Ben, gone too soon

20160605_090544I may be away for awhile. Our gentle soul, our little King Charles Cavalier, Ben, died on Friday, not quite even three years old. My wife and I are in bits trying to process the loss of our little guy. We still feel the loss of our first dog, Barney, which was really not that long ago; at least back then there was some comfort in Barney being almost thirteen. I cannot put into words the sense of unfairness of what has happened; or the shock, the horror of it all. Everything is raw right now.

Naturally it has put into focus the importance of things so I think I may put this blog on hold for awhile; I might post a few more archive posts from my old blog (Ben’s illness is why that last Outland post surfaced a few days ago) but I don’t know. I don’t know anything right now. I might write some new stuff, I guess it might be a welcome distraction from everything but at the moment I have to devote time to my wife who has naturally taken it all very badly. We often say platitudes like “life is cruel” but sometimes it is all too true and it is never truer than right now for us. This has been a horrible weekend living in a nightmare bubble of grief while the rest of the world naturally goes by heedless.

So anyway, I may be gone awhile. Just thought I’d post a note/explanation incase this blog goes silent for some time. I’ll be back when I can, I’m sure life goes on and silly stuff like films etc will eventually become important/interesting again. I can’t picture it exactly but… well.  Till then.

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From the Archives: OUTLANDish Good Fun (January 2007)

OUTLAND-ish good fun January 7, 2007

It was, I think, early 1983, and I was looking through my local paper’s cinema listings to see if anything was on. To my great surprise I noticed that there was a matinee double-bill at the ABC cinema in town, of OUTLAND followed by BLADE RUNNER. Well, the chance to see my favorite film again was just too much to pass up. You must remember, this was back when video was just starting out, and the amazing days of actually owning your own copy of a movie was (besides being undreamed of) still many years away. Back then a very few films had appeared on video and they cost a small fortune (of course the video market would be responsible for resurrecting the fortunes of BLADE RUNNER, but that was still a few years off). So anyway, BLADE RUNNER being back on at my local cinema was a big deal, and offered a chance to see OUTLAND for the first time as a bonus.

So me and my mate Andy caught a bus into town and walked into our ABC cinema. The double-bill was showing on one of the smaller screens, a dark, dingy, auditorium with old, tattered and worn, red-cloth seats that creaked and groaned with old age, and seemed haunted by the ghosts of decades of old films and the smells they had left behind. I’m sure the whole cinema was haunted, it was a wonderful old place and of course it closed years ago, put out of business by a soul-less multiplex built out of town in 1989, but that’s another story.

I hadn’t seen OUTLAND before, so it was new to me. Now I realise it wasn’t a sequel to ALIEN but by God it should have been, it was closer to Ridley Scott’s film than any of it’s actual sequels, all it lacked was an actual alien. In just the same way that SUPERMAN RETURNS displays a love and affection for Donner’s 1978 movie, so OUTLAND displays an absolute conviction that blatantly ripping-off ALIEN was the only way to do ‘proper’ science fiction. Well it made a change from ripping-off STAR WARS I suppose. Yes the days of STAR WARS clones like THE BLACK HOLE, STARCRASH, FLASH GORDON, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS etc were numbered, at least until Lucas would decide to do it himself and make the prequels decades later… 

But back to OUTLAND. Boy, what a movie. The titles have an air of deja-vu that warns you of what is coming. As the cast credits appear on-screen over a starry background (just like ALIEN), the ‘OUTLAND’ logo slowly begins to form behind them (just like ALIEN), while a moody ambient score by Jerry Goldsmith drones on like an out-take of his own ALIEN score. I don’t know why, but nowadays I find it hard to believe that Pete Hyams could get away with it. After the title coalesces into view and disappears in a blaze of light, we are shown fx-shots of Jupiter and the Con-Am Mining station, while an on-screen text tells us where we are, what we are seeing, much the same way as the text-card in ALIEN described the Nostromo and it’s mission. Funnily enough the models were built by Martin Bower, who I believe also made the miniatures for ALIEN. The costumes were designed by John Mollo, who had designed the costumes for ALIEN… the production design wasn’t by anyone related to ALIEN but might as well have been. I always watch OUTLAND and think that it’s actually a prequel to ALIEN, at least set in the same universe, half-expecting the Nostromo to turn up in one of the exterior space shots or John Hurt to make a cameo in one of the bar-room scenes.

