The Weekly Summary #11

cry2I’m afraid I’ll need to keep this a bit shorter than normal, but here’s how the week’s viewing went-

38. The Naked Spur (1953)

39. Shock Waves (1977) – Amazon Prime

40. Cry of the City (1948)

Rocky III (1982) – 4K UHD

41. The Narrow Margin (1952)

Star Trek Picard Season Three : Episode 5 – Amazon Prime

While the worst of the week is an easy one this time around- clearly its Shock Waves, albeit with the caveat that it was not a total stinker and that I still rather enjoyed it. However,  picking a best of the week was actually a bit tricky, as I saw some really good films this week – by chance more than by design, to be sure, but hey that’s the magic of films, always a surprise around the corner. Both Cry of the City and The Narrow Margin were very good noir.

Can get a bit expensive though- The Naked Spur was so good it galvanised me into ordering a  Blu-ray copy from the Warner Bros online store  (a store discount made it cheaper than waiting for Amazon to get it next month). Film collecting is a terrible thing for one’s wallet; you see a good film and its hard to resist the need to physically own a copy. Damn, its a hard habit to break.

But anyway, The Naked Spur it is. When the Blu-ray disc arrives it’ll give me a good excuse to watch it again. Meanwhile, there’s a few more Blu-rays of Westerns on the way too…



Time-travelling through film

CC1One of the delicious pleasures of watching film noir is the escapist element, which is a bizarre thing when I think about it, considering how dark and gloomy they tend to be in subject-matter. Regardless of how cautionary the narratives are, for me the ‘escapist’ element is simply of seeing and ‘being’ in a different world, one that is is another country and also another time. These are images of a reality and world far removed from my own.

PelhamTo be sure, this is a seductive facet of all films; when one watches Dirty Harry, we’re seeing and experiencing a San Francisco that largely doesn’t exist anymore, likewise the same with the New York depicted in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three or Taxi Driver.  Films can sometimes qualify as historical documents as much as entertainments (see Saturday Night, Sunday Morning or Get Carter). Its certainly something more pronounced the further removed in time that the films were made, as the (often everyday) world of their own time is increasingly gone forever (hey, ‘Progress’). Hence part of my particular fondness/fascination with film noir.


In some ways its not far removed at all from my youthful excitement for science fiction and its futuristic worlds. Its much the same thing, really- as I have noted before, an odd thing about the best films that are set in historical periods (like Roman epics) is how the people and locations are as alien to us as in most science fiction films. Sometimes I think its all science fiction. Worlds in which people absolutely and fervently believe in pagan Gods and how They interfere in human Fate (can we ever really think or behave as a Roman or a Viking would?) are just as strange to us as anything in some exotic far-future fantasy.

vaertigo1But there is a magic in those visuals, those moments in time frozen forever, especially, as I have noted, in those 1940s/1950s noir. Its travelling in time. People dress different, society is different, the streets are different, the cars and  trucks and trains are different. Familiar, yes, but still different, something apart from the reality outside of my living-room window.

I wonder if somebody watching our current films in eighty years will watch them with a similar, peculiar fascination.

Shock Waves (1977)

shock2Shock Waves, 1977, 85 mins – Amazon Prime

Directed by Ken Wiederhorn– Return of the Living Dead Part II

Starring Peter Cushing – The Curse of Frankenstein, The Abominable Snowman, Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy, The Brides of Dracula, Suspect, Cash on DemandCaptain Clegg, The Gorgon, The Skull, The Blood Beast TerrorCorruption, The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil, Dracula AD 1972, Horror Express, And Now the Screaming Starts!, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Devil’s Men, Star Wars.  John CarradineThe Howling, The Monster Club, Brooke Adams – Days of Heaven, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Dead Zone.

Shock Waves is a surprisingly effective 1970s horror, with plenty of mood thanks to some remarkably atmospheric locations, some great visuals, and an old-school synth score that drips menace. It shouldn’t really work, but it does- I really quite liked it.

