Indy’s not-so last Crusade

indy3Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989, 127 mins, 4K UHD

Looking back on the Indiana Jones saga, its clear that the balance between action and comedy, drama and sheer fun, established so well in Raiders… well they never got that timeless, matinee-movie balance right again, not even close. I know many believe that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the best of the sequels, but I much prefer Temple of Doom, although that too has its own flaws, but I certainly believe time has been kinder to Temple of Doom than it has been to Last Crusade.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is evidently a reactionary film, leaning towards comedy and light adventure following the mischevious darkness of much of Temple of Doom and going, well, just too far. Spielberg seems to have lost the deft touch he displayed in Raiders– as I noted in a recent post, in that film the camera is doing all sorts of things to imaginatively move the story forwards; it could have worked as a silent movie. But that’s largely missing in this third film. While Raiders felt like something inspired, here there’s something coldly calculated about it, the placing of action beats, reprising the structure and sometimes even set-pieces (Raiders had Indy chasing a truck on a horse, now its Indy chasing a tank on a horse, and the ensuing fight on the vehicle against Nazi solders); Lucas and Spielberg obviously wanted to bring all the fun back and perhaps just didn’t know where to stop. What, after all, is the actual point of the diversion to Berlin for the Hitler gag?

Its all rather hard work, to be honest- the story is disjointed, and doesn’t really make a lot of sense. The film is largely carried by the chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, their banter and the comedy that sparks from them. Without that, we’d largely be left with a film remarkably close in quality to the much-maligned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Seriously: imagine it without Sean Connery’s character: we’d have the same convoluted, nonsensical plot, the surrounding non-characters, the same tired and sometimes ridiculous action set-pieces, as muddles Crystal Skull. Mind, Harrison Ford is as brilliant as ever- back in his prime he was such a dead ringer for matinee idols of old, there’s really been nobody quite like him for decades, really, just a few pretenders, so whatever problems an Indiana Jones film might have, its always watchable just to see Harrison Ford and his gift for physical acting, comic timing and just sheer charm in front of the camera.

I must note that this film looked particularly good in 4K UHD; its a very fine-looking disc with a highly detailed, filmic image in which the HDR really does add a ‘pop’ and sense of depth. Its a gorgeous-looking disc and likely the best I’ve ever seen the film, even compared to its original theatrical showing.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

STtmpStar Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979, 132 mins, 4K UHD 

Looking back on it, I’m tempted to suggest -sweeping over-generalisation that it is- that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a pretty clear marker of the old giving way to the new. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has the feel of Old Hollywood, of creative teams more used to making westerns and crime thrillers suddenly getting scripts featuring aliens and spaceships. There’s a sense of people suddenly making sci-fi films with no interest in such genre material, and little affinity for it – indeed, at a time when such material was considered the realm of the cheap b-movie quickie. The days of genre fans/geeks who grew up loving the stuff then making genre films would still be a few years away, but already with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg the changing times were clear: post-Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood was still in transition, and the old guard hadn’t yet been replaced by the geeks. So Hollywood sci-fi was still Logan’s Run, The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. 

In the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that’s possibly its strength. It feels like a serious (albeit often misguided, at times) attempt to make a great ‘Motion Picture!’ back when that still meant something (today any distinction of quality between television and cinema is largely gone). Its not played for laughs, there’s no dodgy sets, there’s no geek in-jokes and surprisingly low-key fan-service if any at all (I suspect much of what we’d identify today as ‘fan-service’ in the film is actually incidental). It’s not 2001, and neither is it Star Wars, but rather it sits somewhere in between, in a place few genre films have dared position themselves (maybe Interstellar would be a modern example). I am endlessly surprised whenever I re-watch the film over the years, just how refreshing it is, and enjoyable.

