Fangs ain’t what they used to be

morby1Morbius, 2022, 104 mins, Streaming

I appreciate its not going to happen anytime soon (or even far away, at this point) but isn’t it past time Hollywood came off its addiction to superhero, or in this case, supervillain (albeit it seems the same thing) movies? Morbius probably only exists because Sony is trying to maximise its IP rights to the Spider-Man comics and its unique characters, rather than any real artistic merit for it. I mean, really, can anyone make an argument why the world needs a Morbius movie? I suppose one could say the same about Venom, and I imagine we should consider ourselves lucky we haven’t been subjected to a Dr Octopus film in  which he marries Aunt May (hey, it happened, so its canon, I guess). But where does all this madness end?

Morbius is… well, I always figured he was just a minor villain in the Spider-Man comics, he only appeared in a single story spread over just two issues, way back in 1971 (The Amazing Spider-Man #101 and #102, a story more infamous than memorable because Spidey discovered he had grown an additional four arms at the end of the ‘special event’ #100, and Morbius was Spidey’s key for a cure). Anyway, Morbius seems to have gotten some kind of fanbase, because he then appeared again with Spidey in Marvel Team-Up the very next year and continued in other titles during the ‘seventies (I believe Marvel’s horror comics like Tomb of Dracula were very popular that decade). But Morbius was never part of the Big League of popular Marvel characters. Or at least, so I thought.

So anyway, he now gets own movie, presumably to ensure some tie-in with Spidey in some later movie, the way these movie universes/box-sets work. A post-credits sequence in which The Vulture (Michael Keaton) turns up to further complicate matters/tie things together just utterly bamboozled me, but maybe I’ve missed too many Marvel movies now and I’ll never make sense of it all. Anyway, this is an origin movie and proves a loose adaptation of the comic, at least as far as I can remember. Its kind-of a combination of Frankenstein and Dracula, in which a scientist, Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto, what?!) so desperate to find some cure to a blood disorder via a fascination with bats takes things a bit Universal Horror and turns himself into a vampire. His best buddy since childhood, Milo (Matt Smith)  infects himself too, but he’s not as honest/wholesome as Morbius and becomes a madly over-acting fiend and there’s one of those cartoony big fights at the end and then, er, its The End and the silly nonsense is over, until mid-credits when The Vulture turns up.

Its not terrible. I’ll give it that. But it does seem pointless. All the way through it I was wondering why. Why does this film exist, what is its purpose? What is its original thought, its core spark of originality? I should perhaps stop asking myself questions like that, watching movies. I’ll just keep giving myself an headache.

Somebody call Kolchak

sierra3The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre (1964, TV Movie), 80 mins, Talking Pictures TV

A film cobbled together from a rejected TV pilot for a horror anthology series, The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre is a genuinely creepy, spooky horror that on the one hand is much better than its origins suggest, but on the other horribly undermined by underwritten characters and a quite nonsensical plot. Oddly enough, in that respect it feels quite modern- its all about the mood and chills and not at all about any drama or characters. Its really quite frustrating, in that it does most of the horror stuff very well – I’d imagine even  kids of today could be traumatised by some of its spooky moments-  but the rest doesn’t really hold up at all, and the pacing seems all over the place (as I’ll come back to later, I suspect that in its original edit it was intended to run under an hour -even with commercials- but had to be padded out in order to function as a TV movie).

The film was the brainchild of Joseph Stefano (at the time coming off both The Outer Limits tv series and having written the screenplay of Hitchcock’s Psycho) who was originally intending to launch a horror anthology series (The Outer Limits being mostly a science fiction show). I wasn’t aware of its origins when I watched it -I just thought it was one of those indie low-budget 1960s horrors, like Roger Corman’s stuff- but when watching it I felt like something weird was going on with some of the characters, definitely like it was setting up some TV show starring Martin Landau as an architect with a hobby of investigating ghostly goings on, a kind of Kolchak meets Scooby Doo kind of thing. Its funny how we can be tuned to such TV series conventions, and it seems I wasn’t too far off- maybe Landau’s architect wasn’t a series regular, maybe it was intended to be completely seperate stories like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but it certainly felt like Landau was being set up as a regular.

There was also a distinctly David Lynch, Twin Peaks-vibe to many of the shots, that kind of orchestrated, long-take weirdness that Lynch does, hanging onto shots longer than usual, leaving the viewer feeling uncomfortable just from the editing, and some of it coming out of leftfield like Lynch is so fond of doing. For instance, there’s an early scene when Viva (Diane Baker) has returned to her blind husband Henry Madore (Tom Simcox). He tells her they have a new housekeeper, Paulina (Dame Judith Anderson) who then enters the room, upon which Viva totally freaks out without warning or reason, backing away in utter, unexplained terror. sierra4The film uses Paulina, who in black-draped garb looks totally not normal, for a few tonally unsettling, Twin Peaks-style visuals that linger far too long and serve no story function, such as when she’s standing on a beach looking up at Landau’s home up on the clifftop above. Upon later learning of the film’s genesis, much of this is clearly padding-out the length rather than anything particularly calculated, but it certainly works to the film’s advantage establishing its unsettling mood.