Part of this film’s success is its surprisingly  intriguing premise, that would no doubt work better in the 1970s than if it were done now (the Second World War still being a fairly recent memory back when this film was released), although these days we’re possibly more accepting of that entire ‘Nazi’s experimenting with supernatural forces’ thing (thanks to Mike MIgnola’s Hellboy etc.) that has since  pervaded so much of genre culture in the years since 1977.

A prologue suggests that supernatural research by the Nazi’s during WWII resulted in a corps of the SS being formed of dead solders and criminals resurrected into Zombie killing machines. Put onboard a cargo ship in the last days of the war, the ship was sunk off a tropical island and long forgotten, except by its aging SS commander (Peter Cushing) who abandoned the sinking ship all those years ago and has waited on the island over the decades since, convinced his Undead corps will one day return. However, the rusting hulk finally releases its Undead Nazi’s just as a yacht of holidaymakers is shipwrecked on the same island.

shock3Its basically just the good old  Ten Little Indians horror-trope set on a remote island, with a few hapless civilians hunted down one by one by Nazi zombies who rise up out of the sea. The film is very low-budget, shot very quickly (both Cushing and Carradine only filmed for five days and have fairly limited roles) but benefitting immensely from using an abandoned hotel for a location, adding production value and atmosphere that belies the films humble origin.  The imagery of the silent Nazi horrors rising up from out of watery depths is really effective, too. This isn’t a gory film; its really more one of moody horror and the threat of violence- the slow pace (dictated no doubt by budgetary limitations) possibly even raising the tension.

While they don’t have much to do, both Cushing and Carradine add some weight to the proceedings in their limited screen time- its a shame they never appear onscreen together. Their limited time onscreen results in individual storylines that are short, but the film works this in its favour, giving them abrupt ends that surprise. Brooke Adams is very good in an early role, and the rest of the cast (I was amused by the -unintentional? who knows?- similarity in appearance of two of the main leads to James Caan and Robert Redford) largely just function as one-dimensional characters, hapless tourists who will prove bait for the Undead.

Those Undead are a big plus point for the film: I thought the moody shots of their black-goggled, rotting faces rising up out of the waves was very effective. They don’t express any emotion or talk, they just move relentlessly and coldly kill, providing a great sense of threat. These days if a film like this was made and proved to be a success, I can imagine it would result in all sorts of spin-off films, a mini-franchise of rotting SS zombies, but this film seems to have largely sunk (sic) without trace back in the 1970s. I must admit, I wouldn’t have come near this film if it had not been for noticing Peter Cushing in the credits, but I’m so glad I did. I have a liking for these kind of moody horrors, and while its up on Amazon Prime Shock Waves is likely worth a shot for anyone in the mood for a late-night Friday fright. Far superior to that same year’s Empire of the Ants, anyway.

The Naked Spur (1953)

nakedspurThe Naked Spur, 1953, 91 mins

Directed by Anthony MannRaw Deal, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Glenn Miller Story

Starring James Stewart – It’s a Wonderful Life, Rope, Rear Window, Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, The Flight of the Phoenix (1 965), Airport ’77.  Janet Leigh – Touch of Evil, The Vikings, Psycho. Robert RyanThe Woman on the Beach, Crossfire, The Set-Up, The Woman on Pier 13, Born to be Bad, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, House of Bamboo, Odds Against Tomorrow, Ralph Meeker-  Kiss Me Deadly, Paths of Glory, The Anderson Tapes

The Naked Spur is a superb Western –  usually Hollywood Westerns from this ‘classic period’ tend to leave me a little cold, they often seem to be overly simplistic Good vs Evil morality plays, the American dream painted as noble frontier endeavour, with unconvincing actors in clean pressed clothes, and with an often racially questionable treatment of Native American Indians that never ages well. Clearly these films are products of their time, and I have little issue with that of itself (indeed many no doubt feel that’s part of their appeal), but it does leave me feeling cold towards them. I guess I’m more inclined towards the morally bankrupt/twisted-fate dramas painted in Film Noir, regards 1940s and 1950s Hollywood film-making.

