The new Dune trailer

Oh this looks good. This looks so VERY good. Anyone else get a tingle watching those Ornithopters flying over the sand dunes?

But is anyone else concerned that the last ten years of dumbing down blockbusters may have robbed this film of its audience? Nobody turned up to go watch BR2049, and that film wasn’t being dumped on HBO Max at the time either. I don’t know how much of an impact that HBO Max thing will prove to be, or how much Covid will be in the equation come October, but considering the money that Dune needs to make in order to break even/get Part Two greenlit…  My biggest concern is simply that, are audiences going to go in droves to watch a sci-fi epic minus caped superheroes beating the shit out of bad guys while wrecking a city? Are audiences going to sit still for a film with ideas? 

Mind, Dune is an epic story with epic spectacle so maybe that will pull people in. Films are so stupid now though, particularly the ones that make any money. I’m still reeling from the assault on my senses that was Godzilla vs Kong and that Hobbs & Shaw thing. Is that what films are now? While I take some comfort from how Disney’s Black Widow seems to have under-performed recently, that also makes me nervous regards how streaming (and yeah, Covid) seems to have pulled people away from the movie experience, wondering if things have changed forever. Have the weekly drops of content on Netflix and Disney+ so diluted peoples appreciation of tentpole releases (I have to wonder if Disney putting Marvel and Star Wars content for ‘free’ onto subscribers televisions is a kind of self-sabotage) weakened and diluted the appeal of said franchises as regards getting bums on seats in cinemas, like it used to be? We’ve already seen how people don’t seem interested in buying films on disc anymore. Some of the high-end stuff being dropped on Netflix is often poor but production-wise, they are essentially exactly the same thing as is seen in cinemas. I remember when I was kid, I saw The Empire Strikes Back at the cinema on a Saturday afternoon and when I got home Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was on the telly, and funnily enough it was the episode with the asteroid sequence and Buster Crabbe but it was so different in quality, the chasm between home entertainment and cinema entertainment was plain. That’s gone now, and seeing ‘new’ Star Wars and Marvel stuff straight onto the telly…

I’ve noted before that movies don’t seem as important or special as they used to be in my youth, back when Star Wars would be on the big screen only and when you’d wait for years to ever see Jaws again- gradually films have become more disposable. In a world where you can buy Avatar for a fiver, is there any wonder that Avatar itself fails to have any real cultural significance (and I’m really curious how those Avatar sequels will perform in a few years time). Are movies, as we fans remember them as ‘MOVIES,’ essentially dead, and things like Dune simply being made for a world and business model that no longer exists?

One has to wonder if Dune: Part Two will eventually just be a mini-series on HBO Max.

Farewell, Marooned

I’d watched Marooned (1969) once before; it would have been late-‘seventies, or early ‘eighties, certainly post-Star Wars, and on a network screening as part of a film-season of sci-fi movies, something which happened quite a lot back then. Over the decades since, I’ve occasionally seen moments of it again during subsequent television airings. Its not a film that has aged particularly well, even if it did win the 1970 Academy Award for Special Visual Effects, something which is perhaps indicative of how much of a game-changer Star Wars would be several years later. Its littered with numerous technical goofs, too, which unfortunately undermines much of the sense of reality the film gains by using NASA assets and locations.

Watching it again this one, last time (hence this being one of my ‘Farewell…’ posts) the thing that struck me the most, and which was evidently lost on my young self way back when, was the cast. Marooned has a pretty amazing cast, largely wasted, mind, in what quickly degenerates into formulaic melodrama, but seems to indicate some ambition behind the film: Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, David Jansen, James Franciscus, Lee Grant, Nancy Kovack and Mariette Hartley (who was a childhood crush of mine from her appearance in 1960s Star Trek). 

