Conan the Barbarian by Jason Aaron

conan jason aaronA very welcome oversized hardback collection of writer Jason Aaron’s twelve-issue run of Conan the Barbarian. The arc is titled ‘The Life and Death of Conan’ and is a pretty interesting take on the character for his return to Marvel: I suspect it was a deliberately introductory arc intended for new readers unfamiliar with the character, as it sweeps forwards and backwards in time referencing various parts of Conan’s life and adventures. It may also be a case of Aaron referencing REH’s habit of non-chronological stories, Howard depicting Conan as a King and then in his next story depicting Conan as a young thief, or later in his life as a pirate, writing stories at various stages of Conan’s life as if on a whim. It would be left for two fans to later write a probable chronological outline of Conan’s life piecing the REH stories into some kind of order (“A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career” by P Miller and J D Clark first published in a fanzine in 1938). 

One of the ways to judge how good a new Conan story is, is perhaps inevitably to compare it to the mood and spirit of REH’s original tales. This is something of a double-edged sword because there is no way for any writer to really create something that rings wholly true of Howard. Conan’s creator may have been a pulp writer quickly turning out the stories to pay the bills (and at the time of the Conan shorts were written this would include paying for, or contributing to, his mother’s medical expenses as her health failed) but their quality has ensured his work has been in print for close on a century now. Indeed, it can be argued that Howard’s best stories are those not involving Conan at all, but it can’t be denied that the best of the Conan yarns are really something special. 

So how does Aaron fair with such an unfair comparison? Pretty well I think. I’m not really convinced that he manages to capture Conan’s character; there is something a little too civilized regards Aaron’s Conan for all his narrative commentary otherwise, lacking some of the dark barbarian of Howard. There’s a literal fixation on Conan’s wanderlust, Conan’s drive to see over the next hill, an ambition to experience all the Hyborian Age’s wonders that I don’t think was such a character trait in the Cimmerian at all. It feels a little too on the nose, too modern a point of view. I rather thought Howard’s Conan lived more aimlessly, subject to his own physical whim and excess, whether it be wine, women or loot. Aaron further features a rather unwelcome explanation for Conan’s success, attributing it to a witches curse and the protection from a Dark God that needed the Cimmerians blood at the end of a long life in order for that Dark God to return. Hey, I’d prefer to attribute Conan’s length of survival to his own efforts.

The art and colours (chiefly by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson respectively) are beautiful; modern comic art is on this evidence rather more sophisticated than much of the 1970s art that featured in Marvel’s original Conan books, although I still think John Buscema’s Conan is the definitive one. This edition certainly benefits from the larger size- I initially bought this run in two softcover collections but really struggled with the small print, my eyes not what they were: no such problems here. Aaron left the title after issue twelve but I definitely hope that the successive issues with a new creative team can also be reprinted in OHC format eventually. While I am really enjoying Marvel’s omnibus reprints of both the colour and black & white Conan titles from the 1970s – 1980s, I would be fascinated to see where Marvel goes with this new generation of Conan titles.    

Conan Omnibus Vol.3

conanomni3I’ve received the latest Conan the Barbarian Omnibus this week. Collecting the original Marvel series during its lengthy John Buscema era (the definitive comics Conan for me), this third volume features issues 52-83, a few annuals and other material. Its a wonderful blast from the past. Glancing through it my attention was caught by the cover of issue 57, and its date of December 1975.

1975! Wow, just imagine that. Thinking back to what the world was like that back then, the movies that came out, the tv shows, the music, just imagining how it all was back when John Buscema was drawing those issues, and Roy Thomas writing them. Geeks of my generation tend to think of the world as pre-Star Wars and post-Star Wars. Its stupid I know, but that film is such a powerful, iconic moment in pop culture its a seductive way of thinking- things were so very different then, pre-1977: not worse, not better, just… different.

