Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut (2004/2007)

alex1…except that it wasn’t really a Final Cut at all, because Oliver Stone followed up with another cut (‘The Ultimate Cut’) a few years later, which was actually little shorter. In all, I think there are four different cuts of this film and only one of them, the theatrical cut, is currently available on Blu-ray here in the UK (I imported this ‘Final Cut‘ several years ago since when its languished on the Shelf of Shame until now). I think the theatrical version was 175 minutes, the Directors Cut several minutes shorter, the Final Cut is the longest version some 45 minutes longer than the theatrical  and the Ultimate Cut several minutes shorter than that- the biggest difference between all the versions (other than additional violence and gore) seems to be the sequencing of scenes and how Stone juxtaposes those sequences within the internal chronology of the film. 

I’m sitting here reconsidering how I started this post and where I’m going with it. Maybe it would be especially apt to revisit this post and post alternate versions, reordering paragraphs, remarshalling my train of thought. Stone himself would possibly appreciate the irony of that. 

It would be especially interesting to sit down with Stone and discuss this film and his experience making it and re-making it. As a movie lover, I think there is something almost endearing about a film-maker’s fascination with a project driving him to rethink himself, and not quite let go of something. I think Oliver Stone didn’t quite succeed in making the Alexander he dreamed of, and his frustrations drove him to return to it, trying to perfect it. It is clearly a passion project, and such films are not always the best films but they can be the most interesting. Sometimes I’d rather watch passion-project failures than formulaic by-the-numbers successes. Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut is quite superior to the theatrical version I saw in the cinema- Stone was under immense pressure to trim the film down to a manageable length and he discusses this in the opening section of his commentary on this disc. Its indicative of the friction between the artist and the businessman, and clearly one of the boons of the home-video market of the past few decades on VHS/DVD and Blu-ray was the opportunity for film-makers to release longer cuts of the films, most of which are superior (but not always). Whether such opportunities will continue in the shift towards streaming is questionable.

I will say I really enjoyed this version of the film. How much of a success the film is, is probably a subject of some debate; there is always a sense of Oliver Stone reaching for something and not quite getting there- some sequences are breath-taking and others feel ill-judged, but you always feel an immense passion behind the film, for good or ill. I recall at the time the film came out in 2004, much criticism of Colin Farrell in the title role, but funnily enough, all these years later it doesn’t seem such a problem at all (how incongruous Kirk Douglas as Spartacus or Richard Burton in his own Alexander film? After awhile does it really matter?). I think Farrell does very well here and his Alexander lingers in the mind afterwards, so does Val Kilmer as his father, King Phillip- perhaps it is something to do with additional scenes or their sequencing in this version: its been so many years since I saw the theatrical cut that I cannot really vouch for any differences between the cuts. Maybe its just a case that Revisited works better, that Stone got the edit right. 

There’s some big names in this film (Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, Christopher Plummer, Rosario Dawson and Anthony Hopkins) and while its really a European film rather than an old-style Hollywood epic, it does seem something of a throwback to the big epics of the old days with such big names attached. It results in an odd tension within the film, of the old and the new: the incongruity of all those accents and Western actors of various nationalities appropriating Greek characters and the English language and text in scenes in ‘an enlightened, modern film’  feeling wrong: albeit inevitable, while attempting to visually be as authentic as it possibly can the film flounders on the edge of farce. While opening the film to criticism, I guess the old adage “its only a movie” holds so very true, and certainly, one could not expect someone like Oliver Stone to make some dry historical epic; this is Cinema.

To fully understand and ‘know’ such a complex character as Alexander and his achievements, you really need a time machine. In that sense, the real meaning of the film is in its tensions between West and East, in how Alexanders generals feared that Alexander had ‘gone native’ and forgotten his Greek origins, and how that makes Alexander seem to us, unconsciously in his part or not, a very modern individual. That might well be a Western, twentieth-century interpretation that gets it absolutely wrong, but Stone seems to paint a picture of Alexander of a man out of time. He’s us, in the Ancient World. Trying to bring modern sensibilities to it, trying to assimilate West and East. But there is also the sensation that’s just us appropriating Alexander, and one of the complexities of the film that nettles at Stone. Alexander and the Greeks were Pagans, who absolutely believed in their Gods and believed  that there was a limit to their world, physical as well as intellectual, that was a much smaller world than the world we know. We cannot really get into that mindset. Some things are human and universal, but other things are alien and unique: as I have written before, the distant past is as much science fiction as any story of the far-future.

