The Hand of Night (1968)

hand1Frederic Goode’s The Hand of Night is a particularly peculiar horror film, horrifyingly tedious, appallingly directed with utterly woeful acting, but somehow fascinating. Whilst trawling through the Talking Pictures schedules these past few months I appreciate that I’ve seen some really obscure films that I would otherwise not ever had the opportunity (or misfortune) to see, and The Hand of Night is one of the best/worst examples of this.

Its also an example of how we film fans can get caught out by movie-connections, usually attracted to films by the cast- in this case, the only reason why The Hand of Night caught my eye for recording/later viewing was William Sylvester in the starring role- Sylvester being familiar chiefly from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a few other genre films. The fall from grace of working on a timeless classic like Kubrick’s epic to working on this dismal horror effort must have been the equivalent of leaping off a cliff, but as I’ve commented before, every gig’s a pay-cheque.

hand2So lets start with whats good about the film- well, its very odd, with a really bizarre film score attributed to someone named Joan Shakespeare which is alternatively spooky-weird or was composed for some other movie- it seems to either work incredibly well to maintain a dreamy aspect to the film or it just feels totally wrong. Clearly a product of the 1960s, it also strangely evoked the earliest film-scores of Vangelis (Sex Power, L’Apocalypse des Animaux  and Ignacio) which was really disorientating for me, a reference likely lost to anyone unfamiliar with the Greek maestro’s early work. The title sequence is quite promisingly moody. The film is full of death references- Sylvester plays Paul Carver, a bitter, haunted man who has travelled to Morocco to see a doctor (who has unfortunately died when Carver gets there). Carver is either trying to get over the deaths of his wife and children in a car accident that he somehow survived three months before, or working out how to kill himself, its not entirely clear. On the one hand he makes for an interesting protagonist, being so wracked by guilt and self-pity. He befriends Otto Gunther (Edward Underdown) on his flight to Morocco- Gunther is an archaeologist whose project is a dig at a Moorish Medieval tomb, and at Gunther’s home Carver meets Gunther’s pretty young assistant Chantal (Diane Clare) who clearly takes an immediate shine to Carver. Chantal was the fiance of Gunther’s son before he died. So there’s this weird thing about Death through the film. Dead family, dead doctor, dead fiance, a tomb for a Moorish princess… Carver’s apparent death-wish stemmed from the guilt of surviving the crash that killed his family. So there is this subtext going on that made me think there was more to the film than seems on the surface, but, er, I was wrong.

Well, that’s the good, the bad about the film is pretty much everything else. The cast is pretty awful- I’m not certain if its bad casting (Underdown and Clare, struggling with bad accents, are either really bad actors or woefully ill-cast in material that doesn’t suit them), or the cast in general being hampered by really bad dialogue and direction. The budget was obviously slight, and although the location adds some exotica to the proceedings it is ruined by scenes obviously shot day for night, and editing that seems to slip day scenes into night scenes ruining even that ‘shot day for night’ material.  The ‘villainess’ of the piece, the beautiful Marissa whose tomb it is that Gunther is excavating, is more succubus than traditional vampire (no fangs on display here), and is played by Aliza Gur with no sense of threat or danger whatsoever, crippling the film. She looks beautiful and mysterious but stumbles every-time she opens her mouth to speak -clearly Gur was a model more than an actress (she was Miss Israel in 1960), or perhaps she too was hampered by that dialogue and terrible lack of direction, not that she has to do much other than lounge on a divan sexily or stand, er, mysteriously. Diane Clare, who is really, really terrible as Chantal, apparently left acting altogether after this film. Clare appeared in The Plague of the Zombies and The Haunting and lots of other films and tv series prior to The Hand of Night so she must have been a better actress than this film suggests.

William Sylvester was mostly a tv actor, so The Hand of Night was one of his few film gigs; turns out 2001: A Space Odyssey really was the oddity in his career, notable by its exception, so that shows where movie connections gets you, watching films like The Hand of Night. There’s nothing in this film that suggests that Sylvester merited a successful career in films- while he handles the haunted, guilty aspect of Carver very well, its the romantic and physical stuff here that displays his limits. He has no chemistry at all with Clare (and he’d have to be some kind of eunuch not to have some chemistry with the sultry (albeit wooden) Gur), but for most of the film he seems a duck out of water.

Not that the film could have been saved by a better lead. This film was pretty broken at the script stage and the director clearly wasn’t particularly enthused by it. Some b-movies can’t help but seem terribly cynical affairs, woefully short of any ambition. Sometimes they can be genuinely interesting and daring, but this isn’t one of them.

