Books- The Art of Ron Cobb

ron2I’ve written here before about our formative years, how the films, books, music that we connect to during that important period of our lives – our teenage years, usually- remain so strong for the remainder of our lives. For my part, I’d cite the period between 1976 -1986  as the time when so much resonated with me and would stay with me; so much so that I’m tempted to suggest that I’m still pretty much that same awkward quiet kid I was back then (only grumpier and not so slim). I still love the films I did back then, listen to the same music, read the same authors… sure, new stuff has come over the decades since and much of it great but nothing rings quite so true as the stuff I fell in love with back then.

A curious spin on this is everything I read in film magazines of the time, Starburst, Fantastic Films, Starlog, Cinefantastique, all those articles, reviews and interviews that offered tantalising, exciting glimpses of the magic behind the films. Back in those pre-Internet days those monthly/bi-monthly editions, largely from over the pond, were our only window to what was coming, how films were made, the talents responsible for all the magic that thrilled us.

As an example, back when Alien was coming out in 1979, the magazines offered commentary and interviews related to the film- particularly Fantastic Films, a sort-of poor man’s Cinefantastique (the clue is in the mags cheeky title) that I absolutely adored and which I have written about before. Fantastic Films’ coverage of Alien was exemplary; lengthy interviews with Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon and others, with colour stills of the film and storyboards and paintings depicting the work that went into creating Alien. Bear in mind that Alien when it later reached our shores was given an ‘X’ certificate (surprisingly, if I recall correctly, not for the graphic horror but rather for its bad language) which meant that I couldn’t/wouldn’t see it for a few years. I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and later the incredible Movie Novel that was as close to owning the film as we could get in those pre-VHS days, but it was those articles in Fantastic Films that caught my attention, put images to Foster’s prose and ignited my fascination in all the work involved in making genre films.

cobb1Which brings me to the work of Ron Cobb, whose paintings and sketches for Dark Star, Star Wars and particularly Alien that featured quite heavily in the mag alongside its interview with him (and particularly a little later in a making-of book, The Book of Alien). This was art that was beautifully executed with a sense of weight and solidity that made the fantastic so real and utterly believable. The genius of Alien was that Ridley Scott cannily used Cobb’s realistic, authentic-looking set designs for the Nostromo and associated gadgetry as a counterpoint to the surreal nightmarish visions of H R Giger that represented the distinctly non-human horrors.  The sense of reality so intrinsic in Cobbs work curiously made Giger’s just look more real. I pored over the images, read the interviews with Cobb, and like all those other names I’d be reading about back then – Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, Ralph McQuarrie, John Mollo, Derek Meddings, John Dykstra, Douglas Trumbull, John Barry, Syd Mead, countless others – would follow Ron Cobb’s work over the years that followed, in just the same way as my more conventional school mates followed footballers, cricketeers or pop stars.

cobb4Cobb would go on to work on Conan the Barbarian (Cinefantastique‘s double-issue about that film proved to be a definitive reference on that film and Cobb’s involvement) and The Abyss and many others. Keen eyes would watch Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in 2012 and note the titular ship’s bridge design was heavily indebted to unused designs created by Cobb for Alien way back in 1979 – it was like seeing an old friend again out of the blue. While appreciating the clever claustrophobia of the film’s Nostromo, I always stared at that painting over the years wondering how fantastic it would be to see it for real, in a movie (Prometheus alas lacked the glories I imagined in my head, although that set did look pretty fantastic).

Cobb’s passing in 2020 hit me like a bolt, a sudden reminder of the passing of time in just the same way as fans are shocked by the deaths of movie stars and pop stars. Cobb was one of the names I grew up with, a name I’d see in film credits and in books and mags with the affection one has for childhood heroes. I suppose many filmgoers would not recognise the name even though he was so hugely responsible for so much of the success of the films they loved, but those of my generation who devoured all those 1970s/1980s film mags could measure the loss. Cobb was a giant part of what made the fantastic in so many films look so real.

So this new book has just been published, The Art of Ron Cobb, which is a hardback, coffee-table artbook collecting much of the artists remarkable work for film and other media – some of it very familiar and some of it new and surprising. Its a beautiful book, one of the best of its kind that I’ve seen and absolutely required reading for any fan of Cobb’s work, although to be fair, anyone familiar with Cobb’s art would surely buy this book as soon as they learned of it, so I feel like I’m wasting my time preaching to the converted. Its just a pity that Cobb, of course, is gone, and that this appreciation is posthumous- how much more wonderful it would be had it been curated by Cobb with his own annotations and recollections.  Somewhat out of leftfield, I’m reminded of that strange sadness of those Super Deluxe editions of Prince’s 1999 and Sign O’ the Times – great boxsets of material out of the vault etc but wondering how much more priceless they would have seemed had I been able to read Prince’s own memories etc about all that music. Its a shame these things don’t seem to come out early enough to ensure the artists own involvement, albeit in Prince’s case (and Vangelis, too, regards any release of  music from the Greek maestro’s own vault of unreleased material), is that they themselves seem to have opposed such collections being released in their lifetime. I’m reminded of all those film stars and directors who have passed away without recording commentary tracks for their films for posterity.

Nonetheless, while this book is largely minus Cobb’s own ‘voice’, its pretty definitive, really- a case where the art does the talking. I keep picking it up and re-reading it, dipping into chapters on particular films. Its a fine document of Cobb’s skill, his eye for design, and his impact on so many films over the years – some of it a surprise to me. Of course, its also a reminder of times when artists worked on canvas and artboard rather than on tablets and graphic workstations; there’s a sense of analogue craft here that is richly nostalgic. The whiff of art marker and gouache and acrylic. This book is a treasure.