Perhaps oddly, I think my favourite scenes of the film are those featuring Anthony Hopkins’ aged King Ptolemy that pretty much bookend it; Ptolemy’s reminisces of his old friend Alexander, trying to grasp who/what Alexander was or what his achievements meant, so likely mirror Oliver Stone’s struggles, and indeed those of historians for centuries. In some ways its trying to understand the human condition, our mortality and the impermanence of everything we create. Ptolemy in Alexandria of 285 BC, some forty years after Alexander died, is one of the last people to have lived in Alexander’s time and to have known him, so his thoughts would be the most definitive, but of course Alexandria itself would eventually fail, and the memoirs Ptolemy put down for posterity would themselves be eventually lost. In just the same way as Ptolemy’s effort failed, its impossible for Stone’s film to properly define who Alexander was;  all things fade, except Alexander himself, or certainly the myth of him that remains.

alex3Visually the film is quite amazing- I think the battles are gritty and brutal and give us a sense of what it must have been like, and the landscapes are wonderful: I have always been quite enchanted by the film’s representation of Babylon. What an astonishing place; one can understand how Alexander might have been so intoxicated by the East. Imagine a Greek, or anyone from the West, entering Babylon having conquered it and then himself becoming conquered by its unique beauty, its smells, its colours.

I love the Vangelis soundtrack. Like many of his scores, it lives differently within the film, his soundtrack album following his method of being a listening experience alternate to that music heard in the film. I think his music works better in the film; there is a romanticism brought to the film by Vangelis’ customary style that lifts the film up, and indeed makes some moments of the film quite transcendent. Its possibly why I enjoy the film so much, that I’m a huge fan of Vangelis for so many decades now that I cannot seperate my enjoyment of his music from the film itself, but certainly he brings a great deal to Alexander and it would be a much lesser film without this score. Being electronic it works against the pre-conceived notions of what a period film should sound like, in just the same way as his scores for Chariots of Fire and The Bounty do. Vangelis has a gift for keying into the ‘soul’ of a film- in Blade Runner it was the bluesy, electronic jazz of a future seen through the old, mirroring the films future noir sense of being caught in between two worlds . Here in Alexander he seems to capture the lyrical, almost classical romanticism of the story, the myth beneath the reality that has allowed the story of Alexander the Great to be so… ageless. Stone seems to have been frustrated by the episodic nature of film, trying to evoke some meaning or message in the sequencing of the it, feeling it lacking in a conventional chronological telling, hence all these different cuts, but Vangelis seems to have it at hand in his keyboard. Its the meshing of Western and Eastern and the ethnic music of each, while each transformed by his mostly electronic orchestration. I think the story of Alexander is too big for one film, or one film-maker (or classical historian for that matter) to really encompass but I think perhaps Vangelis comes closest to nailing it. Maybe Stone and Vangelis should have made Alexander as some great opera; in some ways, its almost there.

Legends of the Fall and the Shelf of Shame

legends7Well, another post in the Shelf of Shame series, this time concerning my Blu-ray edition of Legends of the Fall, a film I thoroughly enjoyed at the cinema back in 1995, and subsequently watched several times on DVD, but which I hadn’t seen since, even upon upgrading to the Blu-ray edition, which remained unwatched since I bought it (near as I can tell, sometime in 2013). One of the most sobering things about this Shelf of Shame series is the realisation of how many discs I have that I have watched only once, if at all,  and also regards just how much time is flying past and how much of a waste of money that collection on the shelves might possibly be, in hindsight.

Can we judge the worth of a DVD or Blu-ray or 4K UHD by how many times we have watched it? Is that fair or misguided? Does £20 spent on Alien on UHD suddenly become more palatable had the disc been watched five times? Should the monetary expenditure be more reason to watch less ‘new’ stuff and instead return more often to rewatching old favourites? Of course its not just films on disc, I could just as easily be remarking upon CDs and books, all the objects we accumulate.

I’m horrified that its been several years since I bought Legends of the Fall on Blu-ray and that I hadn’t watched it: for one thing, where indeed have all those years gone? On the other hand, one has to consider the worth of spending as much money as I have on discs if they are going to just sit there unwatched. I suppose a related inquiry would be, those films we enjoy and even love, how many times can we, and should we, return to them? I always feel its rather strange when someone says they only ever watch films once, but maybe they have a point. For my part though, I cannot imagine that: films are things I cannot help but return to, if I enjoy them. Even if this Shelf of Shame series would suggest some failure at that.

