The 2021 List: January

I’m back. Well, I’ve not really been away, just side-lined by work and life. I’m sure anyone reading this appreciates just how strange life is getting, and how we’re getting worn down. Its really quite relentless, and most nights now I’m so tired in the evenings I don’t have energy to concentrate enough to even watch a film, let alone write about it. Maybe I just need a holiday (ha, ha) – ain’t that the truth/sick joke (delete as appropriate). Its been  more than two years since my last holiday anywhere, and my booked holiday in May (which was deferred from May last year, for reasons obvious to everyone) is looking as unlikely as Vangelis releasing an anthology of his unreleased soundtracks headlined by a complete Blade Runner. Or him ever releasing that Juno to Jupiter album.

So what have I been watching? Not included on the list waiting for your perusal below as its not finished until next Wednesday, is Season Five of The Expanse, which has been quite brilliant. As someone who championed this series way back when I had to import the Blu-rays to watch it, its great to see the show having some critical success before it ends next year. Amazon saving The Expanse from its third-season cancellation is the rescue Farscape deserved but never got. Anyway, more on that next week/month/when I get to write about it.

toastJanuary is a hell of a bleak month, and Lockdown is just making it all the bleaker. I’ve been retreating to sitcoms, mostly Toast of London, a show from a few years back that I vaguely recall noticing but never watching. Finally watching it thanks to the Netflix algorithm bringing it back to my attention,  its quite funny and quirky and I enjoyed it enough to binge all three seasons of it, but not enough to write a post about it. There’s that energy-sapping thing again. I don’t know. There was a feeling of biding time watching it; I knew I should be watching something more worthwhile but it was low-effort, making little demand of me. I’ve just moved on to another feast courtesy of the Netflix algorithm, an American sitcom titled Superstore, currently watching season one. There’s five seasons of this show and I never knew it even existed until I started watching it last week. I think this is what’s called Sitcom Hell. I need to find some escape.


Most ill-conceived reboot of the month:

2. Black Narcissus (BBC Miniseries)

Sitcom ‘comfort food of the month’ (lockdown special):

6) Toast of London Season One

7) Toast of London Season Two

11) Toast of London Season Three

Sexed-up Downton Abbey of the month:

15) Bridgerton Season One

Female Space Messiah Award:

9) Star Trek: Discovery Season Three 


The Good, and the even Better:

3) Proxima (2019)

4. Hidden Figures (2016)

5) The Garment Jungle

8) The Lineup (1958)

16) The Wages of Fear (1953)

The Distinctly Average:

10) The Gentlemen (2019)

12) Sputnik (2020)

14) The Wackiest Ship in the Navy (1961)

The Utterly Woeful:

1) The Midnight Sky (2020)

13) Outside the Wire (2021)

So that’s sixteen titles, split between six seasons of TV shows and ten films. Regards re-watching stuff, apart from the fantastic Millennium Actress that I did actually post about, I did re-watch The Two Towers, the second film of the LOTR trilogy, part of the 4K UHD boxset that came out late last year and which I seem to be struggling to get to actually watch, never mind actually writing about. I watched The Fellowship of the Ring over the Christmas period, and while its proving a struggle, strangely, to get around to watching all three films (possibly its because they are the extended versions which makes it awkward to schedule, in all honesty, with everything else going on) its been very interesting, returning to what is quite possibly the last genuinely great blockbuster trilogy ever made, and seeing how well they have aged (or not).  I intend to possibly expand upon this in a future post once I’ve managed to watch The Return of the King, which, on my apparently monthly schedule will happen in February. Some people managed marathons of the LOTR in a single day, or over three consecutive days- I haven’t even managed it over three weekends.

It has occurred to me that the sheer bravura of shooting all three films back-to-back might be something we never see again, considering the state of theatrical exhibition in this Covid World. We are in a situation now in which traditional blockbusters are not economically viable and are being delayed one or even two years waiting for some kind of stability regards exhibition. Where this leaves Villenueve’s Dune and its ‘will-they-won’t-they’ second film completing its story is anyone’s guess. At some point if things don’t change, more of these films will end up relegated to streaming premieres such as those Warner have announced for HBO Max in America, and what that means for studios cutting their losses and plans for 2023, 2024 etc is really a concern.

So anyway, that’s January. Looking towards February, well, its anyone’s guess how that month will likely turn out. Indicator’s second Columbia Noir set is due out so I look forward to getting into that, having so enjoyed the first set. And I have a pile of unwatched films on the Tivo etc and waiting on Netflix and Amazon, if I can ever muster the enthusiasm to watch any of it. Or indeed the time, due to working at home proving particularly problematic of late. We’ll just have to see. Oh, and its possibly going to include my biggest non-event of a birthday in all my 55 revolutions of the sun. That should be curious, although as a bonus it sees me jump up a group on the Vaccination schedule. Life. Is. So. Strange. Now.


Columbia Noir: The Lineup (1958)

cnoirlineA case of saving the best until last (although both Drive a Crooked Road and The Gament Jungle make it a close-call) as Indicator’s excellent  Columbia Noir#1 boxset closes with its sixth film, Don Siegel’s crazed-hitman saga The Lineup. Based on a successful 1950s tv show, the film begins like the police procedural I expected it to be. At Pier 39 in San Francisco, a passenger ship arrives; subsequently whilst the passengers are disembarking a suitcase from the ship is stolen by a porter and handed off to a taxi that speeds away, running down a cop- the cops dying action shooting the taxi driver dead results in it crashing.  Two police inspectors arrive investigating the ensuing carnage, and discover that the stolen case belongs to an antique dealer returning from Asia, and that one of the items within it has a stash of illegal narcotics hidden inside. The inspectors deduce that drugs dealers are using tourists as unwitting drugs mules, hiding heroin inside items the tourists buy whilst on holiday in the Far East and tracking them until they arrive safely through US customs.

