A tree in the house? You must be barking.

P1070897 (2)We didn’t have the Christmas tree up last year, partly because it had been a bad year, what with losing Ben, and partly because we’d only had Eddie a month and we weren’t too sure if Westie pups have a knack for trying to pull trees down on a whim. So now he’s a year older and wiser, Ed has his first Christmas tree. Don’t think he’s particularly impressed, but he hasn’t tried pulling it down/grabbing at the ornaments just yet.

I rather think he reckons we’ve gone a little mad again. He’s used to his humans behaving oddly once in awhile. He’ll just humor us for a bit. Then see if he can get the damn monstrosity down on the floor and out of the way- there’s a natural order to things, and it doesn’t include having trees in the house.

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The Apes of Wrath: War of the Planet of the Apes

war.jpg2017.69: War of the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Here is that rare thing- a blockbuster trilogy that embodies high-quality, intelligent film-making with each film getting better than the last. Part of me pines for a fourth entry or even, perhaps, a second trilogy that could  revisit and follow the events of the Charlton Heston original film, but part of me thinks that would be tempting fate in this world of franchises of ever-decreasing quality. Better perhaps for the studio to quit while it’s ahead. This is a great movie; I’d hate to see it spoiled by lesser entries.

The revelation of this film, particularly considering its title, is just how intimate it is. If this is a war film, it’s one more akin to Malick’s The Thin Red Line than, say, Rambo. It’s a surprisingly quiet, internal film- a film of quiet rage, and sacrifice.  There’s something of a Western about it, too- perhaps even Eastwood’s Unforgiven- its a much darker blockbuster than I expected.

Not that the film is perfect- it falters in a few respects. There are a few moments in the script where it stumbles markedly- a scene in which one of the apes gifts the human girl a flower from a tree too easily prefigures that same apes death with the subtlety of being slapped in the face with a wet kipper. Its an awkward moment of manipulation. that does so much of the rest of the film a disservice, but on the whole the film works splendidly, and for the most part you even forget that 90% of what you are watching probably resides in a computer somewhere.

Ah, yes, the effects. While I always seem to be moaning about CGI spoiling the quality of movies, as they often seem to be used to replace quality drama and screenwriting through spectacle, rather than actually support said drama/screenwriting, I have to admit that used properly CGI can really move film-making to some other level of cinema, offering realities that could not exist elsewhere. These recent Apes films have been pretty astonishing, frankly, on a technical level, bringing to the screen something utterly impossible just years ago, but this third film is really something else entirely- powerful, quality film-making featuring characters that simply don’t exist but which somehow out-act most ‘real’ actors (maybe it’s finally time for a Virtual Actor award from the Academy).  It’s not lost on me that this same year I marvelled at the creation of a gigantic ape in Kong: Skull Island. Regardless of the quality of the drama, there were moments watching this film, as with the prior films, that I just gasped at the marvel of how ‘real’ the fakery seems to be. It’s a modern sorcery and I have to wonder where it will all end.

I feel I must also mention a simply wonderful music score from Michael Giacchino- in a climate in which most blockbuster soundtracks just sound like background noise, it’s lovely to report that this is a genuinely moving score of orchestral  music with strong themes and intelligence. A definite throwback to the glory years of the 1970s with Williams, Goldsmith and Barry in their prime (the score does in particular carry nods to the music of John Barry).

On the whole, one of the films of the year for me.

 

Bad to the Bone? Breaking Bad

bbad2017.66/67/68: Breaking Bad Seasons 3 – 5

My colleague at work who lent me his DVD boxsets warned me not to expect much of the final season. “I didn’t like where it went- I thought it spoiled the whole thing,” he told me. Well, endings of tv shows are funny things, and  some work for some people, and they don’t for others. I’ve remarked on this before, in shows like BSG I’ve really enjoyed what I felt were satisfying endings- in shows like Dexter, not so much. Of course, it’s impossible for showrunners to keep everybody happy, but I think for the ending of a show to be satisfying, it has to be honest to the internal logic of the show and how it started. As if you can follow an imaginary through-line from episode one to episode xx and think, yeah, that makes sense, it works.