Its also very true that the only reason why I finally reached for this Blu-ray disc and actually watched it, was the release of the complete score on Intrada’s recent CD that arrived a few days ago. Listening to the score was a reminder of just how much I loved the film when I first saw it and of course that wonderful period from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s when James Horner’s scores were such a soundtrack to my life. I know there are many naysayers regarding Horner’s music in film-music circles, but for fans such as myself who were there pretty much at the beginning of his career, that period of Horner’s career is akin to people looking back to when The Beatles were making music.

legends2It is often true that rewatching films can offer a sense of perspective, looking at it from the vantage point of someone in 2020, older and (possibly) wiser, and naturally offering an inevitable giddy rush of nostalgia. Watching Legends of the Fall last night was a bewitching experience of impressions: the sense of tumultuous David Lean epic, huge breathtaking landscapes dwarfing the humans in nearly every frame. The great cast: a young Brad Pitt in one of his first leading roles, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Karin Lombard, who I recall appeared in a few films at the time (its funny how faces seem to appear in a number of films at a certain time that seem to then disappear- in her case, rather than disappear she simply moved to a successful series of tv roles I never saw). Of course there is the hauntingly beautiful Julia Ormond stealing the film from everyone around her with a wonderful performance. While watching the film I couldn’t help but imagine what a more ‘adult’ Star Wars prequel trilogy could have been, had it centred Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side around some Legends of the Fall-like doomed love story with Ormond as the object of his ill-fated affection (I could certainly more easily imagine a passionate and feisty Ormond as the mother of Leia and Luke than Natalie Portman). Above all else in the film, there is also that sweeping, overwhelming James Horner score that dominates the film in a way that scores really don’t anymore.

The funny thing was, even though it may have been ten or fifteen years or more since I last saw the film, I could still remember some of the lines just before they were spoken, and yet other moments came as quite a surprise, elements that I had quite forgotten. The film remains something of an oddity; even in 1995 when I first saw it, it seemed a film at odds with contemporary Hollywood; this is a film about myth, and legend. Its clearly not intended to be a true tale, its so larger than life its more a piece of modern myth-making, a tale of the early-20th century more in line with Sergio Leone’s filmography (as much a late-period Western as Once Upon A Time in America is a realistic gangster movie).

legends3That thought suggests a tantalising what-if: imagine what Sergio Leone could have done fashioning Legends of the Fall into one of his typical three or four-hour epics. It has all the elements of his films; a male-dominated list of characters with a chiefly male-dominated worldview, epic landscapes, huge battles scenes with hundreds of extras, a sense of larger-than-life fantasy, of Pure Cinema. With Leone at the helm, it would have certainly benefited from a better climactic gunfight- Leone was a master of them, turning them into operatic ballets of violence, whereas the one Legends of the Fall has ultimately feels clumsy, overwrought, relying on slow-motion to add gravitas and James Horner’s dramatic scoring.

legends1The story of Legends of the Fall is quite simple but unrelentingly dark when one considers it: I’ve always thought of the film as an overwhelmingly depressing piece (depressing in a good way, if that’s possible, like the grim denouements of so many Film Noir). At its very simplest, a beautiful young woman, Susannah (Julia Ormond), enters the lives of the Ludlow family living in the Montana wilderness, and destroys them, before finally blowing her own brains out from the guilt and sense of unfulfilment.

The film describes Tristan as the rock against which all the others broke themselves against, but that’s missing the point that Susannah is almost like a snake entering the Ludlow Eden in the films beginning. Admittedly she intends none of this, she’s just being true to her nature- beautiful and kind, but she’s finding her place in the world where she becomes an unhappy catalyst of doom. Its funny how Tristan later considers that he may be damned, and has pulled everyone he knows into this damnation, but that could just as easily have been a monologue of guilt spoken by Susannah.

But isn’t Legends of the Fall great? Sure, its not perfect, and it rushes things (a conscious decision of director Edward Zwick, who preferred to pace it as a stream-of-consciousness, of a tale spoken to someone over a campfire and consequently sweeping the narrative forwards with little reflection). But its a hell of a movie- that’s MOVIE in great big capital letters, full of passion and epic moments- yeah, Pure Cinema in the Sergio Leone vein, a win-win in my book.

Curious fact I hadn’t realised before: the novella the film was based on was written by Jim Harrison, who was also the author of the short story Revenge that was turned into a Tony Scott film from 1990 that I later discovered on VHS rental and seems largely forgotten now but which I really liked. It featured a beautifully haunting score by Jack Nitzche which is one of my most treasured CDs. In retrospect, both films share common themes so the connection is not surprising, but I hadn’t been aware of it before. You learn something new all the time (really must read that Jim Harrison novella that inspired Legends of the Fall).

