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.

Blonde Nightmare

blonde1Blonde, 2022, 166 mins, Netflix

I must confess, impressed as I was by Ana de Armas in BR2049 and Knives Out, I would never have imagined her ever playing Marilyn Monroe, and when I first heard of her casting for Andrew Dominik’s Blonde I was quite incredulous. Still, what do I know, I thought Ben Affleck was going to be a disaster as Batman and he turned out to be the best incarnation of the caped crusader I’ve yet seen. So it turns out Ana de Armas is the highlight of Blonde, with an absolutely arresting performance which should get attention come awards season unless the films more notorious elements hold it back (I don’t think the Academy appreciates the Hollywood Dream Factory being portrayed in a bad light).

Blonde seems to be getting a mixed response from critics. To say I enjoyed it actually feels wrong, I mean, how can anyone actually enjoy something as dark and unrelenting as this film? But I did, in as much as I thought it was very good indeed, fascinating and unnerving with great performances and lovely art direction and attention to detail. Its powerful and intense stuff. Watching it just a week after seeing Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis felt rather curious though; two biopics of such iconic people in such close succession, and both being so grim. I’ve noticed critic Mark Kermode describe Blonde as a horror film, and he’s absolutely spot-on, but to be honest that was my experience with Elvis too. Baz Luhrmann’s film itself felt like a horror film, it’s Col Tom Parker a predatory character with devilish eyes something like a killer in a 1980s slasher movie. I remember feeling quite down after watching Elvis, it wasn’t as uplifting as I’d expected it to be, instead feeling disturbed by Parker and Tom Hank’s very effective turn, the film felt less of a celebration of Elvis Presley’s life and more a tragedy.

So here comes Blonde and its pulled the same trick, examining the misery and nightmare of Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe’s life in such an unrelenting way its operating at some other magnitude entirely. The dark side of Hollywood is hardly a surprise to anyone now, surely. We’ve all read revelations of the misdoings of superstars of old that was covered up by the Studios, and the Harvey Weinstein saga depressingly reminded us how little things have changed. Hollywood is a dark place that destroys people just as much as it makes people into superstars. Many of the ‘revelations’ within Blonde are hardly going to be new to anyone familiar with Marilyn Monroe’s life story, and in some respects it actually holds its punches. We don’t see as much as I’d expected regards the Kennedy brothers and the mob and how Marilyn was caught up in that, nor does the film suggest anything about her death: it might have been accidental, it may have been despairing suicide, but there’s no intimation of actual murder.

I’ve seen Blonde come under fire, particularly from her adoring fanbase, for not being more of a celebration of Marilyn’s success, showing what makes her such an icon today, her relationship with the camera in all her movies and photo shoots. There may be something to those criticisms, but in  the films defence, its simply not that movie- it’s like pro-shark activists criticising Jaws for showing sharks in a bad light. Blonde is deliberately and absolutely a cautionary tale. If anything, it makes the good in Marilyn’s life, those performances (in Some Like It Hot, for instance), actually seem even more extraordinary considering what was going on behind the scenes. Considering Norma Jean’s childhood and all that came before Hollywood itself, I think her achievements and the fact she remains such an icon today are something to be marvelled at, no doubt.

I’m not the first or likely the last to have noticed a Lynchian undertone to the film- the excellent soundtrack score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave sounds like, and functions like, an Angelo Badalamenti score, and of course the storyline mirrors that of Twin Peaks and in particular Fire Walk with Me‘s portrayal of Laura Palmers dark descent. Had Blonde actually been a David Lynch film, would it be getting some of the criticism Andrew Dominik’s film is getting? Possibly not; audiences would perhaps have more of a mindset of what to expect, and Lynch is adored for making films about the dark underbelly of America, he’s practically fireproof. I don’t think Andrew Dominik is as bulletproof as Lynch, but I think its admirable that in today’s Hollywood Dominik got to make the film he wanted to make.

Another Bonfire of the Absurdities

Lou1

Lou, 2022, 107 mins, Netflix

Silly me, could tell from the start: I think the pre-credits Bad Robot logo animation was the giveaway, supreme purveyors of utter tosh as they are these days, that Bad Robot logo screams Proceed At Caution and yet I still didn’t press the exit/stop button, especially when this thing appears to be another Netflix Original (boo/hiss/shudder).  I don’t know, maybe I’m a sucker for films set in the 1980s, maybe the warm feeling of First Blood-derived nostalgia for action dramas set out in wild woods got the better of me, but as the plot contrivances and preposterous coincidences dropped with loud clunks I could feel my will to stick to the bitter end start to wane, but stick with it I did, right to the (indeed bitter) end. 

