The Weekly Summary #5

from2Repeats. Don’t you just hate them? Well, the bane of British Summer Television arrives early; here’s the (few) things I watched this past week-

First Man (2018) – 4K UHD

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) – 4K UHD

From the Earth to the Moon (1998) (TV series Episodes 1 – 4) – Blu-ray

The Dark Knight (2008) – 4K UHD

So there you go, nothing new at all. Well, it was one of those weeks I guess, but to be fair, I often look at all those films on my shelves and think, “yeah, I’d love to watch that again sometime” or, as in the case of From the Earth to the Moon (which I originally watched back in 1998), I looked at the Blu-ray edition which I bought back in -gasp, shudder- 2019 and realised I had STILL not watched it yet, other than my favourite episode, Spider, which I rate as one of my favourite hours of television, ever…

There’s certainly a value to returning to films and television shows, if only that it partly justifies having bought them on disc in the first place, as opposed to a rental fee or streaming something once for what we fool ourselves as ‘free’ on Amazon Prime or Netflix. I’ll be honest, I could forgo watching anything ‘new’ at all and just rewatch all those Hammer and Noir boxsets from Indicator, or all those TV boxsets I have like the BSG reboot, Fringe, Person of Interest, Chuck, Space:1999, UFO, The Prisoner…  there’s so many hours there and hey, I’d enjoy all of it. Maybe I should cancel my Netflix sub after all…

Of course, the other thing is rewatching films and revaluating them; was that film REALLY that good (or indeed was it really that bad)? Now, two of the films I rewatched are still fairly recent so I was hardly expecting to be surprised, and I wasn’t: First Man and Top Gun: Maverick were both as great as I remembered. Indeed, Maverick just amazed me again; it is so good a blockbuster entertainment- yes some of the dialogue was clunky, the plot never surprised and the romance felt as forced and unnecessary as it did first time around, but crikey, it just works so well, if only as, well, a blockbuster film. Is that damning it with faint praise?

The Dark Knight was more interesting. I hadn’t seen it for several years, and have seen Ben Affleck’s Batman since as well as Robert Pattinson’s Batman too. Its a sobering thought that I’ve seen two further caped crusaders since I last saw Christian Bale’s rendition (I expect another isn’t far away, either). I remember that, back in 2008, The Dark Knight was generally considered to be the best comicbook movie ever made, the definitive Batman, and I’m sure many still feel that way (for the record, I’ll always feel that Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie is the definitive comicbook movie). What still holds true regards what makes The Dark Knight as special as it is, is Heath Ledger’s Joker; his performance still took my breath away, he was so good and certainly stole the film from everyone else (and will no doubt be the bane of every actor cast as the Joker, ever).

One thing I always thought, and still did when rewatching it last night, was regards Aaron Eckhart (who is brilliant as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, by the way). Dismiss me as crazy as the Joker, but I thought Eckhart would  have made for a great Batman. Its his jawline: he’d be brilliant in that Batman cowl, he’s so square-jawed he looks so like Brian Bolland’s Batman, and he’s got the build too. As unlikely as it might sound, just watch him in The Dark Knight and for a moment imagine him in the cowl etc. You might just be surprised.

As far as From the Earth to the Moon is concerned, the show holds up as well as ever. Its so well written. Every hour is just so well constructed. Its interesting that, as its over twenty years old now, the cast is some kind of time capsule of the great actors of its day, some of whom you might not know their names, but you know their faces, and some indeed who would go on to far greater things (such as Bryan Cranston with Breaking Bad, obviously). What I absolutely adore regards this show is its music: episodes composed by Michael Kame, Mark Isham, James Newton Howard,  Jeff Beal and other greats, this has some of the best music composed for any television series, and incredibly its never been given a proper soundtrack release. A terrible injustice. Maybe one day (hey, it took decades for that Star Trek: TOS complete box release).

So what’s coming next week? Well, I think we might be going Italian…

The Weekly Summary #2

satAnother week already? Well, here’s the list for week # 2 of 2023:

6. Jurassic World Dominion (2022) – 4K UHD

7. The Pale Blue Eye (2023) – Netflix

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) – 4K UHD

8. Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (1960)

Jack Ryan (Season One, 2018)  Episodes 1 to 5 – Amazon Prime

9. Crimes of the Future (2022)

Life keeps on throwing curveballs. Last year I desperately wanted to see out 2022; Christmas seemed just incidental to getting to New Year and kissing it all good riddance. There’s an old tradition for New Year that my My Dad followed, I don’t know if its something unique to England or the Midlands or something everyone used to do in the old days – certainly for the past twenty+ years I’ve always been the only one ever doing it in my street. Seeing out the old and in with the new, you walk out the back door of your house shortly before midnight, wait outside for the turn of midnight, then enter the house through the front door; out with the old year, in with the new. What? I’m the only one doing it? I knew it. I’m some kind of idiot. But bless him, my Dad used to do it when I was a kid so I used to tag along with him, and I’ll carry on doing it.

These days the only New Year tradition folks seem to follow other than possibly getting drunk is letting off lots of noisy fireworks that terrify my dog. Its something that has become the norm since the Millennium New Year when everyone seemed to go batshit crazy about a number. Every year now as the minutes approach midnight I’m standing out front of my house, with the field across from it I have a wonderful view like some great vast panorama, and the sky goes berserk with fireworks, money being burned for the sake of pretty colours and loud bangs. No, I’m not a fan of fireworks, I expect few dog owners are.