Unbeknownst to the police, two gangsters, Dancer and Julian, arrive in the Bay area tasked with tracking down the other tourists and relieving them of the hidden drugs. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is a crazy psychopath, being mentored by his elder partner Julian (Robert Keith) who is morbidly fascinated by the last words of Dancer’s victims, scribbling them down into his notebook: The Lineup takes an ingenious turn when it suddenly shifts from a police procedural setting up its premise to focus instead upon the twisted killer duo. Its almost like its two different movies and I have to wonder if writer Stirling Silliphant deliberately chose to write his twisted noir under the false pretence of a movie based on a TV cop show. By the time it hits its stride, the charmless police are forgotten and the crazy bad guys are suddenly the stars. Did the studio really appreciate the film Silliphant and Siegel were making?

This film reminded me so much of Kiss Me Deadly, that insane and violent  noir directed by Robert Aldrich that blew me away last summer. Both films are so very subversive, and so very noir, glorifying in their darkness and shocking in their violence. A particular pleasure of The Lineup is how it predicts thrillers that would follow like Bullitt, Dirty Harry and The French Connection, films that don’t visually nod to noir but nonetheless further the inherent sensibilities of noir. Dirty Harry of course was also directed by Siegel and set in San Francisco, and I imagine watching The Lineup and Dirty Harry together would make for a riveting and successful double-bill. As it is, The Lineup feels very modern and ahead of its time.

And to be certain, the violence is quite shocking in this film- the suddenness of it is quite harrowing, particularly the brutal conclusion of an exchange between Dancer and a villain in a wheelchair. I actually gasped at this scene, wondering if I’d actually seen what I thought I’d seen. Its wonderful when films do that, pulling the rug from under even seasoned movie-watchers such as I.

I understand Eli Wallach was a little dismissive about his role as the psychopath killer in this film, as if perhaps embarrassed by it or feeling guilty. I can see why the intensity of the finished film may have given him reservations afterwards but its in my eyes one of his very best performances (following a start in television, I think this was only his second movie). Quentin Tarantino practically made his career out of making films like The Lineup: I dare say this must be one of Tarantino’s favourite movies as it provided him a road-map for many of his own films. You can certainly see Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent and Jules in this film’s Dancer and Julian.


Millennium Actress 4K UHD

mill2I’m actually worried to note that Satoshi Kon passed away in August 2010; I clearly remember being saddened and shocked by the news (he was only 46)- but it just really, really doesn’t seem that long ago. Time and memory plays tricks on us, certainly I can vouch for it becoming increasingly obvious as I get older that the years are falling by faster and faster. But how is it that Kon passed in 2010? How can it be more than a decade, now, already?

One of the reasons I remember it so clearly was how sudden it was, announced from out of nowhere and accompanied by a message from him, written shortly before his death and posted onto his blog. In May he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and had chosen to spend his last months at home. From the perspective of 2021 I am thinking of two things: how Kon’s final message being posted on his blog feels so very of our age, and how it foreshadowed how I felt when Prince died (and indeed David Bowie just a few months before Prince). I’m not comparing Kon to Prince or Bowie at all, its just how shocking someone’s passing can be when you fool yourself into thinking they will be around forever. But then again, we always seem to do that. We always think we have years, decades. I suppose the last several months we have all shared should have us thinking differently. We should be thinking that we can count on nothing, and should take nothing for granted.

So Millennium Actress, Kon’s love-letter to Japanese Cinema (and by extension, all Cinema), to lost loves and unrequited passions, arrived in the post from All the Anime last weekend. I hadn’t seen it in far too many years, so I watched it late on that Saturday night. I’m glad to report it remains as beautiful and poignant a film as I remembered and still as emotionally draining. Anybody who loves cinema, and haunted by the impermanence of memory, surely cannot fail to be captivated by this film.

mill1Revealing too much about the film would be very wrong of me, so I’ll keep a summary of the general plot quite brief: a film studio, Ginei Studios has become bankrupt, and its backlot and film stages are being demolished. A reporter, Genya Tachibana and his cameraman Kyoji Ida are visiting the home of the studio’s most famous and popular star, Chiyoko Fujiwara, an actress who retired from both acting and the public eye some thirty years ago. While his cameraman has no knowledge of Chiyoko or her ‘old’ films, an increasingly nervous Tachinana is full of awe at finally meeting his favourite star. When the actress greets them, Tachinana gifts her a present; Chiyoko opens the package to reveal a key that she lost many, many years ago. The key seems deeply important to her, and they start the interview, Chiyoko reminiscing about her life and her career and what the key means to her.

