Two greats lost

Sad news today concerning the passing of Martin Landau and George Romero (good grief, as if losing one wasn’t enough, we lose two greats over one weekend).

spasemartinSpeaking as a Brit who grew up in the 1970s, Martin Landau will always be Commander Koenig in Gerry Anderson’s tv series Space:1999. I loved that show when it was first on; it was dark and serious and huge. And like all Anderson shows, it had a killer main title sequence, one of the best to this day.  Over the years it has perhaps not aged very well, but the adult me appreciates its 2001-inspired design and cutting-edge miniature effects, and also the irony of a logistics expert being put in charge of Moonbase Alpha just as all the shit cuts loose. Koenig is the anti-Kirk; intentional or not, it makes for fascinating viewing and it’s fun seeing Koenig so clearly out of his depth and clutching for solutions like some modern-day politician. The less said about the second season the better but the first certainly has some brilliant moments and it remains uniquely positioned as a tv-response to 2001- there’s nothing else quite like it.

But my very favorite memory of Landau remains his remarkable turn in Crimes and Misdemeanors. He’s absolutely fantastic in that film- he really deserved some recognition awards-time for that. It’s a deep and thoughtful film (Woody Allen’s best, for me) and Landau is just incredible.

And of course we also have the news that the Godfather of the Zombie Genre, the great George A Romero has passed away too. It’s a little unfair, but it’s probably only natural that when I think of Romero, I think of Dawn of the Dead. My God, what a film that is. Back in the video-nasty period of the 1980s, an uncut VHS copy of Dawn of the Dead was like some kind of holy grail for horror fans. I remember first watching it, thinking it was the greatest horror film I’d ever seen- so dark, brutal, graphic, twisted and funny. So clever too with its social commentary (as timely now as ever- it just needs shots of zombies with mobile phones to bring it bang up to date).

Of course there was more to Romero than Dawn, and even zombies (although, bless him for embracing it rather than looking down on it or its genre fans). I loved Creepshow. That was so much fun, and he did many great films. Just none quite as great as Dawn for me. That film was just the right film at the right time; it became something more than just a film. It represented something.

Yeah, a very sad news day. We keep on losing these great names that we grew up with. It is only natural I guess as the years march on and we ourselves grow older but it never gets easy- there is a weird feeling of my own past slipping away.

 

All Aboard the Zombie Train

train12013.34: Train to Busan (2016)

Train to Busan is a thoroughly entertaining Zombie movie- it can’t be said that it really offers anything new to this post-Dawn of the Dead/28 Days Later/World War Z genre, but what it does deliver, it delivers well, with plenty of thrills, gore and spills. What else could you possibly want from a Zombie movie?

It’s curious, considering how the tv Zombie juggernaut The Walking Dead seemed to be suffering from such lethargy and tiredness with its most recent season, that this film still manages to be such a fresh, kinetic experience. WTD aside, it’s not as if we never see Zombie films etc these days- they are pretty much everywhere and yet this film feels so original and entertaining. Certainly the backroom staff of TWD would do well to see this film and heed its lessons- namely, maintain pace and maintain the threat: it’s the end of the world after all. The tv show seems more concerned with fellow humans being the real danger and the zombies just background noise- almost becoming incidental to the show, an occasional diversion for a little gore and action when the daily politics of survival become tiresome. It is almost becoming boring.

Train to Busan is not at all boring. An outbreak from a pharmaceutical lab or chemical factory (I may have missed details, it seemed vague, but no doubt it will be clearer on a second viewing) is getting out of hand and threatens South Korea with a Zombie Apocalypse. It’s almost as if this was some Far-East spin-off  from the World War Z movie from a few years back, which strikes me as being a pretty neat idea, letting film-makers from around the world write and shoot movies telling what happened in their locales during WWZ.  Could have been a very interesting and enjoyable franchise.

