The 2020 List: September

Well there goes September, and a pretty extraordinary month for watching all sorts of different films from across several decades. I even managed to post reviews of the majority of them too, with just a very few slipping through the blogpost net, so I’m pleased with that- managed to place 22 posts this month, in fact.

Regards my annual count, I’ve reached the grand total of 170 now, leaving me in a good position to hit the big 200 by year’s end. What may scupper further progress with that to some degree is an overdue need to start returning to more television shows, a to-watch list of which is getting quite out of hand now. Television seasons inevitably take up more time than films, with it taking several days to complete a season of a show, but I’ll just have to see how that goes. New seasons of The Umbrella Academy and The Boys have joined titles like Mindhunter, Westworld, Outlander, The Man in the High Castle, Stranger Things and Border Town which have new or outstanding seasons that slipped past me over the past several months, as well some shows that I haven’t started at all. There’s certainly all sorts of content just piling up. I know, first-world problems and all that.

Still, the nights are drawing in and local lockdowns such as my area is now living in don’t seem to get relaxed any time soon, they just seem to become the ‘new normal’, so you never know. I could retitle this year’s blog posts as ‘the Covid 200′ yet. What a strange and horrible year, and it already seems that 2021 might be a sequel/’Part Two’. I just hope it doesn’t stretch into a trilogy, thankyou very much but I’ve had quite enough already.

So anyway, here’s the list for the month-


161) The Duchess

162) Challenger: The Final Flight


151) Nothing But the Night (1973)

152) They Came From Beyond Space (1967)

153) i’m thinking of ending things (2020)

154) Under Suspicion (2000)

155) Bumblebee (2018)

156) City That Never Sleeps (1953)

157) The Man Who Finally Died (1963)

158) I Walk Alone (1947)

159) Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

160) The Devil All the Time (2020)

163) The Hand of Night (1968)

164) Doctor Sleep: Directors Cut (2019)

165) The Cranes Are Flying (1957)

166) Timeslip (1955)

167) Enola Holmes (2020)

168) Machine Gun McCain (1969)

169) The Dark Mirror (1946)

170) Betty Blue – Directors Cut (1986)

The Abort Button – Both The Hand of Night and Machine Gun McCain came awfully close, but yes, my capacity for pain, irritation and boredom survived the test and, as that guy from Indians Jones & the Last Crusade observed, I chose wisely, again for another month. 

Betty Blue and the Shelf of Shame

bettyI never knew a girl like Betty. I suppose young men can only dream of ever meeting a girl like Betty- gorgeous and sexy and wild and adventurous. I’m sure some lucky guys in their youth actually do meet girls like Betty, and some might even survive it, but I’m not sure my tender young self back then would, and I think I knew it, even then. I think I’d have been like a fragile butterfly caught in a storm; someone like Betty would have just destroyed me. Betty is a force of nature, untameable, vivacious and sexy and crazy and self-destructive, a sex-siren turned Black Hole pulling everyone around her into her orbit and dragging them down to her Event Horizon. If Betty Blue was a film noir it’d end with a world-weary detective shaking his head stating that “no man can ever tame a woman like her.” As it is, the film ends on a crushingly sad, but somehow life-affirming note – the latter a surprising touch. What did I write a few days ago, about The Cranes Are Flying? That the best love stories seldom end well? 

So I finally -finally!- got around to watching Betty Blue. I’ve had that film on the shelf since I bought it back in November 2013. It’s the Second Sight edition, a two-disc set in a neat cardboard slipcase. Betraying its age, the film is on a Blu-ray (theatrical and Directors cuts) and the second disc with the extras is a DVD. Admittedly, I bought it on a whim, but its been sitting there close on seven years. The toughest disc on the Shelf of Shame, starring back at me all this time, teasing me, taunting me.

I think part of the reason it has taken so long is that, having never seen the theatrical cut, I’d heard the Directors Cut from 2005 was the preferred version, and its just over three hours long, so its not as easy to schedule as most. Even my favourite films that I absolutely adore, if they run that long or longer (I’m thinking Once Upon a Time in America, mostly, but you know, there’s others like Spartacus or Ben Hur and many others) I rarely get around to re-watching them, certainly not as often as I’d like.