Indeed, having recently read Robert Preston Jones’ superlative oral history of the film, Return to Tomorrow, I’m actually more surprised than ever that the film even got finished and in sufficient shape to be considered a film at all. Its possibly a textbook lesson of how NOT to make a film. The script wasn’t finished when they were shooting the live-action, the director and actors were cooking up the finale on the fly: imagine making a film like Ben-Hur and making the last reel on-set without a script (it wasn’t quite that bad, but not far off- I’m always amazed at films going into production without finished scripts but it continues to happen). The original effects team was great on ideas but lousy at execution, wasting millions of dollars in research and most importantly wasting priceless time. Once that effects team was largely dismissed (albeit most of the staff rehired), the deadline that Douglas Trumbull and his team/s were faced with, the task left them regards its scope and the visual effects it needed, back in that era of physical miniatures, lighting and motion-control rigs and photo-chemical printing… its mind-boggling.

The pacing is obviously the film’s biggest problem, something not helped by many visual effects shots hanging around too long or sequences being overloaded with just too many of them. Its tempting to suggest that Wise and/or the editor Todd Ramsay became too enamoured by all the expensive effects shots coming in at the eleventh hour but the simple truth is, the shots were all coming in very late (Preston’s book has some timeline stuff that is just jaw-dropping regards when models became available and filming happened and elements arrived at the optical printer etc) and they never had the perspective we have with the finished film- hence the justification of the Directors Cut. But considering how late everything was… its amazing that Jerry Goldsmith’s score was so good (in my mind the composers very best) and maybe having to cut the film to the timing estimates handed to Goldsmith which he scored the music to… well, little wonder the film’s pacing is dodgy.

The odd thing about this which bugs me, is when Trumbull and everyone got together with the script and storyboards, why didn’t they cut some of those boards? I find it hard to understand why, with effects teams working alternate day/nights shifts in at least three facilities working twelve to sixteen-hour days labouring over really difficult shots to unrealistic schedules, they didn’t rip up more of those boards. The Epsilon 9 and Orbital Office Complex sequences are obvious examples, featuring too many shots. The Orbital Office Complex is a lovely miniature and beautifully photographed, but do we need to see so many shots of its exterior before cutting to the interior and Kirk arriving? Clearly nobody could ‘see’ that so much of it would be redundant or could have been culled to allow more time and resources on stuff that really mattered. I suppose its a technology thing, nowadays films have CGI storyboards, and I recall ILM shot animatics as a guide for The Empire Strikes Back to help nail the pacing of effects shots/sequences like the Hoth battle.

But nonetheless, I still enjoy watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Many much prefer the second entry, Wrath of Khan, but for me there is always something special about the first. They aimed for greatness and largely failed but you have to admire that they tried, and watching it I often have a little mischevious fun berating the suits that enforced an unrealistic deadline agreed with theatres, and all the production cock-ups and crashing egos behind the scenes. Maybe this year’s version of the Directors Cut will indeed finally be the film it could/should have been; we’ll just have to wait and see…. (and yes, likely have to buy this film yet AGAIN).  So it seems I’m not quite finished writing about this film…

More Coming Attractions

I already seem to be falling behind on posting reviews, but here’s what I’ve been watching and will hopefully catch up with over the next week (mind, there’s still The Crimson Kimono and Ride the High Country already waiting..).

underworldusa

reckless

scarlet

indytemp4k

sttmpposter

dreamscapeposter

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom  and Star Trek: TMP are the 4K UHD editions finally caught up with, and Dreamscape… well, seeing Kate Capshaw in Temple of Doom reminded me I’d never seen that one- and really, I wish I still hadn’t seen it; horrible. Mind, its similarities to Inception not withstanding (could Christopher Nolan actually be a fan?) it did remind me of just how good Brainstorm is, for all its faults. I know, I know, going into other peoples dreams and a machine that records experiences aren’t the same thing but both films were made pretty close to each other and… well, one of them was pretty good. Why anyone want to buy, let alone own, a copy of Dreamscape for repeat viewing is quite beyond me, but I guess every film has its fans. Somewhere.  I just keep looking at that Dreamscape poster thinking, ‘that’s just not the same movie I just saw’.

Hollywood can sell ANYTHING.