I probably seem very scathing about OUTLAND being some bastard love-child of ALIEN, but I don’t really intend to. I really quite like OUTLAND, it’s dirty, lived-in future with normal joes working in space is great, and there’s a real charm to it’s nods to ALIEN. It reminds me now of a kind of science-fiction cinema resigned to history (although it was temporarily resurrected in EVENT HORIZON, ‘homage’-fans). What doesn’t help OUTLAND is that while it was remaking much of ALIEN visuals-wise, it was of course remaking a western, HIGH NOON, at the same time. It’s as if Hyams had read reviews of STAR WARS describing it as a western in space and decided that if he remade HIGH NOON and it looked like ALIEN then he couldn’t lose. Hyams was no hack, and OUTLAND is probably his best film, it’s just unfortunate that he seemed to follow trends rather than set them himself. His later 2010, while naturally borrowing from 2001, also shared design credentials with BLADE RUNNER (‘visual futurist’ Syd Mead). I suppose you could argue that Hyams remaking HIGH NOON in space was indeed trendsetting, as it pre-figured by some twenty years the methods of modern Hollywood.

The cast works very well, Sean Connery is reliable as ever, back when he was still trying to shake off the ghost of Bond. The late, great Peter Boyle is excellent, and James B. Sikking and Frances Sternhagen are good support. This was back in the days when a cast could be over the age of 30, still headline a film and not all look stunningly beautiful thanks to surgery. The score is vintage Jerry Goldsmith (he had a fantastic habit of elevating average films with his scores) and the photography (by Hyams himself) is suitably atmospheric, showing off the sets very well. The fx are very good, pre-cgi. 

Watching it as a warm-up film before BLADE RUNNER, I really enjoyed it, pleasantly surprised by the quality of its production design and it’s refreshingly ‘adult’ themes about narcotics and crime and it’s lived-in future. The film has actually aged quite well over the years, probably much better than other minor sci-fi films of the period, and I often wonder wistfully at what a ‘proper’ sequel to ALIEN directed by Hyams might have been like, the guy certainly had the eye for it.

So anyhow, the auditorium was pretty much deserted, just a handful of shadowy figures in there with me and Andy watching these science-fiction films on a wintry afternoon. OUTLAND ended and after a short break BLADE RUNNER started and I was in heaven. And then about thirty minutes into BLADE RUNNER one of those shadowy figures a few rows infront stood up and shuffled out and never came back. He had watched OUTLAND and then walked out during the greatest science-fiction film yet made. Gob-smacked, I couldn’t believe it, distracted for the rest of the film wondering why the guy left, and never came back.  It’s funny as you get older, the things you just don’t forget, and that guy, whoever he was, I’ve never forgotten. Maybe he got mugged walking back from the gents. I mean, he had to have a good excuse, yes? I’ve seen some bloody bad films at the cinema but I never walked out of a movie, I always stayed until the bitter end. Hell, I saw SLIPSTREAM right up to those bloody balloons at the end. I wear that fact like a badge of courage.

So anyway, I bought OUTLAND on DVD in a sale the other day. Might watch it tonight, can’t wait.

Happy Birthday, Jaws

Jaws_int7145_600aJune 20th, 1975 was the day that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released (here in the UK, we got it on Boxing Day- young un’s today moan about waiting two to three  months for a digital/blu-ray release, imagine if they had to wait six months for a cinema release!).

If you’re not watching the footy tonight, this is the perfect excuse to get out your Jaws dvd/blu-rays or soundtrack lp/cd and press that ‘play’ button.

One observation though- if like me you were around in 1975/1976 when it was first released, don’t dwell too long on the fact the film is 41 years old today; it will only make you feel older by association. I’ve been listening to the John Williams score today feeling rather old. Thats the trouble loving some of these movies, as the years pass and they grow older, so do we too- but of course, the films and the actors and locations within them are frozen forever on that celluloid, never changing, while we ourselves only have to look in the mirror to see the marks of time. In Jaws, it will forever be 1975. When I look in the mirror- bloody hell, its 2016 alright…

Oh well. Happy 41st, Brucie.

Lolita (1962)

lol12016.51: Lolita (Blu-ray)

There is something rather seductive about Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. I wasn’t too sure what to make of it at first, but like much of Kubrick’s work the film sneaks up on you. Half-hour into it I still thought it would be a struggle, but by the end I was left wanting more.