It is a pretty great cast, there, indeed- certainly one better than the material they have to work with, although it really has a great premise for a space movie, and indeed very prescient, predating the Apollo 13 mission of 1970 and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003, both of which lend a weight to situations in Marooned. Indeed, there are some moments which are so similar to moments in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 that one almost does a doubletake. A case of movie events mimicking real-life events that mimicked a movie. Likewise having read a book about the Columbia disaster and possible ways a rescue could have theoretically been attempted in better circumstances, its strange to see some of those proposals being dramatized in a film shot decades earlier. How extraordinary it might have seemed had Columbia’s crew been saved  in similar fashion to the rescue shown in Marooned.

What ultimately undermines Marooned is Hollywood’s understandable ignorance, of the time, of the space program and the mechanics of space travel, and of course natural technical obstacles for film-makers of the time (Kubrick’s 2001 notwithstanding). But certainly the public ignorance of the space program of the time is clearly evident as the film attempts to explain the what, where and how’s which would become largely commonplace years later but was quite alien and extraordinary in a world without digital watches or electronic calculators. 

Marooned strikes me as a film with a great, thrilling and enthralling premise that largely fails in execution- even after the popularity and success of the Apollo 13 film, there’s likely some traction in another film someday following in Marooned‘s celluloid footsteps- although I suppose one could cite The Martian as evidence that’s already been and gone.

And finally, of course I’M Spartacus

spartacusI’ve rather enjoyed this accidental run of ‘Ancient Movies’, and barring Ben-Hur (which I’d re-watched last year) the inevitable end-point had to be the classic Kubrick/Douglas film Spartacus from 1960. I refer to it as a ‘Kubrick/Douglas’ film but its obviously more Kirk Douglas’ film than it is a Kubrick film- there is really very little of this film that screams ‘Kubrick’ at the viewer. In fact, if there’s anything regards Spartacus that proves a little off-putting to me, its that the film very often feels like a Douglas vanity-project: possibly an unfair accusation, because producing and starring in a film as big as Spartacus is no mean feat, but when I watch the film there’s an uncomfortable (to me, anyway) sensation of watching a huge ego onscreen and everything else orbiting around it. I mean, Spartacus as a character has practically no negative features, he’s painted as a heroic, ‘perfect’ figure and not at all, in that sense, realistic. In that respect it does feel like a ‘old’ or ‘very Hollywood’ movie, but most likely its just a feeling that its the star actor/producer calling the shots rather than the director, and its clear that its not a directors ‘vision’ that we are seeing. Some films are like that, Spartacus is hardly unique, and its possibly just a reaction on my part from being used to watching a ‘Billy Wilder Picture’ or an ‘Alfred Hitchcock Picture’ or a ‘Ridley Scott Picture’.

Re-watching classic films can be a surprising experience, most often they of course still hold up remarkably well- they are ‘classic’ for a reason, after all. My surprise this time around was something regards the narrative, and hardly a  surprise at all really but I was take aback this time around by just how black the ending is. Naturally this is inherent in the basic story, as history tells us Spartacus and his buddies don’t walk off into the sunset for a happily ever after, and any film that did would be wholly inappropriate, for some reason this time around I was struck by just how bleak the film is. Maybe its a Covid thing, but I was taken by how much of a grim tone this film ends with: basically, the bad guys win, the good guys die, literally, every last one of them (even Charles Laughtons’ Senator scurries off to dispatch himself after settling his affairs) – its almost like its prefiguring the closing moments of Revenge of the Sith (albeit Lucas could only dream of that film having the gravitas of something like Spartacus).  Indeed, on that last point, while its clear that the Pod Race in The Phantom Menace owes everything to the chariot race of Ben-Hur, it would seem that George Lucas had his eye on other historical epics like Spartacus with how its grim finale is echoed by that of Sith. Its rather a pity that Lucas didn’t really nail that feel with his Prequel Trilogy in general- its possibly too coy a conceit but had that trilogy been like some great Roman spectacle moved into a space fantasy milieu then it would have better existed on its own terms away from the Original Trilogy – it does seem to me that Anakin suggests something of a ‘Messiah’ figure in the Star Wars saga and treating it more like a big biblical epic may have been beyond Lucas (hell, its only about selling toys, after all) but I have to wonder. Instead of some snotty kid in The Phantom Menace, had Anakin been a teenage slave like a slightly-younger Spartacus, later saved from a Hutt’s gladiatorial arena and then rising through the Jedi ranks to eventually fall to the Dark Side… Well I guess my daydream is more of a set of movies aimed at grown-up fans of the Original Trilogy rather than films preoccupied by a new generation of kids and what they want from Santa. 

