Listening to – Equinoxe Infinity

jarre.pngExpectations were quite high for this album, Jean-Michel Jarre returning to his second (and possibly best) album and spinning a sequel for its fortieth anniversary, with three tracks slowly being leaked out prior to the albums release which promised something special.

Turns out, those three tracks were the best on the album.

Indeed, grand openings were possibly always Jarre’s forte, from Oxygene to Equinoxe, through to Zoolook and Chronologie, and it is proved again here with a great moody scene-setter, The Watchers (Mvt.1) that is epic and sexy and cool. The second track, Flying Totems (Mvt.2), is a glorious throwback to when 1970s Jarre seemed to be the sound of The Future, reveling in classic analogue synth soundscapes. But then the album starts to fall apart, until it’s apparent that it is aimlessly meandering to its quick conclusion (the album scarcely over 30 minutes long). Its really quite disappointing, even for latter-day Jarre. Each track feels too short, and too shy of any fresh ideas. Perhaps Jarre is spending too much time on tour and not enough time in the studio- some of the tracks have promise but just when you’re expecting them to develop, they are suddenly over. Worse, the one track that is long enough to show some development, the final track that carries the title of the album and is over seven minutes long, just collapses into electronic beeps and whistles and ambient effects as if Jarre is trying to turn what amounts to a ten-track e.p. into a double-side album proper by just, well, literally stretching things out in a last gasp of effort.

Which is alarming, really. It seemed that Jarre was revitalised following his two Electronica albums of collaborations but he seems to have resumed the decline, and this brief album of synth doodles (which lets face is it is all that the majority of this album amounts to) is a pale shadow of his early classics. Pity.

But in the words of Obi-wan Kenobi, “there is another”, and that’s Vangelis, with his own new album out early next year. Let’s hope the Greek Maestro has another great album in him, while Jarre goes back to the drawing board (or his next concert).


Beyond Skyline (2017)

beyondFrom the sublime (The Tree of Life) to the ridiculous- I was never a fan of the original Skyline film from 2010,  so perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised by this belated sequel. This is balls-to-the-wall CGI madness with a b-movie cast that throws everything at the screen (gigantic self-repairing spaceships, Giger-ish aliens, martial arts action, lots of guns, lots of explosions and plenty of splashy gore) with a mad frenzy that’s almost intoxicating. We’ve all heard of fan-service, but I think this film needs a new description, let’s call it geek-service. Its as if the films sole purpose is to make teenage geeks wet themselves in dizzy excitement. Pretty girls, alien robots yanking living victims brains out of skulls (and dropping them into alien suits, hey-presto zombie army), giant robots battling each other like some Alien Street Fighter Turbo video-game (Round One! Fight!). Trouble is, anyone over the age of, say, 17, need not apply, you’re too old/sophisticated to ‘get it’.

Some decades north of 17, I’m clearly not the target audience so it’s perhaps unfair of me to nail this turkey to the mast. I’m sure this has its fans but while its possibly more fun than the first film (I can’t remember, having tried so hard to forget it, what actually happened in that first film, other than an alien invasion spoiling someone’s day) it’s really too long, feeling almost like two films stitched together. Its also unashamedly franchise-building with an eye on future films or possibly a tv series (there is a cynicism to some of it that leaves a sour taste, or maybe that was just the script).

I suppose I’ve seen worse…


Malick’s 2001: A Sense of Perspective

tree3Don’t know how much time I have right now, lets see how far I get before I get called away-

The similarities between Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  Space Odyssey might be fairly well-known, but I thought I’d mention them here, as the more I think about it, the more I find it surprising and illuminating in how they oddly complement each other.

