Returning again to Gattaca

Gattaca1Gattaca, 1997, 106 mins, 4K UHD

The future in films is always a pretty complicated thing- sometimes Utopian, sometimes Dystopian, various visions that, as the years go by, might in hindsight seem surprisingly spot-on, or surprisingly wide of the mark. Back in 1968 during the glory days of the space race, 2001: A Space Odyssey must have seemed pretty convincing, and while it remains largely definitive and prescient regards technology and space travel, in hindsight it was clearly at least a century out regards its timeline. When Blade Runner came out in 1982, its narrative setting of 2019 already seemed unlikely, as reality proved – but I find it endlessly amusing that reality also turned what was in 1982 a Dystopian vision instead into a Utopian one. Reality has fairly out-nightmared Ridley Scott, and when I watch Blade Runner these days it seems positively escapist entertainment.

Gattaca posits a future that does not belong to us ordinary, natural homo sapiens. Its something that I began to appreciate as I grew up, reading science fiction novels and absorbing science news, for example about how dangerous and inhospitable space is. It became pretty clear to me that humans leaving the Earth behind will be different, either coldly efficient like Kubrick’s astronauts and scientists, or physically enhanced to withstand the rigours of cosmic radiation or living in zero/low-gravity. I doubt future humans will be so comfortably familiar as they are, say, in Star Trek. I think future humans will be different, just as we would look different to prehistoric humans: in the same way as we have been shaped by our environment and technology, so will future humans who may not, physically, appear as wholly human as we might expect. A lifetime out in the Asteroid Belt, or on a Jovian or Saturnian moon would result in a physique, and likely mental, aspect quite unlike that of us today.

Maybe I’m too critical, maybe humanists would point towards a more reassuring, familiar shape for humanity out in the solar system and the stars, would argue that we won’t really change much at all. All I’d suggest is that when I was a kid, nobody would have believed that everyone in streets and buses and trains would be so endlessly tied to and fascinated by the little screens they carry around with them. Technology is already shaping us and our behaviour. I remember going for a meal and seeing another couple, arriving at another table after us, immediately upon sitting down each taking out their mobile phones and, instead of talking to each other, instead ignored each other, absorbed in their little screens and messages. It caught my eye and seemed quite alien, but you see that kind of thing all the time.

Gattaca suggests a biological advance, of genetic enhancements purchased to order prior even to conception, or immediately after, geneticists removing bad genes, replacing or improving them, ensuring a physical and mental perfection, or at least as near damn it. Wealth ensures success and opportunity, while poverty, the economic inability to utilise the biological tinkering  ensures membership of a social underclass. Its not far removed from how education separates many today into different social classes and opportunity (the last five Prime Minsters, for instance, all attended Oxford –  not certain if that’s a pro-Oxford commentary or not, considering how inept may of our Prime Minsters have actually been in the job).

Gattaca has always felt utterly convincing to me, like its future is inescapable. I’m not suggesting that’s its prime appeal; I think its best feature is its human drama, but nonetheless there is some fundamental truth to the future it envisages. Its a future horribly sad and dystopian, albeit tinged with a message of hope for the human spirit, a last hurrah for the humanity we are today. Vincent’s triumph is one for all of us, but I always think its a final one, that the future belongs to the others, those enhanced humans who curiously don’t seem to interact at all. There is largely something curiously cold and robotic about Vincent’s colleagues, not quite human, as if its suggesting that its our imperfections and limitations, and how we work work around them, that make us human.

I first saw Gattaca during its original cinema run here in the UK in 1998 and was immediately captivated by it, and have remained so ever since. Its one of those films that is pretty much perfect. Great script, visually impressive, great cast, wonderful music score – its up there with The Shawshank Redemption, Field of Dreams, and Glory for me, to name a few examples… films that may or may not be defined as Great Cinema like Citizen Kane, say, but are nonetheless essentially perfect.

Gattaca‘s premise is fascinating, scarily convincing, its script finely written with great characters and a great setting, using the films limited budget to its advantage, leveraging its future setting into the background, a ‘less is more’ approach that is refreshing. Nowadays it would be ‘bigger’ and more spectacular, no doubt, thanks to temptations of easy CGI enhancements, but I feel this would work to the films detriment. Instead, in just the same way as Alan Rudolph’s Trouble In Mind (1985) did,  the film thankfully focuses on its characters, and its cast, who are all at the top of their game- indeed what a cast! Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Alan Arkin,  Elias Koteas, Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine, Tony Shalhoub, Xander Berkley… this time around I spotted Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris playing a cop (probably because I hadn’t seen Breaking Bad last time I watched this film). Its a wonderful cast, really one of the films pleasures.

