Respect my ass!

prisLast night I watched The Prisoner of Second Avenue again. This time it was an HD screening on TCM, so it’s evidently doing the rounds on that channel for awhile- worth chasing down if you can, especially if you’ve never seen it. It is one of my favourite all-time films, probably even in my top ten- it breaks my heart everytime I see it, and makes me laugh in all the right places too; some jokes never grow old, and the sadness of the film is as poignant as ever.

The great Jack Lemmon, my favourite actor, stars as Mel Edison, a 48-year old New Yorker married to Edna (Anne Bancroft). The middle-aged couple are besieged by modern life- whether it be the unendurable heatwave and their apartments faulty air conditioning, or the thin walls and the two air stewardess’ who live next door having noisy nights entertaining men, or warring neighbours from the floor above who at one point throw a bucket of water over Mel. This mid-life crisis intensifies further when Mel is made redundant – and then their apartment is robbed and he suffers a nervous breakdown. Its might sound like a tragedy but it isn’t- its a touching and painful film and yet also incredibly funny.  And its Marvin Hamlisch score is utterly sublime, and never released on album (but we did get The Odd Couple OST a little while ago, so there is still hope).

Its a rather underrated film, something I have never really understood. Lemmon and Bancroft are magnificent; utterly beguiling, natural performances that belie the craft at work. My fondness for the film likely stems from my own circumstances when I first saw it back in the mid-eighties, chancing upon it on afternoon television. I’d left college and was bouncing from job to job, and was at the time mid-way through a few months being unemployed. I felt washed-up and a failure and connected powerfully with Lemmon and his character’s plight. I often write here on this blog that the best movies are those that we connect to. It isn’t always the established ‘classics’ or ‘great movies’, and we can love bad movies for all the right reasons. The Prisoner of Second Avenue is not a bad movie- I’d say it was a greatly under-appreciated film, with one of the 20th Century’s greatest actors at his very best with an able cast around him and a genuinely fantastic script penned by no less than Neil Simon. But in anycase, I love the film dearly.

pris2It is curious to think that watching it now, I am older than Mel Edison is in the film. Across the span of some thirty-plus years my life has changed dramatically, but my connection with the film is as intense as ever- perhaps even more so, as I watch it with older eyes and empathise with Mel even more than I did back when I first saw it. Over the years I have watched it numerous times and as I have noted earlier, everytime it breaks my heart and makes me laugh.  Some films linger alongside us all our lives, and this is one that does with me.

Please, somebody, somewhere, release this film on Blu-ray (I would imagine its only hope is a Warner Archive release in the States, and the films underrated status likely doesn’t help that being likely, but you never know). Too many of Jack Lemmon’s great films are lacking  releases on Blu-ray, and I guess as the physical disc format declines the outlook is grim regards such releases in future. That would be a terrible shame, because Lemmon made some truly great films and The Prisoner of Second Avenue is certainly one of them. If nothing else, the film deserves to be seen and rediscovered.


Thanks a lot, you cheating bastard…

omega1I don’t care what anyone says, The Omega Man is a cool film, and a great old-fashioned sci-fi film. Whatever ‘old-fashioned’ means- maybe its just the lack of any cgi or virtual sets, or its blatantly dated 1970s fashions and cars. Its odd that, for all its possible faults as a movie, it remains just plain cool, and gets cooler as the 1970s get more distant. Maybe you had to live in the 1970s and remember that decade with some fondness, but whenever I watch The Omega Man I’m rushed back to my childhood. Not that my childhood featured desolate streets and bad guys in spooky hoods prowling in the night, but… Likely people born in the 1980s or 1990s look back at something like The Omega Man rather differently, with the wrong kind of horror. But to me, its a cool film, a film made back when August 1977 was still in the future. Can you even get your head around that?

