The Predator (2018)

pred1
Gun-toting hot chick Botanist: “Schools out, Predator scum!”

Oh dear. It would be easier (and quicker) to write about what was right about this film… except actually, no, it might be a shorter post, but it’d be much harder to find something this film actually did right. This thing is a bloody mess, right from its effects-laden space dogfight start which dispels any mystery/tension regards the Predators themselves. I suppose, just like with the Alien franchise, we’ve travelled such a long road since the first film (which teased us with glimpses of the titular character until the pay-off at the end), that any awe/horror/mystery is long done, and it’s all now just the same old same old.

Which annoyed me right from the start, as it instantly put the film into comic-stip territory to me, a feeling that persisted throughout. Maybe it’s a tonal thing, but for me the first film was more a horror film than an action film (whatever the Arnie fans may argue), and the whole point of characters like the Predator (and indeed the Alien) to me is the respect they should demand, the sense of horror and dread and fear. Demoting them to just being standard CGI or prosthetic characters that are thrown onscreen whenever in increasingly graphic detail, that just diminishes them to me.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that the law of diminishing returns, evidenced by both this and the Alien franchise, should rear its ugly head again here, but I really did not expect this to be so crushingly ill-conceived and executed. The fact they could have a great actor like Thomas Jane wasted in a supporting role and such a bland lead in the form of Boyd Holbrook, just reinforces how ill-judged this whole thing was. They even have the nerve to throw a kid into the film – a ‘genius’ kid (and idiot adults) in the grand annoying genre tradition of Wesley Crusher of ST:TNG and Doctor Zee

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Be afraid. Be very afraid.

from Galactica 1980, an astonishing move that left me slack-jawed. This kid can translate alien language and figure out alien technology that seems to have befuddled scientists for years, it’s the kind of genre stupidity I thought we had grown out of-  “the next step in the evolutionary chain” they call him. To throw even more salt into the wound, they even throw in a ‘cute’ alien dog that follows our heroes playing ‘fetch’ at any opportunity. Frankly, I still can’t believe it. When at the end they get a nifty anti-Predator costume straight out of the Stark Industries CGI Iron Man line of toys, well, I was beyond numb.

I fell a little like Charlton Heston at the end of the 1968 Planet of the Apes“They did it, they finally goddam did it” (or thereabouts): they killed the Predator franchise, forever. Hopefully, anyway- I couldn’t bear to suffer through another one as bad as this.

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Bohemian Rhapsody 4K UHD (2018)

bohem1.jpgWell, you can’t accuse the producers of this film of letting the truth get in the way of a really good story. Basically a sanitised story about the great rock band Queen, it definitely is not a warts-and-all biopic of its frontman Freddie Mercury. The fascinating drama I expected, of drugs, sex and rock and roll and living life to the max isn’t really here. Instead this film follows a somewhat pedestrian, formulaic narrative of four outsiders creating a legendary rock band, ts various plot threads leading to a somewhat dubious finale in which the band single-handedly saves Live Aid, the recreation of which is pretty astonishing (but as a finale it feels too obvious/manufactured).

So in some ways it does seem to be a terribly wasted opportunity- on the other hand, though, it’s simply a great yarn simply told, with an absolutely killer soundtrack of classic songs throughout. Its pretty much nigh on irresistible.

I’m not a die-hard fan of the band so I’m certainly no expert, but I’m pretty certain some of the timeline is questionable, and to be honest there was a point midway through at which I just felt I was being taken for a mug but should just go along with it. The film feels more of a rock and roll fantasy than a docu-drama, and the way it manipulates with close-up shots of smiling, happy faces towards the end, tieing up any loose ends with valedictory character beats for Freddie’s freinds, family and colleagues, feels awfully… managed, even cynical. We’re going to have a happy, positive flag-waving finale even though we know where Freddie’s own story is ultimately heading: it’s only a movie and this one isn’t going to end like Philadelphia (which may be a pity, really, because that was deeply powerful, and maybe this film might have benefited from doing that- but this just isn’t that movie).