My mate Andy had a copy of Betty Blue on VHS back in the late ‘eighties. He had the soundtrack on cassette. God, just mentioning those old formats is like some kind of history lesson. Watching Betty Blue last night, I kept hearing moments of the lovely, evocative Gabriel Yared score suddenly remembering it from Andy’s cassette that he’d sometimes play. It was like years -decades!- slipping away. You can tell Betty Blue is a film of the 1980s. There is just something about it. Something in the cinematography, that music score… Its a VHS movie.

betty2Betty Blue is a (very) erotic love story/psychological drama, from 1986. Its original French title is 37° 2 le matin, meaning “37.2°C in the morning” but I guess it was inevitable that it would get a simpler, easier-to-market title for foreign markets. It was certainly rarer back then, I think, for foreign films to get seen over here. You have to remember, it was still the era of pan and scan, of VHS rentals and zero importing of films that people do today (DVD really changed everything in that regard). At the time Betty Blue I remember was all the rage, a fairly iconic film in its visuals, its unforgettable main character, its graphic sex etc. I seem to recall the poster seemed to be everywhere, a fashion statement in itself.

Zorg  (Jean-Hughes Anglade) is an aspiring-but-failed writer eking out some kind of lowlife living as a handyman for a community of beach properties (wooden bungalows/shacks) at a low-rent seaside resort. He has met Betty (Beatrice Dalle, in, incredibly, her debut) and the film tells the story of their wildly passionate, all-consuming love affair. Tellingly, we don’t actually see the moment when they meet, or how they met. The film opens with them making love in Zorg’s shack on the beach. Its soon clear that there is something wild about Betty, something of a force of nature- they have a row and she behaves like a child having a tantrum, and a later argument with Zorg’s sleazy boss ends with her emptying the shacks contents on the beach and then burning the shack down. 

The film has an episodic nature, which surprised me (don’t know why exactly; maybe the idyllic beach scenes were so lovely I just expected to stay there soaking it in for all the three-hour movie). With Zorg’s shack burned down its obvious they have to move on, this time to a Paris suburb where one of Betty’s freinds, a widow, Lisa (Consuelo de Haviland), runs a slowly disintegrating hotel. I don’t know if its deliberate, but everywhere that Zorg and Betty go to live, is a dump. Their surroundings are always dusty and rusty and falling apart. Maybe that’s a deliberate choice- well, everything in a film is, really- to contrast their passionate affair and sexual freedom with their old surroundings, youth against age, life against entropy. Betty’s burning so bright against all of that, so bright she can’t help but burn herself out.  

So Zorg and Betty meet different people, we witness the relationships that play out. There are some wonderful strange and kooky and endearing characters. Its very European. There’s no English reserve on display here.

The common thread throughout all this is Betty’s wild moodswings. Its not clear what in particular triggers her off, sometimes it just seems that she can’t adapt to life or the world not going along with what she wants or expects. In that respect, she’s a lot like a child. Moments of friction or disappointment seem to throw her into a dark rage, at first externalising on things like Zorg’s possessions or his shack, but later becoming turned upon herself. From the start people warn Zorg that she’s crazy, and maybe Zorg knows it, but he’s in love. Its easy for people on the outside to see it and be dispassionate about it, but Zorg is inside it, inside her storm, caught up in her breathless ecstasies and terrible funks. While we share their passionate affair we can be detached as viewers enough to realise its not going to end well.

Betty Blue is a glorious MOVIE. Its this hugely passionate, intoxicating adventure with an inevitable gloomy finale. Its one of those films that you experience. Quite a ride. 

The Dark Mirror (1946)

DM1I watched Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror as it was included within Arrow’s Blu-ray boxset ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ which I bought a few months back (two of its titles that I’ve seen since being Force of Evil and The Big Combo). The Dark Mirror concerns the murder of a doctor, and thanks to witnesses there is an obvious suspect- but unfortunately for the frustrated police detective handling the case, the suspect has an identical  twin sister with a cast-iron alibi. Unable to distinguish which sister is which, the investigation collapses.

It sounds like a film noir, and indeed it opens like a noir, with a gliding camera accompanied by moody music entering an apartment and slowly unveiling the scene of the crime and the body with a knife in its back. Unfortunately the tone of the film appears to be all over the place not really helped by the curious casting of Thomas Mitchell prefiguring his dizzy Uncle Billy from Its a Wonderful Life (which was made in the same year, but came out at the start of 1947, so I assume The Dark Mirror was shot first). Mitchell’s Police Lt. Stevenson is too light-hearted with humorous lines lightening the mood – the character needed to be someone darker, more obsessed with the crime and maddened by the frustration of knowing a killer has escaped the law. Someone like Kirk Douglas, say, in the role would have raised the film to some other level entirely. As it is, the comic relief of the detective feels ill-placed and hurts the film: at one early point establishing the character, Stevenson’s dismissive comment about “Chinese music” is accompanied by composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s intentionally comedic quote of such music, a moment that seems something straight of a comedy. 