Lets keep these things positive for as long as I can: Allison Janney is great.

Er, that actually… yeah, that might be it. Janney plays Lou, fiftyish ex-CIA superwoman in hiding on Orcas island, just off the Pacific Northwest. Its a fairly ridiculous character really, a sort-of female Nobody, and that’s maybe as far as the script goes, but Janney has a sense of conviction and cold detachment that fits the character and lends a degree of plausibility.  She’s a taciturn, no-nonsense old dear with a talent for killing, you know, a sort of All-American Grannie with a talent for guns and knives. Lou’s only companion is a brilliantly obedient dog with a superpower that is somehow putting up with his mistress’ glorious bitchiness. Did Bad Robot think this would be a franchise?

The film starts on a dark and stormy night (no, seriously) with Lou grumpier than usual having emptied her bank account and written a suicide note, finally putting a shotgun to her mouth when, wouldn’t you know it, just in the nick of time as the thunder crashes and Lou is about to pull the trigger and end the movie early, a young woman, Hannah (Jurnee Smollett), who is renting a trailer home from Lou, suddenly bursts in screaming her child has been abducted. 

Hannah knows who has stolen her daughter- its her estranged husband Phillip (Logan Marshall-Green), an ex-special forces soldier (stifle yawns, please) who was abusive to Hannah and a danger to their daughter Vee (Ridley Asha Bateman) but who is supposed to be dead. Seems Phillip faked his own death to lull Hannah and the police into a false sense of security. We the viewers are fully aware of how bad this mad bastard is because he’s already killed Hannah’s new boyfriend, who picked him up thinking Phillip was just some lowly hitch-hiker caught out in the rain (some guys are so gullible and can’t tell a crazy bastard from soggy lowlife). What we don’t yet know, and that Hannah doesn’t know either, is that Lou isn’t just some random landlord renting out a mobile home to single-mother Hannah, she’s actually Hannah’s mother-in-law, an ex-CIA spy and badass middle-aged killing machine who’s been waiting for her psychopath son to make his move, and who now has to track mad Phillip through wild woods in a storm to save her grand-daughter. Oh yeah, this time its not just personal, its maternal, baby. The awkward script gradually unwraps the twists with crashing thuds that stretch credibility beyond breaking-point; as is usual these days in modern cinema, the scriptwriter doesn’t know when to stop and just runs on towards farce.

Of course at this point I’m struggling to keep up as I studiously tick off the absurdities. There’s immediately a great part when they load up Lou’s Arsenal of Death (every hero/heroine worth their salt has a secret stash of doom-mongering) and rush out to her station wagon, which dutifully fails to start as is the wont in tense pursuits like this. When Lou opens up the bonnet we see a bomb that looks like something out of the Adam West Batman tv series dutifully ticking down to zero so Lou has sufficient seconds to leap to safety before it explodes. If the bomb was triggered by Lou lifting the bonnet, wouldn’t it be better to have just gone off immediately, rather than give a convenient ten second countdown? Am I really meant to think about stuff like that? Of course not. Likewise I’m not supposed to question why Hannah doesn’t collapse into a fit of panicked hysterics at this point, what with it being the middle of a storm, her daughter kidnapped by her mad dead husband, trucks blowing up… seems Hannah is a bit of a no-nonsense badass herself when the chips are down. Its amazing how characters in films are so down to Earth, steady-thinking and believable in a crisis, especially the women.  

How I miss women like Lambert in Alien, the wonderful Veronica Cartwright losing her shit and endearing her to sympathetic viewers forever. Sure, we’d all like to be heroes like Liam Neeson etc but we know we’d really collapse into a hysterical panic like Lambert, bless her.

Philip isn’t alone, he’s recruited two of his special forces buddies to assist him, said assistance being, er, waiting in an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods. Must confess the script lost me a bit with this part. Lou and Hannah are tracking Phillip and come upon the cabin where two beefy killing machines are waiting for Phillip but he isn’t there yet, if he ever intended to arrive and meet them there at all, and yet Lou is tracking Phillip which would…. Nah, don’t think about it, its just an excuse to give Lou an opportunity to beat the shit out of two huge blokes in a hand-fight to the death. Yeah sisters, this time grannies are doing it for themselves. 

