The Wimbledon Syndrome

chinasyn.pngHere’s a bit of a mystery. Jack Lemmon is probably my very favourite actor. I think he was some kind of genius and by all accounts an unassuming one at that, unusual for a profession dominated by egos and extroverts. I rate some of his films as my very favourite films.

And yet here is a film featuring him, widely praised over the years for being a memorable thriller, that I have not seen. Its strange, really, some of the films that slip us by, which we figure we’ll get around to one day. And that ‘one day’ seems to slip by endlessly.

Anyway, the great Indicator label has just released The China Syndrome on Blu-ray and I’ve naturally bought it, taking the release to finally mean that that ‘one day’ has finally come around for this movie. Well, almost. Wimbledon has curtailed much of my viewing for the next two weeks, not helped by my wife finally ‘getting’ the pleasures of 4K (“what do you mean its sharper than blu-ray?”) thanks to the BBC’s pretty amazing UHD feed on iplayer. It looks astonishing and even she can see it. Unfortunately she’s a Wimbledon junkie and she’s now monopolizing the OLED panel.

There ain’t no justice. Even Blade Runner on 4K disc is having to wait.  And there’s no rain delays in sight according to the weather forecast…

Advertisements

A 4K Ghost

Well, I’ve bought a new television. I’m now the (frankly amazed) owner of a 55″ OLED television and a new Panasonic UHD player- suddenly those few 4K UHD discs on the shelf have a purpose.

So soon enough I’ll start writing some 4K updates for a few films. Suffice to say I’m rather taken aback by the difference in quality. This OLED wasn’t cheap, even if it was a 2017 model- certainly the most money I’ve ever spent on a television, and I haven’t even gotten around to a soundbar or amp yet, that’ll come later I expect. But I’m pleased to report the step-up in image quality is substantial. After all, until you’ve experienced it you never really know what to expect, and its inevitably not going to seem a jump like SD to HD was, but you can certainly tell an improvement.

Changing from a 40″ LCD to this beast of an OLED, I have to say the size difference is as much an impact as the step-up in resolution and HDR. The first film I watched on UHD disc was Blade Runner 2049, which has a muted HDR palette by its very nature, visually its tone is pretty dour (beautiful melancholy I call it), so hardly a ‘hold onto your seats’ kind of movie, but the difference in screen size alone was something of a revelation. There was a sudden ‘heft’ to objects and miniatures that improved them by some margin. Roger Deakins’ photography, of course is just sublime- its a beautiful film that just blooms on a bigger screen. I’ll go into more detail in a seperate post, I expect, as I’m sure to revisit BR2049 as part of my ‘favourite films’ series of posts soon enough. I hadn’t quite got the image settings right when I saw BR2049 either, having fine-tuned them since, so a re-watch is inevitable.

A film that did ably demonstrate the possibilities of HDR is Thor: Ragnarok, the 4K UHD disc was pretty amazing. Little things like electric neon lights that suddenly burned brightly like something alive, or the lightning effects when Thor uses his God of Thunder powers late on towards the finale. Suddenly the screen popped like 3D without the glasses and overall the whole thing was rich in depth and spectacular colour.

I haven’t seen Blade Runner yet, although I did sneak a peak at the first twenty minutes or so the other night. Haters of grain should stay away as this thing is a feast of the stuff and quite rightly so, its part of the pleasures of the film for me ever since the days of my second-generation VHS copy that I wore out in the early ‘eighties.  Again., I don’t know if its the size of the screen or the new detail or the added depth from the HDR (city-lights/neon signage/rain reflections etc) but Blade Runner hasn’t looked this good to these eyes since, oh, I don’t know when. Frankly the price of the television and player seemed justified by this one movie, and I can’t wait to watch the film all-through but I’m waiting the proper moment when I can give it due time and attention (and to be honest, this current heatwave isn’t helping- Blade Runner needs to be seen on a dark night with it ideally raining outside).

