Hail the Vikings!

vik1Anybody who can watch the return home of the Viking longship near the start of The Vikings (1958) without a stirring in their heart has no soul. The exquisite photography of the great Jack Cardiff, the gorgeous location, the soaring music of Mario Nascimbene… its one of the greatest scenes in movie history in my book. It’s a timeless, beautiful scene, harking back to some Golden Age of movies now lost to us. Everytime I watch it, it’s like falling in love again, and I wonder what it must have been like, seeing it on the big screen back in 1958. I don’t know why exactly- it’s some sublime combination of music, photography and age, intangible but undeniable; pure cinema.

I’m pleased to report that this scene, and the film in general, looks brilliant on Blu-ray. Our American cousins (and those here in the UK who are region free) will have known this for years, but it’s wonderful to finally have the film available to those of us in the UK who are region-locked, thanks to the Eureka label.  Indeed, while there are sections where the print shows its age, for the majority of the time it looks simply phenomenal and is the best quality I have ever seen the film. The rich colours of Jack Cardiff’s technicolour cinematography are breathtaking, rich and vibrant and leaping from the screen. For any fan of this film this blu-ray is a real treat.

What might be a surprise for some is just how well the film holds up in general. I suppose it could be argued some of the Boys Own Adventure battle scenes look a little bit cardboard swords and shields, but the star cast and the tight, efficient script sails (sic) above such censor-ridden limitations (I recall the trouble Hammer had back then with censors so can only imagine how The Vikings was limited with what it could manage). At its heart is a rolocking adventure with bold heroes and a dastardly English king, and I suppose it could well be argued that Kirk Douglas is more anti-hero than hero, lending a rather modern sensibility to his role. To be clear, this film is pretty perfect and in no way needs a remake, but I’m surprised one hasn’t been done – a blockbuster, star-ridden remake akin to Braveheart or Gladiator seems a no-brainer.

Thankfully we’ve never seen that remake, though. Not yet, anyway….

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Where’s the Wonder?

ww12017.51: Wonder Woman (2017)

Its perhaps unfortunate for  Wonder Woman that it is the first film I have seen since watching Blade Runner 2049 (twice). Wonder Woman is a competent effort, and perhaps the best of the current DC stable, but it is, compared to 2049, woefully generic. It doesn’t surprise at all, rather excelling in the familiar, and while it does seem rather promising at moments, it falls into a terribly typical, noisy and overblown cgi fight-fest finale that  almost derails the entire film. That ending is terrible.

Is it just me, or is it getting increasingly tiresome watching cgi characters thrown into buildings and vehicles and leaping hundreds of feet and walking through fire and explosions without a scratch? Enough already. Its boring me to tears. Likewise the heroic shots of superhero action slowed down ad nauseum akin to almost pornographic comic-frame ecstasy? Get on with it, this is a film, not some motion-comic.

Gal Gadot is excellent as the title character and it’s down to her performance, rather than the annoying cgi character that doubles her in some of the ludicrously OTT action shots, that saves the film. She carries far more nobility and charm than Man of Steel‘s Henry Cavill, and compares well with Christopher Reeve’s Superman- she’s that good. Gadot has the physical presence the film requires and her absence during the cgi stuff is like a huge vacuum. It is uncanny how the cgi Wonder Woman looks so cartoony and fake. Indeed, there seems to be issues with most of the cgi work in this film- something just looks ‘off’, something rather painterly about much of it. Many of the scene extensions and digital mattes look a little sub-par too, but the digital representations of many of the characters don’t convince at all, either.  Maybe it’s the sheer amount of effects shots that brings the quality level down.

In a supporting role, Chris Pine is American spy Steve Trevor, but either he’s a surprisingly limited actor or he’s deliberately channeling his James Kirk personna here from his Star Trek movies, because he’s Kirk here through and through, to the point it rather unnerved me that he was a better Kirk here than he is in those Star Trek films. Really. If his Kirk was this good in those films I’d have cut them more slack.

