Magnum Farce


Copshop, 2021, 107 mins, Amazon Prime

I’ll cut Joe Carnahan some slack, as I’ve enjoyed many of his films, like Narc (2002) and I adored his darkly meditative The Grey (2011), and even rather liked Boss Level (2020) -so much so that I’ve already watched it twice|- and there’s much to like in Copshop. Indeed, the film starts with such a brazen sense of attitude, using Lalo Schifrin’s theme from Magnum Force over its opening, that I dared think this might turn out to be great… but alas, it turns out its a bit of a dud, the use of that music just hinting at how much this film is an exercise of style over substance. Some people will love it, no doubt, but it just wasn’t for me, really.

Which is such a pity, because the film features a pretty great cast. Gerard Butler plays Gerard Butler as usual, but Frank Grillo is pretty great, demonstrating again that he surely deserves better projects. Alexis Louder is very good but the script is so preposterous regards her character she has an uphill battle (more of which below), but the star performance of the film is that of the great Toby Huss, largely a tv actor who was so good in the (probably largely forgotten) tv series Carnivale back in 2003/2005, and more recently Glow (2019)- here he plays a psychotic killer and he enlivens the film tremendously, indeed almost saves it.

Copshop is a largely derivative… well, okay, its Carnahan, so lets play nice- Copshop is an affectionate nod to 1970s thrillers and exploitation films, hence its use of the Magnum Force theme and 70s funk songs on its soundtrack. Its indebted to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, clearly, in its isolated police-station under siege, and it has a lot of mileage from that sense of 1970’s ‘cool’ that provides much of the fun of the film. Its the kind of film I’m quite inclined towards, but like so many thrillers and action films these days, it just doesn’t know when to stop. I’m not sure when it happens, but at some point it moves from being fun to being silly. Maybe its when Louder’s Valerie Young is bleeding out from a gunshot one minute, is strapped up the next, and then survives a brutal gunfight in spite of a shotgun blast to the chest (yo for Kevlar!), and after being quickly ‘fixed’ by paramedics steals their ambulance to go chase after Gerard Butler’s assassin as if she’s fresh as a daisy.

Okay, okay, maybe it is just the daft fun of the film but the appeal of the 1970s films which this film so craves is that they felt grounded and real, even while they were cool- but films like Copshop just don’t know where to stop. Its like those excesses of Marvel films leak into every bloody film these days, and the days of genuine realistic human characters with natural physical limits are plain gone, and its spoiling so many films now, I’m no longer surprised anymore, I’m appalled.

Indy’s Atomic Adventure

kingdomIndiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2008, 122 mins, 4K UHD

It seems to me, that if one combined the best elements from each of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, you’d possibly have a really great movie and one equal to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s not that any of them are terrible films- its just that they all have flaws and are pale shadows of the original, albeit that’s an inevitability of mostly all sequels ever made. Just goes to show how good the original was, when even the same creative team can’t equal or surpass it, for three times of trying.

But I’ll stick my neck out here and admit I really do like Crystal Skull; universally derided as it has been since its release in 2008, I’d contend its nowhere near as bad as the internet noise would have it: and indeed, I do think its a better film than Last Crusade and that it gives Temple of Doom a run for its money at times. I rather think it may even become revaluated by many when the next Indiana Jones film comes out in 2023 and shows us what Disney can do to another Lucasfilm franchise; or maybe not. Sometimes with these franchises over the passage of so much time, rose-tinted glasses and the heady, intoxicating rush of nostalgia rather blurs things.

The worst thing about Crystal Skull is Shia LaBeouf as Mutt Williams. Its a terrible piece of casting; he’s possibly not a bad actor but he is a bad action-adventure actor, something especially clear when sharing scenes with the guy who is possibly the very best action-adventure actor we have ever seen. Its almost embarrassing watching the scenes they share: Harrison Ford is full of charm and screen presence and charisma, and LaBeouf is there like a soggy piece of cardboard. Maybe in something else, with any other actor, LaBeouf would have better chance to shine and hold his own (to be fair he wasn’t terrible in the Transformers films), but here he’s a cinematic car crash, and he just can’t provide what Spielberg and Lucas are after. Essentially, this is what damages the film, it can’t ever really recover from  the nightmare miscasting and it makes the rest look worse than it really is.

Crystal Skull may be no Raiders, but its no disaster. I like the prologue at Area 51; I don’t even mind the ‘Indy escapes a nuclear bomb in a fridge’ because its hardly any more ridiculous than falling out of a plane in an inflatable dinghy. Some viewers seem to take the Indiana Jones films too seriously; they are inherently daft, escapist entertainment. I don’t really feel comfortable excusing it like that. Its a bit reminiscent of Lucas’ old apology for the Star Wars films’ stilted dialogue “they’re supposed to sound that way” or some such nonsense, as if remarking “but they are supposed to talk like crap”. But that said, I don’t think we’re supposed to over analyse or scrutinise events the way some seem to, we’re just supposed to chuckle and go with it. I also like the oft-derided finale, which has been criticised for the sin of Indy being a passive observer when they forget that’s all he was in the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark– at least this time he has his eyes open.

