Books- The Art of Ron Cobb

ron2I’ve written here before about our formative years, how the films, books, music that we connect to during that important period of our lives – our teenage years, usually- remain so strong for the remainder of our lives. For my part, I’d cite the period between 1976 -1986  as the time when so much resonated with me and would stay with me; so much so that I’m tempted to suggest that I’m still pretty much that same awkward quiet kid I was back then (only grumpier and not so slim). I still love the films I did back then, listen to the same music, read the same authors… sure, new stuff has come over the decades since and much of it great but nothing rings quite so true as the stuff I fell in love with back then.

A curious spin on this is everything I read in film magazines of the time, Starburst, Fantastic Films, Starlog, Cinefantastique, all those articles, reviews and interviews that offered tantalising, exciting glimpses of the magic behind the films. Back in those pre-Internet days those monthly/bi-monthly editions, largely from over the pond, were our only window to what was coming, how films were made, the talents responsible for all the magic that thrilled us.

As an example, back when Alien was coming out in 1979, the magazines offered commentary and interviews related to the film- particularly Fantastic Films, a sort-of poor man’s Cinefantastique (the clue is in the mags cheeky title) that I absolutely adored and which I have written about before. Fantastic Films’ coverage of Alien was exemplary; lengthy interviews with Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon and others, with colour stills of the film and storyboards and paintings depicting the work that went into creating Alien. Bear in mind that Alien when it later reached our shores was given an ‘X’ certificate (surprisingly, if I recall correctly, not for the graphic horror but rather for its bad language) which meant that I couldn’t/wouldn’t see it for a few years. I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and later the incredible Movie Novel that was as close to owning the film as we could get in those pre-VHS days, but it was those articles in Fantastic Films that caught my attention, put images to Foster’s prose and ignited my fascination in all the work involved in making genre films.

cobb1Which brings me to the work of Ron Cobb, whose paintings and sketches for Dark Star, Star Wars and particularly Alien that featured quite heavily in the mag alongside its interview with him (and particularly a little later in a making-of book, The Book of Alien). This was art that was beautifully executed with a sense of weight and solidity that made the fantastic so real and utterly believable. The genius of Alien was that Ridley Scott cannily used Cobb’s realistic, authentic-looking set designs for the Nostromo and associated gadgetry as a counterpoint to the surreal nightmarish visions of H R Giger that represented the distinctly non-human horrors.  The sense of reality so intrinsic in Cobbs work curiously made Giger’s just look more real. I pored over the images, read the interviews with Cobb, and like all those other names I’d be reading about back then – Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, Ralph McQuarrie, John Mollo, Derek Meddings, John Dykstra, Douglas Trumbull, John Barry, Syd Mead, countless others – would follow Ron Cobb’s work over the years that followed, in just the same way as my more conventional school mates followed footballers, cricketeers or pop stars.

cobb4Cobb would go on to work on Conan the Barbarian (Cinefantastique‘s double-issue about that film proved to be a definitive reference on that film and Cobb’s involvement) and The Abyss and many others. Keen eyes would watch Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in 2012 and note the titular ship’s bridge design was heavily indebted to unused designs created by Cobb for Alien way back in 1979 – it was like seeing an old friend again out of the blue. While appreciating the clever claustrophobia of the film’s Nostromo, I always stared at that painting over the years wondering how fantastic it would be to see it for real, in a movie (Prometheus alas lacked the glories I imagined in my head, although that set did look pretty fantastic).

Cobb’s passing in 2020 hit me like a bolt, a sudden reminder of the passing of time in just the same way as fans are shocked by the deaths of movie stars and pop stars. Cobb was one of the names I grew up with, a name I’d see in film credits and in books and mags with the affection one has for childhood heroes. I suppose many filmgoers would not recognise the name even though he was so hugely responsible for so much of the success of the films they loved, but those of my generation who devoured all those 1970s/1980s film mags could measure the loss. Cobb was a giant part of what made the fantastic in so many films look so real.

