Flatliners impresses

lat1Watched the 4K of Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners (that’s the 1990 movie, the less said about the 2017 remake the better), which looks absolutely lovely. Film itself has aged pretty well, too (I hadn’t seen the film in maybe twenty years). I really quite enjoyed it, although the casting is pretty amusing seeing the actors (Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, Oliver Pratt) looking so young; how is it possible something like Flatliners is over thirty years old now?

I’d forgotten the gorgeous end title music composed by James Newton Howard, and how it suddenly through music alone lifts the film to some other level which the last close-on two hours of actual film failed to reach. Simply sublime music, choral in parts and really, really beautiful and soulful. I also found the music over the sections where William Baldwin’s character sees hallucinations of women talking to him through video footage he’d surreptitiously filmed of them having sex with him very effective too; its a very nice score. Never released on a soundtrack album though – I think its due to some crazy reuse charges. as it was recorded in LA, which has made any official release prohibitively expensive. Such a shame.  I remember searching out the album in vain, just as I had the Blade Runner soundtrack album several years before.

I will take issue with an essay on the included booklet though: its an essay about NDEs and in particular a section that brings up similar-themed films, citing examples such as Paul Hogan-starring Almost an Angel (1990), and obscure titles like Death Dreams (1991), but completely ignoring Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983), which literally depicts the near-death experience of a scientist daring to experience a Death tape recorded by a colleague. I always thought that Brainstorm and Flatliners were like filmic cousins but the writer Amanda Reyes seems ignorant of Trumbull’s film. Oh, that sounds so very anal of me now that I mention it as a criticism. Must be this hot weather…

Some thoughts regards Douglas Trumbull

Brainstorm2The news this late afternoon hit me pretty hard- Douglas Trumbull passed away yesterday. I don’t believe it had been widely known that he had been ill- for myself, it came like a bolt of the blue. For a little while, the sense of disbelief is diluted with a little hope- there have been a few times when the Internet rumour mill has gotten things wrong, and I’d first read the news of Trumbull’s passing on a forum of all places, somewhat out of leftfield, so wondered if it was just a mistake. Alas, before an hour was out, reputable news outlets confirmed it. Another one gone, of those names I used to read about as I grew up reading magazines and followed over the decades since.

Its 1978, I’m reading Starburst issue 5 (Christopher Reeve’s Superman on the cover!), and an interview by Tony Crawley with visual effects genius Douglas Trumbull. Its tied into the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the then-cutting edge visual effects produced by Trumbull and his effects company. Starburst was a great magazine and its writers very good, so Crawley uses the interview to discuss Trumbull’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (“we thought at the time that 2001 would start a big trend. It didn’t!” Trumbull muses), and his own directorial debut, Silent Running. The interview would move on to CE3K in the next issue – ah, those cheeky old magazine days, waiting for a month for the rest of an interview (like Fantastic Film‘s multi-issue Alien interview with Ridley Scott). But it was enough to get me fascinated with Trumbull, who I wasn’t particularly familiar with. For one thing, at the time, I hadn’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. I actually saw Silent Running before 2001, thanks to it airing on BBC TV over the Christmas holiday of 1977 schedules (me basking in a sci-fi movie season, benefiting from a sudden Star Wars-fuelled interest in sci-fi movies, even if those of us in the UK provinces wouldn’t get chance to see Lucas’ film until early 1978). The interview was really interesting, particularly Trumbull’s observations of the film industry and his projects -like one titled Pyramid– that he couldn’t get made after his first film.

1978. Before Paramount struck a desperate deal with him to rescue Star Trek : The Motion Picture, before his company was hired to shoot the effects for Blade Runner, before he made the ill-fated Brainstorm, after which he vowed to leave the film industry all together, tired of all the studio politics.

Douglas Trumbull was something of a hero to sci-fi geeks of my generation. He didn’t direct many films, and neither he did he turn his hand to the effects work of many films: its just that the ones he was involved with were so seminal. Instead he turned his attention to amusement park rides/experiences, and technological advances (Showscan etc) as an independent entrepreneur. He was an advocate of Pure Cinema; the possibilities afforded by cinema as an audio visual experience, as opposed to a traditionally narrative one. Hence he was involved in the audience-confounding lengthy effects scenes of Kirk arriving at the Enterprise in Dry Dock, and the journey into the Cloud, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was something he likely learned from Stanley Kubrick while being involved in the visual effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (for which Kubrick cheekily took home the effects Oscar, much to Trumbull’s annoyance).

Heck, I bought and recently watched the 4K edition of Star Trek: TMP mostly just to re-watch Trumbull’s effects in the best way possible; those moments of Pure Cinema, once the easiest of critical targets for what was dubbed at the time Star Trek: The Slow-Motion Picture, are for me the best things in that film. Some of us buy the films he was involved with just out of our sheer love of the images he created.

Who didn’t gasp at the first glorious reveal of the mothership in CE3K?

In September 1982, I’m watching Blade Runner for the first time in the ABC cinema in town, and my jaw drops, literally, at the opening shot of the Hades landscape of LA2019. I mean, literally drops in awe. It is the cinematic equivalent of falling head over heels in love, an astonishing, arresting moment that will never leave me. Films don’t make our jaws drop anymore. Maybe CGI advances have made huge spectacle commonplace, pushed the boundaries of what’s possible so far over the horizon nobody is ever truly amazed anymore. But back then, wizards like Trumbull took our breath away.

While writing about wizards, and ‘magicians’…

Its 1984, and I’m watching a VHS rental of Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm. Its a film not without its faults, but it deserves some love, as I wrote here, but that evening I am swept up by it. So much so that for a few glorious moments I’m absolutely in thrall of it. I believe every moment of its glorious finale in which a character ascends towards Heaven, accompanied by a host of Angels and rising Souls, courtesy of Trumbull’s effects wizardry. Its almost a religious experience; I’m a Believer. James Horner’s fantastic score -it was the same night I fell in love with James Horner’s musical genius-is swelling in its end titles.