Just a thought: Raiders 4K

Well, first of all; Happy New Year everyone. I’m one of those who believed 2021 was even worse than 2020, confounding all hopes and expectations, so 2022… its GOT to be better, hasn’t it? Well, the old saying ‘approach with extreme caution’ springs to mind, somehow I get the feeling we’re slipping back into the 1970s: Inflation, high energy prices, clowns in Parliament…

raiders artSo anyway, just a thought: last night on New Years Eve I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark on 4K UHD. The film looks absolutely terrific in 4K, highly detailed with lovely grain and a really fine colour balance. Its never looked better, that’s for sure- something one often resorts to when describing films on 4K, but its so true in cases such as this. Films in 4K, at their best, can look very filmic, losing that video ‘shine’ that other home video formats had, instead looking very close to how a film would when projected in a cinema.

But while watching it, it occurred to me that Harrison Ford made Raiders (released 1981) and then went and made Blade Runner (released 1982), and the difference between the two vouches for just how great cinema can be/used to be. One was a rip-roaring, witty and exciting adventure flick, the other a dark, dystopian (some would suggest turgid) thriller. What struck me though, is that the two seem decades apart in style and sensibility. And when one considers that The Empire Strikes Back was released the year prior to Raiders… Ford’s filmography at the time; wow, he seemed the coolest guy on Earth- at least until no-one turned up to watch Blade Runner, but then again, decades later who cares about box-office, the films stand far removed from all that now.

Raiders is something special though. Spielberg was at the height of his game, every shot is imaginative, the way the camera moves, catches actors face’s reactions which often speak more than the scripts dialogue (and wasn’t that casting great?), John Williams’ score propels everything magnificently, another vivid example of what films today have lost in how music is used in them now. Frankly the film is a masterclass. And its forty years old. Yeah, that last bit… .

The 2021 sort-of Statfest and my Top Ten

greenknightWell, 2021 is drawing to a close (or has already passed, depending upon when you’re reading this) and I had a few genuine questions myself regards the year’s viewing. Primarily I was curious regards the years of the films I was watching- it seemed like I was watching quite a lot of ‘old’ films this year, mostly because of lots of catalogue disc releases and my increasing fascination with all things noir (yeah, that kind-of blew up my attempts to curb disc purchases this year), and I was wondering how it all measured up.

So anyway, I went through my list of films I watched for the first time in 2021 and how they split up across the decades and here’s how it pans out-

1920s films- nil

1930s films- nil

1940s films- 13

1950s films- 23

1960s films- 10

1970s films- 3

1980s films- 2

1990s films- 1

2000s films- 2

2010s films- 27

2020s films- 42

Its inevitable that the 2020’s dominate- that’s mostly films from this year premiering on Netflix and Amazon Prime, or films caught on disc which I missed at the cinema such as the latest Bond, so films in this group were always going to be the biggest number. What did surprise me, frankly, was the paucity of 1970s/1980s/1990s films but upon thinking about it, it made sense. As I grew up in those decades my viewing experiences have primarily been of films from those years so there’s few left that I want to see that I haven’t seen. Which is nonsense, I’m certain that are great films from those decades I have yet to see but its really a case of stumbling upon them now, and most of the films I missed during those years was from choice as they didn’t appeal to me then and few of them do now. 

The second-largest group of films is from the decade prior, the 2010s, and again, that’s mostly Netflix and Amazon Prime. I think its fair to say the majority of content on the streaming platforms is post-Millennium stuff as that is what is perhaps most relevant to viewers, rightly or wrongly. Its certainly pressing upon me just how old today’s generation seems to think the films I grew up with are; to me they actually still feel recent, but its an inescapable fact that a film from 1982 is as old to viewers today as the Errol Flynn-starring The Adventures of Robin Hood was to me when I watched Star Wars back in 1978. Or another way of looking at it- Star Wars is as old today as the 1933 King Kong was back in 1977. 

the killers3The biggest other decades of films that I watched for the first time in 2021 date from the 1940s and 1950s, and this is where all those noir box-sets and other boutique Blu-ray purchases kick in. There’s some absolutely brilliant, classic films amongst this bunch that I had never seen before and feel all the better for having finally caught up with. Films of the 1940s like The Killers, Criss Cross, Gun Crazy, and films from the 1950s like The Garment Jungle, The Lineup, and Pushover to highlight just a few. Its clear to me that the films from these decades are generally of a much higher quality than the films from the 2020s., a group littered with soulless Netflix Originals and typical by-the-numbers blockbusters. I can certainly imagine re-watching many of these 1940s/1950s films next year whereas most of the 2020s films are better soon forgotten.

