Soul (2020)

soulThis was a beautiful film. It looked beautiful (even for Pixar, this computer imagery is quite remarkable), it sounded beautiful (an interesting Jazz-infused score from Jon Batiste contrasting with electronic doodling from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) with a captivating script that felt refreshingly adult, not pandering to the young tykes in the audience as much as it might have. My favourite Pixar film remains the quite sublime Ratatouille but Soul runs it a very close second. I was quite taken by this one, and its really such a pity that it didn’t get the theatrical release it deserved, Covid forcing it to be premiered on Disney+ (quite fittingly, I suppose, on Christmas Day). 

Thankfully Disney don’t seem to have nixed physical releases just yet (perhaps seeing it as a way to recoup some of the losses of missing a theatrical distribution, or to get its greedy fingers into the pockets of those of us not yet enticed by its streaming platform) so through this 4K UHD release I’ve finally been able to watch it. I’m sure this is a film I will be watching many times in the future, its really quite wonderful. I’m not entirely sure it sticks the landing, the finale feeling a little ‘off’, but maybe a repeat viewing will dispel any doubts. 

Curiously, I only watched director Pete Docter’s previous Pixar film, Inside Out  once and never returned to it. I was quite surprised to read my old review of Inside Out and find that I really enjoyed it, because my recollection of the film remains pretty vague now (well, it has been five years and countless films under the bridge since), so I was perhaps unfairly a little cautious about Soul. Having seen Inside Out only once perhaps I should watch it again (if only I can find my Blu-ray; five years has a way of burying discs in the unlikeliest of places). Maybe I’ll be posting a re-review here when I manage to find it – at the minute it seems a job for Indiana Jones; I hope I’m not alone in discs disappearing without trace, but at times I can be searching for a film for weeks if not longer. Sometimes they never turn up, but they are in this house SOMEWHERE.

parentadvWhen the credits came up for Soul and I reflected on just how wonderful a film it was, I had the most curious train of thought. Maybe it was the Jon Batiste music score and the warm feeling that the film had infused in me, but I began to think how sad it was that Pixar never worked with Prince on a project. No doubt Prince with his track record (Parent Advisory stickers anyone?) would forever negate any possibility of him teaming up with an outfit as homely as Pixar or Disney, but that explicit content stuff dates pretty way back and Prince had moved on from that in his later years. I just considered what an amazing talent Prince was, and what he might have done musically if afforded an opportunity to work with creatives like those at Pixar or Disney. Or maybe I’m just wondering what might have been, had Prince not been so… Prince, in his later years. Because clearly few musical artists could amaze and frustrate his fans quite as much as Prince often would.

Its possibly because I’ve been reading Neal Karlen’s book about Prince ‘This Thing Called Life, Prince’s Life On and Off the Record’ (which is a very good book by the way) that I had Prince in my head at the time. Its the only explanation I can offer at why such a curious fancy struck me at that moment.

Thanks partly to the vacuum left by Prince’s untimely passing and the music from his vault released over the years since, some fresh perspective has been afforded regards Prince’s prodigious talent, strangeness and failings. I’m sometimes not at all convinced Prince was entirely human, he seemed to be on some other level, like a Da Vinci or a Mozart or a Einstein, and that judging him like the rest of us is unfair (or maybe that’s just a way of letting him off the hook for often being such a jerk).

Karlen’s book is very balanced, the guy certainly knew him as well as most could ever hope to- marvelling at Prince’s talent and rueing those disturbing failings, suggesting that the same talent that made Prince so great perhaps also destroyed him. Prince was a musical savant that was perhaps tortured by that same genius (the size of that vault of unreleased music gradually leaking out an indication of how obsessed he was, particularly in the 1980s with so much great music pouring out of him). There’s a few parts of the book in which Prince remarks about all the voices in his head, the endless creativity at his peak that stopped him getting much sleep… that’s a blessing and a curse, surely. Of course Prince wouldn’t be the only superstar whose success divorced him increasingly from normal life until he became an oddity, a contradiction and almost a self-parody of earlier heights. How can such a genius be such an asshole, is the same as asking how can such a genius NOT be such an asshole?

I don’t know, it was possibly an errant and unwarranted trail of thought, but I just wondered, like a what-if, regards all the disparate talents out there that if combined… like Lennon and McCartney being so greater together in The Beatles than they ever were once separated, or how great a film like Blade Runner became with the timely combination of Scott, Trumbull, Vangelis and all those other talented creatives at their peak at just that moment in time. I just thought how great a visual/musical experience a Pixar film might have been with Prince’s involvement, had he been able to work within a creative team rather than just on his own. It might have been a horrible disaster. But it might have been great.

Which is of course nothing at all do with Pixar’s Soul, so I’ll stop this stream of unwarranted consciousness from harassing your sensibilities any longer. If you haven’t yet seen it, do watch Soul, its a wonderful film.