For one thing, it stars movie legend Charlton Heston. Say what you like about him as an actor or his real-life politics, but thanks to his Biblical epics he always seemed larger than life (Omega Man’s love-interest Rosalind Cash remarked to Heston  “It feels strange to screw Moses”). Certainly, Heston oozes a screen charisma so lacking in actors of our generation.  He had such a run of films back then, fighting a planet of talking apes in 1968, playing the last man on Earth here in 1971, and then discovering the horrifying secret of Soylent Green in 1973. I never really think of him as a sci-fi actor, but he made three solid genre films back then, and his presence is a big part of their success. Somehow a big ‘name’ like him gives them a certain gravitas and allows them to stand the test of time better than others. I remember an issue of Fantastic Films that had an interview with Heston discussing his genre films- I’d love to dig that out sometime. As I recall, Heston was fairly critical of The Omega Man, believing it to be one of his lesser films. He was probably right, but if he were alive today, I think he might be surprised how the film has survived and gained a cult status.

Sure, The Omega Man is patently a film from 1971 that was trying just too hard to be relevant in those turbulent times, with its interracial romance, casual female nudity, ‘hip’ slang/dialogue and its fashions (that jacket with the logo on the back sticking the finger to ‘the man’). There is something about the music score, funky and cool and jazzy, which I have mentioned here before. Its dated in places but when the main Neville theme kicks in its irresistable. But maybe all that is just what makes it so cool? Its like a film from some other planet (maybe the 1970s is some other planet), likely part of its appeal- it isn’t sophisticated, it is just a simple thriller with the good guy at odds with lots of hooded bad guys in an urban wilderness.omega2It is a little odd that they don’t even go for any matte paintings to give some scale to the ruined desolation, going instead with panoramic ‘live’ shots usually filmed in LA on Sunday mornings in deserted streets. I’m told you can actually see other cars moving in the far distance in wider shots but what the hell, I don’t even look for them; I’m enjoying watching the movie too much to care.  Why look for goofs when you’re enjoying a movie?

One of the films clear failings is that the director Boris Sagal was the wrong director for a film like this. While its actually fairly effective, given its limitations, in depicting its dystopian, nightmare vision of the end of the world from a monstrous man-made plague, I’ll admit there’s a certain lack of imagination in the direction of the film. ‘Functional’ is perhaps the kindest way to describe it. Heston suggested the closing shot of him lying, arms open as if in  Christ-like crucifixion, that is a flash of imagination (perhaps ill-judged, by which I mean it crudely sticks out) that the rest of the film lacks. Of course the shot also inevitably references Heston’s earlier Biblical epics, as much as possibly the Hollywood star’s ego.

I’m pleased to report that the Blu-ray edition of The Omega Man, whether you buy the HMV-exclusive or import the triple-feature edition that I did, sports a pretty solid picture. Its sharp and has fine detail (maybe a little too much for some make-up effects) and is no doubt the best the film has looked since its theatrical showing back in 1971. The extras are slim, unsurprisingly; a few minor featurettes, one of them a promo featurette from when it was made that particularly dates the film. They are rather interesting, but a commentary would have been nice.

The Gods of Greece are cruel!

jason1It is difficult not to now approach Jason and the Argonauts as much as a technological curio as a work of art. It dates back to pre-2001, pre-ILM, pre-CGI times; its stop-motion (‘Dynamation’ as Ray Harryhausen coined it), rear-projection effects cannot help but seem primitive and ‘fake’ compared to the sophisticated effects of today. But here’s the rub: define ‘today’. Back in 1978, Harryhausen’s movies seemed quaint and old-fashioned to my twelve-year old self, bedazzled as I was by Star Wars.  And yet here in 2017, those same effects of Star Wars seem pretty quaint and old-fashioned compared to the effects wizardry of, say, the recent Ghost in the Shell or this year’s crop of Marvel and DC movies. Who knows where things will lead, and how fake the effects of 2017 may seem in 2030?

And yet some might suggest there is an inherent ‘soul’ in those Star Wars miniatures from 1977 that is lacking in the virtual cgi worlds of today’s effects wonders. An artistry born of the limitations of effects technology of the time created beautiful shots that easily match the dizzyingly kinetic spectacles of today. Just because you can sweep a virtual camera over an impossible arc over a plain of tens of thousands of virtual combatants in a Lord of the Rings movie does not mean it is any more successful than a locked-down matte shot involving a few hundred extras. Very often such sweeping impossible shots, impressive as they may be, actually only serve to pull me out of the movie, a distance instilled from knowing the shot is impossible, the stuff of a sophisticated box of pixels. Maybe thats because I grew up with those locked-down matte shots, but I’d rather think that, no matter immersive a film may be, it can still pull you out of it by being too wildly unreal. Peoples mileage may vary, but there’s always a point at which it all just seems too much. The effects no longer serve the story; rather the story is simply serving the effects and spectacle. Even the most photo-realistic effects can have the whiff of a cartoon if they are losing any grounding of reality.

