The new Dune trailer

Oh this looks good. This looks so VERY good. Anyone else get a tingle watching those Ornithopters flying over the sand dunes?

But is anyone else concerned that the last ten years of dumbing down blockbusters may have robbed this film of its audience? Nobody turned up to go watch BR2049, and that film wasn’t being dumped on HBO Max at the time either. I don’t know how much of an impact that HBO Max thing will prove to be, or how much Covid will be in the equation come October, but considering the money that Dune needs to make in order to break even/get Part Two greenlit…  My biggest concern is simply that, are audiences going to go in droves to watch a sci-fi epic minus caped superheroes beating the shit out of bad guys while wrecking a city? Are audiences going to sit still for a film with ideas? 

Mind, Dune is an epic story with epic spectacle so maybe that will pull people in. Films are so stupid now though, particularly the ones that make any money. I’m still reeling from the assault on my senses that was Godzilla vs Kong and that Hobbs & Shaw thing. Is that what films are now? While I take some comfort from how Disney’s Black Widow seems to have under-performed recently, that also makes me nervous regards how streaming (and yeah, Covid) seems to have pulled people away from the movie experience, wondering if things have changed forever. Have the weekly drops of content on Netflix and Disney+ so diluted peoples appreciation of tentpole releases (I have to wonder if Disney putting Marvel and Star Wars content for ‘free’ onto subscribers televisions is a kind of self-sabotage) weakened and diluted the appeal of said franchises as regards getting bums on seats in cinemas, like it used to be? We’ve already seen how people don’t seem interested in buying films on disc anymore. Some of the high-end stuff being dropped on Netflix is often poor but production-wise, they are essentially exactly the same thing as is seen in cinemas. I remember when I was kid, I saw The Empire Strikes Back at the cinema on a Saturday afternoon and when I got home Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was on the telly, and funnily enough it was the episode with the asteroid sequence and Buster Crabbe but it was so different in quality, the chasm between home entertainment and cinema entertainment was plain. That’s gone now, and seeing ‘new’ Star Wars and Marvel stuff straight onto the telly…

I’ve noted before that movies don’t seem as important or special as they used to be in my youth, back when Star Wars would be on the big screen only and when you’d wait for years to ever see Jaws again- gradually films have become more disposable. In a world where you can buy Avatar for a fiver, is there any wonder that Avatar itself fails to have any real cultural significance (and I’m really curious how those Avatar sequels will perform in a few years time). Are movies, as we fans remember them as ‘MOVIES,’ essentially dead, and things like Dune simply being made for a world and business model that no longer exists?

One has to wonder if Dune: Part Two will eventually just be a mini-series on HBO Max.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

mal1Twenty minutes into this belated 2019 sequel to the 2014 original I almost gave up on it (the Abort Button already, crikey I’ve had some week) – it was too twee, too sweet, too… well to be honest, it was too much like an animated movie. Nothing was real; the sets/locations/characters, other than Elle Fanning (and God knows she can be wooden enough to be mistaken for a Supermarionation character) everything seemed to be CGI artifice, outtakes from Avatar. Nothing, I mean NOTHING, was real: I swear it was like it was a Pixar movie. Like quite a few of these live-action Disney films, I really wonder if they should be taken to task referring to them as ‘live action’. They even insisted on one of those endless impossible helicopter/virtual camera shots sweeping over vast landscapes and huge distances, low over forests and over waterfalls and all that… ugh I hate those shots. Always pull me out of what I’m watching and put me on edge.

Thankfully we eventually reached a part of the film with real actors and real sets and the plot kicked in, because then I finally had something to latch onto, even if it was a bit weird seeing Citizen Smith (Robert Lindsay) apparently selling out as royalty and, well frankly I still felt a bit lost. Wasn’t King Henry some other actor before, as was Aurora’s boyfriend, Prince Phillip, and was Michelle Pfeiffer the Queen in the first film? Yes, they recast quite a few of the roles, and no, King Henry’s missus didn’t seem to be in the first one, weird that, or maybe I blinked and missed some explanation. Are we supposed to expect continuity problems or internal logic issues between movies?  Are we supposed to care with films such as this?

mal3Actually, it got better as it went on. Nothing too original or clever, I mean the script was fairly routine/predictable but I guess you rather expect that with big blockbusters like this: keep them simple, keep them undemanding. I might suggest that maybe they should spend some of the overblown effects budget on decent writing, but hey, you can never tell these days, maybe they did, scripts like this probably don’t come cheap even if they do sometimes feel cobbled together from DVD collections. It did, unfortunately, come across like some big overblown machine, the structure of the film, the characters, the telegraphing of stuff… I’m sure the kids love it but many of these blockbusters feel like films made by a committee, films without any individuality of vision.