Kubrick actually begins the film with its ending, with a rather angry Humbert Humbert (James Mason), a 40-something British professor of French literature entering the home (post-Apocalypse or post-party, its much the same thing, the state of the place) of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), confronting him about some wrong that Quilty has done him. Quilty is drunk and incoherent, and little of the meeting really makes sense before Humbert finally shoots Quilty as he hides behind the portrait of a beautiful woman, her face suddenly punctuated by bullet holes. That shot lingers, as we know Kubrick doesn’t do anything by accident- everything is carefully planned.

Humbert then proceeds to tell us his story, the film going back four years to when he arrived in America and was looking for lodging in a rural suburb to while away a quiet summer prior to starting professorship work in the Fall. He is being shown around the house of a plainly irritating, lonely widow (Charlotte Haze, sympathetically tragic as played by Shelley Winters) and about to make an excuse to leave when he notices the widow’s daughter lounging in the back garden. This is Lolita (Sue Lyon), a beautiful and flirty teenager, and immediately the subject of Humbert’s obsession/infatuation. Humbert takes the room and spends the summer watching/longing for Lolita while avoiding the advances of her sexually-frustrated mother.

Based upon Vladimir Nabokov’s rather scandalous novel, Kubrick’s Lolita was highly restricted by censorship laws that I gather rather neutered it compared to the book, but it still remains an uncomfortable watch and rather controversial. Its really a black comedy, partly a fish-out-of-water piece of Humbert’s very conservative English scholar being lost in a very easy-going and vulgar American society (at an early point propositioned by a couple who are friends of Charlotte who reveal they are swingers and, well, keen to swing, much to Humbert’s horror). Humbert only has eyes for Lolita, a forbidden fruit that drives him to marry Charlotte to be closer to the subject of his true affections.

lol3James Mason is brilliant as Humbert, it’s possibly a career-defining performance. I always like watching Mason in films, back from when I was a kid watching his Captain Nemo in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Funny thing is, his Nemo was more dark and menacing than this pedophile Humbert- something that might have been one-dimensional is presented here in a more nuanced fashion. Here he is funny and tragic and, yes,  horrible, but there’s something weird going on, he doesn’t really seem to be portrayed as the monster he clearly is, at times its almost as if he’s the victim. What’s going on? What’s Kubrick saying here?

Sue Lyon as Lolita is nothing short of a revelation- how she never later became a superstar is remarkable, but I can only imagine that back in 1962 this film cast a very long shadow over her later career. Her Lolita is innocent and sweet and flirty and yet cunning and manipulative, even something sinister, blurring what I expected the roles would be in the film. Lyon’s performance is amazing for a girl just fourteen when filming started, and it’s the rampant beating heart of the film. There is something hypnotic about her performance that I can’t put my finger on, something uncomfortable, something bordering on noir.

lol2Indeed it is really something of a puzzle, and I don’t know if this was deliberate by Kubrick or something forced on him by the censorship of the time. If Humberts pedophile urges are ever consummated with Lolita, it obviously isn’t portrayed onscreen. Therefore, Humbert’s twisted desire for his step-daughter is ultimately presented almost as a tragic unrequited love, his character becoming more darkly pathetic as the film goes on and he becomes the weaker of the two. So I expected one thing (a dark tale of obsession) and got something else (almost a dark comedy of a pedophile victim of his obsession). Or maybe I was watching it wrong and I need to see it again, you can’t always tell that you are really ‘getting’ a Kubrick film first time around.

I wonder if the censorship of the time muddled the message of the film. I’ve mentioned that I saw the film as a study of (albeit forbidden) unrequited love, but it is inferred that something clearly goes on unseen between Humbert and his step-daughter as they travel the country after Charlotte’s death. We just don’t see anything, for obvious reasons.