One thing I did note, mind, that the bigger screen suddenly makes clear, is little stuff like when Rachel first meets Deckard and she has a close up that drifts out of focus. I’m sure its evident on smaller screens etc but here its blatantly clear. I suspect Sean Young overstepped her mark a little, as she steps into focus initially but drifts out of focus as she slightly moves too far toward the camera.  The surprising stuff though is in scenes like Bryant showing Deckard the Replicant data- those shots suddenly look exquisitely beautiful, the graduations in tone and shade on Bryant and Deckard’s faces bathed in the soft blue back-light/CRT front-light are deeply detailed and nuanced, and the smoky atmosphere around them moodily effective.  Can’t wait to find the right evening to watch this movie, but like fine wine, movies like Blade Runner deserve the right moment.

So anyway, that’s my news and I hope to follow with more detailed reports about the pleasures of 4K in the future. Fingers crossed my panel keeps performing perfectly and I can find time to watch it (you’d be surprised how little I have had this television on over the past few days, but I suspect it’ll come into its own this Autumn).

ce3kuhdI’m just wondering how long I can refrain from buying a copy of the 4K UHD Close Encounters disc…

(’40th Anniversary edition’… I’m getting old- when you see packaging with blurbs like that about films you recall seeing at the cinema on their first release, its time to stop looking in that mirror).

 

 

 

Initial thoughts on Black Panther (2018)

bp1.pngUnderwhelming. I actually watched this last weekend and have hesitated regards posting a review simply because I thought I would re-watch it again, give it another chance. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to do so due to illness so here I am, writing this post based on initial feelings that might be subject to reappraisal later.

Hype springs eternal. Maybe that’s the problem. I missed this film at the cinema but was well aware of all the praise it was getting and its impressive box-office numbers that likely surprised even Marvel. The film clearly struck a chord with audiences.

But of course you just never know what films audiences will engage with and lots of truly great films get ignored while many bad ones become hugely successful- just look at the perplexing success of the Transformers films. Disney seem to have been unstuck by the response to the recent Solo movie – a film that again, I have not seen, so can’t really comment on, but some people whose opinions I value seem to think it was pretty good and yet oddly ignored by audiences. Well, if a film that grossed $323 million worldwide can be said to have been ignored- I suppose its really a matter of scale and expectancy; a Star Wars movie, albeit one that had a troubled production that cost anything up to $300 million to make, might be expected to reach that magic $1 billion easier than most movies. Instead Solo fell well short of that particular measure of success.

But was Solo any less formulaic or uninspired as Black Panther? Or am I being harsh? Are superhero movies, particularly one with a clearly positive racial message, more in tune with the current social/cultural zeitgeist than a movie based on an ‘old’ franchise from the 1970s (I love the dichotomy of considering Star Wars movies as old and dated when all these Marvel movies are based on comics-trips of the 1960s and 1970s)?

Black Panther grossed something in the region of $1.3 billion, so if box-office is a measure of anything, it was clearly doing something right. But yes, it left me a little underwhelmed, even bored. Playing that utterly meaningless box-office card once more, Thor: Ragnarok, which was for me clearly a much better Marvel movie, grossed $850 million worldwide, so what, that means it was actually a worse movie than Black Panther? Okay, while we’re here lets be naughty and play these box-office charades again- the woefully insipid Justice League movie grossed nearly $700 million, so Thor: Ragnarok wasn’t as great a movie as I thought by that comparison (or maybe the DC fans watched Justice League out of morbid curiosity, like some kind of celluloid car-crash). Anyway. Box-office is meaningless when appraising movies, unless you’re a studio executive.

I don’t know why exactly Black Panther didn’t really engage me. Maybe I thought it would  be more original/daring, more culturally significant, less of a (I hesitate to use the word, but here I go) ordinary or formulaic genre movie. Sure, it was never going to be a Deadpool or a Logan, but all the same, it slipped into that dangerous trap of these superhero movies, of degenerating into too much cgi hysterics and less the drama that I had hoped for. I suppose I shouldn’t criticize a movie for being faithful to the original comic, but I think the film would have been more significant if it had addressed the genuine  plight of poor black people in America and involved a typical black kid with limited social mobility/options and neighborhood issues of poverty and drugs and gun crime. I suppose that is some other movie, some other hero. The Utopian dream of Black Panther may be life-affirming and full of positivity, and maybe that the point of the film, I get that.

