Apocalypse Now 4K UHD

apocI finally -FINALLY- got round to watching my 4K UHD copy of Apocalypse Now last night. Although my copy is the six-disc set with the Final Cut and Redux versions I went with the theatrical, as I think less is more for Apocalypse Now. I know Coppola seems as endlessly fascinated (frustrated?) with this film as his buddy George Lucas was with his Star Wars films, but this film is pretty much perfect as it is. I tried to enjoy the Redux version -I’ve watched it twice and always walk away hating it, so I didn’t even consider watching the Final Cut. Maybe one day, as I guess it’d be a shame for the disc to just sit there, but is there any film out there with two alternate cuts as superfluous as those for Apocalypse Now?

This is such a damned extraordinary film. I think every time I watch it, I get more out of it, and enjoy it all the more, and it just seems more and more remarkable that something like this could even get made (I guess you just had to be the guy behind two Godfather films in order to get a pass for a film like this). Its a work of madness. Of mind-boggling crazy ambition. Its an Hollywood epic in the guise of an Arthouse movie, or maybe its the reverse.

It has, without any doubt, the best voiceover narration of any film, ever. Maybe there is some other film to compete, but if there is I’ve never seen/heard it (closest I can imagine is maybe the voiceover narration for  Taxi Driver, although that example feels too obvious).

Some damn fool went and made a sci-fi reboot and called it Ad Astra. Which does make me think, why can’t someone make a sci-film as important and strange and huge and crazy as Apocalypse Now? Maybe Kubrick already did it with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films seem as equally important as regards being landmarks in Cinema, although so wildly different.

The 4K disc is pretty much as gorgeous as everyone has said it is in reviews etc. The HDR really does increase the sense of depth and verisimilitude: the Playboy bunnies scene pops out of the jungle darkness and the Do Lung Bridge sequence pops so bright it feels like being stabbed in the eyes. Which does make me wonder about some of these 4K releases, in the case of Apocalypse Now, how it looks with its HDR pass likely surpasses anything cinematographer Vittorio Storaro originally intended or could have hoped for back in its original projection era. Should the film in 4K be considered authentic?

I have one more question if someone could answer it: Apocalypse Now has no title card, no credits at the start and none at the end (the film fades to black and that’s it). I was just wondering how Coppola got away with that or if the film originally had credits during its theatrical release. I wouldn’t have thought the film unions would allow a film to be released without the cast or crew being credited anywhere (didn’t George Lucas get into trouble for leaving Irvin Kershner’s card until the end of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980?).

Trucking Hell: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977)

sorcererWilliam Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a wild journey into darkness that shares much with Apocalypse Now‘s nightmarish sensibilities. Four men are forced to flee civilisation in order to escape punishment for their crimes and they wind up in some hellish, unnamed South American country teetering on the brink of revolution, in a village being reclaimed by the Jungle from which it was torn. A world being washed away by the rain and buried in the mud. The only possible escape these men have is a near-suicidal journey driving two trucks over two hundred miles through dense wild jungle, each truck carrying loads of dangerously unstable old nitroglycerine which is needed to blow out an oil refinery blaze. A journey from darkness into darkness, from Hell into Hell.  The film’s conclusion feels as bleak and inevitable as the ending of John Carpenter’s The Thing. A pleasant and jolly film this is not.

Unsurprisingly, the film did not fair too well when it was released during the summer of Star Wars in 1977. Indeed, it was as doomed as the four protagonists it features- that summer, audiences wanted escape and a positive, life-affirming message. They didn’t want the nihilism of Sorcerer and simply abandoned it, the film becoming a notorious financial disaster. The film suffered a similar fate to Blade Runner and The Thing five years later, when they were released during the summer of Spielberg’s extraterrestrial calling home – but I think like those two films, Sorcerer has benefited from some kind of reappraisal over the years. Its not a perfect film; its messy and unfocused and often gratuitous in an almost adolescent way, but I found it absolutely fascinating and very disturbing.

Its a very intense film, with a nightmarish feeling akin to Adrian Lyne’s  Jacobs Ladder, or the dread inevitability of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart: I’m not at all surprised by readings of the film that consider the four protagonists literally in Hell, suffering for their sins. Its unrelentingly grim, and not one of the four protagonist’s stories ends well: this, in the summer of Star Wars? In hindsight, the fate of the film seems inevitable.