The film borders on the dark brink of something when the two are in a hotel room and Humbert finally approaches the bed in which Lolita is sleeping, but his intentions are comically thwarted when she wakes and notes he has a cot at the foot of the bed. She seems innocent of his true intent but is she? Is she toying with him? It’s a brilliantly dark, subversive and challenging moment as Humbert approaches the bed. The film can’t possibly cross that line, can it? And yet you think it actually will until Kubrick pulls the rug and turns back towards black comedy, Humbert is suddenly thwarted and reluctantly moves over to the cot. The weird feeling lingers though, as to whether Lolita was ever really sleeping and if she is simply playing her stepfather along. And then in the morning she is suddenly close to him, whispering in his ear about games she played with a young lad back at summer camp, games they too can play together, and then the screen fades to black.

lol4I was always under the impression that Lolita was one of Kubrick’s lesser films. Maybe that’s true, but after this one viewing I have to wonder if it’s simply as wrongly under-rated as Eyes Wide Shut, another widely disparaged Kubrick film that I rather like. Kubrick really was some kind of genius, and it’s only getting clearer to me as I get older, rewatch his films and discover the ones I’ve missed. Lolita in 2016 is hardly as scandalous as it must have seemed back in 1962, but it remains a fascinating study of obsession, desperation and deceit wrapped in a mildly subversive black comedy. It doesn’t entirely work as I suspect the censorship of the time muddied its real message, but Sue Lyon’s breathtaking, bewitching performance is simply magnificent, lifting the film into something akin to a dreamlike horror. Endlessly rewatchable, I suspect, as are most of Kubrick’s films.

 

The Killing (1956)

1956, THE KILLING2016.50: The Killing (Blu-ray)

The Killing is the earliest Stanley Kubrick film that I have yet seen- it is his third film, made when he was just 27, vaguely indicative of the great director he was yet to become, with perhaps few of the trademark touches his later films had. One might expect his nascent talents were limited by the boundaries of a low budget, a short shooting schedule and the censorship codes of the time, but it’s hardly evident here- indeed some might say Kubrick thrives under these conditions. This film is quite spectacular and might be ranked as one of Kubrick’s best films. For what it is, a film-noir heist movie, its almost damn perfect.

Indeed, it’s pretty much the definitive hard-boiled pulp fiction tale (regardless of the ensuing Tarantino connotations). Its like one of those cheap old ‘sixties paperbacks with garish covers printed on pulp paper brought to life, so vividly you can almost smell the mouldering print as you watch the film. Everything seems intense and larger than life, its 1950s setting and black and white photography giving it the dreamlike quality of a relentless nightmare relived by its characters over and over.

The Killing is dark and gritty and is full of noir touches and yet it almost entirely takes place in daylight. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is an ex-con with a perfect scheme to rob a racecourse on a big race-day. Financing the operation with money from a  friend (who is not quite the reformed alcoholic he thinks he is), he recruits a team that includes a dirty cop, a sharpshooter, two workers at the racetrack and an ex-wrestler. Unknown to Clay, one of the inside men has a cheating wife who learns of the scheme and gets her boyfriend to try turn it all over, but typical of noir, everything ultimately goes wrong for everybody involved. The grim conclusion is as inevitable as in any noir.

kill2Hayden is magnificent as the stony-faced ex-con fresh from five years in prison who has cooked-up an elaborate scheme to steal $2 million, but it’s Marie Windsor as the cheating wife who steals the show as an evil blonde confident she can ensnare and manipulate her men with her feminine charms. She’s the blonde seductress of so many noir films and cheap paperback covers, dripping with venomous hate and greed.

Kubrick was a great chess player and it’s evident by how The Killing is structured. Clay’s scheme isn’t fully explained, we simply watch it unfold in a docu-drama fashion complete with a cold narration telling us the location and time as it presents the same events several times from different points of view, jumping forwards and backwards over a period of days, slowly revealing the plan. I’ve read that this is very much like how a chess game might be planned out several moves in advance (if he does this, I’ll do that, or if I do this, he might do that…) so much so that the whole film unfolds like a game of chess. An indication perhaps of Kubrick’s genius that later made him so famous a director.

Clay’s plan depends on each member of his team doing his part, and not every member of the team  knows the whole plan- they are like chess pieces that know their moves but not the grand scheme behind them. Clay wouldn’t make as perfect a chess player as Kubrick likely did- he doesn’t see all the possible moves or possible outcomes, but it does make this film endlessly fascinating. Clay’s ultimate failing, despite his own hard-boiled tough guy persona, is perhaps having too much faith in humanity.

The cast are uniformly great, the location filming makes everything look real while, from the vantage point of 2016, offering a glimpse of a world long-lost. The screenplay (written by crime novelist Jim Thompson rather than a traditional Hollywood scriptwriter), deserves special mention for its great dialogue which was likely an inspiration for Tarantino. Yeah, I can imagine this was one of those films that Tarantino poured over in his video-store days, dreaming up those films he’d later make. There’s all sorts of moments in The Killing that brings to mind stuff in Reservoir Dogs and other Tarantino films. As usual, Kubrick was there first.

