Time Stand Still

This is a beautiful and poignant tribute to the late Neil Peart of Rush, who passed away a few weeks ago. Time Stand Still has always been my favourite Rush song; I remember buying the single on 7-inch vinyl back in the day prior to the Hold Your Fire album getting released. As usual with the best of Neil’s lyrics, particularly those that are reflective, something in this song strikes a chord in me, and has reminded me in all the decades since of the fragility of existence and every moment. I think the song always deserved more attention and wider listening beyond its rock-group origins, and  you never know, maybe this lovely tribute from The United States Army Band ‘Pershing’s Own’ will enable Neil’s work to get heard wider afield. Here’s my token effort towards that.

On a more sombre note, on the original YouTube page this video is on, currently 82 idiots have given it a ‘thumbs down’. After what has happened this weekend here in the UK regards celebrity Caroline Flack taking her own life, its another reminder of the inhumanity of humanity (I was no fan or advocate of Flack, but one has to shake ones head in apathy at how the unkindness of the world manifests itself).

A Farewell to the King

neil peartI just wanted to write a short post to mark the untimely passing of one of my heroes, Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist of the Canadian rock band Rush. A school friend who was part of our RPG sessions back in the early ‘eighties was a huge fan of Rush and got my brother and I into the band, playing albums like Power Windows before and after RPG sessions, and it stuck (just as another of the lads got us into the Alan Parsons Project- those were great, formative days).

For me the initial appeal of the bands music were Neal Pearts lyrics; whenever I got a new Rush album (whether it be a pre-Power Windows disc or those that followed it over the years) my first thing was pouring over the lyrics, even before actually listening to the music. As well as a supremely accomplished drummer who just got better and better over the years, Peart was extremely well-read, and it showed in his writing, brilliant at constructing elaborate lyrics full of ideas. Definitely an inspiration in my own (albeit inferior, ‘natch) writing over the years. In a similar way to the APP albums, the Rush albums each seemed to have seperate and unique themes: I was being submerged in Prog-Rock and like my love of Vangelis, in Rush and APP it would last my lifetime.

Rush unofficially disbanded in 2015, mostly instigated by Peart, partly due to health problems ensuing from age and 40 years on the road touring. So I’ve spent the last few years kind of getting used to that, and hoping that maybe his freinds and band mates Geddy and Alex might get Peart into the studio at least, for one more Rush album, someday. We fans are never content, we always want more. More Star Wars, more Rush, more Vangelis. Alas, his passing this week at the too-young age of 67 has finally put an end to such hopes (just as the passing of Eric Woolfson several years also finally put paid to ever seeing another APP album). The news broke late at Friday, and my brother and I shared shocked texts with each other. Peart actually passed on Tuesday, after over three years battling brain cancer- it is typical of the class and dignity of the man that none of us, fans nor the media,  had any idea that he was so ill.

There is a curious synchronicity in the background to all this- Steve and I were watching YouTube videos of Peart just last weekend, and Steve got us tickets to go see a Rush tribute band for tonight (how poignant and emotional is that show going to be following this weeks event?). Its all purely coincidental of course, but I think Peart might have found it as curious as I do; Wheels within wheels in a spiral array, A pattern so grand and complex. A Farewell to the King then.

Another one gone: purely in a selfish way, this getting old sure does get old, increasingly losing all these heroes along the way.

The Big Lebowski 4K UHD

big2There’s something wonderfully endearing about this Coen Brothers film, that gives it the feeling of a warm blanket- its a film to wrap yourself in, enjoy the great cast, the wonderful dialogue, the gentle whimsy of it all. Nothing feels, well, convincingly real somehow- it’s all very dreamlike, a fable, or perhaps an adult fairytale. Even though it’s only twenty years old, it feels oddly old-fashioned, a reminder of a period when I saw films like this and Boogie Nights and Magnolia– great films, I was being spoiled back then and I didn’t appreciate how much. Its curious how much these three films in particular shared a common cast, how, say, Aimee Mann turns up in a cameo in this and then her songs form such a backbone to the mood and soundtrack of Magnolia.

Indeed, maybe it’s those twenty years but there is such a tangible feel of the ‘good old days’ here. Hearing Shawn Colvin’s cover of Viva Las Vegas over the Big Lebowski end-credits was a call-back to me buying her albums back then; I was a huge fan of her Fat City album in 1992, and have bought all her albums since, but hearing her voice here was a sudden jolt. I don’t recall her song from watching the film before. Yeah, I know, twenty years. Its a bit like how surprised I was to see Aimee’s cameo, I didn’t remember it at all. Aimee was another favourite singer of mine from that era (discovered from her featuring in Time Stand Still, from Rush’s 1987 album Hold Your Fire (it’s one of my favourite songs)) so again, rewatching this film brings back all that stuff.