The bridge sequence, in which the trucks try to cross a river in a terrible storm over a dangerously unsafe rope-bridge is incredibly well realised, particularly as it dates from a pre-CGI era.  You can almost feel the wind and the rain of the storm and share the nervous terror of the protagonists as the bridge threatens to collapse. What it must have been like watching that in the cinema back then…. how intense that must have felt. And of course, how incredibly difficult filming it. Watching Sorcerer was the nearest thing to watching Apocalypse Now, aghast at the obvious horror it must have been making it: at least with Coppola’s film the hard work must have seemed worth it, vindicated by the critical and popular response to the film on its release. How crushing it must have seemed for those behind Sorcerer when all that work seemed wasted upon the films critical and popular failure. 

In any case, the sheer insanity of the film, its almost delirious sense of unrelenting nightmare, well, I found it quite an almost perverse pleasure. They certainly don’t make films like this anymore. 



The Shining 4K

shiny.jpgUnlike the 4K disc of Apocalypse Now, which came, what, a fortnight ago now but which I still haven’t watched, there was no way that I was delaying watching this Kubrick classic, remastered from a new scan (direct from the negative, I believe). As is surely expected, this new edition crushes any that came before it- it looks utterly gorgeous, with lovely detail and colour and perfectly judged, subdued application of HDR. Its a perfect presentation and is surely top of most any Kubrick fan’s shopping list. In some ways I actually preferred it to the 4K disc of 2001; possibly because this edition is so improved in quality from earlier editions of this film.

As I’ve gotten older, Kubrick’s films seem to get better, and this is very true of The Shining. There is something about the glacial pace of much of Kubrick’s writing and editing, how scenes all seem to feel just a little uncomfortably too long, and how it subconsciously seems to put the viewer on edge. Its mostly a stylistic thing he had through all his films but it works particularly well with The Shining, ably abetted by its unnerving sound design and use of music. I never read the original Stephen King novel, which is possibly a good thing as King didn’t think much of this film, by all accounts, and likely the film shines (sic) brighter without familiarity with the differences between film and novel.

Ad Astra

asastra1Ad Astra is really two different movies, and I liked one of them, and didn’t care much for the other. The one is a homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and perhaps also Contact– it  wonderfully uses cinema as a visual medium to show us the immensity of the cosmos, and our place in it. It shows us a cosmos wholly indifferent to the human race and how the very immensity of it can challenge our sanity, our sense of reason. It asks the question ‘is there life Out There?’ and suggests a possible answer, and examines what that might mean to us, our place and importance in the immensity of space and time.

The second film is about pirates on the moon and carnivorous apes running amok on deserted space stations, and boys looking for their fathers when their fathers aren’t interested.  Its a Captain Nemo In Space film about as hokey as it was in The Black Hole.

If you can sense there’s a dichotomy there then you can understand my very mixed feelings about this film. We don’t get enough serious science fiction films, and we don’t get serious money and talent invested on space sagas in which we travel into the depths of space with real-space physics and no sound depicted in space (oh God I’m so thrilled at just that alone). Films like 2001 and Interstellar and Solaris are very rare, and even the rather flawed ones like Event Horizon or Sunshine are to be applauded, just for existing.  I’m thankful we even have Ad Astra, and kudos to 20th Century Fox bankrolling it, taking a risk on it. So much about Ad Astra is perfect, so much of it is so damned exhilarating, that it just feels so incredibly frustrating too.

When I saw advance word describing the film as Apocalypse Now meets 2001, I thought it was a bit of a wheeze, maybe a shorthand way, as Internet writers and YouTube reviewers often have it, in describing its sense of a journey across the solar system. I didn’t understand that this film literally is Apocalypse Now meets 2001. I suppose to be more charitable, I should describe it as Heart of Darkness meets 2001, but director James Gray is too on the nose with a narration that is so indebted to Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic that it feels like they should have had Martin Sheen voice it. Surely they could have dropped it, or most of it. Initially its interesting but it becomes far too indulgent and distracting.

adastra3Its also far too obvious, almost as bad as the clumsy narration that Blade Runner had, its so relentlessly describing whats happening and why and what Brad Pitt’s internal thoughts are about everything around him. Coppola’s film had a narration that was perfect, but that’s such a rarity and you have to be careful going there, especially if your basic narrative is also so indebted to its source. It was so obvious, I half-expected Tommy Lee Jones to mutter “The horror! The horror!” as he stared up at the stars. It shouldn’t have been so literal, and it also backs the film into the same quandary that drove Coppola nearly mad making Apocalypse Now– when we finally reach Kurtz, whats the revelation? Whats the endpoint, the grand insight that the previous few hours of film have been leading to? If you’re building up the mystery, you have to have a suitable answer, even if its just wrapped around another question. Gray ends Ad Astra with a mind-numbing revelation akin to ‘home is where the heart is’, and almost even that hoary chestnut ‘love conquers all’ – that’s fine, but helplessly anticlimactic after all the build-up.  Perhaps Ad Astra is too measured, too collected to really warrant the comparisons to Coppola’s hallucinatory trip up the river. Perhaps it needed more product placement, a way of ramming home its suggestion of commercialisation dumbing down what space is, what it means- we can’t have Coppola’s drugs in space, but maybe more Coca Cola would serve the same purpose in showing the inanity humanity brings to the void. What on Earth, I wonder, would a Terry Gilliam-directed Ad Astra be like?

