A Good Year?

We’re rushing into that time of year when we all start to realise that the year is fast becoming a whole new last year, and inevitably begin to take stock. For my part, it’s begun to dawn on me that it hasn’t been a bad year at all for movies.

We have, after all, seen the release of Blade Runner 2049, and it was everything any Blade Runner fan could have hoped for.  Its struggles at the American Box Office, as if in direct opposition to wondrous reviews, just add more to it somehow, an added pathos. If nothing else, it likely means we won’t have to worry ourselves silly over a third entry anytime soon. Maybe. Alcon did spend a lot of money for the rights, and it is still a well-known IP, so I’d rule nothing out- maybe we’ll see a smaller, less-blockbuster-budget outing next, or even a series on some cable channel.

Beyond the long shadow of BR2049, which has frankly ruined me for any other cinema outings this year (I saw it THREE times!)  and leaves me rather burned-out in the face of another Star Wars entry (still not excited, and it’s only weeks away now), there have been some pretty nice surprises this year. Genre films like Logan, Kong: Skull Island and War for  the Planet of the Apes have all impressed me greatly. Even the live-action Ghost in the Shell was rather fun with a lot to offer once you get your head around a live-action GITS existing in the first place.

On the tv front, things may have been even more impressive- Westworld was fantastic, as was The Leftovers, but another long-remembered favourite (with just as huge expectations/fears as the big-screen’s BR2049), the new Twin Peaks, proved to be utterly sublime. 18 hours of prime David Lynch, a labour of love as scary and bemusing and funny and baffling as anything he ever did. David Lynch at his very best, on tv for goodness sake- who needs cinemas? I just got the blu-ray box this week, can’t wait to plunge into it all over again (just want to rewatch Fire Walk With Me first this time).

The latest Game of Thrones season suffered from its headlong rush to the finish line of season eight. It was just three episodes too short and risked jumping the shark with a few of its questionable plot-turns. Here’s hoping the last season delivers when we finally see it. Back on the movies front, Ridley risked losing the plot along with his nerve, when his Prometheus 2 became Prometheus 1.5 with 0.5 of an unnecessary Alien prequel thrown in. Maybe he was right about Giger’s alien being all done- if Ridley can’t make the Alien scary again, who can? Meanwhile while Marvel soared (particularly with the triumphant Spiderman: Homecoming) DC floundered yet again with the frankly risible Justice League. Maybe an Ultimate Cut will fix that… who knows?

So yeah, an interesting year and one that 2018 will struggle to live up to, I suspect. Afterall, new Blade Runner films and Twin Peaks series don’t come along every decade, do they, nevermind every year. Hell, if those two projects were the only worthy efforts of the year, it would still have been a Good Year.

And I haven’t mentioned the new two-disc Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtrack on its way across the pond, possibly in time for Christmas….

Advertisements

Scarlet’s gone Blu

scarlett1Just thought I’d mention this recent arrival (I really need to do a ‘2017 Selection’ update) as it doesn’t seem to be available outside of the online shop of Network; it’s the first volume of a four-volume set of Gerry Anderson’s original Captain Scarlet series. The show has been lovingly remastered and is being released in seperate volumes presumably to finance the restoration/remastering work prior to an eventual box-set release. At just £10 it’d be foolish to wait for that box-set though. The disc is a bare-bones affair with eight episodes sans commentaries or anything, but the packaging is gorgeous, the amaray case is bright red and looks lovely, and above all else the episodes in pristine HD in 4.3 format look better than I have ever seen them. The colours really pop. This series was my personal favourite Anderson show, all grown-up and violent, it was really quite dark for a kids show (but then again, Anderson never really made ‘kids shows’, they were always aimed at a wider audience).  Anyway, it’s out now via the Network website, and I just hope it won’t be long before the second volume is announced.

The Apes of Wrath: War of the Planet of the Apes

war.jpg2017.69: War of the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Here is that rare thing- a blockbuster trilogy that embodies high-quality, intelligent film-making with each film getting better than the last. Part of me pines for a fourth entry or even, perhaps, a second trilogy that could  revisit and follow the events of the Charlton Heston original film, but part of me thinks that would be tempting fate in this world of franchises of ever-decreasing quality. Better perhaps for the studio to quit while it’s ahead. This is a great movie; I’d hate to see it spoiled by lesser entries.