Its a decidedly PC-era film about a decidedly un-PC era, leaving me wondering if there’s a danger nowadays of us rewriting history simply to make it more palatable. I’ve read and heard of some pretty incredible stories of bands and rock stars in the 1970s- drugs, sex, wild parties, great music, monumental fights, terrible scandals; but how much of that can you get way with now without upsetting/insulting/horrifying the tender audiences of today’s more enlightened society? I’ve read of some of Freddies parties, the wild debauchery of which could be hugely extravagant and ridiculous but there is little to suggest that here other than people getting drunk and playing music loud. Then again, we might know that it all happened, but do we need to see it, does it add anything to the narrative in a film where we aren’t really getting into who Freddie was? Instead he remains an icon, and something of an enigma- and a fantastic performer and musician. I just think its a little unfortunate that the film is so obviously intent on protecting Freddie and his legacy when it doesn’t really need to- his fans know everything and love him all the more. He was human, flawed and fragile and hugely charismatic and talented- we get a glimpse of the ‘real’ Freddie but not all we might have in a more daring film.

But what the hell, it’s still a hell of a story.

 

 

Free Solo (2018)

freesoloNo, it’s not a previously-unannounced quickie sequel to the Star Wars film Solo. Instead, this is a 2018 documentary that has deservedly won both Bafta and Oscar awards, concerning rock climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to conquer the first free solo climb of El Capitan’s 900-metre vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park – something we are assured by professionals in the doc is both a terrifying and awe-inspiring challenge.

Well, I have to agree on the terrifying bit. I’ll be clear here- I do not like heights. Hate ’em. I can be standing on a bridge, look over the edge and feel my legs turn to jelly (happened the other week at Ironbridge looking down at the river flowing below). I can have similar sensations looking down the well of a flight of stairs and the less time I spend up a set of ladders the better. So suffice to say watching the climbing sequences in this film -which are the real thing, no recreations etc- my knees were crawling up into my stomach. It was utterly terrifying. I don’t think I’ve felt such genine tension watching something in ages.

Alex Honnold is a genuine mystery to me- I will never figure out how he does what he does or why, but I can certainly admire his accomplishments. I won’t call it bravery (to me it’s as much insanity as bravery, but that’s just me speaking as someone who cannot stand heights). Free Solo makes some attempt to get into his psyche but I fear he’s just a different animal to me, I’ll never understand what makes him tick. Where the film really scores is its photography of his climb and how it conveys the sense of height and danger in every moment. Its almost tangible and quite unique – again, there’s my fear of heights talking. Maybe I’m not qualified to objectively judge this film at all.

I know one thing. I’ll be having a few drinks before I dare rewatch this damn thing.

Shown commercial-free (to be honest, for once I could have done with the breaks, the damn thing was like an endurance test) on Sunday night on the National Geographic HD channel, I’m confident as it was co-financed by the channel it will get plenty of repeats and failing that, the film is available on Blu-ray.  Not to be missed.

 

Superman Returns Expanded OST

suprmn retTo get me in the mood for the (hopefully imminent) arrival of La La Land’s 3-disc Superman: The Movie soundtrack, I’ve been listening to John Ottman’s score for the ill-fated Superman Returns from 2006- well, the expanded 2-disc edition that La La Land released in 2013. It might seem a perverse choice, but I really like Ottman’s score – mainly because it re-uses so many of John William’s original themes. Its almost a Superman Greatest Hits, with plenty of Horner’s Brainstorm score also thrown in, partly from the choral sections which accentuate the films rather ill-judged religious tensions regards our Kryptonian hero, but yeah, there’s a lot of Brainstorm in passages of this score. I think it’s a really nice, melodic and thematic old-fashioned superhero score – inevitably it owes a huge part of its success to those timeless classic William’s themes and motifs, but as a fan of that original score it was lovely reprise. You just can’t make a Superman film without John William’s music- God knows Hans Zimmer later tried, but Man of Steel etc are woeful, frankly, compared to William’s masterpiece. Whenever Ottman reprises the Superman main theme, I always get a tingle, and the frequent use of the Fortress of Solitude music is lovely, lending it something of an importance not present in the original film.

Admittedly I’m not best equipped to really comment on the 2006 film,  I haven’t seen the film for some time, probably back when it first came out on Blu-ray over a decade ago. When I first saw it at the cinema (and subsequently on disc) I really enjoyed it but I’m open to a rewatch recalibrating my opinions somewhat. Time inevitably changes things. Back when it came out I was overjoyed by its sense of heritage, its honouring of Richard Donner’s original – it felt like the Superman III we deserved back in the day. And the music! As a lover of William’s original score, how could I not be bewitched by hearing it again?