But contrary to what one might be inclined to expect, considering it was released back in 1953,  The Naked Spur turns out to be surprisingly complex, and feels very ‘modern’ (save for its treatment of Janet Leigh’s character, but perhaps more on that later).  Notwithstanding its utterly gorgeous colour cinematography, this is a Western that is painted in shades of grey with genuinely interesting, three-dimensional characters, distinct from possibly expected Wild West tropes With drama in spades, it features some great action sequences that are filmed and edited consummately well, and it even manages to treat Native Americans with respect. This is no doubt a top-tier Hollywood Western.

The film begins with Howard Kemp (James Stewart) doggedly on the trail of killer Ben Vandergrift (Robert Ryan). Kemp encounters a down-on-his-luck prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and shortly afterwards a dishonourably discharged Union soldier, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) who decide to help him, both assuming Kemp is a lawman. However when they capture both Vandergoat and the young woman accompanying him (Lina- Janet Leigh), the killer reveals to them that he has a $5000 reward on his head, a fact Kemp has avoided informing them of because he’s actually a bounty hunter intending to keep the reward for himself. Both of his recruits decide they deserve a share in the bounty and maintain they will accompany Kemp as he returns Vandergroat to Kansas in order to collect, and Vandergroat sees this as an opportunity to appeal to each man’s greed. He starts to sowing doubt and temptation between them (“Money splits better two ways than three,” he suggests) while scheming with Lina to make their escape on their long journey back.

nakedspur3The film is a fantastic character piece, the film thriving on the tensions between them. I found each actor to be brilliantly cast in clearly defined, yet refreshingly ambiguous roles. Each character has flaws. Stewart is typically excellent as the bounty hunter; this is a morally conflicted man with a hidden past that is slowly torturing him; once revealed this provides much insight into him and really makes the finale work. Tate is a good-natured, affable prospector who is easy to like but whose greed finally gets the better of him, while Anderson is a charming rogue who avoids becoming what could easily have been a one-dimensional character.  Naturally as Vandergoat Ryan pretty much steals the show- Ryan is so good at roles such as this, full of charm and disarming humour, albeit still displaying the cold snake underneath.  That face that limited him from the leading-man roles he craved (which he rued for all his career) serves him so well in roles like this; he looks like he stepped right out of the actual wild west, that he’s lived it and breathed it.  Janet Leigh’s character is problematic and doesn’t entirely convince- she’s fine in the part but really she’s there as a function of the plot, and as beautiful as she is, she’s the one element that betrays the era the film was made. She’s obviously been put in to provide some romantic dynamic between herself, Kemp and Vandergoat, but one can forgive that as it thus provides the desperate Kemp some kind of redemption at the end, and therefore helps the film work as well as it does.

Indeed, The Naked Spur works brilliantly; other than the awkwardness inherent in fitting Leigh’s character into it, I must say the film is pretty much perfect and one of the best ‘classic westerns’ I have ever seen. It certainly looks astonishingly beautiful: I watched the film in HD on TCM, where it looked vibrant and terrific with great detail and vibrant colours, but I will certainly be looking to get the Warner Blu-ray (which is being released in the UK this month). Its just a pity this film doesn’t seem destined for the Indicator treatment- I’d love to  see that; some video appreciations of Stewart and Ryan, a commentary track, one can imagine what an Indicator disc would be like.

The Weekly Summary # 10

rockyfilmasThis week, the Don makes an offer a boxer can’t refuse.

The Godfather Part 2 (1972)  – 4K UHD

35. The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (2020) – 4K UHD

Rocky II (1979) – 4K UHD

Rocky Balboa (2006) – Amazon Prime

Creed (2015) – 4K UHD

Star Trek: Picard Season Three , Episode Four – Amazon Prime

36. Devil’s Workshop (2022) – Amazon Prime

37. Luther: The Fallen Sun (2023) – Netflix

Aha. I just realised that I progressed from the Italian Westerns and crime dramas that I was watching a week or so back, to films about the Italian mafia, followed by films concerning the Italian Stallion, Rocky Balboa. I call it the Viva Italia encore (perhaps I should go get my coat).

