Snowy Spaghetti

great3The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio), 1968, 105 mins, Blu-ray

It started with Ennio Morricone, as it so often does. He composed music for so many films and television series (over 400) that its probably a familiar tale. Over a decade ago, when I was collecting CD soundtracks during a period when so many expansions and remasters were being released, and I delved into Morricone’s work, I bought many CDs utterly blind, generally based on recommendations online. You could listen to Morricone’s music without any prior knowledge of the films/television shows that it was composed for, and indeed even now, much of Morricone’s music that I know exists for me utterly independent of whatever it was composed for. Haunting music such as his score for The Red Tent/La Tenda Rossa exists for me utterly independent of its film (which reminds me, I really should attend to that).  One of the scores I bought was Il Grande Silenzio/The Great Silence, a Western that I had otherwise never heard of. Its score wasn’t really like any of Morricone’s other Western scores that  I knew- it’s a far cry from his Leone Western scores, for instance, an utterly different beast- it had a strange, haunting quality; somewhat moody, grim and driven.

Well, now I now why. My goodness, The Great Silence is bleak. It’s monstrously bleak. It’s ending -sorry, but we have to discuss its ending- is such a downer that I actually mumbled “what?!” when I realised it was actually the end and that there wouldn’t be another reel to set things right. I mean, that’s how it usually happens in movies –  the hero suffers or fails but he then recovers and makes things right, gives us a satisfying ending. There’s no satisfaction to The Great Silence‘s conclusion.: its frustrating and horrible and yes, its perfect in its way and I guess its the ending that The Great Silence was always relentlessly heading towards but all the same…. is the title of the film a reference to its main character or to the sound of the audience numb with surprise as the end credits roll?

I’ve seen bleak endings to films. That last shot of  Gilliam’s Brazil is utterly perfect but its hardly one to put smiles on audience faces, its intellectually perfect but nonetheless a gut punch to a viewers hopes. The Great Silence‘s conclusion is just like that. But goodness, its as bitter and cold and bleak as the film’s beautifully terrifying snow-swept landscapes. But what a magnificent piece of work.

great4I can’t say that I’m a huge admirer of what we refer to as Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre of the Western that references European films, mostly made in Italy hence the ‘spaghetti’ reference and immortalised chiefly by the films of Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck, You Sucker!/A Fistful of Dynamite.  There’s something amateur about many of them, likely stemming from the awful dubbing that often distracts me horribly. Indeed, I watched a few months back director Sergio Corbucci’s Django, which was a film he made a few years prior to The Great Silence. Django was a hugely popular film and quite influential, but it still left me a little cold. Ha, that’s quietly ironic considering the setting and denouement of The Great Silence.

But I will say this- The Great Silence informs Django, looking back on it. The Great Silence is a far better, far more mature work. Back when I saw Django -and hey, how is it possible it was as far back as last September when I watched that?- I noticed that Corbucci was considered with some reverence online and I couldn’t figure out why, but I can now. I can see, watching this later film, possibly what Corbucci was aiming for in Django. Sure, some of it is obvious, the mud (Django may be the dirtiest-looking film ever made) clearly a substitute for the snow he couldn’t afford at the time, but in the graphic violence and bleakness its clearly a precursor to what he achieved in The Great Silence.

greatsilencebluraySo what’s The Great Silence actually about, I hear you wondering. In the bitterly-cold Utahn mountains during the Great Blizzard of 1899, bounty-hunters are running amok, making fortunes by hunting down innocent citizens wrongly brandished as outlaws and criminals by the corrupt banker Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli). A widow hires a mute gunfighter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to revenge her dead husband who has been killed by Tigero (Klaus Kinski) a psychopath who clearly enjoys killing, preferring to shoot his quarry dead rather than take the option of capturing his bounties alive.

From that summary you can likely assume how the plot of the film would usually go, but The Great Silence is instead a very subversive piece of work which counters such expectations. Its dark and frustrating and really rather perfect in how it undermines what you would expect it to be. The landscapes are powerfully used, and beautifully shot, and Morricone’s score is haunting and lyrical and imbued with a sadness that in hindsight should have clued me in to what I was watching. Its far from the operatic ode to American cinema that runs through Leone’s work- this is something else, something clearly European, possibly predating the American westerns revisionism that would follow in the next decade (arguably culminating with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992).

The Great Silence is a mesmerising piece of work and something of a masterpiece indeed. On first viewing I can’t say I appreciated the darkness of its ending but thinking back upon it, it clearly makes the film more interesting than what a more traditional ending of the film would be. It clearly confounds audience expectations, though, and this is obviously why  the film wasn’t well-received back in 1968. Corbucci actually appreciated this would be the likely outcome, shooting alternate, happier endings that are included in Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc, but they come out of nowhere, countering everything that comes before and so don’t at all work (they are much worse than the tacked-on ending of the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner). The film is just what it is, and thankfully those alternate endings were never used, and their inclusion on disc just reinforces how wrong they are and how right the film is. I’m sure when I watch the film for a second time it will be much more satisfying.