Of course being such a fan of this film, I’ve purchased it on home video a number of times; back in the early days of R1 DVD, later on Blu-ray and now on a 4K UHD that looks quietly gorgeous in that understated way that fits the film so well. This isn’t a film to ‘wow’ viewers with HDR but it does afford a level of detail and breadth of colour that is lovely. I often find myself referring to Gattaca and people looking blankly at me, and I often wonder when, if ever, its time will come (it seems to have been largely forgotten over the years, as some films strangely do). Maybe one day in decades hence when people are buying designer babies and choosing sex, hair colour, etc like we choose options when buying cars, people will note how eerily prescient Gattaca was; not all Hollywood futures come true (thankfully, in some cases), but perhaps this film, softly whispering down the decades like a cautionary Ray Bradbury or Rod Serling story, will be appreciated not just for being a great film but also a warning of what lies ahead and what might be avoided. Nearly two decades earlier, Star Trek: The Motion Picture proclaimed that ‘the human adventure is just beginning’ and while Gattaca darkly suggests otherwise, it perhaps also ponders there’s maybe an alternative, or that at least we should consider what being human really means.

No use crying over lost loot

toolateToo Late for Tears, 1949, 99 mins, Blu-ray

Lizabeth Scott didn’t really impress me very much in Dead Reckoning (a role originally intended for Rita Hayworth, I believe) but she’s much better here in a role that clearly suits her- less the glamorous vixen and more the desperate housewife. She plays Jane Palmer, a woman whose greed gets the better of her in the best noir fashion. When she and her husband Alan Palmer (Arthur Kennedy) are driving to a party, a bag full of money is thrown onto the back seat of their open-top car. Its clearly a mistake and they are soon chased by another car which evidently should have received the package instead. They evade pursuit and once home realise its LOTS of money; Alan wants to take it immediately to the police but Jane pushes for caution, already thinking what the money means, what she could do with it.

They decide upon a compromise, leaving the bag in storage at Union Station while debating what they should do, but after a few days temptation has clearly gotten the better of her and Jane is already spending money that she knows she and Alan don’t have. Jane is obviously confident she can talk her husband around, especially if they have debts that only that bag in Union Station can pay, but this being a noir, things are never going to be as simple as Jane thinks . The first complication is Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea) who comes to their apartment posing as a detective but once he is inside Jane learns he is seeking the money, threatening her. The second complication is that even upon seeing all her shopping, Alan is even more adamant the money should go to the police. That evening on a night out, Jane ‘accidentally’ (well, she tries to convince herself it was an accident) shoots her husband dead, and convinces Danny to help her dispose of the body and get her an alibi by posing as Alan on her journey home. The third complication is Alan’s sister Kathy (Kristine Miller) who lives on the same floor of their apartment building and becomes suspicious regards her brother’s disappearance. The fourth complication is when an old war buddy of Alans, Don Blake (Don DeFore), turns up out of the blue, and becomes suspicious himself. Of course, Danny wants his money, and Jane wants to keep it (if only she could find the missing ticket stub for the bag locked away in Unions Station), and then the police start sniffing around investigating her missing husband. What’s a girl to do?

It sounds like a grand, over the top, thriller-cum-farce but it really isn’t. Yes, I suppose one could twist this kind of plot into some black comedy but this is a straight morality play with surprising subtlety and genuine twists. Being a noir, of course, right from the start its inevitable that all Janes schemes should unravel; I love these plots in which the universe seems hellbent on undoing protagonists and the more they try to dig themselves out of their quandary they only fall deeper into it (Pushover is another great example). It strikes me as almost Lovecraftian, characters at the whim of a malevolent universe – the difference in these noir being that the characters are usually shady and deserve to suffer.

Duryea, an actor particularly adept at playing crooks and who was brilliant in Criss Cross, is even better here, with a nuanced performance playing a surprisingly complex character. Outwardly confident he is quite fragile underneath all the bluster, and soon finds himself losing control, manipulated by Jane – when we first meet him he’s obviously reprehensible but by the end one actually feels sympathy for him. Meanwhile, Arthur Kennedy is just SO good as poor Alan; its a curiously understated, apparently effortless performance that is probably the very definition of perfect casting. Likewise Don DeFore is very good; this film has solid performances all round.

But of course its Lizabeth Scott’s movie. I don’t believe subtlety was ever really her thing, having also seen her in Dark City, The Racket and I Walk Alone as well as the aforementioned Dead Reckoning– but its pretty clear that this was a role perfectly suited to her. Hers wasn’t a natural, earthy beauty, certainly not the confident sex siren that, say, Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardener might play with ease-Scott is edgier, there’s something a little ‘off’ about her. At the time, some critics described her as wooden, but perhaps ‘understated’ might have been nearer the mark; it could indeed be irritating, as I found in Dead Reckoning, but there’s perhaps a certain reality to it, under-playing things the way she did. It wasn’t something really in style back then in Hollywood, perhaps why she didn’t really become the big ‘star’ which her billing in some films would suggest watching them today.

