Fighting With My Family

fightin1While it passes the time pleasantly enough, you’re always aware that you’re watching a movie with something like this. There’s something artificial that draws attention to itself, whether it be the casting – Lena Headey, what?!- or the familiarity (bordering on relentless predictability) of the script. The biggest surprise, oddly, is that its all based on a true story. Maybe this is just one of those wild true stories that feels so crazy its something only Hollywood could come up with- the irony that its about something as scripted and false as the sport of wrestling/entertainment is no doubt a big part of it. One of the best parts of the film for me is when one of the characters just openly admits everything is written and set-up, but that the magic is that the fans in the audience are in on it, too, so the trick is in the sincerity.

Sadly though that’s a trick the film, curiously, fails to pull off. It never convinces, always feels insincere, always lacks an edge. I was always aware of the construction going on behind the scenes, the predictability of the character arcs etc – so much so that the film quite quickly became quite boring as a piece of entertainment. You just know whats going to happen so far ahead that by the mid-point you really don’t need to actually see the rest. Characters initially at odds will become freinds, the life-lesson story told by the coach is clearly going to be revealed to be autobiographical, the crisis of a brothers failed dreams will be replaced by reevaluation of his self-worth and new dreams. Our heroine will be victorious and vindicate everyone’s belief in her.

In that sense, there is something  comfortingly reassuring about a film like this- its perfect rainy Sunday-afternoon viewing, I suppose, but that’s quite a damning view in itself, considering the talent involved – alongside Headey, there’s Florence Pugh, Nick Frost, Dwayne Johnson, Vince Vaughn in front of the camera and Stephen Merchant behind it. In that respect this film is a crushing bore and disappointment, tempered by the knowledge that, well, what else could one really expect from something like this?

Fighting With My Family is currently streaming on Netflix in the UK.

A Triumph of the Familiar: Toy Story 4

TOY STORY 4Did we really need a Toy Story 4? Of course not. Or maybe we did: I must confess it really surprised me that I really, really enjoyed this film, and more so that Pixar somehow made the film feel necessary, too. That last point is the real game-changer for me. This was the first Toy Story film that I didn’t watch at the cinema and didn’t purchase on disc on home release: I really didn’t see the point of another Toy Story. In an industry that just seems endlessly reliant on sequels, reboots and remakes, Pixar making another Toy Story film just felt like a cynical, cash-grabbing exercise that lent further weight to the ‘Disney is Evil’ scenario so familiar on the Internet these days. It was a seductive scenario and I was suckered by it, more fool me.

That said, I’m still afraid that Disney will announce a Toy Story tv series for Disney+ sometime (and if they already have, I won’t be surprised). Its the endless battle between art and commerce I suppose. Films are made to make money, its a business, and films are product, not necessarily ‘art’. Its so easy for us film fans to become cynics.

At any rate, I was certainly a sceptic going into this, more curious regards the improvements in the animation and art tools the guys at Pixar are using now than how well the actual script would turn out, confident that it would quickly betray itself as the cash-cow it surely was. But you know, I was very pleasantly surprised. Maybe its the irresistible magic of the very first Toy Story, the concept and its wonderful characters: in hindsight,  how could it fail, how could they screw it up? Then again, it’s like wondering how anyone could screw up making a Star Wars movie and then being surprised by Lucasfilm ‘finding a way’. I suppose the secret to this film is that it doesn’t ‘break the world’ in quite the same way as The Last Jedi did, but also organically progresses things nevertheless (in ways that the JJ Abrams Star Wars films didn’t). At any rate, it would seem Pixar could teach the guys at Lucasfilm a thing or two, or maybe the cynic in me was just bewitched by the magic. Shock, Horror- maybe we need a Toy Story 5!

TOY STORY 4One thing is patently clear- this film certainly looked absolutely gorgeous. I think I need to put this films 4K UHD edition on my shopping list, because I’m pretty certain that must be a wonder to behold. Do they have a 4K boxset of all the Toy Story films? I shall have to have a look sometime. I can only imagine how beautiful this film must look in crisp 4K detail and with the extra ‘pop’ and sense of depth usually associated with HDR. Even in standard HD the later scenes in the nighttime fair looked so three-dimensional: the Pixar artists do this thing with keeping foreground objects/characters in focus and the backgrounds soft and blurred, almost abstract, its something we’re used to seeing in live-action but of course here its all inside the box, artificial.  Its a little bit like the opposite of the ‘uncanny valley’, something that fools us into thinking something is real when it is purely artifice. A part of this films success is how perfectly the subject matter, toys, always fits within the technology of the animation, the constraints its greatest asset: the original film was always dreamed up and designed within the parameters of the tech, and even after so many Pixar films, the Toy Story series feels the most natural and ideal combination of narrative and visual CG style.