But anyway, that’s all by the by and ancient history of its own, really. For some reason though I was rather struck by how bleak the ending of Spartacus is. Its authentic of course but I suppose I’m just reminded of how modern Hollywood seems to avoid any films with ‘downer’ endings.

Re-watching the film of course afforded me opportunity to watch my 4K UHD copy of Spartacus that has been waiting for too long. The film looks quite gorgeous, as one would expect – like the 4K UHD of Vertigo (shot in VistaVision) Spartacus benefits hugely from its Super 70 Technirama format, its larger film format affording a much more detailed image than usual that really shines on 4K. Naturally the film sounds gorgeous, too, with its timeless Alex North score that is at times brutal and others sweepingly romantic: Spartacus is one of those films that is much better for its score, the composer doing a lot of the films heavy lifting.

Spartacus is also one of those films more famous for its place in cinematic history, the reaction of the public at the time and its continuing popularity, and historically of course its cast and film-makers, than for its qualities, perhaps, as a film in itself. The film is not as perfect as its reputation perhaps suggests (later generations/s seem to much prefer Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, for instance) but its still a great film. The “I am Spartacus” scene has of course become part of the cultural lexicon of our age and again, part of the film that lives outside of the film itself, referred to an mimicked in all parts of pop culture. It proved to be a film and a role that was completely identified with Kirk Douglas for the remainder of his life, even if Stanley Kubrick largely disassociated himself from it. Kirk Douglas is Spartacus, in every frame as dominant an actor and onscreen personality as he likely was as a Hollywood producer: a little distracting for me this time around watching the film but perhaps symbolic of its place in Hollywood history.

A Beautiful October Sky

october2To misquote Ray Bradbury, first of all, it was October, a rare month for Rocket Boys. 

It was October, 1957, and Sputnik changed the world. It changed the lives of some American boys in Coalwood, West Virginia, a backwoods town centred on its old coal mine that was living on borrowed time. The sight of Sputnik in the night sky and the dawn of the Space Age signalled the End of Days for Coalwood, the relentless march of Time heralding the inevitable end of the 1950s. Watching Sputnik traversing across the October night sky gave Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a glimpse of an exciting world outside his hometown of Coalwood,  the possibility of a life different to everyone else in the town, who seemed to have lives mapped out before them, sons following fathers into the mine. Inevitably Homer’s ambitions created friction with his father John Hickam (a typically splendid Chris Cooper) who was the mine superintendent who loved his job, the mine and took immense satisfaction in how it kept the town alive. John expected his son to follow in his footsteps and could not understand why Homer would seek another life, his head in the sky in a town where all attentions were upon the dark bowels of the Earth. 

October Sky is a wonderful, life-affirming sugar rush of a movie, and a male weepie in the tradition of Field of Dreams: its one of those films for fathers and sons. The fact that the film is based on a true story, specifically a book, Rocket Boys, written by Homer Hickam himself, only makes the film all the more poignant. I generally have a problem with films that begin “based on a true story” because that often means very little, with films taking all sorts of liberties, but the hell with that- the cynic in me is sulking in that dark corner over there and he ain’t coming out for this post. October Sky is great. 