But enough of my moaning. This film cruised to over $800 million worldwide box office so I seem to be in a minority. Sure, I thought it was pleasant enough but it’s not as if this is the first superhero blockbuster suddenly wowing audiences- it is treading a path well-trod by both Marvel and DC, and I’m wondering if audiences will ever tire of this familiar formula.  Perhaps it was the wrong franchise (I hate that word) to expect something radical or new but really, it is rather upsetting to me how generic and formulaic stuff like this gets lapped up while 2049 is utterly rejected. I guess it’s just the world we live in: people just want simple bubblegum movies right now.

But coming off the glorious 2049, this film was something akin to a culture shock.

Blade Runner 2049: Have you ever seen a miracle?

2049d2017.50: Blade Runner 2049

He would have loved this film, so I’ll begin by paraphrasing the late John Brosnan: Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece, much to my surprise. So too,  I am sure, would Sara Campbell, and I just wanted to mention them both, for this film has been 35 long years coming, and not everyone who deserves to see it are still here to do so. There is a sadness knowing that, a reminder of the sense of mortality that permeates both (both! Still can’t get my head around that!) Blade Runner films, and a reminder of how lucky we are now, how remarkable this is. This film, Blade Runner 2049, should not exist.

Where to begin? Well, have you seen 2049? If not, stop reading now, go see the movie. You need to see it and it seems the film needs your patronage. And you really don’t need to read the spoilers that follow. If you have seen the film, you won’t mind the spoilers, and I hope you can give me your time, share with me my thoughts, offer some thoughts back. Sitting comfortably? This could be a long post. Time enough, as Batty might say.

First of all, I really have to say how strange an experience it was. Anybody who has read this blog will be aware of how much of a big deal the original Blade Runner is for me. I first saw the film in September 1982, and it remains the most intense cinematic experience of my life. Thursday night may have been the most bizarre cinematic experience. You see, Blade Runner has been my favourite film for some 35 years – years in which it grew from box-office failure and obscure cult film to a video favourite and critical darling. For all those years until just awhile ago, the very idea of a sequel was ridiculous.

Yet here it was. I’d pre-booked my tickets for the first evening of its release, and was going with my long-term friend Andy who had been there with me back on that Saturday afternoon in 1982 when we saw the film for the first time. The tickets were 75p each back then, markedly rather more now. 35 years is half a lifetime ago and much had changed, but we both still shared our love of this particular film, and here we were for its sequel.

Of course I was nervous. The film had been the subject of much hype and early word on Twitter last week was frankly ecstatic. But what do critics and people who weren’t even born back in 1982 know? A good film doesn’t necessarily mean a good Blade Runner film, was this film made for modern audiences or for the fans who have lived this film since 1982? I cannot possibly explain the impact the film had back in 1982, in just the same way I cannot possibly explain the impact of the opening Star Destroyer shot in Star Wars on audiences back in 1977/1978 to people now. Films are of their time and while they may impress years later…  it’s hard to recapture that impact. I consider myself lucky to have experienced the original in 1982. It was of my time. It’s in my blood.

So here we are 35 years later and watching Blade Runner 2049 was an utterly bizarre, almost out-of-body experience. Yes I enjoyed it, I was fascinated and awed by it, but also there was an almost detached point of view of it, from outside almost. Interrogating it like some Voight-Kampf test of it being a ‘real’ Blade Runner film as opposed to some second-rate modern Hollywood replicant. The relief, of course, was overwhelming. 2049  is indeed a great Blade Runner film, but more than that, its a great sequel, a film that both informs and expands upon the original, in the same way as The Empire Strikes Back with Star Wars, or indeed The Godfather Pt.2. Watching Blade Runner again in the future might actually be improved by having seen 2049. Imagine that. 2049 might actually make Blade Runner better.

I’ve been thinking of Philip K Dick and of his astonishment at seeing twenty minutes of Blade Runner footage shortly before his death where he couldn’t work out how they got those images out of his brain.  For the past few days the film has been rattling around in my head as if I have been in some kind of post-traumatic fugue, trying to make sense of it. Was this how PKD felt when he had seen that Blade Runner footage? It’s not that I saw things Thursday night that I had imagined before, it was simply that they existed at all. Blade Runner 2049 is… well, in some ways it should not exist. It’s a near three-hour long arthouse movie made with a blockbuster budget, and a sequel to that strange dark sci-fi film that flopped spectacularly over three decades earlier. More than that, it’s a cinematic love-letter to all the films fans for all those years. And it’s quite brilliant.