Having read about her, its probably true to say her personal life proved more interesting than anything onscreen, which I won’t go into here. Within ten years of appearing in Too Late for Tears she retired from film, only appearing in a few television shows.

When was the last time you invited death into your car?

hitch3The Hitch-Hiker, 1953, 71 mins

Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are two buddies who have escaped their wives for a weekend road trip, and pick up a stranded motorist who turns out to be psychopathic escaped convict Emmett Myers (William Talman), who once in the car threatens them at gunpoint, forcing them to drive hundreds of miles across country to the coast. Myers has already left a trail of cold-bloodied murders in his wake and promises the two men they too will die- either at the end of the journey or earlier if they are stopped by police. Myers mocks the two men as being weak and soft, taunting them to try to stop him or save themselves by getting away, but always keeping them at gunpoint, and as the journey progresses it brings them nearer to their destination and their own grim fate.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Edmond O’Brien (The Killers, 711 Ocean Drive, Between Midnight and Dawn, DOA) as good as he is here; he seems on some other level entirely as a trapped vacationer gradually becoming increasingly frustrated and desperate. There’s a subtle fragility to his performance that deepens as it progresses, I think he’s genuinely great as he slowly unravels. As a study of masculinity -or more pointedly, emasculation at gunpoint- its a fascinating thriller, only more so when one appreciates the film was the first film noir directed by a woman, Ida Lupino. Lupino is a remarkable figure in Hollywood, particularly when one considers the era and the industry in which she worked (anybody else seen Andrew Dominik’s Blonde?). An actress/director/producer, she must have been a remarkable character herself (as an actress she appeared in On Dangerous Ground), and I must confess feeling a little uncomfortable raising the fact of Lupino’s gender, as its really got no bearing upon the film itself or her ability to direct it except that maybe it took a woman to coax some of that fragility from her male actors, or indeed the brutal horror of Talman’s crazed, vicious criminal.

The Hitch-Hiker is a great, taut thriller, unrelentingly tense and it must be remembered likely particularly effective at the time because it was based upon a true story. As it progresses one becomes increasingly curious at just how the two men are going to get free from, or overpower, the crazed man promising them death. Its one of those genius stories, no-nonsense and direct, that perhaps could only come from a real-life event. The desert they drive through becomes a character of the film itself, and the low-budget approach only adds to the gritty reality: this certainly wouldn’t work as a glossy, big-budget Technicolor studio film. So great direction, great performances, a great script… you can’t lose with this one.

Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic! But SCREAM! Scream for your lives!

tingleraThe Tingler, 1959, 82 mins

Mr Sardonicus, 1961, 99 mins

Two old b & w horrors courtesy of a Talking Pictures old-fashioned movie double-bill, the kind of deal popular in movie-houses back in the day or late-night tv schedules when films were a treat for us kids growing up (actually, it was a triple-bill, followed by Ida Lupino’s noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953) but more on that one at a later date). These even had video introductions by Caroline Munro, a bit like how horror films used to be presented on television back in the 1970s on Friday nights.

Both The Tingler and Mr Sardonicus are William Castle pictures. Castle was a low-budget b-movie actor, producer and director, working in the horror genre with a reputation for gimmick-laden films and both The Tingler and Mr Sardonicus are typical, featuring introductory cameos by Castle (to which my amused wife commented “who does he think he is, Hitchcock?”) in which he addresses the audience and even, in the case of Mr Sardonicus, interrupting the film near the end and asking the audience to raise cards to let them choose which ending the projectionist should run. It gives the films some camp notoriety all these years after, redolent of carnival entertainments and a feeling they clearly don’t take themselves too seriously as ‘quality pictures’ of any kind: these are clearly intended to be disposable ‘date movies’ and little more. I’d imagine Castle would be amused at people still watching his films all these years later.

Vincent Price, of course, had little concern with being involved in minor entertainments – like Peter Cushing and other horror stalwarts of his generation, a gig was a gig and he’d treat the hookiest horror with sincerity (as opposed to Christopher Lee, who always seemed like he desired a long clean bath after each days filming, lamenting his involvement in another of his regrettable horror b-movies). Mind, while someone like Cushing was always deadly earnest, treating the lousiest Hammer yarn as if it were a lost Shakespeare gem, Price always seemed to have in his manner a knowing wink at the audience, like he was just having fun with it. I suppose him teaming up with a showman like Castle was a match in horror heaven.