The revelation of this film, particularly considering its title, is just how intimate it is. If this is a war film, it’s one more akin to Malick’s The Thin Red Line than, say, Rambo. It’s a surprisingly quiet, internal film- a film of quiet rage, and sacrifice.  There’s something of a Western about it, too- perhaps even Eastwood’s Unforgiven- its a much darker blockbuster than I expected.

Not that the film is perfect- it falters in a few respects. There are a few moments in the script where it stumbles markedly- a scene in which one of the apes gifts the human girl a flower from a tree too easily prefigures that same apes death with the subtlety of being slapped in the face with a wet kipper. Its an awkward moment of manipulation. that does so much of the rest of the film a disservice, but on the whole the film works splendidly, and for the most part you even forget that 90% of what you are watching probably resides in a computer somewhere.

Ah, yes, the effects. While I always seem to be moaning about CGI spoiling the quality of movies, as they often seem to be used to replace quality drama and screenwriting through spectacle, rather than actually support said drama/screenwriting, I have to admit that used properly CGI can really move film-making to some other level of cinema, offering realities that could not exist elsewhere. These recent Apes films have been pretty astonishing, frankly, on a technical level, bringing to the screen something utterly impossible just years ago, but this third film is really something else entirely- powerful, quality film-making featuring characters that simply don’t exist but which somehow out-act most ‘real’ actors (maybe it’s finally time for a Virtual Actor award from the Academy).  It’s not lost on me that this same year I marvelled at the creation of a gigantic ape in Kong: Skull Island. Regardless of the quality of the drama, there were moments watching this film, as with the prior films, that I just gasped at the marvel of how ‘real’ the fakery seems to be. It’s a modern sorcery and I have to wonder where it will all end.

I feel I must also mention a simply wonderful music score from Michael Giacchino- in a climate in which most blockbuster soundtracks just sound like background noise, it’s lovely to report that this is a genuinely moving score of orchestral  music with strong themes and intelligence. A definite throwback to the glory years of the 1970s with Williams, Goldsmith and Barry in their prime (the score does in particular carry nods to the music of John Barry).

On the whole, one of the films of the year for me.

 

Simply Amazing

spider12017.63: Spider-man:Homecoming (2017)

This was brilliant. There’s no-one more tired and weary of reboots than I, but this third attempt at bringing Spider-man to the screen just goes to prove the old adage that yes, sometimes the third time’s the charm. More than that, the gap in quality between this film and Justice League, which I suffered through just a few days ago, is remarkable. If Justice League is a lesson in how not to make a superhero movie, then Homecoming is a lesson in how to do it right. It may not be perfect, but it comes awfully close.

Indeed, after so many Spider-man movies during the past decade or two, this should have felt tired and formulaic, but instead thanks to the expert input of Marvel Studios it’s so fresh you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the very first cinematic outing for our favourite web-slinger.

The pace is great, the characters endearing, the fun-quota high, there’s plenty of laughs, plenty of drama, some brilliantly staged action sequences with high-quality visual effects, and it even manages to throw in a decent villain with a great character arc of his own (without making him a tragic villain or something).  And yes, there’s an ending high on action but low on frenzied CGI with a dramatic confrontation between two characters. Yes, no CGI monsters or huge explosions or armies of bad guys, simply exalting instead in a face-off between two characters. So refreshing to see a superhero film dialing it down a little – sometimes less is more.

tinkererIn tieing the events of this film with the aftermath from the New York battle in the first Avengers movie, the writers pull off a fine trick of explaining the origins of two of my favorite Spidey villains, the Vulture and the Shocker, without them feeling dated or silly. And if my eyes don’t deceive me, was that guy re-engineering the alien tech the Tinkerer (he’s an alien disguised as a human way back in one of the very earliest issues of The Amazing Spider-man)?  The way that explains how the bad guys manage to adapt the alien tech and create the Vulture’s wings and the weapons etc, whilst also nodding to the origins of the comic from way back in the early 1960s, is just sheer genius.