In the case of Breaking Bad, contrary to my work colleague, I think it works. Indeed, in many ways it was the only way it could end, and I figure that as I’ve watched this series so long after everyone else has, spoilers can be cast aside. Walter had to die- he was dying from the very start, and it was the cause of everything he did. Whether he died the way he should have, well, I guess that’s the crux of the argument for fans. Did he deserve a noble death, a death with purpose, or a death dying of cancer in prison? Was he a good guy or a bad guy, and what is the morality in the ending of the show? We are clearly supposed to be rooting for him from the first episode, but by the final episode, are we supposed to be hating him? If so, then Bryan Cranston is possibly too sympathetic/charismatic an actor for that to fully convince.

For me that’s the biggest question of the whole series- was Walter a good guy caught in a bad situation, just digging himself deeper all the time he tried to dig himself out of trouble, or was he a bad guy trying to justify his actions by using his family as an excuse. Frankly, was he enjoying it too much, or was it a case of the end justifying the means?  There was certainly a tipping-point in season three when he just seemed to go over some edge. I think it would be fascinating to watch it all over again, see season one through the eyes of someone who has seen season five, with the almost Godlike-perspective of Fate, seeing the beginning while knowing where things go, how actions unfold and everything unravels.

Not that I think that necessarily has to make sense, like there’s some moral high ground. In some of the best moments of Breaking Bad, it seemed deliberately morally obscure, as if I was watching Chaos Theory in action. Sometimes I thought that maybe the showrunners were throwing the various season’s arc-cards up in the air and seeing where they fell. It was exciting but also inherently flawed at times- the ambiguity was great but possibly counter to traditionally satisfying storytelling.

Regards Breaking Bad‘s greatness, sure, it’s a great show, but counter to some claims likely not the best show ever made (a ridiculous claim to make of any tv show, really). There were a few twists and turns that didn’t feel right, a few character turns that didn’t fully convince, in order to enable a run of five seasons. I think I tighter run of three seasons would have enabled a firmer, more realistic story.  But that’s being picky. Breaking Bad is a superior television series, indeed one of the very best ever made. Some individual episodes were sheer perfection and the show always managed to deliver some twists and turns I didn’t see coming (no small feat, really, considering all the tv shows and movies I’ve seen over the years). The cast were terrific, and I’m really keen to discover if prequel spin-off Better Call Saul is worth watching, if it is, then yay, another treat to look forward to!

Breaking Bad is clearly another case for the argument that we are living in a Golden Age of television, and that the best television shows are of far better quality than anything we see at the cinema now. Praise enough, there, I think.

Purple Reign

princePrince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984 by Duane Tudahl

A glimpse behind the purple curtain, and perhaps the most important recording period of Prince’s career – I say ‘perhaps’ because although Purple Rain is widely considered Prince’s masterpiece/breakout period, I really think Sign o’the Times and his output during that 1985 – 1986 period is more interesting, but that’s likely just a personal thing and I’m certain many fans will argue otherwise. At any rate, this exhaustive  book is an utterly fascinating read. And I must say, it’s a formidable prospect-  it’s huge, running at well over 500 pages of detailed text, I have to admit I’ve barely delved into it but having already learned so much from it,  I feel it necessary to mention the book on this blog to get the word out there to all Prince fans- you need this book. Buy it now or get it put on your Christmas lists, because this will surely be a cornerstone of anybody’s Prince collection in years to come. Best yet, the author intends for it to be the first in a series of such books, so hopefully my beloved Sign o’the Times era will get similar treatment someday.

The book is pretty much a day by day account of Prince’s work in the recording studio from 1st January 1983 through to the end of December 1984, from the last days of the 1999 tour through to the breakout that was Purple Rain and how it changed everything for Prince. It breaks it down to day by day, recording the dates and times and what was done, song by song, session by session, including those many songs currently in the fabled vault yet to be released (and those that leaped out onto the extras disc of the recent Purple Rain deluxe reissue). It documents how he worked, where he worked, who he worked with, and is filled with commentary from those who were there. It really is a new insight into Prince’s genius at a time when he was particularly on fire creatively, and shows just how hard it was to craft those songs. The work involved in documenting all this and collating it is quite breathtaking.