Then the tape stops, and the television cuts to what’s showing on BBC television, and its Paul Daniels Magic Show. I’m suddenly back to mundane, banal reality with a horrible bump. I’m almost dazed. It was only a movie after all, and the Paul Daniels show is the ‘reality’ I’ve returned to. I’ll never forget that abrupt shift. I was so into that film, so convinced and carried away by it, and the return to a reality so brutally banal. I’d laugh about that moment for years after with my mate Andy. Part of me loves Brainstorm and thinks its the “Greatest Film Ever (Other Than Blade Runner, Obviously)”.

That’s the magic of Douglas Trumbull.

Excuse me, I now have a date with my Blu-ray copy of Brainstorm

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

STtmpStar Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979, 132 mins, 4K UHD 

Looking back on it, I’m tempted to suggest -sweeping over-generalisation that it is- that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a pretty clear marker of the old giving way to the new. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has the feel of Old Hollywood, of creative teams more used to making westerns and crime thrillers suddenly getting scripts featuring aliens and spaceships. There’s a sense of people suddenly making sci-fi films with no interest in such genre material, and little affinity for it – indeed, at a time when such material was considered the realm of the cheap b-movie quickie. The days of genre fans/geeks who grew up loving the stuff then making genre films would still be a few years away, but already with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg the changing times were clear: post-Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood was still in transition, and the old guard hadn’t yet been replaced by the geeks. So Hollywood sci-fi was still Logan’s Run, The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. 

In the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that’s possibly its strength. It feels like a serious (albeit often misguided, at times) attempt to make a great ‘Motion Picture!’ back when that still meant something (today any distinction of quality between television and cinema is largely gone). Its not played for laughs, there’s no dodgy sets, there’s no geek in-jokes and surprisingly low-key fan-service if any at all (I suspect much of what we’d identify today as ‘fan-service’ in the film is actually incidental). It’s not 2001, and neither is it Star Wars, but rather it sits somewhere in between, in a place few genre films have dared position themselves (maybe Interstellar would be a modern example). I am endlessly surprised whenever I re-watch the film over the years, just how refreshing it is, and enjoyable.

Indeed, having recently read Robert Preston Jones’ superlative oral history of the film, Return to Tomorrow, I’m actually more surprised than ever that the film even got finished and in sufficient shape to be considered a film at all. Its possibly a textbook lesson of how NOT to make a film. The script wasn’t finished when they were shooting the live-action, the director and actors were cooking up the finale on the fly: imagine making a film like Ben-Hur and making the last reel on-set without a script (it wasn’t quite that bad, but not far off- I’m always amazed at films going into production without finished scripts but it continues to happen). The original effects team was great on ideas but lousy at execution, wasting millions of dollars in research and most importantly wasting priceless time. Once that effects team was largely dismissed (albeit most of the staff rehired), the deadline that Douglas Trumbull and his team/s were faced with, the task left them regards its scope and the visual effects it needed, back in that era of physical miniatures, lighting and motion-control rigs and photo-chemical printing… its mind-boggling.

The pacing is obviously the film’s biggest problem, something not helped by many visual effects shots hanging around too long or sequences being overloaded with just too many of them. Its tempting to suggest that Wise and/or the editor Todd Ramsay became too enamoured by all the expensive effects shots coming in at the eleventh hour but the simple truth is, the shots were all coming in very late (Preston’s book has some timeline stuff that is just jaw-dropping regards when models became available and filming happened and elements arrived at the optical printer etc) and they never had the perspective we have with the finished film- hence the justification of the Directors Cut. But considering how late everything was… its amazing that Jerry Goldsmith’s score was so good (in my mind the composers very best) and maybe having to cut the film to the timing estimates handed to Goldsmith which he scored the music to… well, little wonder the film’s pacing is dodgy.

The odd thing about this which bugs me, is when Trumbull and everyone got together with the script and storyboards, why didn’t they cut some of those boards? I find it hard to understand why, with effects teams working alternate day/nights shifts in at least three facilities working twelve to sixteen-hour days labouring over really difficult shots to unrealistic schedules, they didn’t rip up more of those boards. The Epsilon 9 and Orbital Office Complex sequences are obvious examples, featuring too many shots. The Orbital Office Complex is a lovely miniature and beautifully photographed, but do we need to see so many shots of its exterior before cutting to the interior and Kirk arriving? Clearly nobody could ‘see’ that so much of it would be redundant or could have been culled to allow more time and resources on stuff that really mattered. I suppose its a technology thing, nowadays films have CGI storyboards, and I recall ILM shot animatics as a guide for The Empire Strikes Back to help nail the pacing of effects shots/sequences like the Hoth battle.

But nonetheless, I still enjoy watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Many much prefer the second entry, Wrath of Khan, but for me there is always something special about the first. They aimed for greatness and largely failed but you have to admire that they tried, and watching it I often have a little mischevious fun berating the suits that enforced an unrealistic deadline agreed with theatres, and all the production cock-ups and crashing egos behind the scenes. Maybe this year’s version of the Directors Cut will indeed finally be the film it could/should have been; we’ll just have to wait and see…. (and yes, likely have to buy this film yet AGAIN).  So it seems I’m not quite finished writing about this film…

Late-night 4K Trek

Last night I did something I haven’t done in awhile; I had a half-hour or so before going to bed and decided to unpack my 4K Star Trek movies set and watch a bit of both Star Trek: TMP and Wrath of Khan. You know, load up the disc, drop into the film at pretty much random points, see how it holds up in 4K: not something I ever do, really- I much prefer to just sit down and watch the whole film. But it was late, and I’m not sure when I’m ever going to get around to these films.

(I’ve bought quite a few discs in the recent sales, far too many, to be honest, and the ‘to-watch-list’ is getting quite ridiculous now).