Eight Years Later: The Counsellor still horrifies

counsellorSo I watched Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci on Amazon Prime and figured I’d review it succinctly as “its The Counsellor without the interesting bits” which seemed to sum it up.  As you possibly guessed, this got me to thinking about that earlier Ridley Scott film again and my Blu-ray copy is easily at hand so… I watched it again, if only to see how it measured up against Ridley’s most recent film/misfire (delete as appropriate).

Then it dawned on me that I last saw The Counsellor (in its extended version, having never seen the theatrical edit) back in 2014. That’s eight years. Eight years! Two things immediately sprung to mind, holding the Blu-ray case- its a Twentieth Century Fox film, something which doesn’t exist anymore since Disney took over the studio (dropping the ‘Fox’), and secondly that there’s no way Ridley would get to release an extended version of his film the way he often used to back then, especially not via Fox/Disney. Neither, now that I think about it,  would it have such an elaborate Special Feature as its ‘alternate viewing experience’ that lasts three and a half hours with commentary and video sections. Well, there’s progress for you, but its another thing to miss; such elaborate special features in just the same way as I miss the fancy packaging that DVDs used to get, back in the day.

Its actually a little sad, the part near the end of the commentary track when Ridley appreciates the home video formats (he refers to ‘DVD’) which allow him to release extended, alternate versions of his films and special features that open up the film-making process (grumbling a little that it makes his face recognisable to the public, losing him some anonymity when on the streets etc). Well, streaming is gradually eroding those old benefits of home media: how things change in just eight years though.

So anyway, back to The Counsellor. Its way darker than I remembered. Goodness its such a dark and disturbing film it should carry some kind of warning, and weirdly it benefits from something like Sicario, released a few years after, as an unintentional companion piece. An exercise in over-indulgence both within its ponderous Cormac MaCarthy screenplay, and its onscreen cast of familiar star faces (Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz), in a way its a case of media becoming its own message, because the film is also about over-indulgence, its frankly despicable characters over-sexed, and ultra-rich, their greed for expensive pleasures and comforts proving their undoing. Its a surprisingly philosophical film too, its lengthy monologues not the hip, witty dialogue of Tarantino films but rather dark, rueful treaties on life, greed, reality, trust. There’s only one likeable character and she gets to ‘star’ as the subject of a snuff movie so yeah, its desperately noir film. Consequently, many viewers have found the film utterly repugnant and its not well-regarded (its possibly actually largely forgotten these days, far as I can tell) but I rather liked it back in 2014 and I still do, although I feel a little dirty even admitting that I think its one of Ridley Scott’s better movies, certainly in his top ten.

Maybe watching so many film noir over the past few years actually makes this films darkness more palatable. The titular character (never referred to by name, only by his title of Counsellor) is caught in a web of nightmarish coincidence triggered by his own greed (how very noir) and so the film struggles to maintain any kind of empathy for him at all- it operates contrary to how film narratives usually do, with protagonists which viewers root for: instead its a troubling viewing experience, a distant observation of someone falling into Hell. So an instant turn-off for many. But I like the monologues, appreciate the amazing cast, and find rewarding the films disturbing presentation that mortality and violence can be instant and dispassionate, ignorant of whether its deserved, and Fate has no morality or justice. Its a cruel, horrible world and we’re fooling ourselves if we think it isn’t: but how else can we give our lives meaning other than through some moral code even though others refuse to live by that code? The Counsellor is the very definition of a nihilistic film, and far from easy viewing, but something about it just gets under my skin.

Not his Superman

superman78While reading through an old issue of Cinefantastique the other day (the Forbidden Planet double-issue, from Spring 1979, I assume) I came across a capsule review of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie which I hadn’t noticed before, and which, while I’m accustomed to the somewhat po-faced attitude of that mag’s editorials, quite took me aback. With due deference to its writer Robert Stewart, I quote the following:

“The film fails to explore the possibilities of having a new and modernized Superman tackle the real problems of the world in the late 1970s- assassinations, mass suicides, mindf–kers, famine, the CIA, sexism, racism, provocateurs, ageism, unemployment and economic collapse, corporate takeovers, bureaucratic  psychopaths, etc. Instead, he confronts villains not much different from those of the Batman television show…” 

My initial thoughts were that this guy probably loved Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: his review seems more a manifesto for Snyder’s films than anything to do with Richard Donner’s film (clearly Donner’s respectful approach to the original comicbooks went right over Mr Stewarts head). It’s one of those reviews which criticises a film more for what it is not, than what it is.

But it did set me thinking, which was probably the point of the review (so bravo, Mr Stewart, wherever you are now). I’ve noted elsewhere that I’ve really not been a fan of the recent Spiderman films and much of this -and it applies to all three ‘versions’ of the character, the Tobey Maguire films, the Andrew Garfield films and Tom Holland’s films- is simply that none of them have really captured what I loved as a kid growing up reading the 1960s/1970s Spiderman comics by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. They are perfectly fine films as they are (well, to varying degree anyway) but none of them capture the characters and mood/spirit of those comics, so its inevitable that, for me, they are lacking something. They are probably more faithful to the comics of the past twenty years (that I have never read, although I did read part of the J. Michael Straczynski run of Spiderman comics drawn by John Romita jr. which are likely indicative) which is fine, and I should maybe give them the benefit of the doubt there. But my question is, am I being fair? Is it a case though of me disliking films more for what they are not than what they are?