Ed is Four Today!

edis4How time flies! Our Westie, Eddie, is four years old today. He had a great day today- Covid may have put a halt to his birthday party plans – so no Milo, Dizzy, Sulass, Buffy, Bailey, Beau, Sparky, Gracie, Logan, Lucy, Bonnie, Winnie,  Diesel, Oscar, Dexter, Poppy, Harry, Minnie, Charlie, Coolie, Billy, Alfie, Blue and Dave, new girl Coco (…yeah he knows lots of dogs on the walk, he’s definitely more popular than I am)- so instead we took him out for an afternoon walk somewhere new; Northycote Farm, which isn’t at all far from home but is a surprisingly large woodland walk considering its hiding away within an urban conurbation. No doubt a future frequent destination, because it was really nice and Ed loved it. Better still, it was a nice warm sunny day, more like July or August than mid-September- very lucky, considering the weather forecasts reckon a cold turn arrives tomorrow after some rain tonight. So a long afternoon walk somewhere new, with lots of new smells and people to get fussed by, plenty of treats at mealtimes and two new cuddly toys to play with. As birthdays go, Ed’s got me beat.

 

 

Last Week

Real-life got in the way of Blog-life last week, as may have been noticed by my one measly posting (Terminator: Dark Fate). Indeed, I actually only watched three films last week-the Burt Lancaster/Kirk Douglas crime/mobster flick I Walk Alone, Terminator: Dark Fate and new Netflix film The Devil All the Time (which is absolutely brilliant).

One thing that didn’t help – as if the news of Covid going all Hollywood Reboot here, with my area going back to local lockdown next Tuesday, wasn’t enough- was my mother in law having burglars trespassing her back yard one night last week, taking the door off her garden shed in an attempt to find something worthwhile to steal. Things are really getting back to normal Out There aren’t they, with our criminal fraternity deciding to go back to work, so to speak. Putting shed doors back up and repairing bolts on garden gates demonstrate the limits of my carpentry skills, I just hope I don’t get further opportunity for practice. But really, what is the world coming to? As if we don’t have it bad enough with Covid and Brexit and politicians finding whole new ways to demonstrate their magnificent ineptitude.

I have been reading a bit- with the Super Deluxe of Sign o’the Times coming next week, I’ve been reading a book about Prince by Joseph Vogel, This Thing Called Life. Its a little academic but none the worse for that. Vogel examines what Prince thought about politics, race, religion, sex, death, through events in his life but chiefly through his music and lyrics. Of course, a lot of this is subjective, its Vogel interpreting things from lyrics and via historical interviews with Prince or his associates, rather than what Prince might have voiced himself in his own memoir. If nothing else, its a rather touching, surprisingly emotional reminder of the times that we, and Prince lived in, the Gulf Wars, Live Aid, Presidencies, Aids… In his life Prince carefully cultivated the enigma of Prince, and I suspect he will therefore be an endless fascination. If its true that to know what he truly thought and felt about things we should simply listen to his music  and examine all his vast catalogue (and the Vault recordings now surfacing probably more important here than what we are already familiar with) then it could be a journey of discovery with years ahead of us.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

darkfWe’re currently in a period -have been for quite some time, actually, and it seems there’s no end in sight- where pop culture seems obsessed with the past. With re-visiting old icons. Its actually been going on in film for so long now that one could be forgiven for thinking its just always been this way, that this is normal and entirely intellectually ‘sound’. Its gotten to the point at which, having remade and rebooted so many huge successful properties of the past, attention has turned to those that failed first time around; I still have to pinch myself that anyone deemed it a good idea to make a sequel to Blade Runner, box-office flop that it was. News has been circulating recently that John Carpenter’s 1982 flop The Thing is being remade/rebooted. I suppose so many years has gone by that the financial failures of those two 1982 duds has been softened by decades of ancillary sales on various video formats and platforms, and their critical reappraisal won’t have hurt either. But the performance of BR2049 should always be a sobering reminder of the dangers, even if it turned out (in my eyes, anyway) a quite brilliant film possibly equal to the original. So you know, maybe a remake/reboot of The Thing is not the monstrously horrible idea that my gut instinct thinks it is.

The Terminator franchise is one of those properties that Hollywood just hasn’t been able to quite leave alone, but by the time Terminator: Dark Fate arrived one had to wonder whether film-makers were rebooting/continuing the original two films or the successive sequels/reboots. It had gotten to the point at which my apathy left me curious about it, but not enough to actually shell out any coins to watch it. Which might be why the film failed -with a slightly higher budget than BR2049 it barely surpassed that films likewise dismal worldwide box-office, perhaps some measure of just how little any of those old movies actually resonate with modern audiences, no matter how good/bad/popular they were originally.

To be brutally honest, Terminator: Dark Fate is a totally unnecessary movie. Its like Terminator is some Hollywood corpse that keeps on getting kicked around, or which some mad Hollywood studio executive scientist keeps subjecting to lightning screaming “Its alive! Its alive!”until finally realising, no, its still quite dead and kicks it into a dark corner again until some other Peter Cushing lookalike decides its worth a shot.

Maybe this time is the last time. Maybe this time they’ll let it lie.