What follows is what makes the film so special and why it seems to have such a life of its own, and is also perfectly suited as an animated film- as Chiyoko tells her story, the film becomes a story within a story, the events of Chiyoko’s life interwoven with scenes and images from her films, and Tachinana and Ida caught up within them, inside the films and her memories. The film becomes almost surreal and Lynchian, as we are never sure what is ‘real’ and what is part of one of her films: instead, it all seems to be inexplicably, intricately linked, scenes not just being those that Tachinana remembers from watching his favourite films but also doubling for her own memories, the characters she is playing also being her, somehow. Even when we are watching what is clearly a scene from a film, it seems loaded with subtext for her own ‘real’ life. As if all the films she ever made represent her whole life, a kind of meta-reality frozen on celluloid.

The heart of the story is Chiyoko’s teenage encounter, before she ever became an actress, with a stranger being pursued by the authorities. She shelters him and she learns he is a painter and political activist- soon after the man disappears, leaving her a key as a token. This key symbolises her instant love for this man and her fervent hope that somehow, someday she will meet him again. Part of her drive to become an actress is to be famous enough that perhaps one of her films will reach this stranger so that he might return to her or contact her.

Kon made just four films, Millennium Actress was the second and seems to be rather in the shadow of his greatest popular success, the Hitchcockian thriller Perfect Blue, but I much prefer Millennium Actress. There’s a peculiar magic in it, and I am sure a part of it is just its love of movies, and of how magical and important films can be, how they can have a life all their own. Its also a love story, and like the best love stories, a rather sad one. Its true that the film derives its life-affirming message out of that sadness, which only makes it all the more special. Like all Kon’s films, Millennium Actress suggests that animated films can be as deeply rewarding as any live-action film and that there is much more to animation as an art form than popular Disney fairy-tales or Pixar adventures. There’s nothing wrong with Disney/Pixar films, but very often examples come along in anime that suggest animation can be greater; ‘Great’ even. Such is Millennium Actress.

mill3Regards the All the Anime 4K disc, I cannot really vouch for it to being anything astonishing but it is perfect, all the same. The film does not have any HDR applied which may seem odd but I can’t really say I noticed the lack- the film was never originally made with HDR in mind so it seems perfectly justifiable, to me, to not have it. I can understand why neon-drenched anime spectaculars like Akira possibly benefit from utilising HDR (funnily enough, fans obviously complained about that films HDR-less 4K release over here last year resulting in a recall/replacement) but something as intimate as Millennium Actress really doesn’t need it. The last time I watched the film was on DVD so I was impressed by the uptick in quality, but how much the 4K disc distinguishes itself from the standard Blu-ray that accompanies it I cannot say, as I have not seen any of that disc, and besides, my player/tv upscaling it to 4K rather the point or any chance I’d have anything worthwhile to note. One thing I will mention is the soundtrack; the audio on the 4K disc seemed particularly fine and the sublime music score by Susumo Hirasawa sounds wonderful. That score is fantastic and a huge part of the films success, and is its beating heart as surely as the music of Vangelis is that of Blade Runner. I imported the Millennium Actress  soundtrack on CD from Japan back in the day back when that kind of thing was difficult. A fine music score is a big part of a films success, and a films audio-visual experience a huge part of a films attraction to me. If I make a list of my favourite films, its a good bet they all have deeply involving and effective scores.

I watched the film in its original Japanese audio with English subs but there is an English dub if one prefers that. There’s a few nice extras; interviews with two of the Western dub cast and some of the Japanese film-makers who recall working with Kon. A commentary track would have been lovely but anime films aren’t renowned for being loaded with extras: the rights holders like to keep Western releases expensive and curtailed extras-wise in order to not encourage Japanese fans importing them.

Columbia Noir: The Garment Jungle (1957)

cnoirgarmIts possibly true as far as actors go: you’re only as good as the movie you’re in. Kerwin Mathews, for instance, featured in the previous film in this Indicator Columbia Noir #1 boxset, 5 Against the House, in which he didn’t exactly set the screen on fire, but here in this Vincent Sherman/Robert Aldrich-directed crime/mob racket thriller he really impresses. I thought Mathews was really very good in this, measuring up well against the likes of Lee J.Cobb and a shockingly young Robert Loggia, both of whom are frankly excellent. The more that I think about it, it may be a case of very good casting- Mathews plays fresh-faced Alan Mitchell, son of Walter Mitchell, the owner of  successful garment company Roxton Fashions, who returns to New York after some several years away. Alan is a fish out of water, an outsider looking in, mirroring the audiences point of view as he (and we) learn about the seedy machinations going on in the industry. Alan is a rather thankless character, blank-faced and reactive to everything, so maybe the part worked to his strengths and suited Mathews to a tee. Maybe I’ll adjust my opening line: you’re only as good as the film you are in and the actors you are with. 

So anyway, back to that plot. When Alan arrives it is just after a terrible accident in which his fathers business partner has been killed. While Walter is bitterly saddened by his partners death, he is so distracted by the menace of unions infiltrating his shop that he doesn’t realise that the accident was no accident at all. Walter has for years been paying protection to ruthless mobster Artie Ravidge (Richard Boone) to ensure the unions are kept out of his business. How much of a blind eye he has been keeping regards Ravidge’s methods isn’t at all clear and there is a really nice grey line that suggests Walter accepts a necessary evil and knows more than he lets on, perhaps even to himself. Of course as the film progresses Walter has to come to terms with his own responsibility for Ravidge’s actions, especially when confronted by Alan, who has befriended a union activist, Tulio Renata (Loggia) who is eventually cornered and killed by the mobsters, bringing Alan and Walter to a bitter father/son confrontation.