Well, not exactly. I do think there are very real issues with the various films; retconning bad guys to be more sympathetic victims of misfortune than genuine villains is one of my pet peeves, likewise I utterly detest all the various Spidey suits of the Tom Holland films, all that nano-tech/Iron Man rubbish, all that metal arms out the back etc that defy reason, physics and gravity. That’s not any kind of Spiderman I want,  just further evidence of the Marvel films increasingly playing fast and loose with comics canon etc (as far as I know, as it could be something featured in the comics, but I doubt it). Likewise some of the writing feels pretty dire, with some fairly shocking leaps of logic, but that’s something evident in much film and television now; the talent pool is pretty weak now because there is just so much content being produced across film/television streaming etc. And yeah, in defence of writers, maybe its all those producers and executive producers interfering with the material- some films and shows I see now have as many as twenty and more producer credits, and I often wonder if the time will come when the number of producer credits will outnumber that of the cast.

I won’t even watch The Eternals; Jack Kirby’s 1970s comicbooks are amongst my very favourites. They possibly haven’t aged very well in some ways, but they were so bold and imaginative, full of the Chariots of the Gods stuff that excited me so much as a kid and was quite popular in that decade. The film, from what I have seen of it in trailers, has nothing in common with those comicbooks other than name (to be more faithful to Kirby’s work, it surely should have looked and felt more akin to 2017s Thor: Ragnarok film, which really captured the feel of a Kirby strip). I do know Neil Gaiman wrote a reboot/continuation and suspect the film has more in common with that than original creator Jack Kirby’s opus but I may be giving the film too much credit even there. Maybe I’ll get to watch it eventually but certainly I have little if any interest in it; the film was made to be something else, not something faithful to the original comics, and that’s surely true of much current Marvel Studios output.

Which is true, indeed, of what Disney is doing with Star Wars. They are making Star Wars tv shows and movies that are increasingly removed from the original film trilogy I grew up with, and they are as much not ‘my Star Wars’ as anything Marvel Studios films and tv shows are- and the same is true of the current crop of Star Trek tv shows. That being said though, some of these shows, certainly the Star Trek stuff that I have watched, are really woeful, regardless of how ‘faithful’ they aren’t in spirit and subject. The second season of Star Trek: Picard is especially diabolically poor, an absolute nadir for the Star Trek franchise.

Mind, even Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have their fans, I suppose, although those viewers must be especially forgiving of terrible writing, huge plotholes, leaps of logic (and illogic). Indeed I think the shows are fundamentally unforgivable in how crass and stupid they are, and seem to have been written by soap opera and tv sitcom writers rather than anyone actually skilled or knowledgeable of both science fiction or indeed the particular franchise canon (I can’t help but feel this is largely true of the Star Wars and Marvel stuff too, and I don’t know if this is from laziness, ignorance or simply an intent to strike off to pastures new on the back of established IP).

Thank goodness Blade Runner 2049 was sincere and respectful of the original film and extended upon the 1982 original film’s themes and mood thoughtfully, rather than just go the other, easier way, instead making a film about with a Roy Batty Mk.II or an action-based film about a new Blade Runner battling Nexus 7 or Nexus 8 improved, nastier Replicants. After all, it could have been, easily- look how generic the Terminator films became. I may not live to see any more Blade Runner movies, but at least I don’t have to witness what happened with Alien, its Lovecraftian alien creatures turned into spacesuit wearing bald guys in Ridley Scott’s ill-judged Prometheus. The more I think back on Prometheus, the more it actually seems a story about Space Gods akin to Jack Kirby’s 1976 Eternals comics repurposed to fit within the Alien franchise in order to get made (I can well imagine Ridley wanting to make a high-concept Space Gods movie and having to sell it as an Alien movie in order to get it greenlit).

Which I suppose means I should remain absolutely fearful regards that Blade Runner tv series which Ridley is producing. Maybe my luck is going to run out; and certainly, I will feel much more aggrieved regards something spoiling my appreciation and adoration of the 1982 film than I am by some Spiderman film not really being the web-slinger that thrilled me when I was seven years old.

Sights and sounds of Cyberpunk 2077

cyberpic1There’s definitely a Syd Mead vibe to CD Project Red’s future-noir RPG Cyberpunk 2077. The typical response to the game’s visuals is to dismiss it as simply indebted to the film Blade Runner but I think it leans more towards Syd Mead’s pre-production paintings and his artwork outside the film, while magnified by inspiration from 1970s art for Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One, various Heavy Metal strips like The Long Tomorrow, and stuff like Geoff Darrow’s Hard Boiled graphic novel. Although I must confess I get an endless kick out of waiting at pedestrian crossings and the ambient audio telling me “walk/Don’t walk” straight out of Ridley’s film. But even casually describing its inspiration, one cannot fathom the mindboggling amount work and artistry in transferring it all to a videogame. Its astonishing; a relentlessly fascinating world to immerse oneself in.

cyberpic6What these screenshots from my initial paythrough cannot show is the HDR, the flickering neon lights and atmosphere animation, the ambient sounds of electronics, vehicular traffic, foreign voices, advertising and video that assaults the senses. The architecture and design of the streets is immensely convincing and impressive: it feels solid, thought-out. It has depth. I can imagine the game artists thinking they were designing a Ridley Scott film from his Alien/Blade Runner era- detail piled upon detail. They even have magazines at vendors, the covers all designed for me to linger and stare at, in just the same way that Ridley had mocked-up future magazines for on-set detail in Blade Runner that we never see in the actual movie, but they are there.