Westworld Season Two, Episode Nine

west9I have to say, Westworld season two certainly seems to be saving its best episodes until last (which makes the wait for next week’s finale all the more intriguing/exciting). Whether its good for a show to risk alienating its fans until eventually coming up with the goods is subject to debate, I suppose, but that said, the odd thing about shows such as this is that very often you shouldn’t really judge a season until you’ve seen it as a whole. Binge-watching, in particular, has made it interesting how one evaluates a show now, and once this series has ended its weekly run and becomes available on-demand and on disc, it will become some other animal, I suspect.

Anyhow, for now we’re stuck with weekly airings. This episode centered mostly upon our favourite villain, MIB William, played by Ed Harris, whose chiseled, life-worn face so perfectly encapsulates the character he plays its like he was born for the role (he also reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s magnificent Unforgiven, no small achievement for a Western, nevermind a sci-fi Westerrn). Tonight we saw more of MIB William’s background, his life away from the park,  his dysfunctional family and his despairing, alcoholic wife Juliet. A glimpse behind the curtain and perhaps an indication of why he is so obsessed with escaping into his second-life inside the park- or perhaps more directly an indication of how much that second-life impacted on his life at home.

It also offered some tantalizing possibilities. So here’s this weeks theory, likely to be debunked next week: what if MIB William is unknowingly a host, or at least a simulacra of the real William, and that the data card/drive that Ford hands him not only shows the grim ‘highlights’ of his dark deeds in the park, but also ultimately reveals that he isn’t actually human, but a host copy? It’d certainly explain why his wife was suddenly racked with suicidal despair upon accessing it- the knowledge that she’d been living/sleeping with a machine copy of her husband would send anyone clutching for any kind of escape. Maybe its too obvious-  indeed, as this episode draws to a close, William himself seems to be cutting into his arm as if doubting that there’s simple blood and tissue under his skin. Could he be everything he’s been trying to destroy? And if so, whatever happened to the ‘real’ William? We cut from him before we see what truth he uncovers from his wound, the revelation left until next week.

Elsewhere, Delores finally unravels. No matter his reprogramming, Teddy’s true nature wins out, an interesting comment on individuality, freewill and fate as he finally reasons the only way out is to end himself with a bullet to his AI-brain. Its a remarkable moment  when Delores collapses in grief and horror, the soundtrack becoming awash with white-noise/static as if she is having a literal breakdown. What remains of Delores after this is anyone’s guess. With the Cradle gone, I assume Teddy is also gone- all deaths are final, now, I think. Bye bye Teddy then.

Meanwhile, back in the Delos labs, Maeve lingers on borrowed time, the labrats having discovered how she has been controlling other hosts and thus weaponizing Clementine as a way of getting the rogue hosts to kill each other. With her secret out, Maeve is worthless to them and scheduled for destruction. The virtual ghost of Robert Ford, however, pays her a visit and tinkers with her settings, likely offering her a way out of her predicament and ensuring she’s around for season three.

Who else survives into season three seems open to conjecture. To me, Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins are the secret heart of Westworld (evidenced by the feeling that ‘something’ was missing for the first half of this season until Ford returned) and if either of them left the show I’d be devastated, frankly. Lets just hope William can keep on surviving being riddled with bullets and that Ford can somehow continue cheating virtual death. These two guys are great and really chew the scenery with aplomb.

I guess all (or most, anyway) will be revealed next week. Here’s hoping there’s not too many deaths coming up…

Westworld Season Two, Episode Eight

west8Its been awhile coming, but finally an episode from season two just ‘clicks’ and we get Westworld at its very best. Possibly its best ever episode over the two seasons so far, and I sincerely hope the show-runners appreciate this and act on it as the series progresses with season three next year.

The irony of big ‘Event’ shows that HBO, Netflix etc produce is that by their very nature they feel the urge to ‘go big’, as if competing with what Hollywood budgets achieve is some badge of honor. But that is not necessarily what they do best. Game of Thrones has gotten exponentially less interesting over the last few seasons as the show has raised the stakes with ever bigger battles and CGI effects sequences. I may be in  the minority in this, but for me a giant Dragon setting people and buildings aflame is much less interesting and dramatic than one character staring into anothers eyes as they betray them and slash their throat/demand their head on a pike. GOT has lost something as it races into a huge biblical climax designed to ‘wow’ the crowds less interested by the political power plays and character arcs the show was successful at earlier.

Tellingly, this episode of Westworld essentially doesn’t even feature any of the main cast, instead telling the story of a background character and getting to the very root of what the series is truly about. Memory, self, what it means to be human and what reality is. “Where’s the door?”, says Logan “There’s got to be a fucking way out of here? This is the wrong world”.