Its not that Terminator: Dark Fate is a bad film – well, maybe it is, but at least it isn’t terrible- its just that its so redundant, just bringing back the old tropes and stunts and, in this case, two of the original actors/characters. The whole franchise has gotten so wrapped up in various timelines and realities and paradoxes that the first thing this film does is wipe out everything post T2 in one brutal opening sequence to, as it were, simply clear the state. Unfortunately at the same time it also pulls an Alien 3, by pretty much negating everything in T2 itself, too. Which is either very brave or incredibly stupid- some Alien fans still get dangerously fluctuating blood pressure issues when Alien 3 is ever raised in a discussion.  For the record, I’m a fan of Alien 3 and quite like the sheer audacity of what it did to the characters who survived Aliens, but I have always been able to appreciate the ire that fans invested in the characters of Aliens felt at the time and indeed still do. Intellectually it wholly undermines the events of that film, threatening to negate any investment in that film whenever re-watched (possibly fans instead watch and stubbornly (wisely?) ignore the fact that Alien 3 exists at all- something that likely quite a few original Star Wars trilogy fans are attempting in this Disney Star Wars era.

darkf3What Terminator: Dark Fate proposes is that all the efforts of Sarah Connor and Arnie’s reprogrammed Terminator to protect her son John from the shape-shifting T-1000 and destroy Skynet were all for nothing, because in the first five minutes another Terminator (several, it seems, having been sent into the past to kill John Connor because, well, redundancy) comes along and kills John shortly following the events of T2. Its perhaps saying something about the inevitability of fate and AI that although Skynet has been stopped, it is instead simply delaying the same Apocalyptic events, this time orchestrated by another, later AI entitled Legion.

Now on the one hand, this is a fascinating proposition- similarly to the mythology of the BSG reboot, it seems to be suggesting that whatever we do, humanity is doomed to repeat the same mistake, in that the drive/forward momentum of scientific advancement we are always destined to create machines and then AI which, when sentient, always turns against us. In BSG, what has happened before is destined to happen again, a cycle of advance and disaster. So that defeating Skynet in T2 is always futile because some other scientist is going to eventually stumble upon the knowledge that leads to AI and another Skynet- in Dark Fate‘s case, an AI called Legion. It suggests a particularly dark viewpoint, the nihilistic view that humanity is doomed whatever we do. This isn’t really dwelt upon, more the pity, because Dark Fate lacks the darkness of the first Terminator film in particular The one thing I did appreciate, is that Dark Fate actually offers a possible break in the cycle: the issue with T2 was that it ended Skynet but not the industrial/economic drive for scientific progress that led to Skynet (because Judgement Day never happened,  the lesson of Skynet couldn’t be heeded by the public/powers that be). Dark Fate is never about stopping Judgement Day, it happens eventually, and Dani is the leader to lead the resistance and defeat Legion. One would suppose that afterwards, whatever the world is like, its one in which scientists won’t be so eager to create AI that threatens the Apocalypse.

So, decades after John has been killed and Sarah lost in semi-drunken rage, two new Terminators arrive from the future- well, one, as it turns out, is not quite a Terminator, but the other is a black-liquid T-1000 variant obviously up to no good- and the basic plot of the Terminator movies is up and running again. The AI of the ‘Future End of the World (Delayed)’ has identified the human that usurps it in its future and has sent a deadly assassin into the past to kill her and ensure it isn’t, er, usurped. And, er, someone else has then sent someone into the past to ensure she, er, isn’t.

darkf2Its like the very definition of reboot. And of course, it perhaps reflects the current obsession of our times that the hero that can save humanity is a woman not a man, and that the ‘good’ Terminator sent into the past (actually an augmented human, named Grace) is a woman too. I’m not concerned with the sexual politics, its boring and largely irrelevant except for those that choose to make a Big Deal about it on YouTube etc (afterall, we had Ripley and Sarah Connor herself kicking ass in films 40-odd years ago so its really the same old, same old). But the gender choices do impact the casting, and its that casting that chiefly damages this film. On the one hand, Mackenzie Davis as Grace is great – she’s excellent at the physical work in the action sequences and she is a very fine actress so is emotive and is, really, the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, while Natalia Reyes, who plays Dani, the Dark Fate variant of John Connor, is probably a good actress in her own right, she never at all convinces as the future saviour of the human race. She doesn’t have the hardness or physical attributes to really convince that way, particularly (and most damningly) in the future sequences in which we see her leading the resistance against Legion. Maybe it was an attempt to cast against type, but it doesn’t work, at least it didn’t for me. To be honest, it was almost laughable, and her future leader proves even more unconvincing than her present-day unwitting factory worker destined for Greatmess. As if ‘anyone’ can be The One.

Arnie, of course, is back, as the Terminator that assassinated John at the films opening but is later redeemed by living with humans and getting a conscience. Yeah, I know, even typing that feels stupid, but its one of those leaps of logic that Dark Fate inflicts upon us in its strange insistence to stay positive about everything- the film really misses the darkness of the first film. This Terminator seems to have even adopted a family and had success selling Drapes. Excuse me while I barf… I don’t know. Maybe they should have written a backstory of Sarah hunting the Terminator down for revenge, capturing and reprogramming it as her robot-slave or something, or maybe that would paint her in a bad light. Speaking of Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton makes a welcome return as the great haunted anti-heroine, but again, she utterly lacks any chemistry with Reyes as Dani, I mean, there is literally nothing there.

