Apollo 13 OST by James Horner – Expanded 2-disc edition

apollo-13-expandedA few nights ago I rewatched Apollo 13 on Blu-ray. Mostly, I watched it because the new expanded CD of the soundtrack was due in the post this week, and I was curious to rewatch the film again and get a reminder of how the music worked in it- and fortunately Claire ranks the film among her own top ten films so it was easy to talk her round to it (there’s nothing more odd than an individual’s favourite films, I find).

Curiously, the last time I watched the film was in 2015, not long after James Horner passed away in an air accident- in a way, it was an attempt to honour his memory by watching a few films that he had worked on (I remember Field of Dreams was one of them, as well as Apollo 13). So James Horner’s memory worked its trick again, in a roundabout way, getting me to rewatch Apollo 13 again.

I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Apollo 13 that I have mentioned before and won’t get into again. Basically, its that while the film’s subject matter is right up my street and the cast features some of my favourite actors, there is a sense of cynical manipulation and dialogue driven hand holding that pulls me out of it. But whatever issues I have with the film, the score isn’t one of them, and while some may take issue with it as a seperate listening experience, within the film itself its works like gangbusters, one of the best examples of how well James Horner wrote music to suit its film and its beats and moods.

Anyway- as expected, this new edition arrived in the post today. Intrada’s new release of the score is across two discs but there is a lot of repetition/redundancy at work here to ensure its as complete as fans would desire. The first disc features the complete score and isolated electronic cues that feature within the film, and the second disc an original album assembly created by Horner that failed to materialise, replaced at the time by a curio release that featured key Horner music amongst songs used as source music within the film, as well as sound effects and dialogue. The first disc separates the orchestral score and the electronic cues later added by Horner, but an alternate track listing in the booklet will enable listeners to program the score with the electronic cues in chronological order as heard in the film. The second disc is largely a repeat of the orchestral score on the first disc and follows a soundtrack tradition of featuring discs of original score albums alongside the fully expanded discs- the irony here being that the original score album never got its intended release at the time (it was later released as a promo from which a bootleg was widely circulated). Fans buying this release won’t be at all bothered, but I imagine Joe Public would look at it at being a bit of a rip-off being sold a two-disc set with two discs that are essentially the same- not that Joe Public is really the target audience for something like this, that old horrible curio release would suit them fine I expect. The biggest selling-point is the remastering, as this music really shines here, and new detail can be heard all over.

It can’t be denied this is a great Horner score and I’m certain this release will seem long overdue for fans. It has a great main theme and some lovely orchestrations featuring a choir and Annie Lennox doing some very effective and emotive wordless vocals. All Systems Go -The Launch  is a ten-minute powerhouse of score music that I remember back when the film came out just blew me away- back then it seemed every Horner score had music like this, stirring music that sounded new and exciting (which is an irony considering how plagued Horner later was by accusations of plagiarizing his own work) and it would be fascinating to see the scene with and without the music to demonstrate how well it served the film. Elsewhere there are examples of Horner’s talent for Americana-like music, patriotic and uplifting, and yes, plenty of music similar to other Horner works (a surprising amount of Brainstorm, I think), but you know, the Beatles sound like the Beatles, and Prince sounds like Prince, and with James Horner gone now, we have no opportunity to hear ‘new’ music, and I’ve found myself making peace with all those Hornerisms that used to drive me batty later in his career. Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. That all said, there is some really original music here (Docking, and Dark Side of the Moon, for example) that stand as some of the most memorable pieces of his career.

The simple truth is that, whatever one’s views on Horner’s music, its film music such as this, lyrical and melodious that can be hummed and whistled walking out of the cinema, that has become increasingly rare and unfashionable in films. You just don’t hear scores like this anymore, really, and while I wouldn’t even say this film or score is particularly old, it feels like it- this release is a very welcome reminder not just of a great talent lost but also a style of film music that we have lost too.

James Horner’s music is a powerful part of the success of this film and this release is surely one to be treasured by fans of both Horner and the film itself. I know I keep on saying this, but it’s increasingly true- as time moves on, and the physical formats like CD continue to wane, these expanded and remastered releases will just get more rare and eventually will be gone. I consider myself lucky I’m around now and able to afford to import the ones that get my interest, and yes, Apollo 13 is a great way to start 2019.

