Bitter Reality of Life (or Why I Should Never Have Watched Superman IV)

A friend was telling me the other day how he distinctly remembers, as a child, the very first time he came out of the cinema disappointed with what he had seen. This is an extremely unusual experience for a kid; they seem to happily enjoy anything they’re taken to see at the flicks. But this was an exception. It was the 1980s, and the film was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

If, like me, you remember pestering your parents to take you see the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the local fleapit (no shiny new multiplexes in those days, thank you very much), then you probably also remember being told: ‘No’. How cruel it seemed at the time. Why on earth would they not want to go and see that amazing new film being advertised everywhere? It’s clearly going to be the most amazing thing ever! Maybe it was because there was no time to be spared on trivial things like cinema, or maybe it was just too expensive to do on a regular basis. Or maybe, just maybe, they were trying to protect us (and themselves) from the whiff of a cinematic stinker.

Now I got taken to some pretty cool things in my youth: E.T., Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I was even taken to see the original Transformers movie, God bless my father – what a wretched waste of time and space that must have seemed to him. Even I must acknowledge that what seemed great then is now revealed to be a pretty lousy and cheap piece of animation. But as I have described in earlier posts, I lived and breathed Transformers. I begged and begged at the time to go and see it, and I actually got my wish.

The following year, I begged and begged to go and see Superman IV: the Quest for Peace. I loved Superman back then – they showed the films pretty frequently on tv. The original still stands today as the very model of a comic-book adaptation. And now there was a brand new one being advertised in the papers, with the familiar 3D logo emblazened on the cinema listings in the local paper. Fantastic! But try as I might, there was no persuading the holders of the purse-strings. I was doomed to grudging disappointment.

Fast forward to 2007 – twenty years later. I have just purchased the Chistopher Reeve Superman dvd boxset, and, having enjoyed the wonderful first two films, and the patchy (I’m feeling charitable) third one, it was time to finally see what Superman IV was really like. Somehow I had managed to avoid the various tv showings over the years, though I had became aware of the critical drubbing it constantly received in all quarters. Surely it can’t be all that bad, I thought – just expect a disappointing film, not a bad one.

Oh boy – there’s no getting around it, the film is a travesty. A complete travesty. From the terrible opening credits to the dire storyline to the abysmal special effects, the film is barely better than a school’s end-of-year play production. Christopher Reeve of course rises above the mess as always, proving to be the definitive Superman. But even he can’t save this stinker.

So my parents were right after all – they did me a favour all those years ago. A childhood dream may finally have been realised, but then again, perhaps some dreams are better off forgotten.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be – except in Hollywood

This summer has been a bizarrely regressive experience for me so far. It began in a small way, seeing Spidey take on Venom in Spider-Man 3 at the start of the blockbuster season, bringing back memories of reading comics in the 80s. Then along came Die Hard 4.0 which, whilst in no way resembling its predecessors, recalled some more fond memories. But then nostalgia overload really took off when Transformers arrived at the multiplex.

This was a film that I had only ever dreamt about in the dim and distant past, but never imagined in a million years would actually happen. Growing up, I lived Transformers. Bought the toys, collected the comics, annuals and books, watched the cartoons, stuck the stickers, pinned up the posters… you name it. When dear old mum gave away my toy collection to a charity shop after I had outgrown them, without my knowledge,  I was mortified (only on the inside of course).

When I was at university in the mid-90s, and the internet began to take off in a big way, my first few surfings uncovered rumours of a live-action spectacle. Back then of course, there were rumours of anything and everything. Movie gossip sites like Ain’t It Cool and (the now defunct) Corona’s Coming Attractions regularly reported utter nonsense, and had nothing like the credibility they do today. “Transformers?” I thought, “That would be amazing, but are they even still going? Who would pay to see a movie based on an 80s fad that no-one remembers anymore, apart from me?”

It turns out – quite a few. Flash forward a few years, and Hollywood is snapping up any reasonably well-established franchise they can lay their grubby little hands on. Their calculation was: well known brand name = ready-made market. Having churned out comic book adaptations for the last few years, with varying degrees of success, it was inevitable the toy market would also benefit from this frenzy for guaranteed money-earning properties. And Transformers had everything: a rich history of money-making via a variety of media, not to mention a fanbase of several years standing (numerous versions came and went after the initial craze died away; Beast Wars for example). I can just see their line of thinking: “Suckers like me who remember the original toys and stories would surely pay to see this film, plus they might even bring along their kids who can get hooked on all the new marketing gimmicks – sorry, tie-ins – we put out. Eeeeeasy money.”