Likewise the film had a real opportunity to be really dark and noir by playing up the difficulty identifying the twins. Once it has established they are both totally identical and the police case is thwarted, the film then has the two women wearing necklaces with their names (‘Ruth’ and ‘Terry’) so we always know who is who, bizarrely undermining their own defence, unless of course the women are switching necklaces. 

What makes the film succeed as a thriller (if not a noir) is the brilliant performance/s of Olivia de Haviland who plays the twin sisters. The film employs split screens and some opticals to excellent effect to allow de Havilland to be onscreen as the two characters at the same time (moving shots enabled by a double viewed from the rear). While the technical aspects might take the plaudits, the real success of the conceit is the timing and acting skills necessary for her to have convincing conversations with herself (actually seperate shots filmed apart). It really is impressive, a real tour de force. The lady was a hell of an actress, no doubt.

Its just such a pity that the film didn’t really go as dark as it might have, had it been what I would consider a ‘true’ or genuine film noir- had we not been able to be quite certain in the film which twin de Havilland is playing at any one time, mirroring the confusion of the police, then the film would have been a labyrinth of suspicion and doubt- indeed, a really fine noir might have ended maintaining the uncertainty of whether the correct twin had been accused of the crime and sent to the Electric Chair. Such mind-games were probably considered a step too far for audiences of 1946, because as I’ve noted, the girls wear necklaces throughout the remainder of the film and its fairly obvious which is the killer (the script/director can’t help but push de Havilland into playing one darker than the other, something which seems to pass Mitchell’s dizzy detective by). At one point they even have one of the twins dressed in white, the other in black- subtle, not.

The film also slips into traditional melodrama by having psychiatrist Dr.Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), brought in by Stevenson to try deduce which of the twins is actually the killer, then falling in love with the ‘good’ twin. Considering this twin was the one who was likely getting engaged to the doctor who was shown murdered at the start of the film just a few days earlier, its remarkable that the twin reciprocates his feelings immediately rather than be in mourning for awhile. This last point had me intrigued, considering that perhaps both twins were ‘in’ on the crime, and that they were actually both responsible, but the film failed to go that way.

I enjoyed the film but was frustrated, really, by the film not being quite the film noir I expected or hoped it to be. In the end its a routine romantic thriller/crime drama with very slight noir undertones, memorable mainly for the remarkable performance/s of Olivia de Havilland. That said, its a hell of a star turn and itself makes the film worthy of repeat viewings and some admiration. Just such a pity the film could not have maintained an even, darker tone throughout.    

I Walk Alone (1947)

walkI was rather frustrated by this one- a film noir starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (the first of several films they would appear in together) which also features Lisbeth Scott, who was so good in Dark City, which I saw a little while ago, albeit here in a fairly insipid role that’s unworthy of her. This film on paper promises so much but I don’t think it really worked. It gets bogged down with the frustrations of Frankie Madison (Lancaster) who has returned to his old haunts of New York after 14 years in prison to find he has been betrayed by his bootlegging partner Noll Turner (Douglas). Turner has no intention of honouring their deal to share in the proceeds of the criminal business they partnered in and that Madison did time for. The film seems to get so burdened with it -Madison takes an irritatingly long time for it to dawn upon him that he’s being ditched- and gets further weighed down by the unlikeliest of sudden romances when he seems to make an unlikely connection with Turner’s girl, Kay (Scott), who is getting strung along and ultimately betrayed, too, by Turner.

Yeah Turner’s quite a cad, yet another who seems to think he can go clean and turn his criminal empire into a legit business. Indeed the basic plot is very familiar, a trope of many crime/mobster flicks. In Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America Max looked after Noodles interests while he did time inside but ultimately when his own ambitions turn to going legit he realises he has to cut Noodles loose in similar fashion to how Turner wants to cut Madison out here. In America, Max’s betrayal of Noodles is complete -he even gets Noodles girl- but here Turner proves undone by his overconfidence and his woman scorned.