cyberpic2I’ve totalled about twelve hours play according to my stats but so much of that has just been me ignoring the main gameplay narrative and just walking around the streets, through markets and sometimes driving around, soaking it all up, the experience of it. I’m playing it wrong, obviously- or maybe not. The developers wouldn’t invest so much effort into creating this Night City if they didn’t want to distract players at every turn with its sights and sounds, to bewitch those of us attuned to it with its sheer beauty and detail. Sure, a lot of it is just surface stuff, you can’t enter every doorway and there are sometimes bugs evident in crowd behaviour but I can easily look past that and just enjoy the atmosphere of walking through this impossible city. If you were to show this to me in the 1980s, back when I was playing games on my Amiga and watching Blade Runner on VHS I would have been incredulous. These images aren’t pre-renders, these are all in-game captures during my exploration, walking around.

cyberpic4Cyberpunk 2077 has a pretty mixed reputation; it’s launch is still notorious all these months later – I cancelled my original pre-order when it became clear how broken it was on the then-current gen consoles. It was clearly a game whose ambitions outreached the machines most of us owned at the time, and even those lucky few with the new machines discovered it wasn’t properly coded for them yet. Late last year I finally got hold of a Series X and when the next-gen patch (so late it would be better described as the new current-gen) was released, the game received a soft relaunch and reduced to half-price. I took the plunge and haven’t looked back. I’m not sure I’m getting the most out of its finer details as an RPG regards character perks etc and to be honest many of the game mechanics zip over my head (I really miss the good old days of detailed game manuals) but as an audio-visual experience I’m just knocked out by it. There is something just too tempting about just ignoring the games prompts to continue the narrative proper or its many sub-mission diversions, and instead just take a look around that next corner. Walk down that street or alley-way, see where those staircases take me.

cyberpic5It isn’t a Grand Theft Auto set in the future, and much of the criticism directed at the game is just that: that the game isn’t what many/most gamers expected it to be. I recall cautioning people on forums before it was released that this would be something different, simply because CD Project Red makes RPGs (The Witcher series being extremely popular). Maybe it should have been closer to the Deus Ex series of games, maybe it would have had a happier landing. But as it stands now, with some (most?) of its launch bugs sorted out, its really pretty great, and as for its main storyline/campaign, I’m enjoying it very much, its got some interesting twists and takes on the technology and politics.  Somebody will probably make a decent film out of it someday. Videogames are like comics: just waiting to be movies. I suppose the opposite is also true, movies waiting to be videogames, and yes, this does at times feel like a Blade Runner videogame cheekily without the license (if someone made a mod in which players could walk around hunting down Replicants, then Cyberpunk 2007 would probably be perfect).

Those were the days- Cinefantastique Vol 9, Issue 1

cinefantast9.1One of the pleasures of my old film magazine collection -scattered and rarely looked at, it may be- is how it affords the feel of a time machine in ways that the internet never will. Looking through old issues of Starburst or Fantastic Films or, in this case, Cinefantastique is a curious window into the past. My clear-out/tidy-up of my back room etc has unearthed all sorts of distractions that halt me in my tracks and make this clear-out stretch on into weeks. It could be endless at this point.

So Cinefantastique, Vol.9, Issue 1; its the Alien issue, and we’re presumably into summer/Autumn 1979.

Its the previews that always get me. Back when these mags teased the first images from coming attractions and always had an open, hopeful mind regards whether it might actually turn out ok or not. Naturally in 2022 I know better.

The first film previewed in this issue is Saturn 3, describing the initial genesis of John Barry’s project, and how the poor man was dismissed from the film’s directors chair amid tensions between the cast (and really, Kirk Douglas’ ego and Hollywood clout back then must have had the gravitational clout of a Black Hole that Disney would be envious of) . The article mentions Barry moving to a second-unit directing gig on The Empire Strikes Back and his sudden death from meningitis in May. I remember it also reported by Starburst at the time, awfully sad. Barry was a real talent and only 43 when he passed. Saturn 3 didn’t really turn out that great, but I have it on Blu-ray and had mixed feelings about it last time I saw it. It’ll never be great, but its interesting how different times/fashions/styles imbue even a poor film with a curious second-wind once removed from its immediate era. It just occurred to me that Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett are gone now, as is Roy Dotrice, who dubbed Harvey Keitel’s lines when the actor refused (or was unavailable to) re-record his dialogue.

Turn the page and suddenly its a two-page spread about Star Trek nearing completion. Back when Star Trek was going to be the biggest film ever, another Star Wars-type hit, or actually really good. Here we are 43 years later and Paramount are doing a 4K Directors Cut to finally get the damn thing done right. How strange is that? Imagine tapping a reader on the shoulder back then and saying “you’ll be waiting awhile longer yet.” Its a crazy world.

Those were heady times though. Turn the page and The Black Hole is coming, Disney doing a Star Wars knock-off decades before they resorted to buying the damn thing from Lucas to make it, er, official. The article actually makes Disney’s film look really promising. There’s mention of Tobe Hooper making a TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot, which actually turned out okay- when I first saw it on the BBC it creeped the hell out of me. A page is devoted to, ahem, Flesh Gordon 2. I’ve never seen either Flesh Gordon film, in fact I didn’t know there was a second one, was this even released or did Dino nuke it with his official Flash Gordon being made (a small section of the previews announces that Flash Gordon had begun shooting)?

