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.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get Carter

cartr1It was a cold, wet, dark drive to work this morning. Thoroughly dank and dismal. So I put on the John Carter soundtrack on the car stereo (usb memory stick, 32gb of my music, all sorts of weird stuff hiding in there). I haven’t listened to this music -or seen the movie, either, for that matter- in such a long time. It almost sounded new. Suddenly the rain and the traffic were gone and I was adventuring on the sands of Mars.

Its a great fantasy score, and always sounded like a Star Wars kind of score, benefiting from sweeping flourishes and great melodies and orchestration. The irony is that Disney buying Star Wars from George Lucas would kill any John Carter franchise stone dead before it even got released and that Giacchino would later get a ‘proper’ Star Wars scoring gig with Rogue One, which would be a vastly inferior score compared to his John Carter.

Okay, we should maybe cut him a break. In the insane world of modern film-making, Giacchino only had a few weeks to score Rogue One, as he was a last-minute replacement. His Rogue One score is functional and adequate and will likely ensure he gets another Star Wars gig with more favourable conditions someday in the near future.

But John Carter remains a fresh and magnificent score, the kind we don’t get too often these days. Attached to a dead franchise, the score seems to be relegated to forgotten/OOP status- I see the CD soundtrack commanding crazy prices now. Listening to it this morning it rekindled all those ‘what might have been’ fantasies of a series of Carter films and scores.

Death By Star Wars, eh.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

guard1Of all this summer’s releases, this is the one that seemed to tick all the boxes and really got my interest. I even very nearly saw it at the cinema until work etc got in the way. Marvel’s films have been getting better and better and here we were with Marvel doing a fresh new space opera. There was even a rumour a favourite duck of mine would have a cameo. What’s not to love?

Here’s the thing. On my first viewing of the Blu-ray last week, I didn’t like it. It didn’t ‘click’ somehow. To be fair it was a bad night and the stars didn’t seem to align at all. Thirty minutes into the film I was interrupted by a visitor and had to switch it off for nearly an hour, and then having resumed the film it was later further interrupted by a phone-call that necessitated another fifteen minutes of downtime.  Remember than Batman line, “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb”? Well, I guess some days you just cannot get to watch a movie. Just wasn’t meant to be I guess. Added to that it was just too weird and odd ball for my wife to enjoy and the night seemed to end on a downer, another film falling victim to too much hype.

Fast-forward 24 hours and my wife is out and I give the film another go. And this time I enjoy it much more. Its not a perfect film, and I think its weaker than John Carter, a film whose failure to spawn sequels still irritates. Indeed its weird how Guardians seems to have captured the public’s imagination whilst John Carter was left buried in the box-office dirt- my preference for the latter film may be a contentious issue but I just think it was more natural and fun. Guardians clearly has the bigger ‘wow’ factor with its set-pieces/effects but there is an awful lot of cgi work and very one-dimensional characters amongst its supporting cast. The villains in particular are very weak.

There was a warmth and spirit in John Carter, and a gorgeous sweeping score- in fact I think the music may be the problem. Guardians just feels a little forced, and I think it lacks a personality of its own, mainly because the score is so very poor (the film dominated instead by its clever use of source music). I think these kind of films benefit from having hummable, whistleable tunes. It tries so hard for the spirit of 1977’s Star Wars and 1980s Empire Strikes Back but it lacks their charm, mostly because of its music.  Its nothing unique to Guardians, its a fault common with so many films nowadays, its just the style of scoring so prevalent in Hollywood today. It sounds so bland and generic, no character seems to have an iconic theme or anything.

Its just that, well, Guardians seems to me to be a film easy to admire but not to love, whereas I just adore John Carter. Personal preference I guess. Its not a bad film and I really did enjoy it the second time, but… well, maybe the next one, eh? At least it will get a next one.

 

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

edge1The cover-art of the Blu-ray (and I presume the DVD, although I haven’t seen it) betrays the problem that this film seems to have had- is it Edge of Tomorrow or Live, Die, Repeat?  When a film’s identity, its very title, seems to have an air of doubt about it, you know the marketing boys are in trouble. Here’s a film that is a very enjoyable action blockbuster with a bit of intelligence and wit about it starring one of the biggest male stars on the planet, with favourable reviews and word-of-mouth, and yet it still somehow fails to live up to box-office expectations. As a product, its fine, so is the problem simply that it wasn’t sold very well?

The success of movies is always something of a crap-shoot. Some films have ‘hit’ all over them and make huge box-office, others have ‘hit’ all over them and sink without trace. The frustrating thing for film-fans is often the injustice of it. Good films fail (John Carter, Blade Runner etc) and bad movies (take your pick, but any Transformers movie is a good start) make obscene amounts of money. There just isn’t any reason to it. Some films capture the public’s attention, others don’t. Maybe the public are a tasteless ignorant horde of brain-dead morons who are suckers for loud spectacle.