Conan the Barbarian by Jason Aaron

conan jason aaronA very welcome oversized hardback collection of writer Jason Aaron’s twelve-issue run of Conan the Barbarian. The arc is titled ‘The Life and Death of Conan’ and is a pretty interesting take on the character for his return to Marvel: I suspect it was a deliberately introductory arc intended for new readers unfamiliar with the character, as it sweeps forwards and backwards in time referencing various parts of Conan’s life and adventures. It may also be a case of Aaron referencing REH’s habit of non-chronological stories, Howard depicting Conan as a King and then in his next story depicting Conan as a young thief, or later in his life as a pirate, writing stories at various stages of Conan’s life as if on a whim. It would be left for two fans to later write a probable chronological outline of Conan’s life piecing the REH stories into some kind of order (“A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career” by P Miller and J D Clark first published in a fanzine in 1938). 

One of the ways to judge how good a new Conan story is, is perhaps inevitably to compare it to the mood and spirit of REH’s original tales. This is something of a double-edged sword because there is no way for any writer to really create something that rings wholly true of Howard. Conan’s creator may have been a pulp writer quickly turning out the stories to pay the bills (and at the time of the Conan shorts were written this would include paying for, or contributing to, his mother’s medical expenses as her health failed) but their quality has ensured his work has been in print for close on a century now. Indeed, it can be argued that Howard’s best stories are those not involving Conan at all, but it can’t be denied that the best of the Conan yarns are really something special. 

So how does Aaron fair with such an unfair comparison? Pretty well I think. I’m not really convinced that he manages to capture Conan’s character; there is something a little too civilized regards Aaron’s Conan for all his narrative commentary otherwise, lacking some of the dark barbarian of Howard. There’s a literal fixation on Conan’s wanderlust, Conan’s drive to see over the next hill, an ambition to experience all the Hyborian Age’s wonders that I don’t think was such a character trait in the Cimmerian at all. It feels a little too on the nose, too modern a point of view. I rather thought Howard’s Conan lived more aimlessly, subject to his own physical whim and excess, whether it be wine, women or loot. Aaron further features a rather unwelcome explanation for Conan’s success, attributing it to a witches curse and the protection from a Dark God that needed the Cimmerians blood at the end of a long life in order for that Dark God to return. Hey, I’d prefer to attribute Conan’s length of survival to his own efforts.

The art and colours (chiefly by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson respectively) are beautiful; modern comic art is on this evidence rather more sophisticated than much of the 1970s art that featured in Marvel’s original Conan books, although I still think John Buscema’s Conan is the definitive one. This edition certainly benefits from the larger size- I initially bought this run in two softcover collections but really struggled with the small print, my eyes not what they were: no such problems here. Aaron left the title after issue twelve but I definitely hope that the successive issues with a new creative team can also be reprinted in OHC format eventually. While I am really enjoying Marvel’s omnibus reprints of both the colour and black & white Conan titles from the 1970s – 1980s, I would be fascinated to see where Marvel goes with this new generation of Conan titles.    

Crimewave’s Slapstick Noir

crimewavepicOk this was pretty horrible. I think Sam Raimi’s Crimewave created a whole new film genre that I’d call Slapstick Noir and killed that ill-thought genre stone-cold dead. What a terribly bonkers movie.

And yet… isn’t Crimewave everything that Spielberg’s 1941 was, too, except that Spielberg’s farce was a big-budget WWII comedy and Raimi’s a low-budget 1980s-set crime comedy? I really disliked 1941 though I know it has its fans, but really, all the daft excess and slapstick humour in 1941 is so similar to that of Crimewave they could be filmic cousins (they even have dance-numbers). 1941 is clearly the better movie, because at least it maintains an even tone and kind of works as a comedy, whereas Crimewave is very uneven, is all over the place tonally and mostly falls flat as comedy (there’s nothing worse than a comedy-film where the comedy itself crashes with a repeated horrible thud). Crimewave is awkward and (mostly) unfunny with the oddest performances (I’ll never watch Brion James in Blade Runner in quite the same way ever again).

The best thing regards Crimewave is that its such a 1980s movie: it has that cinematography and cast and style and fashion that marks it of that decade and that’s something I really warm to anyway. The film doesn’t work at all, really, but it just oozes that 1980s feel, so much so that while I watched it on Indicator’s new Blu-ray edition, I could imagine the tape reels rattling when holding a VHS cassette, putting it in the player and hearing the gear mechanism pulling the tape into the player. The film even has the old Embassy Pictures logo at the start. It almost feels wrong, somehow, owning and watching this film on something as fancy as a Blu-ray disc.