That being said, I think Price is very, very good in The Tingler, a performance far better than the material deserves. His character is much more grounded, and Price actually less theatrical, more restrained, than one might expect, which improves the film no end. The film is based upon a typically daft premise – Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin is a pathologist who has a theory that fear is the result of a creature that inhabits all of us: the titular Tingler, which, while usually microscopic and escaping any detection, grows into a fearsome creature during moments of terror. Only our screams of terror suppresses the creature, stopping it from killing us of our own fright (and presumably then crawling out of our cadavers). In a curious way I guess this makes it one of the first body-horror movies, a genre which David Cronenberg made a career of a few decades later. It certainly feels something of a pre-cursor to stuff like Videodrome, when Price does an autopsy on a woman who dies of fright and he extracts a grisly creature from her spinal column: this being 1959, its all tastefully done in silhouette from behind a canvas sheet, but you can only imagine what Cronenberg would do with a sequence like that years later. Alas, the fidgety creature is typically unconvincing, what with wires visible etc but its design is pretty creepy (I suspect Wrath of Khan’s art directors at ILM were indebted to it). Castle of course is having endless fun with it all, addressing the audience (and in one section, Price himself does when warning an in-film theatrical audience) to scream when they are scared in order that the Tingler inside them doesn’t kill them from fright during the film’s scary bits (well, if one could find them).

Price is supported by a surprisingly good cast. Philip Coolidge is brilliant as Oliver ‘Ollie’ Higgins, a silent-movie house owner who befriends Chaplin and initially acts as a proxy for the audience; through Ollie we learn who Chaplin is, his field of research and then later it is Ollies mute wife who provides the revelatory moment in Chaplin’s project. Coolidge is far more important to the plot than we initially think, a later twist compounded by him quietly playing what seems to be a minor supporting character, not drawing attention to himself at all. The scenery-chewing is left to Chaplin’s bitter wife, Isabelle, played by Patricia Cutts (at times during the film I was struck by her facial similarity to Nicole Kidman) who is brazenly unfaithful, and deliberately thwarting her own sister’s happiness. The fact that its intimated that Isabelle murdered her own father for her inheritance is thrown in almost as an aside: this is decidedly campy horror-fun. Cutts is great value in a fairly one-dimensional role, I was expecting her to run foul of the Tingler once it breaks out to terrorise innocents but she’s there only to compound Chaplin’s marital misery. I was rather disappointed the film didn’t take a moral stand and subject her to a grisly end.

sardonicusaRather better than The Tingler is Mr Sardonicus, from a few years later, and which also sees a welcome starring role for the great Ronald Lewis, an actor who remains something of a fascination of mine. Lewis is great in this gothic chiller that turns out to be much better than one possibly expects from its William Castle introduction, and doesn’t need the Castle gimmick at the end in which the audience is addressed to choose the ending, which just proves a distraction that breaks up the narrative (the choice is a con, as only one ending was ever filmed and intended, the audience expected to demand the come-uppance of the films villain).

Mr Sardonicus is gothic with a capital ‘G’- its got estranged lovers, grave-robbing, hysterical paralysis, torture, a remote ghostly castle, ghouls, pseudo-science… its a great yarn, based upon a short story by Ray Russell who wrote the screenplay. Lewis plays Sir Robert Cargrave, an esteemed doctor in fog-enshrouded 19th-Century London who receives a plea for help from an ex-lover who is now married to Baron Sardonicus of distant Transylvania Gorslava and is desperate for Sir Robert’s help. Obviously still holding a torch for Maude (Audrey Dalton) Sir Robert instructs his assistant to cancel all his future appointments and he rushes away to the remote East European country and the Baron’s menacingly gothic estate.

The stationmaster of the station nearest to the castle infers that there is something unwholesome regards the Baron Sardonicus, something not dispelled by the Baron’s one-eyed creepy manservant, Krull (Oscar Homolka) who picks up Sir Robert and in typical Hammer tradition drives a horse-drawn carriage through desolate moody woods to the castle. The hokey fun is immediately intensified within the castle when Sir Robert sees Krull torturing a maid with leeches in a strange experiment, and finally when Sir Robert meets Maude and her husband the Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe), Sir Robert is shocked to learn that the Baron wears a mask covering his face and hiding some horror beneath.

The next morning Sir Robert meets with the masked Baron who explains that he was once a poor peasant named Marek, married to  Elenka (a feisty Erika Peters), whose father Henryk with fading health gave Elenka a lottery ticket which the frustrated Elenka dismissed as an old man’s foolish waste of money. Henryk soon after died and was buried in his best suit, which, yes, also contained the dismissed lottery ticket in a pocket. Inevitably, time passed, and then Marek and Elenka learned that they had indeed won the lottery. Marek had to return to the cemetery and, like a ghoul dig up his fathers grave to retrieve the lottery ticket. The horror of seeing his father’s twisted decomposed face startled Marek, permanently freezing his own face into a grimace of horror so terrible it drove Elenka to suicide, and which he has hidden from sight. Claiming the lottery he used his newfound wealth to become the Baron and buy this remote castle, and now threatens Sir Robert that he will destroy Maude’s face if Sir Robert cannot repair the Baron’s twisted visage- Sardonicus reveals that it was he that disfigured Krull’s face, taking out the manservant’s eye when the servant disappointed him.