Where did all those years go? The cast, too, is a blast from the past- Jeff Bridges has always been a favourite, but I’d forgotten that Philip Seymour Hoffman was in this- he looks so young here, so while it was a shock seeing him here, it was also a painful reminder of his untimely passing.  Of course he’s one of the cast members who turned up in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Christ he was a brilliant actor. He’s kind of young and bubbly in The Big Lebowski and it’s a sweet role for him. John Goodman nearly steals the film, which is saying something considering the cast around him- I think this is possibly one of his best performances, it just clicks. I suppose much of this is the perfect chemistry between him, Bridges and a shockingly young-looking Steve Buscemi (what a cast this film had!). The scenes these three have together (“shut the f–k up, Donny!”) are brilliant slices of perfection.

So anyway, The Big Lebowski– maybe you’re here to see how the 4K UHD holds up. It looks brilliant, a fine example of what the format can add to catalogue titles. Maybe stating that the film has never looked so good is beyond stating the obvious- detail is great, colours are vibrant. There is a lovely texture to it, the grain being captured and maintained without any DNR that I could see. There is a nice use of HDR in this too, which is something people look for, while forgetting that these films originally didn’t have any HDR treatment either theatrically or on DVD or Blu-ray releases. It certainly adds a nice vibrancy and ‘pop’ but I do sometimes wonder if its wholly warranted- it works here anyway, not distracting at all, it just adds to the visual quality of the film.

I only bought the film before on R1 DVD back when it first came out, and haven’t seen it in years, so can’t really comment on how it compares (an unfair comparison anyway, really). I did try the accompanying Blu-ray, which I hadn’t seen before. This is an old disc so based on an old master, but it’s where all the extras lie hence it warrants its inclusion with the UHD.  Even with the Blu-ray being automatically upscaled to 4K (any comparisons I make between Blu-ray and 4K are hamstrung by this) its clear there are issues with the master or encoding with the Blu-ray. It looks pretty ugly. Ouch, I sound like a 4K snob.

Regardless, I’m sure The Big Lebowski would work brilliantly on VHS on a b&w television. Its just a great film. The dude abides, indeed.

On that last thought, if I admit to feeling guilty even mentioning it, can I get away with wishing for a ‘twenty years later…’ sequel?  I just can’t help but be curious regards the dude now, what the hell would he think of America, and the world, where would he fit in, how would he even survive, out on the fringes, on the outside looking in on the current madhouse? I think we need the dude.

Vangelis’ Nocturne?

There is a weird sense, here, of history repeating- many years ago during the ’80s I remember buying Jean Michel Jarre’s Revolutions album and it being overshadowed by news of Vangelis’ album Direct being released shortly after. So here we go again, with Jarre releasing last week his Equinoxe Infinity album (I’ll likely post a review sometime soon), and news that on December 7th a new Vangelis album, Nocturne, will be available to pre-order for a release presumably early in the New Year.

For whatever its worth, I like the title. You have to be wary of getting carried away with the possibilities because with Vangelis anything, frankly, is possible, but the title Nocturne carries with it all sorts of possibilities regards mood and ambience etc. We’ll have to wait and see, but I always get excited at news of a new Vangelis album. Its rare enough these days (Jarre seems to be getting busier and busier of late, obviously taking a page out of Ridley Scott’s book of dealing with old age, while Vangelis is definitely semi-retired now) but after all these years (well, okay, decades, let’s be brutal about it, we’re all getting on) the release of a new Vangelis album always brings back memories of past releases and past discoveries, of excitedly listening to new Vangelis music- the soundtrack of over half my life now, thinking about it. The grim truth is, how many new Vangelis albums even lie ahead? Anyone of them could be the last one. I’m reminded of one of my favourite rock bands, Rush, finally calling it a day awhile ago, following the release of their Clockwork Angels album- we fans may have suspected/feared it, but we didn’t know it was their last album for certain until after the following American tour. It’ll happen with Jarre, and Vangelis, eventually- they’ll either call it a day or life’s natural expiration date (hey! another Blade Runner reference snuck in!) will decide it for them.

Apologies for the maudln mood. I’m excited really.

In The Heart of the Sea (2015)

heart1.jpg2016.39: In The Heart of the Sea (Blu-ray)

Back when Ron Howard’s In The Heart of the Sea was released at the cinema to lukewarm and often hostile reviews that turned me away from a planned cinema trip, I was intrigued enough by the premise to read the book by  Nathaniel Philbrick from which much of it is based. Philbrick’s excellent book examines the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry and the true story of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a monstrous sperm whale, an event which inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. The book is a great read- gripping and horrifying in its detail, whether it be the bloody mechanics of whaling at the time or the awful act of sucking the marrow from human bones in a desperate effort to survive a horrible ordeal. That it is based on true events makes it all the more incredible- I had to wonder how anyone could make a bad movie based on it.

Well, In The Heart of the Sea may not be a truly bad movie, but neither is it the film the book deserves. I have written before of my opinion that Ron Howard is at best a competent director, and never is that truer than here. This film is functional and nothing more. It tells its story with a stupefying indifference.

In The Heart of the Sea is a film that lacks any passion,  any genuine vision, point of view or commentary. Having been so enthralled by the book, I found this to be utterly perplexing but with Howard involved perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Technically the film is fairly impressive, albeit its visuals suffering from too much colour-correction labouring its period setting (whose idea was that? It looks horrible) and reliance on sub-par CGI effects (which will age horribly, I’m sure). It is the human story, the drama, that is utterly lost here. These were real people, and their nightmarish ordeal really happened. They deserved much more than this film.