So anyway, Crimewave: I should probably note what it is about (if its about anything at all, but here goes). The films opens on Death Row with inmate Vic Ajax (Reed Birney, an actor who here alarmingly resembles a young Les Dennis (no, really)) about to be executed for murder. While Vic protests his innocence, we see several Nuns tightly wedged into a car racing through deserted streets, a clearly unusual image and some indication of the tonally off-kilter film to follow. As Vic is escorted to the electric chair he whines about his ill-fortune and tells his story, the film going into flashback to tell the story proper. Vic’s boss, Ernest Trend (film producer Edward R. Pressman), has stumbled upon a scheme of his business partner to sell their store to a sleazy heel, Renaldo (Bruce Campbell), who intends to turn it into a strip-joint/bar, and leave Trend with nothing. Trend hires an Exterminator business out of the phonebook (!) to exterminate both his partner and Renaldo: these Exterminators are crazy maniacs Faron Crush (Paul L. Smith, who I instantly recognised as the Beast Rabban from Lynch’s Dune) and Arthur Coddish (Brion James) whose murderous pitfalls prove the central drive of the film when their murder-spree gets out of hand. Vic gets caught up in the nightmare whilst trying to date the girl of his dreams, the beautiful albeit disinterested Nancy (Sheree J.Wilson), with the help of a pocketbook how-to guide.  As the film progresses, the body count ramps up and Vic ends up blamed for all of it. If only the Nuns can save him…

The thing is, written up like that its the kind of thing that inevitably pulls in the curious. Its not a bad story- wildly implausible of course but that’s partly the point. The performances though are so wild and all over the place, and the humour falls flat so often with such heavy thuds, that it really is something of a disaster. It only dawned on me mid-way through the film (I must have been slow on the uptake last night, but it had been a long day) that the film is really a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon. Smith and James seem to ‘get it’ and are the most successful elements (albeit possibly most off-putting, personal mileage may vary) in the film, crazy cartoonish caricatures chewing up the scenery with wild abandon, accentuated by dubbed dialogue and sound effects. Something like that Joe Dante section in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Once the viewer grows accustomed to what’s going on and what the film is intending to be to tell its tale, then one can accept and possibly even enjoy the film on its own terms. Certainly I could see a lot of the wild humour of the Evil Dead films: unfortunately while the Evil Dead flicks had their horror and gore to form their bedrock and perspective, Crimewave doesn’t, unable to establish what it is- indeed its clear the filmmakers themselves possibly didn’t have a clue themselves.   

That said, in the filmmakers defence, the production of the film was an utter mess and Sam Raimi himself, and indeed many of those involved, disowned the movie entirely. Their first major studio click, the filmmakers were completely at odds with the Embassy Pictures executives, the indie-film freedoms of The Evil Dead leaving them unprepared for everything entailed with a studio picture with its the union system. Their choice of lead was refused (Bruce Campbell intended to play Vic but relegated to minor player Renaldo), the filming went out of control with some of the cast purportedly worse for wear due to drug problems, and the studio took over the picture in post, vainly trying to save the film in the editing room. 

crimewave indicatorIndicator’s Blu-ray is typically high quality- it embarrasses better films with its wealth of supplements which include two audio commentaries and various interview featurettes, most of which I’ve barely skimmed through. I’ve written before that some bad films can be more interesting than good ones, and while that’s not entirely true here, I am certainly curious about listening to the commentary tracks (what I have heard of them from a brief sample seems very interesting). Its definitely difficult to recommend a film like this- I am sure it has its fans but I’d caution anyone coming to this film blind as I did. Still, one can’t have enough Bruce Campbell films in their collection, can they? Besides, Brion James alone is worth the price of this disc, possibly the strangest and most horrifyingly nuts performance I’ll see all year… hopefully (I don’t think I could stand another one).


Anybody else rewatching UFO?

ufo3I have very fond memories from my childhood of late Sunday nights, when my Dad would come up to check if I was asleep, and if I owned up that I wasn’t (what kid ever slept easy on a school night?), he’d let me downstairs to catch an episode of Gerry Anderson’s remarkable series.  As I remember it being on Sunday nights they must have been repeats late in the evening, probably around 11 pm, because my Dad would have been out for a few hours and gotten back in about then, and popped upstairs to check on my brother and I. It would have been around 1972 or 1973, something like that so I’d have been about six or seven. Dad knew I loved space stuff so knew it would be a great treat: just like with Dr Who of that era, I’d be scared witless at the same time as being excited by all the futuristic hardware. UFO wasn’t really a kids show, at least not like the 1960s puppetry shows that Anderson produced previously- as I’ve gotten older and returned to UFO over the years on DVD and now Blu-ray, I’m endlessly surprised that while its officially a family show its really pretty dark and bleak. I mean, aliens abducting humans to steal organs and body parts? Yikes. I can’t imagine there’s any kids out there who didn’t get freaked out by the scary end-title sequence with Barry Gray’s creepy ambient music.

