Put this one the 2019 list for sure; Criterion are releasing their edition of Terrence Malick’s Badlands on Blu-ray over here in the UK in May. I’ve never owned the film on any format -VHS, DVD, Blu-ray- so at least it’s not a double or triple-dip. In fact I haven’t seen the film in many years, not since I really caught the Malick bug with his later films (Thin Red LIne etc) and I’ve always been curious if I’d fall in love with it now I’m older (back then I had a distinctly ambivalent feeling towards it). Well, this is certainly the perfect opportunity to put that to the test.
Month: February 2019
The 2019 List: February
Another month, another summary-
20) Two Doors Down Season Four
21) The Expanse Season Three
25) Les Miserables
15) Dumplin’ (2018)
22) Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
23) Sully (2016)
26) Upgrade (2018)
27) The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
29) I Think We’re Alone Now (2018)
Wowza. Thats me up to 29 already by the end of February. Must be some kind of record (for me, but I’m not going to check so savour the suspense). TV show of the month was the frankly amazing season three of The Expanse (which I haven’t yet reviewed because it’s embarrassing gushing all that praise on a show so few seem to be watching, but I may get around to it). Film of the month is a tricky one, none of them really grabbed me. I think I’ll be controversial and go with Alita, if only to highlight how meh most of the others were, (while I did enjoy Sully, it was fairly pedestrian I suppose). I think a film that even in 2019 feels the need to evoke Blade Runner‘s future city so much, well, it’s almost poetic in this year of all years, isn’t it, so yeah, let’s go with Alita (I’m going to hate myself at years end, but yet another Blade Runner reference forgives anything).
As for the worst thing I’ve seen this month, well, someone dig a big deep hole for Nightflyers please, and let’s all hope we don’t see a season two.
I Think We’re Alone Now (2018)
Hmm, contrary to expectations, this isn’t a film about pop star Tiffany’s ‘Dystopia 2018’ tour across a post-Apocalyptic America. Mind, that might make for a pretty interesting movie in its own right (I certainly hope readers aren’t scurrying to google to search out who the hell Tiffany was/is- I didn’t think it would be too obscure a reference). Anyway, there’s no songstress belting pop songs out in this one. Instead we have Del (Game of Throne‘s Peter Dinklage) as a lone survivor of an unexplained event in which everyone else has strangely perished. He’s all alone cleaning up a deserted mid-Western American town, spending his days disposing of the bodies littering the town in unceremonious burials out in a field and tidying up the empty houses. It seems a strange way to spend your Apocalypse but it seems to give him some routine that keeps him occupied and sane. Fortunately he seems totally comfortable in his own company.
However, one day a young woman named Grace (Ellie Fanning) arrives in the town (well, it could have been Tiffany in her tour bus I suppose) and Del suddenly realises he is not the only survivor of the blight that killed everyone around him. The taciturn Del doesn’t appreciate a strange woman breaking the idyll of his lonely but oddly satisfying existence and we are suddenly in a character-based study of the interactions between two strangers in a post-traumatic situation at the End of the World. Its a slow, quiet film, its dour mood intensified by a fine, and effectively moody soundtrack score from Adam Taylor (who seems particularly adept at this kind of piece, having also scored the dystopian series The Handmaids Tale).
Unfortunately (well, I say unfortunately, some may think the subsequent ‘twist’ enlivens the film considerably), the film takes a sudden turn into a road-movie thriller, of a sort, and the cast list doubles with the arrival of two more survivors who are looking for Grace- played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Paul Giamatti, no less. It felt like an awkward shift to me but it works, I guess, and offers a slightly surreal coda to the film by offering a suggestion of the world outside of Del’s bubble of existence.
On the whole, I’d say this was an effective and quite refreshing take on the Apocalyptic genre and well acted by its fine cast. Maybe it’s a better cast than the material really deserves, but Dinklage is very fine, carrying the film all by himself really and it’s almost an imposition when Grace turns up, because a Wall-E by way of The Walking Dead seemed a pretty fine way to spend an evening, to be honest, especially with Dinklage in the lead. Indeed, the quiet, moody and intense existence of Dell surviving the End of the World was a bitter reminder of the possibilities of character-focused storytelling that The Walking Dead has largely ignored.