Jason and the Argonauts cannot help but feel dated. Ray Harryhausen was attempting stuff never seen before, bringing mythological creatures to life the only way he could, with his hands, one frame at a time, with the magical sleight of hand provided by a camera and projector. Shots are locked down, the filmstock becomes grainy, miniatures slip in and out of focus as they try to maintain depth of field.  But every shot has a magic all its own. You can sense the time and imagination and skill of Harryhausen over hours, days and weeks in some shots, a craft and soul rather devoid in the cgi wonders of today, as amazing as they might seem. Its something of the smell of old pulpy paper in old paperbacks and books, worn by sun and time. Its almost tactile.

Its old. Its rather fake. But it is also glorious. Its why we can watch the 1933 King Kong and fall in love with that ape- and there’s another Blu-ray I need to watch soon.

This Blu-ray edition of Jason and the Argonauts, presently an HMV exclusive here in the UK, is a damn fine release. The benefits of HD are not immediately clear, as the effects shots by their nature bring with them pretty monstrous leaps in grain but some of the close-ups of the armatures etc (the skeletons in particular) really do display impressive detail and creative artistry. And the non-effects sequences generally look great with the boosted detail and colour range. The extras are especially fine, with two commentary tracks that I really need to sit and listen to (the one with Harryhausen a historical document, surely) and a number of featurettes, one of which, The Harryhausen Chronicles, is a great hour-long doc narrated by Leonard Nimoy no less. Its an overview of Harryhausen’s life and career with lots of footage from the films he made. Brilliant stuff and something of a tease of many of the Blu-ray discs of Harryhausen films due this year (the Sinbad films first, then Mysterious Island and First Men in the Moon afterwards- I have the Twilight Time disc of First Men and its excellent; if Indicator surpass it then thats another double-dip).

The weird irony of this film is, after all the whining I do about modern films not having ‘proper’ endings and instead just teases for others, I’d forgotten how abruptly Jason and the Argonauts ends. Suddenly after the fight with the skeletons the film closes, and Jason never returns home to take his rightful place on the throne (the point of the whole adventure). It just suddenly ends with Zeus teasing further adventures for Jason. Due to the films (inexplicable) poor box office, those future adventures never materialised. Its almost incredible that Harryhausen only ever made one Jason pic considering how well it performed over the decades since on tv etc. The gods of Greece are indeed cruel, Jason.



The Brutal Big Heat

bigh2017.23: The Big Heat (1953) – Blu ray

There’s a scene in The Big Heat… happily-married, decent cop and father Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is at home with his wife and child. Already under the attention of ruthless criminals and their boss who is the kingpin of a corrupted city, Bannion hugs and kisses his loving wife, and for a moment everything seems right in the world. If this was a modern movie, they’d kill his wife or go after his child, I thought to myself. And then- bang. Bannion’s world collapses as his wife goes out to the family car and is blown up by an explosion intended for Bannion. Having ripped away from him his family, it sends Bannion onto a road of revenge and hate, giving up his badge and taking the law into his own hands. This a 1970s flick or a modern Liam Neeson thriller, right?

The Big Heat is a thoroughly modern film; other than featuring Production Code-mandated bloodless gunshots, it is surprisingly violent, and brutal. I don’t know why the death of Bannion’s wife seems so shocking, but it is, as if the film steps suddenly over some unexpected line that films from the ‘fifties aren’t meant to cross. But why the surprise, this is a film-noir, right? Perhaps it is how Glenn Ford, as an actor, seems to embody American decency and his family some American Ideal. Ripping it away from Bannion and the audience just seems something done in 1970s movies, not a film from 1953. A ridiculous notion I know, but all the same, I can only imagine how shocking this film was to viewers at the time, particularly with how Ford portrays the grieving Bannion’s descent into darkness and single-minded path of revenge. The film seems to start as one thing, then turns into another, darker piece with subversive undercurrents.