 

 

Conan Omnibus Vol.3

conanomni3I’ve received the latest Conan the Barbarian Omnibus this week. Collecting the original Marvel series during its lengthy John Buscema era (the definitive comics Conan for me), this third volume features issues 52-83, a few annuals and other material. Its a wonderful blast from the past. Glancing through it my attention was caught by the cover of issue 57, and its date of December 1975.

1975! Wow, just imagine that. Thinking back to what the world was like that back then, the movies that came out, the tv shows, the music, just imagining how it all was back when John Buscema was drawing those issues, and Roy Thomas writing them. Geeks of my generation tend to think of the world as pre-Star Wars and post-Star Wars. Its stupid I know, but that film is such a powerful, iconic moment in pop culture its a seductive way of thinking- things were so very different then, pre-1977: not worse, not better, just… different.

The run of issues collected in this third omnibus dates from 1975 to 1978, back when I was a young lad reading various Marvel monthlies. I loved them, it was a means of escape, long before Marvel Studios made it so ‘easy’ putting them up on the big screen (I can only imagine what it must be like for ten-year-old kids having all those Marvel films to watch now). One of my pleasures in reading these collections has been the letters pages, the occasional notes in them from the editor (in Conan’s case, Roy Thomas) and the detailed forewords etc to these books (the stories behind the scenes of these comics is really illuminating). Looking through the issues from 1976 really felt a little like a time machine. I remember 1976 well, I was ten years old. I remember the long hot summer; one of the hottest on record- we had a drought here, and I was deep into my Marvel comics that year. It was the year of the American Bicentennial, which meant very little to most kids here in Blighty, but to me swept up by the coverage in the Marvel comics (particularly the Captain America comics of that year) seemed so important and colourful. It was the  year of Howard the Duck (which I bought in an Omnibus collection a few years ago), and so many other wonderful four-colour Marvel mags. I’ll make myself feel really old by recalling Abba’s Dancing Queen hitting the charts, Batman reruns on network television, Starsky & Hutch on tv Saturday nights, or Brotherhood of Man’s ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’  winning that years Eurovision. Gotta love those 1970s.

XX7.TIFFAs I’m a huge fan of John Buscema’s work, its a great pleasure reading these issues from when he was in his prime. Reading editorials later in this collection regards John’s absence in later issues reprinted in this book (several instead drawn by a pre-Star Wars comics adaptation Howard Chaykin), it was poignant to read the explanations of John being busy on art duties on Captain Britain, a comic published by Marvel over here directly targeted at the UK market. I don’t think any of that stuff got published in America at all, certainly not until a collected edition years later. The original run for that character is largely forgotten now, and it hasn’t likely dated well at all, but I remember being wowed by those issues drawn by John Buscema and amused by the very frequent times when it was blatantly obvious that it was drawn from an Americans idea of what London and the police etc. looked like, not the reality. Its funny, because everything I imagined America looked like came from those Amazing Spider Man comics drawn by Steve Ditko and John Romita and so many others, and I’m sure that was as skewed as that weird Britain pictured in that comic. Somehow the real America never really lived up to the imaginations of those Marvel artists. I haven’t seen those Captain Britain strips in decades, I guess they would be kind of cute now. Or horrifying!

Eddie in 2020

P1100093 (2)Yep, Eddie’s back with his first appearance here in 2020, as usual perched on the arm of the sofa surveying the world beyond the front window, which we call his big television. He likes it when we switch it on in the morning (open blinds/curtains) and gets into a funk when close-down comes early (when it gets dark and we close the blinds). In between he thinks the programming is pretty fine, in which various dogs and their walkers cross the field in front of our house in all sorts of interesting ways (well, it fascinates Ed, anyway).

Its a funny thing, that cast of characters are almost following a programming similar to tv schedules, as most people have daily routines and take walks at certain times. So you know, the allegory may seem stretched but it works in a funny sort of way. Diesel and Bonnie are about as timely as episodes of Doctors or The Chase.

Ed likes some dogs, but hates others, and being a terrier, he lets you know about it. So if we’re in another room or upstairs, we can usually tell by the type of bark who’s walking outside before we look out to confirm it. The postie gets his own particular bark, as if he’s taking a very particular liberty walking by- mind, judging by the shorts he’s always wearing and the state of his pale legs, Ed may have a point.