Its all daft fun, but its quite earnest in its approach, more like a 1930s Universal horror or a Hammer  gothic horror, lacking the more tongue-in-cheek sensitivities of The Tingler, certainly. The cast are all very good, particularly Lewis, who takes it all very seriously, as, say, Peter Cushing would were he in the role, whereas someone like Vincent Price would clearly have more fun with it. Indeed, its almost a pity Price wasn’t cast as the Baron, he’d have had huge fun emoting with his wonderful voice behind the mask that the Baron hides behind for most of the film. But perhaps enjoyable as that would have been to watch, that would have worked against the film; instead, Guy Rolfe as the masked Baron is as deliberately earnest as Lewis is, and this enables the film to shake at the shackles of being just a just silly horror. There is this sense of the film struggling against its horror tropes (one-eyed creepy hunched-up manservant etc) and becoming more than, well, a trashy William Castle picture. I actually felt it an unfortunate interruption, once we have seen Sir Robert and Maude escape to a new life together, when Castle comes onscreen to address the audience and offer up either a happy or unhappy end for the Baron.

I really rather enjoyed Mr Sardonicus; its gothic horrors as successful as many Hammer films, with a pretty great cast and a fine script. I bet it scared kids witless on television showings over the years since. How strange that I never even knew of its existence until now (Indicator released it as part of a William Castle Blu-ray boxset a few years back, but I didn’t pay enough attention to note Lewis’ presence in the cast). The film is limited by its evidently low budget and no doubt tight production schedule, as all such horror b-movies were; elevated to a A-list budget with more care and attention (as, say, Alien was a decade or so later) it might have been a very notable film. There is the germ of a disturbing horror here, belied by its association with lesser William Castle productions.

The one in which Titanic is sunk by disc rot

greenmanRaise the Titanic, 1980, 115mins

The Skull, 1965, 83 mins, Blu-ray

The Green Man, 1956, 80 mins

Last night for some unfathomable reason (as such whims usually are when choosing to watch a film) I decided to watch Raise the Titanic, a Blu-ray which has been waiting to be watched for more than seven years. Unfortunately it became abundantly clear I wouldn’t be watching it- loading up the disc, the tv screen showed a broken-up image, heavily pixelated, without any sound, the playback so fractured that it took minutes to display what I assume is a looping video sequence running behind menu options which didn’t display at  all. Indeed, after a few minutes the sequence repeated, the imagery not quite as pixelated and snippets of John Barry’s sublime soundtrack starting to be heard: still no menu options though, so the video loop repeated, occasionally broken up with bright garish pixels dancing around. Another case of disc rot? Ejecting the disc it didn’t appear to show any signs of clouding on the disc surface or indeed any marks at all; it looked perfectly fine, albeit it patently wasn’t.

Some people may feel I got off lightly and was spared a terrible movie. I have watched Raise the Titanic before, back when it was shown on television, and it is indeed pretty poor. I recall buying the disc out of curiosity really, and indeed did start watching it back when I first received the disc in 2015, but had to stop it twenty minutes in because Real Life stepped in, and I never returned to it. So here I was last night, scuppered again. I’m just not meant to watch this film; it was quite frustrating, its a pretty bad film, and not really in the ‘so bad its good’ territory but it has a lovely John Barry score, some good actors and I’ve never seen it in widescreen.  Beginning to look like I never will.

Just as an aside, I noticed a few weeks back that someone has written a two-volume ‘making of’ the film, devoting over 1,000 pages to it, incredibly (and laboriously, by the look of it) spread over two hardbacks: its like the very definition of overkill. I found it curious that this film even has a fan devoted enough to write something like this, never mind sufficient other fans to make publishing it viable. Its this that got me thinking about watching the film again, finally getting that Blu-ray disc out – the film must have something going for it if its subject to such attention. Just goes to show, EVERY film has its fans, somewhere.

Anyway, our planned viewing sunk just like the titular ocean liner, we had to look for another film to watch. Since its October it seemed apt to pick a horror movie (I guess Raise the Titanic qualifies for that too…) so we picked an old favourite- The Skull, a 1965 Amicus production starring Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark and Christopher Lee that scared both Claire and I witless when kids watching this film on late night television. Its not really THAT scary or successful a horror, but it remains effective; the cast is great, the story interesting in an old-fashioned, pulp-horror kind of way and the atmosphere quite wonderful. Its always a pleasure revisiting it, and hurrah for a film that doesn’t suffer the dreaded disc rot or other problem. Peter Cushing is always on some other level above the material he’s in. Watching this again got me thinking about the (fairly recent) Indicator release, Corruption, likely Cushing’s nastiest film and one I’d like to give another re-watch. Its curious how we watch films if only because it features a particular actor.