Masters of Cinema’s lovely-looking Blu-ray has several interesting special features that I’ve been delving into, and three audio commentaries that I really want to listen to sometime if ever I get the chance. Clearly the film has become rightly well-regarded over the years since its first release. There is something beautiful in its darkness.


Jesus in the Snow

The Ascent, 1977, 109 mins, Blu-Ray

ascent3There is, in its meditation of the war in the heart of nature, and Private Witt’s musings regards one’s last breath, of meeting one’s final moments with a sense of calm and grace, a thread of religious awe and inquiry running throughout Terrence Malick’s 1998 film The Thin Red Line. I wonder what Mallick thinks of Larisa Shepitko’s war drama The Ascent, a film that could almost be The Thin Red Line‘s precursor – he’s surely seen it. The Ascent is a 1977 Russian film set during World War II in the snow-swept, icy wastes of Nazi-occupied Belarus, and while it is touted as one of the finest war films ever made, it is also a deeply religious film that is haunted by the threat of death and the mortality of existence. The fact that Sheptiko herself died only three years later in a car crash whilst scouting locations for her next film only adds to the film’s poignancy: The Ascent was her third and final film, and its themes feel all the more intense when one considers her own fate just a few years on.

In truth, the religious symbolism within The Ascent might be described as clumsy, obvious, even banal, but I don’t think that matters in the slightest. In a strange way, it just makes it all the more powerful. The film is the story of two Soviet Partisans, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) and Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) who are sent out by their commander to search for food: their ensuing experiences out in the frozen wilderness hunted by Germans results in a transformation in Sotnikov, whose face becomes almost Christlike, transcendent, while the initially brave Rybak becomes overcome with terror at his impending death and ultimately betrays Sotnikov, completing a Jesus/Judas dynamic that proves to be the core of the film. Its far less a war film than it is a religious allegory.

Shot out on location in temperatures about forty degrees below zero, the landscape of gaunt naked forests etched against whiteness is as much a character of the film as the cast. One can feel the cold because it is genuine, and from all accounts the shooting was as harrowing as anything portrayed in the film. The absolute white and absolute black that fills the frame is stark and finely represents the light and darkness of the human spirit; I can’t imagine this film in colour; its clearly a film that demands to be filmed in black and white, just as Spielberg found with his film Schindler’s List years later.

I think The Ascent is a very powerful film, and feeling rather rueful that I have only discovered it almost forty-five years after its original release- its another example of physical media bringing something to my attention that I would likely otherwise have missed, and evidence that there are still great films waiting out there that I have never even heard of, never mind not seen yet.


Valentine’s Day Special: How to Murder Your Wife

how2aHow to Murder Your Wife, 1965, 118 mins, Blu-ray

This year it was my turn to choose a Valentine’s-day movie to watch. Whenever its Claire’s turn, she’ll invariably pick Silver Linings Playbook for another watch, or one of the versions of Romeo & Juliet. But this year, as I note, it was my turn, so I chose Richard Quine’s wonderful black comedy How to Murder Your Wife, or Como Matar a La Propia Esposa per my Blu-ray copy imported from Italy would have it (this is another of those films starring Jack Lemmon that inexplicably remains unreleased on HD here in the UK).

I adore How to Murder Your Wife. Its a quirky black comedy starring one of my favourite actors (with the added bonus of the great Terry Thomas, too) that is funny and romantic and yes, hardly the kind of thing that could be made today. Its wrong for all sorts of reasons that for me make it so absolutely right: it is so of its time, those glorious swinging sixties that I was born a little too late to enjoy but which seems to wonderful in these Hollywood movies. The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie, The Odd Couple through to Avanti! and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, all films starring Jack Lemmon that seem to be glimpses of another, simpler world. I don’t know if that world ever really existed, or it was just something wholly built of Hollywood artifice, but its a world I love to escape into through these movies.

Its something in the cinematography, the sublime art direction, in the colours, the fashions, the generally middle-aged casts, the glorious music scores. Regards the latter, How to Murder Your Wife is graced with a wonderful lush Neal Hefti score, as was The Odd Couple. Claire remarked upon the music this time around, regards how much some of it reminded her of Avanti!‘s score, even though, as I observed, that was by another composer altogether (Carlo Rustichelli) – its just a style, a mood. A jazzy, upbeat band feel, wonderfully romantic in places with sweeping strings. Over the years I have collected theses scores on CD- The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce, Avanti!, The Odd Couple, How to Murder Your Wife… I adore the music as much as I do the films, and only the score for The Prisoner of Second Avenue escapes me, but maybe someday.