Much like last years Everest, this is a film that tries to relate events concerning several characters and by trying to tell all their stories, ultimately fails to do any of them proper service. And also like Everest, it’s a film that tries to make the nightmarish almost palatable. Everything is kept at arms length, even the moments of cannibalism, which is treated in such a trite and PG-friendly way that I found it quite appalling. This is a film that should have been a tale of greed and a barbaric industry, and of a struggle against indomitable fate with humanity pitted against a giant beast and the whims of indifferent nature. It should have been quite terrifying. At the very least, it should have been as enthralling as ‘Gravity at sea’ might sound. Maybe that was the original pitch?

Unlike the book, the film is unnecessarily bookended by sequences involving Melville searching out and recording the story from one its survivors, Thomas Nickerson, who reluctantly tells the story for money. The framing device is clumsy (indeed, it looks like something tacked onto the film in desperate reshoots) and handicaps the film, a major misstep. And the meeting never happened, so there goes any historical ‘truth’ from the very start. Its an immediate indication of where the film is headed.

The over-the-top colour correction makes everything look artificial, particularly the CGI effects, almost like it’s some kind of adult fairytale, and some of the casting is… well, its all very competent but Chris Hemsworth really has too much cinematic baggage for his casting here to really work. The guy was Thor and The Huntsman  for crying out loud, both over the top, larger-than-life heroes but this needs something more nuanced and it’s also clearly a convenient  carry-over from Howard’s previous film, Rush (in which he played a charismatic James Hunt). He doesn’t strike me as being the ‘proper’ Owen Chase that I read of in the book- rather it’s blatantly convenient, mainstream casting.

Other things irritate. The sense of the passing of time (these whaling expeditions took years) isn’t handled very well, nor the sense of claustrophobic space of these men stuck for weeks/months together without setting foot on dry land. The film-makers can’t resist dropping historical exactness for drama, such as when The Essex is crippled and sunk by the whale. In truth the ship foundered for days and the crew had to force themselves away from it knowing their only course of action- setting out in their three whaling boats with limited provisions-  was likely suicidal. The film goes all Hollywood here, with the Essex exploding into flames and the survivors narrowly escaping the conflagration whilst getting the last supplies. It’s irritating, seeing stuff and knowing it didn’t happen like that. Likewise the whale here is transformed from the roguish reality to the nemesis of Melville’s Moby Dick- actually following and further threatening the survivors on their trek to salvation. Was Howard and the rest more interested in remaking/rebooting Moby Dick than actually telling the original true story of the Essex?

I have to wonder if I dislike the film partly because of my familiarity with the book. Probably. But the film surely seems rather broken to viewers who have not read it. There is something missing- the script feels perfunctory, it lacks any insight or real point of view, the casting is uninspired and leaves many ‘stars’ with little to do, and the box-office-minded censorship that tones down the real horrors ironically bleeds out any real drama. It’s a poor effort really and just a shadow of what it should have been.


Rush (2013)

rushRon Howard always strikes me as a dependable albeit safe director. He always seems to produce quality products but that’s just the thing- they always feel like products. I never feel touched by them, there never seems to be any personality or true heart. Maybe I’m being a little unfair, but looking at much of his list of films, Frost/Nixon, The DaVinci Code, The Missing,  Ransom, Apollo 13, Far and Away… they are just too safe, too mainstream, too competent. No doubt the studios love working with him. They always know exactly what they are going to get. Competent. That’s a Ron Howard movie.

Rush may be one of his better efforts but it suffers from the same faults as so many of his other films. Maybe its just me, but was anybody else infuriated by the slap-in-the-face race commentaries in this film? Talk about over-explaining everything, it almost felt like an enforced audio-description. Why treat us so much like idiots? Surely it would have been better to just have the visuals and the sound and the editing do their thing, offer a pure-cinema experience, instead? Let us figure out what’s going on, we’re not all idiots.

I have a problem with the ‘look’ of the film too. Rush is one ugly movie. Its horribly desaturated and muddy, its a ‘look’ that quite a few films have and I really don’t like it. It looks as though the image was severely messed-about with in post-production, likely to push the period-feel of the piece. Frankly, thats a bizarre approach for a film set in the 1970s; I don’t think it was necessary and I certainly don’t think it works, it distracted me throughout. The 70s just didn’t look like that; if anything everything was bolder, brighter, more in-your-face back then. Surely everything should ‘pop’, in your face more? Almost 3D even. The only thing I can imagine is that it was part of getting the visual effects to work and gel with the stock race footage.  I’ve read that we Brits have suffered from a poor Blu-ray encode so maybe thats it, but goodness me its ugly.

So not a bad film at all, but annoyingly pedestrian, aiming at the lowest denominator, I feel. Imagine what a director like Paul Thomas Anderson might have done with a film like this (and he’s no stranger to a 1970s-set movie himself). That’s what frustrates me about films like this. So its ok but little more.

And good God its ugly. This could likely be the ugliest film I see all year.