So for Star Trek:TMP I found myself watching the scenes after the Enterprise leaves Drydock: when it slips into the wormhole, the verbal sparks between Kirk and Decker after, Spock arriving… drawn into the film for longer than I’d intended, I stuck around for the Enterprise first encountering the V’ger Cloud just so I could wallow in some Trumbull effects and Goldsmith music. Its good for the soul.

General consensus has it that Wrath of Khan is the best of all the Star Trek movies, but I prefer The Motion Picture. It feels more… serious, mythic, a sense of Big Ideas. Of course Wrath of Khan wasn’t helped by TMP’s perceived failures, and while it does improve on some things (the character beats for Kirk, Spock and McCoy feel more akin to the TV show,. and they get plenty of screen time together) it does suffer from such a reduced sense of scale and ambition that some of the sets compare poorly to tv-fodder like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Anyhow, when I popped Khan into the player I watched the part when the Enterprise departs Spacedock (quelle deja-vu!) and up to Reliant’s first attack on the Enterprise. 

I enjoyed it more than I expected to. I figure its one of the best things about Trek- the shows variety. Looking back on the 1960s three seasons, the show was quite different, episode by episode. The Motion Picture is like more highbrow episodes like The Cage or City on the Edge of Forever, and Wrath of Khan is more, well, Doomsday Machine. Oddly, Doomsday Machine is one of my favourite episodes, the one I’ve watched more times than any other, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that Khan should be my favourite of the films. Well that’s just me being more contrary again I guess.

The Motion Picture is such a 1970s film. Its rather lovely, all the costumes (well, maybe we could do without those security dudes) and the sense of the film being ‘a motion picture’ at a time when that actually meant something. Wrath of Khan is very much a 1980s picture: its funny how films were already sliding into being marketable properties, perhaps more entertainment than art-form. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I was getting tired when I switched off the television. I just had a weird feeling of something seismic happening between the two films, which I hadn’t noticed before, something that’s still happening today.  

When my head finally hit the pillow upstairs, I found sleep didn’t come easy. Instead I was thinking back to 1982, when Khan came out, that wonderful year of Poltergeist, Tron, Conan The Barbarian, The Thing, E.T., Blade Runner,  First Blood, Creepshow, Firefox, The Dark Crystal…the bastard children of George Lucas’ Star Wars, of five years before, Hollywood finally thinking it had figured it out. The irony being, its still trying to figure it out, but we just don’t have wonderful years like that anymore.

Reminiscence 4K UHD (2021)

rem1Lisa Joy’s tech-noir thriller Reminiscence is a film which, like a few this year, I unfortunately missed at the cinema, which annoyed me as it seemed right up my street – someone went and made an adult, intelligent sci-fi thriller and I didn’t get to see it, and like BR2049 it bombed spectacularly. So I was really looking forward to seeing it when it came to home video, and naturally I went the full 4K UHD route (with hindsight its a pleasant surprise it has turned up on the format at all), but it proved rather disappointing.  It turns out that, for all it does well -and it does indeed do some things very well- its badly flawed, unfortunately. It’s not bad, exactly- it just doesn’t tie together somehow, it doesn’t really work, overall, which is frustrating because some elements are very good indeed. Its a case of being clumsy where it really needed to soar, and perhaps being overly familiar.

So many films and tv shows one sees these days, if they aren’t actually remakes or reboots, they still often seem to be a combination of the ‘greatest hits’ of someone’s DVD collection. Maybe its the entertainment industry’s sincerest form of flattery, or a reminder that there really is nothing new under the sun.

Reminiscence is hitched upon the central conceit that an invention enables people to re-live some of their past experiences which can be visualised for others to see and record, and this also enables access to forgotten memories or the ability to vividly recall things otherwise only dimly remembered. The law enforcement agencies use this machine to interrogate suspects who can be prosecuted by the evidence their memories reveal – an inversion of the ‘future crime’ of Memory Report, then, but similarly projecting crimes for others to see and record for evidence, criminals being betrayed by their own memories or those of witnesses.   

The seductive aspect of reliving good memories, especially in the distinctly dystopian world which Reminiscence proposes, reminds one of another tech-noir thriller, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, and its device which enabled the recording of events for others to experience, itself similar to Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm of some years before. Some characters in Reminiscence are doomed to endlessly  return to and re-experience good times in just the same way as Ralph Fiennes’ Lenny in Strange Days, and indeed this is something mirrored by the ultimate fate of this film’s main character, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), who can’t let go of his muse, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) any more than Lenny can shake off his obsession over his own lost love. So Reminiscence seems to come to us now third-hand, almost, rather than be anything actually new, ironically leaking reminiscences of other films-  I don’t really mind that if its done in some new and interesting way, but this is where the film slips up.  While there is some political subtext and a crime to solve, Lisa Joy treats that as secondary to its romance woven through the narrative, and its that which doesn’t entirely convince. Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson are very good actors but they just seem a little too ‘perfect’ to convince as the flawed, haunted characters that Joy wants them to be. There is a feeling that we are always watching beautiful people merely approximating what desperate, hungry and haunted characters might be like were they a little more, well, ordinary like the rest of us. Perhaps this is always true of Hollywood product. 

There is, to be sure, a really great film in here, somewhere. Considering recent world attention on Climate Change and rising sea levels, seeing a film portraying a possible nightmare scenario spun off of that -in this case a half-submerged Miami and days so hot that everyone sleeps in the day and spend the majority of their waking hours during the night-as vividly as this film does is something timely and fascinating. And the reliance of the survivors upon the new technology to re-experience memories and experiences of better times as an avenue of escape is very interesting, and similar to how people during the pandemic have eulogised old pre-COVID traditions and pursuits like, hey, going to the cinema like we used to, or perhaps re-watching films that remind us of better times. There is perhaps a subtext there upon fantasy and escape and what catharsis films themselves provide us, and what a dead-end that may be. 