The Garment Jungle is a very, very good film. Films can surprise, and when they do it can prove so very welcome. Back when I saw the list of films in this set, and knowing nothing of any of them, I reckoned that The Garment Jungle would likely be the weakest of the bunch- I think it was the title and the poster art which had me dismissing it. How wrong I was. This is a film with a superb cast, a genuinely interesting story with real surprises and plenty of opportunity for that cast to display some great performances. Its much more nuanced and complex than the exploitation film that poster suggested it was.

Regards the actors in this film, I can’t think of a bad turn. Cobb is excellent; tough, pressured, worried about losing control of his life’s work building his business into a success and desperate enough to make deals with someone he shouldn’t have, and then having to face the consequences. Cobb is thoroughly convincing and I appreciated the dubiety regards how innocent he is. Robert Loggia of course is as great as ever, a very fine and intense actor, it was something of a shock to see him as young as he is here and clearly displaying the strengths of that intensity at such a young age.

I was quite struck by the leading lady/more-than-slightly-uncomfortable romantic interest in this film, the beautiful Gia Scala playing Theresa Renata. Gia has an intoxicating, quite arresting presence in this, but its not at all a sultry, femme fatale kind of role that might be expected in a noir – I have to wonder what she might have done in a role like that. Here she plays Loggia’s young wife who seems to quickly get the uninvited attention of Alan – there is a certain chemistry between them from the moment they meet that works very well, but it also feels a little uncomfortable that Alan is so attracted to her when she’s married, and the murder of her husband just seems to give Alan even more opportunity to pursue her (this all in spite of her having a baby, I should add). It doesn’t necessarily show Alan in a very gallant light, but like his father, he seems rather in denial regards his methods and motives. How very noir, when even the nominal ‘romance’ of a film has such questionable undercurrents.

I looked up Gia to see what else she had been in, she so impressed me (its a really strong part considering it could have been just a one-dimensional wronged widow/endangered mother) but was horrified to learn that she died at just 38 years old, in 1972. Her career never really took off, film roles drying up to be replaced with television work through the 1960s, a blighted personal life and alcohol problems: it would seem she never recovered from the death of her mother in 1957. As I have noted before, I can often find it so difficult to reconcile the perfection seen on screen with the frailties and human weaknesses of real life. I think it makes such great performances just more incandescent, somehow, and arresting. Maybe its just the sense of promise unrealised.

Its such a shame- on the strength of her role in The Garment Jungle, I have to wonder what she might have achieved had circumstances been different or if she had been given the opportunity. I think she could have chewed up the screen gloriously as a traditional femme fatale role in some searing noir, but that was not to be. Some maintain doubts regards the manner of her death- ruled by the authorities as an accidental overdose of drink and drugs, some thought it a suicide while her sister believed it may even have been murder. Shades of the death of Marilyn Monroe (Gia was discovered nude sprawled on her bed with bruises on her body and blood on her pillow)? It seems to me that Gia’s fate is a grim footnote to The Garment Jungle and another reminder of the dark underbelly of Hollywood- indeed, how Hollywood is so very noir.


Outside the Wire (2021)

Netflix has a something of a persistent problem with its ‘Netflix Originals’: its clear that they have lots of money to throw around at projects offered up to them and a really desperate need for new content on its platform. It must be a great time to be a creative in Hollywood right now.

Well, it was until Covid came along and rather derailed things, but what I’m getting at (Hollywood studios making hugely expensive blockbusters that it has no cinemas for notwithstanding), is that with Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney+ and countless other streaming platforms financing all sorts of productions (series and movies), it must be a good time to be a creative in Hollywood or anywhere else, for that matter. All sorts of productions that wouldn’t ordinarily have ever seen the light of day suddenly get greenlit as if by sheer desperation for content. Money is getting thrown around these days like there is some kind of goldrush. Content is everything in the streaming wars, but the real trick is, not just any content, it has to be GOOD content. There’s not much point spending millions on something rubbish that nobody watches or that is killed after the first weekend by word of mouth: you don’t want your streaming service to be considered the Happy Dumping Ground for stuff no other streamer wants and nobody watches.

But maybe Netflix didn’t get that memo. Or maybe they have so much money they don’t really care (Katee Sackhoff’s Another Life got a second season, for fracks sake). Its fairly obvious that Netflix has more than its fair share of material that is leaning on the ‘average to absolute rubbish’ scale. It needs to put more quality content up, and unfortunately Outside the Wire is absolutely not it.  It opens with an intriguing premise but slides into absurdity within very little time at all, in that manner that is beginning to seem peculiar to so many Netflix Originals. Like The Midnight Sky, another Netflix Original that I watched just a few weeks ago, there is something fundamentally wrong at the screenplay stage with Outside the Wire. Its a mess. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t make sense. But it went into production anyway: gotta fill that January 2021 slot.