As a horror film it is certainly rewarding viewing and one can forgive its eventual silliness because of just how successful it is evoking its creepy mood of, dare I say it, distinctly ‘old-fashioned’ horror. There’s a delicious sense of Hammer-era fun early on when we are told that blind Henry living in his lonely big gothic mansion thinks he is being haunted by his dead mother who rings him and sobs down the phone at him. We are told that his mother was terrified of being buried alive so when she died she was placed in the family crypt with a phone placed next to her coffin with a direct line to his mansion. I suppose that’s Edgar Allen Poe updated for the 20th Century. Landau’s architect, Nelson Orion -weren’t names brilliant in these old TV shows?- is hired by Henry’s wife to investigate the possible haunting, as the call can only becoming from the crypt, so its either genuinely his mother or its someone orchestrating some elaborate prank to make Henry seem insane. Eventually it transpires that Henry’s mother isn’t the only tyrannical mother with damaged kids, and if there is a ghost its of someone else entirely (hint: Henry’s dear departed mother has no connection with Sierra de Cobre), but by the time we get to that point the plot has collapsed under the weight of its own contrivances and we don’t really care anymore. Which is a shame, because early on its really good indeed. sierra5The cast, certainly, is better than one would expect; I thought Diane Baker, later a frequent face in imported American 1960s/1970s television shows I watched growing up, was excellent, swinging from calm to wild hysterics in a heartbeat. Martin Landau, bless him, is, well, Martin Landau. Actually I think it was because I noticed it was him in the cast that prompted me to watch this at all. I’ve always had an interest in Landau’s work, ever since he starred in Gerry Anderson’s Space:1999 show which was second only to Star Trek in my childhood as far as formative addictions go. I was just the same with Star Trek and watching with due reverence anything starring William Shatner -hey, its Captain Kirk!- and its something I never really grew out of, bless my foolish loyalties to childhood heroes.

In any case, this is well worth a watch. Its just a pity the original, shorter edit doesn’t exist anymore because that would be an interesting alternate and might have proved more effective without the padding- although I have the suspicion its that padding with its longer shots that hang on just too long that make the film as successfully unsettling as it is.

How does it feel to be a decent, respectable married man?

Pit1Pitfall, 1948, 86 mins, Streaming (YouTube)

Here’s further proof that no matter how many films I’ve seen, there’s always some genuinely great ones waiting for me, most of which I’ve never even heard of. Here’s one of them, another of those noir with a darkness resonating through the decades: this one was released in 1948, seventy-four (seventy-four!) years ago, well before I was even born, and its been waiting, waiting…

Lizabeth Scott brought me here (heartfelt thanks to Colin for the recommendation); yep its her again in another noir- while its likely true that Too Late for Tears is her best performance, there must be a case for Andre De Toth’s  Pitfall being the best film she ever appeared in, certainly of those I’ve seen (and I’ve seen quite a few films of hers over the past several months). Simply put, this is one hell of a film. Regardless of its credentials as a noir (and it ranks as one of the best I’ve seen), simply as a drama/thriller this is an absolutely solid film and one of the best I’ve seen this year- a timeless tale of a man suffering a midlife crisis, succumbing to temptation (Lizabeth Scott, who else?) and everything crashing around him as a result- it really doesn’t end well for anyone, and yet its not the heavy-handed morality play one might have expected in a film from 1948- its much more sophisticated than that, and there’s subtlety too. Its marvellously directed, with well-written script a full of twists, the performances are all excellent (I doubt Raymond Burr was ever any better, certainly never nastier) – some films are pretty much faultless, and this is one of them.

How frustrating, then, that I’ve had to watch this on YouTube (never the best way to stream a film, particularly one with dark moments like Pitfall features, particularly in its brutally effective climax), and that somehow it is a film not available on Blu-ray over here in the UK (come on, Arrow/Eureka/anyone, get your act together, surely there’s a market for great period films like this)? There’s nothing quite as frustrating as REALLY enjoying a film and knowing you can’t add it to your collection or investigate further via commentary tracks, etc. Unless I finally relent and buy a multi-region player (something I’m loathe to do after building a collection of R1 DVDs that I later could never play) it seems I’m never going to have the pleasure of watching Pitfall in the quality it deserves. Oh well, I suppose I should think myself lucky I managed to see it in any form; many noir have fallen into obscurity, public domain and negatives/prints suffering the ravages of time: YouTube streams are better than nothing, and certainly better than Amazon Prime’s penchant for only holding noir in unrestored, colourised versions (as repellent an experience as it sounds).