The run of issues collected in this third omnibus dates from 1975 to 1978, back when I was a young lad reading various Marvel monthlies. I loved them, it was a means of escape, long before Marvel Studios made it so ‘easy’ putting them up on the big screen (I can only imagine what it must be like for ten-year-old kids having all those Marvel films to watch now). One of my pleasures in reading these collections has been the letters pages, the occasional notes in them from the editor (in Conan’s case, Roy Thomas) and the detailed forewords etc to these books (the stories behind the scenes of these comics is really illuminating). Looking through the issues from 1976 really felt a little like a time machine. I remember 1976 well, I was ten years old. I remember the long hot summer; one of the hottest on record- we had a drought here, and I was deep into my Marvel comics that year. It was the year of the American Bicentennial, which meant very little to most kids here in Blighty, but to me swept up by the coverage in the Marvel comics (particularly the Captain America comics of that year) seemed so important and colourful. It was the  year of Howard the Duck (which I bought in an Omnibus collection a few years ago), and so many other wonderful four-colour Marvel mags. I’ll make myself feel really old by recalling Abba’s Dancing Queen hitting the charts, Batman reruns on network television, Starsky & Hutch on tv Saturday nights, or Brotherhood of Man’s ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’  winning that years Eurovision. Gotta love those 1970s.

XX7.TIFFAs I’m a huge fan of John Buscema’s work, its a great pleasure reading these issues from when he was in his prime. Reading editorials later in this collection regards John’s absence in later issues reprinted in this book (several instead drawn by a pre-Star Wars comics adaptation Howard Chaykin), it was poignant to read the explanations of John being busy on art duties on Captain Britain, a comic published by Marvel over here directly targeted at the UK market. I don’t think any of that stuff got published in America at all, certainly not until a collected edition years later. The original run for that character is largely forgotten now, and it hasn’t likely dated well at all, but I remember being wowed by those issues drawn by John Buscema and amused by the very frequent times when it was blatantly obvious that it was drawn from an Americans idea of what London and the police etc. looked like, not the reality. Its funny, because everything I imagined America looked like came from those Amazing Spider Man comics drawn by Steve Ditko and John Romita and so many others, and I’m sure that was as skewed as that weird Britain pictured in that comic. Somehow the real America never really lived up to the imaginations of those Marvel artists. I haven’t seen those Captain Britain strips in decades, I guess they would be kind of cute now. Or horrifying!

Thin Red Expanded

thinredost1This may prove to be the soundtrack release of the year. La La Land Records have confirmed a 4-disc set of Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous score for The Thin Red Line is going to be released next week. The film is one of my favourites and so is the soundtrack, so this is great news. Its also, I believe, the last project from the late Nick Redman, and is surely a marvelous way to celebrate him and remember his contributions to film music ( I believe a dedication to him has been added to the inside inlay of covers being reprinted to fix a typo that slipped through, which is a lovely gesture by the label).

There does seem to be a little bit of a backlash though from the film music community. Of the four discs two have been previously released – the soundtrack album and a later compilation of Melanesian chants, of which I think just three are from the film (I have the soundtrack album, naturally, but never bothered with the other). The main draw of course is the full score on the first two discs, hugely expanded from the original album and featuring some alternates. As a souvenir/record of the music this set is fantastic, but some music fans have balked at the high price ($59.98) considering two of the discs are nothing new (albeit they have been remastered). I suppose this is the problem with some releases, especially as there is a tradition of including original album assemblies for completists’ sake (this may be a legal requirement, too, I’m not sure). Most of the time it’s fine, the new material heavily outweighing the old (I’m thinking of the 3-disc Star Trek:TMP set, which included the original 1979 album but that was lost in all the new goodies) but two discs of old/two discs of new, considering the price point of the set,  seems to be annoying some. I think they just need reminding how sublime this score is- its some of the finest music ever written for a film.

thinredost2Foolishly, perhaps, as I have always adored this film and its music I’m pretty much at the ‘whatever the price, I’m in’ set, but it does mean I’ll have to reign in purchasing other stuff (and indeed just cancelled two pre-orders on Amazon). I’d rate this set as one of the biggest, most important and unlikeliest releases ever- up there with the aforementioned 3-disc Star Trek: TMP and 3-disc Conan the Barbarian. These are all releases that, when the actual films came out, you would not have dreamed were possible. I suppose what may be troubling fans is all the rumours of six hours of music cooked up by Zimmer that some had hoped we’d hear something of, and initial word of a 4-disc set for TRL had some -hell, me too- wildly speculating about contents. Well, the final tracklist has brought us back to the real world, but it’s not too shabby at all and really, an expansion of this was so unlikely I still have to pinch myself. There is some utterly gorgeous, beautiful music on this set for the first time.

