Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut (2004/2007)

alex1…except that it wasn’t really a Final Cut at all, because Oliver Stone followed up with another cut (‘The Ultimate Cut’) a few years later, which was actually little shorter. In all, I think there are four different cuts of this film and only one of them, the theatrical cut, is currently available on Blu-ray here in the UK (I imported this ‘Final Cut‘ several years ago since when its languished on the Shelf of Shame until now). I think the theatrical version was 175 minutes, the Directors Cut several minutes shorter, the Final Cut is the longest version some 45 minutes longer than the theatrical  and the Ultimate Cut several minutes shorter than that- the biggest difference between all the versions (other than additional violence and gore) seems to be the sequencing of scenes and how Stone juxtaposes those sequences within the internal chronology of the film. 

I’m sitting here reconsidering how I started this post and where I’m going with it. Maybe it would be especially apt to revisit this post and post alternate versions, reordering paragraphs, remarshalling my train of thought. Stone himself would possibly appreciate the irony of that. 

It would be especially interesting to sit down with Stone and discuss this film and his experience making it and re-making it. As a movie lover, I think there is something almost endearing about a film-maker’s fascination with a project driving him to rethink himself, and not quite let go of something. I think Oliver Stone didn’t quite succeed in making the Alexander he dreamed of, and his frustrations drove him to return to it, trying to perfect it. It is clearly a passion project, and such films are not always the best films but they can be the most interesting. Sometimes I’d rather watch passion-project failures than formulaic by-the-numbers successes. Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut is quite superior to the theatrical version I saw in the cinema- Stone was under immense pressure to trim the film down to a manageable length and he discusses this in the opening section of his commentary on this disc. Its indicative of the friction between the artist and the businessman, and clearly one of the boons of the home-video market of the past few decades on VHS/DVD and Blu-ray was the opportunity for film-makers to release longer cuts of the films, most of which are superior (but not always). Whether such opportunities will continue in the shift towards streaming is questionable.

I will say I really enjoyed this version of the film. How much of a success the film is, is probably a subject of some debate; there is always a sense of Oliver Stone reaching for something and not quite getting there- some sequences are breath-taking and others feel ill-judged, but you always feel an immense passion behind the film, for good or ill. I recall at the time the film came out in 2004, much criticism of Colin Farrell in the title role, but funnily enough, all these years later it doesn’t seem such a problem at all (how incongruous Kirk Douglas as Spartacus or Richard Burton in his own Alexander film? After awhile does it really matter?). I think Farrell does very well here and his Alexander lingers in the mind afterwards, so does Val Kilmer as his father, King Phillip- perhaps it is something to do with additional scenes or their sequencing in this version: its been so many years since I saw the theatrical cut that I cannot really vouch for any differences between the cuts. Maybe its just a case that Revisited works better, that Stone got the edit right. 

There’s some big names in this film (Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, Christopher Plummer, Rosario Dawson and Anthony Hopkins) and while its really a European film rather than an old-style Hollywood epic, it does seem something of a throwback to the big epics of the old days with such big names attached. It results in an odd tension within the film, of the old and the new: the incongruity of all those accents and Western actors of various nationalities appropriating Greek characters and the English language and text in scenes in ‘an enlightened, modern film’  feeling wrong: albeit inevitable, while attempting to visually be as authentic as it possibly can the film flounders on the edge of farce. While opening the film to criticism, I guess the old adage “its only a movie” holds so very true, and certainly, one could not expect someone like Oliver Stone to make some dry historical epic; this is Cinema.

To fully understand and ‘know’ such a complex character as Alexander and his achievements, you really need a time machine. In that sense, the real meaning of the film is in its tensions between West and East, in how Alexanders generals feared that Alexander had ‘gone native’ and forgotten his Greek origins, and how that makes Alexander seem to us, unconsciously in his part or not, a very modern individual. That might well be a Western, twentieth-century interpretation that gets it absolutely wrong, but Stone seems to paint a picture of Alexander of a man out of time. He’s us, in the Ancient World. Trying to bring modern sensibilities to it, trying to assimilate West and East. But there is also the sensation that’s just us appropriating Alexander, and one of the complexities of the film that nettles at Stone. Alexander and the Greeks were Pagans, who absolutely believed in their Gods and believed  that there was a limit to their world, physical as well as intellectual, that was a much smaller world than the world we know. We cannot really get into that mindset. Some things are human and universal, but other things are alien and unique: as I have written before, the distant past is as much science fiction as any story of the far-future.

