Linda Darnell, Noir’s Fallen Angel

lindadurnellnoirLinda Darnell, dark-haired, long-legged beauty who bewitches hungry men in Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel and anyone who has watched the film over the long years since. Sexy, sassy, fragile and doomed, she’s surely one of noir’s most memorable sirens. I met her for the first time just a few nights ago.

One of the (perhaps dubious) pleasures of watching old films, certainly those from the 1940s and 1950s, is when I see someone who grabs my attention and I wonder what other films they have been in. Sometimes it might be a face that seems familiar somehow from some other film, like Anne Revere in Fallen Angel. Sometimes it might be just be being struck by a performance (Ronald Lewis, or Laurie Zimmer for instance) or simply being taken aback by a woman’s beauty, as was the case of Gia Scala in The Garment Jungle. These are actors and their faces given some measure of immortality, and endless beauty, moments of their lives frozen in time on celluloid, with lives and careers that can be researched and reviewed in minutes, summarised in mere paragraphs. I’ve been here so many times before but its endlessly fascinating.

One sometimes forgets, in the ‘heat’ of being caught up in a thrilling or absorbing noir, that any given scene is something filmed, usually on a studio set, at a time incongruous to that being filmed- maybe its a Tuesday morning or a Friday afternoon, and when the director yells ‘cut’ everyone breaks and costumes are doffed and casual clothes are put on, Hollywood magic dispelled and real-life returned, whatever ‘real-life’ was back in 1944 or 1949, a reality as distant and foreign to us now as anything captured in Hollywood fantasy. Naturally working in Hollywood was rather more mundane than the magical spectacle the Hollywood spin-masters or tabloid gossip writers would have it, and careers harder and less care-free. Hollywood lives could be as noir as anything in its darkest thriller.

All these years later, of course, Hollywood and its denizens are like that of some other, alien planet. The music they listened to, the cars they drove, it’s not really something we can ever ‘know’ except, ironically, from the versions of that world that we see in those movies. We can’t ever really ‘know’ Linda Darnell, only glimpses through the filmography (fifty-six credits in films and television between 1939 and 1965) and the milestones of her personal life.

So Linda Darnell; born October 16th 1923, died April 10th, 1965, aged 41. Right there one is taken aback. That’s a young age, just twenty years after the film I’d just seen, Fallen Angel, in which she was just 21. It gets worse: in the tradition of all things noir, she didn’t die well: she died after being caught in a fire at a freinds apartment, painfully lingering for a few days having suffered horrific eighty-percent burns. Some accounts have it that a dropped cigarette on a downstairs sofa ignited the fire; one account claimed that Darnell was initially trapped upstairs but fire-fighters found her lying near the burning sofa. Its probably overly-dramatic hyperbole in accounts that describe her falling asleep on the sofa watching one of her old movies, reliving past glory before absently dropping a still-lit cigarette- that’s like something from that old Twilight Zone episode, or Sunset Boulevard, or a typically dark noir. A case of Hollywood life blurring into Hollywood myth?

It doesn’t get much better, the more I read. Her beginning was almost as noir as her end.  Born to parents who were not happily married, Linda Darnell (originally Monetta Eloyse Darnell) was one of four children (plus two from an earlier marriage) but she was evidently the prettiest- her mother Margaret ‘Pearl’ Brown was a failed actress herself and decided, like the darkest of noir mothers, to succeed vicariously through her daughter, pushing her into a modelling career and later into theatrical work at a very young age. Darnell said “Mother really shoved me along, spotting me in one contest after another. I had no great talent, and I didn’t want to be a movie star particularly, but Mother had always wanted it for herself, and I guess she attained it through me.” Pearl would later, unsurprisingly earn a bad rep in Hollywood for being pushy and domineering.

Marriages often offer a glimpse of a life beyond that captured by the camera: husbands were Paverell Marley (m.1943, div.1951), Phillip Liebmann (m.1954, div.1955) and Merle Robertson (m.1957, div. 1963). Three marriages, so very Hollywood: tempestuous affairs (Howard Hughes, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and numerous marriages spell a grim love-life to me (maybe I’ve never lived, but did Darnell live well?) Paverell was over twice Linda’s age; 42 to her 19, they’d eloped to Las Vegas. The second marriage was a loveless one, apparently- of all things, a business arrangement (a wealthy man’s trophy wife?) that proved a nightmare she couldn’t maintain, while at the divorce proceedings for her third marriage, Darnell accused her airline pilot husband of infidelity and fathering the baby of another actress. So love was something that didn’t go particularly well for her: an ironic price of beauty, perhaps?

