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Random thoughts about sound and vision.

Back In The Saddle

I first saw Silverado some thirty years ago - early '86, probably. I rented it on VHS cassette and watched it in all its mono sound, pan-and-scan glory.

I thought it wasn't very good, that it had been highly overrated. The tape was returned to the rental library and the film promptly forgotten.

Then this week , in an article over on Hollywood Elsewhere, I saw a clip of Kevin Costner in Silverado. This was a revelation. I couldn't remember Costner being in the film - hell, I could barely remember the film at all. So this weekend I rented and watched it again.

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You probably know this already, but Silverado is fantastic.

It's Lawrence Kasdan's homage to those great Howard Hawks western classics - Rio Bravo, Red River, El Dorado. There's an amazing cast - Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum, Linda Hunt. John Cleese is quietly menacing in an unusually straight role for him. Kevin Costner is like you've never seen him before (or since) - wearing an ear-to-ear grin in every scene and clearly enjoying himself hugely. There's glorious widescreen photography. A bracing score by Bruce Broughton. And strong direction by Kasdan of his own screenplay.

How wrong I was.

I can't think why I dismissed it so out of hand back in the mid Eighties. I liked westerns well enough back then, so the genre wasn't the problem. I certainly admired Kasdan for co-writing The Empire Strikes Back and I had liked both his first two films as a director, Body Heat and The Big Chill

It's only been a few times when I've radically revised my opinion on a film. I remember not caring much at all for The Royal Tenenbaums after seeing it at a press screening. A fortnight later, my wife was keen to see it, so I grudgingly took her. On the second viewing, I loved it. Two weeks and I'd turned 180 degrees round in my opinion.

Lesson learned. So now I'm going to have to watch all over again those film classics that I've never understood the acclaim for. Platoon. Vertigo. Million Dollar Baby. Even Lawrence Kasdan's own Grand Canyon.

On second thoughts...I think I was right about that one the first time around.

Broken Glass

Short version: if you haven't already, go see The Revenant. It's the most astonishing cinematic experience you'll have had in years.

Long version (and full disclosure): I went into The Revenant with some trepidation. I had liked Birdman well enough but thought co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu's choice of follow-up project was...curious, to say the least. 

After watching the first thirty minutes, my worries were gone. This was bold, gutsy, innovative film-making, the like of which I hadn't seen for some time. 

As a modern cinema audience, we're fully aware of film storytelling works. We understand the filmmakers know how to push our buttons and the cinematic bag of tricks they use to do so. But with this film, Iñárritu doesn't rely on them - he's rewritten the rulebook.

The story at the heart of the film is a simple one. Set in the early 1800s, it's a bloody tale of red in tooth and claw survival and revenge. Leonardo DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a frontiersman mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. DiCaprio then has to literally drag himself through the frozen wilderness to safety, navigating icy-cold rivers and struggling across the barren landscape. It's a powerhouse performance and DiCaprio is utterly convincing.

The Revenant works as both philosophical drama and action movie. It's a personal odyssey and a brutally raw widescreen epic at the same time - Terrence Malick meets Tough Mudder. By the end of its 156 minute running time, you'll feel as exhausted, drained and battered as Hugh Glass. And wanting to go through it all again.

For whom The Bell tolls

Another day, another legend gone. Alan Rickman - the man who was Hans Gruber, Marvin the Paranoid Android, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Professor Severus Snape - has passed away

All magnificent performances. But there's another, lesser known one. In 1992, Mike Oldfield brought out Tubular Bells II, a sorta-sequel to his '70s prog-rock masterpiece. It's bland, inoffensive and not terribly memorable...except for one track.

Coyly (and anonymously) billed in the sleeve notes as "A Strolling Player", Rickman takes over the Master Of Ceremonies duties from the original's Vivian Stanshall. As Oldfield piles them on one by one, Rickman drolly introduces each instrument as it appears in his own imitable manner. No one else could make the word "glockenspiel" sound like it was emanating from the heart of darkness itself. I have no idea what "the Venetian effect" is, but Rickman makes it sound so sinister and foreboding, it ought to be slapped with a public health warning.

There have been many tributes paid today but this one rang particularly true:



A Loss In The Family - Still Alice review

Alice Howland has a brilliant career. She's witty, happily married and the proud mother to three teenaged children. Then she begins to forget the odd word. She occasionally loses her sense of direction. Alice is concerned but she's barely fifty - how bad can it be? A visit to a consultant delivers the shocking news - she has Early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. Her life, and the lives of her friends and family, are turned upside down. But Alice refuses to be defined by her disease. Her memory may be fading but she her resolution stays strong.

Hollywood has a pretty unfortunate track record in handling medical conditions like Alzheimer's. Cinematic good intentions become hollow, over-sentimental tearjerkers. Fortunately, Still Alice avoids this trap. It spends its time creating carefully-drawn characters that you can believe in. Each step of Alice's mental deterioration is sensitively handled, whilst the devastation the disease wreaks on the family is heartbreakingly portrayed.

There's an understandable reaction to a film like this - why go see it? There won't be a magical cure appearing in the third act to save the day. A happy ending is not on the cards. So why see Still Alice?

The first and foremost reason is Julianne Moore. Moore has cleaned up during the recent awards season, winning virtually all the trophies she was nominated for. She capped this off with a Best Actress Oscar win. And rightly so. Her performance brilliantly conveys Alice's frustration at having to deal with the disease, the dementia that is slowly destroying her memory and her ability to communicate. It's often snidely remarked that portraying an affliction can fast-track you to Oscar success. Moore's restrained yet powerful performance is fully deserving of the accolades showered upon it.

Another reason to see this film is Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's direction of their own screenplay, based on Lisa Genova's novel. They approach the material sensitively and with great care.  

