The Lost Weekend (1945)

lostweekendI feel I’m endlessly repeating myself here, I’ve surely stated it so many times on this blog, but I love Billy Wilder’s films. They have an art and craft that seems sadly lacking in modern Hollywood. Sure, they are often incredibly entertaining, dramatic and/or funny, but there is an artistry to them too, a depth of  honesty and craft, so even the most superficial of them (say, his late-in-career Jack Lemmon romantic comedy Avanti) has something special that rewards repeated viewings. Maybe its the casting, the performances, the music, the gags, the drama… maybe they just all contain a little bit of Billy Wilder’s soul. They don’t feel like ‘product’.

The scripts though; those are the real thing, so finely polished they put so many current films to shame; like so many of Hitchcock’s  films, Billy Wilder’s films had such magnificent scripts. So much care and attention evidently lavished on them, only when finally, absolutely ready were they taken into production. I wish all modern scripts were given such attention- so many films these days are being shot whilst screenplays are still being written. Look at what happened to Prometheus– all the work seemed to be on the design and the film’s mash-up of two authors work failed to gel into a cohesive whole; it is clearly two different films. And sure, James Cameron may have spent years writing his future  Avatar sequels but they undoubtedly will be clumsy behemoths with cringe-worthy dialogue and littered with plotholes. Its almost a given of any current blockbuster. Scripts don’t need to be so well thought-out as they used to be, there will be plenty of noise and CGI spectacle to distract audiences.

So its always a pleasure to watch a real piece of craft and art, and usually Billy Wilder’s films fit the bill nicely (well, I haven’t seen a bad one yet, anyway).

The Lost Weekend  has, incredibly, languished unwatched on the shelf here for nearly two years, a shocking and shameful statistic.  What have I been doing? In my only defence is the stark fact that, as Wilder’s films are a finite number, the joy of discovering one for the first time will regrettably always be a rarer and rarer pleasure. But anyway, I finally got around to it.

The film is a dramatic work concerning alcoholism and its effect on a life as it spirals out of control. There is an unflinching honesty to the proceedings that is both stark and surprising considering the film dates back to 1945.  Its dark, its depressing, but there is certainly a truth to it. I have seen what effect alcoholism can have on people and their lives and could recognise some of that in this film. Of course being set in 1945 much of what we see here is the stuff of history and rather dated- very often with films as old as this, one can feel its almost a science fiction film, as distant from the present as a film set in the far future, but this is certainly clearly as relevant today as it was back then. Its a great film.

On its original release The Lost Weekend  rightfully garnered rave reviews and success, finally wining four Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Yes, this was clearly the age when Oscars went to deserving films. I must say Ray Milland here was a revelation to me, I had no idea, of all the films I have seen him in, that he had this in him- what an amazing performance. Sad to reflect he would later end up as a bad-guy in the Battlestar Galactica tv pilot in the late ‘seventies, but hey, that’s Hollywood careers for you, no respect for whatever awards are on the mantle case .

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The Wolverine (2013)

wolverineAnother week, another superhero caper. Well, perhaps not, but it sometimes feels that way. Truth to tell, this is one that slipped through the net, having been released last year and watched only now (after the awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine is it any wonder it was low on my watchlist?).

The Wolverine remains a hugely popular character, so even after the disappointing Origins it was perhaps inevitable that the Mutant hero would return in another movie, Marvel quite casual with its reboots (Hulk, Spider-Man etc). So anyway, here we go with  The Wolverine.

Well, first things first–  its a better film than Origins… how could it not be, I hear you ask. Indeed for the first half I was indeed very surprised; it has the makings of a great movie. Haunted by the events of a past X-Men movie in which Jean Grey died, Wolverine vows to live some kind of peaceful existence that doesn’t involve him ripping things apart with his adamantium claws (yeah, right, like that’d make a cool superhero movie), but events drag him back into reluctant action. A figure from his more distant past, a Japanese soldier that he saved during WW2, approaches him in the present with an offer- to return Wolverine to a normal mortal life in exchange for his mutant powers, with which the now-old Japanese business man will live forever to fulfil his own long-term destiny. Wolverine declines (oddly enough, reluctant superhero decides he likes his superpowers afterall) but is double-crossed and has his powers taken from him anyway.

Suddenly we have a Wolverine no longer indestructible, instantly increasing the drama with a sense of danger. It makes the film suddenly interesting. After all, ask any scriptwriter of a Superman movie how difficult it is to maintain any dramatic sense of peril for an indestructible hero.