Unfortunately, I will likely have to wait until March for it to arrive over on these shores- expect a review then!

Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

pru
ok kids, saddle up- time to save the world!

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was a film that I quite enjoyed– while quite flawed it remained a fun geeky love-letter to KIng Kong, Godzilla and giant mecha/robot stuff like Neon Genesis Evangelion. Thanks to del Toro’s canny eye it bettered the Transformers films that it sometimes seemed to be imitating, with a genuine sense of size and scale that beggared belief.  I haven’t seen it for a few years, surprisingly- quite shocked to learn it dates back to 2013.

I suppose the fact that this sequel is somewhat belated is a clue to how it eventually turned out. Pacific Rim was a success but a modest one, so that when a sequel was finally greenlit it came with a few caveats from the studio. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but there’s no smoke without fire, as they say, and there’s a clear indication with Pacific Rim: Uprising that some retooling to the possible franchise was done in the giant robot garage.

More light. More fun. More kids. Oh God, more kids. You know it’s time to run for the hills when you learn that one of the protagonists is a teenage girl who was orphaned in the post-Pacific Rim ruins of a city where she spends her time building her own giant robot suit (a jäger in the parlance of the film). This is as irritating as the kids saving the day in Ready Player One. She should be dirty, starving and emigrating to some place safe where she can be fed and kept warm but instead she’s set up a garage/workshop and demonstrating formidable engineering and mechanical skills that a post-Grad would envy.  Of course she becomes a jäger pilot who with her other classmates at pilot-school save the day when all the adults get massacred (was this plot for the aborted Star Fleet Academy by any chance?).

Okay, I still got a kick from some of the giant robots/monsters decimating another city in eye-popping visual effects but this one clearly lacks the credentials of the original- not quite as bad as that infernal Independence Day sequel but not too off. This isn’t the first time, of course, that a sequel is made that suffers from studio-mandated tinkering. A similar thing happened decades ago when the rather adult Conan The Barbarian was reformatted into a PG-13 kiddie cringefest in Conan the Destroyer and we all remember how well Superman turned into increasingly lightweight fare in Superman III. Look at how well Justice League turned out when Warner had a panic attack after Batman v Superman. 

Which is really spending too much time thinking about this very average and misguided effort. That it ends with our street-urchin having a happy snowball fight with John Boyega’s Jake Pentecost, son of the original film’s hero Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) for a bit of light-hearted, life-affirming nonsense as if it was the close of an episode of a 1960s Star Trek, says everything. Its like two films in, someone’s pressed the franchise’s  reset button already. Weird, and demonstrates a clear lack of faith. So no, this not Pacific Rim 2, not really. Its something else. I suppose its fun and light-hearted…

 

Listening to- The Vikings (re-recording)

vikingsA really pleasant surprise this- the City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, who re-recorded the complete Conan the Barbarian score several years ago,  return with a new recording of Mario Nascimbene’s magnificent score to the 1958 film The Vikings. I reference their earlier Conan album deliberately because this in many ways is its second cousin, a great old-Hollywood epic score full of emotion and grandeur- Nascimbene’s score sounds very akin to the Poledouris opus. Readers of my post last year regards The Vikings on blu-ray will remember how fond I am of both the film (a childhood favourite when it used to air on tv all the time) and its music. This album sounds fantastic, rich and clear and a very modern, faithful recording with a deep and wide stereo soundfield that the original score itself cannot match. Indeed, I well recall buying the original soundtrack on CD many years ago and being quite appalled by its awful, scratchy and weak sound, in mono no less and possibly one of the worst-sounding discs I ever bought (wouldn’t have surprised me if it had come from a very bad vinyl). For many years I have hoped that someday someone might do a re-recording of the score (particularly, funnily enough, back when the Conan re-recording came out (itself prior to Intrada’s ‘proper’ expanded original soundtrack that is still inferior in parts to the Prague version).