Perhaps oddly, I think my favourite scenes of the film are those featuring Anthony Hopkins’ aged King Ptolemy that pretty much bookend it; Ptolemy’s reminisces of his old friend Alexander, trying to grasp who/what Alexander was or what his achievements meant, so likely mirror Oliver Stone’s struggles, and indeed those of historians for centuries. In some ways its trying to understand the human condition, our mortality and the impermanence of everything we create. Ptolemy in Alexandria of 285 BC, some forty years after Alexander died, is one of the last people to have lived in Alexander’s time and to have known him, so his thoughts would be the most definitive, but of course Alexandria itself would eventually fail, and the memoirs Ptolemy put down for posterity would themselves be eventually lost. In just the same way as Ptolemy’s effort failed, its impossible for Stone’s film to properly define who Alexander was;  all things fade, except Alexander himself, or certainly the myth of him that remains.

alex3Visually the film is quite amazing- I think the battles are gritty and brutal and give us a sense of what it must have been like, and the landscapes are wonderful: I have always been quite enchanted by the film’s representation of Babylon. What an astonishing place; one can understand how Alexander might have been so intoxicated by the East. Imagine a Greek, or anyone from the West, entering Babylon having conquered it and then himself becoming conquered by its unique beauty, its smells, its colours.

I love the Vangelis soundtrack. Like many of his scores, it lives differently within the film, his soundtrack album following his method of being a listening experience alternate to that music heard in the film. I think his music works better in the film; there is a romanticism brought to the film by Vangelis’ customary style that lifts the film up, and indeed makes some moments of the film quite transcendent. Its possibly why I enjoy the film so much, that I’m a huge fan of Vangelis for so many decades now that I cannot seperate my enjoyment of his music from the film itself, but certainly he brings a great deal to Alexander and it would be a much lesser film without this score. Being electronic it works against the pre-conceived notions of what a period film should sound like, in just the same way as his scores for Chariots of Fire and The Bounty do. Vangelis has a gift for keying into the ‘soul’ of a film- in Blade Runner it was the bluesy, electronic jazz of a future seen through the old, mirroring the films future noir sense of being caught in between two worlds . Here in Alexander he seems to capture the lyrical, almost classical romanticism of the story, the myth beneath the reality that has allowed the story of Alexander the Great to be so… ageless. Stone seems to have been frustrated by the episodic nature of film, trying to evoke some meaning or message in the sequencing of the it, feeling it lacking in a conventional chronological telling, hence all these different cuts, but Vangelis seems to have it at hand in his keyboard. Its the meshing of Western and Eastern and the ethnic music of each, while each transformed by his mostly electronic orchestration. I think the story of Alexander is too big for one film, or one film-maker (or classical historian for that matter) to really encompass but I think perhaps Vangelis comes closest to nailing it. Maybe Stone and Vangelis should have made Alexander as some great opera; in some ways, its almost there.

Columbia Noir: The Mob (1951)

mob1Well there’s no uncertainty about this one- The Mob is very much a film noir, right from its rain-drenched, night-time opening and to its thrilling, gutsy conclusion. The lighting, the framing, everything screams ‘noir’ from the very start and while the film goes off into an organised crime caper that echoes that of 711 Ocean Drive, the previous film in this second Columbia Noir set from Indicator, there’s something much darker, edgier and pulpier in this offering.

Its possibly because they were generally b-movies and exploitation thrillers, but sometimes these noir feature the unlikeliest, or perhaps more aptly speaking, the most unspectacular, of protagonists as their leads. Conventional Hollywood leading men would I suppose usually be featured in more wholesome, higher-budget dramas and thrillers, so these noir often, it seems to me, feature actors who seem to have lived in the real world more than, say, your regular Hollywood heartthrob (Glenn Ford may argue with me though on that observation). But certainly, Broderick Crawford, middle-aged and overweight and hardly blessed with a face to set women’s hearts a flutter seems both a refreshingly unlikely lead and paradoxically an oddly convincing one. When  this guy turns up on the docks undercover, he looks like a surly trouble-maker and working-class joe rather than a heroic handsome lead- you can believe the workers and thugs don’t imagine he is really a cop. There’s a sense of reality to it, and Crawford is great in the role.

The noir trope of a trapped hero raises its head early on in the film- Crawford plays Police Detective Johnny Damico who late at night stumbles upon the aftermath of a gun fight whilst off-duty. The shooter, face partly obscured by the rain and shadows, identifies himself as Lt. Henderson, a Detective from another Precinct. Surrendering his badge and gun to Damico, Henderson reveals that the dead man at his feet shot a police officer just a few hours before. Damacio suggests that Henderson goes over to an open shop across the road to call for back up, handing Henderson his gun. But while a police car quickly arrives, Henderson doesn’t return, and the patrolmen exiting the car deny being called-in. Damico rushes over to the shop and is told by the owner that Henderson didn’t go to the phone, but instead went out the back and off into the night. It dawns on Damico that he’s been had, which is confirmed when he calls his boss and learns that a Lt. Meary was murdered a few hours before, and his gun and badge stolen. Whoever ‘Henderson’ was, he wasn’t a cop- and Damacio has unwittingly let a killer caught cold-handed get away free.