There is such a sense of internal logic to this film and its character arcs. Michael Keaton almost steals the film as the Vulture, but of course Tom Holland more than holds his own as Peter Parker and Spider-man (contrast this with DC fumbling the job of portraying both Clark Kent and Superman in the last few DC films). I sincerely hope they don’t bring the Green Goblin into this series and instead bring back the Vulture (particularly as he knows Peter’s secret identity and now has a grudge to settle).

The funny thing is, although everything works so well, it’s telling how different this film is from the original comic. Back in the 1960s comic, Peter Parker was a nerd ostracized by his classmates and nothing ever really seemed to go right for him, every issue ending on a downer, whether it be Spider-man being hated by the public and hunted by the law, or Peter himself failing to get the girl or falling deeper into money problems. Homecoming‘s Peter Parker has a date with a girl, has a close buddy who stumbles upon his secret identity and assists him,  and has a ‘hot’ Aunt instead of the elderly Aunt of the comic. Maybe I should be yelling out “heresy!” but I think all the changes from the comic actually work. It also helps distance this film from the previous films that may have been more faithful to the comic.

Logan Marshall-Green; Photographer select; Tom HollandAt any rate, this film was great fun, the very opposite of Justice League and I really can’t wait for further instalments if they manage to maintain this balance of fun, sophistication and sheer, well, joy.  Not all superhero films have to be dark and serious, and  while I’ve no doubt those future installments will lessen the humor and heighten the drama, Holland’s tenure is off to a great start.  But now I’m starting to sound like a fanboy (I do love the 1960s Spidey comics) so I’ll pack this in. This film may not be high art, but it is great fun though.

 

 

 

Melancholy Apocalypse: The Leftovers

left2017.61 & 62: The Leftovers Seasons Two and Three

There’s all sorts of ways to interpret The Leftovers. It’s a strange/ambient series akin to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, with the peculiar weirdness of The Prisoner thrown in (particularly towards the end), so it is rather fitting that The Leftovers finished the same year that Twin Peaks returned and The Prisoner celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

Fans of either of those shows will take me to task for this, but one thing that The Leftovers has over both of them is better acting and better, more rounded characters- or at least, more rounded battered psyches. Everyone is damaged goods in The Leftovers. The Leftovers is a study of loneliness, melancholy and grief, and how fragmented personalities/lives try to make sense of a senseless world after a massive, biblical event.

Biblical, yes- the chief supposition of The Leftovers, at least as how I personally see it, rather than how it might seem to others, is that God does exist, but it’s a God that we cannot really understand, and that the world is therefore stranger than we can possibly know. The Leftovers to me is an intensely religious series, its conceit being how would our modern pragmatic world respond to a Biblical event- the Sudden Departure, in which 2% of the planet’s population -millions of people- disappeared. Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children… there is no connection, no reason, no scientific explanation. There were here, then suddenly in the blink of an eye, gone. Gone where? Or have they ceased to exist? Should they be mourned, or should they be searched for? Was it random, or were they chosen? Who were the blessed, those that departed or those that remained?

Of course, some might believe it’s a bunch of crazy scientists whose experiment went massively wrong (in the third season, some scientists claim to have a machine to send people to another universe), but I think it’s more likely God (in the third season, you see God get mauled to death by a lion).

Ah. Yes, you read that right. And I’ll write no more about it. At turns enthralling and frustrating, amazing and confusing, there are many mysteries in this series. Inevitably for a show with such twists and turns and layers upon layers as this one has, I’m hesitant at this point to discuss the series in any great detail. The beauty is in its ambiguity and discovering its secrets. Surely one of the appeals of this show is the fact it is just three seasons long – three precious miracle seasons- with episodes as intense as anything else on television.  So its not expecting you to sit around for several seasons and outstay its welcome.

Personally, I feel the shows producers nailed the ending (Damon Lindelof! Who’d have thought it! He nailed an ending!)  although I do know some fans felt shortchanged. Some people like to be shown, to see something, rather than have it suggested to them- me, I’m okay with letting my imagination work , extrapolate the suggested possibilities. There are depths to this show that I am sure will reward repeated viewings.