2049fTo be clear, 2049 is not perfect, it’s not without its faults. But 2049 is also quite extraordinary. It raises more questions, cleverly sidesteps others. We are no longer simply asking how real or human a Replicant is, but also how real or human a hologram, or an AI can be? Can an AI fall in love? Can it feel empathy for another? Can it dream of electric sheep?

The film has the pace of a dream, is slow and hypnotic… shots, scenes, linger… maybe too long, I’m not sure, but it’s a long film and modern audiences get impatient with that. Not me, anyway, as it harks back to the Golden Days of ‘Seventies American cinema when American film was, well, better. But yes, it’s long, and its pace would seem to be utterly alien to most cinemagoers today. As expected, everything is beautifully staged and the cinematography is sublime- surely Roger Deakins will get his Oscar at long last. Speaking of Oscar….well, dare I say it, Harrison Ford actually turns in a performance I thought he was incapable of. It might even be the greatest performance of his career, oddly confounding any suspicion that any Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod might be a consolation gesture for that long career. The guy probably deserves to actually win it.

In my last post I mentioned that The Force Awakens was like a comfort blanket for Star Wars fans- what I meant was that the film contained familiar faces, music, places, objects, and was complete with a familiar plot that was like a greatest-hits package of all that had come before it. The whole film is designed to please, to wrap fans in a nostalgic return to childhood while lapsing into the calculated stupidity of so many contemporary blockbusters.

2049 isn’t like that. Yes its a Blade Runner film -sing the praises from the the highest rooftops!-but it’s quite utterly disturbing, particularly for Blade Runner fans.. well, certainly for me anyway. When that crate was dug up and its contents put on display in the LAPD morgue, I knew immediately whose bones they were. I just knew and it cut me deep. It was Rachel. This was Rachel, her skull…

For 35 years Sean Young’s Rachel has been frozen in time, a vision of utter beauty, a replicant of impossible perfection, the magical chemistry in celluloid of a beautiful actress, Jordan Cronenweth’s gorgeous cinematography, stylish make-up and costume design. I have seen Sean Young many times in films since but she never really looked or sounded or acted quite like Rachel. For 35 years she has existed in that one film, a creation as timeless and permanent as any iconic performances of Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe. But here she was, a skull, some bones. It felt brutal, cold.

I’m not certain why, but throughout the film that really creeped me out. That feeling seemed to inform every scene. A sense of horror, of mortality, of melancholy. Later on when Jared Leto’s enigmatic (under-used?) villain Neander Wallace held Rachel’s skull in his hand before Deckard, it felt like something utterly monstrous. And when the inevitable happened, and that 35-year-old vision walked into the scene as if 35 years had never happened and the impossible had been given form, I nearly freaked out. My jaw dropped. I think I may have moaned. This was Pure Cinema. It was like a nightmare. I saw the pain and horror etched on Harrison Ford’s face and the torture was complete, palpable. I felt it too.

It was horrible. It was perfect. This film, I realised, should not exist.

And I’m thinking again about PKD’s reaction to seeing that Blade Runner footage. His astonishment. His reaction: “How is this possible?”

2049bHow is this possible that 35 years after Blade Runner, they made this huge slow enigmatic study of the nature of humanity and existence? The protagonist is a Replicant who has a relationship with a hologram. Two artificial intelligences sharing… love? Debating the validity of implanted memories? Discussing the possibility of being ‘real’? It’s a genius twist of the original film- here we  know that Officer K (a brilliantly nuanced Ryan Gosling) is a replicant, but does that make him any less real? As the films events unfold and he finds cause to question his implanted memories, and begins to think he may not be more human than human, but actually human, if not some kind of hybrid, the sadness of the eventual truth is heartbreaking.  And yet, like Batty in the earlier film, he reaches some self-awareness, some humanity that is undeniable. What is human anyway?

(This film even has a great joke, a funny one: as he considers Deckard’s dog, K asks, “Is he real?” and Deckard deadpans “Ask Him.” I guffawed. But that joke sums up the film. Is it real? What is real?)

