Film of the Year

Well, okay, while this may yet seem a little early to post something like this, it’s surely a foregone conclusion- I’m only confirming, afterall, something I suggested back when  I saw the film at the cinema in August. I watched the 4K UHD of Mission Impossible: Fallout the other night and can only suggest the film gets even better and more impressive on second viewing. I’d actually add that the 4K UHD is actually a better experience/presentation than the cinema screening I attended (alas, I didn’t see the film in Imax, which must have been breathtaking).  At any rate, this film is surely the best film I have seen this year. Its astonishing/riveting/thrilling/funny/surprising… its possibly the Perfect Summer Blockbuster, and God knows, that title has plenty of competition.

Whatever Bond does next, it’s going to be a fascinating thing to see.

fallAs far as Mission Impossible goes, you know, I’d love to see them now go in some other direction, maybe go small and into a low-budget, character-focused, espionage drama. I think that’s highly unlikely, but trying to top this one is so beyond risky, I’d almost suggest its foolhardy. I’m almost tempted to say they should call it a day, wait ten years and do another reboot, start afresh. But part of me really wants another Cruise flick with Ethan Hunt saving the world again whilst blowing my socks off.

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Malick’s 2001: A Sense of Perspective

tree3Don’t know how much time I have right now, lets see how far I get before I get called away-

The similarities between Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  Space Odyssey might be fairly well-known, but I thought I’d mention them here, as the more I think about it, the more I find it surprising and illuminating in how they oddly complement each other.

2001 is one of the most epic films ever made, in its sense of the passage of time and where it places mankind in the cosmos. It begins with the Dawn of Man sequence, in which man-apes gain intelligence enough to use bones as tools -typically for humanity, these tools are weapons- and sets us on the path to orbiting nuclear weapons in one of the most famous jump-cuts in film history. This intelligence is ‘gifted’ by the Monolith, which is either an alien tool of communication or an alien itself. Increasingly marginalised first by the huge desert vistas of prehistoric Africa and then by the vast voids between Earth/Space Station/Moon and finally Jupiter, mankind’s unimportance seems self-assured until Bowman enters the Stargate and begins another step in evolution.

The Tree of Life reinforces this perspective of humanity in the cosmos, by actually outdoing Kubrick- Malick shows us the very beginning of the universe, the formation of the first stars, our galaxy, our sun and the Earth, and then the beginnings of life. We witness dinosaurs prior to them being wiped out by a cosmic whim of fate/gravity and a falling asteroid, and later we are thrown forwards to the death of all life on Earth as it becomes consumed by the death-throes of our sun. In this great cosmic scale of things, it’s like we never existed, our actual existence something of cosmic chance, any sign we ever existed lost as our planet is blasted to a cinder in the dark.

But Malick is also telling us something else here- that however insignificant we seem in this cosmic arena, we do matter, each and everyone of us. He shows us a family in 1950s America, childhood and adulthood, and the town in which they live. We see their relationships and how they care for each other, their laughter and their tears, their triumphs and frustrations and the joy of nature and being alive and the pain of grief and loss.

Kubrick’s film is rather colder- intellectual progress distances mankind from the natural world (we see people existing in sterile, created environments of space capsules and stations),  and also distances from each other (personal relationships decidedly cool and awkward, dialogue clipped and inane, formalities such as birthdays just perfunctory nods to old habits). The characters are, frustratingly, hardly alive, and pale in comparison to HAL, the AI that somehow seems more human than those it serves.

The world of 2001 at least appears to be quite Godless, as if humanity in creating its technological worlds has done away with God entirely and in so doing lost its soul, although it can also be ‘seen’ that 2001 is ironically quite a religious film, certainly if one takes the view that the Alien intelligence that guides humanity is God and the Monoliths are its Angels, and Bowman’s death a moment of resurrection as he becomes the Starchild. The Tree of Life meanwhile is more traditional and overtly religious in its repeated callings by various narrators to God, its use of religious imagery and rites and religious music. God is not a part of the machine/Monolith, here God is a part of nature and the film even depicts Heaven, a shoreline where our characters all meet again, even seeing themselves as different people of different ages- adult Jack meeting his child self and even his own mother, back when she was possibly younger than he appears  to be in the undefined ‘now.’ This later moment, when adult Jack witnesses his parents in the wake of his younger brothers death decades before, suggests that he is not reliving his own life as much as the life of someone else, but his perspective is one of almost Godlike omnipresence, of stepping through Time.