Here’s the thing. They are usually very young. Its demographics. Going to the cinema is mostly a young person’s activity. Most people going to the cinema these days are a different generation to the one that grew up with Tom Cruise as a major star. For this generation, the names Sylvester Stallone or Arnold  Swarzenegger or Bruce Willis or, indeed, Tom Cruise, don’t carry the same street-cred or air of celluloid importance as they did (and still do) for, say my own age group (slipping towards age 50) or even  the age group before, now hitting their thirties. Is the problem simply that Tom Cruise’s status is beginning to wane, his name not quite able alone to sell an original IP with its own attendant problems regards marketing? I am always one to bemoan the number of superhero movies and remakes and sequels being made, but the perceived failure of movies like Edge of Tomorrow kind of reinforces the practices of Hollywood, the films that we usually get.

egde2I’m not going to suggest that Edge of Tomorrow is a great film. Its good, but nothing extraordinary. But of all this past summer’s ‘blockbusters’ that I have so far seen, its likely the best, and possibly the most, dare I say it, original (although that last point is with a few caveats, as it eventually seems to descend into a rehash of a Matrix movie by the end).

Its a weird film though. The basic premise is just plain daft. Aliens have invaded Earth and have taken over Europe and its up to the Brits to save the day. Its World War Two and the Normandy invasion all over again. Only in the near future. I admit that whole thing bugged me a bit; if this thing had been a kind of Steampunk alternate World War Two with advanced tech then that would have been fine, albeit too high-brow for the general film-going public (the irony is not lost on me considering how the film’s box-office turned out). As it is, it just feels wrong, the central proposition (even before we get to the time travel stuff) already on shaky ground. It may have worked against the Germans in the 1940s, but how do you keep a huge invasion force secret in the Information Age, particularly against space-faring aliens who can surely see what you are up to across the Channel?  How do us Brits, with our cut-down military and debt-ridden economy even marshal those invasion forces? How come the Yanks don’t just run the show? That said, while the central ideas may have been dubious, the presentation is quite convincing and impressive. The battle scenes are very good indeed, with some excellent action choreography, and it looks very cool- Saving Private Ryan in Exo-skeletons!

I have to admit I enjoyed the proposition that Tom Cruise is a coward more intent on selling this war than actually fighting in it. Reluctant heroes are much more interesting and it gives Cruise something a bit left-field for him. Once the action sets in he’s as capable as ever, but its certainly his quieter moments that I enjoyed the most. Meanwhile, Emily Blunt is something of a revelation. If this film doesn’t serve as some kind of audition for her eventual starring role in a Marvel Studios movie, well, there is no justice. She is just great as an action heroine, which somehow came as quite a surprise. She and Cruise also share some chemistry too. Its great casting.

edge3The funny thing about Edge of Tomorrow is that it has the structure of a video-game. Its really weird. Cruise re-lives the same day (the same video-game level) and changes his actions to get further and further into that level, each death causing a reset to that same checkpoint… it even looks like a FPS. Its like an alternate Tron or something. In some ways its the most authentic movie based on a video-game ever (except that, far as I know, it isn’t based on any video-game). Damned thing is, you’d think that would sell well. Go figure.

Its certainly a good movie and one I very much enjoyed. When it finished, my first thought was that I’d like to watch it again (rather ironic considering its own repetitive structure), which is not something I often think when watching new films these days.Sure its not perfect, and in truth its box-office wasn’t really all that bad (it was perceived as performing below expectations but it was certainly no Lone Ranger/John Carter failure). I think some longer character beats, and perhaps some examination on the impact reliving all  those events so many times would have on Cruise’s character psychologically…  but maybe that would have been a different movie.

Thor 2: The Dark World (2013)

thor2This was a great superhero film- indeed I do believe this must be one of the very best superhero films that I’ve ever seen.  How weird is that? Somehow I didn’t see a film as good as that coming, but here it is.

Certainly its better than the first Thor movie, taking everything to the next level. Its confident, its bold, its fun, it’s superbly paced and it doesn’t take itself at all too seriously. Its a ‘proper’ superhero movie; while I appreciate the realistic/moody Batman films they aren’t by any means honest to the original comics. Thor, though, at least feels like a ‘sixties comic book brought to cinematic life, in that respect more authentic than, say, Man of Steel, which was so far up its own self-important arse that it beggared belief. Thor 2 is a far better movie. The cast in particular is note-perfect; they look amazingly relaxed in their roles, particularly Hemsworth and Hiddleton. They simply are Thor and Loki. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Its amazing how well the whole film just works.

