Trucking Hell: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977)

sorcererWilliam Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a wild journey into darkness that shares much with Apocalypse Now‘s nightmarish sensibilities. Four men are forced to flee civilisation in order to escape punishment for their crimes and they wind up in some hellish, unnamed South American country teetering on the brink of revolution, in a village being reclaimed by the Jungle from which it was torn. A world being washed away by the rain and buried in the mud. The only possible escape these men have is a near-suicidal journey driving two trucks over two hundred miles through dense wild jungle, each truck carrying loads of dangerously unstable old nitroglycerine which is needed to blow out an oil refinery blaze. A journey from darkness into darkness, from Hell into Hell.  The film’s conclusion feels as bleak and inevitable as the ending of John Carpenter’s The Thing. A pleasant and jolly film this is not.

Unsurprisingly, the film did not fair too well when it was released during the summer of Star Wars in 1977. Indeed, it was as doomed as the four protagonists it features- that summer, audiences wanted escape and a positive, life-affirming message. They didn’t want the nihilism of Sorcerer and simply abandoned it, the film becoming a notorious financial disaster. The film suffered a similar fate to Blade Runner and The Thing five years later, when they were released during the summer of Spielberg’s extraterrestrial calling home – but I think like those two films, Sorcerer has benefited from some kind of reappraisal over the years. Its not a perfect film; its messy and unfocused and often gratuitous in an almost adolescent way, but I found it absolutely fascinating and very disturbing.

Its a very intense film, with a nightmarish feeling akin to Adrian Lyne’s  Jacobs Ladder, or the dread inevitability of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart: I’m not at all surprised by readings of the film that consider the four protagonists literally in Hell, suffering for their sins. Its unrelentingly grim, and not one of the four protagonist’s stories ends well: this, in the summer of Star Wars? In hindsight, the fate of the film seems inevitable.

The bridge sequence, in which the trucks try to cross a river in a terrible storm over a dangerously unsafe rope-bridge is incredibly well realised, particularly as it dates from a pre-CGI era.  You can almost feel the wind and the rain of the storm and share the nervous terror of the protagonists as the bridge threatens to collapse. What it must have been like watching that in the cinema back then…. how intense that must have felt. And of course, how incredibly difficult filming it. Watching Sorcerer was the nearest thing to watching Apocalypse Now, aghast at the obvious horror it must have been making it: at least with Coppola’s film the hard work must have seemed worth it, vindicated by the critical and popular response to the film on its release. How crushing it must have seemed for those behind Sorcerer when all that work seemed wasted upon the films critical and popular failure. 

In any case, the sheer insanity of the film, its almost delirious sense of unrelenting nightmare, well, I found it quite an almost perverse pleasure. They certainly don’t make films like this anymore. 



Lost in Space: Season Two (2019)

lost2A little bit late to the party? Yes I guess so, since Netflix dropped this second season of the surprisingly good Lost in Space back on Christmas Eve, 2019, if I recall correctly. I suppose that might have been a genius move for many, having a family show like that available for the holiday, but it obviously didn’t suit me as I’ve only gotten around to it several months later. Indeed, funnily enough two episodes in I was asking myself why I’d waited so long, as this show is pretty great, and it was like I’d forgotten just how good/successful that first season had been (reviewed here and here back in -gulp- 2018).

So its still good then? Like the Ron Moore BSG reboot, this Lost in Space is much, much better than its original: the 1960s Irwin Allen show was a childhood favourite of mine (I loved all those American sci-fi shows, really) but it was decidedly camp and hasn’t aged too well, but this new incarnation is much more serious and brought bang up to date. Obviously its still family entertainment, much less dark than the BSG reboot was (which was informed by Post-9/11 sensibilities, terrorism and dangers of AI into something quite removed from its Glen Larson original), so it has certain limitations, but it has to be said, within those limitations of a show that tries to offer something for all the family, it works very well indeed. The danger, particularly for sci-fi shows, is that there is a tendency to alienate adults by aiming for a kid audience, with sillier genre tropes, and likewise when aiming for an adult audience danger of no longer being family-friendly with darker, more violent genre tropes. Lost in Space manages its balancing act very well, indeed much better than recent seasons of the BBCs Dr Who, and I rather think CBS Access’ recent forays into Star Trek might benefit from learning a few lessons from the show too.

lost2bStill looks pretty? Crikey, almost absurdly so. Particularly so in 4K and HDR on Netflix- its absolutely gorgeous.  The sets, the costumes, the whole thing looks very spectacular and convincing and the visual effects even more so- really, shows such as this really cross the wide divide that lay between TV and film productions a few decades ago. Quite a few times early in the second season I was seeing sets/locations and effects that looked up there with recent Ridley Scott genre projects such as The Martian and Prometheus. I’m not sure how realistic it is to describe some of these cable/streaming-giant productions from Netflix, Amazon etc as television shows. Strictly speaking some of them have motion-picture budgets, really, and some of it is a little derivative, but fair play, its mightily impressive most of the time. Actually, it does give me some pause in considering what ‘proper’ movies can do to really distinguish themselves from some of these ambitious small-screen genre projects. Hopefully Villeneuve’s Dune will make things particularly clear for me. And certainly the script-writing and acting can actually be better than those movies, and while some of the acting talent may be a little suspect the characterisation and narrative writing is top-notch and on the whole, part of the success of the show is just how endearing the characters are. The irony that it doesn’t really need to look that bloody good because the character arcs and writing is rewarding enough to warrant a watch is quite amusing.