Turn the page- The Martian Chronicles with Rock Hudson, Isaac Asimov NOT writing Battlestar Galactica, Dick Smith joining Altered States, and a little film titled The Empire Strikes Back. Its curious that even with the film a year away, much of the plot was known -and summarised here- and the magazine with a Sense of Wonder is predictably dismissive: “science fiction buffs hoping for a serious fantasy film come May, when THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is released, will have to look elsewhere.” Ouch. I always forget just how po-faced this mag often was, or the high standards that editor/publisher Frederick S. Clarke demanded (to his endless disappointment, far as I could tell). Even a year off, TESB was being shot down by Cinefantastique.

The Alien coverage is pretty interesting. I always find these articles from when the film came out really fascinating; without the perspective later making-of books etc have, the sense of the ‘now’ and Alien being just this one shocker of a movie, its really telling.  And of course, in this case, interviewing Ridley Scott with all those films we all know now, still unmade ahead of him. He mentions an initial idea of using the music of Tomita for the soundtrack, and describes Tomita’s electronic version of Mars, the Bringer of War from Holst’s “The Planets.” In a comment that may have been later picked upon by James Cameron, Ridley mentions that Mars music and says “..that music said all there was to say about what the alien was. Imagine many of them, a lot of them, having the capability of getting about. Christ Almighty!” Ridley you just broke the plot of Aliens in summer of 1979, and Cinefantastique had a scoop and didn’t know it.

The issue’s centerspread is Giger’s Necronom IV painting, which inspired the design of the film’s Alien creature. Its a beautiful painting, endlessly fascinating every time I ever see it. I pause over that spread for some time. What a strange, nightmarish genius Giger was. He always struck me as a bit of a one-trick pony with that biomechanical style (it certainly didn’t at all suit some of the later films he worked on) but he absolutely hit pay-dirt regards Alien. Timeless genius. There’s an interview with Bolaji Badejo, the Nigerian student spotted in a pub in London who donned that alien suit. Its an interesting article, but also rather sad – he died in1992, just thirteen years later, at the far-too young age of 39. Reading his comments at the time, hopeful he might appear in future Alien films in that costume… yeah, our perspective today can be rather depressing.

Another Replicant alert

Blade2Imagine, in Richard Burton’s voice:  “No-one would have believed, in the last years of the twentieth century, that Replicant affairs would be increasingly watched from the darkened living-rooms of VHS and Blu-ray owners. No-one could have dreamed that Blade Runner’s video sales were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few fans even considered the possibility of sequels. And yet, across the gulf of Hollywood, minds immeasurably greedier than ours regarded this film’s long-lasting  popularity with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us…”

Reading the announcement last night that Ridley Scott is executive-producing a television series, Blade Runner 2099, for Amazon Studios…  filled me with a mixture of excitement (hey, more Blade Runner!), dismay (television series?) and a creeping sense of terror (Ridley?).

At least its Amazon that brought the rights and is financing it, so it won’t be stuck behind a paywall like that Blade Runner anime (I’m possibly fortunate regards that, as its reportedly pretty poor) so hey, I’ll be able to watch it. If I dare.

So anyway, more Blade Runner. You know, if you could go back in time to me in the early/mid-‘eighties and tell me about all the Blade Runner stuff that would be going on post-millennium, the Final Cut, Harrison Ford appearing in a Blade Runner documentary and also in a sequel movie, and yeah, a sequel movie actually being bloody good too…. Well, I remember the days when few people, if any, had even heard of Blade Runner, and the few that had seen it had mostly seen it on horrible pan n’ scan versions on VHS or Betamax. As I have stated before, Blade Runner was the very definition of ‘Cult’.

I texted my mate Andy about Blade Runner: 2099; we saw the original film together back in September 1982 and dozens of times on video over the years since. His response was one of tired resignation. I’m done with all these sequels and reboots, he told me. He’d got no interest left. He may have a point: BR2049 was a fortuitous event, when the various creative talents aligned, just as they had with the 1982 film, to create something possibly greater than the sum of its parts. Its something which can’t be said for the Alien franchise, albeit I appreciate some prefer Aliens over the original 1979 film. Given time enough, Blade Runner‘s luck is sure to run out, and I’d hate for the original to be tarnished by it.

I suppose that its not fair, really, describing a project as ‘television’ when its likely an eight-or ten-part series made for a huge amount of money for something like Amazon or Netflix or Disney+ or AppleTV, its not really television the way that people of my generation instinctively think about it, Its a different beast now.

But I’d prefer to have had Villeneuve in creative control over it rather than Ridley. Ridley failed to energise the Alien franchise (one could argue his Prometheus and Alien: Covenant did as much harm as good, although others would argue that in the latter’s case, he had to contend with lots of studio mandates that fatally damaged the film) and even as one of his biggest fans I always rile at his assertion that Deckard was a Replicant. Obviously he is attracted to the intellectual idea, rather than how it supports the narrative in any way: I think the narrative of the Blade Runner films is better served by Deckard being human, but I appreciate the fact that in the two films it can be viewed either way. Maybe the series being set in 2099 will give sufficient distance that the subject isn’t even raised.

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

The Last Duel (2021) 4K UHD

lastduel4kitaliaThankfully, The Last Duel marks a return to form for director Ridley Scott. I keep thinking, I should be referring to him as ‘SIR’ Ridley and I’m doing him a disservice at best or lack of respect at worst, and I certainly intend neither. After all, I’ve followed and been fascinated, enthralled and horrified  by his career ever since I read the lengthy interviews with him in Fantastic Films back when Alien came out in 1979. His Ridleygrams and keen eye for design was an inspiration for years while I was at High School and later doing my Degree in Art & Design.  I think its true to say now that there is much more to his films than the visuals, even if that was the inevitable cheap shot targeted at him early on, and a general consensus he always seems damned by. 