I expect some may have found this film all too slight and all too slow and dark and therefore unsatisfying. To a degree it is indeed an arthouse Walking Dead, but it’s none the worse for that and I found it very interesting and well made. The score, as I have noted, is very fine and the steady calm throughout seems at odds with what these kind of slicks tend to be like. It was quite refreshing and while I have the suspicion it might have been more substantial without the sudden doubling of the cast (seriously, the credits have four named performers, that’s all- although I can’t help but feel insulted on behalf of the canine cast member who was oddly uncredited, for shame) I did enjoy the fact that the Apocalyptic event, alluded to by Dell and Grace, is never explained and remained a mystery.
Nice little film.
Inside No.9 Season One (2014)
Its a funny thing about misconceptions, something I have noted before. In this case, I came across this series while looking through Netflix offerings, and while I had certainly heard of the show before, as I’ve seen it advertised on blu-ray over the years and seen it highlighted on the BBC’s schedule in the past, somehow I expected it to be some kind of quirky sitcom. As it turned out, while it does have moments of comedy, its of the notably dark kind, and is indeed more of a Tales of the Unexpected than the sitcom I initially expected.
So rather than see a bunch of characters having weekly adventures in the usual sitcom mode, this is actually an anthology show featuring totally different characters and (mostly) new actors with each story. Its perfectly fine and really very enjoyable, with some great casting and plenty of surprises and twists with each episode, but it was, shall I say, a rather disorientating experience, initially. Just one of those rare times that I have managed to see something without any spoilers at all but also no idea at all what I’m going to actually get.
At least I’ll be more prepared for season two when I decide to take the plunge. As it is, I think I watched all six episodes of this in just three nights. Might take a bit of a break though, before I do turn to that sophomore season, as maybe binge-watching wasn’t the best approach- I did have some very disturbed dreams those nights. In hindsight, maybe someone should have warned me…
The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Caught this on Netflix last night. At least it didn’t cost me anything (Netflix subscription notwithstanding, at least it wasn’t a rental or disc purchase). What a woeful, ill-judged film this was. Ignoring the shambolic script, the actual presentation, with sweeping circular camera moves that always irritate me and excessive use of painterly (unconvincing) CGI landscapes and characters, was really pretty poor. As for that script… well, let’s be fair, it’s hardly a finished script- it feels like a rough draft and it may be a fault of the editing that it seems so bad, or maybe the editing looks bad because it’s trying to fix the script problems in post.
The Legend of Tarzan seems to want it both ways- retelling and retooling the familiar origin story in awkward flashbacks whilst setting itself ten years after Tarzan has returned to England as Lord Greystoke, thus enabling a sort of post-modern revisionism of the story/legend in much the same way as Spielberg tried (and failed) with Peter Pan in his movie Hook. Unfortunately, it makes the film feel as much Marvel as it does Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Its hard to measure the cynicism of the piece, from the casting of Samuel L.Jackson to give the film the uncomfortable feel of a buddy picture while making it also ‘hip’ and trendy, to the awful waste of Christoph Waltz as the utterly one-dimensional chief bad guy and nemesis for Tarzan. As for Tarzan himself, Alexander Skarsgård acquits himself pretty well but is hamstrung with the stodgy script that fails to serve the character at all. There were a few times that I thought that the guy was a pretty good Tarzan but wasted in the wrong movie- I felt quite embarrassed for him.
The film seems too concious about retooling Tarzan for a modern audience more accustomed to the heroics of Marvel and DC superheroes than the heroics of old, with Tarzan’s swinging through the jungle CGI-hysterics looking too much like Spiderman swinging through the canyons of New York, and some of the one-on-one fighting looking pretty much like any other modern costumed caper. I’m left with the suspicion that the whole project is really a case of it being made simply to be ‘Tarzan for the CGI generation’ as if the film-making techniques (such as the rendering of CGi apes and other animals etc) of today are the sole reason to retell Tarzan’s adventures.