So another season…? Yes, a third season has been commissioned for next year, and its been announced that it will be the last season too, so I assume the show-runners have laid out a plan to wrap things up satisfactorily. I would imagine that there’s a danger Covid-19 might delay things as usual of late, but if the pre-production has been progressing in the intervening months since the commissioning in March, then perhaps things will move along roughly to plan: shooting I think was due to start in September and I believe many tv and film productions are aiming to be operational in September/October.

So looking forward to it, then? Punch me. Well, okay, maybe not, best pinch me instead. Yeah, really, its hard to believe that a Lost in Space remake/reboot all these decades later is so enjoyable.

Judy Holliday and It Should Happen to You (1954)

it1Watching films, sometimes its full of surprises, and with this one I found a whole new discovery- the wonderful Judy Holliday, and with it another mystery, i.e. how in the world have I never, up to now, with all the films I have seen over the years, how have I never seen a film with Judy Holliday in it? Holliday is so wonderful in this; pretty, dizzy, goofy, funny, touching, just amazing- she blew me away. What a talent this woman was. 

I look her up on imdb and get a list of films to put on my watch-list, and then look at her bio and it breaks my heart- Judy Holliday, born June 21, 1921, died June 7th 1965, of breast cancer, just shy of her 44th birthday. Good God. She was just 43 years of age. Life is so unfair, and looking up actors and actresses from old movies like I do only keeps on reminding me of the fact. I should stop doing it, its getting too depressing.  

Likely her short life and limited screen career are partly why I’ve never seen her in any movie, or really even heard of her, but she won an Academy award for Best Actress for Born Yesterday in 1950 (yeah that’s top of the watch-list), so its not like she was an unknown or anything. The Oscar apparently left her typecast as the well-meaning dizzy blonde and after several more movies she left Hollywood to return to the stage and Broadway.

Well, I can only judge her by It Should Happen to You, but it seems to me there’s much more to her than the pretty but dizzy blonde, there’s much more going on there. She has fantastic screen presence, for one thing, this connection with the camera that only real movie stars seem to have. Some wonderful comic timing, too- its clear she was a genuine talent.  Consider me smitten.

So anyway, what originally brought me to It Should Happen to You (lousy title for the film, by the way) was Jack Lemmon, who was the name on the credits that caught my attention when I noticed it on the tv guide. A ‘new’ Jack Lemmon film is always a special treat (I just hadn’t expected for Judy to steal the show and all my attention, but hey, like I said, films are full of surprises). 

Hey, but another surprise, mind you- Jack Lemmon’s credit on this has ‘and introducing’ preceding it, so yeah, its his first movie. Funny thing though, like when watching Burt Lancaster in Dark City awhile ago, you see some of these movie legends in their first film and somehow its clear they are immediately destined for greatness. Jack is just perfectly fine in this as Pete Sheppard, a documentary film-maker in New York who bumps into Gladys Glover (Holliday) in Central Park, striking up a connection and eventual budding romance.

it3It Should Happen to You is a romantic comedy with quite timely observations about celebrity, fame and sexual politics that seem to echo down the decades and prove as relevant now as they did back in 1954. Its heartfelt and funny and witty and all those things that Hollywood used to be so good at. I don’t know, maybe its in how gorgeous 1950s New York looks, its all such a far cry from the modern world, there’s something almost sweet about it.  Its a great movie. But of course what really makes it is that startling Judy Holliday, and having never seen her before. I feel like I’ve been under a rock or something, but I’m reminded of all those fantastic books that I’ll never read. Life is so short and there’s just so many great films, books and albums we can just never hope to see, read or hear all of them, certainly not even necessarily the best of them (just have to try to avoid the worst). I can only hope that anyone reading this who has never heard of Judy Holliday heeds my words and corrects that mistake. Meanwhile, I’ve got her Oscar-winning performance to track down…

The Terrornauts (1967)

terror1Wow, that’s a hell of a title for a sci-fi movie, isn’t it? Alas, the film, one of the strangest sci-fi films you might ever see, is in no way equal to the title, which is a terrible shame, because for the first fifteen-twenty minutes I was loving it, all the dodgy acting and dodgy sets and dodgy visual effects of it. Sure, part of the appeal, such as it is, of watching old low-budget genre films are those cheesy models and the comical amusement regards how they tried to depict aliens. Sometimes that can be enough.