Sorry if this all sounds quite cynical; I was over the moon when they officially announced it. Even the hiring of Michael ‘Armageddon’ Bay couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm that much. I can’t say I prefer the new look Transformers to the old ones, but I guess some changes were inevitable. When I finally saw the movie, I really liked it. My jaw dropped on several occasions – no mean feat in these days of CGI. But the main thrill was finally to see the Transformers come to life on the big screen. And it really did feel like a Transformers story: maybe it was Steven Speilberg’s influence as executive producer, but the story had a very 80s vibe to it, being told from a kid’s perspective. I had niggles of course, like any fanboy: the action was occasionally confusing, we saw far too little of Cybertron, and Optimus Prime had a touch too much humour for my liking (why is “My bad” so prevalent in scripts at the moment?). But it got far more right that it got wrong, and as an introduction to a new universe, it worked great. And with over $300m in the bank in the U.S. alone, it worked financially too.

Now, when I walk down the high street, I see Transformers merchandise everywhere. It’s suddenly cool to like them again. I can’t explain why it is both weird and fantastic to see little ‘uns pointing up at toys of Optimus Prime, desperate for their mum to buy it. Maybe I feel vindicated in some perculiar way. Is this the way all hardcore geeks feel when their beloved property of choice gets the Hollywood treatment?

Anyway, who cares? Thanks to Hollywood’s creatively bankrupt commercial sensibilities, which often come under fire for producing brain-dead entertainment (and rightly so of course), I actually got to see my dream up on the big screen. Let’s hope a sequel is on the way. Thank you Hollywood!

Spotting the signs of obsession

A blog I link to below, The Windknotter, is written by an old university chum of mine, whose dedication to the art of angling rivals (or possibly even exceeds) my own love of all things movies. Now what, you may reasonably ask, has fishing got to do with cinema? My honest reply would be: not a great deal. A River Runs Through It, starring Brad Pitt and directed by Robert Redford, was quite good if memory serves. But that’s by the by. What they really have in common is the passion they stir in those who follow their chosen interest.

Reading The Windknotter’s delightful posts entitled “Spotting the signs of obsession” and its sequel, “The most unpromising circumstances”, it became apparent that I had slightly underestimated m’colleague’s love of standing by the sides of bodies of water and attempting to hook small slippery creatures. And yet, despite my utter lack of fishing knowledge, I totally understood it, because we’ve all been there. All of us who are devoted to something – whatever it is – have finely tuned our brains to absorb incoming data and filter it into something more useful; specifically, to relate it to our passion/hobby/nerd domain. Even when said incoming data is in no way related to the passion/hobby/nerd domain. Mr Windknotter, stuck at a rather dry IT training course, salvaged something from the day by receiving a sturdy memory stick case and re-imagining it as a box for storing assorted fishing equipment.

So how do I, as a film fan, display these signs of obsesssion?  Mrs Ark (as I’ll call my other half) would I’m sure quite happily point them out to you, as she does to me on an infrequent basis. Perhaps you too have been here? Please add your comments if you recognise any of these, or want to add your own…

  • Secretly planning the evening’s entertainment schedule during the day which you’ll casually suggest during conversation over dinner that night (“Well, I thought as Ocean’s 13 is coming out next week, we could watch the original…?”).
  • Spending far too much time scouring the online dvd stores looking for that one dvd you need to complete your collection – a collection which, if you were honest with yourself, will never, ever be completed. Can you rationally explain why I would ever buy Candyman 3: Day of the Dead?
  • Calling cinema booking lines and negotiating the telephonetics service in the vain hope that you might be able to find out if the film you want to watch is playing in your preferred screen in the local multiplex.
  • Keeping posters for films, even though there’s not a chance in hell you’ll get away with hanging them up at home.
  • Memorising the release schedule of all the films you want to see for the next two months.
  • Wondering if you can financially justify upgrading your old dvd of that film you quite like to the new one they’ve just released, just so you can get rid of that bloody awful cardboard snapper case.

There are probably more, but I’ll close for now by repeating The Windknotter’s final note:

“Any of this sound like you? No? Good. Then quick, get out of here and take up golf while there’s still time!”

Shiny New Goldfinger

Last night the Summer of British Film season kicked off across UK cinemas with the re-release of the classic Bond movie, Goldfinger. Over the next few weeks, Brief Encounter, Billy Liar, Henry V, The Wicker Man, The Dam Busters and Withnail and I will be showing in cinemas up and down the country in brand new digital presentations, each one representative of a particular genre: Thriller, Romance, Social Realism, Costume Drama, Horror, War and Comedy.

I’ve been looking forward to the season: I haven’t seen Billy Liar or Olivier’s Henry V before, and the rest I’ve only watched on the small screen. The choice of film for each genre isn’t bad at all, though obviously everyone has their own private wishlist. In the War film category for instance, I would much rather have seen Zulu or Lawrence of Arabia, both of which would really benefit from a big screen. But never mind.

