They Live 4K UHD

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I don’t believe my eyes- 4K UHD??

They Live is a film that gets better with age. There is a sense of truth to it- not that aliens really are secretly in control of the world and are subjugating the poor, but rather that certain classes and groups of humanity can behave like aliens against their own. The class and power divide is as valid now as it was when the film was made, and its portrayal of the detached political elite and the power of television as true as it ever was.

In this sense, it also seems one of John Carpenter’s most sophisticated and intelligent films, and will, I suspect, have a greater shelf-life than some of his ‘bigger’ hits. Whenever I re-watch the film it remains as horrifying and thought-provoking as ever and its a lovely demonstration of Carpenter’s craft- thriving, as he always seems to, under a tight budget and shooting schedule. I don’t think big-budget studio films really suited him, and its such a shame he retired from the business having become so tired of it. They Live suggests that he might have had some great low-budget/high-concept anti-establishment films in him and its our loss that he didn’t make them.

This 4K UHD release of one of Carpenter’s later, so-called lesser, films (when he dabbled back in the low budget arena with films like Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness after the big-time left him behind), is something of a surprise and is perhaps a measure of how popular his films are. After all, we haven’t even seen a release for James Cameron’s The Abyss on Blu-ray, let alone 4K UHD, and here’s Carpenter getting his due with 4K releases of They Live, The Fog, and next month Prince of Darkness and Escape From New York. On the  demonstration of They Live, the other releases may be cause for some excitement (particularly EFNY, which has recently not fared well on home video) because They Live looks terrific. Detail is excellent, colours balanced and really, any issues are likely down to the original photography, such as the night footage still having some black crush. I doubt this film has ever looked this good before and for a fan its a great treat. I haven’t watched any of the extras yet but one particular surprise is that the soundtrack bundled in the collector’s edition is actually the extended ‘full’ soundtrack issued as a limited CD some years ago. Being such a fan of the film this boon is somewhat wasted on me, as I own both versions of the soundtrack already- I remember ordering the original album on import via mail-order way back in the pre-internet days and getting such a thrill when it eventually turned up. I kinda miss those days. But some fans will get a kick out of that CD, I’m sure. They Live has a great Carpenter score, one of my favourites.

Anyway, They Live is one of the greats and its a real treat to see it get this 4K UHD treatment. The only bad news is that it likely paves the way for all the rest, and having bought so many on DVD and Blu-ray before, the prospect of another set of purchases is a little depressing- at least this should be the last double/triple dip of the Carpenter catalogue. Besides, in this case, I only had They Live on VHS and DVD prior, we didn’t get a Blu-ray over here… so win-win! But wait, this box contains both 4K UHD and Blu-ray so they got me anyway. Dang it, they get you everytime… like I said, there is a truth to this film, you can’t beat the system….

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Mary Magdalene (2018)

mary1In some ways, what got me to watch this film was a throwback to the old days, being drawn to a film through its soundtrack. Back then it would be a new James Horner album, these days its either scores/albums by Bear McCreary maybe or, in this case, Jóhann Jóhannsson. Unfortunately, as is the case with James Horner, being drawn to a film by way of Jóhannsson’s work is soon to be something of the past- this score was his final film project before his passing in February this year. Co-written with the cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, a frequent collaborator over his, this is a delicate and sensitive score. Throughout the film it impressed upon me how much the film world has lost with his passing- the music and its placement is a frequent joy through the film and often I’d just reflect on how good a score it is. I bought the album several months ago and as a listening experience it is fine, but within the film it really does surprise, and delivers on another level entirely. It just makes the film all the more affecting and a sober experience.

The film itself is a fascinating and very finely crafted piece. Beautifully photographed with some stunning locations, it feels quite authentic, reminding somewhat of the similarly excellent Agora, another film revealing a ‘hidden history’ with a feminist angle.

As might be expected by the title, Mary Magdalene is a biblical tale, a sort of re-interpretation, or reboot, if you will, of the story of Mary Magdalene and her place in the story of Jesus Christ. It  shares ideas and themes raised within The Da Vinci Code book/film, that the Catholic Church in the sixth century, in particular Pope Gregory in 591AD, rewrote history and cast Mary as a prostitute in order to encourage a male-centered doctrine and power over the Catholic Church and its teachings that was maintained for centuries.