So to Pitfall. Bored husband John Forbes (Dick Powell) is feeling frustrated by the American Dream: he’s got an attractive wife, a bright young child, a lovely home in the suburbs and a well-paid job in the city, but it all feels like a trap, the promises and dreams of youth unfulfilled. The thrill of marriage is long gone, its a sexless affair -we see him in his PJs in his bedroom, the two in seperate beds (albeit much of that was at the behest of the Production Code, it visualises it perfectly). John’s hopes of adventure and excitement reduced to routine breakfast in the kitchen, a regular commute driven by his wife and a 9 to 5 of relentless boredom in the office He’s sulky and bitter and his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) humours him, as if waiting for him to finally grow up/out of it. He has it all, but John muses surely there should be more before he finally grows old?

At the office, John gets involved in an embezzlement case, his insurance firm trying to claw back the expensive gifts purchased with ill-gotten money that Bill Smiley (Byron Barr) lavished on his beautiful fashion model girlfriend Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott). A hulking brute of a Private detective, Macdonald (Raymond Burr) has tracked down Mona for John, but creepy MacDonald, clearly no good and likely sacked from the police for shady practices, is smitten by her, deciding that he’s going to make Mona his own while Smiley is still swerving time in jail.

Pit2John himself falls under her charms whilst recovering the gifts from her. The attraction is accidental on her part- refreshingly for a noir, she’s not the femme fatale you might expect, she’s just a beautiful woman suffering attentions from the wrong men, and its clear at the end that she’s the real victim of the film. On their initial meeting, John notices Mona’s glamour pictures, and its obvious she represents everything John thinks he’s missing; excitement, adventure, maybe a second chance at the passions of youth. He doesn’t admit to being married or having a child and starts a liaison with Mona, meeting at quiet bars in afternoons and foolishly allowing her to keep a speedboat that Smiley bought her.

Macdonald meanwhile is proving something of a menace for Mona, harassing her and deeply angered when he realises that Mona and John seem to have started an affair. He beats up John (which John has to describe as a random mugging to maintain his own secret), further pursues Mona and later visits Smiley in prison to warn him of Mona’s affair. At this point, said affair is over, Mona having learned that John is a married man with a young boy has put a halt to it. John realises he has been a fool and that he should be content with his lot, and thinks he can resume his old life with his wife none the wiser; it was a foolish dalliance but no harm done.

Macdonald however has other ideas, seeing an opportunity to be rid of his two rivals- once Smiley has left prison, Macdonald gets him drunk, arms him with a gun and sends him to John’s house. John suddenly realises his sin has come home, arms himself with a gun and sits downstairs in his house in darkness waiting for Smiley to arrive. Upstairs, Jane is tending to her son when she hears shots break out. Rushing downstairs she finds John sitting with his head in his hands, “Call the police,” he groans. “I’ve just killed a man.”

The film isn’t yet over- Macdonald has gone to Mona’s to tell her she’s with him now, packing her clothes and announcing they are making a fresh start out of town. Mona is aghast, she’s always been repulsed by him but he has always refused to listen: far as Macdonald is concerned she’s got no choice in it, she’s just like a car he’s chosen to buy. She’s his, that’s the end of it. Well, Mona has a gun that might say different….

There’s a pretty grim coda to all of this in which John is emasculated by his wife, who having learned of his affair takes control of the marriage, dictating her terms. The police think John was acting in self-defence against an ex-con breaking into his family home, but Nona suffers the full weight of the law for shooting a man in cold blood. Poor Nona; stuck in an unhealthy relationship with a criminal, romanced by a dashing man who seems pretty decent but is actually lying to her, stalked by a crazy brute, she ends up heading for a long spell in prison.

My summary of the film really does it few favours- I can’t put across the character moments, the location shooting, the lighting, the imaginative camera set-ups (there’s some brilliant camera angles when Smiley is visited in prison, the framing through the partitions, faces filmed through a screen). Raymond Burr is utterly monstrous, a genuinely unnerving performance that is enhanced by the camera angles and expressive lighting but cleverly for all that it doesn’t slip into farce. Dick Powell meanwhile is excellent. I only know him from Johnny O’Clock and Murder, My Sweet, having had no experience of his earlier success as a singer/crooner in musical comedies, but he was clearly a fine actor moving into more dramatic material as he got older. There’s something genuinely authentic about John Forbes’ mid-life angst and frustration at the American Dream. Jane Wyatt meanwhile nearly steals the film from everyone- warm but pragmatic from the start, she’s fiercely protective of her family but once she realises she is a woman wronged she turns to ice, turning the tables on John and ensuring he’ll be paying penance for the rest of life. 