Would this film be charged with misogyny today? Could you even show this film on television today without a backlash of wailing from women’s rights groups? Would they all be missing the point? IS the film’s poster taglines “Women: warning! See it before HE does- the wife you save might be YOU!” or “Bring the little woman… maybe she’ll die laughing!” too close to the bone?

how2dI can imagine the ire of some people watching this film today. Its mostly white, privileged cast of affluent New Yorkers, many of them affirmed bachelors, with the hero of the film Stanley Ford (Lemmon) living in a lovely town house in Manhattan with his own butler/man servant. Stanley enjoying one-night flings with a bevy of beautiful women, his wealth (from his wildly popular syndicated newspaper strips featuring the adventures of super-spy Bash Brannigan, oh so sixties!) ensuring a carefree lifestyle regarded with some jealously by his henpecked married lawyer, Harold (the great Eddie Mayehoff).

It all comes crashing down for Stanley when he attends a freinds stag party – held like a funeral wake until the friend announces his fiancé has cancelled the wedding- and wakes up the next morning to find, to his horror, that he has drunkenly married a beautiful woman (Virna Lisi) who popped out of a cake during the ensuing party.  Stanley tries to extricate himself from the marriage to no avail- the woman doesn’t speak a word of English and as his lawyers wife Edna (Claire Trevor) sweeps the new Mrs Ford off to the shops for a complete new wardrobe, Stanley’s loyal man-servant Charles (Terry Thomas) leaves, refusing to work for a married couple on a matter of principle. Stanley’s once-idyllic lifestyle is in tatters, albeit lets be fair, anyone waking up to find himself married to the gorgeous Virna Lisi hasn’t got it all that bad. Its all part of the arch fun of the film, established from the start by Terry Thomas’ voiceover and first scenes in which he breaks the fourth wall and openly addresses (and reacts to) the camera and the audience behind it, something which bookends the film at its close when Charles gives in to the charms of Mrs Fords mother, newly arrived from Italy.

I absolutely love this film, its a joy to watch every time. There’s something so of its time about it. Maybe its dated, maybe its shamefully politically incorrect. But the cast is wonderful and Virna Lisi surely one of the most beautiful women in the world, and a gifted actress too with a talent for comedy. What’s really not to love? For me its the perfect Valentines Day movie, silly and funny and very romantic. Neal Hefti’s score has a love theme that can melt anyone’s heart and hey, love wins through in the end so ladies, surely you can forgive the film its fun at poking at the institution of marriage? Is that marriage thing even a thing anymore anyway?

Ah, sorry, yes dear, after twenty-six years of wonderful marriage I can assure everyone that, whatever this scandalous film possibly suggested back in 1965, marriage is still a fine institution and as valid as ever. I hope everyone had a very happy Valentine’s day- and that maybe next year, they give this film a spin.

“It’s a long story and not pretty”

murdermyMurder, My Sweet (1944), 95 mins, Blu-ray

Actually it is a short story and it is absolutely very pretty- the cinematography, the women. Just look at that image above, in which Marlowe is sitting in his office looking at the night-time streets beyond his office, when in the flicker of the neon lights he suddenly sees the reflection of a brutish man standing behind him. Its an arresting moment and one that typifies the impressive noir lighting. But regards that story- well, I had a grip for the first fifteen minutes but beyond that I was mystified throughout, which detracted from my enjoyment of the film. This might be a case (sic) when a noir’s tightly-paced plot and brevity, usually a big plus, actually works against it., as I think a two-hour running time and a more sedate pace may have helped it no end- but then again, I may be missing the point. Maybe we’re supposed to be left guessing throughout, frustratingly feeling like we’re still floundering in the previous reel, bewildered and behind everything that’s going on.

By the end of the film, I felt dizzy and even Marlowe explaining everything left me at a loss.

Murder, My Sweet opens with private investigator Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), his eyes bandaged due to injury, being interrogated by police as a murder suspect. Marlowe tells them the events of a case that has left him in this predicament –  first he was hired by brutish ex-con Joe “Moose” Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his girlfriend, Velma Valento, who he lost track of while he was in prison for eight years. While investigating this case, Marlowe is then hired by sweet-smelling dapper Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) for protection when Marriott’s to meet someone in a secluded area to buy back a lady’s jewellery. However, the meet goes awry, Marlowe is knocked unconscious and later awoken by a mysterious woman who flees, and Marlowe discovers Marriott is dead.

The next day Marlowe is approached in his office by Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) who claims that the missing jewellery belonged to her father Leuwen Grayle (Miles Mander) and her stepmother Helen (Claire Trevor), who Ann despises. Marlowe later goes to visit the Grayle’s who live in a huge mansion (“but it wasn’t as big as Buckingham Palace,” observes Marlowe with his usual sarcastic wit). where he discovers that Helen is decades younger than the sixty-five year old Leuwen, and that Helen may have been the victim of’ ‘psychic consultant’ Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), someone well-known to the police as a blackmailer.

