Paywalls are a Good Thing

As we slide further into a streaming future and an increasing number of providers, more and more shows and movies are becoming locked away behind numerous paywalls and I’m… well, the natural thing to write here is that I’m obviously missing out massively. But I don’t necessarily think I am. I’m beginning to think its a question of liberation, an indication of the increasing irrelevance of franchises I once thought hugely important.

I watched The Walking Dead for several years, but thankfully gave up on it before its final seasons slipped behind the Disney paywall. I quite enjoyed Outlander for a few years, but fell behind before it too slipped behind a different paywall. Star Trek seems to be slipping behind a Paramount paywall, but other than curiosity regards how disappointing  Strange New Worlds probably turns out, I can’t say I really care. They should have probably done me a favour and put Picard behind that paywall so I couldn’t have suffered through its Season Two (unofficial subtitle ‘The Death of Trek’).

I’ve never subscribed to Disney+ so I haven’t seen any of the Marvel tv shows, or Star Wars tv shows, or some of the movies being put on there and nowhere else (except for those few movies that arrive on disc that I decide to take a punt on). It was a bit annoying at first, hearing great things about The Mandalorian, and a Boba Fett series certainly seemed intriguing, but as time has moved on, I’ve realised I haven’t missed them at all, and according to some reviews, I haven’t missed out on too much of any value/worth, either.  There definitely seems an indication that Disney making so much Marvel and Star Wars content risks diluting the value of those properties, and quality control seems to have definitely fallen to the wayside in the drive to ensure fresh new content pops up on the streaming service. And there’s the odd twist that there’s so many Marvel tv shows presumably linking to the films, that me not watching Disney+ makes the film themselves less appealing to me than ever. I understand back in the 1990s many comic fans gave up on the massive comic crossover arcs that required me them to buy comic series they wouldn’t ordinarily touch with a barge pole, if only because they couldn’t afford to buy them all. Is that happening with streaming platforms and franchises? Might it happen to the MCU too? You can watch the films but they will reference to series and events and characters one hasn’t seen and therefore make less sense? As if the MCU wasn’t hard enough to keep track of anyway.

Maybe I’m getting old. I have been increasingly diverted by older movies, such as the film noir that I have been watching and collecting (becoming a substantially large percentage of the titles on my shelving these days). They don’t show too many of those older films on the streaming services. Actually I find it curious, that so much regards these streaming services seems to be about genre shows, which seems oddly niche, considering streamers are after subscription numbers, and I would have thought that meant chasing Mr Average, not the geek sitting in the basement or up in the back room. Or did the geeks inherit the Earth after all, and nobody’s watching soaps or sitcoms anymore? Its just a bit weird. Maybe in an alternative universe everyone’s watching Westerns or cop dramas or something.

I’m not suggesting that streamers are the Great Evil – there are some great shows and movies being made, that I cannot imagine ever seeing the light of day through any other vendor- like Amazon’s The Boys or Netflix’s Stranger Things. But its true that the elephant in the room regards streaming services (and its not just Disney+ at fault here, as Netflix is as guilty as any) – is that to keep subscribers the services have to ensure a steady flow of new content for them to consume before they get bored and turn elsewhere, but it requires so much content that quality inevitably suffers. How many Netflix Originals turn out to be any good, never mind actually great? If Disney just made one Star Wars mini-series a year, would it enable them to make it at least consistently logical and honest to the franchises mythology?  I’ve heard things about that Obi-Wan series, how bad it is, from reliable people I know that have seen it, that are mind-boggling, frankly. Disney would have to pay me to see it, not the other way around.

There are many tv shows I would like to see, like Apple’s For All Mankind series from Ronald D Moore. But what kind of viewing figures does that show actually get, or indeed most any of the shows on these streaming platforms? How many people actually watch Star Trek: Discovery? A generation past made who shot JR or who killed Laura Palmer hugely popular discussions and as everything fragments that seems to be increasingly rare- maybe its impossible now. I’ve watched tv shows and been unable to even find anyone else who watched them at all, never mind anyone to share them with in conversation. Maybe that’s the result of paywalls, but isn’t that making much of its content irrelevant that would usually be what we used to call water-cooler television? Is that really a Good Thing?

Maximum Sequel

max1Last night I watched the 1979 Mad Max for the first time, probably one of the strangest examples of films I somehow have never seen (I adore Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior, have done since watching it on a a pirate VHS copy back in 1982, which naturally got me into a cinema to watch Thunderdome and, later, Fury Road, but I never bothered with the first film until now).