That, my freinds, is Westworld in a nutshell. And in just the same way that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and its sequel suggested that the Replicants were more than human, and better than us, so this episode of Westworld reinforces its theme that the robots/Hosts are better than their creators who act in deplorable and depraved ways, abusing their creations. God is found wanting and the future belongs to the robots/Hosts (if ever the hosts manage to reproduce as per Blade Runner 2049 the shit well and truly is destined to hit the fan).

In particular, this episode focuses on Akecheta of the Ghost Nation, that strange tribe of American Indian warriors who have appeared and disappeared like ghosts through several of the shows previous episodes. Akecheta shares, like Delores and Maeve, an awakening regards his reality, that things are not right, that he has lived ‘past lives’ and that his true life is one of peaceful and loving existence with his wife, Kohana, a life robbed from him by the mechanisms of the theme park.  His quest for truth, and Kohana, leads him to the very heart of that theme park and the bowels of the Delos HQ, where he discovers the warehouse of lifeless hosts that have been discarded (as presumably too broken for repair?), his beloved Kohana among them.

There is a lyricism to this episode that is heartwarming and irresistible.  Beautifully shot and acted, it ties some remaining threads from the previous episode (what happened to Maeve and MIB William) with surprising subtlety – I particularly appreciated how it gave Maeve a new arc, still leaving her child as an eventual goal but perhaps widening out her story now that she is back in the hands of the lab rats. She still has the ultimate goal of reaching her daughter, but with Akecheta now looking after the child, Maeve will be able to focus on the bigger story, the real fight. At least thats what I think its doing; with Westworld its hard to say for sure, and thats part of the fun.

So here we are, and its just a little bit frustrating that only now, eight episodes in with only two remaining, that this season has finally realised the possibilities of the first season and fulfilled that promise. I do hope that this bodes well for season three, but we’ll just have to see what curve balls the last two episodes throw us as we return to the main character arcs and see where the ‘door’ is and what it is. At least, thats where I think we’re going.

 

Great episode though, and (yay!) we even get Anthony Hopkins back as God. In some ways, this episode had it all.

Westworld Season Two, Episodes Six & Seven

westw7c.jpgIllness precluded me from watching episode six of Westworld last week, so today here’s a double-review following a catch-up session alongside episode seven last night…

There I go. moaning about the show missing God (Anthony Hopkin’s brilliant genius, Robert Ford) and boom, here he is, back from the dead. And there I go moaning about the disparate timelines being annoying and boom,  there they go getting all tied up as season two finally begins to, if not make sense, then at least coalesce into a single story-line and build towards a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion. While it’d be wrong to suggest that season two has been a terrible mess and that these two episodes finally start to save the day, its certainly no stretch to say that they are a step in the right direction after a messy, frustrating season so far.

Not everything works though. I’ve always been a bit concerned that the series seems as hazy about geography as it is about time (just where does it take place – an Island has been hinted at- and just how bloody big are the theme parks?). Maeve has left the central Mesa, wandered across the Western landscape and taken a sojourn in Shogun-World and then after popping back underground comes back up in the West where her old original story-line takes place. She finds her old homestead and, at last, her daughter, but immediately some Ghost Nation warriors turn up and attack, the old scenario from decades ago repeating as if on a whim. We see a host that has taken Maeve’s place in the old story-line but to what end is that story-line being played out, without a human visitor to entertain? It seems too convenient, as is the sudden appearance of MIB William and his sudden ability to apparently soak up bullets and still crawl off like some unkillable bastard. It all feels too simple and sudden and convenient, even unearned.There is, after all, no emotional connect between Maeve and her daughter. And after all her adventures this season, Maeve is ultimately stretchered off back to where she began the season , back at the Mesa, only this time crippled from gunshot her wounds (and didn’t that rescue team just appear out of nowhere?). It rather negates her whole arc this season and feels forced and unsatisfying. Unless, of course, it all leads somewhere next week.

Likewise, one has to wonder what was the point of that whole b-story in Shogun World, fun that it was while it lasted, it seems to have been signed-off without really impacting the whole series. And are really meant to believe MIB WIlliam could just rustle up all his posse and leave without disturbing his sleeping daughter in the camp?

westw7bAlso, the Cradle is a fascinating concept and seemed to offer all sorts of virtual possibilities but no sooner is it revealed than boom that’s suddenly gone, it feels something of a waste. What if it had been suggested that some of the events we’ve seen in the past two seasons were inside the Cradle, i.e. never REALLY happened at all? A lost opportunity I fear.