One of the best tv shows I have ever watched, basically. More pointedly, it is possibly the best tv show that no-one else seems to have watched.  I hope it will pick up an increasing audience with time. That’s the beauty of tv box-sets, whether via streaming or on disc (the latter being the rub- season one had a blu-ray release over here, but my second season is an Australian disc and the third season an American disc, and not many people are going to go to such lengths). Its beautifully acted, lovingly shot and directed and scripted. Like any object of art, I’m certain it will raise string responses and that some will hate it as easily as other fall in love with it, but nevertheless it’s worth searching out and discovering and experiencing.  Yes, The Leftovers is an experience and one that you will not forget.

 

 

Pirate Zombies Ahoy!

potc2017.59: Pirates of the Carribean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

Or maybe they are more ghosts than zombies (Does it matter? Does anyone care?).

Ahoy there, shipmates- just how do you review, in this day and age, a POTC film?

Answer: I don’t think you can. LIke the Transformers films and quite possibly the Fast & The Furious films (which I haven’t seen), at this point the POTC series defies criticism. Strange to think that films reach some kind of zenith/nadir (delete as appropriate), where public opinion defies all logic and reason. Although box-office was down for this fifth entry in the series, that may be more indicative of a general malaise in box office than the films popularity (particularly in America, where all sorts of films have fallen foul this year).

Curiously, the film sports a different title in America, with the subtitle ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’  instead of  ‘Salazar’s Revenge’. Was it a marketing thing? Not that it’s the kind of thing that’ll keep me awake at night, but I am curious. The problem with the title we’ve got is that I don’t think Salazar was ever mentioned in the earlier entries so his name and ‘Revenge’ doesn’t particularly mean much, and at the very least whilst ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ doesn’t really reflect any particular plot point, it least it refers to a line spoken in the movie.

At any rate, I’m wittering on because I can’t really find much to say about it, except that it ends with some sense of closure which suggests it might be the (welcome) end of the franchise. If so, it isn’t a bad film at all, Pirates-wise you understand, but if they go off on another tangent then this finale rather betrays any good will I have for it.

As it is, it has a few laughs, some terrifyingly deep plot holes, some very good visual effects and a whole heap of excesses which just insult decent film-making and general common-sense. I guess kids everywhere love it,  but the franchise is looking rather tired now (well it looked a bit tired a few films back) and perhaps it should be laid to rest. Unfortunately, whether it’s artistically exhausted or not, whether there’s another POTC story that desperately needs to be told or not, the question that will impact whether we see  another POTC film is simply what the suits at Disney think of this films box-office.  Which is why the series got to this point anyway: money. The greed of the studio and the greed of the film-makers and the cast (I’m looking at you Mr Depp) has more bearing on modern film than such old considerations as originality and quality.

The Farthest Voyager

far22017.58: The Farthest (2017)

When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, and it seemed the simplest thing there might be. After all, men were walking on the moon, Captain Kirk and his Enterprise was exploring strange new worlds, the future seemed full of possibilities. Of course they were actually impossibilities, but try telling a seven-year old kid that when there are people walking on that moon in the sky.

Can you even imagine that now? You used to be able to look at that moon, and people were there.

Some years later, with me still being fascinated by space-travel and astronomy, reading 2000 AD every week and with films like Star Wars and Close Encounters on the big screen, and NASA sending Viking to Mars and Voyager to the outer planets, it was still a pretty amazing time to be growing up. Then Carl Sagan made (and wrote) his incredible tv series Cosmos. Sagain was hugely good at being able to articulate all kinds of scientific theory, opinion and discoveries to the layman. With Cosmos he became a science superstar, much to the chagrin of many of his contemporaries. I cannot explain the profound impact of that show, and its book and its soundtrack, had on me at the age of fourteen/fifteen. After growing up with the interests that I had, it was like it was created just for me.

Of course, I didn’t become an astronaut, or work in any profound science or space-based career- we can’t all be Brian Cox. But I never lost my love for reading about science or space discoveries, and just the sound of Carl Sagan’s voice is enough to send a tingle up my spine.

Carl Sagan shows up a few times in period footage during The Farthest, a remarkable space documentary that charts the formation, execution and legacy of the Nasa Voyager mission launched in 1977- a Grand Tour of the outer planets. I remember the news updates when Voyager sailed past Jupiter and Saturn- this was in the days before 24-hour news coverage, so the bulletins were all we had until BBC’s Horizon documentary series caught up with it periodically. The Farthest is almost an uncanny window to the flybys that commenced in 1980, throwing me back, through music and video footage and stills, to those amazing discoveries, and more than that, through the voices of key scientists and engineers behind the project, to learn the amazing true stories behind it all.