Was I maybe expecting Marvel by way of Shaft or Superfly? Well, maybe that was the hype. I don’t know. Its not a bad film (certainly not in the DC realm of misfires) but Marvel seem to find it so easy making these films popular that I wonder if they really need to stretch themselves more- after, what, eighteen movies or whatever it was by the time Black Panther came along, you’d think the Marvel Studios formula would be getting a little tired and disengaging audiences- instead they seem to be just lapping it up, eager for more.

 

 

 

 

BR2049 home video success?

Whilst on the subject of BR2049 (aren’t I always, here it seems- just wait until I get a new tv to watch my 4K disc on), here’s a link to an interesting article concerning the film getting a second wind on home video, with sales figures not to be sniffed at. Certainly not bad for a film commonly perceived as being a flop. Which it wasn’t of course- it will struggle for a few years to make much profit but it did much better than the original, with critical success and Oscars besides.

(I’d love to see an interview with the heads of Alcon Entertainment and see their take on how the film performed, what they have learned from it and whether they intend to return to the property in some way in future).

Anyway, here’s the link-

http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2018/04/blade-runner-2049-home-video-sales.html

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

supes4I never intended to ever watch this movie. I bought the Superman Anthology boxset on Blu-ray years ago but of all those eight discs, this one was surely the coaster. Although I’m a huge fan of both Superman: The Movie (if not the best superhero movie ever made, its definitely the most important) and Superman II, watching the third film on a VHS rental many years ago rather bummed me off ever watching the fourth film which was, apparently, even worse than that third effort. But it’s Superman. Its Christopher Reeve.

How bad can it get?

Now, well, there’s the loaded question. Goodness knows I’ve directed some ire at Justice League and BvS etc but goodness me, it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Because Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is bloody terrible. Really, it’s a horribly broken movie that was likely (or at least I hope)  made with the best of intentions but was handicapped by a hokey script, woefully insufficient budget and terminally uninspired direction. Its shocking that it was even deemed worthy of release, frankly,  and I think cinemagoers should have had the right to claim their money back. This isn’t a movie. Its a pale imposter. Its a few sequences that put together don’t make any sense masquerading as a movie with utterly charmless visual effects that decidedly lack the prefix ‘special’. I’ve not seen anything quite like it before even in Tobe Hooper’s worst movie.

Which is such a terrible shame, when you consider where it all started. In fact, you’d think someone would write a book about it- ”Superman: The Movie to Superman IV – a Cinematic Tragedy.’ How does something like this happen with such a well-loved franchise so hugely popular worldwide with such talent behind it? Where does it go wrong (there’s a clue in the story about Richard Donner and him being dropped from Superman II)?

Superman: The Movie was a huge expensive event movie with a brilliant cast including big stars like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman- I can remember when it came out in 1978; back when titling something ‘THE MOVIE’ actually meant something. This wasn’t a tv show or a silly comic, this was a serious big movie. And it was brilliant and charming and amazing and thrilling. It had some of the biggest, most brilliant visual effects and the film really lived up to the tagline ‘you’ll believe a man can fly’. It was myth-making on the silver screen. With this, Star Wars, CE3K, Raiders… we had it so good back then.

But here they were a decade later and it’s all gone to hell in a four-colour handbag. Its painful and sad to see Chris Reeve reduced to this, and Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman and all the other stars from that first film slumming in this nightmare production. Sadly, Marvel Studios and even Zack Snyder are lifetimes away, it seems.

The story. Er… is there a story? I don’t think there is. Its just full of ill-judged scenes badly realised. Supes reveals (again) his secret identity to Lois and takes her for a romantic flight (again) although the travelogue scenery suggests he’s whisked her around the nation fast enough to burn her knickers nevermind upset her hairdo, before returning home and causing her to forget his identity with a kiss (again). Later he rescues Lacy (Mariel Hemingway wearing shoulder pads that look like weapons) whilst she’s in space somehow breathing and not freezing/boiling to death.

