A bad way to Die Hard

die5Last night we were over the in-laws, and they put A Good Day To Die Hard on the telly, bless them. Well, I of course saw this once before and as Sean Connery would be amongst the first to remind me, never say never again. So there I was, a captive audience for a study of how not to handle a franchise.

Considering how much of a genuine classic the original Die Hard is, its doubly sad to  be reminded how the mighty had fallen with this entry. Maybe we are all guilty these days for simply wanting ‘more’. Rather than let a great film stand on its own, we always want more; a second, third, fourth film of the same. Perhaps its simply an attempt -usually in vain- to rediscover and re-experience that joy of something great and original, rare such as it is. Naturally as far as the studio is concerned, it has had a hit and wants another.

But its always difficult to rekindle/recapture that magic. You can try put a fresh spin on things, raise the stakes by making it bigger/faster/louder. God knows the Bond franchise, Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator…  Die Hard isn’t alone in having inferior sequels or stumbling fortunes.

So while fans bad-mouth the creative team and studio bigwigs behind the film, and the Crown Prince of Smug, Bruce Willis, phones in another jaded performance, maybe we should examine our own role in ever-declining franchises. If we walked out of seeing a great film without immediately thinking about going to see the sequel, then maybe we would see better, and more original movies. Why, after all, do we think we have a right to another, better, Bond? Does there even have to be another Bond, another Die Hard?

The Force is strong with this one…

100_5489From a blogger who had the Star Wars soundtrack on cassette given him for his twelfth birthday back in 1978, a very happy birthday to film composer John Williams, who is 85 today. Life would have much less joy in this world without this amazing man’s music.

The Force is indeed strong with him, 85 years old and still working, composing the score for another Star Wars film (Episode 8: The Last Jedi) this year. Quite remarkable considering that cassette I was listening to dates back almost 39 years ago. Bravo, maestro.

The Delightful Sherlock Potter

young-sherlock
See that kid shopping for wands across there…?

2017.12: Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

I never got around to watch this movie, one of those that slipped through the net even over so many years (thirty-plus years, where have they gone?!), and as a Spielberg-produced Amblin film from the mid-eighties, it’s always been on my to-watch list. So when it was screened over the Christmas holidays I took the opportunity to record it on the tivo and have finally gotten around to watch it.

And you know what? I’m watching it and I’m too distracted to really enjoy it on its own merits, and why? I’m watching it thinking I’m watching a Harry Potter movie.

Its all there. Sherlock and Watson, two boys in a fancy English boarding school, forming a trio with a young girl, Emma. There’s a fellow schoolboy with blonde hair who is a sneak and no-good rival to Holmes. There is a central mystery that unfolds that only our daring trio seem to be aware of or willing to tackle. The schoolboys have meals at long tables in a grand hall with the teachers at the head on a special table, and one of those teachers turns out to be the main bad guy. With all respect to J K Rowling, this was a surreal and bizarre experience. Young Sherlock Holmes is like some prototype Harry Potter movie.

On its own merits, Young Sherlock Holmes is a delightful old-school kind of movie, the kind we had so many of back in the ‘eighties that we took them for granted, back when Lucas and Spielberg and Dante and Donner were making family movies. Blockbusters with intelligence and heart. The music score is bold and full of melodic material giving the film a sense of self-identity that music scores so seldom do these days,  and the setting is lovely and full of character. The pacing is steady and the effects rather restrained in hindsight (at the time, they may have seemed a bigger deal, but it pales in comparison to the number of effects shots thrown into so many blockbusters these days). The acting is pretty fine throughout the cast. I can well understand why it has its fans, and it’s sad that it didn’t gain enough of an audience at the time to justify what was no doubt intended to be a series of Young Holmes movies. If only the studio had risked another film, they may have had better success- indeed, these days I’m fairly certain, given Hollywood’s keenness for franchises, that the film would have gotten a sequel whatever its lacklustre box-office. Maybe sequels were a tougher sell back in the ‘eighties.