We live in thrall to technologies intended to serve. People cannot seem to live without their smartphones. The hologram Joi is the natural extension of the smartphone, what it may evolve into. An AI assistant, a diversion, a replacement for human company. We may never have the flying cars of Blade Runner, but I suspect AI like Joi is inevitable- indeed, barring the holographic flight of fancy, it’s almost already here. But is it real, can it feel, can it aspire to be human?

Consider this:  an Hologram AI has purchased/arranged a pleasure-model Replicant to have sex with the Holograms owner/lover who is a Replicant itself (himself/herself/itself, how does that work with Replicants?). While I try to get my head around that, add this to the mix: the pleasure model that Joi hired is part of the resistance/uprising who uses the opportunity to plant a tracker in K’s coat, so is Joi a part of that resistance all along? Is K being steered by unseen forces all along?

2049eI really need to see the film again. All sorts of thoughts and observations have been rattling around in my head for the days since. A sign of a good film is one that lingers in your head. I am sure 2049 will reward repeat viewings, possibly for years. But I really need to see it again on the big screen before it slips across to disc (the thought that six months from now I will be used to simply rewatching it at home whenever I like is a frankly salivating prospect).

They show you someone weaving memories together in this film. Its breathtaking, like fashioning dreams with a strange (very PKD) device that looks part-camera, part bus conductor ticket machine. They show a Replicant having her nails done whilst orchestrating rocket fire from some automated weapons platform hanging unseen in the sky. A giant hologram selling an app steps out of the skyline to accost our protagonist who has already loved and lost that product, the giant hologram’s blank unfeeling stare utterly at odds with the loving sincerity of the eyes that he loved.  A wooden horse replaces the origami unicorn of the previous film, but seems to represent the same question: what is human? Can you trust your memories in a world that can have them woven like dreams and implanted? What is the meaning of the final shots where a dying K stares up at the falling snow and watches it fall into his hand, while Dr. Stelline in her glass world nearby fashions memories of snow falling out of nowhere?

This film should not exist.

Sadly, as I write this it seems the Box-Office for the film has been very disappointing, particularly in America. I feel a sense of history repeating, and it seems awfully unfair that the bravery in making this film so sincere and ‘honest’ to the original won’t be rewarded financially, and we won’t get a third film. Not that we should even measure quality by box office anyway, or that we even need a third film, but its seems cruel that, when we finally get a quality adult sci fi film, it stumbles at the box office, as if we’re being haunted by the lessons of 35 years ago all over again. In a genre swamped by huge empty-headed spectacle or superhero comic movies… Well, it’s very frustrating and quite utterly depressing and disappointing. 2049 deserves better from audiences, but at least it got the love of (most) critics. So it’s doing better than Blade Runner there, at any rate.

The question still rattles around in my head: this film should not exist, but it does. How is this possible? PKD would have loved that.

 

First Impressions of 2049

2049aWell, in a somewhat bewildering -pinch me is this real?- evening of utter strangeness I finally saw Blade Runner 2049. I’ll post a considered review in a few days, but first impressions are it’s a fine sequel to Blade Runner, both informing and expanding on the first film. Indeed, while most of us never wanted a Blade Runner sequel, if we had to have one I’m rather glad its this one.

I didn’t expect it to be quite so disturbing. There are plot points and stuff referencing the original that really quite impacted me. I’m not sure where I stand on all of that but yeah, it was a strange feeling that ran through me for most of the film. It wasn’t a comfort blanket of familiar sights and sounds that, say, The Force Awakens was to Star Wars fans. This was… something else.

At any rate, yes it looks beautiful, Harrison Ford is quite remarkable, his best performance in many years, the film does have pacing issues (but I like wallowing in long films) and the music is the films weakest element, as I first feared hearing that Johann Johannsson had been replaced. But it is a great, great sequel even if it may not be a great, great movie (which it possibly is, I need to see it again next week).

Certainly its this year’s must-watch movie, and experienced on the biggest screen possible. Its quite remarkable.

 

The Movie Art of Syd Mead

syd1Here’s a timely arrival, considering it’s clearly Blade Runner week here- Titan Book’s The Movie Art of Syd Mead. It’s a large-format, full-colour hardback totaling something like 256 pages, covering all of Mead’s work on movies over the past few decades, with the inevitable meat of the book (pages 88 – 153) concerned with his most famous project, Blade Runner.