But there is Christopher Reeve and his simply magnificent Clark Kent. No matter how bad the movie, Clark still shines through and demonstrates the one thing that perhaps no other Superman movie will ever equal- that heartwarming, innocent comedy genius that was Chris Reeves’ Clark Kent, and the gentle chemistry between himself and Margot Kidder. Later films may have had better visual effects (and even actual plots and budgets) but they will never have Reeve and Kidder. So maybe Superman IV is not quite the utter disaster it might have been- oh, ok, of course it is. But it does have Reeve and Kidder. Oh, but they deserved so much better.

So did we, damn it.

Return of the (last) Jedi

jedilastBad films can be infuriating, particularly when they are from a beloved franchise or series… but so fascinating too- so how could I resist buying The Last Jedi on disc? 

In all honesty, I felt like writing a long list of issues that I still have with this film, really, but the more I thought and the more I wrote, the worst I felt it was largely pointless. I doubt I’ll ever make peace with this fim. So I scrapped most everything. But I still felt the need to write something. So instead of an opus of pain, here’s this:

Imagine if you will, a (motion) picture:

1979, or the early ‘eighties, it doesn’t really matter, it’s an alternate universe, think of it as a Black Mirror episode for geeks: Paramount are launching a trilogy of Star Trek films, based on the old 1960s tv series and rebooting it for a new saga/crew. Old creator Gene Roddenberry is gone, replaced by a new creative team eager to reboot Star Trek with new values. Bringing the old crew back to placate fans whilst introducing a new crew for later adventures, the first film brings back Mr Spock and Dr McCoy but leaves the appearance of Kirk until the very last scene, used to tease film number two. To the fans consternation, Mr Spock dies during this first film, so fans never see a proper reunion of the three main stars of the old show.

The second film features a rather older and rebooted Kirk. This Kirk has retired from Star Fleet and gone off to some corner of the galaxy. He thinks the original Trek’s five-year mission was a waste and that the Federation of Planets and its human-centric organisation was a mistake and wants nothing more of it, wants it to die.

Imagine how the Trekkies would have reacted. Imagine how the film-makers would have exalted in their ‘out with the old, in with the new’ policy. Imagine William Shatner fundamentally disagreeing with the new direction and this new interpretation of Kirk. Imagine fans pining for the good old days of creator Gene Roddenberry’s oversight.

Imagine if you will, another trilogy:

Its one hundred after Return of the Jedi. The New Republic still stands, but is under threat from a new outside force- a resurgent Empire that has lingered in the remote Outer Rim for the past decades, remnants of the Old Empire gathering and scheming and now further rejuvenated by a new Sith.

The old heroes are gone now. The descendants of our old heroes are separated by fortune and distance. Some are bureaucrats in the Republic, others driven with wanderlust, trying that luck in the trade-routes as entrepreneurs or rogues, and perhaps there is still a Skywalker in the fledgling Jedi Academy. The disaster that befell the Old Republic when the Emperor seized power has left the Jedi Order marginalised  by this New Republic wary of old mistakes. Jedi remain few and far-flung through the galaxy.

A restless grandchild of Solo and Leia, curious about past glories and lessons that could be heeded, searches out the places and events of those old adventures. He finds Vader’s old helmet, and Luke’s old lightsaber. His curiosity leaves him open to manipulation and he is found and seduced by the Sith, clearly a prime asset to their schemes to overthrow this infidel Republic and return to the days of Empire.

But Disney chose a different path….

A VERY different path.

I mean, this thing no longer even functions as a trilogy- if IS still a trilogy, it’s a dysfunctional one, most of the set-up from The Force Awakens being ditched and arcs abandoned. It feels a bit like Justice League following BvS, something is of, something has changed as if there’s a whole new creative team without any oversight.  Look at how well that’s turning out for DC.