Douglas is very good as the lousy slime-ball Turner; the actor had a natural bent to such roles and to me his intensity always made him a more convincing villain, or flawed anti hero, than a traditional leading man (see his magnificent performance in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole). I think much of this is just Douglas’ strong personality, his obvious drive and apparent ruthlessness in the real world as an ambitious Hollywood player that leaked into his performances (or maybe I’m reading too much into it).

In any case, its impressive that Douglas manages to hold his own against the man-mountain Lancaster, whose massive physique is quite intimidating when measured against everyone around him. While he snarls and clenches his fists its easy to accept him as a thuggish brute, the brawn against Turner’s brains who realises he’s been wronged and sees violence as his only recourse, but his performance often slips over towards the over-dramatic, lacking the subtlety of Douglas, and as I’ve noted, there seems little convincing about his sudden romance with Kay. It feels tacked-on.

Ultimately the film fails to be the sum of its parts, but maybe my real issue is just that over-familiarity of the plot, which is likely more to do with all the films made in the decades since than a fault in the film itself, which may have seemed quite original back in 1947. I suppose what seems predictable in 2020 can sometimes just be the benefit of  hindsight from all the films between: the cross we film fans just have to bear.

Vangelis’ incomplete Juno to Jupiter

Incomplete? Well there’s a twist for those of us who bought the download back in August. The saga of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter continues, with various updates suggesting release dates in October or even December- and a tracklist with an additional track at the close of the album, entitled Cosmos Autopator, which is either a vinyl-exclusive bonus track (God I hope not) or an addition to the album which was erroneously sold in August and which perhaps caused the delay in the first place (can you imagine Vangelis’ team screaming at Decca “You’re missing a final track!”). The cynic in me might suggest that Vangelis or his team decided to revise the track listing to ensure those who bought the album in August will need to buy it again when it eventually comes, but hey, we would anyway, right? Fans want their physical copy on CD or vinyl. Actually I think an additional track would prove a welcome bonus. Oh well, the strange journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter continues to confound, and I keep on holding fire on my review.

Machine Gun McCain (1969)

machineI’m not certain what I was expecting from this, but I was quite surprised when it turned out to be some kind of trashy Italian crime flick partly filmed on location in San Francisco and Las Vegas (with interiors shot in Rome). Starring Peter Falk,  John Cassavetes and Brit Ekland, I’d expected something very, very different, but most of the remaining cast (notably Gabriele Ferzetti, of Once Upon a Time in the West fame) are obviously Italian actors and the film is dubbed as horribly as only these Italian exploitation flicks can be. Coupled by a score from Ennio Morricone, this is a crime flick with some kind of identity crisis.

The film is so intent on being shocking and edgy (as far as one could get back in the 1960s) that it loses any credibility – I suppose its the kind of thing that Quentin Tarantino might champion as being ‘cool’ but its far from it. Its really pretty bad. Cassavetes, as the titular anti-hero, is terribly wasted, his character behaving in oddly incoherent ways that spoils any credibility to his performance (he robs from the mob but has no escape plan to get away?), and Brit Ekland looks pretty but strangely lacks any real chemistry with Cassavetes, rather undermining a film that is evidently trying to depict them as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.

Not doing the film any favours was the print shown on the Talking Pictures channel being some horrid pan and scan version- I thought such travesties were a thing of the past, but I guess a channel as small-fry as Talking Pictures (transmitting out of someone’s back garden, essentially, which is almost cyberpunk when you think about it) just has to work with what its non-existent operating budget gets. I got so confused by one typically cartoonish (oh, so Italian) gunfight that I had to stop and rewind the film slightly to make sense of the framing etc. and deduce exactly who was shooting who.

The story is extremely silly, with characters displaying remarkable stupidity, with terrible dialogue that is possibly badly-translated Italian, and the editing is so very poor (again, not helped here by the pan and scan butchery) I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of those really bad cut-to-ribbons tv versions frequently inflicted upon us back in the 1970s. Maybe on a widescreen DVD or Blu-ray its a longer, uncut film with original framing but imagining that makes it a better film is probably still a stretch.