Which brings me to The Green Man, a film I’d never heard of before, but earlier that same Sunday afternoon, after Claire and I had dinner over my moms, while the girls were washing-up I was flicking through the Freeview channels and came across this old British comedy about to start on the Talking Pictures channel.  During the titles I spotted it credited Terry-Thomas, an actor who, like Cushing, I never tire of seeing in movies. He stars in one of my favourite comedies, How to Murder Your Wife as Jack Lemmon’s man-servant, a role played as if only Terry-Thomas could ever play him.

Anyway, I watched The Green Man… an enjoyable, very black comedy of errors starring Alastair Sim as an eccentric, very English assassin repeatedly thwarted by a vacuum cleaner salesman played by George Cole (later of Minder fame here in the UK). Its all decidedly British- murders and laughs, fruity asides to sex, its all very dated and almost like from some other world: indeed I suppose the 1950s were another world, its all part of this films charm, and of other similar films like The Ladykillers. In fact, I mistakenly remembered that Sim also starred in The Ladykillers but I was getting mixed up; it was Alec Guinness playing Professor Marcus in that film (so like Sim that Guinness was possibly actually mimicking him for all I know).

The thing is, I watched the film… and watched the film… all in anticipation of Terry-Thomas turning up in each new scene but he didn’t turn up until the final act. There I was, tricked by top-billing into thinking he’d have a major part in the proceedings… which I suppose he does but screen time wise, he’s almost like a cameo. I guess he was a sufficient enough star at the time to ensure such top billing, but it certainly threw me for a curve, getting to the point that it actually distracted me somewhat: I actually got to the point at which I was doubting my senses; had I REALLY seen his name in the credits?

In any case, The Green Man is a very good film, a delicious comedy I’d stumbled upon by accident, a happy discovery while visiting my moms on a Sunday afternoon. So good I may even buy the Blu-ray edition someday (yeah, its actually out on disc). The film is funny with a fine cast of British greats of old- Raymond Huntley, Colin Gordon, Dora Bryan, Richard Wattis, even a young slim Arthur Lowe, with a vivacious Jill Adams really impressing as beautiful love interest/heroine Ann. Sadly, Jill Adams didn’t have as long a career in film as one might have expected, quitting the profession ten years later and moving to Portugal to run a hotel with her husband: its such an endlessly curious thing, looking people up on sites like IMDB and seeing lives/careers summarised in a few paragraphs.

Stop the bus, I need to hear the commentary track

Polices1Police Story, 1985, 99 mins, 4K UHD

Its always a little tricky coming to a genre one isn’t particularly interested in or familiar with; its rather like manually tuning a radio station, turning the dial this way and that, trying to get a clear signal but nonetheless unable to rid oneself of static/background noise: there are moments when you get it tuned right and its all clear, and you ‘get it’ but the rest its clouded by interference and leaves you wondering what you’re missing, unable to fathom the appeal.

So regards Jackie Chan movies, I’m quite entirely ignorant, really- other than the Rush Hour films, the only other film I can recall watching was The Foreigner, a few years back.  Eureka’s recent 4K boxset of three Police Story films, highly regarded by many martial arts/action film fans, seemed an opportunity to remedy that.

So we come to Police Story, from 1985 – a film that while passing me by completely (I’d never even heard of it until a few months back, such is my ignorance), first wowed its fans here in the West back in the days of VHS rentals, when films like this could never be seen on television broadcast. There’s a certain charm to VHS, well, for those of us who lived through its early days, anyway: blown-out colours and scratchy drop-outs and tracking noise… strange to eulogise those horrors when I’m watching it now in 4K with HDR. But certainly the production company logos that open the credits for Police Story look so dated, so redolent of those indie VHS releases of the day with garish, hand-drawn animation, that they carry an instant charm.

I watched Police Story in its original Cantonese with English subtitles, assuming that the original is more authentic and richer an experience, but I’m not sure I chose wisely. Pretty immediately the frenzied, exaggerated performances, complemented by the speed of the language, started to grate on me. Maybe it was the tone of it all. The film is an action-comedy with outrageous stunts, more Harold Lloyd than Bourne Identity, certainly, and I found it hard to get a complete grip with it. The humour is so like that of a cartoon, very slapstick, the characters one-dimensional, the tone uneven (action film, romantic comedy…). No doubt second viewings will reward better, having acclimatised to it, but this first time around it put me rather in a tailspin.  Returning to my radio analogy, I couldn’t tune it it in, was getting messed up by all the static noise.