What is this, Ghost? Ageism coupled with sexism? I should be ashamed.

Actually its not a bad bit of action choreography, Janney handles the physicality well, but when a six-foot-plus beefcake punches her in the face I expect her jaw to break or teeth to fall out and when he kicks her into a wall I expect her hip or back to protest but nah, she’s cool, its those two special ops guys we should be worried for, they are clearly outmatched, somehow. Its getting to be a bit of a trope, women beating the shit out of guys twice their size/half their age. 

What is this, Ghost? Yet MORE ageism coupled with sexism? This is beyond shame.

I could go on about Logan Marshall-Green; he in no way convinces as a mad, bad, lousy son/terrible husband/awful father… (yeah this guy ticks all the toxic-male boxes, the script does him no favours at all). This is a diabolically pantomime villain who seems to blame everything on mom, and thankfully moms here to sort the wee upstart out, even if she has had a pick-axe shoved in her chest (yeah… really, action movies have to tone down the comicbook silliness; they get more violent but that violence only results in a token sense of hurt;  Lou should be rasping blood out of her lips and gushing bubbles from her chest but hey, as John Brosnan assured us decades ago, its only a movie, stupid).  

Anyway, I’ve wasted far too much time already writing about this nonsense. Should have been better, but these jokers at Bad Robot just don’t know when to stop with the stupidity, and Netflix will buy anything in its craving for new content. So here we are. Lou 2 next year? Bring it on, I hear those pesky Russians need sorting out.

Books- The Art of Ron Cobb

ron2I’ve written here before about our formative years, how the films, books, music that we connect to during that important period of our lives – our teenage years, usually- remain so strong for the remainder of our lives. For my part, I’d cite the period between 1976 -1986  as the time when so much resonated with me and would stay with me; so much so that I’m tempted to suggest that I’m still pretty much that same awkward quiet kid I was back then (only grumpier and not so slim). I still love the films I did back then, listen to the same music, read the same authors… sure, new stuff has come over the decades since and much of it great but nothing rings quite so true as the stuff I fell in love with back then.

A curious spin on this is everything I read in film magazines of the time, Starburst, Fantastic Films, Starlog, Cinefantastique, all those articles, reviews and interviews that offered tantalising, exciting glimpses of the magic behind the films. Back in those pre-Internet days those monthly/bi-monthly editions, largely from over the pond, were our only window to what was coming, how films were made, the talents responsible for all the magic that thrilled us.

As an example, back when Alien was coming out in 1979, the magazines offered commentary and interviews related to the film- particularly Fantastic Films, a sort-of poor man’s Cinefantastique (the clue is in the mags cheeky title) that I absolutely adored and which I have written about before. Fantastic Films’ coverage of Alien was exemplary; lengthy interviews with Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon and others, with colour stills of the film and storyboards and paintings depicting the work that went into creating Alien. Bear in mind that Alien when it later reached our shores was given an ‘X’ certificate (surprisingly, if I recall correctly, not for the graphic horror but rather for its bad language) which meant that I couldn’t/wouldn’t see it for a few years. I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and later the incredible Movie Novel that was as close to owning the film as we could get in those pre-VHS days, but it was those articles in Fantastic Films that caught my attention, put images to Foster’s prose and ignited my fascination in all the work involved in making genre films.

cobb1Which brings me to the work of Ron Cobb, whose paintings and sketches for Dark Star, Star Wars and particularly Alien that featured quite heavily in the mag alongside its interview with him (and particularly a little later in a making-of book, The Book of Alien). This was art that was beautifully executed with a sense of weight and solidity that made the fantastic so real and utterly believable. The genius of Alien was that Ridley Scott cannily used Cobb’s realistic, authentic-looking set designs for the Nostromo and associated gadgetry as a counterpoint to the surreal nightmarish visions of H R Giger that represented the distinctly non-human horrors.  The sense of reality so intrinsic in Cobbs work curiously made Giger’s just look more real. I pored over the images, read the interviews with Cobb, and like all those other names I’d be reading about back then – Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, Ralph McQuarrie, John Mollo, Derek Meddings, John Dykstra, Douglas Trumbull, John Barry, Syd Mead, countless others – would follow Ron Cobb’s work over the years that followed, in just the same way as my more conventional school mates followed footballers, cricketeers or pop stars.

