Unbreakable Glass?

unbreakableglassSomething of a strange night, this. I started with the newly-arrived 4K UHD edition of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, a film I haven’t seen in many years – not since back in the DVD days, to be honest, as I’d bought it on a R1 disc back in my multi-region/importing days. I’d seen the film at the cinema and loved it and rated it highly, even if, as I’ve noted, I’ve not put that to the test with a re-watch in a long time. This new 4K edition served the best opportunity, and I’m pleased to note that the film really held up very well indeed. As the end credits rolled, Claire noted that we still had Glass -the final film in a trilogy of Unbreakable, Split and Glass– on the Tivo, recorded last Winter and still unseen. Remembering that Split (which I’d only watched once, a good while ago itself) only teased its Unbreakable link at the very end in a geek-friendly coda, the temptation to just go ahead and see what Glass was all about, even though the evening was growing late, proved irresistible. A late night then with an unforeseen movie double bill.

So let’s start with Unbreakable. What a culture shock that film proved to be, mainly because of the fact that its – shockingly – more than twenty years old now. It came out pretty much before Marvel made superhero movies so de rigueur that they almost seem boringly popular and routine now, and before Zack Snyder’s slo-mo action sequences became cinematic shorthand in 300, Watchmen and a DC Snyderverse that still shows signs of an HBO resurrection. Unbreakable posited putting superhumans into our real world and explaining comicbook mythology as something more meaningful than one might expect: perhaps not something new to comicbooks themselves but certainly perhaps to the wider movie-going populace at the time, predating the film of Watchmen, and shows like The Boys etc. 

Also, what a shock to see Bruce Willis in his prime actually acting again, you know, making an effort, in what is actually one of his most understated, rewarding roles where he actually plays a character working away from his comfort zone- no smirks or wisecracks here, here he plays someone rather introverted, emotionally compromised and maybe even a little dim. Reminded me of his turn in Terry Gilliam’s brilliant Twelve Monkeys that came out a few years prior, another great performance in a decent movie… whatever happened to Bruce Willis? And when is that Twelve Monkeys 4K UHD coming out? 

Unbreakable is full of that kind of stuff, coming back to it so may years later- how young Samuel L.  Jackson is, and my goodness, Robin Wright (then Robin Wright Penn) looks so young too. Wright is great in this, and Glass, which I’ll be coming to shortly, sorely suffers for lacking her presence. But of course, Unbreakable is over twenty years old now, these things are inevitable, and become part of a fascination of their own. Just watching Bruce giving a shit proved fascinating enough. I think one of the most rewarding things regards Unbreakable is just the fact that it reflects a time before costumed heroes in spandex took over blockbuster cinema, and when superhero films could actually be subtle.

The 4K disc of Unbreakable looks pretty great too- conforming to the films muted tones, the HDR is subtle but when it works, it really elevates the film and of course the lift in detail is really marked. Overall its a great filmic presentation and another example of just how 4K discs can prove their worth, its really quite gorgeous (alas, all extras are relegated to the Blu-ray disc, and its a shame nobody deemed it worthwhile making anything new- this is one of those times when a commentary track or featurette offering some perspective could have been interesting). 

So anyway, a fast forward of almost twenty years (and maybe twenty comicbook issues) brings us to Glass, a film that I gather has been fairly widely maligned by fans of the first film. The differences between the two feel so distinct its almost as if the films had different directors, but of course, its M. Night Shyamalan at the helm again for a film that serves as a sequel to both Unbreakable and Split but really feels more akin to the second than the first. The tonal shift between Unbreakable and Glass is marked, particularly for me as a viewer having just re-watched Unbreakable only minutes before. Is it the influence of the Marvel and DC comicbook films, perhaps, sneaking in? Glass feels more pulpish, less grounded than Unbreakable, certainly. It lacks the focus of the first film, this one feeling like it slips all over the place and leaves its cast with little to do other than serve a plot seemingly hellbent on closing it all down, albeit it actually ends positing a possibility of new spin-offs in the grand Marvel/DC tradition, which feels like the film peculiarly negating its own raison d’etrere.

I enjoyed Glass, although it is clearly inferior to the first film -and possibly Split, too, although I haven’t seen that more than once and that was awhile go- but I can certainly sympathise with fans who feel, like with Alien and Prometheus, that they rather wished they could pretend Glass never happened at all and that Unbreakable exists on its own terms seperate from anything else. Maybe its another example of ‘we should be wary of what we wish for’. Its not that Glass does anything quite as radical as turning Space Jockey’s into tall bald men, and I can understand M. Night Shyamalan reaching for closure, but all the same it feels so pulpish in comparison to the tense reality of the first film. Mind, the first twenty minutes or so work very well, giving us a glimpse of how David Dunn has spent the intervening years using his powers to help people as some kind of hooded vigilante, and there must be more than a few fans wishing that Shyamalan had just continued that- its perhaps the Unbreakable sequel most fans wanted, and its true that Shyamalan should perhaps be commended for instead trying to go somewhere different, but where he went…