The Terrornauts was a very low-rent supporting feature from Milton Subotsky’s Amicus films, a production company much akin to Hammer and very successful at horror anthology pictures in the 1960s and 1970s which made brief forays into science fiction (note the 1960s Dr Who movies starring Peter Cushing).  

A small team of British scientists are running a project titled ‘Star Talk’, which uses a Radio Telescope to listen in on the cosmos and try to pick up a signal of alien origin. Needless to say the Star Talk team -project lead Dr. Joe Burke (Simon Oates), electronics expert Ben Keller (Stanley Meadows) and office manager Sandy Lund (Zena Marshall)- are ridiculed by their peers, particularly Site Manager, Dr. Henry Shore (Max Adrian) who believes their fool project an unworthy waste of radio telescope time that would be beter utilised on, er, his own science research. To that end, Shore plots to close down their funding, and the barbed arguments between Burke and Shore are possibly the highlight of the whole film.  It reminded me very much of the lofty themes of the film Contact and surprisingly seemed quite serious and plausible, but the film can’t sustain this and quickly descends into farce and then, er, plunges further still. I just have to turn your attention to the image below to get what I’m talking about. Just look at that for a moment.

terror2The thing that, inevitably, really,  kept on coming to mind whilst watching The Terrornauts was that the film was released in 1967, and that 2001: A Space Odyssey followed just the following year, utterly changing everything for the genre. Watching films like The Terrornauts really lays bare just how extraordinary the achievement that 2001  was- it simply cannot be overstated. Its easy to look back on 2001 today and forget the sheer leap in quality and skill evident in the film, but watching films like Amicus’ offering makes it absolutley clear. 

Now of course there is a huge disparity of budget and ambition, of the calibre of cast and crew between films like 2001 and The Terrornauts, and any comparison is wholly unfair, and its true, in many ways 2001 changed very little. It wasn’t until Star Wars arrived in 1977 that sci-fi films really became popular in mainstream culture and deemed worthy of ambitious blockbuster budgets, as most genre offering remained low budget and lowbrow even in the wake of 2001 (one could ruefully argue that Star Wars itself is pretty lowbrow too, of course and that much of its success was purely in its execution).

terror4But The Terrornauts is pretty much below lowbrow; astonishingly so infact. As soon as I saw Patricia Hayes playing the facility tea lady Mrs. Jones  my suspicions were realised, but when Charles Hawtrey (of Carry On fame) turned up playing Joshua Yellowlees, an auditor investigating the Star Talk team’s accounts, I knew something was up as the film lurched towards the totally bizarre and then took a sharp left into space madness.

The team do indeed pick up a signal, track it down as coming from the asteroid belt infact, and after nipping to the High Street to buy suitable equipment (to which Charles Hawtrey shrieks with consternation at a piece of tech with a £75 invoice) they send a signal back. This signal reaches a huge alien installation on one of the asteroids which promptly sends a spaceship by return post which quickly reaches Earth, floats above the radio telescope installation and with some kind of tractor beam picks up the research building in which the Star Talk boffins work, along with Mrs Jones and Mr Yellowlee of course, and rushes back to the alien base. The Earthlings are then tested to see if they are intelligent enough to operate what turns out to be a deserted base maintained by a robot, and play a game of real-life Taito Space Invaders in battle against an evil Space Armada. In between all this excitement two of the team visit an alien planet inhabited by, er, green men (where Sandy is almost sacrificed to Space Gods Unknown) and the mystery of Joe’s childhood visions that set him on his career path of contacting aliens becomes plain. Eat your heart out, Jodie Foster, this guy has pathos.

The Terrornauts is one of those films that really needs to be seen to be believed, after which finds one grasping at a reappraisal of every genre film previously seen. The old adage, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ actually does have some merit here with this one. Its mad, its inept, its mind boggling, frankly. But it absolutely needs to be seen on a double-bill with 2001: A Space Odyssey, if I could only dare.

The Terrornauts currently appears on Talking Pictures schedules and is available on digital rental and DVD.