So I managed to complete watching the Godfather films, and then watched more boxing films in a single week than I ever have before. Not that I’m considering myself a boxing movie aficionado or anything, but after watching the noir staples The Set-Up (1956) and The Harder They Fall (1956) prior to all these modern-era testosterone-fests, I’m quickly realising how the sport of boxing enables great drama onscreen. Its life in microcosm- personal aspiration, struggle and sacrifice, the physical challenge, the personal life behind that with its own passions, and yes, the corruption and greed (that’ll be those noir rather than Stallone’s dramas). Yeah, I’m certainly at the very least understanding the appeal of boxing movies. And also that there’s possibly only so much Stallone one can take in a week.

This week was also mostly re-watches. Actually, an aside to that is that I was convinced I hadn’t seen Rocky Balboa before, even though Claire assured me that I had. Turns out she was right, of course. Must confess I sometimes get increasingly alarmed regards my recollection of some films. I used to remember each one so clearly but they tend to blur a bit, now, sometimes, or escape me completely. Fifteen minutes in I realised I had indeed seen Balboa before, and felt both a mug and wee bit concerned. Once you get to my age, you tend to worry about warning signs of dementia when you forget things like that, but I suppose its more a result of just watching so many movies. Even in my teens and twenties, I never watched as much stuff as I do now- there is just so much available these days, either on disc in new releases/ re-releases or in my collection, or up on streaming platforms or the multiple channels on television. That’s a lot of noise.

So regards the best/worst of the week, as that refers to watching ‘new’ (to me) stuff, it narrows it down to just two choices really (I also counted Coda as a ‘new’ film as Coppola assured me in his intro it was a ‘whole-new’ vision of that third Godfather film -patently over-exaggerating any differences- but it sits slap in the middle of the other two new entries). So best of the week is Luther: The Fallen Sun, a movie spin-off from the BBC drama series starring Idris Elba from Netflix, which was pretty good- well, it was pretty daft, too, as such elaborate far-fetched serial killer things are these days (both Silence of the Lambs and Seven raised these things to silly extremes for ever after) which I’ll get into if I manage to get to write a review. It’ll be no surprise then that worst of the week was Devil’s Workshop, a comedy/horror hybrid thingy that was so enlivened by Radha Mitchell I feel a bit guilty marking it as the worst of a week, but there you go.

Next week- well, its time I elaborated upon the new Trek, and I tried watching an Italian zombie film (that’s somehow gotten a 4K UHD release, further adding to the ignominy of The Abyss and Conan the Barbarian still waiting) on YouTube and it was so terrible/unwatchable that I gave up midway; a grim experience that I feel I should complain about here just to get it out of my system. Beyond that, who knows? Although, when I discovered Devil’s Workshop on Amazon Prime,  I also spotted a Peter Cushing horror film I haven’t seen before, adding that to my watchlist, so yeah, Shock Waves looks to be a likely candidate for next week.

Oh, and its the Oscars tonight. The irrelevance of that occasion as I’ve gotten older never ceases to surprise me. Its a pity Billy Wilder isn’t around to make a Sunset Boulevard-like film about an Oscar ceremony, all the politics and back-slapping, the inflated and bruised monster egos, all the money and the greed etc.  Maybe Netflix should approach Ricky Gervais… Anyway, with all the apparent Oscars noise regards Everything  Everywhere All at Once, I’m tempted to rewatch my 4K disc of that film again tonight in a second attempt to discover what all the fuss is about. Well, I say tempted, but do I really deserve to suffer through that again?