Timeslip (1955)

timesFilm titles can be something of a trap. Take Timeslip, for instance, a British b-movie whose title suggests one thing but actually turns out to be referencing something else. The film opens at night, with a man being chased until he is shot and falls into the Thames. Subsequently the man is pulled out of the water by police, barely alive. A news reporter Mike Delaney (Gene Nelson), recognises the man from another news story- its Dr. Stephen Rayner (Peter Arne), an Atomic scientist from a research lab nearby. However, Delaney’s claims are discounted by police who later check and find Dr Rayner busy working in the lab- which raises the obvious question, who is that man recovering in hospital, who is too dazed and incoherent to properly communicate?

Well its certainly an intriguing premise and suggests an interesting mystery. My immediate theory, encouraged by the films title, was that perhaps the wounded man was indeed Dr Rayner, but somehow from the future, attempting to warn of some danger about the experiments in the Atomic lab but thwarted by his assailant. Its all very Twelve Monkeys really, when you think about it. Alas, I was way off the mark, even though the solution to the mystery was possibly even dafter than my own (and considering mine featured time travel, that may indicate how wild this films plot proves to be, involving plastic surgery, a maniac South American industrialist, and a near-death experience knocking someone’s brain out of whack). 

The film was retitled The Atomic Man (for US markets, presumably) which in hindsight is probably a better and more fitting title (at last it would have saved me from wasted speculations about time travel). Its really a pretty preposterous, badly executed effort that just gets dafter as it goes along- there’s some dated sexual attitudes which gets cringeworthy and gains a few unintended titters, endless smoking etc. The most notable thing about the film was Donald Gray in the cast, whose voice is instantly recognisable from Gerry Anderson’s 1960s Captain Scarlett and the Mysterons, in which he voiced Colonel White. Other than that, an instantly forgettable effort which further proves that there’s often a reason why some films are so obscure.

Enola Holmes (2020)

ENOLA HOLMESReady your sedatives, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fans, because Enola Holmes features the most inappropriate casting of Sherlock Holmes that I can possibly imagine- just how grossly wrong is Henry Cavill as the consulting detective? He’s standing there like he’s still wearing his Superman outfit under all that Victorian garb, ready to leap out of a window or into a telephone booth (good luck with that in Victorian London) at any moment. Its really quite a pity they didn’t have him wearing the deerstalker hat, that would have been absolutely hilarious. I have to confess to feeling some sympathy for Cavill, he’s a good actor (I remember his early days, when he was one of the best things in the ridiculous romp The Tudors, some years ago) but he’s physically such an imposing figure now… I always think he’s too big even as Superman (and his Clark Kent always prompts a titter, the meek unassuming ace reporter sports such a man-mountain physique) so whenever he is cast as an ordinary joe it doesn’t work. I imagine its a casting problem that might haunt him for years to come, until he at least leaves the DC hero behind and maybe bulks down a little. Becomes a little more ordinary. I appreciate Sherlock Holmes is hardly ordinary himself, its an extraordinary character, but he’s surely not such a muscle-bound brute or clean-cut, decent guy as Cavill appears- Holmes is a master of disguise, its just as well Cavill doesn’t have to demonstrate such a talent in this film (“My Goodness, Holmes, I would never have guessed it was you posing as that emaciated tramp in the street!”).

So moving away from that most inappropriate piece of casting, how is Enola Holmes? Its pretty good nonsense, really, for what it is. Based on the first of a series of books, The Enola Holmes Mysteries,  written by Nancy Springer, the film was apparently something of a pet project for actress Millie Bobby Brown who co-produced the film as well as stars in the title role. I thought it was a Netflix original, but I’ve since read that it was a Warner Bros movie intended for theatrical release which was later purchased by Netflix because of release issues caused by the Covid pandemic. I  think this rather saves the film- Netflix seems the perfect home for fluff such as this, and I can imagine a teenage-targeted, family friendly film such as this might certainly get a bigger immediate audience than had this been released in cinemas.

enola1Millie Bobby Brown is quite brilliant as the title character, and her relationship with the camera is at times quite extraordinary, especially when she almost breaks character mid-scene to break the fourth wall and share something with the audience. Its a really endearing performance and lifts the film from its rather formulaic, albeit endearingly escapist, roots. Enola Holmes is fun, albeit one of those typical Hollywood projects that seems to think it deserves an A-list cast that leaves one expecting something more than it is really is, or likely even intends to be.