At the core of the film is Alice's resolve to not lie down and be a victim. She knows that the quality of her life is slowly being eaten away by Alzheimer's but she refuses to give up. In a memorable scene, Alice decides to speak at an Alzheimer's Association meeting. As a linguistics professor, this would have been a walk in the park - now it's an uphill struggle. Armed only with several sheets of paper, a highlighter pen and her steadfast determination, she battles on.

There are other, less challenging movies to go see but I strongly recommend you see Still Alice. It's not an easy watch but that's evidence of its power and its integrity. Ultimately, Still Alice is that increasingly rare artefact - an intelligent, thought-provoking film about real life issues, with characters you genuinely care about.

"This is it!" - STAR WARS, The First Time

Can you remember when you heard for the very first time about a little something called Star Wars?

For me, it was seeing the artwork below. It graced an article in the Daily Express back in 1977 about how the film - not then released in the UK - had been decimating box-office records in America all summer long. It was a phenomenon that caused a revolution in the movie industry that we still see the effects of today. Merchandising a film became a lucrative priority overnight. Every studio began to develop their own big-budget SF epic - Star Trek The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Moonraker...yes, even 007 was propelled into space to capitalise on the genre du jour.

 Ralph McQuarrie's iconic artwork for the X-Wing run down the Death Star trench.

Ralph McQuarrie's iconic artwork for the X-Wing run down the Death Star trench.

The picture above is one of conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie's renderings for the climactic X-wing assault down the Death Star trench. McQuarrie's illustrations shaped the look of the original trilogy, his designs for robots, spaceships and alien worlds bringing to life George Lucas' script. The kinetic energy of the artwork burst out of the black-and-white newsprint. Even in monochrome, it was an arresting image. Wow, my 12 year old self thought, a scene like this is going to be in a film? Cool! My ticket was mentally bought then and there.

 The Gaumont cinema's ad in a February 1978 edition of the Bournemouth Evening Echo

The Gaumont cinema's ad in a February 1978 edition of the Bournemouth Evening Echo

Star Wars opened on May 25th 1977 in the US but didn't reach the UK until much later. I finally saw it in early 1978 on the magnificent Gaumont 2 screen in Bournemouth - now regrettably diced up into a multiplex. By that time, I had already read the novelisation, the comic books, the making-of...I knew the story backwards and the characters were like old friends. No plot surprises then but what hit me for six was the film's scope. It was huge - literally like nothing I had ever seen before. Spaceships fought dogfights across the silver screen, planets exploded in Dolby stereo, the hero fought with a cool weapon called a lightsaber... it was pulp science fiction brought lovingly to widescreen life. 

Then came the sequels - the (arguably) even better Empire Strikes Back and the spectacular but somehow less impressive Return Of The Jedi. And then sixteen years later, along came the prequels....

Let's not go there. Instead, we will be returning to that galaxy far, far away later this year, with the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The early signs - the choice of JJ Abrams to direct, Empire alumnus Lawrence Kasdan co-writing the screenplay, the cast - were promising. Then there was the first sight of actual footage in the shape of a teaser trailer. A trailer that - for some youngster out there - will have been their own very first introduction to the Star Wars universe...

 

Thanks to the excellent Episode Nothing blog for providing the Evening Echo ad. Do click on the link to read Darren Slade's own recollections of seeing Star Wars in Bournemouth back in '78.

The Avengers, Disassembled

And before Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk et al teamed up, there were....The Avengers.

The Avengers (1998) DVD cover

We're talking John Steed here, who debuted on TV in 1961 - two years before the Marvel Comics superhero crew arrived on the comic book scene. The Avengers TV series was a huge international hit but our attention is actually on the ill-fated 1998 movie version.

This incarnation of The Avengers featured Ralph Fiennes as Steed and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel - British secret service agents battling a villainous Sean Connery and his destructive weather-controlling machine. The movie cost a small fortune, had highly-regarded talent in front and behind the camera, yet wasn't shown to the press before release - never a good sign. The film was soundly ridiculed and audiences stayed away in their droves. 

Being a long-term fan of the TV series, I was there at the cinema on opening day to see it. As the end credits rolled, I remember leaving with a heavy sense of disappointment. There was some good stuff in the movie - a few imaginative set pieces, the sumptuous production design, Connery clearly relishing his over-the-top role. The surreal SF nature of the TV series had been retained; weaponised robot wasps pursue Steed and Emma down country lanes and there's a bizarre scene with Connery chairing a boardroom meeting with his accomplices - all dressed in Dayglo teddy bear outfits. Despite these bursts of imagination, however, the film came across as little more than a disjointed 90 minute trailer for another Avengers film. A different, perhaps better movie.

Some time after the critical roars of disapproval had died down, this turned out to the case. It emerged that after some disastrous early test screenings, some 30 minutes of the original version of the film had been hastily excised. Coherent plot be damned - the running time had to be reduced by any means necessary. Whole sequences were excised, with little or no effort expended to make sure that what remained actually made sense. There's evidence of these chopped scenes in the trailer - that "Emma Peel in a phone box/How Now Brown Cow" bit is part of a whole pre-credits sequence that was dropped.

Will be ever get to see a restored version of The Avengers? Director Jeremiah Chechik has gone on record saying that he'd happily revisit the project and spend the necessary time in the edit suite, reassembling his original cut. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers don't appear to be quite so enthusiastic. It looks increasingly unlikely that we'll ever see the full, 115 minute version given a proper release.

So are we missing out on some lost masterpiece? Probably not - there are some things wrong with The Avengers that surely can't be fixed, even with an extra half-hour's worth of footage. The total lack of chemistry between the two leads for one, and Thurman's stilted British accent. But we are still only seeing 75% of what was originally completed of The Avengers...and the thought of finally watching the missing 25% is an attractive one.