So what goes wrong exactly? I think its partly the romance that doesn’t wholly convince, and as that’s the central interest for Lisa Joy that’s a pretty fundamental failing. The crime that hangs in the background concerning a wealthy family, an illegitimate child, a bent cop and resultant murders just doesn’t interest either, really. Maybe its just too many balls to juggle in the air; I rather suspect that Lisa Joy has more success with so many narrative threads when she’s spacing them over an eight or ten-episode series on HBO rather than a two-hour movie, and films always tend to need cohesive, satisfying endings, not more mystery boxes. 

As someone who has watched quite a few film noir lately, I also think that Reminiscence could have possibly done without its narration, a noir device that doesn’t, to be honest, really work for me here. I always prefer film-makers to show me, don’t tell me, and the best noir, no matter how complex they may be, can often manage just fine without a voice explaining it all. Maybe I’m wrong and don’t appreciate that post-millennials are lazier. 

Maybe Reminiscence is just another victim of dystopian films just not appealing to audiences right now- maybe we’re swerving back to the days of post-Vietnam 1977 and audiences just want escapist fun. We’re living in a dystopian world as it is, and we know the future increasingly looks bleak; we don’t necessarily need films to remind us, or show us how bad it might get. Or maybe we just want better movies.

Stories from the shelf (Part One)

shelfoneEvery shelf tells a story. Here’s the top shelf of a corner unit that contains many of my film soundtracks collected over the years (mostly the ‘premium’ limited expansions that I largely had to import from America). It possibly says more about how my brain works than anything else, as I clearly tried to make it alphabetical, or something, starting therefore with John Barry and a few titles beginning with ‘A’ then going somewhat astray. Lower shelves in future instalments will be all Goldsmith and Horner and Williams and more, but I’m going to start from the top and work my way down, so we begin with John Barry.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Barry, but I know many film soundtrack lovers are absolutely convinced he’s brilliant and top of the pile. One soundtrack I didn’t squeeze in here and probably should have is his soundtrack for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which is probably my favourite of his (and my favourite Bond film, too). I suspect the reason why that expanded CD isn’t on this shelf is because I’m not actually sure where it is…

You may find a recurrent theme going on, where notable absences come to my mind for the same reason.  I’ve been buying too many CDs for so many years, and part of the reason why I put up some more shelving last summer was to put my favourite and most treasured discs in one place so I know where to find them (this years project is to do the same with my books but hey-ho we’ll see how THAT goes). Part of the problem is that, once a disc is ripped onto my laptop/external hard drive, I can then listen to it often but without going back to the CD, so that disc actually gets untouched for months, years…

Anyway, back to this shelf. And Barry. My issue with Barry is likely the same reason his devotees are so devoted. Barry had a knack of finding a ‘killer’ theme and therefore compilation albums of his soundtracks are often very successful, but unfortunately (from my point of view) this would also prove to be Barry’s weakness in his actual full scores, and certainly score expansions on CD. Barry would write a wonderful theme for a film and then he would use that for most of the score, reworking it and re-orchestrating it endlessly. His fans adore this, I’m sure. My personal mileage varies so I only have select albums, and one or two even then only because I bought them in sales.

lion1This criticism, by the way, is possibly actually unfair, certainly in the case of the first disc here, The Lion in Winter, a film I haven’t even seen but I was recommended the score and yeah, its a wonderful piece of work. Some people refer to it as Barry’s Christmas album and that rather fits: its in a medieval mode, with choir and pomp and majesty. It features, typical of Barry, some simply magnificent themes (‘Eleanor’s Arrival’ is quite gorgeous, the kind of music that as soon as you hear it you stop what you are doing and purely listen, enrapt, and frustratingly this is one of those times where Barry doesn’t then reuse the theme continuously so my argument regards Barry comes undone). This is possibly my second-favourite Barry score. It dates from 1968, so its almost as old as I am (its aged considerably better).

dances1Second on the shelf is his immensely popular Dances With Wolves soundtrack, here the two-disc expanded edition from La La Land Records (a label you’ll see plenty of here, alongside Intrada and the late, lamented FSM) which was released in 2015. Soundtracks are often like Blu-rays, they seem to get released on anniversaries, something marketing boys seem to be fascinated by which endlessly irritates me. Disc releases of films seem to be delayed years in order to tie into some 15th or 20th or 25th Anniversary (the higher that number goes the more scared I become when its one I recall seeing it at the cinema). An interesting piece of trivia: Dances With Wolves was originally supposed to be scored by Basil Poledouris (of Conan the Barbarian and most pertinently, Lonesome Dove fame), but he backed out of it in order to fulfil obligations to his friend John Milius regards his delayed Flight of the Intruder film. Wolves would have been Poledouris’ break-out score, conceivably changing his career completely and fans of Lonesome Dove can only wonder at what Poledouris might have conceived recording the score for Kevin Costner’s hit Western. Poledouris’ career slid downhill after that, and the bittersweet sting in the tale is that Intruder got pushed back six months so Poledouris could have scored both after all. Life can be cruel. But then again, I guess Barry’s fans hear that story and grit their teeth thinking that they almost missed out on one of Barry’s most popular scores. Its certainly got some wonderful emotive themes and was a big part of the films success. 

