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.

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.

Supersly

samaritan1Samaritan, 2022, 102 mins, Amazon Prime

There’s so many films being made (mostly for streaming, it seems, albeit they might only end up there because they are SO bad that cinema releases are pointless), alongside so many TV shows, that we really are reaching some critical point of crisis as the talent pool (I’m using the term ‘talent’ charitably) is stretched woefully thin. There was a reason Star Wars films only appeared every three years, and why superhero films were rare, and why there used to be one ‘great’ sci-fi show airing on television at any one time, barring the heady days of, say, late ST:TNG seasons airing at the same time as Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. In the case of films, there were only a handful of effects houses (ILM, EEG, Dream Quest) capable of producing high-quality visual effects back in the optical compositing days. The talent producing these films were the best, as the adage quality rises to the top held firm, and while ‘serious’ actors tended to still veer away from genre stuff, the z-list acting pool tended to be side-lined to the straight-to-video/cable television horrors.

Not so today. The talent pool has been stretched so thin by all the productions ensuring Netflix and Disney+ have plenty of new content to keep their subscriber bases steadily increasing (we’ll see how that goes) that there are, frankly, people making and starring in films and television shows who are simply not up to the job. Unfortunately of course, there’s also the feeling that too many geeks have been let loose in the film-making playpen, so much stuff now just so much fan-service.

Well, that’s my theory to explain films like Samaritan. The bumbling efforts of DC (Joss Whedon’s Justice League etc) and the recent output of the MCU (Spiderman: No Way Home and the rest of Phase 4 that I haven’t seen) pale into insignificance as Sylvester Stallone stars in a contender for worst superhero film of the millennium. Its uncanny how bad so many films are of late, and this one’s up there with the worst: the fact that I have seen so many positive reviews for Samaritan just intimates that the critical writing pool is stretched a bit thin now too, but hey, that’s social media for you.

As usual, the script betrays the writer’s/producer’s DVD collection, being a lazy rethread of better movies (in this case most obviously Unbreakable and others). Can’t anyone write anything original anymore? Watching films these days generally involves startling moments of deja-vu, and such lazily-written and mapped-out plotlines that twists are telegraphed way ahead: in this case of Samaritan, there’s a major twist late on that I predicted about ten minutes in. Writers these days seem incapable of surprises, they haven’t got it in them, so indebted are they to those DVD films on the shelf and hamstrung by a lack of imagination.

Or maybe we’ve just all seen too many genre movies. Maybe the reason why there seems nothing new under the sun is simply that its all been done. Its tired-out. We’ve seen the bright, hopeful classic stuff (Richard Donner’s Superman, Sam Raimi’s Spiderman), the darker, edgier stuff (anything with Zack Snyder’s name on it) and we’ve seen the adult, ultra-violent stuff (The Boys etc). With nowhere to go, projects look for ever-more obscure comics inspiration, or to retread those DVD favourites.

Samaritan is horrible. It almost feels like it should have been titled The Last Action Superhero, complete as it is with an irritating child character, Sam, a big fan of a superhero Samaritan, who disappeared twenty years ago following a climactic battle with his arch-enemy (and brother) Nemesis, the two of them having believed to have perished in a fiery explosion. Granite City (a poor-mans Gotham) is now under threat from rising lawlessness and anarchy, and thirteen-year old Sam, who believes Mr Smith (no, seriously) a refuse collector who just happens to live across the way in the same apartment building as he does, is Samaritan in hiding, hoping he can convince his hero to step up and save the day.

Sylvester Stallone seems to have a penchant for reluctant heroes who spend the majority of films delaying their inevitable violent validation. So many of his films seem to tease the fan-service heroics that are obviously coming. Mind, he is, what 76 years old now? Seems reasonable he can’t keep up the crazy stunts etc throughout his films anymore. But everyone knows the drill; keep up the baiting by bad guys, Sly turning the other cheek, show the good guys suffering, maintain Sly’s reticence to step up and beat the shit out of every piece of scum onscreen, always with the knowledge that its coming as obvious as night follows day. I don’t know how many bad guys Sly manages to burn, maim, cripple, kill, dismember or blow up in the carnage that Samaritan ends with, but its surely close to triple figures. I remember when those kind of numbers were questioned in the press by our moral guardians, but that’s by the by now. What’s most alarming is just how boring all that carnage is.

Artwork’s getting ugly- would you like to know more?