The Expanse – Season Two


I’m almost lost in it. Haven’t felt like this since the heady heights of season three of Babylon 5 or BSG in its prime – only this time around, I’ve not been limited by weekly airdates, watching this season on Blu-ray. Basically, I’d be watching an episode late in the evening, be so swept up by the story and curious to see what happened next that I’d ignore common-sense (and the clock on the wall) and be unable to resist starting the next episode and then… yeah, sneak up to bed around midnight or later and suffer at work the next day… and then repeat again the following evening. Somehow I was beyond hooked, and The Expanse had become all-consuming and irresistable. How had I managed to leave it two years between season one and two on disc when now I struggled to leave it be for several hours? I’m seriously considering buying the books and giving them a go, just to soak it all up again and perhaps find extra details.

I was very impressed with season one of The Expanse, and a frankly embarrassing, all things considered, lengthy hiatus between watching seasons enabled me to rewatch the first season again a few weeks ago just prior to finally giving season two a go. This rewatch probably helped me get the most of season two, as it literally follows immediately on from the events depicted in the first season’s final episode, and as I’m not familiar with the source material it helped to keep track of all the characters/factions. The first season of the show depicts about 65% of the first book, Leviathan Wakes, the remainder left for the first five or so episodes of season two- which seemed a bit odd to me, in my ignorance, when I first saw season one.  Suffice to say spreading the story out properly, beyond the restrictions of the first seasons ten-episode limit, was a very smart move. While it makes it hard/impossible for newbies to join the show cold, the second season really gets up and running very quickly, and the finale of that first book gives the second season a blistering mid-term crescendo that is breathtaking in the sheer audacity of its scope and it is to the show’s credit that it doesn’t go downhill from there, but actually maintains that level and manages a gobsmacking finale.

To be clear, while the first season was very good, this sophomore season is just simply amazing. Really, I was so blown away at just how brilliant this show had become in this very confident and assured second season. Its almost faultless; a refreshingly hard-sci fi series that tells a huge and involving, at times surprising and extraordinary space-opera tale that’s up there with Babylon 5 in its epic scale of politics and space-battles, balanced by a gritty and realistic approach that is clearly indebted to the BSG reboot of several years ago. Many times I would be watching the show thinking ‘this is how Babylon 5 might have looked with a bigger budget/modern tech’ and while we’ll never see the likes of B5 again with its brilliant, unique (and sadly lost, over the intervening years) cast, The Expanse has taken on the achievements of that show and taken it forward to the next level. Not coincidentally, it also seems to have carried the torch of being the next anti-Star Trek. Seriously, I have no idea when I’ll be in the mood to watching the new Discovery episodes now.

exp2You’ll have possibly noticed that I haven’t actually mentioned anything about plot or actual events etc. That’s because I don’t want to spoil this show for anyone- it needs to be experienced blind, full of those twists and surprises that I have found so enthralling. Which likely seems funny to some readers, particularly those in the US as season two is already a few years back for them.

Of course, there is one particular commonality between Babylon 5 and The Expanse– and that is cancelation. B5 always teetered on the brink each season and The Expanse actually did get canceled as its third season aired. Thankfully Amazon saved the day and I can now turn to season three confident I’ll see the story continue in 2019. It’ll be a bitch having to wait, mind. Having three seasons to watch like this spoils you. I’ve read that Amazon will have the three seasons of The Expanse up on Prime next month and hopefully that will ensure the possibility of a new wider audience prior to season four arriving later this year. The Expanse deserves bigger success.

Now if you will excuse me, I have that third season box waiting for me…




Polar (2019)

polarThere’s a certain modern angst in Netflix’s latest film release, Polar– Duncan, the ‘Black Kaiser’, is a middle-aged assassin nearing retirement but his employer Blut has his own eyes on the assassin’s hefty pension pot, and in the grand tradition of the corporate world screwing over the small guy, Blut puts out a contract for his super-team of assassins to retire Duncan permanently, and ensure that Blut takes the pension pot for himself.

That premise of being screwed-over by the corporate world is pretty much the best that Polar has to offer, because other than that, its ridiculously silly style-over-substance that suffers from appalling execution (sic).  Unsurprisingly, it’s based on a graphic novel which betrays its lack of subtlety or considered thinking- you can get away with things in comics, no matter how ‘adult’ they like to pretend to be, that movies just cannot manage. Polar comes across like a Tarantino-wannabe, straining to be cool and stylish and broken with jarring acts of violence and gore and a bodycount that might seem fun and exciting on a comic page but just seems preposterous and extreme up on the screen.