Was it a cynical creative decision bringing Marion back and Indy having a long-lost son? The father-son dynamic worked so well in Last Crusade they must have thought that mirroring it, with Ford now playing the Sean Connery role and LaBeouf the Harrison Ford role would have been a sure-fire winner. But the magic of that dynamic in Last Crusade was the actors, the chemistry; and like lightning, its impossible to capture it in a bottle twice (certainly not with LaBeouf). And why would one try? It worked for one film, there’s no real creative plus to repeating oneself again unless it really was towards the idea of a passing of the torch to a new generation, a new Jones. My god: LaBeouf going on to lead in a new Indiana Jones Junior adventure, its the stuff to raise a shudder in everyone. Maybe in some other alternate universe an alternate me is struggling to watch Indiana Jones Junior and the Lost Gods of Chernobyl, with LaBeouf unearthing an alien spaceship buried deep underneath the ruins of the nuclear reactor. Any worse than what we’ll be getting in the yet-to-be-titled Indiana Jones 5 coming in 2023? Well, we’ll let time decide.

It’s not over ’till the Gray Lady sinks

grayposterGray Lady Down, 1978, 111 mins, Cable TV (Great! Movies Action)

Back in the mid-eighties, when I first saw Gray Lady Down on a Saturday night network showing (likely its British TV premiere), I found it quite enthralling. But then again, I’ve always been a sucker for any film concerned in any way with the ocean and its unseen depths. I think we’re all individually predisposed to react to certain films, but I put it down to watching Jaws at the tender age of ten in a scary cinema. After that any ‘perils of the ocean’ movie triggered all sorts of responses in me, like being scared witless by A Night to Remember and its depiction of the Titanic tragedy.

Gray Lady Down has not aged particularly well, to be brutally honest, especially after James Cameron’s The Abyss and Titanic pushed underwater visual effects to new levels. Mind, I dread to think how bad Raise the Titanic‘s miniature shots look like on my up-to-now unwatched Blu-ray copy, but in any case, the underwater/miniature shots of Gray Lady Down typify what studios thought they could get away with in visual effects back then. Or maybe Chuck’s toupee took the majority of the special effects budget.

It’s not that the film is bad, its certainly still watchable, but there’s something very staid about this film, perhaps there’s too much focus on the hardware and not enough on the characters or the pacing. The film proudly credits the navy for its assistance making the film, and one wonders if the producers were so indebted for the Navy boy’s help they thought they’d put a recruitment reel in for good measure. Its kind of funny when the film just literally stops to linger lovingly over the hull of the DSRV being prepped and then later again when it turns up at the disaster site.

Even the gravitas and screen presence of Charlton Heston cannot save the film, which perhaps indicates the problems the film has, because honestly, Chuck’s largely wasted as he has very little to do. The premise is great and could/should make an unbearably tense movie; certainly James Cameron must have thought so, as much of what happens in this film informs similar events in his The Abyss, but this feels more like a 1970s TV-movie of the week than a full-blown motion picture. Its probably telling that the films director, David Greene, worked extensively on television movies and made very few theatrical films at all, and I think it definitely shows in just how much of a TV-movie it looks and feels like: even some of the cuts between scenes seem like pauses for commercial breaks. I also think a part of it might be the ill-fitting Jerry Fielding soundtrack score that feels perfunctory at best, cringeworthy at its worst and does the film no favours at all. I can well imagine how much more tense the film might have been with a Jerry Goldsmith score, for instance.

What Gray Lady Down excels at is its cast; underused it may be but it nonetheless it really is impressive. As noted, Charlton Heston stars, and he is ably supported by Ronny Cox, Stacy Keach, David Carradine and Ned Beatty, and its something of a treat to watch them do their ‘thing’. These days though the film is likely most notable for featuring the film debut of Christopher Reeve, here in a minor role which doesn’t indicate at all the massive starring role he would have later that same year, in Superman: The Movie. Its funny how, watching him as a naval officer and seeing him channelling Clark Kent one moment, Superman the other- its in his demeanour, his jawline and eyes, one can see indications of what he would bring to his performance in that classic superhero movie in scenes in Gray Lady Down, but one would never imagine him making that major transition evidenced in his minor role here: makes one wonder at the sorcery of casting directors.