 

Another Sunshine Reprise

sun1Sunshine (2007)

I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something endlessly rewatchable about Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. I must watch it once, sometimes two or more, times a year. Infact, of all the films made in the last twenty years, its one of the few that I have rewatched several times since its release, and possibly the one I have rewatched the most. It’s not a huge blockbuster, it wasn’t even particularly a success, either financially or critically, on its release, but something about the film just ‘clicks’.

Part of it might be that it’s like a Sci-Fi Greatest Hits. It takes elements of Alien, The Black Hole, Event Horizon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, amongst others. There’s all sorts of stuff in the film that can be recognised from other films, but for once it doesn’t really irritate. For one thing, it might be imitating other films but it’s doing so with a small budget and pulling it off well too. It looks fantastic on a budget of something like $30 million- compared to bigger films it looks remarkable and shows what is possible with careful planning and craftsmanship.  Really it’s astonishing how good the film looks for what it cost and it stands as some kind of testament to what can be done. Most importantly, the film has a genuine sincerity to how it borrows from the other films, a genuine care and appreciation and respect to those films. It doesn’t feel like a rip-off, or anything remotely negative.

sun2When the crew sits down around a table to eat together, of course it brings to mind the similar scenes from Alien; the set design, the banter, all of that, but you sense that Boyle is being respectful of Alien, not simply ripping it off. Its something that resonates so well from Alien that Boyle and writer Alex Garland obviously felt it was the right way to introduce the characters and the setting. Some shots even seem choreographed to echo shots from Alien– look at the scene when Cillian Murphy’s Capa fills the foreground and extreme right of the frame when he is informed its his decision regards diverting to the Icarus One: it perfectly copies an early scene in Alien with Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert filling the same part of the frame when she is told she is on the excursion team and she mutters “shit” in response, just as Capa voices his own bitterness at having to make his decision.

The characters are a big part of Sunshine. The cast is diverse and top-class, but wisely lacking huge ‘star’ names that might distract (although inevitably some of the cast are certainly ‘star’ names now from more successful ventures since). All of the cast bring their A-game and something to their characters, and the film is carefully threaded with character beats and moments that are important. Not all of them are likeable- some of them irritate but only because they seem so genuine and convincing with their flaws and mistakes. There is a sense that they have been stuck together for sixteen months and frictions are brewing as well as friendships. It always seems convincing to me, how they relate to one another and interact. It’s all very well-written, well performed and well-observed/directed.
sun3Some moments in Sunshine are extraordinary, like when the crew all gather at the viewing port to witness the transit of Mercury across the Sun. It is a beautiful and awe-inspiring spectacle, with a real sense of the wonder and majesty of space that most films would make us think mundane. But more than just the magnificent visuals and music, Boyle takes time to examine the faces of the crew so we can compare and contrast their seperate reactions to what they are watching. It informs us subtly what they are thinking, and where they are ‘at’ regards the mission, in a much more profound way than simply through dialogue and exposition. Its one of my favourite moments from any science fiction film.

Its when Sunshine slips into Event Horizon territory that most viewers seem to think it jumps the shark. I like Event Horizon, I think it’s the best Alien film that isn’t part of the official franchise (and to my mind is likely a better Alien film than Resurrection or Prometheus or even -controversial!-  Aliens). And I certainly don’t mind when things go all apeshit as the Space Madness-inflicted Pinbacker runs amok. What’s so nuts about a Captain whose mind has collapsed under the stress of his mission, in the face of sights no human has likely witnessed before? Its something that the transit of Mercury scene surely portends, in how the Icarus 2 crew react to what they see. Some are awed, some are bored.  Pinbacker saw stuff like that and saw God. His brain pulls a Hal 9000 and he kills his crew and aborts the mission thinking he’s doing The Right Thing.  Boyle and Garland are reaching to 2001 here even when they slip towards exploitation-horror territory. What does ‘Space’ really mean, or our place in this vast unthinking/unfeeling universe when you are millions of miles from home trapped in a steel can on a likely one-way mission probably destined to fail? What does that mean when that failure dooms all of humanity? You can’t wrap your head around stuff like that. It could drive you nuts and with Pinbacker it does (even the name Pinbacker nods to a character in the John Carpenter comedy Dark Star, itself an anti-2001, another example of the thought and respect running throughout Sunshine with its nods to past films).