The one I was least looking forward to was, ironically, last night’s Goldfinger. Not that I don’t enjoy the film – on the contrary, it’s one of the most entertaining in the Bond pantheon. But umpteen TV viewings had made it much less of a must-see than, say, The Wicker Man which I’ve only seen once or twice. I can also think of other British films that are far better thrillers than Goldfinger: The Third Man for one, a sublime yarn set in post-WWII Vienna, and a film that truly deserves the label Classic. But again, never mind. Opinions will never agree on subjects like this. Anyway, I thought it would still be fun to see Connery as Bond on the big screen, in one of his best outings.

I came away absolutely gobsmacked. Not at the film you understand, which was as entertaining as expected, but at the quality of the digital presentation. It was absolutely incredible. If it wasn’t for the SFX and fashions on show, you would never guess this was a film over 40 years of age. The sound was a touch quiet, but perhaps that was the screen we were in. Hats off to whoever were responsible, because it made the film far more involving.

If the standard is maintained for the remaining films in the season, then I heartily recommend you seek out your nearest participating cinema, especially if any of the films showing is a favourite of yours. I guarantee jaw-droppage.

Where have all the DVDs gone?

Popping in to town for my lunchtime leg-stretcher, I often call in to those few shops that still sell dvds to see if there are any bargains to be had. The number of shops that actually stock dvds seems to be falling; news of Fopp and Music Zone going into administration came this summer, and even the venerable HMV appears to be taking quite a beating at the moment. Of course, this is all due to us, dear reader: the internet shopper. Why pay the steep price in the high street when you can get the same product for much cheaper online? Only supermarkets like Sainsburys and Tesco have been able to compete. Prices for brand new releases have never been lower, thanks to the web, and older discs can be picked up for less than fiver – much less sometimes. 

While this is all good news for my wallet (and bad news for my dvd storage space at home), it does mean that the number of shops of interest to me on my local high street has fallen miserably. There are now only three dvd retailing establishments left for me to frequent: Woolworths, WH Smith and Sainsburys. None of these three have anything like a decent back catalogue to peruse, and I refuse to buy any new releases on the grounds that in six months time the price will be significantly discounted (yes, I’m a tight-arse – and proud of it).

So all I can hope for is that they have a decent sale on. And sometimes they do – just the other day I picked up Time Bandits and Withnail and I for £2 a piece from Woolies. Bargain. But when the same sale stretches on for weeks, it becomes a tad vexing. I’ll pop in on a Monday lunchtime, full of hope that a new sale will have started, with 2-disc SEs on offer for £1.99 or something. But no – hope to turns to disappointment as I inspect their shelves to see the likes of X-Men and Die Hard still on sale for £5, like they have been for the past two months. And the 5 years before that. Oh, and they have those really awful looking £1 “bargain” dvds starring some long forgotten star from the 80s, or someone reasonably famous like Sandra Bullock when she had just graduated up from high school plays and was happy to take anything that paid the rent.

But hope springs eternal, and I’ll be back there next Monday, just in case I’m missing out on a fantastic new sale. In the meantime, enjoy your high street dvd retailers while they’re still there: you never know when they’ll be forced to pack up and go the way of the do-do. And maybe that will encourage them to have more frequent sales for the likes of me.

Alien trilogy at the cinema: a post-script

Just looking through my article about the Alien series below, I didn’t mean for it to turn out quite as long as it did… apologies for anyone put off by the vastness of it all. As you might expect, there is much more that I could say about the series – all sorts of favourite bits and moments of genius that I love, but I’ll not go in to those this time. I think perhaps I need to review each film individually, which I’ll do in due course. In the meantime, suffice to say I like them quite a bit. And the next post will be about something else…!

Cinematic heaven: watching the Alien trilogy on the big screen

As this is my first proper post, I’ll own up to my favourite film series: the Alien movies. Some films just make such an impact on you when you are surviving your formative years, that you can’t help but love them for the rest of your life. They are movies that you are intimately familiar with, that you can just sink in to each time you watch them. They do not breed over-familiarity; instead you notice something new about them each time, or they trigger a new thought or angle that you hadn’t considered before.