Its not that he went all One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but isn’t it peculiar chance that it features Sarah Paulson as a psychiatrist when she soon after played Nurse Mildred Ratched in Ratched, the prequel show to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest set in another asylum with her treating crazy patients? I just think that the central conceit of the film, that the three individuals from Unbreakable and Split are placed into a psychiatric facility to prove they are crazy rather than actual super beings, is just a step too far. We have seen what they are capable of, and the world has, too, if only it is clips on social media etc. and the revelation at the end, that she is trying to do them a mercy rather than otherwise simply terminating them (because she works for a Higher Agency that knows such beings exist and seeks to destroy them) falls rather flat. The central flaw of the film for me is how it wastes such a fine actress as Paulson, with a character that is woefully underwritten and one-dimensional: the film needed a character with more fire and vigour and presence. I’m certain the flaw is because Shyamalan can’t resist the twist, that he thinks all his films need one final twist to surprise viewers, when he should have forgone that late twist and revealed it earlier to better serve the film and overall plot. Let the film tell its natural tale rather than hamper it for the sake of a mediocre surprise. Establish the HIgher Agency and its cause, and what Paulson’s Dr Staple is trying to do, maybe give her some personal agency to that too, and then portray the battle of wits. If The Beast (James McAvoy, remarkable as ever as he switches personalities) is David Dunn’s nemesis, then surely Dr Staple is Mr Glass’ nemesis, ironically becoming a super villain (or heroine) character herself for good measure (becoming the very thing she and her masters are trying to undo). 

Glass frustrates then with a sense that it should have been much better. Its difficult to criticise Willis, because even though he’s clearly not in the same league as he used to be, he could well argue he is underserved by the script which, as per Paulson’s character, leaves him with little to do or much to work off. We get a brief explanation of why Robin Wright is missing but it doesn’t really serve Dunn’s character arc at all and the explanation feels almost pointless (indeed better left unsaid, perhaps). Maybe his wife’s death could have driven Dunn to a mental breakdown and that might have put him into the mental hospital, you know, a narrative more elegant than what we got. Jackson is very good and has the best arc (hence why the film bears his name, perhaps) but again, much of the fire and brimstone he could have brought to it is rather nullified by keeping that twist on the side-lines. 

Shyamalan proves to be his own nemesis, then, perhaps.

 

The 2021 List: September

Such a strange month, September, looking back on it. Somehow I squeezed some television shows in, but for the most part it was hard work sticking with them. The BBC’s Vigil, for instance, wasted an interesting premise by just getting dafter and dafter, until I was ready to throw objects at the screen: I’m developing a genuine antipathy for BBC dramas lately and wondering what I’m paying a TV License for (if ever the BBC was forced to move to a subscription model, one has to wonder if that would be the end of it). The writing on Vigil was absolutely appalling, guilty of all the worst excess of the more recent Line of Duty series. In one episode the pretty protagonist had her head smashed into a metal bulkhead, cutting her forehead open, and then next minute after a trip to the medic not a bruise or a scratch or plaster. Maybe they were worried about continuity or impairing her pretty face. Ridiculous rubbish and best avoided.

Not that this month’s films were really very good either, but the fairly dismal bunch was enlivened by the wonderful Nobody (really must get around to posting my review of that), the bizarrely interesting Corruption, and the sublime The Green Knight. I’m not sure what lies ahead for October- the fourth Columbia Noir box from Indicator needs to be gotten through, and the 4K editions of Dune (1984) and The Thing (1982) have been patiently awaiting the perfect dark evening. Possibly just as well that I held back watching them as I have no pre-orders for discs due in October at all, so yeah, catching up with unwatched discs seems to be the order of the day for October if only to give me something to post about, unless Netflix and Amazon have a few surprises.

Oh, and there may actually be a trip to the cinema for the first time in fast approaching two years, for Villeneuve’s Dune. Maybe. After waiting so long for this much-delayed film I’ve actually found my anticipation waning. I suppose that’s a tricky thing regards marketing films, especially over the past year or two due to Covid, teasing images and trailers and maintaining the hype and interest without falling into some kind of fatigue: they could have shot another Bond movie in the time we’ve been waiting for this latest one. 

Television

103) Raised By Wolves Season One

105) Into the Night Season Two 

112) Sex Education Season Three

115) Vigil Season One

Film

101) The Racket (1951)

102) Django (1966)

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

104) Horizon Line (2020) 

106) Kate (2021)

107) The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021)

109) Nobody (2021)

111) Bloodbath at the House of Death (1984)

Glory (1989)

110) Gunpowder Milkshake (2021)

113) Corruption (1968)

114) The Green Knight (2021)

116) Walk A Crooked Mile (1948)

The Green Knight (2021)

greenkThe Green Knight is based upon a 14th-Century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which a gigantic knight attired in green, arrives at Camelot on New Years Eve and suggests a Christmas Game, in which one of Arthur’s knights may strike him once with his axe on the agreement that a year and a day hence, that person must arrive at the Green Knight’s own chapel so that the Green Knight may return the blow. When none of the knights of the round table dare, Arthur moves to take the challenge but instead Sir Gawain, his young nephew asks for the honour. The Green Knight kneels before him and Sir Gawain beheads him with one stroke- but the Green Knight does not fall; instead he picks up his severed head and reminds Sir Gawain of the bargain, that the young man must arrive at the Green Chapel a year hence. So a year later Sir Gawain begins his journey from Camelot to the Green Chapel in a test of his courage and honour, not knowing if he is fated to return.