Pitfall is a genuinely great film that’s been hiding in the shadows. Its probably up there with Billy Wilder’s noir classic Double Indemnity for me, in how it feels so realistic and grounded in a reality which is so everyday, and as relevant today as it was in 1948. Sometimes film noir portray a dark world outside of the average viewer’s experience, and that’s part of its appeal with its criminals and desperate doomed heroes and seductive sirens, but Pitfall is a noir that speaks to what we all live and experience, and brings a noir nightmare into everyone’s lounge.  Utterly compelling.

Please, Arrow, somebody, release this film over in the UK or somewhere sharing my region code.

Too Bad

bad1Bad for Each Other, 1953, 83 mins

This was really pretty bland, a depressingly by-the-numbers medical melodrama that is lazily predictable throughout… except that it actually fails to deliver even on those expectations. I think the lack of ambition in the film is most surprising; clearly a vehicle for Columbia’s new ‘star’ Heston (who had his first real starring role only three years prior with Dark City), the film has no aspiration behind it at all. Possibly frustrated by this, Heston seems to compensate by deciding to overact throughout, physically moving through scenes in such an exaggerated manner it becomes curiously amusing (in one scene he sweeps through a party like a bowling-ball scattering the partygoers either side of him).

So what of this soap-opera plot that seems more ideally suited to some TV drama? Tom Owen (Charlton Heston) returns from the Korean War to the Pennsylvanian coal town where he grew up, to visit his mother whilst on leave. There is a subplot about his brother who recently died in the mine- the townsfolk have accusations of corruption and safety failures against this brother and one naturally expects Tom to stay in town and clear his brothers name, but instead he allows himself to be seduced by rich society girl Helen Curtis (Lizabeth Scott) and becomes a society doctor getting rich on the bored elite wives of the city. I was mystified by the entire subplot of Tom’s brother being quickly discarded when I’d expected it to be the central thrust of the film: its a funny thing, watching a film and wondering where the hell its going, always expecting it to get back on track but it doesn’t. Its really insipid stuff and so far from being Heston’s finest hour its possibly the worst film I’ve yet seen him in.

bad2How ironic that a film about a society doctor is so desperately in need of a script doctor- this film is really quite D.O.A. Perhaps it originated as a simple b-movie idea that was seized upon by the studio thinking it a suitable vehicle for Heston, but it didn’t get the additional work its script really needed.  As regards poor Lizabeth Scott, I’ve had my issues with her in the past (I seem to have seen SO many films starring her over the past several months) but I’ve every sympathy for her here in a pretty thankless part – failing to convince as a society girl, in her defence the character is underwritten, just vacuous and lightweight when, if the film’s title really had any reflection on the script, one would have expected Helen to have been more of a sultry, scheming temptress. If anything, one is sympathetic to her as its Tom who proves so unlikable – he makes bad choices throughout and while we’re supposed to think she’s taking advantage of him its actually the other way around, Tom using her society contacts to get his money-spinning career off the ground and more fresh customers to waste their money on frivolous treatments- repeatedly Tom assures us he’s just in it for the money. The lack of chemistry between them doesn’t help, either.

I have to say, as this is a Columbia flick and its title suggests a certain kind of movie, I’m really very thankful that Indicator didn’t choose to put this film in one of its Columbia Noir sets. I’d have been rather annoyed at the cheek of any suggestion that this film qualifies as a noir other than its title: its not as if there’s anything remotely interesting in the mundane cinematography and flat set-ups to suggest any dark undercurrent.

Bad for each other? Its pretty bad for the audience, for sure.

Back to Rain City

P1110381 (3)Trouble in Mind, 1985, 111 mins, Streaming (HD)

I returned to Rain City, for the first time in what is… well, its been awhile, probably over twenty years, now that I think about it- last watched it back when it came out on DVD.  As regards the very first time I watched it, that was a TV network airing, which I’ll return to a bit later.  Watching it again after so many years though, its a little surreal, the film’s music cuts through those years like a knife. I’m sitting here, watching the film, and I can almost turn my head and see my younger self sitting alongside me: he’s younger, slimmer, single. There’s decades yet ahead of him, of films good and bad. I wonder what he’d think regards one day returning to this film in 2022 and realising it really was as good as I remembered. Hey, I feel like telling him, you always had good taste in movies.