When the film finally closes and the credits start to the accompaniment of a pretty awful ‘pop’ song, the ugly cynicism is complete: this is a film that is all about product, and franchise, and making money. Maybe I’m being naive, I guess all films are about making money, but somehow the film-makers managed to sink $180 million into this – and it looks like all of $80 million managed to get onscreen, an indication of waste perhaps reinforced by the bewildering number of producers credited. Its so terribly knowing and cynical, it doesn’t seem to be anything about a decent story being told as efficiently as possible but rather the usual noise and spectacle that is inevitably ill-judged. By becoming calculatedly epic (the grand finale is a horror of all the usual bad CGI habits, with thousands of digital thespians and dodgy cartoon landscapes serving no good at all) and ignoring the intimate (the chemistry between Tarzan and Jane (a free-spirited Margot Robbie that perhaps feels a little too Lara Croft) never really convinces, despite, or perhaps because of, Skarsgård sulkily mooning over her all the time. When Jane is captured by the dastardly Christoph Waltz and Tarzan stoutly chases after her, it’s all very Last of the Mohicans but without the passion or tension. The predictable ending is inevitable.
Set in an undefined near-future city, Upgrade is a low-budget sci-fi action thriller that reminded me of the good old days of the (original) Robocop. Its a reminder that sci-fi films don’t have to be mega-budget/high-concept blockbusters to succeed, and indeed in many ways Upgrade is more successful than Alita, which I happened to have seen not long before.
The film seems to have been spun off the possibilities, for good or ill, of AI (Artificial Intelligence) – there are trashy settlements of disenfranchised and unemployed on the wrong side of the AI divide, while the rich live in high-tech homes that are controlled by AI and who are driven around by AI cars. Inevitably, while it reminded me (through its violence and corporate dystopia) of Robocop, it also reminded me of Black Mirror, in how it spun its story around the technology and how it impacted the characters and world.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an analogue guy in a digital world, is a mechanic who prefers old-fashioned cars that are driven, over high-tech cars that drive people around. His wife, Asha, has no such issues, fully at ease with the AI world that serves her every whim and ensures her a promising career with a tech company. However one night their AI car is hacked and malfunctions whilst driving them home and crashes. Four assailants pull them from the car wreckage in what is apparently a high-tech robbery, but it escalates into something more and Asha is killed, and Grey left crippled by a shot though his spine.
One of Grey’s clients who he rebuilt a car for, approaches Grey in hospital where Grey, mourning his dead wife is also bitterly looking ahead at a life as a quadriplegic. This client, Eron Keen, is the head of a tech company that has a radical (albeit illegal) new tech that involves implanting a revolutionary computer chip named ‘Stem’ into his spine to fix his new disability and offer Grey a normal life again. Grey agrees to the experimental procedure and signs an NDA to ensure the technology remains secret.
The operation is a success, although Grey has to continue to pretend to be paralysed until the procedure can be analysed and proven safe. It also has unexpected benefits- Stem is a self-aware AI that Grey can ‘hear’ in his head and while it ‘fixes’ his disability is also able to take control of Grey’s body giving him super-human reflexes and combat skills, and all sorts of high-tech connections through databases. Stem offers to help Grey investigate the robbery/murder that ripped his world apart and Grey accepts, frustrated by the police inability to solve the crime.
Logan Marshall-Green is pretty damn good as Grey, it’s a tricky role in that he’s often reacting to, and having conversations with, a voice in his head and it’s a pretty physical part as well, with some considerable action scenes and stunts. He manages to elicit some sympathy for his condition and fight for justice and carries the film pretty much by himself.
Naturally there are plenty of twists involved and in the great tradition of both Robocop and Black Mirror nothing in the corporate world is as genuine as it seems and the AI tech has a few issues of its own. The low budget ensures the film has a few limitations but on the whole its very successful, with offerings of body-horror/manipulation that reminded me of Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Ultimately what seems to be a pulpish sci-fi action flick transpires to be a rather cautionary tale and on the whole it’s a great little movie.