I’ll be losing myself in this book over the coming days and weeks. It’s a helluva book.

A Day for Heroes: Patriots Day

patsy.jpg2017.65: Patriots Day (2016)

On the face of it, Patriots Day is a great, taut thriller recounting the dramatic events of the Boston marathon bombing of 2013. Even for viewers fully aware of what happened, the film manages a relentless sense of tension as everything unfolds, and it’s certainly very efficiently staged.

However, it’s also a Hollywood movie, so it’s filled with all sorts of well-known faces, and this may just be my own personal thing, but it always distracts me somewhat from what should be a riveting docu drama account when I see some guy from the latest King Kong film or Justice League or those mobile ads on British tv. It’s no fault of the actors themselves (and indeed it’s great seeing Kevin Bacon doing some proper acting for once), but just seeing their faces pull me out of it all a little, whereas it might be thoroughly engaging with a cast of unknowns. There’s an awful lot of distracting cinematic baggage being carried around in some of these scenes.

Moreover, I clearly have a problem with Mark Wahlberg, a guy who irritates me in most films he appears in, and moreso here when I learned his character is entirely fictional in this film. His character is obviously a construct to enable the narrative flow of the events to centre on one character that the audience can ‘root’ for, but unfortunately it feels… I don’t know; manipulative? All films are manipulative, but a film like this that purports, quite rightfully to some degree, to be very accurate in depicting the events and those real people who were caught up in in it, to then throw up a main antagonist who didn’t exist…. I don’t know. Maybe me real problem is my dislike for Wahlberg. For me he is Wahlberg, always Wahlberg, an extremely limited actor who somehow remains very popular with audiences and is a very successful producer (if only he’s remain behind the camera).  It doesn’t help that some of his speeches here are so on the nose and awkward, or that he always seems to be where something is happening (its as if he has a twin, how he manages to pop up all the time). He’s unnecessary, he’s irritating. It’s like he’s there just to bankroll/sell the movie, which is a shame, the subject should be enough.

So anyway, Patriots Day is, with some reservations regards polemic politics/patriotism and certain casting choices, a very good thriller and a commendable film about recent real-life events. It’s a pity that the British film industry hasn’t yet found it worthy to make a film about similar events in our own country, but films about a bear seem to be an easier sell to a country depressed enough about Brexit etc.

 

 

We don’t need another Watchmen… do we?

watchmenIt seems quite crazy to be even considering this question. As someone who was blown away by the film during its cinema release in 2009 and subsequently brought the film on Blu-ray in its theatrical, directors cut and Ultimate Cut, I simply cannot understand why anyone would ever want to remake/reboot it… especially when only eight years have gone by. It feels like the ink is still wet on the page, the paint still wet on the canvas.

And yet Damon Lindelof (who, okay, I will cut a little slack following The Leftovers) is working for HBO at creating a mini-series of Watchmen, presumably as a big-budget replacement for HBO’s soon to conclude phenomenon Game of Thrones (as if Westworld didn’t already fit the bill).

Watchmen is perhaps the classic, definitive comicbook. It’s like the War and Peace of superhero comics. I know some have had reservations (or downright hatred) of the film version, but far as I am concerned, the damn thing was definitive. It did everything right. It was faithful (to the extreme) to the comic- set in an alternate 1980s America, it had a fantastic cast that was incredibly close visually to the comic. It even portrayed Dr Manhattan naked, pretty amazing for a mainstream Hollywood superhero film. They even did the pirates comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter as an animated cartoon and included it in the Ultimate Cut which runs for something approaching four hours. I mean, it may have its faults, but being unfaithful or disrespectful to the original is not one of them (unless you are one of those that criticises the film for just that).

To me, it was bloody amazing and I still pinch myself that it even exists, and that they went to all the trouble of filming that Under the Hood doc and the Pirates animation and all the rest that it did so right. A bit like the Blade Runner sequel we got this year, it just seems too good to be true, even now. When you consider how the DC superhero films have struggled these past few years it’s clear how badly wrong the Watchmen film could have turned out. But it didn’t. It turned out great.