So this new book has just been published, The Art of Ron Cobb, which is a hardback, coffee-table artbook collecting much of the artists remarkable work for film and other media – some of it very familiar and some of it new and surprising. Its a beautiful book, one of the best of its kind that I’ve seen and absolutely required reading for any fan of Cobb’s work, although to be fair, anyone familiar with Cobb’s art would surely buy this book as soon as they learned of it, so I feel like I’m wasting my time preaching to the converted. Its just a pity that Cobb, of course, is gone, and that this appreciation is posthumous- how much more wonderful it would be had it been curated by Cobb with his own annotations and recollections.  Somewhat out of leftfield, I’m reminded of that strange sadness of those Super Deluxe editions of Prince’s 1999 and Sign O’ the Times – great boxsets of material out of the vault etc but wondering how much more priceless they would have seemed had I been able to read Prince’s own memories etc about all that music. Its a shame these things don’t seem to come out early enough to ensure the artists own involvement, albeit in Prince’s case (and Vangelis, too, regards any release of  music from the Greek maestro’s own vault of unreleased material), is that they themselves seem to have opposed such collections being released in their lifetime. I’m reminded of all those film stars and directors who have passed away without recording commentary tracks for their films for posterity.

Nonetheless, while this book is largely minus Cobb’s own ‘voice’, its pretty definitive, really- a case where the art does the talking. I keep picking it up and re-reading it, dipping into chapters on particular films. Its a fine document of Cobb’s skill, his eye for design, and his impact on so many films over the years – some of it a surprise to me. Of course, its also a reminder of times when artists worked on canvas and artboard rather than on tablets and graphic workstations; there’s a sense of analogue craft here that is richly nostalgic. The whiff of art marker and gouache and acrylic. This book is a treasure.

The Killing 4K UHD

Kill4kI’ve come back to The Killing by way of its recent 4K upgrade from the folks at Kino over the pond. I last watched the film back in 2016. I have to confess, watching it again my memory of it was pretty fuzzy- I remembered the overall plot and some of the cast, but specifics, and indeed the ending, escaped me completely. To some extent it was rather like watching the film for the first time.

Which was nice, but worrying- I used to have such an excellent memory for films; I’d usually remember most everything. Maybe its just me getting older – hope this isn’t how dementia starts- but I rather suspect its a case of just watching too many films over the past few years. In some ways we’re living in a film buff’s paradise, the access we have to films these days, whether it be films we have collected on disc, or stream on the various platforms. Back in the 1970s we were at the whim of terrestrial schedulers on three networks so only watched films when we could, which increased the rarity and sense of occasion (I still recall the Jaws network premiere, and that of Star Wars and Alien, quite vividly, and movie seasons over Christmas holidays just made the festive seasons more special). Those were the bad old days, certainly, but nonetheless films seemed to have much more of a value back then. I suppose watching fewer films, they stuck in your memory more too.

But now, they almost seem to blur into each other- certainly some film noir, of which I have watched an awful lot of over the past few years. I suppose it inevitable when they share so many narrative and visual tropes and character archetypes. Alarming though, that I’d forgotten so much of this film. Maybe this blog should revert to its original purpose back from its Film Journal days, serving as a diary of viewing- not that this blog really ever diverted away from too much (though I have stopped compiling monthly/annual lists of the films). But whatever next? Index cards next to each disc on the shelf?

Because to be sure, someone who professes to be a film buff shouldn’t be forgetting details of films as exquisite as The Killing, one of the definitive heist movies and one of the best examples of a perfect film noir. Its a taut, gripping story about flawed characters, depicted by brilliant actors in memorable performances. Did I say memorable? Hmmm. Well, to be fair, while I’d forgotten so much of the film, I’d not forgotten the likes of Sterling Hayden here- what a gritty, convincing turn.

Kubrick’s third directorial effort and widely considered his first ‘proper’ film, The Killing is absolutely amazing and, dare I suggest, one of his best. Its certainly a film for people who don’t profess to like Kubrick’s filmography- it lacks his full ‘auteur’ stamp, as he didn’t have the complete control he would soon have following Paths of Glory and SpartacusThe Killing is more routine, more accessible compared to how inscrutable some of his films can seem.

That being said, its tricky to describe The Killing as routine- it certainly makes demands upon its audience, with a chronology-shifting narrative in which it moves forwards and backwards in time depending upon each characters involvement in the heist. It’s helped somewhat by a voice-over which is pretty wonderful but was, I suspect, possibly a studio-mandated element to help steer viewers along.