Looking back on it, maybe the film was just too faithful and sincere to the original and needed a fresher, more unique voice of its own- it’s a shame the same creative team didn’t get to make a sequel that, having set up the return of our hero, actually gave him an adventure worthy of the Big Screen (that being said, one of the things I remember enjoying of Superman Returns was how intimate and character-based it seemed). Instead the franchise stalled again and took a decidedly different approach with Man of Steel etc.

Anyway, I’ve certainly been enjoying exploring this score again. I hadn’t given it a spin for awhile, but it certainly holds up pretty well. Indeed, considering how film music (and superhero scores in  particular) have been going lately with the almost mundane background muzak of the Marvel films etc, it’s almost a great surprise. supermanalbumSure, in the great scheme of things its a poor shadow of the Williams classic in comparison, and I’m sure the 3-disc edition of the original will blow this out of the water, but that’s true of most scores compared to that 1978 colossus.  But this hasn’t been a bad way of getting me in the mood for that lovely old album I used to love listening to, an album assembly that features on disc 3 of the new set and that I’m really looking forward to hearing again.

Ah hell. Time I dug out my old vinyl and jumped back to being a thirteen-year-old kid again, lying on my bed with the gatefold on my lap, listening to the music and dreaming of heroes and villains. 

 

 

 

The Umbrella Academy (2019)

umb2Okay, I admit it, I am beyond surprised. I won’t tempt fate by titling this post with ‘Season One’ because we have yet to see if Netflix will greenlight a second season, but surely it’s inevitable, because this series is great- it’s possibly the best comic book show on television I have seen, and lord knows there have been so many over recent years.

Much of my praise is because I am such a huge fan of Watchmen and the movie based on that graphic novel, and the fact that The Umbrella Academy is so close in tone and approach, putting messed-up superheroes in a real-world situation contesting with a looming apocalypse. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but as a Watchmen fan, its right up my street, and may actually have stolen some of the thunder from HBO’s own genuine Watchmen spin-off which is due later (?) this year (on the other hand, I really had my doubts that anyone could pull off something like Watchmen on television, but The Umbrella Academy patently proves otherwise so it’s actually gotten more excited for what Damon Lindelof and HBO might come up with).

The Umbrella Academy is based on a comic book from Dark Horse that I am utterly unfamiliar with so I cannot judge how faithful it is or how many liberties have been taken with the source material. I certainly would not suggest the series is perfect-  it’s a little overlong (eight episodes would have paced it better than the ten we are given) and while most of the cast are great there are a few weak spots, but on the whole its great, with some genuinely interesting characters, some surprising diversions and real scope (it’s an endless surprise to me just how cinematic HBO and Netflix stuff is). The allusions to Watchmen do keep popping up (one characters experiences in Vietnam, another suggestion about the JFK assassination, the apocalyptic denouement at season end, a character’s ability to shift through time offering him an almost Dr Manhattan perspective on things) but I suspect they are in the original comics? If not it’s clear that the shadow of the Watchmen movie looms large (in a good way) with  the series real-world setting (emphasis less on silly costumes and gadgets than on consequences of the powers), the clever use of source music, lots of moody rain, the realistic art direction- and yet at the same time there are sometimes hints of an irreverent, almost Pythonesque tone that is very unlike Watchmen’s very dour, serious approach to deconstructing its genre so I’d say the show maintains a fairly unique identity.

umb1Some of the twists can be seen a mile off but I don’t think it detracts from the show at all- there are some genuine surprises and some intriguing mysteries that are not explained which I hope augurs well for them being delved into in a second season. There are at least three plot points mentioned in the series that I had expected to be developed but weren’t – and indeed one major tease thrown in at the start of the final episode that really wound me up (in a good way).

On the whole this was a really promising series and I was both surprised by it and left excited for what may follow. Maybe the comic book future is not wholly in the hands of Marvel Studios despite the best efforts of DC to screw things up.

On this day…

…a year ago, I wrote a post about the Hammer film Never Take Sweets from a Stranger, a surprisingly effective and at times quite harrowing thriller that really impressed me. Which reminds me, its really past time Indicator revealed the contents of their next Hammer set (which makes me wonder if it’s still happening?).

…five years ago, I wrote a post about the original (and best) 12 Angry Men, which I’d just rewatched on a new Blu-ray edition. Haven’t seen it since- horrors! Its scary how even the great films go on the shelf and just sit there.