Sure, its executed efficiently enough- I mean, it looks pretty good with decent production values and fairly well-staged action sequences, but that’s really just about it. The cast are much better than the material: in fact, there is more than just a suggestion that this is a case of guns-for-hire just doing their job, and a really poor b-movie project being elevated by the money Netflix is throwing around and the cast and crew that money attracts. Its the kind of project that as a low-budget b-movie in the 1980s might have been fun and worthwhile- elevated to a ‘big’ movie with its high production values, it just made the thing seem worse than it possibly might have.  If you’re going to hire Anthony Mackie, give him something to do. If you’re going to make him a cyborg/robot, have some point to it, some reason for that, other than to have him looking cool in numerous video-game-like action sequences doing superhuman stuff. As it was, I was much more interested in the “Gumps” that were being used as frontline mechanical warriors, and how ‘remote’ and ‘acceptable’ they made combat seem in just the same way as military Drones do. Why not have some commentary about that? Why not do something like what  THX 1138 did decades ago? Have a military operation and run a cost evaluation against it that goes up with every bullet fired and Gump lost and collateral damage amassed, and once the op exceeds its budget the top brass back home pulls the plug. You know, throw some social commentary in; surely that didn’t go out of fashion with Robocop

This, unfortunately, is some other totally different movie/nonsense that pretends to raise big subjects and themes but, er, doesn’t, really. It conjures up some future civil war in Eastern Europe if only so it can shoot the thing in Hungary and thus benefit from increased production efficiencies, because its setting narratively doesn’t really add anything or even make any sense, necessarily. Why would the US go into Ukraine in the future when it never has up to now, even when civilian aircraft are shot out of the sky? Why would Russia allow that and why don’t we see any Russian presence or dramatic tensions or threat from its border? It eventually posits a nuclear threat from hidden silos but by this point the film is laughably implausible and its hard to feel any real threat. And if out hero has worked out thermal rounds/grenades do the business against our renegade robot, how come the bad guys never managed to work it out?

Ach. I’ve gone and done it again, devoted too much time and too many words posting about a film that really doesn’t deserve it. You really need to sort out the Quality Control, Netflix. Simply throwing the dice just doesn’t cut it, not anymore- certainly now that Apple and Disney are getting in on the act.

Columbia Noir: 5 Against the House (1955)

cnoir5Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), the smartest of four college students who have spent a night at a Reno casino, is excited by the challenge of robbing it. Its the intellectual challenge that inspires him, seeing it as a prank, intending to inform the police of where the money is once he’s stolen it- but one of the four friends, traumatised by his experiences in the Korean war, has no intention of returning any money.

I didn’t really click with this one. The premise is very promising, but its not really the tense thriller that the title or the synopsis would suggest: indeed, the tension really doesn’t come from the heist (which takes most of the film’s running time to even get to), rather coming from Brick going off the rails. For some reason -presumably the source novel by Jack Finney- the focus is largely on Brick, with an awkward aside to Kim Novak’s sexy dame who seems shoehorned in (the film crunching to a halt for her to sing a romantic song or two). Its really a very odd feature, and hardly much of a traditional noir- instead it feels like a genre mash-up, stuck in-between the dark heist thriller I expected and the light-hearted caper film that harkens more towards Oceans 11 (that would arrive five years later). It has its moments, particularly its genius finale set in what I can only describe as an automated parking garage in which cars are parked vertically in columns above each other – absently predating the finale of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Its an early feature for Mathews, a familiar face from films I watched in my childhood (particularly his Harryhausen films, which possibly did his career more harm than good as he’d later become rather typecast with those matinee swashbuckler adventures that quickly slipped out of fashion). Curiously, Matthews will also turn up in the next film of this Indicator noir set, The Garment Jungle, in a superior role that would indeed suggest better things should have lay ahead of him.

I quite like this kind of thing, the links between films, connections of sorts: Nina Foch of course appeared in the first two films of this set, another is that this film’s screenplay was co-written by Stirling Silliphant, who would later write the sixth film in this set, The Lineup. It was an early feature for Kim Novak (her second credited role, I believe), who, unlikely as it might seem from this film, would go on to appear in one of the greatest films ever made, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, just a few years after. Both are Matthews and Novak fine, as is Brian Keith who plays Brick, the war-vet student who goes off the rails in rather melodramatic fashion. One curious piece of trivia for viewers of a certain age is the appearance of William Conrad in a minor role, who would later star as Cannon in the hugely popular tv series of 1971-1976, and notable to geeks like me as the narrator of the 1977 Making of Star Wars tv-documentary and the voice that opened every episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1980). Those were the days.

It’s dead, Jim

michaelbThe Michael Burnham Show aka Star Trek: Discovery completed its third season this past week and I’m still rather speechless. I don’t know what kind of deranged minds are behind this show but frack me it must surely be the worst sci fi show I have ever seen (at least until season four arrives next year). I suppose I should commend them for having the audacity to make a show about a psychopath with a God Complex infecting the galaxy with her psychosis.  Its pure Philip K Dick really, and quite fitting for our times: an Insanity Pandemic infecting the universe, 3188: A Messianic Odyssey in fact. 

How else to explain anything that happens in this show? I have no idea how many or how few are actually watching it, but I’m sure it has its fans: I’m sure its endless fascination with Wish Fulfilment is just wonderful for them: its all something of a Dream. We all like to think we are special, and the fantasy of The Chosen One is quite seductive; part of the appeal of the Matrix movies is the idea of being Neo, of being The One. Of being the subject of prophecy. The Michael Burnham Show is that fantasy writ large, in the guise of what we fans used to call Star Trek.

But Star Trek is dead. Its been dead for awhile, but if that wasn’t confirmed by the reboot movies from JJ Abrams or by last year’s Star Trek: Picard, then it surely is now. In fact, The Michael Burnham Show has surely kicked its corpse into the gutter. Maybe Star Wars got away lightly after all.