Midpoint of the film I got along easier with it, mainly because it took a very interesting twist, and a darker turn than what preceded it, but certainly from the start the action set-pieces and the stunts are amazing. There is one in particular, when one of the characters jumps off the fifth-floor roof of a building into an alarmingly small swimming pool below, that is so crazy, so apparently reckless (this is back in  the day of no CGI wire removal or similar safety measures, the stunts being done absolutely for real in ways that would get Hollywood insurance companies reaching for the emergency exit), that it took my breath away and terrified me as much as it exhilarated me. To be honest, we’re used to crazy ridiculous stunts these days, knowing that there’s lots of trickery and visual effects making them look bigger/riskier than they really were, but watching films from back then, knowing the dangers… Even the fights, all the spins into sheets of glass or glass displays or onto concrete or walls…

POPoliceAt any rate, by the last third of the film I was well into it, more accustomed to the exaggerated theatrics that I assume must be style of these Hong Kong films. Its the curious thing about watching a kind of film that one doesn’t usually watch, its almost a foreign language in itself, so maybe not watching it in its (American, I assume) English-dub was indeed a contributory factor to my initial sense of distance. Maybe watching it in fuzzy VHS with dodgy tracking was part of this film’s charm in the 1980s, but on this 4K restoration the film looks quite spectacular. I look forward to watching the remaining two films in this box set, but do wonder if I should stick around for the commentary tracks on this film first to really get educated to what these films are all about…

Poltergeist 40 years on

Poltergeist1Poltergeist, 1982, 114 mins, 4K UHD

My affection for Poltergeist is deeper than it really deserves- as noted before, it was the first film rental I ever saw, back in 1983 when my parents rented a VHS machine and sent me down to the video store with a membership card. It was tremendously exciting having a genuine film on this weird big plastic cassette and loading it up in the player, watching a film, uncut, with no ad breaks, of our choice when we wanted to watch it. It was a glimpse of the future that at the time could not be guessed at, a future of films on demand and that one can actually own to rewatch time and time again.

I’ve rewatched the film several times over the years since, and I think I’ve bought it on every new format (4K UHD of course just the very latest one). I think its possibly an attempt to relive that original excitement from 1983, because every time I rewatch it, the film disappoints somehow. Its a good film, and also a big reminder of just how varied and largely successful genre releases were in 1982 in particular, something we’ll not see the like of again. But as a horror film, is it really genuinely scary on repeat viewings? Can those child actors really act? Does it rely too much on ILM visual effects that increasingly look dated, big loud sound effects (it gets ridiculously noisy towards the end) and the propulsive qualities of Jerry Goldsmith’s music? Is it too much a Spielberg movie?

You can tell its based on a story by Spielberg. Its got that reliance of showy effects and spectacle, sort of a mix between CE3K and Raiders of the Lost Ark posing as horror movie, largely ignoring the subtlety of genuine quiet, creepy horror that gets under ones skin. And perhaps indicating Spielberg’s youth at the time most of all, it suggests parents who don’t report their missing child to the police, something as ridiculous as a father deserting his children to go fly off in a UFO, dubious plot holes I imagine he’s since regretted with maturity.

The authorship of the film as a whole -particularly who directed it- has been a subject of some contention amongst fans for years. It clearly carries Spielberg’s stamp, including some of his worst habits of the time, like slow camera pull-ins on actors reaction shots that always irritated the hell out of me and still does on repeat viewings (thankfully something Spielberg grew out of, eventually) that suggest he directed some moments at least, or certainly had a big involvement in the editing. I rather think of Poltergeist as I do Return of the Jedi; the latter may credit Richard Marquand as director but its got George Lucas’ hand all over it, unfortunately (a response to Lucas feeling he lost control of The Empire Strikes Back). I suspect Tobe Hooper worked as a director-for-hire and acceded to Spielberg in all creative discussions (other rumours persist that Spielberg actually took over when Hooper lost control/fell ‘ill’, but that being said, I suspect that had Spielberg really directed it as some suspect, the performances of those child actors would have been much better).

There are moments in Poltergeist that are genuinely great; I’ve always loved Goldsmith’s effective score, particularly when we see the ghostly spirits coming down the stairs. It was the moment that truly blew me away back in 1983 and always raises the hairs on the back of my neck. JoBeth Williams is wonderful, the heart and soul of the film that carries all the proceedings once her daughter is abducted by the ghosts haunting the house. The more times I have watched the film, I increasingly wish the script had just had a bit more polish that might have ensured less of a reliance on those effects. Its a film that leans more toward entertainment than genuine scares, I feel; an indication of what Amblin would be all about during the 1980s etc and how mainstream Hollywood was going with its summer blockbusters. Its less an adult horror movie than it is a creepy movie for kids- yeah, a Spielberg horror movie rather than  a Hooper horror movie, clearly (albeit the censors seem to have nixed that intent; Poltergeist is still a 15 over here in the UK).

poltergeist4kOn 4K UHD Poltergeist naturally looks better than it ever has. The HDR allows greater clarity, particularly in daylight, exterior scenes. I don’t think it does the ILM photochemical effects too many favours, really- some of the animation looks a little too painterly… I wonder, had Doug Trumbull had a hand in the effects, if his ‘painting with light’ approach might have been a preferable one. I did notice some banding in a few of the dark skies (pretty nasty in the scene where Steve and Diane knock on their neighbours door and the dark cloudy night sky has ugly banding behind them, but maybe that’s a source issue). On the whole it looks pretty great though.

