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.

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Vangelis piggy bank

vangpigHere’s something of an oddity; a piggy bank designed by Vangelis for charity, sold at auction yesterday for £2,900. Really, the world is crazy enough with Trump in charge across the pond without news stories like this having me convinced I’ve slipped into the Twilight Zone. Vangelis? Piggy bank?  Not words I’d have associated with each other before this past weekend, naturally.

For Vangelis collectors, of course, this one-of-a-kind item must have been irresistible- I suppose I should just thank my lucky stars it wasn’t some one-off edition of a complete Blade Runner soundtrack. Proceeds went to a fine cause – the charity ‘Innocence in Danger’, for the protection of children against sexual abuse.

The selfish fan in me would rather suggest that Vangelis release some of his unreleased albums/material with the proceeds of the sales going entirely to charity, like his original El Greco limited edition back in the early 1990s,  There’s plenty of material in the vaults, I hear, and plenty of fans who would buy it even at the somewhat premium prices some of these ‘superdeluxe’ sets go for, but hey ho, piggy banks it is.

The world is getting sillier by the minute, I fear, and news such as this does nothing to dissuade me otherwise, but its a nice gesture by Vangelis to get involved.

 

Do Androids Dream of 4K?

It may not have been particularly good for maintaining this blog, but the crazy hours I’ve been doing at work since my (soon at an end, hopefully) relocation down the M6 has resulted in a lot of overtime. Which has had me looking at perhaps changing my television sooner than originally intended. It was with some shock that I discovered that my current LCD Sony Bravia is now eight years old- its still got the best picture quality I’ve known in a television and yes, its still refuses to go on the blink (other than occasionally needing a unplug/plug-in to reboot it when it gets confused, but hey, I know how that feels, so that’s nothing to be embarrassed about). I mean, it works, it even looks great, so whats to change?

Okay, here I’ll admit it. I went into Currys the other day, and looked at the televisions. They were playing some of Blade Runner 2049 on a few of them, the fiendish bastards must have known I was coming. Good God almighty, that film looks like something else on a 65″ 4K OLED. I may have been drooling at some point. It looks great on my television in HD, but on that OLED set, it looked like some other movie.

Now of course. I will never own a 65″ television. I’d have to win a lottery and move into a bigger house for that to ever be an option. But the picture quality. Good grief. Maybe these people jumping on the 4K bandwagon are onto something. Some of those televisions sure are something; why ever go to the cinema with something like that sitting  at home? Hell, I can imagine watching the 1982 Blade Runner and its sequel in 4K endlessly, how beautiful 2049 looked, I mean, who’d need any other film to watch? Well, my wife would have a few words on that subject, to be fair…

It is curious though- back when I had my Sony Bravia, 40″ looked like a big screen (anybody remember when 28″ LCD seemed a big deal?), and so did the 49″ set my brother bought a few months ago (the size of television that my common-sense part of my brain knows is the right size for my lounge). But those 55″ sets look awfully tempting. 65″ is a pipe-dream for another life and another home but 55″ might just squeeze in… and its funny how little of a jump it seems from 49″ to 55″ when you’re walking around the Currys Fantasy Land where televisions are lined up like Christmas trees in November.

So anyway, anybody got any tips? It is pretty confusing- LED, QLED, OLED, so many sizes… all the latest models/gimmicks, all last years models going for a song. There’s a few televisions I’ve got my eye on, but as far as pulling the trigger on one, well, its still a lot of money, and while my heart races with visions of 4K Los Angeles my brain still has enough sense to remind me that there’s an old Bravia in my lounge working pretty fine. Or maybe that’s my wife talking- women are always much more grounded in reality than we men, I find, particularly when it comes to gadgets etc.

So yeah, any experiences good/bad and advice, feel free. Meanwhile, I’ll keep on daydreaming of 4K Electric Sheep…

 

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.

 

 

 

All the Money in the World (2017)

all1Here’s the thing about Ridley Scott films- with a catalogue of great or at the very least memorable films to his name, particularly his earliest films like Alien or Blade Runner, or perhaps later efforts like Gladiator, its difficult for any new addition to the list being given a break, or accepted as just being an average movie. There is this weight of expectation attached to them, as if every film he ever makes has to somehow measure up to his greats- sure, it’d be wonderful if they did, but its really an unfair expectation, isn’t it.