The film was directed by Joe Johnston, of Jumanji and Rocketeer fame (not to mention his work for ILM on the original Star Wars films, his name etched into my head back in the heady days of my youth reading The Art of Star Wars and seeing his artwork as an effects illustrator). He’s something of a hero to the twelve-year old geek in me, and his attachment to this film as director is one of the reasons I wanted to see this film for such a long time. Why exactly it took over twenty years for me to get around to it… well, its just one of life’s mysteries. The additional synchronicity that when I did finally get a round to it, it was actually in October… well, I guess Ray Bradbury would enthuse upon the rightness of that better than I ever could.

octoberThe period details are lovely, there is a wonderfully evocative feel of the time and place, from the cars, the clothes, the period songs playing over the radio, the sense of innocence in an American town so isolated from the bigger world, something really that still seems true for many old industrial towns of America today. There is always, of course, something of the Lost World about that, too, of an Industrial Heartland, and all the homegrown traditions that come with it,  that has largely disappeared from America (as it has here in the UK, too). The fate of Coalwood was the fate of many American towns, as well as the mining towns here in the UK and a coal mining industry and way of life lost completely. One can sympathise and understand John Hickman’s desire to maintain the way of life that made sense of his own life and his whole community –  and understand the stirring sensations his son feels as he looks up at an October sky suddenly full of possibilities. 

The film is a warm story about friendship -John recruiting his schoolmates to help him in his adventure of amateur rocketry – that shares much of the effect of films like Stand By Me, a lovely ensemble piece that is heartfelt and feels very true. There is also a nice sense of community, as people around them start to assist them, drawn into John’s passion. The acting is generally superb, the cast excellent- everything feels real, and everyone looks real (perhaps Laura Dern is the weakest link, looking perhaps a little too Hollywood in a film where most everyone looks so wonderfully ordinary, but that’s more of an issue with casting than Dern herself, who is perfectly fine). Sharing in this sense of the ‘ordinary’ and even the  mundane, the visual effects from none other than ILM are indeed surprisingly subtle while being uniformly excellent.

Accompany that with a fine score by Mark Isham and you have what is essentially a perfect little movie. This is a great little film, and anyone who loved Field of Dreams will really get such a lot out of this.

 

Pity the Fanboys

fanb1I so wanted to like this; a comedy about a bunch of Star Wars fans who take a cross-country trip to break into Skywalker Ranch in 1998 so that their dying friend can see a rough cut of The Phantom Menace before he dies. Its a story about friendship and a shared love for Star Wars, a triumph of geekdom in a cold harsh world that shatters childhood dreams, a film about realities of adulthood and lost youth.

Or rather, it should have been. I’m not sure what it actually turned out to be, except that it wasn’t particularly funny, and wasn’t as involving and genuinely heartfelt as it could have been. The irony that the Grail these fanboys are after turns  out to be a pretty lousy movie (and that perhaps in the face of their geeky friendship and shared love of Star Wars, that doesn’t even really matter) is hardly touched upon. Maybe they’ll make a reboot someday about a bunch of fanboys on a road-trip to steal the only pre-release cut/copy of The Last Jedi will land the irony when they destroy it and save fellow fans the horror.

For some reason, the film chooses to degenerate into highlighting a geeky feud between Star Wars fans and Star Trek fans, persistently going back to this old joke as if to add some manic comedy action to the plot, add some pace to it. If anything this risks alienating the geek fanbase you’d think this film was being made for. Certainly the film works best when we laugh with our geek heroes rather than laugh at them, and the humour perhaps really shouldn’t lean towards humour at the expense of them. There is a tendency for the POV to be from an ‘ordinary’ non-fan perspective, ridiculing the fandom, which seems like a lazy joke.

While Fanboys was obviously made with the best of intentions (at least I hope it was) it is largely a misfire. Its enlivened by some nice cameos (William Shatner! Carrie Fisher! Billy See Williams! Kevin Smith! etc!) but they just feel all the more wasted in the end, because none of them are actually asked to do much or really inform the reason for their cameos (I did like the “I know” joke that sweetly highlights the Carrie Fisher cameo, and of course, just seeing her again is both lovely and sad, too). I mean, how do you waste a legendary ego like William Shatner with a one-scene cameo?