1995 and a Waterworld mystery
A friend at work lent me a copy of Arrow’s recent release of Waterworld on Blu-ray, as I’d confessed to never having seen the film before, odd as that may sound, but, you know, some films slip us by. Well, back home Claire told me we had indeed seen it before, but I insisted I hadn’t. I mean, I honestly could not remember any of it, other than maybe the odd scene that I stumbled upon when it was aired on tv over the years (for awhile, it seemed to aired all the time on various cable stations etc, and even then I never sat down to watch it).
So Claire went off to find proof- and returned with her diary from 1995, which indeed confirmed that we had indeed seen it, at a Showcase Cinema on August 22nd, 1995. Which I honestly cannot remember, at all. Can a film be that bad, that forgettable, that it just fades entirely from memory? It still baffled me, as I could not remember it at all- indeed, it felt all a little bit scary. Is this how it begins, losing your mind?
Strangest of all, Claire had a list in the back of her diary of all the films we had seen that year at the cinema- 34 of them. Yeah, that’s right, 34 of them. I don’t think I see that many films at the cinema in a decade now. My only excuse, we were courting back then, before we got married and settled down to domesticity and the joys of home cinema. But 34 films? Crikey. While my eyes water at the state my wallet must have been in back then, here’s the list, just for curiosity sake: When A Man Loves A Woman, Timecop, Stargate, Nostradamus, Shallow Grave, Natural Born Killers, Interview With The Vampire, Leon, The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women, 101 Dalmatians, Nobody’s Fool, Outbeak, Legends of the Fall, Apollo 13, In the Mouth of Madness, Don Juan de Marco, Judge Dredd, Braveheart, Waterworld, First Knight, Congo, Batman Forever, Species, Die Hard With A Vengeance, Delores Claiborne, While You Were Sleeping, Pocahontas, Mortal Kombat, Haunted, Jade, Crimson Tide, A Walk in the Clouds, Babe.
Well, there’s a few there I can barely remember either. There’s a few I would like to forget but can’t.
As for Waterworld, well, we watched it Saturday night, and other than one or two scenes, such as the dive down to the submerged ruins (which I swore I recalled from stumbling onto a tv showing, to be honest) it absolutely failed to ring any bells memory-wise. It was like I was absolutely watching it for the first time. It was utterly bizarre. Unless Claire had gone to see it with some other fella I must have just wiped that film from my memory completely in some kind of post-traumatic shock. Well, yeah, it was a pretty forgettable film, so that would be part of it- that, and nearly 24 years.
The time to lock me away in a padded room is when I forget I ever saw Blade Runner, obviously.
A Brave New (Discless) World?
Days like today… well, maybe it’s not just days like today really, it’s just that days like today just make it seem worse. You ever get the feeling that the world is spinning on, off on its own mindless course, leaving you behind? Sometimes it’s what passes for modern politics or modern music or modern movies that sends me scurrying toward an old favourite on the shelf, whether it be a film or an album or a book, some avenue of escape from the ‘new’ in the comfort of the old.
It felt a little more pronounced today, when I read the news that Samsung is getting out of the Blu-ray hardware business, over in the US at any rate. Some people are describing it as another step towards the end of physical media, and it’s hard not to acknowledge some truth in that. Disc-based media, whether it be CD, DVD, Blu-ray or 4K UHD is being increasingly marginalised by the relentless popularity of streaming/downloading. No doubt Netflix is a huge part of that, as people get used to watching films and tv shows on demand- and they don’t seem at all concerned about it being of lesser quality. Well, of course they don’t, as some seem quite satisfied watching films etc on their mobile phones or tablets (which is curious, as tv panels just seem to be getting bigger and bigger). The value of a quality 4K disc or Blu-ray seems lost on those somehow still satisfied with DVD. Likewise there is a whole generation out there who don’t buy music, but listen to streams (legitimately or otherwise) instead. Music, films, media in general, seems to have become a transitory thing, sampled, dipped into, almost background noise. That notion is anathema to me, someone who cherishes/values such things and has curated a collection of my favourite films and music and books.
