Alas, no 4K Legend

legend85Oh, Arrow, you tease. Those postcards for an Arrow edition of Legend had me all kinds of (mildly) excited. Legend is a pretty damned broken film in any of its cuts but goodness it sure is pretty, and a 4K edition would be such eye-candy. Alas it seems never to be.

Yesterdays press release actually confirms the worst- Arrow’s Legend in September is a US-only release of a remastered edition of the horrific American theatrical cut (frankly unwatchable in my opinion) and the image-impaired Directors Cut (which is basically a workprint, not a ‘restored’ Directors Cut that many are), on Blu-ray as the only elements good enough for a 4K belong to the European cut that Fox (and therefore now Disney) own and the mouse as usual isn’t playing ball. So not only no 4K, there’s not even an Arrow release over here of Legend as they can’t license that European cut from Disney. Man, its so hard not to think of Disney as some kind of Evil Empire or Bond villain these days, its like they have a corporate memorandum to piss me off.

May the 4K be with you: Rogue One

rogue4kHere in the UK there seems to be an exclusivity deal running at the moment between Disney and Amazon, that ensures that the 4K editions of the Star Wars films are limited to the boxset  of all nine ‘Skywalker Saga’ films which means that those of us who just want the Original Trilogy films, or Rogue One (which hasn’t been released over here in 4K at all), have to shell out for the boxset, wait for the inevitable single-disc releases when the exclusivity deal ends, or go the import route.

Initially, I was fine waiting out, but as I’m stuck on a two-week vacation at home (where I’ve been stuck for eight weeks already on lockdown, working from home) I figured maybe I should treat myself. Avoiding the scalpers on Ebay (I love The Empire Strikes Back but £45 for a copy of it on 4K? Get the frak out of here, that’s LaserDisc-era nonsense) I sourced Scandinavian copies of Rogue One, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (that’s my idea of a Star Wars trilogy) that actually even cost a bit less than they will likely do when released over here, and with English packaging they are no doubt pretty identical, too, other than the certificate logos (which are smaller than ours, as a bonus, and off the spine too) and that they are minus slipcovers. So all good. Rogue One and Star Wars arrived yesterday, with The Empire Strikes Back on the way and due early next week.

Its the last time I ever buy these films, I’m sure – which seems a curious way to rationalise it, considering how many times I’ve bought Star Wars films, and I’ve limited my spending to these three – as I say, what I consider to be a pretty perfect trilogy. I think the only way they could ever tempt my wallet again is by releasing the original unaltered theatrical editions but that’s so unlikely at this point I’m safe to say this is the last time. To some it would make more sense to have ordered Return  of the Jedi, too, but I had issues with that film even back in 1983 (revisionists may cite the Prequels or Disney saga films as the points at which the rot set into Star Wars, but for me it will always be Jedi, when Lucas clearly lost interest and wanted done with it all). Part of me wonders what the experience of Jedi is even like now that JJ Abrams pissed all over it with his The Rise of Skywalker nonsense, but I have the Blu-ray boxset to try that out someday, if ever the fancy takes me.

I’m clearly stuck in a rut buying 4K editions of my favourite films, even if I do usually wait for the sales to come around. I’ll work that out eventually.

rogue2So anyway, I watched Rogue One on 4K last night and it was gorgeous, absolutely spectacular.  Shot on 6K cameras, and then given a full 4K Digital Intermediate, the film looks remarkable on this disc. Star Wars and Empire will both no doubt suffer in comparison (although hopefully improving on the earlier HD releases) but this film is just ‘wow’ near enough all the way through. Stunning detail from the costumes and props to the sets and the visual effects work, and the HDR really adds depth and ‘pop’ to make the whole thing look vibrant.

I hadn’t watched the film in quite awhile, so it was interesting to watch the film and reappraise it. Its not perfect and stumbles at times -the first third of the film feels awkwardly put together, as if its edited highlights of a longer film/treatment- but on the whole its a fantastic Star Wars movie, with great characters and a great plot. Unlike the Star Wars saga films, this film really has the feel of authentic Star Wars, in how it looks and sounds. Sure there’s quite a lot of fan service but it all supports the story rather than distracts from it, serving the film in a similar way to how such fan service aided Blade Runner 2049 and more recently Doctor Sleep.

What made me really curious about it, though, is all the things they did so right in this one that they turned away from or got so wrong in the other Disney Star Wars films. How did Solo, for instance, turn into such a mess, and while this film features a female protagonist and a racially diverse cast it does not labour any wokeness to such an extent that it irritates as it did in The Last Jedi. Here it feels inclusive and supportive, not dominating anything to the detriment of the plot. What also helps this film is that through that awkward first third and onwards, the film just gets better and better as it goes, building to a tremendous climax that is spectacular but also emotionally involving in ways that most Star Wars films aren’t. I was also struck by how well staged and choreographed the climactic space battle is compared to those of The Force Awakens or The Rise of Skywalker. Again, one has to wonder what lessons weren’t learned, or why Rogue One did some things so well that others stumbled with. Maybe its the personnel involved. I won’t necessarily suggest that the films director Gareth Edwards was wholly responsible, as the film was rumoured to have a troubled post-production with considerable reshoots required that I think he wasn’t involved with, but that’s a story we may never really know unless someone gets permission to write a candid book about it.