So yeah, Mads Mikkelsen is clearly slumming in this, but perhaps he can be forgiven for attempting a shot at the superhero/comicstrip genre, as everyone else seems to be doing it. He lends Duncan a certain weight and pathos that the film is quite undeserving of- his character is haunted by his violent past and unable to relate properly with normal, civilised folk, and prepares for retirement up in the wintry north in a log-cabin, spending his nights renting movies and getting drunk. He buys a puppy for company and its an indication of how violent/silly/stupid the film is that within minutes he’s shot the dog dead in what the film thinks is a moment of humour. Okay, as a dog owner I’ll put my hands up- no film that kills a dog for a laugh or dumb shock is going to get a pass in my book, but in  some ways this is the least of the films issues.

Every character seems to be a caricature, crass and insulting to anyone over the age of fifteen. Sindy is a bombshell assassin who seduces her victims with sex, whose one-liner “its blowjob time” (or something to that effect) is signal for the rest of her team to creep up on the victim and blow his head off while he’s distracted by Sindy’s antics- ‘blowjob’ being the films clever double-entendre which indicates how sophisticated it gets. Matt Lucas plays Blut like the most despicable Bond baddie you could ever imagine, a monstrous over-the-top villain straight from the world’s worst Panto. Its so ludicrously OTT that it’s impossible to take him or his threat seriously, even when he tortures Duncan for days in his torture chamber in tiresome collages of blood and gore.

I was totally unprepared for a cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, of all people. I can forgive Mads for having a stab at this comic-book nonsense, but what on earth is Dreyfuss doing slumming in this? Is this an indication he’s destined to start appearing in all sorts of such nonsense for a fast paycheck as his own pension draws near? Say it isn’t so, Richard. The guy who starred in Jaws and CE3K deserves better. Hollywood owes him better parts, better films, period.

So anyway, if you’re sitting with (several) beers and are in the mood for gory mindless antics and don’t mind being taken for a schmuck, you need look no further, Polar will satisfy you no end. No doubt a sequel gets announced next week.


Vangelis- Nocturne review

nocturneNow here’s a strange situation- marketed as a solo piano album, with mention of Vangelis recording on a grand piano, and even subtitled as ‘the piano album’ it actually turns out that, as suspected from the two tracks revealed prior to the album release, that this album is mostly synth piano augmented with synth pads and strings adding both ambient atmosphere and inevitable leanings toward the traditional Vangelis ‘sound’. There is, for all the marketing tease, nothing particularly groundbreaking here in execution, which might leave some fans a little disappointed (Vangelis will already be at odds here with fans who prefer his electronic extravaganzas and are likely frustrated with this more intimate work), but I for one am thrilled. This is a great album and certainly superior to his previous album, Rosetta, that harked back to his older glories whilst maintaining the ‘more of the same’ sonic palette that has increasingly dogged his work in the post-Nemo Studios era.

Perhaps it might be best for listeners to approach this album like they would Opera Sauvage, as its one of those quiet, moody albums as opposed to the more energetic offerings of Vangelis’ early years. This is clearly an album of some maturity and reflection, as should be expected from an artist some 75 years old.

So anyway, let’s take a tour of this album.

The album opens with Nocturnal Promenade, which was the first track revealed with the album announcement late last year. Its a strange opener, to be honest, and certainly in my mind not at all the strongest track on the album or the most ideal opener. Its a very light, meandering piece that is playful doodlings on synth piano with electronic strings cascading above. It feels almost a period piece-somehow I get the impression of Victorian walkers at night, chinese lanterns under the stars. I suppose it works mostly as a scene-setting piece, a frank indication of the aural experience to follow.

With the second track, To The Unknown Man, Vangelis returns to past glories of decades ago and one of his most timeless and beautiful pieces of music, and suddenly the genius of this album hits home, because this is just exquisitely beautiful – it’s worth the album price alone. For a fan of his for decades now, this track is a wonderful piece, rolling back the years and yet informing all the years between. While much of the new music is very fine and enjoyable, and an album of covers of past music seems like a commercial move at odds with Vangelis’ professed dislike for the music business and how it works, this track is some indication of what an album of such pieces might have been.

Track three continues the return of past music with Movement 9 from Mythodea, and strangely features a guest piano played by Irina Valentinova, which I presume indicates a duet of sorts unless Vangelis is not playing here at all. Synth augmentation is a little stronger here with harp and more pads and strings accompanying the keyboard. Movement 9 has always been one of the strongest tracks from the Mythodea album and it sounds lovely here.

