but I guess that’s some other, smaller-scaled movie less interested in assaulting our senses with spectacle. I certainly appreciated some of the commentary (even though its coming from crazed Bad Guy Ray Winstone and therefore not aired in positive light) regards Man’s relationship with the Creator and his place in a world abandoned by that Creator -its interesting, and somewhat telling,  that God is always referred to as the ‘Creator’ rather than as ‘God’ (as if its one of Prometheus‘ engineers doing some Monday afternoon terraforming causing the Flood),so as to perhaps not offend viewers of non-Christian faith.

The supporting cast is sadly wasted. Jennifer Connelly never convinces- she just doesn’t look right.  Its not really her fault; she’s just too beautiful, her teeth too perfect and white, she looks too much the modern Hollywood Goddess, less the long-suffering life-worn middle-aged mother of three in a blighted, desolate world. The years pass by and Noah goes grey and wrinkly but Connelly hardly seems to change at all, something that seems increasingly ridiculous as the film passes. Its like something out of Old Hollywood’s Glamour Days. Anthony Hopkins just seems to mildly ham it up as he does these days in any picture, while Ray Winstone seems to be reprising his  Beowulf.

I realise I may seem rather disparaging regards this film. It is by no means a bad film. It just might have been something more. Certainly there are some thrilling moments of genuine brilliance during the film. A section where Noah recounts the history of creation, voicing the Biblical story of Genesis whilst the imagery depicts our modern scientific view of it,  is a spellbinding sequence of almost storybook cgi. Personal highlight for me though is a sequence shortly after the storm has hit- Noah and his family are sheltering in the storm-tossed Ark, tormented by the screams of the thousands dying out in the ocean waste. An exterior shot of  thousands of desperate survivors clinging to a mountain top, assaulted by the maddened waves, is one of the most haunting visuals of any film I have seen this year or last and worth the price of entry alone.