Besides, (reduce to a whisper)  I always suspect directors get too much credit anyway, so perhaps its unfair to saddle them wit all the blame too. In just the same way as its the players on the pitch in a game of football who get, or fail to get, a result, as much as the manager on the touchline who gets credited for masterminding a win or blamed/sacked when things go awry, on a movie production there are too many factors that effect how a film turns out for it to be fair that a director gets lauded or pilloried depending on the final product. I suppose much of this treads into auteur theory, with directors treated as the author of movies as if they created a film themselves- I suspect films are much more collaborative than that.

One thing I will say for Ridley Scott films, as I’m speaking clearly as a fan here who has followed his career since 1979 reading interviews in Fantastic Films way back then, is that he is a consummately formidable technician. His later films may not artistically or thematically match his first films, but he shoots them extremely well, speedily and on budget, demonstrating such control its something to marvel at in a world in which so many films go over-schedule or over-budget or dragged down by re-shoots.  Ridley gets the job done. The studios must love having him at the helm- box office be damned, at least they know a film is going to get made on  time and with solid quality, and The Martian has proved he still has hits in him.

That being said of course, All the Money in the World was troubled in post-production and required substantial reshoots,  a scandal involving allegations made against original star Kevin Spacey causing him having be replaced. The fact that, had it not been so well documented, watching the film you would have no idea that Christopher Plummer was a late replacement is a pretty formidable testament to the quality of Ridley Scott’s professionalism. Simply as an exercise in last-minute film-making its pretty jaw-dropping that the film even works.

The film was also pulled into the argument over inequality of pay between actresses and their male co-stars.  When Ridley and the studio decided the film could not be released with Spacey still in the film, he recast with Plummer but this triggered a clause in  Mark Wahlberg’s contract, which had co-star approval. Wahlberg, or his team of lawyers and agents, simply stated that he would not approve Plummer and attend re-shoots without an additional payment of $1.5 million, essentially holding the film to ransom. Co-star Michelle Williams didn’t have that clause in her contract so attended the re-shoots for something like $80 a day. To add further salt in the wound, Williams told the USA Today that “”I said I’d be wherever they needed me, whenever they needed me. And they could have my salary, they could have my holiday, whatever they wanted. Because I appreciated so much that they were making this massive effort.” Thinking about it, this film got such a beating you could argue it was one of those cursed productions you sometimes read about. I read later that Wahlberg donated his fee to Times Up, but I’m sure most of Hollywood wishes they had his management team.

(It might be interesting to note regards the inequality of actors pay that Wahlberg’s original fee for the film was $5 million -itself much less than what he is usually paid-  and Williams $625,000).

all2So having written all that, I realise that I written nothing really about the film itself. Well, considering all the hysterics surrounding it, I must say I was surprised how good it was and how much I enjoyed it. Clearly its one of Ridley’s lesser films but its nonetheless a solid piece of work graced by some fine performances, particularly Plummer who is frankly astonishing considering he was a last-minute replacement in scenes shot in just 10 days. His octogenarian billionaire, at the time the richest man who had ever lived, is a fascinating character and Plummer clearly relishes the role in every moment on screen. Its impossible to say what Spacey originally brought to the role but its hard to imagine the film is any the lesser without him. You might be forgiven for expecting Plummer’s scenes to feel rushed and perhaps feel ‘off’, be technically inferior to the original shoot but they actually become the cold icy heart of the film and its finest asset.

The film is based on  the true story of  the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) in 1973,  and the increasingly desperate struggles of his mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to ensure his release when his grandfather refuses to pay up. While the kidnappers threaten to start sending the boy back in pieces, his grandfather spends his money on paintings instead and his time gleefully monitoring ticker-tape reports of his ever-increasing wealth.

