Legacy of the broken Blade

Funny, the things that occur to you during a conversation. I was chatting earlier today about Blade Runner, in particular the version that came out in 1982. Its a modern-day wonder that I fell so in love with that film at all, when one considers all its faults at the time. The lousy narration, the tacked-on happy ending, the re-arranging of scenes that fixed/messed up the films internal count of Replicants on the run (Deckard’s cut/bruises which are there one minute, gone the next), the obvious stunt-double of Zhora, the blatant wires on the live-action Spinners…. It goes on and on.

Despite all that, the film enthralled me and swept me away, and even as I re-watched it, first at the cinema and later on VHS (and later DVD etc) and those flaws became more apparent and others were discovered, I still loved the film and kept on returning to it. The film was broken, and it took, some would argue, a few more cuts over the ensuing decades to finally fix it, but I hardly cared, I forgave it all.

So why am I writing about Blade Runner yet again? Well, the conversation had me considering all the other ‘broken’ films that I have valued and re-watched, for all their faults- films like Event Horizon, The Abyss, Alien 3, to name a few. Films, mostly, with beleaguered productions, scenes and plot-lines cut or unfilmed or actors hopelessly miscast or any myriad other problems that befall films. I’ve often written here that surely no-one ever intends to make a bad film, even films that turn out bad surely started with the best of intentions. I cannot imagine anything more depressing than a directors speech on the first day of shooting basically saying “well, this is going to be shit so lets get out of this as quickly as possible”. Imagine that (for all I know that may have happened, but I hope not).

Now, many people -maybe most- will watch a mess of a film such as Alien 3 and never return to it, and I suppose I can’t blame them- life’s too short to waste hours watching films you don’t enjoy. And yet I’ve always been comfortable enjoying it for what it is and wondering what it might have been under better circumstances.

So it struck me today that maybe I have Blade Runner, in all its glorious broken 1982 form, to thank for my rather curious fondness for films That Might Have Been Great.

Malick’s Christmas Tree

treeblu1Just announced for a November UK release, Criterion’ s extended edition of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is on my Christmas list for sure. There’s a few new extras and the usual booklet with two essays on the film, as well as a 4K remaster of the existing theatrical cut, but its the extended edition with its additional fifty minutes that intrigues. Maybe some more Sean Penn, hmm?

Tree of Life is probably Malick’s last great movie, a mysterious and visually ravishing film (the fact we are not getting a ‘proper’ 4K UHD release is something of a missed opportunity) with a typically haunting performance from Jessica Chastain (if i remember rightly, this was the first film I’d seen her in). It sounds gorgeous too, with the usual Malick soundtrack of great classical works. I know its wrong, double-dipping again, but yeah, they got me again….

Now, if only I could convince my wife that this would make a great movie for Christmas evening…

Lady Macbeth (2016)

dy1.jpgThis is a strange one, and perhaps one of those where what you get out of it depends upon how you approach it. Ostensibly a period drama, I went into it expecting something like a revisionary Jane Eyre, akin, as perhaps the title might suggest, to the rework of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film. As it turned out, I wasn’t far off, but it still came as something of a surprise/shock.

The Shakespeare angle, you see, is something of a red herring. Actually based on an 1895 novel by Russian author Nikolai Leskov,  Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, itself inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, this film by William Oldroyd transplants the original book’s Russian locale to nineteenth century Northern England. Florence Pugh, who is pretty mesmerizing throughout,  plays Katherine, a young woman who is married off to Alexander (Paul Hilton), the son of a wealthy mine-owner,  Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who has arranged the marriage like some kind of land-deal. While we see the wedding service, we don’t see Alexander, the focus purely on Katherine who looks lost, a fish out of water, as if she has been transplanted to some other world she does not understand.  When we eventually do see Alexander, it is on the wedding night, which proves disastrous, the wedding unconsummated. And it all goes downhill from there- lies, betrayal, adultery, murder.