Deadly Record (1959)

deadly1Deadly Record is absolutely a supporting feature- back when films were distributed as double-features, the secondary film would be a less-popular, lower budget b-movie usually made cheaply simply for the purpose of being the lesser half of the double-bill, and Deadly Record is absolutely that kind of movie. Indeed, its difficult to really describe it as a movie at all -although it undoubtedly is-  as the film runs barely 58 mins long and in the US actually wound up as an episode of a television anthology show titled Kraft Mystery Theatre

Canadian actor Lee Patterson plays airline pilot Trevor Hamilton who is accused of the murder of his wife and sets out to clear his name by finding out who actually did it. The films only notable feature is that it co-stars the great Barbara Shelley as a family friend/work colleague who helps Hamilton to unravel the mystery. The shortness of the film really cuts out any character beats or time to really raise any dramatic stakes, its all very quick and pulpish, really. A longer film might have worked up some film noir tropes but Deadly Record really doesn’t have the running time or resources. Which is a little odd, because the film does have an imaginative and rather successful title sequence, in which the main credits are the handwritten entries on the  pages of a diary being turned by hand in-front of the camera. It suggests a better film is about to follow but, er, it really doesn’t. Patterson is fairly wooden and Shelley has little to do but fawn over him. A pretty forgettable effort, really, but one suspects there really wasn’t much ambition for it to be anything else, and at least at just 58 minutes long it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Dagon wakes: Underwater (2020)

underw1I’ll be honest, I was predisposed to enjoy this film just because of the setting, and the surprising nods to Lovecraft only sealed the deal, so this possibly isn’t the most even-minded, judgemental of reviews. We’re just predisposed to like certain films, I guess.  James Cameron’s The Abyss, for all its faults, is one of my favourite films, and William Eubank’s somewhat ill-fated Underwater (what, not even a DVD release over here?) is like some kind of sequel or perhaps more precisely an  ‘anti-The Abyss’. In Cameron’s film our bold aquanauts meet Spielbergian good-guy aliens who just want us to play nice on the surface, whereas in Underwater our aquanauts meet up with beasties who want us to frak off and die horribly, but both films share the same blue-collar workers in the depths/gritty hardware/grungy reality tropes which nod back to Ridley Scott’s truckers-in-space Alien. The hardware is great in Underwater, particularly the deep-sea suits that they have to wear in order to survive the pressures of the depths and trek across the desolate ocean floor- they are hugely impressive and convincing.  

Underwater initially unfolds like an Irwin Allen disaster movie, with a bunch of survivors trapped in a stricken deep-sea mining platform trying to get back to the surface. The setting is well realised -if vaguely uninspiring/overly familiar, in a Deepcore/Nostromo kind of way- and the characters reasonably defined, our angst-ridden, moody heroine Norah (Kirstin Stewart) surprisingly androgynous as far as traditional heroines go. She manages to find some survivors in the ruins -Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), and wise-cracking comic relief Paul (T J Miller) and after a finely directed claustrophobic crawl-through-the -wreckage sequence they hook up with station commander Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) who has managed to see off the last of the crew in twenty-two surviving life-pods. Lucien and two other crew -Liam (John Gallagher Jr.) and Emily (Jessica Yu Li Henwick)- having now run out of lifepods are trying to find some other way off the station, and Norah and her bunch join the effort.  

underw2My biggest gripe regards the film is that it has clearly been edited down to its bare-bones: it literally starts with a bang, with the drilling station stricken by disaster. It’d be like starting The Abyss with the Deepcore rig being dragged to the edge of the, er, abyss, or Alien starting with the Nostromo landing on the planetoid.  We are not given any time as viewers to acclimatise ourselves with the setting or the premise or the characters, we are just thrown into it and the pace never really lets up over its slim 95-minute running time. The only real information about where we are and whats going on is given during the title sequence in the form of text/news cuttings, and that’s it- clearly this is a deliberate info-dump device which is bookended at the end, too.

This obviously betrays the film as a film of its time, as attention-deficit disorder viewers obviously have very valuable time that they don’t want to waste with movies establishing characterisation and drama in the old-fashioned ways, they just want to get to the action and then go out for a drink and pizza. Very often this kind of thing is done in films to disguise plot holes and bad logic- JJ Abrams is a master of this and Rise of Skywalker possibly the most heinous culprit of late- and its a pity, because Underwater doesn’t really have too many plot-holes it needs to hide away and it could have done with more running-time to establish its characters in more, er, depth (sic). Its hard to care for characters if you don’t know them, and while the film does manage to clearly define them as individuals it only does so by making them unfortunately very simplistic and one-dimensional. The brevity also damages the atmosphere of the film, lacking the time to deepen the mood and tension. Like many-if not all- modern films, Underwater lacks a really good score too: its score by genre veteran Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts is functional at best, and lacks the cloying, disturbing atmosphere, of say Elliot Goldenthal’s similarly-themed Sphere soundtrack.

So while I thoroughly enjoyed Underwater for what it is, there is always a frustrating sense that it could have been more, and that it betrays itself as a possibly troubled production (it was apparently finished in 2018 but left on the shelf for a few years waiting release). While I suppose I’m fooling myself to think there’s possibly a longer, superior extended Directors Cut out there that we’ll never see, I think I’d be right in thinking that if this film had been made in the 1970s or even 1980s, it would be two hours long and better-paced with proper character beats and an improved sense of tension. Like many modern films, this film in its final guise almost feels like a highlights reel, and its likely inevitable that if a studio starts cutting a two-hour movie to ninety minutes, it’ll keep the expensive effects sequences and cut the character stuff.