Damico is offered a chance to redeem himself by going undercover at the waterfront docks to finish what the dead officer Meary was trying to accomplish- to uncover the identity of a mysterious gangland figure who is in charge of racketeering on the docks, who goes by the name of Blackie Clegg- in the grand tradition of Fu Manchu, this criminal genius is an unknown figure that nobody on the right side of the Law has seen or been able to identify.

Its quite an intriguing drama involving gun-happy heavies, mysterious waterfront characters, corrupt cops, and Damico threatened on all sides. Crawford is supported by a very fine cast, which features Ernest Borgnine in one of his very first films, as menacing mob leader Joe Castro, and a very young Charles Bronson in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it early role as a dock worker. I really enjoyed The Mob, and its twists and turns were really very well executed .On top of its very good script and fine cast, the film looks absolutely top-notch, with gorgeously atmospheric cinematography. It really works on all levels and I can’t fault it at all, its a solid film and strong addition to this very fine Columbia Noir set.

Returning to the Return of the King

rotkA few thoughts upon re-watching the third LOTR film, now completing my watch of the three films on 4K UHD:

On the ending/s

I know there’s lots of people who joke about the never-ending ending of The Return of the King, but for me its possibly my favourite part. It feels earned. After all, after watching… what is the length of all three extended editions, somewhere around 9 – 10 hours… surely after a story that is so long, it needs a proper ending that wraps up the various character arcs and validates everything before it with a fitting conclusion. Its funny; whenever I see the post-Mount Doom scene, after the Eagles have saved Frodo and Sam and we then see Frodo wake up and he is reunited with his old freinds, and we finally see Sam in the doorway, and he and Frodo exchange that look and Sam smiles and it fades out… I always think, ‘THATS the ending some people might prefer, certainly the ones who think its all too long’. It even FEELS like an ending, when it fades to black part of me expects the credits to roll (I wonder if it was actually a temptation?) but if the film had closed with that, I would have felt so cheated. I need the rest of the film, all the farewells and the ceremonies and the return to the Shire, to remember what’s been saved. And of course, we need the sadness, too, of Frodo’s departure, which was the genius of Tolkien- he understand that ultimately there has to be a price for everything, a cost to the victory, a lesson from Tolkien’s studies in mythology no doubt, and one modern film-makers and writers should heed. Speaking of which-

Its all about the story, stupid

You can’t beat having a traditional, sensical storyline with a beginning, a middle and end (albeit even one, or ESPECIALLY one, spread over a trilogy), a storyline with internal logic and sensical characters and motivations. That’s the advantage of having a literary source where all that has been worked out for you (in the case of LOTR, Tolkien had all sorts of appendices etc for additional weight and thought over and above those huge three books that  themselves supplied a trilogy structure). Things that were done or said in Fellowship of the Ring have bearing upon events in Return of the King, it feels like a whole. Its all totally the very opposite of, ahem, the Disney Star Wars trilogy that seemed to inexplicably wing everything as they went along: what in the world were they thinking? I’m no film exec but I would have expected some kind of plan regards creating a new trilogy of films would have been one of the very basic requirements prior to greenlighting anything (or signing actors, really), especially considering the investment required for films of that scale. Simply winging it seems very reckless or very brave (or indication of wild, perhaps even reckless, hubris).

Still awfully pretty

Some of the visual effects have inevitably dated, but much of it holds up incredibly well and maintains the ‘wow’ factor. The sequence of the Rohirrim on horseback fighting the Oliphaunts, racing in the madness of battle under the giant beasts remains as amazing now as it did back then. Its really quite astonishing and holds up brilliantly well. It reminds me that one of the things that so impressed me about all three LOTR films when they originally came out was the sheer audacity of what they were trying to do, how fearless they were in trying to bring some of that stuff to the screen. Indeed, in hindsight its even more impressive when one considers how cutting-edge it was at the time and how so little has been done like that since. Sure, some of the compositing looks a little ‘off’ (probably due to the sheer number of shots being attempted and the pressure of time) but some of the stuff looks more than amazing, some of it quite perfect. Speaking of ‘perfect’, ahem-