So why even revisit Watchmen, nevermind so soon? It just feels redundant to me, when HBO could be going off and working on all sorts of other intellectual properties. In anycase, the film Watchmen hardly set the world afire so it’s rather tempting fate, like pushing more good money after bad. I don’t know. In a world of remakes and reboots, this feels the most unnecessary one of all.

They’ll be telling me that hack JJ Abrams is involved next, and this special circle of hell will be complete.

Facepalm Hell: Tomorrow, When The War Began

tomm2017.64: Tomorrow, When The War Began (2010)

Oh boy. This is one of those films that you just know is going to be bad, the premise is… well. You know all those teenager-oriented flicks we’ve been inflicted by over this past decade? Here’s another one. We’re in Australia, and seven teenage freinds from a small town go on a camping trip. They have a great time, but what they don’t know is that while they are out in the wilds without any internet or mobile phone signal,  Australia is being invaded by a mysterious Asian superpower. Returning home they find that they are at war and their townsfolk and families have either been imprisoned or murdered. There’s only one thing for it, the seven teens must wage all-out war and free their country. Fortunately, although Australia has fallen, none of the Asian invaders can shoot straight.

Wait, what?

I don’t know, I may have missed some details from going dizzy slapping my face with my palm. Good grief this is pretty horrifyingly stupid.  Attractive lead female secretly has crush on Asian guy from school, invites him to camping trip, and you won’t believe this but… he secretly likes her too. Another girl, a gorgeous dizzy blonde from a rich family (yawn) goes on the trip, has no experience with boys but is bravely confident one day some boy will ask her out… do you think one of the boys in the group has the hots for her? One girl comes from a strict religious background and refuses to resort to violence- will she compromise her beliefs when her freinds are in mortal danger and she suddenly finds herself holding an automatic rifle?

It did occur to me that, with very little effort, this could have been turned into a really effective, really funny comedy spoof of all those teenager-based movies and of course the film Red Dawn which it so closely resembles, but instead it is dreadfully earnest and completely, shockingly serious. This is no doubt due to the fact that it is based on a series of books written by some guy named John Marsden which I have been happily ignorant of up to now. I guess they are great reads for teens who feel misunderstood and under-appreciated and feel capable of curing the world’s problems, but I doubt they are great for adults who have lived in the real world and grown up, and they certainly don’t seem to make for great movie-making. As this film was released back in 2010 it seems it didn’t set the world alight and lead to further films, so at least we should be thankful for that.

Simply Amazing

spider12017.63: Spider-man:Homecoming (2017)

This was brilliant. There’s no-one more tired and weary of reboots than I, but this third attempt at bringing Spider-man to the screen just goes to prove the old adage that yes, sometimes the third time’s the charm. More than that, the gap in quality between this film and Justice League, which I suffered through just a few days ago, is remarkable. If Justice League is a lesson in how not to make a superhero movie, then Homecoming is a lesson in how to do it right. It may not be perfect, but it comes awfully close.

Indeed, after so many Spider-man movies during the past decade or two, this should have felt tired and formulaic, but instead thanks to the expert input of Marvel Studios it’s so fresh you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the very first cinematic outing for our favourite web-slinger.

The pace is great, the characters endearing, the fun-quota high, there’s plenty of laughs, plenty of drama, some brilliantly staged action sequences with high-quality visual effects, and it even manages to throw in a decent villain with a great character arc of his own (without making him a tragic villain or something).  And yes, there’s an ending high on action but low on frenzied CGI with a dramatic confrontation between two characters. Yes, no CGI monsters or huge explosions or armies of bad guys, simply exalting instead in a face-off between two characters. So refreshing to see a superhero film dialing it down a little – sometimes less is more.

tinkererIn tieing the events of this film with the aftermath from the New York battle in the first Avengers movie, the writers pull off a fine trick of explaining the origins of two of my favorite Spidey villains, the Vulture and the Shocker, without them feeling dated or silly. And if my eyes don’t deceive me, was that guy re-engineering the alien tech the Tinkerer (he’s an alien disguised as a human way back in one of the very earliest issues of The Amazing Spider-man)?  The way that explains how the bad guys manage to adapt the alien tech and create the Vulture’s wings and the weapons etc, whilst also nodding to the origins of the comic from way back in the early 1960s, is just sheer genius.