Barry’s smouldering, evocative score for Body Heat follows: Lawrence Kasdan’s wonderful neo-noir is a fantastic film truly elevated by Barry’s moody score. Its possibly too repetitive (this is FSMs 2-disc expansion with full score on disc one and Barry’s original album on disc two with an added near-thirty minutes of theme demos that wears thin) but its so atmospheric, its almost like a sultry, smoky score of summer heat, which is exactly what Barry was aiming at. 

kongAnother FSM disc follows- Barry’s score for the 1976 King Kong. Back in the early 1980s, the vinyl album of this was in the bargain bins of record stores and I picked up a copy (as I recall it came with a poster): I was always seduced by that films poster art that was actually promising some other movie entirely (not the poster which FSM used, by the way, as they obviously intended their 2-disc edition to stand out from the original which FSM had actually reissued on CD a few years earlier). I didn’t see the 1976 film until several years later, when much of the music would make more sense, but the film always fascinated me because a paperback of the making of the film was one of the first books I ever read and one that really fired my imagination about movies and the stories about the making of them. So while this King Kong was really a disaster movie for all the wrong reasons, I’ll always have some affection for it. This Kong has something so typically Barry- an absolute belter of a love theme, and it sounds fantastic in some of its variations here in expanded form. Some of the action music is quite jarring and atonal but the romantic sweep of the love theme is quite timeless, Barry just had a gift for melodies like that (see also Somewhere in Time, Raise the Titanic and so many others). I will also just say that the track Kong Hits the Big Apple was a big-band number that was much derided by my freinds and I back in the day when we listened to the vinyl album, and it hasn’t really aged well since, but hey, it was 1976.  

Then we come to Barry’s The Black Hole score. Again, this was one I had on vinyl and it really suffers from Barry’s habit of just repeating ad nauseam a theme over and over. The Black Hole was an ill-fit for Barry; I don’t think this kind of space adventure flick was really suited to him, it was really John Williams domain and to be fair, even a great like Jerry Goldsmith possibly struggled at that kind of thing (although Star Trek: The Motion Picture is absolutely magnificent, but more on that later, as that’s a story for another shelf). I recall that The Black Hole was one of, if not THE, first digital recordings of a major film score., because they made a big deal of it on the cover of the album and in adverts I read in Starlog at the time (1979). In that respect, it seemed more something of the future than the actual music did. Its no disaster but I remember buying this expanded CD edition more out of a sense of nostalgia than a love of the music, although it is a pretty cool main theme (the heroic action theme is diabolical though, that REALLY didn’t suit Barry- Star Wars theme it isn’t). In hindsight the case of The Black Hole, and Disney so clearly trying to mimic the appeal/success of Star Wars, is really kind of funny when you consider that they spent over $4 billion buying the thing from George Lucas decades later- if you can’t beat ’em, er, buy ’em, seems to be the lesson of that story).

abyssThis post is getting too long already so we’ll skip on past a few Barry discs I bought in sales in order to instead dwell on Alan Silvestri’s score for The Abyss, here the expanded Varese two-disc edition that was something of a Grail of mine. I’m not a big fan of Silvestri’s scores, but I always loved The Abyss, score and movie. 1989: summer of Batman, soundtracks like Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, Pet Semetary… soundtracks that were coming out on CD then, vinyl being a thing of the distant past. The Abyss was a suspenseful, dramatic and strange score, even if its Main Title owed an awful lot to the opening of James Horner’s Brainstorm. Temp music rearing its ugly head again, I suspect (I mean, that thing is a blatant rip).  

Back then I still bought soundtracks from shops, even though that seems something so long ago. I remember the Saturday I went into town and bought both The Abyss CD and Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels CD, listening to both of them late that night on headphones (Strange Angels has always been a personal favourite album, by the way, which is possibly why I remember that day so clearly- oh and two girls in the town who I think were trying to pick me and my mate Andy up, but I was too distracted (okay, ignorant) to pick up on it at the time, foolishly batting them off. I had odd priorities for a teenager back then and I placed nerdy concerns somewhere higher than girls).  

Varese’s original The Abyss album on CD was typical of the time, limited to about 40 or 50 minutes or so (which was pretty good, as many hovered around the 30-minute mark due to music union issues), certainly far from complete and missing some of the music I enjoyed in the film- so the deluxe version released in 2014 really was something special, so much so that I posted about it here at the time. A limited edition, as so many of these score expansions on disc are, I recently noticed this edition being up for sale at £150 on Amazon. Yikes. I dare say quite a few CDs on my shelves might be worth something now, or at least for as long as people have CD drives/players. 

how2Here’s where my filing of my CDs becomes a little eccentric. What follows on the shelf are a number of discs linked by the actor who stars in the particular films, rather than by the composer: Avanti!, The Apartment/The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce How To Murder Your Wife/Lord Love A Duck and Barefoot in the Park/The Odd Couple (regards those last two, the films in question are definitely NOT Lord Love A Duck or Barefoot in the Park, its just that those each feature scores for two films by Neal Hefti). The actor in question is of course Jack Lemmon, and these are films I absolutely adore, and they date from a period when film music was really quite wonderful, melodic and memorable: scores that are great, for great movies that star a great actor. The actual music is quite varied and the composers quite different in style, but generally seem to have great romantic themes that really soar: Carlo Rustichelli’s Avanti! is beautiful and timeless, and Neal Hefti’s How To Murder Your Wife has a love theme that just.. well, I fell in love with THAT theme back when I first saw the film many years ago, and it never ceases to amaze me that it ever came out on CD one day, and one that actually featured the full score as well as the original album on a second disc.  I think I was buying film soundtracks at a particularly fortuitous time: the last score for a Jack Lemmon film that I’m really holding out for is Prisoner of Second Avenue, another personal favourite film whose Blu-ray I can endlessly re-watch. Maybe one day.

silentNext disc on this shelf is Peter Schickele’s Silent Running. This is another CD that is pretty special to me. Douglas Trumbull’s film Silent Running has always been a particular favourite of mine and its ecological themes have only gotten more prescient as time has moved on, and Schickele’s score is one that sounds really quite unique: its very 1970s, featuring small orchestration with folk songs from Joan Baez that should really date it (maybe they do, but that only adds to the films strange charm). It was one of the films from which I recorded the music via tape deck and holding a microphone to the tinny tv speaker, and listened to the cassette with the music mixed with some dialogue and sound effects.