Joker

Someday a rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets….Oh, wrong film.

Sorry, that was a cheap shot. Bad joke. Lets try again.

joker1As I write this, Joaquin Phoenix has last night won the Oscar for Best Actor, after last week winning the BAFTA for best leading actor, for his role as Arthur Fleck/Joker in Joker. That’s really some achievement for a comic book movie and a sign that either the film industry is taking such yarns seriously now, or that those yarns have taken over Hollywood regardless. Well, with 22 Marvel movies now (or 23? I’ve lost count, but I suppose it really depends on when you are reading this- it could be 30 or 40 someday), I suppose it was inevitable.

A long continuous chain. Then suddenly, there is a change. Ah, sorry, there I go again.

You know what really bugs me about Joker? Its that on the whole, its quite brilliant. Sure, it owes a lot – an awful lot- to other, better movies, and sure, one film in particular but that’s not really a problem (other than THAT films director really not thinking much positive of comic book movies), I mean, lots and LOTS of films owe a lot to other, older, better movies. The important thing is, Joker is intended to be a thing, a certain film, and it is that thing, it manages it. It is what it is. Its really quite brilliant; it has this philosophy, this heart of darkness thing that, love it or loathe it, separates it from everything else Warner/DC has done (except perhaps parts of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films., and on the whole, Joker does it better).

So last night I watched Joker on 4K UHD and it looked absolutely gorgeous. I doubt it looked quite that good at the cinema. Beautiful, gritty detail, lovely use of HDR that just exudes such a sense of depth to the image. Just fantastic image quality, with a great soundtrack, and to top it all, it turned out to be a pretty great movie. Not perfect by any means, but it really pretty much measured up to all that hype this thing has had since its cinema release last year. I really enjoyed it.

But what bugs me, is that they are going to ruin it. This thing turned out to be not only a pretty great movie, it turned out to be one that made lots of money -over $1 Billion in fact- and no studio can leave that alone. You’d have to be someone like Spielberg to have sufficient clout to block a E.T. Returns or a James Cameron to block bringing the Titanic back to the surface with a frozen Jack ready to thaw out.

I don’t know. That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard. Damn, sorry, couldn’t help it.

I hope we don’t get another one. Maybe one is really enough. Its a dark and empty film, a film for our times, where all the complex issues of our society can get narrowed down and simplified into soundbites and truth turned into fake news, and anything can be ‘right’ if the right person says it often enough. Joker is a monster, and I think that perhaps the film dangerously reaches a point where it forgets that, exults in sudden violence and murder in just the same way as Taxi Driver does, but that film had a point, a message, and proved a document of its time. If Joker proves a document of our time, well that’s pretty depressing, and that thought is enough to set me digging a deep hole I can hide myself in.

But yeah, I enjoyed it, it was pretty fine. Not many films can carry so many nods to a classic like Taxi Driver and get away with it.

joker2Sadly though, we’d have to be as crazy as Arthur Fleck to think that there’s not going to be a Joker2. They might call it Joker: Still Laughing, but that is probably the limit of the imagination involved when its really going to be about the money.  Whats to stop Warner smelling the money and making Joker into some kind of anti-hero? Sure, okay, a sequel might come out and it might be just as brilliant as the original, hell, it might be able to go somewhere new, but really, the odds are against it.

Shaking off the weary, darker Batman of Batman v Superman and Justice League, Warner is currently off making a brand-new rebooted Batman with Robert Pattinson playing a new, younger Batman with the Catwoman and a parade of villains like The Riddler and The Penguin and will somehow try to stop itself looking as silly as the Adam West show.  I hear they are shooting it in Glasgow or something. Gotham’s really going downhill.

Todd Phillips’ Joker is from some other alternate universe, it doesn’t fit in with that kind of Batman saga… mind, what kind of Batman with his cape and pointy ears could measure up to Joaquin Phoenix without being laughed (sorry) off screen?

One thing that Phillips got tellingly right in Joker is that they really are brothers. Two sides of one coin. Sure, the film wisely backtracked from breaking with established mythology regards parentage etc but fundamentally, it was right. Arthur Fleck and Bruce Wayne are two brothers on the same Stygian boat into Darkness. Imagine if Joker had been three hours long, and had gone on to examine Bruce Wayne after his parents deaths in the same way as it had Arthur’s fall into madness. They could have called it Joker and Batman. What a film that might have been, a deconstruction of that most famous comics mythology. Ends with Bruce Wayne becoming Batman and Joker getting out of Arkham Asylum. Fade Out. The End.