Anyway, it’s the dawn of a Zombie Apocalypse and an infected human gets onboard a train just as it begins its long journey. Instantly this train journey becomes a microcosm of what is happening out in the big wide world- a varied cast representing various age groups and areas of society, trapped in the restricted space of the train carriages as the zombie infestation takes hold and the brain-hungry critters work their way through the train. It rather reminded me of the great Snowpiercer; in some ways this is that films horror cousin. There are some great set-pieces and the film surprises, given its fine sense of claustrophobia, how it opens up the sense of scale at times, particularly near the end.

It’s good fun, and there is such a lot to enjoy. The acting, the twists and turns of the witty script, the make-up, editing and visual effects. Brilliant stuff, the only negative about the whole thing is I worry about the eventual Hollywood remake being announced someday- it seems almost inevitable, sadly. Starring the Rock, no doubt.

 

The 2017 Selection Pt.5

coll4My efforts to restrict disc-buying seem to be working. Maybe it is the lull before the storm, but this post is my first ‘2017 Selection’ update since April, some three months ago, so I must be doing something right.

First addition to the pile is the first season of Jessica Jones. I really enjoyed Daredevil earlier this year, and this is another of those Marvel Netflix shows. I bought it in a sale, and it’s still in the shrinkwrap. But I’m sure I’ll get around to it sooner than I do the second season of Fargo, which I have already seen on its network airing some time ago. I enjoyed the show immensely- it is terrific television, but here in the UK we are deemed unworthy of a Blu-ray release (another indication of the waning format?) so I bought a copy from the States, again, my purchase triggered by seeing it cheap. My Tivo currently has seven episodes of season 3 to watch, and the romantic in me would love to watch season two again beforehand but the realist in me knows that’s never going to happen. This Season Two set may languish unwatched for some months yet but it’s going to be a real pleasure to revisit the series again eventually. This season was one of the best tv shows I have ever seen, set in the Seventies with great source music and references to CE3K that still bring a smile to my face every time I remember them.

Next is Matinee, a Joe Dante film I have somehow neglected to see, in an Arrow release that finally dropped in price. Yes another purchase triggered by a sale. There’s a pattern clearly taking form here, promptly broken by Indicator’s recent Sinbad boxset, which I pre-ordered when it was first announced. Ray Harryhausen. ‘Nuff said.

Two more new releases follow, here two films that I failed to see at the cinema although I was rather tempted- my issue is, the price of two cinema tickets these days is more than the price of buying a disc, and if it’s likely to be a film I’ll enjoy enough to buy on disc anyway, well, why not save the cinema price and use it for the disc instead? It’s the kind of logic a Vulcan would be proud of – and only completely shatters if it’s a film I end up not liking, alas. Well, as anyone who read my Logan review the other day will know, sometimes it all works out fine.

Europa Report

europa32017.33: Europa Report (2013)

Hollywood doesn’t do low-budget sci-fi too much these days, if at all- it much prefers the big blockbuster bubblegum sci-fi that attracts the multiplex crowds looking for ever more-spectacular effects. Consequently the low-budget stuff is in the indie domain of late (if you can consider anything up to $30 million low budget) and unfortunately distribution complications in this indie domain can make them tricky to see: limited theatrical runs and exclusivity deals with Netflix and Amazon mean you can be shit out of luck if you are with the wrong distribution platform – and its isn’t being helped with disc releases getting rarer (and limited to territories) all the time.

So I’ve only now finally been able to watch Europa Report, even though it has been on my to-watch radar ever since I discovered that Bear McCreary was working on the soundtrack, with the film finally arriving on terrestrial television via Film Four.

Europa Report is another of those ‘found-footage’ pictures, sequences cobbled together from onboard cameras recording the mission and (eventually) transmitted back to Earth for people to figure out what happened after communications dropped out and the mission never returned. This central conceit works rather well -its certainly a neat way of justifying that method of film construction- but unfortunately, as usual it impairs character development and distances the audience from the events. It doesn’t help that some of the footage is constructed out of sequence too, which jarringly took me out of the film a little. Ultimately I have to say I would have preferred a more traditional approach, simply telling the story without being forced to weather the rather stiff POV of onboard ship and on-suit cameras.

europa2All that being said, the film is certainly no disaster and it is technically rather accomplished in its set-dressing and use of cgi. It may not be up the standard of that same year’s Gravity, but its budget is clearly nowhere near that film’s $100 million. I have a fancy that one day someone will make a ‘new’ quality space movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey and it may come from a direction other than the traditional Hollywood route, in just the same way as real-life space exploration seems to be being galvanised by private industry as opposed to NASA.