The fourth track is a return of the new works, with Moonlight Reflections, another gentle piece that is light and, as the title suggests, reflective and thoughtful. Images of streets dotted with pools of rainwater reflecting the moonlight or the open ocean sparkling with the pale moon.

Through the Night Mist is a little darker and moodier, and feels like genuine Vangelis of old, reverb-infused keyboards that don’t necessarily sound like piano at all, cascading synth pads and harp. Its the kind of track that Vangelis used to place in his albums to break the tone and add a piece of romantic melancholy, rather like the music of Bitter Moon. Deceptively simple there’s more going on here than initially apparent, and it also reminds me a little of his El Greco album or the quieter moments of Voices. Its a strong track and one of the better originals on this album. Very nice.

Early Years follows the mood of the previous track, suffused again with melancholy and reflective as the title suggests of looking back. Is this perhaps Vangelis being autobiographical and personal? At this point it almost feels like Vangelis is using the Nocturne album to say goodbye, an album of closure, but then the track turns brighter and more hopeful and positive, as if making peace with the past and turning to optimism for the future.

Track seven is the one I was perhaps most curious about when I initially saw the album tracklist a few months ago- Love Theme, Blade Runner. Its another lovely return to an old favourite, and it largely works very well, albeit not as strongly as the earlier To the Unknown Man piece.  This is a more fragile interpretation than the original, sans saxophone etc, but having listened to it several times now I really like it. Vangelis seems to be informing the music of all the years between, the familiar theme fading away then returning with gossamer piano flourishes embellishing the old favourite.

Sweet Nostalgia follows, another original track that continues the subdued mood of the album. By this point you either love this album or you are feeling frustrated by it. I think it works wonderfully, clearly a romantic and passionate album that is full of Vangelis’ talent for melody and mood and while deceptively simple it is full of his particular genius.

The ninth track, Intermezzo, serves as pretty much both the midpoint of the album and a nice break in approach. The synth piano is gone, and this piece is simply the cascading synth pads and strings floating a gentle melody in the air. While it maintains the gentle reflective tone of the album it feels like a typical Vangelis playful improvisation- not the only time this album will remind me of previous curios like Jazzy Box. I’d love to hear an album of Vangelis just performing these playful musical doodlings- I suspect he does so much of this stuff for his own pleasure and it just sits in his vault with us never intended to hear it. Thankfully we get another glimpse of all that material with this track.

So with track ten we are into the second half of the album, and To a Friend, another pleasant piece and one that reminds me of parts of the Blade Runner Love Theme, strangely enough, as if this were its musical cousin. This is very much a traditional Vangelis track, so indicative of his style, and thankfully one of the longer original tracks (running at just over five minutes) allowing it more time to breath and work its particular magic. I much prefer Vangelis to allow his music to just stretch and breath and this is a nice reminder of his longer pieces of old.

Track eleven, La Petite Fille de la Mer, gently takes us back almost to the beginning, and one of his first albums. La Petite Fille de la Mer is a perennial favourite that has featured in many of Vangelis’ (many) compilations so perhaps its inclusion here was inevitable. While I would have possibly preferred him to have taken another piece less well-travelled, so to speak, this reinterpretation works very well. Its as gentle and emotional as the original and lovingly played. It must seem strange, I suppose, for Vangelis, returning to music so many decades old.

Now then. Track twelve, Longing. This is just magnificent, the first original piece on this album that I immediately fell in love with. This is Vangelis at his finest and has echoes of old glories indeed- it’s up there with all his best work. The synth keyboard has broken free of its mostly piano-oriented settings and has become something else, and would grace any Vangelis album, teasing the electronic soundscapes that most fans might expect from him. It reminds me a little of his 1492 score and some Jon & Vangelis music, rich and deep and emotional. It feels a little short, running under four minutes, and I would have just loved to hear it just run and run but it’s a little jewel.

If La Petite Fille de la Mer was inevitable, then a return of his Chariots of Fire theme was only more so, and it follows next on track thirteen. Again, there is a sense of the artist informing old music with the years between, a sweet melancholy infecting the playing. Its poetic and perfect, an old friend returning for a drink and a chat. Vangelis throws in some playful additions to the familiar melody. Its very nice, but again like La Petite Fille de la Mer I almost feel guilty for thinking I would have preferred a cover of a less familiar old favourite. The inclusion of this track is I suppose a nod to commercial appeal and maybe a necessary concession to the label. I would have loved instead a return of Himalaya. 