Alas, it doesn’t last, the film slipping up in the last third with a rather tiresome fight with a bad guy in a giant robot suit, or something like that. Its a pity that we watch the film unravel before our eyes as it presses the magical reset button, restoring our hero’s powers to enable a big cgi action sequence which ironically feels rather anti-climatic without the emotional/dramatic involvement our weakened hero engendered. It’s not a bad movie, but that last third really undermines the good work up to that point.

Roll credits. Cue mid-credit teaser that promises a better movie than we’ve just seen. Hmmm.

Of Hungry Games and Un-Tolkien Hobbits

catchingfireWatched Catching Fire the other day, the second of the Hunger Games series of films (of which there will be four, I believe). Good film, mind, but I have to say I’m getting increasingly irritated by all these movie series. Its as if a series box-set mania has settled over Hollywood of late. I guess it was inevitable, considering the ‘safety-net’ of sequels and how they almost sell themselves.

We decided to watch the first film, The Hunger Games, the night before, to refresh our memory having not seen it for, what, a year or two? Just as well, because it improved being able to follow events/characters in the second film no end. I have no idea of what the original books are like, or what happens in them. The films seem to be quite good and I assume fairly faithful to the books. Seems the third book is being split into two films though, which is rather irritating- we get the third film November 2014 and the third November 2015? So those of us who avoid the cinema like the plague will have to wait for disc releases each following Spring. Does the third book warrant this two-part treatment, or is it a financial decision to maximise box-office and disc sales? Ignorant of the texts, I really don’t know. Harry Potter did it. The Hobbit is notorious for it, going for three.

Serials/mini-series on television have a key advantage over movies in that they can spread a story/book over several hours, and have more in-depth characterisation and narrative/plot than can be condensed into an ordinary two-hour movie. Of course, you also usually only have to wait a week for succeeding chapters/parts, whereas transferring the positives of the serial format into the movie-arena proves somewhat problematic with annual or bi-annual breaks between parts. Re-watching Catching Fire the other night with the in-laws was a telling experience, with my mother-in-law sighing “oh, no…!” when she realised that yes, the film after two-plus hours was indeed ending on this almighty cliffhanger with a year-long wait to see what happens next. Its frustrating (the cliffhanger highly reminiscent of that of Matrix Reloaded, but at least being shot back-to-back the Matrix 2 & 3 only had a six-month break between them).

I’m sure The Hunger Games Quartet box-set (or whatever its called when its released in 2016) will be a great watch for those new to the Hunger Games series- it would be nice to watch each film over successive nights/weeks and get the whole story to its conclusion in good time. Indeed I’ve recommended a friend at work to perhaps simply wait for the boxset and watch them then. But for those of us watching them right now its very irritating. I remember when you sat down to watch a film knowing it would have a definitive end, it seems a long time ago. All the super-hero films being inter-connected have the feeling of being teasers for further instalments.

smaug1Of course some films feel like they might never end, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, ostensibly based on  a rather short and simple book, transferred to film seems to be a bloated middle section of an epic without end. Complaints that the first film took a long time to get started seem to have been heeded by the film-makers, but this turns out, oddly enough, to be at the detriment of the second film, as it now just seems to race from one set-piece to another. The character-building of the first film seems to have been ditched entirely (perhaps rectified when the extended edition arrives in the Autumn?), instead new characters are thrown in proving more an irritating distraction from the guys we should be rooting for. And the troop of dwarves here are very inferior to the fellowship of the Rings films- whether this is the casting or the script I don’t know, but I think the blame chiefly lies with the skimpy source. The depth frankly isn’t there compared to the characters of the Rings trilogy- indeed  The Hobbit series seems to be proving woefully weak compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, clearly without the substance of source to carry a huge trilogy of films.  The Hobbit book itself was never an epic; it was an intimate, charming children’s fantasy book and re-fashioning it into this huge sprawling complex narrative is doing it a disservice. And the ending of this film is even worse than that of Catching Fire. My brother saw this at the cinema and told me there was a collective groan of disbelief/frustration/weariness amongst the cinema goers at the films denouement. It doesn’t get any better when watching it at home.

