A surprisingly bland Captain Marvel

cm1There’s something wrong with the structure of Captain Marvel. As origin movies go, its fairly dysfunctional- there’s zero opportunity for growth or what would qualify as  traditional narrative arc for a film such as this. While some might argue thats a good thing, perhaps even a breath of fresh air, in my mind it leaves this film feeling oddly broken- it doesn’t really work.

Maybe they tried fixing it in post- maybe this state of affairs is a result of that ‘fix’ not working, it’s certainly a curio. Mind, looking at those credits, it has two directors, five writers, eight producers, is it any wonder it turns out such a mess? If ever there were an argument for the single-vision of auteurs like Zack Snyder, Captain Marvel may be it.

Sorry, I’m a little sore. I bought this movie. Anyway, lets begin.

Let’s compare Captain Marvel to pretty much any other Marvel hero in their first movie. Vers (Brie Larson) awakens on the planet Kree, a member of her planets Starforce, a military that defends Kree from the evil shape-shifting Skrulls. She’s a self-confident and accomplished warrior with fighting skills and (some) superpowers, right from the start. She is troubled by strange dreams and a loss of memory of anything prior to being brought to Kree as a young adult of eighteen years, but other than that, she is strong and confident. Complete with a sharp-looking rubber superhero costume right off the bat, she’s unfortunately got zero personality under that costume and little room for any growth; she’s a kick-ass warrior maiden, what’s left?

Most other introductory Marvel hero tales start with their alter-ego. Peter Parker as a shy, introverted student, Steve Rogers as a skinny kid who’s deemed unfit for military duty, Bruce Banner who’s a driven scientist, Tony Stark a self-obsessed playboy billionaire. You give them their superpower and the drama is how much it changes them, how they cope with those powers and inherent responsibility. How they grow.

Now, lets try an alternative structure. Let’s show Vers as her original identity of Carol Danvers on Earth, growing up, a young girl struggling to compete and prove herself in a mans world. She tries, she fails, but she always gets up and tries again until she succeeds. Well, there’s your personality and character. She’s driven and stubborn enough to struggle past adversity. I can see the title sequence right there, a period rock song, vignettes of her growing up. Post credits, we open proceedings with her as a young woman, she has a few close freinds, has managed to work her way into the airforce, when in a characteristic act of stepping up to the plate to prove herself, she is caught in a bizarre air battle and ‘dies’ in a crash.

And then she wakes up on Kree, ignorant of her real past. The mystery is how she got there and why, and why she can’t recall her past on Earth- or is this some twin? The plot then drives her back towards Earth and for her to uncover the truth, her true self, and ultimately the true scope of her superpowers. Presto, entertaining movie. Hardly rocket science.

The trouble is, we never really get to know Carol Danvers, the girl behind the costume and the superpowers. By the time the big effects/action spectacle kicks in, we don’t really care. Compare that to the magnificent Superman: The Movie, in which we always care about the title character, always empathise with him, and love Clark Kent, because we know who he is and why he is. Captain Marvel is one big glowing visual effect, and they don’t even think to write her some kryptonite to instil some danger or drama. Maybe that comes in the inevitable second movie, but as origin adventures go, this is one of the worst I can remember. She flies through space, destroying alien juggernauts and beating up alien bad guys, but it’s uninvolving, almost boring. We’ve seen all this CGI spectacle before, and modern film-makers really must try harder, do more. The eye-candy isn’t enough on its own anymore.

cm2Brie Larson, so good in Kong: Skull Island is merely adequate here: she looks beautiful and steps up to the physical challenge, but she’s really hampered by the strange structure of the film that leaves her character hopelessly bland.

I think some have denounced such criticism as sexual politics and maybe the fanboy backlash post-The Last Jedi deserves some of that, but I honestly think its well-founded to some extent. For one thing, the film really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Its never competently explained what Annette Bening’s Kree-in-hiding character was doing researching technologies on Earth for the US Government, or competently explains why one minute its a galactic Kree/Skrull war with the Skrull as omnipotent invaders and then suddenly the Skrull are just misunderstood ragtag survivors looking for a new home and sanctuary from the suddenly nasty Kree- is all the lie simply set up for Vers’ benefit for some odd reason, in which case, are all the Kree in on it? I mean, what’s she even doing on Kree? What purpose does it serve having her think she is a Starforce operative named Vers? We are offered sideways explanations in passing, usually via dialogue, which we are not meant to consider or examine. The whole thing feels broken, a deck of cards ready to fall on closer inspection, completely undermining any of the actors attempts to make it work. Jude Law is almost hysterically bad as Vers’ mentor Yon-Rogg, initially a good-guy with a shady demeanor and then suddenly in a twist so badly executed I thought it was actually a bluff, he’s actually the main villain. He looks great in the part physically but its woefully underwritten and everytime he opens his mouth to speak the film goes clunk.  If your bad guy is such a non-entity, you’re in trouble: they almost absent-mindedly drag in that Ronan character from Guardians of the Galaxy (so forgettable in that movie I just had to look it up to check) for villian support, and that fails, too, unless it’s just to throw in those spaceships for our hero to smash.