Unsurprisingly, Darnell suffered from depression and alcoholism and a faltering film career full of what-if’s and maybes, finally released from her contract with 20th Century Fox in 1952 (just seven years after Fallen Angel). “Suppose you’d been earning $4,000 to $5,000 a week for years. Suddenly you were fired and no one would hire you at any figure remotely comparable to your previous salary. I thought in a little while I’d get offers from other studios, but not many came along. The only thing I knew how to do was be a movie star. No one expects to last forever in this business. You know that sooner or later the studio’s going to let you go. But who wants to be retired at twenty-nine?” she would later ruefully comment, aware there was likely little unusual regards her career. How many other beauties suffered a similar fate in the noir reality of  Hollywood’s dreamland? Well, not many of them are immortalised forever in something as memorable and iconic as her performance in Fallen Angel, certainly.

Preminger Noir: Fallen Angel

fallen1Fallen Angel, 1945, 98 mins, Blu-ray

Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews, Laura, Night of the Demon) is not a Good Guy; Stella (Linda Darnell) is not a Good Girl. So typically noir; these two leads are not at all likeable but they do feel real: its something I often find watching these noir films, a convincing sense of reality in how people behave, what they say, what they do, which sucks you into even the oddest noir drama. Much of  their behaviour can be quite abhorrent and yet its endlessly fascinating- also curiously refreshing, watching films with unlikeable protagonists who are broken or of bad character. They certainly don’t come much worse than Eric Stanton. Stella, meanwhile is a sensual beauty who knows how to use her charms: the kind of girl that instantly excites but hardly one you could trust, and you certainly wouldn’t take her home to meet your mother.

Stanton is a drifter, a chancer and a con-artist on his way from LA to San Francisco with only a dollar in his pocket, who is thrown off his bus when his ticket runs out, landing in the small coastal town of Walton. Walking to a lonely diner situated near the beach, he bides his time trying to work out some angle when Stella walks in, the waitress of the diner and the town’s main attraction for frustrated male folk. World-wise Stella is a beautiful woman who feels trapped in Walton and craves a way out – Stanton is instantly attracted to her, but she’s clearly only interested in someone with money or prospects, and will only sleep with someone after they have married her and given her a home (preferably somewhere other than Walton). It’s obvious that Stanton and Stella are made for each other but unless Stanton can figure out a way of making money he has no chance, and Stella already has her sights on Dave Atkins (Bruce Cabot) as a likely alternative.

After demonstrating his dubious skills when promoting a visiting fake spiritualist/mentalist, ‘Professor’ Madley (a memorable John Carradine). Madley cons the smalltown folk with messages from deceased loved ones, in particular upsetting rich sisters Clara Mills (Anne Revere, Secret Behind the Door) and June Mills (Alice Faye) with some bitter comments from their dead father that sees them rushing out of the hall in disgust and their neighbours flapping. Stanton sees in the sheltered, repressed Alice an easy mark; seducing her and quickly marrying her in a breathless romance with the intention of getting all her money then dumping her in favour of Stella. Indeed, this cad is so reprehensible, he even deserts Alice on their wedding night, visiting Stella instead- but this makes Stanton a prime suspect when Stella is found murdered the next morning.

The way both Stanton and Stella abuse, manipulate and secretly mock the honest people around them makes Fallen Angel, in some ways a surprisingly nasty film – indeed, like the original Nightmare Alley (which also shares an uncomfortable interest in mentalism and exploiting peoples grief) it is one of the darkest noirs I’ve yet seen (I actually found Nightmare Alley so disturbing I still haven’t managed to write a review of it). If anything, Fallen Alley has more of the ring of truth than Nightmare Alley‘s literally nightmarish excesses, certainly in regards how the regulars at the diner fawn and moon over Stella (the proprietor, Pop (Percy Kilbride) and Mark Judd (Charles Bickford, The Woman on the Beach) a former New York City Police Inspector convalescing in Walton), there’s a reality to it, and a sadness of empty longing regards the older men wasting their attention on her when she’s clearly got her eyes set elsewhere. Both Kilbride and Bickford are great character actors, and it was nice to see King Kong‘s Bruce Cabot again.

Fallen Angel‘s biggest weakness compared to Nightmare Alley is its suddenly positive, rather unlikely ‘happy’ ending for Stanton, a love conquers all text that doesn’t ring true, unless the virginal Alice is herself only using Stanton to escape her controlling elder sister and the boredom of a cosy protected life in Walton. The ending doesn’t break the film, but it doesn’t carry the disturbing sense of inevitable truth which the conclusion of Nightmare Alley does (unless, as I say, maybe the con-artist is being conned, but the films not really suggesting that even as a possibility, its just me running off on a tangent).