Which brings me to my favourite films of the year; I don’t usually do a Top Ten but I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m not going to list them in preference as getting a list of ten films is bad enough, actually narrowing it down to an actual order of favourite is just a nightmare. So in no order, here’s ten films I consider my favourite, most enjoyable discoveries from my 2021 viewing-

Nobody (2021)– my favourite action film of the year featuring the unlikeliest actor in an action role, Bob Odenkirk, absolutely nailing it and proving the sorcery that is casting. If films were cookery recipes, this one one would obviously be ounces of John Wick mixed with ounces of Taken and a dash of Die Hard etc thrown in- its not too far removed from any film starring Liam Neeson these days so while its nothing astonishingly original it distinguishes itself apart from what is fast becoming a derivative genre by just being… well, quite brilliant. It just works in the same way as Die Hard does; its a little bit of cinematic perfection. 

Dune (2021)– a film spoiled badly by its sudden (albeit inevitable) ending, which only gets healed in a few years when Part Two arrives. The irony that what makes it so great (being shot as two films rather than try squeeze too much into one film, as Lynch had to do in 1984) is also what handicaps it so badly, isn’t lost on me. Even as it is, the film felt too short, still having to cut out so much material (which hopefully may feature in Part Two). I loved the cast, I loved the huge sense of scale, the cinematography and the brutalist art direction… Villeneuve’s Dune does so much so right, but totally fluffs the ending. I still can’t work out what they were thinking. Villeneuve hates streaming and seems to dislike the Marvel method, but releases a film that screams modern-blockbuster tease as loud as any comicbook caper and seems designed for the streaming boxset experience. Maybe he was in a no-win situation, but I think I’d have preferred more screen time pre-Harkonnen attack and actually end the film with Paul and Jessica fleeing into the desert, with Paul maybe vowing revenge and closing with a triumphant Baron over the Duke’s dead body. Imagine that.

Red Notice (2021) – nah, only kidding.

The Green Knight (2021)– I really enjoyed this, it felt like a modern-day revisit of John Boorman’s Excalibur, historical myth as dreamlike fable that isn’t intended to wholly make sense or purport to be anything like reality. It looked absolutely gorgeous and would love to own it on 4K disc someday. There’s every chance subsequent viewings won’t be as rewarding, but when I watched this it just blew me away, it was so strange and unusual, with some arresting moments that took my breath away- so it qualifies for my top ten.

Hidden Figures (2016)– there must be a sub-genre now of films about the Apollo missions and everything that led up to the landing on the moon, and this film is one of the finest on the subject that I’ve yet seen. It works as an (unintended) companion piece to Damien Chazelle’s First Man and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in such a wonderful way; blessed with a sharp script, and heartfelt performances from a simply marvellous cast. So good I had to go buy the 4K disc almost immediately, a disc I really should watch soon. A fantastic film.

strangers1Strangers When We Meet (1960) – One of the discoveries of this year for me was Kim Novak, an actress I knew from Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo but little else, other than the 1980s Falcon Crest television series (which in particular would hardly suggest anything positive). Well I was doing the actress a genuine disservice, and this film in particular may have been one of her best roles. I found this to be a profoundly sad film; a drama about a married couple having an affair, it probably wasn’t scandalous in 1960 never mind today, but it certainly hasn’t dated as much as one might think, and what made it work for me was the real-life reputation of womaniser Kirk Douglas and the wholly sympathetic performance of Novak. The vividly-captured world of late-1950s America, on the cusp of the 1960s is one of the films charms (see also as a counterpoint the late-1960s drama The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster, another film whose appeal is partly the whole milieu of a surprisingly distant world). Douglas is fine, and possibly admirably stretching himself, but Novak is just brilliant in this though, a beautiful woman trapped in a distinctly man’s world. 