cobb4Cobb would go on to work on Conan the Barbarian (Cinefantastique‘s double-issue about that film proved to be a definitive reference on that film and Cobb’s involvement) and The Abyss and many others. Keen eyes would watch Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in 2012 and note the titular ship’s bridge design was heavily indebted to unused designs created by Cobb for Alien way back in 1979 – it was like seeing an old friend again out of the blue. While appreciating the clever claustrophobia of the film’s Nostromo, I always stared at that painting over the years wondering how fantastic it would be to see it for real, in a movie (Prometheus alas lacked the glories I imagined in my head, although that set did look pretty fantastic).

Cobb’s passing in 2020 hit me like a bolt, a sudden reminder of the passing of time in just the same way as fans are shocked by the deaths of movie stars and pop stars. Cobb was one of the names I grew up with, a name I’d see in film credits and in books and mags with the affection one has for childhood heroes. I suppose many filmgoers would not recognise the name even though he was so hugely responsible for so much of the success of the films they loved, but those of my generation who devoured all those 1970s/1980s film mags could measure the loss. Cobb was a giant part of what made the fantastic in so many films look so real.

So this new book has just been published, The Art of Ron Cobb, which is a hardback, coffee-table artbook collecting much of the artists remarkable work for film and other media – some of it very familiar and some of it new and surprising. Its a beautiful book, one of the best of its kind that I’ve seen and absolutely required reading for any fan of Cobb’s work, although to be fair, anyone familiar with Cobb’s art would surely buy this book as soon as they learned of it, so I feel like I’m wasting my time preaching to the converted. Its just a pity that Cobb, of course, is gone, and that this appreciation is posthumous- how much more wonderful it would be had it been curated by Cobb with his own annotations and recollections.  Somewhat out of leftfield, I’m reminded of that strange sadness of those Super Deluxe editions of Prince’s 1999 and Sign O’ the Times – great boxsets of material out of the vault etc but wondering how much more priceless they would have seemed had I been able to read Prince’s own memories etc about all that music. Its a shame these things don’t seem to come out early enough to ensure the artists own involvement, albeit in Prince’s case (and Vangelis, too, regards any release of  music from the Greek maestro’s own vault of unreleased material), is that they themselves seem to have opposed such collections being released in their lifetime. I’m reminded of all those film stars and directors who have passed away without recording commentary tracks for their films for posterity.

Nonetheless, while this book is largely minus Cobb’s own ‘voice’, its pretty definitive, really- a case where the art does the talking. I keep picking it up and re-reading it, dipping into chapters on particular films. Its a fine document of Cobb’s skill, his eye for design, and his impact on so many films over the years – some of it a surprise to me. Of course, its also a reminder of times when artists worked on canvas and artboard rather than on tablets and graphic workstations; there’s a sense of analogue craft here that is richly nostalgic. The whiff of art marker and gouache and acrylic. This book is a treasure.

Elvis in the Nightmare Alley

elvis2Elvis, 2022, 159 mins, 4K UHD

As one might expect from Baz Luhrmann, Elvis is an exhausting, dizzying ride. Which, for fans of Luhrmann’s films, is something that fills one with a particular excitement and sense of anticipation- while for detractors of his style, must fill them with dread. To be brutally honest, that’s this film and my post here in a nutshell, I don’t really need to write anything more. Lovers are gonna love, haters gonna hate. Whatever its merits as a dramatic work, its intoxicating stuff, a trip to a cinematic carnival of the senses- bright lights, incredible music, a kinetic energy that is almost tangible: Pure Cinema.