The music score was really great too, I’d forgotten how well that worked in sounding like a Star Wars movie but having its own identity, too, something even maestro John Williams struggled with in the last trilogy.

When Rogue One finished with its grand tease of the opening of Star Wars I had to refrain from having a very late night and spinning up the Star Wars disc. Maybe tonight then. Must say, I haven’t enjoyed anything Star Wars this much in ages.

 

 

Flee to the Movies… but not The Omega Man (obviously)

omega1Listening to Horner soundtracks in my car, commuting to work. Every day a new score, every day less cars on the roads, less people on the streets, the world slowly becoming more The Omega Man. Its funny how the routine drive to/from work that was once pretty changeless day to day, week to week, month to month, has suddenly been so transformed. It was getting so I could drive to work and judge whether I was running early or late by at which point on my journey I would pass by certain pedestrians walking on their regular routes to work or shop etc. I drive alone in my car but the familiar faces almost seem like partners on my journey. A woman who I have figured out to be a teacher at a nearby infant school (regular as a watch term-time, absent during the holidays), or an old man with a hunched back walking his dog… both gone now, and so many others. Suddenly that whole landscape has changed. Call it Covid-19 Blues, a lonelier car journey than usual.

Has anyone else noticed the horrible feeling of reality come crashing in, when you’ve just watched a good film and then its over and -boom- you’re back to the Real World with all this Covid-19 nightmare going on? I suppose its all a part of the escapist appeal of movies anyway, but its pretty horrible, lately, coming out of a great movie and suddenly realising whats really going on. There’s a moment of ignorant bliss, basking in the ‘reality’ of the film before that glow fades and reality bites. Anybody else pointedly looking at watching more positive/escapist films than stuff, like, say The Omega Man or Soylent Green etc? Its funny how, when life is fine, you don’t mind dipping into something Dystopian or dark, but when everything in the world turns lousy, that stuffs just plain too horrible to bear and you need something rosier, happier.

There was a time, back in 1982, when I remember Blade Runner seeming dark and moody and Dystopian. Its practically a Utopian Ideal now.

I hadn’t listened to Horner’s scores for awhile. I stumbled into it by accident, my USB stick on random suddenly dropping onto the Main Title of Brainstorm, and that was it, I was hooked, the random function deactivated, listening to the whole album. Brainstorm is such a clear, fresh and astonishing work: the first James Horner score I ever bought, on a TER vinyl that I feared I’d wear out (a few years later it would be one of my very first purchases on Compact Disc, an expensive Varese import). Pretty much every day I would be driving to a different score, my USB stick going alphabetically through the ones I’d put onto the stick a few years back: Braveheart, Cocoon, Glory… the latter in particular bringing incredibly vivid memories of distant days, of blasting out Charging Fort Wagner racing through Cannock Chase in my first car (a banged-up old death-trap posing as a Mini Cooper) with my mate Andy: sun-drenched forest and Horner in his prime, glorious indeed. Its funny the things you remember like yesterday, when yesterday can be such a blur.

Mind, the last several yesterdays don’t deserve remembering at all, do they, so I welcome forgetting the details, the general darkness enough to send me scurrying for something pleasantly positive from my shelves of discs. I re-watched Gladiator the other day (albeit a 4K-UHD edition I bought in a sale a little while ago) and it was great, held up pretty well. Oliver Reed is magnificent in that; every time I watch Gladiator I wonder at what the hell happened with that guy, what amazing roles/films we missed out on because of what I assume were his personal demons. I don’t know much about him- its a funny thing, mind, how he seems to turn up in quite a few of the Hammer films in the Indicator box-sets (he even has a turn in The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll that I watched a few nights ago: there was the weird feeling, seeing him in Gladiator, so old worn-out looking, shortly before his death,  while in Jekyll, so young and handsome (I guess the women in the audience adored his angry charms) with his whole life and career ahead of him.

johncAnother film I watched the other night, well a part of it, anyway, as I stumbled on it channel-hopping just prior to going to bed, was John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s wonderfully evocative love-letter to the old sci-fi pulps that Star Wars etc summarily ‘homaged’. Hadn’t seen it for awhile, I really enjoyed  what I saw and really need to find out my Blu-ray copy for a proper re-watch at a more civil time. It still seems mightily impressive,  looking gorgeous and sounding even better, with that fantastic Michael Giacchino score. That was a film from just before Disney purchased Lucasfilm (indeed, John Carter was killed by that particular deal) and you know, it was pretty clear to me from just watching half-hour of it, that the film was better than any of the Disney Star Wars films that replaced it. Whenever I see John Carter I wonder about all those other adventures on Barsoom we were robbed of. There ain’t no justice.

Ugh. I feel my mood slipping darkly. Maybe its time for The Omega Man after all… if you can’t beat it, wallow in it.

Oh Disney, say it ain’t so!

swAllow me to gripe a little. The Star Wars films -the ‘proper’ Star Wars films- are coming out on 4K UHD at long last. Usually these films finally hitting a format is something major, something to get excited about, but Disney don’t appear to be too excited. To be honest, I’m finding it hard to get too excited myself, either, because having brought the films on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray in the past, this time around I’d really just like to buy my favourite ones:  Rogue One, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and maybe get around to Return of the Jedi if the price was right or lowered in a subsequent sale. But I can’t. Its a box of the ‘Skywalker Saga’, episodes 1 through 9, from Amazon only, or its nothing, and certainly no Rogue One in 4K at all. That’s where we are at here in the UK.

