Maybe we are alone….

Contrary to that wonderfully evocative Close Encounters poster (“We Are Not Alone”), here’s an interesting article that I read over at the Guardian website yesterday-

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/27/aliens-exist-survival-universe-jim-alkhalili

Bit depressing really, although yes there may be a positive side to it. Although if its true, I suppose that means we really are the most intelligent beings in the universe, and that’s REALLY depressing.

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Westworld Season Two, Episode Ten

west10Interesting thought- none of the characters, I believe, that we see at the very end of this episode- Delores, Bernard, or Charlotte, are the same people that we saw last season, or even midway through this one; they are copes, duplicates, replacements, Delores and Bernard literally newly rebuilt and hints left that Maeve herself will be soon rebuilt/resurrected back on the island  There must also be some doubt regards MIB William in the coda, too- clearly a host himself now in some unspecified future, as is his daughter Emily, who we saw him murder the week before but here interrogates him for fidelity (always think of Blade Runner‘s VK test with that). What is human? What is real? What, for that matter, of death in this brave new era of immortals?

So we come to the grand finale of a fairly troubled season two, and surprisingly, I do believe they pulled it off – I rather suspected it would be difficult for them to create a satisfying conclusion that would manage to tie most of everything up, but yes, they pretty much managed it. Indeed, it delivered one of those lovely endings that promised all new possibilities for season three but also got me eager for the eventual disc release so I can re-watch this second season and piece it all together with the perspective of hindsight. Indeed, it has me reaching for my season one set that I didn’t manage to watch prior to the second season aired. So I guess job done on all fronts really. Rather reminds me of season finales of Babylon 5 back in the good old days

Westworld has come a long way, when you think about it, and now that I look back across the last ten episodes, its quite an achievement. What impressed me most with this finale is the sheer bravura of it, killing so many characters and concluding quite a number of arcs that I feared they would be tempted to stretch out longer. Indeed, they even managed to get certain hosts out of the theme park altogether, and into the ‘real world’, suggesting all sorts of intriguing possibilities for season three and pushing things forward considerably, something I wouldn’t have expected for another season or two yet.

Setting up Delores and Bernard as opposites, their conflicting worldviews no doubt leaving them as rivals with the possible fate of humanity at stake. Each of them strangers in a strange land, simulacra in the world of real humans. Potentially Delores inhabiting two bodies at once- her newly resurrected normal body and that of the Charlotte duplicate.

I loved all that stuff in the Forge with the A.I. in the guise of poor Logan (a nod to the Architect in the Matrix, surely) explaining its high-concept reasoning about humanity and our natural limitations/algorithms that cast doubt on our own freewill. All that virtual world stuff. Its great. So too was that paradise that some of the hosts managed to escape to- a place I suspect we may yet revisit in the future (should have known that great premise of the Cradle wouldn’t be discarded for long). It rather raises all sorts of questions regards the nature of reality/identity, again, shades of the Matrix films, certainly. And of course we had further questions on what is human. So many layers within layers seem to grace this show, realities within realities with these simulated virtual worlds, so much so I began to wonder if everything we were watching was itself a simulation;  a surprisingly intellectual science-fiction series- yes, confusing, infuriating, confounding but also exhilarating and thought-provoking.

On the whole, while it wasn’t perfect I think it was a worthy follow-up to the first season, and really, season three has been set-up with so much promise, I can hardly wait. I rather suspect that if ever this show runs for five seasons, by that last season the show will be unrecognizable from how season one began.

A 4K Ghost

Well, I’ve bought a new television. I’m now the (frankly amazed) owner of a 55″ OLED television and a new Panasonic UHD player- suddenly those few 4K UHD discs on the shelf have a purpose.

So soon enough I’ll start writing some 4K updates for a few films. Suffice to say I’m rather taken aback by the difference in quality. This OLED wasn’t cheap, even if it was a 2017 model- certainly the most money I’ve ever spent on a television, and I haven’t even gotten around to a soundbar or amp yet, that’ll come later I expect. But I’m pleased to report the step-up in image quality is substantial. After all, until you’ve experienced it you never really know what to expect, and its inevitably not going to seem a jump like SD to HD was, but you can certainly tell an improvement.

Changing from a 40″ LCD to this beast of an OLED, I have to say the size difference is as much an impact as the step-up in resolution and HDR. The first film I watched on UHD disc was Blade Runner 2049, which has a muted HDR palette by its very nature, visually its tone is pretty dour (beautiful melancholy I call it), so hardly a ‘hold onto your seats’ kind of movie, but the difference in screen size alone was something of a revelation. There was a sudden ‘heft’ to objects and miniatures that improved them by some margin. Roger Deakins’ photography, of course is just sublime- its a beautiful film that just blooms on a bigger screen. I’ll go into more detail in a seperate post, I expect, as I’m sure to revisit BR2049 as part of my ‘favourite films’ series of posts soon enough. I hadn’t quite got the image settings right when I saw BR2049 either, having fine-tuned them since, so a re-watch is inevitable.