There’s a great Fanboys movie to be made someday, but I really think that to do it right, it might be more like Stand By Me in tone and execution, albeit starring middle-aged guys rather than kids or young adults; serious but warmly affectionate, a story about  lost childhood and a shared love for something that thrives utterly apart from Corporate billions, Box Office or critical infamy.  Just call it Class of ’77 and go with it, how can you lose?

Somebody call my agent, lol!

Trucking Hell: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977)

sorcererWilliam Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a wild journey into darkness that shares much with Apocalypse Now‘s nightmarish sensibilities. Four men are forced to flee civilisation in order to escape punishment for their crimes and they wind up in some hellish, unnamed South American country teetering on the brink of revolution, in a village being reclaimed by the Jungle from which it was torn. A world being washed away by the rain and buried in the mud. The only possible escape these men have is a near-suicidal journey driving two trucks over two hundred miles through dense wild jungle, each truck carrying loads of dangerously unstable old nitroglycerine which is needed to blow out an oil refinery blaze. A journey from darkness into darkness, from Hell into Hell.  The film’s conclusion feels as bleak and inevitable as the ending of John Carpenter’s The Thing. A pleasant and jolly film this is not.

Unsurprisingly, the film did not fair too well when it was released during the summer of Star Wars in 1977. Indeed, it was as doomed as the four protagonists it features- that summer, audiences wanted escape and a positive, life-affirming message. They didn’t want the nihilism of Sorcerer and simply abandoned it, the film becoming a notorious financial disaster. The film suffered a similar fate to Blade Runner and The Thing five years later, when they were released during the summer of Spielberg’s extraterrestrial calling home – but I think like those two films, Sorcerer has benefited from some kind of reappraisal over the years. Its not a perfect film; its messy and unfocused and often gratuitous in an almost adolescent way, but I found it absolutely fascinating and very disturbing.

Its a very intense film, with a nightmarish feeling akin to Adrian Lyne’s  Jacobs Ladder, or the dread inevitability of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart: I’m not at all surprised by readings of the film that consider the four protagonists literally in Hell, suffering for their sins. Its unrelentingly grim, and not one of the four protagonist’s stories ends well: this, in the summer of Star Wars? In hindsight, the fate of the film seems inevitable.

The bridge sequence, in which the trucks try to cross a river in a terrible storm over a dangerously unsafe rope-bridge is incredibly well realised, particularly as it dates from a pre-CGI era.  You can almost feel the wind and the rain of the storm and share the nervous terror of the protagonists as the bridge threatens to collapse. What it must have been like watching that in the cinema back then…. how intense that must have felt. And of course, how incredibly difficult filming it. Watching Sorcerer was the nearest thing to watching Apocalypse Now, aghast at the obvious horror it must have been making it: at least with Coppola’s film the hard work must have seemed worth it, vindicated by the critical and popular response to the film on its release. How crushing it must have seemed for those behind Sorcerer when all that work seemed wasted upon the films critical and popular failure. 

In any case, the sheer insanity of the film, its almost delirious sense of unrelenting nightmare, well, I found it quite an almost perverse pleasure. They certainly don’t make films like this anymore. 

 

 

“Gordon’s Alive!!” Flash Gordon (1980)

flash1You waited long enough. Why Now?  I’ve mentioned this a few times on this blog, but up to now I’d only seen this film in pieces during tv showings, where I’d sit down for maybe twenty minutes and walk away from it a little horrified. Turns out there was a good twenty-thirty minutes I’d never seen at all. As for why now, well, there is a restored edition coming out on 4K UHD this week that has all the films fan excited, and I figured, well, maybe its finally time, so I pulled it up on Sky Cinema.

So whats it about, then?  Seriously? Oh go on then. Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), Emperor of the Universe, has turned to Earth as his new plaything, threatening total destruction as he hurls storms and disasters at the planet. Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) a discredited ex-Nasa scientist is the only one who deduces the disasters are of extra-terrestrial origin, and intends to use a rocketship in his greenhouse (sigh, stay with me, its that sort of movie) to fly into space and save the Earth. He enlists the assistance of New York Jets Quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) and ace reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and they race into space to face the tyranny of the despotic Ming.