When I last watched The Killing in 2016, I hadn’t been aware even of the existence of Vince Edwards’ later noir, Murder by Contract, which I watched last year as part of Indicator’s Columbia Noir line of boxsets and which proved to be one of the best films I watched last year (so good was it, indeed, that I watched it twice). So anyway, back in 2016, Edwards was just another face- this time around, I immediately recognised him and enjoyed, again, another of his performances. Naturally Edwards will always be more remembered for his massively popular Ben Casey tv show of the 1960s but I think he’s brilliant in The Killing, Murder by Contract and City of Fear in which he has this weird charisma with the camera (and inevitably the on-screen ladies) that only certain actors destined to be stars have. So if my memory really does go south there will be index cards for Vince Edwards dotted around my shelves of Blu-rays.

killb4kRegards this 4K release of The Killing, it looks absolutely amazing. Lots of grain, detail and contrast- 4K with its HDR really suits these black and white films. Can’t believe I haven’t bought Citizen Kane on 4K yet (must be all those copies on DVD and Blu-ray making me already feel like a double/triple-dipping idiot). There is a lovely tactile quality to this film, in its detail evident in sets and clothing, and the HDR really improves the lighting which can be so intrinsic to the noir experience. The scene in which the guys sit around a small table lit by a lone bulb above them, their faces both brightly lit and masked in shadow, the cigarette smoke drifting about them- its like each frame is a painting and is one of the best film noir shots I’ve seen: in 4K its really something. While Kino doesn’t include booklets or anything at all like that, it does use original poster artwork which make its releases great collector pieces, in a similar way to the art direction on Indicator’s releases (this disc also has a reversible sleeve). Devoid of extras other than some trailers, the disc features a commentary track by Alan K. Rode which, from the twenty-thirty minutes I’ve heard, is absolutely terrific and which I look forward to listening to in its entirety. More on that in another post maybe.

Happy Birthday, Blade Runner

Blade-Runner-movie-posterForty years ago today, Blade Runner was released in America- June 25th, 1982. Obvious things spring to mind; forty years is so long ago, it just makes me feel dismayed thinking that Blade Runner is forty years old. I suppose I should add the caveat that my own 40th Blade Runner anniversary is a few months away yet- thanks to the gradual roll-out of films back then (hey, they used expensive ancient-tech film prints in bulky reels in those ancient times) Blade Runner, barring press screenings and a fabled preview screening by Starburst magazine, didn’t make it to UK cinemas until September that year (I first watched it on September 12th, 1982 in the old ABC in town). But anyway, film anniversaries always fall on when they were first released in the US, for obvious reasons, so today it is.

I know what 4K disc I’ll be spinning up tonight, then…

Forty years, though. Ridley was 44 when Blade Runner was released- he’s 84 now, how old does he feel this morning? Mind, poor old Vangelis is gone, recently passed away. Still can’t get over that, every time I play his music it feels a little different, somehow; only the other night I had a relaxed hour or so and listened to his albums China and See You Later, the latter of course featuring Memories of Green, that was used on the Blade Runner soundtrack (always amazes me how that track, recorded a few years before, fits the film like a glove and set the tone for the whole score). Its inevitable of course as so many years pass that so many of the people who made Blade Runner -who would generally be middle-aged at the time anyway- would pass away, leaving behind a fragment of celluloid immortality as films do, over time.  So many of the actors have gone; Rutger Hauer, Brion James, Bob Okazaki, Kimiko Hiroshige, Hu Pyke, Morgan Paull,  while behind-the-camera staff like Jordan Cronenweth, Syd Mead,  Lawrence G. Paull, Terry Rawlings and Douglas Trumbull have gone. Anybody else getting depressed yet?

Well, that’s what forty years will do. Eventually Blade Runner will leave us all behind, like old classics do such as the original King Kong. Films are Forever. Well, as long as they are restored and digitised I guess. Makes me think of original author Philip K Dick’s description of kipple, which represented entropy in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: “No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”

That’s all of us, eventually: Kipple. I need a drink. Where’s my Blade Runner-inspired whiskey glass? Happy birthday, Blade Runner.

Gotham Noir

The Batman, 2022, 176 mins, 4K UHD

batmanc

Who knew I needed another Batman? Certainly not me- I was still rueing the ill-luck of Ben Affleck who seemed to me the definitive Batman, wasted in the artistic/commercial carnage of Warner/DC’s ill-fated attempts to duplicate the success of Marvel Studios output. Affleck wasn’t alone, mind; one could well argue that Henry Cavill’s Superman deserved better than he got. Whether we have truly seen the last of them, time will tell, but I believe Affleck has (yet another) cameo playing Batman due in someone else’s movie -next year’s Flash – and there are all sorts of rumours regards Cavill. But hey, I suppose the only certainty in life other than death, taxes and Star Trek’s endless plunge into ruin is that we’ll always have another Batman, Superman, Spider Man in some new movie…

So here we are with Robert Pattinson as a very, very dark, very, very noir, young Batman. I’ll make that distinction re: his age because Affleck is still my favourite, if only because I’m more inclined towards enjoying his older, world-weary Batman. Pattinson’s Batman isn’t yet the proper, genuine article; this is a Batman still in gestation, finding his place and gaining the experience to really be the Batman, an arc that is a central element of the film’s narrative.