There is such a sense of internal logic to this film and its character arcs. Michael Keaton almost steals the film as the Vulture, but of course Tom Holland more than holds his own as Peter Parker and Spider-man (contrast this with DC fumbling the job of portraying both Clark Kent and Superman in the last few DC films). I sincerely hope they don’t bring the Green Goblin into this series and instead bring back the Vulture (particularly as he knows Peter’s secret identity and now has a grudge to settle).

The funny thing is, although everything works so well, it’s telling how different this film is from the original comic. Back in the 1960s comic, Peter Parker was a nerd ostracized by his classmates and nothing ever really seemed to go right for him, every issue ending on a downer, whether it be Spider-man being hated by the public and hunted by the law, or Peter himself failing to get the girl or falling deeper into money problems. Homecoming‘s Peter Parker has a date with a girl, has a close buddy who stumbles upon his secret identity and assists him,  and has a ‘hot’ Aunt instead of the elderly Aunt of the comic. Maybe I should be yelling out “heresy!” but I think all the changes from the comic actually work. It also helps distance this film from the previous films that may have been more faithful to the comic.

Logan Marshall-Green; Photographer select; Tom HollandAt any rate, this film was great fun, the very opposite of Justice League and I really can’t wait for further instalments if they manage to maintain this balance of fun, sophistication and sheer, well, joy.  Not all superhero films have to be dark and serious, and  while I’ve no doubt those future installments will lessen the humor and heighten the drama, Holland’s tenure is off to a great start.  But now I’m starting to sound like a fanboy (I do love the 1960s Spidey comics) so I’ll pack this in. This film may not be high art, but it is great fun though.

 

 

 

Melancholy Apocalypse: The Leftovers

left2017.61 & 62: The Leftovers Seasons Two and Three

There’s all sorts of ways to interpret The Leftovers. It’s a strange/ambient series akin to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, with the peculiar weirdness of The Prisoner thrown in (particularly towards the end), so it is rather fitting that The Leftovers finished the same year that Twin Peaks returned and The Prisoner celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

Fans of either of those shows will take me to task for this, but one thing that The Leftovers has over both of them is better acting and better, more rounded characters- or at least, more rounded battered psyches. Everyone is damaged goods in The Leftovers. The Leftovers is a study of loneliness, melancholy and grief, and how fragmented personalities/lives try to make sense of a senseless world after a massive, biblical event.

Biblical, yes- the chief supposition of The Leftovers, at least as how I personally see it, rather than how it might seem to others, is that God does exist, but it’s a God that we cannot really understand, and that the world is therefore stranger than we can possibly know. The Leftovers to me is an intensely religious series, its conceit being how would our modern pragmatic world respond to a Biblical event- the Sudden Departure, in which 2% of the planet’s population -millions of people- disappeared. Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children… there is no connection, no reason, no scientific explanation. There were here, then suddenly in the blink of an eye, gone. Gone where? Or have they ceased to exist? Should they be mourned, or should they be searched for? Was it random, or were they chosen? Who were the blessed, those that departed or those that remained?

Of course, some might believe it’s a bunch of crazy scientists whose experiment went massively wrong (in the third season, some scientists claim to have a machine to send people to another universe), but I think it’s more likely God (in the third season, you see God get mauled to death by a lion).

Ah. Yes, you read that right. And I’ll write no more about it. At turns enthralling and frustrating, amazing and confusing, there are many mysteries in this series. Inevitably for a show with such twists and turns and layers upon layers as this one has, I’m hesitant at this point to discuss the series in any great detail. The beauty is in its ambiguity and discovering its secrets. Surely one of the appeals of this show is the fact it is just three seasons long – three precious miracle seasons- with episodes as intense as anything else on television.  So its not expecting you to sit around for several seasons and outstay its welcome.

Personally, I feel the shows producers nailed the ending (Damon Lindelof! Who’d have thought it! He nailed an ending!)  although I do know some fans felt shortchanged. Some people like to be shown, to see something, rather than have it suggested to them- me, I’m okay with letting my imagination work , extrapolate the suggested possibilities. There are depths to this show that I am sure will reward repeated viewings.

