Last Week: Glory, Alien, Dune… and Captain Nemo in Space

Last week was unfortunately hampered by real-life issues impacting my posting here, and I didn’t make much progress with my re-read of Frank Herbert’s Dune because a shinier book came my way. I’m so shallow and time is so limited: sorry Frank, I must try harder.

The disc releases of films from 1989 celebrating 30th anniversaries continued with the 4K UHD release of Glory, a film I have mentioned before here when remembering seeing it at the cinema. It never gets any easier realising how many years have passed by me when films get anniversaries, whether it be twenty, thirty, forty, it’s all a sobering reminder of time slipping. Music fans no doubt mark time by anniversaries of album releases etc, and I can be guilty of that myself, but usually its movies with me. Glory is thirty years old damn it, and I’m thirty years older.

Its looking better for those thirty years than I am. I haven’t sat down to watch the film yet- watching old favourites is like enjoying a fine wine, it’s something to be savoured and appreciated when able to give it the attention it deserves, and this week has been far too hectic, but I was curious enough about the transfer that I did watch the first fifteen minutes, and it looks great. As always with Glory though, whenever I watch it I am struck by the beauty of James Horner’s score, and like Field of Dreams, which I watched a few week back as that film is also celebrating thirty years, it’s always a little sad now, hearing Horner back in his prime and remembering what we have lost with his passing. Its also a reminder of how much film scoring styles have changed over these thirty years, and not for the better- even if James Horner was still around and scoring today, his scores for films now would sound little like these scores. They are not in vogue anymore, that old (I would suggest ‘proper’) kind of scoring.

Alien of course, is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year and its 4K UHD (and cinema re-release, albeit limited) has been accompanied by J W RInzler’s excellent book The Making of Alien. I’m really, really enjoying reading it. So far I haven’t read anything particularly ‘new’ to me, it’s really just recounting things I already knew from other books and contemporary magazines of the day, such as Fantastic Films, Starburst, Cinefantastique etc, and naturally the various documentaries made to accompany DVD and Blu-ray box-sets over the years. But it’s an almost tangible nostalgic joy reading it all again, especially in such a richly presented format. Dan O’Bannon, John Carpenter, Ron Cobb, Ronald Shusett, Ridley Scott- these are names from my teenage years that were like the names of  football stars to other kids my age. And yes, it’s surely nostalgia, but going back to the 1970s, and reading about O’Bannon going off to Paris to work on Jodorowsky’s Dune with Moebius, Chris Foss and H R Giger, and Gary Kurtz calling O’Bannon about a film he was producing called Star Wars… those were wild times, back then. Analogue times in an analogue age, I guess.

Mentioning Dune brings to mind the recent news that Villenueve’s Dune has completed shooting, and the announcement yesterday, I think, that its November 2020 release date has been pushed back a month to December 18, 2020. That’s Oscar territory right there, and the same period that Spielberg’s West Side Story remake is due. Dune is by far the most exciting film in my immediate future, with huge expectations for me. Just imagining that film all in the can, in the old parlance of things (really I should write ‘all on the hard drive‘ because that’s where it lies, or on various servers somewhere at various stages of post-production). At this stage of things, without any stills or teasers or trailers, the project is full of all kinds of crazy possibilities. Maybe this is the best of times, indeed, when everything yet seems possible. I remember those heady days of Revenge of the Jedi (before it became ‘Return’), wondering how George Lucas would follow The Empire Strikes Back. And of course the more recent (and more tension-tinged) period when BR2049 was at a similar stage, and all the secrecy around that particular project made Blade Runner fans like me especially nervous.  Well, that turned out great- here’s hoping Dune does too.

I’ve found myself reflecting on BR2049 a lot, lately. A sure sign that I’m about due a rewatch. Its been awhile; indeed, I may not have actually watched it this year at all yet. I still haven’t managed the double-bill of Blade Runner and BR2049 in the same evening, something that in the old days of more free time (less of a ‘real life’) would have been the most natural Saturday evening in the world.