Its like the film lacks any emotional depth or profundity at all, and that Reyes is this strange Black Hole when the character really needs to be an icon, a gravitational force of depth and substance. Only Mackenzie Davis seems to make any real connection with Reyes or Hamilton or anyone, really. Arnie is pretty much wasted, he gets a few funny gags/one-liners but its not as if the film has a dark mood to alleviate. Without the emotional connections there really can’t be any drama, and some of the decidedly ropy CGI work in the stunts with digital characters substituting for the actors and their stunt doubles while plainly necessary is so poorly done, and sticks out so badly, it just seems to turn it into an animated movie so minus any real tension.

Its bad enough that we’ve largely seen so much of this before, but the films tendency to try to do action sequences up there with the daftest Marvel Studios spandex hero nonsense just makes it, well, silly, totally lacking any weight or depth. It really needed, in my opinion, to return to the physical reality of the first movie, and a violence that looked real and hurt, away from the Marvel stuff that threatens to infect everything now.

Dark Fate is not a complete disaster, but its really not particularly good either, completely negating any reason for its existence, even if it could argue for one in the first place. Did we need another Terminator movie? If we did, we needed one better than Dark Fate.

Last week…

Still working from home, close on six months now. As we slip towards Autumn, it looks like there’s little rush getting the team back into the office, at best it may be for just two days each week, and that’s still some time off.  Its not lost on me that after all the fair weather we’ve had, the time I’m going to finally be expected to commute back to work will be when the frosts return/bad weather/possibly snow etc.

Meanwhile Covid 19 numbers are climbing, particularly here in the Midlands, and our Governments latest desperate roll of the dice, the ‘rule of six’ (limiting the number of people at any social gathering to just six people) begins tomorrow. A rule that can’t possibly be policed,  simply dependant on the public happily following the rule… I mean, its not as if its Mega City One and some Judge will be kicking the door down if there’s more than six perps chatting in the lounge or back garden. Mores the pity with some of the idiots out there. Regards Covid, so many people seem to be in denial, or just bored of it, and think everything is back to normal. Hence the numbers rising? All I can see is lots of idiots out there, most of them proving the (ironically old) adage of too young to know better. The next few weeks seem to be crucial. The days are shortening. Winter is Coming. Hang on, that didn’t end well, just ask HBO.

Anyway, last week. You may have noted that I had a busy/productive week regards watching films: i’m thinking of ending things, Under Suspicion, Bumblebee, City That Never Sleeps, The Man Who Finally Died. I didn’t get around to reviewing Under Suspicion– a thriller starring Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Monica Bellucci, Thomas Jane… a great cast, but wasted in a pretty lousy film that almost had me hitting that abort button. Only the great Gene Hackman kept me stuck with it: one of my favourite actors.

ohmssRegards re-watches, I managed two. The first was one that…well, we lost Dame Diana Rigg on Thursday, which was an awful shame, and I’ve been meaning to watch On Her Majesty’s Secret Service again for awhile now. Its an awful reason for doing it, but Dame Diana Rigg’s passing was the push that I needed; I reached for that Bond 50 Blu-ray set. OHMSS is my favourite Bond movie; its the film when the Bond franchise grew up and yes, graced with the best Bond Girl of all, the one that got Bond to the altar. But what a downer at the end. This time I watched it, it just seemed so remarkable, such brass balls of the producers to close out a film -and a Bond film at that- on such a huge emotional downer. And in a film with a new Bond, too. Talk about loading the dice for a serious gamble, like a real-life Casino Royale moment. Dropping George Lazenby and breaking the continuity (OHMSS really needed such a proper sequel with Bond out for revenge) was a terrible error, I think, and it would take Bond decades to grow those brass balls again.

vertigo1The second re-watch was the 4K UHD disc of Vertigo, that graces the four-film Hitchcock 4K set that was released last week. The film looks utterly gorgeous in 4K, really something special. We’ve seen some great 4K releases for classic films this year and this is one of the best, I think. Mind, is it just me, but as I get older, does Vertigo on subsequent viewings just get more disturbing, and James Stewart’s obsessive Scottie more repellent?  As a deeply flawed character who proves difficult to root for, he reminds me of Robert De Niro’s character in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America. The difficulty in revisiting films with such doomed, self-destructive characters is that you have to re-experience it all over again, with the knowledge of hindsight that the character itself obviously lacks. There seems something deeply personal, of both Leone and Hitchcock, in these two films, and I’m sure that’s part of each films endless fascination. Glimpses of flawed humanity’s darkness. Vertigo is such a powerful film, exquisitely filmed and scored (by the great Bernard Herrmann), and really so daring, its one of my favourite films and it feels a blessing to be able watch it again in this kind of quality. I’m building quite a collection of (hopefully definitive and final) editions of some of my favourite films in 4K, with some great additions this year.