Wahlberg is perhaps miscast in the film. He plays Fletcher Chase, one of Getty Sr’s negotiators who Getty tasks with bringing the boy home without giving the kidnapper’s any money. In a traditional Hollywood thriller with someone like Wahlberg in the role, you’d perhaps expect something like a Taken movie to ensue as the guy does what a guy has to do to bring the boy home and let the body count be damned. But as this is based on a true story and that didn’t happen, it seems a bit of misdirection on the film-makers part. As it is, left without kick-ass action Wahlberg sort of drifts around looking a little lost. Why spend all those millions on him if he’s not doing what he usually gets paid all those millions to do?

WIlliams is very good, with a captivating performance that almost measures up to that of Plummer. Together they rather tease the classic movie that this might have been, but really its not a bad film at all. Ridley Scott captures the sense of period as brilliantly as ever, making it look so easy,  and moves the plot forward with the efficiency he is so famous for now, until the film ends in a climactic hide and seek sequence that almost feels like its from some other movie. The real center of the film is Plummer’s performance and this strange real-life Citizen Kane, which rather unbalances a film whose drama should revolve around the kidnapped boy. I suspect there are two films here, and its that second film made in the re-shoots that steals it.

BR: What Were They Thinking?

brspin.jpgClearly, the marketing/merchandising boys had no idea what kind of film Blade Runner was, and had no idea of the target audience. Spinner Car toys? What were they thinking? That said, original (boxed) examples are probably worth some money now, you’d think they would be pretty rare, after all. But honestly, even back in 1982, I saw the ad above in the official magazine and could not believe my eyes. Didn’t buy one either.

That being said-

deckfigThe more things change, the more they stay the same. And it doesn’t seem to matter how adult your film is, the merchandising boys will always try to flog some toys. And boys do love their toys, whatever their age.

 

 

 

 

Yeah, I admit it. I own this guy.

Favourite Films- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I’ve been wondering where to start with my ‘Favourite Films’ series of posts and the answer was staring me in the face, as this month is the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s monumental movie, so here we go-

2001paperbThere isn’t really much new that I can say about this extraordinary film, a film that exists as a piece of culture almost beyond cinema itself, a film whose impact resounds even today, some fifty years later. Where to begin? Well, I’m one of the Star Wars generation, too young to have seen the film when it first came out in 1968 (oh what it must have been like for those first audiences) but old enough to have been around when the film was still part of the then-recent cultural zeitgeist of the 1970s. I’d read the book by Arthur C Clarke, seen some images from the film. I read the Marvel comics 2001: A Space Odyssey by Jack Kirby, one of the strangest, weirdest comic book series anyone might ever see, certainly at the time. It all added to the strange mystique surrounding the film. It was something enigmatic, something I’d heard and read about but never seen. Of course, little did I realise it would remain just as enigmatic even after I had seen it, only maybe even more so.

So yes, eventually the stars aligned and I saw it, on its first UK network screening, which was, I think, sometime around Christmas 1979 or 1980, I’m not certain which it was. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to think. Which was as true of audiences back in 1968 or indeed in  2018- the first time you see 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Its only on the second viewing, or the third or  fifth that you really ‘get’ it. Or maybe you don’t really ‘get’ it  even after the fiftieth time. Maybe you’re not supposed to ‘get’ it. Arthur C Clarke said “if you understood 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise more questions than we answered.” There, in a nutshell, is the magic and fascination of the film and why it still remains the very antithesis of traditional cinema, and particularly current cinema which feels the need to force feed audiences everything. Most every film these days feels the need to explain, rationalise, feed endings or tease new beginnings/sequels.

I read a comment back when BR2049 came out last year, about the ending where K and Deckard reach  Dr. Ana Stelline’s office, and they stand in the snow and Deckard asks K why he has done what he did, what Deckard is to K. Following a pause, K just smiles and tells Deckard to go see his daughter, and they part. What was interesting is that this really pissed off the guy writing the comment. “Why doesn’t K say something?!” railed the guy. “Its stupid! I want K to tell us why!” To me, this is the genius of the film. Attentive viewers will know why K did what he did, and what Deckard meant to him, what Deckard represented. We don’t need it spelled out for us. Well, some of us don’t.