I have seen the film referred to as a Victorian Noir, and that pretty much nails it. This is a twisted, subversive tale that is part period drama and part horror tale. It isn’t perfect – much of the character motivations are too lightly skimmed over, so that the characters suddenly seem to take actions that are out of left-field and so don’t wholly convince. Overall, the film therefore feels rather disjointed- Pugh is, as I’ve noted, pretty mesmerizing and she easily dominates the whole thing, but even then, her own actions often feel unexplained at times and its hard to sympathize with her in the latter half. Initially she is clearly the victim but by turns she becomes the villain, utterly without any redemption at the end. I suppose that is perhaps the whole point of the film -and the Macbeth in the title- but it feels a little unearned. We don’t really get ‘into’ her psyche.

Certainly well worth a watch though.

A further note regards Johann Johannsson

The passing of the Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson was a profound shock back in February and one I have found as hard to get over as the accidental death of James Horner back in 2015. From a purely selfish perspective, the sudden loss of these two composers has meant that a wealth of future music I would have enjoyed will no longer happen- while that’s a petty thing to come out and say, its true, in just the same way as losing Prince or Chris Whitley or Jerry Goldsmith. And while I have continued to  listen to Johannsson’s and Horner’s music that had become such a soundtrack to my daily life over the years,  it is always now tinged with a sense of regret and loss.

While Horner’s passing was tragic it was at least in the service of a hobby and pastime that he dearly loved, so there has always been a little comfort/understanding from that. But the cause of Johannsson’s death was something of a mystery, and although recently revealed results from a toxicological report have cleared things up, it nonetheless has actually made it even more difficult to reconcile.

The report confirms that the Icelandic composer died of an overdose caused by his use of cocaine. Johannsson was taking prescribed medication for an illness- the cocaine combined with that medication caused him to die of the accidental overdose.

So on the one hand, its reassuring that he wasn’t so troubled somehow (success etc doesn’t make anyone impervious to feelings of depression or anxiety) that he had felt compelled to take his own life, but on the other, its just tragic that his passing was accidental and that his life was so cruelly taken from him. Natural causes such as heart attack, though, would be bad enough, but the fact that it was drug related, well, it seems to happen so often these days, doesn’t it?

Heath Ledger, Prince, Tom Petty, to name just three who passed recently from drug-related complications, and now the unlikely addition of Johann Johannsson to the list. Well, I don’t feel at all qualified to comment as I’ve never even smoked let alone took drugs (and I don’t drink much either), and I haven’t lived in the limelight with all the pressures that might put on actors or musicians but all the same, everyone seems to know these days that there’s nothing glamorous about drug use.

So while I continue to feel so sad about Johannsson’s passing, maybe I feel a little angry and uncomprehending about it too. Its an anger that we are living in this world where a soul as gifted and sensitive as Johannsson, who could write such dark and fragile music, could perish in such an accidental way, or self-inflicted way through weakness or mistake or addiction. How are such things possible in this world and how do such tragic losses of such gifted people occur? Why was Johannsson taking cocaine, was it something he had done for years, was it an addiction getting out of hand, was he driven to it or was it something he was trying new? Were his freinds and colleagues aware? Of course we will likely never know, Johannsson’s family deserve privacy and no disparaging comments on my part. In any case I am not qualified to be judgmental about it- but the tragedy of it remains and oddly its now perhaps intensified somehow. Its a terrible and sad world sometimes and I’m certain we’re never going to make any sense of it in events such as this.

It (2017)

itThe main issue I have with this film is that it isn’t actually scary. Sure, its a well-made film, decent cast (Sophia Lillis, who plays Beverly, is the real standout and steals the movie from everyone – including the clown). I gather its  a sincere adaptation and has been rewarded by big, big box-office, but as far as horror films go, if scares and chills are the target, then this is just simply an abject failure. Maybe that’s the secret for its success at the box-office – its horror made palatable, made safe, made mundane. Hey-ho for the future of horror movies now that Hollywood has cottoned on to that one.