Dana Andrews is very good; although I understand his tightly-strung noir roles might have had some impact on his life away from the camera. And Linda Darnell is just darkly, fascinatingly wonderful, albeit her own life had more than a slight taint of noir to it. Perhaps more on that, later…

Hang on, Sly!

cliffCliffhanger, 1993, 113 mins, 4K UHD

Its some kind of wonderful when I return to a film I used to really enjoy and discover that it still works, that it still has that ‘magic’ that appealed to me back in the day. There’s nothing sadder than returning to a film once beloved and realising its actually a dud, that its nowhere near as good as it once seemed to be. Thankfully that’s not the case with Renny Harlin’s 1993 thriller Cliffhanger, which I watched last night for the first time in, oh, must be getting on for twenty years now, other than catching bits of the film on tv screenings.

How is it possible that Cliffhanger is getting on for thirty years old now? Here I go again, measuring the passing of years by accounting film release dates: in this case, it feels like another life, Cliffhanger dates back to before I was married. Mind, it doesn’t escape me that the Showcase Cinema in which I first saw the film back in 1993, a still fairly-new, state-of-the-art multiplex cinema at the time, has recently been demolished to be replaced by a car supermarket. Cliffhanger has seen a cinema gone, and home video formats come and go (VHS, laserdisc, DVD etc). Seems everything is transient, but the films remain.

We had it good back then, looking back- when Arnie and Sly were in their prime. I think Cliffhanger can arguably qualify has Sly’s best film other than First Blood.

John Lithgow steals the show though. His evil Eric Qualen character is despicable and rotten to the core, and Lithgow pushes his performance to the brink of Panto holiday season. He looks like he’s having the time of his life, bless him, and its great. Its at just the right level of theatrical bombast to match Sly’s larger than life physicality. Lithgow’s stooges suffer by comparison, but Craig Fairbrass is fairly memorable daring to use Sly as a football -until Hal (Michael Rooker) informs him “Season’s over, asshole!” Cliffhanger has some fantastic dialogue/memorable lines that enable the cast to chew up the scenery while standing still. Between this, Robocop and Total Recall it feels like a long-lost art now.

So much impresses regards this film. The action sequences are great, the film benefits massively from dating back to the pre-CGI era; there is a sense of tactile reality to it, and most of the optical work is actually very good (a few miniatures betray the films age but if anything possibly just add to its old-school charm). It is also well-served by a bombastic music score from Trevor Jones that sounds like a curious mix of Predator and Last of the Mohicans to my ears now, but adds a great energy to the film that film scores these days largely lack. Its watching films like this that makes me think they just don’t make ’em like they used to, and its true. Some people will think that’s a good thing, mind… but not me.

Hang on, Sly- it won’t be long before I give this disc another spin.

A dreadful proposal: Deep Water

deeplyDeep Water, 2022, 115 mins, Amazon Prime

A very silly film, this, about a toxic marriage that… well, I suppose this kind of thing trended well back in the 1990s; indeed, director Adrian Lyne had great success with this sort of tosh with Fatal Attraction (1987) and Indecent Proposal (1993), but while Deep Water is competently made and shot (as one would expect from someone like Lyne) its just.. so silly it borders on parody.

This time around its Vic (Ben Affleck) a fabulously wealthy and handsome husband of beautiful and sultry Melinda (Ana de Armas) who is strangely bored with her marriage and her fabulously wonderful daughter Trixie (film-stealing Grace Jenkins). Melinda fools around having successive affairs and Vic sleeps in the spare room getting increasingly suspicious of her late nights and drunken behaviour at the fabulous parties they keep going to. Melinda isn’t in the slightest bit discreet regards her affairs, even inviting each beau to the next party they are at, raising embarrassed glances from party-goers and freinds. Vic of course is beefed-up like he’s ready to appear in a Batman movie so when Melinda’s lovers each disappear… well, it wouldn’t take the Worlds Greatest Detective to deduce who the prime suspect is, so a local author, Don (Tracie Letts) realises there might be a great book in what’s going on in the neighbourhood.

Its pretty nauseating nonsense, really. The fabulous lives of the fabulously attractive and fabulously wealthy elite have nothing at all in common with my everyday experience: as we Brits say, its all bollocks. I’m supposed to feel sympathy with fabulously wealthy Vic married to fabulously beautiful Melinda with fabulously perfect daughter Trixie? I’m supposed to maybe understand fabulous Melinda’s boredom and promiscuous nature? Melinda is a beautiful trophy-wife but a frankly hideous character. Meanwhile, I’m not supposed to laugh at Vic’s preposterously odd hobby of raising snails/slugs in his garden shed/Batcave mancave? Moreover, I’m not supposed to be too concerned at an apparent lack of screen chemistry between the two leads?