So anyway, back to the subject at hand- anyone who’s a regular reader of my blog will understand why it was one of the very worst years of my life and I just wanted to be rid of it, draw a line under it and hope for a fresh start in 2023. Unfortunately life is rarely as neat as that, and the game of endurance just seems to have rolled over into 2023. I’ve started the year with a death in the family so another funeral ahead (after the three funerals in 2022 I’d have hoped for a longer respite from them but hey, it increasingly seems life has other ideas when you’re getting older).

Is anyone else trying to ignore the news these days? It seems the media just love to milk a crisis and dwell on the worst. I suspect they found that Covid had the benefit of stupendous ratings for news outlets – there’s profit in misery, so they continue to pile it on. Is it the same everywhere or is it just the UK? There seems a great deal of attention is paid to mental health these days but no-one seems to take the news outlasts to task. Lets have some hope, people. Its getting so that watching the darkest of film noir is actually an escape to some old world utopia.

Which allows me an awkward link to an early twist- looking at the list above, you’ll note that there’s been no noir this week, and that unfortunately I’m already falling even further behind on posting reviews ((there’s a few from week #1 that I need to catch up on, never mind those listed above). I wish I could simply suggest that I must try harder and clear some of the backlog, but as ever of late that’s a battle with real-world issues beyond my control, so the pressure is on to at the very least keep up with these weekly summaries (we’ll see how that goes, but at least I’ve managed to week two so its now a bone-fide series rather than a forlorn one-off).

The best film of the week -and I intend to keep track of these ‘best of the week’ titles and maybe use them at the end of the year if I get that far- is Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a simply remarkable film from 1960 which somehow I had never seen before. I have a review of it about ready to be posted so I won’t dwell upon it here, you’ll be able to read what I thought when I get the post up later today or early tomorrow, but if that isn’t one of the best British films ever made I’m a Wookie’s uncle. I was never really a fan of Albert Finney, I got used to seeing him when a mature actor in films and television during his later years, but goodness, seeing him so young and handsome, his innate fiery energy funnelled into his portrayal of an angry young man (absolutely perfect casting) was quite a revelation.

Worst film of the week is David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future– a real gut punch that one as I’d hoped for the best. I think it is clear that Cronenberg’s best years (Videodrome, The Dead Zone and The Fly remake, for me) are well behind him. I’m sure it must have its fans, but I simply didn’t ‘get’ Crimes of the Future, even though I tried my damnedest: I don’t think it matters what great ideas are involved in a film, bad storytelling is bad storytelling, and I’m not even certain Crimes of the Future even had a plot. Perhaps the art-house crowd don’t care so much about that. Such a shame considering it had a good cast and a premise one would expect to be perfect for Cronenberg. I guess it could be argued that the film was a welcome respite from the empty-headed blockbusters but for me it was just too far in the opposite direction; an empty-headed arthouse flick with dodgy performances. Body-horror for its own sake? I guess I missed the point.

So anyway, that’s week two. Now this is the part where I go to a ‘coming attractions’ teaser to get all you gentle readers excited for the week ahead but its really a blank slate at the moment: no disc releases are due  or anything planned like those 4K Godfather films from Christmas. Well, who dares makes plans these days? The week seems already busy with all that real-world stuff (Claire’s mom is having a carpet fitted so we need to go over and move some more furniture beforehand, there’s the usual shopping chores and possibly another instalment in the saga of taking my Aunt to her Opticians… really, it makes me wonder how I fit my job in never mind this blogging nonsense).  I’ll probably go back to a noir or two for some kind of escape, and there’s still a few ‘new’ films on Netflix and Amazon I need to catch up on, so we’ll wait and see, hey?

Westworld sticks the landing, while The Peripheral leaves wreckage everywhere

peripheral1Westworld Season 4, 2022, 8 Episodes, 4K UHD

The Peripheral Season 1, 2022, 8 Episodes, Amazon Prime

Well this post’s title says it all so I’ll try keep this short. I’m pleased to say that somehow Season 4 of Westworld manages to reach some kind of satisfactory conclusion. It feels somewhat rushed, but when watching it I put that down to the showrunners having to fashion some finale without the originally intended fifth season- a similar feeling when watching Babylon 5′s rushed fourth season, funnily enough, but it turns out that how Westworld’s season four ends wasn’t intended to be the finale. They still thought we’d get a season five (indeed, I’ve read that HBO have had to pay the leading cast a total of $25 million for the fifth season anyway, as they had a play or pay deal in another example of the madness of Hollywood financial frugality) so the open-ended coda returning to the Western setting of season one isn’t just an affectionate tease.  But it somehow works; how crazy is that? Probably as crazy as knowing that Babylon 5 got its own fifth season (the benefits of being comparatively cheap) and the irony that some like me actually think B5 should have ended with season four aftercall, as B5′s fifth season proved pretty dismal. So hey, lets be a glass half-full kind of chap for a bit – at least Westworld has some kind of satisfactory ending, was great fun while it lasted and intellectually satisfying most of the time, too.