Oh, a surprise contender for film of the year here- I REALLY enjoyed this one. I was totally swept up by the slow, almost funereal pace (very Villeneuve, particularly Blade Runner 2049) the intense atmosphere, the almost tangible sensation of the power of myth, of the power of story, and the reader/viewer grasping for meaning in a narrative strange, impenetrable and wondrous… it was utterly intoxicating. Its no accident that an early key scene has the old, waning King Arthur asking his entourage for a story, or that later we see villagers watching events retold in a puppet show: story, myth, legend, this film is more about the power of narrative, allegory and meaning than it is an actual tale of a Knight on a quest (albeit, the simple truth of the film is that Sir Gawain is no knight- its more the story of a very flawed man on a quest). 

In some respects, this film is utterly at odds with modern audience expectations, accustomed as we are to frequent prophecy of ‘The Chosen One’ whether it be either Anakin or Luke  in Star Wars or Neo in the Matrix or Paul Atreides in Dune, or of a hero going on a journey and succeeding in some selfless act of bravery (like Frodo, say, in The Lord of the Rings). We have become programmed to expect one thing, when instead this film gives us another, older truth. Again, The Green Knight reminds one of Blade Runner 2049 and its own protagonist who believes he might be special, the miracle child, only to learn that he isn’t. In The Green Knight, Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) is always found lacking-instead of doing great deeds, right from the start he is recovering from a drunken night in a brothel; he’s more playboy than noble knight, unable to appreciate the events around him (he totally misses the ‘point’ of the Christmas Game, decapitating the prone Green Knight when he has already been assured he will have to reciprocate in a years time: all Gawain can think about is the moment, the immediate gratification of now, he cannot grasp the ‘bigger picture’ and any sense of responsibility). Shortly before., Arthur (Sean Harris) asks Sir Gawain “Tell me a tale of yourself, so I might know thee,” but Sir Gawain blankly responds that he has no tale to tell. This moment of self-realisation is all for naught, however: any clarity all too fleeting. Gawain doesn’t realise that he needs to earn his tale, needs to work for it, instead simply seizing immediate opportunity when it is handed to him (when the Green Knight arrives and offers his Christmas game): it may be unintentional, but I rather fear that there is something oddly modern about Gawain in this film, that perhaps he reflects us of today, as he seems throughout the film so very out of place and time in the halls of Camelot. He cannot be selfless, or patient, he is always caught up in the present, he always asks what is in it for him, or fails to be charitable- even when he tries to be good, he does so chiefly for a price or reward.

The beauty of this film is across numerous fronts: first the story is absorbing and enigmatic and, as I have noted, likely confounds many expectations. It is swamped in allegory and hidden meanings, and has several absolutely arresting moments. At one point Gawain is ambushed by thieves deep in a forest and is left there, tied up- a slow panning shot spins from a frustrated Gawain to eventually return to him, time having passed and his corpse lying there, still bound by rope, now reduced to bones before turning again and returning to him, alive again, seeking escape (we are teased by alternatives, possibilities, particularly at the very end). Later he witnesses huge giants crossing a wide valley, literally as if the magic is walking away, the pagan world replaced by the Christian.

Alice Vikander plays both Gawain’s commoner lover, Essel, and later in the film the lady of a castle who attempts to seduce him while her husband is out hunting. Why she plays both characters I do not know, except that she represents in both guises the same temptation of the flesh which a true knight should be able to resist for honour’s sake (Gawain fails, naturally). In any case, in what I believe is the key moment of the film, as the beautiful lady of the castle she delivers a speech describing the power of green; “moss shall cover your tombstone, and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all, in all its shades and hues. This verdigris will overtake your swords and your coins and your battlements and, try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin, your bones. Your virtue…  Red is the color of lust, but green is what lust leaves behind, in heart, in womb. Green is what is left when ardour fades, when passion dies, when we die, too.” Less Love Conquers All than Nature Conquers All, suggesting that no matter all mankind’s achievements and wonders, all will surrender back to nature eventually. Perhaps the Green Knight represents a pagan God, or Nature herself, and Gawain the future of a mankind forsaking its roots in favour of artifice and progress. The beauty of Nature, certainly, seems a major subtext of the film, dominated by breath-taking imagery and location filming- in a very tactile way, the land and the weather of the British Isles is a character of the film, perhaps the most important one. It is perhaps suggesting that we are the land, that the land is us, in a similar way to how, in John Boorman’s 1981 Arthurian film Excalibur, Perceval learns that King Arthur and the land are one, and thereby gains the Holy Grail.