To be fair, Ana de Armas plays a fabulous drunk and she exudes sensuality etc fabulously (she’s certainly not reticent regards shedding her clothes in films). Ben Affleck broods well but we knew he could manage that from his Batman role, and here he just looks too… well, handsome man-mountain- he’s hardly an Everyman, in just the same way his wife is hardly an Everywoman. Is this the fabulously toxic marriage we ordinary folks are supposed to aspire to? Affleck’s best moments are when he’s showing some genuine warmth, mostly those scenes he shares with the delightful Grace Jenkins, who genuinely steals the film from her adult stars. Highlight of the film is her singing in the back of the family car, reprised in the films end-credits for a bit of outtake fun, but a sexy thriller is in trouble when its stolen by its child actor and the best scene in the film is during the end-credits.

At any rate, the film gradually descends into farce and features the mother of all contrived coincidences once author Don stumbles upon Vic’s final (?) crime. I mean, that entire final reel is so audacious it almost deserves to be applauded, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. It deserves some kind of award. One of those fabulous raspberries, probably.

A bitter blue pill

matrixr1The Matrix Resurrections, 2021, 148 mins, 4K UHD

Cor blimey, where do I start? Well, this is a strange one. It doesn’t look like a Matrix film (it has a vastly different colour palette and lighting style), doesn’t sound like a Matrix film (composer Don Davis not invited to this project) and lacks both the iconic fight choreography (the fight sequences are shockingly badly shot and edited) and ground-breaking effects sequences that the Matrix films are so famous for (the sheer crazy ambition of the earlier films trying stuff that the technology could barely manage is entirely missing here). So is it really a Matrix film?

Well, its certainly not the Matrix film many fans were possibly looking forward to- but then again, the same could be said regards the original sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions. So perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised by this strange beast.

I could almost describe this films as a $60 million arthouse film cleverly deconstructing the Matrix films with a narrative that is almost entirely Meta. Except that this thing cost $190 million and is clearly a tentpole, blockbuster movie- perhaps one of the oddest and most confounding blockbusters of all. Its almost like the whole thing’s existence is some kind of commentary (or ironic joke) on sequels, reboots, remakes and how they seem to dominate studio thinking and the industry as a whole. In a strange way its almost the perfect Matrix film- what is real, what is narrative, what is art and what is product? Its clever and incredibly stupid at the same time, utterly bizarre. I enjoyed it and I was infuriated by it. On the one hand it feels like a cynical cash-grab, and yet, on the other, if it was a cash-grab it simply wouldn’t be this movie, it’d instead be more what the fans wanted/expected.

We saw characters die in Revolutions. They are back in Resurrections, hence the title, but they don’t ‘know’ they are back (essentially, stuck in a ‘new’ Matrix, they don’t know who they really are and the main narrative is, similarly to the first film, revealing the ‘lie’ of their lives). But how exactly are they back? Are we expected to believe that renegade machines found Trinity’s dead body and brought her back from the dead? Surely her intellect is a simulacra even if they could reconstruct/repair her body? And did they similarly bring Neo back from the dead and create a copy of his personality too? Resurrections shows us this being done, but… I’m expected to just accept this Frankenstein nonsense? I almost feel like clapping to applaud the bare-arsed cheek of it. The Matrix films purport to being so smart and they try to pull this smoke and mirrors on me?

Oddly enough, I quite enjoyed this anyway, but then again, I’m possibly in the minority -well, I know I am- when I say I enjoy all three Matrix films that came before it, yes, even those derided sequels. So I guess I enjoy all the philosophising and counter-intuitive twists, the self-important writing that in its sheer audacity tries to outdo the crazy stunts and effects that wows audiences. The most disappointing thing about this film really is the clumsy fight and stunt choreography, and how mundane the visual spectacle/effects work really is -it seldom looks like a $190 million movie. This entry in the franchise is really the one where that pompous writing takes centre-stage over what really ‘makes’ a Matrix film. Maybe that’s the point. Or maybe what its really telling us is to never trust your analyst.

It doesn’t feel ground-breaking. We’ve seen too many Christopher Nolan films since Revolutions. Maybe The Matrix films are suffering a generational gap in a similar way to how the Disney Star Wars have; or even the Bond films; all these franchises really belong to another generation, their time is really done, but nobody in the film industry knows what to do instead (what? Avatar?).

Having only seen it once, I’m cautious about writing much more here. I really need to watch the film again. When I watched it last night, other than having seen a trailer several months back, I really didn’t know what to expect, managing to stay spoiler-free up to now. So I’m especially curious how a second viewing plays. Does it improve, knowing what’s going on and why, or does it just seem dumber and lazier second time around? Well, another post will likely reveal all.