2001 is one of the most epic films ever made, in its sense of the passage of time and where it places mankind in the cosmos. It begins with the Dawn of Man sequence, in which man-apes gain intelligence enough to use bones as tools -typically for humanity, these tools are weapons- and sets us on the path to orbiting nuclear weapons in one of the most famous jump-cuts in film history. This intelligence is ‘gifted’ by the Monolith, which is either an alien tool of communication or an alien itself. Increasingly marginalised first by the huge desert vistas of prehistoric Africa and then by the vast voids between Earth/Space Station/Moon and finally Jupiter, mankind’s unimportance seems self-assured until Bowman enters the Stargate and begins another step in evolution.

The Tree of Life reinforces this perspective of humanity in the cosmos, by actually outdoing Kubrick- Malick shows us the very beginning of the universe, the formation of the first stars, our galaxy, our sun and the Earth, and then the beginnings of life. We witness dinosaurs prior to them being wiped out by a cosmic whim of fate/gravity and a falling asteroid, and later we are thrown forwards to the death of all life on Earth as it becomes consumed by the death-throes of our sun. In this great cosmic scale of things, it’s like we never existed, our actual existence something of cosmic chance, any sign we ever existed lost as our planet is blasted to a cinder in the dark.

But Malick is also telling us something else here- that however insignificant we seem in this cosmic arena, we do matter, each and everyone of us. He shows us a family in 1950s America, childhood and adulthood, and the town in which they live. We see their relationships and how they care for each other, their laughter and their tears, their triumphs and frustrations and the joy of nature and being alive and the pain of grief and loss.

Kubrick’s film is rather colder- intellectual progress distances mankind from the natural world (we see people existing in sterile, created environments of space capsules and stations),  and also distances from each other (personal relationships decidedly cool and awkward, dialogue clipped and inane, formalities such as birthdays just perfunctory nods to old habits). The characters are, frustratingly, hardly alive, and pale in comparison to HAL, the AI that somehow seems more human than those it serves.

The world of 2001 at least appears to be quite Godless, as if humanity in creating its technological worlds has done away with God entirely and in so doing lost its soul, although it can also be ‘seen’ that 2001 is ironically quite a religious film, certainly if one takes the view that the Alien intelligence that guides humanity is God and the Monoliths are its Angels, and Bowman’s death a moment of resurrection as he becomes the Starchild. The Tree of Life meanwhile is more traditional and overtly religious in its repeated callings by various narrators to God, its use of religious imagery and rites and religious music. God is not a part of the machine/Monolith, here God is a part of nature and the film even depicts Heaven, a shoreline where our characters all meet again, even seeing themselves as different people of different ages- adult Jack meeting his child self and even his own mother, back when she was possibly younger than he appears  to be in the undefined ‘now.’ This later moment, when adult Jack witnesses his parents in the wake of his younger brothers death decades before, suggests that he is not reliving his own life as much as the life of someone else, but his perspective is one of almost Godlike omnipresence, of stepping through Time.

But the thing that both films clearly share is this sense of the Big Questions; what are we in this impossibly unfathomable universe, in which are utterly lost and insignificant in this immense incalculable span of time? What is our purpose, and are we alone? What is the meaning of life? is there something ‘More’?

In essence, 2001 burns cold and logical while The Tree of Life burns warm and emotional.  Both films share bold use of Classical music and methodology of Pure Cinema, a cinema of images and sound  rather than narrative. Both films have little dialogue, and little of this dialogue actually drives either film- rather it is the interplay of images and music that progress the films from beginning to end. Neither film holds the viewers hand and explains anything- both films demand audience’s attention and the effort to construct meaning from the events portrayed. It struck me whilst rewatching The Tree of Life the other night just how alike the two films are, and how masterful Malick’s film is- even to the point that it possibly surpasses Kubrick’s film.

I wonder what Kubrick would have thought of The Tree of Life, and indeed, what Malick (media-shy and private as he is) thinks of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Tree of Life may seem an unlikely example of what Malick would consider a science fiction epic but its connections and similarities to 2001 seem inescapable. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Oh well, it’s certainly something, if nothing else, when contemporary cinema can raise such musings.

Alas, the clock has turned and my time is up. Must go!

Vangelis’ Nocturne?