Ignoring all that, it still feels ‘off’. For one thing, the tone is all over the place. The opening portion with General Huxx is like a Spaceballs farce.  The film from the start undermines General Huxx and shows him up to be an incompetent moron and makes Huxx throughout the butt of too many jokes (casting Eddie Hitler as his assistant just exacerbated the issue and makes me wonder if that casting was actually deliberate). Imagine 1977’s Star Wars making Tarkin the comedy relief. Exactly.

lastjed2

Characters do contrary actions all the time and there are holes all over the place. In just the same way as teleporting from Earth to Klingon moon, or from Vulcan moon to in-warp Enterprise in the Star Trek reboots contradicts everything established in Star Trek of old and makes Starships obsolete, so too does Star Destroyers tracking Rebels through Hyperspace. I mean, think about it, it’s now out of the bag- they’ll be able to do it all the time in every future Star Wars film because its been done (and if they don’t do it, then why not?). Good luck escaping the bad guys in future, Rebels, they will be tracking you across the galaxy. Straight back to your rebel base, too, I should imagine.

If Rian Johnson had thought it through, he just had to have a plot device about a bug or tracker hidden by a spy on the lead Revel ship. That’s all he had to do (and has been done before in Star Wars with the Death Star tracking the Falcon, and Rey and Leia are doing it all the way through the bloody movie). Instead he has to weave this preposterous plot device of having to travel to a casino planet to get a code-breaker to get onboard the bad guys ship and then disable the tracking machine without anybody noticing a rebel droid hiding in a waste paper basket? As if only the one ship was bothering to track the rebels- wouldn’t all the ships be doing it as a matter of course if they all have the technology now (so if one tracker failed or was disabled, the others would offer redundancy)?

Hell, at least hunting down a spy and tracking device in a race against time would have given Poe something to do.

I get that Rian Johnson was trying to shake up Star Wars and spin it off in some new direction. I admire the intention, but I abhor the execution.

 

Favourite Films- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I’ve been wondering where to start with my ‘Favourite Films’ series of posts and the answer was staring me in the face, as this month is the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s monumental movie, so here we go-

2001paperbThere isn’t really much new that I can say about this extraordinary film, a film that exists as a piece of culture almost beyond cinema itself, a film whose impact resounds even today, some fifty years later. Where to begin? Well, I’m one of the Star Wars generation, too young to have seen the film when it first came out in 1968 (oh what it must have been like for those first audiences) but old enough to have been around when the film was still part of the then-recent cultural zeitgeist of the 1970s. I’d read the book by Arthur C Clarke, seen some images from the film. I read the Marvel comics 2001: A Space Odyssey by Jack Kirby, one of the strangest, weirdest comic book series anyone might ever see, certainly at the time. It all added to the strange mystique surrounding the film. It was something enigmatic, something I’d heard and read about but never seen. Of course, little did I realise it would remain just as enigmatic even after I had seen it, only maybe even more so.

So yes, eventually the stars aligned and I saw it, on its first UK network screening, which was, I think, sometime around Christmas 1979 or 1980, I’m not certain which it was. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to think. Which was as true of audiences back in 1968 or indeed in  2018- the first time you see 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Its only on the second viewing, or the third or  fifth that you really ‘get’ it. Or maybe you don’t really ‘get’ it  even after the fiftieth time. Maybe you’re not supposed to ‘get’ it. Arthur C Clarke said “if you understood 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise more questions than we answered.” There, in a nutshell, is the magic and fascination of the film and why it still remains the very antithesis of traditional cinema, and particularly current cinema which feels the need to force feed audiences everything. Most every film these days feels the need to explain, rationalise, feed endings or tease new beginnings/sequels.

I read a comment back when BR2049 came out last year, about the ending where K and Deckard reach  Dr. Ana Stelline’s office, and they stand in the snow and Deckard asks K why he has done what he did, what Deckard is to K. Following a pause, K just smiles and tells Deckard to go see his daughter, and they part. What was interesting is that this really pissed off the guy writing the comment. “Why doesn’t K say something?!” railed the guy. “Its stupid! I want K to tell us why!” To me, this is the genius of the film. Attentive viewers will know why K did what he did, and what Deckard meant to him, what Deckard represented. We don’t need it spelled out for us. Well, some of us don’t.