There are intimations of familiar disaster tropes (the 1970s, after all, was the decade of disaster flicks and Gray Lady Down was at the tail end of that trend) including some we would see later in films like Apollo 13, such as shifting attention to the submariner’s wives back on the mainland. This turns out to be a momentary diversion that fails to go anywhere- indeed, it possibly suggests an entire b-plot was excised from the film completely, because other than one scene I don’t believe the film ever cuts back to the mainland to see the wives again at all. However, it would have been a valid mechanism for the film to use to ramp up the tension- cutting back to nervous, stressed-out wives waiting to hear news of their husbands, something Ron Howard wasn’t afraid of resorting to in his film and yet Greene, despite his TV-movie credentials, seems to have chosen to avoid that. Seems an odd choice when the film flounders in it’s scenes of submariners waiting for rescue.

A Lovecraftian Videodrome

archive81Archive 81 Season One, 2022, 8 Episodes, Netflix

Archivist Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is offered a job restoring a collection of damaged videotapes recovered from a New York building fire of 1994. As he painstakingly restores each tape, playing each one to convert them to digital files for his mysterious boss/benefactor Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), Dan finds himself gradually opening up a mystery. The tapes were made by a documentary filmmaker, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) and are a record of her investigation into a demonic cult before she died in the fire. As the horrifying mystery unravels across the tapes, Dan realises he is caught in a new conspiracy linked to those events of 25 years ago: and begins to doubt his sanity, or even reality, as the past and present begin to blur and the images on the monitor screens seem to take on a strange life of their own.

Archive 81 is one of those shows that seem to come out of nowhere- there is so much content dropped weekly on Netflix, I often wonder what I miss, never mind those shows that I KNOW I’ve missed that I haven’t gotten around to yet, like both seasons of The Witcher, all three seasons of Dark, its a list that is getting silly: there is only so much time. Is that the true legacy of the streaming wars- not so much watching everything we want to, but just somehow managing what time we have the best we can afford?

So to Archive 81 then; this is one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. How curious that having been blown away by Midnight Mass toward the end of last year that this year opens with another great horror series? Archive 81 is genuinely creepy and disturbing with some very effective twists and surprises and a brilliant premise that is part Videodrome, part Lovecraft – throw in some reality-shifting Philip K Dick and its a killer combination. This thing caught me right from the beginning, with its wonderful, moody soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs) and it just didn’t let up. Maybe part of it was the sense of nostalgia, with its use of videotapes and other arcane forms of media bringing pangs of longing (the scene where someone rips the shrink-wrap off a Scotch blank VHS tape!) that nobody born post-millennium can ever hope to understand. I’ve seen people look at old audio cassettes wondering what they are for or what they do: I wonder what they think about these plastic bricks housing brown tape.

So the premise is great, the scripts for each episode were all very good, the characters interesting, the casting excellent, the mood relentlessly tense. Its a brilliant eight-episodes-over-three-nights binge watch but then… but then… Well, you know what’s coming, don’t you. The only thing that spoiled Archive 81 was, they didn’t stick the landing- the ending was nowhere near as satisfying as that of Midnight Mass, and proved something of a let-down. Not that it wasn’t good, its just that… well, it wasn’t an ending.

The showrunners felt the need to leave things open for a second season, teasing us instead of… Well, its hardly anything new in the world of television. I suppose so many shows get pitched and never see the light of day, its got to be tempting that, once you’ve got the greenlight you try keep it going as long as you can. But I did feel it compromised Archive 81, robbing it of the finale it deserved- you know, like a finale that had a definitive ending, damn it. You can have that and still leave a cheeky tease, but how episode eight ends…

They could have been a little smarter, and maybe braver. I rather suspect we’re just going to get a  Archive 81 Season Two, but you know, we could have gotten Archive 82 or Archive 88 instead.

Don’t get me wrong, its not a deal-breaker and Archive 81 is absolutely worth your time but while its very, very good, its just frustrating that it could have been bloody great. What is it with storytelling these days? Is ‘The End’ becoming something like a dirty word now?

A Beach Too Far

womanonbeachThe Woman on the Beach, 1947, 71 mins, Cable TV (Classic Movies)

Oh, this was rough. Its another example of a film with decent talent that has an interesting premise -basically a love triangle with a kink (one of the characters is disabled) that would resurface in, for instance, Roman Polanski’s far superior Bitter Moon decades later – but this film simply does not work. At all. Its completely broken.  I don’t know if its failures lie within its screenplay or later studio interference, but as it was based upon an original novel – and one would think a novel would be sufficiently thought-out to function under the scrutiny of readers- I rather suspect interreference  or problems during the shoot scuppered the film.