I will just say that the 4K UHD looks fantastic; it really is a beautiful film in 4K watched on an OLED screen. Utterly different to how the other Matrix films look, I guess, which reinforces how odd the experience watching it feels but then again, I really need to watch that 4K boxset of the earlier films that has been gathering dust on my shelf for far too long now. I had idly considered a watching the first three films prior to this one being released but life is getting in the way of watching much of anything these days, but maybe, if I can, I should watch them before getting to this one again…

Schrödinger’s party: Coherence (2013)

coherenceCoherence, 2013, 89 mins, Amazon Prime

Oh this was a strange one: imagine a streaming app. There’s a film on that app, that may or may not be any good. If Erwin Schrödinger was a film reviewer, he might suggest that, until that film is actually watched, it actually exists in two states: its a one-star film, and its a five-star film, at the very same time. Its the act of observation that determines whether a film is any good or not. Hang on. I don’t need high-end Quantum theory or a professor to tell me that I need to watch a film to discover if its any good or not.

Coherence is a film that is very preoccupied by Schrödinger’s thought experiment about his cat in a box.  In fact, its the films central conceit. Eight freinds attend a dinner party at one of their houses while a comet dominates the sky and news headlines. Peculiar things start to happen; the lights go out, there is a loud banging at the door. The street outside is in blackness, except for a house down the street that has its lights on. Two of the freinds go out to that house, looking for a working phone. Two freinds come back. But they might not be the same freinds. Turns out the house with the lights on is identical to the one where they are having the party, and through the window they could see guests identical to those freinds they had left behind. But maybe there are more than two identical houses, more than two sets of eight identical party-goers.

Ironically, the film becomes less coherent as it progresses. This might well be deliberate. Initially its premise is very interesting, even unnerving, and the cast pretty great in what I suspect were mostly ad-libbed scenes other than whenever a key plot-point had to be thrown in to move things forward. Its an extremely low-budget production, mostly an ensemble piece set in one place, very much like a theatre play and that elements works best, with some nice character work and rising friction. Oh, and it features that guy from Buffy.

Its essentially a Twilight Zone-like piece, an exercise in rising paranoia which unfortunately just confuses more and more as it goes on. I can’t really say I even understood the ending, it throws a weird tangent right at the end which rather undermines everything before (an unconscious body left in the shower seems to have disappeared and there is some vague twist about a phone call that is meant to mean… what, exactly?). Its either one of those films that is too clever for its own good, or not as clever as it seems to think it is- or maybe it just lost its way in execution. I should need a diagram to understand a narrative? This is a film that possibly needs an internet FAQ (no, I haven’t looked) to explain it all- not a Good Thing, really.

Farewell Three Days of the Condor

threedaysThree Days of the Condor, 1975, 117 min, Netflix

The Farewell… series of posts are me writing about films I return to for one last time, honestly believing I’ll not ever be feeling any urge to re-watch the film again. Not because they are bad, but… well, there’s only so much time, and not every film needs to watched more than twice, or three times (remind me never to reveal how many times I’ve likely watched Blade Runner, certainly back in the 1980s). This Farewell is for Sydney Pollack’s exercise in 1970s paranoia, Three Days of the Condor, which starred Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow. Wow, what a cast.

I first watched this film, as with so many films before the era of VHS and DVD etc, on a television showing, when it really made an impression on me. I’m pretty certain it was on the BBC, a late-night showing over Christmas some year (probably around 1980, something like that) You know, back in the time when films over the holidays were a big deal, usually scheduled with some care attention. They would have a sci-fi season or a noir season or a horror season, or link a few films by an actor. These days films are just dumped onto the schedules with hardly any consideration at all, I reckon, if at all- most of the main broadcast channels seem to think films are pointless, likely because of all the movie subscription channels, streamers offering them on demand, or digital downloads/disc releases. Everything has changed so much, over the years. The irony that I watched the film this time via a streamer is not lost upon me.

Indeed, re-watching this film again after many years, I did have to wonder how people used to pay to see films like Three Days of the Condor at the cinema. I mean, of course they did- it was primarily the only way to go see films, certainly new ones; even movie rentals were unfathomable back then, never mind buying films on tape or disc. But it again indicates how things have changed- these days cinema attendances are largely the domain of big-budget effects extravaganzas. Not exclusively, but its largely that way. I just cannot see much of a cinema audience for something as slow and cerebral as Three Days of the Condor these days.  Its a shame. We get the films we deserve, like Red Notice (the fact that actually wound up on a streaming channel rather than cinemas doesn’t escape me).