Which is the deepest heart of 2001. Its never got the slightest intention of explaining anything or everything. In a way, it rather does, but it leaves it up to the viewer to extrapolate meaning or sense from the film. So anyway, when school resumed after that Christmas holiday, members of my form came over to me (as the class resident sci-fi geek and film nut) and asked me what the hell 2001 was on about. I remember shrugging my shoulders and giving some general summary of the plot and what I thought but didn’t feel entirely sure myself. 2001 wasn’t Star Wars. 2001 was something else.

So began a fascination that followed for all the near-forty years since.

2001vhsI re-watched some of 2001 in art school, particularly the effects shots. Even back then, the film seemed particularly slow (God only knows what it seems like to new viewers coming to it now). I remember how control of the image, fast-forwarding and rewinding the VHS tape still refused to reveal the films secrets to me. I remember that the film was one of the first catalogue films sold on VHS in the very earliest days of affordable sell-through, and it was of course an inevitable Christmas present to me. Of course it was pan-and-scan version that mutilated the framing and the image quality was typically poor of VHS, colours blooming and dropouts etc. Well, it was long before DVD and even Blu-ray, and no doubt a 4K UHD is due eventually.

2001abelAll the books. I have read so many books about 2001. There’s still books coming out about it, fifty years later, and surely in another fifty years time there will be more.

The first and probably best was ‘The Making of Kubrick’s 2001‘ edited by Jerome Agel. Its a paperback published in 1970 which is utterly brilliant in its approach. Its basically a compilation of quotes and reviews and articles surrounding the film from its genesis and the months immediately following its release, complete with a 96-page insert of b&w stills and behind-the-scenes images explaining some of the technical aspects of the production. It includes Arthur C Clarke’s original story The Sentinel which formed the basic foundation of the plot, sections from the MAd magazine parody, the instructions from a model kit of the Orion Pan Am clipper. Letters to Kubrick from confused/angry/ecstatic viewers. Its a brilliant book, and I only wish someone had done something similar for Blade Runner.

The funny thing about 2001 is that it was never about prediction. Even the rosiest predictions from the mid-sixties with the manned moon landings planned and NASA’s huge budget at the time couldn’t really have led to the films visions becoming reality by the year 2001. But as the years and decades passed everyone was making the comparison of fiction vs reality.  Probably pissed Kubrick off no end, and how unkind and yet almost fitting, that Kubrick himself didn’t live to see the real 2001? So in a weird way, passing the real year 2001 was something rather liberating for the film, far as I’m concerned. Yes, the film is partly a fascinating glimpse of what the future looked like from the optimistic and thrilling vantage point of the 1960s, when everything was possible. And yes, it also looks rather quaint and retro-’60s, now, from our 21st Century perspective. But it’s really only reinforced the mythological intent of the film all the more clearly. As such it feels all the more powerful and allows fresh insights. Its cinema as art. Its Pure Cinema. Its a timeless masterpiece.

Or its breathtakingly self-indulgent, boring, slow, frustrating, stupid.: the film still maintains the ability to thoroughly piss people off. I’m not going to suggest that those people are wrong and that I’m right about it being a masterpiece. Oh, go on then.

Marking 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of my favourite films is almost redundant and almost as boring and predictable as had I started this series of posts with Blade Runner. But the fiftieth anniversary of this film clearly is apt excuse to start with this particular film. How many films that are made today will still be so hotly talked about/praised/hated in fifty years time as this one? How many films have really measured up in the years since? When Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar came out a few years back, so many people were comparing it favourably to Kubrick’s 2001 that it drove me nuts. People thought Interstellar was groundbreaking and intelligent and thought-provoking, but it’s nowhere near the same league as 2001, no matter its ambitions. No sci-fi film director has really come close to what Kubrick achieved in 1968. No-one has pushed the envelope, challenged how people ‘see’ sci-fi or that genre as a whole, or what it might be capable of.  It is one of my saddest observations that for all the technological breakthroughs we have seen from CGI etc, that no-one has carried it through to some new Odyssey for our own age.

Stanley Kubrick said “How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written a the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001” There’s not many films that could possibly ever be compared with the Mona Lisa, as a piece of art of such magnitude, but 2001 surely can. A film for the ages then, and yes, one of my very favourite films.