Any good? Well, no, and few even of its fans would claim it to be. Its one of those “so bad its good” movies- for my part, I’d rate a film like Lifeforce in that department too, there’s loads of bad films that fans still manage to obsess over. Famously, George Lucas made uber-hit Star Wars only after his overtures to Dino De Laurentis to purchase the rights to Flash Gordon failed, and Dino, later seeing Star Wars make millions, decided he’d get a slice of the action by making Flash Gordon himself. Dino would discover making a modern-day space fantasy rather more difficult than it originally seemed, as would those behind so many jumping on the Star Wars bandwagon post-1977 (Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Star Crash etc).

Dino’s project did everything wrong: Dino, possibly suffering from Movie Mogul Madness chose an unknown lead rather than an established actor (I think Kurt Russell was in the running for awhile), Dino obviously thinking he could make an unknown into a Superstar –  likely having an eye towards Christopher Reeve’s success in Superman: The Movie (Dino evidently forgetting that Reeves was at least an actor: Jones can’t act, and Flash comes across as bumbling imbecile, albeit his silly innocence proves endearing to many fans). That’s not the only thing he didn’t heed from Richard Donner’s movie, of course: Flash Gordon is decidedly camp, ironically one of the things that possibly saves it in the end in a “well we know we’re rubbish, buts its only meant to fun!” kind of way, but Donner’s film taught the lesson that you had to take this stuff seriously, which Lucas had also done with Star Wars and Marvel would later heed decades after. At one point Superman: The Movie was indeed as camp as Flash Gordon, something Donner changed when he took that project over from Guy Hamilton, and when Donner was pushed out, its telling that the Superman sequels all degenerated further and further into campness becoming more like Flash Gordon in every unfortunate instalment, so, er, the producers of Superman: The Movie themselves hardly heeded their own lesson, the crazy fools.

Flash Gordon also had the wrong director, and a bad co-star (Melody Anderson is pleasant enough, but hardly set the film world on fire, utterly lacking the spark of Carrie Fisher or Margot Kidder). Flash Gordon is a pretty dire, easily forgettable movie only saved by an utterly superlative Queen soundtrack. We all had that soundtrack back in 1980/1981, even those of us who didn’t like the film or didn’t go to see it.

So worth waiting for? Are you kidding? Well, it is kind of oddly fun, I suppose. I can understand the nostalgia making fans ignore the films many shortcomings (which are too many to mention here, really). Its one of those films that the fans can champion those mistakes and failures, revelling in its badness, so is utterly impregnable from criticism.

Worthless observation? I was surprised how much in the background that Queen soundtrack really is – Howard Blake’s orchestral score doing a lot more heavy lifting than I expected. I really rather thought the film would have the feel of a rock video, sequences cut to the Queen soundtrack entirely, but it doesn’t seem to have been, which makes me suspect that the film-makers didn’t know what they had until the film was released and the audiences reacted to it. The Queen music elevates the film to a Space Rock-Opera, and had it gone ‘all the way’ a little more like The Rocky Horror Show the film might have been a delirious crazy treat and a huge success. Or not. Maybe the world wasn’t quite ready for Flash Gordon: The Musical, even with the Queen music, but I suspect the world might have been a better place with it.

As an additional bonus observation, I point readers towards my review of the interesting documentary Life After Flash for more Flash Gordon, er,  stuff.

Be careful the endings you wish for?

fugitiveWe were over my mother-in-law’s yesterday delivering the weeks groceries (she’s shielding during the Covid 19 troubles – yes there’s another dishonourable mention for that bugger we’re all so weary of), when during a commercial break there was a spot announcing the commencement of a complete re-run of the old 1960s tv series The Fugitive, which starred David Janssen.  I asked if that series -immensely popular at the time- ever had a proper ending. Turns out, it did- a two-part finale at the end of its fourth season concluded the series with an actual ending, which was quite unusual at the time. Television shows used to come and suddenly just go, when ratings suffered enough to warrant a show’s cancellation. The crew of the Enterprise never completed their five-year mission in Star Trek,  the family Robinson never returned to Earth (or found Alpha Centauri) in Lost in Space, the two doctors trapped in time in The Time Tunnel never found their way back home either.  Fans of these shows and so many others would be just left hanging; their investment in the shows frustrated by open endings.