Yes, Sunshine suddenly shifts in tone from semi-serious 2001/Alien hybrid towards a slasher flick, but you have to appreciate what Garland and Boyle are doing. They are making a science fiction film to entertain, and are no doubt enjoying taking the risk in pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet.  Its also adding dramatic conflict to the piece and ramping up the tensions regards will they/won’t they succeed in nuking the sun. It’s putting greater and greater obstacles in front of Capa and forcing sacrifices from the remainder of the Icarus 2 crew. And even though they succeed, no-one on Earth will ever know what happened or what sacrifices they had to make or tasks they endured.

You either buy it or you don’t, I guess. But I think Sunshine is a hugely satisfying and rewarding little film far superior to so many bigger-budgeted blockbusters. I wish it might have been successful enough to enable more similarly-themed, similarly-budgeted films. You don’t have to spend $200 million to make a convincing and entertaining space movie, and for all that critics moan about its last third, it still isn’t likely as daft and nonsensical as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, for instance. Sunshine is the little guy that done good.  I only wish Garland and Boyle might one day return to the genre again, and make another great little sci-fi movie together.

Dr.Phibes Rises Again (1972)

phibes2016.49: Dr.Phibes Rises Again (Blu-ray)

Now this film is a hoot. More a comedy than a horror film, the campness that runs throughout the film is irresistible once you’re in the right frame of mind- although the film is set in 1928 there is something oddly perfect when Phibes sings “Over The Rainbow” at the end, a song not written until ten years later in 1938. Likewise at the start of the film, when Phibes and the beautiful Vulnavia rise via church-organ elevator to the surface from his underground tomb, they are suddenly wearing completely different clothes in a reverse of the Batcave gag from Adam West’s Batman tv series. There’s all sorts of oddness like that which you just have to go with.

Of course, chief joy about this film is simply that it’s a Vincent Price movie. This guy has such a flamboyant, larger than life screen charisma that he carries it all with consummate ease, tongue firmly in cheek as his murderous Dr Phibes returns to once more try to raise his beloved wife from the dead (or half-dead, as Caroline Munro looks pretty gorgeous for an ageless corpse, another one of the films crazy oddities). While this film is weaker than the original The Abominable Dr Phibes it’s nonetheless a wonderful, odd little film littered with all sorts of craziness and the sort of intricate deaths that have you guessing where the next one is coming from.

One of the films particular pleasures is simply its cast of largely British thespians (the film was shot chiefly at Elstree). The wonderful Terry-Thomas displays his perfect comedy timing in a charming cameo, and we even get Peter Cushing in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo he likely shot in just half an hour. Fiona Lewis (who some will remember from Joe Dante’s Innerspace years later) plays the villain’s girlfriend, and Caroline Munro reprises her finest acting role -that of a pretty corpse. Added to that we get the wonderful Hugh Griffith, Beryl Read and a very young John Thaw as a hapless archeologist, and Peter Jeffrey and John Cater reprising their roles as the most inept detectives England ever produced. Of course we also have the beautiful ice maiden Valli Kemp as the mysterious Vulnavia and Robert Quarry, seemingly channeling Christopher Lee as Phibes’ chief foil, the villainous but oddly conflicted Biederbeck.

phibes2The sets are colourful and camp but oddly impressive, and there is a pervasive art deco/Seventies pop-art feel to it that is rather bizarre from the vantage-point of 2016. The score by John Gale is really so good it seems it must have originally been destined for some other (better) film.

Its just a shame this was the last appearance of Dr Phibes, although him singing “Over The Rainbow” is perhaps a worthy and fitting send-off. We won’t see films like this again, just as we won’t see charismatic charmers like Vincent Price chewing up the scenery like this again either. This is a better ‘bad’ movie than most people give it credit for, I’m sure.

Macbeth (1971)

mac71a2016.48: Macbeth (Blu-ray) 

Having seen the most recent film of Macbeth, Justin Kurzel’s 2015 version, a few months ago, I was intrigued by comparisons in the press and online to Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, which I somehow had never even heard of before. Having issues with the 2015 version that was highly-rated elsewhere, I decided to try keep an eye out for this 1971 film and see how it compared, and how that might inform my opinion of the Kurzel film.