Frustratingly though, I have to say that I wish that Europa Report had adopted a more traditional film-making approach, and even, for that matter, had been chiefly set on Earth. A story about the backroom personnel and the astronauts families all dealing with the apparent mission failure, and perhaps an investigative storyline regards what happened and the revelation of the final transmission from Jovian space of all the missing onboard footage, unveiling all that happened, might have been more interesting. Imagine if it centered on a reporter who stumbled on a rumour of a sudden transmission a year after the communication failure, and of revelations being hushed-up in favour of expediencies required for a Europa 2 mission? Something of a 1970s political thriller building up to the final stark reveal of alien life and the icy world of Europa becoming something dangerous and cautionary?

It’s a fairly good effort though, given its inherent ‘found footage’ limitations (it’s the sub-genre that refuses to die, isn’t it).

I should also mention that it includes in its cast the recently-passed Michael Nyqvist; it’s the first film I have seen him in since he died, and it is rather sobering indeed to see him in this. He has a good part that probably deserved more screentime than he got, but that is all part of the limitations of the ‘found footage’ format. It isn’t his film- its simply that of anyone who seems to appear in front of one of those onboard cameras at particular moments. It would have been an interesting film indeed had it centered on his rather ‘background’ character throughout, particularly with how he dealt with a fellow crewmember sacrificing himself to save him. I think that’s chiefly what the film lacked, a central protagonist. We never really ‘know’ any of the characters, they are just cyphers, people stuck in a kind of ultra-expensive reality tv show that goes off the air rather abruptly.

 

 

Logan Falls

logan2017.32: Logan (2017)

In the Special Features section of this disc, one of the film-makers behind Logan states that the goal was for the film to be the superhero equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. If so, it misses that target by some margin, but it’s clear that there is considerable ambition here for it not to be ‘just another super-hero flick’.

On the one hand, this must surely be applauded for a genre that seems to land another new film at the multiplex every other week. On the other hand, it all seems so 1980s, all this revisionist, oh-so-serious superhero-in-the-real-world stuff. I find myself missing the simple fun and innocence of stuff like Superman: The Movie.

Which does seem odd, considering how I embraced stuff like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns when they came out- but there’s the problem; they came out in the 1980s, decades ago. I don’t read super-hero comics anymore but I hope that they outgrew all that. How long can you agonise over the existential crises of superheroes in the Real World before it all gets all just a little bit… boring?

To be fair, I’ve never really been much of a fan of the X-Men films anyway. I quite liked the first, but thought the second one got away with ripping off Wrath of Khan way, way too easily and the third film was a franchise-killing shambles. I did enjoy First Class but the franchise promptly kicked any goodwill into touch with Days of Future Past, which to this day baffles me so much I still haven’t dared get around to the next title in the franchise, X-Men: Apocalypse.  My central issue with the films is all the allegorical musing, usually hammered at the audience with the subtlety of a brick in the face, of mutants and racism and inequality and prejudice blah blah. It’s ok. I got it with the first film. Don’t endlessly beat me with a stick over it. The fun-sucking seriousness of examining outsider superheroes in the ‘Real World’ is something that runs through all the X-Men films and just seems to bleed them dry. But the one thing that runs through the X-Men films and pretty much saves them is Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, even if his solo spin-off films have pretty much oddly faltered. Which leaves us with Logan.