Michael Burnham is never wrong, and even when she is, it turns out she’s right in the end. When she ignores protocol or even direct orders, when she abandons her post to go off on one of her own far more important errands, and when she is subsequently demoted for such, its only a purely token gesture. Her voice and opinion will always still be desired, and when the push comes to shove, the Command Chair will always be vacated for her to take over and save the day. Its obvious everybody, even the head of Star Fleet, and certainly her fellow crew of the Discovery, are vastly inferior to her and will always defer to her. 

Just to underline the fact, none of the Discovery crew have any opportunity to compete with her on any level. Most of them don’t even have names, or at least names that matter or are memorable, and they surely don’t have any lines to speak, or any personality to inject into the proceedings. Arguably the co-star of the show, Ensign Tully -sorry, Tilly (the characters are so bland that even the nominal co-star has a name I find hard to remember)- is a prime example of a non-achiever, more suited perhaps to operating the sick-bay radio channel or the canteen, she is inexplicably promoted to be Number One in Burnham’s stead, if only to prove how most excellent Burnham was in comparison: I think its within thirty minutes of taking the Comm that Tilly manages to lose the Discovery to an alien aggressor (the Green Woman and her Motorbike Helmet goons) who board and take control of the ship and imprison the crew. Tilly can bluff and bluster like a ginger Boris Johnson- but typical of the show, there’s no substance to her, and after she escapes from confinement her attempt to retake the ship ends with her and her team asphyxiating in a corridor. Never mind Tilly, Michael’s here to save the day/save the galaxy/save the universe.

Its all fairly obnoxious and really insulting. I’ve never witnessed such stupidity in writing. The writers inject some 3188 tech – personal transporters in the uniform lapel badges- which, when they are tapped by the wearer’s fingers instantly teleports them anywhere they want to be. No coordinates, no voice commands, just tap the badge and this magic shit reads your mind or something. Now, you give all the crew this magic badge and hey presto, you’ll have empty corridors from then on because everyone just teleports everywhere, right? Canteen? The loo? Who even needs doors anymore? Tap the button and in a flash you’re there. And yet, and yet, in each subsequent episode we still see crew walking around pretending to look busy. I mean, they even have a gag in the episode in which they have the new tech in which an alien crewmember keeps on teleporting into scenes by mistake, and yet next episode nobody’s using them. These writers can’t even manage their own internal logic, even in the very same episode- in the finale the crew set off a bomb to wreck one of the nacelles and pull the ship out of warp, and then scarcely fifteen minutes later its magically all fixed and the ship is whole again and fully operational. I mean, wtf? 

I could go on. I think when I realised that Burnham’s God Complex psychosis is infecting everyone around her was when the show started to make sense to me, as regards how stupid it was and how crazy every character was behaving. It certainly explains how the show can shit all over established canon by suggesting Spock had a half-sister never mentioned in all the decades of the various incarnations of the franchise. Its obvious now that Spock never had a sister until she appeared, like one of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods from some deep sleep, her psychosis infecting Spock into accepting her, her sudden existence affecting the fabric of reality and the mythology of the show. I half-expect the psychosis to infect our own reality, so that people will start re-reading their Star Trek paperbacks from the 1980s and 1990s and suddenly be reading, indeed, of Spock having a half-sister called Michael. Its fiction infecting reality like in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. God help us all. 

Never mind. Michael will save us.

Columbia Noir: Drive a Crooked Road (1954)

cnoirdveThe third times the charm- here we go with the third film in Indicator’s Columbia Noir #1 boxset and this one won me over completely. I thought this was absolutely terrific. The script, the direction, the characters, the actors, everything is just firing on all cylinders, a great film all round and the most obviously noir of the films I’ve seen so far in this set.

Two bank robbers, Steve Norris and Harold Baker, are looking for a getaway driver for their next heist, and decide car mechanic and amateur race car driver Eddie Shannon (Mickey Rooney) is the perfect choice: a down on his luck racer who never achieved the success of his dreams, with no family or freinds who lives alone in a rented room.  The robber who has planned the heist, Steve (Kevin McCarthy) sets his girlfriend Barbara (Dianne Foster) as a honeytrap, pulling Eddie into a relationship and eventually  ensnaring him into a scheme that requires a souped-up getaway car and a hair-raising race down dangerous roads to foil a police roadblock once the alarm is raised.

This film works on so many levels. Even just as a character drama; Mickey Rooney is excellent as the lonely and melancholic Eddie who becomes smitten by the surprising attention from the beautiful Barbara, a woman clearly out of league. Rooney’s performance proved something of a revelation to me, I’ve never been much of a fan of his (probably because of his early comedy-musical work not really appealing to me) but here he proves that are real depths to him as an actor. Its a very quiet, subtle performance that truly convinces and proves really endearing- clearly not the simple hero one might expect him to be. One can understand how, once his natural doubts are assuaged, that he falls head over heels for the ‘too-good-to-true’ beautiful woman who shows an interest in him.