Many, many moons ago back in the 1980s I used to see the vinyl album in stores but I never bought it (pocket money never stretched that far), and when it went out of print I just thought it would turn up on CD someday (everything seemed to eventually), but it didn’t. I think the reason was that the master-tapes were lost or destroyed, so when Intrada finally released it on disc in 2016, it was actually a recording sourced from a pristine vinyl copy, and surprisingly, it sounds pretty damn fine.  Plenty good enough to me, considering I’d been pining for a release for decades at that point. Whenever I see this CD on the shelf I have a bit of a ‘pinch-me’ moment. 

doorostFinally, Marcelo Zarvos’ The Door in the Floor soundtrack: I love this music. Its one of those deeply emotional, rather dark and reflective scores… the film is a pretty bleak drama, really quite sad, being about the break-up of a marriage that being destroyed by the unbearable grief over the loss of two children in an accident (it stars Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger and Mimi Rogers and is really quite good). Its one of those cases where the music is as integral and important as any other part of the picture. In this respect its like Vangelis’ Blade Runner: the score is the soul of the movie. Zarvos’ score is such a powerful work of longing and regret; to me it works completely seperate from the film the music it was written for. I suspect many will have never heard it or seen the film (it dates back to 2004, incredibly).

Crikey, this one went on a bit. Might have to pause awhile before I get around to the next shelf: Horner!

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Yes I know, ‘G’ (for Goldsmith) comes before Horner but there is a method to my madness…

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Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future (2018)

saturnbonestellA very welcome surprise to find this excellent documentary currently available on Amazon Prime. Anybody with a passing interest with art and science fiction and access to Prime would be advised to give this film a watch; its really quite amazing. It features the likes of Douglas Trumbull, Don Davis, Ben Burtt (and others like Ray Bradbury in archive interview footage), commenting upon Bonestell’s genius and visionary impact, and many examples of his remarkable paintings. 

Bonestell lived a quite extraordinary life, one which will always be quite unique simply because of what he lived through and saw during a long life (born in January 1888, died June 1986). He experienced the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and lived through two World Wars and all the technological advances of the 20th Century, from the Orville Wright first powered flight of 1903 to a manned landing on the moon and the first landers on Mars. The latter events, and the post WWII advances in rocketry that got us there, were obviously keenly important to him as he became known as the pioneer of what is generally called ‘Space Art’. Even people not too interested in art would have seen his work in film (matte paintings for films like Citizen Kane, no less, and design work etc for Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and an indirect influence on Kubrick’s depiction of the moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey). When Bonestell’s usually surprisingly accurate guesswork and depictions of other worlds proved wide of the mark, as in his wonderful lunar landscapes, there is always a feeling that its reality’s fault for not measuring up to Bonestell’s art, not the other way around.

moonbonetsellBonestell’s paintings instead remain quite timeless and wonderfully evocative. I have a copy of Ron Miller’s excellent retrospective The Art of Chesley Bonestell but not at hand- alas I think its boxed up in the loft like so many other books.  I shall have to make a point of digging it out sometime soon, it would be fascinating to read again having seen this documentary.

 

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

hit1During the end credits of this movie, when I saw the names Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich come up on screen, I had such a strange sensation of nostalgia, of seeing old familiar friends after a long, long time. Which it has been, really- I don’t think I’ve seen both their names on a film’s credits since Brainstorm back in 1984. But it was such a surprise, as I had no idea either of them were connected with this film, especially as the film is such a low-key, odd little film that it seems the unlikeliest thing. But hey, life is full of surprises, and this was one of them. As far as film geeks go, it was like seeing the names of heroes onscreen, gave me something of a buzz. But hey, life is strange and film geeks stranger.

Its perhaps just as well that I really, really liked this film. I have since seen some really negative reviews and commentary about the film, but the hell with all that. We just like certain movies, and certain films click with certain people I guess. The title The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot may be its own problem, because I think that title suggests a certain kind of film; something trendy, funny, from left-field, like a Tarantino movie maybe, and this film is nothing at all like that. Instead The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot is a rather sad, melancholy fable, a story of an old man near the end of his life reflecting on his life, and his regrets.

It is also, oddly enough, something of a superhero film. Maybe an alternative superhero film, if there is such a thing. Because certainly the main character of this film, Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott) is a  man with superpowers. Its a film that approaches superheroes in a similar way that Watchmen did, asking ‘what would it be like if Superman existed in the Real World?’, and posits that he’d decide to live a quiet life away from any action, perhaps even regretting the heroic deeds he’d once done.Hmm, a Tarantino film it isn’t.

hit2So anyway, that’s pretty much what the film is about. Calvin is an old man, a recluse who unknown to anyone in his town was once a legendary assassin who killed Hitler, a success which failed to really change the course of WWII (turned out Germany used ‘fake’ Hitlers to continue a pretence that Hitler was alive in an attempt to maintain its war effort). So in the present-day, some MIB-type agents pull Calvin out of retirement for one final secret mission – to track down and kill a Bigfoot that is infected with a deadly disease that will likely infect and wipe out humanity if the creature remains on the loose much longer.

Its during these present-day sequences that Calvin reminisces about his past before the war, and his mission to kill Hitler during the war that changed everything for him. These flashbacks are intended to inform the present and why Calvin is the way he is- basically a bitter old man tired of living.  There is a bittersweet but doomed romance that suggests a life of happiness denied him- his price, perhaps, of his powers. Regards these powers, they are fairly mundane- he can’t fly or anything- instead he is very strong, deadly in combat, adept at any languages (hence a useful talent undercover during the war in occupied territory) and immune to any disease (its likely, for instance, he’s never had a cold in all his life). Likely he has other talents/powers the film doesn’t show. During flashbacks to the war, we see him witness Jews being put on trains to the concentration camps, and I think his powerlessness to stop it -and his later assassination of Hitler failing to really alter anything- makes him feel a failure, as if he wasted his talents.