I remember when films receiving network premieres on tv were a special thing, when films themselves were special- now, they are almost like the pulp paperbacks sold cheap in the 1960s, 1970s, picked up, read, discarded. A $200 million blockbuster turns up in the bargain bin (a virtual bin in Amazon, a physical one in HMV or local supermarket) in the space of months. In the immediate moment, we all like a bargain, but in the long term, how much damage is it doing, and how much damage has it already done? I dearly miss the days when films could be something revered and special, their viewings rare. Nowadays they are available on demand and immediately discarded and forgotten.
I think it could also be argued that it impacts on cinema revenues, even though by and large attendances, we are told, are on the up with cinema chains raking in greater profits. When I was in Cineworld last week, I was (yet again) assaulted by invitations to join its ‘Cineworld unlimited’ subscription service in which you can watch as many films as you like for a monthly fee- basically, Netflix for those who don’t like to stay at home, I guess. I suppose if you go very often it saves you money, and Cineworld can always get extra cash out of you for the premium stuff like Imax and 3D etc. Here’s a curious fact that my wife assaulted me with from one of her old diaries- back in 1995 we watched 34 films at the cinema (something that blew my mind and will return to in a later post). Last year I think it was maybe 3, or 4 films at the cinema. This year I have only seen one, so far (last week’s Alita). I have gravitated to the alternative of discs or streams on my quality television, thankyou, and away from noisy patrons distracted by their mobile phones, but alas that alternative is becoming marginalised somewhat- the physical side anyway. And yet cinema attendances are up, so I guess I’m being left behind again.
CD production, meanwhile, is getting more limited all the time. Bottlenecks in CD manufacture became an increasing issue last year, causing some delays to soundtrack releases for some of the speciality labels like La La Land and Intrada, and such bottlenecks caused issues for the manufacture of some Blu-rays prior to Christmas (the 4K 2001: A Space Odyssey was a particular casualty in the US). I suppose such delays indicate there is still some demand worth noting, but it also indicates how manufacturing capacity is gradually reduced to match the lowering demand for the physical product, a self-fulfilling cycle. It ends only one way, and I guess I’m being left behind again.
I don’t trust the studios or the the content providers with digital. Most downloads and streams are simply licenses to view their product and can be withdrawn at the providers/copyright owners whim. I had a copy of Blade Runner on digital along with a physical copy that I bought a few years ago- my disc is fine, but that digital download is useless now, its gone, license expired I guess. Quality, too, is an issue, but it seems quality is as much a niche as anything else when people are happy enough with DVD or dodgy compression artifacts. We could be falling toward a PPV future and everyone seems happy enough, but if digital becomes the only access point, and the price of that PPV can be raised, does that move people towards illegal streams/piracy or just away from the product altogether? How many people would pay £10 every time they want to rewatch Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Bridge on the River Kwai or Zulu? Or maybe pay £5 just to watch one of them with a commentary track?
No, I think those extras that we film fans love will be consigned to history soon enough.
I used to think that the inevitable end of physical media was yet some years away, and hopefully it is, but recent things like hardware manufacturers dropping out of the game or Sony Music no longer licensing albums to third-party labels suggests the digital-only route could be nearer than I feared. Or maybe this is just one of those days when I think the world is dancing away on some other road than the one I’m on. You get old enough, you realise this isn’t the world you were born in.
Which can be a good thing, most of the time, God knows. But I like owning my films and albums, damn it. Before long I’ll be buying back-up players to hoard in the loft for safety’s sake: what kind of a world is that?
So I returned to Billy Wilder’s Avanti! again. Its widely considered one of Wilder’s lesser films, and of course when compared to some of his greatest films (a list, remember, that includes Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard) I suppose that’s inevitable, but the film has a certain charm that draws me to it, perhaps more so than some of those ‘greats’ oddly enough. The fact that it stars Jack Lemmon is likely part of that, since he’s one of my favourite actors. But Avanti!… is strangely magical.