In a curious twist of streaming fate, The Peripheral is from most of the same team that brought us Westworld, but is all the poorer in comparison. It starts very well, with a curious conceit of time travel through the transmission of data via some quantum entanglement, basically transmission of personality via a data stream to a date decades in the future that is posing as a VR game. Its a neat twist, discovering that what we believe early on is a VR game is actually a future reality in some strange utopian  London (hey, an added twist, that utopia is largely a fake and its a dystopia after all, oh the irony/several-too-many-layers of complexity).

I quite enjoyed most of it, but the finale proved just too confusing/confounding. I won’t go into it here, but it seems like they have pulled the rug under us again. Not simply transmitting the personality ‘live’ but actually transferring it after our heroine is (we assume) shot dead in some kind of bargain sacrifice. I don’t know. Its just a few steps north of credibility in my book. I don’t mind shows being obtuse and vague and mysterious, hey, it makes for great television sometimes, but The Peripheral is bordering on being a parody of such shows. Can’t say it really leaves me enthusiastic about waiting a year or two and then struggling through eight more such episodes, especially when I’ve likely forgotten most everything from season one. I admire the ambition, but really, do shows like this really have to be such work?

My next question- Amazon cancelled The Expanse in favour of spending money on dead-end shows like this?  Answers on a postcard please to Streaming Sucks UK.

Nearing the end of Westworld

Westworld Season Four, Episodes 1 -4, 2022, 4K UHD

Part of the appeal for me of Westworld is its obvious Replicant = Host parallels with Blade Runner, and the ‘what-is-reality?’ question that runs throughout so much of author Philip K Dick’s work- in some ways the show has always seemed as much an exploration of Philip K Dick’s oeuvre as it is Michael Crichton 1973 film Westworld. Indeed, as the show moved away from its Wild West-inspired theme park it became a temptation to think its what a Blade Runner 3 might have been had a film followed-up the Replicant rebellion plotline from Blade Runner 2049, or perhaps some precursor to what the Blade Runner 2099 TV series will prove to be. Leaving the theme park setting antagonised and frustrated some fans, who might have preferred something a little more… not routine exactly, but a season set in Futureworld or Medievalworld. Instead the showrunners, for good or ill, had other ideas, grander ambitions, taking it out into the real world beyond and a future apocalypse, a cautionary warning about technology and AI and the dangers they bring for a possibly obsolete humanity that’s part Terminator, part Blade Runner.

Its the end of the world, and its the end of the series.

I’m four episodes in now, at the midway point, so that end is getting near. Probably, its going to be a non-ending.  Maybe the cancellation by HBO changes nothing- if ever this maddeningly brilliant, maddeningly infuriating series was going to be so ordinary and mundane as to give us anything like a definitive ending, but hey, I guess we’ll never know now. So watching this season is a strange experience of watching the clock, desperately hoping the series isn’t going to waste any time on superfluous plot points, knowing there’s only so many episodes left, and hoping that whatever season ending these eight episodes arrive at, it somehow works as an overall ending for the series as a whole. Too much to ask for? Probably. But I am enjoying this last ride .

Because its pretty damn good, still full of lofty ideas but somehow easier to digest. After the muddled third season (I quite enjoyed it for the inevitability of some of its technological ideas, but I know it had its issues) this show is back on track. While its not as nuanced, sophisticated or balls-to-the-wall ambitious as the show’s tremendous first season, there’s possibly an argument to be made that instead its clearer, more defined, maybe a little bit more traditional, mainstream, which seems a deliberate choice by the showrunners. Maybe an admission they took everything a little too far in turning its plot into a narrative Rubiks cube? Oh the irony that just when the show got a little less obtuse and toned down some of its elements that alienated the mainstream crowd, it got cancelled.

While its a pale shadow of its tremendous first season (and to be fair, that was one of the best seasons of television drama ever made, so that was inevitable really), the fourth season of Westworld looks to be absolutely splendid and having reached the midpoint its clearly a definite improvement on the third season. Unfortunately, the series cancellation looms every episode, every plotline, so watching this season is a strange experience of watching the clock and hoping that whatever season ending these eight episodes arrive at somehow works as an overall ending for the series as a whole. Too much to ask for? Probably. But I am enjoying this last ride (hell, its worth it just for every minute of Ed Harris’ Man in Black).

But how maddening will the end of this journey prove to be?

Somebody call Kolchak

sierra3The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre (1964, TV Movie), 80 mins, Talking Pictures TV

A film cobbled together from a rejected TV pilot for a horror anthology series, The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre is a genuinely creepy, spooky horror that on the one hand is much better than its origins suggest, but on the other horribly undermined by underwritten characters and a quite nonsensical plot. Oddly enough, in that respect it feels quite modern- its all about the mood and chills and not at all about any drama or characters. Its really quite frustrating, in that it does most of the horror stuff very well – I’d imagine even  kids of today could be traumatised by some of its spooky moments-  but the rest doesn’t really hold up at all, and the pacing seems all over the place (as I’ll come back to later, I suspect that in its original edit it was intended to run under an hour -even with commercials- but had to be padded out in order to function as a TV movie).

The film was the brainchild of Joseph Stefano (at the time coming off both The Outer Limits tv series and having written the screenplay of Hitchcock’s Psycho) who was originally intending to launch a horror anthology series (The Outer Limits being mostly a science fiction show). I wasn’t aware of its origins when I watched it -I just thought it was one of those indie low-budget 1960s horrors, like Roger Corman’s stuff- but when watching it I felt like something weird was going on with some of the characters, definitely like it was setting up some TV show starring Martin Landau as an architect with a hobby of investigating ghostly goings on, a kind of Kolchak meets Scooby Doo kind of thing. Its funny how we can be tuned to such TV series conventions, and it seems I wasn’t too far off- maybe Landau’s architect wasn’t a series regular, maybe it was intended to be completely seperate stories like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but it certainly felt like Landau was being set up as a regular.