I still cannot get my around the fact that here in the UK, on release day, nobody can walk into a shop and buy those 4K films, even if only in that box. Who could have dreamed that 4K releases of the Star Wars films will have never happened in regular bricks and mortar retail? Maybe physical releases have slipped into obscurity so far already that the fine folks at the remaining HMV stores won’t be too concerned that they cannot make money from selling them. In the old days a major release like this being restricted to Online only would seem crazy, but I guess the times they are a changin’.

The simplest conclusion of course is that Disney isn’t particularly interested, and if that’s what you’re thinking, then I think you’d be right: Disney+ seems to be whats really exciting the mouse these days. Disc releases are so much yesterdays news. Streaming, and subscriptions, seem to be where its at and physical media seems inconvenient at best, possibly on borrowed time at worst. When you can afford to ignore bricks and mortar retail, its clear that streaming is the future you’re really interested in.

I expect the single-disc releases (and a belated Rogue One 4K release) will happen eventually, a few months or so down the line – maybe Amazon’s deal is a six-month exclusive and everything will follow after. The individual films are available in other territories after all, but I’m reminded that there are several Pixar films on 4K that remain unreleased here in the UK (including my favourite, Ratatouille) and there seems no sign they are ever coming. On the evidence of some forums some fans are going the import route but that can be expensive (and putting up with foreign-language packaging seems a nonsensical argument for maintaining with physical media to me).  Me, I guess I’ll be voting with my wallet and saving my money.

And no, Disney, I won’t ponying up my dosh for Disney+ anytime soon either.

 

A Triumph of the Familiar: Toy Story 4

TOY STORY 4Did we really need a Toy Story 4? Of course not. Or maybe we did: I must confess it really surprised me that I really, really enjoyed this film, and more so that Pixar somehow made the film feel necessary, too. That last point is the real game-changer for me. This was the first Toy Story film that I didn’t watch at the cinema and didn’t purchase on disc on home release: I really didn’t see the point of another Toy Story. In an industry that just seems endlessly reliant on sequels, reboots and remakes, Pixar making another Toy Story film just felt like a cynical, cash-grabbing exercise that lent further weight to the ‘Disney is Evil’ scenario so familiar on the Internet these days. It was a seductive scenario and I was suckered by it, more fool me.

That said, I’m still afraid that Disney will announce a Toy Story tv series for Disney+ sometime (and if they already have, I won’t be surprised). Its the endless battle between art and commerce I suppose. Films are made to make money, its a business, and films are product, not necessarily ‘art’. Its so easy for us film fans to become cynics.

At any rate, I was certainly a sceptic going into this, more curious regards the improvements in the animation and art tools the guys at Pixar are using now than how well the actual script would turn out, confident that it would quickly betray itself as the cash-cow it surely was. But you know, I was very pleasantly surprised. Maybe its the irresistible magic of the very first Toy Story, the concept and its wonderful characters: in hindsight,  how could it fail, how could they screw it up? Then again, it’s like wondering how anyone could screw up making a Star Wars movie and then being surprised by Lucasfilm ‘finding a way’. I suppose the secret to this film is that it doesn’t ‘break the world’ in quite the same way as The Last Jedi did, but also organically progresses things nevertheless (in ways that the JJ Abrams Star Wars films didn’t). At any rate, it would seem Pixar could teach the guys at Lucasfilm a thing or two, or maybe the cynic in me was just bewitched by the magic. Shock, Horror- maybe we need a Toy Story 5!

TOY STORY 4One thing is patently clear- this film certainly looked absolutely gorgeous. I think I need to put this films 4K UHD edition on my shopping list, because I’m pretty certain that must be a wonder to behold. Do they have a 4K boxset of all the Toy Story films? I shall have to have a look sometime. I can only imagine how beautiful this film must look in crisp 4K detail and with the extra ‘pop’ and sense of depth usually associated with HDR. Even in standard HD the later scenes in the nighttime fair looked so three-dimensional: the Pixar artists do this thing with keeping foreground objects/characters in focus and the backgrounds soft and blurred, almost abstract, its something we’re used to seeing in live-action but of course here its all inside the box, artificial.  Its a little bit like the opposite of the ‘uncanny valley’, something that fools us into thinking something is real when it is purely artifice. A part of this films success is how perfectly the subject matter, toys, always fits within the technology of the animation, the constraints its greatest asset: the original film was always dreamed up and designed within the parameters of the tech, and even after so many Pixar films, the Toy Story series feels the most natural and ideal combination of narrative and visual CG style.

 

 

Aladdin (2019)

allyI enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. Sure, the cynicism of these Disney live-action remakes/reboots (or whatever they are calling them) is pretty plain- the animated originals are perfectly fine, you would think, but Disney seem to think contemporary audiences need contemporary updates (or Disney+ needs a lot of content). I suppose I feel conflicted because while I accept that the movie business is, well, a business, I would also like to think its an artistic pursuit, an art-form. Its hard to reconcile film as a mostly creative, artistic endeavour when a studio like Disney is so plainly displaying its business-oriented mandate of making money from its own historic intellectual property.  Films like Aladdin should be pretty abhorrent.