Rather at odds with the usual depiction of a noir  femme fatale, Dianne Foster plays Barbara with warmth and some subtlety (again, there’s that word ‘subtle’ which really distinguishes this film from the exploitation thriller it might have been). Usually one would expect Barbara to be a scheming beauty using her sex as a weapon and trapping our male hero into her web, but this is refreshingly more sophisticated than that. Barbara’s sudden doubts, and guilt, about pulling Eddie into the bank robbery feels genuine. “Lets call the whole thing off… he’s like a lonesome little animal that’s never had any love in his whole life” she pleads to her boyfriend Steve, but Steve’s having none of it. Indeed, there is a hint that Steve’s been manipulating Barbara all the time, and that his real affections lie elsewhere, with his crime buddy Harold (Jack Kelly) – that the two men are homosexual lovers and that Barbara is almost as much a means to an end as Eddie. Kevin McCarthy, a favourite actor of mine, always seemed to look rather dangerous- here he is sometimes a charming fellow and quite disarming but at others chews up the scenery with a coldness to him that feels psychopathic. 

Naturally it eventually dawns on Eddie how he’s being used, and that he’s never going to get what he was promised-  neither Barbara or his share of the heist money (which he was going to use to finance his racing dreams in Europe). But he’s still a ‘good soul’ and realises that Barbara needs saving, leading to a deadly confrontation at the close of the film that ends well for no-one. How very spectacularly noir.

I was really taken by this film, really surprised by Rooney’s empathic and sympathetic performance, and beguiled by Foster’s charm. There’s quite an impressive chemistry between them even if physically they seem as mismatched as their characters. Foster had a surprisingly short career as an actress, perhaps not fulfilling her potential- I was really taken aback to learn that she didn’t have a long career and the success I expected to see. Again, there is that horrible, almost morbid perspective looking back on these ‘old’ films and performances, and then seeing actors lives and careers summarised so perfunctorily, almost dismissively, while in the films themselves they are frozen forever young, forever perfect. Its a sobering perspective I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.

Director Richard Quine would go on to direct a few more notable films during the next decade or so -notably Bell, Book and Candle (which I still somehow haven’t seen yet) and one of my favourite comedies, the glorious How to Murder Your Wife. Blake Edwards, who wrote the screenplay for Drive a Crooked Road, would go on to considerable fame as a director  with films like Experiment in Terror, Days of Wine and Roses, Breakfast at Tiffanys and of course the Pink Panther films all ahead of him. Mickey Rooney’s career, while it never regained the famous heights of his earlier days, remains a formidable achievement but he seems now as infamous for his personal life as what he left on the screen. Declaring himself bankrupt in 1962, drinking problems and eight marriages suggests his private life was as much a soap opera as anything daytime television could put on screen. After his long career his estate should have been worth tens if not hundreds of millions, but following his death in 2014 the media was full of stories of his poverty and suffering elder abuse at the hands his eighth wife and one of her sons, questioning how Hollywood turns its back on its stars of old. Dianne Foster, as I have noted, did not go on to any long-lasting or glittering career as an actress, her most notable later film role being in Burt Lancaster’s The Kentuckian in 1955 before languishing in guest-spots on television shows in the early 1960s. Other than the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kevin McCarthy’s future success largely lay in television in guest-star roles, mostly as bad guys, but I’d cite his role in Joe Dante’s Innerspace as a late career highlight.

Columbia Noir: The Undercover Man (1949)

cnoir1undContinuing my posts regards Indicator’s wonderful noir collection Columbia Noir #1, we come to the second entry, Joseph H Lewis’ The Undercover Man, starring Glenn Ford as the titular hero… except, well, here’s where I return to that old chestnut of preconceptions, as my experience of this film was frustrated by expecting one thing, and getting quite another. In my defence, the title really is a glaring misnomer; it suggests an undercover cop or FBI agent infiltrating a criminal network and undoing it from within, and this film is nothing of the sort. In the end, this proved to be a very fine film regardless of the distractions from my misconceptions, but I’m certainly beginning to think that I’ll only get the very best from this set when I return for second viewings. 

Director Joseph Lewis would later go on to direct The Big Combo (1955), which is a beautifully-shot film full of noir visual tropes, so much so that its possibly a definitive noir and a perfect film for someone to watch in order to ‘get’ what a noir looks like. The Undercover Man has very few such visual flourishes, is definitely far less stylistic. I remember that The Big Combo teased that bad guys are better lovers and that perhaps strait-laced honest good guys were less interesting to women, and that the films homosexual hitmen suggested a twisted complexity hidden under the surface (much like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks many years later would explore the shadowy underbelly of suburban ‘decent’ American life). The Undercover Man lacks any such pretence or suggestion, and indeed as I have noted, actually refuses to live up to the promise of its own title.

Glenn Ford stars as treasury agent Frank Warren who is tasked to undo a powerful mob boss named ‘The Big Fellow’ who we never actually see other than in a fleeting reverse shot. Dramatically, this rather undermines the film somewhat, removing a lot of tension from the film and the friction of seeing Warren and his target even in the same room. This wasn’t entirely from choice, as the film was curtailed by the Production Code of the time which dictated that any film ‘dealing with the life of a notorious criminal of current or recent times’ could not use that criminals name for fear of glamorising or indirectly popularising that individual or his activities. The Undercover Man is actually about the treasury’s real-life pursuit and successful incarceration of Al Capone, but you wouldn’t really know it, as the film was even forbade from mentioning the city of Chicago, and its only really at the end that the penny drops regards what we’ve actually been watching. 