It will be interesting to see, if this is really successful on Netflix, where the future lies for what is evidently intended to be a franchise. Will they try to take a second film back to cinemas, or will they tone down the budget and scale (this being Netflix of course, they may not need to) and bring any future instalments direct to the streaming giant? Is it, indeed, another indication of the seismic shift away from theatrical distribution and towards home streaming etc?

So anyway, harmless fun. Except for hardcore fans of the consulting detective, who may be horrified by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters going all, er, Harry Potter, but hey, that’s Public Domain for you…

The Cranes Are Flying (1957)

cranes1The best love stories are the sad ones, the ones of unrequited love or tragic love, the ones in which lovers do not skip happily into a rosy dawn or sultry sunset. What makes La La Land such a genuine pleasure (and its not lost on me, the strangeness of referencing La La Land when opening this review of Mikhail Kalatozov’s astonishing 1957 film), is that La La Land‘s ending is so bittersweet and tinged with such sadness, the lovers forever parted, the ending suddenly giving the film some meaning, some resonance, some weight, transforming everything we have seen before, its romantic, Hollywood-musical saccharine-soaked sweetness given sudden counterpoint.  There is no sweetness in The Cranes Are Flying, or if there is, its fleeting. This is a powerful and almost Shakespearean love story (I often thought of the doomed lovers of Romeo and Juliet during the film), and would be memorable if only for that. What makes the film a revelation, however, is in its execution, the sheer bravura on display in a richly cinematic experience.

The camerawork in this film is just breath-taking in its audacity. Sometimes it is breathlessly intimate, extreme close-ups with faces filling the frame, so much so you almost imagine you could feel their breath, and at others the camera lifts up and away, pulling back to reveal vast, crowd-filled scenes that spring to mind the work of Sergio Leone or David Lean. A few moments it almost pulled me out of the movie, mentally considering the difficulty in organising/rehearsing/executing such complex visual choreography. And then there are the other times, when the camera is like a thing alive, wildly kinetic and racing through scenes breathlessly, mirroring the emotional state of the character/s. 

It was a similar experience to first watching Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane so many years ago- the sense of witnessing consummate film-making, bold experimentation in story-telling, Pure Cinema.

It left The Cranes Are Flying feeling very modern, here in 2020. What it must have seemed like when it first came out and in the early 1960s, I cannot really fathom, but I can imagine it seemed quite astonishing.  In a sense, its a film out of time, permanently detached from when it was created: one of those films that we describe as timeless. Most films made today lack the creativity and imagination displayed in this films every frame. Maybe that’s just as well- if every film were made like this, it would be exhausting.

cranes4Even above this amazing film-making stands the intensely impressive performance of Tatiana Samoilova as Veronica, the lover left at home while her fiancé Boris (Alexi Batalov) goes off to war. Samoilova dominates the film, a performance which refuses to be overshadowed by that incredible camera. She is a dark beauty at times aloof and beguiling, at others dark and gloomy, at others a wild fury, but always she is enchanting. Something in her eyes, perhaps. In any case, its remarkable that she holds her own against all the impressive film-making at play throughout this film. I wonder what she was like in her other films.

The Cranes Are Flying is clearly one of my best discoveries of 2020; I am always heartened by making such discoveries, thinking of all those great films out there that I have not yet seen, and perhaps also a little sad realising all those great films I will never see.

So what is The Cranes Are Flying? As readers may have gathered, its a Russian film, made in the post-Stalin era in 1957, when film-makers were enjoying new creative freedom. The film is a romance, a tale of a love affair swept up in Russia’s headlong rush into war. Its well-written, with clearly defined characters and, as I have noted, breath-takingly shot. Nearly every scene is beautiful to look at, exquisitely framed. The two lovers, Veronica and Boris, are seen at the beginning of the film blissfully unaware of the doom fast approaching, and the world events that will tear them apart. After a night out together, morning has come, and as they walk the deserted streets towards home, they notice a flock of cranes flying, high in the sky, and plan another date which never comes. The framing of every shot hints at the care and attention attached to this film.

cranes2Their affair is no secret, but as if guilty of how late it is, they each furtively return to their respective family homes, and in the interactions with their family members the film perfectly establishes the various relationships and dynamics in economical fashion. War is coming, and out of patriotic duty, Boris enlists, much to his fathers horror. Veronica is perhaps last to learn. 