There was also a distinctly David Lynch, Twin Peaks-vibe to many of the shots, that kind of orchestrated, long-take weirdness that Lynch does, hanging onto shots longer than usual, leaving the viewer feeling uncomfortable just from the editing, and some of it coming out of leftfield like Lynch is so fond of doing. For instance, there’s an early scene when Viva (Diane Baker) has returned to her blind husband Henry Madore (Tom Simcox). He tells her they have a new housekeeper, Paulina (Dame Judith Anderson) who then enters the room, upon which Viva totally freaks out without warning or reason, backing away in utter, unexplained terror. sierra4The film uses Paulina, who in black-draped garb looks totally not normal, for a few tonally unsettling, Twin Peaks-style visuals that linger far too long and serve no story function, such as when she’s standing on a beach looking up at Landau’s home up on the clifftop above. Upon later learning of the film’s genesis, much of this is clearly padding-out the length rather than anything particularly calculated, but it certainly works to the film’s advantage establishing its unsettling mood.

As a horror film it is certainly rewarding viewing and one can forgive its eventual silliness because of just how successful it is evoking its creepy mood of, dare I say it, distinctly ‘old-fashioned’ horror. There’s a delicious sense of Hammer-era fun early on when we are told that blind Henry living in his lonely big gothic mansion thinks he is being haunted by his dead mother who rings him and sobs down the phone at him. We are told that his mother was terrified of being buried alive so when she died she was placed in the family crypt with a phone placed next to her coffin with a direct line to his mansion. I suppose that’s Edgar Allen Poe updated for the 20th Century. Landau’s architect, Nelson Orion -weren’t names brilliant in these old TV shows?- is hired by Henry’s wife to investigate the possible haunting, as the call can only becoming from the crypt, so its either genuinely his mother or its someone orchestrating some elaborate prank to make Henry seem insane. Eventually it transpires that Henry’s mother isn’t the only tyrannical mother with damaged kids, and if there is a ghost its of someone else entirely (hint: Henry’s dear departed mother has no connection with Sierra de Cobre), but by the time we get to that point the plot has collapsed under the weight of its own contrivances and we don’t really care anymore. Which is a shame, because early on its really good indeed. sierra5The cast, certainly, is better than one would expect; I thought Diane Baker, later a frequent face in imported American 1960s/1970s television shows I watched growing up, was excellent, swinging from calm to wild hysterics in a heartbeat. Martin Landau, bless him, is, well, Martin Landau. Actually I think it was because I noticed it was him in the cast that prompted me to watch this at all. I’ve always had an interest in Landau’s work, ever since he starred in Gerry Anderson’s Space:1999 show which was second only to Star Trek in my childhood as far as formative addictions go. I was just the same with Star Trek and watching with due reverence anything starring William Shatner -hey, its Captain Kirk!- and its something I never really grew out of, bless my foolish loyalties to childhood heroes.

In any case, this is well worth a watch. Its just a pity the original, shorter edit doesn’t exist anymore because that would be an interesting alternate and might have proved more effective without the padding- although I have the suspicion its that padding with its longer shots that hang on just too long that make the film as successfully unsettling as it is.

Here be Dragons (and Robots)

house2House of the Dragon, Season One, 2022 

I have a sneaking suspicion, heretical as it may be, that House of the Dragon could already be better than Game of Thrones– certainly I really, really enjoyed this first season. Maybe its just the bitter after-taste of the last two seasons of Game of Thrones, which was essentially the biggest self-destruct of a show since the days of Heroes or Lost. I still haven’t brought myself to rewatch those last two seasons of Game of Thrones and every time the silly notion to rewatch my Game of Thrones Blu-rays crosses my mind, I think ah, but… what’s the point, knowing where it leads? So I accusingly look up at those nice Blu-ray sets on the shelf despairing at the hit on my wallet.

This last train of thought brings me to Westworld, recently cancelled by HBO after its fourth season which means we’ll never see the final fifth season which might have brought its story and many mysteries to a satisfying conclusion. While I appreciate HBOs position -its a very expensive show ($200 million?) with diminishing audience numbers – it does feel a little misguided, betraying short-term thinking. Surely to ensure healthy re-runs it would be ideal to have some kind of conclusion to give it a beginning, middle and end, even if it was just a reduced four-episode season or, crikey, a two-hour finale. I haven’t seen any of season four yet (waiting for the 4K disc release in a few weeks, and where’s the fun in that, really, knowing it likely teases an end we’ll never see?) so have no idea how satisfying that will be nor how frustrating any non-end might prove to be.

So here’s the sting with physical media- in the case of Game of Thrones several seasons on Blu-ray that I can’t bring myself to watch again because of how badly it fell off the cliff in later seasons, and in regards Westworld, season boxsets on 4K disc without its multi-season storyline properly completed. So, er, what’s the point of any rewatch and the investment in buying them? At least with my Blu-ray set of the BSG reboot I can watch the entire series again knowing it has a beginning, middle and end, you know, that old-school storytelling stuff.