Maybe the fate of The Hobbit was obvious

As the LOTR trilogy progresses, some of its missteps become more frequent and jarring- that dreaded word ‘overconfidence’ rearing its ugly head again, as if Peter Jackson was so chuffed by his new film-making toy set and what it could do that he wanted to play with it until it broke, and he lost any self-restraint. The whole Army of the Dead sequence is brutally inept, losing all of the books tension and horror – and when the avalanche of skulls threatens to engulf our heroes (this is AFTER the undead army has agreed to terms with Aragorn) its like something from some other movie- pertinently, its like something from The Hobbit movies. There’s a few moments in the films when any bafflement regards how those Hobbit films could have turned out so bad seems like no surprise at all: indeed it even seems inevitable. The irony that the book of The Hobbit is such a gentle adventure and it was blown into this huge trilogy of spectacle is almost too painful to bear.  ‘More’ isn’t always the same as ‘better’ and restraint is often the smartest course of action- just because you can throw armies of thousands of digital characters onto the screen doesn’t mean you have to, nor that a battle of thousands has anymore dramatic power than a simple one-on-one fight: yet its a lesson that film-makers and their digital trickery do not heed. In fairness to Jackson, maybe it was the studio and the external producers demanding something as big as LOTR when he should have been better making something rather more low-key and fanciful, and minus that silly romance between an Elf and a Dwarf (as if Gimli and Legolas wasn’t plenty enough).

LOTR prefigures me too, ‘woke-ism’ etc:

Witch King: “You fool. No man can kill me. Die now!” Eowyn: “I am no man!” (kills Witch King). I mean, that’s how you do it. You don’t draw attention to it or turn into a banner for some political movement. Strong women have been in films for decades, just ask Ripley and Sarah Connor.

The music is extraordinary

What Howard Shore achieved with his scores for these films is beyond exceptional, and like John William’s work for the original Star Wars trilogy, his music lifts the whole LOTR trilogy to some other level beyond anything Peter Jackson could have hoped for. Its a great reminder of the power of film music, its just a pity no-one heeded it, considering the state of film-scoring now.

Columbia Noir: 711 Ocean Drive (1950)

711aThis was a pretty solid crime caper. I’m not so sure its actually film noir, but that really is a whole other conversation, regards what actually qualifies as noir (coincidentally, there’s an essay entitled ‘What Do We Expect When We Watch a Film Noir? written ‘by Ellen Cheshire included in the book that accompanies the films in this Indicator boxset). For my part, I think it would fit better in a ‘Columbia Crime’ boxset but I can accept how ‘fluid’ any definition of film noir can be, so yeah, no real problem having this title in this set: there’s certainly few of the standard atmospheric visual trappings of a dark-edged noir and no femme fatale but certainly the usual sense of moral ambiguity (just who’s the good guy here and who are we rooting for?) and treachery (double-crossing bosses swindling our ‘hero’ out of money, and a cheating wife proving his undoing). Perhaps its biggest nod to noir sensibility is the fact that the biggest bad guy appears to survive unscathed, a typically unsettling refute to the usual ‘crime doesn’t pay’ message of non-noir dramas.

So what’s it about? Well, one has to make allowances for the fact that as this film is 70 years old its centred around technological conceits so obsolete as to render it almost a science fiction artefact from anther world. Telephone technician Mal Granger (Edmond O’Brien) is smarter than his job deserves and his gambling vice gets him an opportunity to better utilise his talents for crime magnate/bookie Vince Walters (Barry Kelly). Kelly is great here in a surprisingly (spoiler warning?) short-lived role- I thought he was one of the highlights of The Undercover Man (featured in Indicator’s previous Columbia Noir set)  and while I expected his character to stick around longer he’s a convincingly menacing figure leaving quite a mark. In a refreshing change from the usual physical strengths espoused in these thrillers, Mal’s wits are his biggest asset, and his eye for opportunity leads him to replace Vince which brings him under the gaze of a criminal Syndicate that represents the Big League. Leader of this Syndicate is Carl Stephens, played by Otto Kruger (another familiar face, this time from Escape in the Fog, again from Indicator’s previous noir set). There is a very modern feel to Stephens, prefiguring themes of the decades-later Godfather films regards how he seems to believe crime can pretend to be respectable, running his crime syndicate like any typical corporation except that when it sacks staff it seems very permanent (“I think he’s a very sick man – I don’t believe he’ll ever get well,” to which his stooge asserts “I’ll see that he doesn’t”). Mal doesn’t appear too intimidated by the Syndicate moving in on his operation, seeing it as an opportunity as ever- or perhaps distracted by Syndicate rep Larry Mason’s wife Gail (Joanne Mason). Breaking his own code of never getting serious with a dame by starting an affair with Gail, this sets up a chain of events that may prove to be Mal’s downfall. 