UFO is one of those shows that seems way ahead of its time while also inevitably dated as times have moved on (remember it was filmed in 1969/1970). Its decidedly non-PC, with sexist jokes and scantily-dressed women, clearly an indication of the times it was made in. Early in the pilot episode sequences of a character clearly ogling a female Shadow operative, while played for laughs, feels rather uncomfortable viewing now. And of course scenes feature characters endlessly smoking and drinking. There is something quite refreshing though regards UFOs non-PC credentials, a strange source of charm I suppose, but the show was ahead of its time, too, with black actors in fairly prominent roles of authority, with consideration of race relations and a mixed-race relationship featured in an early episode that feels very positive and forward-thinking. 

sherrytrekMarch seems to be a month for looking back; the lure of nostalgia seems irresistible while stuck in lockdown for so long now… maybe lockdown and Covid have nothing to do with it and its just the endless siren-call of old favourites. Maybe settling down to the first five episodes of UFO is a reaction to seeing a few episodes of Starsky and Hutch on the past few Saturday nights. Speaking of the latter, I was surprised to see a fairly young M. Emmet Walsh appear in an episode last weekend, and Sherry Jackson in an episode the week prior (Sherry having a particularly memorable role in a Star Trek episode that I’m sure left its mark on many a young fan).

But I digress. I started this post writing about UFO. It just occurred to me, watching it… all the smoking and drinking, it began to dawn on me that its possibly just a matter of simple direction back then. For instance, there are many scenes with Alec Freeman (George Sewell) and Ed Straker (Ed Bishop) in Straker’s office in Shadow HQ, mostly dialogue-based scenes which are expositional and moving the plot forwards. Its just two guys talking, so it seems likely that the smoking and drinking was just a crux for the actors, something for them to do physically while talking. So they are just using props to make the scenes interesting, visually- moving to the drinks dispenser, pouring a whiskey, drinking it, or taking a cigarette, lighting and smoking it, or thumbing through a document file etc. The drinking and smoking feels incongruous now, of course, as its obviously unhealthy and looked at differently now than back then, but my initial thoughts that it was a reflection of the time or a way of ‘selling’ tobacco or booze to viewers were eventually dispelled as I considered what the director might have felt necessary when spacing out a scene in rehearsals to try keep mostly dialogue-scenes interesting for viewers. Maybe I’m wrong. But they even feature characters smoking while relaxing on Moonbase (can you imagine that, NASA letting astronauts smoke after what happened with Apollo 1?) which looks wrong, even though when I think about it, characters smoked on the Nostromo in Alien. I’m reminded of references to the great Peter Cushing, who was considered a master at using props when on-set (something I often have a keen eye on when I watch him performing in films). 

ufo5Network’s Blu-ray of UFO looks pretty stellar- the series looks so much better now than it did back when I was a kid on my folk’s black and white television. I last watched the series on DVD several years back, and difference in the HD upgrade is really noticeable, its a great restoration, akin to that served The Prisoner and Space:1999 Blu-ray releases. Indeed its really quite extraordinary and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.  Its also something of a testament to the quality of the film-making I guess, and I do wonder what Gerry Anderson might have thought about the restoration. I bought my set when it first came out, so its accompanied by a 600-page book that serves as a great reference when watching the episodes. I expect later sets that were minus the book were better served by the disc-holders though- this set has a digipack featuring some of the most horrible clasps holding the discs that I have ever had the misfortune to encounter, truly horrendous packaging which is the sets weakest point. Such a shame the episodes had such TLC and the packaging (obviously well-intentioned) came so short. The box is gorgeous and the book is heavenly but the digipack is the work of aliens: still, its the show itself that counts (once you can pry a disc out of the bloody evil digipack). 


Rocketmen: Ad Astra and Sunshine

ad astraI was going to write about Ad Astra, which I watched for a third (maybe fourth) time a few nights ago, but then I realised I’d written two posts about it before (once from its original cinema showing, and then again when I bought the film on 4K UHD) making anything I have to say this time around pretty much redundant. I do find it rather curious that the film, flawed as it is, still maintains some fascination for me. I sometimes think flawed films can be like that- you can watch it enjoying it for what it does very well, and then fall into a sort of mental trap considering what was wrong with it, how it could have turned out better, second-guessing the creative team’s choices. I wonder if those very same creative teams (chiefly the director and producer/s) end up doing the same themselves, or perhaps just walk away from it and happily never go back to it. Well, I suppose the recent example of Oliver Stone’s repeated tinkering of Alexander (four cuts so far) would indicate that some of those creatives really do find it hard to pull themselves away from nagging doubts and second thoughts. The truth of course is that in the case of my own considerations, they are seperate from the business pressures and considerations that are the harsh realities of making a film- films are rarely ever made in a vacuum, and one has to make allowances, the higher a budget climbs, regards the pressures and doubts of executives putting up all that production money. In my head there is a perfect Ad Astra film that pretty much tells the same story but does so without manic space baboons and perhaps with a more genuinely space-crazed father out on the edge of human civilization and cosmic void. 