I know, calm down, Ghost- I should get off my noble high horse and get with reality. The cold truth is that artistic worth or brilliance is almost incidental to the pursuit of studios making money. Its not as if Ridley Scott or Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg or James Cameron made films for nothing, either (although I seem to recall James Cameron claiming he made nothing out of Titanic, incredibly, but that was probably just me misreading the headline or it just being more click-bait that I wisely ignored).

Anyway, I digress. Aladdin, then. Its the one about the street-urchin/thief Aladdin and the magic lamp with a Genie, only this is the Guy Ritchie version so its all violent and foul-mouthed and edgy and.. well, of course it isn’t, this is Disney, but yeah, Guy Ritchie does seem an odd fit. An interesting one at that, but alas, such intriguing possibilities are ill-founded. This is Guy Ritchie in ‘safe’, strictly-mainstream mode, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it does seem a bit of a waste. I couldn’t really tell you where in this film anything of Ritchie himself really shines, or what distinguishes his efforts here from any other director making a Disney title. I’ve heard that Tim Burton’s Dumbo bears the mark of its director quite distinctly (and not all for the good) but as I haven’t gotten around to that yet I can’t comment. I can’t remember if Aladdin bears the credit ‘A Guy Ritchie Film’ or not, but if it does, I have to wonder how they had the nerve.

But on the whole, I have to say I quite enjoyed this regardless. Can’t say I was ever really a fan of the animated original, so that may have some bearing on my opinion. As might be expected, the film looks simply ravishing (I’d love to see it on 4K UHD disc someday) with lovely production design and the cast is really pretty fine- especially Will Smith, as the Genie. Its a tricky role for him to take on bearing in mind how well-regarded Robin William’s original was in the animated film, and how odd the first images were of Smith in the part. If anything, the film largely succeeds on his performance alone, its a winning and emotive performance that shines above all the CGI stuff going on with it.

ally2Mena Massoud makes a pretty decent Aladdin, and Naomi Scott’s lovely Jasmine is just terrific and is clearly an actress to watch out for in future. To be honest, other than some surprisingly sub-par CGI in places, the only real issues I had with the film was its ending, and perhaps most surprising (considering its director) the villain, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) who is so neutered he didn’t really seem to function as much of a villain at all. The film perhaps trying too hard to reign in the worst tendencies of its director perhaps? I don’t know, but it does seem odd- one thing you could say about all the Disney animated classics, is that the bad guys were bad ‘uns and the films weren’t afraid to give the littlest viewers a few scares alongside all the fun. Her, Jafar fails to have any real threat, an almost token villain and really quite forgettable. Odd.

Actually a Rise of Skywalker review

rise1There’s a story going around that Rise of Skywalker was deliberately sabotaged by Disney in order to damage the reputation and career of its director, JJ Abrams, in order to thereby impact his future career/contract with Warner Bros, whose DC franchise is a direct rival to Disney’s own Marvel Studios franchise. That’s a conspiracy theory stupider than anything in this movie, which is saying something.

Its clearly some kind of attempt to excuse the true horror of a film so ineptly made as this one proves to be, and barring the inevitable NDAs that will cloud the truth, someday there will hopefully be a great book investigating the making of this film, and the two that preceded it.  I’d be fascinated to see the hows and whys that this film turned out so bad as it has done; while I’m confident much of it is due to the reactionary response to the misguided hubris that brought us The Last Jedi, I’m also certain that there was all sorts of meddling and politics going on behind the scenes that the panic  is in everything we see in this pretty dire film. Rumours prior to its release described six different endings, and the film is so disjointed, uneven and badly paced that I can well believe those multiple endings truly existed.

It seems a textbook case of how not to make a Hollywood blockbuster, and certainly how not to make a Star Wars movie – alarmingly for Disney however, it does also seem familiar with the story behind  the making of Solo, and its strange that the lessons behind that film don’t seem to have been learned. Change of director, lack of cohesive narrative, rushed production, numerous re-shoots… its really no surprise, but all the same, you’d have thought that Lucasfilm would have figured all this shit out.

Certainly its a lesson of how not to make a trilogy. A story goes that original director Colin Trevorrow had wanted Luke Skywalker alive in order for him to feature in the final movie and had begged The Last Jedi‘s Rian Johnson to allow the character survive that film which is an example of the lack of a cohesive narrative across the three films as a whole. I guess Rian was so obsessed with usurping all the fanboy expectations and series tropes that he was hellbent on killing Luke. It is strange though- after Luke’s hologram/Force projection shenanigans there would have been no harm in just closing the film with him exhausted back in his Jedi hideout rather than abruptly fading away, especially if the third film’s director felt a live Luke was necessary for his film. No wonder Trevorrow walked.

So anyway, I went to see Rise of Skywalker expecting little, and even those expectations proved to be unrewarded. Inevitably spoilers follow, but I assume after so many weeks everyone who wants to see the film has done so by now.

rise3.jpgI don’t particularly enjoy being taken for an idiot, but it happens sometimes when watching movies and tv shows. Its when willing suspension of disbelief is just taken a step too far and I suddenly feel like I’m being taken for a fool, when the filmmakers just don’t give a toss and obviously anything goes, and to hell with internal logic or common sense.