Rings of Power update

rings2Rings of Power Season One, 2022, Amazon Prime

Well, a few more episodes on now since my last post about this series having now seen episodes 3 – 6. Can’t say my opinion has changed very much because the strengths and weaknesses of it hasn’t altered. The strengths are definitely the music score by Bear McCreary and the visuals, which are largely spectacular. Whether its really half a billion dollars spectacular I don’t know- sometimes I wonder if Amazon needs to do an audit on where all the money has gone, but then again, I think the same about many Netflix shows and so many films too. The money spent on these productions is staggering and sometimes… maybe its just me, but sets look surprisingly flaky sometimes in these shows (fake rocks/brickwork looking, well pretty fake) but perhaps that’s the impact of shooting/streaming in 4K, things show up now that wouldn’t in the old days. That all said, some of the imagery is so gorgeously pretty I have to fight the urge to press the pause button and just soak it all in (actually maybe that’d be a better way of watching this show). I think this is one of the more negative influences of the Peter Jackson films- those films were full of wonderful visuals, and Rings of Power seems hellbent on mimicking or even bettering them, its producers perhaps wrongly thinking those visuals were the main appeal of the films and where all the attention needed to go.

The music is excellent and 100% everything it needed to be, and absolutely the best element of the entire show. It really carries some of the weak narrative and character moments, with some lovely transitions between scenes, particularly those where we see a map indicating a change of location. McCreary is to be applauded and I hope we get a disc release that the work deserves- a lengthy album compilation is available on digital and also episodic streams that expand it even further, but I’m holding out for a disc release or (even better) a series of disc releases to match all that digital content. I think its clearly McCreary’s finest work since his BSG reboot work, thematically diverse and very cinematic.

rings3But regards those moments where we see a map indicating where we are/where the next scene is occurring (its a welcome storytelling device on Rings of Power considering its reliance on several seperate storylines/characters), it brings me to one of my gripes with the series: for all its epic pretensions, why does the world seem so small? Its something that bugged me in Game of Thrones in its later seasons; the time characters spent travelling didn’t match the distances involved, deliberately and artificially done in order to keep up the narrative pace as that series neared it end, and this occurs a lot in Rings of Power. For instance, in episode six, we see the Númenorian fleet depart for Middle Earth and then after a day and night of the Southlanders defending themselves against Adar’s Orc army, the Númenorians suddenly arrive to save the day. An earlier examination of a map showed that the fleet had to cross a sea, sail up river and then the army march across land to get to where the Southlanders were fighting- something that looks like it would take a week or even several weeks, but certainly not a day. Maybe that’s me nit-picking, but the typical and predictable plot contrivance of the Númenorians saving the day is only exasperated by how small Tolkien’s world suddenly seemed when they turned up.

What is not me nit-picking though is the writing, which remains very poor indeed, depressingly so sometimes. Characters are one-dimensional, giving actors little to work with, and coincidences and contrivances seem to crowd every episode. Its definitely a show that seems… well, as I’ve noted before, it seems to me that Rings of Power is what the producers evidently THINK a fantasy show should be like. Written by a writing staff more suited to police procedurals or soap operas, its ticking boxes not understanding what those boxes mean. Lots of personal quests, quotes of prophecies, and horrible portentous dialogue that is written thinking its the stuff of epics. That dialogue really is terrible; something particularly highlighted by everything looking so gorgeous- the visuals really deserve more. You can get caught by a particularly arresting shot that looks like an exquisite painting brought to life and then the moment is shattered by a brutally inane piece of dialogue. Pacing is all over the place; just when the narrative pushes forward and something’s happening, suddenly characters just stop everything for a chat.

If this was ‘just’ a fantasy show, like maybe that Willow tv series Disney is apparently working on, then this would be fine and hardly a surprise/disappointment, I’d just ignore it and move on. But this is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings I’m discussing here. It deserves more, it deserves better. It deserves, I suspect, a better show running team, really. All the woke nonsense warned about before the show aired was pretty much just a marketing distraction, diversity being used as a diversion mechanism to side-track critique from the real issue of bad writing (‘Diversity as Diversion’, heh I should coin that one). I doubt that the last two episodes can really save it, but we’ll see; at the moment Rings of Power, while not really the utter disaster the YouTube bunch are screaming about, is pretty average at best and definitely not at all worthy of the Tolkien license Amazon spent a fortune acquiring.

Maybe a course correction behind the scenes, between this and season two will find Rings of Power fulfilling its potential, because its some way off just yet.