Alien 4K UHD

alienAh, Alien– just thinking about the film throws me back to summer 1979, reading Fantastic Films magazine  absolutely goggle-eyed at the imagery- you have to remember, absolutely nothing that looked quite like it had ever appeared on film before (except, curiously, for the Victorian-bent tech of First Men in the Moon in 1964). Alien really was something new, a trend-setter and showstopper, one of those cultural pivot points that rarely happen now in these more jaded times- and of course a neat adult response to Star Wars. It wasn’t the technology of Alien‘s film-making that changed things (as opposed to how technology-driven modern film-making has since become, it was using all the old tricks and methods of so many films before and after), but rather the sophistication with which Ridley Scott approached its otherwise derivative b-movie plot (essentially a haunted house/monster on the loose story in space). The coverage of those issues of Fantastic Films really opened my eyes to the craft and art in genre films- its interviews with Ridley Scott in those issues (particularly the extensive examination of the Alien storyboards Scott drew) really fascinated me, and sealed my interest in Scott’s films forever after.

ff2I wasn’t really familiar with Heavy Metal at the time, but Alien was definitely the very first Heavy Metal movie in approach and artistic worth. It was adult and dark and gritty and quite overloaded with visual information. Even today some forty years later it’s amazing not just how well Alien holds up, but also how it surpasses much of what we see now. The Nostromo bridge, the messroom, the corridors, it’s incredibly convincing, a work of art. That’s quite seperate to the impact of Giger’s nightmarish creations: never was a films title so apt. Alien really was alien, its Lovecraftian pseudo-sexual horrors as disturbing now as they ever were. I almost wish it stood alone, that there were never any sequels or any prequels, that Alien could just stand there, a one-off classic.

Its certainly the best way to watch it today. Just soak up and savour the mystery of that derelict craft and the alien space jockey, and the glimpses of the creature itself as it preys on the Nostromo crew. Try to forget the mythology that followed after with all its contradictory noise.

So that summer of 1979- like some kind of fool, I was of course madly anticipating actually watching the film, but as the September release date of the film neared here in the UK I learned that it was rated ‘X’ by the BBFC, partly no doubt for the films intensity but more for the use of language- swear-words were a big no-no in the old days of Blighty (actually things might not have changed so much in the years since). So having read all the film magazines, as we used to do in those pre-internet days, the film became this forbidden object, a tantalising mystery- and of course this was in those dark pre-VHS days when films came to the cinema and then went, lost for years before even a glimmer of hope of a possible tv screening. I didn’t actually see the film until it turned up on television*, on a Sunday night following the 1982 World Cup final on ITV. In pan and scan, nevermind the dreaded ad breaks (didn’t have a video recorder back then, so recorded the film onto audio cassette to listen to after- only hardcore/older geeks possibly understand what that was all about).

So perhaps it was fitting that last night, another Sunday almost thirty-seven years later, slowly slipping towards the fortieth anniversary of the films 6th September UK release date, I watched the film again, only this time in yet another format- 4K UHD.  I have to say, the film looked gorgeous, the best I’ve yet seen it, one of the best catalogue films I have seen on 4K disc. The HDR isn’t distracting, instead tastefully managed to increase the sense of depth to the picture and really improving some of the miniature shots (such as the Nostromo touching down on the planetoid with its lights blazing in the stormy murk). The colour balance and saturation of the film seemed improved, and the 4K image certainly allowed more appreciation of the films many visual details. I’d say this presentation seemed pretty much definitive to me, and I really enjoyed the film again.

Rewatching films can always be a curious experience, as you can take different things from them with every viewing- this time around, I seemed to appreciate some of the acting quality. Ian Holm was brilliant, as was Veronica Cartwright too- both are superb character actors with a sense of understated reality. They seem natural and effortless performances and convincingly ‘down to Earth’ (albeit that might seem strange considering the film’s setting). As a whole I’d say the films casting was a masterstroke in general- the characters are quite underwritten by the script but each actor brings something to each part. Compare the trucking Nostromo crew to any of the characters in Prometheus or Alien Covenant, say, and you’ll get what I mean (damn- I intended not to refer to those prequels at all and I’ve gone and bust it). The casting grounds the film in a sense of blue-collar reality, and while the smoking may seem a little incongruous these days, it’s certainly another layer of reality that carried weight back in 1979. The world has changed but Alien won’t, it’s a part of film history locked in time and thank goodness for that.