There are some wonderful moments in Ad Astra, but some damningly awkward ones too, and no matter how strange and huge the grand canvas the film shows us, its also depressingly small and human-scaled too. I suppose that may be deliberate, a message in itself, but it also suggests a lack of confidence or a reluctant nod to the mass audience that perhaps thought that what Arrival really lacked was gunfights and action. A research station sending out a mayday message is devoid of bodies/signs of crew, because the sense of ensuing mystery serves the plot, maybe, but later when Brad Pitt finds his destination, its corridors are full of cadavers floating in zero g, presumably for decades. Even a crazy man would have jettisoned the dead into space, right? I mean, air is limited and its full of putrefaction and decay? That’s beyond unhealthy, its beyond stupid.

adastra2There is an awful lot to appreciate in Ad Astra, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again at home in 4K (in January next year, I guess) and possibly enjoying it more with reduced expectations. Its a remarkable achievement that it was made for something just a little north of $80 million (by all accounts) as it looks rather bigger. Some of the world-building and art direction is truly amazing, and it feels very grounded most of the time. The cast is great, and Donald Sutherland in a rather short role leaves such a real mark on the film, he perhaps should have been on the journey longer. The cinematography is quite exquisite, and the majority of the visual effects flawless. The music score is perhaps functional at best- it works, but its surprisingly subdued in the audio mix, unless that was an issue at my screening.

The film runs just under two hours, which is refreshing for some perhaps, but I thought it a little short, I think it would have benefited by more time and less narration- less concise, more obtuse, that kind of thing. Dwelt a little longer on the empty spaces between worlds rather than Space Monkeys and Space Pirates, but that was possibly a more intellectual exercise than 20th Century Fox was willing to make.

The Vanishing

vanishingThe Vanishing is based upon a real-life mystery, in which three lighthouse keepers out in the Flannan Islands, stationed at the lighthouse on Eilean Mor twenty miles west of the Outer Hebrides island of Lewis, in Scotland, disappeared sometime around December 15th 1900. A relief crew found the island deserted, the logs in the building recounting a terrible storm but otherwise not indicating what might have happened to the three men, no trace of whom was ever found.

Well, I’ll state it now- ‘Gerard Butler in fine performance in decent movie’, something I was beginning to think I’d never write. Having taken the money and run as he slummed in too many action b-movies, it’s actually something of a surprise to see him demonstrating a low-key, underplayed performance such as this with some genuine warmth and sensitivity. Ably supported by the ever-dependable Peter Mullan and newcomer Connor Swindells, at its best this film is structured like a play, and makes for a fine character piece.Where it falls down is in the depressingly predictable melodrama that ensues as the film offers its own suggestion for what may have happened to the three men- and when I state that there’s a box of gold involved, I guess groans are inevitable. Maybe I would have preferred Aliens or some kind of vaguely supernatural maritime threat. Yeah, maybe the latter. Greed and gold and smugglers/criminals… I don’t know. It somehow failed to live up to the mystery, to me,

Ultimately the film could have been a slow-burn character piece about men slowly disintegrating on a lonely barren island as cut off from humanity as would be an astronaut on the moon decades later. With no boat of their own, they were dependant on a boat from the mainland some six weeks later with its relief crew, and had no working radio to contact anyone. Imagine the loneliness, the desolation of the unforgiving barren landscape cut off from their fellow men. Its a great premise for a psychological thriller, perhaps, and there’s some of that, here, but it’s betrayed by a simplistic plot of lost treasure and antagonists coming to the island looking for it. I don’t think the film is ever entirely predictable, it’s better than that, but some of its ensuing melodrama feels disappointing. Possibly its quite unfair of me to expect something as dark a journey into darkness as Apocalypse Now, but this film could have been that. It could have been darker, denser… maybe a little like Angel Heart or Jacobs Ladder.

Which is, again, me criticising a film for what it isn’t, rather than what it is.