I thought The Green Knight was a spectacular and absorbing film, certainly one of the best I have seen this year. I watched it on Amazon Prime but wish I had seen it at the cinema- I sincerely hope that it will be released on 4K disc eventually, I would love to see it again in the highest quality possible (the stream on Amazon was 4K UHD but the compression wasn’t the best, with frequent blocking in some of the many darker sequences reinforcing the fact that disc is best). Its definitely not a film for everyone and will clearly divide audiences, but I thought it was wonderful and a worthy successor to John Boorman’s film.

Glory 4K UHD

gloryposterTonight I finally watched my 4K disc of Glory; first time I have seen the film for several years. What a magnificent film, what glorious (sic) music from James Horner. I was so lucky to be loving films and going to the cinema while films like Glory were being made, and someone like James Horner composing stuff like his scores for Glory, Field of Dreams, Cocoon, Apollo 13, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart

I texted my old and now-distant friend Andy that I’d re-watched Glory again, and reminisced about the day we first watched it. Andy, my cousin Tony and I had watched Born on the Fourth of July that afternoon, then gone over Tony’s for a takeaway tea (his folks were away) and later returned late evening to the Showcase cinema  to watch a film called Glory, that we knew nothing about other than it was a Civil War movie. We’d been impressed by a big carboard standee of the poster that had been on display in the lobby of our Showcase cinema for a few weeks: a beautiful image that promised… something. You know, back in the good old days of great, imaginative poster art. We didn’t expect, though,  that we would walk out at midnight, stunned, convinced that we’d just seen a better film than Born on the Fourth of July: it was the Oliver Stone film that critics were raving about. Glory seemed to just come and go, but it certainly left its mark on us. I searched out the Glory soundtrack CD a few days later. Popped it onto a cassette and blasted it out of the cheapo stereo in my beat-up old death-trap first car as I raced Andy and I through Cannock Chase in blazing sunshine several days later. Good times.

I grew up watching Jaws, Star Wars, CE3K, The Empire Strikes Back, Blade Runner at the cinema… and so many others. I was a really lucky guy, looking back. Films were better then. Film music was better then.

Glory looks really fine on 4K; its a gorgeous, grainy image with real depth and vibrancy, particularly those shots of the setting sun obscured by fire-smoke etc. Its a good example of how film-like the 4K format is with HDR. What a cast that film had too. And there is a very real, tactile feel to the film too, as there’s no CGI. Its all pretty much real, which just makes the battle scenes all the more impressive. After watching the film I put the commentary track on and watched it again, not something I do as often as I used to. Its one of those (rare) picture-in-picture commentary tracks, in which we can see the speaker in a smaller image in the corner. Anybody remember those? DVD and Blu-ray had some really ambitious, clever features like that, that the studios just don’t seem to bother with anymore. Its getting so that looking back at the glory days of DVD makes me feel lucky to have been around in those exciting days for a film-lover. I remember when every new special edition seemed to be more ambitious, films like The Abyss, Contact and T2, and the first boxset of the Alien films. I used to buy them on R1 from a local hi-fi store, but actually bought The Abyss disc when I was on holiday in San Francisco back in either 2000 or 2001. That’s a surprisingly long time ago, now that I think about it- but isn’t everything? That night I vividly recall first watching Glory with Andy and Tony was 32 years ago. 32 years ago!

Tracking tells me my expanded Glory soundtrack disc from La La Land left America yesterday. Its on its way. Really looking forward to hearing it. Eat, drink and be merry, Morgan Freeman tells me on the commentary track, for tomorrow we die. That’s one way of summing up Glory, and maybe life too.

Well, I’m tired. Time for bed, folks. This film was a good one.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021)

 

hitmans wifeThe Hitman’s Bodyguard was one of my guilty favourites a few years back (a rare digital rental that got me buying it on 4K disc a few months later when it dropped in price). It was one of those films where you just know you’re being had, that its not a great film, but there was something in the cast, the chemistry between them, that just clicked for me. Really, how could you go wrong with a cheesy action flick with Ryan Reynolds cracking jokes and Samuel Jackson blasting expletives? They even had Gary Oldman chewing up the scenery as an Eastern European megalomaniac villain (if there’s such a thing as an Eastern European megalomaniac hero, let me know).

The law of diminishing returns proves inevitable with the sequel, but its the cast which again largely saves the day. I get such a kick out of these characters, and the film really benefits from Salma Hayek having a much larger role, not so much chewing the scenery but rather simply demolishing it. To be clear, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard is not a very good film (its arguably awful trash), and it is clearly inferior to the first, but I still got that guilty kick out of it.