But the thing that both films clearly share is this sense of the Big Questions; what are we in this impossibly unfathomable universe, in which are utterly lost and insignificant in this immense incalculable span of time? What is our purpose, and are we alone? What is the meaning of life? is there something ‘More’?

In essence, 2001 burns cold and logical while The Tree of Life burns warm and emotional.  Both films share bold use of Classical music and methodology of Pure Cinema, a cinema of images and sound  rather than narrative. Both films have little dialogue, and little of this dialogue actually drives either film- rather it is the interplay of images and music that progress the films from beginning to end. Neither film holds the viewers hand and explains anything- both films demand audience’s attention and the effort to construct meaning from the events portrayed. It struck me whilst rewatching The Tree of Life the other night just how alike the two films are, and how masterful Malick’s film is- even to the point that it possibly surpasses Kubrick’s film.

I wonder what Kubrick would have thought of The Tree of Life, and indeed, what Malick (media-shy and private as he is) thinks of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Tree of Life may seem an unlikely example of what Malick would consider a science fiction epic but its connections and similarities to 2001 seem inescapable. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Oh well, it’s certainly something, if nothing else, when contemporary cinema can raise such musings.

Alas, the clock has turned and my time is up. Must go!

All Things Shining

all thingsI’ve been reading a book about Terrence Malick- well, to be more precise, its a book about Malick’s films, as he is so media-shy and prefers to maintain some privacy, and it consists of interviews culled over the decades from his associates, freinds and people who have worked with him on his films, and therefore offering glimpses of how Malick works. The book is All Things Shining: An Oral History of the films of Terrence Malick, by Paul Maher Jr. – I bought the kindle edition as it was only £2.30 compared to something like £16 for the paperback (there is another book  that treats Malick’s work in a similar way, Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected, which I also have my eye on).

Its a very interesting and revealing read. One passage caught my attention in particular, during the chapter about The Tree of Life. The film’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had this to say about the film, commenting on audiences walking out during performances (something I myself experienced when I saw the film at the cinema): “This reminds me of all the movies that I loved (in the ’70s) where we left the theatre and discussed and disagreed. We carried the experience out into the open. Things were not over explained and you went out with your freinds after and tried to make sense of something…” 

It made me think about how much films have changed from the 1970s to now- I’m not necessarily defending Malick’s obtuseness here as he has rather run astray with his way of making movies since then, so that even for a fan they can be infuriating (The Tree of Life is more a tone poem than a narrative but is clearly Malick’s strongest film post- Thin Red Line.) His films do, however, demand some attention and active work from his audience, whereas the standard way of making films now is to make them simple, make them loud. Back in the 1970s, films often had conflicted characters, genuine twists and some unfulfilling endings. We see less of that now. Indeed, when discussing contemporary films at work or with freinds, there may be some debate on whether a film is good or not but we seldom have arguments about what a film meant or what the director was trying to say. One of the things I love about BR2049 is all the layers of  subtext and threads of meaning in the film. I have previously mentioned here on this blog the anecdote of a frustrated forum post written by an American viewer who, at the end of the film where Deckard asks K why he did what he did, and who Deckard was to him, was left aghast and horrified when K just shrugs and after a silence changes the subject. We don’t need the film to spell that out- well, we shouldn’t, but modern audiences prefer to be told, not left to flounder at interpreting complex ambiguities of a film. It ruined the film for this forum writer, which struck me as typical and oddly funny.

Actor John Dee smith had this to say about The Thin Red Line as it approached its premiere and Malick was ordered to cut the film further to ensure it came in under three hours: “(Terry) doesn’t think this mainstream formula clustering bullshit audience he’s dealing with would benefit from it. He wasn’t just telling a story, he was fleshing out the human psyche. I don’t think America is ready for his work, and he probably doesn’t think so either.”

For some odd reason it had me thinking about the comparisons between Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Back when Interstellar came out, there were all sorts of ridiculous allusions made to the film being equal to or the successor to 2001, and it got me into quite a few arguments at the time. 2001 has something to say and a brave way to say it, and while Interstellar is a film worthy of some admiration, it doesn’t really have much to say and confuses much of what it does say. Contemporary audiences however seem to think that the film is very clever and challenging but they haven’t seen 2001 at all so really have no way of qualifying that judgement in my mind. However, I hesitate to recommend they actually watch 2001 because I really don’t think they’d manage it- would they even get through the Dawn of Man sequence? Kubrick’s film was odd back in 1968 and while it eventually found its audience I think it’s doubly odd compared to modern films, its pacing and ambiguity the absolute anathema of today’s audiences. Well, the majority, anyway, I guess you have to be wary of absolutes.