A film that did ably demonstrate the possibilities of HDR is Thor: Ragnarok, the 4K UHD disc was pretty amazing. Little things like electric neon lights that suddenly burned brightly like something alive, or the lightning effects when Thor uses his God of Thunder powers late on towards the finale. Suddenly the screen popped like 3D without the glasses and overall the whole thing was rich in depth and spectacular colour.

I haven’t seen Blade Runner yet, although I did sneak a peak at the first twenty minutes or so the other night. Haters of grain should stay away as this thing is a feast of the stuff and quite rightly so, its part of the pleasures of the film for me ever since the days of my second-generation VHS copy that I wore out in the early ‘eighties.  Again., I don’t know if its the size of the screen or the new detail or the added depth from the HDR (city-lights/neon signage/rain reflections etc) but Blade Runner hasn’t looked this good to these eyes since, oh, I don’t know when. Frankly the price of the television and player seemed justified by this one movie, and I can’t wait to watch the film all-through but I’m waiting the proper moment when I can give it due time and attention (and to be honest, this current heatwave isn’t helping- Blade Runner needs to be seen on a dark night with it ideally raining outside).

One thing I did note, mind, that the bigger screen suddenly makes clear, is little stuff like when Rachel first meets Deckard and she has a close up that drifts out of focus. I’m sure its evident on smaller screens etc but here its blatantly clear. I suspect Sean Young overstepped her mark a little, as she steps into focus initially but drifts out of focus as she slightly moves too far toward the camera.  The surprising stuff though is in scenes like Bryant showing Deckard the Replicant data- those shots suddenly look exquisitely beautiful, the graduations in tone and shade on Bryant and Deckard’s faces bathed in the soft blue back-light/CRT front-light are deeply detailed and nuanced, and the smoky atmosphere around them moodily effective.  Can’t wait to find the right evening to watch this movie, but like fine wine, movies like Blade Runner deserve the right moment.

So anyway, that’s my news and I hope to follow with more detailed reports about the pleasures of 4K in the future. Fingers crossed my panel keeps performing perfectly and I can find time to watch it (you’d be surprised how little I have had this television on over the past few days, but I suspect it’ll come into its own this Autumn).

ce3kuhdI’m just wondering how long I can refrain from buying a copy of the 4K UHD Close Encounters disc…

(’40th Anniversary edition’… I’m getting old- when you see packaging with blurbs like that about films you recall seeing at the cinema on their first release, its time to stop looking in that mirror).

 

 

 

Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

alice1I wonder where to start, which rather shadows this film. After a wildly ill-judged (in my opinion) opening, this film took what seemed ages to actually get started following a stodgy series of expositional scenes, only really settling down at the halfway point, from which it was fine, albeit terribly  uninvolving- maybe even boring.

But I’m hardly the target audience of fluff like this, and if I were to throw this film back a few decades to my younger self back in the 1970s, I would likely have been enthralled. I mean, technically, sure, this things something of a marvel, the many effects houses throwing all sorts of amazing imagery on the screen. Its difficult sometimes to appreciate in this CGI-dominated age just how remarkable some of this imagery in modern films can be compared to what we were used to. I’m sure young children lap this stuff up and are thoroughly thrilled by it. So yes, I’m hardly the target audience, but… but really, it seems pretty wild and without much reason.  I can imagine the studio chiefs standing behind the effects boffins screaming “More pixels! More pixels!”

So my issues were from the vary start with a wildly extravagant and spectacular opening sequence of a naval chase/battle through a raging storm. I mean… well, this is real-world stuff apparently, and its wholly a subjective view, but I thought the whole point of these fairy-tales of characters entering fantastic worlds is that the fantastic worlds are, er, more fantastic than reality? I’m not suggesting that the film should have filmed the real-world stuff in black and white and jump into colour in the fantasy land as per Wizard of OZ, but there was a point to that ageless classic when it took that conceit. At least this film should have cemented, I think, the reality of the real world of Alice by layering it in some kind of realism. As it is, the opening is wilder and dafter than Pirates of the Carribean, and features the unlikely sight of a female captain of the high seas in Alice (Mia Wasikowska, utterly slumming it here, like the rest of the cast) in preposterous CGI high-jinks on wholly digital seas.  Going through the mirror after this stuff seems rather pointless, we’re clearly in fantasy-land already.