I couldn’t even tell you what its about- some vague plot about a Greek billionaire (Antonio Banderas) seeking revenge on the European Union by infecting it with some war-grade virus in order to destroy European Civilization. Somehow our three crazy misfits get caught up in it, there’s something about a briefcase, Frank Grillo wants to get back to Boston, mostly its a lot of loud swearing and even louder action: there’s violent deaths, and lots of them. I don’t know what the body count is of the other night’s Kate and this one, but I perhaps need to chill with some sedate contemplative romantic comedy now these two have assaulted my senses.

The one thing that particularly irritated me this time around, was the editing. This thing is edited down to within an inch of its life, so much so that its almost rendered impossible to make sense of (hence my bemusement regards the plot). Its possibly because they had little confidence with the script carrying the film, which is a pity because it renders the pacing so relentless it almost breaks the film entirely. Transitions are perfunctory at best as we leap from one location (and another action sequence) to the next, characters noisily come and go, its hard to make sense of it all. Consequently the film loses something that the original had- there’s fewer character beats (and hell, the original was never Shakespeare), as if the film-makers have decided we don’t want characters, we just wants stunts and explosions and Ryan Reynolds thrown all over the place. Its much like a cartoon.

Its the cast that saves it. Hayek in particular is in great form, a foul-mouthed tramp with a heart whose, er, physicality becomes a visual gag all the way through. Samuel Jackson of course is just doing Samuel Jackson; he’s one of those actors whose presence alone can light up a scene even on autopilot. I suppose the same is true of Morgan Freeman, but he’s largely wasted here, one of the few actors not given free rein to let loose (although his casting gives the film one of its better jokes, perhaps Harrison Ford would have been a better choice). Likewise Frank Grillo isn’t allowed to break into action- seems a wasted opportunity burying him in what is a minor role when his physical prowess could have been better utilised; maybe he’s being set-up for a larger role in a possible sequel. Antonio Banderas has an unlikely crack at playing a Bond villain- he’s perhaps too charming, and not as nasty and cold as he needs to be: some guys just make better heroes than they do villains. 

There’s a fantastic drinking-game with this film; have a drink whenever Hayek breaks into a foul-mouthed tirade. Pretty sure I’ll never manage it through to the end of the movie, but I might have fun giving it a try. Maybe the plot will make better sense in spite of the toxic inebriation, some films just work that way.

Kate (2021)

kateKate is a beautiful and deadly assassin and although she has killed many people in the past, we can be fairly confident they were all bad guys who deserved it. We are not actually assured of this, but she seems to demonstrate some reticence regards killing a yakuza leader in Japan when the guy’s young daughter is seen alongside him. Kate’s pressured by her handler to pull the trigger anyway, and she does, but it doesn’t sit well with her seeing the bad guy’s blood- splattered daughter screaming at the sight of her father having had his brains blown out.

Maybe a more interesting film would have demonstrated Kate to be a cold-hearted killer without any conscience or remorse and over the course of the film changed her, shown her the error of her ways and then sought atonement for her sins. Not that this would have been particularly original, but this isn’t that film.

No, this is further demonstration of the considerable impact of John Wick on action flicks, because this is a John Wick-is-a-babe film with nods to Kill Bill -and maybe, at a stretch, Black Rain too, if anybody’s memory can stretch that far back (1989 being like Ancient History to many). There is also a very definite nod to noir classic DOA, although probably not the 1949 original (who remembers THAT far back?) but rather the 1988 remake featuring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, which was something of a misfire but one I quite enjoyed. Kate, you see, wants to quit after the events at the start of the film featuring the blood-splattered child, but nobody quits: instead she gets betrayed and poisoned with a radioactive substance leaving her with just 24 hours to live. This could have been the premise of a film with an interesting noir vibe, of a doomed assassin trying to exact revenge for her own murder, an examination of a murky world of crime, violence and murder and the futility of a wasted life. But nobody makes films like that these days. 

kate2What people want to see is an indestructible killing machine making the bad guys pay, and Kate does this in spades; its as deliriously violent and gory as the John Wick films and just as daft, existing in a parallel universe of bloody carnage that never seems to attract the cops (although considering the number of police I ever see, maybe these films are actually more realistic than one would initially think). And you’ll believe a fairly slight pretty woman can snap bones, smash faces, throw brutes around etc even when outnumbered ten or even twenty to one, although when the film nears its climax and the numbers get hysterically close to small armies she at least gets the help of an honourable Yakuza and his own troops to back her up. One’s suspension of disbelief does start to wane though considering some of the antics she gets up to whilst we are assured her insides are rotting away and her skin turning black with what’s presumably gangrene or something (thankfully her pretty face is the last part to go gangrenous, so hey, she’s always a sexy killing machine). 

There’s little wrong this film, as far as testosterone-fuelled action flicks go. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is very good as the titular Kate- she’s a good, charismatic actress with decent physicality for the action stuff. Marvel possibly missed a trick not seeing her potential for one of their own comicbook movies but there’s no reason why she couldn’t be announced for one: Spider-Woman, maybe, or a female Captain America? Her supporting cast is very good, but by now Woody Harrelson has been seen in too many similar roles and the eventual twist re: his character is seen a mile off: at this point his casting in stuff like this is surely a red flag that ruins any possible surprise (its frankly diabolically lazy casting).