I must say, I’m surprised to find there are pieces here I have never seen before, and others rarely printed, and even the pre-production paintings so familiar over the years are (mostly) printed from great scans and often spread over two pages, unveiling new details. (There is one painting, for Sebastian’s apartment, that is only printed at half-page size and looks to be from an older, inferior scan from the others, which likely explains its reduced size). There are, surprisingly, a few pieces actually missing so its is by no means complete, though the rarities/’new’ pieces are consolation.

For Blade Runner fans, this is a great opportunity to obtain a pretty definitive collection of Syd Mead’s sketches and paintings for the film. If ever a film deserved an ‘art of’ book, it was Blade Runner, and I know there have been a few attempts to get such a work published over the years but various rights issues nixed them. Considering Mead’s importance to the film, I guess this book manages to complete half of such a project (a ‘proper’ art of book would also need the matte paintings, the Ridleygrams, the storyboards etc). In any case, it’s a wonderful way to rediscover Mead’s Blade Runner artwork with most of it all in one place- the omissions are a little annoying, but I suppose they may be due to some pieces being in the hands of private collectors and/or the available scans not being good enough for inclusion (oh, oh- that doesn’t mean a ‘Movie Art of Syd Mead: The Final Cut’ will be due in a few years? It’d almost be poetic considering the many different versions of the film itself).

It even has a surprise at the end- a few pieces that Mead completed for Blade Runner 2049, for which he did designs for the film’s Las Vegas setting. I had no idea that Mead was in any way involved in the new movie. Incidentally, Blade Runner 2049 is getting its own ‘art-of’ book, currently due before the end of this month (conveniently delayed so as to avoid spoilers around the film’s release). So I guess it trumps the original film in that way at least (actually, it’s also getting a soundtrack release too so…).

Anyway, barring the odd omissions it’s a great book. I’d have appreciated a bit more text/ Mead commentary but that’s just being a bit picky, the artwork is the real draw and the reproductions are pretty great. It’s just over £20 at Amazon currently so well worth it.

 

Blade Runner: It’s supposed to be cult, not popular…

P1070640Well, I’m back from my holiday up in sunny (yes, really) Scotland and I’ve got my tickets booked for Blade Runner 2049 Thursday night. I was intending to wait until the following week (and I NEVER go to the cinema weekday evenings anymore) but what the hell, it’s been 35 years since Blade Runner first crossed my path, and while I’ve been avoiding reviews I have seen all those Twitter feeds last week with the hugely positive opinions of the movie. Words like ‘masterpiece’ and ‘superb’ and ‘modern sci-fi classic’ and even a few citing it as superior to the original (nonsense, obviously). So how can I possibly wait and risk spoiler apocalypse? Expect a review late Friday or Saturday, work permitting (maybe a sentence or two Thursday night).

I recall my postings on this blog back when the new film was first announced. Here we are, it is here. This is the week.

I must say, it has been a very strange past few months leading up to this week, as the film’s marketing campaign has geared up. Those three prequel shorts were a nice touch, teasing but not revealing very much. How strange it was, particularly, to see that anime short directed by Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe. Seeing those visuals so tightly entwined with those of Blade Runner, all these years later. There’s a sense of unreality to all this. I can remember late in 1982 when Blade Runner was like every sci-fi geek’s best-kept secret, and god knows back then plenty of geeks hated the film too- it really was the very definition of cult for the first few years back then. Here we are now, and we are revisiting that  future-noir world again. There’s a sense of unreality to all this that is hard to quantify. I mean, this is Blade Runner. I remember back when no-one ever seemed to know of it. Now it’s this huge new movie that everyone is raving about. Someone’s Twitter feed even suggested possible Best Picture nods come Oscar time. Heresy, surely- Blade Runner is supposed to be cult, not popular- something’s gone terribly wrong. Goodness knows how I’ll feel if this film proves a box-office hit and spawns a (horrors!) trilogy or, (even more horrific!) a franchise of prequels/sequels.