There was a time when the arrival of every new Ridley Scott film was something to get excited by. I think that waned pretty early on- of course, I loved Alien and Blade Runner and was frustrated by Legend, and I recall being mystified by Someone to Watch Over Me, as if it was Ridley selling out (something only intensified by Black Rain, and later G.I. Jane) when he’d gotten so many of us convinced he’d be the John Ford of sci-fi/fantasy films. Looking at his filmography today, its pretty mixed: some great films, some average films, some poor films, but its a pretty astonishing list of films, really, and that’s just considering him as director; he’s produced/executive produced a colossal amount of work in film and television.

But I remember the days I used to think he’d forever be making films that looked like Heavy Metal movies- a little like the days when I thought George Lucas would make nine Star Wars films in a relentless, wonderful three-yearly succession-and I have a wry smile considering my naivety back then. By the mid-eighties Ridley was off making ‘ordinary’ films and Lucas had abandoned Star Wars films completely.

The Last Duel is a little like the films I thought Ridley would always be making. Films depicting other worlds. I appreciate I’m falling into the trap, with this line of thinking,  of Ridley just being a visual stylist, but the guy has the best eye in the business, and as he’s gotten older, he’s gotten so incredibly fast. The Last Duel is a return to the very beginning, and the pastoral beauty of The Duellists, his low-budget first feature that was hardly released and watched by pretty much nobody (hey, its like he’s gone totally full circle). It also reminds one of 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Kingdom of Heaven (the directors cut of which I consider to be one of his top five, maybe even top three, films), films which put worlds on screen as vividly alien as anything set on some other world or in some distant future.

Its interesting to consider The Duellists, though, because The Last Duel is in no way as pretty or visually intoxicating as that first film. The Duellists seemed to have something to prove (if only that Ridley could outdo Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon?), and is so painterly and beautiful. The Last Duel is very impressive visually, with its period setting evoked in just as tangible a reality, but it doesn’t draw attention to its visuals as much as Ridley’s earlier work. The Last Duel is more balanced, and intent on its character and narrative and acting performances: a more qualified and professional piece of work, perhaps. I just think its quite telling, comparing Ridley’s first film and this 2021 film. 

So The Last Duel starts by telling us it is based on true events. Its essentially a Medieval rape-revenge drama, which is a summation that does it no favours at all, and its method of telling its narrative from three seperate viewpoints weighs the film down with a big Rashomon reference nailed to its back like an easy target. The Last Duel is no Rashomon– for one thing the three versions of the story are largely very similar, the differences pointedly the subjective view of each narrator, complicated by how much faith we have in who is being true and doubts regards what ‘truth’ even means in such a misogynistic world. Even the word ‘rape’ essentially has different meaning in 1386, less a crime against the female victim and more an affront to the man who ‘owns’ her. This is a horrifying world in which only men hold power and authority, and the woman Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) is caught in the middle of some long feud between past freinds Jean (Matt Damon), and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) which ends in typical bloody masculinity; a fight to the death which will decide the truth of her allegations and possibly result in her being flogged and burned alive. Hell yeah – this is the kind of film to outrage feminists everywhere and turn men into apologists for their gender (and as usual for Ridley, religion and its power machinations don’t come out too positively either).

What made The Last Duel so interesting and rewarding, for me, was the typical Ridley habit of featuring largely unlikeable characters. Even considering its general plotline, this is not the narrative one might expect in an audience-friendly Hollywood flick, characters don’t tick the boxes we’d usually expect. Jean, the wronged husband nominally defending his wife’s reputation is a brute, something of a monster. He’s a violent man more disposed to the battle field, largely unread and uncultured, and always on the brink of poverty. Its telling that he marries Marguerite not out of love but more out of the need of her dowry, paid to him by her father, in order to keep Jean solvent – part of his grievance with Jacques Le Gris is because Le Gris is gifted land which Jean thought he was entitled to as part of Marguerite’s dowry. Le Gris meanwhile is less the warrior and more the gifted socialite, working his way up through society through his manners and cultured upbringing rather than prowess serving the King on battlefields. This might suggest that he is a ‘nicer’, more likeable character but far from it- he’s actually quite repellent as regards his treatment of women (albeit one must remember its typical of that period). Its  interesting how the film portrays the actual rape- first from Le Gris’ point of view, which sees Marguerite’s protestations as token actions of ‘a lady’ who is actually quite willing, and then how we see it from Marguerite’s own view. Even something as subtle as Marguerite slipping off her footwear before backing upstairs towards her bedroom – enticingly provocative in Le Gris’ account, whereas they simply fall off in her rising panic  as she flees for safety upstairs in Marguerite’s telling.

In truth, I don’t think anyone comes across well in the film other than Marguerite- this is a film in which all men are largely bastards and dismissive of women other than as objects of lust or vessels for children. Perhaps the film lacks the sophistication to suggest that the men are not inherently evil, rather more products of their society and world, or perhaps that’s expected as a given. Its possibly one of the weaknesses of the film, that we don’t really ‘like’ either of the two men caught in combat during the final duel, but that’s possibly a case of reality getting in the way of empathy with the narrative. In an ‘ordinary’ or traditional film, we’d have a hero to root for, one of the men on the side of ‘right’. Instead we’re more concerned in the twists of the fight to the death as regards what it means for poor Marguerite who will be summarily tortured and executed if her husband falls. I have to admit, I felt quite tense during the last duel, having absolutely no idea who was going to be victorious or what the ultimate outcome for Marguerite might be, so some kudos for the film there. Its nice when watching a modern film not being able to second-guess or predict it. Neither man is really fighting for Marguerite- Jean has old scores to settle and the personal sense of affront regards his sullied wife, while Le Gris has likely already moved on to some other female conquest. 