So anyway, I’d never heard of this film before, but it caught my eye as it stars my recent ‘discovery’ Joan Bennett (The Reckless Moment, Scarlett Street) and growing favourite Robert Ryan (too many noir/recent films to mention, but lets go with House of Bamboo and Crossfire), two actors who promise much but are each severely compromised here. I’ve watched Bennett as a mother struggling to save her daughter and as a beautiful duplicitous temptress, but here she’s Peggy, an attractive but surprisingly bland woman, a frustrated wife in a toxic marriage almost accidentally starting an affair with Scott (Robert Ryan) who stumbles upon her lingering by a beached shipwreck while he is riding on the beach.

Scott is a navy lieutenant awaiting an imminent discharge, suffering from PTSD having survived the sinking of a ship struck by a mine, presumably during the war. The film opens with an arresting, partly-animated visual effects sequence which visualises a recurring nightmare of the sinking, only in the dream he too sinks to the ocean floor where he is called to a beautiful siren, to his doom. This sequence seems to promise a tale of nightmare and obsession (after Scott meets Peggy we have to suppose that the nightmare is a portent of what is to come- that the siren is Peggy and her temptation is his real-life doom). But this is certainly no Vertigo– we don’t ‘see’ any further recurring nightmares suggesting further haunted, sleepless nights and increasing mental instability on Scott’s part. In fact, this may be the main failing of the film- it doesn’t focus upon Scott and his breakdown, or elaborate upon the idea that he may be grasping after Peggy because of his haunting dream-siren. How much more interesting it would have been, had the siren of his dreams been first visualised as his fiancé Eve (Nan Leslie) and then, after meeting Peggy, in later dreams visualised as Peggy (Joan Bennett certainly accomplished playing the deadly temptress from other roles). But we don’t ‘see’ any further nightmares and Scott then waking up, screaming, as we do in that beginning.

Because of this, Robert Ryan suffers the worse of the two stars: Scott is a horribly under-written character who alienates viewers from the start when he cruelly breaks up from his fiancé Eve, who we clearly see is a beautiful, honest and sweet young woman who is the right girl for him: as far as we are concerned Scott is a heel and opportunist preferring an affair with a no-good, married woman, horribly undermining his status as nominal ‘hero’ of the film.

Peggy’s blind husband Tod (Charles Bickford) was once a successful artist and the two of them socialites enjoying fame and wealth in New York, but following an accident that struck him blind, his artistic career was over and they have moved to a life of remote anonymity in a beach-house. Its a little vague in the film, but the accident was Peggy’s fault and she is staying with Tod from guilt. I suppose she was a bubbly good-time girl attracted to Tod by his fame and wealth, but now resents him for her enforced life of loneliness and isolation. Tod, meanwhile, plays the pleasant loving husband in front of Scott but is a controlling figure who blames Peggy for his plight and wants to emotionally punish her, but this is underplayed or not the preferred focus of the film. Here again though is part of the problem of this film for me; it doesn’t seem to know where the focus should lie – Scott? Peggy? Tod? – and instead spreads itself too far. Tod seems to know of, and indirectly encourage, Scott’s affair with Peggy but to what end isn’t clear, and Scott’s moves to murder Tod so that he can have Peggy, without portraying his recurring nightmares and gradual mental breakdown, leaves him seeming all the more an unlikeable protagonist and utter heel. Its a shame, because Ryan’s natural intensity would often later result in him being typecast as a villain, but here it would have helped make his Scott a fascinating and convincing ‘broken’ hero who could have been as complex as the oddly similarly-named Scottie of Vertigo. Incidentally, while I love James Stewart in that film, I suddenly have the inclination that Robert Ryan would have been fantastic as Scottie in Hitchcock’s film: its fun to imagine it.

The Woman on the Beach is quite a slog to get through, and all the effort is betrayed by a totally nonsensical ending which sums up the broken nature of the film (or to be generous, maybe the broken nature of the film mirrors the broken characters within it?). Its a horrible, horrible ending which makes no narrative sense, construed to somehow give all three characters a happy ending which is utterly unconvincing and arguably undeserved. Its one of those endings where against all sense the title card ‘The End’ is placed over the closing image and you think ‘wtf?’ as if there is a missing reel somewhere. I suppose the one positive is that this film isn’t much more than an hour long, but all the same, I did come out of this thinking I’d just lost an hour or so that I wanted back, and desperately regretted watching it when I could have watched something else. I mean, I have the Blu-ray of The Third Man just sitting just an arms length from the Blu-ray player, and I watched this rubbish instead…

Riding to the undiscovered country

ca3Ride the High Country, 1962, 92 mins, Blu-ray

I’m not the biggest fan of westerns. Maybe I saw just too much of John Wayne growing up, but the myth of the American West that Hollywood and early television was both fascinated by and creative of, the good guys and bad guys, the nobility of the gun, the racist view of Native Americans, the freshly laundered and pressed shirts and jeans… its the stuff of parody and farce and maybe a little distasteful too. The reality of the West had little if any part in the Hollywood films, whose stories were the stuff of reassuring fables in just the same way, I suppose, as the early cop shows, stories where the cops were righteous and good, and the criminals always got caught ( I well remember the consternation when UK crime series The Sweeney aired in the 1970s and sometimes episodes ended with the criminals escaping justice, leaving the police thwarted and powerless: a far cry from how Kojak, Columbo and Starsky and Hutch were getting along).