Logan at least distances itself some way from the other X-Men films by setting itself in the future- 2029 in fact, and a time when the other mutants are long gone. The multiple timelines of the X-Men films are mystifying to me but I guess they all got killed or imprisoned by the Government at last? At anyrate, it seems super-heroics are a thing of the past in 2029, and Logan is pretty much in hiding, protecting a heavily sedated Professor X who is suffering from dementia (“the most deadliest brain on the planet” as someone blithely offers at one point).

Er, didn’t I see Professor X get killed in another X-Men movie? Agh. I hate X-Men movies- so many timelines it’s like a Dr Who franchise run amok.

I came into the film rather expecting a downbeat, reflective piece as Logan and Charles Xavier deal with old age and the approaching end of their lives, while perhaps considering their past, lost friends, their successes and failures. Instead it actually appears to be something of a reboot, as a new generation of mutants, this time the products of mutant lab rats, appear on the scene needing protection from Logan and an inevitable passing of the baton. As a whole, it works very well, but the distraction of new kids on the block rather negates any powerful soul-searching that, say, a proper superhero Unforgiven might be blessed with.

That said, it is entertaining and Hugh Jackman is quite superb in his Wolverine swansong (even if the X-24 villain rather leaves the door depressingly open for a rebirth for the character should the salary offers prove tempting enough for Jackman). It is distinctly R-rated with lots of gritty violence that cements its real-world dynamic- if this had been released, say, before Deadpool, its impact would have been yet more substantial, but it gains greatly in what it lacks re: Deadpool‘s more comedic approach. It doesn’t quite feel like the daft nonsense it might otherwise. Here heroes can bleed and get drunk and swear, and, yes, die.

It just irritated me a little to discover it wasn’t the ending of an era but rather a reboot for another one. I think I would have preferred a ‘final chapter’ for superheroes in general, something akin to the end of all superheroes and an evaluation of where that would leave a world suddenly without them, which really would have been an Unforgiven-type film. As it is, its an entertaining and at times thoughtful diversion, but make no mistake, there’s plenty more X-Men action left and perhaps even a rebirth for Jackman’s Wolverine. The cynicism of the latter would be frankly horrible, so let’s hope this is truly the end for Jackman at least- as such, it’s the best X-Men movie yet, but might yet prove to be its most cynical worst. Time will tell.

Miscellanea

nyqistI noted with some sadness last week the passing of Michael Nyqvist, the actor who starred in the film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I rewatched the films awhile ago and  they remain very impressive. Nyqvist, like his Dragon Tattoo co-star Noomi Rapace, went on to some success in Hollywood, notably a fine turn in MI: Ghost Protocol and another in John Wick- in both films he demonstrated a flair for playing villains, which still surprises me considering the down-to-Earth heroism of his part in the Tattoo films. He clearly had some considerable range and I’m sure he had great roles/films ahead of him. He was only 56, which is awfully sad. You just never know, do you? 56. Seems so unfair.

norm1And of course, also last week came the news of the passing of film critic/BBC presenter Barry Norman. Beyond these shores his name likely means little, but to us in the UK -and particularly those of us who grew up in the pre-Sky era and the internet- Barry’s name is held with much affection. He presented the BBC ‘Film…’ series for something like 26 years, and his opinions held considerable weight before the internet came along and flooded us with inferior amateur film criticism (cough). Although I would often be at odds with him whenever he looked down on my favourite blockbusters I always wanted to know what he thought. I recall he was having a break from the show in 1982 when Blade Runner was released, so I never got to see what he thought of it- perhaps that’s just as well.

Barry Norman was to films what Sir Patrick Moore was to astronomy. You don’t realise, until you look back, for how many years we grew up with these people in such programmes, how big a part of our lives they managed to be. I don’t think presenters will ever be associated with such long-running programmes like that ever again, television was wholly different back then when we only had three and later four channels. I used to love that ‘Film…‘ music, and hearing Norman’s voice as he introduced the show and told us the films that would be reviews. Good memories.