It was probably back in 1988 or 1989 when it was first shown on television here in the UK, late night on BBC2. I think the schedule guide in Radio Times mentioned that it was a futuristic noir in the style of Blade Runner, which naturally got my attention. Broadcast, as usual for the time, in pan and scan, I recorded it onto a VHS tape, and subsequently rewatched it many times. That Blade Runner reference was partly relevant, partly misleading- this film was something else entirely, although it does mirror Ridley Scott’s film in how the past and future collide visually. There are times it seems to be set in some alternate post-war America in the 1950s or 1960s, or some odd post-apocalypse future. Cleverly it doesn’t repeat Ridley Scott’s mistake in giving the film a date onscreen.

How do we fall out of touch with some movies? Is it because I eventually couldn’t play that VHS tape anymore- hey the horrors of home video format obsolescence!-  or that it has seldom, if ever, been shown since on tv, that the DVD release was pretty damn poor (not even widescreen, as I recall) and that its never been released on Blu-ray, inexplicably ignored by the boutique labels like Arrow or Eureka. I suppose I could just as easily ask how do we fall out of touch with people.

Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind; ostensibly it stars Kris Kristofferson, Keith Carradine, Lori Singer and Genevieve Bujold, and they are all great in this, as is Divine as a surprisingly chilling crime boss, but the truth is, the real star of the film is the evocative music of Mark Isham and the voice of Marianne Faithful whose two songs bookend the film. I love the music, I’ve written about it before.

The music is so important because Trouble in Mind is a film of mood, expressly designed for movie lovers; it never feels entirely real, instead it exists in a dream logic of old noir movies and I think that’s why this film feels different, watching it again after so many years. So familiar that I remembered scenes and even lines of dialogue, and yet so much seemed stranger than I remembered. Its a much more mysterious film, informed perhaps by all those noir films I’ve seen since. This time I watched the ending and realised that Kris Kristofferson never really got the girl, he’s only imagining her with him as he drives off towards his dying moments, serenaded by Marianne Faithful’s siren call.

P1110382 (2)There isn’t really much of a plot, it instead feels like what might have happened after the ending of some other noir movie (that of course never existed). I have written before about the way film-makers choose to end their films, the when and the where… how curious I am about that, about how they choose the moment, that last line, that last look from someone or shared between characters. Older films, especially those of the 1940s and 1950s, can end suddenly, almost brutally… very often it feels like we’re left missing something, and indeed most modern films tend to add a scene or two, like a coda (Marvel films, of course, can’t help but add additional scenes even into the end credits). At any rate, often a lingering sense of frustration is left in me (which is a Good Thing, I mean, who wants a good movie to ever really end?), when I’m wondering what might have happened next. Trouble in Mind feels a little like ‘what happened next’, like its one long epilogue. Noodle’s dream after we see his smile in that last shot at the end of Once Upon A Time in America.

It begins with a character dressed in black leaving prison and subtle references in subsequent scenes to a murder (eventually featured in a flashback), and it often seems like that murder and the events surrounding it was the ‘proper’ movie, and that within Trouble in Mind we’re just watching what happened after the end of it. The limping ex-con is John ‘Hawk’ Hawkins (Kristofferson) and the murder was an act of sacrifice, revenge for Wanda (Genevieve Bujold), Hawk’s wronged love. Now out of jail, this ex-cop returns to the location of his old life but finds Wanda changed, unable to resume or rekindle that old romance, and Hawk is caught in a changed world in which he no longer fits. Maybe that old film ended at the right place after all, when it showed him standing above that dead criminal and destined for jail- at least that’s how I imagine it.

Restless characters ricochet off each other, are kind and cruel and fall in and out of love, make mistakes and sacrifices while around them Rain City is like some dream, a place that speaks in the Saxophone that mournfully soundtracks most of everything. Trouble in Mind is less about its almost inconsequential plot and its corny, bumbling hoods than it is about the conversations and moments between those characters. Its about the camera slowly lingering over the models of street scenes that Hawk has made. Its about Hawk and Wanda smoking so much its like the cigarettes are extensions of their characters. Its about incidental background characters that we get glimpses of, wondering what their stories are, stories we’re never told. Its about Marianne Faithful’s voice. Its about Rain City’s lonely corners, how the film drips with melancholy.

Its more beautiful than I remembered. How is this film largely forgotten and not more greatly loved?


Here be Dragons (and Robots)

house2House of the Dragon, Season One, 2022 

I have a sneaking suspicion, heretical as it may be, that House of the Dragon could already be better than Game of Thrones– certainly I really, really enjoyed this first season. Maybe its just the bitter after-taste of the last two seasons of Game of Thrones, which was essentially the biggest self-destruct of a show since the days of Heroes or Lost. I still haven’t brought myself to rewatch those last two seasons of Game of Thrones and every time the silly notion to rewatch my Game of Thrones Blu-rays crosses my mind, I think ah, but… what’s the point, knowing where it leads? So I accusingly look up at those nice Blu-ray sets on the shelf despairing at the hit on my wallet.