But the funny thing is, what I kept on thinking of whilst watching Thor 2 was, of all things,  Star Wars. It was just the sense of ease and confidence that the film has, and how the Dark Elves that feature as the villains were a great analogue for how the Sith could look like in a future Star Wars movie. And the architecture of Asgard, the ship designs, even the sound effects… Frankly, the whole look and feel and sound of Thor 2, it somehow felt like a Star Wars movie, at least the nearest thing since the John Carter movie. As a huge Star Wars fan (well, of the Original Trilogy anyway) this meant the film was right up my alley, offering tantalising glimpses of what we may be in for in Christmas 2015 if Disney gets it right.

These superhero films seem to dominate modern cinema nowadays and its easy to forget how difficult they are to make. Actors might find it hard not to feel silly in a costume, and the stunts and effects work needed to match the simplest brush-strokes of a comic-book artist in a single panel don’t come cheap. But when it works, as it does here, it looks and feels like the easiest thing in all the world. I thought The Avengers and Iron Man would take some beating, but here we are. I think its that good.

This disc even features the best of the Marvel One Shot’s– Ben Kinglsey’s thespian arch-villain Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3 returns in All Hail the King, which is such a scream from start to finish its almost worth the price of the disc alone, and nearly had me hunting down a copy of Iron Man 3 to watch him again.

Man of Steel (2013)

mos1Spoilers ahoy folks….

They just don’t know when to stop. Good grief, the amount of cgi in this film, all the huge explosions and collapsing buildings and all manner of fireworks and bang-for-your-buck effects. I trust Man of Steel 2 will be set in a desolate post-apocalypse Metropolis, as most of the city and its inhabitants must have perished in all the chaos of the grand finale. It’ll take decades to rebuild that city. The irony of Superman reluctantly killing General Zod, in order to stop Zod killing an innocent family, when we had surely seen thousands die in the wake of the great battle beforehand, almost made me giggle.

But there’s no room for logic or common-sense here. I could see where we were going early in- indeed, ten minutes in with Russell Crowe’s Jor-El riding on a giant flying insect dodging exploding spaceships/buildings/laser blasts etc, I knew the film was in trouble, as it so quickly veered into the insane cgi excess of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. It looked like a cartoon, and all the sincerity of Crowe’s live-action performance on-set couldn’t foster any empathy for the cgi version of him darting through Krypton’s chaotic battle-strewn skies. Will film-makers never learn that beyond the spectacular visuals there is all the emotional power of a car-wash or a kettle boiling in stuff like this? The last 45 minutes of Man of Steel was visually amazing but boring as hell. I’ve never been so bored watching a film prove a man can fly. Matrix Revolutions did all the super-hero fight/flight stuff years ago, and we’ve seen cgi cities fall in Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon and The Avengers. Its been done. We’ve seen it. Film-makers need to find ways of bringing back old-school stuff like drama, emotion and character into these videogame snore-fests.  I’ve honestly never been so bored by a blockbuster movie, and it shocked me, as I thought that title had been confidently snatched by Star Trek into Darkness. Looking at the trailer for The Lone Ranger that ran before Man of Steel, it seems that we are in for another example of mad cgi excess there too. Well count me out.

Personally, I think its evident Warner Bros and the production team simply tried too hard to respond to criticisms of Superman Returns, a film I enjoyed and actually feel is a better film than Man of Steel. I may be in the minority with that but the hell with it. Superman Returns had better acting, better depth, characterisation, an emotional core. It didn’t bore me- indeed it involved me emotionally. I loved its nods to Superman: The Movie and Christopher Reeve, its respect for both that film and the character. Man of Steel? Well, Superman is no Dark Knight, so ‘gifting’ Superman all that Batman angst was the wrong way to go for a start, and with that, and the over-reliance on visual effects, well, it was a recipe for disaster. So, thoroughly disappointed by Man of Steel.  And the less said about Hans Zimmer’s Wall Of Sound/Soundscape Of Noise score the better.

In my opinion, in order of quality, Superman: The Movie is the best Superman film, followed by Superman 2, Superman Returns (those three forming a great trilogy) and then Man of Steel (and even then only because Superman 3 & 4 are truly awful films).

I’ll end this now with one last observation- John Carter was a far, far better movie. Yep, I’ve said it. Its light-years beyond Man of Steel in story, direction, acting, visuals, music- you name it, John Carter did it better.  But as far as box office is concerned, quality is no sure-fire road to success it seems, as John Carter ‘flopped’ and Man of Steel is surely headed towards a billion dollars. Its enough to make me weep…