Track fourteen, Unfulfilled Desire is, as the title suggests, a moodier, sadder piece. Again, it is Vangelis in his most romantic mode, and continues this half of the album’s subtle move towards a traditional Vangelis soundscape and further away from the purported solo piano indications of the marketing. The synth pads and strings are stronger and more at the front.

Lonesome continues this trend to a darker and more unsettled mood. I am reminded of the old saying, it is never darker than before the dawn, and maybe that’s what Vangelis is getting at here. This track almost has a forlorn feeling of inevitable isolation. It is also one of the longer originals at nearly six minutes, and benefits from this. Moments actually remind of some of the more oddly romantic elements of Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien theme- its not discordant at all but has that dark weight to it. There is a sense of reconciliation or acceptance at the end, of peace. Another strong, romantic piece.

With track sixteen we are nearing the close of the album and reach another possible concession to the label, with 1492: Conquest of Paradise, but this reading of the original is rather dark as befits the mood of this second half of this album. Breaks of light break through the main theme suggesting, perhaps, the dawn, and this certainly rewards the inclusion of this track.  Rather passionate and emotional, this is a fine interpretation of the original track- I think I actually prefer this version.

Nocturne finally closes with Pour Melia, likely a personal piece and the second example of a Jazzy Box-kind of idle curio improv. It has the feel of a sweet lullaby, delicate and light, the kind of thing that Vangelis just makes seem so easy and effortless. Its a nice close to the album and is nothing at all like a piano piece.

So that is Nocturne then. I think it’s a very strong album, particularly if you can accept what it it is. Its one for gentle listening and reflective mood and I’m sure a welcome addition to Vangelis’ lengthy discography. It certainly highlights his talent for mood and sensitivity and melody, and is stronger for losing the overly-familiar electronic soundscapes of his work post-Nemo studios. I appreciate that might alienate some fans but I was rather disappointed by Rosetta. Some parts of that album were strong but the issue I have with Vangelis’ current soundscapes just came to the fore with that album, so much of it sounding like Alexander etc- the melodies different but the palette just more of the same. Clearly Vangelis is not a young man anymore and the fire and energy of his earlier work is long gone now (the way he used to hammer the drums and percussion with wild abandon!)  and I actually think Nocturne probably serves him better, where he is now.

Sex Education – Season One

sexed“You are about to enter another dimension…” so intoned author and producer Rod Serling as he introduced early episodes of The Twilight Zone, and you could forgive British audiences for thinking the same thing when watching Sex Education. I realise I’m middle-aged and schools and students have all changed a lot since back in my day in the 1970s and early ’80s but still, this so bloody weird. Moordale High -the central setting of this mostly teen-revolved drama- is like no English High School I’ve ever seen, and neither are its pupils the kind of pupils I see going to and from schools during my commute, and the rural sedate setting with a vast wooded valley and lovely detached houses for millionaires is not exactly my experience of ordinary urban England.

Turns out this was quite deliberate, the show-runners aiming for a beyond-reality, culturally vague setting that is as much a period 1980s drama as it is a modern one (much of the decor look 1980s but everyone’s got mobile phones and laptops and social media inevitably plays a big part in the story), and as much an aspiration towards American iconic tv/cinema tropes (Back to the Future, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as it is a quaintly English story. Its a strange hybrid mash-up that is initially disorientating and even off-putting (I nearly switched it off, but am glad I stuck with it- I wonder if many British viewers actually bailed on it?).  The series was actually shot last summer in Wales, which doubles the oddness, as it boasts a warm and sunny climate rather unlike our typical English weather, certainly in usual term-time, and the Welsh countryside populated by English-accented thespians in often very American-style garb and driving some rather 1980s-era vehicles just heightens the Rod Serling vibe.

But it works. Ultimately, I have to say, while its setting is a very strange, surreal  alternate reality that threatens to slap British viewers, particularly, in the face (I’m sure American viewers don’t even blink, they probably think this is just how we live over here) once you acclimatise to it, it’s kind of crazy but it works.

Neither is Sex Education as brazen or coarse or exploitative as you might expect, and maybe the strange otherworldly setting is a deliberate strategy towards that. Once it settles in past its second episode, it actually tones down much of the sexual aspects and becomes a really enjoyable and quite involving teen romance/comedy mash-up of so many old favourites and tropes it’s a whole lot of fun.  Its a love story between two teenagers in the grand ‘will-they-won’t-they’ tradition of so many dramas and soaps, it’s also the love stories between two male friends, between a son and his sex-therapist mother, between school friends and lovers, long-term and casual, straight and lesbian. Its about relationships in general and all the messy stuff growing up and discovering who and what we are- which probably makes it sound more sophisticated than it really is, but nevermind.