But it worked, eventually working out as a worthy sequel to Maleficent, a film I quite enjoyed but never returned to- maybe I would have enjoyed this even more had I rewatched the first film beforehand (yeah, do your homework stupid), but it certainly looked like a ‘part two’ to a ‘part one’, even if that first film did originally appear to be self-contained. Some of the visuals are astonishing- Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent continues to be a remarkable creation, scary and monstrous and beautiful and somehow sexy… like a female version of Tim Curry’s Darkness from Ridley Scott’s Legend. Legend actually came to mind a few times watching this film- many of these film fantasies continue to appropriate some of that films imagery, and Ridley’s achievement in those pre-CGI days cannot be denied. But yeah, Jolie really does well under all that make-up, that can’t be easy.

And they should probably do a Flash Gordon reboot now, because the winged men of Prince Vultan’s Sky City can be nailed perfectly- the later battle sequences of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are like a pre-vis for the end of a future Flash Gordon attack on Ming’s Fortress: I couldn’t help it, I kept on thinking “Flash!” having a bit of a geek giggle. I’m reminded of the recent Planet of the Apes films using CGI apes so magnificently; sometimes a films time comes, when the tech can fully realise the vision, you know? Maybe Flash Gordon’s time is now: an odd thing to realise from watching a Maleficent movie.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

alita1If there’s an uncanny valley in Alita: Battle Angel, it is surprisingly not the CGI heroine (although individual viewer’s mileage may differ on that) but rather in the hokey script which stumbles through plot contrivances and in particular a stodgy not-quite-the-end finale, mostly from its need to set up further adventures/movies. Its become a necessary evil in modern blockbusters, unfortunately, that studios and filmmakers are not investing in single movies anymore- it’s all about franchises. I must say my appreciation of this film would have been improved no end if it had just had those old fashioned things; a beginning, a middle, and an end. But this is not to say that Alita: Battle Angel is unique in this, it is something that all blockbusters seem to suffer from, whether it be a DC movie, a Marvel movie, a Star Wars movie, just about any kind of blockbuster/tentpole release- they are all strangled by it. Maybe some people walk out of these movies excited at the possibilities of all the teases for what’s next, but I just find it incredibly frustrating and I think it handicaps the movies.

But I will say this; I really rather enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel. Much more than I expected. But it could really have been so much better, too, which really bugs me, and I suspect repeat viewings may not be too kind when some of those plot contrivances start to wear thin.

alita2.jpgSo the good, then? Well the visual effects are pretty extraordinary, frankly. Alita herself, a stunningly rendered CGI character based on motion-capture by actress Rosa Salazar is a surprisingly engaging and emotive antagonist  whoops, protagonist (if she was an antagonist it might have been a more interesting movie but hey ho, that’s just my typo). Clearly the whole film depends upon it, and she works- she really works. Many people were querying her large eyes (faithful to the anime, I expect, which I am not familiar with) but the funny thing is, it’s those eyes that work the magic and helps convince. The whole film is a triumph, visually, the world-building quite extraordinary in places. It certainly convinced me far more than the similarly CGI-dominated Ready Player One did (indeed it’s a better film entirely). Its definitely brilliant eye-candy and if this film on 4K disc doesn’t sell UHD televisions nothing will- I am sure many genre fans currently sticking with Blu-ray (or, heaven forbid, DVD) may finally take the plunge to upgrade for this film (if the film takes their fancy).

The problem, though, is that script, which is really a pretty clunky series of coincidences piled upon coincidences with a few twists via swings of character that aren’t really earned. Considering that this film has been in development hell for decades (a long-gestating James Cameron project that he was likely delaying for the technology to catch up with his vision, only for it to be sidelined for his Avatar films) I’m disappointed by the script- it certainly had the time to fix its fundamental problems and like so many sci-fi epics before it, isn’t really worthy of all the effort given it by the technical wizards.