Brutal reality bites home when one of the scientists comments about Voyager’s flybys of Uranus and Neptune- we will all be long dead and buried, he says, before mankind ever visits those planets again. Its one of those realisations that seems shocking and yet suddenly commonsense: they are just too far away, and the will and expense needed to return just aren’t there. How wonderful that we are alive, now, when we have made those first visits, discovered those worlds for the first time. And can watch incredible documentaries such as this. In a world so mundane and dominated by the most moronic and narrow-minded political worldviews, it’s a glimpse of what’s possible when we as a species Think Big.

The Voyager spacecraft will, it is asserted, outlast us all- long after our civilization, or whatever follows it, or indeed after mankind as a species has become extinct or our world destroyed by the sun, or indeed long after even our own sun has died, the Voyager’s and their gold discs with The Music of Planet Earth will attest to the fact that we were here- We Were Here. You don’t get bigger than that. Enthralling stuff.

In the Mind of The Prisoner

inmymindblu2017.57: In My Mind (2017)

Kudos to Network that whilst marking the 50th anniversary of classic tv series The Prisoner with a new blu-ray set they have also released one of its major new extras, Chris Rodley’s curious documentary In My Mind, as a standalone edition. Whilst I’m not huge enough a fan of The Prisoner that I would have ordered the new series box set just for new extras, I’m sure many fans would feel obliged too, so it’s nice they at least have the option.

This documentary dates back to 1983 when Rodley somehow (even he isn’t sure how) managed to get the infamously reclusive and secretive Patrick McGoohan to talk about The Prisoner in a series of interviews. Most of this material has never been aired and has now been assembled to form the heart of this film. In all honesty, little new seems to be revealed so it’s unfair for viewers to expect amazing revelations to have been brought to light, but it is a fascinating glimpse of McGoohan as an artist haunted/hounded by an iconic cultural work. It must have been rather like this for Orson Welles, living in the shadow of his Citizen Kane for most of his life. At some points McGoohan seems trapped by the camera, wanting to get away, as if aware he has made some terrible mistake in agreeing to the interview.

Its interesting to see a work of art with the perspective of fifty years and see its creator wrestling with it as if with inner demons. McGoohan does seem to be a maddening, complicated and conflicted individual who somehow beat the system many years ago to create something utterly unlike anything made before or since (although The Prisoner clearly paved the way for shows such as Twin Peaks and many others). The irony of course is, did the creation of The Prisoner itself make McGoohan a prisoner to it? I do wonder if he would have preferred to have lived a life in which he hadn’t made The Prisoner. He is clearly ill at ease in the behind the scenes footage, a confident yet also fragile figure, almost tragic – or am I reading too much into it?

So new answers to The Prisoner‘s fifty-year old riddle are wholly absent, but instead you’ll see new insights to the man behind that riddle, a human figure now lost to us forever. Its a quite enchanting film and a must-see for anybody interested in The Prisoner.

Stabbing Tedium

fanatic2017.56: Fanatic (1965)

This one’s a pretty strange Hammer movie. It lacks the usual ‘look’ and cast of a Hammer film, with more the feel of a (bad) Hitchcock thriller. But there’s plenty in it that deserves a watch- a young Stefanie Powers is really pretty great in a very under written part, as a heroine who does very little heroic and there’s Tallulah Bankhead chewing up scenery like she’s in full-blown demolition mode. It’s really very odd and I doubt it’s ever really in line for a rewatch (it’s the worst of the four films featured in Indicator’s first Hammer box), but you never know, sometimes these crazy curio pictures pull you back more often than you’d expect.

Even at 97 mins though it really outstays its welcome, with a very flimsy plot. Our ill-fated heroine, Patricia Carroll (Powers) feels she has to visit the mother of her recently-deceased boyfriend to pay her respects, little knowing that the mother, Mrs Trefoile (Bankhead) is a religious zealot and nuttier than the fruitiest fruit cake. The old lady imprisons Patricia in her isolated house and suffers her to listen to her bible readings, intent on cleansing the young girl’s soul before killing her (and therefore reuniting Patricia with her son). That might make the film seem more interesting than it really is.