Of course no doubt many are lapping this Hobbit stuff  up- I have seen several reviews declaring DOS  better than the first film. Well, the first film was flawed but anyone stating this film is superior is patently wrong; its simply an OTT effects showcase (and oddly those are somewhat dodgy effects in places), lurching from set-piece to set-piece with interminably long action sequences that are rather clumsily staged. The really sad bit comes when these action sequences are compared to those of the original LOTR films. Compare the barrel escape and subsequent chase/fight down the river in DOS to the fight sequence with Boromir and co. at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring- its like they are staged and shot by different film-makers. There’s simply far too much don’t-I-look-cool posing and over-thought doesn’t-it-look-cool fight choreography. Rather than just keep it simple and fairly realistic we are (just as with the chase in the Goblin King’s Halls in the first film) thrown into something reminiscent of a video-game. There is a substance lacking here, its just cgi bells and whistles to impress. Yet, many do indeed lap this stuff up. Me, I’m waiting for it to stop, but when it does, I’m then being bored/irritated by some ill-thought romance between a frustrated Wood-Elf and a Dwarf- hardly the stuff of Tolkien is it? Just how much of the actual Hobbit book is in this film anyway?

One of the things I loved about the Rings films was the incidental detail- fallen idols, ancient ruins, hints of a rich and largely unmentioned past that lent the setting a verisimilitude that gave the whole thing a gravity and drama. The Hobbit films don’t seem to have that. Yes, it looks gorgeous but it seems to lack any of the the depth of the Rings films. Perhaps it is something the extended versions will comparatively excel at.

I’m rather of the opinion that The Hunger Games films are superior films/book adaptations to The Hobbit films. I wouldn’t have expected that, to be honest, after enjoying the LOTR films so much. Its a pity, and I really think that the root cause is not being faithful to the material. The Hobbit could have been one movie, maybe two films at most. This trilogy nonsense seems more about making money than anything else- perhaps the third film will come good and prove me wrong, justifying this trilogy approach after all. Time will tell.

 

One last thing- a nod to my work colleague Steve who, having realised he’d somehow ordered two copies of this film on Blu-ray in error, simply gave his extra copy to me. I’d intended to wait for the extended version this Autumn but his generosity enabled me to see the film much earlier than intended. Cheers Steve! 

Psycho (1960)

psychoAfter spending the week watching the first season of Bates Motel (great show, by the way), it seemed only fitting to re-watch that series’ inspiration, Hitchcock’s classic Psycho. I had the Blu-ray sitting on the shelf since I bought it cheap on Amazon several months ago.

There’s nothing new that can be said about this movie; I am sure it’s all been done, frankly. After all, how many books, never mind internet pages,  have been written about it, its themes and Freudian subtexts? For most people it’s Hitchcock’s best film, his signature piece and a game-changer for Hollywood and films in general (I’d agree with most of that, although my personal favourite of his remains the dark and endlessly fascinating Vertigo). There’s no doubt that its a classic, and a truly great movie.

Psycho has been so endlessly imitated and parodied, it must be rare for anyone to watch this film for the first time still innocent of its twists and genius conceits. There’s something rather sad about that; I can only imagine the impact this film had on the public back in 1960, but well recall how it shocked me as a kid watching it for the first time on tv (during a Christmas holiday season of his films on BBC2, I think). Its one of those films that, just when get comfortable thinking you watching a certain kind of film suddenly pulls the rug from under you and becomes something else. No-one ever forgets Psycho.

One thing I would note though is how astonishing the screenplay is.  Its a work of manipulative genius, tuned to perfection.   I’ve commented on this before, in that many modern films seem to get made with clearly unfinished scripts leaving all sorts of plot-holes and narrative problems. Film-makers like Hitchcock and Billy Wilder used to work so hard on their scripts, really nailing the film down on the page, thinking it through,  before moving on to the actual shoot. Perhaps the genius and craft of Psycho is indeed in Hitchcock’s direction, but I’d rather be inclined to suggest its actually in that incredible script.

Black Sails on Amazon

Black-Sails-Title-Sequence-by-Imaginary-ForcesI’ve been looking forward to Pirate mini-series Black Sails for awhile now, mostly, I have to admit, due to the involvement of Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, DaVinci’s Demons etc)on the show’s scoring duties.  McCreary set up his own label last year and has used it to distribute fairly definitive soundtracks of his tv work even when the shows are still on-air, and his Black Sails album was released in January soon after the series launched in America. The Black Sails score is primal, rough, almost chaotic- in melody it reminds me of the great Battlestar Galactica (across its five seasons and soundtrack albums the most sophisticated, complex and rewarding television score I’ve ever heard) but with its simplistic orchestrations (historically quite accurate) it manages to sound fresh and spontaneous and would appear to fit the show like a glove.