What I’m getting at is, I can see the appeal of those Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, the technicolour vistas, the sense of freedom, the popularity of the simple good versus evil plots… after all, that was the same initial appeal of Star Wars in 1977 to the mass general public, and I recall the wise observation at the time (by who, I cannot remember) that Star Wars was the first Western set in space- because that was what it was. While George Lucas obviously has one eye on the Flash Gordon serials he had the other on the simplistic Westerns that had faded in popularity through the 1960s and largely disappeared by the 1970s. But the Westerns that I gravitated to came after the Old Hollywood variety had largely had their day- I loved the Leone films, the Dollars trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and films like The Outlaw Josey Wales. They had a  decidedly shady sense of morality, a tactile sense of dirt and reality, that totally ripped apart the tidy old Hollywood Western tropes (even if the Leone films were actually his love-letters to American Cinema).

Sam Peckinpah was a director whose life is as fascinating as any of his films, and who became famous (or infamous) for his increasingly revisionary and violent Westerns.  It is telling, however, that Ride the High Country is markedly different – and indeed, its quite alarming, almost, to consider the shift in tone between this film and his next – the ill-fated Major Dundee. One can read -and of course many have- Ride the High Country as a clear marker of the shift from the western of Old Hollywood towards those that were coming thereafter.

Indeed, the film almost feels like a pause for breath prior to the era of the Spaghetti Westerns; its a reflective film that considers both the end of an era (we see automobiles starting to replace horse-drawn carriages, and uniformed police walking the streets replacing the law of the gun), and perhaps also the end of a certain kind of Western film/adventure. Aging lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), taking a risky job transporting gold from a mining camp up in the mountains down to the bank in a burgeoning town, bumps into an old pal, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and recruits him to help him in the risky enterprise. Westrum has been reduced to featuring in a carnival show that promotes the myth of the West, perhaps a commentary about the fake narrative that popular authors and Hollywood would continue thereafter. Westrum has a young sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) who he brings along for added security during the perilous trip back with the gold, but unknown to Judd, Westrum actually intends with the help of Longtree to abscond with the gold himself for one final payday. What he feels he is owed having been left with little to mark for his years in the West.

Along the way up to the mining camp, the two old men consider their past and the changing world around them. They feel, as many reaching maturity of middle-age do, a sense of not belonging, of disenfranchisement from the changing world they find themselves in. They share stories of the Old West, and those they knew who have mostly died with that Old West. They might as well be reminiscing about old movies: the two actors McCrea and Scott were Western stars of old, a sense of meta-reality leaking into the film in just the same way as the revisionary Unforgiven acted as a swansong/commentary for both Eastwood the actor of so many Western films as well as its narrative’s lead character William Munny. One almost has to wonder; are McCrea and Scott’s characters recounting tales of their past in-narrative lives or those of characters the actors played in decades-old Western movies-  as someone not at all familiar with those films, it doesn’t make much difference, it could be either and the film still functions the same. All this lends Ride the High Country some added weight, and indeed its general plot is arguably inconsequential to its considerations of integrity and morality and the passing of the West, both the real in-narrative one and and the mythical West of McCrea and Scott’s old films. Its a lovely film, even if it feels like one awkwardly positioned between eras, and McCrea and Scott are both excellent.

Along the way to the mining camp they arrive at a remote farmstead run by Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong, a veteran of 1960s and 1970s television and even an appearance in Predator) and his frustrated daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley) who runs away from her strictly religious and disciplinarian father, seeing an opportunity to tag along with the cowboys up to the mining camp where her unlikely fiancé Billy Hammond works. I used to have something of a crush on Hartley when growing up, from her guest appearance in an episode of the ’60s Star Trek show, and she is very good here as a foolish, sheltered young girl on the cusp of womanhood who is destined for a sudden growing-up lesson when she learns her Billy is a disreputable lout whose brothers seem to think they have as much right to bed their new sister-in-law as her husband does, her wedding day quickly turning into a nightmare. Realising her mistake she rushes back to the safety of Judd, whose moral code ensures he will protect her while the more pragmatic Westrum is more concerned with the gold. Pursued by the Hammonds and with Judd inevitably betrayed by Westrum, the film ends in a deadly gunfight in which a reconciled Judd and Westrum battle the Hammonds, who have murdered Elsa’s father and staged a trap at her home.