By the time the plot finally gets going we’re mid-way through the film and have already been assaulted by endless CGI. Really, films like this are as much animated movies per Pixar’s stuff as they are live-action. Much less coherent, too, to be honest. It certainly looks pretty but it is wholly boring- but, as I have noted earlier, I’m not the target audience- this films arrives about forty-odd years too late for me. I’m sure its got its fans but they are surely hardly the discerning lot, really.

The rest of us really should avoid such dross.

Westworld Season Two, Episode Nine

west9I have to say, Westworld season two certainly seems to be saving its best episodes until last (which makes the wait for next week’s finale all the more intriguing/exciting). Whether its good for a show to risk alienating its fans until eventually coming up with the goods is subject to debate, I suppose, but that said, the odd thing about shows such as this is that very often you shouldn’t really judge a season until you’ve seen it as a whole. Binge-watching, in particular, has made it interesting how one evaluates a show now, and once this series has ended its weekly run and becomes available on-demand and on disc, it will become some other animal, I suspect.

Anyhow, for now we’re stuck with weekly airings. This episode centered mostly upon our favourite villain, MIB William, played by Ed Harris, whose chiseled, life-worn face so perfectly encapsulates the character he plays its like he was born for the role (he also reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s magnificent Unforgiven, no small achievement for a Western, nevermind a sci-fi Westerrn). Tonight we saw more of MIB William’s background, his life away from the park,  his dysfunctional family and his despairing, alcoholic wife Juliet. A glimpse behind the curtain and perhaps an indication of why he is so obsessed with escaping into his second-life inside the park- or perhaps more directly an indication of how much that second-life impacted on his life at home.

It also offered some tantalizing possibilities. So here’s this weeks theory, likely to be debunked next week: what if MIB William is unknowingly a host, or at least a simulacra of the real William, and that the data card/drive that Ford hands him not only shows the grim ‘highlights’ of his dark deeds in the park, but also ultimately reveals that he isn’t actually human, but a host copy? It’d certainly explain why his wife was suddenly racked with suicidal despair upon accessing it- the knowledge that she’d been living/sleeping with a machine copy of her husband would send anyone clutching for any kind of escape. Maybe its too obvious-  indeed, as this episode draws to a close, William himself seems to be cutting into his arm as if doubting that there’s simple blood and tissue under his skin. Could he be everything he’s been trying to destroy? And if so, whatever happened to the ‘real’ William? We cut from him before we see what truth he uncovers from his wound, the revelation left until next week.

Elsewhere, Delores finally unravels. No matter his reprogramming, Teddy’s true nature wins out, an interesting comment on individuality, freewill and fate as he finally reasons the only way out is to end himself with a bullet to his AI-brain. Its a remarkable moment  when Delores collapses in grief and horror, the soundtrack becoming awash with white-noise/static as if she is having a literal breakdown. What remains of Delores after this is anyone’s guess. With the Cradle gone, I assume Teddy is also gone- all deaths are final, now, I think. Bye bye Teddy then.

Meanwhile, back in the Delos labs, Maeve lingers on borrowed time, the labrats having discovered how she has been controlling other hosts and thus weaponizing Clementine as a way of getting the rogue hosts to kill each other. With her secret out, Maeve is worthless to them and scheduled for destruction. The virtual ghost of Robert Ford, however, pays her a visit and tinkers with her settings, likely offering her a way out of her predicament and ensuring she’s around for season three.

Who else survives into season three seems open to conjecture. To me, Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins are the secret heart of Westworld (evidenced by the feeling that ‘something’ was missing for the first half of this season until Ford returned) and if either of them left the show I’d be devastated, frankly. Lets just hope William can keep on surviving being riddled with bullets and that Ford can somehow continue cheating virtual death. These two guys are great and really chew the scenery with aplomb.

I guess all (or most, anyway) will be revealed next week. Here’s hoping there’s not too many deaths coming up…

Initial thoughts on Black Panther (2018)

bp1.pngUnderwhelming. I actually watched this last weekend and have hesitated regards posting a review simply because I thought I would re-watch it again, give it another chance. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to do so due to illness so here I am, writing this post based on initial feelings that might be subject to reappraisal later.

Hype springs eternal. Maybe that’s the problem. I missed this film at the cinema but was well aware of all the praise it was getting and its impressive box-office numbers that likely surprised even Marvel. The film clearly struck a chord with audiences.

But of course you just never know what films audiences will engage with and lots of truly great films get ignored while many bad ones become hugely successful- just look at the perplexing success of the Transformers films. Disney seem to have been unstuck by the response to the recent Solo movie – a film that again, I have not seen, so can’t really comment on, but some people whose opinions I value seem to think it was pretty good and yet oddly ignored by audiences. Well, if a film that grossed $323 million worldwide can be said to have been ignored- I suppose its really a matter of scale and expectancy; a Star Wars movie, albeit one that had a troubled production that cost anything up to $300 million to make, might be expected to reach that magic $1 billion easier than most movies. Instead Solo fell well short of that particular measure of success.