What helps the film, like in so many bad movies such as Lifeforce, is the retrospective oddity of its casting. The supporting cast includes the late great Peter Vaughan (I’m thinking of Brazil but most will be thinking of Game of Thrones) and Yootha Joyce, famous here for 1970s sitcoms (and apparently subject to unwelcome attentions from the bisexual Bankhead during filming). Couple this with a bizarre turn by an impossibly young Donald Sutherland, and it’s quite a strange item.

Unfortunately by the time it stutters to its ending it really becomes rather tedious. They don’t make ’em like they used to, and sometimes maybe that’s just as well.

Where I lose all my self-respect and admit to enjoying La La Land…

lal2017.55: La La Land (2016)

The cynic in me should hate this film, one of the most patronising and condescending essays on self-worth, validation and success I have ever seen, an almost religiously reverential glorification of the myth of Hollywood. A fantasy-land devoid of poverty or drugs or crime, where monsters like Harvey Weinstein never existed and scandals such as now encompassing Kevin Spacey and others never happened. Here people just want to make music, act, write, create, as if the act were enough, as if they would do it for free, as if it’s nothing to do with self-aggrandising massive egos or becoming famous or grotesquely rich. Never in La La Land is it about a $50 million paycheck, never is it about being an arsehole to everyone around you because you can afford to, or buying a luxury yacht or private jet plane or exulting in being ‘somebody’, being adored, being a ‘star’.

This isn’t the real Hollywood. This is a fantasy writ large, accentuated by it being a musical, with grand songs and dance numbers. Its an ode to the impossible myth that surely no-one buys anymore in this enlightened cynical age. La La Land is a fuzzy fable, something from some other era entirely. This film should not exist, it’s another Blade Runner 2049… wait, it even stars the same actor, Ryan Gosling. What’s going on?

Indeed, the biggest wonder that strikes me about it is that it even got made. I mean sure, Hollywood loves to make movies about itself, especially sophisticated ones like this full of lovely beautiful people living lovely beautiful lives in the lovely beautiful city of Los Angeles that doesn’t need any police or even litter bins. But a musical? Musicals haven’t ‘worked’ for years, as a genre it’s akin to the dodo, surely, or decent NIcholas Cage movies.

And yet…

lal2

And yet the dreamer in me loved it. From the slightly WTF opening sequence on the freeway to the intellectually-satisfying ending, complete with it ripping your heart out, La La Land is the ultimate guilty-secret movie. I feel dirty liking it, almost. It’s wrong, I know. I shouldn’t succumb to its charms. But I really enjoyed it, marvelled at it.

That ending seals the deal though. That last ten/fifteen minutes added a strange sense of pathos to the fluffy adventure that quite surprised me, suddenly taking a detour into Some Other Movie- I love movies that do that. You know where it’s going and you really don’t want it do that but you love it for doing it.

There is something almost irrepressible about this film for anyone who loves movies, or particularly grew up watching the old movie fantasies of the 1940s and 1950 replaying on tv during childhood, all those MGM musicals etc. Hollywood was, clearly,  never the innocent tinseltown it would like to pretend it is, its image has surely been tarnished over the years to the point at which it can be polished no more, and yet La La Land exists.

The Oscars are not about deserving people winning deserved awards, it’s about politics and money and setting up future deals and greed and narcissistic super-egos of the super-rich. The real La La Land I’m sure is a frankly horrible place that destroys many poor souls up before it pauses for breakfast. But it always throws amazing dreams onto screens with abandon, cinematic flights of fantasy that appeal to dreamers the world over. That we pour over over and over. I love movies (well, good movies, at any rate) and the creativity of the visual arts.  I mean, in the cold light of day La La Land is horrible and manipulative. But aren’t all films manipulative? The beauty of this film at least is that it recognises, in this era of muzak soundtracks, ambient scores that all sound the same, the power and importance of music in a movie, that as a tool it has been discarded in the garden shed for too long.

But anyway, I enjoyed it. Don’t punish me for it, I feel bad enough about it as it is.