One thing I will say is clear from watching so many of these 1940s/1950s films- they are so very brutally efficient, there’s nothing in them that you can imagine cutting out; every scene has some bearing upon the next, every piece of dialogue seems pertinent to the plot and there is no padding evident at all: a lesson that perhaps modern films could heed. 711 Ocean Drive is possibly lengthier than most, running at 102 minutes so teetering towards the unheard-of two hour mark but it feels very brisk, at least until the end when director Joseph M. Newman perhaps becomes too enamoured by the production value of location filming at the Boulder (Hoover) Dam: but that being said, its certainly an impressive setting for a finale. One of the many appeals of these films is that sense of witnessing a lost world, as if they are becoming as much historical documents as they are thrillers and dramas. The fashions, the décor, the cars and trucks: the locations can hold a fascination all their own. 711 Ocean Drive also features a great score from Sol Kaplan, a composer familiar to me from his work for the 1960s Star Trek. Kaplan was not the only person behind 711 Ocean Drive to make an unlikely foray into science fiction- Joseph M.Newman would soon after move on to direct This Island Earth.

Goddess in the Rear Window

rear1It struck me, re-watching Rear Window last night (thanks to The ‘Burbs, but to explain that you’re best reading my prior post), that a great appeal of that movie is just re-experiencing it, wallowing in it, as if the screen was an actual place, in just the same way as watching Blade Runner is always a little like visiting LA 2019 (a place just as impossible now as the 1950s setting of Rear Window seems to be). Regardless of the plot, for almost two hours one can feel oneself transported to this other world, soaking up the visuals and the sounds (I think the audio track of Rear Window, utilising mostly ‘source’ or ‘diegetic’ music, is one of its greatest achievements). Certainly, never has the Greenwich Village courtyard of Rear Window seemed as captivating and tangible as it does on this 4K UHD release- the film looks quite ravishing: the fabrics and textures are so detailed, the colours so vibrant, the sense of time and place so dreamy and evocative (partly because its actually all a set, something that just intensifies the strange dreamlike feel of the setting). And then of course there is Grace Kelly, possibly the most beautiful actress to ever appear onscreen, the definitive Hitchcock Blonde: beautiful, intelligent, sexy… she is so fascinating to just watch, she seems to light up the screen with her presence. It is astonishing to think her acting career only lasted barely six years, as she retired from acting at just 26 years old upon marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco, becoming Princess of Monaco, never returning to acting (despite overtures from Hitchcock, for one). Her life had suddenly become a real-life fairy-tale, I suppose, so returning to Hollywood likely seemed pointless. Kelly’s entrance in Rear Window, a slow close-up culminating in a long, slow sensual kiss, and then literally lighting up the room as she steps from light to light, switching each lamp on in turn, is one of the most astonishing entrances in all cinema, in my book; there is something intensely magical and quite timeless about it.


The ‘Burbs again

burbsLast night I returned to Joe Dante country, that cinematic landscape that shines so brightly from decades past. More specifically, I returned to The ‘Burbs, his 1989 movie that landed (and disappeared) to little fanfare. I remember going to the cinema one afternoon and quite loving it- especially, as I remember, the Jerry Goldsmith score that took a few years to eventually get released (and I got the revised Deluxe Varese edition a few years after that). I can understand why the film didn’t find an audience- its a little too arch, perhaps too subversive, to find traction with general audiences, although I’m certain its stock has raised and it has found an increasingly positive reception over the years since. Its certainly not perfect but all the same, I find so much good in it that I find myself retuning to it often. The cast is terrific, littered with geek favourites with nods to genre trivia. Its actually peculiar how some of this stuff just gets weirder with age- even the innocent casting of Tom Hanks, as when the moment lands in the film of Tom’s character waking up to the opening of preschool tv show  Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood – Hanks having starred in a biopic of Fred Rogers (A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood) some thirty years later. Carrie Fisher, rest her soul, looks so incredibly young and beautiful – still close to how she looked in the original Star Wars films, its like watching Princess Leia in a bedroom and like her appearance in The Blues Brothers a reminder of when her appearance in any film could get men of a certain age ridiculously excited. Living with Carrie Fisher in the ‘burbs sounds a little like heaven to some of us (I know the reality was likely a hell of a lot different to the picture Dante paints here, but hey, that’s the magic of movies).

I was reminded, watching the documentary that is included with Arrow’s excellent Blu-ray edition, that The ‘Burbs was originally envisaged as a spoof of Hitchcock films, particularly Rear Window. That’s one of those weird movie factoids that can instantly surprise but also make perfect sense when you consider it. Anyway, I see that as the perfect nudge to get me watching the 4K UHD  of Rear Window that came out in last year’s Hitchcock 4K boxset tonight. Sometimes one film just leads to another….