I will just mention the film’s score by Benjamin Wallfisch- well, describing it as a ‘score’ possibly isn’t quite right. Its really an ambient drone of a likely small orchestra augmented by an electronic soundscape, and really just functions to establish mood. As such it serves the film well enough but I doubt it would be a pleasant listening experience in its own right, and so is sadly typical of so many scores today. Wallfisch of course is famous for replacing Johann Johannsson on the scoring duties of Blade Runner 2049, and this connection interested me because a lot of The Vanishing music recalls the wintry electronic soundscapes in some of Johannsson’s albums and soundtracks. Particularly, here, the strange sounds of his Arrival score. I did wonder whether Johansson’s music was used as a temp score for this film, or even if he had been possibly chosen to score this film prior to his untimely passing. That’s all conjecture on my part and possibly ill-founded, but it was remarkable, some of the similarities here.

Last Week: Some hopes for disc.

Somehow in this digital age of downloads and streams and ever-declining physical format sales, new announcements still surprise- indeed, all things considered it’s possibly more surprising than ever. Soundtrack releases and news of such have become a little scarce of late (unless you’re a Planet of the Apes fan) as many of the independent labels have run into a few issues lately with the studios they license scores from. But Quartet Records last week announced the release of a remastered and expanded edition of Philippe Sarde’s score for Ghost Story from 1981. The score is one of the finest horror scores but has always had limited releases, first on vinyl and later on a Varese CD that has commandeered high prices on the secondhand market for years. Its a big lush romantic symphonic score that’s also quite gothic and dark, and comes from the era when so many films had such different and unique soundtracks. It was one of my friend Andy’s favourite films and scores. Expect a review towards the end of the month.

Another announcement has been the 4K UHD release of Angel Heart, which I posted about yesterday. Its a funny thing, the films that are getting 4K UHD releases these days (Nic Roeg’s haunting Don’t Look Now got a restored 4K UHS release a few weeks back, also from StudioCanal). Apocalypse Now in 4K arrives this month and Kubrick’s The Shining in September. If done right, these can be the final and definitive editions for the home – pity about my DVD and Blu-ray copies that got us here, but if physical formats are nearing their Retirement Date at least they’re going out with a bang. Hell, rumours were afoot this week that Disney is prepping the original Star Wars films for 4K release next year, and it’s an old adage that when Star Wars hits a format it’s officially hit its stride/become popular so hey, 4K may not be as niche as its cracked up to be.

So anyway, it’s gotten me wondering about James Cameron’s The Abyss, which is enjoying its 3oth anniversary this year. Incredibly we never got the film on Blu-ray at all, so a 4K release would be a big leap from the old DVD release, and there has certainly been rumours around for the past few months (although to be fair, there have been rumours before over the years of an HD upgrade, so wait and see).

The R1 special edition of The Abyss I have was from the halcyon days of the format, when studios repeatedly tried to outdo themselves with ever-more elaborate special editions with documentaries and all sorts of behind the scenes footage and fancy menu animations – one of the things that disappoints with 4K discs is the really primitive front-ends, having to trawl through seperate screens to get to the audio or scene menus? Really? Anyway, if there is any truth to the rumours, we should be hearing some announcement in the next month or so if its coming before the end of this year. It’d be great to cap off my irregular ‘Party like it’s 1989’ reviews with one about The Abyss hitting 4K UHD.

In the Jungle of Madness: The Lost City of Z

z2017.74: The Lost City of Z (2016)

This is an old-style period adventure, akin to a combination Greystoke and Apocalypse Now in tone, based on the true-life odyssey of British explorer Lieut. Col. Percy Fawcett at the turn of the 20th Century, whose expeditions in search of a fabled lost civilization in the wild jungles of Amazonia came to take over his life. It’s a fascinating film that likely undermines viewers expectations with a languid pace (hence my reference to ‘old-style’) and a grim denouement that rewards simply because it confounds traditional expectations.

The sense of time and place is pretty wonderful, harking back to an age when the world was still full of mysteries with corners yet unexplored. The sequences in the jungle have an almost tangible feeling of heat and sweat and smell, and in its search for lost civilization lost in the primeval Jungle it reminded me of quite a few Robert E Howard yarns, especially in its hints that civilization is transitory and the Jungle eternal. Sequences back in England have an authentic feel and a section depicting Fawcetts period in the trenches of WW1 also impresses.