I think we have lost something though, the way most films are now. Clearly they are chiefly entertainment and intended to be popular and therefore financially successful, and being simple and undemanding seems to go hand in hand with keeping the majority of viewers happy. Perhaps the biggest culprit is the high budgets and the need to be hugely popular (rather than mildly popular) to recoup such huge investments – just witness the problems BR2049 had. I think if we could get more financial restraint more risk or openly ambiguous/complex films might have more chance of success. Conversely, I think it’s such a shame that you simply cannot make an intelligent big-budget film like BR2049 and still get an audience, and for this you have to blame either the audience itself, or society in general, or Hollywood’s slow decline into crass stupidity in its blockbuster school of film-making that makes popcorn movies really popcorn for the mind.

Or do we just blame George Lucas and Star Wars? I don’t think that’s fair (and there’s also an argument that Star Wars actually saved Hollywood and ended a steady decline in cinema audiences etc) but there is some validity to the view that Lucas began a trend of making entertainment via escapism and less of a tie to reality and issues beyond the auditorium. The problem is that escapism can slide into crassness, dumbness and stupidity, particularly if you make the package so loud and spectacular that audiences get carried away by the experience and not having to think- and films these days are so very loud and spectacular.

I rather suspect that future of serious and challenging cinema lies away from the multiplex and perhaps in the domain of Netflix and Amazon Prime, if they get enough time, and don’t get pulled into competing with all the fireworks of cinema offerings. A Terrence Malick film for Netflix might be something to see, I think.

Prince of Darkness 4K UHD

pdark1.jpgI’m always a little wary revisiting old favourites. I’m pleased to say that John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which I haven’t actually seen since back in the DVD days, holds up very well today. I thoroughly enjoyed the film from start to finish- harking back to Hammer’s classic Quatermass & The Pit this is a thought-provoking, intelligent horror film full of ideas. Okay, as a horror film, it may suffer a little from lack of genuine scares and perhaps a budget a little too short for its lofty ideas (this is a film, after all, that was made for a paltry $3 million), but it really does feel fresh and interesting. As with They Live a few days ago, its such a pleasure watching a great John Carpenter movie.

And it does look lovely in 4K- better than I ever saw it before infact, although admittedly the last time I saw it was on DVD, as we never got a Blu-ray release over here. Honestly its been so many years since I saw this at the cinema back in 1987 there is no way I can compare this to its theatrical presentation, but I can’t imagine it was any better than this. Detail is excellent, really impressive, the colours are vibrant and even the night scenes hold up well- when they do suffer from crushed blacks its obviously inherent in the source and the original photography.  It really looks gorgeous and I am thrilled to have this film in 4K.

One of the chief pleasures watching this film again, was of course its great cast of b-movie actors- and I say that with some affection. These thespians (other than the great Donald Pleasence) were never destined to be superstars of the screen but several have links to some of Carpenter’s other films- familiar faces from other favourite films are always endearing and a pleasure to see. As well as seeing Pleasence again (Halloween & Escape From New York),  there are Victor Wong and Dennis Dun (both from Big Trouble in Little China), and Peter Jason (They Live, Village of the Damned and other Carpenter flicks).

However, I was struck again by the great performance of Lisa Blount as the female lead (and ultimate hero of the film albeit with a terrible fate- that last shot of her always fills me with horror) and I wondered at how she never became a bigger star. Looking her up on IMDB I sadly learned that she had passed away back in 2010 at the age of just 53. Not for the first time I am struck by sobering reality when looking up someone from an older film on IMDB to see they have passed, a life summarized by a brief bio and filmography. Its a perspective I don’t really like and it makes me increasingly reticent to look people up on IMDB.  It left a bit of a shade upon my experience of rewatching this great movie.

I would not suggest that Prince of Darkness is a perfect film- far from it. It never really lives up to the promise inferred by its great nine-minute title sequence and it does noticeably sag towards the end as the characters sort of do nothing at all while the film waits for night to fall again. The ending doesn’t really have the impact it should but the coda  with its cheeky scare has a truly chilling final shot that infers all sorts of grim horror to follow in the viewers imagination- a great thing for a horror movie to do. Indeed, this film has always been a favourite of mine chiefly from all the ideas behind it, all the concepts going on that linger in the mind afterwards, rather than anything particularly in the film, strangely. Not all films do this.