One of the things that likely hurt Westworld was the two-year gaps between seasons. In all fairness to the show, its hard to convince audiences to pay it attention when its been two years since the last one and likely two more before the next. Hardcore fans may have rewatched episodes on disc to help follow the various arcs but what chance have mainstream audiences got, and how do they maintain interest after two years full of all the other newer shows they’ve gotten into in between?  Its already been announced that both House of the Dragon and Rings of Power won’t return for their second seasons until 2024… that’s an awful long time, especially daunting if it’ll be 2026 when their third seasons can be expected. If nothing else, that’s a hell of a commitment for viewers to make.

Is it a question of shows being burned by their ambition to be as big as motion pictures? Surely that’s the real issue here. They have eight or ten episodes as opposed to the twenty-two episode seasons of their network brethren from days of old, but even then the sheer scale and scope of each episode makes them formidable, time-consuming productions. Which in hindsight makes the first six seasons of Game of Thrones, which arrived annually, an achievement in itself… and ironically those proved to be the best seasons, the series undone by its (ill-judged) intention to get bigger each year.

So there’s a lesson there, maybe. Perhaps these shows would be better at a lesser scale, something more realistic as regards annual production schedules, and that would in turn afford a more consistent audience. Maybe throw less money around, maybe? Doesn’t necessarily mean the shows will be any worse for it. Sure, like anyone else I enjoy all the bells and whistles those big budgets afford, but hey, I can do without if I get a great drama.

I suppose I could take the position that I won’t watch any television series until its finished its run and I can be assured it’ll have a proper conclusion and reward for giving it my time. Of course if we all did that, the shows would get cancelled after one season simply because nobody was watching them. And if I decided by the same logic that I wouldn’t invest in the season boxsets, if we all did that I couldn’t guarantee even if the show had a healthy run that the studios would annually release box-sets nobody was buying yet. Sometimes you just cannot win.

But I’d put money on House of the Dragon getting a few seasons and boxsets to go with them… well, as long as there’s still factories pressing 4K discs in 2028 and 2030…

Rings of Power Episodes 1 & 2

rings1Its clear from watching the first two episodes of Rings of Power that this Amazon series will be unfortunately divisive – on one level it works fairly well, surprisingly so, while on another it disappoints (albeit for predictable reasons).

So first things first- as a prequel to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, it appears to work very well. It looks absolutely gorgeous, richly evocative of the aesthetic of Jackson’s films – the art direction is superb,  the sets, the costumes, the make-up… it definitely looks the part, convincingly belonging to the world Jackson created, which is no mean feat itself, never mind the finances Amazon threw at it. It also sounds wonderful, too- Bear McCreary’s music already some of the best scoring I’ve heard in a film or television project this year, definitely facing up to the considerable challenge of Howard Shore’s remarkable work on the films. I’m not suggesting that McCreary is attaining the richness and complexity of Shore’s opus but he’s certainly reaching for it: there were several moments watching these two episodes where I was captivated by the music in ways that seldom happens now. Imagine that- music that actually draws attention to itself. There will be, I’m certain, endless comparisons between this series and the HBO Game of Thrones prequel that is airing at the same time (most of which will be unfair which is something I’ll come to later), but certainly while I haven’t seen anything of House of the Dragon I’m pretty confident that show’s music, if its anything like that of its predecessor, functions far differently. But I love big music that draws attention to itself, like McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica music several years ago, so I’m all for it here- its possibly the series saving grace for me which will ensure I’ll keep on coming back.

The acting, is, well, adequate I guess- to be fair, its not like the script is doing the actors many favours.  I guess it would be a thankless task for experienced veterans with the dialogue they are given, but this cast of largely unknowns are certainly struggling. I think the large ensemble, the vast canvas that leaves little room for any proper focus, is a creative decision (likely an attempt to make the narrative feel as epic as the imagery) that handicaps the series from giving characters time to properly breathe and provide depth. Why not, for instance, allow Episode One to focus entirely on Galadriel and her quest and properly demonstrate the amount of time (centuries, millenniums) that we are told is passing?  The one thing that Tolkien’s mythology has in spades is scale, its huge breadth of time, which could have been better used to its advantage. I don’t really know the details regards Amazon’s rights re: Tolkien’s work but imagine a one-hour mini movie telling us the story of the First Age, only then leading to an Episode Two set in the Second Age and the series narrative proper.

The Tolkien purists might have been enthralled by it, but what about the casual viewer, or the Game of Thrones/Stranger Things audience which Amazon seems to be aiming for?

I think that’s the real issue here for Rings of Power; it can’t be everything to everyone.

Is it Tolkien though? Well, there’s the rub. What I’m getting at, is that Amazon, like New World Cinema and MGM before it, is always in a surely uncomfortable tension with Tolkien’s work, transforming what is widely considered classic literature into mainstream entertainments, while George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, HBOs adaptations of which are so readily held up in comparison, is mainstream entertainment before any adaptation starts, the books are pop culture already, something which Tolkien was never aiming at with his work. I’m sure Tolkien purists are as dismissive of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films as they will be of Amazon’s Rings of Power. I suppose Amazon’s problem is more how much of the Jackson fanbase, those fans who love the Lord of the Rings films, is dismissive of the series, because to be sure, it isn’t making Rings of Power for the Tolkien fanbase, its making it for a general, mainstream audience that largely took Jackson’s epic trilogy to their hearts.