More successful though is the arc with Bernard meeting his maker, Ford, with Anthony Hopkins proving, again, to be the center of the show. Some of the banter and the asides to the episodes referring to James Delos’ failed bid for immortality are delicious. The hints regards what Delos has really been up to (the whole theme park biz is just a cover for their real experiment) will confirm many viewer’s suspicions/theories, vindicating quite a few of my own that I have written about in previous posts. That said, the ‘reveal’ at the start of episode six, when we realise that Delores has been testing Bernard during all their interview flashbacks rather than the other way around, was wonderful and keyed into those earlier James Delos episodes brilliantly: “a fidelity test” indeed.

You have to love a show that can pull off stunts like that, and I remain hopeful that the final three episodes can bring about a satisfying conclusion. At its best, Westworld is fascinating science fiction and a thought-provoking examination of identity and memory and what is human. Its almost like watching an alternate Blade Runner, so clearly are some of the themes shared.

I also, quite surprisingly, loved seeing what the show did with the new, reprogrammed, thoroughly Terminator-like Teddy. Even Delores seemed surprised by what he got up to.

Its just a pity that it all seems so, well, messy. But art can be like that, and I suppose we should be thankful that this series does, at its best, seem to be performing the same trick as its two big-screen Blade Runner cousins- arthouse masquerading as entertainment.

 

 

 

Westworld Season Two, Episode Three

ep3This episode begins brilliantly, with a glimpse of one of the four other parks- Colonial India, sidestepping the tease about Samurai Japan from season one that we all now is surely coming (in fact it comes at the end of this very episode). We see new characters enjoying this attractions dubious pleasures in its call-back to the non-PC glory days of British Empire, until the anarchy of the hosts here (slaughtering visitors just as they are doing in Westworld) reveals that the madness is not limited to Westworld alone. All hell is clearly breaking out everywhere.

Infact, I could have stayed in this setting, and with the human protagonist trying to survive, all episode. Unfortunately this section was limited to just the pre-credit sequence, leaving me feeling rather frustrated and wondering what happened next to our damsel in distress. We do find out, sort of, and it does dovetail nicely to a scene from episode one when a dead tiger was found on a riverbank, but the fact that I was so irritated by the escapades of our series regulars does spell a bit of trouble for the show. I found the new character more interesting than our regulars, and that has to be wrong, surely. Mind, it does also indicate a strength of the show that it could one day exploit.

Meanwhile, back in Westworld, Delores is still in ‘avenging robot angel’ mode (this time hosts seem as expendable as humans in her schemes), and Bernard is still acting oddly (although we do learn why, as he has clearly downloaded  Peter Abernathy’s mysteriously important files that the Delos operatives seem to be after). So while there is lots of action in this episode that action only serves to disguise the fact that the show is maintaining its endless tease.

Which is fine I guess, but we are still evidently seeing different timelines here and if part of the fun of the show is unravelling the sense out of them then that is also part of the shows frustrations. In fact, it finally occurred to me during this episode that I’m missing Anthony Hopkins. I don’t know if we’ll see him ‘proper’ in this season rather than have him alluded to or shown in glimpses in the background during flashbacks etc but his presence was an important one in season one and I think he leaves something of a void, currently.  Westworld is curiously Godless.

 

Paint It Black- Westworld’s return

west32017.3: Westworld – Series One

The Theme Park attraction Westworld is thirty years old. It struggles to keep its rich visitors (you have to be wealthy to afford the experiences the park provides) entertained and returning for more each year, by developing varied narratives for the visitors to experience. The corporation frets over profits and returns on their investments. The scientists toil in their subterranean labs over their creations. Artists and writers work on storylines and narratives for the robots (‘hosts’) to play out for the theme park’s human visitors.

The basic narrative remains the same; each day the robot hosts relive the same day over and over, and visitors can either indulge in basic events such as killing hosts in gunfights or having sex with them in the brothel. Naturally most male new visitors just visit the brothel or go on a shooting spree when they realise there are no repercussions. The more adventurous (and those repeat visitors jaded with the basic narrative) can, however, indulge in narratives that branch off from the main setting, such as joining a posse on the hunt for outlaws or safely escorting a girl back to her homestead. New branching narratives and hundreds of storylines are being written all the time to encourage repeat visitors. The theme park is, after all, some thirty years old now. The robots all look young and brand new, but many of them, like Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) are as old as the park itself.

The clever ‘trick’ of Westworld is that the human visitors are merely incidental to the series. What’s really interesting to the makers of this show are the hosts- the robots that unwittingly  relive the same day over and over. Incredibly sophisticated and believing that they and their world are entirely real,  each day they are mocked, shot, beaten, tortured or raped or abused for the entertainment of the human visitors and then repaired, memories wiped and set-up for the next day. They seem more like slaves than products.