It happened quite a few times during Rise of Skywalker. God knows my bar was set pretty low. Sure, its only Star Wars. Its a silly space fantasy. Its never going to be Kubrickian, or even anything akin to Ridley Scott’s increasingly irrelevant Alien prequels or the pompous silliness of James Camerons Dance with Wolves in Space Avatar. This is JJ Abrams. You’re not supposed to think with JJ Abrams stuff, its all smoke and mirrors with pacing so quick you won’t have time to consider what you’re seeing, you’re just supposed to go with it in the moment. Its only afterwards when you’re walking out that you begin to realise you were had. If the Jedi can heal the wounded or dying, or indeed bring back the dead to life, why didn’t Obi-Wan heal Qui-Gon Jinn in the Phantom Menace, or Luke Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi, or Anakin his mother in Revenge of the Sith?  Abram’s talent for ignoring and breaking established mythology of course has a precedent in his Star Trek reboots.

But there’s one moment. One moment when my jaw literally dropped. I’d read most of the spoilers, and being forewarned, most of the films crass stupidity didn’t upset me as much as it might have otherwise (God only knows what this film was like for fans on opening weekend), but there was one moment when I just stared at the screen slack-jawed in amazement, dumbfounded.

If you’ve seen the film, you probably know what the moment is. Its when Rey is on the cliff side looking out at the wrecked ruins of the second Death Star resting out on the storm-tossed ocean. She gets out this Sith dagger that has been their quest for half the movie, and its supposed to be a clue to finding the second of two Wayfinders with which they can find their way to the resurrected Emperor Palpatines Hidden Base, and one of these Wayfinders is in a closet on this Death Star, somewhere.

Now at this point I’m okay with this Wayfinder nonsense, because my bar is set really pretty damned low with this movie. Palpatine has a Hidden Base on a secret Sith Homeworld that isn’t on any starchart, but he’s conveniently left two devices (why two? well why not?) with which someone (or some two) can find this Hidden Base and scupper his plans for ‘Galactic Domination from  beyond the grave’. Just how secret a Sith Homeworld can be when it needs a minimum of 20 million people to crew his 100-500 Star Destroyer (and God knows how many to build them), is frankly debatable. But go with it, its only Star Wars. The central plotline for the film is that the Rebels have just sixteen hours to find a way to the Emperors base and do something about his armada of Certain Death. After thirty-plus years of keeping his existence a secret, you’d think Palpatine would have managed an extra sixteen hours and unleashed his armada in secret.

rise2But anyway, Rey holds out her arm and the edge of the weirdly-shaped blade suddenly matches the exact same shape of the Death Star wreckage (my mouth’s dropping at this point) and then, incredibly, she pulls out of the handle this other curved piece of metal that lines up and points to a specific point of the wreck- ‘x’ literally marks the spot and my jaw is on the floor. This is beyond stupid. This is something of another order of bad writing entirely. Someone will make a study group in a future screenwriting course that will examine this film in its entirety and perhaps highlight this moment as some barometer of screenplay stupidity to measure all films after.

So lets get this straight. This blade is decades old (the dagger was used, a flashback assures us, to kill Rey’s parents years ago) but presumably was designed and crafted by someone standing in this exact same spot in order to match the outline of the wreck and thus display where the room is in that wreck which contains the Wayfinder. If someone stood someplace else on this coastline overlooking the wreck, it would neither match the wreckage or point to the same spot. Even if one stood a few metres either side, nevermind the kilometres of random coastline or so that is quite clearly visible in the same frame, it just wouldn’t serve its purpose.

In anycase, its a Sith blade, owned/designed/made by a Sith who knows where the Wayfinder is but presumably doesn’t need to use it to find the Sith Homeworld else he would have taken the Wayfinder for himself, and the existence/location of said Homeworld is a secret so what exactly is its purpose? A Sith dude forges a blade that reveals the Wayfinder so that someone who shouldn’t have the Wayfinder (i.e. a Good Guy) can find that Wayfinder and oh my head hurts. Or the Death Star exploded and various bits of wreckage crashed down to this moon and landed in the ocean in just that particular shape and configuration that it just somehow matches the edge of this blade and… oh my head hurts. Another thing, are we expected to believe that back during Return of the Jedi, Palpatine’s schemes were already afoot and that he kept that Wayfinder safe in that closet in his throne room because he already knew he had to leave a clue on this Death Star (which would survive both the explosion and a fall from orbit) in order for someone to find his hidden base decades later? Or that Darth Vader knew nothing about this and couldn’t warn Luke  before he died that that evil critter Palpatine was probably still alive and that Luke should search for the Sith Homeworld for the sake of future generations of film-goers… oh my head hurts.

Its staggeringly stupid, and now that I think about it, possibly not the stupidest thing in the movie. I think Han Solo returning ranks pretty highly, or Chewbacca being dead/not dead or… well, I could be writing this for hours, I think. ‘The Dead Speak!‘ opening the title crawl ranks pretty high, I mean, they didn’t even think that the return of Palpatine merited some mystery/tension- it’d be a bit like the opening crawl of The Empire Strikes Back revealing that Vader is Luke’s dad right at the start. Can’t they construct a decent script /tense narrative anymore?