But as far as being a dramatic work, I’m not entirely sure, for instance, how much this film really functions as the biopic some may have been expecting. Its there, but its almost incidental to the cinematic ride that Luhrmann is intent on taking us on. This isn’t really an examination of Elvis the man; his talent, his sexuality, his womanising, his drug-taking, which ideally would surely make -maybe someday will make- a dark and fascinating psychodrama. Instead this is Elvis the Myth, Elvis the Icon, Elvis the amusement ride.- strap yourselves in!

elvis3Which is not to suggest that this is superfluous, empty nonsense, its certainly more sophisticated than that. For one thing, its almost like a particularly nasty horror movie in a musical disguise: to be frank, I’ve spent the last few days quite haunted by it. There is something quite nightmarish about it,  if only because there is just something about Tom Hank’s notably grotesque Colonel Tom Parker that gets under one’s skin. He’s the Devil in a Stetson, and he seduces and betrays poor Elvis in such an intense, heightened way that it approaches religious allegory (albeit I’m sure plenty have equated Elvis with Jesus before) and Luhrmann even cheekily throws in a nod to Welles’ The Lady of Shanghai with a hall of mirrors in which the Devil traps our hero in his web. Parker is a sly Machiavellian monster who essentially ensures Elvis cannot himself be blamed for his own tragedy: Elvis is a victim here and Luhrmann ensures its a seductive proposition. He may be exaggerating the truth here but it is essentially the truth

Austin Butler is something of a revelation- writing as a veteran of seeing the John Carpenter Elvis: The Movie in the cinema back in my youth, in which, as bizarre as it sounds today, Kurt Russell ‘played’ Elvis, I reckoned nobody, surely nobody could ever convincingly play Elvis (a sentiment only further proved by later Hollywood depictions – Val Kilmer, anyone?). But there is something remarkable about Austin Butler here. Aided by some excellent make-up any disbelief gradually fades away; the sheer physicality of his performance is brilliant and likely worthy of an Oscar nod. Meanwhile, much has been said regards Tom Hanks buried under all that prosthetics (some seem to find it patently ridiculous) but as I noted earlier, I found his Colonel Tom Parker quite disturbing, and I suspect there’s a certain craft on display here (those eyes, dammit, for one thing) from Hanks that is unfairly belied by all that make-up: I think Hanks is excellent and I despised him utterly for most of the movie.

I was reminded, watching Elvis, of films like Oliver Stone’s JFK or, obviously, Luhrmann’s own Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge! (a film I adore); hyper-kinetic cinema, full of bravura cinematography and editing, bewitching use of music and visual effects, films that are dizzying glorifications of manipulation. Its easy to get carried away by it, and I wonder how well Elvis might hold up on repeat viewings, but I absolutely enjoyed it this first time around. There’s a nagging feeling of a rushed ending, of perhaps entire subplots missing on the cutting-room floor (already there are rumours of a longer cut or mini-series edition) and certainly a sense that we are seeing highlights of the icons life and not the substance of it, no real explanation of what made Presley tick. This isn’t that movie. But it is a Baz Luhrmann movie.

More than that though, far as I’m concerned, its a Baz Luhrmann horror movie: over the past few days I have been so surprised by just how much Tom Hanks’ Colonel Tom Parker must have gotten under my skin. Utterly disturbing, Hanks as a monster has quite totally freaked me out.  You’re the devil in disguise, Tom, and you got me all shook up.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist).

Rings of Power Episodes 1 & 2

rings1Its clear from watching the first two episodes of Rings of Power that this Amazon series will be unfortunately divisive – on one level it works fairly well, surprisingly so, while on another it disappoints (albeit for predictable reasons).

So first things first- as a prequel to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, it appears to work very well. It looks absolutely gorgeous, richly evocative of the aesthetic of Jackson’s films – the art direction is superb,  the sets, the costumes, the make-up… it definitely looks the part, convincingly belonging to the world Jackson created, which is no mean feat itself, never mind the finances Amazon threw at it. It also sounds wonderful, too- Bear McCreary’s music already some of the best scoring I’ve heard in a film or television project this year, definitely facing up to the considerable challenge of Howard Shore’s remarkable work on the films. I’m not suggesting that McCreary is attaining the richness and complexity of Shore’s opus but he’s certainly reaching for it: there were several moments watching these two episodes where I was captivated by the music in ways that seldom happens now. Imagine that- music that actually draws attention to itself. There will be, I’m certain, endless comparisons between this series and the HBO Game of Thrones prequel that is airing at the same time (most of which will be unfair which is something I’ll come to later), but certainly while I haven’t seen anything of House of the Dragon I’m pretty confident that show’s music, if its anything like that of its predecessor, functions far differently. But I love big music that draws attention to itself, like McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica music several years ago, so I’m all for it here- its possibly the series saving grace for me which will ensure I’ll keep on coming back.