One curious thing I did do last week- when I found half-hour free one night, I found a recent recording of The Black Hole on my Tivo and gave the first twenty minutes or so a go, curious at seeing it in widescreen and HD. I actually saw The Black Hole at the cinema, way back when it was in direct competition with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. While ST:TMP had pretensions towards 2001, The Black Hole was really just Disney knocking-off a Star Wars wannabe whilst nodding back to its own classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (maybe it should have been titled ‘20,000 Light Years Into Space’). I haven’t seen the film in decades and doubt I’ll ever have the two hours required for a full rewatch, especially on the evidence of this twenty minutes. Good lord it’s horribly dated. While I quite enjoy the John Barry score (I had the old LP and have the recent Intrada expansion) it doesn’t seem to work in the film at all, and Vincent is such an annoying R2D2 it’s a grim reminder of how much Star Wars influenced film back then. So many sci fi films had to have robots and spaceships flying overhead and laser gun battles etc. Its curious to think that Alien was released a few months earlier than The Black Hole or ST:TMP, and while all three owed a great deal to the existence of Star Wars kickstarting the sci-fi boom of those years, it’s clear that Alien was really its own thing, while the other two felt so inclined to flatter the effects extravaganza of Lucas’ blockbuster. I well recall Starburst‘s John Brosnan likely having the time of his life ripping at both The Black Hole and ST:TMP in his reviews.

bhStill, there was some value to seeing Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins again, and I do adore the design of the Cygnus, that was such a beautiful model. I watched up to the moment that the darkened, and apparently derelict Cygnus is suddenly lit up, ablaze of light, like some Victorian dream of space travel. Arresting if somewhat preposterous. Its a nice moment that really caught my imagination back when the film came out. Nice starfields too. Yeah, some nice effects in that film, but it’s a horribly mangled Captain Nemo in Space film, really. There’s certainly a much better film in there that we never had opportunity to see, and a bad one that we unfortunately did. George Lucas had a lot to answer for, even back then.

 

The Jungle Book (2016)

jungle12016.97: The Jungle Book

I’ve never seen Walt Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book, other than the clips they would endlessly re-run every Easter on Disneytime (anybody else remember those?), so in some ways I came into this one in a rather unique (I would imagine) poston of not knowing what to expect. These live-action remakes that Disney are doing are quite clever really, rather like the remakes/reboots that Hollywood in general is so keen on these days. They seem to be working quite well too, on the evidence of this one; such a pity that The Black Hole remake seems to have stalled- if ever a Disney film deserved a (better) remake, its that one. In anycase,  this film benefits greatly from modern technology giving it a fresh angle, in just the same way as the recent Apes reboots have for Fox.

Its also ironic, that speaking as someone who bemoans the amount of cgi trickery and how it mucks about with quality film-making, it must be said that the 2016 Jungle Book (inspired no doubt by some chap watching Life of Pi a few years back) would have been quite impossible without cgi. The technology can be responsible for some pretty remarkable film-making, such as Pi and stuff like Gravity. Indeed most films -and particularly much television too- benefits hugely by cgi; like any tool, it just has to be used well. Its just too easy to miss-use it I guess. Its funny, I remember much the same argument being made about those ILM effects back in the original Star Wars era.

Is it the fault of cgi that screen-writing seems to have suffered so greatly over the past twenty years or so? I mean, it has to be partly to blame, mustn’t it. Its too easy to replace drama and carefully orchestrated plots and character arcs with loud explosions and flashy spectacle, and that’s such a shame as films -particularly blockbusters- seem to have degenerated into amusement rides rather than ‘proper’ (as I would call it) epic storytelling like the 1959 Ben Hur.

But that sounds like an old bugger whingeing about the disrespectful masses who wouldn’t dream of watching anything from the pre-Spielberg era of motion pictures and film-makers who have no intention of educating them.We are where we are.

So anyway, Jon Favreau’s rather remarkable new Jungle Book is quite the wonder. As someone who grew up in the ILM bluescreen era, for whom these cgi wonders are still eye-popping so long since Jurassic Park changed the movie landscape, much of the imagery and trickery on show is utterly astonishing. It looks quite ravishing, and I always watch this kind of stuff wondering what Hitchcock or Kubrick would have made of it (sorcery, maybe, but what wizards they might have been handling a toolset such as this in their movies?).