You do take different things from films everytime you re-watch them. This time in particular I was troubled by how the film played it fast and loose with scientific accuracy while at the same time it acted like some kind of successor to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It posed as one thing but was really something else; maybe not to the extent of space fantasy’s like Star Wars but maybe closer to something like Alien or Sunshine

sunshineMentioning the latter, I re-watched that again last night. The curious thing about Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is that it is also one of my wife’s favourite movies; she’s not a great fan of space movies in general but there is certainly something about Sunshine that she really enjoys, and indeed whenever we re-watch it, its usually down to her suggesting it. Not something that ever happens regards re-watching Blade Runner, I can tell you, but nobody’s perfect. But Sunshine... well its a weird film; on the one hand it is heavily indebted to Alien and often gets criticised by its nods to Event Horizon later on in its proceedings. I described Ad Astra in the past as two films vying for dominance and neither really winning out, and the same is very true of Sunshine, which makes me wonder, what is it with these space movies? They are made as if they are one thing, and then they suffer a midpoint crisis and become quite another. Maybe its a bit of the old pre-2001 sci fi b-movie thing that was going on for decades, and which has left films post-2001 stuck in this weird cosmic no-mans land of trying to be entertaining but at the same time acknowledge that Kubrick’s film changed everything. 

What makes Sunshine so successful, I think, are the characters who are so well realised by the very good cast. In that respect, its something that Alien succeeded with in a clever shorthand that Boyle mimics well, and something that 2001 ironically failed at totally. Which is not to ignore the subtext of 2001 in that the humans were deliberately less human than HAL 9000, as if the bestial man-apes of the films prologue became less and less natural and ‘human’ as they evolved into technological creatures, the tools from bones becoming the spaceships of their space odyssey but their lives soulless and bland. That’s an intellectual argument that only Kubrick could get away with, but it does alienate many viewers. Films need empathy, some connection between the viewer and the characters depicted, in order to engage with those viewers. Something Sunshine succeeds very well at. Indeed, maybe it succeeds better than Ad Astra in telling the same story, as the Icarus II crew’s journey into space brings them in contact with a character who has been driven insane by the sheer immensity of space, the revelation of our place in space and time. Roy McBride’s journey to his father in Ad Astra is inherently the same as the Icarus II crew encountering the commander of the doomed Icarus I mission- Pinbacker’s violent and bloody rampage that threatens the second Icarus mission rather more intense and traditional, story-wise, than the encounter McBride has with his Dad, but in real terms its the same; character/s trying to save the Earth in opposition to an individual driven insane by a cosmic perspective. I suppose one could even argue both films owe a sly debt to the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, maybe.

Justice at last?

zsjl1Zack Snyder’s Justice League has arrived and its, well, long and its loud. Both are likely big pluses for fans of his films – I’m rather conflicted to be honest. I loved his Watchmen adaptation; its not without its faults but its a far better and authentic adaptation of the Moore/Gibbons masterwork than I had ever hoped for. Snyder is clearly a gifted director at bringing comicbook heroes to cinema- he has a  visual sense that is ideally suited to bringing comicbook panels to vivid life, with a particular talent for action sequences and using slo-mo to mimic the effect of comicbook splash pages. 

But it can also be his weakness, his Kryptonite. ZSJL is four hours long but it could probably have been brought in at 3.5 hours with the slo-mo shots played at normal speed. The ‘posing’ is one thing (I can accept some of the posing that the characters do -Marvel does it too in its films- because that’s just mirroring the comicbook style of having key panels that readers/fans dwell on when reading the comicbooks, transferring that to the cinematic form) but the slo-mo thing… used sparingly it can be highly effective and is one of the visual devices Snyder is so very uniquely good at (it looks easy but isn’t) but he does go to the well too often sometimes, especially here. Often the film seems to have been primarily shot at a high frame rate and played back at normal rate, the slo-mo almost becoming something of a self-reverence bordering on parody: “This is SO important!” it seems to scream at us. Over and over.

But it really isn’t that important, at least unless you’re a DC uber-fan who is fixated on all the comicbook mythology. The story of ZSJL isn’t up to the task of being a four-hour epic, it just isn’t. Its handicapped with origin stories and character introductions that should be unnecessary, having been handled in solo movies in the way the MCU did things, but since those solo movies never happened (come on, not even Affleck’s Batman got his own solo outing, incredibly) this film has to spend an inordinate amount of time going over material that simply shouldn’t be there. In this respect, I have every sympathy with Snyder and what he was doing (remember this film was shot back in 2016, if not earlier, before Wonder Woman, Aquaman etc ever happened)- its a huge juggling act, positioning pieces, characters and motivations in order to move the plot forwards.