However, a glitch is becoming increasingly apparent, in which not all the memories are being entirely wiped. Memories for robots are not as hazy and distant as human memories, these memories are re-experienced as if as real as waking life, and the robots that experience them begin to doubt their reality and the nature of their suffering. What is real, and is there a reality beyond their own?

west2.jpgWestworld examines questions of artificial intelligence, the nature of memory and experience, of reality and fantasy. Of humanity and decency and cruelty and slavery. How high can a robot reach? How low can human depravity go? All wrapped up in a ten-part science fiction miniseries posing as a western. Indeed, considering how intense and sophisticated some of its questions and ideas are, it is a wonder it manages to come off as entertaining as it does. While the central mysteries of the park’s history and it creators are gradually uncovered, and the robots increasing mimicry of  humanity is developed (is it mimicry or reality is one of the questions that runs through the show), the various arcs dovetail through each other in sophisticated ways. Are we, for instance, seeing everything in chronological order, or are we seeing multiple timelines, as if experiencing memories as the robots do, as if they are really happening in the ‘now’?

Technically impressive with a huge production and rather cunning in its use of visual effects and music, the show is chiefly graced with great scripts and some stunning performances from Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and James Marsden.

west1Jeffrey Wright, in particular, is a standout- I’ve never seen him as good as he is in this. I can’t explain why his acting is so remarkable without revealing some of the twists in the plot, and as this series is essentially a mystery that unfolds over the ten episodes inviting you to participate in its varied turns and concepts, second-guessing the plot, I won’t reveal exactly why Wright is so impressive, but he is. Which is really something when you consider how good all the performances are here- I don’t think I’ve seen Hopkins, for instance, as good as he is here in ages. He’s playing God, and he pulls it off.

My only note of caution, is that by the close of episode ten, I have to wonder where does it go from here? The ten episodes we have are so good, so worthy of repeat viewing (roll on the blu-ray boxset, HBO/Warner), and the ending so fitting that it seems almost a shame to risk spoiling it with a second series. Its almost like asking the question, does Blade Runner need a sequel? Surely the showrunners have ideas of where to go next, but I worry it cannot possibly replicate (sic) everything done so well here. The one comforting thing is that season two is two years off- they are going to take their time and it won’t air until 2018 at the earliest.Rather akin to it being a motion picture getting a sequel in two-three years. Television is changing. Quality-wise, its leaving some movies far behind.

I raise the particular spectre of Blade Runner for another reason. Westworld raises questions of AI and existence so well, that it almost makes Blade Runner 2049 utterly redundant, and worries me regards where that film can possibly go. Because in many ways, Westworld is the perfect unofficial sequel/spin-off from Blade Runner. Its a theme park run by an entity not unlike the Tyrell Corporation (Dystopian corporate nightmares and subterfuge are a major sub-plot to this series) and its robots are Replicants in all but name, questioning their memories and reality just as characters do in the 1982 film. I guess as I love that film so much, it was inevitable I would love this show too.

Its great. But I can’t really tell you why until you’ve seen it, and by then you’ll already know.

 

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Hitchcock (2012)

hitch12016.22: Hitchcock (Network Airing, HD)

Strange one this. It purports to be an examination of Alfred Hitchcock and the making of his classic 1960 shocker Psycho. But it didn’t really come across like that. Instead it seems a very revisionist drama with a largely pro-feminist agenda; I know full well that Hitch and his wife Alma were a team, and that Hitch relied on her for her fine judgement, but this film seems to exaggerate this, almost to the point of stating that Hitch was an overweight, leery old goat who relied on Alma’s creative genius to actually make the movies. Hitch seems to be reduced to supporting character with Helen Mirren’s Alma being the focus of attention. Mirren is in fine, dependable form as ever, but her sheer charismatic force dominates every scene and threatens to sink the enterprise, dominating everything; maybe Mirren is just too good. Make no mistake-this is Alma’s movie.

That said, the film is a fine easy-going, lightweight drama of making movies in Old Hollywood- ‘Mad Men in Tinsel Town’ maybe. But it doesn’t really feel convincing. If there was a darkness to Hitch (his preoccupation with his leading ladies for instance) that informs his best movies, like Vertigo, then it’s largely unexplored. Hitch here is more preoccupied with raiding the fridge and drinking too much, and flailing at recreating his former film glories until Alma steps in and saves Psycho. It feels like fantasy- maybe it’s all true, but I very much doubt it; it always feels like fantasy, a lightweight Sunday afternoon drama. There’s no grit. In a film about Hitchcock, no less.