Three Days of the Condor is typical of that period of American Cinema; a remarkable period of high-quality, interesting films usually with a cynical, paranoid bent. This was, after all, the decade of All the Presidents Men, Taxi Driver and little genre gems like Soylent Green. Films could be dark. Films could question authority and the institutions that society used to trust. Films could have a cautionary message, leaving audiences feeling unsettled by bleak endings. Films ended better back then. Its like some lost art.

In some ways, those 1970s films are more relevant now than even when they were made. Technology has just made things worse, maybe. Or maybe we have just become too used to politicians lying to us, too wary of the police. At any rate, I think audiences of today could do worse than sample the American Cinema of that decade, if only because studios and/or film-makers don’t seem interested in making films of that ilk today. We currently seem to be in an endless feel-good period, in which costumed heroes right the wrongs of the world, in which the bad guys are obvious because they are usually alien. In so many films of the 1970s, one doesn’t know who the bad guys are, we don’t know who to trust.

All of which is the basis of Three Days of the Condor, in which Redford plays a bookish CIA researcher whose co-workers are all killed by assailants unknown, goes on the run and eventually learns he is being hunted down by his own side, having stumbled upon a covert CIA op that must be kept secret.

threecI must confess, I wasn’t so enamoured by the film this time around. Faye Dunaway is very good as the woman that Redford’s character is forced to kidnap in order to find somewhere to hide; she’s beautiful but not typically soft-focus Movie Star Beautiful. There’s a believable fragility to her, but what does stretch belief is how she seems to suddenly fall in love with her kidnapper (I mean, sure Redford is a handsome dude but he’s got a gun and acting crazy), and the two suddenly make love in a scene so incongruous that it rather derailed the film for me. Likewise I was a little bewildered by how the desk-jockey Redford suddenly became a keenly confident super-spy, thwarting Government agents and assassins, even killing one in a fight. My suspension of disbelief cracked and I suddenly realised the film wasn’t as smart as I had seemed to remember; instead its rather daft slipping awfully close to Boys Own Adventure- maybe its a case of just watching a film too many times; on repeat viewings, films don’t always hold up. But I did like its mood, its sense of paranoia: certainly that part of the film didn’t leave me as incredulous as some of the rest of it did, but I just can’t really imagine returning to it again. Besides, its many shots of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, which takes centre stage for sections of the film, suddenly resonates today with all sorts of unintended feelings and associations which left me rather uncomfortable. Even now, seeing the WTC in films can be quite a shock, pulling me out of a films narrative; reality crashing in I suppose.

Sights and sounds of Cyberpunk 2077

cyberpic1There’s definitely a Syd Mead vibe to CD Project Red’s future-noir RPG Cyberpunk 2077. The typical response to the game’s visuals is to dismiss it as simply indebted to the film Blade Runner but I think it leans more towards Syd Mead’s pre-production paintings and his artwork outside the film, while magnified by inspiration from 1970s art for Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One, various Heavy Metal strips like The Long Tomorrow, and stuff like Geoff Darrow’s Hard Boiled graphic novel. Although I must confess I get an endless kick out of waiting at pedestrian crossings and the ambient audio telling me “walk/Don’t walk” straight out of Ridley’s film. But even casually describing its inspiration, one cannot fathom the mindboggling amount work and artistry in transferring it all to a videogame. Its astonishing; a relentlessly fascinating world to immerse oneself in.

cyberpic6What these screenshots from my initial paythrough cannot show is the HDR, the flickering neon lights and atmosphere animation, the ambient sounds of electronics, vehicular traffic, foreign voices, advertising and video that assaults the senses. The architecture and design of the streets is immensely convincing and impressive: it feels solid, thought-out. It has depth. I can imagine the game artists thinking they were designing a Ridley Scott film from his Alien/Blade Runner era- detail piled upon detail. They even have magazines at vendors, the covers all designed for me to linger and stare at, in just the same way that Ridley had mocked-up future magazines for on-set detail in Blade Runner that we never see in the actual movie, but they are there.

cyberpic2I’ve totalled about twelve hours play according to my stats but so much of that has just been me ignoring the main gameplay narrative and just walking around the streets, through markets and sometimes driving around, soaking it all up, the experience of it. I’m playing it wrong, obviously- or maybe not. The developers wouldn’t invest so much effort into creating this Night City if they didn’t want to distract players at every turn with its sights and sounds, to bewitch those of us attuned to it with its sheer beauty and detail. Sure, a lot of it is just surface stuff, you can’t enter every doorway and there are sometimes bugs evident in crowd behaviour but I can easily look past that and just enjoy the atmosphere of walking through this impossible city. If you were to show this to me in the 1980s, back when I was playing games on my Amiga and watching Blade Runner on VHS I would have been incredulous. These images aren’t pre-renders, these are all in-game captures during my exploration, walking around.