But that Harry Potter thing. Its weird.

sherl2One last note, and this regards the cast. You know how it is, watching a film, particularly one a fair few years old as this,  you see someone’s face, and you think, ‘where have I see that face before..?’  It’s the kind of thing that could drive you crazy in the old days, but thanks to IMDB its a mystery easily solved. During Young Sherlock Holmes, it was the actress playing Mrs Dribb, a school nurse and (apparently) minor character in a neat piece of misdirection that I won’t spoil here. Anyway, the actress was Susan Fleetwood, likely familiar from Clash of the Titans and some tv work during that decade. Unfortunately my discovery was one tinged with some sadness, as I learned the actress died in 1995 aged just 51 years old. This kind of thing has happened before to me, watching films and looking names up on the IMDB. You see a fine performance frozen in time like that and then discover the person has died in the years since, and you can read their entire life in a biography of a few paragraphs. Its a terribly sobering thing.

Delectus

delectus1The box-set Delectus arrived on Friday. I booked the day off work, how sad was that- but then again, box sets of Vangelis remasters don’t arrive often. Collecting the Vertigo and Polydor albums from 1973 – 1985,  it comprises most of Vangelis’ Nemo Studios work other than unreleased soundtracks, the RCA albums and a few odds and ends (his Irene Papas collaborations on Polydor were remastered and released a few years ago).  Thirteen albums and still several albums from that period not included- Vangelis was certainly prolific back then. Akin to a fire of creativity and experimentation, that period at Nemo was his prime, no question.

I have to say that this box set is more substantial than I expected. The packaging is excellent and oozes quality. The discs are held in two gatefold cardboard sleeves the size of regular albums from the good old vinyl days, and the hardback book is 100 pages long, full of rare/previously unseen photographs of Vangelis and notes for each album. Each of the thirteen albums has its artwork reprinted on a full page opposite recording/production notes, which is a nice touch as its pretty much a full-lp sized reproduction of the cover art sparking all sorts of memories. Those photographs of Vangelis are quite extraordinary in places, rare insight into him working during that period and glimpses of that fabled Nemo Studios. How I would love to step into a time machine and go back and visit that place, during 1978 or 1979.

Of course, the biggest question is regards the remastering, as some of that remastering back around 2007 for the RCA albums proved problematic. Thankfully Delectus seems to comprise of remasters dating more recently, as I feared as Vangelis had remastered all his back-catalogue back in 2007 for release we’d just get those. I may be wrong, but these do appear to be different. I haven’t heard many of the remastered albums yet, but they do seem to be fine. Maybe a bit of the inevitable reverb has been overcooked in a few places but that comes to personal preference- I’ve heard Earth and the reverb there seems to work. Its a case of Vangelis feeling the albums should sound different for today’s audiences, something purists cry foul at, but its his music I guess. Maybe a little more of an issue is a bit of editing- a track on See You Later has had a final word (“obviously”- if you know it you’ll know what track I’m referring to) cut out, and the first movement of Soil Festivities has had almost a minute of closing ambient rain/thunder effects cut.

soilThis particular cut is a little curious but I think it is a matter of changing formats. Back when Soil was released it was on lp, and the first movement comprised the whole of side A. There was a natural break in the listening experience as the listener turned the disc over for side B, and the lengthy fade out eased into this. On CD or mp3, no such changeover is required and the listening experience flows immediately from movement one to movement two, so I imagine Vangelis felt there was no need for the long fade anymore.

I remember listening to Soil Festivities for the first time, over my freinds house one evening in 1984. Must have been winter, I think. We sat in the front room listening to it on his father’s hi-fi system. It was the vinyl album, obviously. We sat, listening to movement one, it sounded quite complex and dense and unlike anything I had heard up to then. Its always remained a favourite of mine of Vangelis’ albums. Maybe second only to China. But that night in 1984, it is like it is ingrained in my memory so clear.  Its like that, when you grow up with music and its the soundtrack of your life for decades afterwards. Thats why this release of Delectus is such a Big Deal.