One of the best tv shows I have ever watched, basically. More pointedly, it is possibly the best tv show that no-one else seems to have watched.  I hope it will pick up an increasing audience with time. That’s the beauty of tv box-sets, whether via streaming or on disc (the latter being the rub- season one had a blu-ray release over here, but my second season is an Australian disc and the third season an American disc, and not many people are going to go to such lengths). Its beautifully acted, lovingly shot and directed and scripted. Like any object of art, I’m certain it will raise string responses and that some will hate it as easily as other fall in love with it, but nevertheless it’s worth searching out and discovering and experiencing.  Yes, The Leftovers is an experience and one that you will not forget.

 

 

For the BR2049 Bookshelf

cinefexBack in 1982, I remember standing in the old Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham, upstairs in the magazine section. looking through Cinefex issue 9, which was devoted to Blade Runner. I very nearly bought it, but on limited pocket money funds decided to buy a few REH paperbacks instead, and maybe pick up the Cinefex at a later date. Damned fool I was. There was never any later date for Cinefex 9, as it quickly sold out and I spent years looking for a copy. Fortunately the issue was reprinted by Titan books in a hardback book many years later, which itself is OOP now and fetching rather large sums, so I did manage to eventually own and read it.

So, when I learned the latest issue of Cinefex would feature BR2049, I quickly ordered it, keen on history not repeating. It arrived a few days ago and it’s a pretty good read. It doesn’t look as if Cinefex devotes issues to single films as it used to (God knows there’s far more effects films these days than there used to be) so the BR2049 article shares the issue with articles on Dunkirk, The Dark Tower and the latest Kingsman film. Consequently the coverage isn’t as in-depth as it was for the original film (the issue also devotes a few pages to a pictorial of the original Blade Runner coverage from 1982, which is nice but does raise the forlorn wish that the issue might have simply been devoted to both films).

Of course in the good old days Cinefex coverage meant brilliant pictures of behind the scenes stuff, like models being built and matte paintings being painted on glass, and on the whole that’s all gone now thanks to CGI taking over. But BR2049 does feature extensive miniatures so there’s some nice pictures of that, amongst the CGI renders and wireframes that no-one on this planet can make exciting. I think the Cinefex article suffers from the cloak-and-dagger secrecy around the film prior to release, so although it discusses the creation of the 1982 Rachel, it doesn’t have any images to back it up, which have been made available elsewhere on the internet since the films release. Ultimately it’s a good article but not as exhaustive or complete as I would have liked, but hey, it’s different times now. We don’t even have the massive articles of Cinefantastique these days either. Progress, eh?

artbrA much more complete package, imagery-wise at least, can be found in The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049 book. Its an oversized (and consequently rather expensive, although Amazon have since reduced the price substantially) coffee-table book, that from the title might be inferred to be an art book but is actually more of a making-of book, dominated more by behind the scenes and production photographs than artwork. As a visual record and memento of the film and how it was made, it’s quite brilliant and everything a fan of the film could hope for. The imagery for the visual effects material is superior to the Cinefex article, although the text less substantial (so yeah, you really need both sources, unfortunately). The book also shares some of the limitations of the Cinefex article regards some of the more closely-guarded sequences (no imagery, again, of the CGI Rachel for instance).

It’s a brilliant book though. I might have preferred more substantial text but the imagery is breathtaking in the film so consequently that gets reflected here. There are some lovely behind the scenes shots and commentary about the film. It’s exactly the kind of book that I would have loved to see about the original film. Both are intensely visual experiences, and the Blade Runner ‘bible’ Future Noir is severely lacking in that regard. So maybe someone might write a more in-depth book about making BR2049 someday, who knows, but for now this will more than suffice.

george-hull-br6.jpgI almost wish one of the actors could have written a diary like Bob Balaban did for CE3K, that was a great book. Walter Koenig did a similar fly-on-the-wall book for ST:TMP. You don’t see that kind of book/coverage anymore but both were fascinating glimpses of the frustrations of making technically-demanding films and managing all the boredom behind the scenes. Yeah we get loads of DVD/Blu-ray featurettes on the best disc releases these days but that’s never as impartial/balanced coverage as one would prefer.