I really didn’t expect much from this film but even those expectations were ill-founded. I watched the film with my brother who hated it with a passion (he knew no spoilers so he lacked the forewarning that cushioned my pain) and the people in-front of us broke into embarrassed laughter when Kylo climbed out the pit to resurrect Rey and share that kiss.

The pacing is horrible. It is so much like two films in one and I can actually sympathise with JJ Abrams initial wish to split the film into two like the final Hunger Games and Harry Potter films. There’s just to much story to tell and wrap up, and too many Rian Johnson cock-ups to fix/retcon. Its really relentless how fast it races by and how it resolutely refuses to make any sense at all. That editing terribly hurts the film- it rather feels unfinished, frankly like a workprint. Considering my low expectations, its a very disappointing movie. Even the space battles feel tired and few visual effects or action scenes seem well-executed or impressive.

Its almost inexplicable that this film has been released like this. Oh well. I guess the campaign for a longer directors cut is inevitable at this point. Not that I expect it to happen, or fix anything, but really its pretty bizarre for such a major motion picture release that fans should start a campaign to fix a clearly broken movie.

I’m sure there are some that enjoy the film and think its great- they are wrong, obviously- but I can’t say I’m surprised  how bad this film is, considering how much The Last Jedi fouled things up and having Abrams at the helm. Perhaps its a pity Trevorrow couldn’t have stuck around, and had a live Luke to feature in the film: this was doomed from the start, it would seem, and Rian Johnson remains the real villain of the Skywalker saga.

End of Year Report, 2019.

Didn’t get my Replicant Pleasure-Model in the mail, nor did my new car launch vertically into the air for a commute to work in the sky-lanes… and neither was I able to book my holiday Off-World, so thanks for ‘nowt, Ridley…

But 2019 did come with some great television shows and movies. That said though, there were plenty of clunkers and disappointments.  I think what I shall remember most of 2019 is that it was clearly a year when television content surpassed movies in quality by a pretty wide margin.

In my previous post I mentioned that I watched three seasons of The Expanse this year, which was pretty amazing and certainly one of my favourite shows of the year, but there was plenty of other quality shows. Some clunkers too, mind- February brought the first (and thankfully last) season of Nightflyers, a truly abominable creation that so soon after having enjoyed the brilliant The Expanse brought my sci-fi viewing crashing back down to Earth. At the time I was confident it would be the worst piece of television I would see all year, but I was innocently ignorant of Another Life coming later in April. The fact that Another Life has been granted a second season is just mind-boggling and very, very scary.

Certainly the good outweighed the bad, though, if only because you can afford to be judicious with so much content available across Netflix and Amazon Prime. By March I’d also see season two of The Crown, the first outing for The Umbrella Academy, season one of Stranger Things and Love, Death & Robots, a ridiculously entertaining anthology show that was a Fantasia for sci-fi geeks like me, and totally beautiful.

Regards movies though, I had really struggled to see anything really memorable until April, when I saw both Bad Times at the El Royale and Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse. El Royale really impressed me on a rental, so much so that a few months later I bought the 4K disc. Then in May John Wick Chapter Three: Parabellum blew my mind on a rare trip to the cinema, an absolutely dizzying action-fest that instantly put itself as prime contender for my Film of the Year. In an era of politically-correct naval-gazing and various worthy agendas being shoved in my face all the time, Wick was refreshingly old-school, unfashionably simple action-movie nirvana. May also brought Avengers Endgame, another rare cinema outing that this time proved hugely disappointing. I’m really curious to see if a rewatch will revise my opinion of the film, but even though I bought the 4K disc of the film when it came out a few months back, I still haven’t actually watched the disc. I keep thinking I should watch Avengers Infinity War first, maybe the two films in a double-bill over a weekend, but the length of the darn things proves rather daunting. All those Marvel geeks who watch all these movies often and know them inside-out are made of sterner stuff than I. Watching Captain Marvel just once, when the 4K disc came out in July , left me pretty burned-out on all things Marvel- the thought of the ultra-fans watching and re-watching that one is just plain scary.

Away from movies, April brought us the big television disappointment of the year, with season eight of Game of Thrones. In hindsight, it could only ever disappoint, it had hyped up the conclusion and all the show’s mysteries and intrigues over several seasons to such a degree, it was inevitable that it would all just implode. Didn’t think the crash would be quite so spectacular though. Having bought all the Blu-rays already, I bought the 4K disc set of season eight anyway, and am hoping that when I get the courage to watch it again after all these months the pain will be less, I can make my peace with some of the wilder crazier twists and maybe manage to see something in all the episode three murk now its in 4K UHD. We’ll see.

Much better television followed in June: and no, I’m not talking about season two of Star Trek Discovery, but rather it was the month when I caught up with Chernobyl, a breath-taking and harrowing series that was pretty much perfect. Discovery was far, far from perfect- it ably demonstrated that while much television can be great, it can also out-dumb and out-stupid anything Hollywood movie studios can do.