Bumper Round-up

Quick reviews for recent stuff (Dead Reckoning! Get Carter! The Sandman!) and to misquote a Spielberg movie, I’m gonna need a bigger shelf unless I stop buying 4K discs…

In lieu of writing ‘proper’ posts, here’s a summary of where things are at lately. Hopefully genuine review posts will follow, but time being what it is lately (Einstein reckoned time is relative, and here its pretty short of late), I thought I’d get something out there.

P1110377 (2)First of all, I’ve had a bit of a mad splurge over the last few weeks on some Kino 4K titles on import (joining The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and For A Few Dollars More which I bought months ago). This bunch are mostly noir titles; the three-disc Touch of Evil, Kubrick’s dabbles in noir The Killing and Killer’s Kiss, with the Billy Wilder classic Some Like It Hot. These are all upgrades, double-dips (dear God, the Wilder is a triple dip, I had it on DVD too) of various Blu-rays bought over the past several years, something I’m increasingly wary of these days. But aren’t those slips gorgeous? Currently box-art seems something of a lost art so its especially lovely to see original artwork being used (The Killing actually has a reversible cover in the disc case, as I showed on my recent review). As well as The Killing, I’ve watched Some Like It Hot, and yes it too looks damn fine in 4K- its surprising how good these b&w titles look in the 4K format (as if we needed further proof how gorgeous Marilyn Monroe was). The contrast, grain management, improved gray scale, all impress, and Kino seem to have gone nuts on the bitrates, way over the top (compare that to Disney releasing the near-three hour Heat on 4K using a BD66).

I only saw Killer’s Kiss on Blu-ray a few months back. The film was made prior to The Killing and being less than seventy minutes long, it was included as a special feature on Arrow’s The Killing Blu-ray which I bought back in 2016, but I never actually watched it. I think I was misinformed by Internet opinion that it was lesser-tier Kubrick not worth bothering with, that The Killing was widely considered Kubrick’s first ‘proper’ film and first worthy of note: I suppose Killer’s Kiss being relegated to the special features menu only reinforced this view. Anyway, I finally got around to it; I knew there was a boxing element and was pointed back in the film’s direction after enjoying Robert Wise’s The Set-Up a few months back.  Well, diminished expectations and all that, but I absolutely loved it, probably for all the reasons so many disparaged it. Raw, low-budget, with a brisk (for Kubrick, positively frantic) pace, a bare-bones story shot like a docudrama with amazing footage of a lost New York, foreshadowing stuff like Taxi Driver. The only thing holding me back from a gushing review post here back when I watched that Blu-ray was suddenly learning only days later that Kino was releasing the film on 4K, so I decided to wait and will continue to wait until I’ve seen it again on this 4K disc. I’m really looking forward to it, but just waiting for the perfect time.

Which is a bit of a sour point: the best time to watch these noir (especially in 4K) is late at night when its dark and these long hot summer days are not conducive to that. What’s that line in a film about mood – ah yes, Gurney Halleck in Dune; “Mood? What’s mood to do with it?”, but its true about movie watching (if not fighting); one has to be in the correct mood for a particular kind of film and bright summer days/evenings- well, unless you’re watching something like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat,  which was made for hot summer nights. Besides, by the time its late/dark enough, I’m usually too tired to watch a demanding film, and noir ARE demanding, usually quite complex and nuanced and narratively pretty dense for their usually short running-time. Case in point, I recently tried watching John Reinhardt’s The Guilty a few weeks back and damn near fell asleep near the end – my wife actually did fall asleep, missing its last fifteen minutes and I’ve ribbed her endlessly ever since regards her missing its major twist. “You’ll never guess!” I’ve teased her. There’s a film that deserves a proper rewatch soon as possible.

P1110379 (2)Hmm, yeah, some more purchases. Here’s me claiming to reign it all in regards buying discs, and sure, I’ve (mostly) stopped the blind-buys but of late that’s only transferred my wallet’s woes to the upgrades/double dips: here another Billy Wilder classic upgraded to 4K (this time courtesy of Criterion) and Flicker Alley’s The Guilty/High Tide double-bill (in the latter’s case, I’ve elected to use the original art on the reversible cover). Criterion’s Double Indemnity rather annoyed me- not the disc or the film, but because over here in the UK, presumably due to licensing issues (or the duplication costs?) Criterion only released it on Blu-ray (I have the old Eureka edition).  So in order to get the 4K edition released in the States  that everyone was raving about I had to grudgingly import it, complete with two Blu-ray discs locked to Region One that I can’t watch (so I’m keeping that Eureka set for some of the extras, but that true of Arrow’s The Killing disc and my Blu-ray of Some Like It Hot). Goodness, no wonder my shelves are filling up, I’m buying new upgrades and keeping the old discs too- madness.

Anyway, enough of my foolish financial woes, I’m just partying before the recession and Autumn of Discontent (see what I did there?) puts paid to my collecting. On with some quick reviews.

Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947) – first film from Indicator’s Columbia Noir #5 set, and allegedly one of the few genuine noir films in the set. Bit alarming, that. I never warmed to Humphrey Bogart, so haven’t seen many of his films. In fact, I can only name a few films of his I actually liked; In A Lonely Place for one, and another that I first saw on television decades ago, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is a Blu-ray gathering dust on the shelf that I keep meaning to watch, but… Anyway, something about Bogie just rattles me. Maybe this box set’s contents will feature a film that will warm me to his charms more, but Dead Reckoning isn’t it – unless of course this is another example regards mood. Maybe it was just the wrong film on a warm summer night. Shame, its a great title for a noir. I was especially disappointed in Lizabeth Scott, who I’ve seen and been impressed by before. Here she was ill-served by an underwritten character (likely deliberately underwritten to enable/underscore the surprise twist) leaving her with little to work with- I suppose someone like Rita Hayworth (originally conceived of for the role) would have gotten by better from sheer screen charisma and presence, but Scott just doesn’t have that. Also, I just couldn’t see any chemistry between Bogie and Scott, and a film whose success largely depends upon the romantic tryst between two characters is in trouble from the start when the chemistry seems lacking. Is it wrong of me to note that I thought I would have enjoyed it more had it featured Glenn Ford (no stranger to this kind of noir) in the lead role?

Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971) – No casting issues with this film. Don’t ask me how/why I never saw this film before, but we all have these oversights/black holes in our moviegoing street-cred. Release by BFI in a simply gorgeous 4K edition that is so tactile you feel you can reach into the screen and touch it, and smell the beer and aftershave, sweat and cigarette smoke- it’s excellent; its another case of a film likely looking better than it did even when it first came out. This is such a film of its time, its like some kind of time machine physically taking us back, and who’d really want to go back to Newcastle circa 1971? What a cast (Ian Hendry brilliant yet again, and what a shocker seeing Michael Caine chucking that bloke from Coronation Street off the carpark roof), and what a  gorgeous jazzy score (that main title sequence is sublime). Here’s a film that I was ready to rewatch as soon as it finished.

The Sandman: Season One (Ten Episodes, 2022) – I don’t know what’s more shocking- that someone actually managed to make a decent live-action adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comicbook classic or that somehow its on Netflix, but then again, it is the home of Stranger Things…  Its been well over a decade since I last read Gaiman’s opus (I bought the graphic novel paperbacks so long ago it was from a genuine bookstore) and a lot of my memory of it is burry, which was rather curious seeing it onscreen thinking “oh yeah, they actually did that…” or “I don’t remember that at all” so I can’t comment regards how authentic it was.  It wasn’t perfect though, I have to confess I was bit bothered by some of the casting choices- it was a great cast and I’ve no complaints, but John Constantine is now Johanna Constantine, played by Jenna Coleman? And I had a bit of a hard time keeping a straight face watching Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, of all things. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong in subsequent seasons or the inevitable Johanna Constantine spin-off (call me a cynic, but the writing/casting for that episode had “pilot for a spin-off” written all over it). Those caveats aside,  I did enjoy the series; even the music was good (shades of BR2049 in places and ‘nowt wrong with that). Inevitably the highlight of the show (and if you only watch one episode of it, make it this one, its pretty standalone) was The Sound of Her Wings, the sixth episode and an adaption of likely most readers favourite issue of the comic. Should have been retitled The Sound of An Emmy, because it surely deserves a nomination at least.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (Rudolph Carter, 1954) – this BBC adaptation has always been on my radar if only because it starred Peter Cushing, one of my very favourite actors (my unofficial quest to watch everything he ever did continues slowly apace). I bought this new Blu-ray edition (from the BFI folks) a few months back but watched it just a week or so ago… I intended to write a proper post about it, even tried, but… goodness this was so depressing. Its through no fault of the adaptation (by Nigel Kneale, of Quatermass fame) its limited production values (mostly a live performance thankfully recorded for posterity), or its cast, but more the horrible inescapable fact that George Orwell’s cautionary tale is as timely now than ever- perhaps more so. Real-life events of the past several years, just how the world has slowly changed largely for the worse, makes something like this all the more prescient and important. Its horrible, like a warning from a future that just feels just more plausible than ever.

And while on the subject of warnings of the future, it looks like Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall is coming to Amazon Prime on Friday. I can hardly wait. Its got such a crazy, ridiculous premise, I’ve so wanted to subject myself to its cheesy silly horrors while avoiding spoilerific trailers. There’s a thought: am I the only person alive actually avoiding spoilers for Moonfall? Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow is one of my favourite bad movies, it was all I could do to refrain from buying it on Blu-ray disc when it was released a few months back (maybe if had been on 4K over here in the UK, I would have given in to its despicable allure, but it was limited to DVD/Blu-ray). Anyway, that’s my Friday (or Saturday) night sorted then, and possibly will be my next posting here; yes, be afraid, its Moonfall next, unless I get some time to sit at this laptop again beforehand.

Trom Season One

tromTrom, 2022, Six episodes, BBC iPlayer

Trom is another example of Nordic Noir, a crime thriller this time set on the isolated, windswept Faroe Islands. A journalist, Hannis Martinsson (Ulrich Thomsen), is contacted by a young woman who claims to be his daughter and is seeking his help. When he arrives on the islands to meet her he discovers she has been murdered and sets about uncovering the web of political and judicial corruption behind her death.