Oh well, it does seem that sometimes all things come to he that waits (hint- you reading this, Vangelis?). Its simply brilliant to be listening to this wonderful music in such great audio quality. It remains a genuinely great score that tells the story of its film without needing any visuals, utterly timeless and quite stirring. That Viking main theme gets me everytime, especially in tracks such as Regnar Returns. The sequence is one of my very favourite film moments, Pure Cinema, the gorgeous cinematography with the music making something special- a genuine piece of art, timeless and haunting.

Anyway, this is one of the music releases of the year. A The Vikings re-recording finally happened. Somebody pinch me. Hail Regnar!

 

Poledouris’ Triumphant Barbarian

barb1This CD cover here on the left must be one of the craziest, most unexpected releases I can imagine. Released a few weeks ago, its the majority of Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian score transcribed for organ. You know, like they play in churches- indeed this recording was made at Claremont United Church of Christ in California, so it has that authentic ‘sound’. Once you get used to it (and after thirty years listening to the score in orchestral form, yes it does take a little adjusting to), it is a remarkable sounding work. There’s something primal about it, as if the music is reduced to its most raw state, at times brutal but also warm, and often richly religious-sounding with the associations of hearing organs in churches. Its more successful than you might think, and for any fan of the score its a must. Listening to it I wonder what Poledouris, who sadly passed away in 2006, would have thought of it (I’d like to think he would have been absolutely thrilled). Then I consider the long road that led us here some thirty-plus years after the original film was released. Quality wins out, and that is never truer than with this music. Say what you may about the film, the score is a monumental piece of work, Poledouris’ masterpiece, and its wonderful to have seen the music get appreciated and revered separate from the film.

Back in late summer of 1982, I read an issue of Starlog that featured an interview with Basil Poledouris, composer of the score for John Milius’ film Conan The Barbarian. I’d been a reader of the Robert E Howard stories since the mid-seventies and while I wasn’t at that time a big fan of the movie, I was very curious about the score. It seemed to ‘fit’ the Conan I knew from the original stories perfectly, a monumental piece of work that I have always been convinced was one of the finest scores for any movie, ever (it was just a shame that the film didn’t match the music but subsequent viewings on VHS turned me into a fan of the film too).

Oh, but that music. I’ve always been a supporter of what Douglas Trumbull described as Pure Cinema, moments or sequences with minimal dialogue or exposition, in which visuals and the score tell the story. Conan The Barbarian was just that. “I wrote two hours of music for Conan,” Poledouris said in the Starlog interview; “It was always in John (Milius’) mind that Conan would be solid music – much like an opera, but without singing. Even the first three reels of the film is wall to wall music. From the first frame of reel one to the end of the Wheel of Pain sequence somewhere in the middle of reel three, is one long cue without any break.” More than that, dialogue during this first twenty minutes -barring a brief prologue between father and son describing the Riddle of Steel- is non-existent; it’s just the music and the visuals telling the story.

Handicapping this however was a deeply flawed decision by the film-makers to release the film in mono only. Looking back on it, it seems a crazy decision to make, especially in these times of home cinema systems, but back then televisions were square and mono, and home video undreamed of- films had limited lifetimes in cinemas before being consigned to network airings years later and cinemas themselves were hardly -in the main- the surround sound auditoriums they are today.

But still, it does seem short-sighted and clearly impacted the movie. Here’s a big movie with huge sets and a (literally) huge imposing star, accompanied by this massive score that serves film and story in purely cinematic terms, and you hamper it with a mono soundtrack just to save some of the budget (which presumably ran over). Poledouris commented about this in the Starlog interview: “I think its a crime that with a movie of this size that the soundtrack doesn’t come close to what Milius has on the screen. the monophonic optical track does the picture no service. For demonstration purposes, we mixed the first reel in stereo to show the producers what it should really sound like when all of a sudden those horsemen come charging through the snow. You really feel the terror of those hooves thundering through the snow with the drums and chants. The sound works on a gut level resurrecting primitive memories of fear”.