Maybe it was the release of the 2015 film that triggered it, but thankfully Criterion put their edition of Polanski’s film in the first batch of their editions getting official Blu-ray releases over here in the UK, so it wasn’t long before I had the opportunity to see it.

I don’t know why, but I was very surprised by just how dark and gritty this film was- indeed, it is very much in the same idiom and manner of the 2015 film, albeit more faithful to the original text and less inclined to go for style over substance as Kurzels film. It shares the use of location footage and favouring realistic sets and highlighting the dirt and blood. In retrospect, it’s perhaps inevitable considering the central themes of the Shakespeare play, but somehow I thought that a film from 1971 might be more mellow and restrained.

That said, there is a shadow over Polanski’s film that cannot be denied- it was made just three years after Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson Family. It is evident that this informs much of Polanski’s Macbeth–  it has a heart of darkness running throughout, as if Polanski was possibly using the film to exorcise some inner demons. It is a bitter and unsettling film, clearly as powerful as Kurzel’s version, and just as authentic-looking thanks to its use of location filming and weather conditions. In hindsight, it seems Kurzel’s vision wasn’t as unique as I had initially thought, and I can only imagine the impact a film like this must have had back in 1971.

The cast is terrific.  The brooding Macbeth is played by Jon Finch, an actor I’ve always been impressed by. How he never became a major star I’ll never know (I recall he was cast as Kane in Ridley Scott’s Alien but had to drop out on the second day of filming due to illness- one can only imagine how his career might have gone if he hadn’t become ill and gotten replaced). The beautiful Francesca Annis plays the Lady Macbeth and is the equal of Finch in every scene. The film also features Martin Shaw as Banquo, who Macbeth betrays before his guilt begins his madness. It’s quite a young cast but they all clearly relished the opportunity to be in what must have been, at the time, a bold and exciting take on Shakespeare.

mac71bLensed by Gil Taylor, the film looks breathtaking and quite revolutionary. There is a sense in every scene of how exciting this must have been to make at the time. It doesn’t feel like a film from 1971 somehow, it looks quite modern, and again, obviously informed Kurzel’s film which almost seems increasingly redundant in retrospect. It also reminded me of Ridley Scott’s early films like The Duellists and, indeed, Alien in its realistic sets and photography. I would imagine Ridley Scott would have been quite impressed by it and inspired by it- I don’t recall reading an interview with Scott in which this film was raised, more the pity. John Boorman’s Excalibur, also clearly must have been influenced by the Polanski film.

Its funny, really, seeing an ‘older’ film like this for the first time and seeing, in hindsight all these influences that later filtered through subsequent films I have seen. This is a great film and certainly one to rewatch, and the Criterion edition’s extras are very informative and interesting (although I would have welcomed a commentary). Though it might indicate more my tastes in film pacing and modern film tendencies for style over substance, and preference of 1970s film-making in general, I think this 1971 version is clearly superior to the 2015 film.

The Shawshank Redemption- Expanded OST

shawshank-coverJust released -and weirdly (Twilight Zone-time again) announced around the time I recently rewatched the film – is an expanded, two-disc edition of Thomas Newman’s fine score for The Shawshank Redemption. Back when the film first came out, I recall the score sounded very fresh and unique, with that Thomas Newman ‘sound’ that afterwards defined his music in other films like American Beauty, The Green Mile and Road to Perdition, so much so that it is clear that Shawshank is the definitive Newman score.

It feels hand-crafted and personal, a deeply emotive score. It is dark though. Listening to this expanded edition, that as usual for these expanded releases, is sequenced in chronological order, it is a grim reminder of the darkness of the film itself, littered with moments of hope and light but overall quite relentlessly dark, until, like the film, the music reaches a valedictory finale. I hadn’t realised how bleak it would sound in this complete form. I listened to the score on the way to work last week and found its darkness had infected my own mood for remainder of the whole day (alas, I didn’t get to the grand finale before I got to work). I guess that might be an argument for the shorter, resequenced kind of soundtrack presentation albums usually tend to have (although I believe Shawshanks original album had a chronological sequence too, its brevity might have helped).  Its certainly no fault of the music itself, its rather just the natural progression as the score matches the ebb and flow of the film. In this expanded edition, there’s just so much more of it and that hopeful finale just a longer time coming.