The Past Blasts Back

I revisited my childhood on Saturday. Well, part of it anyway. Its amazing how many old series are being used to fill the schedules now- some channels, that’s all they do. They never advertise them as “some more old shite” but… well, they have to wrap them up in some cosmetic gloss: ‘Saturday Showcase’ seems to be the latest way of making it seem all shiny: two hours of Hart to Hart, two hours of Charlies Angels, two hours of T J Hooker, three hours of Starsky & Hutch. I defy anyone to get through that lot and maintain their sanity. How bored does one have to be in order to sit through all that?

Me, I treated it with the respect that it deserved: an episode of T J Hooker from its first season in 1982, and then two episodes from early in the first season of Starsky & Hutch from 1975 (well, 1976 here in the UK). To be quite honest, it was a taste of Saturdays of old. I suppose local variances may differ regards T J Hooker (it was in a Saturday tea-time slot in my area) but Starsky & Hutch was a network transmission on BBC on Saturday evenings, 9 pm, so both shows are Ghosts of Saturday Past.

TJ1Turns out Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. Case in point: the episode I watched of T J Hooker, which to my great surprise  featured Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s Jonathan Banks as its guest villain Danny Scott, who even manages a curious nod to the The Shining when he hacks through a target’s bedroom door. His partner in crime Cal Jastrow is played by none other than Babylon 5‘s Michael O’Hare. Of course, watching them in a show made from 1982, its not easy to pick them out, the nagging familiarity driving one to distraction until the penny finally drops. The entertainment industry is such a small world, sometimes.

Watching old tv shows like that, its obvious that there was a clearer distinction between television and cinema back then. Its much narrower now, if it even exists at all. That being said, in all fairness, back then network shows had about 22 episodes a year, a huge production workload really (its obvious why HBO etc elect for eight or ten-episode seasons).

Was the world ever safer then than now, were things really so clear, so black and white, so predictable? It felt that way, but of course I was a kid. It does seem watching old shows like this, that they are from a safer age, when television was intended to comfort and reassure and entertain without requiring very much effort from the viewer. The good guys were Good with a capital G, and the bad guys were bad and always got caught. Most of the time, they were CLEARLY bad too, all the various shows casting a veritable Villain’s League of regular shady-looking actors who probably couldn’t catch a break getting any other role. There’s no doubts about the crooks in T J Hooker, nor any doubts about old Hooker himself.: if Shatner’s Kirk could handle Klingons and other Galactic menaces, a bunch of dumb thugs ain’t going to trouble his LA cop. This is all back in the era of old-fashioned episodic television: the close of the episode depicts Hooker going out to romance and bed the latest beautiful distressed citizen that he’s saved this week (Allison, played by TV perennial Lisa Hartman) , but next week the magic reset will ensure she’s gone and forgotten and Hooker available for the next babe. Perhaps its just as well: Lisa Hartman was 25 years younger than Shatner and it clearly shows. I’m not so sure they’d get away with stuff like that now. Or maybe I’m fooling myself. I will just say this though- back then I could never get my head round Captain Kirk wearing a police uniform or even civvies. 

starsky1But the irony is, shows like Starsky & Hutch, as innocent as they seem now, were quite heavily edited here in the UK and some episodes skipped entirely. Were the British public so easily outraged? Starsky & Hutch  was my favourite as a kid. It was hugely successful back in its day, a cultural pop icon which, thanks to the dominance back then of just three network channels, seemed much more a part of public discourse and attention, with the national audience split between just those three (and no distractions like videogames or home video etc), audience numbers could be huge. The show started airing over here in the UK in early 1976, and that summer was all Starsky & Hutch, Adam West Batman re-runs… and those American comic books like Howard the Duck and Captain America celebrating the Bicentennial while we basked in a long summer drought. It was good to be a kid back then. Yeah, there’s that Nostalgia again: just listening to that Lalo Schifrin main title music for season one is enough to give me such a thrill (the music was changed from season two onwards in favour of something more upbeat, and just as successful/and iconic, but there’s something REAL about that first season music). And of course there was that car. That car, oh man, that was the 1976 cop-show equivalent of the Millennium Falcon, right there. I only intended to watch the one Starsky & Hutch episode, but couldn’t resist sticking around for the second Maybe these channels showing all these old tv shows are onto something after all.

The last laugh is maybe on me though, regards Starsky & Hutch, anyway- I had to put up with all those too-frequent commercial breaks- I’ve got seasons one and two on DVD somewhere, if only I had them at hand. Maintaining the 1970s vibe, maybe I should find my UFO and Space:1999 Blu-rays while I’m digging those Starsky discs out. What? T J Hooker boxsets? Get out of here, I was never THAT kind of fool!