Ironically however, for all the failings of the characters themselves, the actors come across very well indeed, and barring a few dodgy accents and a turn from Ben Affleck as the rich Count Pierre d’Alençon, cousin to the mad King and court ally of Le Gris, which I’ve still got mixed feelings about., the cast is excellent. Comer is just brilliant, probably the best performance in the film and one of the best I’ve seen all year. Damon and Driver are both very good, giving nuanced performances of complex and flawed characters, engaging and repellent in equal measure, something not at all easy. I think one of the improvements in Ridley’s films over the years has been his work with actors and one can see that here.

So this may not be top-tier Ridley, whatever that actually means as there are so many differing opinions regards which are his best films (hell, I actually like The Counsellor)  but its certainly a solid film and one of his better ones – most definitely a return to form. Time, of course, will provide the true yardstick, rather than the frankly appalling box-office which has left this film cited as the bomb of the year. I’d like to think the film will find its audience over time, and apparently this already may well be the case with home streaming figures reportedly being high- its just perhaps not the film to drag punters into cinemas, particularly during a pandemic. So wrong film, wrong time… that’s hardly a first for Ridders.

House of Bamboo (1955)

bamboo3One of the attractions of film for me is the the way it freezes time and place, a time capsule, in effect. Curiously this even works for science fiction films and their visions of the future; Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the future seen through the prism of the optimism and ambition of the1960s, one of many movie futures that never happened (we’ll be lucky to see Kubrick’s space station wheel or moon-base before 2101, a century ‘late’, and we have yet to see 2019’s flying cars of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) but the point is, those future visions inform us of the times when a film was made and those visions created, something increasingly interesting as they become more removed from us.

But certainly the sense of films being time capsules applies chiefly to films of old, and its almost incidental to the storytelling process. A British film made and set in the 1960s is just a film made in the 1960s, they weren’t concerned with recording their milieu for posterity, but that’s what they have done- 1960s London being very different to that of today, and likewise Klute, French Connection or Taxi Driver all have visions of a New York of their time but now offering glimpses of a city long gone, for better or worse.    

Which brings me to one of the more arresting and fascinating aspects of Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo, a thriller set and filmed in post-war Japan. Its clear that Fuller seized the unusual opportunity with relish, because the location filming is quite extensive, offering a sense of time and place that is quite tangible. I would imagine that someone living in Tokyo today would find this film almost a revelation. Indeed a ‘locations then and now’ featurette, albeit prohibitively expensive would have been so fascinating (those types of featurettes are something I always gravitate to first if they are on a disc). I’m not sure how staged the locations were, but they certainly feel authentic, adding a docudrama feel to the film: there’s a sense of reality to it.

Which is perhaps just as well, because the film is quite bizarre otherwise, featuring an American gang of ex-servicemen who seemingly speak no Japanese, in charge of the Tokyo underworld, and the powerless Japanese authorities needing the help of American military police to root them out. Based upon an earlier Fox film, The Street With No Name, its a mob scenario like so many gangster noir films but transposed to the Orient – vividly filmed in glorious CinemaScope colour, its like no noir I’ve yet seen, and magnificently photographed.

The ‘hero’ of the film is Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) who arrives in Tokyo stirring up trouble until he is brought to the attention of Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) who’s the mastermind of the American gang. Stack is a blank, really pretty woeful with a one-note performance which must be what he approximates as a ‘Tough Guy’ but never really convinces. Did Stack always just get by with poor performances like this? Or is it possible its a deliberate commentary on the stereotypical rugged American hero stuck in a milieu where he doesn’t belong (shades of Michael Douglas in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain decades later), finding him wanting? 

bamboo2The film is thankfully saved by Ryan’s cool and collected criminal czar: I’ve seen Ryan in several films of late and he continues to impress- he’s not, as one might expect, chewing up the scenery here but is instead calmly threatening, and there’s a weird homoerotic undercurrent that I’ve noticed before in other noir. Its subtle enough that viewers won’t necessarily notice it, but its evidently deliberate as Fuller remarks about it in the booklet that accompanies this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release. Sandy takes a sudden liking to Eddie, who’s quite oblivious, but it becomes clear to us something is going on- Sandy’s rule that any injured gang member must be shot dead to avoid giving anything away to the authorities, is shown in action, but when Eddie is injured Sandy orders him carried to safety. Eddies standing in the gang rises, and he becomes Sandy’s righthand man, usurping  the increasingly irritated Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Sandy’s attraction to Eddie blinds him to the fact that Eddie isn’t who he seems- he’s actually Eddie Kenner, a military policeman posing as Spanier, a criminal who is still serving time back in the States. Kenner seeks to destroy the gang from within, but doesn’t himself realise that a mole in the Japanese police will leak to Sandy there is a mole in his operation, setting up a tense last heist…

Along the way there are some remarkable moments, like when Sandy, realising he has been betrayed, dispatches Griff in error- shooting him dead while he’s in a wooden bathtub that, riddled with bullets, starts leaking bath water while Sandy walks over and cradles his victims head, explaining why he just killed him (explaining himself to his past lover/confidant?). Or seeing original 1960s Star Trek‘s DeForrest Kelley playing one of Sandy’s henchmen; it just feels so incongruous seeing Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy as a bad guy .Or indeed any scene featuring the rather forced and unlikely romance between Eddie and Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) the Japanese widow of one of Sandy’s deceased gang members.

bamboo1But despite the inherent silliness of much of the plot and the hackneyed performance of tough-guy Stack, the film works, and much of this is thanks to the sheer fascination/eye-candy of the locations. The action finale in an amusement/theme park on the roof of a Tokyo tower block, children and parents rushing everywhere while bullets are flying and the city of Tokyo sits oblivious below, is as strange and visually arresting as it should sound (what Scott could have made of it in his Black Rain one can only imagine). I thought the setting for that last gunfight was quite extraordinary and a major achievement. House of Bamboo is a thoroughly odd film but one that just constantly rewards, I really enjoyed it and look forward to listening to its two commentary tracks (viva physical media!).