Okay. I have to admit, I’ve never read the original Stephen King novel. I had a spell in the early-eighties when I read much of the authors’ work up to that time- The Stand (my favourite), Christine, The Dead Zone, some others… I just never got around to It, and by the time I’d suffered through The Tommy knockers my interest with King had waned and I’d turned to Lovecraft and others for my horror-fiction kick. I’ve since returned to reading King’s work,mostly his latter material, but no, I never read It.

I’d never seen the previous tv miniseries adaptation either, somehow. People have often, over the years, remarked upon the tv adaptation as being great but for some reason it never got my attention enough to actually sit down and watch it. So this new film adaptation, that actually spreads the lengthy (standard King, then) novel across two films (there’s points there, surely, for the sheer bravery of shooting part one and waiting to see if audiences responded enough for a second helping) was rather akin to virgin territory to me.

My most overwhelming impression? Other than ‘where’s the scares?’ it would have to be ‘what was all the fuss?’ Its pretty much The Goonies for horror fans, albeit without the horror. I don’t know- maybe the film scared the bejeezus out of somebody somewhere but they must be of a pretty delicate disposition, surely. Or maybe I’m jut missing something. Wasn’t the clown supposed to be scary?

Maybe it was the CGI stuff. There did seem to be a lot of CGI. I’m not at all sure CGI trickery really works in horror movies, at least for me- it loses some of the more, well, analogue scares, the sense of reality, as much of the time when film-makers use CGI, subtlety isn’t exactly what they are aiming for. Or maybe it was all the standard King tropes that pattern so much of his fiction and their movie adaptations (I’ve seen more movies based on King’s work than actually read King’s work, like most people I suspect). Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. Or maybe, just maybe, this film isn’t really all its cracked up to be. Anyway, I’ll wait and see what happens in the upcoming part two before maybe finally turning my attention to the tv version from yesteryear.

The Stranglers of Bombay (1959)

strang1Alas, this one didn’t really work for me, which was doubly disappointing as it was helmed by Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher, who was responsible for some of the best films made at the studio, and it also featured Guy Rolfe in the lead, who was so brilliant in Yesterday’s Enemy, but who didn’t really seem to ‘click’ here for me. Rolfe is not entirely to blame- I’m sure the script does him few favours and leaves him with little to do with a terribly bland character; he is far too restrained for my liking (the less said of his terribly underwritten wife the better, a thankless role for Jan Holden).

Far more passionate and watchable are the members of the Thugee cult who are the titular stranglers, a thoroughly deranged bunch. The film is based on true events concerning  a secret murderous religious cult in nineteenth century India that had attacked travelers and stole their goods over the course of perhaps as long as five centuries. Only when it had affected the trade of the British East India Company in the 1820s were investigations made and the cult discovered and eventually wiped out.

Perhaps it would have been less factually correct (not that this had ever stopped Hammer before, I suspect) but I would have found the film much more engrossing had Rolfe’s character become more personally involved- it could have been so easily done, either by having his wife killed when a Thugee cuiltist breaks into his home mid-film or had they gotten his wife travelling with the caravan that comes under threat from Thugee attack towards the end. Such a more personal involvement might have raised the stakes and tension, and given something for Rolfe to chew on.

strang2As it is, there are some interesting observations of colonial rule that casts the Brits in some poor light (most of whom are fools and jackasses who have no idea what they are doing or what India truly is). I think the film may have been too ‘open’, too much of a medium-scale period adventure that lacked the atmospheric claustrophobia that it possibly needed to really work. It has quite a few ‘horrific’ moments that are inevitable for a Hammer film and a little titillation courtesy of the busty Marie Devereux, the sole female cultist who amusingly appears to become quite aroused whenever there is murder or torture afoot (shots banned by the British censors at the time but restored here). I suspect however that this is a film that perhaps ironically suffers from Hammer being too ambitious in making a serious historical drama- it would really have benefited from closing it in into some more personal claustrophobic horror tale. But maybe that’s just me.