Eventually Marlowe learns that Malloy works for Amthor, and that the two cases are indeed linked, but by that point I was already fairly at a loss and by the end… well, summarising the story here helps a little but I still can’t say that I’m comfortable with it, remaining puzzled by elements at the end. Well, I guess that’s the advantage of Blu-rays, its easy to re-watch and piece the puzzle together, but I’d contend that if the film worked properly that shouldn’t be necessary.

There were a few familiar faces in this film- primarily Otto Kruger, an actor gifted (or cursed, it depends on what one thinks of typecasting and regular gigs) for playing untrustworthy types/ slimy villains, as evidenced by roles in Power of the Press, 711 Ocean Drive, and Escape in the Fog.  Murder, My Sweet‘s lead, Dick Powell was, at the time, famous as a star of Hollywood musicals, and this was a deliberate attempt at a career-adjustment for him as he approached middle-age; I’ve only seen him before this in the superior Johnny O’Clock, which he made a few years after, the title role of which suited him better than does Marlowe here. I guess if I saw him in one of those musicals I’d be in for a shock and perhaps appreciate his turn in something like this all the more.

But I certainly can’t help wondering, considering some of the films I’ve seen over the past several months, what Robert Ryan would have brought to it, if he’d been cast as Marlowe in something like this. Physically at least he’d have been a better fit, and likely with his innate intensity more believable as the life-worn cynic most private detectives seem to be.

murdermy2Curiously, I was most taken by Ann Shirley, who played the beautiful Ann Gayle, eventual romantic muse of Marlowe and who proves a mysterious figure appearing in and out of the film (she’s the woman who awakes Marlowe to find Marriott is dead). Its a fine performance and I was amazed to discover that Murder, My Sweet would be her last film, at just twenty-six years old. According to her bio, she’d already made 60+ films at that point, a child actress who became increasingly weary of the Hollywood rat race and decided to call it a day. After nearly 70 appearances in just over twenty years its understandable, and  I guess Murder, My Sweet wasn’t a bad film to end one’s career with, but on the evidence of her performance here I think its a pity.

Murder, My Sweet isn’t a bad film at all- I was just perplexed by its hectic, labyrinthine plot which I hope will prove easier to decipher on subsequent viewings. I’m increasingly of the opinion that with some of these noir, reviewing them after just one viewing may do them a disservice and indeed there are one or two recent examples –NIghtmare Alley (1947) and The Reckless Moment (1949)- that I have seen and greatly enjoyed which I’ve been hesitant regards posting reviews of because, well, I think I need a further viewing to do them proper justice. Perhaps Murder, My Sweet should have been another, but we’ll see when I revisit it (that re-watch roster is getting to be a long list).

“Hey, Pops, where’s your wheelchair?”

set-upThe Set-Up, 1949, 73 mins, cable TV (Great! Movies Classic)

Robert Ryan delivers, again. While he could be regarded as one of Hollywood’s forgotten actors, I’d argue from the evidence of the films I’ve seen him in recently (Crossfire, On Dangerous Ground, Born To Be Bad, The Woman on the Beach, The Racket and  House of Bamboo), and now in Robert Wise’s brilliant boxing-noir The Set-Up, that Ryan was one of the screen’s most dependable and solid actors who didn’t get the roles/films he truly deserved.  His lower-tier casting, often with him portraying a film’s villain, is attributed to his intensity and his hard, life-worn looks that suggested a weary coolness rather than the romantic warmth of the typical lead.

The Set-Up is one of those rare entries that cast him as the protagonist but it certainly benefits from his wary stare and gritty countenance. Ryan plays ageing washed-up boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson whose run of twenty-one defeats finds him facing the end of his boxing career but who insists that he can win one more fight to get him back in the running for a stab at decent money. His wife Julie (Audrey Totter) pleads with him to quit, terrified that another fight will possibly kill him. Stoker’s next fight is against young rising star Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor), who unbeknown to Stoker is backed by tough gangland gambler Little Boy (Alan Baxter). Little Boy has made a deal with Stoker’s manager Tiny (George Tobias) that Stoker will take a dive in the third round, but Tiny is so confident that his fighter will lose anyway that he doesn’t cut Stoker in on the deal, keeping the bribe to himself. So Stoker’s fighting with everything to prove -to his wife, his manager, and the baying fans in the crowd- not realising that if the fight doesn’t kill him, actually winning the fight might too.