The Japanese setting is visually arresting and as beautiful as one might expect, everything drenched in eye-popping neon that melts the screen in Dolby Vision. Its not a bad film, and its not a boring one, either; the stunts are always good value (only a silly CGI chase scene that looks like a Tron outtake messes things up with cartoon car-play). The problem is, we’ve seen all this before and eventually the familiarity of these John Wick knock-offs will inevitably breed contempt, if it hasn’t already. I enjoyed Atomic Blonde much more if only because that came out back when these things still seemed a bit fresh; there’s a distinct whiff of decay hanging around at this point.

A few thoughts on Dune 4K

arrow duneBack in 1985, 2010: The Year We Make Contact and Dune were out at the same time here in the UK- I had to choose one of them, I couldn’t see both. I chose the former and afterwards ranted all the way home feeling like I’d messed up (I didn’t really enjoy 2010 at all at the cinema, I felt like it was a gross insult to Kubrick).

Not sure why I felt the need to state that, except to add that I eventually caught up with Dune on VHS rental and had second thoughts: maybe I had chosen wisely after all.

So here we are decades later. My copy of Arrow’s 4K edition of Dune arrived today. I managed to find an hour late afternoon to sample the first twenty minutes of the disc, a few of the extras on the second disc and a listen to some of the Paul Sammon commentary. Thought I’d jot down a few observations while Claire is chilling catching up on the US Open now that we’re back home unwinding.

Firstly, from what I’ve seen the film looks absolutely gorgeous on 4K UHD, its a splendid piece of work, filmic with grain and with excellent detail and depth of colour. It looks really impressive and I look forward to watching the film when I, er, can (this is another example of just why this 4K format can be so special).

Secondly, Paul Sammon comes across as a total git as usual, name-dropping ad nauseum. God knows I should treat him as some kind of God due to his work promoting Blade Runner with his Future Noir book etc but he’s just the usual condescending Hollywood Diva reciting his own PR sheet to me. Possibly its unintentional, but the guy always grates me whenever I see him in interviews etc;  likely just a bit of friction from our own individual character types being at odds, but my goodness he always comes across as a twat. His commentary over the Blade Runner workprint was bad enough (how he turns a commentary track on Blade Runner into an exercise in boredom is almost a work of art  unto itself), but this one, its in a league all its own. “Impressionistic” is what he calls it, sort-of apologising early on prior to going off-topic with more name-dropping and yes, talking about himself more than Dune. Maybe the commentary settles down after awhile, but listening to twenty-thirty minutes of it was fairly excruciating.

In a sense though, I suppose its a perfect commentary track for Dune because Dune is just that kind of movie. Its a big bloated mess that gets some things perfect and screws up everything else. It looks gorgeous- the set design is amazing, the costumes etc are really impressive, the cast is mostly perfect, but the more it progresses the further it comes off the rails until by the end its a rushed, nonsensical train wreck, a terrible folly. Describing it as flawed is being far too kind. Its broken. Sammon’s waffle about his career etc is kind of perfect; its like he thinks the film is unworthy of his attention. 

So many times I watch Dune and ask myself ‘what were they thinking?’ After all, just look at the soundtrack. Its sort-of by Toto, although it probably really isn’t, at least not in the same way as Queen’s Flash Gordon score was- for one thing, this doesn’t sound like any kind of rock-band score. Its much more traditional than that. Its great, mostly, and works, mostly, but its so traditionally orchestral in places one wonders why they didn’t just go with a Goldsmith or Williams or Horner anyway. Rather than Toto as a band, its mostly keyboardist David Paich and his father Marty Paich who were responsible, and is largely symphonic with electronics and guitars thrown in for texture. Brian Eno’s Prophecy theme steals the show though: pity they didn’t ask Eno to score the entire film himself, that would have been something indeed.

So anyway, that’s about it. Its getting late. I shall return to Dune in due course. I certainly want to watch it one last time before Villeneuve’s attempt arrives and changes everything. In some respects, the inevitable technological differences will be really fascinating. Imagine if John Boorman had made his The Lord of the Rings film back in the 1970s and we could subsequently compare it with Peter Jackson’s trilogy when that came out (best we can do is compare Jackson’s films to Excalibur, I suppose, which is a fascinating comparison in itself).

The 2021 List: August

I don’t know how, but I’ve managed to reach the magic 100 by the end of this month. The irony is that its not really been a target this year, as I’d intended to try keep the quality up (watch less, watch better) this year, so I’m not really sure how well I’ve kept to that maxim. That said, this wasn’t a bad month quality-wise. Babylon Berlin, which I haven’t gotten around to reviewing yet was a particularly fine series and I look forward to catching up with the third season sometime. Film-wise I didn’t really see an absolute stinker (The Blood Beast Terror possibly qualifies but I hadn’t expected much of it anyhow) and the film noir films I watched were very good. So August wasn’t a bad month at all, I even managed to fit in some quality re-watches thanks to some 4K releases and a lack of new/interesting stuff handed me opportunity to pick discs off the shelf that I haven’t seen in awhile.