As it is, after a very limited cinema release earlier this year, Underwater has been dumped on digital rental services here in the UK, without even a DVD or Blu-ray release (never mind 4K UHD). Hey, its not exactly a genre classic but it deserves better. A film like Underwater, as dark as it is, can be particularly hurt by compression issues when streaming it, and to be frank it looked pretty horrible in some of the more frantic murky sequences on the Amazon stream I watched it on. Just another reason to bemoan the move away from physical formats- what a brave new world we have to look forward to, film fans. 


Family Plot (1976)

family1This is from the Shelf of Shame, right? Yep, this is one of those titles that I’ve had sitting un-watched on the shelf for years- in this case, its included in a Hitchcock Blu-ray boxset that I bought back in Sept 2013, which is, gasp, almost seven years ago, now. Family Plot was Hitchcock’s final film and is generally regarded as one of his lesser films so I never had much incentive to watch it (there’s still two other films in that box I haven’t seen yet, so as Darth once said “The shame is strong with this box!” (or something like that). 

So why now? Well, funnily enough it was watching A Severed Head the night before that got me thinking about Family Plot. Now, this is something about going into films utterly blind, in particular. With A Severed Head I expected a horror film or a murder mystery and got neither, and for some reason I also thought Family Plot was a murder mystery, maybe something like Knives Out, and as its from the same era as A Severed Head I just thought it might be timely or fitting… Films of a certain period, whether it be 1960s, 1970s or 1980s etc, they all seem to share a certain commonality in fashions and casting, even if they are wildly different in subject. I think you can get into a certain mood or frame of mind- witness in my case how I’ll have a spell watching Film Noir or Hammer films, sometimes. 

So whats it about? Well,  Family Plot is a comedy thriller, a far cry from the suspenseful nail-biting thriller’s of Hitchcock’s heyday, which is possibly why it has been so ill-regarded. In a way this is really an indication of him being a victim of his own success, as what could really measure up to North By Northwest or Rear Window or Psycho or Vertigo (my personal favourite of his films)? What likely really damns Family Plot is how much it looks like a TV movie, really. There’s no sense of scale or real ambition; its a relatively simple story albeit with the usual Hitchcock twists, but I think this possibly works in the films favour, as it enables some of the characters to actually shine. Blanche (Barbara Harris, who is lovely in this) is a phoney psychic who cons gullible old people out of money, assisted by her cab-driver boyfriend Frank (Bruce Dern, brilliant as always). They hit paydirt with a $10,000 reward (well, this was 1976, remember) if they can track down a rich old woman’s illegitimate nephew who was hidden away to avoid family shame four decades ago. This nephew stands to inherit the Rainbird  family estate worth millions, and while Blanche tells the old woman she will use spirit-world contacts to help her track the nephew down, in reality it will be her boyfriend cab-driver posing as a lawyer doing the decidedly amateur detective work between his cab-driving shifts.

Hey, that sounds pretty fun. Yes it does, doesn’t it, especially when its Bruce Dern doing the sleuthing, that guy is so great in everything. It actually gets better, because the nephew they are after has changed his name to Arthur Adamson (William Devane in fine form) who is a reputable city jeweller by day and a devious kidnapper by night, or something like that. With his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) he kidnaps wealthy people who he ransoms for diamonds. Adamson actually killed his foster-parents decades ago in a house fire (thus having to change his identity) so when he gets wind of Frank asking questions about him and tracking him down, he thinks its someone chasing down that old murder and decides that Frank and Blanche need to be done away with, especially as he has one last big kidnap in progress involving a Bishop (no, really).

Hmm, not bad. I know, right? Its really quite fun, and while it sits uncomfortably close to ‘TV-movie of the week’ territory in execution its really saved by the great cast. The supporting cast is pretty cool too, lots of familiar faces from TV cop shows of the period (which okay, only exacerbates the TV-movie feel of it, really, but you know, its certainly something of a nostalgic factor to it all). The film is quite witty too, and features a great sequence of Frank and Blanche’s car hurtling down a winding mountain road with no brakes and a stuck accelerator (the car having been tampered by one of Adamson’s goons). Going back to that ‘going into films blind’ I mentioned before, I think I’ll actually enjoy this one much more on second viewing, when I’m in the proper mindset of what to expect. Its a far better film than the frankly interminable Torn Curtain, another film from this Hitchcock box that I caught up with a while ago. 