Its a much better series than I expected it to be. Its so much its own thing you just end up going along with it, and a lot of that is thanks to the cast, who are very good (the casting department did great things with this show). Gillian Anderson, of course, is no stranger to playing therapists and could probably play this role in her sleep, really, as its making few real demands on her, but her sense of comic timing is really fine. Asa Butterfield plays her frustrated-but-with-a-heart-of-gold son Otis, and he’s great (I have to wonder if he was considered for Villeneuve’s Dune because he looks a sure fit for Paul).  Emma Mackey’s character Maeve is possibly the emotional core of the whole show, and Mackey is certain for bigger and better things on the strength of her performance here. Likewise I’m sure we’ll sure a great future career from Ncuti Gatwa, who is terrific as Otis’ best friend, Eric, a flamboyant gay black kid from a conservative family who has a great arc through the series and nearly steals the show from everyone around him. There’s many other performers of the cast that I could mention here, but on the whole it’s a fantastic ensemble that just works, and its evident they must have all had a blast working on it- the show is full of such enthusiasm and joy and its quite infectious.

So another great show from Netflix then. Great writing, a great cast, some great deft and sensitive direction,  there’s such a lot going for it and I dearly hope for a second season, as I’d love to see where these characters go from the teasing season finale.

On Nocturne’s Eve…

All being well (Amazon permitting, anyway) when I come home from work tomorrow night I may have Vangelis’ new album Nocturne waiting for me.

A new Vangelis album is a rarity, as I have mentioned before. I can vividly recall first listening to ‘new’ albums (as opposed to buying his back catalogue) of Soil Festivities, Mask, Direct, Voices, Oceanic, El Greco and so many others. Funnily enough this morning I was driving on my commute listening to his China album, a personal favourite, and the track Himalaya, revelling in that old Nemo Studios sound. Sweetest sound I ever heard. Its a sound Vangelis moved away from decades ago, but that just makes it all the sweeter.

Nocturne of course will be devoid any of that Nemo Studios sound, and any electronic soundscapes will be mostly absent barring some tonal textures, as it is a piano album at heart. I have heard the two tracks that have been released prior to tomorrow’s album being launched and they indicate the general feel of the album, I guess. It sounds fine, still a Vangelis album, I am certain, but one that may have a unique ‘sound’ amongst his discography, which is certainly a bonus. It may sound like heresy to most fans, but I’ve been growing weary over the past decade or two of Vangelis’ ‘sound’- ever since the Direct album he has used what has been termed the ‘Direct’ device, a system of creating/recording music ‘on the fly’ allowing Vangelis’ music to be spontaneous but it does suffer from the music sounding very much… well, not the same, but… the samples he uses, the pads and infections etc leave it sounding like the same electronic orchestra. I think the old Nemo sound was more varied, helped at least by it requiring live percussion and some real analogue instrumentation. It sounded more organic, I think, despite being mostly electronic. There is something a little too digital, too artificial about some of Vangelis’ later work. Perhaps being piano-based, Nocturne will sound different, and more authentic. I’m looking forward to it- all being well I shall be able to post a review of first impressions over the weekend.

Death Wish (2018)

death1Another remake, and this time a remake of a decidedly exploitative 1974 thriller, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that this was as bad as they come. What did surprise me, though, was some of the talent involved in this- so much so that this movie felt more of a betrayal to filmgoers than I could believe.

We’ll start for what passes for a script, written by Joe Carnahan. That’s the guy behind such films as Narc and The Grey (a great film, that one) although considering he was also behind the A-Team movie reboot, perhaps this particular project shouldn’t surprise me afterall. This is purely by-the-numbers gun glorification, that uniquely American myth that owning guns is a noble thing and killing bad guys is what every righteous cowboy sorry civilian should aspire to do if only they had the guts to Do The Right Thing. Its every lunatic’s God-given right to own a gun, it seems. And every cop is so inherently stupid we can’t trust them to police the streets and serve justice. Seriously, the detectives here are greedy, lazy and so idiotic they can’t see whats infront of their faces- thank God for Bruce.