In August, I caught up with both Aquaman (a film that proved DC could still make worse movies than Captain Marvel) and Shazam! (a film that proved DC could actually make great, fun superhero movies). Aquaman would be another of those terribly busy movies that tried to fit three films into one, like some kind of Readers Digest edition of an actual film trilogy. It doesn’t work, it just gives me an headache. I watched the 2017 remake of Flatliners, and although I thought that was diabolically appalling, I had no idea I’d also see the Jacobs Ladder remake later in the year, a film which would make the Flatliners remake seem a classic and put me in a total dark funk for a weekend.

Returning to television shows, August also sprung a major surprise with the quite excellent The Boys over on Amazon. The quality television continued into September with the long-awaited (by me, anyway) disc release of the third season of True Detective, which I really enjoyed (I love all three seasons of that show- yes, that includes the maligned second season) and Carnival Row, another Amazon show that was much better than I’d expected, even if it did leave me pining for the superior (and sadly missed) Penny Dreadful.

Sheesh, all these seasons of television shows and all their complicated multi-layered narratives. I suppose I should be glad most movies turned out to be rather less demanding, more simplistic and comfortingly predictable. A prime example would be September’s Ad Astra, which I was expecting to be a high-concept sci-fi take on Apocalypse Now. Well, it was certainly a sci-fi take on Apocalypse Now, almost literally so, but with lunar space pirates and a mad Space Baboon, it was rather more Event Horizon than 2001: A Space Odyssey. A disappointment then, and another example of the lack of confidence of movie studios to challenge and provoke audiences as much as HBO etc do on television. I would imagine that had HBO made Ad Astra as a ten-episode serial, it would have proven far more enticing and thought-provoking.It would probably look just as good too- the gap between television and cinema in regards of visual effects is obviously still there, but its much narrower than it used to be, and television more than makes up for any deficit there by better script writing. November’s The Lion King would prove to be a startling reminder of what visual majesty only cinema budgets can presently afford, but the same months Spider Man: Far From Home ably demonstrated that cinema could just get dumber and dumber even as it got prettier.

November also presented us with The Irishman, a Martin Scorsese gangster ballad that incredibly came to us via Netflix (I prefer ‘ballad’ to ‘epic’ just because its more, well, thoughtful and mature than the joyously questionable glorification of Goodfellas). The idea that a $150 million Scorsese flick could just drop onto Netflix on a Friday night still feels dizzying and possibly game-changing. I really enjoyed the film (its certainly more Once Upon A Time in America than Godfather or Goodfellas).

The Irishman did show, though, just how much has changed during 2019. Streaming services are all the rage now, and really will prove more of a Big Deal in 2020. The prevailing move by studios towards streaming and away from physical media, and indeed away from traditional vendors like cable and satellite television providers, is just a gathering storm that gets windier by the month. For someone like me who likes to own my favourite films and television shows and enjoys special features and commentaries, its pretty worrying. I can see a future not far away where streaming and pay per view is everything. Its clearly inevitable, but its a future where The Irishman can’t be purchased on DVD or Blu-ray, a future where you’ll probably need to subscribe to Disney+ in order to watch future Star Wars and Marvel movies in the comfort of your own home (and I’m pretty certain that premium content on Disney+ will eventually require additional purchases in-app to watch; it may start as a subscription service but it’ll inevitably evolve into a pay-per-view service when alternative avenues like physical media are gone). Hopefully that’s more 2029 or 2039 though, and I’ll be past caring as long as I have a Blu-ray player working.

 

 

The Lion King (2019)

lion2I should have hated this with a passion. When I first heard of it, I was pretty incredulous. Remaking the animation classic The Lion King seems rather akin to remaking Citizen Kane or Blade Runner or The Godfather. I’m not necessarily comparing the Disney original to those other films regards quality or reputation you understand, but really, whats the point remaking a film that is perfectly fine by itself?

Money?

Not that anyone would admit it, but the entire point, the central reason any of these recent Disney live-action remakes of their animation classics exist, is as an exercise in making money. To be fair, the reason ANY film is made is in order to make money, any artistic value is almost incidental, possibly accidental, as long as a film is made that gets bums on cinema seats or downloads and streams clogging the internet. Disney of course is enabling a new stream of fresh content for its Disney+ service as well as updating its back catalogue for generations that think those old flicks are rather dated and the animation rather old-fashioned compared to the dazzle of contemporary stuff.

The animated Lion King of course was released in 1994, just twenty-five years ago. Its been a long time since I last saw it- back in the days of DVD I think, so my memory of it is rather hazy. Watching this new 2019 version brought it all back mind, because its pretty much the same movie, Or at least it seems to be. I suspect there are more differences than audiences realise, many tweaks and updates that pass us by, but on the whole its the same movie, except that it looks so astonishing.

Astonishing really is the word for these visuals, mind. Watching this in 4K UHD is a pretty breathtaking experience, particularly on a OLED panel. I doubt it looked anything like as good as this at my local Cineworld. There is bad CGI and good CGI of course, and this is very, very good CGI. They can do anything, it seems, fake anything, when given sufficient money and time to get it right. When NASA (or its Chinese equivalent) gets somebody back on the moon, and the conspiracy theorists bring back their claims at fakery and hoaxes – well, maybe they might be onto something, because they really could do that now. In The Lion King, you’ll believe a Lion can sing.