Its something which we thankfully are usually spared these days. Babylon 5 had an ending, the BSG reboot did, Fringe did, Lost did… Game of Thrones did. Of course, sometimes fans didn’t get the endings they wished for- Game of Thrones being the most obvious example of a show that didn’t stick the landing (and indeed in that particular case the crash proved particularly ugly). Part of the morbid pleasure of sticking with shows these days is the oddly perverse pleasure of seeing how they finally end, whether its a satisfactory conclusion or not. Partly that was why I stuck with The Walking Dead through some nine seasons, until I realised that thing is NEVER going to end, but yeah, surely one of the main reasons to stick with Westworld is to just see how they manage to wrap all that up.

Mind, the movies are catching up- just look how satisfyingly Disney concluded the Skywalker Saga with The Rise of Skywalker… Maybe those 1960s tv shows were onto something.

Elstree 1976 (2015)

elstree1This kind of Doc should be right up my street; I remember both the summer of 1976 and of course the media hysterics surrounding Star Wars‘ release the following summer (and Winter here in the UK). Sometimes it feels rather like yesterday, and Star Wars still something new and relevant and exciting, but that was 44 years ago- its like looking back from the perspective of 1977 and thinking about films made in 1933. That’s a little like comparing Star Wars to the 1933 King Kong, which makes me feel older than I feel and depresses me. Thinking like that can depress anyone.

Sometimes I think I’ll always be ten or eleven deep inside, like 1976 etc is locked away in there, all those Marvel comics I was reading, or paperbacks like Logans Run and the Making of book about the 1976 King Kong, with Star Wars and Close Encounters and Superman: The Movie  just around the corner…

Alas Elstree 1976 finds it too difficult to really capture the feeling of 1976: I think it should have shown some news footage or home movies, maybe, of that summer and how people dressed and what music we listened to (ABBA, for one thing). Yeah, the soundtrack missed a trick there; it should have played songs from 1976 to emphasis the sense of the ‘now’, the fashions (hideous as they may be now). Capture the moment and how this country was back then. A sense of the place, too, as I really didn’t get any feeling for what Elstree was like that summer.

I did enjoy the reminiscences of some of those involved in the making of the film: maybe it should have been opened up more to talk with some of the craftsmen and technicians as well as those actors. Some of the stories and observations were fine, but it seemed to only briefly actually talk about making Star Wars at Elstree before going off to talk about later careers and movies and convention appearances. Much of that was padding out the running time- as it is, the film could have been half-hour shorter and lose very little. Indeed, had it been edited to 60 minutes it would make an excellent extra on a home release of Star Wars.

Still, at least it offered some perspective away from the stars of the film who usually take all the attention, and I really did appreciate some of the observations, sense of perspective some of them had regards this strange little movie that refuses to go away like most others did.

Elstree 1976 is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

May the 4K be with you: Rogue One

rogue4kHere in the UK there seems to be an exclusivity deal running at the moment between Disney and Amazon, that ensures that the 4K editions of the Star Wars films are limited to the boxset  of all nine ‘Skywalker Saga’ films which means that those of us who just want the Original Trilogy films, or Rogue One (which hasn’t been released over here in 4K at all), have to shell out for the boxset, wait for the inevitable single-disc releases when the exclusivity deal ends, or go the import route.