At any rate, it’s a great score and this complete presentation with a second disc of alternates/album versions and source cues is the definitive edition of the definitive Newman score. The booklet is as thorough and informative as these La La Land records releases are, making the whole package a great deal for fans of the film and its score. La La Land of course really are on a roll with some of their releases of late (the complete Braveheart and Dances With Wolves prior to this). It all rather feels like the last hurrah of the CD format/physical product era but it’s great while it lasts.

 

Some Blade Runner 2 Trivia

Blade Runner 2 is now scheduled for release October 2017 (bumped up from its original January 2018 slot) so we really are closing in on something that was once either incredibly unlikely or even impossible. Just to make things a little weirder, Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Alien: Covenant, is due out in August 2017. Its enough to freak me out.

Here’s something interesting I stumbled upon whilst looking up the latest Denis Villeneuve/ Blade Runner 2 news on the ‘net and trying to avoid the clickbait. Someone on the IMDB message-board was asking what’s the longest stretch of time between a film and a sequel being made. Blade Runner was released in 1982, and the (untitled) Blade Runner 2 film is set for 2017, which is a gap of 35 years. Some examples of other long gaps the poster mentioned are The Hustler (1961) and The Colour of Money (1986) = 25 years,  Psycho (1960) and  Psycho II (1983) = 23 years, The Godfather Part II (1974) and  The Godfather Part III (1990) = 16 years.

There are likely other examples, but a responding poster noted there is a Brazilian horror -film franchise with a longer gap;  This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967)/ Embodiment of Evil (2008).  But I think there may be a case for Blade Runner taking the prize for a Hollywood film series. One I can think of is The Odd Couple (1968) and The Odd Couple II (1998) which is close at 30 years, but still short of the Blade Runner gap. Maybe someone reading this will be able to think of something obvious that I’ve missed.

Blade Runner 2 is scheduled to start filming next month (I’ve read it starts shooting in Budapest but don’t know how true that is, like everything else, much about this film -including its proper title- is a mystery). But yeah, we do know it starts shooting in July. The more I think about that… its really weird. I guess all the design work is done, the sets are being built now, costumes are getting ready… it messes with your head, thinking about it. Imagine what it will be like when the first set photos get released or the first teaser trailer in six months. I guess it won’t be long before some of the secrecy gets lifted a little, at the moment it feels like the lull before the storm. Anything is possible right now.

On the whole  everything seems promising, and as someone who was critical of a sequel at first, I’m currently quite looking forward to it. Up to now everything I have read about it seems positive. News has been scant about the film other than updates on the cast, which is looking as impressive as the film’s backroom talent – Ryan Gosling and Robin Wright were confirmed awhile ago, but more recently Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy, Spectre) and Mackenzie Davis (The Martian) have been added to the roster, as well as some names less familiar to me- Carla Juri, Sylvia Hoeks and Ana de Armas, which already indicates the film has more women’s roles than the first film featured. God only knows what that means.  But Mackenzie Davis in the picture below looking very Pris-like is an unnerving coincidence…

Mackenzie Davies, looking rather like Pris here...

Funnily enough Denis Villeneuve has another film due out this year, and it’s a sci-fi film too- Story Of Your Life is based on an acclaimed short story of the same name by Ted Chiang (note there is a rumour going around that the film’s title has now changed to Arrival).  The film stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, and concerns aliens arriving on Earth and the military recruiting an expert linguist to determine whether the aliens come in peace or are a threat. I’ve avoided reading the original story so know little more than that, other than its serious science-fiction inferring the film is firmly in the CE3K camp of First Contact rather than that of  Independance Day. In anycase, its Villeneuve’s first genre entry and so will be very interesting to see prior to his Blade Runner 2.

Of course one of the questions fans have about the new film concerns the music and whether Vangelis will be involved, and this has yet to be resolved. I rather suspect Vangelis won’t be composing the films score. Villeneuve usually has Johann Johannsson composing the scores for his films and I expect the same to apply here- which is good, as having a creative team familiar with each other always bodes well for a project. Nothing has been announced yet, but Johannson stated “Back in the studio working on a very special project to come in the next year.” on Facebook which has his fans already wondering, but he has signed a new album deal so it is likely something for that or some other film project. It certainly feels too soon for work on the Blade Runner 2 score, unless he is preparing some source music for on-set use (i.e. background music for in a bar or something). Who knows?