There’s naturally some tendency to see this film as a part of the ‘me-too’ movement and placement of women in their deserved position of integrity and power, a feeling of a wrong being righted. I suppose with regards faith and religion, everything should be taken with some sensitivity and care- some will see this film, and the Biblical story of Christ retold here, with as much a pinch of salt as The DaVinci Code or as much reverence as befitting the Jedi religion of Star Wars. Others will take it as truth or even heresy. But simply as a story, and a film, this is a dramatic and fascinating piece.

Strangely enough, over and above the interpretations of Rooney Mira’s Mary Magdaline or Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus, is how the film portrays Judas Iscariot (Tahar Rahim) and reinterprets his motivations with some sympathy,  rather than simply depicting him a villain. Here he is utterly confident that the subject of his devotion will usurp and overthrow the Roman tyranny and free his people, and in particular, reunite Judas with his fallen wife and child. Judas’ treachery here isn’t for silver coins but rather to force the Messiah’s hand and bring about everyone’s salvation. Judas is convinced that when trapped by the Romans, his lord will be saved by God and the evil Empire torn down.  His horror at how events actually unfold is palpable and his own end inevitable.

In some ways, this film is not a religious one- it depicts some of the miracles of Christ and events from the bible with some detachment- which may be the films failure, as it fails to really emotionally engage- its more an intellectual exercise. Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus, while not wholly successful, is suitably enigmatic and detached from everyone around him, and his friendship with Magdalene, while warm and convincing, curiously seems to infer that only she perhaps really understands him and his word.  There is a sense of humanity corrupting or misunderstanding Christs teachings. After the crucifixion the Apostles already begin to fragment and argue over the teachings of their master, while Mary and her truth walks away into oblivion.

Listening to First Man OST

firstmostThe soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz is as flawed as the film for which it was written (and I really should get around to posting my review of the film soon) and yet, also like the film, in spite of any misgivings, it does, ultimately, work. Just not the way one might expect. Its quite a stroke of genius in its use of harp and theremin, the latter an instrument so synonymous with spacey 1950s films and their aural wake through genre cinema for decades that it almost slipped into parody. Its a dangerous thing to use here in a drama about the first moon landing, the man who made the first step there and the grief and tragedy that (allegedly) propelled him there. But it works. Just. As a whole the score is a mixed bag of electronic soundscapes and those lovely harp/theremin interludes and a few more bombastic moments, but generally it is quite melodic and quite sophisticated and fresh-sounding. Its certainly a relief from the usual Zimmer drone we tend to get these days, and like the composers earlier La La Land score it really harks back to old-school scoring.

The problem with the score is, like the film itself, one of a blurred focus. Partly this is because the while the film pretends to be a dramatic study of grief and loss and a fractured life, it is also a fairly routine drama about how we got to the moon, of Apollo and its astronauts, and it couldn’t really do both satisfactorily. The score mirrors the films highs and lows- its sensitive moments are its best, although I particularly enjoyed the tense heroics of The Launch and the driving theme that is placed throughout the film and propels the End Title– unfortunately the noisy electronic soundscapes overly distract from the whole. Also, while most (possibly all) of the score is here, it is by its spotting in the film very ‘bitty’, most of the tracks too short to make for comfortable listening over 70 mins (the track total is 37 tracks, some tracks as short as 28 and 48 seconds). A shorter album of highlights would make for a far more enjoyable and focused listen- and yes, funnily enough, something similar could have been said of the film itself.

 

 

Red Sparrow (2018)

redsp1Black Swan meets Tinker. Tailor… or Spies Like Us maybe. An old-fashioned cold-war spy thriller, surprisingly leaning toward the cerebral rather than the OTT fighting or stunts of films like Atomic Blonde or John Wick etc would seem right up my street, but something was wrong here. Maybe it was the strangely farcical plot, which is why I mentioned Spies Like Us. A renowned ballet star, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), living in a concrete tenement block frozen in snow, is looking after her ill mother in-between ballet performances until during a ballet her leg is hideously broken when her dance partner misjudges a jump. Her career ended and her home and mother’s medical care (both provided by the Ballet company) under threat, she is approached by her uncle, Ivan Vladimirovich Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), who just happens to be a leading Russian intelligence operative, seeking her help with a case, after which he forces her to be recruited into the Sparrow Academy, where beautiful young Russians are trained in the arts of sexual manipulation and…

Okay, I’ll spare you and stop right there. It really is as silly and coincidental and plot-holed as it likely seems from that attempt at a summary. I haven’t even mentioned a good-hearted CIA operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and his Russian Mole (identity secret – a surprise twist later that seems one too many) who is being hunted down by the Russians following a messed-up rendezvous.