Ford is very good, as ever. When I was a kid he was one of my very first ‘favourite’ actors, as he seemed to appear in a lot of the films airing on television during my childhood (I recall my pleasure at seeing him appear in the ‘new’ film Superman: The Movie after so many instances of only being seen in old b&w movies). He appears in an earlier Indicator noir release, the brilliant The Big Heat (1953) which is another great Blu-ray disc well worth searching out. He’s the embodiment of the all-American, decent guy, quietly solid and dependable in the face of adversity: I get the feeling he could do this stuff in his sleep, but that’s possibly underappreciating the work he’s doing. Some of the greatest actors never look like they’re acting, managing to avoid drawing attention to themselves: the opposite of those perhaps more famous actors who just seem to be showing off all the time, with performances that actually often detract from the films they are in. Like Lewis’ later The Big Combo, this film seems (almost accidentally in this case) to suggest that good guys are pretty boring and its the bad guys that are more interesting- very noir. Nina Foch returns from the previous disc in this set, Escape in the Fog, but I have to confess I wouldn’t have recognised her (possibly because that film left such a little impression). Here she plays Frank Warren’s wife, Judith, and she leaves a much better account of herself here in a much better role even though she has less screen time. 

Once I realised this film really wasn’t going to be the film its title suggests, I really quite enjoyed it. The film suffers from that lack of tension from not actually putting ‘The Big Fellow’ onscreen (an off-screen bad guy always makes for an awkward foil): simply compare this to The Untouchables approach of actually showing Al Capone (and casting Robert De Niro, no less) and while The Undercover Man is likely more historically accurate, the latter film is a more satisfying, albeit traditional, film experience. Which is not to disparage The Undercover Man‘s own pleasures, its just a very different way of telling essentially the same story and an interesting comparison of different films and the different eras they were made in.

Columbia Noir: Escape in the Fog (1945)

escIndicator really seems to be the benchmark for Blu-ray boxsets: its Hammer sets have been outstanding and the label’s attention to quality continues with this first box in a series of Noir collections (Columbia Noir#2 is due in February). I’ve been loving this box as I’m something of a noir nut, but anyway, we’ll start this series of posts with the first in the set and, er, possibly the worst of the bunch.

First up in Indicator’s Columbia Noir #1 boxset is Budd Boetticher’s 1945 noir Escape in the Fog, which is a fine example, for both good and ill, of the old ‘supporting feature’ or ‘b-movie’: short low-budget films that were attached to proper feature films to form a double-bill presentation: I suppose a night at the pictures was genuinely a night at the pictures back then.

Barely an hour long, its telling that Escape in the Fog‘s pretty preposterous plot struggles to fill even that paltry running-time. Eileen Carr (Nina Foch) is staying in a wartime convalescent home just outside San Francisco, recovering from some nervous breakdown – she has a terrifyingly vivid dream of being on the Golden Gate Bridge late on a very foggy night,  witnessing a man being set upon by some thugs that bundle him out of a taxi cab; as the man is about to be murdered she wakes with a scream that attracts people rushing from the other rooms checking that she is okay. One of these people who she never met before is the very man she was dreaming about being murdered. Blind coincidence or spooky premonition? 

Actually if it had been neither of those things but instead an elaborate sting operation to pull the man of her ‘dream’, Barry Malcolm (William Wright) into some web of intrigue of her own design then this film would have been much more interesting. In the typical illogic of these b’s, her sudden talent for premonition is never explained and no-one really remarks about how incredible it is. This seems indicative of the films lack of ambition to be anything more than what it is: a low-budget, low-effort ‘b’; that only exists to be a cheap support for a main feature. This is the point at which I have to confess my complaints feel unfair even as I write them down- this film was never intended to be anything more than what it is. I suppose that, had it been by some twist of fate something that Hitchcock deemed worthy of attention, had he spun the premise into one of his own creations, it could have been much more than it is. It could have been something in the vein of Vertigo, an intense thriller that supposes some kind of witchcraft or psychic twist, or perhaps conclude more mundanely with some elaborate scheme to outwit a special agent and steal his secret plans?


My failing seems to have been, that was just what I was doing, watching it- conceiving some more complex yarn half-expecting some diabolical twist but no such twist comes; it really is a very silly little effort. It seems frankly inevitable that the night of her dream is going to come to pass, and likewise that rather than be creeped out, the two of them fall into a relationship (he is after all, the ‘man of her dreams’). There’s the further leap of coincidence when we learn that Barry is a secret agent and that Hollywood Nazi’s are tailing him for secret papers: I mean, psychic wartime nurse recovering from a nervous breakdown, dashing secret agent, sneaky Nazi menace (a precursor for future decades of fascination with the enemy within, whether it be Nazis, Commies, Union provocateurs, Alien pod people, you name it, Americans seem to have plenty to be paranoid about) its hardly down-to-earth, gritty noir. More pulp wartime melodrama really than what I would consider ‘proper’ noir, but then again, that very definition of noir is a hoary old chestnut so I won’t question this films inclusion in this set too much.

I didn’t really find too much here worthy of praise. The acting is fairly pedestrian but that’s mostly down to the simple, formulaic script that piles coincidence upon coincidence: maybe there is a ‘reading’ of the film that the whole thing, start to finish is really just a dream (the premonition actually a dream within a dream) but that’s really just making excuses for it. Its clear that the film is hardly high-art, and it never pretends to be- its a b-movie, barely an hour long, not the place for intense characterisation or cohesive internal logic. Its wartime entertainment, good guys vs bad guys with some typical noirish visual tropes if not wholly noir sensibilities. It may well be that an eventual re-watch will possibly improve my opinion, and that at present I’m being rather unfair. Thankfully there are much better films in this Columbia Noir set.