The Killers (1946) – Watching the first ten minutes of this Robert Siodmak film is almost the very definition of falling in love with a film; it starts in such a dark and moody fashion and masterfully sets up a mystery to grab hold of. This mystery, gradually solved by flashback accounts in a Citizen Kane fashion, doesn’t really live up to that opening section, but The Killers remains a tight-packed, very noir drama that blew me away. They really don’t make ’em like they used to. 

crisscrossCriss Cross (1949)– Which brings us to Criss Cross, reuniting Burt Lancaster with director Robert Siodmak in a clear attempt to recapture the success of their earlier film. I actually preferred this over The Killers – it features another Burt Lancaster character who is doomed but I found this actually more successful, possibly because its narrative was generally more traditionally told in linear fashion but mostly because the characters were more convincing. Its a tragedy writ large in noir black and white, with a brutal ending that is… well I’m still recovering from it. They don’t end ’em like they used to.

The Lineup (1958) -a film that starts out as one thing, but then becomes another- that kind of spin always appeals to me. Its rather like having the rug pulled from under your feet, something all too rare. Here Don Siegel transforms what is essentially an unremarkable police procedural in its early stages into a haunting nightmare of crazy hitmen loose in a San Francisco mostly lost now (the film almost as much an historical document as it is a dramatic piece, featuring landmarks now gone). Eli Wallach and Robert Keith as the psychopathic killers are something of a revelation, and its true, you can fall in love with a film just from one shocking moment – here one featuring a wheelchair and an instant of violence shocking and unexpected and, well, perfect. 

On Dangerous Ground (1951) – Alongside ‘discovering’ Kim Novak, this year seems to be the year I wised up to the genius of Robert Ryan, who just seemed to turn up in so many of the films I’ve seen this year (Crossfire, House of Bamboo, The Racket, Born to be Bad). Here he’s a bitter detective who has been brutalised by his job, having seen too much of the worst of humanity, who finds salvation in the love of a blind woman whose brother he is hunting down. Like The Lineup, its a film that seems to be one thing which then spins into something else- in this case, a thriller turning into a romance. It seems unlikely but it works, and much of this is thanks to Ryan’s performance. Ryan was wildly successful in film, in a career that lasted over three decades until his too-early passing at the age of just 63, and I gather he was disappointed in the roles given him, but I think he’s been quite brilliant in every film I’ve seen him in. There’s a dark intensity to his face and performances which left him largely cast as a villain and not the leads he felt he deserved, and he might have been right, but it seems he left a formidable body of work that I’ll hopefully discover more of in 2022.

gia2The Garment Jungle (1957)- I’m not sure why, but this film left such a mark on me. Perhaps its the performances, as it features Lee J Cobb, Robert Loggia and Kerwin Mathews in brilliant form in a tense noir with genuine twists- its certainly a solid film. But perhaps its more the haunting beauty of Gia Scala, an actress whose life is one of those Hollywood tragedies that lingers on because they are frozen in time in celluloid. Just on the strength of her role here, one would think Gia would have become a superstar, but due to real-life problems with depression (and, I gather, alcohol addiction, oh so Tinsletown) it was not to be, and she was found dead from an apparently accidental overdose at just 38 years in 1972 (although her sister would contest her death as suspicious, in similar manner to how some consider Marilyn Monroe’s death). Watching her frozen in time in The Garment Jungle, so talented and beautiful with the world surely at her feet, is a rather disturbing experience knowing what befell her later. She deserved better, but in life and Hollywood there is no ‘deserved’, there is just ‘is’; a fittingly noir thing to contemplate as I round off this top ten with another noir. One last thought- were women simply more beautiful back then in that era?