A Severed Head (1971)

severedSo this is some kind of shocking Horror film, right? Er, well its certainly shocking. Seriously, I came into this (I’d never heard of it before, which in hindsight is not surprising) expecting a horror film or murder mystery, maybe something like a Hammer or Amicus film. Its actually a British comedy film, something to do with sexual politics, social etiquette… it was possibly one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen, utterly crazy and strange and…utterly impossible to sum up, really. Some kind of horror, certainly. Very British, back when that meant something, although quite what I’m not entirely sure. 

So whats it about, then? Well its set in the ‘present’ of 1971 but it seems wholly of the 1920s, something from that era. I’m sure even in 1971 it must have seemed terribly anachronistic, totally self-absorbed. In 2020? Crikey. The great Ian Holm, who sadly passed away not so long ago, stars in this looking very young with his film career long ahead of him, playing Martin Lynch-Gibbon, a wine merchant who is enjoying an affair with a mistress, Georgie (Jennie Linden), until his wife Antonia (Lee Remick), ignorant of Martins infidelity,  announces she is having an affair with Martins’ best friend, psychiatrist Palmer Anderson (Richard Attenborough) and that she wants a divorce. Palmer and Antonia’s biggest concern is that Martin doesn’t feel guilty about their affair, they must all stay good freinds. It seems everyone can behave like utter bastards, but the important thing is to be civil about it and don’t cause a fuss. I think Billy Wlder would have had a ball making a film like this, but er, it definitely is not the film Billy Wilder would have made.

severed2Well, what about the severed head, then? I really don’t know. Honor Klein (Claire Bloom) the enigmatic half-sister of Palmer (who Martin at one point finds in bed with Palmer, this is so messed up) makes some kind of speech quoting something about severed heads but it was lost on me. By the time she says it, Martin’s mistress is off with Martins brother Alexander (Clive Revell) and Martin is chasing after Honor despite her tryst with her half-brother whilst Palmer of course is supposedly living with Antonia. Utter cads, the lot of them, but at least they are polite. So very 1920s. Maybe its a study in self-obsessed people who are overwhelmed with self-gratification at the expense of all others, who think they can get away with being complete bastards as long as they are pleasant and civil about it. But how is that supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny in any sane world?

Er… Yes, exactly, Somehow its supposed to be funny, wildly sophisticated, maybe. The biggest shock is the cast- as you may have noted from my notes above, its a brilliant cast so badly wasted its almost criminal. Some of them seem to know they are in a farce, but perhaps director Dick Clement (yeah, he that wrote Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) hadn’t been told. Certainly I’m not so sure some of the cast were in on the joke.

Bet you came close to pressing the ‘Abort’ button. Yeah, oh boy so awfully close. Sometimes horrible calamities like this can be morbidly fascinating though, like you can’t quite believe what your eyes are seeing. 

Anything good about it? Well I did quite like the music score by Stanley Myers (who would later work on The Deer Hunter, of all things), an orchestral score which seemed to have a gentle, sweet, almost timeless life of its own within the film. It was the best thing about the film, for me. That music, and the frankly bizarre alien-world London of so long ago proved quite entertaining, but the latter’s true of any film of that era, its like some other world now, and quite oddly mesmerising. 

A Severed Head is on the Talking Pictures schedules should you feel the urge to hunt it down.



The Strange Journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter

Juno to JupiterIndeed, how strange. Vangelis has a new album coming out on September 25th, titled  Juno to Jupiter, which, in a similar way to both his 2001 Mythodea album and 2016 Rosetta album, is thematically tied to a space mission exploring the solar system. Vangelis has a deep interest in the cosmos and its wonders and as Carl Sagan discovered many years ago, his music is ideally suited to dealing with such futuristic/grand subjects. Anyway, that isn’t whats odd about it. The odd thing is that I’m listening to the album now, have been enjoying it for several days in fact. Have I used a Time Machine to travel to the future and pick up a copy of the maestro’s latest work in order to bring it back to this grim summer of isolation, social distancing and working at home?

In a nod to a sign o’ the times (sorry, Prince), it was announced several weeks ago that Vangelis had this new album coming out soon, but that it would first be released as a digital download, only coming out later on CD. This has happened increasingly over the past few years- Watertower Music, for instance, has released soundtracks to HBO shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld on digital as soon as  their respective seasons have aired, only bringing out CD editions a few months later (I seem to recall Max Richter’s Ad Astra soundtrack album also had a delayed physical release). No doubt many musicians have done the same, but Vangelis finally going the digital route first seems, well, just a further indication of the shift away from physical releases and is a bit annoying in truth. I also think there are so few factories actually producing CDs, Blu-rays, Game discs etc now (I actually read awhile back that it was as few as four worldwide, I have no idea if that’s true), that there is a long waiting list perhaps only exasperated by Covid 19, and that many new film releases on DVD/Blu-ray have had limited initial runs creating some shortages at retail.