This last train of thought brings me to Westworld, recently cancelled by HBO after its fourth season which means we’ll never see the final fifth season which might have brought its story and many mysteries to a satisfying conclusion. While I appreciate HBOs position -its a very expensive show ($200 million?) with diminishing audience numbers – it does feel a little misguided, betraying short-term thinking. Surely to ensure healthy re-runs it would be ideal to have some kind of conclusion to give it a beginning, middle and end, even if it was just a reduced four-episode season or, crikey, a two-hour finale. I haven’t seen any of season four yet (waiting for the 4K disc release in a few weeks, and where’s the fun in that, really, knowing it likely teases an end we’ll never see?) so have no idea how satisfying that will be nor how frustrating any non-end might prove to be.

So here’s the sting with physical media- in the case of Game of Thrones several seasons on Blu-ray that I can’t bring myself to watch again because of how badly it fell off the cliff in later seasons, and in regards Westworld, season boxsets on 4K disc without its multi-season storyline properly completed. So, er, what’s the point of any rewatch and the investment in buying them? At least with my Blu-ray set of the BSG reboot I can watch the entire series again knowing it has a beginning, middle and end, you know, that old-school storytelling stuff.

One of the things that likely hurt Westworld was the two-year gaps between seasons. In all fairness to the show, its hard to convince audiences to pay it attention when its been two years since the last one and likely two more before the next. Hardcore fans may have rewatched episodes on disc to help follow the various arcs but what chance have mainstream audiences got, and how do they maintain interest after two years full of all the other newer shows they’ve gotten into in between?  Its already been announced that both House of the Dragon and Rings of Power won’t return for their second seasons until 2024… that’s an awful long time, especially daunting if it’ll be 2026 when their third seasons can be expected. If nothing else, that’s a hell of a commitment for viewers to make.

Is it a question of shows being burned by their ambition to be as big as motion pictures? Surely that’s the real issue here. They have eight or ten episodes as opposed to the twenty-two episode seasons of their network brethren from days of old, but even then the sheer scale and scope of each episode makes them formidable, time-consuming productions. Which in hindsight makes the first six seasons of Game of Thrones, which arrived annually, an achievement in itself… and ironically those proved to be the best seasons, the series undone by its (ill-judged) intention to get bigger each year.

So there’s a lesson there, maybe. Perhaps these shows would be better at a lesser scale, something more realistic as regards annual production schedules, and that would in turn afford a more consistent audience. Maybe throw less money around, maybe? Doesn’t necessarily mean the shows will be any worse for it. Sure, like anyone else I enjoy all the bells and whistles those big budgets afford, but hey, I can do without if I get a great drama.

I suppose I could take the position that I won’t watch any television series until its finished its run and I can be assured it’ll have a proper conclusion and reward for giving it my time. Of course if we all did that, the shows would get cancelled after one season simply because nobody was watching them. And if I decided by the same logic that I wouldn’t invest in the season boxsets, if we all did that I couldn’t guarantee even if the show had a healthy run that the studios would annually release box-sets nobody was buying yet. Sometimes you just cannot win.

But I’d put money on House of the Dragon getting a few seasons and boxsets to go with them… well, as long as there’s still factories pressing 4K discs in 2028 and 2030…

No, not the flamingos!

ambu3Ambulance, 2022, 136 mins, HD Streaming

I’d heard some good things about this new Michael Bay action flick.  Maybe it was a return to form?

Utter tosh of course. Turns out Bay has found a new toy, and like James Cameron and his 3D camera, dear old Bay can’t get enough, it seems, of his new gadget: the drone camera.

Imagine the heist scene in Heat, and the handheld camera is down close and dirty with Al Pacino and company, its gritty and tense, when suddenly the camera goes off on its own thing, racing up a skyscraper up towards the sky and then, realising it shouldn’t be there, suddenly turning sharply and plummeting back down the side of the building to get back to the action. And then after awhile the camera gets bored again and goes off up the side of another building, before having second thoughts and racing back down again. I can imagine the actors and film crew suddenly pausing and asking “where the bloody hell is the camera going?” followed by “hang on, its coming back, carry on everyone, as you were…”

Okay, maybe its not such a new gadget, I guess Bay has used them before. But crikey, its like the darn thing goes AWOL time and time again in this film, and yet bizarrely the AWOL moments are kept in the final edit. A cautionary warning that maybe when automation and AI take over making movies, maybe that AI should be scrutinised before letting it loose on a movie set. Just when I thought I was used to Bay and his endlessly moving, relentlessly racing and spinning camera moves (he.just.can’t keep.still.for.a.bloody.second.) he comes back more distracted than ever. Going off up the side of a building and then coming back down, its supposed to be exciting for an audience?