News of the World (2020)

news1There is an argument here regards expectations, and the talent behind a project skewing them- initially seeing the names Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, I expected something new, some fresh angle on that hoary old genre of the Western. New of the World, it turns out, is more of an affectionate nod to the Westerns of old – which is no bad thing, certainly, but it did take me a little while to re-adjust to. There is one sequence in the films episodic narrative in which three bad guys threaten our hero and the child that is his ward and it feels like a descent into cliché, the lead thug and his silent companions coming out of nowhere and so obviously up to no good its like they have flags on their backs. Its very black and white, and lacking any nuance at all, really, and possibly that sequence is my real issue with what is otherwise a pleasant and entertaining film.

One has the feeling that Tom Hanks could play these roles in his sleep, and that he has to make very little effort these days other than just turn up on-set, which may well be doing him a disservice. He just seems to fit these kinds of roles like a glove, as if the character is written specifically for him alone, which is patently not the case here as the film is based upon a book, but that sense of familiarity and ‘coasting’ remains. I suppose its simply that he just so very good at playing parts such as this, some kind of blurring of screen personas settled over decades of roles and films, in which real-life nice guy Hanks and on-screen good-guy Hanks are one and the same. Here he plays Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who wanders the Western landscapes travelling from town to town reading passages from newspapers to townsfolk who are too poor and busy to read or unable to read the news of the bigger world that lies beyond their immediate daily concerns and small worlds. A chance encounter during one of his journeys leaves him taking a 10-year-old girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), across Texas to her aunt and uncle. Johanna had been ‘rescued’ from a Kiowa tribe that had murdered her parents and family some six years prior, and is caught between two worlds, having forgotten her original German-settler heritage and adopted the traditions and language of the native-American tribe that had ‘adopted’ her. Now having neither, she is lost and confused, something that is mirrored in Kidd’s own sense of nomadic disenfranchisement and haunted past; references to his old life pre-Civil War and photograph of a wife that he looks at longingly. Both characters are ungrounded by events in their past and through each other have to find their new places in the world.

Young German actress Zengel is absolutely wonderful, and its her character and performance which largely lifts the film to a higher level. It may well be that the sense of Hanks in his ‘comfort-zone’ is largely because he is allowing Zengel to shine and steal the scenes they share- that he is in ‘supporting actor’ mode here contrary to the billing of the film. This is clearly a creative decision deliberately shared by Hanks and Greengrass and its exactly what saves the film and lends it a definite emotional weight that pays off at the conclusion (which is surely inevitable from the start of the film).

New of the World is possibly one of those films that won’t shake the foundations of the cinematic world by offering anything particularly new but may over time become something of a… not ‘classic’ by any means, but its an effective film, albeit it suffers from having such a largely familiar narrative. I can’t say I was disappointed by the film – its clearly exactly what it is intended to be and not every film can stretch the boundaries of its chosen genre. That being said, while it could actually become tiresome if every film DID shake things up, its a little underwhelming to watch a film that feels quite this comfortable throughout, as if it does not feel the need to really stretch itself at all.  Is it cynical of me to note the time of year this film has been released (I think it got a very limited theatrical release in the States in December), and it being such a non-controversial film so very close to Awards season?

Columbia Noir: Framed (1947)

framed1We kick off Indicator’s typically gorgeous Columbia Noir #2 boxset with a really fine effort: Richard Wallace’s Framed, featuring Glenn Ford, a new ‘star’ at the time in his first ‘above the title’ credit, and Janis Carter in a surprisingly nuanced femme fatale role. I’m not entirely sure what I expected – one can never be certain, really, what to expect coming to these features ‘blind’ when they are over half a century old- other than what might be guessed from the stark title, but it actually turned out to be quite subtle. Its relentlessly efficient, telling its story and not getting at all side-tracked with any sub-plots and nor does it divert into back-stories or flashbacks, which could feasibly have been a temptation (we never know much about our lead, Mike Lambert (Ford) even though he seems to be running away from something, and likewise there seems to be more to temptress Paula (Carter) than what meets the eye). This results in a film that intrigues long after it finishes, and I liked it a lot.

Mike Lambert arrives in town in eventful fashion, crashing a freight truck with no-brakes into the back of another. This post-credits sequence is almost like a tease for the later The Wages of Fear; Lambert took the job as a way of getting to the town as its situated in mining country, and he’s a mining engineer looking for work. The trucking company is a shady outfit putting its crews at risk with dodgy trucks, and it refuses to compensate the owner of the vehicle Lambert crashed into. It sums up the efficiency of the film in that it uses this scene to quickly establishes Lambert’s character- once Lambert has eventually managed to extract the wages he is owed from his slimy boss, he hands it over to the guy whose vehicle was damaged, righting the wrong that the trucking company won’t. Clearly Lambert is a man with a moral compass who leans on doing what’s right.