There is a weird sense, here, of history repeating- many years ago during the ’80s I remember buying Jean Michel Jarre’s Revolutions album and it being overshadowed by news of Vangelis’ album Direct being released shortly after. So here we go again, with Jarre releasing last week his Equinoxe Infinity album (I’ll likely post a review sometime soon), and news that on December 7th a new Vangelis album, Nocturne, will be available to pre-order for a release presumably early in the New Year.

For whatever its worth, I like the title. You have to be wary of getting carried away with the possibilities because with Vangelis anything, frankly, is possible, but the title Nocturne carries with it all sorts of possibilities regards mood and ambience etc. We’ll have to wait and see, but I always get excited at news of a new Vangelis album. Its rare enough these days (Jarre seems to be getting busier and busier of late, obviously taking a page out of Ridley Scott’s book of dealing with old age, while Vangelis is definitely semi-retired now) but after all these years (well, okay, decades, let’s be brutal about it, we’re all getting on) the release of a new Vangelis album always brings back memories of past releases and past discoveries, of excitedly listening to new Vangelis music- the soundtrack of over half my life now, thinking about it. The grim truth is, how many new Vangelis albums even lie ahead? Anyone of them could be the last one. I’m reminded of one of my favourite rock bands, Rush, finally calling it a day awhile ago, following the release of their Clockwork Angels album- we fans may have suspected/feared it, but we didn’t know it was their last album for certain until after the following American tour. It’ll happen with Jarre, and Vangelis, eventually- they’ll either call it a day or life’s natural expiration date (hey! another Blade Runner reference snuck in!) will decide it for them.

Apologies for the maudln mood. I’m excited really.

All Things Shining

all thingsI’ve been reading a book about Terrence Malick- well, to be more precise, its a book about Malick’s films, as he is so media-shy and prefers to maintain some privacy, and it consists of interviews culled over the decades from his associates, freinds and people who have worked with him on his films, and therefore offering glimpses of how Malick works. The book is All Things Shining: An Oral History of the films of Terrence Malick, by Paul Maher Jr. – I bought the kindle edition as it was only £2.30 compared to something like £16 for the paperback (there is another book  that treats Malick’s work in a similar way, Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected, which I also have my eye on).

Its a very interesting and revealing read. One passage caught my attention in particular, during the chapter about The Tree of Life. The film’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had this to say about the film, commenting on audiences walking out during performances (something I myself experienced when I saw the film at the cinema): “This reminds me of all the movies that I loved (in the ’70s) where we left the theatre and discussed and disagreed. We carried the experience out into the open. Things were not over explained and you went out with your freinds after and tried to make sense of something…” 

It made me think about how much films have changed from the 1970s to now- I’m not necessarily defending Malick’s obtuseness here as he has rather run astray with his way of making movies since then, so that even for a fan they can be infuriating (The Tree of Life is more a tone poem than a narrative but is clearly Malick’s strongest film post- Thin Red Line.) His films do, however, demand some attention and active work from his audience, whereas the standard way of making films now is to make them simple, make them loud. Back in the 1970s, films often had conflicted characters, genuine twists and some unfulfilling endings. We see less of that now. Indeed, when discussing contemporary films at work or with freinds, there may be some debate on whether a film is good or not but we seldom have arguments about what a film meant or what the director was trying to say. One of the things I love about BR2049 is all the layers of  subtext and threads of meaning in the film. I have previously mentioned here on this blog the anecdote of a frustrated forum post written by an American viewer who, at the end of the film where Deckard asks K why he did what he did, and who Deckard was to him, was left aghast and horrified when K just shrugs and after a silence changes the subject. We don’t need the film to spell that out- well, we shouldn’t, but modern audiences prefer to be told, not left to flounder at interpreting complex ambiguities of a film. It ruined the film for this forum writer, which struck me as typical and oddly funny.