dunetrailrLast week also brought us the first trailer for Villeneuve’s long-anticipated  Dune. Mind, it seems we will have to wait longer for the film itself, as word has it that the film will be delayed to next year now, with Wonder Woman 1984 being moved to the Christmas Day slot (Tenet‘s box-office woes causing much consternation for a troubled film industry struggling to manage the Covid crisis). Of course the Dune trailer looks great and pretty much everything we might have hoped for. I was a bit surprised that it looked, visually at least, like a Blade Runner 2049 sequel set Off World, it seems to share so much of the monochromatic, brutalist ‘look’ of his previous sci-fi epic. I’d hoped for something a bit wilder, more ‘out there’ and unusual, but we’ll see. There’s so much, after all, that we didn’t see.

Speaking of delays, news broke last week that Vangelis’ latest album, Juno to Jupiter, accidentally released on digital by a UK store over a weekend a few weeks back before being hurriedly pulled, has been officially delayed (again?). This is so frustrating, its a great album, one of his best in decades, but it seems so strangely (and unfairly) blighted by mishaps. Possibly its just a Covid thing effecting marketing etc, but I sincerely hope that perhaps this delay will facilitate a simultaneous physical and digital release, rather than the latter first (which was the original plan, and which possibly led to that premature release foul-up).  Its a great piece of work, and I was gearing up to finish my track-by-track review… well, I’ll just join the pack and let my review suffer another delay. Hey, its just so Covid, man.

I just hope that the Super-Deluxe of the Prince classic album Sign o’ the Times isn’t going to get delayed. Its only two weeks away now so seems to be all on track. Certainly review copies are out and some reviews have been released, track breakdowns on forums etc so my only worry is problems with stores getting stock out. Hope springs eternal- I’m actually on leave from work the week it gets released, and naturally I’m going nowhere, so the opportunity to just relax for a few lazy days, chill with that box of peach and black goodies is the nearest thing to Christmas I’m actually likely to see this year.

The Man Who Finally Died (1963)

manwho3The moody, sulky Stanley Baker proves a difficult lead in The Man Who Finally Died; something in his hard-edged looks always made him an easier anti-hero than a homely, pleasant, easy-to-like traditional hero of typical British films. That being said, his working-class background and demeanour lent everything he did a certain gravitas and reality. When I was growing up, I somehow always got him mixed up with Australian actor Rod Taylor (for years I used to get confused regards who starred in films like The Time Machine, Zulu and The Birds), even though Taylor was a much more affable, personable actor compared to the much more intense Baker, whose characters always seemed haunted by dark moods. 

This is the case with his lead role in  The Man Who Finally Died, something of a disguised spy thriller in which he plays Joe Newman, summoned to Bavaria by a mysterious phone call telling him that his father Kurtz Deutsch, who he hadn’t seen since when a child before the war, is still alive. Joe had believed his father dead, killed during action in the war but he is told that he was captured by the Russians and was a prisoner of war, only recently managing to flee across the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately when Joe arrives in town and checks into his hotel, a funeral cortege going by is revealed to be that of his father.

manwho2What follows is a mysterious thriller in which Joe, unconvinced that the man who purportedly just died was indeed his father, digs into recent events and becomes increasingly confident that a conspiracy is going on. He is followed by shadowy characters, is not convinced by the stories told him by his fathers widow, Lisa (Mai Zettering) or friend/carer Doctor Peter von Brecht (Peter Cushing) who seem shifty and vague, and who he comes to believe have ulterior motives.

Initially I thought Bakers’ casting was a problem for the film- his surly, moody and antagonistic personality had me accepting the locals general belief that Joe was being difficult and unreasonable in opposition of the accepted facts, but in hindsight I think Baker was brilliant. I came to believe that being raised by his single mother back in England and his mixture of guilt and anger regards not really knowing his father was why he seemed such a troubled, antisocial character. It made him difficult to root for or like as a hero, but easy to accept as a maladjusted individual so easily suspicious of those around him. He also was fairly distinct as a stranger in a strange land. So in hindsight, I think Baker was very impressive and a repeat viewing of this film might be more than worthwhile.

manwhoThe Man Who Finally Died was directed by Quentin Lawrence, and its quite by accident that my recent watching of old movies has recently included his The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and awhile ago the quite brilliant Cash on Demand (1961). Lawrence seems to have had a very limited film career, mostly working in television, and its perhaps little accident that both The Man Who Finally Died and Cash On Demand were based on earlier TV productions. This is a finely-directed piece, the telegraphing of some character and plot points finely judged- its a good piece of directorial work.