The acting, is, well, adequate I guess- to be fair, its not like the script is doing the actors many favours.  I guess it would be a thankless task for experienced veterans with the dialogue they are given, but this cast of largely unknowns are certainly struggling. I think the large ensemble, the vast canvas that leaves little room for any proper focus, is a creative decision (likely an attempt to make the narrative feel as epic as the imagery) that handicaps the series from giving characters time to properly breathe and provide depth. Why not, for instance, allow Episode One to focus entirely on Galadriel and her quest and properly demonstrate the amount of time (centuries, millenniums) that we are told is passing?  The one thing that Tolkien’s mythology has in spades is scale, its huge breadth of time, which could have been better used to its advantage. I don’t really know the details regards Amazon’s rights re: Tolkien’s work but imagine a one-hour mini movie telling us the story of the First Age, only then leading to an Episode Two set in the Second Age and the series narrative proper.

The Tolkien purists might have been enthralled by it, but what about the casual viewer, or the Game of Thrones/Stranger Things audience which Amazon seems to be aiming for?

I think that’s the real issue here for Rings of Power; it can’t be everything to everyone.

Is it Tolkien though? Well, there’s the rub. What I’m getting at, is that Amazon, like New World Cinema and MGM before it, is always in a surely uncomfortable tension with Tolkien’s work, transforming what is widely considered classic literature into mainstream entertainments, while George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, HBOs adaptations of which are so readily held up in comparison, is mainstream entertainment before any adaptation starts, the books are pop culture already, something which Tolkien was never aiming at with his work. I’m sure Tolkien purists are as dismissive of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films as they will be of Amazon’s Rings of Power. I suppose Amazon’s problem is more how much of the Jackson fanbase, those fans who love the Lord of the Rings films, is dismissive of the series, because to be sure, it isn’t making Rings of Power for the Tolkien fanbase, its making it for a general, mainstream audience that largely took Jackson’s epic trilogy to their hearts.

Whatever next?

elvis4kStreaming, rather than disc releases, would seem to be where its ‘at’ this month, with a little, low-key fantasy thing from Amazon starting tomorrow and taking us through the Autumn (will I be able resist sharing my thoughts each week?). But there’s a few disc releases coming too. Next week the director’s cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture hopefully arrives, something I’ve been looking forward to greatly, although bizarrely I’m perhaps more intrigued by the (surprisingly) bountiful extras than the new cut itself. Its so rare these days for an ‘older’ film released by a non-boutique label to have so many extras (just look at the 4K edition of Poltergeist coming this same month). For what’s its worth, I’m NOT buying the tat box edition (on that front, I’m still waiting for standard edition of the 4K Event Horizon to be announced).  So anyway, next week I expect to be writing a review of Robert Wise’s flawed (but possibly now improved?) Star Trek movie. Beyond that, September also holds the promise of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a film my mom will be over to watch for a film night- I recall showing the trailer on my phone to my parents back when my Dad was ‘trapped’ upstairs due to his illness, thinking I’d be lending them the film someday in better circumstances (I’d often buy some films partly because I knew my folks would enjoy watching the Blu-ray copy). I never imagined that Dad wouldn’t be here to watch it, so everything about that film feels rather bittersweet now, just like that new Downton Abbey movie that came out on disc recently: I have little interest in it but my folks loved that show, particularly my Dad, funnily enough. Sometimes you just can’t figure what it is that people will connect to.

uninoirI still haven’t pre-ordered the (delayed, but now imminent) Indicator release of The Swimmer or their Madigan which is being released the same day. I own the Grindhouse edition of The Swimmer from Stateside so the film is one of those double-dips I try to avoid. As I’d have to keep that earlier disc anyway (because it has a lengthy doc that the Indicator doesn’t), I haven’t yet ordered it even though its a cult favourite of mine; its a situation where ideally I wait for one of Indicator’s sales and get to buy it at a reduced price.  I’ll be buying Indicators edition  for the inevitably better master/image quality, which is a good reason but hey, we’re heading for an Autumn/Winter of Discontent so yeah, more reason for my caution. I might just tag those two onto a pre-order for October’s Universal Noir set from Indicator that I likewise haven’t gotten around to yet, we’ll see. Beyond those, there’s the inevitable pre-order for Top Gun: Maverick because of just how damn good everyone tells me it is, even though I still haven’t managed to watch the first Top Gun (I actually tried several weeks back but gave up twenty minutes in, all it did was remind me of how much I hated Tom Cruise movies back when it originally came out – the idea of ever watching that Cocktail movie, for instance, ugh). Anyway, Tom seems to think we’re living back in the VHS era of waiting forever for home video releases, because he’s managed to hold back Maverick from physical home video for months longer than we’re used to, recently being confirmed for the end of October: crikey- that Tolkien thing on Amazon will be all done by then.