What a genius Vangelis was back then.

Raging at Cain

cain2017.11: Raising Cain (1992), Blu-ray

Brian De Palma is some kind of crazy guy. He’s like Hitchcock without the ‘Caution’ button. I mention Hitchcock because De Palma is obviously so devoted to mimicking him through so many of his films. Hitch fashioned these great thrillers full of manipulation and sleight of hand but he knew where to draw the line, whereas de Palma has always happily crossed it, hopelessly inspired/devoted to making bizarre dreamscapes of Hitchcock movies. They don’t feel real, don’t even feel like films Hitchcock might have made, but rather films Hitch might have dreamed in his sleep after a night in the wine cellar. The same way that De Palma’s Obsession feels like a drunken nightmare version of Hitch’s Vertigo.

I’m in two minds about Raising Cain. Which is quite apt really, as its a film about multiple personalities. I should start at the outset by stating that I watched the director’s cut (or to be more precise, the non-director’s reassembly of the theatrical cut) and only afterwards watched some of the theatrical to get a grip of the changes. Basically, the theatrical cut is pretty much a chronological edit of the events of the story, whereas the other cut moves sequences out of order, heightening the mystery and sense of dreamlike weirdness. Neither version makes for a great film, although De Palma aficionados might maintain the directors cut is a great De Palma film (something else entirely?). It is generally considered to be the definitive version, which is why I elected to watch it first.

Fans of David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn might find much to enjoy in Raising Cain. There are many viewers these days quite happy to watch obtuse, lazily written and nonsensical films, as if not having plots or old-fashioned arcs or believable characters is actually a bonus, and style is everything. It pretty much sums up De Palma at his worst. His direction is never subtle, and his sleight-of-hand, such as intense distorted close-ups and off-kilter camera angles and slipping into slow motion now and again, always draws attention to itself, as if the style is the be-all and end-all. Which might be used as an excuse for the lazy writing and underwritten characters. The dreamlike sensibility of this film is only exacerbated by characters never behaving remotely normally. The cops, for instance, never talk or act or ever convince as being cops.

The story is.. well, what is it? Three arcs seem to run through the film and neither of them convince, neither have any foundation. Carter Nix (John Lithgow),  is a child psychologist who ‘suffers’ from having several personalities in his head, one of whom is a serial killer. His wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) is a doctor slipping back into a previously-aborted affair with a child patients father. And then there’s something about children being kidnapped for psychological experiments by Carter Nix’s own father (also played by Lithgow) who is believed to have died years before. There is no chemistry between Carter or Jenny, and her tryst doesn’t really convince either. Lithgow does a sterling job at chewing up the scenery in his three (or is it four?) roles. Davidovich blankly stumbles around like a horny frustrated wife in a permanent mills & boon daydream. De Palma runs amok with his POV camera and weird shots and film speeds. Nothing ever feels remotely real. We don’t understand why Jenny feels the need to stray or is unfulfilled with her husband, we don’t understand why Carter is even with her or why he does what he does, we don’t understand why the cops are so clueless or disinterested (some retired ex-cop seems to hang around the office until he barks up about a past case involving Carter’s father that kicks the ‘plot’ forward). Or why some guy in a van with a harpoon sticking out the back keeps moving backwards and forwards in a carpark waiting for the inevitable to happen. Or why it is prefigured by Jenny having a dream of losing control in her car and getting impaled by a statues spear.

So as a ‘normal’ film the film  doesn’t work at all. But as a dream put on film -unfocused, slipping forwards and backwards in time, repeating moments with dreams within dreams, it does offer a rather strange and compelling experience. Its like something De Palma dreamed one night turned into a movie, or what it would be like if we could plug into, Brainstorm-like, into someone’s dream. Is it Jenny’s dream?  I’m certain this film has its fans, as well as its detractors. I’m just not sure which camp I’m in yet. Its either utter rubbish or a work of genius.