I got some bad ideas in my head. Hmm. Anyway, moving on… 

Altered Carbon Season 2 soon

Netflix has this week finally released a trailer for its upcoming second season of Altered Carbon,  which lands on February 27th. Quite looking forward to this- I just can’t quite believe its been nearly two years since the first season landed.  Altered Carbon was one of  the first shows I watched on Netflix; indeed it was one of the reasons why I started my subscription. I guess I just couldn’t resist its Blade Runner, cyberpunk vibe.

The first season of Altered Carbon had rock-solid production values and an intriguing premise, and was really, really good at times, just hampered by, ironically, perhaps leaning on those Blade Runner nods too often. I’m not familiar with the original books that the series is based on, but I gather this second season has a different cast, is set much later and has a rather different setting. This could be both a good and bad thing, really, with a danger it will lose some of the cast I liked and some of the setting and mood that I really enjoyed, but we’ll see. In any case, it should be a nice change from the rather weak Star Trek: Picard and frankly terrible Star Trek: Discovery. I doubt that The Expanse will be losing its crown as the best and most exciting sci-fi show currently on television, but I’m hoping that Altered Carbon will improve on its first season and fulfil its promise. There’s always room for more good sci-fi.

Phantom Thread

phantom3Phantom Thread, like its protagonist, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), does not give up its secrets easily, always reserved and distant. In this way it seems the most Kubrickian film I have seen since, oh, the passing of Kubrick himself. It even rather feels like it has the presence of Kubrick, like a ghost, running through it. The film maintains its own pace, and like in Kubrick’s films, each shot has a tendency to linger a little too long, making each feel a little uncomfortable, and perhaps hinting at meanings that might not even be there. Also like in Kubrick films, tradition and ceremony seems to hold import- in Phantom Thread, this is mostly in breakfast, an absent routine for many turned here into almost precise ritual, an exercise in power and control.

The films art direction, too, is so finely curated it feels like another character. I suspect one could return to this film in five, ten, twenty years, and like each time one returns to Kubrick films, it will return something new, some new insight. It is evocative of an era that is as alien to us as the surface of the moon, and is intoxicating and infuriating, warm and cold. I loved it and hated it: so very Kubrick.

But this is not a Kubrick film, of course: this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film; I adored his early films, Hard 8, Boogie Nights, Magnolia but was disheartened by There Will Be Blood, feeling as if it had broken some spell, so painful a film that I only saw it once and dared never to return to it. Indeed, I haven’t seen a film by the director since- both The Master and Inherent Vice have been temptations I shied away from. As a film-buff, it felt like a broken love affair, and while sometimes tempted, it always felt wrong, going back.

phatom1Phantom Thread is set in postwar London, and the strange, frankly alien world of 1950s haute coutre, a tale of obsession and control and love that reminded me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (no small praise, as Vertigo is one of my very favourite films- will Phantom Thread prove as timeless?).  I expected a film about art and  fashion in the strange world of 1950s haute coutre, but it is actually a bizarre oedipal romance, a man haunted by his mother, trying to shape his muses to his whim and being finally undone by a muse that in turn shapes him to her own.

Or maybe I read it wrong. Maybe its a film about toxic masculinity, of a man in his 60s abusing his status and position, taking advantage of a young woman in her 20s (how sad that this feels so timely). Maybe its a film just about a man ruined by his mother, whose ghost literally appears before him, confirming his fancy that she is always watching him, perhaps always judging him. Maybe its an adult fairy-tale, of the Beast being undone by Beauty. Perhaps it will be a different film each time I see it. Phantom Thread is a complex web, a gorgeous film quite Out of Time, so unlike anything you usually see today. Indeed, how very Kubrick. I hope Paul Thomas Anderson would take that as praise.

Phantom Thread is currently showing on Netflix in the UK, and is of course available on DVD and Blu-ray. I suspect the 4K UHD is quite sublime.

Prince and the Parade and Sign “O” the Times Era

prince sign oNot published until -gasp- 2021, but already this has me not only wishing I had a Time Machine but also excited that its timing might just be perfect for the hopefully inevitable Sign O the Times Super Deluxe edition that, surely by all things Purple, must be coming next year (rumours are we get Parade Super Deluxe later this year). I thought the authors previous book, Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984 was the best book about Prince that has been published since his passing (and if you haven’t read it, go get it now, as its indispensable reading), so have very high hopes for this one, as it covers my favourite Prince era. Pre-order available on Amazon now.