I thought Mad Max was an entertaining and interesting film, but watching it now, having watched the succeeding films, clearly informed my experience. I can’t ever get in the mindset of people back in the day watching it when it first came out. Inevitably its clearly the prototype of what was to come later, and it was evidently limited by its budget (the film I most thought of whilst watching it was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, a film that seemed to share its exploitation/indie/1970s vibe). I’ll likely write a post regards Mad Max at a later date, but I just wanted to ask- is The Road Warrior the best sequel ever, as regards improving upon its original in scale and ambition and storytelling? Its surely akin to The Empire Strikes Back compared to Star Wars. I know Godfather Part 2 is considered by many to be better than the first Godfather film, but I wouldn’t think its a better-made film as far as quality of film-making is concerned, its just got a deeper and more interesting narrative, whereas I’d argue that Empire is a classier, better-quality Star Wars and The Road Warrior same in respect to Mad Max. Some films benefit from lessons learned from earlier productions and (possibly, but not necessarily) an improved budget, is The Road Warrior the best example?

Who cares about the Avatar 2 trailer?

avatartooAvatar. That was that glossy sci-fi adventure movie with a paper-thin plot liberally borrowed from other books and movies that was really kind of silly. Technically impressive sure, but… Unobtanium? Unobtanium? Goodness, I’d tried to forget about that; I was SO close, and then this Avatar 2 trailer drops and… yeah, James Cameron pulls me back in.

Avatar. Er, yeah… that’s that James Cameron 3D epic that took the world by storm about twelve years back and was promptly forgotten. A bit like that “3D is the FUTURE!” nonsense- do they even make 3D televisions now, and how much damage did Hollywood’s rush to making 3D films do to blockbusters in general?  Avatar rather represents most everything bad about blockbuster movies today, in which the medium, whether it be 3D or Dolby Atmos or a gigantic Imax screen, is the message, rather than quality of drama or acting. Avatar took eye-candy to some whole new level, as if the setting -the alien world of Pandora- was a place to visit and experience in 3D (admittedly it was the best 3D I ever saw) and the only real reason to see the film. Divorced from the 3D and giant screen, the film has to rely on its script, its acting, and, er, that’s where it was found wanting, clearly. I have a copy of Avatar on Blu-ray… haven’t seen it in years. I haven’t even THOUGHT about Avatar in years. Can’t imagine many people have. I mean, it wasn’t like Star Wars or anything; Star Wars, when it became the biggest film of all time and entered the cultural consciousness, it was on tee-shirts and memorabilia and in books and comics and…  Avatar? That thing came and went, except that it did half of what Star Wars did, albeit the important half: it made lots of money.

In Hollywood, awards and critical plaudits are nice and all, but all they really care about is the money. Money talks, so Avatar is a pretty big deal. Outside of Hollywood, I’m not so sure, but in Hollywood, they care a bit less regards if a film is any good or not, as long as it makes gazillions of dollars, that’s where its at. And Avatar made a lot of money: $2.8 billion worldwide. That’s about as big as it gets until we start talking Marvel movies.

Doesn’t carry as much weight in my neck of the woods, mind; in my back room the Blu-ray is sitting on the shelf unwatched for years. I think that’s true of the collections of many film collectors and geeks and nerds (those two the same thing? I don’t know, maybe) and I don’t really think many people have been thinking about it or wishing to get more of Pandora in their lives, or that Unobtanium. I still can’t believe that Unobtanium nonsense, but I digress. I just don’t think people care.

I know James Cameron has spent the last twelve years or so not making movies. Well, not making movies that weren’t titled Avatar, because I think he has two or three of them coming out (or was it four?). I figured that was kind of sad, especially as it seemed to preclude him from signing-off on Blu-ray releases of The Abyss and True Lies, and derailed him making that Alita movie himself (a film whose failure possibly should have had him a bit worried about future Avatar movie prospects?). I mean, he’s off beavering away on more 3D CGI ‘movies’ (sorry MOVIES). and no-one cares, the darn king of the world doesn’t realise no-one cares about Avatar.

Or maybe not, maybe I’m wrong, because the trailer for Avatar 2 was revealed last week and it has at last count some 17 million views, which means somebody out there remembers Avatar, and is at least curious enough about it to watch the trailer. Who knows, maybe they are curious enough to don those 3D glasses again and pay top money to go watch it at the cinema this December. Maybe its going to be some kind of Second Coming.

But… but…

On the evidence of the new trailer for Avatar 2, the chief selling-point seems, depressingly, to be “look! Pandora is prettier than ever!” It doesn’t reveal much of the plot, but rather a sense of new places to see and ‘experience’ in 3D, i.e. more of the same, well, Avatar (except now some of the aliens are green). And the king of the world has spent the last decade making not one, not two, but three more of them? I may be wrong on that count, I never had much interest in Avatar sequels. I’m just wondering if I’m alone in that, and whether 17 million views of that trailer reveals I’m adrift of the cultural zeitgeist once again.

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.

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.