Indeed there is very little to find fault with here. It is very well-staged with a fine cast and solid script, and beautifully shot. The pace may be problematic for fidgety modern audiences, but that’s their problem-like with BR2049 I found it refreshing for a film to be allowed to breathe and tell its tale confidently at its own pace. I suspect the film’s title in this day and age may have suggested an adventure romp such as the Indiana Jones series ot the Mummy films but it’s far from that, and much the better for it, even if it likely led to trouble at the box-office from annoyed audiences. Its great that films such as this can still be made.  I really enjoyed it- one of this years pleasant surprises.



Fury (2014)

Brad Pitt;Shia LaBeouf;Logan Lerman;Michael Pena;Jon BernthalThe shadow of both Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s Band of Brothers looms large over David Ayer’s Fury. That’s no fault of the film itself, its just the way things are- its as inevitable as watching Guardians of the Galaxy and comparing it to Star Wars, or Interstellar and comparing it to 2001: A Space Odyssey. In what is perhaps a concious effort to step from out of that Private Ryan shadow, Fury pushes the envelope with its graphic onscreen portrayal of war. People burn horribly, heads explode, severed body parts litter the screen… this war isn’t pretty. And yet the one shot that lingers in my mind is one of a vast armada of bombers in the sky, weaving a spider-web of contrails across the clouds as the air trembles with the sound of their engines- its a beautiful, arresting image, quite at odds with the horrors the film portrays down on the ground.

This raised a thought whilst watching Fury; is it acceptable to portray the horrors of war in the guise of entertainment? Is it an artistic or even moral right to show the brutality of it, exploding heads, burning flesh, the blood and body parts, in a movie designed to entertain? Is there something wrong with viewers gaining enjoyment and satisfaction from watching such bloody horrors unfold? Is it even possible for any film to really encapsulate what war is? Fury may not flinch from showing battles in graphic detail but I dare say it pulls its punches- there is a limit to what censors will allow I’m sure, but as the years pass the boundaries keep moving, and I wonder where it may end. Even the heroes (as we used to understand the term in war movies) aren’t what they used to be-  the Allied soldiers seem as bitter and twisted and destroyed as the Germans they are fighting, even though its the last days of the war and the Allies are clearly on the winning side with victory near. They are all broken men. Broken by their experiences of the war.

kelly1This isn’t a consideration for earlier war movies- I found myself thinking of Kelly’s Heroes, another film featuring tanks, and one of those movies I can watch over again and again- its a war movie from back in the days that Hollywood war movies were really Boys Own Adventure films (albeit in Kelly’s Heroes case focused through a prism of late ‘sixties/early ‘seventies cynicism). Back when soldiers would get shot and fall down dead with the minimum of fuss or gore or sign of pain. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule (All Quiet on the Western Front for one), but prior to Apocalypse Now, war movies were in no way focused on the reality and madness of war. Just thinking of war movies starring John Wayne makes me cringe- only the other day whilst flicking channels I stumbled on a movie, I don’t know what it was, but it had Charles Bronson in army get-up playing soldiers with a bunch of other actors like Henry Fonda and it looked, frankly ridiculous, like grown men playing at being soldiers, almost in bad taste. But war films are what they were, prior to Apocalypse Now, Platoon and of course Saving Private Ryan. The playing field has changed now, and Fury is clearly a product of its time.

Fury is a very interesting and arresting film. Visually it is quite brutal, although it sometimes seems a little too keen to shock the viewer. It does seem brave for having such a largely unsympathetic group of characters; it is very difficult to empathise with the nominal good guys at times and that’s contrary to how films work with protagonists in peril (you really should root for the ‘good guy’ otherwise why care what happens? Perhaps it is simply showing how war and its horrors breaks men and strips them of their humanity. Its evidently a concious decision of the film-makers, because the performances themselves are all of a very high standard- they just in no way try to engender audience sympathy. Interestingly, I don’t recall any of the characters really talking about their old, pre-war lives, as if the war is all there is, all there has ever been (perhaps they don’t really believe its ever going to end).
fury3The battle scenes are well-shot and staged, albeit quite harrowing, and the film does look beautiful, which is odd considering what horrific things are depicted. Steven Price’s score is unusual and effective, and although its a bit disconcerting to hear music that sounds so like his earlier Gravity score in a period movie, on the whole it works well.

So Fury being a war movie with tanks, being compared to Kelly’s Heroes as another war movie with tanks, is hardly any fit comparison at all, but all the same, its interesting to note how much has changed with war movies. Watching the two films back to back (something I really must do someday) would be a sobering thing indeed, to see just how much things have changed in the decades between them. I guess the world has changed, and how we perceive war, as much as Hollywood’s depiction of it. Which influenced which, I wonder? Did our knowledge of war force Hollywood to change, or was it the change in Hollywood war films that influenced our view of what war is?