The original news of the album coming out was unofficial, just the usual Internet Grapevine, lacking any release date info, although someone involved in the album, Soprano Angela Gheorghiu, originally mentioned a July date that clearly never happened. It would seem however that an August date was possibly originally intended, because a music news website suddenly announced an August 7th release date for the digital version, and immediately an online store suddenly started selling it. It should be noted that his was a reputable online store of classical music (based in the UK) which I was familiar with myself, that has been in business for nearly twenty years online and with a high street store longer than that. The album didn’t appear on Amazon or other vendors though, who still  didn’t even have the album up for pre-order. It would seem someone had jumped the gun, and since this online store clearly had the music files there would seem some credence to the possibility that August was an original release date that was at some point deferred, possibly to ensure it could get a proper marketing/publicity push in the meantime. Maybe both the site that issued the news about August 7th and the store that sold it didn’t get the memo that Covid had possibly spoiled/delayed yet another party.

Ha, ha, there’s a thought- Vangelis suddenly has something in common with James Bond and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.

I don’t know how digital releases work, or how close to a release date content files etc are distributed out to retail outlets. I know with physical releases stocks of CDs/vinyl albums tend to arrive from warehouses a week or so prior to release date, but digital files? Like cinemas having digital copies of movies on secure hard-drives, digital is all smoke and mirrors to me, and pretty much irrelevant as I’m old-school physical.

So anyway, many Vangelis fans eagerly went to the online store and bought a copy that weekend. I didn’t hear of this till a day or two later, when it was announced as a leak -which I suppose it was, even though it wasn’t a case of someone simply illegally uploading an album onto YouTube or a file-sharing site for the sea-faring mob wearing eye-patches. Fans were buying the album like any other retail purchase, and I assume at least some of the money went to the label/Vangelis, but the label and Vangelis’ team weren’t too impressed and immediately ordered the site to remove the album from sale, questioning its authenticity and stating its proper release date of September 25th (elsewhere it seemed to become established that the CD was getting released on November 6th). The online store dutifully removed it from sale.

Fans able to have purchased the album and listened to it described it as very good and a welcome addition to the maestro’s discography, with flavours of Rosetta and Mythodea, while some professed amused bemusement that it might not actually be Vangelis’ album, but some sort of sophisticated Replicant instead (see what I did there?). The album was quickly becoming as fabled and notorious as his original limited edition release of El Greco.  Confusion reigned triumphant. As a longtime fan of Vangelis (since the late 1970s and the glory of his Nemo days) I was naturally annoyed to have missed out on the opportunity to buy the album – I’d be buying the CD edition, naturally, but getting the chance to hear it a few months early for a few quid would prove impossible to resist. Its a few more coppers in the bank for Vangelis and his label and maybe would improve its sales record- I’m pretty sure, after all, that these early digital releases are at least partly about getting fans to double-dip, and take advantage of their fandom/eagerness. Its done with movies these days and I’m always  amused at the daftness of folks buying digital downloads to see a film a few weeks before their Blu-ray copy arrives, people want everything NOW these days, unable to wait. But films are one thing, Vangelis quite another- I’m sure I would not be alone in buying a CD copy after the download, and I’m also pretty sure others would go one step further and buy the vinyl album edition if/when it comes. Oh well, it immediately seemed purely hypothetical.

And then a few days later the online store put the album up for sale again. Maybe it was getting released after all. Confusion reigned triumphant once more. Fans online in newsgroups etc were perplexed, what was going on? Still didn’t appear on Amazon or other sites yet (indeed as I type this, it still hasn’t, oddly enough). But I couldn’t resist. I’ll be honest, as daft as it might seem to many, had it been a file posted on the ‘net to download for free, I wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole, but what seemed to be a legitimate retail transaction? Less than a tenner to listen to a new Vangelis album while sitting at my desk here in my spare bedroom/man-cave being miserable ‘at work’? The next morning I noticed that the album had been removed from sale again. Locked away for a few more weeks, I expect.

You know, I quite wish for the old days, the simpler times, and that Vangelis and the label had simply released it on CD at the same time as digital, whether it be September or November. I have no idea how often this kind of thing happens but it does seem a bit farcical, more akin to how our current Government here chooses to run our country. Juno to Jupiter is a wonderful album and vintage Vangelis (I suspect it isn’t a sophisticated Replicant, but if it is, its hoodwinked me, and I’ve been listening to the maestro’s music for decades. It really doesn’t deserve to have been subject to this strange journey. I would be absolutely fascinated to learn what went wrong, how and why, regards its preemptive/aborted release, maybe that info will come out. Seems all rather bonkers. Something to do with living in an increasingly digital world, with so many of us still pining for the analogue world of our past. I think back to the pre-internet, and being so pleasantly surprised and elated at an advert for Vangelis’ album Direct, out just a week later as if out of nowhere…