I’ve read that The Man Who Finally Died was possibly the wrong film at the wrong time, with such spy thrillers proving old-fashioned with James Bond breaking the mould with its violent, sexy spy capers with gadgets and colourful locales. The Man Who Finally Died is at heart a very insular, rather intellectual piece but it does have a genuinely surprising twist that I only guessed just before its reveal. The casting of Peter Cushing is great- one of my favourite actors, I always enjoy the particular pleasure of watching him in something I haven’t seen before (and indeed, this year I have had that pleasure quite often). His casting here benefits the film. Whatever the wild accusations of Joe, its impossible for a viewer not to be suspicious of the guy who played Frankenstein playing an apparently well-meaning, friendly doctor, and so its great when these suspicions are then usurped,  pulling the rug from under the audience expectations. 

 

 

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

city2John H Auer’s City That Never Sleeps is a bizarre mixture of realistic film noir, procedural crime drama like The Naked City and a fantasy fable like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Its such an odd combination that it has a surreal Twilight Zone-like feel, a sense of unreality persisting throughout which is at odds with its attempt to be gritty and ‘real’ (or at least as far as film censors would allow at the time).

It begins with shots of the city of Chicago at dusk,  “I am the city, the hub and heart of America…” instantly instilling the feeling of a Rod Serling introduction for a Twilight Zone episode, albeit here with the casual cosiness of the Angels chatting in the beginning of Capra’s classic. We are introduced by this narrator through short vignettes to the key players in the drama to follow, and then we are off and running on a busy night in which a troubled cop, Johnny Kelly (Gig Young), has come to a crossroads in his life and has to make some life-changing choices. Gig Young himself is a piece of casting that instantly evoked Twilight Zone again, as he appeared in what was possibly its very best episode, Walking Distance, several years later.

city1Kelly is a career cop, albeit a career for which Kelly seems to feel little inclination, forced on him by family tradition (his father a long-time cop near the end of his own career) increasingly resenting, and feeling emasculated by, the fact that his wife earns more than him (and endlessly reminded of it by his mother-in-law who feels her daughter married the wrong guy). So Kelly feels trapped in a job he doesn’t like and a marriage on the rocks, and tonight is the night he has to make a final decision regards quitting  his job and accepting the corrupting influence of crooked lawyer Penrod Biddel (a commanding Edward Arnold) whose offer of big money leads Kelly to think he can then leave town with his nightclub dancer mistress and set up a better life on his own terms.

Having prepared his resignation letter, Kelly begins what he expects to be his last night shift and finds his usual partner is off sick- replaced by an unknown Police Sergeant,  Joe (Chill Willis) whose voice is instantly recognised as the narrator who opened our tale. So there is an air of the supernatural here, with Sgt Joe playing a similar role to George Bailey’s Clarence, Sgt Joe’s subtle remarks to Kelly teasing and prompting him during their night patrol about the value and nobility in being an honest cop protecting the decent people of the city that never sleeps.

Kelly is already something of a corrupt cop and certainly an adulterer, and tonight is evidently his last chance before falling into a bad life of ill repute. The film seems to paint him as inherently a good guy being corrupted by others but I have to say, I took something of a dislike to him from the start. He’s obviously been cheating on his wife (and leading along his mistress Sally (Mala Powers)) and has been working for Riddel in a minor capacity, giving him tips about police cases for some time. This almost soap opera element is the films weakest part, but that may not have been helped by me missing some points during the first third. Riddel has enlisted Kelly to rid him off an over-ambitious associate, William Talman (Hayes Stewart), and the young partner with Talman is Kelly’s own younger brother, Stubby (Ron Hagerthy), who is being pulled deeper into Talman’s own schemes to ruin Riddel. So there is some extra tension there that I missed, becoming quite puzzled towards the end when Stubby and Kelly are obviously so apparently so close and familiar, and Kelly hellbent on protecting Stubby. Maybe I was distracted by the melodrama of Kelly’s wife smartly suspecting her husband of resigning from the force and going to Kellys father, John ‘pop’ Kelly Snr in an attempt to save her marriage and husbands career.

In my defence, there’s clearly a whole lot going on here- sections with Talman ruthlessly desperate to thwart Riddel, the machinations of Riddel and his own wife’s betrayal, the romantic triangle between Kelly, Sandy and her nightclub colleague Gregg who is desperately in love with Sandy. Throw in random crimes/incidents during Kelly’s night patrol with the mysterious Sgt Joe… all of it mixed up with the three seperate styles of film playing out (film noir/police procedural, fantasy fable)  and its quite a curious film. I did enjoy it, but the three styles of film don’t really gel, and I actually wonder if it needed the Twilight Zone-like Sgt.Joe/fantasy fable sub-plot at all.

Almost an interesting failure, ultimately its more than a sum of its many parts, largely saved by some great location shooting, particularly in the latter section when it goes full-on film noir with shafts of light, heavy back-light and low camera angles. Its a great, tense finale and there are some genuine surprises during the film too, including what happens to Kelly’s father who begins to realise his son is compromised by Riddel’s criminal schemes. The final set-piece involving a chase through the streets and over Chicago’s famous elevated railroad track is very good indeed and quite memorable – its almost a pity when the noir aspects are finally dispelled in order to give audiences a positive, life-affirming conclusion. I’m still not really convinced that Kelly deserved it.