A curious thought though, that forty years ago I would be reading all those magazines, Fantastic Films, Starburst etc) and getting photographic glimpses of the film, and I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and the film would be frustratingly yet held back for another three years. And here I was some forty years later rewatching the film again. If I was around forty years from now, no doubt I’d still be rewatching it. Films, afterall, can be forever- well, the best of them, certainly. But maybe I’ve just bought Alien one last time in one last format.

* prior to the network premiere, indeed some time before as I recall. maybe in 1981, I was looking at records in my local HMV when I noticed that they were playing Alien on a television sitting on the shelf near the till (it must have been a sell-through VHS tape, which were wildly expensive at the time, before rentals took off and the idea of actually owning a film became rich fantasy). It was near the chestburster scene, and needless to say I stuck around awhile to see it in the corner of my eye while pretending to examine vinyl copies of albums. Vinyl, VHS, record stores… it’s a long time ago indeed, and I was so nervous that this was an ‘X’ -certificate film that they were surreptitiously screening that everyone in the shop of any age could see. Was I ever that young/naive? 

Hold the Dark (2018)

hold1This is a particularly frustrating movie. Elegantly crafted with taut direction, excellent cinematography and a superb cast, its efforts are completely undermined by the lack of a cohesive screenplay- it is literally (sic) all over the place. It begins with a slow, steady pace that is quite hypnotic and purports something quite dramatic and important is coming, but then fails to deliver.

Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), who once write a book about living among wolves in the wild, is contacted by a young Alaskan woman, Medora (a rather hauntingly sad Riley Keough),  whose son has been taken by wild wolves. She doesn’t expect Core to find her son alive, but hopes he can track down and kill the wolf that took him. Curiosity piqued by her letter (and the location of her remote village being not far from his own estranged daughter, an awkward subplot) Core arrives at the woman’s house and finds the young attractive woman living alone, life-worn and jaded, evidently suffering from a post-trauma illness related to her son’s disappearance.

So far so good, but the film immediately betrays its tendency to farce when Core wakes up during the night to find a naked Medora walking towards him wearing a wooden wolf-mask. She wordlessly slides alongside him and places his hand around her own throat, as if inviting punishment or some masochistic sex game that Core declines. Now, an ordinary man might go straight to his car the next morning and return to the relative sanity of civilization, but instead he goes on a dangerous trek in search of the wolfpack that has allegedly stolen three children from the village.

Following a tense standoff with the wolves when he finally tracks them down, Core struggles through the barren icy wilderness back to the village to find Medora’s home deserted. Exploring the house he enters the cellar and discovers the body of her missing son, wrapped in a sheet. So Medora’s story of wolves is a lie, she killed her son herself and has gone on the run. Following a segue to a violent scene of desert warfare involving Madora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) who seems as proficient killing his own colleagues as he is terrorist insurgents, the villagers seem to be at odds with the local police when Vernon arrives back home intent on killing anyone (villager, police, coroner) who gets in the way of him hunting down his wife. A bewildered Core  is trapped in these proceedings like a rabbit in headlights and seemingly cannot escape them.

hold2As the events become wilder, less and less of what happens is explained and I suspect, looking back on it, that I may have missed the point. There is certainly a horror-genre subtext with hints at paganism and unexplained phenomena, indeed perhaps even Lovecraftian undertones. Perhaps there is something of Innsmouth transposed to this arctic, icy landscape. Or perhaps that is just my imagination filling in the blanks left by the increasingly vague, reason-less story.

At any rate, its is a beautiful-looking film and it features some shocking twists and some violent action scenes that are dwelt upon in slow graphic detail. Unfortunately its very ambiguity proves to be, for me, its downfall, as credibility seems to rapidly slide in its last half-hour. Perhaps it is about the darkness of the long Alaskan night staring back at the humans frozen in its landscape, an Apocalypse Now-like tale of staring too long into the abyss. Or maybe there is something genuinely Lovecraftian seducing some of them (or maybe I’m filling in the gaps too much). Perhaps, ultimately, the film tries to overreach itself. I am sure many will watch this film and be enchanted by it, but for me it became a frustrating experience following just one too many twists and turns. Certainly well worth a watch though and one of the better Netflix Originals that I have so far seen.