This might have been my biggest issue with the film. Somehow (sideward glance at the MCU) these comicbook films have become so very serialised now they hardly function as individual films anymore. ZSJL directly references events that happened in the prior film to this, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and since its been a few years now since I watched that film, many of them were lost on me (I didn’t realise it was Required Viewing prior to this film, silly me). It also doesn’t help that the film stars a Batman who’s since been rebooted (Ben Affleck’s excellent Batman replaced by Robert Pattinson in next year’s Matt Reeves imaginatively-titled film The Batman) and a Superman that’s being rebooted right now as I type this (poor Henry Cavill being ditched by that Jar Jar Abrams maniac). And it REALLY doesn’t help that ZSJL spends considerable time laying out plotlines -particularly continuing the BvS geektease of the Knightmare sequence, hinting for a SECOND TIME a better film- and threads/arcs that will never get played out, save some kind of miracle, but obviously intended for a JSL2 or JSL3. Best-case scenario, HBO hires Snyder to make his planned JSL2/JSL3 into one last film, but the most likely scenario is we never see it and it becomes another ‘what-if’ for the fans.

Ultimately ZSJL is an oddity, and no doubt while a boon for his fans and devotees of what they are calling the DC Snyderverse films, other than the miracle of it finally being finished and released (I refuse to refer to the 2017 Joss Whedon abomination, preferring to think that film simply never existed) I have to question the fandom hysterics of it being some kind of Second Coming. No film with a story as simple and predictable/formulaic as this one should run four hours long, it just shouldn’t. There are scenes that are redundant and those teases which are wholly pointless: the film could have been a leaner, better 3.5 hours, possibly even 3 hours long.

I also don’t think the aspect ratio of 4:3 justifies itself. It seems Snyder has his eye on Imax screenings but considering this thing is being launched on televisions across the world I would have thought the usual widescreen format would have been preferable now and the 4:3 something saved for those Imax screens later. I really can’t see why 4:3 was the preferable option, it seems to box everything in and loses the cinematic qualities benefitted by widescreen, as if the last twenty-odd years of widescreen CRT tubes and flat screen technologies never happened. I’m almost surprised it wasn’t released in mono for added Old School sensibilities (although I hear rumours of a b&w version that has me thinking the whole thing is an elaborate piss-take). Its such a curio, this whole thing. 

batsBut I will just say this- its further proof that Ben Affleck, incredibly (and God knows I was his biggest doubter when the casting news first broke, years ago), is absolutely the best Batman we’ve yet seen. The fact that the guy didn’t get his own movie is a bigger shame than anything else that went wrong with the DC movies or the Justice League project. I thought he’d be terrible but I was totally wrong- he even nails both the Bat and Bruce Wayne, something I don’t think any actor before him really managed: whenever I have reservations regards any casting news I think back to Affleck’s Batman and give anything the benefit of the doubt now. I’d like to see a ZSJL2 if only to see Affleck playing Batman again- his older, wiser (?), more bitter caped crusader is a total joy, up there with Christopher Reeves’ Superman to me. If I ever buy BvS and ZSJL on 4K disc someday, its wholly because of him.

Quelle surprise! Its still 1982?

blade-runner-60I was gobsmacked over the weekend; I was flicking through the channels and stumbled upon Blade Runner being shown- it was almost midway through the film, when Rachel is in Deckard’s apartment and she rushes out, leaving him alone, and he picks up the photograph she has dropped and… Harrison Ford’s bored voiceover came on. I’m not sure why exactly I was so surprised, but yeah, they are still showing the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner on television. Really, I can’t believe that original 1982 cut is still even a thing, other than in fan’s DVD and Blu-ray boxsets. Surely with The Final Cut being released back in 2007, that is the version of Blade Runner being shown to everyone on network broadcasts or streaming? Well, apparently not.     

It does appear quite bizarre that Ridley Scott, Warner, the Blade Runner Partnership or whoever has any input into this kind of thing, would want any other version of Blade Runner than The Final Cut, or perhaps maybe the 1994 Directors Cut being shown- I’m not sanctioning a George Lucas 1977 Star Wars situation here, because this is wholly different, there’s all kinds of various cuts of Blade Runner readily available to fans and film historians. I’m not suggesting that the 1982 edition should not exist anymore, because it does and fans can get hold of that easily enough if they want to watch that, but even with my rose-tinted nostalgia specs on I cannot say that the original 1982 version of the film has any more entertainment value than the Final Cut edition. The 1982 film is really pretty broken. The internal logic is awry, the narration is awful, the visual effects aren’t all finished, continuity is a mess, the stunt double for Joanna Cassidy is a slow-motion wtf, the ending is the most bonkers thing of all; the Final Cut doesn’t fix everything but it fixes an awful lot and remains faithful to that 1982 version. Its more of a retune than a Star Wars Special Edition. Why shouldn’t that Final Cut version be widely seen rather than the flawed original? 

