RIP Max Von Sydow

As a child, my image of Max Von Sydow was from staring at pictures from The Exorcist, as at that point I was too young to watch it and it’d be at least 15 years before I did see it. I saw him as an old, frailish man.

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Yet when I saw him in Flash Gordon he was a relatively young man in all that film’s hot campy glory.

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Of course, it was a mix of Von Sydow’s wonderful acting and Dick Smith’s still astonishing makeup, and so for a while Max Von Sydow was my favourite actor. I’d eat up all his films when they landed on TV in those pre-digital, even pre VHS days so everything from The Seventh Seal to his still remarkable Jesus Christ (there’s something alien about his version of Christ I’ve never seen since) in The Greatest Story Ever Told, my favourite of the biblical epics with Ben Hur.

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There’s a ton of lost gems in Von Sydow’s C.V including the gloriously bizarre adaptation of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf which simply has to be seen, preferably while off your face on MDMA.

1980 and 1981 saw him in some of my favourite films, including the mental Escape to Victory and Death Watch, a great SF film filmed here in a post-industrial, but pre recovery Glasgow. It’s a film I’m always recommending because it simply is a lost gem.

If I sat down and wrote a list of my favourite films, Max Von Sydow’s name would pop up over and over and over again in the credits, from Dune, to Dreamscape, to Hannah and Her Sisters, to Until the End of the World, to What Dreams Will Come, and fuck, even Judge Dredd has some moments.

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A great actor not afraid to play in genre film as well as mainstream film, and one who was such a talent he made it look effortless, but it really wasn’t. Another one who’ll be missed.

How Ghostbusters promoted Thatcherism

Everyone likes Ghostbusters right? I don’t mind it, it has problems but it wasn’t til fairly recently that I was able to work out just what my issues were.

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On the surface, this is a fun comedy/horror/action film with a good script and a few nice performances especially from Bill Murray but its also a highly political film. This never dawned on me til watching the film on TV again recently where that nagging doubt over the film found an answer.

Some context. Back in the early 80’s the post-war social consensus was that the public sector was best to manage things, and that private industry was helpful but sometimes risky, dangerous and expensive. It wasn’t that simple in real life but overall in the UK, and even the US, this worked. Then came the era of Thatcher and Reagan who both stripped the public sector apart as much as both of them could get away with at the time.

Ghostbusters stripped down is about a private company that is dangerous and reckless. Their health and safety is non-existant and this is played for laughs as it contrasts with the plight of William Atherton’s beleaguered city servant trying to dial back the Ghostbusters. It’s funny but it is also sending a serious message that the private sector might be risky and dangerous, so it makes it so Atherton’s civil servant is the real baddie. Now a wee bit of research shows many people picked this up over the years, but the question is how much of a part did Ghostbusters play in almost subliminally pushing a neo-liberal worldview not just in 1984, but in the decades since?

The answer to that is of course ‘I don’t know’ but I’m almost certain it’d have played a part in some people’s shaping of opinion, and of course the best type of propaganda is the type you don’t notice. Ghostbusters then becomes an entirely political film as opposed to the scattershot sequel, the confused 2016 reboot and the forthcoming 2020 version just looks like an exercise in nostalgia.  The 1984 version helped sell a political ideology that changed the world, and that makes Ghostbusters an interesting, and from whatever political point of view you hold, a great work or something troubling.

A totally unexpected reappraisal of Justice League

Yesterday I activated my free month of Amazon Prime to take in Picard, the new Star Trek series. That was excellent and I especially loved the subtle Brexit reference, but that’s for another day. After that I had a look at what Amazon offered, and had Zack Snyder’s Justice League film recommended to me, but I’d found the film a mess not to mention a chore to get through when I’d seen it the only time a few years back. I thought I’d give it a few minutes to see if things had changed expecting to stop and have an early night.

And I liked it lots more than I did previously.

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Maybe some distance has passed, and although the issues still stand it really is more enjoyable than a number of other superhero films, plus it has an actual sense of a directorial vision which the Marvel films, on the whole, have lost.  Sure, the scenes shot by Joss Whedon stand out a mile, the villain is badly done, the script has gaping holes, and that CGI lip is an awful bit of work to appear in a big-budget Hollywood film.