Actor John Dee smith had this to say about The Thin Red Line as it approached its premiere and Malick was ordered to cut the film further to ensure it came in under three hours: “(Terry) doesn’t think this mainstream formula clustering bullshit audience he’s dealing with would benefit from it. He wasn’t just telling a story, he was fleshing out the human psyche. I don’t think America is ready for his work, and he probably doesn’t think so either.”

For some odd reason it had me thinking about the comparisons between Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Back when Interstellar came out, there were all sorts of ridiculous allusions made to the film being equal to or the successor to 2001, and it got me into quite a few arguments at the time. 2001 has something to say and a brave way to say it, and while Interstellar is a film worthy of some admiration, it doesn’t really have much to say and confuses much of what it does say. Contemporary audiences however seem to think that the film is very clever and challenging but they haven’t seen 2001 at all so really have no way of qualifying that judgement in my mind. However, I hesitate to recommend they actually watch 2001 because I really don’t think they’d manage it- would they even get through the Dawn of Man sequence? Kubrick’s film was odd back in 1968 and while it eventually found its audience I think it’s doubly odd compared to modern films, its pacing and ambiguity the absolute anathema of today’s audiences. Well, the majority, anyway, I guess you have to be wary of absolutes.

I think we have lost something though, the way most films are now. Clearly they are chiefly entertainment and intended to be popular and therefore financially successful, and being simple and undemanding seems to go hand in hand with keeping the majority of viewers happy. Perhaps the biggest culprit is the high budgets and the need to be hugely popular (rather than mildly popular) to recoup such huge investments – just witness the problems BR2049 had. I think if we could get more financial restraint more risk or openly ambiguous/complex films might have more chance of success. Conversely, I think it’s such a shame that you simply cannot make an intelligent big-budget film like BR2049 and still get an audience, and for this you have to blame either the audience itself, or society in general, or Hollywood’s slow decline into crass stupidity in its blockbuster school of film-making that makes popcorn movies really popcorn for the mind.

Or do we just blame George Lucas and Star Wars? I don’t think that’s fair (and there’s also an argument that Star Wars actually saved Hollywood and ended a steady decline in cinema audiences etc) but there is some validity to the view that Lucas began a trend of making entertainment via escapism and less of a tie to reality and issues beyond the auditorium. The problem is that escapism can slide into crassness, dumbness and stupidity, particularly if you make the package so loud and spectacular that audiences get carried away by the experience and not having to think- and films these days are so very loud and spectacular.

I rather suspect that future of serious and challenging cinema lies away from the multiplex and perhaps in the domain of Netflix and Amazon Prime, if they get enough time, and don’t get pulled into competing with all the fireworks of cinema offerings. A Terrence Malick film for Netflix might be something to see, I think.

Full marks to Amazon

Hey, credit where credit is due- Amazon may have its faults (particularly regards paying its taxes and its purported workplace conditions) but it has pretty good customer service when things go wrong. A few months ago back when it was first announced, I preordered Criterion’s edition of The Tree of Life. Back then it was priced rather, er, provocatively, shall we say (£38) but these prices always fall,  and it did, even reaching £17.99 at one point before rising back to its current £25.99. Amazon’s pre-order price promise of only being charged the lowest stated prior to release is reliable and no worry at all. Except this time, when I got an email that my copy had been dispatched and I had been charged £38.99.

Hey, I’m one of Terrence Malick’s biggest fans (well, until his last few films, anyway) and The Tree of Life, which blew my mind at the cinema, was getting a three-hour cut here which was frankly irresistible to me but no film is worth that kind of outlay. So, I contacted Amazon and very pleasantly queried what I had been charged, asking if I could be reimbursed the difference from the £17.99 I felt I should have been charged.

Much to my surprise, Customer Services promptly apologised for the mistake and reimbursed me the full £38.99, and told me that I could keep my copy as a goodwill gesture. So I got Criterion’s The Tree of Life for free. Christmas has come early for this Ghost.