Good Movie Basics- Random thoughts

counsellor 3What makes a good movie/bad movie? What are the fundamentals?

Gregory’s recent comment on my review of The Counsellor “It’s despicable, mean-spirited trash and Scott should do us all a favour and just retire” (he clearly didn’t like the movie), set me to thinking about what makes a good movie. I can well understand Gregory’s viewpoint regards The Counsellor, after all, it’s one shared by many. The film doesn’t follow the usual structure of a three-act movie, it doesn’t have a sympathetic protagonist that the viewer can identify with, it doesn’t have a ‘proper’ ending or sense of resolution. It rather undermines the basics of any film-school screen-writing class.

None of the characters have any redeeming features, the worst of them is the one that ends up ‘winning’ at the end,  and the ‘hero’ is frankly a greedy fool that is swept up by everything and fails to effect the outcome in any way at all.  Indeed, he’s a non-entity, caught up and lost in the events, his life unravelling and never really aware of what is really going on. Its no wonder it alienates so many viewers.  Its so easy to dismiss it- at its worst, its a frankly masturbatory affair of a bunch of millionaire actors/film-makers playing at something ‘meaningful’ and ‘profound’ when its nothing of the sort, at its best though, its rather wonderful.

The thing is, so many things about The Counsellor are both infuriating and rewarding. Technically its remarkable what they got away with on such a low budget and shooting it in Europe in lieu of America/Mexico (you’d hardly notice unless you were told). And its so slowly paced, almost a throwback to 1970s film standards, as opposed to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it way so many films are shot/edited now. But does it try too hard to be an anti-mainstream movie?

counsellor 4

My own positive viewpoint likely has at least something to do with my fondness for Ridley Scott’s films. I enjoy his art-house credentials; there is always something rather subversive in his better movies, a heart of darkness if you will. And The Counsellor has this in spades. Its like Chaos Theory in action. Events unfold beyond the characters understanding and control. Characters slip into lengthy monologues about the nature of greed, life, justice…. but don’t really seem able to act upon their pearls of ‘wisdom’.  Their ignorance is astonishing but this blindness, to me, rather mirrors real-life in that none of us are really ever in full control of our lives. In this respect, the film is refreshingly honest. So often we are lulled into false security by films that show characters ‘seizing the day’ and triumphing against the odds, but while that works well for movies life isn’t always like that. People fail; people suffer and die and don’t really understand why, sometimes they just suffer the vagaries of fate and are powerless. Its that sense of a Lovecraftian universe that I find interesting about The Counsellor.   Its wildly self-indulgent, and yes, it would likely have played better with a cast of unknowns rather than a bunch of beautiful millionaire superstar actors, but that’s just how movies get made these days.

But is it a good movie? Ah, there’s the rub. I like it, but so many don’t, and I have to wonder, does it fail at the basics?

Does a good movie need a main character, a protagonist that we can identify with, empathise with? Does a good movie have to clearly set up in its first act its premise, its characters, its plot? Does a good movie have a middle act that further extrapolates its themes,  develops its drama and crisis? Does a good movie have a final third act that solves this crisis with the main character reaching some kind of resolution, whether he succeeds or fails, is he or the audience wiser at movies end? Is there some kind of moralist credential to the film, for good or ill? Simply put, should a movie have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end?

It can be argued that The Counsellor has neither. We begin the film almost in the middle of things, events and characters already in motion, the main character learns little, ignorant of what is really going on (indeed, I don’t believe any of them ever really learn the instigator of their fall) and the film has little meaningful resolution at all, other than perhaps that you’re not paranoid, the universe really is out to get you. If the final shot had been a bizarre pull-shot out and away into orbit and beyond, showing an increasingly small and fragile Earth increasingly lost in the immensity of the cosmos, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. At least the film would have perhaps suggested some meaning in a final flourish.

But that’s to me the point of the film. Nothing means anything, other than perhaps greed undermines all and to the hunter the spoils- justice is utterly subjective and sin is not always punished.

But is The Counsellor a good movie? Or is it a bad movie that I’m reading too much into? I guess even the worst of movies have their fans!