Loving Vincent (2017)

vinc1A breathtaking film, visually, this is the first oil-painted animated feature and looks quite unlike anything else, the intention being to make it look like Vincent van Gogh’s own paintings come to life, as if serving a way to get inside the artists mind. Essentially the medium becomes the message.

The narrative is framed as a mystery, which takes place a year or so following Vincent’s death, believed to be a suicide after the troubled artist shot himself.  Joseph Roulin, Postmaster of Arles, the subject himself of a portrait by Vincent, sets his son Armand on a mission to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Armand reluctantly goes first to Paris, and then Auvers-sur-Oise where Vincent spent his last days as his quest leads him to investigate the truth behind Vincent’s death.

The story isn’t really about any ‘truth’ that Armand discovers, but rather the journey, as the film lives and breathes in van Gogh’s paintings and features characters either historical or captured within the original paintings. Armand listens to different people who recall Vincent and his last days and their conflicting beliefs and points of view. It builds a portrait of a troubled soul and genius and offers us a glimpse of the man and his work. The cumulative beauty of the artwork and the haunting score by Clint Mansell makes the whole film something of an enchantment.

vinc3Its very interesting and quite arresting. It reminded me very much of Orson Welle’s classic , Citizen Kane, in which it offers up these points of view and lets us decide on what it all means, if anything, as if any life could be captured and explained in one film. In a way the story itself is almost incidental, the imagery is what leaves the most lasting impression, somehow giving us an idea of how Vincent saw the world.  Its really looks quite extraordinary and the film becomes a work of art all by itself. Quite remarkable.

 

The Age of Adaline (2015)

ada1Run for the hills, guys, this one isn’t for us. The Age of Adaline is a thoroughly condescending love story, I appreciate that as its deliberately fashioned as an adult fantasy/fairy-tale  I should perhaps cut it some slack, but really, this kind of stuff is just really nauseating. A beautiful young woman, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) is involved in a car accident in the mid-1930s which through a miracle of chance leaves her ageless, staying 29 years old for the remaining decades of the century while her family and freinds age around her. In order to hide her immortality, she changes her name, job and home every decade- only her  ageing daughter knows the truth and shares her secret. Adaline’s only other companions in life are her beloved dogs; other than that, she stays distant from the people around her to avoid creating ties of friendship and love which might reveal her ageless condition over time.

The fact that the guy she eventually falls in love with is a handsome hunk and an internet millionaire with a father, WIlliam (Harrison Ford) that himself once loved Adaline back in the 1960s when he was a young man, just raised my blood pressure and indignation. I know, I’m some kind of spoil-sport and should be more of a romantic. But this stuff is as patronizing as Pretty Woman, the epic film that delivered the modern myth that prostitutes are good girls deep-down who will be rescued/marry a millionaire someday.

The Age of Adaline is frustrating, as it could have been something much more- it wastes its central conceit, that it might have had something to say about living a life of eternal youth in a world that has to be distant, of watching freinds and loved ones, human and canine, age and pass away. Of what that might cost an individual emotionally and intellectually. Humans are a social animal, we like to belong, have attachments- what happens when you take that away and are forced to live forever in such a world/life?

ada2Instead it just maximizes the typical feminine wish-fulfillment of Adaline one day finding her True Love and that he turns out to be both wonderful and fabulously rich, and with added benefits (Harrison Ford as a father in law and ex-love, every woman’s dream).

As if living forever wasn’t good enough. Cue the ‘deep and philosophical’ lesson that True Love having been found, she can then become mortal again through another accident of chance and live a normal life like the rest of us (albeit one of beauty and riches). I appreciate its a romantic fantasy, but really, there would be a more important lesson had the True Love been a poor guy with a heart of gold, or a guy overweight and balding (beauty deeper than skin-deep). Instead she ends up with it all, the American Dream writ large.