cyberpic4Cyberpunk 2077 has a pretty mixed reputation; it’s launch is still notorious all these months later – I cancelled my original pre-order when it became clear how broken it was on the then-current gen consoles. It was clearly a game whose ambitions outreached the machines most of us owned at the time, and even those lucky few with the new machines discovered it wasn’t properly coded for them yet. Late last year I finally got hold of a Series X and when the next-gen patch (so late it would be better described as the new current-gen) was released, the game received a soft relaunch and reduced to half-price. I took the plunge and haven’t looked back. I’m not sure I’m getting the most out of its finer details as an RPG regards character perks etc and to be honest many of the game mechanics zip over my head (I really miss the good old days of detailed game manuals) but as an audio-visual experience I’m just knocked out by it. There is something just too tempting about just ignoring the games prompts to continue the narrative proper or its many sub-mission diversions, and instead just take a look around that next corner. Walk down that street or alley-way, see where those staircases take me.

cyberpic5It isn’t a Grand Theft Auto set in the future, and much of the criticism directed at the game is just that: that the game isn’t what many/most gamers expected it to be. I recall cautioning people on forums before it was released that this would be something different, simply because CD Project Red makes RPGs (The Witcher series being extremely popular). Maybe it should have been closer to the Deus Ex series of games, maybe it would have had a happier landing. But as it stands now, with some (most?) of its launch bugs sorted out, its really pretty great, and as for its main storyline/campaign, I’m enjoying it very much, its got some interesting twists and takes on the technology and politics.  Somebody will probably make a decent film out of it someday. Videogames are like comics: just waiting to be movies. I suppose the opposite is also true, movies waiting to be videogames, and yes, this does at times feel like a Blade Runner videogame cheekily without the license (if someone made a mod in which players could walk around hunting down Replicants, then Cyberpunk 2007 would probably be perfect).

Those were the days- Cinefantastique Vol 9, Issue 1

cinefantast9.1One of the pleasures of my old film magazine collection -scattered and rarely looked at, it may be- is how it affords the feel of a time machine in ways that the internet never will. Looking through old issues of Starburst or Fantastic Films or, in this case, Cinefantastique is a curious window into the past. My clear-out/tidy-up of my back room etc has unearthed all sorts of distractions that halt me in my tracks and make this clear-out stretch on into weeks. It could be endless at this point.

So Cinefantastique, Vol.9, Issue 1; its the Alien issue, and we’re presumably into summer/Autumn 1979.

Its the previews that always get me. Back when these mags teased the first images from coming attractions and always had an open, hopeful mind regards whether it might actually turn out ok or not. Naturally in 2022 I know better.

The first film previewed in this issue is Saturn 3, describing the initial genesis of John Barry’s project, and how the poor man was dismissed from the film’s directors chair amid tensions between the cast (and really, Kirk Douglas’ ego and Hollywood clout back then must have had the gravitational clout of a Black Hole that Disney would be envious of) . The article mentions Barry moving to a second-unit directing gig on The Empire Strikes Back and his sudden death from meningitis in May. I remember it also reported by Starburst at the time, awfully sad. Barry was a real talent and only 43 when he passed. Saturn 3 didn’t really turn out that great, but I have it on Blu-ray and had mixed feelings about it last time I saw it. It’ll never be great, but its interesting how different times/fashions/styles imbue even a poor film with a curious second-wind once removed from its immediate era. It just occurred to me that Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett are gone now, as is Roy Dotrice, who dubbed Harvey Keitel’s lines when the actor refused (or was unavailable to) re-record his dialogue.

Turn the page and suddenly its a two-page spread about Star Trek nearing completion. Back when Star Trek was going to be the biggest film ever, another Star Wars-type hit, or actually really good. Here we are 43 years later and Paramount are doing a 4K Directors Cut to finally get the damn thing done right. How strange is that? Imagine tapping a reader on the shoulder back then and saying “you’ll be waiting awhile longer yet.” Its a crazy world.

Those were heady times though. Turn the page and The Black Hole is coming, Disney doing a Star Wars knock-off decades before they resorted to buying the damn thing from Lucas to make it, er, official. The article actually makes Disney’s film look really promising. There’s mention of Tobe Hooper making a TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot, which actually turned out okay- when I first saw it on the BBC it creeped the hell out of me. A page is devoted to, ahem, Flesh Gordon 2. I’ve never seen either Flesh Gordon film, in fact I didn’t know there was a second one, was this even released or did Dino nuke it with his official Flash Gordon being made (a small section of the previews announces that Flash Gordon had begun shooting)?