The film has an absolutely perfect score that has always been a favourite of mine (I originally had the soundtrack on audio cassette that says everything about the age of the film, funnily enough) and I really do rate the film as being one of Carpenter’s very best. In my book, there’s The Thing, Escape From New York, They Live and Prince of Darkness.. but then again, Big Trouble in Little China is no slouch, and I love In the Mouth of Madness‘ Lovecraft vibe and The Fog is a lovely old-fashioned ghost story and.. yeah, well, this is why lists are so useless- Carpenter may have made a few duds late on but he made some great films.

Anyway, this film with They Live really has me hoping for the best with the release of Escape From New York on 4K UHD later this month.

 

They Live 4K UHD

they1
I don’t believe my eyes- 4K UHD??

They Live is a film that gets better with age. There is a sense of truth to it- not that aliens really are secretly in control of the world and are subjugating the poor, but rather that certain classes and groups of humanity can behave like aliens against their own. The class and power divide is as valid now as it was when the film was made, and its portrayal of the detached political elite and the power of television as true as it ever was.

In this sense, it also seems one of John Carpenter’s most sophisticated and intelligent films, and will, I suspect, have a greater shelf-life than some of his ‘bigger’ hits. Whenever I re-watch the film it remains as horrifying and thought-provoking as ever and its a lovely demonstration of Carpenter’s craft- thriving, as he always seems to, under a tight budget and shooting schedule. I don’t think big-budget studio films really suited him, and its such a shame he retired from the business having become so tired of it. They Live suggests that he might have had some great low-budget/high-concept anti-establishment films in him and its our loss that he didn’t make them.

This 4K UHD release of one of Carpenter’s later, so-called lesser, films (when he dabbled back in the low budget arena with films like Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness after the big-time left him behind), is something of a surprise and is perhaps a measure of how popular his films are. After all, we haven’t even seen a release for James Cameron’s The Abyss on Blu-ray, let alone 4K UHD, and here’s Carpenter getting his due with 4K releases of They Live, The Fog, and next month Prince of Darkness and Escape From New York. On the  demonstration of They Live, the other releases may be cause for some excitement (particularly EFNY, which has recently not fared well on home video) because They Live looks terrific. Detail is excellent, colours balanced and really, any issues are likely down to the original photography, such as the night footage still having some black crush. I doubt this film has ever looked this good before and for a fan its a great treat. I haven’t watched any of the extras yet but one particular surprise is that the soundtrack bundled in the collector’s edition is actually the extended ‘full’ soundtrack issued as a limited CD some years ago. Being such a fan of the film this boon is somewhat wasted on me, as I own both versions of the soundtrack already- I remember ordering the original album on import via mail-order way back in the pre-internet days and getting such a thrill when it eventually turned up. I kinda miss those days. But some fans will get a kick out of that CD, I’m sure. They Live has a great Carpenter score, one of my favourites.

Anyway, They Live is one of the greats and its a real treat to see it get this 4K UHD treatment. The only bad news is that it likely paves the way for all the rest, and having bought so many on DVD and Blu-ray before, the prospect of another set of purchases is a little depressing- at least this should be the last double/triple dip of the Carpenter catalogue. Besides, in this case, I only had They Live on VHS and DVD prior, we didn’t get a Blu-ray over here… so win-win! But wait, this box contains both 4K UHD and Blu-ray so they got me anyway. Dang it, they get you everytime… like I said, there is a truth to this film, you can’t beat the system….

they2

 

Missing (1982)

missing2Such a odd experience, sometimes, revisiting ‘old’ films that you haven’t seen in many years. The films are the same but we aren’t- we are older, wiser, have more personal experiences that impact on our viewing experience. At least, that’s the way I see it- how else to explain this rather revelatory experience of re-watching this film after so many years? Admittedly, my previous experience of this film was a television broadcast with commercial breaks , which wasn’t ideal. Now, on Blu-ray, it was a whole different thing- yes, it was clearly a very good film before but now… now it is a rather profound, terrifying and almost brutally heartbreaking work.

I can only assume that now I am older and more wise of the world that its message is all the more powerful and effecting, I was surprised by just how terrifying it is; the sense of being isolated and powerless in the face of a brutal state and clear crimes against humanity going unpunished. Perhaps when I was younger and watching it before, I had felt that this was something of the past and events such as depicted in the film could not happen anymore, but the last few decades have taught me otherwise. Sadly, Missing is as relevant as it ever was.