Real-life problems are increasingly impinging my time for viewing films and writing posts, and I can’t see that getting any better for awhile yet. Ain’t getting older and all the resultant responsibilities grand? It may be that my posts may have to get a little shorter and there may be a few spells of slim updates but I’ll see how it goes, I enjoy the writing etc and would hate to see things slide too far. 

September will see a few notable releases – I should have Arrow’s 4K edition of Dune in a few days, the new 4K edition of The Thing is due in a few weeks and there’s that Star Trek 4K set of the first four films coming out. Towards the end of the month Indicator should have some discs coming my way too (yay, another Columbia Noir set as well as what is said to be the film Peter Cushing most regretted being involved in- how intriguing is that?). I’m certain there’s going to be a few surprises I’m not even aware of yet; Amazon of course has the Eva rebuild films including the finale. Its all just a matter of finding the time, and I’m certain if I can manage that it will be a very interesting month ahead indeed. 

Television

92) Babylon Berlin Season One

93) Babylon Berlin Season Two

Films

94) Gilda (1946)

95) Enemy (2013)

96) The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

97) Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed (2021)

98) On Dangerous Ground (1951)

99) Gun Crazy (1949)

100) Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)

Untenable Tenet

tenet2Continuing my impromptu season of Christopher Nolan movies (after Inception the night before) I dared to give Tenet a re-watch. I shall now invert this post so that I can read it in December last year and thus reveal to my earlier self immediately that no, it really doesn’t make any more sense a second time (Claire bought me this 4K for Christmas, and instead of being the gift that keeps giving its rather the gift that keeps confusing).

I tried, God knows I tried. I even switched the subtitles on midway, having grown exhausted trying to decipher the at times unfathomable dialogue lost in the audio mix (is Nolan being deliberately obtuse?), but alas even when reading all the dialogue exposition the film doesn’t make any more sense than it did when I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. One of the characters early on tells another to “don’t think it, feel it” or something along those lines; perhaps its a message more intended towards the audience. Its telling that Nolan doesn’t even name his main character, literally he’s ‘The Protagonist’ and nothing more. A few times when watching this film I had to wonder, is the joke on us?

On the one hand, perhaps I should applaud Nolan for outdoing his confusing tinkering with Time in Dunkirk, Interstellar and Inception. On the other hand, perhaps I should berate him for appalling crimes against storytelling. Sometimes you can be just too clever for your own good. Nolan is clearly inspired by the films of Stanley Kubrick, but Kubrick’s films, 2001, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, as obtuse as they may seem on first viewing, they ultimately have a sense of logic and make sense, even if it has to be explained to us.

Besides, I have the suspicion, in just the same way as Interstellar and Inception both tend to eventually slide into silly nonsense, that Tenet rather gets so wrapped up in twists of logic and Time-paradoxes that it rather cheats its own rules. I’m not sure Tenet plays fair with its audience. Maybe on some subsequent re-watch I’ll have some “Eureka!” moment but at the minute, I think Nolan’s playing a bit fast and loose here. I’m not certain Tenet ever makes coherent sense no matter how many times I’ll watch it. 

Which is frustrating, because the general premise is fascinating and worthy of a better movie, even if that premise (we are at war with the Future to prevent Armageddon), itself doesn’t make much sense (how does killing everyone on the planet in the here and now help the unborn Future?). I think a film with more traditional time travel would have worked much better- Nolan is trying to be too novel with his ‘inverted’ objects and characters, it is sophistication for sophistication’s sake. Its Skynet trying to confuse us to death.

I’m still trying to fathom how Kenneth Branagh’s Fitbit would trigger Armageddon whenever it suddenly can’t find a pulse, when said bomb in Russia seems to be on a countdown clock anyway. We’re just expected to accept all these info dumps of exposition and go along with it, just enjoy the spectacle and assume people cleverer than us can make sense of it all. 

At least it looks pretty: the 4K disc is quite gorgeous, particularly the many Imax sequences for which the aspect ratio opens up to fill the whole 16:9 screen. Detail and depth are breath-taking at times, the apparent depth of field making it look almost 3D. I just wish it made a bit more sense, or ANY sense, really. I’m afraid this is another example of Nolan finding a way of financing extraordinary set-pieces with his big fancy film-making Toybox. 

No wonder he was annoyed at the Warner slate going to HBO Max this year. What’s the point of a Nolan film (Imax, extraordinary set-pieces, imponderable audio etc) if it just ends up in someone’s lounge? Inverted messages from the Future please to the comments below…

 

A 4K Inception and the Old Soul problem

inc4kLast night I re-watched Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Yeah, another re-watch – I’ve so many discs in my collection that I haven’t watched/re-watched and are just sitting on the shelf, I think I’m coming to the point at which I finally have to put them to some use. That being said, it actually wasn’t my old Blu-ray that I watched this time around- I’d noticed the 4K release of Inception being reduced recently (its been in several offers over the past few months) and gave it a punt; yes the 4K format and double/triple-dipping really does seem to be the Devils work. So what finally got me around to watching the film again was it being the 4K edition, would I have ever re-watched that Blu-ray? 