Its as if being born a comparative Superman, but then failing to really achieve anything, made him feel he has had a wasted life. Perhaps his life of anonymity was the price for maintaining some normality, avoiding the circus of notoriety in the public eye. I guess you either buy into that or not, but its an interesting premise.

hit4Sam Elliott as the grizzled, weary old Calvin is perfect for the role- its like it was written for him, and Aidan Turner (yeah that Poldark fella) does pretty fine as the young Calvin. I thought it was a really interesting, and quite affecting film, graced with a notable score from Joe Kraemer that evokes all kinds of John Williams textures. Indeed in many ways it feels a film from some other time- a film very of the 1970s, with its slow pace and gentle feel. Even the Bigfoot sequences (man in a suit! man in a suit!) brings to mind guilty pleasures like Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Okay, Bigfoot is really a little more sophisticated than that really sounds, but you know, its certainly no modern CGI extravaganza, and that’s part of the films charm.

So anyway, I really enjoyed it and was quite surprised by the negative reviews I’ve since read. Then again, its just one of those films that perhaps defy ordinary expectations, especially with the hook that the title suggests. Its really something of a gentle fable of what a life with superpowers might be like. The fact its not a life with capes and masks and super-villains likely confounds some. I thought it refreshing. And hey, its a film with the names Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich on the end credits. I’m still getting a kick out of that.

More 2049 thoughts

I’ve now seen BR2049 five times and that doesn’t feel enough, I really want to see it again. Its been a long time since I’ve been so hooked by a film that I get drawn to repeat viewings like this. There’s this strange quality to it. Its a beautiful film, visually quite extraordinary at moments, but there’s more to it than just visuals. So many films now look pretty or have impressive effects etc- here there is a mood, and a dreamlike pacing that coupled with its running time leaves me with a sense of falling into it. I can’t really think of any other way of explaining it.

And yes there are all the mysteries and possibilities and suggestions to unpack and ponder over. That is one of the major pluses of this film- we are dropped into it with little preamble, little is really explained other than by offhand remarks. References to famine, global environmental catastrophe. The particulars of Offworld remain as vague as they were in the original film. Dialogue is kept deliberately minimal- I do think this is one of the brilliants aspects of the film. It doesn’t beat you over the head with verbal explanations of the plot.

Yesterday I watched a few scenes again, and out of film order too, just to see them out of story-context, appreciate the visuals and art direction etc outside of the usual film experience. I know, it sounds like something akin to heresy, but it’s an interesting way to pick a film apart and enjoy its constituent parts. Not many films reward such an approach of course, but I used to do that with Blade Runner in the old days. That was in the VHS era, which was harder work with its fast-forward, rewind, not-at-all instant access. Discs rather spoil us.

So anyway, a few thoughts.

2049aIt isn’t implicitly stated in the film itself, but I understand that the eye that opens the film belongs to Dr Ana Stellline. She opens her eye and ‘sees’ immediately prior to K waking up in his spinner and opening his own eyes. This forms a curious bookend with the close of the film, where K dies outside in the snow, looking up at the snow falling down on him, which is then mirrored with Ana in her room standing in a column of falling snow, hand outstretched as K does and she comments “Its beautiful, isn’t it?” I’m sure there must be some significance to all of this, I just don’t know what it might be just yet. Does it mean that Ana is somehow aware of K’s fate outside?

It does seem a bit too much of a coincidence. She opens her eyes at the beginning and K wakes, K dies outside in the snow, and she stands in holographic snow inside her building. But what could it mean? Does Ana somehow orchestrate everything? Does she have some kind of link with K beyond her memory implant of the orphanage and the wooden horse? Has she ‘set’ him on his journey through the film? Are her memory implants more than just artificial memories, are they laden with hidden code like a Trojan horse, buried programming controlling/freeing the thousands of Replicants that have her implants? Is she remotely instigating the Replicant rebellion, which, afterall, doesn’t appear to be limited to old rogue Nexus 8s?

Which leads me to another possibility. The films text opening assures that Wallace Corp Replicants (Nexus 9s) are programmed to obey and can be thoroughly trusted, explaining the resumed manufacture of Replicants following the issues with Tyrell Nexus models running amok. And yet Luv behaves rather oddly, shedding tears during times of stress, killing people and even, indeed, inferring that she will lie to Wallace about why she killed Lt.Joshi. She even suggests to Joshi that her own trust in K may have been misguided, and that K may have lied to her (which indeed he has). I wonder if this might be related to Ana’s memory implants having some other code as I have mentioned, thus possibly explaining some of Luv’s and K’s behaviour. I guess you might call it freewill, or independence from set programming- maybe it’s the same thing.

On the other hand: this is what the baseline test is designed to pick up, perhaps stress/trauma is the one thing that breaks through the Nexus 9 programming to ‘obey’. A Replicant Blade Runner experiencing combat and near-death moments would experience sufficient trauma to break its programming. Likewise, Luv, doing what she feels she has to do to protect/satisfy Wallace, experiences stress and trauma that breaks her own programming and causes her to act more erratically/aggressively. She certainly doesn’t react well to Wallace killing the newborn Replicant, and goes downhill from there.

One of my favourite scenes from the film might seem a strange one. Its in the orphanage, after K has learned that the records book has been tampered with and the specific information he is after has been ripped from it and stolen, leaving him with a dead end. A noise outside the office draws him back out to the engine/furnace area, and in a perfectly-paced, almost hypnotic sequence, he feels compelled to approach the furnace of his memory and where he remembers hiding the wooden horse. The place of his memory is evidently real, and he slowly gets pulled back in, his memory of a past event, implanted or not, like some kind of inexorable black hole. The music is an ambient dirge, as he is slowly pulled into an emotional and intellectual abyss. There is no dialogue. No voiceover. Its just pure cinema, and finally, when he holds the real wooden horse and the camera slowly closes in on his trembling face, we can see he’s on the verge of exploding, his mind unravelling with the implications of where he is, what he is experiencing, who he is, what he might be. A Replicant who thinks he might be human, a delicious twist on the original film’s Rachel thinking she’s human but realising she’s actually a Replicant. Its bloody brilliant, how its staged. Pure Cinema, as Trumbull used to say.