It seems well-intentioned and is indeed a return to old-fashioned spy capers but its just hamstrung by a crazy plot and awkward presentation. It just looks and feels wrong and none of the characters really convince- Lawrence’s frustrated Ballerina is just a mystery,  we never know what makes her ‘tick’, her dancing is quickly forgotten and in no time at all she becomes a hardened spy who can second-guess and manipulate and fight her way out of trouble when she needs to. There is a sexual undertone between she and her uncle that suggests a Black Swan-like darkness but its not developed, just hangs there, a plot-thread someone forgot or got embarrassed by or didn’t have the courage to develop.

So a frustrating (you should see the cast list- every few minutes it seems some other major actor appears, frankly the script is beneath all of them) film that I can’t really recommend. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who clearly tries, is found wanting and alarmingly vacuous. Some films are just duds, no matter how fine the cast or how proficient the crew (director Frances Lawrence of three of the Hunger Games movies). If the intention was to launch a new spy franchise for Jennifer Lawrence, then hopefully its failed and this will be consigned to the box for unwise cynical green-lights. Its long, its baffling, its ridiculous. Quite bizarre, and I still haven’t seen Lawrence’s mother! yet (what is happening regards her choice of movies post-Hunger Games?)- I’m wary about that one.

What I’m watching…

Whilst my blog entries have been curtailed somewhat for the past week or so due to all sorts of nonsense getting in the way (work being the usual offender, but not the only one) I thought I’d pop back for a quick update on what I have been watching.

So, I just finished watching season four of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, having binged on all of the fours seasons available on Netflix here in the UK over the past, what, two months? Its a brilliant show, that rarest of things, a sit-com that is actually funny, and for awhile at least it filled the gap left by the ending of The Middle earlier this year. Anyway, that led to following series lead Andy Samberg to a film on Netflix, a comedy/mock-documentary Popstar: Never Stop Stopping and a stand-up comedy special featuring another star of Brooklyn, Chelsea Peretti (who also had a spot in that Popstar movie). Its funny how one thing leads to another on Netflix, its as if they don’t want you to lift your eyes away from their channel for a moment.

Anyway, staying on Netflix (as if I had a choice, its as if there’s a Death Star Tractor Beam fastened onto me and my ass isn’t as fast as the Falcon) I’ve been watching another two tv shows- Star Trek: Discovery and Mindhunter. I’m at the mid-point with both now. I’m not sure where I lie with regards Discovery… its okay but, like the Star Trek movie reboots and their Kelvin timeline, I’m not entirely surely it really qualifies as Star Trek. I’m sure its supposed to be Star Trek, but it really feels like something else transposed to the franchise, you know, like getting the scripts for Babylon 5 and twisting it into, oh, Deep Space Nine… wait-

Ahem, well, we won’t raise that scandalous geek conspiracy for any more discussion- anyway, after a ropy start I’ve stuck with it and am enjoying it in a sort of ‘big-budget sci-fi show that isn’t really Star Trek’ sort of way.  Its okay, but hardly anything to really get excited and obsessed about.

Mindhunter, on the other hand, is absolutely brilliant, and not accidentally like a ten-hour expanded cut of David Fincher’s Zodiac movie- indeed, in a way its almost a dedicated prequel, but you know, one of those rare things, a prequel that actually works. Its brilliantly shot and beautifully paced, the cast are excellent (and we get to see Anna Torv again, its been too long since Fringe wowed me- now there was a show to get obsessed about).  Its a pretty much flawless so far and I really should be watching the next episode rather than writing this post.

Other Netflix stuff that has been bewitching me is The Good Place trying to fill the gap left by Brooklyn, and The Haunting of Hell House that I have reluctantly held off due to Mindhunter taking over everything. Its something of a quandary- do you watch several shows at once, alternating between episodes or just binge one show at a time? I opt for the latter, if only because it saves me getting confused trying to keep up with multiple plot threads.