I also think it suffers from the same problem as Disney’s John Carter did back in 2012: it’s all too familiar now. In the same way that John Carter suffered from comparisons with Star Wars and Avatar and many other films that actually were ‘inspired’ by that films own original source material of decades before, so does Alita: Battle Angel suffer from comparison with, say, Elysium or Altered Carbon (utopian city floating over trashcan city) or the live-action Ghost in the Shell (cyborg augmentation and huge CGI metropolis) and all sorts of others, whether it be the slo-mo CGI action stunts of the Matrix films or some of the real boy/robotic tensions of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Certainly there have been so many cyberpunk-styled films now that they threaten to descend into parody, which is a shame and probably a necessary evil at this point (its like bemoaning a Star Wars film for featuring am elaborate space battle, or a Western having guys riding horses). Its almost inevitable that the future city looks very Blade Runner at times.

For all that, though, yes I did enjoy this film. There’s a curious heart to the main character’s over-familiar concerns of identity, of what is machine, what is human and all the Pinocchio subtext that Spielberg rather did to death in the aforementioned A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and if this film feeling like the first half of a larger story does grate somewhat when the end credits roll, well, I guess that’s just where we are now with these films. I rather hope we get to see another one to tell the rest of that tale, but again, these days you never can tell what’s destined to be a hit, and a flop, we just have to wait and see those box office figures.

The Jungle Book (2016)

jungle12016.97: The Jungle Book

I’ve never seen Walt Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book, other than the clips they would endlessly re-run every Easter on Disneytime (anybody else remember those?), so in some ways I came into this one in a rather unique (I would imagine) poston of not knowing what to expect. These live-action remakes that Disney are doing are quite clever really, rather like the remakes/reboots that Hollywood in general is so keen on these days. They seem to be working quite well too, on the evidence of this one; such a pity that The Black Hole remake seems to have stalled- if ever a Disney film deserved a (better) remake, its that one. In anycase,  this film benefits greatly from modern technology giving it a fresh angle, in just the same way as the recent Apes reboots have for Fox.

Its also ironic, that speaking as someone who bemoans the amount of cgi trickery and how it mucks about with quality film-making, it must be said that the 2016 Jungle Book (inspired no doubt by some chap watching Life of Pi a few years back) would have been quite impossible without cgi. The technology can be responsible for some pretty remarkable film-making, such as Pi and stuff like Gravity. Indeed most films -and particularly much television too- benefits hugely by cgi; like any tool, it just has to be used well. Its just too easy to miss-use it I guess. Its funny, I remember much the same argument being made about those ILM effects back in the original Star Wars era.

Is it the fault of cgi that screen-writing seems to have suffered so greatly over the past twenty years or so? I mean, it has to be partly to blame, mustn’t it. Its too easy to replace drama and carefully orchestrated plots and character arcs with loud explosions and flashy spectacle, and that’s such a shame as films -particularly blockbusters- seem to have degenerated into amusement rides rather than ‘proper’ (as I would call it) epic storytelling like the 1959 Ben Hur.

But that sounds like an old bugger whingeing about the disrespectful masses who wouldn’t dream of watching anything from the pre-Spielberg era of motion pictures and film-makers who have no intention of educating them.We are where we are.

So anyway, Jon Favreau’s rather remarkable new Jungle Book is quite the wonder. As someone who grew up in the ILM bluescreen era, for whom these cgi wonders are still eye-popping so long since Jurassic Park changed the movie landscape, much of the imagery and trickery on show is utterly astonishing. It looks quite ravishing, and I always watch this kind of stuff wondering what Hitchcock or Kubrick would have made of it (sorcery, maybe, but what wizards they might have been handling a toolset such as this in their movies?).

Newcomer Neel Sethi is something of a particular wonder as Mowgli, though, a mote of humanity in a cgi landscape whose bubbly personality and sense of pure innocent wonder is quite charming and steals the show from the effects boys.  His performance is a wonder when one considers what the live-action shooting of this film likely entailed (i.e. nothing at all like what the finished film looks like). Vocal casting of the animated characters is pretty spot-on too, with Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, and particularly Idris Elba as the villainous Shere Khan all very impressive and largely equal to the cgi visuals. The jungle feels real, although it most likely is utterly virtual. I have the impression that, like Avatar and Gravity before it, this new Jungle Book is a stepping-stone to something; I’m not sure exactly what, but there is something up ahead, a particular film in ten years time maybe, that when it hits will blow people away and people will trace its lineage backwards to stuff like those films, in just the same way that the Flash Gordon serials led to Star Wars. In anycase, this new Jungle Book is fine entertainment, one of the real achievements of 2016.