Must say I’m chuffed. I’m not usually on the receiving end of something as beneficial as this (on the balance of things, in life I most always get screwed instead of hugged). We’ve been having some rough weeks of late (the death of a neighbour back in my parents street who had been around since I was three, a relative of my wife becoming very ill needing care/chasing around and hospital visits – would you believe he was in three seperate hospitals in one week?- then an ex-work colleague of mine being rushed into hospital… it’s the kind of month that doesn’t get much blogging done).  So it’s been a rough few weeks (we hate and fear every November, it’s almost supernatural how things go wrong every November).

Hey, maybe the tide has turned.

I guess when I watch The Tree of Life this weekend it will just seem all the better, even the longer cut of it, for having not actually cost me anything. I keep teasing Claire, “did I mention I got this Blu-ray for free?” before she shudders at the prospect of actually sitting through it.

So anyway, thanks Amazon, happy customer here.

(And yes, hopefully I’ll be posting a review of this extended edition here next week).

The Kominsky Method (Season One)

kominkyThe Kominsky Method is The Big C by way of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Or maybe it’s One Foot in the Grave for Hollywood A-listers/millionaires. Perhaps I’m being unfair, I think I likely am- I really did enjoy this eight-part comedy series screening on Netflix (what else? Even I’m bored of mentioning Netflix, God knows what you readers are feeling). Infact, I practically binged this series in three nights, it’s almost irresistible once you’re into it.

Its got a great cast- Michael Douglas is actually bearable, in one of the best roles I’ve seen him in for years, and Alan Arkin is just brilliant, the reason why I couldn’t stop watching it- his fragile, dour-faced grieving character is endearing and witty and a simple joy to watch.

But somehow I still feel guilty about enjoying it. It is very funny and finely observed with some great character moments, plenty of charm and affection, and yet… well, its a story of two old guys and their friendship, but its Hollywood. Its so bloody Hollywood. Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas) is an actor with his best roles far behind him, enjoying a career as an acting coach teaching his ‘Kominsky Method’ in his school. Norman Newlander (Alan Arkin) is Sandy’s agent and friend who has a hugely successful business in Tinseltown. Its hard to take things too seriously when they live such successful lives. After Newlander’s wife passes away her funeral service features Jay Leno as host and Patti LaBelle as entertainment. Maybe its intended as ironic but it just feels as alien and artificial as Hollywood itself, all glam and artifice and millionaires and their egos in a city of dreams. When Sandy runs afoul of the IRS, it’s hard to feel much empathy or belief in his predicament when his best friend can just gift him the $307,000 that he owes.

I guess its politics. I just wish they had the nerve to make this about two old freinds who didn’t live such glowing and exciting lives in Hollywood (even if their best days are behind them the ones they are in don’t seem too bad). I mean, Hollywood isn’t real, it’s artifice and lies and greed. Its as far removed from the real America as Stoke or Willenhall. Maybe seeing Michael Douglas as a janitor or ex-car salesman might have been a stretch, or Arkin as a shop-owner, but it would have seemed more genuinely real, you know? Even Sandy’s love interest (like Douglas always has to have a love interest, obviously) is a gorgeous sexy woman (Lisa, played by a ravishing Nancy Travis who is just too confident to convince as a widow trying out acting on a mid-life crisis whimsy). They live in such gorgeous houses and don’t seem to worry about paying the bills (Sandy’s run-in with the IRS being a brief sojourn into bill-anxiety quickly abated by a  simple cheque). Hardly real life for most of us.

Having written all that, I will concede that I did really enjoy it (if in spite of myself) and would love to hear news of a second season getting greenlit. Arkin is just so good in this it’s untrue. I could sit down and binge my way through it all over again. As a life-affirming piece of comedy entertainment it’s like a warm blanket for those of us on the wrong side of fifty, but it might have been much more had it been a little more daring and less, well, comfortable, and less an aspirational myth about the American Dream and the glory of Hollywood. God knows the talent here is exceptional, it just needed to be more… more… well, risky.