barb3The only way to hear any of that two-hour score in stereo was to buy the soundtrack album, which totalled 47 minutes of music. The soundtrack presentation was very good, including all of the main themes and highlights from the film. For some reason the only edition of the soundtrack that I could get was this version from Europe, a French import I believe, although it had Italian stickers on it if i recall correctly. I don’t think I ever saw a UK or American import at all. This was in those distant days of vinyl, and I damn near wore this sucker down. To save serious wear I recorded it onto cassette, placing the tracks into film order and played that over and over; it was really a soundtrack to my life back then, played in the background while doing my paintings during my A-level art days and playing fantasy RPGs with friends. Back then of course it would never occur to me that one day we might get a better, more complete release of the music.

A few years later the score would return, this time on CD, first on a Milan disc and later a slightly expanded Varese Sarabande release. At the time this was deemed the most complete release that would ever be possible, as the master tapes had been believed lost or destroyed. A complete and chronological release (C&C in filmscore geek parlance) of Conan would be the stuff of dreams for years, and of course, as the years went by, ever more unlikely.

barb2Poledouris himself was said to be disappointed with the performance and recording of the original score in Rome, and in the mid-nineties discussed with producer James Fitzpatrick the possibility of the composer having the opportunity to conduct a new re-recording of the score. At the time these plans didn’t come to fruition, and it wouldn’t be until 2010 that the full re-recording would become a reality- alas, some four years after Poledouris’ untimely passing. Fitzpatrick would do Poledouris proud, using the composer’s original manuscripts and a large orchestra accompanied by a 100-voice chorus to record the complete score. For fans of the score it was a dream come true, even though some would voice reservations. This was, essentially, the score as Poledouris had always intended it to be heard, but for some fans whose ears were used to the original, for all its faults, this re-recording sounded a little odd at times. I guess its in the nature of re-recordings. Deviate too far from the original and you get cries of heresy, stay too close and you question the point of a re-recording at all. But there was yet a twist in the tale of Basil Poledouris’ Conan.

maf7123Trays.inddShortly after the re-recording was released, rumours began to fly about the original master-tapes of the Conan scoring sessions finally being found after years of fruitless searches. Finally in 2012 Intrada records presented its definitive Conan The Barbarian set; a three-disc epic that encompassed everything any fan could have hoped for over all those years. Two discs of the original, complete score recording, supplemented with never-before-heard alternates and a remastered edition of the original 1982 album on the third disc to preserve Poledouris’ original album presentation of the score. Maybe it gives some hope to those of us still waiting for a complete release of Vangelis’ original Blade Runner.

So here we are. Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian is surely utterly triumphant after all these years, with a stature far above that of the actual movie and enjoying a life all its own. Philipp Pelster’s rendition of the score on organ just further cements this position and breathes fresh life of its own to the score. It is fascinating, really, to hear a track like “Anvil of Crom” on the Intrada album and compare it to Pelster’s version. “Orphans of Doom/Awakening”, always one of my favorite moments of the score, is particularly spine-tingling on the Pelster album. Then we have the Fitzpatrick/Nic Raine re-recording with its huge orchestra to compare to both. Fans have never had it so good, and the score for the barbarian remains as valid and powerful as it did all those years ago. I don’t know how many times I have listened to this score, but I’m certain I will continue to do so for many years to come, in all its guises (who would ever guessed I would ever have such choice in that regard?). They don’t score ’em like they used to, and the loss of Poledouris remains to film music as great as ever. I’m sure we won’t hear his like again. But we do have his Conan The Barbarian.

The Films We Love- (yes, even Lifeforce…)

Its funny the films we love. Ignoring those ‘classics’ that are widely considered great films (you know the usual suspects, Citizen Kane, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, The Apartment, 2001 etc) there are those that we just fall in love with anyway, just because, well, we like them, whatever critics and anyone else says. Some are rather good films deserving our fondness, while others are guilty pleasures that we enjoy perhaps for reasons outside the films themselves- reasons like nostalgic memories of the times we saw them, the way we were. Some films we carry torches for from our teenage years all the way through adulthood and old age. I guess I’d count many of the late ‘seventies/early ‘eighties films that I love in that category. Blade Runner is my favourite movie partly for the experience of watching at just that time when it was new and breathtaking, and for that period when it was like the ultimate cult film that no-one had seen or heard of other than for hardcore sci-fi nuts like me. Its clearly not the greatest film ever made- indeed it was horribly flawed, damn near broken on its first theatrical version. But even though the versions have changed on its many re-releases, and I have seen it countless times -surely more than a hundred- in the 30 years since that first time back in September 1982, I still love that film as much as I ever did. Revisiting it is like revisiting an old friend.