One of the men is redeemed, and the other embarks on one final journey to an undiscovered country, having vindicated his moral code one last time. Ride the High Country is a very good film, lovingly shot and with a very fine cast in top form. Its story is very entertaining but its the films position in the pantheon of the Western genre, and the meta-narrative of its aging stars of Westerns of old and the director who would soon play his own part in transforming the Western forever, that makes it particularly interesting and rewarding.

Brainquake by Samuel Fuller

brainquakeSamuel Fuller was of course a writer before he became a director, writing books and screenplays following an early career as a New York crime reporter, and I’ve found his deliriously pulp novel Brainquake a fascinating insight into his films- while at the same time, having seen a few of his films now (both written and also those directed) those films also provide an insight into this book. Certainly, there’s elements of Underworld U.S.A. clearly on display here in how it describes the machinations of the criminal underworld which the novel’s chief protagonist, Paul Page works for as a bagman. The woman that Paul betrays his criminal overlords for, Michelle, has clear precedents in some of the strong but desperate women that are seen in the films.

Brainquake was written when his Hollywood career was over, and published (in English, at least), posthumously. My ‘education’ regards Fuller’s filmography  is obviously incomplete but I can easily see how this book could be seen as a ‘Greatest Hits’ for Fuller, and parts of this book’s charm is imagining it as one of those brash, larger-than-life black & white noir adventures that I have been watching on Blu-ray of late. That being said, its also clear that while its got many Fuller tropes (for want of a better word) its also a cheeky self-indulgence, Fuller writing things he knew he could never get away with in a film. Even Tarantino would struggle to get away with some of this, but it would be marvellous, now that I consider it, to see him try. Mostly this regards Father Flanagan, a hit man for the Mob who is always dressed as a Catholic priest who nails his victims to walls in the manner of crucifixion, and who mentally pictures all the women he meets as naked. Imagining his scenes in a film with all the actresses alternatively dressed and undressed depending upon us ‘seeing’ the scenes through Flanagan’s eyes, was a major part of the fun of the book.

Its wild, its crazy, its quite intoxicating; but its absolutely a rollercoaster ride and quite a page-turner. Its definitely a Samuel Fuller book- nobody else could have written it.

Indy’s not-so last Crusade

indy3Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989, 127 mins, 4K UHD

Looking back on the Indiana Jones saga, its clear that the balance between action and comedy, drama and sheer fun, established so well in Raiders… well they never got that timeless, matinee-movie balance right again, not even close. I know many believe that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the best of the sequels, but I much prefer Temple of Doom, although that too has its own flaws, but I certainly believe time has been kinder to Temple of Doom than it has been to Last Crusade.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is evidently a reactionary film, leaning towards comedy and light adventure following the mischevious darkness of much of Temple of Doom and going, well, just too far. Spielberg seems to have lost the deft touch he displayed in Raiders– as I noted in a recent post, in that film the camera is doing all sorts of things to imaginatively move the story forwards; it could have worked as a silent movie. But that’s largely missing in this third film. While Raiders felt like something inspired, here there’s something coldly calculated about it, the placing of action beats, reprising the structure and sometimes even set-pieces (Raiders had Indy chasing a truck on a horse, now its Indy chasing a tank on a horse, and the ensuing fight on the vehicle against Nazi solders); Lucas and Spielberg obviously wanted to bring all the fun back and perhaps just didn’t know where to stop. What, after all, is the actual point of the diversion to Berlin for the Hitler gag?

Its all rather hard work, to be honest- the story is disjointed, and doesn’t really make a lot of sense. The film is largely carried by the chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, their banter and the comedy that sparks from them. Without that, we’d largely be left with a film remarkably close in quality to the much-maligned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Seriously: imagine it without Sean Connery’s character: we’d have the same convoluted, nonsensical plot, the surrounding non-characters, the same tired and sometimes ridiculous action set-pieces, as muddles Crystal Skull. Mind, Harrison Ford is as brilliant as ever- back in his prime he was such a dead ringer for matinee idols of old, there’s really been nobody quite like him for decades, really, just a few pretenders, so whatever problems an Indiana Jones film might have, its always watchable just to see Harrison Ford and his gift for physical acting, comic timing and just sheer charm in front of the camera.

I must note that this film looked particularly good in 4K UHD; its a very fine-looking disc with a highly detailed, filmic image in which the HDR really does add a ‘pop’ and sense of depth. Its a gorgeous-looking disc and likely the best I’ve ever seen the film, even compared to its original theatrical showing.

Last Week: one film leads to another. Endlessly.

they live byReal-life distractions got in the way of posting reviews last week, and it was a pretty weird week all round. I watched Nicholas Ray’s noir thriller They Live by Night having recorded it off a film channel on the cable box- not the best quality, and certainly no doubt far inferior to the Criterion Blu-ray which I nearly bought in their last sale several months back. Well, next sale-time I’ll be rectifying that mistake, because it was an outrageously great film and one I want to watch again in better quality. It really was one hell of a film.