Turn the page- The Martian Chronicles with Rock Hudson, Isaac Asimov NOT writing Battlestar Galactica, Dick Smith joining Altered States, and a little film titled The Empire Strikes Back. Its curious that even with the film a year away, much of the plot was known -and summarised here- and the magazine with a Sense of Wonder is predictably dismissive: “science fiction buffs hoping for a serious fantasy film come May, when THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is released, will have to look elsewhere.” Ouch. I always forget just how po-faced this mag often was, or the high standards that editor/publisher Frederick S. Clarke demanded (to his endless disappointment, far as I could tell). Even a year off, TESB was being shot down by Cinefantastique.

The Alien coverage is pretty interesting. I always find these articles from when the film came out really fascinating; without the perspective later making-of books etc have, the sense of the ‘now’ and Alien being just this one shocker of a movie, its really telling.  And of course, in this case, interviewing Ridley Scott with all those films we all know now, still unmade ahead of him. He mentions an initial idea of using the music of Tomita for the soundtrack, and describes Tomita’s electronic version of Mars, the Bringer of War from Holst’s “The Planets.” In a comment that may have been later picked upon by James Cameron, Ridley mentions that Mars music and says “..that music said all there was to say about what the alien was. Imagine many of them, a lot of them, having the capability of getting about. Christ Almighty!” Ridley you just broke the plot of Aliens in summer of 1979, and Cinefantastique had a scoop and didn’t know it.

The issue’s centerspread is Giger’s Necronom IV painting, which inspired the design of the film’s Alien creature. Its a beautiful painting, endlessly fascinating every time I ever see it. I pause over that spread for some time. What a strange, nightmarish genius Giger was. He always struck me as a bit of a one-trick pony with that biomechanical style (it certainly didn’t at all suit some of the later films he worked on) but he absolutely hit pay-dirt regards Alien. Timeless genius. There’s an interview with Bolaji Badejo, the Nigerian student spotted in a pub in London who donned that alien suit. Its an interesting article, but also rather sad – he died in1992, just thirteen years later, at the far-too young age of 39. Reading his comments at the time, hopeful he might appear in future Alien films in that costume… yeah, our perspective today can be rather depressing.

It’s the Final Countdown

final1The Final Countdown, 1980, 103 mins, Amazon Prime (HD)

Is it unfair of me to ask; does The Final Countdown really qualify as a film at all? If I had a stopwatch and rewatched the film again, and counted how many minutes of footage consisted of all the hardware porn courtesy of the US Navy, compared to the actual time spent in traditional dramatic scenes with, like, people etc and dialogue and plot… what would the ratio be? 60/40 or even 70/30?

Not that there’s much of a plot. Or character beats, for that matter. Or tension. Sure, the film tells a passable time travel story but there’s no explanation for why a bizarre weather event should suddenly whisk the USS Nimitz from 1980 to 1941, or conveniently turn up again to whisk the aircraft carrier back to the present day before any harm is done. And certainly the footage of all the US Navy hardware is very pretty, and I’m sure it all looks lovely on that 4K UHD that came out over in the States a little while ago…

(and while we’re on that, what is going on with all these odd choices for films coming out on the ‘prestige’ 4K UHD format? The Final Countdown? Lifeforce? The Sword and the Sorcerer? Hardly a week goes by these days when some boutique label fails to announce a 4K UHD release that has me shaking my head in disbelief. I suppose I should accept it as a positive and something keeping physical media relevant, but some of the choices of films coming out on the format are, to be charitable, niche, to be honest, appalling)

But anyway, back to The Final Countdown… and by the way, what does the title even mean? What does it have to do with the plot? What’s the countdown it refers to? The deadline of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour I guess, but its a bit of a stretch as regards what’s so ‘final’ about it. The most frustrating thing regards the film is that the basic premise is really pretty neat, and there’s an awful lot one could do with it. Let’s say the Kirk Douglas’ character Capt. Matthew Yelland had a father who died at Pearl Harbour, or one of the crew did and they went AWOL to go save him, and the crew had to go chase him down and stop him from changing the timeline and destroying the 1980 they left behind. You know, SOMETHING that meant tearing the director and cameraman away from all that Navy hardware and, you know, get on with making a proper dramatic film. Because The Final Countdown isn’t a ‘proper’ dramatic film. Events take passive characters back in time and subsequent events return them to their present. The End. There’s a nagging feeling that some producer struck a deal to shoot lots of footage of the US Navy’s new flagship and then had to come up with a plot as some excuse to use all that footage.

To be fair, there is one dogfight sequence of F-14’s and Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero’s duking it out in the skies that looks pretty astonishing and maybe suggests how good the film could have been, but otherwise there isn’t much indication of ambition to be anything but a recruitment film for the Navy.

Frankly, the original Twilight Zone series did this kind of time travel thing much better and much more cheaply. So did Somewhere in Time, now that I think about it…