You may well be wondering what on Earth I was doing watching this. Well, I came upon it on Netflix, noticing that it featured Harrison Ford. Call me a fool, but I come of that generation where Harrison Ford appearing in a movie meant something, or promised the possibility of something decent. Yeah, maybe that old Hollywood ‘Star system’ isn’t wholly dead and buried, and knowing most of Ford’s filmography I should have known better, but anyway, I gave it a shot not knowing what the film was about. As it was, it was mildly enjoyable and the central premise promised much (although, as I’ve said,  it actually turned out to be a different movie to that). I still remember with fondness the David Fincher film The Curious Case of  Benjamin Button and it did, for a while, seem to be going that way… you know, an adult fairy-tale with a moral, life-affirming and poignant and all that.

The film isn’t a total loss. Harrison Ford is actually quite good, and I was impressed by the casting choice for his young-man flashbacks, Anthony Ingruber, who looked like young Ford and coupled with Ford dubbing his voice, actually worked very well and might have suggested an alternate approach to the recent Solo movie. Ingruber’s similarity to a young Ford/Han Solo/Indiana Jones was quite startling. The music score by Rob Simonsen, is as might be expected, rather manipulative but its well-written and emotionally engaging, somewhat akin to early James Horner, certainly elevating the film, with rich strings, piano and chorus. The production design is very good, the period pieces convincing.

So my issues with the film are really its politics/life-lessons about giving up immortality for love and finding a true love that is fabulous and wealthy. Maybe I’m just a grouchy old bugger, clearly this nonsense isn’t intended for me. On the surface this film was well-crafted I guess but thinking back on it, ugh, its just nauseating and condescending. One for its target audience, certainly, but cynics like me should stay well away.

 

Yesterday’s Enemy (1959)

yest1.jpgAs if smarting from the critical and political fallout from previous war film The Camp on Blood Island (which nonetheless struck a chord with the British public and became a big financial success), Hammer followed with Yesterday’s Enemy, a fascinating anti-war film that perhaps atoned for the excesses of the earlier effort by showing that the British could commit war-crimes too. Indeed, it could be argued that this film casts the Japanese in a better light than the Allied soldiers- its agenda simply what it describes as ‘total war’; that civilized codes of conduct or morals of right and wrong in a bloody conflict can seem pointless and ironic.

Both The Camp on Blood Island and Yesterday’s Enemy were directed by Val Guest and they do make an utterly fascinating double-bill, two sides of the same coin perhaps. From the more sophisticated vantage-point of 2018 they both remain provocative, challenging and surprising: however, it is clear that Yesterday’s Enemy is the more measured and intelligent of the two, and far less exploitative. It could easily be argued that it is, in fact, one of the finest anti-war films ever  made-  certainly one of the most forgotten/lost ‘classic’s of its genre.

yest2The film follows the last survivors of a British Army Brigade struggling behind enemy lines in the depths of a Burmese jungle who chance upon a small village and a group of Japanese soldiers  led by an officer who is killed holding a folder of maps and plans. After the frantic battle the British CO, Captain Langford (a powerful performance from Stanley Baker which was rewarded by a BAFTA nomination) realises that the maps if deciphered could hold the key to military operations in the jungle. Langton threatens a captured Burmese spy who was working with the Japanese and executes two of the villagers to prove his threats are real.  While some of the brigade are satisfied that Langfords methods are warranted,  such as the loyal Sgt Mackenzie (Gordon Jackson), others, notably the civilian Padre (Guy Rolfe) and a journalist trapped with them (Leo McKern) object to Langford flagrantly ignoring the Geneva Convention.  Time is running out, however, as Japanese forces looking for their senior officer descend on the village and begin to use similar methods to find out what the British know of their plans and their missing officer.