I just assumed that The Final Cut was the defacto standard version of Blade Runner being distributed now but apparently its not. Its still 1982 for some viewers who may well be wondering what all the fuss is about, so rightly aghast at the tacked-on nonsensical happy ending that they might never want to watch the film ever again- which is why I find it a little bit shocking but hey-ho, it just goes to show that its a crazy world sometimes. To be clear, I’m one of the films biggest fans but when I tried to watch my Blu-ray of the theatrical cut a few years ago I had to give up before I got halfway through, its too rough, nostalgia only goes so far and there’s a better version out there. Maybe I’ll get a few comments that some prefer that 1982 version and fair enough, I’m sure some do, but for any new viewers coming to the film, its not the one to see.

Anyway, its the cinematic definition of a storm in a teacup, but yeah, I was surprised. 

Columbia Noir: Murder by Contract (1958)

murder1Wow. We conclude Indicator’s Columbia Noir #2 boxset with certainly the most surprising, and possibly best, entry in the set. Irving Lerner’s lean, mean and endlessly inventive crime thriller Murder by Contract is astonishingly good. I have to wonder if I’ll see anything quite so enjoyable, exciting and surprising as this film all year.

Vince Edwards stars as hit man Claude, a young, handsome, charming psychopath (well, it IS a noir…) who is as cool as ice in his new ‘job’ of contract killer for some faceless mobster. After a strangely arresting main title sequence in which he dresses for his job interview to become a contract killer, he calmly passes the interview and takes out his first few contracts with supreme ease: this is a young man born for this particularly harrowing career. His success with his early jobs (eventually including his own boss who hired him) gets him awarded a tough witness-removal job over on the West Coast. He is met by two hoods who serve as assistants/watchdogs: the nervous Marc (Phillip Pine) and the laid-back George (Herschel Bernard) who are quite bemused by Claude’s unnaturally calm behaviour, who insists that he is able to spend the first few days swimming in the ocean, fishing and playing golf, as if he’s on holiday. Claude’s calm can’t last however- and he strangely starts to lose his cool when he discovers his target is a woman…

I can’t praise this film enough. I really do enjoy the studio-controlled noir films that dominate these sets but this one is such a breath of fresh air -allegedly shot in just seven days, its extremely low-budget seems to have freed up all sorts of possibilities for director Lerner to get this film made under the radar. In some ways its like Edgar G.Ulmer’s Detour, another rather radical noir entry, or perhaps Kiss Me Deadly, but this one is superior to both- in a league of its own, its a 1958 b-movie noir that seems to prefigure European arthouse cinema films of the 1960s, or even (and more tellingly) Tarantino’s pulp crime thrillers- it feels so cool, so fresh, so modern. The music score -a guitar-based score by Perry Botkin- is hypnotic; variations of one theme that mirrors the zen-like calm of Claude that becomes somewhat dissonant as Claude’s failures to assassinate his last target breaks down his cool. Its absolutely nothing like any noir soundtrack that I have ever heard but fits it perfectly: but then again, in many ways this film is so unlike any other noir I have yet seen and yet it is, unmistakably, utterly noir. The finale is quite sublime.

As soon as the film finished (it runs a paltry 82 minutes) I had to fight the urge to play it again immediately, it was THAT good. I suspect this is one of those films that you can just wallow in, soak in and experience time and again with the same pleasure of watching a damn fine movie. It really is quite marvellous and has leaped into my list of favourite films, its THAT good. 

Columbia Noir: Tight Spot (1955)

tight1This was such a strange film, carrying an unlikely tension throughout, between comedy and noir- and I have the suspicion that it was possibly even unintentional, that the film was somehow out of control. But then again, if it was intended to be a gritty, tense noir about the long reach of the mob to intimidate and silence witnesses via corrupt administration and police, then how come director Phil Karlson didn’t pull up star Ginger Rogers on the first day of shooting and inquire “Ginger honey, what the hell are you doing?”

Because to be clear, Ginger Rogers, playing prison inmate Sherry Conley and last-hope witness for a desperate  prosecution of a mobster who has hitherto escaped the law, is all wrong for this picture. I suspect the role was just too much of a stretch for her, resulting in her streetwise, bad-luck criminal being too loud, too over the top, bordering on farce and almost breaking the fourth wall as she delivers sharp one-liners directly at the audience. Its specially jarring as the rest of the cast are so restrained and subtle – the great Edward G Robinson is marvellous as the tough, dedicated prosecuting attorney Lloyd Hallett and Brian Keith surprisingly endearing as police detective/minder Vince Stalker. Indeed, the film is almost stolen from all of them by Katherine Anderson’s Mrs Willoughby, a prison warden who is Conley’s escort when she is removed from prison, who steals scenes with her calmness. I’m really not at all familiar with Ginger Rogers but it seems patently clear that in a drama such as this she was out of her comfort zone  and perhaps as a result, she over-acts as if in a panic and attempts to steal every scene she’s in by just drawing attention to herself, practically crying out to the audience “look at me! Look at me!”