So that’s ten favourite films. Whether its even THE top ten of 2021 is another matter, but looking through my list of what I’ve watched this year, it looks about right regards which films I enjoyed the most. A pretty good year of films, really. I think its inevitable that I find more recent viewing (The Last Duel, No Time to Die for instance) hard to qualify as I haven’t absorbed them enough or had the time to properly judge them, whereas many of the films in that top ten have been bouncing around in my head for months in that way only the best films and performances do.  

 

The Last Duel (2021) 4K UHD

lastduel4kitaliaThankfully, The Last Duel marks a return to form for director Ridley Scott. I keep thinking, I should be referring to him as ‘SIR’ Ridley and I’m doing him a disservice at best or lack of respect at worst, and I certainly intend neither. After all, I’ve followed and been fascinated, enthralled and horrified  by his career ever since I read the lengthy interviews with him in Fantastic Films back when Alien came out in 1979. His Ridleygrams and keen eye for design was an inspiration for years while I was at High School and later doing my Degree in Art & Design.  I think its true to say now that there is much more to his films than the visuals, even if that was the inevitable cheap shot targeted at him early on, and a general consensus he always seems damned by. 

There was a time when the arrival of every new Ridley Scott film was something to get excited by. I think that waned pretty early on- of course, I loved Alien and Blade Runner and was frustrated by Legend, and I recall being mystified by Someone to Watch Over Me, as if it was Ridley selling out (something only intensified by Black Rain, and later G.I. Jane) when he’d gotten so many of us convinced he’d be the John Ford of sci-fi/fantasy films. Looking at his filmography today, its pretty mixed: some great films, some average films, some poor films, but its a pretty astonishing list of films, really, and that’s just considering him as director; he’s produced/executive produced a colossal amount of work in film and television.

But I remember the days I used to think he’d forever be making films that looked like Heavy Metal movies- a little like the days when I thought George Lucas would make nine Star Wars films in a relentless, wonderful three-yearly succession-and I have a wry smile considering my naivety back then. By the mid-eighties Ridley was off making ‘ordinary’ films and Lucas had abandoned Star Wars films completely.

The Last Duel is a little like the films I thought Ridley would always be making. Films depicting other worlds. I appreciate I’m falling into the trap, with this line of thinking,  of Ridley just being a visual stylist, but the guy has the best eye in the business, and as he’s gotten older, he’s gotten so incredibly fast. The Last Duel is a return to the very beginning, and the pastoral beauty of The Duellists, his low-budget first feature that was hardly released and watched by pretty much nobody (hey, its like he’s gone totally full circle). It also reminds one of 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Kingdom of Heaven (the directors cut of which I consider to be one of his top five, maybe even top three, films), films which put worlds on screen as vividly alien as anything set on some other world or in some distant future.

Its interesting to consider The Duellists, though, because The Last Duel is in no way as pretty or visually intoxicating as that first film. The Duellists seemed to have something to prove (if only that Ridley could outdo Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon?), and is so painterly and beautiful. The Last Duel is very impressive visually, with its period setting evoked in just as tangible a reality, but it doesn’t draw attention to its visuals as much as Ridley’s earlier work. The Last Duel is more balanced, and intent on its character and narrative and acting performances: a more qualified and professional piece of work, perhaps. I just think its quite telling, comparing Ridley’s first film and this 2021 film. 

So The Last Duel starts by telling us it is based on true events. Its essentially a Medieval rape-revenge drama, which is a summation that does it no favours at all, and its method of telling its narrative from three seperate viewpoints weighs the film down with a big Rashomon reference nailed to its back like an easy target. The Last Duel is no Rashomon– for one thing the three versions of the story are largely very similar, the differences pointedly the subjective view of each narrator, complicated by how much faith we have in who is being true and doubts regards what ‘truth’ even means in such a misogynistic world. Even the word ‘rape’ essentially has different meaning in 1386, less a crime against the female victim and more an affront to the man who ‘owns’ her. This is a horrifying world in which only men hold power and authority, and the woman Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) is caught in the middle of some long feud between past freinds Jean (Matt Damon), and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) which ends in typical bloody masculinity; a fight to the death which will decide the truth of her allegations and possibly result in her being flogged and burned alive. Hell yeah – this is the kind of film to outrage feminists everywhere and turn men into apologists for their gender (and as usual for Ridley, religion and its power machinations don’t come out too positively either).