Regards that 4K… well the HDR as usual proves to be the winner here, adding some considerable depth to the picture, but details etc didn’t seem a pronounced improvement on the Blu-ray, albeit I haven’t actually watched that disc in several years. A curious thing I have noticed is that sometimes 4K discs don’t immediately seem to be much of a difference, until I play the Blu-ray edition out of curiosity and suddenly the improvements become quite surprising (this 4K disc comes with the film and extras on two Blu-ray discs making my old copy absolutely irrelevant). I do like the new/revised cover art over the Blu-ray edition- the slipcase looks really nice (the revised artwork for some 4K releases of catalogue films often seem to improve on earlier editions).

Did I just extol the virtues of a slipcase?

As for Inception, I hadn’t seen the film in several years (it is so strange how time races by, and no that’s not some meta-commentary on Time in Nolan’s films). I was coming back to it assuming I’d remember it and follow it easily, but no, I was floundering for the first thirty minutes or so. I think that’s more to do with Nolan’s obtuse style of storytelling and audio design than any early signs of dementia on my part, at least I hope so. Part of Nolan’s appeal is the complicated, labyrinthine plots of his films; critics love Nolan’s ‘clever’ filmmaking, but its something which has become increasingly tiresome for me, so much so that I keep on wanting to re-watch Tenet if only to try work out what the fudge that thing is actually about: first time around, it made no sense at all, and I suspect I’ll feel the same after watching it again. Interstellar was more silly nonsense than anything profound (but it looks nice), and Dunkirk ruined what could have been a definitive and classic retelling of important British history with three storylines confusingly jumping around in time (but it looks nice). I have the growing suspicion that Nolan’s labyrinthine plotting is just a subterfuge to disguise how silly and empty they really are.

What all Nolan’s films actually do well is the technical side, the production aspects; what he puts up on screen is always impressive and at times jaw-dropping, but they also seem to get bogged down by that – the intellectual and technical aspects of making each project increasingly losing the narrative and characters. He particularly seems fascinated with Time; toying with it in all his films in often novel ways but also at odds with basic storytelling. 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably his favourite movie, he seems to aspire to that film in every film he makes.

I think Inception may remain his best film if only because it better balances his intellectual and technical strengths and validates their excess within its premise. In this case, the dream-worlds the characters go into better excuses all the sophisticated stunts, layers of time and plot-twists without it all distracting from the narrative and collapsing into confusion. God knows Inception confuses but at least there seems a valid reason for it, it feels naturally part of the film and not distracting.

Except really for the ‘Old Souls’ sequence and the whole subplot about Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to get back to his children. This is what largely breaks the film for me. Cobb reveals that he and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) experimented in ‘deep dives’; going deep into dreams where time passes by more slowly than in the real world- in this case, during an afternoon forty years would go by for them within their dream-world ‘paradise’ where they could be alone and grow old together. But at the same time, this would mean that they would spend forty years away from the same children that Cobb is so obsessed with returning to. I appreciate that, in reality only a few hours would pass, but intellectually and experience-wise, they would live forty years away from their children, family and loved ones. Now, two things spring to mind. First, nobody would ever do that, its selfish and crazy and ridiculous. Secondly, ‘living’ forty years would change someone, as you ‘aged’ in the dream world and time passed, you’d change as a person (and possibly lose your mind living in an essentially empty cage). Cobb didn’t need to plant an idea (an ‘Inception’) into Mal’s mind to drive her crazy about what is Reality, the experience would do that all by itself. At one point, I began to wonder if Cobb’s children were ever ‘real’, that maybe their existence was an Inception of its own, perhaps placed by Mal, but seeing memories of her on the beach with their children would seem to infer they were indeed real, and just make that whole deep dive/grow old together as silly and irresponsible as I stated before. Its an intriguing idea on the surface but like so many Nolan sub-plots that crowd his films, one that doesn’t hold up when examined.

Now, it would make a fascinating movie, just all of its own, to see the two characters spend forty years together and grow old and slowly ‘forget’ the real world (it would essentially become like a distant dream) and then when they woke see them suddenly having to re-adjust to Reality and being young again with their children not seen for forty years. There is, intellectually, a fascinating film in just that idea. Deep-dives into the dream-state essentially is a door to immortality, living tens, hundreds, thousands of years in the virtual worlds of constructed dreams. Or maybe I’m just over-thinking it; its hard to tell when considering Nolan’s films.

Some connections:

Christopher Nolan also directed Tenet and Interstellar.

Leonardo DiCarprio starred in The Revenant, (a sobering reminder that I bought it on 4K and haven’t watched the disc yet).