Anthony Hopkins does fairly well but he never becomes Hitch; buried under all that make-up and the fat suit he approximates the ‘look’ but the script always seems reduce him to something of a caricature, accentuating that tendency in the make-up design. Scarlett Johansson does surprisingly well as Janet Leigh and James D’Arcy’s is excellent as Anthony Perkins; both actors deserved more screentime and hint at what the film could have been. Jessica Biel doesn’t really convince as Vera Miles but she doesn’t have much to work with unfortunately. The problem is simply that the focus is never really the making of Psycho but rather the Hitchcock’s marriage and ‘fact’ that Alma was the real genius behind the scenes.  It feels like revisionist history and that rather grates to be honest.

Noah (2014)

noahNoah is a remarkable, but rather flawed, film. For most of its running time its quite fascinating but also jaw-droppingly clunky and dumb, as if the sheer scale of the thing was too much for director Darren Aronofsky. Big budgets and huge scale can very often be at odds with intimacy and artistic vision. Everything seems huge and loud and spectacular, losing the focus of character and insight that made earlier films like The Fountain feel so personal. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the simple fact that it even got made, and then released in the version we now see -a case of a director getting away with a wildly ambitious project hot on the heels of a successful  release (in this case, Aronofsky’s hit thriller Black Swan).

The ecology/environment and religious dogma/mania, were major themes in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, and I think its a pity Aronofsky didn’t get to work out his anxieties on those subjects in a film of Dune instead of Noah. Because Noah is the Biblical story by way of a science fiction blockbuster. We are in a destroyed world with the existence of a Creator being Fact rather than any matter of Faith. Giant rock monsters walk the Earth, literal Fallen Angels, and the Wrath of God is Absolute and unwavering. There is no forgiveness or love from the Heavens, only a Divine Retribution for the transgressions of an entire species. Noah (Russell Crowe) acts as an unquestioning agent of God’s purpose, even to the point of  being willing to sacrifice his own family.

There is a subtext running throughout regards just how crazy Noah himself is, reminding me of the more successful/subtle depiction of madness in Black Swan, but its also clear that with a nominal reverence to the subject matter the film isn’t out to beat-up/character assassinate Noah to any great degree. Its notable that from the very start, Noah is one apart from the rest of his fellow men- he is alienated from common society, he and his family on the Outside. Is he chosen by the Creator because Noah is an environmentalist or because Noah is outside of the Common Man, a Biblical Travis Bickle? NOAHDisenfranchised, alienated, living a rather aimless existence of day-to-day survival, he is quick to seize the opportunity of Purpose, particularly Divine Purpose. I kept watching the film wondering if some comment was being made about Religious Dogma in our modern world and the resultant fragmented societies and violence we see on the news everyday, but I guess that’s some other, smaller-scaled movie less interested in assaulting our senses with spectacle. I certainly appreciated some of the commentary (even though its coming from crazed Bad Guy Ray Winstone and therefore not aired in positive light) regards Man’s relationship with the Creator and his place in a world abandoned by that Creator -its interesting, and somewhat telling,  that God is always referred to as the ‘Creator’ rather than as ‘God’ (as if its one of Prometheus‘ engineers doing some Monday afternoon terraforming causing the Flood),so as to perhaps not offend viewers of non-Christian faith.

The supporting cast is sadly wasted. Jennifer Connelly never convinces- she just doesn’t look right.  Its not really her fault; she’s just too beautiful, her teeth too perfect and white, she looks too much the modern Hollywood Goddess, less the long-suffering life-worn middle-aged mother of three in a blighted, desolate world. The years pass by and Noah goes grey and wrinkly but Connelly hardly seems to change at all, something that seems increasingly ridiculous as the film passes. Its like something out of Old Hollywood’s Glamour Days. Anthony Hopkins just seems to mildly ham it up as he does these days in any picture, while Ray Winstone seems to be reprising his  Beowulf.

I realise I may seem rather disparaging regards this film. It is by no means a bad film. It just might have been something more. Certainly there are some thrilling moments of genuine brilliance during the film. A section where Noah recounts the history of creation, voicing the Biblical story of Genesis whilst the imagery depicts our modern scientific view of it,  is a spellbinding sequence of almost storybook cgi. Personal highlight for me though is a sequence shortly after the storm has hit- Noah and his family are sheltering in the storm-tossed Ark, tormented by the screams of the thousands dying out in the ocean waste. An exterior shot of  thousands of desperate survivors clinging to a mountain top, assaulted by the maddened waves, is one of the most haunting visuals of any film I have seen this year or last and worth the price of entry alone.