The Crown – Season One (2016)

crownAnother Elizabethan drama about a young Queen in a man’s world whose reign marks a turning point for the British Empire and the dawn of a new era. We’ve seen this before, right? Not exactly- we’re not going back to the 16th Century for one thing; this is far more recent history, for this story is about Elizabeth II, and the (miss)fortunes of a fading British Empire following the Second World War, and the role of the modern monarchy in this new world.

I will say this- I didn’t expect to enjoy this series as much as I did. As an historical drama recreating the 1930s/1940s and 1950s Britain, this is a very accomplished effort, not withstanding historical accuracy regards the Royal Family etc. It is clearly drama more than documentary -although there is some surprising truth in what it portrays- but it is very accomplished technically and the ten episodes are well written. For a modern epic drama it is pleasantly restrained regards graphic indulgence or sensalitionism. More Downtown Abbey then than Game of Thrones, to be sure, and none the worse for that. The contemporary tendency for television dramas to go for excess and strain credibility (as Hard Sun recently did) is in little evidence here. While it may seem more establishment fairytale than council estate reality, Americans lap this stuff up and us Brits often like to lose ourselves in Downton dreamland in the face of the present-day soap opera of Brexit Westminster.

Personally speaking I’m far from a Royalist and have little affection or interest in the modern generation of  privileged Royal elite that ‘graces’ our Isle, but all my life I have lived during the reign of Elizabeth II and its difficult to ignore the fact that she has been this constant figure in my lifetime, for good or ill.  She represents the England of my childhood of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly her Jubilee of 1977 when I was in the Scouts – we had a street party and felt a real sense of community that feels as long gone as, well, my childhood. The inevitable pangs of nostalgia mean something I guess, but in any event, I have, if not affection, then some grudging respect for her if only for what she represents of my childhood: those rose-tinted images of simpler times, less murky politics and social responsibilities. Certainly it is clear from the ten episodes of this first season (of six, apparently) that she has lived through historic times and seen/met many historic figures: perfect recipe for historical drama on television, anyway.

Claire Foy is excellent in the lead role (it seems such a long way from Little Dorrit) , though Dr Who seems rather bereft of his Tardis as the Duke of Edinburgh, but the real surprise is John LIthgow as the raging-against-ageing Winston Churchill, whose story proves just as interesting and involving as that of the Queen. If anyone were to tell me that Lithgow could pull off Churchill I wouldn’t have believed them, but he manages with considerable aplomb, damn near stealing the show. The strangest casting decisions sometimes work.

As a whole the rest of the cast manage well enough in fairly routine character roles that seldom really surprise but it is all very entertaining. In the old days this would be the staple of BBC drama and watching this I always had a nagging feeling that this sort of thing is exactly what the Beeb should be doing, but considering the cost and scale of this enterprise perhaps it’s just another sign of the changing times this being a Netflix production. It’s certainly is much better than I had originally expected and I quite look forward to seeing season two.

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Jackie (2016)

jackieOne of the pleasures of film can be those occasions when coming to a film as if it’s a completely blank slate, as I did here. Other than knowing this film concerned Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of JFK, I didn’t really know what to expect, other than some kind of historical drama, presumably concerning her time in the White House. In actual fact, it was a far more interesting affair, as it centered wholly on the assassination of JFK, its immediate aftermath and the days leading up to the funeral, through the eyes of Jackie Kennedy. It’s a fascinating study of dislocation, trauma and stress, with a riveting performance by Natalie Portman. In a rather bizarre synchronicity, the disorientation felt by Jackie during the horrific events and the days that followed was  intensified by the disorientation I was feeling whilst watching it. This wasn’t the film I had been expecting. I love experiencing film like that, which can initially have you floundering for a frame of reference, wondering what kind of film you are actually watching compared to what you were expecting. It doesn’t happen too often these days, films seldom keep their secrets prior to you watching them.