Pet Sematary (2019)

PET SEMATARYI’m not one of those that believe the 1989 Pet Sematary is a great horror movie; I wrote a post last year when I rewatched it that expressed my mixed feelings about it. So it may not seem too a great surprise to anyone that I actually quite liked this, considering that when it came out it was blasted by those that ranked the original highly. To be frank, although I enjoyed the original book when I read it many, many moons ago, having mixed feelings regards the 1989 version I really didn’t expect very much of this film- well, chalk it up to another case of diminished expectations and all that.

I would imagine that the reasons I was pleasantly surprised by this film are the same reasons why champions of the original disliked it. I thought the cast was better in this version, particularly Jason Clarke, John Lithgow and Jete Laurence (I wasn’t enamoured by the 1989 cast who seemed pretty wooden to me), and I quite liked how it diverted from both the 1989 film and indeed the book in its latter stages (why remake a film and slavishly regurgitate the same old events/tropes?), at least offering something ‘new’ (for better or worse) to give some purpose for its existence. I would imagine fans of the original were quite appalled by some of the changes, but to me it felt like the directors (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer) were using them as cheeky nods to audience  expectations and. yeah, whats the point of a remake if you don’t do something different?

In fact, the only thing I really, really missed in this version was the originals evocative Elliot Goldenthal score, which ranks as one of my very favourite horror soundtracks (Christopher Young’s score here is no disaster but it doesn’t really imbue the film with its own character, it feels more generic- although I have to confess Goldenthal’s score shares a lot with Goldsmiths Poltergeist). I also think this film was a little short, even though it ran a little over two hours, as I think while it maintained most of the beats of the original story I think it needed more character moments, to help cement the mood and effectiveness of the scares. Empathy, afterall, is everything in a horror movie- its no good being assailed with jump scares and gore if you don’t really care very much for the protagonists. Another twenty to thirty minutes, I think, would possibly have improved the film no end. For one thing, the last third of the film feels so rushed it unfortunately seems to lose some impact, even though I welcomed how it diverted from what I expected. ironically, its almost as if the film-makers lost confidence the more they moved away from what happened in the original book and film.

So anyway. I think there were many positives in this film. Sure its not perfect (maybe a third attempt in another twenty years will finally get it done right) but on the whole I thought it was an atmospheric, good old-fashioned horror yarn and really enjoyed it. Hmm, diminished expectations and all that might be the answer to anyone considering watching this film- give it a shot and you might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

 

The Abominable Heavy Metal Movie

heavy1Those Satanic Algorithms of Netflix caught me out last night, as I noticed in its recommendations the Heavy Metal movie, a film I first saw it on VHS, sadly on a regretted sell-through copy rather than a rental, many moons ago. I’d been curious of watching the film for years (it came out in cinemas back in 1981) and was expecting something quite special – I recall a glowing review in Starburst magazine when the film came out. I don’t know what they were watching (or what they were smoking) but goodness me that VHS was a shocking disappointment. I was somehow expecting something like the imagery of that picture above, which that damned Starburst review splashed across its pages as if that’s how the whole thing looked. I mean sure, in hindsight I was clearly an idiot- you could make that imagined movie that ran in my head look like that today, with CGI etc, but back in 1981, on the limited budget typical of any animation back then? Impossible. Instead we got jerky, flat and horrible animation, and even worse, crudely assembled and adapted stories with imagery that was just about sex and titillation.

Sure, the film obviously knew its audience, or at least assumed it knew the readership of the original magazine: as it turned out, I think they were proven wrong as the film deservedly flopped. Over the years, who knows, maybe young boys loved the movie, but I’m pretty certain women must have hated it, and rightly so: each female character is pretty much just a sex object and spends as little time as possible stripping off and having sex. Its like the very worst it could possibly be, and in this day and age would have the producers of the new mightily progressive Dr Who in hysterical fits.

So anyway, idiocy once again got the better of me and I pressed ‘play’ on the remote, wondering if that movie was really as bad as I remembered. Sometimes old films surprise you by being better than you recall; maybe its the familiar face of an old actor, or old styles of the time. Most of the time its as bad as you feared, but sometimes its even worse. This was the latter.

Such a shame. Even back in 1981, the magazine deserved better. I think the true Heavy Metal Movie would be an assembly of the best segments of Netflix’s own Love, Death + Robots that came out last year. Infact, it occurred to me that I would be much better off re-watching some of that than rekindling old horror-experiences of this movie. But it was late, it was a worknight, so I cursed those Netflix algorithms and stopped the regrettable play through of this terrible movie, hoping I’ll never have to suffer it again.