Which reminds me, as someone who scoffed at the very idea of Affleck donning the cowl when I first heard news of his casting, that one should never jump to conclusions at initially bizarre casting news, because the truth is… You. Just. Don’t. Know. Because yes, Pattinson is actually very good here in a film that concentrates on the Batman rather than Bruce Wayne, a narrative decision which is a great plus in my book- yes, here’s a film that lives up to its title, this is THE BATMAN.

Batman is likely the most fascinating of all American comicbook characters- created in 1939, he has been reimagined and developed over the decades by generations of comicbook writers and artists, sometimes a dark and haunted soul, sometimes a jolly camp crusader in a colourful world of villainous misfits. Sometimes he is used as a lens to investigate our fractured society, sometimes he’s an escape into a simpler world in which good always triumphs over evil. Curiously these different approaches in comicbooks and graphic novels have been reflected in television and film incarnations, from the Adam West television series to the gothic-noir of Tim Burton’s 1989 film, through the colour-saturated kinetics of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman and Justice League.

I appreciate that this film has more than its fair share of detractors. Some balk at its lengthy running-time (nigh on three hours, something I thought was a typo when I first read it), some just don’t like the casting, some don’t like the (slow, almost glacial at times) pacing, some don’t like the relentless darkness. I can’t say I’m surprised; its so indebted to films like Seven and Taxi Driver that sometimes it doesn’t feel like a superhero film at all, which is a big plus in my book after so many of them but I appreciate alienates some comicbook fans possibly more used to Marvel’s output. Its a Marmite movie, maybe?

Well, I fell in love with this film right from the start- you know how some films just click with you, and immediately you can tell its right on your wavelength, visually and narratively, and you can just relax and go with it? Well, that’s how The Batman was for me. The darkness, the rain, its absolutely gorgeous cinematography and brilliant score. It was somewhat like my experience watching Blade Runner back in 1982. I was just sold right from the start and it hardly put a foot wrong. I even loved the film’s third act, when you can just tell the film-makers are toeing to superhero film convention by throwing in a big spectacle finish. Probably something dictated by the Studio, while it feels a little incongruous from what has featured before, I think at that point the film had earned it.  Absolutely brilliant film, for me; when it ended I had this buzz I haven’t felt in quite awhile.

As someone who adores Villeneuve’s output, and the slow pace of his films, particularly Blade Runner 2049, I had no problem at all with how The Batman is paced, slowly unfolding its story over those near-three hours. I love films that can take their time and not rush things. I suppose this is actually ironic, considering how much the films noir stylings harken back to those film noir of old which pared down their narratives to sometimes just eighty or ninety minutes despite having more plot-turns and character twists than would fit in a two-hour plus picture today. I have watched so many film noir these past few years and grown to love them so much that it possibly doubt left me more inclined to relish the stylings of this film, but yes, it is a little odd that a film that is such a film noir distillation of the Batman character and Gotham City manages to run twice the length of the films it is so inspired by/indebted to.

Oh, but Gotham City- what a place it is, in this film. Previously, my favourite Batman film was possibly Tim Burton’s 1989 film, mostly because it seemed, with its own gothic-noir art direction, to take place in a particular kind of twisted, nightmare metropolis that seemed to be a better fit for the crazy characters that inhabit it .As nutty as Bruce Wayne dressing up as a bat might seem, it makes more sense when its a reflection of the crazy place he’s living in. I know Christopher Nolan’s films will likely always be more popular, but Nolan’s attitude to his film’s setting, picturing Gotham City very much as an ordinary modern metropolis, leaning particularly towards modern Chicago, for me leaves his own trilogy lacking a major character- that of Gotham itself. Not so here; Matt Reeves’ film takes place in a fascinating, breathing, twisted location that’s one of the most memorable settings since, well, LA2019. Indeed, its a big part of the film’s success for me: in just the same way as I spent decades revisiting LA2019 in Blade Runner over the years, soaking up into bewitching ambience as its dystopian view became, rather sneakily, utopian compared to the changing real world I was actually living in, I rather suspect part of The Batman‘s appeal will be just its sense of place, its own sense of reality.