On the plus side, it has a nice Stan Lee tribute at the beginning- although if you’re a fan of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and at all familiar with the real history of Marvel, that is just as likely to set your teeth on edge right from the start. With all due respect to Lee, he’s up there with Gene Roddenberry in the curated myths department. But hey ho, that’s the reality we’re living in, it’s easier to attribute talent/genius to one than in it is to a dozen.

 

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From the Earth to a HD Moon

e2mbluThe new blu-ray edition of HBOs classic From the Earth to the Moon arrived today, and eager to see how good/bad it looks I gave it a quick spin. Specifically, I loaded up the two episodes I’d watched on DVD late last year– episode five; Spider,  and episode six; Mare Tranquilitas. 

I’ll get the negative out the way (and while its a biggie for some, it is pretty much the only negative I can see), and as widely expected, it’s the aspect ratio. Originally filmed in the 1990s when most everyone had a 4.3 television, and a cathode ray tube one at that, the show was filmed for a 4.3 (square) ratio (although thankfully on 35mm film I believe, certainly not on video). So purists baying at losing visual information on the top and bottom of the screen (HBO having expanded the whole image to fill a 16.9 widescreen ratio panel in the majority of homes today) will no doubt carry on their baying. The ideal solution would have been to preserve that original ratio as did HD remasters/presentations of the original Star Trek series and shows like The Prisoner and Space: 1999, but HBO no doubt had their eyes on HD presentations on HBO and worldwide sales to foreign networks, where Joe Public likely switches off aghast at black bars on the left and right of the image on their shiny big televisions. Die-hard fans buying shows on disc or download are the minority audience for shows like this, unfortunately (physical sales very much the minority, it’s the world we are living in, and I feel lucky to have the show on disc at all).

This aspect ratio issue was also true of the last DVD edition of the show, but at least this edition has a saving grace, of a sorts, and that’s the newly-executed visual effects, something I really hadn’t expected when news of this HD edition broke.

Possibly one of the deciding factors against preserving a 4.3 ratio is that the majority of the visual effects (and all of the original CGI shots) have been redone, in full HD to replace the original SD effects, and these have been formatted specifically for the wider frame, so couldn’t have been placed in the 4.3 original. I suppose they could have retained those old original effects shots for the 4.3 presentation but that would have negated any benefit from remastering the original negatives of the live-action material as the effects would have stuck out like a sore thumb (we are fortunate to have the option to keep the original effects shots for the 1960s Star Trek Blu-rays – it’s likely we wouldn’t even have that option were they released today, I doubt the studios would make the effort).

I’ve only seen sections of the episodes but on the whole the new effects shots, while certainly not typical of a modern blockbuster movie due to a no doubt limited budget, look very fine indeed. Much better, anyway, than the original effects shots looked, and definitely succeeding in HBOS intentions of giving the show a fresh update and leaving it more like what viewers expect today. They definitely look more cinematic in composition thanks to them being designed for a  widescreen image. When I watched that DVD last year, the visual effects looked horribly dated, particularly on my unforgiving OLED panel- they looked horrible, almost unwatchable, so I commend HBO making that effort. I appreciate some would have liked better CGI but you can hardly expect a remaster of an old tv show to be afforded hugely expensive and time-consuming effects. As it is, what I have seen looks pretty fine and certainly makes the show easier to watch.

The rest of the image has been remastered very well indeed. Colour, contrast etc have been boosted and adjusted brilliantly, and there is plenty of grain for the film purists- likely a result of the image being slightly ‘blown up’ to fill the widescreen frame. Regards this, I’ll have to reserve judgement until I can compare scenes from my DVD but I suspect some care has been given to the framing, I don’t expect it is a simple hack job. A remastering featurette on disc three suggests that considerable care has been given. Skin textures, clothing textures, lighting and colour range are all improved, certainly to my eye (albeit I guess my panel is upgrading the HD image to pseudo-4K anyway). There definitely is a great deal of added detail on the screen, and it definitely looks much better than that horrible DVD did last year- it’s a pretty great HD picture overall; the only real downside I suppose is for those fans who prefer the original 4.3 ratio image. I suppose they can keep (and rewatch) the original DVD edition that was in 4.3 but really, the new remaster is leaps and bounds superior in image quality and they’d be missing out on something here.