If Bay was auditioning to direct the next Spiderman film, I could understand it. To be honest, with stuff like this Bay could make a Spidey film pretty interesting and hyper-kinetic, so yeah, I can see how that would be a pretty great fit… but this is a car chase movie… well, an ambulance chase movie. But its never JUST that with Bay, he has to ratchet up the absurdity of everything to monumental levels. That in itself isn’t in the slightest bit surprising, I mean, just look at the Michael Bay filmography; but what is surprising is all the talk about this film being a promising return to form and actually being good.

Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are estranged brothers; Will is an ex-marine back home and out of work, and his wife although she looks perfectly fine needs an expensive experimental life-saving operation asap but his vets medical insurance won’t cover it so he goes to Danny for help and… well their daddy was a violent bank robber and wouldn’t you know it, it seems Danny is a chip off the old block and that very morning when Will approaches his brother for the first time in years, its the very morning that Danny and his team are about to rob a bank and they are short of a guy. As usual the bank heist is a sure-thing and time is of the essence and… well of course the cops are somehow in on the plan (is that ever explained? did I blink and miss it?) and are secretly waiting with a trap but, just to make things interesting…  well, there’s this rookie cop who fancies one of the bank tillers not aware that his special dept buddies are waiting to pounce and he pops in to woo the poor girl just when Danny and the boys are robbing it and all hell breaks loose, and the camera goes bananas racing off up buildings and…hey, I think there’s still nearly two hours of movie left. And we got to fit an ambulance in here, stat! (That’s medical jargon for RIGHT NOW, people).

Just imagine how bad Armageddon could be if Bay was making it today.

A passive-aggressive nightmare

angel1Angel Face, 1952, 91 mins, BBC iPlayer

It always surprises me watching old films, well, pre-1960 films anyway, whenever they manage, out of the blue, to completely shock. I’m not entirely sure why, but its probably censorship of the time, the motion picture production code, curtailing films from any wild excess that might corrupt audiences – which is funny, considering how films of the day treated women, racial stereotypes and nonchalantly portrayed excessive drinking and smoking. So its tempting when watching them – remarkable as it is what some films got away with, certainly film noir of the 1940s- to think you are in some kind of safe zone. But its not entirely true, and its possibly why when the shocks come they can be so intense. Otto Preminger’s Angel Face has two such moments, and each left me dumbstruck at what I was watching. Maybe in modern movies they wouldn’t shock quite so much, but in a period film such as this they really come out of leftfield.

Like Richard Widmark as the psycho killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, suddenly throwing Rizzo’s aged mother -in a wheelchair no less- down a flight of stairs to her death, or the shower scene in Psycho…  these are moments you never forget, and Angel Face is right up there.

Its foolish of me, maybe, considering its a film from 1952, to consider spoilers, but this was the first time I’d seen the film, aftercall, and I had never heard anything about this film’s shock moments so I’ll refrain from describing them here in order that those curious can watch the film similarly unspoiled. Maybe I’m hyping them too far, but I don’t think so.

Maybe its so more shocking in Angel Face because its a noir wrapped up and largely hidden in some domestic, romantic drama starring, of all people, a young, graceful and demur Jean Simmons the  definition onscreen of the film’s title and perhaps the unlikeliest femme fatale that I have yet seen. This isn’t some gangland murder story, and its title isn’t Angelic Face of Death or Death Wears the Eyes of An Angel, I mean that would tip what was coming. This is Angel Face, its the story of a frustrated Daddy’s Girl who hates her rich step mother so much she’ll scheme to part Daddy and stepmom, whatever it takes, including seducing poor Robert Mitchum into it, but it doesn’t even slightly suggest…

Well, its definitely noir.

I hunt Heroes. Haven’t found any yet.

marshall32022 is just the gift that keeps on giving, isn’t it. I was so saddened last night when I read news regards the passing of British comics artist Kevin O’Neill. Clearly not to everyone’s taste, some are of the opinion that his art was ugly, even at times morally repugnant (he’s famous for being the artist whose actual art style was banned by the Comics Code Authority), but I absolutely adored it. Finely detailed, often gratuitously violent, it was unique, absolutely unlike anything else- you just had to glance at a panel or a spread and would know it was his work and his alone (more MAD magazine than Jack Kirby, certainly). For folks of my generation who grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s, O’Neill will forever be linked with the early years of 2000AD – most memorably Nemesis the Warlock (in particular Book Three, the weekly instalments of which during 1983 totally rocked my world and would make me a keen follower of O’Neill’s art for the rest of my life).