Newcomer Neel Sethi is something of a particular wonder as Mowgli, though, a mote of humanity in a cgi landscape whose bubbly personality and sense of pure innocent wonder is quite charming and steals the show from the effects boys.  His performance is a wonder when one considers what the live-action shooting of this film likely entailed (i.e. nothing at all like what the finished film looks like). Vocal casting of the animated characters is pretty spot-on too, with Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, and particularly Idris Elba as the villainous Shere Khan all very impressive and largely equal to the cgi visuals. The jungle feels real, although it most likely is utterly virtual. I have the impression that, like Avatar and Gravity before it, this new Jungle Book is a stepping-stone to something; I’m not sure exactly what, but there is something up ahead, a particular film in ten years time maybe, that when it hits will blow people away and people will trace its lineage backwards to stuff like those films, in just the same way that the Flash Gordon serials led to Star Wars. In anycase, this new Jungle Book is fine entertainment, one of the real achievements of 2016.

Not Quite A Theatre of Dreams…

20160528_164030-1Found this old photograph in our local newspaper. A blast from the past- the old Odeon Cinema in town.

This, folks, is where the magic used to happen. This is where I saw Star Wars and CE3K back in 1978, The Black Hole in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back later in 1980, and a pretty mind-blowing (at the time) Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back double-bill prior to the release of Return of the Jedi (possibly in 1982 or 1983, I’m not sure). People used to queue outside around the corner in long lines, whatever the weather- there was no reserved seating, it was first-come, first-served.

I remember back when I saw that Star Wars/Empire double-bill, I got there with my mate a few hours before it was due to start and we couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t a queue- was I ever that young and innocent, and those two films such a big deal to me, that I couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t any crowds? Then again, there was no VHS or home video of any kind back then; the opportunity to rewatch a Star Wars film was a rare thing, a Big Deal. And of course, this was long before those Special Editions, these were the Real Deal (not that we knew it back then- Ignorance is such bliss).

There were just three screens- one main one (Screen One, naturally) with two much smaller ones added under the main screen’s balcony seating (what was originally the stall seating before the cinema was split into three screens). As a sign of how things changed since, it seems odd now to recall that back then people could smoke in there- non-smokers sitting on the left side, smokers on the right side (not sure what the logic was in that, but Screen One was pretty large with a huge vaulted ceiling that took care of most of the horrible smoke). It was such a beautiful art deco building, inside and out; I wasn’t old enough to really appreciate it back then, but the ornate plaster scroll-work that decorated and embellished the walls and ceiling was always something amazing to me.

Sure the seats were old and creaky and frayed if not actually empty of most of the original stuffing, the projection system hardly crystal-clear, and the sound system may have been stereo but the speakers usually groaned and farted like a Monty Python sketch under the strain when things got noisy. I guess we’d be spoiled by multiplexes years later but I rather miss some of the atmosphere of that old place. Films were events back then, and the walk up stairs from the ticket office booth into a plush lobby with seats and film posters always seemed ‘classy’, and walking up the next set of stairs into the balcony seating of Screen One and its darkened Theatre was always a thrill. I rather miss the place. I’d love the opportunity to relive that whole moviegoing experience.

Yeah, its a Bingo Hall now. Has been some twenty years, probably longer than that now that I think about it, so all that moviegoing experience has been long gone. We’ve gained a lot technologically from the multiplex way of doing things, but we have lost some of the atmosphere of old cinemas like that one.

Strange Vinyl from the Garage…

Here’s a few weird vinyl things from the archives (i.e. the garage) that I unearthed Indian Jones-fashion recently…

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The Empire Strikes Back ep by Meco. Not quite in the disco groove of his original Star Wars disc, this remains a fantastic re-imagining of some of the themes from possibly the finest soundtrack, ever. Some of the tracks resurfaced on CD a few years ago but Meco couldn’t resist tampering with it, alas (maybe he was going for the authentic Star Wars/George Lucas ‘experience’). In a strange precursor to all those VHS copies of the pre-Special Edition Original Trilogy that we keep in the loft, this vinyl ep seems to be the only way to hear the original versions of Meco’s music. Nowhere near the hit that the original Star Wars disc was, this was actually something of a rarity here in the UK, especially in those pre-Internet days when you had to trawl through record stores looking for stuff. This copy actually belonged to a friend at the time who later gave it to me when his interest in all things Star Wars waned (i.e. he grew up- don’t know what that says about me still owning it decades later, but…) . Great music though- Meco’s medley featuring the themes for Darth Vader and Yoda was brilliant.