STARSHIP4KWell as if horrible remakes, reboots and wrecking favourite franchises isn’t bad enough (nervous glance towards Amazon’s LOTR show coming September), it seems the studios are letting the talentless cretins with those devils-own typewriters loose on creating the artwork for physical releases of old movies now- anyone would think they deliberately want to sabotage physical disc sales to further excuse the continued push towards streaming/eventual PPV. Its a conspiracy worthy of an X-File: you can imagine some suit in six months saying “we released this fan-favourite movie on disc and no-one bought it! Physical media is dead etc etc!”

Just look at this steelbook release of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers– surely one of the ugliest covers yet? You’d have to be a pretty hardcore fan to part with hard-earned for this. The unfortunate ‘twist’ for some will be that this re-release of an old 4K disc has Dolby Vision (the original ‘just’ has standard HDR10) which in theory could result in a better picture quality depending upon one’s set-up, but if a cover like this is intended to sway fans into a double-dip for said DV…. Well, I guess the hardcore could buy this and switch the disc into the case from the old release, maintain their self-respect that way…

lawrence4kIt seems that Blade Runner inexplicably NOT getting a physical re-release to celebrate its 40th Anniversary this year possibly has some consolation – at least we’re not getting some ugly art to pour salt on the wound of no new special features/all the cuts in 4K, no Dangerous Days doc finally in HD etc. 

Its like there is a parallel universe in the physical media community, in which Kino use original artwork for its covers and folks like Indicator likewise, with lovely books and packaging etc, and meanwhile the major studios are doing, er, THIS to some of the finest films ever made. I suppose the issue from their perspective is that some of these old, old favourites from those distant shores of the ancient 1980s/1990s (never mind the prehistory of the 1960s) is that they have been released several times over different formats and the artwork must be pretty tired by now. I don’t agree at all with that, I’m a huge fan of original artwork (I still grimace at that most recent release of Alien in 4K) but its clear that, whatever the boutique labels are doing, the studios have some problem these days with original artwork.

 

Flatliners impresses

lat1Watched the 4K of Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners (that’s the 1990 movie, the less said about the 2017 remake the better), which looks absolutely lovely. Film itself has aged pretty well, too (I hadn’t seen the film in maybe twenty years). I really quite enjoyed it, although the casting is pretty amusing seeing the actors (Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, Oliver Pratt) looking so young; how is it possible something like Flatliners is over thirty years old now?

I’d forgotten the gorgeous end title music composed by James Newton Howard, and how it suddenly through music alone lifts the film to some other level which the last close-on two hours of actual film failed to reach. Simply sublime music, choral in parts and really, really beautiful and soulful. I also found the music over the sections where William Baldwin’s character sees hallucinations of women talking to him through video footage he’d surreptitiously filmed of them having sex with him very effective too; its a very nice score. Never released on a soundtrack album though – I think its due to some crazy reuse charges. as it was recorded in LA, which has made any official release prohibitively expensive. Such a shame.  I remember searching out the album in vain, just as I had the Blade Runner soundtrack album several years before.

I will take issue with an essay on the included booklet though: its an essay about NDEs and in particular a section that brings up similar-themed films, citing examples such as Paul Hogan-starring Almost an Angel (1990), and obscure titles like Death Dreams (1991), but completely ignoring Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983), which literally depicts the near-death experience of a scientist daring to experience a Death tape recorded by a colleague. I always thought that Brainstorm and Flatliners were like filmic cousins but the writer Amanda Reyes seems ignorant of Trumbull’s film. Oh, that sounds so very anal of me now that I mention it as a criticism. Must be this hot weather…

Bumper Round-up

Quick reviews for recent stuff (Dead Reckoning! Get Carter! The Sandman!) and to misquote a Spielberg movie, I’m gonna need a bigger shelf unless I stop buying 4K discs…

In lieu of writing ‘proper’ posts, here’s a summary of where things are at lately. Hopefully genuine review posts will follow, but time being what it is lately (Einstein reckoned time is relative, and here its pretty short of late), I thought I’d get something out there.