So this week, probably tomorrow or Tuesday evening, I’ll be rewatching Blade Runner again, one last time before having any further viewing shadowed by the Blade Runner 2049 experience. Good or bad, in small or significant ways, the new film is surely going to impact any future viewing experience of the 1982 film. How can it not? Shades of those Engineers spoiling the Lovecraftian mysteries of the Space Jockeys in Alien is the most obvious and worrying comparison. For the last few decades, Blade Runner‘s story has always ended with those lift-doors closing on Deckard and Rachel. After this week, we’ll always know what happened next, for good or ill.

I’ll admit to being nervous. And excited. I mean, it does sound good. At least it isn’t some pg-13, noisy, dumb cgi action-fest, and it’s clear already that this film was sincerely made, even if it fails to be great. God knows it could have been a hell of a lot worse. But  all this positive word of mouth and (apparently) glowing five-star reviews that surfaced Friday and Saturday leaves me troubled.

While I admit that there is every chance the film is indeed a better film than Blade Runner, well, a better film doesn’t necessarily mean a better Blade Runner. For me, many peoples issues with the original -the darkness, the pacing, the lack of action, even the 80s synth-drenched soundtrack- that as a film it could be criticized for actually make the film more special for me. Its this weird, blockbuster arthouse movie, a techno-noir ambient chamber piece. It isn’t supposed to be a box-office success nor a Best Picture contender.

Anyway, I’ll know on Thursday: I’m going to see the sequel to Blade Runner, more than 35 years after I first saw the original. Pinch me.

Eye in the Sky

2017.49: Eye in the Sky (2015)

It’s a ridiculous comparison, really, I know it is, but it’s so telling to compare the traditional warfare depicted in Saving Private Ryan with the hi-tech, almost detached warfare of Eye in the Sky. Although the whole point of Eye in the Sky is to show it isn’t really quite as detached as one might think, shooting bad guys via joystick from thousands of miles away. Whatever the other merits or cons of this film, it is fascinating to see this new kind of warfare and appreciate it isn’t as science fiction as it might seem. Distressingly so, really.

In any event, this film was surprisingly watchable, as I wasn’t expecting very much going in (the beauty of random rentals/choosing films on a whim). It was tightly directed, fairly well-cast (caveats below) and quite tense too and it thankfully took a few welcome twists and turns- turning out to confound my initial expectations.

Perhaps a little dry, it’s hindered a little by the casting of Helen Mirren as a British Colonel in charge of the military operation. I like Mirren but sometimes her familiar, charismatic persona from earlier films impacts on her appearances, as I think it does here. It feels like casting-by-numbers, her performance rather phoned-in, almost as if she’s still in some old Prime Suspect episode. It is a joy, though, to see the late Alan Rickman in something ‘new’ again.

A pretty good film though, and certainly well worth a rental.

Big Hollywood Giant

2017.48: The BFG (2016)

This is a decidedly lightweight movie. Far from Spielberg’s best, it’s serviceable enough I suppose, which is about the best that I can say about it. But it is rather depressing really, how Hollywood takes a simple children’s story and blows it up into a cgi blockbuster with sophisticated effects and art direction. Like it’s commonly assumed it’s the only  a way to do it, going the ‘wow’ route. Naturally in 3D too, I reflected, noting how many of the films shots were choreographed. It’s funny how 3D movies have impacted how we watch films, in that they so easily telegraph what they are when we watch them in 2D. My suspicions were confirmed when I later noticed that The BFG was available in both 2D and 3D on disc, but at the time viewing the film it was rather distracting. I suppose we are stuck with that distraction for awhile but that’s depressing in itself, that we can’t watch films on 2D without being beaten over the head with ‘immersive POV’ shots etc.

Of course so much of this film is cgi (characters and sets) that it feels more an animated film than a live-action film. Reminded me a lot of the (superior) Tin Tin film that Spielberg shot a few years back.

I’m sure this film was made with all the best of intentions but it was too big, too overblown and exhaustingly ‘Hollywood Blockbuster’ for me. Spielberg can’t even refrain from recruiting John Williams to compose an overly saccharin score much akin to his misguided Hook score.

It’s just… too functional, typical. It’s a whimsical, rather silly children’s story gone all Hollywood.