Run for the hills- he’s talking 2016 Stats

statI’ve been meaning to sum up some of this blog’s 2016 stats (somebody out there loves stats) for the past few weeks, and it’s getting a bit silly now we are into February, so it’s now or never, and I’ll keep it short.

I never got a End-of-year report from WordPress this year, maybe they stopped it. So I’m using the stats from my blogs meta page.

The big deal regards 2016 was attempting to hit 100 new reviews, which I did just about manage. In total with all my other postings,  I managed a grand total of 159 posts for the year. Quite a feat, considering that in all of 2015 I managed just 68 posts. If I manage to maintain a roughly daily post on this blog this year (my crazy target for 2017) that 159 figure should be dwarfed, but that comparison between 2016 and 2015 clearly shows the extra effort I made last year.

The weird thing is (and stats don’t lie, they tell me) something smells odd in Ghost Towers, because the related stats regards ‘hits’ etc are a bit more mysterious. In the face of making over twice the number of posts, the blog’s other stats don’t suggest a similar increase. 2016’s 159 posts received 2,966 visitors and 5,056 views, while 2015’s 68 posts managed 2,306 visitors and 4,478 views. I’m not entirely sure what was going on there. 2015 had better posts, or 2016’s reviews were boring? Or is it, as I suspect, that 2015’s stats keep on rising over time in perpetuity (i.e. WordPress is counting visits to those 2015 posts in both 2015 & 2016, and on into 2017- in other words, those 68 posts have a heck of a head start). Maybe those End-of-Year reports we used to get were more precise.

Otherwise I have to wonder, was my writing worse in 2016, or were all those 100 reviews off-putting/boring, turning people away? Am I- shudder- boring people? With actual reviews taking more of a back seat in 2017 in the face of commentary and news posts as I try keep to a daily posting routine, maybe the figures for this year will show some change. Something to do with pretty much static follower numbers and the vagaries of Google/search engines? I don’t know. Maybe I need to branch out into Facebook and Twitter to raise the blogs profile.

Not that higher visitor numbers are the target of this enterprise anyway, as its not a private site trying to make money. I write this blog for the creative challenge and I value comments and opinions as response more than cold figures anyway, but those 2015/2016 stats are certainly a bit perplexing. Double the posts, double the views, that what I expected to happen, if only as a simple added input/output response. God only knows what will happen with 2017’s figures. Stats are great, don’t ya just love ’em?

The Reels of Fate

manin12017.10: The Man in the High Castle Season Two (Amazon VOD)

The Man in the HIgh Castle, based on Philip K Dick’s Hugo-award winning book, has a killer premise. Its the early ‘sixties, and we are in a world in which the Nazi’s won the race to create the Atomic Bomb and in so doing won the Second World War. After the Germans dropped the bomb on Washington DC,  America capitulated and the country was divided between the Germans in the West and the Japanese holding the Eastern seaboard. Hitler is still alive but his health is failing, and various Nazi factions are positioning for power ahead of the political chaos that would follow the Führer’s death. The alliance/truce between the Germans and the Japanese is fragile, threatening to collapse into war, a war the Japanese cannot possibly win as they still do not have the technology to make an atomic bomb. Meanwhile, strange reels of film displaying events that have not happened, some in which the city of San Francisco is nuked, some in which the Allies won the war instead of the Axis, are being secretly distributed. What do they mean? Where are they from? Are they alternate pasts, alternate futures? Why does Hitler collect and study them? Who is the Man in the High Castle who has allegedly authored them? How can the films be ‘real’?