So anyway, on the basis of this quick spin I’m very happy and looking forward to really putting HBO to the test with a full rewatch of the series.

Now, if only La La Land can have some really good news for me tomorrow…

 

Party like it’s 1989: Field of Dreams (4K UHD)

pris2Another 30th anniversary, and another 4K UHD release of an old favourite- this time Field of Dreams, a film blessed by one of James Horner’s best and most intimate of scores, and a story/screenplay that makes it the best Ray Bradbury movie that isn’t actually based on a Ray Bradbury story. Like Rod Serling’s early Twilight Zone episode, Walking Distance, this feels so much like a Bradbury tale it’s almost from some kind of fantasy uncanny valley.  As someone who spent much of the 1980s devouring much or Ray Bradbury’s short fiction and later novels, quietly laughing and shedding a tear at just the right moments with each turn of the page, Field of Dreams was, to quote the characters, not just incredible, it was perfect.

In just the same way as Alien is possibly the best Lovecraft film ever made, in how honest and sincere it is in conveying the alien horror of his best tales, so Field of Dreams is the best Bradbury film ever made- the fact that neither author had anything at all to do with the original source materials of either movie matters not one jot.

So anyway, I had to pinch myself a little this past weekend- I was a very lucky ghost watching The Prisoner of Second Avenue in a new HD master on Blu-ray and the following day a new transfer of Field of Dreams, splendidly brought to 4K UHD disc. While the disc will never win any awards or standout from the 4K UHD crowd, it’s the best the film has ever looked- a quick spin of the original Blu-ray disc reveals how limited that old edition really was, hampered by a lackluster print/master which in comparison really highlights the improvements in this new 4K disc. The image is more stable, the detail and filmic grain more defined and the colour depth really improved- HDR is mostly subtle and all the best for it, only really vivid in scenes with neon street lighting or in the baseball field at night.

The film, of course, is something of a marmite picture; often described as a male-weepie or adult fable, it’s a charming and finely-judged film that is really quite subtle – I think it will be interesting to rewatch Always, also from 1989, and similarly old-fashioned and gentle in spirit, to see how Spielberg’s less subtle hand fares (a bargain-bin blu-ray sits waiting on the shelf as I type this). I was naturally predisposed to fall for this film simply because it evokes so much of the magic Bradbury’s old Americana fantasies, but this shouldn’t detract from the qualities of the cinematography,  the performances (Kevin Costner is at the top of his game and James Earl Jones a greater joy everytime I rewatch this), the sublime score, the deft direction.  It has the feel of lightning caught in a bottle- a film has naively nostalgic and innocent as this shouldn’t have worked in the 1980s and beyond, but like Capra’s Its A Wonderful Life, it’s rather gained a timeless life all of its own.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Blu-ray)

pris1Thanks to Warner Archive over in the States we have a newly restored release of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and on Blu-ray no less. Naturally as I’m a huge fan of the film I ordered a copy and it arrived yesterday, so I watched it that evening. I can report that the film looks absolutely gorgeous, a beautifully detailed HD image with fine grain, incredible detail, no DNR, lovely colour- its damn near perfect, and the best I have ever seen this film look. As the physical formats continue to decline, it makes releases such as this all the more special and treasured, and I thank my lucky stars this is region-free, as I’m pretty certain fairly lowly-renowned films such as this is extremely unlikely to get released over here in the UK (which is a great shame, frankly, and I’d love some UK distributor to prove me wrong and release this and some other Jack Lemmon films in HD over here).

So I watched the film last night and I was quite overcome with how wonderful the experience was – this is one of my very favourite films and to finally have it in this splendid Blu-ray release is just wonderful. To say this release was worth the added expense of having to import it from over the pond is an understatement. The 2019 master is pretty amazing and gives the film a whole new life and vitality, you could be forgiven for thinking its a fresh new film shot last year, except for the fact that it being shot on film gives it a tactile grain and image superior to many modern films shot digitally. The film also features some really impressive widescreen composition, certainly that old pan and scan version I first saw must have been pretty horrific.