So it is with me and the Alien films. The first one I saw was James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which I watched on video one summer holiday. It was the time in my youth when sci-fi, horror and fantasy computer games, films and magazines were the coolest things; when girls were still to be feared, but also secretly worshipped; and when watching 18-rated movies was finally becoming possible. I managed to convince my mum to rent Aliens out for me, as my sister had promised to rent out the just-released Alien 3 for me to watch while babysitting my extremely young nephew. I hadn’t even seen Alien yet, but I had heard of the Alien films and was intrigued by them. After I watched Aliens I knew this was just the best film ever made. It was (and still is) a tour-de-force. Every single element of the film is unified in to a perfect whole, which, considering how many elements there are in making a film, is a miracle. The action, the atmosphere, the music, the special effects, the instantly quotable script, the sets, the designs, the monsters themselves, the performances – what could possibly have been done to improve it? Ok, the lead character was a woman, but Sigourney was no stupid Hollywood babe, she was cool and quite sexy in her own weird kind of way. It was brilliant science fiction. Aliens invited me in to an entirely credible universe that I became hooked on.

Alien trilogy all-nighter flyer

So it was with huge anticipation that I awaited Alien 3 (1992). Not being a movie geek quite yet back then, I had no idea what the story was for the sequel. But it’s safe to say that the almost instantaneous demise of Hicks, Newt and Bishop was not what I expected. Talk about gutted. I’m sure these feelings are pretty much what every fan of Aliens felt when first seeing Alien 3. It was like A3 robbed the ending of Aliens of all its power and meaning.

And yet… and yet, I still loved it. The astonishing production design, the camerawork, the bleak setting, the prisoners of dubious loyalties, the weird new Alien – it still felt true to the Alien universe. The ending especially so. And that’s still what I feel today. Also, just like Aliens, it scared the crap out of me.

So, where next? Back to the original of course. I had yet to see The One That Started It All. Now, this is my main regret in watching the films out of order – that the surprise had been taken out of who survived Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Of course, still being under 18, there was no way I was going to buy the video, if it was even available, and certainly renting was impossible (renting a 15 year old movie? Who ever heard of such a thing?). So it was that my first experience of Alien was on ITV one Saturday night, with my dad watching it too. The advert breaks didn’t spoil it for me: Scott’s movie could overcome any obstacle in it’s path. The thing that struck me at the time was that, even though I knew Ripley had to survive, and that the others almost certainly couldn’t, I was still rooting for them all. And the awesome sets and production design still looked cool. Like it’s sequel, it was a brilliant piece of science fiction.

Over the years, with repeated viewings, my opinions and critical tastes developed and changed. Aliens was the best one, easily. I increasingly disliked Alien 3. The first one was almost as good as Aliens. Then, Alien 3 wasn’t too bad actually. Later on Alien was the best one, with its greater emphasis on atmosphere and characterisation. Today, I still can’t pick between Alien and Aliens – they are both magnificent films, with different strengths. Alien 3 I still admire and support, although there’s no doubting its flaws. It brings the series to a logical and fitting ending in my view, while imprinting its own identity on the franchise.

Alien: Resurrection (1997) eventually came along, attempting to revive the story, when I was actually old enough to go to the cinema to see it. I enjoyed it then and enjoy it now, though there’s just a bit too much humour in it for my liking and its certainly the weakest of the series. Good story though (writer Joss Whedon recycled the concept to much greater effect with his short-lived but hugely enjoyable tv series Firefly). After several years they tried to take the series in a new direction with the spin-off Alien vs Predator (2004). There are of course many things wrong with this film, not least the fact that the Aliens aren’t remotely scary. It was nice to see Lance Henriksen back in the series however. Here’s hoping the forthcoming sequel Aliens vs Predator (2007) will salvage something from the wreckage.

My one great cinematic hope over the years was to be able to see the first three movies in a huge screen, preferably alone, or at least with an appreciative audience that similarly loved the movies. I saw the director’s cut of Alien in 2003, which was totally spoiled by two teenage twats in the back laughing and talking through it. I also saw an old print of Alien in a tiny screen in Cambridge, which was in distractingly poor condition.

Then… a miracle happened. My prayers were answered. Out of nowhere, the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge (Lord Bless them) announced they were screening an Alien trilogy all-nighter, from 11.30pm to 7am on a Saturday last June. In their biggest screen. 70mm prints, with THX sound. My brother noticed this first and pointed it out to me – my jaw dropped some several feet and I knew I had to be there, come hell or high water. I told him he had to come too, which he happily agreed to.

What can I say? To rediscover these films in such good condition, on such a big screen, was a revelation. The details in the picture, the atmosphere of the soundtracks. My only concern was not staying awake through the third picture – there was no way that Cameron’s adrenaline rush was going to let me fall asleep. And indeed by 6am, halfway through Alien 3, I could feel my eyelids start to droop. But I kept eating my trusty sweets, and kept refocusing, and made it through. It was pure cinematic heaven. Even the audience were well-behaved.

I love these movies – the epic stories, the action, the suspense, the tangible universe they created, the horror of the creatures themselves, the human characters who must face them, and Sigourney Weaver’s magnetic presence onscreen. I will always enjoy re-entering their universe. I only wish everyone could experience their favourite movies this way.