Bumblebee (2018)

bumbDescribing this as the best film of the Transformers franchise is likely the very definition of faint praise, but there you go, and here it is- Bumblebee, the best film of the increasingly moronic franchise. That being said, the film is still dreadfully formulaic with a predictable plot and tiredly formulaic characters, but at least it has heart, in a reasonably affecting lead and some great ’80s songs (even if that is, hey, so Guardians of the Galaxy, isn’t it?).

So the biggest question about Bumblebee is, what is it about the 1980s? You know, films either made in the ’80s or set in the ’80s, they seem to be in a league of their own, they just seem to have a headstart on any film set in, say, the present-day. Is it all just heady nostalgia? If it was just that, sure, films like Bumblebee and television shows like Stranger Things would appeal to people like me (hey, the clue is in the name of this blog) but would it really spell huge mainstream success or critical appeal? The ’80s were quite awhile ago now, and the young ‘uns going to the cinema these days weren’t born back then. So what makes the 80s so cool, and is it just that the fashions and the music were actually better back then? Is that a fact now?

Is it the escapist appeal of a simpler world that is without the internet or mobile phones or social media which so inconveniently complicate  the scripts of films set n the present day? 

I don’t know, really, but as Frank Finlay’s character noted in Lifeforce (hey, itself of the ’80s – even the bad films from that decade are great) I sense a pattern emerging here. Or a disturbance in the Force (hey, another ’80s film –  I think I should stop now).

Perhaps I should condemn these ’80s-set films for following the JJ Abrams School of Film-making, which is to just simply steal the tropes of so many Amblin/Steven Spielberg films of that decade and try to get away with it by saying “oh, it was INSPIRED by” or “I LOVE those old movies!”. Maybe I should condemn modern audiences for flocking to the familiar and encouraging said practises by making such films and TV shows such successes. Maybe there is really nothing new under the sun. 

In any case, Bumblebee proved pleasant enough fluff; indeed mostly harmless. If I were scoring films with stars these days, the film would almost get five for the scene where Bumblebee spits out the cassettes of The Smiths and Rick Astley, when the film avows that we have to have some measure of integrity when fawning over ’80s pop culture.  

i’m thinking of ending things (2020)

end1I thought this was exceptional, frankly. Naturally its difficult to really touch on why I think that, or even what this film is about, without treading into spoiler territory, but I’ll give it a go and, well, we’ll see how that goes.

Let’s see: the film opens with a young woman who may or not be Lucy (Jessie Buckley) ruminating in melancholy fashion about ‘ending things’ as the camera lingers over abandoned, silent rooms, and then she is picked up by her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) who is taking her to his parents house where she will meet them for the first time. The trip is out into a desolate wilderness as a snowfall intensifies, and Lucy seems distracted, her internal monologue a moody voice-over as bleak as the landscape they are driving through. 

I must admit, as disorientating as the film is as it progresses -and believe me, it becomes INCREASINGLY disorientating and unsettling as it goes forwards- I may have been off-base from the start, because when listening to Lucy’s initial thoughts about ‘ending things’, I thought she was thinking about suicide rather than simply breaking up with Jake. I thought I was watching a suicide movie. It rather coloured how I ‘saw’ things and interpreted what was being said and what was done. The funny thing is, I was wrong about Lucy, and I wasn’t, because someone was indeed thinking of suicide, and nothing that we are seeing is what it seems. So there I was, becoming increasingly distracted by odd observations- a moment when Lucy’s lips are moving but we can’t hear what she is saying, and times when there seem to be continuity problems slipping into the picture, because Lucy’s sweater is changing colour… 

Now, already at this point I can imagine your typical Netflix viewer heading for the remote to pick something else to watch, something easier, less demanding, less strange, something in which something happens. And I have to wonder just how many people watching this manage to get through to the end, because it really just gets odder as it goes. I just found it totally absorbing, mostly because of the magnificent performance by Jessie Buckley, who forms the sensitive heart of the film and its mystery that unfolds. The central mystery is whose monologue are we really listening to, whose thoughts and experiences are we witnessing? Clearly what we are seeing is not ‘real’, as time and place seem to be fluid, ephemeral- the only thing we are really able to hold onto is Lucy. But Lucy is a walking contradiction- her name seems to change, her occupation seems to change, her mood and personality seems to twist and turn and we, like her, seem to be caught in a strange spiral.  

end2Jake’s parent’s farm appears suddenly in the snowy landscape, and once inside and Lucy meets them (wonderfully played by David Thewlis and Toni Collette), we suddenly notice that they are old one minute, younger the next, then even older, then even younger… the film becoming increasingly dreamlike, increasingly odd. We seem to have less and less to grasp hold of, to hold onto, in our attempts as viewers to discern sense and meaning. Everything seems to be unravelling.

Interspersed between the narrative of Lucy’s trip to meet Jake’s parents, we see apparently random moments in which an old school janitor cleans the High School’s corridors and rooms, unseen/ignored by the self-absorbed pupils. And references to the stage musical Oklahoma. And an imaginary Robert Zemeckis movie. And a talking animated pig.