A glacial score by Mica Levi has a seductive, almost dreamlike quality, flowing like a slow river through the course of the film as it weaves backwards and forwards (the film is bookended by a later interview by Jackie with a journalist through which the events are described and dramatised). It’s a really quite hypnotic soundtrack and almost like that of a horror film sometimes, but strangely gentle- a slowly unfolding nightmare of a dream, perhaps. The production design, too, is a  highlight of the film- relentlessly convincing in its sense of time and space.

LIkewise, inevitably, is that stirring performance by Natalie Portman in the title role. Her turn here powerfully demands attention and dominates the film. In a way it feels like stagecraft, almost, as opposed to being a cinematic performance, yet there’s an intimacy with the camera that is undeniable. What it really must have been like for Jackie to have lived through those moments, those events, that horror, can only be imagined, but Portman’s acting here give perhaps some measure of insight. A glimpse of days in which history moved.

I suppose the real magic of this film is that this is only a dramatisation of the events, and the reality may well have been very different, but whilst watching the film I was wholly captivated by its fragility and sense of chaos and horror. My disorientation, meanwhile, lasted pretty much throughout the film. At the end I mused, what did I just see? In the end, I think I felt it as much as saw it. Quite remarkable.

 

 

Close Encounters soundtrack- new edition

CloseEncounters-HDThere is something captivating about that poster for CE3K, of the road at night leading to a mysterious glow on the horizon. I remember it on the paperback cover, the original vinyl album, the collectors edition magazine etc. It always seemed so arresting, so…. I don’t know… it just evokes the same feelings in me now, all these years later, holding this new La La Records edition of the John Williams soundtrack. I think this cover is actually a rework from either new elements or original elements remastered but in any case, it is effective as it ever was.

It feels rather fitting, also, to be writing about this new edition of the CE3K soundtrack album immediately after writing my post about Baby Driver. Music is an integral part of both films, just in a different way- in the case of Baby Driver, its source music, but in Close Encounters its the score that is woven so tightly into the fabric of the film. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this edition of the score is the track Advance Scout Greeting, which is functions as sound design in the film but is actually score music, when the scientists first attempt communication through music with ufos prior to the arrival of the mothership. Its utterly sublime and a wonderful reminder of one of my favourite moments of the film- this track alone worth the price of buying this soundtrack yet again.

In all honesty, Close Encounters is not my favourite John Williams score (Empire Strikes Back, if you’re wondering); it always seemed, even back in 1978, music to admire rather than love or adore. It’s a complex, sometimes atonal score, very much of the 1970s when film music could indeed function as a fundamental part of a films success, full of themes and motifs, without being designed as easy-listening or full of tunes to whistle afterwards. While it lacks tunes like Darth Vader’s theme or the Superman march, it does have one of the most identifiable musical motifs of any film, period; the five-note musical signal transmitted by the aliens and the centerpiece of the human/alien communication.

Beyond its sometimes revelatory remastering (for once,  here’s music that really does sound superior than it has ever before) one of the best aspects of this particular release is that it is based on the discovery that John Williams had originally planned to release the Close Encounters soundtrack as a double-lp in similar fashion to the previous double-lp edition of the hugely successful Star Wars soundtrack (and as he would the Superman soundtrack album). For some reason this intention was nixed in favour of releasing a standard single-album of highlights, but this release has allowed the first compact disc to roughly correspond with what Williams had originally intended. .So, rather than be a complete and chronological release as is usual these days for these expanded releases, instead, the first disc functions as a satisfying musical listening experience. Considering the sore is so atonal in places and the original highlights album full of edits and compromises, it works brilliantly well here.