Since I’ve just mentioned my favourite movie yet again in this blog… (hey, here’s a drinking game- read my blog and take a drink every time I mention Blade Runner…) ahem, anyway, while you’re still sober, regards Blade Runner, I guess everyone has seen the latest trailer for Blade Runner 2049 and this subsequent behind the scenes featurette. It still looks pretty promising. But thank goodness the film is a sequel and not Blade Runner 2018 or something. Prequels are just too much trouble.  The news that the original directors of the new Han Solo movie that Lucasfilm is making have departed/been sacked, and that the competent hack Ron Howard- oh the horror!- has been brought on board for reshoots, has had me thinking about prequels in general. They don’t really work, do they? Case in point the Alien prequels that Ridley is making. While I don’t hate them as much as some Alien fans do, they clearly add little to the franchise other than spoiling the Lovecraftian mysteries of the original. I fear this new Han Solo movie might do the same for Star Wars. After all, what’s the point? We know who the Corellian smuggler is as soon as we see him in Star Wars, we don’t need to know about his adventures as a young man or how he ended up working for Jabba the Hut etc etc.

Nobody mention Space Jockeys, please…

How tempting it might have been -and for all I know, might yet be- to make a prequel film to Blade Runner detailing Batty and his fellow replicants breakout from an Offworld colony and journey to Earth that led to the original film. Imagine some other actor playing Batty. The pointless plot leading to the inevitable landing near LA and dovetailing into Leon getting a job at the Tyrell pyramid. It almost makes me hope the new film is a flop so no further Blade Runner films are made. Heaven help us if ever the words ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘franchise’ get linked together. Becoming a franchise never really did Alien any good at all.

Much preferred it when films were singular with no prequel/sequel attached. These days you can’t get a blockbuster greenlit, it seems, without a prequel or sequel already set-up. But certainly prequels do seem particularly problematic, and rarely seem to work (I guess Rogue One springs to mind as one of the better ones).

Actually, whilst waxing lyrical on all things Blade Runner as is my wont, a belated note about the film celebrating its 35th anniversary last week. Well, its American anniversary. Far as I’m concerned, it’s 35 years old when we reach September, which is when it reached old blighty. Funny, to think how long it took for films to cross the pond back then (E.T. actually took longer, not released here until December, much to the pleasure of VHS pirates). I first saw Blade Runner on a Saturday afternoon, and I believe it was on the 11th September, to be precise. That’s when it hits 35 in my book. 35 years though. That’s rather scary.

brquadukI was never at all keen on this UK poster for the film. It’s got four Tyrell pyramids for one thing, shockingly inaccurate, but I did always love that headline banner, “A chilling, bold, mesmerizing, futuristic detective thriller”… yeah, that always summed up the film for me. Visually it is such an awful (literal) cut and paste job. The film, of course, was already dead in the water at that point in September, having utterly flopped Stateside. Thinking about it, I guess such long, drawn-out international releases just heightened the pain for film-makers on the receiving end of such failure. Did they bother with a London premier with any of the cast or crew or was it just dumped out there, I wonder? I just imagine a sour-faced Ridley in tuxedo struggling to break into a smile in-front of the press, or the studio deciding to cut its losses and not bother flying Harrison out.

Anyway, apologies again for my lax posting on this blog of late. Just gone through a very busy period at work (actually, I’m still likely stuck in the middle of it) and it’s left me little enough time to do anything at all at home.  I’m afraid this summer is passing me by. I didn’t even have time to write a post regards the anniversary of us losing our pet dog Ben a year ago last week- yeah, it’s been a year already. A very sad weekend, was that. Its dawned on me that I really haven’t yet processed it yet, losing him. I know that sounds bizarre, after all this time, but I really didn’t handle it at all well, when it happened, all the trauma and stress of his illness and everything, and I think I’ve really just avoided dealing with it, over all these months. Losing our first dog Barney was pretty awful but I managed to grieve and deal with it, but Ben? No. I really haven’t, and the anniversary just made me realise it.

But life goes on, even if it seems it’s passing me by of late. Can’t seem to get around to watching many movies.  Anyway, maybe I’ll manage a few of these miscellanea posts in lieu of proper reviews for awhile. I’m still here!