The Set-Up is one of those films that is to all intents and purposes, perfect. Its a film with a tight, efficient script with a lean, taut running time of just 73 minutes, its well cast with excellent performances and is beautifully photographed. For what it wants to be – a brutal thriller about corruption in the boxing game of its day, and how it chews up the fighters who can never escape the gutter- its brutally effective. The fight scenes are surprisingly violent and ugly, the close-ups of the crowd who in the film degenerate from fine citizens to frenzied fans baying for blood; its all brilliantly choreographed by Wise, and just as impressive are the scenes of the night-time streets through which Stoker’s wife Julie wanders, fearing the worst. Its a solid noir that I can’t really find any fault with- its not exactly sophisticated cinematic art but as I have noted, for all intents and purposes, its perfect. One of the best noir I’ve yet seen; I absolutely loved it from start to finish.

set-up2Watching this on a cable tv channel with a typically inferior print/compression, I’ll certainly be buying the film on Blu-ray soon, to be able to enjoy it again in better quality. At just 73 minutes long, like many of these noir, I can see myself putting this on again several times late in the evening to just soak it up again. Available on Warner Archive in the US, its recently been released as part of the Premier Collection unique to HMV here in the UK. Warner’s actually have a trailer for their Blu-ray release on YouTube which features roughly the first four minutes of the film, and even there it looks so much better than the copy I watched last night: thank goodness so many of these older films are resurfacing restored on Blu-ray disc. Physical media seems to be becoming a bastion of catalogue releases through archive releases and boutique labels, and while more newer films seem to be getting half-hearted physical releases if at all (no 4K edition of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley here in the UK?) in favour of pushing streaming channels, at least these classics are getting decently curated editions for posterity.

Another Replicant alert

Blade2Imagine, in Richard Burton’s voice:  “No-one would have believed, in the last years of the twentieth century, that Replicant affairs would be increasingly watched from the darkened living-rooms of VHS and Blu-ray owners. No-one could have dreamed that Blade Runner’s video sales were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few fans even considered the possibility of sequels. And yet, across the gulf of Hollywood, minds immeasurably greedier than ours regarded this film’s long-lasting  popularity with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us…”

Reading the announcement last night that Ridley Scott is executive-producing a television series, Blade Runner 2099, for Amazon Studios…  filled me with a mixture of excitement (hey, more Blade Runner!), dismay (television series?) and a creeping sense of terror (Ridley?).

At least its Amazon that brought the rights and is financing it, so it won’t be stuck behind a paywall like that Blade Runner anime (I’m possibly fortunate regards that, as its reportedly pretty poor) so hey, I’ll be able to watch it. If I dare.

So anyway, more Blade Runner. You know, if you could go back in time to me in the early/mid-‘eighties and tell me about all the Blade Runner stuff that would be going on post-millennium, the Final Cut, Harrison Ford appearing in a Blade Runner documentary and also in a sequel movie, and yeah, a sequel movie actually being bloody good too…. Well, I remember the days when few people, if any, had even heard of Blade Runner, and the few that had seen it had mostly seen it on horrible pan n’ scan versions on VHS or Betamax. As I have stated before, Blade Runner was the very definition of ‘Cult’.

I texted my mate Andy about Blade Runner: 2099; we saw the original film together back in September 1982 and dozens of times on video over the years since. His response was one of tired resignation. I’m done with all these sequels and reboots, he told me. He’d got no interest left. He may have a point: BR2049 was a fortuitous event, when the various creative talents aligned, just as they had with the 1982 film, to create something possibly greater than the sum of its parts. Its something which can’t be said for the Alien franchise, albeit I appreciate some prefer Aliens over the original 1979 film. Given time enough, Blade Runner‘s luck is sure to run out, and I’d hate for the original to be tarnished by it.

I suppose that its not fair, really, describing a project as ‘television’ when its likely an eight-or ten-part series made for a huge amount of money for something like Amazon or Netflix or Disney+ or AppleTV, its not really television the way that people of my generation instinctively think about it, Its a different beast now.

But I’d prefer to have had Villeneuve in creative control over it rather than Ridley. Ridley failed to energise the Alien franchise (one could argue his Prometheus and Alien: Covenant did as much harm as good, although others would argue that in the latter’s case, he had to contend with lots of studio mandates that fatally damaged the film) and even as one of his biggest fans I always rile at his assertion that Deckard was a Replicant. Obviously he is attracted to the intellectual idea, rather than how it supports the narrative in any way: I think the narrative of the Blade Runner films is better served by Deckard being human, but I appreciate the fact that in the two films it can be viewed either way. Maybe the series being set in 2099 will give sufficient distance that the subject isn’t even raised.

Wrath of the creditors

wrathStar Trek II : The Wrath of Khan, 1982, 113 mins, 4K UHD

In hindsight, it’s rather difficult to criticise Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan after seeing what that clown JJ Abrams did with Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), a film that managed to turn Wrath of Khan‘s villain into a mystery box and inverted the Kirk/Spock’s death dynamic just for the sake of it (Kirk’s sacrifice clearly had no narrative sense, and hey, magic blood!). After Abram’s horror-show, I find I can forgive Meyer’s film mostly everything.