Its a funny thing- for some reason, this particular January is actually becoming one of the best months I’ve had for catching really good films, although it is also becoming a little expensive purchasing catalogue titles on Blu-ray: my problem is how films seem to endlessly lead to others. You see a great film by one director and it leads to looking up what else he/she directed, or you are impressed by an actor so you look up their filmography. Sometimes it is the featurettes on a disc that do the deed, referencing films that I haven’t seen, which is great if they are accessible on streaming services but frustrating if it requires purchasing titles on disc. For example, a featurette on Indicator’s The Reckless Moment disc -and that’s another great film I need to post a review of soon- referenced James Mason and some of his films made around the time The Reckless Moment was made- one of which was Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, which from the scenes shown in the featurette looked interesting enough to get me buying it on a Blu-ray from network, but which itself somehow then led me to another Carol Reed film, The Fallen Idol, which again looked really interesting, and as both that and Carol Reed’s The Third Man are in a sale at both HMV and Amazon….

scarlst2Back to The Reckless Moment though, because I was so impressed by Joan Bennett in that film that I went looking at her filmography. Fortunately Fritz Lang’s noir Scarlett Street which starred Bennett was on Amazon Prime, and while it wasn’t the best quality (its obvious streamers dump these older films on their services without much attention to print quality etc), at least it was in its original black and white. Unfortunately, the edition of Lang’s The Woman in the Window, another noir starring Bennett, which is  available on Amazon Prime, is a colourised version (I thought those had been outlawed long ago, but colourised movies somehow still seem to be surfacing). My goodness its unwatchable, I switched that travesty off within minutes of it starting, so my only current avenue for that film seems to be a Blu-ray from Eureka. Oh my wallet. I did spot another Joan Bennett on a cable movie channel so have recorded it – The Woman on the Beach, which I’ll give a try, if only because it also features Robert Ryan- yeah, him. Again. Mind, goodness only knows what films both The Woman in the Window and The Woman on the Beach possibly lead to.

Strangely enough, I found myself watching two more episodes of 1970s popular cop show Starsky and Hutch last week. I don’t know why I’m so cruel to myself, but nostalgia can be a rude mistress. Anyway, one of these two episodes in particular was of some passing interest- the third season episode The Action, from 1978, featured an extraordinarily young Melanie Griffiths in a guest role, and also M Emmet Walsh (only a few years away from Blade Runner) and James B. Sikking, later of Hill Street Blues fame and parts in both Outland and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. That episode seems ridiculously overloaded with notable guest stars. The second episode I watched was a late fourth-season episode, with the series clearly on its last legs,  my attention drawn by the episode title (Starsky vs.Hutch, which was intriguing but the actual episode quite another matter). I stuck with the episode because of it featuring an unrecognisable Yvonne Craig (Bargirl sorry, Batgirl, in the Adam West Batman tv show) in a very minor -insultingly so, really, I has a hard time tracking her down- role, and the great Richard Lynch as the villain. Lynch played a psychopathic Vietnam veteran who hated blondes, hunting a dating bar/dance hall – only the brunettes were safe (but he wasn’t fooled by blonde wearing a dark wig, the cunning bastard). Lynch seemed to be a regular bad guy in television shows of that era (Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The A-Team, you name it he was a villain in it) and he had a notable turn in the fantasy flick The Sword and the Sorcerer (a poor-mans Conan which I gather is getting a 4K release before the John Milius film, somehow. Crazy world.).

On a curiously related note, I did see the very end of Conan The Barbarian during the week, catching the last moments of a showing on television when flicking the channels late at night. Every time I catch the end or mid-point of a film I have on disc -the Dirty Harry films were on over Christmas, so those are a few others- showing on the telly late at night, I think, wow, I’d love to sit and watch this right now, but its always at some ungodly hour. I must have had more stamina for late, late movie watching in the old days. I just can’t do it anymore.