Unfortunately Trom fails to equal the sum of its parts- its setting (filmed pretty much entirely, it seems, on the actual islands) gives it a suitably dark, wet, gloomy mood so common to these Nordic dramas, but really has some distinct atmosphere, other than reminding me of holidays in Scotland. Its central mystery is your typical whodunnit with plenty of suspects, red herrings and of course misdirection’s that you can see a mile off (maybe I’ve seen too much Nordic Noir) but with enough genuine surprises chucked in to maintain your interest. Its not bad, its just not great. Thomsen is very good in the starring role, giving the series some considerable weight (he often reminded me of a middle-aged Laurence Olivier) but some of the cast just aren’t up to it, or have been cruelly miscast (the police characters particularly so, being possibly the most unconvincing police types I’ve ever seen; I kept on referring to two of the lead police characters as Laurel and Hardy every time they were onscreen).

I found the final revelations regards the guilty parties and what actually happened to Martinsson’s daughter enough to possibly save the day, but it was ultimately undone by just too many coincidences and a desperate cliff-hanger that comes out of nowhere and is pretty ridiculous. Wide-open space, dozens of people attending a funeral service, and the child central to everyone’s attention suddenly disappears, kidnapped, without anyone noticing? I demand a season two in order for the series makers to explain themselves regards the contrivances involved making her vanish into the damp air, cruelly teasing another season/mystery at the very last minute. Is it just too much to expect a proper ending?

Paywalls are a Good Thing

As we slide further into a streaming future and an increasing number of providers, more and more shows and movies are becoming locked away behind numerous paywalls and I’m… well, the natural thing to write here is that I’m obviously missing out massively. But I don’t necessarily think I am. I’m beginning to think its a question of liberation, an indication of the increasing irrelevance of franchises I once thought hugely important.

I watched The Walking Dead for several years, but thankfully gave up on it before its final seasons slipped behind the Disney paywall. I quite enjoyed Outlander for a few years, but fell behind before it too slipped behind a different paywall. Star Trek seems to be slipping behind a Paramount paywall, but other than curiosity regards how disappointing  Strange New Worlds probably turns out, I can’t say I really care. They should have probably done me a favour and put Picard behind that paywall so I couldn’t have suffered through its Season Two (unofficial subtitle ‘The Death of Trek’).

I’ve never subscribed to Disney+ so I haven’t seen any of the Marvel tv shows, or Star Wars tv shows, or some of the movies being put on there and nowhere else (except for those few movies that arrive on disc that I decide to take a punt on). It was a bit annoying at first, hearing great things about The Mandalorian, and a Boba Fett series certainly seemed intriguing, but as time has moved on, I’ve realised I haven’t missed them at all, and according to some reviews, I haven’t missed out on too much of any value/worth, either.  There definitely seems an indication that Disney making so much Marvel and Star Wars content risks diluting the value of those properties, and quality control seems to have definitely fallen to the wayside in the drive to ensure fresh new content pops up on the streaming service. And there’s the odd twist that there’s so many Marvel tv shows presumably linking to the films, that me not watching Disney+ makes the film themselves less appealing to me than ever. I understand back in the 1990s many comic fans gave up on the massive comic crossover arcs that required me them to buy comic series they wouldn’t ordinarily touch with a barge pole, if only because they couldn’t afford to buy them all. Is that happening with streaming platforms and franchises? Might it happen to the MCU too? You can watch the films but they will reference to series and events and characters one hasn’t seen and therefore make less sense? As if the MCU wasn’t hard enough to keep track of anyway.

Maybe I’m getting old. I have been increasingly diverted by older movies, such as the film noir that I have been watching and collecting (becoming a substantially large percentage of the titles on my shelving these days). They don’t show too many of those older films on the streaming services. Actually I find it curious, that so much regards these streaming services seems to be about genre shows, which seems oddly niche, considering streamers are after subscription numbers, and I would have thought that meant chasing Mr Average, not the geek sitting in the basement or up in the back room. Or did the geeks inherit the Earth after all, and nobody’s watching soaps or sitcoms anymore? Its just a bit weird. Maybe in an alternative universe everyone’s watching Westerns or cop dramas or something.

I’m not suggesting that streamers are the Great Evil – there are some great shows and movies being made, that I cannot imagine ever seeing the light of day through any other vendor- like Amazon’s The Boys or Netflix’s Stranger Things. But its true that the elephant in the room regards streaming services (and its not just Disney+ at fault here, as Netflix is as guilty as any) – is that to keep subscribers the services have to ensure a steady flow of new content for them to consume before they get bored and turn elsewhere, but it requires so much content that quality inevitably suffers. How many Netflix Originals turn out to be any good, never mind actually great? If Disney just made one Star Wars mini-series a year, would it enable them to make it at least consistently logical and honest to the franchises mythology?  I’ve heard things about that Obi-Wan series, how bad it is, from reliable people I know that have seen it, that are mind-boggling, frankly. Disney would have to pay me to see it, not the other way around.

There are many tv shows I would like to see, like Apple’s For All Mankind series from Ronald D Moore. But what kind of viewing figures does that show actually get, or indeed most any of the shows on these streaming platforms? How many people actually watch Star Trek: Discovery? A generation past made who shot JR or who killed Laura Palmer hugely popular discussions and as everything fragments that seems to be increasingly rare- maybe its impossible now. I’ve watched tv shows and been unable to even find anyone else who watched them at all, never mind anyone to share them with in conversation. Maybe that’s the result of paywalls, but isn’t that making much of its content irrelevant that would usually be what we used to call water-cooler television? Is that really a Good Thing?