Meanwhile there is so much I already have on the shelf that I need to watch. More films in the Columbia Noir #5 box, and likewise the Alfred Hitchcock Classic Collection Volume 2 4K box which I succumbed to in a sale, of which Shadow of a Doubt was my first watch (there’s a few films in that set that I’ve never seen). Regards sales, I did (so far, anyway) manage to avoid buying the similarly-reduced 4K set of The Godfather; I know I will buy it someday, its as inevitable as MCU movies getting worse but… double/triple dipping? I think I had those films on VHS for goodness sake. Its a case of the price reducing enough to make it feel less of a guilty purchase (bit like that 4K of Heat that I’ve also avoided). Some of those 4K Kino titles, most notably Touch of Evil, are waiting to be watched.  Likewise the BFI’s Blu-ray of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been waiting for too long. And that The Third Man Blu-ray….  The only thing worse than having discs not yet watched is seeing them being reduced for less than I paid for them, it just adds insult to injury. Well, either that or seeing an unwatched Blu-ray now being re-released on a 4K UHD. That hurts.

Heeeerrre’s Uncle Charlie!

doubt1Shadow of a Doubt, 1943, 108 mins, 4K UHD

Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt takes place in 1940s Santa Rosa, a leafy town that seems the very definition of Americana – its the America of Twilight Zone‘s Walking Distance, or Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Its decent, law-abiding folk who all know each other’s names, its lush lawns, rocking chairs on sun-sheltered porches, gleaming cars, a town library that stays open until nine p.m., police that don’t need guns. Maybe this community of decency and calm never really existed- David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks both suggested dark secrets hidden behind that entertainment-industry façade of American suburbia, but surprise, surprise, it would seem Alfred Hitchcock got there decades before, albeit Hitch was much more reserved than the subversive Lynch would later be.

Into the perfect American Dream of Santa Rosa arrives Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), visiting his elder sister’s family, the Newtons, for the first time in many years. His niece Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Theresa Wright) is bored with her perfect quiet life with her parents and younger brother and sister, and finds her well-travelled, charming and world-savvy uncle as exciting as she hoped him to be. She sees a kindred spirit sharing her wayward desire for adventure, but slowly as events unfold she begins to wonder if they are really alike at all, and what might lie behind some of his occasionally odd behaviour. Wright is really excellent here; she rather reminded me of Donna Reed, a pretty, wholesome American gal: she’s charming and quite captivating but also handles her descent into terror very well; if Charlotte had allowed herself to become seduced by her uncles’ darkness I can imagine she’d be quite compelling as a corrupted dark angel. Curiously Wright is a brunette, Hitchcock perhaps not yet succumbing to his later fascination with blondes.

Shadow of a Doubt has all sorts of subtext. In some ways its as simple as the snake in the garden of Eden, innocence tempted by the corruption of evil, or an example of American goodness being betrayed by the enemy within, a common theme of many film noir during the war and the Red Menace scares of the 1950s. Hitchcock, of course, loved the idea of hidden evil and danger -and its easy to discern in Uncle Charlie a prototype for mild-looking Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho. Indeed, Joseph Cotten is so good in this film he rather overshadows Perkins in that later film; ultimately, Bates was explained away as being crazy, but Uncle Charlie is calm, self-assured evil, and feels more real, more genuine.

doubt2There is always something clearly ‘off’ regards Uncle Charlie, right from when we first see him resignedly relaxing in an lodging house whilst being watched/hunted by two mysterious men. He smartly evades their pursuit and flees to Santa Rosa, but what has he done, who are these pursuers? One might suspect that he is innocent, threatened by criminals, but there is that shade of darkness about him that suggests otherwise. Once in his sisters home he charms the family and indeed the Santa Rosa community at large, but there is an undercurrent of mockery in his manner, which his niece quickly picks up on but initially assumes is the wisdom of his experience living in that big, exciting world outside that which she knows. Hitchcock seems to revel in wising the young girl to the reality of the world beyond the American Dream : “You’re a sleepwalker, blind,” Cotten tells her. “How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something!” It could be a speech from one of Lynch’s films, or a manifesto for America to wake up to the Nazi menace in Europe.