Ah, Bruce. That’s Bruce Willis, not the shark from Jaws, although that rubber shark was more impressive and sincere an actor than the one Willis is now. I don’t know what happened to Willis- he was so good years ago but he’s just appalling these days, phoning in performances that are frankly embarrassing. Its infuriating, because I watched him again in Die Hard only a few weeks ago and he’s so good in that- funny and charming and wiseass and cool, but with a streak of vulnerability too. Twelve Monkeys, he was just brilliant in that. These days he’s a cardboard smirk, and that’s about it.  That word raises up in my head again- betrayal; betrayal in this case of any fans he had left and anyone who pays to see a movie because it stars him. Off the top of my head I can’t name another actor who has gone so far south of the reservation as he has. Clearly he signed up for this film for two things- the pay cheque and a cynical ploy to launch another action franchise as Liam Neeson did with the similarly-themed Taken films and all the Taken clones Neeson cashed in on afterwards.

The rest of the cast- this thing has a pretty great cast; Vincent D’Onofrio,  Elisabeth Shue (now there’s an actress who deserved a better career), Dean Norris (so great in Breaking Bad, so awful here although he’s practically playing The Same Goddam Part), Stephen McHattie (so great in Watchmen, here he’s relegated to a (perhaps merciful) several-second cameo) are wasted, the film dragged down by the Black Hole of Willis’ charisma, sucking the very life out of every scene he’s in.  Its like some kind of irresistible life-sucking force of nature draining every other actors talent, it’s almost scary ruthless it is.

Surprisingly even Eli Roth, the exploitation-enfant terrible that he is, is unable to maintain any energy in this film- there’s a bit of commentary on social media and radio talk-show debates as people argue whether our hero (‘The Grim Reaper’ no less) is  a hero or villain, but otherwise Roth’s main contribution seems to be some moments of very graphic gore during the action stuff.

Watching this film I often had to wonder, is this film really this bad or is it some kind of arch-commentary of modern action flicks and right-wing politics? Willis plays Dr. Paul Kersey a top surgeon in Chicago’s A&E department (you’d think it’d be easier to just let the scum die on his operating table). It becomes almost hilarious when on his every vengeance spree he goes down to his Bat Cave (Hospital basement) to clothe himself in the abandoned hoodies of (presumably) dead patients, which always seem to fit him like some inevitable superhero costume (“no longer the Smirking Reaper, he becomes The Grim Reaper, scourge of the criminals!’).  Nah, this film isn’t clever or sophisticated enough to carry the arch-commentary excuse.

Utter nonsense and truly dire, definitely one to avoid because life is Just Too Short.

Beast (2017)

beast.jpgBeast is a surprisingly fascinating, low-budget UK thriller with a great cast and some lovely location filming. The synopsis however makes it seem more hysterical than the subdued drama it really is- Moll (Jessie Buckley, who is really excellent here), a somewhat rebellious young woman with a traumatic past in which she, ahem, nearly killed a fellow classmate at school, falls for a charming young stranger, Pascal (Johnny Flynn).

Oh dear. Sounds pretty awful teen-angst romantic nonsense, doesn’t it? Well, that’s what I feared, although from the off the execution is pretty great. So it earns a pass and we press on-

Troubled souls sharing a feeling of isolation from the island community around them, the two of them have an affair at odds with the wishes of Moll’s domineering, restrictive mother (Geraldine James channeling all sorts of Queen Bitch of the Universe stuff) – but the island has been troubled by a series of murders of children, and when Pascal is named as a chief suspect, Moll confounds the police by giving her lover a false alibi. Pascal, being an isolated young man with a criminal record, might just be an easy target for the police, who are under all sorts of pressure to arrest someone, but could they be right? Already emotionally fragile and reacting against her controlling family, Moll starts to breakdown under the pressure of her growing suspicions of Pascal and the frenzy of suspicion from the villagers around her who believe she is knowingly protecting a murderer.

Yeah, I had trouble writing that synopsis and making it seem something serious and intelligent, which it is, really, rather than the pulpish romantic potboiler it might seem. There is a sense of darkness throughout, something more in the vein of the Hannibal tv series, say, or even perhaps Blue Velvet, in which the dark underbelly of civilised society is threatened to be lain bare. Its not as subversive as those two examples I’ve mentioned, but there’s certainly, as the film progresses, a growing disquiet that makes the viewer start to wonder what he/she is watching. Moll may not be the reliable witness we think she is, her character and past deeper than might be expected. Jessie Buckley is really great in this- Moll is pretty and intelligent but she’s broken, too, visibly fracturing and at times literally screaming at the world around her. Beast is more of a character piece than might be expected and ultimately succeeds largely due to the two central lead performances. Its a great little UK thriller and certainly worth a watch.