After a remarkably-shot sequence in which Boris and his fellow recruits gather to depart, and Veronica vainly rushes past tanks and through crowds to say goodbye, the film chiefly stays with Veronica and the home-front, only briefly switching across to Boris’ sobering experiences on the front line. It is clear that Veronica and her experiences are the focus of the film, rather than those of her lover. Partly this is to maintain the mystery that Veronica feels, unable to find news regards whether Boris is alive. Two seperate air-raids devastate Veronica; the first costing her her parents, the second her personal dignity at the hands of Boris’ cousin Mark who is obsessed with claiming Veronica for himself (this a particularly expressionist sequence which is one of the most impressive of any film I have ever seen, a purely cinematic representation of almost apocalyptic sexual violence and quite horrifying). Veronica is left broken and lost and yearning for her lover, suffering the many deprivations of the civilians back home as war threatens to ruin everything and everyone. 

cranes3When the end comes, its one that makes perfect sense, and totally works, even if it feels rather brutal and quite devastating. I’d vainly hoped for a positive outcome, and while the film manages to end with a life-affirming sentiment, nonetheless its quite tragic (“well, that was depressing” commented Claire as the last scene faded out). Its not the end that I imagine most viewers are hoping for, but its perfect, really, considering what has come before. One can’t just help wishing for one more scene, one final coda with a happier outcome. I wonder if The Cranes Are Flying is one of those films in which, on subsequent viewings, one always has that vain hope, in spite of the knowledge of how the film really ends, a forlorn wish that lingers against the reality. The best love stories rarely end well.


Doctor Sleep: Directors Cut (2019)

sleepI finally got around to watching the Directors Cut disc that accompanied my 4K edition. Its something I’ve been trying to get around to ever since I watched that 4K disc of the films theatrical version, back when it came out (early March, I think, which seems a lifetime/Covid-time away now, like it was back in some other world). Its been so long, in fact, that there seems little opportunity to really remark upon any major differences, simply because I’ve only seen that theatrical cut once and all that time rather blurs everything, you know?

On the other hand, the fact that little in this cut really stood out to me, considering its 180 minutes long compared to the theatrical cuts 150 minutes, would suggest to me that the 150-minute cut wasn’t broken, and then therefore there’s nothing the DC really fixes. Indeed, one of the additions I did easily spot, an early sequence with Abra (child incarnation played by Dakota Hickman) was a scene that shouldn’t have been included in any version. Abra is shown playing the piano the night before her birthday party, told to go to bed, and then her parents wakened during the night by the piano playing only to go downstairs and see the piano keys being played with no-one there (Abra obviously playing in her sleep),. Its awkward and sure, typical of the worst excesses of author Stephen King in describing supernatural stuff as commonplace, when in reality it would send people to the nuthouse. Didn’t work for me. Maybe it was too literal in displaying Abra’s supernatural powers, her Shining,  like we were in some Marvel origin story. The beauty of Kubrick’s film was the strangeness, the mystery. King has a tendency to display this stuff like a can of Coca Cola on the shelf, so ordinary, so American, and just so easily accepted.

I don’t know much about the making of Doctor Sleep and have never read King’s book, but I would suspect that the DC of the film is the full shooting script, pretty much, that was subsequently shortened as it became clear the film was running long. Most of the additions are scene extensions, added lines of dialogue or shots, rather than revelatory new scenes, and the death of the baseball boy is more graphic and disturbing (but then again, it was harrowing enough on the original version to me). A funny thing that endlessly fascinates me, though, is how scenes can be shorter and longer by such small margins of shots and lines of dialogue, with neither short or long version really feeling broken or disjointed- its so difficult to see the joins/cuts, the scenes feeling fine and organic in either version.

The real test, I am sure, is when I give my 4K disc of the theatrical cut a spin, and if I suddenly realise the shots/lines that are ‘missing.’ It may well be that watching the theatrical, I miss those additions and wind up preferring the DC, but at the moment I really can’t say that I do. To me the theatrical cut tells the story pretty well and actually benefits from the shorter running time. More isn’t always necessarily better.

Still a pretty damn fine film though, and those shots that harken back to the title sequence of The Shining, when Dan and Abra are driving back up the mountain road to the Overlook, and that wonderful chilling music comes up… well, that’s spine-tingling stuff. Maybe its really just fan service but wow, it remains one of the most intensely rewarding cinematic moments of 2020 for me. I still think its quite remarkable how director Mike Flanagan managed to create a sequel that works for both the original King book/s and the Kubrick film.