 

Raised By Wolves (Season One)

raised1Alas, the fascination with ‘mystery boxes’ continues and becomes increasingly tiresome: its a crux used by JJ Abrams all through his career and one endlessly mimicked by other creatives, best described as being a narrative which drops viewers into the middle of a mystery-in-progress that leaves them wanting to know answers in both directions (what happened before/what happens next?). Admittedly I can trace a lot of this to J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, which is one of my most revered genre shows. Not that B5 was the first, but certainly at the time when it came out, American shows were generally episodic in nature, pressing a metaphorical ‘reset’ button at the end of each episode and one episode seldom if ever referencing another.

Babylon 5 was more like a huge novel, each season being a part of a larger whole, so early seasons of B5 dropped hints and portents of mysterious ancient wars and a dark menace returning to threaten all the galaxy, and Straczynski fulfilled all the promise in later seasons, rewarded all the investment with the arcs and world building. He brought all the threads and revelations together into a grand conclusion that satisfied immensely (at least as regards the Shadow War storyline with season four, season five’s issues being largely out of his hands).

It paid off, and in spades, but that was a trick that showrunners and writers these days don’t seem to heed. 

So instead we get obtuse writing posing as complex storylines, promising grand revelations regards mysteries being scattered through plots (Westworld, Lost, Disney Star Wars etc) which ultimately fall apart, everything being built on sand. Its incredibly frustrating being taken in every time by this mystery box routine. Showrunners and writers are hooking viewers in and then largely failing to reward the viewer investment: even shows that succeed at this on some level only manage this in some compromised way that proves contentious even amongst fans (I’d cite Fringe as an example of this, and Ronald D Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot too).

So now we can add Raised By Wolves to this annoying list of Mystery Box Television, and already by the end of its first season its clear that a promising concept is not going to fulfil the early promise of its first few episodes. Those first two episodes in particular, directed by Ridley Scott no less, promise so much that even within the space of its ten-episode first season the crushing disappointment is palpable.

raised2Two androids (‘Mother’ and ‘Father’) arrive at a remote planet, Kepler 22b tasked with raising a group of human children in order to rebuild and save a humanity that has been destroyed by a global war between two factions: atheists and fundamentalist sun worshippers called the Mithraic. The visual design and concept is fascinatingly reminiscent of that of Scott’s troubled Prometheus, so much so that it almost seems an unofficial sequel, or at least set in the same universe. The music, too, seems directly related to that films haunting score.

On that level, I was hooked from the start, and enthralled by glimpses of this global disaster shown in flashbacks (Ridley Scott visualising The End Of The World!), scenes of survivors boarding colony ships bound for a fresh start on a new world. Vague references to the two warring factions and a subtext referencing Eden, humanity bringing its old sins to tarnish this new world – it promised much. Additionally, ‘Mother’ (Amanda Collin, who is quite excellent) is fascinating, an androgynous android that back on Earth was a weapon of mass destruction, a Necromancer that destroys with its voice, the android of Lang’s Metropolis transformed into an Angel of Death. Now mysteriously reprogrammed to nurture and protect its cargo of twelve human embryos and the children they grow into, she is aided by her companion, a lesser, servant-model android named ‘Father’ (Abubakar Salim, who possibly steals the show). ‘Mother’ is initially protective as intended, but falls back into her old destructive ways when her wards are threatened by a Mithraic colony ship arriving at this New World, her powers terrifying both children and enemies alike.

The mysteries are endless: who reprogrammed ‘mother’, what is the history of this new world and the skeletons of giant snakes that litter the landscape, what are the unnatural circular shafts that plunge into the depths, the odd voices characters begin to hear, the mysterious artefacts of alien origin that are found… yeah its all mystery box piled upon mystery box, and unwisely the series begins to unwrap some of these boxes, each one proving a confounding disappointment, increasingly riddled with inconsistencies. Why is no-one alarmed at signs of alien life or remnants of apparent alien intelligence? Are Mother’s virtual meetings with her creator truly the resurfacing of deleted memories or are they a fabricated deception created by some entity of Kepler 22b, manifested later as the giant snake? And how do Mother and Father survive plunging down into what is presumably the molten core of the planet, through and out the other side (as patently ridiculous as it sounds, it makes the Hollow Earth of Godzilla vs Kong seem almost pedantic).

Its actually alarming to see a show that begins with such promise collapse so very quickly- its like seeing all three seasons of Westworld condensed into a single season, and I cannot imagine where it will take us with season two (just finished filming, apparently). That’s if I stick around for season two, of course. I was enjoying the first half of this season but began to rapidly lose interest during the second half, the finale proving totally unsatisfying, typically dropping hints and leaving arcs for season two to attempt to resolve (or just tangle up even more). Even as a fan of Babylon 5, I am getting so tired of the teasing of revelations and answering questions with more questions: just tell the goddam story.