Well, appears to, as I haven’t seen the show yet. I’ve been waiting for a channel to be announced with UK airdates and the silence has been deafening, but now Amazon has announced that it has bought the series and will have it available for subscribers to its Lovefilm/Amazon Prime services on April 4th. That’s all eight episodes too. I won’t have the time, but if I did, I would be able to watch the entire series next weekend.  Its like being gifted a boxset. Whereas DaVinci’s Demons season 2 starts April 4th on Fox with me having to watch it on a traditional weekly schedule.

Things certainly seem to be changing with how people watch television content, and players like Amazon and Netflix are making strong moves. How successful this is, or how it even pays, is something for debate. I already have my doubts on how Sky do things and how it effects its content, never mind the even lower subscriber base that Amazon and Netflix enjoy. The BBC famously cancelled Ripper Street a few months ago (eventually renewed in a deal with Amazon, funnily enough) due to perceived low audience figures of a few million, while Sky’s top-rated show at the time, Arrow, had just 400,000 viewers and was deemed a success.  My concern is that although Sky are happy, what does it do for the mainstream audience perception of shows like Arrow here in the UK when so few people actually get to watch it or perhaps have even heard of it? Or are people just turning to DVD/Blu-ray boxset releases now?

I recall back when the big networks here, BBC and ITV regularly showed American hit shows and they had huge audience figures/media attention (remember Twin Peaks, or JR getting shot in Dallas? Doesn’t happen anymore).  The producers of the content are happy, they get their money (and Sky for instance pays handsomely, easily outbidding the BBC etc), but while Game of Thrones is huge, imagine how even bigger it would be if it was appearing on BBC 1 at 9pm? Television is so fragmented these days. So many programmes lost on so many obscure channels. One of my favourite shows of the last several years was Chuck; it was a funny adventure show with great characters, it was a family show, almost retro in its approach. Would have been a perfect fit on something like BBC 2 primetime, but I guess most people here in the UK never even heard of it. I don’t think the last season has ever even been aired over here; I had to import the Blu-ray to find out how it all ended.

How does such diluted availability of so much content effect the financial viability of that content? How many shows failed that never had a chance, how many great shows do we miss simply because we don’t know if/where/when the show is on? Is this the future of television? Its a bit bewildering.

So anyway, I have to wonder how many people will be watching Black Sails this weekend… but I’ll certainly be giving it a shot.

Creepshow OST

creepshow-limited-edition-2I well remember recording the title music from Creepshow onto audio-cassette from a VHS rental copy so I could later listen to its creepy and evocative theme. Audio-cassettes; you may remember them, plastic cases with spooled magnetic tape, sort-of an older and even more archaic cousin of the video-cassettes that yet linger in car-boot sales. Just thinking about it makes me feel very old, so many things have changed since- but it used to be the thing back then,  to save music off-air with a microphone close to the tv speakers, fill C-60 or C-90 tapes with different bits of movie music, tv themes, stuff like that. I used to do that in those days; I remember around the same time recording the entire Blade Runner film onto audio cassette off a VHS rental so I could listen to it over and over. Was I ever so young? Was I ever so enthusiastic/obsessed that I’d hush the rest of the household in order to record Alien during its ITV premiere, dutifully cutting out the commercials? If only I could meet that younger version of myself, the damned fool.

So here we are today, and in the post arrives my copy of La La Land’s new CD of the expanded John Harrison Creepshow score, complete and with numerous library cues used in the movie. Listen to some people and you’ll be in no doubt the CD format itself is as doomed as that old audio-cassette that I had recorded the music onto all those years ago- well, let’s fight the good fight on that one, I still love my CDs. Funnily enough, I believe this album is also going to be released on vinyl, how strange is that?

With a lovely and detailed booklet (mine also signed by Harrison himself) which is a rewarding enough read in itself, this release is something of a tribute to those good old days, the purchase a nod to that damn fool teenager with a microphone I used to be. The music is fine, that evocative creepy main theme as lovely as ever, the score dominated by old-school analogue synths with some piano. Its dated I guess but that’s part of the charm with these sort of releases isn’t it? The film and score is over thirty years old, after all-  imagine my teenage self back in 1983 being told I’d be listening to the score in 2014…