Devil’s Workshop

devils2Devil’s Workshop, Dir. Chris Von Hoffman, 2022, 86 mins, Amazon Prime

There’s so many films available on Prime that I’ve never heard of- this one is a low-budget horror film from last year which caught my eye only because it stars Radha Mitchell, an actress who impressed me way back when in Pitch Black (2000) and Silent Hill (2006), who I haven’t seen as much of as I’d have liked.  While always having plenty of work, Mitchell has had neither the roles nor success that she possibly merits -possibly the most notable recent entries in her filmography are two Gerard Butler action flicks.

Mitchell is, by some wide margin, absolutely the best thing in Devil’s Workshop; she is Eliza, recruited by a struggling actor, Clayton (Timothy Granaderos) to help him prepare for an audition for a film or tv role (I don’t think its ever clear which) playing a demonologist. Being a method-actor, naturally Clayton needs to ‘get real’ and advertises online for a demonologist and what do you know, Eliza gives him a call and invites him to spend a weekend with her to  learn her trade.

Clayton thinks this may be the ace opportunity he needs to beat his chief rival for the role- the utterly self-confident and immensely irritating Donald (Emile Hirsch) who repeatedly puts Clayton down in their acting school.  Donald’s idea of researching for the audition is spending the weekend getting stoned and drunk with two young women. The fact that the film keeps cutting between Clayton’s weekend with Eliza, and Donald’s partying with his lady freinds is problematic: neither informs the other, and the two arcs don’t even dovetail together at the end.

Radha is brilliant as Eliza; beautiful, mysterious, enigmatic, she’s often calm and polite, hinting at sophistication, and at times she’s mercurial, explosive and agitated. Is she a crazy recluse or is she actually the real deal? I’m not even sure Clayton has the intelligence to ask, instead he’s just obsessed with being able to fake doing Eliza’s job well enough to ace the audition- he appears quite ignorant of how strange things are in her weird house, or what the ramifications are if she is indeed the real deal.  Its like he’s too stupid to question the oddness of her keeping a sacrificial goat up in her attic torture chamber.

Clearly we’re not really expected to take things too seriously: its trying to be a comedy as much as a horror film, the humour largely originating from poking fun at insecure, self-obsessed actors so desperate for validation that they’ll do anything. Generally they are portrayed here as needy, weak, pretty types, but when this includes your protagonist, though, your film is in trouble, right? In any case, its a tricky balance keeping us laughing with the film rather than at it while we’re waiting for any scares to start. Not that there’s many laughs anyway. Or scares really.

Mitchell, meanwhile, seems to be in a quite different movie to anyone else. As I have noted, she’s great- there’s an erotic charge in her performance, a sense that she’s always playing with Clayton, toying with him, and when the inevitable twist comes, its entirely thanks to her performance that it works at all, but I doubt that at that point many viewers will care. Even at 86 minutes, it feels too long. The frequent cuts over to Donald’s weekend are irritating distractions from the main storyline of Eliza and Clayton; had the film focussed on those two and cut out Donald entirely it would have worked much better. Or maybe had it decided to ‘just’ be a horror movie and lose the attempts at comedy.

Devils Workshop is not a total bust; its certainly worth watching if only for Mitchell’s fine performance, but there’s little else to recommend other than the convenience of its running-time, albeit as I’ve noted it still feels a bit long. I suspect it would have worked great as a one-hour episode in some anthology horror series, benefitting from the tighter focus that running-time would have enabled.


fall2Fall, Dir. Scott Mann, 2022, 107 mins, Netflix

I’ll open this with the disclaimer that I really, really don’t like heights. So it may not actually be a measure of the effectiveness of this film when I state that I had to look away a few times whilst watching it, and that my legs were often turning to jelly. For me, it was a particularly intense film and one that proved a hard watch. Individual mileage may vary, but I thought it was a very effective horror tale.

Following a brief prologue that is heavily… well, lets be kind and call it ‘inspired’ by Cliffhanger, the film starts with Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) and her best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner)  going off on a road trip to climb a 2,000 metre radio tower off in the middle of a desert… er, lets just stop right there for a moment.