Or maybe not. There is a curious uncanny valley being brought back here, in just the same way as the virtual thespians of  Final Fantasy; The Spirits Within didn’t wholly convince. The CGI creations here are much superior and more convincing (often its like you’re watching outtakes of the BBC’s Planet Earth or The Blue Planet etc), but the issue here is seeing such realistic creatures doing such odd things like following the directors instructions or talking and singing. Its weird how watching hand-drawn animated characters doing such stuff rather suspends disbelief and enthrals us, and yet seeing something that looks so real doing it looks so odd.

Fortunately another curious thing is that, as its based so closely on a film that simply worked, this astonishing-looking, albeit weird and possibly ill-judged remake inevitably works too. Its difficult to love and easy to distrust, but its hard not to get swept up by it anyway. It looks so ravishing it works a strange magic. I’m still deeply sceptical and suspicious of Disney and these live-action/CGI remakes, and still rather feel these new editions will be forgotten long before the originals- the cynic in me has a few doubts however, thinking I’m giving the younger generations and my fellow viewers too much credit. Maybe they will actually prefer the new films and the originals will fade into obscurity, lost in some hard-to-find corner of the Disney+ service. That would be a terrible thing but one has to wonder.

 

Last Week: Battlestar’s coming back

bsgThe relentless shift towards streaming and the rush for new content has seen providers looking at their IP portfolios. News broke last week that NBC Universal, launching a streaming service (titled Peacock) in April 2020, has decided to reboot Battlestar Galactica for what will be a second time. Glen Larson’s original was a pretty blatant Star Wars knock-off in 1978, that is most interesting today for indicating what was the wall of what television could manage back then, and Moore’s 2003 – 2008 reboot was an indication of how sophisticated tv sci-fi had become. Maybe a 2020 reboot will indicate how creatively bereft everything has become, or how general quality has to be diluted by so much content being made now for so many networks/streams- how is anybody in Hollywood out of work anymore?

I must confess I was pretty horrified at the news- I love Ron Moore’s incarnation of BSG, its possibly my favourite sci-fi show. The idea of someone (apparently the guy behind the new show is Mr Robot‘s creator Sam Esmail) going back  to Battlestar and relaunching it in some way is depressing but not surprising. Everyone seems averse to new properties and sees obvious advantages to going back to old stuff, either for nostalgia’s sake or ease of marketing something already familiar or established. I can’t really highlight the creative apathy in this because Moore’s BSG was itself a reboot, and it was great, so I’m sort of championing the very thing I find so disheartening.

But why BSG? Alas, its simply because its something that NBC Universal owns, simple as that. A property that would probably actually benefit from a modern reboot would be something like Babylon 5, but as that is a Warner property, that is only likely to come if the WarnerMedia streaming platform (itself launching next year) deems it a IP worthy of a second try. The caveat I have about B5 is replacing any of its cast, most of whom were pretty amazing- it’s akin to trying to find someone to fill Leonard Nimoy’s shoes casting Spock, which has been troublesome indeed for Paramount and CBS in various later Treks- and of course that’s also a sticking point for any ‘new’ BSG.  Sam Esmail has actually tweeted to disgruntled fans that his project is not a reboot of the Moore series and possibly sounds like something in the BSG ‘universe’ in a similar way to HBO’s upcoming Watchmen series is a spin-off from both graphic novel and movie.

Its really not so much creatively cannibalising an old property but using its IP, and its mythology, as a shortcut- and of course being able to use its title as a recognisable marketing tool. Its still a fairly lousy way of making ostensibly ‘new’ content, but its something we are pretty used to, as Hollywood has been doing it for years, decades, in all manner of movies.  I would much prefer something genuinely new, something none of us have ever seen before, but as the streaming giants bring us ‘new’ shows like Westworld, Watchmen, Star Trek: Discovery, Lost in Space, Star Wars: The Mandalorian, Lord of the Rings etc, I guess I should just appreciate shows like The Expanse, Altered Carbon, The Man in the High Castle, Outlander, Carnival Row, The Boys, Umbrella Academy etc all the more. It clearly isn’t all about reboots and remakes and sequels.

God knows there is such a lot of content out there. Time is the one thing these streaming channels seem to be ignoring- just how much time do they think Joe Public has to actually watch all this stuff? I cannot keep up with it as it is, and the idea that I’m somehow expected to subscribe to more in order to watch more… well, surely everyone has a limit. Especially for those of us who would appreciate the time just to rewatch some of our old faves; I tried a few years ago to rewatch Moore’s BSG throughout and gave up somewhere in season two, and have other Blu-ray box-sets (Chuck, Fringe etc) that I would love to go back to but haven’t even tried.

It will be interesting to see how the various television platforms, new and old, fair in the coming years. I’m sure some will be lost along the way, and its pretty hard to see Disney+ floundering so I suppose it may be a case of the old networks and satellite/cable platforms going the way of the dodo. Along the way we will be getting so much to watch, including a new Battlestar Galactica, as long, I assume, that we will be willing to pay extra for it, and that’s the big question. Its not enough to read that new shows are coming- alongside the news of everything coming I have to keep an eye out for where its coming from, to know if I will even be able to watch it. I’ve ‘missed’ so many shows not because I’m not interested or haven’t the time- rather just because I either haven’t access to it or am not willing to pay for it. The cynic in me assumes that the various torrents will all be busy next year. Maybe the more things change, the more they stay the same.