Getting away from Netflix and onto the the disc front, Indicator’s Night of the Demon arrived a few days ago, and I have several 4K discs coming next week, all being well- the Matrix films, the Sicario sequel, a low-key arthouse film from Kubrick that got the future all wrong (can’t believe I just typed that) and a John Carpenter flick about strange sunglasses. So plenty to be getting on with if I can get away from that Netflix button on the tv remote.

Oh, and somehow against all sense and reason I’ve been struggling with season nine of The Walking Dead having swore off it last season, and yes, I’m regretting every painful minute of it. Mind, seeing an habitually-cowardly priest who is now one-eyed and refuses to drop his dog-collar whilst banging the scrap-lady and posing with a machete as if he knows how to use it probably rates as the biggest script-writing WTF of the year, frankly. I just can’t see me surviving this show to its mid-season break, but break-ups are so hard after so many years….

So anyway, excuse me now, I really must go and watch another episode of Mindhunter.

 

Tomb Raider (2018)

tombrI’m not certain how to even review a film like this. How do you a judge a film such as this which measures itself by its earnest mimicking of a videogame? In order to justify its existence, it has to fulfill particular criteria such as having tombs/action/stunts/mysteries/ancient evil/a race against other ‘raiders’ whilst it also manages the franchise trope of being an origin story that establishes characters (such as they are) and sets up parameters for a whole series of future films, box office willing. Not so sure this film ticked that last particular box but on the whole it managed the rest with some aplomb. That there is my issue though- while it does what it says on the tin, so to speak, and manages to be what it clearly wants to be, whether that also means that its a good movie is another matter.

I mean, it doesn’t surprise, it doesn’t really shock or particularly thrill. You get a clear sense of the script ticking boxes: this is Lara, this is her (missing) father, this is her inheriting her fortune/quest, with ensuing exotic locales and chases and stunts and action and villains and oh, look, her father’s popped up again, he’s not dead after all etc.

Its certainly faithful. It looks and sounds like a Tomb Raider movie and Alicia Vikander certainly looks the part of a very modern Lara Croft- in the same way as the videogame persona of Lara has changed/progressed over the years, she’s now more of a role model for girls than a sex-object for boys. At least, that part has been toned a fair bit, certainly compared to the powerful and sultry presence of past Lara, Angeline Jolie (of the 2001 and 2003 films). Not that Vikander isn’t beautiful or sexy, its just heroines aren’t quite as ‘buxom/powerful/intoxicating sex goddess’ as they used to be- now they are more, well, Rey I guess. There is something more serious and honest in this incarnation, which is a Good Thing, surely.  But maybe something a little more duller.

Of course the main point of contention is the fun factor, and why anyone would prefer to watch a fairly pedestrian film such as this than actually play the videogame that it so faithfully/slavishly mimics. We have the gun fights, the leaping over chasms, climbing up obstacles, solving mysteries, exploring old tombs of the games but its much more fun to simply play those games, surely. This film isn’t really bad, it just doesn’t really have much reason to exist, sadly.

 

 

 

John William’s Dracula

jwdraculaWell, as if that expanded Alien 3 soundtrack wasn’t enough to boggle the mind- Varese Sarabande have announced a deluxe edition of John William’s Dracula score, a soundtrack album widely considered impossible as the masters had been thought lost for decades. I suppose the discovery of how it eventually came to pass will be revealed shortly – producer Mike Matessino, whose hands and ears have been behind most if not all the expansions of John Williams score over the past several years, has always been quite candid about the work behind these releases. But what a surprise this is.

Dracula dates from 1979, just when Williams was at his creative peak. Star Wars, Close Encounters, Superman and The Fury were just behind him, and The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders were just ahead. TESB is my very favourite Williams score and its wonderful when listening to material I’m not familiar with, like his score for  The Fury, and hearing hints of Empire’s beating heart in the melodies and orchestrations. Dracula is not a score I am particularly familiar with, so like with 1941 and The Fury, I am looking forward to it as if it were a new Williams score.

Another Christmas treat, as was La La Land’s Close Encounters expansion last year. Mind, a bittersweet one- inevitably as the boutique labels work their way through John William’s filmscores with these expansions and remasters, there won’t be all that many remaining. Each of these projects are special, particularly these from my favourite period of his work.

Mind, I have noticed Varese seem to have applied a little bit of judicious digital paint/editing on the racier aspects of the original poster art that they have used for the cover. Sign of the times, no doubt, but quite ridiculous.