But was Solo any less formulaic or uninspired as Black Panther? Or am I being harsh? Are superhero movies, particularly one with a clearly positive racial message, more in tune with the current social/cultural zeitgeist than a movie based on an ‘old’ franchise from the 1970s (I love the dichotomy of considering Star Wars movies as old and dated when all these Marvel movies are based on comics-trips of the 1960s and 1970s)?

Black Panther grossed something in the region of $1.3 billion, so if box-office is a measure of anything, it was clearly doing something right. But yes, it left me a little underwhelmed, even bored. Playing that utterly meaningless box-office card once more, Thor: Ragnarok, which was for me clearly a much better Marvel movie, grossed $850 million worldwide, so what, that means it was actually a worse movie than Black Panther? Okay, while we’re here lets be naughty and play these box-office charades again- the woefully insipid Justice League movie grossed nearly $700 million, so Thor: Ragnarok wasn’t as great a movie as I thought by that comparison (or maybe the DC fans watched Justice League out of morbid curiosity, like some kind of celluloid car-crash). Anyway. Box-office is meaningless when appraising movies, unless you’re a studio executive.

I don’t know why exactly Black Panther didn’t really engage me. Maybe I thought it would  be more original/daring, more culturally significant, less of a (I hesitate to use the word, but here I go) ordinary or formulaic genre movie. Sure, it was never going to be a Deadpool or a Logan, but all the same, it slipped into that dangerous trap of these superhero movies, of degenerating into too much cgi hysterics and less the drama that I had hoped for. I suppose I shouldn’t criticize a movie for being faithful to the original comic, but I think the film would have been more significant if it had addressed the genuine  plight of poor black people in America and involved a typical black kid with limited social mobility/options and neighborhood issues of poverty and drugs and gun crime. I suppose that is some other movie, some other hero. The Utopian dream of Black Panther may be life-affirming and full of positivity, and maybe that the point of the film, I get that.

Was I maybe expecting Marvel by way of Shaft or Superfly? Well, maybe that was the hype. I don’t know. Its not a bad film (certainly not in the DC realm of misfires) but Marvel seem to find it so easy making these films popular that I wonder if they really need to stretch themselves more- after, what, eighteen movies or whatever it was by the time Black Panther came along, you’d think the Marvel Studios formula would be getting a little tired and disengaging audiences- instead they seem to be just lapping it up, eager for more.

 

 

 

 

Wow me don’t involve me?

Reading various forums, hardware and disc reviews over the past few weeks as part of my research regards buying a new (4K) television, has resulted in some troubling observations. I watch movies because, well, I love movies- good, bad, indifferent, I enjoy watching them, experiencing them, being uplifted, frustrated, awed by them. I enjoy the art and craft of them. Sure, some might turnout to be stinkers but its extremely rare that I ever stop a film mid-way. When I start watching a movie I’m making an effort, a statement of intent,  an investment of my time and I’ll see it through no matter what. I love movies, just as  I love books.

But I don’t choose to watch particular movies because they look good, or show off the hardware I’m watching them on. I watch them because I enjoy them or want to experience something new, perhaps be enlightened or surprised.

I have discovered the rather troubling trend of many enthusiasts who watch particular films just because they look great. Regardless of how good a movie it actually is, if the film has a brilliant image quality and ‘wow’ credentials, it gets praised/highly rated and bought and watched if only to justify the expense of that high-end screen sitting in the corner/on the wall.  Films are actually rated not by credentials like story, acting, drama, craft, but rather by superficial nonsense such as moments of impressive HDR or Dolby Atmos sound-staging, as if the films are simply multi-million tech demos and not creative pieces of art.

Surely these home cinema enthusiasts are simply missing the point?

I loved Blade Runner at the cinema, and I enjoyed it on a pirate-copy VHS that I was gifted at Christmas in 1983, grainy and fuzzy and mono and replete with blooming colours as it was, it was still a great movie. I am certain that it will look great someday when I watch it in 4K on a new television, but it has always been a great movie and while it would not be ideal, if I had to watch it on an ancient b&w portable because that was the only way to re-watch it, then I probably would. The movie is the thing, not the bells and whistles of the hardware I’d be watching it on.

But this does make me wonder if this trend is indicative of why films are so often all visuals and spectacle and little substance now. Are people so obsessed with the size of their screens and all the bells and whistles of modern hardware that elements like script and drama seem antiquated and immaterial? Wow me don’t involve me?