I presume there’s some routine for potholers, to inform someone of where they are going in the event that something goes awry/so that someone can check up on them later? Well, if there isn’t, there should be – now that I think about it, what happened in Neil Marshall’s excellent horror  The Descent (2005), did those women leave someone in authority a record of what they were doing? Anyway, what I’m getting at is, surely the same applies to climbers too? Two young women go driving off into the desert with limited resources to climb a rusty 2,000 metre-high tower, you’d think one of them would leave word of where they were and what they were planning, just in case, you know, the ladders they were climbing collapsed leaving them stranded at the top with no mobile phone signal. I suppose I’m making it sound lousy, but it was actually a genuinely tense seat-of-the-pants viewing experience for me. When your legs are mostly jelly and your stomach keeps turning, you don’t care how silly what you’re watching is.

When I state I’m dubious whether I could watch this again, its no criticism of the generic script, overly-telegraphed character arcs, or a twist that echoes Gravity (2013) just as much as the prologue echoes the aforementioned Cliffhanger, or that the ending feels rushed and therefore more than a wee bit unsatisfying. No, its just that the experience for me was pretty unpleasant (albeit not in the way a Nic Cage movie usually is). No, this was something else. I was watching this feeling like good old ‘Scottie’ Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo; deeply unnerved and not at all sure I’ll be rushing back to this one at all soon. Certainly, its a b-movie premise that doesn’t quite live up to its possibilities, but acrophobic folks like me won’t care about lazy writing or reliance on cutting-edge visuals; some of us won’t even make it to the end, I’m sure.

If only the damned camera had stopped looking down…

The Godfather Trilogy

gof2The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (1991/2020) – 4K UHD

Whatever I have to say about these three films is likely utterly redundant, but here’s a few observations for whatever they are worth.

Conventional wisdom seems to have it that The Godfather Part II is one of the greatest sequels ever made (true) and that its  also a superior film to the original, which is something I don’t agree on- I much prefer the first film. Watching these films in succession over a long weekend, while Robert De Niro is very good in Part II, he’s no replacement for Marlon Brando, who strikes such a powerful presence in the first film that his (admittedly inevitable) absence is keenly felt in the second.  I think the first film benefits hugely from its more focussed narrative, too.

I felt such a powerful sense of time and place watching the first film, especially here on the recent 4K UHD release.  The art direction, the cinematography, it all seems impeccable. Its something carried over with Part II and its two timelines.

Watching Part II, I wondered what it was like for the returning cast and crew making the second film after the first film had proved such a critical and commercial sensation.

That sense of time and place though, is something that for me,  The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone struggles with and it really hurts that film.  Other than a shot including the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and a few incidental details of vehicles being driven, I can’t say I was ever really convinced that what I was watching was taking place in 1979, which is a distinct failure considering how well the first film convinced that it was set in 1946-1955. Instead, Coda feels set adrift, somehow outside of time, hence losing some of it grounding. Perhaps a part of that is a result of the gap in the timeline (twenty years between Part II’s 1958 and Coda‘s 1979) and the similar gap between the films being shot (Part II in 1973 and Coda in 1990) reflected in both the recurring cast and the absence of others. Its right that characters can change over intervening years but no matter how good Al Pacino is (and he’s very good in Coda, often riveting to watch, and quite incendiary in places) I’m not really sure he absolutely convinces, that he feels right as the older Michael Corleone. To be fair, its  more an issue of the writing, but the older Michael feels too… mellow, maybe? He’s lost that lizard coldness that was so fascinating about him. The film suffers from some casting choices, too- Andy Garcia is okay but lacks the cinematic presence, the weight, his character needs, and the less said regards Sofia Coppola’s turn the better. The casting in the first film was excellent and  Coda definitely suffers by comparison.

I should point out I watched Coda for the first time here, and while its the third version of this film, I much prefer its original,  theatrical version – I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but thankfully the boxset contains the theatrical cut as a bonus 4K UHD disc and that’s the version I shall return to in future. Coppola, as evidenced by his repeated tinkering with Apocalypse Now, can’t quite leave his films alone, it seems.