So when Lambert stumbles into the wrong restaurant with the wrong waitress, and comes under her scheming eye, we know that this is a good guy who will be a foil for Paula and her banking executive lover Steve (Barry Sullivan). What we don’t know is if its Lambert’s moral code that will prove to be his undoing as Paula seduces him, nor indeed if Paula has charmed the wrong guy, not appreciating how dangerous it is for her to try seduce a genuine good guy.

framedJanis Carter proves something  of a surprise. Ford at this point is a known commodity (The Big Heat, The Undercover Man etc) but I’d never seen Carter before and she really impresses. In many ways its an underwritten role -scheming temptress caught between two lovers with a $250,000 fortune hanging in the balance- that could have been a typically noir one-dimensional evil femme fatale, but there’s a subtlety to her character,  not ruthless enough to do what needs to be done in order to successfully walk into the sunset with the cash. Her weakness for Lambert (she has an opportunity to poison him but fails to see it through) proves her undoing. I’m not entirely sure if its scripted shades of character or just simply Carter not having the ability to fully convince as the cold-hearted bitch that the best noir bring to screen, but I’d prefer to think the former. Carter is beautiful and engaging and seems to have some depth as an actress- looking her filmography up afterwards I was surprised, and disappointed, to see that she didn’t have as successful a film career as I would have expected, and Framed is possibly her signature role, eventually moving to New York and a television career before retiring from the profession entirely. Hollywood can be a cold and ruthless place I guess and its not the first time that I’ve seen impressive actresses in old films whose careers never reached the heights that they might have done (most recently Gia Scala in The Garment Jungle).

The cast of Framed is entirely excellent, the script sharp and, as I have noted, totally efficient with no waste at all (it totals just a lean and taut 83 minutes). It manages to pull some genuine twists, with a few moments in which I thought I was one step ahead and then undermining my confidence with another surprising turn. There’s possibly one or two ‘conveniences’ that undermine it from being a genuinely great noir but on the whole I thought it was a solid, engaging thriller that I really enjoyed and look forward to returning to someday. One of the most endearing facets of noir is that one can enjoy the films even more the second time around, and I’m confident such will be the case with Framed. Certainly an excellent opener for this Indicator set.

The increasingly curious journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter

Juno to JupiterThis may be more normal in the music industry than I expect, but the journey of Vangelis’ latest project continues to confound  (although referring it as ‘latest’ seems almost premature at this point- who knows, he may be releasing another album before Juno finally lands). Originally scheduled for digital release anytime between July and September last year, with a physical release a few months later in November, we’re still waiting. Well, some of us- a digital store inadvertently released the album in August over the weekend of the 7th, apparently in error. How they got hold of the music files (possibly a promotional copy?) could either be an interesting mystery or a mundane clerical error, but Decca and Vangelis’ team yelled foul and put a stop to it, citing an actual release date in September which never happened, nor later rumoured dates in December or January this year (including a vinyl release having an bonus track not on the digital or CD releases). Last week it transpired that even Amazon had gotten tired of the curious marketing dance, cancelling my CD pre-order.

I’ve been listening to the album since August, and its a great Vangelis album that everyone of his fans should be listening to, and I’m sure they will once they can actually buy it. I actually deleted the draft review I wrote up in September just in case I was the one jinxing it by some supernatural conjunction of the spheres (I’d written it hoping to post it on the albums release date, but hey, hope springs Eternal). I expect that Covid-related complications regards production might have something to do with it, as the Deluxe CD version is packaged with a book about the Juno mission, and its likely that its this book delaying things rather than something on the music side. I admit though to being curious after such a long delay as to whether Vangelis himself feels the inclination to revisit and revise the music in some way, but that’s surely a longshot (which would possibly mean those of us who purchased the digital version in August have something of a rarity).

So anyway, with no further rumoured release date in the air at all, we fans just need to wait awhile longer. But it is such a curious tale regards this release. Of course with everything going on in the world, there’s much more pressing things to get excited about, but Vangelis releases are so increasingly rare that we fans can only be more fascinated by Juno’s increasingly curious journey. I’ll post more news as it arises. There’s probably a major announcement due any day/week/month now. It does occur to me though, that it took the space probe five years from launch to eventually reach Jupiter, so who knows, maybe the maestro’s mirroring real-life space physics regards the journey-time of his album.  Isn’t that a sobering prospect.

I can only repeat its a fantastic album, and really, in all the years I’ve been buying Vangelis albums  I’ve known nothing quite like this (except, ominously, the ultimate no-show of the Polydor Blade Runner album advertised on that films end-credit crawl in 1982 that had me visiting record stores every week in vain).