I cannot understand why she wasn’t asked to dial it down somewhat. Maybe you didn’t do that with stars of her calibre back then: at this point in his career Robinson was out of favour, almost backlisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee and relegated to b-movies rather beneath him, and Brian Keith was on his way up after a career in television and hardly one to rock the boat. I can imagine Robinson walking of set shaking his head with a wry grimace that such was his lot and Keith wary of speaking out. The alternative of course is that it was all intentional, and Rogers’ broad strokes welcomed, and yet it doesn’t work-  I can only imagine jittery producers watching the Dailies with a rising panic.

Tight Spot is not a bad movie: based on a stage play and basically a one-set movie (mostly taking in place in a hotel room in which Hallett endeavours to convince Conley to testify against mobster Costain (Lorne Green)) the original source was obviously a character study and so ideal subject matter for a tense dramatic film (like 12 Angry Men maybe) but it keeps on swerving into romantic comedy. Rogers chews up scenery and rattles off witty one-liners like bullets from a machine gun, and scenes are occasionally broken up rather jarringly by sequences from a television broadcast of a charity marathon with a singing cowboy that is given surprising screen time. Its quite a bizarre experience that’s difficult to really explain. The film is partly saved by a surprise twist that I won’t share here (even if the film is over sixty years old) and I feel the need to point out that Lorne Green makes a memorable bad guy even if he has little more than two scenes.  Indeed its the performances from the rest of the cast that saves the picture almost in spite of Rogers; I much preferred Brian Keith here over his role in 5 Against the House and the film proved a very welcome reminder of just how good Edward G Robinson was. It has some tense moments (mostly a gritty beginning and finale, leaving the film feeling like a madcap comedy bookended by noir) and really is very enjoyable once one can dial-out or ignore Rogers’ ill-judged performance. Or maybe I’m missing something unique to 1955.

Columbia Noir: Affair in Trinidad (1952)

affairSo after a bit of an hiatus we return to Indicator’s excellent Columbia Noir #2 boxset with a rather curious entry. Affair in Trinidad is clearly a bit of a mess: its a noir severely hampered by it being primarily a somewhat cynical vehicle for its star, Rita Hayworth, who had returned to Hollywood following a failing marriage. Hayworth at this point was a genuine superstar (tagged ‘the Love Goddess’ in the 1940s) having worked with the likes of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Orson Welles and had a hit with Trinidad co-star Glenn Ford with noir classic Gilda in 1946- I mention the latter because Trinidad was practically a remake of that film, apparently.  And here I’m at a disadvantage, mainly because I don’t believe I have seen any of Hayworth’s films (other than The Lady From Shanghai, which I really must watch again) so I am neither familiar with Hayworth’s charms nor her reputation as one of Hollywood’s biggest and most popular actresses of her era. Likewise, references in Affair in Trinidad to Gilda are wholly lost on me as I’ve not seen it, although it seems clear two song/dance-numbers that awkwardly bookend the film are a large part of that. 

Glenn Ford, who has impressed so much in earlier noir featured in these box sets, is sadly relegated to supporting actor with an underwritten part that gives him sorely little to work with other than immediately fall in love with Hayworth’s widow and rage with jealousy when he thinks she is charming a rival. There is a curious meta-story wherein the two actors had a real-life on/off affair that lasted decades- indeed, the real-life story of a superstar retuning to Hollywood and her on/off relationship with her leading man (and trying to recapture the success of a classic film of just a few years prior) all seems juicy enough to be the subject of a noir of its own, or indeed a film in the vein of Sunset Boulevard.  However Affair in Trinidad is itself largely a misfire: it lacks any real tension, and the sparks between Hayworth and Ford feel sudden and forced (Hayworth’s character is married to Ford’s brother, but when Ford arrives to discover his brother died just a few days prior to his arrival, he grieves for five minutes then falls madly in love with Hayworth- wholly formulaic and unconvincing, ironic considering their purported real-life chemistry). 

Indeed, it struck me that perhaps the most noir thing in the whole film is how, by the films end, that Hayworth’s husband/Ford’s brother has been utterly forgotten and doesn’t even get any mention when the bad guys who apparently killed him are brought to justice. Watching the finale, my wife commented “but what about her husband, why did they kill him?” asking a question the film totally forgets to answer. It suggests the laziness with which the film was made, its plot hastily drawn together from pieces of perhaps Gilda and other dramas of the period.

Its not that I didn’t enjoy the film- it has good, often moody cinematography and an excellent score by George Duning that drives the plot onwards and attempts to intensify any atmosphere/tension – indeed this music score really impressed me, reminded me of 1970s John Williams, oddly enough, which made the film feel rather ‘modern’ to me. Curiously, Duning also wrote the score for The Mob, the previous film in this set and a score that I was also taken by. But these elements aren’t enough to save a film that feels awkward, and which clearly needs a better script. Mind you, Affair in Trinidad would prove to be Columbia’s biggest hit of 1952 so what do I know? I guess the public could forgive the film anything as long as it brought Rita Hayworth back to their cinema screens.