I had my doubts, but I have to admit, with season two, this series has really hit its stride. After the gripping pilot, season one took a long time to find its way and didn’t totally convince me, but this season picks up most of the arcs from the first series and takes them on to what turns out to be a very satisfying conclusion. Indeed, if the show had been cancelled (thankfully it hasn’t, a third season has been commissioned) then I must confess I’d have been pretty satisfied how things finally panned out. Most of the major threads are resolved, more questions answered than you might expect, and the stodgy pace of the first season replaced with a fairly swift run towards its finale. In some ways it seems to mirror how the series Caprica turned out, but from a different perspective- Caprica was one long season split into two, aired over two years by its network, the first half suffering from a dull pace from world-building and setting up arcs, the second half picking things up and resolving them at a better pace, but slaughtered by having a twelve-month gap in between, whereas The Man in the High Castle is two short seasons made over two years that forms a whole.

main3Its nice to see a series actually deliver rather than stretch things out further and tease viewers over multiple seasons. We see Hitler’s sickness progress to its inevitable conclusion, the conspiracy amongst his Nazi followers reach fruition, the threat of global conflict between the Axis superpowers reach its zenith, and a tragic twist that likely brings the arc regarding John Smith’s sons illness to an unfortunate end. Its the repercussions of these that will follow in season three, no doubt, rather than simply a continuation of them. Add to that some delightful new teases in the final coda and the second season ends with some style. Much improved over season one,  I’d urge anybody who gave up on the show to return to it- I do think much of season two causes the viewer to reconsider season one in hindsight; it informs much of what may have seemed wrong with that first seasons pace. Had the two seasons been an old-fashioned 22-episode single season it would have been a very solid whole, and I’d advise anybody starting the show to watch the two seasons together.

Its also refreshing to watch a modern show that doesn’t resort to nudity and violence to justify its worth or gain notoriety from such. In many ways The Man in the High Castle is an old-fashioned drama and quite reserved. Violence is very restrained and much of the conflict is from the opposing viewpoints and political ideals. Its very much a drama about ideas, and in so doing remains faithful to Philip K Dick’s works. There’s a number of ‘shifts’ in reality that honours themes prevalent in much of the authors output, disorienting viewer and character alike. Its wonderful that we actually end up rooting for the bad guys to save the world, undermining preconceived notions about whose side we are on and the story we expect the series to be- those same bad guys who save the world are still monsters. And yes, although season two offers resolutions to many of the first two season’s arcs, plenty of mysteries remain.

Its also a very unsettling work- there is something very nervy about an ordinary-looking scene, almost like something out of Mad Men, suddenly invaded by characters in Nazi uniform, or the Nazi banners with the Swastika billowing in the American breeze and dominating the New York skyline. Likewise the evil ideology of the Reich and its perceived superiority of its Master Race and genetics is quite harrowing, particularly in some of the offhand comments made by characters- things that might be lost if the viewer isn’t paying due attention. A worldview and alternate history is slowly established, and the world is increasingly horrific- not in a brutal, in-your-face kind of way, but in a subtle, almost insidious way. Shots of Gestapo officers looking out of panoramic windows on to the New Berlin of Hitler’s dreams -realised with quite impressive photo realism and clarity by the shows effects teams- are the stuff of nightmares.

manin2The show isn’t perfect, but any faults I had with the first season have mostly been fixed with this second season. The scripts are more focused, the acting is excellent and the music score really quite sublime. Its very much improved and I’m really looking forward to season three. I only wish it might turn up on Blu-ray sometime; the show deserves a wider audience than it is likely getting on Amazon and I’d appreciate the opportunity to own it on disc (the possibility of commentaries are intriguing to say the least). Above all else though, this show deserves a bigger audience- more people should have the opportunity to see it, something that can be said of many television programmes these days.

 

 

Villeneuve’s Dune

dune1Ah yes, I’m liking the sound of that. Legendary Pictures has confirmed that Dennis Villeneuve has signed to direct their upcoming  remake of Dune. Well, here the term ‘remake’ seems a little wrong- this won’t be a remake of the David Lynch movie, but rather a fresh adaptation of the Frank Herbert classic space opera novel. Dune is one of my very favourite sci-fi novels; its got a huge, far-future scope, its at turns mysterious and familiar and rather terrifying too. I know many don’t feel it has aged at all well (it wears its 1960s hippie/counter-culture credentials loud and proud) but I love it, and you know, maybe its time has finally come. The David Lynch film has terrific art direction and looks impressively strange and other-worldly, but was always hampered by the effects of its era and its limited running-time. I think film-makers can get away with a three-hour film now, and a longer director’s cut is so normal on home formats that an eventual four-hour cut likely inevitable- and of course with cgi imagery now anything is possible.