The Weekly Summary #9

god1Week 9 of 2023. Maybe I should start tracking them as 8/2023 and 9/2023 or something. So anyway, this is how the week’s viewing went-

30. The Hatton Garden Job (2017)

31. Rocky (1976) – 4K UHD

32. Fire Down Below (1957)

33. Empire of the Ants (1977)

34. Fall (2022)

Star Trek Picard (season 3) Episode 3

The Godfather (1972) – 4K UHD

So The Godfather had been making me feel guilty ever since Christmas, when the 4K trilogy set was a present I received and I didn’t immediately get to watch it. Ever since, its been looking down at me from its shelf. Well, I figured this weekend was the ideal opportunity – the evenings were free for watching the trilogy over three consecutive nights (well, we’ll see how it goes but that was the plan, so hopefully its Godfather Part Two tonight).

It’s utterly redundant of me to say much about the film itself – The Godfather is a remarkable achievement, one of the best films ever made. Not certain if its one of my top ten favourites, it always seems to be one of those films easily admired, maybe harder loved (I always preferred Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America), but I’m certainly warming to it more as I get older. What I will say though is that everything everyone said about this 4K disc when it came out last year was all true, with zero hype- its got an extraordinary picture quality, elevating almost every shot to a work of art, and not in the showy way of early Ridley Scott films either. Instead it looks utterly ravishing in a strange, matter-of-fact way that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but instead serves the story and seems utterly authentic regards the period setting. It doesn’t ‘look’ like a film shot in 1971. It looks like a film shot in 1948 or 1955, its cinematography feels almost as if it was shot around the same time as Hitchcock’s Vertigo. You combine a film shot as well as this film is, with a fantastic script and with a perfect cast, well, you’ve got cinematic lightning caught in a bottle right there.

Maybe I should mention, at this point, all those other films sitting on the shelves in my den-cum-temporary-office in the back room. Alongside The Godfather sits the second Hitchcock 4K set, in which there are four films, I think, waiting to be watched (alongside THAT set is the first, in which the 4K disc of Psycho still inexplicably waits).  A few shelves down, Mad Max 2 & 3 from the 4K Anthology boxset are waiting (there’s the Cannes and Argento cuts in the Dawn of the Dead set alongside the Mad Max box too).  Looking back up the shelves, Eureka’s 4K set of the Police Story Trilogy waiting, too- I watched the first film some months back, but haven’t gotten around to the other two yet. Above that, there’s a few Kino Lorber 4K’s sitting together – among them a few still not watched; Phil Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Orson Welles’  Touch of Evil.  To be clear,  some of these are films I’ve watched several times over the years, these are ‘just’ 4K editions that I’ve bought hoping to savour them again in definitive editions, like Criterion’s 4K of Double Indemnity. Watching something ‘new’ seems to take priority over something ‘old’… I’m not confident about any logic in that, but seems to be how it goes, and there is a comfort knowing I have them there to watch when the whim takes me.  One of the other issues with some of these films is that the more obscure ones don’t really interest Claire, so I have to find time to watch them by myself which is an order of magnitude harder than watching all those films that Claire WILL watch, as there’s a long list of those waiting too.

But it does not escape me that I have not watched the 4K edition of Touch of Evil, but I HAVE watched Bullet Train, or, say, Top Gun: Maverick three times now since I bought that film on disc (I don’t rewatch ‘new’ films as much as I used to years ago, but something about Maverick pulls me back).

Anyway, enough of that self-flagellation. Time for best/worst of the week. Well, obviously The Godfather would be the best by a wide margin, but this only concerns films I have watched for the first time, and on that front, it transpires I was in for a bit of a surprise this week, when the 4K disc of Rocky arrived. Watching it, it suddenly dawned on me that I’d never seen the film before. I’d seen the ending before, as its repeated in Rocky II, and I’d seen bits of the film over the years, usually in showings over Christmas holidays. But I’d never actually watched the original film in its entirety before, and hey, turns out it was great, and now I know why some folks go nuts over it.  I think seeing Rocky III and IV on VHS rentals had given me the wrong impression of the franchise as a whole, leaving me with no interest in going back to the first film, but yeah, I had never actually watched Rocky. Somehow these things happen, you miss some films…  in this case I actually thought I had (maybe boxing films blur together in the memory), but there you go, and yeah, that was the best ‘new’ film of the week.