During his long career O’Neill was more fortunate than most artists in that he worked predominantly with two of the finest writers working in comics – Pat Mills and Alan Moore. Of the two writers, I think O’Neill’s art was most strongly suited to the punk-oriented, anti-establishment sensibilities of Pat Mills, whose Nemesis the Warlock would lead to the 1986 graphic novel Metalzoic and ultimately my favourite character that the two created- the anarchic, apocalyptic anti-hero Marshall Law. Pat Mill’s avowed hatred of superheroes burns brightly throughout, and no matter how irreverent, gory, violent and crazy stuff like Amazon Prime’s The Boys (based upon Garth Ennis’ comicbook series) or the Deadpool films seem, its nothing compared to the horrifying, almost repellent nightmare that is Marshall Law, and which did it all first. I still look at Marshall Law and wonder how they got away with it. I’m amused that anyone in Hollywood ever considered an adaptation could ever get off the ground (they tried, apparently).

marshall2Mention of Hollywood, of course, brings us to what is likely O’Neill’s most famous and possibly most enduring work – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore’s increasingly complex series of books charting the adventures of a group of Victorian fictional characters (including Allan Quarterman, Mina Murray, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde) that should absolutely not be mistaken for any resemblance to the abhorrent 2003 film adaptation. Their creation – an ode to old British comics and literary works- wove seperate fictional universes together; Bram Stoker’s Dracula,  H G Wells’ War of the Worlds and Invisible Man, to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, Lovecraft’s Elder Gods and more into a century-spanning series through Martian invasions and wars against Nazi menace to 1960s British pop culture and a few digs at James Bond. O’Neill largely toned down his wilder sensibilities but his art here is still strong and utterly unique, as it always was.

There’s an old saying that ‘we won’t see their like again’ and in the case of Kevin O’Neill, its quite true. A genuine visionary and a huge loss to comic art, he was one of the greats. Time to dig out my Marshall Law books and have my eyes corrupted again.

Confusion reigns in this naked city

theguilty2The Guilty, 1947, 71 mins, Blu-ray

To be candid, it had been a long day for both of us the first time we watched The Guilty; sometimes films don’t catch us at our best and its like we’ve let them down (well, that makes a change from films letting US down, hey film-fans?). That first time watching The Guilty a few weeks back, Claire fell asleep just before the ending while I barely managed to stay awake, but the twist at the end was so surprising I nudged Claire awake telling her she’d missed something pretty amazing. Clearly this film deserved another opportunity under better circumstances.

A very, very low-budget, poverty row noir from 1947, The Guilty is the story of two ex-war buddies sharing an apartment and two girls, which makes it sound more daring and sordid than it really is (but then again, maybe it really is that sordid, I’m not certain what manages to slip through the cracks of its choppy editing, especially after the surprise twist). Initially complicating matters is the fact that the girls are twins (both played by Bonita Granville thanks to judicious editing and a split screen shot), and this being a noir, its inevitable that one of the sisters is good (Linda) and the other one bad (Estelle). Hapless Johnny (Wally Cassell) is caught in some kind of unlikely-in-the-extreme romantic triangle, with both sisters vying for him. When one of the sisters, Linda, is found murdered, the suspicion falls upon the unstable, PTSD-suffering Johnny who protests his innocence but is so confused from his frequent breakdowns he can’t be certain he didn’t do it, and he’s certainly acting suspiciously enough that we’re pretty convinced and doubtful of his protestations otherwise. If Johnny didn’t do it, how can he prove it?

Mike feels obligated enough to his old war buddy that he tries to help him dissuade the police with a fake alibi but Detective Heller (Regis Toomey) isn’t having it, both he and Linda’s mother think Johnny’s the culprit. Indeed, the more Mike observes he becomes increasingly suspicious of his buddy. Meanwhile Estelle seems to have cooled towards Johnny now she isn’t competing with her sister and becomes wholly involved with Mike: its Estelle who Mike is waiting for at the opening of the film while he tells the barman (and us) his story.

This second time around, we stayed well awake and it was a surprising experience. Yes the twist still proved something of a pull-of-the-rug from under you shocker, but this time managing to stay fully lucid throughout, it turned out to be for all the wrong reasons. To be honest, even having watched the film twice now, I can’t be entirely sure what was going on, who was dating who or who did what or why, or how. Turns out my confusion that first time around wasn’t exactly because I was drowsy and had inadvertently missed important bits: The Guilty is a film broken in the editing room, not helped by it being weighed down by a) being told in flashback by an ultimately unreliable narrator who has returned to the scene of the crime some six months later and b) the feeling that the film is missing an important reel somewhere in the middle.

There is something particularly broken indeed regards a film that feels like there is a crucial missing reel. Its like the film isn’t playing fair, and to be honest, I’m as confused as ever. I enjoyed it; it has a certain style and the acting is pretty good, but there’s just all that confusion; I’m not entirely certain I have a grip even now of what exactly was going on. Maybe the third time will be the charm with The Guilty