Initially, I was fine waiting out, but as I’m stuck on a two-week vacation at home (where I’ve been stuck for eight weeks already on lockdown, working from home) I figured maybe I should treat myself. Avoiding the scalpers on Ebay (I love The Empire Strikes Back but £45 for a copy of it on 4K? Get the frak out of here, that’s LaserDisc-era nonsense) I sourced Scandinavian copies of Rogue One, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (that’s my idea of a Star Wars trilogy) that actually even cost a bit less than they will likely do when released over here, and with English packaging they are no doubt pretty identical, too, other than the certificate logos (which are smaller than ours, as a bonus, and off the spine too) and that they are minus slipcovers. So all good. Rogue One and Star Wars arrived yesterday, with The Empire Strikes Back on the way and due early next week.

Its the last time I ever buy these films, I’m sure – which seems a curious way to rationalise it, considering how many times I’ve bought Star Wars films, and I’ve limited my spending to these three – as I say, what I consider to be a pretty perfect trilogy. I think the only way they could ever tempt my wallet again is by releasing the original unaltered theatrical editions but that’s so unlikely at this point I’m safe to say this is the last time. To some it would make more sense to have ordered Return  of the Jedi, too, but I had issues with that film even back in 1983 (revisionists may cite the Prequels or Disney saga films as the points at which the rot set into Star Wars, but for me it will always be Jedi, when Lucas clearly lost interest and wanted done with it all). Part of me wonders what the experience of Jedi is even like now that JJ Abrams pissed all over it with his The Rise of Skywalker nonsense, but I have the Blu-ray boxset to try that out someday, if ever the fancy takes me.

I’m clearly stuck in a rut buying 4K editions of my favourite films, even if I do usually wait for the sales to come around. I’ll work that out eventually.

rogue2So anyway, I watched Rogue One on 4K last night and it was gorgeous, absolutely spectacular.  Shot on 6K cameras, and then given a full 4K Digital Intermediate, the film looks remarkable on this disc. Star Wars and Empire will both no doubt suffer in comparison (although hopefully improving on the earlier HD releases) but this film is just ‘wow’ near enough all the way through. Stunning detail from the costumes and props to the sets and the visual effects work, and the HDR really adds depth and ‘pop’ to make the whole thing look vibrant.

I hadn’t watched the film in quite awhile, so it was interesting to watch the film and reappraise it. Its not perfect and stumbles at times -the first third of the film feels awkwardly put together, as if its edited highlights of a longer film/treatment- but on the whole its a fantastic Star Wars movie, with great characters and a great plot. Unlike the Star Wars saga films, this film really has the feel of authentic Star Wars, in how it looks and sounds. Sure there’s quite a lot of fan service but it all supports the story rather than distracts from it, serving the film in a similar way to how such fan service aided Blade Runner 2049 and more recently Doctor Sleep.

What made me really curious about it, though, is all the things they did so right in this one that they turned away from or got so wrong in the other Disney Star Wars films. How did Solo, for instance, turn into such a mess, and while this film features a female protagonist and a racially diverse cast it does not labour any wokeness to such an extent that it irritates as it did in The Last Jedi. Here it feels inclusive and supportive, not dominating anything to the detriment of the plot. What also helps this film is that through that awkward first third and onwards, the film just gets better and better as it goes, building to a tremendous climax that is spectacular but also emotionally involving in ways that most Star Wars films aren’t. I was also struck by how well staged and choreographed the climactic space battle is compared to those of The Force Awakens or The Rise of Skywalker. Again, one has to wonder what lessons weren’t learned, or why Rogue One did some things so well that others stumbled with. Maybe its the personnel involved. I won’t necessarily suggest that the films director Gareth Edwards was wholly responsible, as the film was rumoured to have a troubled post-production with considerable reshoots required that I think he wasn’t involved with, but that’s a story we may never really know unless someone gets permission to write a candid book about it.

The music score was really great too, I’d forgotten how well that worked in sounding like a Star Wars movie but having its own identity, too, something even maestro John Williams struggled with in the last trilogy.

When Rogue One finished with its grand tease of the opening of Star Wars I had to refrain from having a very late night and spinning up the Star Wars disc. Maybe tonight then. Must say, I haven’t enjoyed anything Star Wars this much in ages.