However, the League themselves are actually interesting. Affleck’s Batman is an interesting portrayal of an older man who’d lost his way finding redemption. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the standout star character of the DCEU and should be its bedrock as Iron Man was for Marvel. While Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman and Ezra Miller’s Flash have a genuine spark on screen. Hell, even Cyborg seemed less tokenistic this time round.  The big loser here is Henry Cavill and his Clark Kent/Kal El/Superman as once he’s allowed to play Superman not as a brooding Emo type, but actually as Superman, he’s a revelation.

It’s a flawed experiment and yes, I’d be interested in seeing what a full ‘Snyder cut’ would look like because again, there’s a bland generic quality creeping in to the point you couldn’t tell who directed one Marvel film to another. With this it is pretty clear it’s Snyder’s vision. You may not like it, but there’s a clear vision which makes the Whedon footage clash so badly, and also, there’s a bit of irony as the Marvel template is based on what Whedon did with the first two Avengers films.

It is unlikely DC/Warners will do a Justice League film again in some time, which  is a shame as it’d be good to see this group together again but in a film free of studio meddling.

But there you go, I never thought I’d write any of that but it shows opinions do change…

RIP Terry Jones

Back in the 1970’s I was but a wee boy, and like many folk back then, a Monty Python fan. When hearing that Michael Palin and Terry Jones had made their own series, Ripping Yarns, like many youthful fanboys I was aside myself and to this day I adore every single one of them but Golden Gordon is by far my favourite.

Palin and Jones were their own team within Python, and out of all the groupings that came out of Python these two were the best and the funniest because Palin was just a brilliant performer, while Jones timed the comedy in those episodes to perfection. They were very British, very English bits of humour that now, sadly, will be lost to people because the reference for these stories (pulp magazines and British boys comics) are not part of your average Millenial’s cultural wardrobe.

Jones was never the standout in Python for me when I was younger. It was John Cleese but as I got older and older I’d notice what Jones was doing as well as his sheer comic bravery in getting a laugh with this being one of my favourite Python sketches ever.

Something then dawned on me watching this for the 1000th time, in that if I imagine Python to have a voice, then it sounds like Terry Jones. Not Eric Idle, Cleese or anyone else. Even now if you’re riffing off Python then it’s his voice you’ll be using.

And then I started growing up, latching onto the alternatic comedy boom of the 80s which washed all before it, except for Terry Jones who stamped his approval upon things wonderfully.

And that was it. Jones was my favoutite Python which made his descent into dementia so horrible to see his mind go but his friends stood by him all the way. There’s a point if the DVD of the O2 shows from 2014 where Jones is clearly distressed and confused backstage, but all of them form a shield to protect and to encourage him. It’s a small, tiny moment but it shows you what he meant to his friends, and now, it’s a sad moment because we know this is him slipping away but still able to cling on thanks to his mates.

I’ll miss Jones. He was always fun, always entertaining and always it seems, right. Like everyone it seems I’ll miss knowing he’s not around to make the world that wee bit of a better place a lot.

Watch this Blade Runner convention reel from 1982

Blade Runner is one of my favourite films. Even if the UK poster is one of the worst posters you’ll ever see.

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In the early 80’s fandom was nothing like the organised beast it is today. Film companies knew enough back then though that keeping fans informed and happy would, hopefully, result in box office gold. Early efforts consisted of a few clips and some posters, maybe even an actor from the film would turn up and sell the film hard.

In 1982 I was a wee boy at one of Glasgow’s then annual science fiction conventions, Faircon, and one of the unsuspected highlights was a promotion by the film company for Blade Runner.  They gave away posters and badges, which are all now sadly lost throughout the years and yes, they’d be worth silly money now but the real highlight was a promo reel for the film which looked amazing.

I haven’t seen or even thought about it for nearly 40 years when looking at YouTube after the death of Syd Mead. It really is a great bit of archive not to mention it brings back al the nostalgia of being stupidly young and watching this all those decades ago.

What I thought of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker

SPOILERS BEWARE.