Now, whether all of this is utter tosh or movingly profound depends on the viewer. Partly I suppose it all depends on how much effort the viewer is willing to expend on the film, to work things out, but on the other hand, I guess its just as valid to suggest that if you just sit back and let it wash over you it can be just as rewarding. Is it really even supposed to make any sense? I guess this is film as poetry, in which the images and scenes take the place of a poems words, but just as dependant on individual interpretation of meaning.  Its vague and obtuse but somehow obvious, too. It is, again, utter tosh or movingly profound. No, lets maybe change that, maybe its not either/or but both- its utter tosh and its movingly profound.  

Me, I definitely lean towards the latter. I thought it was deeply moving- i’m thinking of ending things is a poem about loneliness, and age, and the value of one’s life, and of the possibility that moments and decisions, seemingly innocuous and unimportant in the actual moment, can have a huge effect on ones’ life, years later. Is it healthy to focus on one decision, one moment, and blame everything that followed on just that moment? There’s no way of knowing in the moment of any moments importance in ones life and its effect on what follows, so why torture oneself about it? But then again, isn’t torturing oneself about things just part of the human condition? A sense of right and wrong, of injustice and unfairness at a life seemingly wasted. Regrets can haunt one for a lifetime, and a lifetimes memories become blurred around them, until they are no longer reliable. Memories as unreliable narrator. Makes it hard to hold onto things.

The magic of life is that people can walk into your life and change it forever. It is also true that people can walk into your life and back out of it, never to be seen again, but their memory can linger deeper than that of someone you see every day.  i’m thinking of ending things is a beautiful film, I think, but a very sad one, too.  I think its sadness is what lingers in me, thinking back on it. Its overwhelmingly sad, really. Enigmatic and melancholic, tender and bitter. Beautifully shot and crafted with a wonderful cast. One of the Films of the Year, I suspect: and its a Netflix movie. Sometimes it seems our world can be as strange as the films that we watch.

They Came From Beyond Space (1967)

they1If there’s any redeeming feature of Amicus’ quite bizarre They Came From Beyond Space, its possibly just that it makes its co-feature, the totally inane The Terrornauts (that I watched last month) actually look better in hindsight. I wouldn’t have thought such a thing possible, but there you go, films can be full of surprises, and no matter how bad a film is, there’s always a worse one out there. I seem to have a curious knack of finding them, unfortunately.

A film featuring a Crimson Plague so dangerous that its victims can’t be left on Earth but have to be shipped off to the moon for disposal has to be quite unnervingly topical in 2020, but its not enough to save it- nor is having Michael Gough impersonating a dangerous piece of cardboard as he plays the Master of the Moon quite crazy enough to raise an amused titter. There is very little here to commend They Came From Beyond Space to anyone- the script is silly, the production values somewhere south of a Blakes 7 episode and its patently clear that the films director, Freddie Francis was terribly bored, his disinterest can be seen in every shot and set-up. If the director didn’t care then why should we in the audience? While The Terrornauts rather exalts in its silliness there is a grimly po-faced seriousness to this one that just irritates.

The film is one of those alien-abduction movies in which unwitting people are taken over, or possessed by, nefarious aliens… or, as in this case, lumps of space rock. Its in the tradition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or It Came From Outer Space, but woefully inferior. I suppose as a Nigel Kneale scripted Quatermass it might have been tense and dramatic fun, but really, Robert Hutton’s Dr Curtis Temple is no Quatermass and the film’s far too dumb to really engage, even though it indirectly taps into the paranoia of Kneale’s yarns (its inferred that the Governments of the world are in league with the aliens regards shipping the plague victims to the moon).

The film begins as a meteorite shower falls in steady formation onto a farmers field in Cornwall, England, landing in a precise ‘V’ shape that would shame the keenest parachutist team. A bunch of astronomers investigating the odd space-rocks are taken over by the strange alien forces that are possessing the space rocks and, using funds loaned from a possessed bank manager in the nearby village (!), the aliens transform the farm into an alien base/spaceport, launching rockets to the moon. Fortunately for humanity, Dr Curtis Temple is immune to the aliens because of a metal plate in his head and he leads a desperate effort to repel the invaders and rescue the enslaved human victims of the crimson plague (who, shock twist, are not dead, but merely rendered comatose and later revived for lunar slave duty to build more rockets for the Master of the Moon who wants to travel back to his planet in some other galaxy and…).

Well, of course it was going to be daft. A lot of these sci-fi b-movies were. The ones that are still fun, or perhaps naively sincere, are the ones that remain watchable. Films like this one really aren’t.

Add this one, though, to the list of films that are somehow on Blu-ray in a world in which The Abyss isn’t, because, well, I’ve discovered that this film was, incredible as it seems, deemed worthy of release in HD over in America. Why in the world anyone would want this film in their collection or think it worthy of one day re-watching it is quite beyond me, but I’ve said it before- every film, it seems, has its fans.