The impression of Pattinson’s Batman not being the fully-formed article helps, too. We don’t really see his Bruce Wayne, certainly not the playboy alter-ego he will (likely) later become. Instead this is the Batman in development, finding out what works, and often painfully, what doesn’t. Maybe some viewers are alienated by this almost unrecognisable Batman but I find it quite exhilarating. Likewise the Bat Gadgets are more basic, the Batmobile not the sleek machine we are used to. This is not a world familiar with superheroes or superpowers, its a gritty film with a more tactile reality.

Indeed, is The Batman really a superhero film? One has to wonder, if one compares it to Marvel’s output, or Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie (a film I consider the definitive superhero film) while neither is it a deconstruction of the comicbook tropes that Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film was. The Batman is something rather less, at the same time rather more. Its a film noir, definitely; its a murder mystery, a narrative set in the seedy underbelly of a fragmenting, disintegrating city full of political and judicial corruption. The Batman itself suggests its about the failure of vengeance, and the meaning of hope – a message that feels a little trite, by the end, but narratively it makes perfect sense and earns it. Batman begins as an agent of vengeance, believing that only violent justice might clean the streets and offer redemption for the murder of his parents, but finally learns he has to become some other Batman; this one an agent of hope (which we’ll hopefully (sic) see in the next film). Its so much more sophisticated than Snyder’s “Martha!” was, and possibly suggests that maybe Burton’s film was missing the point with its own origin arc, in which defeating Jack Nicholson’s Joker was literally avenging his parents: life isn’t that neat (thankfully we also aren’t subjected to yet another retelling of Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma witnessing the death of his parents).

penguinDisc extras are surprisingly substantial, although it misses the commentary track/s that the film really deserves. I miss the days of the Matrix films on DVD with multiple commentary tracks: those things are the likes of which we will never see again except from boutique labels but on the whole the extras here are indeed more than we usually get these days. Of particular interest to many will be the deleted scene featuring the Joker in more detail than the dim cameo sneaked into the film’s coda. It was wisely deleted- I’ve seen quite enough of the Joker in previous Batman films and I hope any sequel has similar restraint. On the subject of villains, isn’t Colin Farrell’s Penguin quite brilliant? Some have questioned the wisdom of burying him under all that prosthetic wizardry, but he’s burning prime Robert de Niro under all that stuff: part charming, part terrifying, something de Niro was brilliant at, and I think Farrell channels him well here (maybe he was aiming for Al Pacino, who knows). I thought those prosthetics were great; the design telling us things that the film then no longer has to literally- the scars on his face that suggesting a life of crime that we can only imagine, and that last shot of the Penguin about to seize control of the criminal underworld brilliantly evokes he’s paid his dues and his time has come. That’s storytelling.

Paddington Saves

Padd2I don’t know if its a sad indictment of where film-making is right now, but after the last several days watching so many bad films, I re-watched Paddington 2 the other night, and it was great (this time on 4K UHD so hey, prettier than ever). It’s a really good family film with genuinely great writing, direction, casting and performances. It reminded me of early Pixar films, the way they were planned to (near enough) perfection; you could just tell -and the Toy Story films are a fine example- that everything was thought out, worked out at the script and storyboard stage, so that it just works splendidly. Sure, opportunities of on-set, spur of the moment nature can be a boon, but it seems to me, considering how much planning must go into modern blockbusters regards CGI shots, stunts etc that so much of it seems so clumsy and ill-thought (perhaps formulaic). Paddington 2 is such a joy. Its funny, heartfelt and so little is wasted, every shot seems to have meaning or supports something that happens later, and it doesn’t seem like its telegraphing things too obviously either, which itself is a neat trick to pull off.  Basically, it was a fabulous script brilliantly executed, and so many other films should heed the lesson of the bear.

Also, Hugh Grant should be a sitcom star: who knew he was such a disarmingly brilliant comedy actor?

Maximum Sequel

max1Last night I watched the 1979 Mad Max for the first time, probably one of the strangest examples of films I somehow have never seen (I adore Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior, have done since watching it on a a pirate VHS copy back in 1982, which naturally got me into a cinema to watch Thunderdome and, later, Fury Road, but I never bothered with the first film until now).