If it gets made that is. Too many of these projects (and quite a few involving Dune, including attempts from  Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott) have fallen through over the years, so this announcement might yet lead to nothing. I’m sure the box-office performance of Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 will have some impact on its progress. Have to give some credit to Villeneuve though, he’s got some bottle- first he takes on the sequel to one of the most iconic sci-fi films ever made, and then he jumps into making one of the great sci-fi classics. And both after shooting a sci-fi flick titled Arrival that gets several Oscar nominations. Wow. Eat your heart out James Cameron, there’s a new genre kid on the block.

And he could be making Dune next. Pinch me.

That Blade Runner sound

 

With Vangelis’ Delectus box-set arriving in a few days time, the elephant in the room regarding that release is it lacking the Blade Runner score. It should include the score because the box has (most) of the albums Vangelis created at Nemo Studios in London, and listening to them chronologically will inevitably indicate how much of the music is building to the creation of that iconic score. In a shady episode in the story of Blade Runner, the soundtrack release was delayed until a decade later on a different label, so it’s understandable but still annoying.

Which leads me to this fascinating video I discovered on Youtube. Well, fascinating to me, as I love Vangelis’ score to Blade Runner, but possibly boring as hell to most everyone else. Somebody plays an old-vintage Yamaha CS70, approximating the brass sound of the Yamaha CS80 that Vangelis used so well in his Blade Runner score.

Apologies if its bored you to tears. Like… tears in the rain… sorry. Couldn’t resist.

 

Dorian Gray (2009)

dorian2017.9: Dorian Gray

The moral of this story is- don’t make a deal with the devil, and you can have too much of a good thing. If that sounds nothing new, then that sums up the somewhat limited appeal of this movie.It is the familiar old story The Picture of Dorian Gray retold, er, yet again. It really is a case of a movie being haunted by the familiar.

Very often the argument (such as there is one) for movies to revisit old stories and earlier movies is the new technologies available- usually these days cgi imaging opening possibilities unavailable to earlier films. While this argument works for movies like the recent Planet of the Apes series reboot, it’s hard to tell where any such argument lies with something like Dorian Gray (although, unfortunately, this film too cannot resist one too many trips to the cgi effects sin bin at the films end, with the painting threatening to come to life like some liquid Terminator). I guess modern-day censorship sensibilities allow films such as this to be more graphic about the debauchery and excess that the title character succumbs to, but even then, time has passed it by, with  material such as this casualy screened on television cable networks.

Indeed the last point is even more telling for Dorian Gray, as its more than just a little curious coming to this film having previously watched the (sadly missed) gothic horror series Penny Dreadful, which this film actually predates.  Dorian Gray suffers from looking and feeling so much like Penny Dreadful while being inferior to it- a sure sign of how far television is moving these days as that series looks superior in quality by some margin.  Moreover, there is also the issue that Penny Dreadful features Dorian Gray as one of the series’ major characters. It only reinforces the feeling of having seen it all before.

Its a shame. But then again, I’m coming to it as someone in 2017 watching a 2009 movie for the first time, so my comments may be unfair as they cannot help but reflect having seen the superior Penny Dreadful prior. Its not a bad watch by any means, and the cast are pretty good; Ben Barnes is a beautiful forever-young Dorian who starts as a naive newcomer to the social elite who is channeled to an ill-end by the hedonistic Lord Henry, played by Colin Firth in one of his better roles. Abetted by a pleasant turn by Ben Chaplin who plays the artist whose work inspires the ill-fated deal with the devil, on the whole it’s a fine-looking film with a good cast. Its not a bad film, it just feels so unnecessary.