P1110377 (2)First of all, I’ve had a bit of a mad splurge over the last few weeks on some Kino 4K titles on import (joining The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and For A Few Dollars More which I bought months ago). This bunch are mostly noir titles; the three-disc Touch of Evil, Kubrick’s dabbles in noir The Killing and Killer’s Kiss, with the Billy Wilder classic Some Like It Hot. These are all upgrades, double-dips (dear God, the Wilder is a triple dip, I had it on DVD too) of various Blu-rays bought over the past several years, something I’m increasingly wary of these days. But aren’t those slips gorgeous? Currently box-art seems something of a lost art so its especially lovely to see original artwork being used (The Killing actually has a reversible cover in the disc case, as I showed on my recent review). As well as The Killing, I’ve watched Some Like It Hot, and yes it too looks damn fine in 4K- its surprising how good these b&w titles look in the 4K format (as if we needed further proof how gorgeous Marilyn Monroe was). The contrast, grain management, improved gray scale, all impress, and Kino seem to have gone nuts on the bitrates, way over the top (compare that to Disney releasing the near-three hour Heat on 4K using a BD66).

I only saw Killer’s Kiss on Blu-ray a few months back. The film was made prior to The Killing and being less than seventy minutes long, it was included as a special feature on Arrow’s The Killing Blu-ray which I bought back in 2016, but I never actually watched it. I think I was misinformed by Internet opinion that it was lesser-tier Kubrick not worth bothering with, that The Killing was widely considered Kubrick’s first ‘proper’ film and first worthy of note: I suppose Killer’s Kiss being relegated to the special features menu only reinforced this view. Anyway, I finally got around to it; I knew there was a boxing element and was pointed back in the film’s direction after enjoying Robert Wise’s The Set-Up a few months back.  Well, diminished expectations and all that, but I absolutely loved it, probably for all the reasons so many disparaged it. Raw, low-budget, with a brisk (for Kubrick, positively frantic) pace, a bare-bones story shot like a docudrama with amazing footage of a lost New York, foreshadowing stuff like Taxi Driver. The only thing holding me back from a gushing review post here back when I watched that Blu-ray was suddenly learning only days later that Kino was releasing the film on 4K, so I decided to wait and will continue to wait until I’ve seen it again on this 4K disc. I’m really looking forward to it, but just waiting for the perfect time.

Which is a bit of a sour point: the best time to watch these noir (especially in 4K) is late at night when its dark and these long hot summer days are not conducive to that. What’s that line in a film about mood – ah yes, Gurney Halleck in Dune; “Mood? What’s mood to do with it?”, but its true about movie watching (if not fighting); one has to be in the correct mood for a particular kind of film and bright summer days/evenings- well, unless you’re watching something like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat,  which was made for hot summer nights. Besides, by the time its late/dark enough, I’m usually too tired to watch a demanding film, and noir ARE demanding, usually quite complex and nuanced and narratively pretty dense for their usually short running-time. Case in point, I recently tried watching John Reinhardt’s The Guilty a few weeks back and damn near fell asleep near the end – my wife actually did fall asleep, missing its last fifteen minutes and I’ve ribbed her endlessly ever since regards her missing its major twist. “You’ll never guess!” I’ve teased her. There’s a film that deserves a proper rewatch soon as possible.

P1110379 (2)Hmm, yeah, some more purchases. Here’s me claiming to reign it all in regards buying discs, and sure, I’ve (mostly) stopped the blind-buys but of late that’s only transferred my wallet’s woes to the upgrades/double dips: here another Billy Wilder classic upgraded to 4K (this time courtesy of Criterion) and Flicker Alley’s The Guilty/High Tide double-bill (in the latter’s case, I’ve elected to use the original art on the reversible cover). Criterion’s Double Indemnity rather annoyed me- not the disc or the film, but because over here in the UK, presumably due to licensing issues (or the duplication costs?) Criterion only released it on Blu-ray (I have the old Eureka edition).  So in order to get the 4K edition released in the States  that everyone was raving about I had to grudgingly import it, complete with two Blu-ray discs locked to Region One that I can’t watch (so I’m keeping that Eureka set for some of the extras, but that true of Arrow’s The Killing disc and my Blu-ray of Some Like It Hot). Goodness, no wonder my shelves are filling up, I’m buying new upgrades and keeping the old discs too- madness.

Anyway, enough of my foolish financial woes, I’m just partying before the recession and Autumn of Discontent (see what I did there?) puts paid to my collecting. On with some quick reviews.

Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947) – first film from Indicator’s Columbia Noir #5 set, and allegedly one of the few genuine noir films in the set. Bit alarming, that. I never warmed to Humphrey Bogart, so haven’t seen many of his films. In fact, I can only name a few films of his I actually liked; In A Lonely Place for one, and another that I first saw on television decades ago, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is a Blu-ray gathering dust on the shelf that I keep meaning to watch, but… Anyway, something about Bogie just rattles me. Maybe this box set’s contents will feature a film that will warm me to his charms more, but Dead Reckoning isn’t it – unless of course this is another example regards mood. Maybe it was just the wrong film on a warm summer night. Shame, its a great title for a noir. I was especially disappointed in Lizabeth Scott, who I’ve seen and been impressed by before. Here she was ill-served by an underwritten character (likely deliberately underwritten to enable/underscore the surprise twist) leaving her with little to work with- I suppose someone like Rita Hayworth (originally conceived of for the role) would have gotten by better from sheer screen charisma and presence, but Scott just doesn’t have that. Also, I just couldn’t see any chemistry between Bogie and Scott, and a film whose success largely depends upon the romantic tryst between two characters is in trouble from the start when the chemistry seems lacking. Is it wrong of me to note that I thought I would have enjoyed it more had it featured Glenn Ford (no stranger to this kind of noir) in the lead role?

Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971) – No casting issues with this film. Don’t ask me how/why I never saw this film before, but we all have these oversights/black holes in our moviegoing street-cred. Release by BFI in a simply gorgeous 4K edition that is so tactile you feel you can reach into the screen and touch it, and smell the beer and aftershave, sweat and cigarette smoke- it’s excellent; its another case of a film likely looking better than it did even when it first came out. This is such a film of its time, its like some kind of time machine physically taking us back, and who’d really want to go back to Newcastle circa 1971? What a cast (Ian Hendry brilliant yet again, and what a shocker seeing Michael Caine chucking that bloke from Coronation Street off the carpark roof), and what a  gorgeous jazzy score (that main title sequence is sublime). Here’s a film that I was ready to rewatch as soon as it finished.

The Sandman: Season One (Ten Episodes, 2022) – I don’t know what’s more shocking- that someone actually managed to make a decent live-action adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comicbook classic or that somehow its on Netflix, but then again, it is the home of Stranger Things…  Its been well over a decade since I last read Gaiman’s opus (I bought the graphic novel paperbacks so long ago it was from a genuine bookstore) and a lot of my memory of it is burry, which was rather curious seeing it onscreen thinking “oh yeah, they actually did that…” or “I don’t remember that at all” so I can’t comment regards how authentic it was.  It wasn’t perfect though, I have to confess I was bit bothered by some of the casting choices- it was a great cast and I’ve no complaints, but John Constantine is now Johanna Constantine, played by Jenna Coleman? And I had a bit of a hard time keeping a straight face watching Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, of all things. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong in subsequent seasons or the inevitable Johanna Constantine spin-off (call me a cynic, but the writing/casting for that episode had “pilot for a spin-off” written all over it). Those caveats aside,  I did enjoy the series; even the music was good (shades of BR2049 in places and ‘nowt wrong with that). Inevitably the highlight of the show (and if you only watch one episode of it, make it this one, its pretty standalone) was The Sound of Her Wings, the sixth episode and an adaption of likely most readers favourite issue of the comic. Should have been retitled The Sound of An Emmy, because it surely deserves a nomination at least.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (Rudolph Carter, 1954) – this BBC adaptation has always been on my radar if only because it starred Peter Cushing, one of my very favourite actors (my unofficial quest to watch everything he ever did continues slowly apace). I bought this new Blu-ray edition (from the BFI folks) a few months back but watched it just a week or so ago… I intended to write a proper post about it, even tried, but… goodness this was so depressing. Its through no fault of the adaptation (by Nigel Kneale, of Quatermass fame) its limited production values (mostly a live performance thankfully recorded for posterity), or its cast, but more the horrible inescapable fact that George Orwell’s cautionary tale is as timely now than ever- perhaps more so. Real-life events of the past several years, just how the world has slowly changed largely for the worse, makes something like this all the more prescient and important. Its horrible, like a warning from a future that just feels just more plausible than ever.

And while on the subject of warnings of the future, it looks like Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall is coming to Amazon Prime on Friday. I can hardly wait. Its got such a crazy, ridiculous premise, I’ve so wanted to subject myself to its cheesy silly horrors while avoiding spoilerific trailers. There’s a thought: am I the only person alive actually avoiding spoilers for Moonfall? Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow is one of my favourite bad movies, it was all I could do to refrain from buying it on Blu-ray disc when it was released a few months back (maybe if had been on 4K over here in the UK, I would have given in to its despicable allure, but it was limited to DVD/Blu-ray). Anyway, that’s my Friday (or Saturday) night sorted then, and possibly will be my next posting here; yes, be afraid, its Moonfall next, unless I get some time to sit at this laptop again beforehand.