I thought Mad Max was an entertaining and interesting film, but watching it now, having watched the succeeding films, clearly informed my experience. I can’t ever get in the mindset of people back in the day watching it when it first came out. Inevitably its clearly the prototype of what was to come later, and it was evidently limited by its budget (the film I most thought of whilst watching it was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, a film that seemed to share its exploitation/indie/1970s vibe). I’ll likely write a post regards Mad Max at a later date, but I just wanted to ask- is The Road Warrior the best sequel ever, as regards improving upon its original in scale and ambition and storytelling? Its surely akin to The Empire Strikes Back compared to Star Wars. I know Godfather Part 2 is considered by many to be better than the first Godfather film, but I wouldn’t think its a better-made film as far as quality of film-making is concerned, its just got a deeper and more interesting narrative, whereas I’d argue that Empire is a classier, better-quality Star Wars and The Road Warrior same in respect to Mad Max. Some films benefit from lessons learned from earlier productions and (possibly, but not necessarily) an improved budget, is The Road Warrior the best example?

See you later, Vangelis

The news today regards the passing of Vangelis on Tuesday….

Vangelis’ music was the soundtrack of my life, pretty much, certainly for the past 40+ years. His Nemo era, albums like Heaven and Hell, ChinaSee You Later, Soil Festivities, Mask, Rapsodies... his Jon & Vangelis albums, and of course, his Blade Runner soundtrack. It was so normal, that I was working this afternoon in my back room (yep, still working from home, over two years now) and was listening to Vangelis’ The City album, when I learned the news of his passing. I listen to all kinds of stuff, but I always return to Vangelis eventually.

I can’t help it: if its raining, I tend to listen to Movement One from his Soil Festivities album.

Of all his music, Himalaya, the track from his China album, is my personal favourite; I’ve adored that piece of music since I first heard it during an episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos tv series. I had it recorded off-air onto audio cassette and played it so often, while not knowing what the piece was, only that I loved it, and it was unlike anything else I’d heard. In those pre-internet days, it was tricky tracking music down, so you cannot imagine my joy when my friend Andy got a hold of a copy of China and was playing it, and Himalaya came on.

Naturally I’ve listened to his Blade Runner score far too many times to be considered healthy. I sometimes wonder if I would love Blade Runner half as much as I do if it was scored by someone else: the mix between the sound effects and Vangelis’ synths (that glorious Yamaha CS-80!) is so perfect you can’t always tell where the music ends and the sound effects take over. I suppose one could consider the film one long Vangelis pop video, or an arthouse installation for Vangelis’ electronic wizardry. His Blade Runner score, electronica dripping with melancholy, is the soul of the film, no question.

To be fair, there was always a love/hate thing though regards Vangelis. I think most of his fans will understand this. Vangelis was always very private, distant to the extent it often seemed like antipathy towards his fanbase. A musical genius and remarkably prolific, it was said he recorded music constantly, and that the majority of it, perhaps even the best of it, would never be heard (shades of Prince there, another of my favourites lost to us too soon). I’ve heard stories, which may not be true, certainly, of music execs who would never work with him again, that he was impossible to work with, unreliable, a loose cannon.

Following his Chariots of Fire success and the wealth it gave him, the gaps between his studio album releases would sometime stretch into years (compared to years in the 1970s when he would release two albums a year, sometimes more if one counts his producing and collaboration projects). We’d hear his succeeding scores in films and be frustrated by his refusal to release those scores on album (Bitter Moon, The Bounty etc) and indeed even taking twelve years to release his magnum opus, the  Blade Runner soundtrack, a score he sometimes seemed to hold some strange resentment towards: an album was supposed to be released back in 1982 (the film famously had a Polydor album referenced in the end credits which I searched for in record stores for months like some damned fool). I didn’t know until years later, but a cassette bootleg circulated that was rumoured to be a copy of the shelved album. Vangelis had cancelled it as if on a whim, perhaps because of an argument with somebody connected with the films production. We never really found out why, and perhaps will never know, rumours abounded for years- ego, money… hey, the music business he hated but made a fortune from, its a tension and dichotomy that runs throughout his career. The way Vangelis complained later in life, I always wondered why he didn’t just open his vault and give it away, but maybe it was all a tease, a source of amusement to him.

One thing is certain. There was no-one quite like Vangelis. Unless one counts, as I alluded to before, the Minneapolis genius that was Prince- both wildly talented, hugely prolific, incredibly contrary. We will never see their like again, I’m sure. The word ‘genius’ is used too often these days, it should be reserved for those two though.

Vangelis was 79. Same age as my dad. Vangelis passed away on the eve of my dad’s funeral. This has been some week.

Why is the Shawshank Redemption so popular?

shawshIs it the nail-biting finale in which the cornered Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) threatens to blow up the prison killing all of its inmates with the tons of explosives he has deviously placed under the prison foundations?