The second disc in this set functions in much the same way, but chiefly with unreleased music, album versions, alternates and the like. It works as a compelling and satisfying alternative to what the first disc offers, almost a director’s cut of the original soundtrack. Its a novel approach but works so well it’s a shame no-one has tried something like this before. As it is, it makes all previous editions of the soundtrack irrelevant and this edition definitive. You may have heard this music before, but whether you have the original vinyl or the 1998 expansion on CD, you haven’t heard it like this. Essential for fans of the composer’s work or this score in particular. My apologies to your wallet, as if you’re here in the UK these things aren’t getting any cheaper – I’d direct you to the music box website as the best deal to avoid customs charges etc. Delivery is quick as its just popped across the channel and the discs well packaged.

Baby Driver

baby.jpgGeorge Lucas is naturally best-renowned for the impact that Star Wars had on the film industry back in 1977, but thats ignoring the pioneering use of source music in his earlier film American Graffiti– the end-to-end parade of rock and roll songs played on the radio formed an evocative and groundbreaking soundtrack/soundscape through the film that revolutionised the subsequent use of source music in film-making.

So I found myself thinking of American Graffiti whilst watching Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. The use of source music -updated from radio airplay to ipod/smartphone mp3 streaming, naturally- is as integral a part of what Baby Driver ‘is’ as much as the music was in Graffiti. Indeed, what gives Baby Driver its own identity is that its taken it one step further, with the performances and editing timed specifically to the beats of that infectious soundtrack of songs. In some ways it seems almost a much a musical as, say, La La Land.

So whilst it owes so much to a film from decades past it also comes across as being refreshingly original, and excitingly new. Perhaps it’s just a natural progression of how source music has become such an integral part of film over the years since Graffiti, particularly in how some sequences in films often seem to be pop videos in how they are shot , edited and soundtracked with pop songs. The clever conceit of Baby Driver is in how the central character needs the songs in order to function as the titular driver of the film, his skill for driving and spectacular stunts behind the wheel wholly dependant on the flow and beat of whatever he is listening to. Its almost genius in its execution.

baby2The fact that there is actually an involving and thrilling film independent of those frenetic chases is the biggest and most welcome surprise of the film. Indeed, the actual screen time of those car chases is surprisingly small regards the whole.

Alden Ehrenreich must offer something pretty special as Disney’s new Han Solo in his year’s Star Wars anthology movie, because Baby Driver is surely Ansel Elgort’s 2-hour statement for being the best young Solo that we’ll never see. He offers a vulnerability and charm that so often brings to mind a young Harrison Ford/Han Solo that its almost irresistible- intensified perhaps by his costume design in this film, practically wearing Solo’s Star Wars wardrobe like some cosplay nut. No doubt this was a deliberate ploy by Edgar Wright, Baby so obviously evoking the Han Solo look and the sense that Baby and his cars is like Solo and his Millenium Falcon. I recall back in 1977 the sense that the Falcon was like a hotrod in the stars- a novel thing back then so pedantic now. Wright must have been so aware of that when writing/shooting this film.

Isn’t it weird to be referencing old George Lucas films so much when discussing this film? It’s almost as if this film is a love-letter to Lucas, and makes me sadly reflect on how great a film-maker the 1970s George Lucas was (lets not forget the ingenious sound design of THX 1138 or the fact that the 1970s Lucas also cemented the Star Wars saga making The Empire Strikes Back and the creation of the matinee-throwback heroics of Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Is Baby Driver the last hurrah for Kevin Spacey in a mainstream Hollywood movie? I suppose only time will tell but this film is a welcome reminder of how great he is as an onscreen bastard (his offscreen credentials in that regard seems to have nixed his future career somewhat). His charisma and coldness here forms a fulcrum for the film; so much seems to revolve around him and he is so convincing it makes me a little sad that we will lose some great future performances/films re: his probable absence from film-making in future. That’s purely a selfish consideration as a fan of film though rather than any moral judgement on what the actor himself deserves- we’ll just have to see how all that plays out in future.

So soon after enjoying her performance in Cinderella, Lily James appears here as Baby’s love-interest, the charming if rather under-written Deborah. At least the two actors share some convincing screen chemistry,  the lovestruck youngsters evoking a clean cut version of True Romance‘s Clarence and Alabama (Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette). Who would have thought when watching Downtown Abbey that she, in particular, would be the performer whose star would subsequently rise in film?