The worst of this week is easy:  Fire Down Below, which was really sunk (sic) by its cast, which itself was a surprise since it starred Jack Lemmon. I know, I know… a gambling man couldn’t be blamed for putting his money on Empire of the Ants but in a funny way, sure, its a bad film, but I enjoyed seeing those old stalwarts from 1970s/1980s tv shows in their wooden ‘prime’ so much so that, weighing things up, I enjoyed that film a little bit more.

Empire of the Ants (1977)

empireantsposterEmpire of the Ants, Dir. Bert I Gordon, 89 mins, Talking Pictures TV

Back in the late ‘seventies, I was fascinated by the posters advertising this film; it was like forbidden fruit. I was deemed too young to go see it, but it looked so impossibly cool. How could a modern-day film (this was the age of Star Wars, after all) fail to be utterly fantastic with a premise so close to that of the 1950s b-movie classic Them! (1954), a film that scared me shitless on late-night TV? Well, it has taken me almost fifty years but I have finally found out: its more rotten fruit than forbidden fruit, in all honesty (with the irony that here in the UK it was heavily cut on release to get an ‘A’ certificate anyway).

Marilyn Fraser (Joan Collins, perfectly cast here as another uber-bitch) is staging an elaborate con selling bogus real estate lots for a ‘luxury beachfront complex’ called Dreamland Shores, in the Florida everglades. Its really worthless swampland but she’s trying to convince her prospective buyers that its the opportunity of a lifetime.  Unfortunately for Marilyn and her nine gullible guests, some unscrupulous buggers have been dumping radioactive waste into the sea nearby, and one of the barrels has washed up on the beach at Dreamland Shore, infecting a local ant colony.  Marylin and her marks are soon attacked by giant ants and they are picked off, one by one as they flee across the swampland, until a few survivors finally reach the safety of a town- but is the town as safe as it looks? Is it instead Ground Zero of… the Empire of the Ants?

empireants3Well, its pretty bad. But there is a charm about it, mostly from seeing so many actors who I remembered seeing on TV during the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – people like Robert Pine, Albert Salmi, Pamela Susan Hoop, John David Carson, and of course, Joan Collins. These were wooden professionals who had no pretensions of superstardom (well, except for Collins, anyway), or illusions that they were in some Great Movie – I certainly doubt they thought they had been cast in the next Jaws-monster hit. No, these guys were hardboiled thespians who didn’t blink at terrible dialogue or cheap sets, they’d sell it and sell it hard to the audience and you rather have to love them for it, especially as they are here selling horrible ant puppets and alternatively reacting to ghastly-quality process photography of real-life ants blown-up and dubbed into on-set footage with all the technical quality of Ray Harryhausen’s worst front-projection nightmares. My goodness, you really have to feel sorry for every one of them; the things some actors have to do to make a buck. Its almost a shame that thanks to VHS, DVD and all these television channels airing any old junk that films like this can’t fade into obscurity.

empireants4I suppose the H G Well’s credit is a requirement of using the title; can’t imagine there’s much of this storyline to be found in the original story. Instead, this film is more indebted to Irwin Allen’s disaster movies which were in vogue in the early ‘seventies, and there is indeed some appeal to the soap-opera character arcs fleshing out the running-time. I must also admit I was pleasantly surprised with the last third of the film once our heroes reach the town and find things aren’t as wholesome or ordinary as it initially seems: there’s an element of Invasion of the Body Snatchers at this point in the film, patently ridiculous but it does give the film a bit of a twist which ensured I stuck around to the end.