The clues come earlier of course- the first shot of the film is of a handgun, and the first scene is of a suicide. A woman hearing the noise of the gunshot walks down the stairs but does not react to the suicide scene; instead she calmly walks over and finds, and examines, what appears to be a suicide note/confession addressed to the District Attorney.  She takes the note and moves to a desk phone and makes a call. Its clear that something is wrong- and the District Attorney is not going to receive that letter.

We are about to enter a dark and pretty-much permanently night-time world of criminality and corruption which will cost our one good detective his family.  Its a pretty desperate, violent world, too- particularly for women. After one woman raises doubts about the suicide and is seen talking to Bannion, she is tortured and killed, and when another is caught talking to him, she has hot coffee thrown in her face, permanently disfiguring her. It’s as if they are caught in some web of fate being woven about Bannion’s sense of righteousness that even destroys his wife.  Its almost the definitive film noir, and Bannion becoming a wild card as dangerous to others as the criminals that he is hunting. Even his child daughter becomes a target of the criminals desperate to rein him in; distressingly, anything goes, there are no rules. How alarming this must have seemed to audiences back in 1953.

bigh2.jpgSo what price justice in this dark world? Bannion has to resort to his fists and his gun to get the justice he needs, threatening violence to others at every turn.  Eventually Bannion brings the criminals to account for their crimes and justice is served, and he returns to his job as a celebrated lawman, as if we are back in some old western. But it isn’t as simple as that seems- he has left three dead women in his wake and he has lost everything he held dear, indeed only left that which cost him everything he lost. There is a bitter irony to the closing moments. Somehow this just feels thoroughly modern.

Its a brilliant, thrilling and rather disturbing film.

Another blu-ray release from Indicator, this is pretty exceptional. There are some very fine extras alongside a great HD picture, and I must make special mention of the excellent booklet. I love informative booklets and this is one of the very best I’ve seen, with an essay, an archive interview with the director and several excerpts of reviews of the film offering various viewpoints. Highly recommended and essential for fans of film noir.

Max Richter – ‘Sleep’

sleep1This is a pretty extraordinary release- Max Richter’s opus ‘Sleep’ is over eight hours long, and in this full version arrives in a box with 8 cds and a Blu-ray that will play the whole thing uninterrupted. Pretty much designed as an aid for listeners to sleep, its also something of an experiment to see how that sleep can be improved and affected by the sleeper subliminally listening to the music through the night (hence its eight-hour running time). Its 31 pieces are variations of several themes, the structure designed after Richter consulted neuroscientist David Eagleman. Its generally ambient chamber music augmented by synthesiser.

How it works at improving sleep quality or affecting dreams I cannot say, as I haven’t bothered to try that out- I think my wife thinks I’m strange enough as it is (and I doubt it would work any magic on our Westie, Eddie, but you never know). Instead I’ve listened to the music as background music while driving to work or working at home on this blog, or when reading.  If ‘listened to’ really means anything with such ambient music -to be fair though, there is some argument that this music really works beyond any sleep experiment. With its soothing tones and melodies working a calming magic in the background, it creates a valid soundscape for daylight hours too. The sheer madness/eccentricity/bravery (delete as you seem fit) of creating and releasing something as huge as this eight-hour sleep cycle is quite impressive though, regardless of what you think of the music. It must be the music equivalent of the Ultimate Cut of Watchmen– clearly OTT and insanely self-indulgent but nice to experience all the same.

(Richter has also released a single-disc version ‘From Sleep’ for less ambitious listeners).

The 2017 Selection Pt.4

selection4bI’ve bought a few discs lately, which is putting into question my intent to curtail the expenditure this year and be a bit more selective, and required another updated photo of this year’s shelf. Beginning to wonder if I’m managing to keep the quality level up. So what of the additions since last time?