The transition/cut from the desert campfire where K is recovering, the sparks and embers from the fire rising into the night sky suddenly transforming into the cityscape. Brilliant, a cut as good as the Kubrick bone to orbital bomb in 2001, its that good. A primeval fire’s sparks and embers rising up into the night and leaping thousands of years of technology into future megalopolis. Almost thrown in as an incidental aside as we change scenes. Extraordinary.

2049dWhen K takes Joi up onto the roof, in the rain. The sound design in that scene is just sublime, perfect. The sound of a disembodied voice echoing in the concrete canyons, the rain, the whoosh of distant air traffic and machinery. The subtle textures of the synth soundtrack gently picking its way through the sound effects. Its exquisite work. And of course the cinematography is awesome, I think I could re-watch that scene over and over.

Ridley Scott would have us think that the central question of Blade Runner is, is Deckard a Replicant? I don’t think that is the central question of that film; I rather think that it asks how much who we are, and what we are, is defined by our memories, real or false. That question is asked again in BR2049, and yet with an ironic twist on what Ridley would have us obsess over- here we know K is a Replicant, but at the end of the film, is he actually human too? When Roy Batty saves Deckard in the original, and K here sacrifices himself to rescue Deckard and reunite him with his daughter, do they each attain humanity enough to deserve the term ‘human’? In a spin on the original thesis of Philip K Dick’s original novel, which was regards defective humans and what is ‘human’ in a world of atrocities like Nazi death camps etc, do the films offer a suggestion that engineered Replicants can actually by their actions become truly human, which further suggests that humanity is not a physical state but one that may be intellectual or emphatic, a result of actions and deeds.

How wonderfully special that here is a sequel that expands and informs upon the original. I have not re-watched Blade Runner since seeing BR2049 last October, but I probably really should. If only to give some new perspective on the question, is BR2049 as good as Blade Runner? Is it possibly even better? Ah, now that there feels like an extraordinary question, being someone who has revered the original film since 1982. But it is one that -incredibly- I find myself considering. A year ago, I would not have believed such a consideration possible.

What a strange world this is.

 

Silent Running OST by Peter Schickele

 

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December 1978, and BBC2 is showing a season of science fiction films over the Christmas holidays, a reflection of the cultural impact of Star Wars, a phenomenon in America hitting UK cinemas that Christmas. For a geeky science-fiction-crazy kid like me, it was something like heaven, all those late-night science fiction films every night; 1950s classics that I knew and loved and others quite new to me. One film new to me made a particular impact on me- Douglas Trumbull’s remarkable 1972 eco-drama, Silent Running. It made an emotional connection with me, in no small part due to the evocative music of Peter Schicklele and the songs featuring Joan Baez. Hey, I was twelve.

On a subsequent airing on another BBC2 science-fiction movie season (how I miss those movie seasons) I recorded the entire Silent Running film onto my mono cassette deck. We film geeks kind of did that kind of nonsense back in the days when videotape seemed, well, the stuff of Star Trek; we’d re-live the film experience by listening to it and running the film back in our minds-eye. I kept that cheap old C90 cassette safe for years, listening to the score mostly.

One time, I was in Birmingham and the HMV there was selling the Silent Running soundtrack album (the Varese green vinyl release). I nearly bought it, but money was tight (I was still in High School back then, back in the days of 50p pocket money) and I was caught in the heady thrill of buying Robert E Howard import paperbacks from the city’s sci-fi bookshop, so the REH books won and the album was left behind. How many times I regretted that decision (almost as much as failing to buy the Blade Runner issue of Cinefex, although the eventual book reprint halted that particular recurring nightmare). How was I to know those REH paperbacks would be around for a few years, later reprinted several times in later editions, but that album would disappear forever, quickly going out of print?

The CD format arrived, and over the years so many soundtracks got transferred to that format leaving the pop and click of vinyl behind. Surely Silent Running would get released on CD someday. Years, decades passed, inexplicably it never turned up, just like a CD release of the Tron soundtrack.  Eventually even the Tron soundtrack saw a release on CD (hurrah!), but Silent Running? I’d frequent Film Music forums raising its non-release as some kind of tragedy or crime, bumping old threads over the years. No-one seemed able to explain its absence. As the CD format itself neared the end of its days in favour of digital downloads and streaming its become increasingly unlikely that it would ever get a release. And then-

December 2016, and Intrada have released the Peter Schickele soundtrack of Silent Running on CD for the first time. Last month when Intrada  announced its release, rather out of the blue, of course exchange-rates and the dangers of customs be damned, I had to order a copy.  It arrived in the post today. Its probably one of the most expensive single CD’s I ever bought (although I got away without a customs sting, thank goodness). But of course its worth it. Its an incredible thing, hearing it at long last, crystal-clear on CD, holding the case in my hand. Seeing the artwork, reading the title Silent Running… Maybe there is a Santa.

From 1978 to 2016 its been 38 years. Holding this CD means a lot. Forgive an old fool the nostalgic passions dating back to his twelve-year old self. But anybody who fell in love with this movie over the years will understand the emotional connection with that music.

As it turned out, all the masters for the score and album were long-lost, which explained why a CD version was never released until now- this release entailed a transfer from an original mint vinyl copy of the original Decca album of 1972. Its amazing what those engineering wizards can do, because this sounds fantastic.

Well, I guess the only thing left is a complete Blade Runner release by Vangelis. Who knows? After Silent Running has finally seen the light of day on this amazing CD, anything, surely, is possible. 38 years. Crikey.