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Here’s an album also The Empire Strikes Back-related. After the success of Star Wars releases years before, with TESB  albums the RSO  label went a bit nuts (two versions of the soundtrack, the Meco disc,  a Boris Midney disc, even a jazz album). This is a story album- basically the film soundtrack (dialogue, music, sound effects) edited to tell the story of the film with a narrator to fill in the gaps/transition between scenes. These things may seem odd now, but back at the time they were really quite popular. The three Star Wars films all had one, as did The Black Hole… of course actually owning copies of films was impossible back then, so being able to listen to an abridged  version was as near as fans could get. This disc had a gatefold sleeve to help ‘see’ the film alongside the audio presentation.  Tried taking a picture of it without much success but hopefully you’ll get the idea…

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Meco’s huge hit with Star Wars a few years earlier had everyone trying to make money out of film scores, attempting to turn them into pop hit singles. This was a time long, long ago kiddies when there was such a thing as 7-inch 45rpm singles, the market for which was huge, culturally as well as financially- people by the millions used to tune into a top-40 countdown every Sunday.  Anyway, history lesson over, I feel old enough as it is. This oddity somehow surfaced on a market-stall in Willenhall, of all places. No doubt inspired by Meco’s Star Wars-themed music, this 12-inch single by some guy called Nostromo (a monicker inspired by Alien) tried to turn John Barry’s main theme for The Black Hole into a hit dance single, which of course it didn’t. Oddly, the b-side was an original piece titled ‘Gom Jabbar’, the significance of which utterly escaped me at the time. Kudos to the first comment that reveals where that song gets its inspiration from, and if anyone knows who the hell Nostromo is/was feel free to enlighten me.

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The beauty of 12-inch vinyl albums of course, particularly for movie soundtracks and the like, was the large reproductions of film artwork. It’s something we lost with reducing things down to the size of a compact disc. Album covers could be such beautiful things just to stare at when you were holding a big 12″ cardboard sleeve in your hands- a gatefold even better (I have the 2-disc/gatefold TESB soundtrack and its more than just an album, its a work of art/genuine souvenir of the film, with a booklet and everything, simply gorgeous).  Case in point, the soundtrack album for Logan’s Run, a great Jerry Goldsmith score graced with this extraordinary artwork. I believe its by Charles Moll, an artist who doesn’t seem to have done much other film poster work, mores the pity. I have to wonder if Moll designed the distinctive logo too, I presume so. The film itself may have been naff, but the bright colourful poster somehow evokes so much of 1976. At first glance it may seem cluttered, but close-up the artwork is tight and clean, highlighting objects and moments from the movie; I’d love to see what the original artwork looked like, what size it was. They certainly knew how to sell movies in those days, I miss great film posters like this, the 1970s were a great period for film posters.

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One last pic for now- this is the stark, arresting cover from the soundtrack album The Thing from 1982. The Thing always seemed to struggle for artwork on theatrical release, VHS, DVD and now Blu-Ray. Its one of those films that artists/marketing teams always seemed to struggle with. But to me they nailed it from the very start- I just love this cover design and think its such a perfect poster for that brutal horror classic. I gather its from the original pre-release in the USA, and got buried after the film tanked on its theatrical run. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, and I think this is great, but when the film died at the box-office I guess it was easy to blame the marketing. Damn it people, it was that bloody E.T. that killed The Thing (that long-necked critter killed Blade Runner too). Far as I know, this poster design was never used for any subsequent soundtrack release on CD or on any home video format. Don’t know about you, but I think it would look great on a Blu-ray edition. Hell, even further reduced on CD, its simple enough to work.

Well that’s it for now- maybe I’ll get some more albums out later. Oh go on then, one more. This is most likely (as far as I remember anyway), my very first record, which my parents bought for me from Woolworths back in the very early ‘seventies. Its another of those story albums. Can you imagine how cool that cover was to a kid about six years old?

 

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