Anyway, Baby Driver was a surprising blast- great to look at and listen to and a pleasure beyond its car chases and stunts. The clever conceit and importance of its music was exciting and at least felt original and new, which can’t be underestimated in this era of ‘me-too’ cgi blockbusters and superhero flicks.  And while I’d love to see where Wright could take the characters and that conceit with a Baby Driver 2, it’s so nice that the film feels so self-contained and wrapped-up, a new film that feels wholly of its own that doesn’t depend upon or tease a sequel or franchise.

 

Valerian & The City of a Thousand Planets

val1Valerian is an astonishing mess. It isn’t awful, but it is, well, really messy.

Here’s the thing: as some kind of motion-comic ode to the glory days of European sci-fi/fantasy mag Heavy Metal, it’s fantastic. Unfortunately, this isn’t a motion-comic, its supposed to be a movie. As the latter, its awful.

Which is the curious thing about last year. Denis Villeneuve gave us a slow, long movie full of ideas and philosophical concepts, and it struggled at the box-office. Luc Besson gave us a fast, stupid, action cgi-fest full of explosions and stunts and eye-candy, without hardly any trace of a plot, and that, too, struggled. I guess how you judge if either film ‘bombed’ rather than ‘struggled’ is down to expectations/point of view.  The same year Rian Johnson gave us The Last Jedi, and that sailed past a billion dollars in weeks. Well, you don’t have to bother yourself with words like ‘bombed’ or ‘struggled’ there, I think. As for the quality of the three movies, well…

Less is more, I think. Movie directors today really do seem to have a problem with cgi effects, with simply being able to do everything and anything. Like a kid in a candy store, they cannot resist having ‘just one more’. With Valerian, director Luc Besson seems to have emptied the entire store, and perhaps the storeroom in the back

It’s so noisy, so stupid. Most of the time, I didn’t know where to look. The multi-dimensional market in the desert had vast canyons teeming with life and neon and stores and details but it was a bewildering, confusing mess. The titular city of a thousand planets was gigantic and sprawling but, oh, where to look? What am I supposed to be focussing on? Half the time, I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

Focus is a good word regards Valerian: there isn’t any. Perhaps Besson thought the visuals and the noise would carry it through.

As it is, we have two main protagonists without any charm at all, played by actors with no chemistry. Perhaps Besson thought, again, that the visuals and noise would carry them through. Alas, he was wrong. Who the hell cared about either of them? We didn’t know them at all. Some horny young bloke hot for his gorgeous chick partner babbling on about a marriage proposal whilst they have a crazy mission that is unclear and makes no sense?

But it sure is pretty. The prologue piece, showing the foundation and expansion of the titular city, to the sounds of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, feels like something approaching genius. Its snappy and gorgeous and a little 1970’s psychedelic, complete with Roy Batty gravelly intoning something about the future. It’s all rather downhill from there.

val2Problems arise early on with a visually impressive sequence on a strange alien planet that promises much, but is deliberately vague robbing the sequence of any drama or context- it seems to mean nothing but looks very pretty doing it, and thus sets up the tone for the remainder of the film. We cut to our two pretty stars and their vacuous, meaningless zero-chemistry relationship and they are off on a mission on a desert planet that yes, looks amazingly pretty but, well, means nothing. Oh yeah, they steal/rescue (even that isn’t clear) a little alien critter we saw in the earlier alien planet segment but we don’t know why, even when they than take that critter to the city of a thousand planets.

Oh, and there’s a really odd sequence involving Ethan Hawke and Rihanna that seems like a pointless diversion and… well, it looks pretty.

People like me reading Heavy Metal and 2000AD in the 1970s dreamed of films that looked like this. Little did we know that they wouldn’t mean anything, other than looking so spectacular.