Which is the deepest heart of 2001. Its never got the slightest intention of explaining anything or everything. In a way, it rather does, but it leaves it up to the viewer to extrapolate meaning or sense from the film. So anyway, when school resumed after that Christmas holiday, members of my form came over to me (as the class resident sci-fi geek and film nut) and asked me what the hell 2001 was on about. I remember shrugging my shoulders and giving some general summary of the plot and what I thought but didn’t feel entirely sure myself. 2001 wasn’t Star Wars. 2001 was something else.

So began a fascination that followed for all the near-forty years since.

2001vhsI re-watched some of 2001 in art school, particularly the effects shots. Even back then, the film seemed particularly slow (God only knows what it seems like to new viewers coming to it now). I remember how control of the image, fast-forwarding and rewinding the VHS tape still refused to reveal the films secrets to me. I remember that the film was one of the first catalogue films sold on VHS in the very earliest days of affordable sell-through, and it was of course an inevitable Christmas present to me. Of course it was pan-and-scan version that mutilated the framing and the image quality was typically poor of VHS, colours blooming and dropouts etc. Well, it was long before DVD and even Blu-ray, and no doubt a 4K UHD is due eventually.

2001abelAll the books. I have read so many books about 2001. There’s still books coming out about it, fifty years later, and surely in another fifty years time there will be more.

The first and probably best was ‘The Making of Kubrick’s 2001‘ edited by Jerome Agel. Its a paperback published in 1970 which is utterly brilliant in its approach. Its basically a compilation of quotes and reviews and articles surrounding the film from its genesis and the months immediately following its release, complete with a 96-page insert of b&w stills and behind-the-scenes images explaining some of the technical aspects of the production. It includes Arthur C Clarke’s original story The Sentinel which formed the basic foundation of the plot, sections from the MAd magazine parody, the instructions from a model kit of the Orion Pan Am clipper. Letters to Kubrick from confused/angry/ecstatic viewers. Its a brilliant book, and I only wish someone had done something similar for Blade Runner.

The funny thing about 2001 is that it was never about prediction. Even the rosiest predictions from the mid-sixties with the manned moon landings planned and NASA’s huge budget at the time couldn’t really have led to the films visions becoming reality by the year 2001. But as the years and decades passed everyone was making the comparison of fiction vs reality.  Probably pissed Kubrick off no end, and how unkind and yet almost fitting, that Kubrick himself didn’t live to see the real 2001? So in a weird way, passing the real year 2001 was something rather liberating for the film, far as I’m concerned. Yes, the film is partly a fascinating glimpse of what the future looked like from the optimistic and thrilling vantage point of the 1960s, when everything was possible. And yes, it also looks rather quaint and retro-’60s, now, from our 21st Century perspective. But it’s really only reinforced the mythological intent of the film all the more clearly. As such it feels all the more powerful and allows fresh insights. Its cinema as art. Its Pure Cinema. Its a timeless masterpiece.

Or its breathtakingly self-indulgent, boring, slow, frustrating, stupid.: the film still maintains the ability to thoroughly piss people off. I’m not going to suggest that those people are wrong and that I’m right about it being a masterpiece. Oh, go on then.

Marking 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of my favourite films is almost redundant and almost as boring and predictable as had I started this series of posts with Blade Runner. But the fiftieth anniversary of this film clearly is apt excuse to start with this particular film. How many films that are made today will still be so hotly talked about/praised/hated in fifty years time as this one? How many films have really measured up in the years since? When Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar came out a few years back, so many people were comparing it favourably to Kubrick’s 2001 that it drove me nuts. People thought Interstellar was groundbreaking and intelligent and thought-provoking, but it’s nowhere near the same league as 2001, no matter its ambitions. No sci-fi film director has really come close to what Kubrick achieved in 1968. No-one has pushed the envelope, challenged how people ‘see’ sci-fi or that genre as a whole, or what it might be capable of.  It is one of my saddest observations that for all the technological breakthroughs we have seen from CGI etc, that no-one has carried it through to some new Odyssey for our own age.

Stanley Kubrick said “How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written a the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001” There’s not many films that could possibly ever be compared with the Mona Lisa, as a piece of art of such magnitude, but 2001 surely can. A film for the ages then, and yes, one of my very favourite films.