Even when it was first released, back in 1972, it was considered old-fashioned which was understandable looking at that era of 1970s American cinema – your Godfathers, Taxi Driver, Jaws, The Exorcist etc. But the funny thing is that once divorced from their original release, films like Avanti! (and certainly you could include Its A Wonderful Life alongside it, decades earlier) become utterly timeless in a way their contemporaries can’t. Avanti! is also so endearing, it really feels like love, my affection for it. Its a little bubble of romantic, sweetly funny joy and has frozen in time a sense of time and place forever. Revisiting Avanti! is just like revisiting a favoured place or fondly remembered friend that you haven’t seen in a long while. It doesn’t hurt that the film features a gorgeously romantic score by Italian composer Carlo Rustichelli that can literally break your heart or laugh with joy- it plays almost throughout the film and gently seduces you without you even knowing it’s doing it.
Some people have issue with the films languid pace and think it runs too long- clocking in at 2 hours and 24 minutes it is perhaps a little indulgent but when its a film you love, you just enjoy the extra time to wallow in it. As it is, rewatching it this time I felt the ending came just too soon, feeling rather abrupt. I wanted more of Lemmon and Juliet Mills (who in particular is so achingly bewitching and beautiful here), more of the island, the Rustichelli score, the gentle comedy Its one of my regrets that at the end, when Lemmon and Mill’s new lovers agree to repeat the routine of their parents and meet again at the islands hotel the next summer, I won’t ever be able to see it, rejoin their affair or see the adventures each yearly rendezvous brings. I want to feel what they feel, again, and again, but its locked away (well, at least I have the DVD and the Blu-ray and the soundtrack). We can but dream of what happened the next year, and the one after, and the one after that…
I came back to Avanti! by way of a German blu-ray that matches a US release from a year or so ago that was region-locked. Why we have to rely on German HD releases of quality films like this I don’t know- I would have thought this kind of thing (anything Wilder, frankly) was a sure thing for boutique labels like Arrow or Eureka over here. As it is, the two short cast interviews included are slightly marred by burned-in German subs but the film itself is perfectly fine with English soundtrack and optional player subs. The HD image is a little problematic, likely derived from the same source/master as the earlier DVD but it looks fine with stable grain and no DNR: a fine filmic image with superior detail to the SD version. No doubt a fresh new master would sharpen things up better still and enable some improved colour ‘pop’, but really, a new master for a niche film such as Avanti! is unfortunately highly unlikely (but I’d like to be proven wrong).
I learned from the interview with Juliet Mills that the part of US STate Official J.J. Blodgett, played by Edward Andrews in the film, was originally written for Walter Matthau, but at the time Billy Wilder and Matthau were having a feud which nixed the actor appearing in the film. In hindsight you can tell it was written for him, some of that dialogue just drips for Matthau’s personality and comic timing, and him in it would just have made Avanti! even more perfect. Chalk that bit of casting up as another of movie history’s great ‘what ifs’.
Just when you thought it was safe to swear off expensive soundtrack purchases (the expanded Thin Red Line arrived on Thursday -yay!) La La Land land the sucker punch that is a 3-disc Superman: The Movie set. Remastered from the original 2-inch, 24-track music masters no less, the leap in sound quality is said to be extraordinary (well, they would say that, naturally, but..) and the 3-disc set includes the original album assembly that I had on vinyl for my birthday back in (whispers) February 1979…
So here we are again, Superman: The Movie, some forty years later. Oh man, me and this music. While the Star Wars soundtrack, that I had on tape for my birthday the year before, probably launched me on my love of soundtrack music, it was without doubt the Superman score that cemented it- I must have played that album so many more times than I ever played Star Wars. Superman was just incredible, so soulful and romantic and exciting – I used to play the Fortress of Solitude track over and over in the evenings, just letting its mystical, almost-ambience wash over me. Curiously enough, I hadn’t actually seen the film either ( I had a choice between a cinema visit and a skateboard, and my only defense is the peer pressure of all my mates having skateboards) so when I listened to the score, it was my own images and daydreams rushing through my head, so I have pretty intense memories of listening to it.
Oh well. Here we go again…