Friday of course brought the final-ever episode of The Expanse (I’m still hoping that Amazon or Alcon Entertainment or the showrunners are bluffing us about it being The End). I had a long day work-wise on Friday (not helped by an eleventh-hour report of sickness re: our old nemesis, Covid) so had to bide my time until late in the evening before I could watch it. It was a bittersweet experience- a great finale, certainly, but we all know there’s three more books waiting to be adapted (as well as a few novellas) so we know the story isn’t complete and indeed, the seeds laid at the start of each of this season’s episodes for what happens beyond this final episode only added to the frustrations of all fans, I expect. But yeah,  its clear that the sixth book was a good cutting-off point (in the books there is a 30-year gap between books six and seven) so it makes some kind of sense. Anyway, Expanse Season Six is another post in the queue list. It seems a long time since I wrote about its first season, years ago; I just can’t believe I’m now writing about its ending.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

STtmpStar Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979, 132 mins, 4K UHD 

Looking back on it, I’m tempted to suggest -sweeping over-generalisation that it is- that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a pretty clear marker of the old giving way to the new. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has the feel of Old Hollywood, of creative teams more used to making westerns and crime thrillers suddenly getting scripts featuring aliens and spaceships. There’s a sense of people suddenly making sci-fi films with no interest in such genre material, and little affinity for it – indeed, at a time when such material was considered the realm of the cheap b-movie quickie. The days of genre fans/geeks who grew up loving the stuff then making genre films would still be a few years away, but already with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg the changing times were clear: post-Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood was still in transition, and the old guard hadn’t yet been replaced by the geeks. So Hollywood sci-fi was still Logan’s Run, The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. 

In the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that’s possibly its strength. It feels like a serious (albeit often misguided, at times) attempt to make a great ‘Motion Picture!’ back when that still meant something (today any distinction of quality between television and cinema is largely gone). Its not played for laughs, there’s no dodgy sets, there’s no geek in-jokes and surprisingly low-key fan-service if any at all (I suspect much of what we’d identify today as ‘fan-service’ in the film is actually incidental). It’s not 2001, and neither is it Star Wars, but rather it sits somewhere in between, in a place few genre films have dared position themselves (maybe Interstellar would be a modern example). I am endlessly surprised whenever I re-watch the film over the years, just how refreshing it is, and enjoyable.

Indeed, having recently read Robert Preston Jones’ superlative oral history of the film, Return to Tomorrow, I’m actually more surprised than ever that the film even got finished and in sufficient shape to be considered a film at all. Its possibly a textbook lesson of how NOT to make a film. The script wasn’t finished when they were shooting the live-action, the director and actors were cooking up the finale on the fly: imagine making a film like Ben-Hur and making the last reel on-set without a script (it wasn’t quite that bad, but not far off- I’m always amazed at films going into production without finished scripts but it continues to happen). The original effects team was great on ideas but lousy at execution, wasting millions of dollars in research and most importantly wasting priceless time. Once that effects team was largely dismissed (albeit most of the staff rehired), the deadline that Douglas Trumbull and his team/s were faced with, the task left them regards its scope and the visual effects it needed, back in that era of physical miniatures, lighting and motion-control rigs and photo-chemical printing… its mind-boggling.

The pacing is obviously the film’s biggest problem, something not helped by many visual effects shots hanging around too long or sequences being overloaded with just too many of them. Its tempting to suggest that Wise and/or the editor Todd Ramsay became too enamoured by all the expensive effects shots coming in at the eleventh hour but the simple truth is, the shots were all coming in very late (Preston’s book has some timeline stuff that is just jaw-dropping regards when models became available and filming happened and elements arrived at the optical printer etc) and they never had the perspective we have with the finished film- hence the justification of the Directors Cut. But considering how late everything was… its amazing that Jerry Goldsmith’s score was so good (in my mind the composers very best) and maybe having to cut the film to the timing estimates handed to Goldsmith which he scored the music to… well, little wonder the film’s pacing is dodgy.

The odd thing about this which bugs me, is when Trumbull and everyone got together with the script and storyboards, why didn’t they cut some of those boards? I find it hard to understand why, with effects teams working alternate day/nights shifts in at least three facilities working twelve to sixteen-hour days labouring over really difficult shots to unrealistic schedules, they didn’t rip up more of those boards. The Epsilon 9 and Orbital Office Complex sequences are obvious examples, featuring too many shots. The Orbital Office Complex is a lovely miniature and beautifully photographed, but do we need to see so many shots of its exterior before cutting to the interior and Kirk arriving? Clearly nobody could ‘see’ that so much of it would be redundant or could have been culled to allow more time and resources on stuff that really mattered. I suppose its a technology thing, nowadays films have CGI storyboards, and I recall ILM shot animatics as a guide for The Empire Strikes Back to help nail the pacing of effects shots/sequences like the Hoth battle.

But nonetheless, I still enjoy watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Many much prefer the second entry, Wrath of Khan, but for me there is always something special about the first. They aimed for greatness and largely failed but you have to admire that they tried, and watching it I often have a little mischevious fun berating the suits that enforced an unrealistic deadline agreed with theatres, and all the production cock-ups and crashing egos behind the scenes. Maybe this year’s version of the Directors Cut will indeed finally be the film it could/should have been; we’ll just have to wait and see…. (and yes, likely have to buy this film yet AGAIN).  So it seems I’m not quite finished writing about this film…