The Big Heat – Another Indicator release, and it’s clear those boys are after my wallet this year. Watched this only last night (review coming up sometime soon) and it was brilliant. Hadn’t seen this before, but as I love Film Noir (my second favourite film genre) it was a must-purchase, particularly as it was recommended online. It deserves all the praise, its excellent, and deserving special mention regards this Indicator release is that it features one of the very best booklets I’ve ever seen released with a disc.

Jason & The Argonauts – An old childhood favourite, and an excellent Blu-ray edition. The trouble with catalogue titles is that if you want more of them, and want them with plentiful extras and TLC, then you have to buy them, particularly now with physical disc sales diminishing. If you don’t buy ’em, they won’t release ’em- with that logic, it’s clear it is going to be an expensive year for Harryhausen films on blu-ray, with Indicator having several coming up. The cunning devils. I tell you, I may as well hand them my wallet.

KIng Kong – I love this film. Another of those HMV exclusives that required a journey into darkness/in-store purchase. This is a nice package with a nice booklet, but I have a fancy R1 DVD copy in an embossed tin-box package with same extras etc (which is what this HD release is based on, although it came in a digibook in the States). Tempted to get it out and pop these blu-ray discs in place of the DVDs, so there may be a transformation in the 2017 selections’ next update. Looking forward to giving this a spin late at night sometime. Can’t beat curling up with this film around midnight.

Kubo and the Two Strings- I’d never even heard of this until it was released on disc early this year, and read some glowing reviews that put it on my watchlist. Amazon dropping it to a fiver last week was too good an offer to refuse (note to self: ignore sales/offers as much as possible in future. Maybe stop browsing online altogether. It won’t end well).  Very curious about this one as I usually love this kind of stuff.

Rogue One An inevitable purchase and what I’ll most likely be watching tonight. We’ll see if it measures up on another viewing (particularly regards how CGI Tarkin and Leia look on a smaller screen).

Well I’m off to hide in a hole so I won’t be able to buy anymore discs for a bit. Need to watch a few of these first (Garcia– I can’t believe I haven’t gotten around to watching Garcia yet!).

Almost magnificent indeed

mag72017. 22: The Magnificent Seven (2016) – Blu ray

Surprisingly good. A damn solid Western, proving there is life in that old genre yet.

Back when this remake was announced, I had the natural response of ‘why bother?’ It always seems weird when a perfectly fine, classic film gets the remake treatment when so many poorer films could possibly better argue for another shot. Films like Logans Run, say, of which a remake might benefit from better effects technology and ability to stay more faithful to the original book (although I’m certain fans of that film might cry foul at such heresy).  But why The Magnificent Seven? The original is perfectly fine, what could a remake offer?

Yet here we are, another version is with us. But it works. Its different enough to qualify as a reworked adaptation for modern audiences, has a good solid cast reflecting some of the male stars of this generation, but doesn’t push any revisionism too far. You could almost argue it’s actually quite old-fashioned in how it respects the original and the Western genre, but there is also a self-knowing eye on everything; it is a Western that knows it is being released in 2016.  The carnage alone shows its a modern movie- its surprisingly violent and the death-toll is up there with a Rambo flick; there are enough bodies littering the landscape at films end to befit a massive war movie. But it works.

Its an approach reflected in the music too. Here the film has a poignant status, as the score was started -and its main themes written- by composer James Horner prior to his death. Completed by the composer’s musical team (the score credited to ‘by James Horner & Simon Franglen’) it sounds like an authentic James Horner score, almost crushingly so, as it’s the last original music from him that we will ever hear (discounting the slim possibility of, say, his Romeo & Juliet score, which was recorded and then dropped, getting a release). LIke the film itself, the music references Western traditions and even the original Elmer Bernstein score, but remains modern and ‘current’ in its execution/orchestration. It was such a bitter-sweet thing though, hearing familiar Horner-isms in the music, moments that sounded like earlier Horner scores, a reminder of what we have lost. But its a strong score that propels the film forward and is no small part of the films success, and forms a fitting finale to the composer’s career.

So I’m just left to wonder, will we get a sequel, as the original film did? I believe this film was a box-office success, and we all know how fond Hollywood is of sequels. I’d actually like to see it, if it could be handled by this same creative team. There’s nothing wrong with a damn fine Western, and I’ve always got time for another.