Out of respect to Vangelis, I won’t be posting a review of the album until its release date, and I shall of course be pre-ordering the CD as soon it is becomes available to do so, so it can join all my other Vangelis albums in my collection. I will just point out that in these days of lockdown and working from home and all this other Covid 19 madness, this music has been a very helpful tonic. Its a great, great album with some genuine surprises, and is a big improvement on Rosetta (an album I liked but never really loved).  As usual for Vangelis, the magic is in how lushly romantic the music is, and how his electronic textures evoke the ancient past as well as the distant future. I don’t know how he does it, but it never gets old. Deeply emotive and following a narrative that mirrors the odyssey of discovery that Juno represents, the music is at turns symphonic, funky in a jazzy sort of way (no doubt that/s Vangelis improvising all the time), uplifting, scary… its Vangelis at his very best, albeit lacking that particular Nemo sound that I am so attached to (Vangelis must be so weary of old fans like me). As well as Mythodea and Rosetta, I’d also note a surprising similarity to some of Oceanic. Definitely an album anyone interested in Vangelis’ music should be looking out for when it is finally, properly released in September (or November, depending on format).

What a strange, crazy Covid world we live in these days. But I have to say, Juno to Jupiter has just been making it easier. Bravo, Vangelis, as always.

The Night Clerk (2020)

nite1Oh boy, this was a strange one: a bit of a murder/crime thriller by way of arthouse cinema – on the one hand too sophisticated for its own good, on the other clearly too simplistic and conveniently plotted to really enthral.  Its saving grace is two great performances – Tye Sheridan is utterly convincing as Bart, the titular hotel night clerk with Asperger Syndrome, and Ana de Armas quite beguiling as the troubled beautiful hotel guest Andrea. The two characters strike up an unlikely friendship and their scenes together prove to be the strongest part of the movie. Its when they are offscreen that the film falters.

The films central premise is that Bart is highly intelligent albeit socially awkward and isolated, and in an attempt to improve his social skills he has used his technical talents to put cameras and microphones in some of the hotel rooms with which to study the behaviour of the guests. The film doesn’t really spend any of the time that Kubrick or Lynch might have used to examine what voyeuristic kicks Bart gets out of it, instead it quickly leads into a murder thriller when Bart witnesses a female guest getting murdered and his attempt to stop it (and later hide his bugging equipment etc) only gets him implicated as a suspect. The police, led by Detective Espada (a pretty much wasted John Leguizamo who possibly dropped in for a few days easy work) consider Bart their chief suspect but while they get closer to what Bart has been doing, spying on the guests etc, Bart strikes up a connection with another female guest who quickly becomes the possible next victim.

I do just want to raise something that bugged the shit out of me watching this movie- what the hell happened to Helen Hunt? She plays Bart’s mother, Ethel, and I’d watched her first scene thinking the role was being played by some ill-cast and stiff-looking incredibly poor actress only for Claire to inform me “that’s Helen Hunt“.  Now, I have to be careful here- it seems clear to me that she has had some kind of surgery and I have no idea whether it is related to some accident or illness, but if this was purely cosmetic its a hideous failure. I’ve always liked and admired Helen Hunt, she was great in all the films I’ve ever seen her in – Trancers, The Bucket List, Twister, Cast Away, admittedly I’ve not caught her in anything for several years- but good grief, her face seems to have one expression now (concerned frown)  and that’s it. It bugged me throughout the film, really bothered and distracted me, damn near ruined the film. Why can’t Hollywood allow its ladies to age gracefully and naturally? I’m probably being grossly unfair and inappropriate towards her but its just how I felt watching her in this. It looked like she was wearing prosthetics or something.

So anyway, the film was fine albeit disturbing for all the wrong reasons. Its one of those films that stretches credibility too far, and I suppose therefore individual mileage may vary when watching it. I was quite enamoured by Ana de Armas, as is becoming usual- I was so impressed by her in BR2049 and most recently Knives Out, and again she really is great here. I wonder if she may be slipping too easily into similar roles and maybe she should rebel against what may be the usual typecasting, but regards what this role requires of her she is quite excellent. You can’t bemoan an actor just doing well what he or she is given to work with, character-wise. She’s beautiful and emotive with those amazing eyes… I hope to see her in future in something more challenging and at odds with the parts of seen her in up to now.  Her one failing in this is that I suspect she could have done with a little more darkness, I was split as to whether she was genuinely being  caring towards Bart or just being manipulative- the end of the film takes this weird, not utterly convincing turn.

Anyway, I quite enjoyed the film but its clearly one of those films lost on Netflix that only needs watching when there’s nothing else out there of any interest, and considering all the stuff on Netflix, whats the odds of that? Eventually people will stumble upon it and they may be bored stiff, they may be enthralled. I wonder just how many will realise that’s Helen Hunt up on the screen without a WTF moment upon them seeing her name on the credits.