The final Skywalker related Star Wars film (if you believe that, then I have a bridge or three to sell you), The Rise of Skywalker is not the worst film in the series. In fact, it manages to wrap everything up nicely in a bow literally, but it is a film that suffers from the problems of all this trilogy that came from a failure to sit down at the start of this and plot out three films in advance rather than make it up as they went along.

Director J.J Abrams returns to steady the ship after the fan mauling of The Last Jedi which was a Star Wars film which tried to be more than just a stepping stone to the next film. This takes things back to basics and panders wherever it can to fan service which at times is great, especially with the welcome return of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, but often it’s there to rewrite the last film. Also the film moves at some pace trying to cram as much into 2 hours 20 minutes as possible so in fact this film could have done with another 10-20 minutes to allow characters to breathe and develop. The exception to this is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren/Ben Solo who lifts the film dramatically while working with an average script.

The problem with the film is the pacing. It is going through so much that the film doesn’t breathe; for example the new trilogy trio of Rey, Poe and Finn isn’t really formed til this film when it should have been done back in The Force Awakens. Then there’s the return of the Emperor (a gloriously over the top Ian McDiarmid channeling a similar look of Kenneth Cranham in Hellraiser 2) out of nowhere to give the film a grand villain after Snoke’s death in the last film, then there’s bringing back Billy Dee Williams which again should have been done sooner. A bit more room would have helped, so we’ve got what we have.

And what we have is a rushed, flawed ending (and if you expect there never to be another one with these characters at some point in the next 30 years you’re a tad naive) which is entertaining and fun which manages to tie everything up over the previous eight films. I do wish though the script had at least another six months work on it, and indeed, the film needed a longer time to develop as it does feel like an unfinished draft. For example, a legacy character’s death is teased twice but we don’t have any time to take it in before the characters are revealed to be just fine or the reveal of Rey’s parentage is changed from being insignificant to vitally important. That bit would have been more vital had it been built up in the previous film.

Which is a shame. A little bit more time would have helped, along with a plan akin to the Marvel films who plan a fucking decade in advance! So this aside it is fun, it is entertaining and you also get to see the Emperor ham it up, as well as Adam Driver show he’s an actor who is destined for very great things.

So go see Rise of Skywalker. Set your expectations and strap in for a ride that doesn’t stop for the entire running time.

A quick word about the film version of Cats

Now here’s a thing. I’m no fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber. His musicals have been a blister on the arse of modern culture for decades, but the reaction to the film version of Cats is extraordinary and has been since the first bizarre trailer.

There’s something called the ‘uncanny valley‘ and this first trailer was full of it so people were naturally unnerved by something which looked weird at best, utterly terrifying at worst. So for the last six months, the general school of thought is this was a disaster in the making and that people should be ready to hate this film. Now the film is out, reviews are not kind to say the very very least.

But the thing was I didn’t feel involved with the pile-on. In fact I thought the trailer looked interesting in a way where the director Tom Hooper has went for a complete anthropomorphisation of the characters in a neon world. Basically Hooper has done something unexpected, but this uncanny valley problem wasn’t going away mainly as I think this as the first time a number of people encountered it.

Standing alone in the tsunami of hate is Mike McPadden’s glorious review at Daily Grindhouse. It is probably the best thing written about the film so far, and you can read it here. This bit I liked especially;

To wit: any time Groupthink issues a “WORST. MOVIE. EVER” edict, my instinct is to champion their target. I grew up circling any title rated “BOMB” in Leonard Maltin’s annual movie guidebooks and then scoured my local TV schedule each week to hunt them down. That was my film school, and it worked.  Consider, too, some specific masterworks reflexively bemoaned on arrival by Big Stupid Everybody: EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977), SHOWGIRLS (1995), and THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1996), to name just three favorites. Which do you think is more challenging, more exciting, more rewarding—those films, or whatever topped the box office and/or mainstream critics’ lists of their respective release years?

I could add hundreds of films which bombed critically and at the box office which are now genuine classics, which isn’t to say Cats is a classic, but it will be a cult film within the decade. In the meantime people will move onto another film to pile onto leaving me wondering what sort of fucked up society we’ve become where I defend something Andrew Lloyd Webber has touched…