As I have stated before, Wrath of Khan is most people’s favourite Trek movie, and I can understand why. Its certainly better paced with a proper antagonist/threat, and some welcome character beats more reminiscent of the television show. But I still prefer The Motion Picture, and I honestly think the usual overtures regards the first film (what might have been etc) are as deserved towards Wrath of Khan as they are towards the first film. I think Wrath of Khan is good, but it could have been extraordinary. If only it were made with the same production values of the first film, that sense of scale and seriousness.

Here’s a curious aside: I used an inflation adjuster regards The Motion Picture’s budget- reported as $45 million in 1979. Some contend the film cost more than that, while others reckoned that Paramount was cannily including money spent in pre-production of earlier Star Trek projects (such as Phil Kaufman’s abandoned Star trek: Planet of the Titans film or the Phase II television series), suggesting the film was not quite as expensive as it was claimed. Anyway, treating it as just a rough figure, $45 million is about $172 million in 2022 dollars: which feels creepily contemporary: Red Notice cost a mouth-wateringly self-indulgent $200 million,  and when something like Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker actually seems restrained  costing $275 million, its rather illuminating.

Indeed I looked online and saw that there at least one hundred films now (generally mostly post-millennium movies) that have cost north of $172 million dollars to make. Whether they be animated films, superhero films, action films or sci-fi blockbusters, it seems that Star Trek: The Motion Picture wasn’t the over-indulgent exception it was painted out to be at the time- rather it seems a prescient indication of what was to come. So was The Motion Picture the first modern Hollywood movie of our current age?

Anyway, I digress a little. What I was getting at, is that the cost of The Motion Picture, considering its scale and the imposed race against time in production (placed upon it by management failures in order to ensure a mandated December 7th, 1979 releases date), wasn’t really the disaster it was cracked up to be. Sure, it wasn’t ideal, but all things considered, its a wonder the film got finished at all, and it even made some money, allegedly. But while Paramount saw some sense in taking another go at making a Star Trek film, Wrath of Khan would suffer for those apparent sins of the original, resulting in a greatly reduced budget of $12 million.

Its why, clearly, Harve Bennett was hired to replace series creator Gene Roddenberry as writer and producer. Bennett was a television producer whose claim to fame was his ‘hit’ shows The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and, er, Salvage 1 (well okay, maybe not the latter), as well as several high-profile 1970s TV movies. Hardly indication of his suitability for a major motion picture, but there’s a story that when Paramount asked him if he could make a Star Trek movie for less than the first one’s $45 million, he claimed he could make five Star Trek movies for that same amount of money. Sure, he could make five Star Treks, but he couldn’t have made five Star Trek: The Motion Pictures.

He was a man suited to the limitations and realities of television, not the scale and ambition of films, and Wrath of Khan suffers for all of that. Sure it was made much more efficiently than The Motion Picture and the accountants loved him for it, but the film suffers terribly all the same. The sets always look claustrophobic, hardly designed for the wide frame and poorly constructed, in that way one can forgive a television show for but wince at in a movie. Take out the sense of scale of ILM’s visual effects and what would one have left? Would it really look like a theatrical movie or just a TV-movie? That’s Harve Bennett.

What Wrath of Khan does get right (mostly, anyway) is its script, which cleverly returned to the original series for something to draw from and expand, rather than just simply remake or reboot. It takes a few odd turns but on the whole it works, but its television origins are mostly betrayed by the casting, which is distinctly in the low-rent television casting agent territory- again, a reveal of Bennett’s origins and a constant reminder throughout Wrath Of Khan of where Star Trek came from. I suppose a lot of fans see that as an advantage, but it irritates me constantly, the core feeling of a television production when the first film was absolutely the motion picture it aspired to be.

Ricardo Montalban reprises his titular role from the television series and is generally credited as one of the best things of the film, but I’d actually suggest that his larger-than-life performance is one more suited to that small television screen of the original ‘sixties show than 1982’s giant silver screen. I think Robert Wise wisely (sic) kept William Shatner restrained in The Motion Picture, knowing that Shatner himself was an actor more ideally suited to performances for the small screen. Blown up larger than life on a cinema screen, acting generally needs to be more subtle, and I think Montalban is leaning a little bit too close to that of a caricature, almost, and Meyer likewise finds it a little tricky keeping Shatner under control (but I think on the whole Shatner is very good in this).

Mind, I have to chuckle about Khan’s army of Supermen- they don’t look like they would know when to tie their own shoelaces without being instructed by Khan: I hardly see any indication of their superiority over us mere humans, the way they silently pose around Khan on the Reliant’s bridge. But hey. Star Trek.