Missing is based on a true story, of the disappearance, in September 1973, of American journalist Charles Horman (John Shea). Living in Chile with his wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) the couple and their freinds get caught up in a nightmarish military coup that, unknown to them, is secretly sponsored by the US Government, and Charles disappears. His father, Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) a conservative New York businessman arrives in Chile a few days later to try to help Beth discover what has happened to Charles and where he might be. In the face of a increasing runaround by staff of the American Consulate, Ed begins to lose faith in his government and the integrity and protection he assumes is due an American citizen.  Although the film is decades old now and the true events fairly well known (albeit increasingly forgotten today) I won’t go into any further details regards the twists and turns of their efforts, as the film deserves to be seen ‘clean’.

missing3.pngJack Lemmon, of course, is s good as I remembered- when he finally receives the confirmation of his worst fears, I swear you can visibly see his heart breaking. Its a typical understated performance and I so miss him in movies today; he had a gift for portraying an ‘everyman’ that seems rather lacking in films now. Rarely do actors do ‘subtle’ like Lemmon managed, even if its just in the way he moves and walks or glances at people talking to him. Sissy Spacek, meanwhile, is actually a revelation-an actress I really haven’t seen much over the years (must be something to do with the films I choose to watch), I was really impressed  by her performance here; its really quite endearing and I think I’ll have to look up some more of her work.  She certainly manages to hold her own against Lemmon and she complements him very well.

The soundtrack by Vangelis is measured and understated – a product of the Greek composers’ prime it is a lovely reminder of his craft during his superior Nemo Studios era. Typically of him, its an unreleased soundtrack, barring a main theme that turns up on collections (a track which is actually, I believe, a re-recording by Vangelis himself).  The popular main theme familiar from those collections is a tender and heartfelt piece that kicks you in the stomach by the films end but is a minor part of the actual score. I suppose you have to be a decades-long fan like I am to appreciate that old Nemo Studios sound that he used to have, but its certainly a nostalgic element that improves the film no end. Its a wonderful score that is the soul and tender heart of the film.

This recent Blu-ray release of the film from Indicator is as top-notch as we have come to expect from them.  While the film’s master used isn’t a new one, its soft-focus, almost gauze-like picture (think Superman: The Movie, Days of Heaven and other films like that) probably wouldn’t benefit hugely from a new 2K or 4K remaster (and who’s going to do that for a film like Missing?) but it looks very good, has a gentle grain and solid colour. The mono soundtrack is fine; the dialogue is clear and the sudden crack of gunfire in the Chilean streets can still make you jump.

The extras, of course, are the real reward for investing in this disc release and they are very good; two pseudo-commentary tracks which are actually archive interviews (one with director Costa-Gavras in 1984, the other with Lemmon from 1986) which run under the film. Some accompanying featurettes include an appreciation piece by actor/director Keith Gordon which runs longer than you might expect, some interviews with the director etc. and a very special doc has an interview with the ‘real’ Beth, Joyce Horman. A charming and erudite woman,  with still photographs of the real Charles Horman and his father, she explains the truth behind the film and shares memories of the making of the film and its impact over the years- including litigation against it. This last doc lasts nearly half-hour and as you might imagine is utterly riveting, worth buying the disc alone for.

If you have never seen Missing, then this release is the perfect excuse to correct that folly, and if you have, well, I’m sure you likely own this disc already. In all honesty, Missing is actually a much better film than I remembered, and I shall no doubt be returning to it often.

1982: a hell of a good year for movies.

Blade Runner Anniversary

Blade-Runner-2049-0302Here’s a curio- today is the one-year anniversary of me seeing BR2049 on its opening night at my local cinema. I booked the tickets when on holiday in Scotland the week before and it led to a pretty exciting/scary week running up to the Thursday evening of October 5th. While watching Blade Runner back in 1982 remains the most intense cinematic experience of my life, watching BR2049 will likely always be the most bizarre. It was almost an out-of-body experience, watching it in a sort of detached way, as if none of it was real. Looking back on it, its clear I was really nervous after so many years of Blade Runner being an important part of my life and watching an impossible sequel that turned out to be impossibly brilliant. The experience was doubly weird as I went with my mate Andy who had seen the original with me back in September 1982- it was a little like a Twilight Zone episode or something.

I watched it twice more at the cinema (three trips to see the same movie? Frankly unheard of in this day and age) and must have seen it a dozen times since on Blu-ray and now UHD. Its still a fantastic, powerful movie and yes, likely my second-favourite all-time movie now- what a strange world we are living in. I keep re-watching it every month or so expecting the shine to wear off but it actually just seems to get better, and more impossible, every time I see it. The more I watch it, the more remarkable it seems that someone actually made a film so intelligent, slow, beautiful, so worthy of the original. Its funny, while I buy and watch so many movies these days, I seldom actually re-watch films quite as much as I used to years ago, but something about BR2049 keeps on pulling me back. And this one-year anniversary is just another excuse to watch it again…