Cotten is excellent- his natural persona is that of a good guy, similar to that of someone from our own era like Tom Hanks, so it is doubly unnerving to sense the darkness behind the disarming smile and twinkling eyes. I’m rather surprised he didn’t become an Hitchcock regular; I think Hitchcock loved bad guys who could be your neighbour, and Cotten serves that to a tee.

And of course typical of Hitchcock, there are nice, self-aware touches in Shadow of a Doubt, such  Charlotte’s father Joseph’s conversations with his best friend and neighbour Herbie, who shares his love of lurid detective and crime pulps/novels and their conversations about the best ways to murder someone, both ignorant of a murderer living under Joseph’s own roof.

I really enjoyed Shadow of a Doubt– while it isn’t amongst Hitchcock’s very best films (its far removed from work like Vertigo), I’m not entirely surprised to have later discovered that it was said to be Hitchcock’s personal favourite. There is certainly a great cast playing well-defined and entertaining characters, a sharp script, some wonderful cinematography (literally there are shadows everywhere); in its own way, its a perfect little movie, and if it feels dated, that’s maybe because of the world we are living in.

Of course one of its biggest draws must be its magical visualisation of  the American Dream and that idyllic America that may or may not have actually existed outside of Bradbury’s fictional Green Town, Illinois. If it did actually exist, then this film is a potent picture of a paradise lost, and leaves me wondering what Lynch’s Twin Peaks might have been like had he considered giving it a period setting. But in any case, I can easily see what so appealed to Hitchcock about it, and can imagine that back when the film originally played in 1943, it could have seemed rather scandalous to many.

How many film producers does it take to change a light bulb (or ruin a movie)?

nitehuntr1Night Hunter, 2018, 98 mins, Amazon Prime

I think I may be done with ‘new’, or modern-day, movies, and that I should possibly retreat to those 1940s- 1970s films made when, you know, they knew how to make films. Film-makers today, they just don’t know when to stop with all the nonsense. Why can’t they stop the faster, louder, darker, edgier, the whole more, more, more bullshit that infects what passes for film today, I’m just so tired of it. Even if a film seems to have an interesting premise, with a decent cast etc, the guys writing and producing it just can’t help but ruin it, so lost in the entertainment industry maze of more shocks, more twists and surprises as if that’s the only way to hold viewer attention. In this case, the once-promising opening degenerating into something that gets sillier and sillier. Its like they are perpetually terrified of viewers reaching for the channel button on the remote, or believe viewers won’t stay for an honest to goodness drama without regular, hysterical twists of fate.

Tonight we had the choice of a 1940s Hitchcock film I’d never seen, or this. I was attracted by the cast -Henry Cavill, Ben Kingsley, Stanley Tucci, Alexandra Daddario… sure, there was a time that a cast list like that might promise some kind of quality, but those days are long gone. Thespians gotta eat, or pay for that new sports car, so a gigs a gig, I get it. Anyway, we were tired, long day after a long weekend, I figured save the Hitchcock for a day when I’m sharper, and maybe that was the right choice – but really, it doesn’t feel that way right now.

So Night Hunter is about a serial killer, a devious and ultra-intelligent abductor and rapist of women who has been operating for years- Hannibal Lector with a twisted sex drive, basically, who outwits and surprises a police department at every turn – its Silence of the Lambs by way of Seven, but as usual these days it isn’t enough to just rip-off better movies, the film-makers instead have to do it bigger, louder, darker. Consequently there are plot-holes galore, leaps of logic glossed over in an instant, bizarre twists so out of left-field its like they come from an entirely different movie. The final twist/revelation is so preposterous it leaves a massive credibility hole in what passed for the plot that it beggars belief.

I counted thirty producer credits at the end of this movie. Thirty. That’s thirty pieces of the production budget spread across thirty voices, thirty different opinions. I’m not sure there were that many speaking parts in the whole bloody film. How the hell does it take thirty producers to make a movie? Is that how films are made these days? How can it possibly not end in a film that is such a mess as this one?