Incredibles 2 (2018)

incred2There was a time when Pixar films were something really special. I suppose a part of that was the sheer joy and ‘newness’ of watching fully CG-animated movies, but beyond that, the films themselves were often so finely crafted they were almost, well, perfect. I often remarked in reviews that I truly wished that live-action films were given the level of craft and scrutiny that Pixar films were. Every shot, every paragraph of a script, every mannerism exhibited by the CG characters, the story arcs… I think the Pixar filmography reached its zenith with Ratatouille, which is my personal favourite.

But I really did like The Incredibles, which came out way back in 2004 and it has always surprised me that it didn’t get an immediate sequel – perhaps that should be applauded, that we didn’t get a cynical cash-in, but it does leave the weight of expectation for when this sequel eventually arrived rather high and really, a little unfair.

The Incredibles 2 is perfectly fine but I did think it rather inferior to the original. Maybe it’s just so hard to capture lightning in a bottle, maybe it’s that we just see so many CG-animated movies these days- it’s no longer just Pixar cranking these things out, sometimes it feels like everyone is doing it, and maybe it’s unfair but technically they all seem to look very similar. I suppose they are all using the same CG animation software, in just the same way as so much CGI in live-action films have tended to look very ‘samey’. The only way, perhaps, for Pixar to differentiate itself from the pack, so to speak, is for a Pixar film in theme and craft to distinguish itself by being something special and unique- but everyone else seems to have learned the Pixar game and the ensuing familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then perhaps something approaching weariness.

I am likely being unfair expecting Incredibles 2 to be something exciting and new, but it is surely not unfair for me to have hoped for something less familiar and predictable. Nothing surprised me here. Again, I realise it’s just a family animated movie and not something arthouse or leftfield but still, the lack of ambition here was disheartening. Ratatouille was such a breathless joy, the characters, the heart, the humour, the music, it was so perfect, and the original Incredibles movie was a close second to that film. It felt fresh and… well, maybe too many Marvel and DC superhero capers have put paid to that particular quality.

Incredibles 2 was not incredible. That’s the main issue I have. It was perfectly fine and polished but it wasn’t surprising or enthralling or indeed incredible. It felt almost like a rock groups contractoral second album mimicking their previous hit platter. Hardly surprising in itself but still, disappointing.

(That being said, I will qualify this post with a comment that I watched it on a HD stream that was inevitably lacking what a good blu-ray would look and sound like.  This was mostly because I originally intended to buy a 4K UHD version which Disney here in the UK seem to think we are unworthy of, and well, I decided to be stubborn and vote with my wallet so a cheap £1.99 rental is all Disney get out of me. Not the best way to enjoy this movie then and another strange turn in the story of physical media vs streaming/downloads. I really don’t know what Disney are thinking here, but a worrying sign of the times.)

Short Treks: Calypso

calypsoI haven’t watched the season two opener for Star Trek: Discovery yet, but I did watch one of the Short Treks on Friday that Netflix has finally put up over here, and it was awfully ‘meh’. Technically it was well done, the sets and effects work pretty terrific and the acting is fine but the story was cringeworthy even for Trek. Set a thousand years in the future with the Discovery abandoned for centuries… yeah that’s a great premise right there but dear lord what they went and did with it…

Calypso is basically a love story. Craft is a warrior castaway whose lifeboat stumbles upon the Discovery, and the ships AI computer has evolved over the thousand years to become, well, typically ‘human’ and a strange love story unfolds, complete with Zora (the AI) loving old 20th Century movies starring Fred Astaire and creating a Holo-version of herself that can dance with Craft and… ugh. There are some very firm similarities to the Officer K/Joi relationship from BR2049 here, both in plot and in physical execution. Sure technically it’s polished but this story is so old and, limited by the short running-time, so limited it just feels like Trek at its very worst: safe, predictable, cosy, embarrassing- yeah, thats modern Trek right there.  I mean, someone gives you the premise of jumping a thousand years into the future and someone stumbling upon the Discovery, abandoned somehow for centuries, and the show locks itself off from any reveals about the galaxy or the Federation a thousand years hence by becoming an intimate, ahem, love story between a stranger and an AI. Maybe I’m missing something somewhere, but there was a time when Star Trek was brave and bold- no wonder I adored Babylon 5 so much back in the day.