The film has several surprising twists and turns and builds its tension throughout, with an excellent ensemble cast delivering great performances and really ensuring the tension and sense of moral as well as physical conflict. The final denouncement is terribly bleak and inevitable, which delivers a dark message about the grim realities and futility of war. It is a brilliant and powerful anti-war film and yes, one I had never seen before, demonstrating again the importance of box-set releases such as this. These Hammer box-sets from Indicator continue to deliver surprises and quality and ensure that Hammer’s legacy is not wholly predicated on the studios Gothic horror output.

 

The Camp on Blood Island (1958)

camp1The third and latest boxset of Hammer films from the superlative label Indicator has arrived- subtitled ‘Blood and Terror’ it comprises of four racially-charged war and horror films. I haven’t seen any of these films before and will kick things off with the first title in the set – The Camp on Blood Island.

I found it difficult to watch The Camp on Blood Island without considering how politically-correct the world is now- this film just could not get made today, and even back in 1958 critics were appalled by this films depiction of Japanese soldiers as monsters and sadists, and the casting of mostly white actors in rather odd make-up as these Japanese fiends only compounded the sense of exploitation and unfairness. From the perspective of sixty years later, however, it is so unlike anything else it actually almost seems refreshingly bad taste and rather unique. Japanese POW films today (The Railway Man or Unbroken spring to mind) can be unrelentingly brutal and indeed more graphic than their 1958 predecessor, but they also have to be balanced and respectful to both sides of the war with a fair account. Not so this Hammer film, and its so unapologetic that its quite astonishing.

camp2I suppose as its a Hammer film it could actually be considered as much a horror film as a war film. There is no Geneva Convention being observed by the Japanese devils of Blood Island- Colditz and Stalag 17 are like holiday camps compared to the horrors inflicted upon the British POWS here. The film opens with a prisoner digging his own grave and being summarily executed by  gleeful Japanese in front of the assembled prisoners. Their mail is burnt in front of them and hostages taken and beheaded as punishment for subsequent escape attempts. One emaciated escapee makes a break to the women’s camp to see his wife one last time, and is killed by machine-gun fire before her very eyes, the Japanese soldier laughing as he shoots, the wife (played with customary style by the great Barbara Shelley) reacting in total horror.

What makes the film so watchable is a twist that is quite fascinating. The prisoners on Blood Island are led by Colonel Lambert (Andre Morell, excellent as ever as he somehow makes even the most implausible seem ordinary), who knows from a radio that the prisoners have rigged up, that the war is actually over. Unfortunately for them, the prison commander, Yamamitsu (Ronald Radd), has a history of war-crimes to his name with nothing to lose, and has already boasted to Lambert that if/when the Japanese lose the war, he will slaughter all the prisoners in the camp, and also all the women prisoners held in the other camp across the island. Keeping the secret of the wars end to just his closest officers, Lambert has instigated a series of escape attempts to try get word of their plight to the outside world, and repeated sabotaging of the Japanese radio equipment to keep Yamamitsu in the dark – but these efforts have resulted in bloody reprisals on the prisoners who have become wary of Lambert’s actions.

camp3Considering the boys-own adventure war films of its era, such as those that starred John Wayne, The Camp on Blood Island is surprisingly dark, brutal and indeed nihilistic. When all seems lost at the films finale, Lambert leads a violent last-ditch escape that results in himself blowing up one of his own officers by mistake, and the wasted deaths of many of his men during the battle, just prior to Allied forces arriving to save them having been contacted by one of the successful escapees. Its a dark and rather sober conclusion to a film of much misery and suffering and, yes, extreme sadism by monstrous Japanese. The whole thing is utterly fascinating and so utterly non-politically correct that it is remarkable indeed and the opportunity to actually see the film (it hasn’t been screened on British television since 1979, for perhaps obvious reasons) is something to savour. While there are obvious issues with the films approach and its sensibilities I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it surprisingly challenging and well-made considering its era and low-budget. There was clearly much more to Hammer than the gothic horrors it became so famous for and I can only commend Indicator for this excellent release.