Some thoughts regards Douglas Trumbull

Brainstorm2The news this late afternoon hit me pretty hard- Douglas Trumbull passed away yesterday. I don’t believe it had been widely known that he had been ill- for myself, it came like a bolt of the blue. For a little while, the sense of disbelief is diluted with a little hope- there have been a few times when the Internet rumour mill has gotten things wrong, and I’d first read the news of Trumbull’s passing on a forum of all places, somewhat out of leftfield, so wondered if it was just a mistake. Alas, before an hour was out, reputable news outlets confirmed it. Another one gone, of those names I used to read about as I grew up reading magazines and followed over the decades since.

Its 1978, I’m reading Starburst issue 5 (Christopher Reeve’s Superman on the cover!), and an interview by Tony Crawley with visual effects genius Douglas Trumbull. Its tied into the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the then-cutting edge visual effects produced by Trumbull and his effects company. Starburst was a great magazine and its writers very good, so Crawley uses the interview to discuss Trumbull’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (“we thought at the time that 2001 would start a big trend. It didn’t!” Trumbull muses), and his own directorial debut, Silent Running. The interview would move on to CE3K in the next issue – ah, those cheeky old magazine days, waiting for a month for the rest of an interview (like Fantastic Film‘s multi-issue Alien interview with Ridley Scott). But it was enough to get me fascinated with Trumbull, who I wasn’t particularly familiar with. For one thing, at the time, I hadn’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. I actually saw Silent Running before 2001, thanks to it airing on BBC TV over the Christmas holiday of 1977 schedules (me basking in a sci-fi movie season, benefiting from a sudden Star Wars-fuelled interest in sci-fi movies, even if those of us in the UK provinces wouldn’t get chance to see Lucas’ film until early 1978). The interview was really interesting, particularly Trumbull’s observations of the film industry and his projects -like one titled Pyramid– that he couldn’t get made after his first film.

1978. Before Paramount struck a desperate deal with him to rescue Star Trek : The Motion Picture, before his company was hired to shoot the effects for Blade Runner, before he made the ill-fated Brainstorm, after which he vowed to leave the film industry all together, tired of all the studio politics.

Douglas Trumbull was something of a hero to sci-fi geeks of my generation. He didn’t direct many films, and neither he did he turn his hand to the effects work of many films: its just that the ones he was involved with were so seminal. Instead he turned his attention to amusement park rides/experiences, and technological advances (Showscan etc) as an independent entrepreneur. He was an advocate of Pure Cinema; the possibilities afforded by cinema as an audio visual experience, as opposed to a traditionally narrative one. Hence he was involved in the audience-confounding lengthy effects scenes of Kirk arriving at the Enterprise in Dry Dock, and the journey into the Cloud, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was something he likely learned from Stanley Kubrick while being involved in the visual effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (for which Kubrick cheekily took home the effects Oscar, much to Trumbull’s annoyance).

Heck, I bought and recently watched the 4K edition of Star Trek: TMP mostly just to re-watch Trumbull’s effects in the best way possible; those moments of Pure Cinema, once the easiest of critical targets for what was dubbed at the time Star Trek: The Slow-Motion Picture, are for me the best things in that film. Some of us buy the films he was involved with just out of our sheer love of the images he created.

Who didn’t gasp at the first glorious reveal of the mothership in CE3K?

In September 1982, I’m watching Blade Runner for the first time in the ABC cinema in town, and my jaw drops, literally, at the opening shot of the Hades landscape of LA2019. I mean, literally drops in awe. It is the cinematic equivalent of falling head over heels in love, an astonishing, arresting moment that will never leave me. Films don’t make our jaws drop anymore. Maybe CGI advances have made huge spectacle commonplace, pushed the boundaries of what’s possible so far over the horizon nobody is ever truly amazed anymore. But back then, wizards like Trumbull took our breath away.

While writing about wizards, and ‘magicians’…

Its 1984, and I’m watching a VHS rental of Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm. Its a film not without its faults, but it deserves some love, as I wrote here, but that evening I am swept up by it. So much so that for a few glorious moments I’m absolutely in thrall of it. I believe every moment of its glorious finale in which a character ascends towards Heaven, accompanied by a host of Angels and rising Souls, courtesy of Trumbull’s effects wizardry. Its almost a religious experience; I’m a Believer. James Horner’s fantastic score -it was the same night I fell in love with James Horner’s musical genius-is swelling in its end titles.

Then the tape stops, and the television cuts to what’s showing on BBC television, and its Paul Daniels Magic Show. I’m suddenly back to mundane, banal reality with a horrible bump. I’m almost dazed. It was only a movie after all, and the Paul Daniels show is the ‘reality’ I’ve returned to. I’ll never forget that abrupt shift. I was so into that film, so convinced and carried away by it, and the return to a reality so brutally banal. I’d laugh about that moment for years after with my mate Andy. Part of me loves Brainstorm and thinks its the “Greatest Film Ever (Other Than Blade Runner, Obviously)”.

That’s the magic of Douglas Trumbull.