Is it the thrilling final battle on the roof of the prison block between Andy Dufresnse (Tim Robbins) and the dastardly Captain Handley (Clancy Brown) in howling rain amidst flashes of lightning and a vomit-inducing virtual camera spinning around the roof  in circles?

Is it the brilliant cliffhanger ending when Ellis (Morgan Freeman) reaches the beach at the movie’s end only to discover a note that Andy has been captured and incarcerated in another prison, and that cinemagoers now have to go watch another movie in which Ellis breaks his friend out of prison, in SHAWSHANK II: ANOTHER REDEMPTION?

Well no, funnily enough it has become incredibly popular possibly because its none of the above.

Monkey Business

twelveTwelve Monkeys, 1995, 129 mins, 4K UHD

Arrow seems to have run afoul of a faulty master provided by Universal for its new 4K UHD edition of Terry Gilliam’s wonderful, bizarre and disturbing Twelve Monkeys. It actually features on their Blu-ray edition from a few years back, which I didn’t buy because I was hoping to see a 4K edition sometime down the line (pity I didn’t adopt same practice with their Robocop release, but hey-ho). Its a glitch in the edit, somehow, in which about 15 seconds of video is repeated, while the audio track continues correctly. The weird thing is, very few seem to have noticed it on that Blu-ray; it occurs at a fortuitous ((if that’s the right word) moment during some disorientating camera moves and tight edits and can easily pass people by; I’m sure most viewers never twigged it- I’m not even sure I would have noticed it had I not been warned/enlightened.

Didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film at all, and its rather curious noting on forums that many are refusing to unwrap their copies and are returning them or getting increasingly irate over a replacement disc. Essentially those people are right, there is something wrong with the release and purchasers have every right to expect a ‘proper’ copy without any faults or glitches at all. My old VHS copy got it right, after all, so shouldn’t a brand-spanking new top of the line 4K UHD disc be the same? Of course it should. But this film isn’t broken, and unless you’re really looking for it, it doesn’t pull anyone out of the movie. Indeed in an odd way, it seems rather fitting for a Gilliam film, a sort of meta-reference to the nightmarishly inept bureaucracy of Gilliam’s earlier masterpiece Brazil (now THERE’s a film I want to see on a 4K UHD SE release). Maybe Gilliam himself would appreciate the humour in it. The important thing is that the film looks gorgeous in 4K, its really quite lovely and of course the film is only more effective/more harrowing than ever in our post-Covid world.

But it set me thinking about the theatrical cut of Blade Runner in 1982, complete with dialogue continuity errors, visible continuity errors, scenes played with the wrong dialogue take so that lips weren’t moving when we ‘heard’ someone talking, sequences with cables clearly hauling up spinner vehicles into the air or sitting off-corner where we’re not supposed to see it yet. The film wasn’t accidentally mastered and released like that, it was literally made and finished like that. Now that’s a broken movie- even though I loved it all the same.

Not his Superman

superman78While reading through an old issue of Cinefantastique the other day (the Forbidden Planet double-issue, from Spring 1979, I assume) I came across a capsule review of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie which I hadn’t noticed before, and which, while I’m accustomed to the somewhat po-faced attitude of that mag’s editorials, quite took me aback. With due deference to its writer Robert Stewart, I quote the following:

“The film fails to explore the possibilities of having a new and modernized Superman tackle the real problems of the world in the late 1970s- assassinations, mass suicides, mindf–kers, famine, the CIA, sexism, racism, provocateurs, ageism, unemployment and economic collapse, corporate takeovers, bureaucratic  psychopaths, etc. Instead, he confronts villains not much different from those of the Batman television show…” 

My initial thoughts were that this guy probably loved Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: his review seems more a manifesto for Snyder’s films than anything to do with Richard Donner’s film (clearly Donner’s respectful approach to the original comicbooks went right over Mr Stewarts head). It’s one of those reviews which criticises a film more for what it is not, than what it is.

But it did set me thinking, which was probably the point of the review (so bravo, Mr Stewart, wherever you are now). I’ve noted elsewhere that I’ve really not been a fan of the recent Spiderman films and much of this -and it applies to all three ‘versions’ of the character, the Tobey Maguire films, the Andrew Garfield films and Tom Holland’s films- is simply that none of them have really captured what I loved as a kid growing up reading the 1960s/1970s Spiderman comics by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. They are perfectly fine films as they are (well, to varying degree anyway) but none of them capture the characters and mood/spirit of those comics, so its inevitable that, for me, they are lacking something. They are probably more faithful to the comics of the past twenty years (that I have never read, although I did read part of the J. Michael Straczynski run of Spiderman comics drawn by John Romita jr. which are likely indicative) which is fine, and I should maybe give them the benefit of the doubt there. But my question is, am I being fair? Is it a case though of me disliking films more for what they are not than what they are?