…six years ago, I was writing about La La Land’s expanded release of John William’s The Fury soundtrack. Which is curious if only because here we are all these years later and I’m expecting their new 3-disc edition of his Superman: The Movie soundtrack to arrive this month. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Hey, it’s just occurred to me that this blog has been going on something like way too long.  When I started it, back in 2012 (and also the old Film Journal blog I did a few years before it),  it was really intended to be, literally a diary of films etc that I watched, something I could use like a diary, a record of my viewing habits and opinions over the years. Which I guess it still is. But it’s a little scary really looking back on old entries like this (there’s nothing like seeing a post about a film praising it years ago only to wonder what the hell I was thinking, looking back years later). Oh well. Happy 4th March- as this post possibly proves, everyday is the anniversary of something.

The Big Lebowski 4K UHD

big2There’s something wonderfully endearing about this Coen Brothers film, that gives it the feeling of a warm blanket- its a film to wrap yourself in, enjoy the great cast, the wonderful dialogue, the gentle whimsy of it all. Nothing feels, well, convincingly real somehow- it’s all very dreamlike, a fable, or perhaps an adult fairytale. Even though it’s only twenty years old, it feels oddly old-fashioned, a reminder of a period when I saw films like this and Boogie Nights and Magnolia– great films, I was being spoiled back then and I didn’t appreciate how much. Its curious how much these three films in particular shared a common cast, how, say, Aimee Mann turns up in a cameo in this and then her songs form such a backbone to the mood and soundtrack of Magnolia.

Indeed, maybe it’s those twenty years but there is such a tangible feel of the ‘good old days’ here. Hearing Shawn Colvin’s cover of Viva Las Vegas over the Big Lebowski end-credits was a call-back to me buying her albums back then; I was a huge fan of her Fat City album in 1992, and have bought all her albums since, but hearing her voice here was a sudden jolt. I don’t recall her song from watching the film before. Yeah, I know, twenty years. Its a bit like how surprised I was to see Aimee’s cameo, I didn’t remember it at all. Aimee was another favourite singer of mine from that era (discovered from her featuring in Time Stand Still, from Rush’s 1987 album Hold Your Fire (it’s one of my favourite songs)) so again, rewatching this film brings back all that stuff.

Where did all those years go? The cast, too, is a blast from the past- Jeff Bridges has always been a favourite, but I’d forgotten that Philip Seymour Hoffman was in this- he looks so young here, so while it was a shock seeing him here, it was also a painful reminder of his untimely passing.  Of course he’s one of the cast members who turned up in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Christ he was a brilliant actor. He’s kind of young and bubbly in The Big Lebowski and it’s a sweet role for him. John Goodman nearly steals the film, which is saying something considering the cast around him- I think this is possibly one of his best performances, it just clicks. I suppose much of this is the perfect chemistry between him, Bridges and a shockingly young-looking Steve Buscemi (what a cast this film had!). The scenes these three have together (“shut the f–k up, Donny!”) are brilliant slices of perfection.

So anyway, The Big Lebowski– maybe you’re here to see how the 4K UHD holds up. It looks brilliant, a fine example of what the format can add to catalogue titles. Maybe stating that the film has never looked so good is beyond stating the obvious- detail is great, colours are vibrant. There is a lovely texture to it, the grain being captured and maintained without any DNR that I could see. There is a nice use of HDR in this too, which is something people look for, while forgetting that these films originally didn’t have any HDR treatment either theatrically or on DVD or Blu-ray releases. It certainly adds a nice vibrancy and ‘pop’ but I do sometimes wonder if its wholly warranted- it works here anyway, not distracting at all, it just adds to the visual quality of the film.

I only bought the film before on R1 DVD back when it first came out, and haven’t seen it in years, so can’t really comment on how it compares (an unfair comparison anyway, really). I did try the accompanying Blu-ray, which I hadn’t seen before. This is an old disc so based on an old master, but it’s where all the extras lie hence it warrants its inclusion with the UHD.  Even with the Blu-ray being automatically upscaled to 4K (any comparisons I make between Blu-ray and 4K are hamstrung by this) its clear there are issues with the master or encoding with the Blu-ray. It looks pretty ugly. Ouch, I sound like a 4K snob.

Regardless, I’m sure The Big Lebowski would work brilliantly on VHS on a b&w television. Its just a great film. The dude abides, indeed.

On that last thought, if I admit to feeling guilty even mentioning it, can I get away with wishing for a ‘twenty years later…’ sequel?  I just can’t help but be curious regards the dude now, what the hell would he think of America, and the world, where would he fit in, how would he even survive, out on the fringes, on the outside looking in on the current madhouse? I think we need the dude.