But its like that sometimes even with those old films we didn’t like back when we first saw them. Perhaps we were too young to appreciate some films and we find that re-watching them when older and wiser we ‘get’ them and enjoy them. Maybe some films are just as bad as they were back in the day but in hindsight don’t seem quite so awful as the current crop of films for some reason or other. I’ve found I quite enjoy some older, pre-cgi films precisely because they are pre-cgi… as if the matte lines and dodgy effects and actors unfortunate hairdos give the films a charm and affinity it lacked originally. Is that more the charm of the old days, memories of the times, than anything in the film itself? Certainly a lot of older films lack the artificial sleekness of current films, as I find that there is a ‘perfection’ in how actors look these days, and how modern films are obviously co-designed by marketing departments and aimed with chilling sophistication at particular demographics. Older films seem more innocent shots-in-the-dark in that respect.

lifeforce

I must admit to a certain thrill at the news that Arrow is releasing a special two-disc edition of Lifeforce later this year (ain’t that steelbook a peach?). I saw Lifeforce at the cinema back on its original release. I think I was in college then. Saw it in town in the old picture-palace that was the ABC cinema- back in that huge, red-plastered, cavern-like Screen One that seemed like a theatre of lost silverscreen dreams, the dog-eared worn seats shadows of earlier, more prosperous times, back when The Sound of Music  and Zulu ruled the box-office.  Well, even inspite of Mathilda May’s obvious charms, Lifeforce was a complete stinker. As a horror film it was shockingly silly.  At the time I dismissed the film but as the years have passed and I’ve watched it several times, I actually have grown to like the film. Its a lousy horror film but it is so bad its actually rather funny, and I find I can giggle at the bad dialogue and cheesy performances and inept direction. So bad its good? And of course its all pre-cgi make-up and optical effects, the over-the-top music score is over-ripe Hammer… its a great bad movie.  To think after all these years someone is working on a two-disc special edition of the film with commentaries, docs etc.. well it restores my faith in humanity when a film as bad and broken as this one gets that kind of love and care. I’m just surprised some people still maintain its a horror film- if they marketed it as a deliberate comedy I think it would get a wider audience and recognition. No accounting for taste, eh?

But anyway, I’d hardly cite Lifeforce as a great film, but I love it all the same. Legend is one of Ridley Scott’s more lamentable misfires, but I have found that my affection for it has increased over the years. Partly because I remember seeing it back in its cinema release when it seemed to slip by unnoticed by most people, partly because its real-world sets/make-up/miniatures give it a ‘look’ utterly alien to the cgi wonders of The Lord of the Rings films and the recent The Hobbit.

Maybe part of it is how modern films are so obviously colour-graded in post, whereas the ‘look’ of older films is from the actual on-set lighting, lenses, filmstock…  maybe thats why when I rewatch these older films I feel something in them. Conan The Barbarian (the 1982 version) was a film I didn’t even particularly enjoy back when I first saw it, but nowadays I thinks its up there with Spartacus– its a bold, gritty, real-world movie that, in spite of its dodgy acting, mixed effects work etc, feels like exactly the kind of film they can’t make anymore (and the recent remake proved it). Bear in mind its also got a fantastic soundtrack score, which is something that a lot of older films have but current films usually lack. Indeed most of the older films I love have great music scores, while most current films ditch melodies in preference for ‘mood’ and ambience, or sound like Hans Zimmer/Media Ventures muzak.

So anyway, if it takes your fancy, please leave a comment regards the films you love that you just know aren’t great, or indeed perhaps even any good. I figure that every film out there has at least someone who loves it. I’m just curious how bad some of them are!