Well, not exactly. I do think there are very real issues with the various films; retconning bad guys to be more sympathetic victims of misfortune than genuine villains is one of my pet peeves, likewise I utterly detest all the various Spidey suits of the Tom Holland films, all that nano-tech/Iron Man rubbish, all that metal arms out the back etc that defy reason, physics and gravity. That’s not any kind of Spiderman I want,  just further evidence of the Marvel films increasingly playing fast and loose with comics canon etc (as far as I know, as it could be something featured in the comics, but I doubt it). Likewise some of the writing feels pretty dire, with some fairly shocking leaps of logic, but that’s something evident in much film and television now; the talent pool is pretty weak now because there is just so much content being produced across film/television streaming etc. And yeah, in defence of writers, maybe its all those producers and executive producers interfering with the material- some films and shows I see now have as many as twenty and more producer credits, and I often wonder if the time will come when the number of producer credits will outnumber that of the cast.

I won’t even watch The Eternals; Jack Kirby’s 1970s comicbooks are amongst my very favourites. They possibly haven’t aged very well in some ways, but they were so bold and imaginative, full of the Chariots of the Gods stuff that excited me so much as a kid and was quite popular in that decade. The film, from what I have seen of it in trailers, has nothing in common with those comicbooks other than name (to be more faithful to Kirby’s work, it surely should have looked and felt more akin to 2017s Thor: Ragnarok film, which really captured the feel of a Kirby strip). I do know Neil Gaiman wrote a reboot/continuation and suspect the film has more in common with that than original creator Jack Kirby’s opus but I may be giving the film too much credit even there. Maybe I’ll get to watch it eventually but certainly I have little if any interest in it; the film was made to be something else, not something faithful to the original comics, and that’s surely true of much current Marvel Studios output.

Which is true, indeed, of what Disney is doing with Star Wars. They are making Star Wars tv shows and movies that are increasingly removed from the original film trilogy I grew up with, and they are as much not ‘my Star Wars’ as anything Marvel Studios films and tv shows are- and the same is true of the current crop of Star Trek tv shows. That being said though, some of these shows, certainly the Star Trek stuff that I have watched, are really woeful, regardless of how ‘faithful’ they aren’t in spirit and subject. The second season of Star Trek: Picard is especially diabolically poor, an absolute nadir for the Star Trek franchise.

Mind, even Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have their fans, I suppose, although those viewers must be especially forgiving of terrible writing, huge plotholes, leaps of logic (and illogic). Indeed I think the shows are fundamentally unforgivable in how crass and stupid they are, and seem to have been written by soap opera and tv sitcom writers rather than anyone actually skilled or knowledgeable of both science fiction or indeed the particular franchise canon (I can’t help but feel this is largely true of the Star Wars and Marvel stuff too, and I don’t know if this is from laziness, ignorance or simply an intent to strike off to pastures new on the back of established IP).

Thank goodness Blade Runner 2049 was sincere and respectful of the original film and extended upon the 1982 original film’s themes and mood thoughtfully, rather than just go the other, easier way, instead making a film about with a Roy Batty Mk.II or an action-based film about a new Blade Runner battling Nexus 7 or Nexus 8 improved, nastier Replicants. After all, it could have been, easily- look how generic the Terminator films became. I may not live to see any more Blade Runner movies, but at least I don’t have to witness what happened with Alien, its Lovecraftian alien creatures turned into spacesuit wearing bald guys in Ridley Scott’s ill-judged Prometheus. The more I think back on Prometheus, the more it actually seems a story about Space Gods akin to Jack Kirby’s 1976 Eternals comics repurposed to fit within the Alien franchise in order to get made (I can well imagine Ridley wanting to make a high-concept Space Gods movie and having to sell it as an Alien movie in order to get it greenlit).

Which I suppose means I should remain absolutely fearful regards that Blade Runner tv series which Ridley is producing. Maybe my luck is going to run out; and certainly, I will feel much more aggrieved regards something spoiling my appreciation and adoration of the 1982 film than I am by some Spiderman film not really being the web-slinger that thrilled me when I was seven years old.