Its no doubt some indication of my adoration of this little film that I have mentioned it so many times here on my blog. Its one of those films that I had an instant and intense emotional attachment to- I was in a very low place in my life when I first saw this film by chance on an afternoon tv airing, and it certainly struck a chord in me. Indeed, over the years as I have returned to it that connection, and my love of the film, has remained undiminished- perhaps even heightened as I have grown older and been able to appreciate it even more. Sure, there are better films out there- but few films, in all honesty, mean quite so much to me.

pris3A study of a middle-aged man who becomes unemployed and has a nervous breakdown is perhaps a strange one to describe as a comedy, but it is – its funny and it is sad and there is a feeling of truth and honesty about it, of ordinary people just trying to survive in a cold and indifferent modern city. Jack Lemmon of course is probably my favourite actor and he’s excellent here as the wounded Mel, displaying fragility and pride and, as usual, uncanny comic timing delivering his lines or reacting to others. Anne Bancroft playing his wife Edna, has really good chemistry with him and is no slouch herself with the comedy, and she engenders great sympathy during her characters moments of stress and concern. We really feel the warmth between this middle-aged married couple (I’d hate to imagine how young and physically utopian a modern film versions casting would be).  Thanks to some fine location shooting, the film also serves as something of a time-capsule, capturing a mid-1970s America and New York that does not exist anymore. Its familiar but also there is a distance, a sense of innocence lost: an interesting New York double-bill would be this followed by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, released only a year after and seemingly light years away from this films Second Avenue- it’s a double-bill I really shall have to try sometime.

pris4The film even features the first on-screen performance of an incredibly young-looking Sylvester Stallone. The fact that this year Stallone celebrates his 72nd birthday is a sober reminder of how old this film is and the years that have passed since, and of those we have lost. Jack Lemmon died in 2001, Anne Bancroft in 2005, Gene Saks in 2015, Ed Peck (you may not know the name but he’s a familiar face from a lot of 1960s and 1970s television) in 1992. Infact, of all the cast, I think only F. Murray Abraham (who appears in unlikely cameo as a taxi driver) and M.Emmet Walsh (the apartment buildings inept and  lazy doorman, later a hero of mine from Blade Runner of course), are still alive, other than that young turk Stallone. Behind the screen, playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon passed away in 2018 and the films director, Melvin Frank, passed away in 1988. Composer Marvin Hamlisch passed away in 2012; how I would love to own a copy of the films marvelous score on CD, something extremely unlikely to ever happen as I don’t believe any of the score was ever released, but you never know, stranger things have happened.

I only write about all the talent we have lost as an indication of the films pedigree and worth, and it’s unlikely place in film history as a little film that could – and a film I absolutely adore. Film fans can attach to films more easily and more faithfully than they can people. This film is proof of that.

 

Whats coming in July

Hey, welcome to July- and it’s going to be an interesting month, so I thought I’d add a post that looks ahead.

armOf course, the big thing this month (other than my wife’s birthday, hey, I know what’s most important) is that we going to have the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and as something of a space nut, it should indeed be a pretty fascinating time. So expect to see me post another look at First Man on 4K UHD, and review the documentary Armstrong on Blu-ray that’s due in a few weeks. Unfortunately, the widely-praised documentary Apollo 11 recently released on disc in America is region-locked, and its limited run in cinemas currently doesn’t include one near me, so I have to wait for its November disc release over here (unless I get pleasantly surprised by an airing on tv, as you never know with these things). I’m really excited about HBO’s brilliant series From the Earth to the Moon getting a HD release shortly, and really, really excited that it appears to have been properly remastered with a Dolby Atmos track and new visual effects shots. As I remarked awhile ago, the old DVD I have looks pretty much unwatchable, especially on an unforgiving OLED panel, so having this show in a great release is more than I could have hoped for, really.  You never know, if whispers are to be believed, we might even be getting a proper soundtrack set too, something which I’ve been wishing for since, well, I first saw the show back in 1998 (if I remember correctly, the show’s original dvd release in old-fashioned 4:3 was also my very first international purchase on the internet). I also intend to dust off some of the Spacecraft Films DVDs that I have, particularly the Apollo 11 set.

The same day that Armstrong and From the Earth to the Moon land on disc, so too does Captain Marvel, which I missed during its theatrical release. I’m curious to see what I think of it, as I gather it got a mixed response from fans (something also apparently true of Spiderman: Far From Home, making me wonder if the bubble is finally bursting for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, considering I had such misgivings regards Avengers: Endgame). The following week we get Alita: Battle Angel, which I saw back in February– I enjoyed it enough to have ordered the 4K release, so maybe I’ll post a review of how it looks at home, and see if I’m still hoping for a sequel.

gloryBeyond that, July 29th sees the release of Glory in 4K UHD and Chernobyl, the HBO/Sky limited series that everyone at work has been raving about. I guess those will be reviews posted in August.