Excuse me, I now have a date with my Blu-ray copy of Brainstorm

Raider of the hidden book collection

bolland2 (2)I’ve been having a clean-up; an early Spring Clean, if you will, albeit one probably a year late (“two years late” according to Claire). My backroom den, which has been my Covid-enforced office space for close on two years now, is currently the subject of a clear-out and tidy-up and its been a sobering experience. I’ve too many books, too many  CDs, too many DVDs and Blu-rays. More on the latter perhaps in a post tomorrow.

But I’ve been unearthing lots of books that were hidden behind the towers of life-debris; some old favourites I know so well, and some surprises, half-forgotten. The odd one or two I’d totally forgotten.

The scary thing is when I have picked up the odd book and found either a receipt tucked away in the back of it, or have made a curious query on my Amazon account and discovered with a yelp of incredulous horror how long ago I bought it. For instance, one of the books that caught my eye was The Art of Brian Bolland– its a fantastic book, by the way, absolutely essential for anyone remotely familiar with his art- and I found that I bought it in 2013. Years have a way of sneaking past you, I know, but I have had that book approaching nine years now, and for the last few years its been out of sight, almost forgotten.

bolland1Mind, on the subject of years getting past you, alongside The Art of Brian Bolland were a few gorgeous hardbacks of artist-themed collections of Judge Dredd strips which IDW publishing released around the time I bought that Bolland book. One collects Bollands Dredd work, while another collects some of the best of the late Carlos Ezquerra‘s work (including his complete Apocalypse War epic) and another two volumes contain the best of Cam Kennedy’s Dredd work – which I remarked upon in this blog back in the day. Why I mention these books in particular, is that browsing through them yesterday (really, its  a wonder I got anything done, how much stopping to read stuff I was doing), I was looking at the dates the stories were originally published in 2000AD. Bolland’s mostly dated back to 1978, 1979… Ezquerra’s Apocalypse War ran for 26 deliriously exciting weeks in 1982, and Kennedy’s sublime work from around 1984 onwards. Some of this stuff is 40+years old or awfully close to it, and I can recall reading most of it like it was yesterday. Those early days of 2000AD; there’s never been anything like it since. I still recall meeting my mate Andy in school every week to discuss the latest events as that Apocalypse War unfolded. Drokk it, as if I didn’t feel ancient enough the way the world is going lately, I have to have my head spinning with memories of the Apocalypse War, role-playing games and Blade Runner: 1982 was like some very fine wine, I just didn’t really appreciate it at the time (does anyone, when so young?).

I keep returning to that Art of Brian Bolland book; I can’t keep away from it, its exquisite. Its a large-format book printed on heavy-stock paper, with all of Bolland’s elaborate, detailed inks perfectly reproduced. Every page is a new marvel to linger over.

Unfortunately, and much to Claire’s annoyance, my backroom clear-out is taking much longer than expected….

The game’s all rigged

squid3Squid Game Season One, 2021, nine episodes, Netflix

I’m late to the party as usual (this show originally dropped in September last year), but I’m pleasantly surprised- Netflix’s survival horror/blood sport thriller Squid Game is actually worthy of the hype. Its part thriller, part satire, part crushing examination of the human condition – its both sophisticated and banal;  a quite remarkable combination. Its worldwide popularity – I believe its become Netflix’s most popular show, ever- suggests that its tensions of a growing underclass unable to get a job or pay their bills, lost under ever-growing debt, desperate enough to risk their lives for a windfall, has struck a chord in many. Makes one wonder the state of the world today if so many can so readily accept the premise of the poor killing each other for the entertainment of the minority wealthy ultra-elite.

So is Squid Game the television show of our times for our times?  What does that say of our post-Covid world, and of the evidently growing disparity between the rich and poor? There must be something universal about it, for it to be Netflix’s biggest show ever. Is life as rigged as the game depicted in this series, in which 456 enter, and only one can survive and win?

Its the old 1970s television show It’s A Knockout by way of the Roman Coliseum, or Takeshi’s Castle where failure equals death. Its The Hunger Games arguably without a hero to root for (we do root for someone but he’s hardly a hero, at one point betraying his friend and possibly the viewer too).

I’m not going to suggest that the series is perfect but it is very, very good. The cast is excellent and the art direction very impressive; the scale of the thing suggests that its a very expensive production. There are genuine surprises and shocks, moments that frustrate, moments that disturbingly remind us of those schoolyard politics we wish we’d forgotten. One of those shows full of cliff-hangers (its surely designed for binge-watching, no small part of its success I imagine) that lingers in ones head for days afterwards. Makes a nice change from that stuff that’s immediately forgotten,

I just wish it was a one-off, because I rather despair at what its success will make it- a major Netflix franchise, no doubt. Multiple seasons possibly diluting its impact, merchandising and spin-offs breeding contempt. But maybe that’s the final lesson of the show- if you’re dealt a bad hand, the misery of the game of life never ends.