Now, anybody who had the curiosity to read my post summarizing June will have noticed that I have reached 83 in my tally of ‘new’ film/television experiences. I also have a fair few items already waiting to be watched- films like The Nun, Rampage, Zathura, Lady Bird, Unsane, all kinds of stuff piling up on the Tivo or on Netflix/Amazon, and I really want to catch up with the second seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and Stranger Things.

But I really do think it’s time to go back and rewatch some of the discs/films that I’ve seen before that I just, well, kind of miss. I’ve quite enjoyed my (albeit limited so far) series of posts rewatching films from 1989 that are currently getting anniversary releases, and I’d certainly like to continue with that more, to which end I’ve got the 4K UHD release of Field of Dreams on the way and Spielberg’s Always on Blu-ray sitting on the shelf. So if all goes to plan, I will likely refrain from watching too many ‘new’ films in favour of going back and revisiting some of those oldies over July and August. If only to maintain my sanity. Good lord I’ve been watching some rubbish lately.

Part of that of course will be my rewatch of From the Earth to the Moon, so yeah, I hope to relax with some od favourites over the summer.

Unfortunately, this month is also the month of Wimbledon, and anyone reading this blog over the years may remember Claire is a big fan of Wimbledon and commandeers the television for the tournament, usually relegating me to Wimbledon Widower status, so it’s anybody’s guess how much of this stuff I have planned that I’ll get to watch this month all this month… Possibly none of the above. Hey ho.

 

The 2019 List: June

Another month of just one television show (Killing Eve Season Two, which was brilliant, but has not yet gotten a review), and this time ten movies, in which the best one (to my utter astonishment, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) also hasn’t yet gotten a review.  The worst one, Skyscraper, absolutely did get a review, and I don’t know what that means- except maybe it’s easier to write a post about a bad movie (because, lets face it, I get a hell of a lot of practice at it) compared to writing a positive review about a good one.

But hey, we’re six months into the year and I’ve hit the big 83 already.

TV Shows

75) Killing Eve Season Two

Films

73) Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom

74) The Meg

76) The Perfection

77) A Quiet Place

78) Blood Father

79) Skyscraper

80) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

81) The Doors

82) Shaft (2019)

83) Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

 

 

 

Old Faves Making Another Comeback

pris1Its a funny thing, as far as collecting films is concerned, how you keep on getting suckered in by the same old movies, it’s like the bastards are relentless. I’ve rebought films like Alien, CE3K and Superman: The Movie in 4K, and it seems it’s a pattern that will just endlessly continue. Which is funny, considering I was happy enough with them on VHS back in the day – the temptation of better quality seems impossible to resist but I sincerely hope that 4K is the last time; even to this old fool this is starting to get ridiculous. I suppose it’s harder to resist with old favourites simply because we have all those emotional connections and the element of nostalgia, indeed maybe it’s an attempt to recapture something from years ago that’s always out of reach, no matter how good the quality gets (but we keep on trying).

This week I’ve ordered two faves from America, simply because that’s the only way to get hold of them. Which makes them more expensive than I’d like, but, what you gonna do? How can I resist an upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray for one of my Jack Lemmon faves, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, a film that I have mentioned before here over the years and which just seems to get better the older it gets? Its a lesser known title that is hardly likely to ever get a blu-ray release over here (I’m not certain even a DVD release ever happened here in the UK). Likewise I’ve been waiting for a few months now for Universal to announce a UK release of its 4K UHD upgrade of Field of Dreams, another of those films from 1989 getting anniversary releases in 4K. Seems Universal can’t see the point of it getting released over here, no doubt another indication of the decline of the physical formats (mind, you watch, soon as they pop through the letter box the announcement will come of a 4K UHD Field… from Universal in the Autumn and Arrow Films licensing Prisoner of Second Avenue for a HD release).

pris2Prisoner of Second Avenue on DVD was a R1 import which I can’t play anymore (last time I watched the film was from my Tivo box, having recorded it off the telly- how retro is that?) so that’s certainly reason to upgrade to a region-free Warner Archive release.  As for Field of Dreams, well, although I had it VHS/DVD and later Blu-ray, it was always a problematic transfer across the formats, and apparently the 4K is a great upgrade with the best picture its ever had. I was listening to James Horner’s sublime soundtrack again the other week and it just had me falling into the mood to rewatch it again. God knows I’ve watched too many bad ‘new’ films of late so its about due that I returned to the comfort of old favourites. My wallet tells me there’s no fool like an old fool but my heart tells me its going to be great watching two of my favourite films looking better than ever. I shall post a report no doubt in a few weeks time.