What made The Last Duel so interesting and rewarding, for me, was the typical Ridley habit of featuring largely unlikeable characters. Even considering its general plotline, this is not the narrative one might expect in an audience-friendly Hollywood flick, characters don’t tick the boxes we’d usually expect. Jean, the wronged husband nominally defending his wife’s reputation is a brute, something of a monster. He’s a violent man more disposed to the battle field, largely unread and uncultured, and always on the brink of poverty. Its telling that he marries Marguerite not out of love but more out of the need of her dowry, paid to him by her father, in order to keep Jean solvent – part of his grievance with Jacques Le Gris is because Le Gris is gifted land which Jean thought he was entitled to as part of Marguerite’s dowry. Le Gris meanwhile is less the warrior and more the gifted socialite, working his way up through society through his manners and cultured upbringing rather than prowess serving the King on battlefields. This might suggest that he is a ‘nicer’, more likeable character but far from it- he’s actually quite repellent as regards his treatment of women (albeit one must remember its typical of that period). Its  interesting how the film portrays the actual rape- first from Le Gris’ point of view, which sees Marguerite’s protestations as token actions of ‘a lady’ who is actually quite willing, and then how we see it from Marguerite’s own view. Even something as subtle as Marguerite slipping off her footwear before backing upstairs towards her bedroom – enticingly provocative in Le Gris’ account, whereas they simply fall off in her rising panic  as she flees for safety upstairs in Marguerite’s telling.

In truth, I don’t think anyone comes across well in the film other than Marguerite- this is a film in which all men are largely bastards and dismissive of women other than as objects of lust or vessels for children. Perhaps the film lacks the sophistication to suggest that the men are not inherently evil, rather more products of their society and world, or perhaps that’s expected as a given. Its possibly one of the weaknesses of the film, that we don’t really ‘like’ either of the two men caught in combat during the final duel, but that’s possibly a case of reality getting in the way of empathy with the narrative. In an ‘ordinary’ or traditional film, we’d have a hero to root for, one of the men on the side of ‘right’. Instead we’re more concerned in the twists of the fight to the death as regards what it means for poor Marguerite who will be summarily tortured and executed if her husband falls. I have to admit, I felt quite tense during the last duel, having absolutely no idea who was going to be victorious or what the ultimate outcome for Marguerite might be, so some kudos for the film there. Its nice when watching a modern film not being able to second-guess or predict it. Neither man is really fighting for Marguerite- Jean has old scores to settle and the personal sense of affront regards his sullied wife, while Le Gris has likely already moved on to some other female conquest. 

Ironically however, for all the failings of the characters themselves, the actors come across very well indeed, and barring a few dodgy accents and a turn from Ben Affleck as the rich Count Pierre d’Alençon, cousin to the mad King and court ally of Le Gris, which I’ve still got mixed feelings about., the cast is excellent. Comer is just brilliant, probably the best performance in the film and one of the best I’ve seen all year. Damon and Driver are both very good, giving nuanced performances of complex and flawed characters, engaging and repellent in equal measure, something not at all easy. I think one of the improvements in Ridley’s films over the years has been his work with actors and one can see that here.

So this may not be top-tier Ridley, whatever that actually means as there are so many differing opinions regards which are his best films (hell, I actually like The Counsellor)  but its certainly a solid film and one of his better ones – most definitely a return to form. Time, of course, will provide the true yardstick, rather than the frankly appalling box-office which has left this film cited as the bomb of the year. I’d like to think the film will find its audience over time, and apparently this already may well be the case with home streaming figures reportedly being high- its just perhaps not the film to drag punters into cinemas, particularly during a pandemic. So wrong film, wrong time… that’s hardly a first for Ridders.

See you never again, Space Cowboy, etc

Anyone else get excited to see that Denis Villeneuve has apparently signed-on to direct a film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama? I think I’m actually more intrigued by this than I am Dune Part Two. Curious timing though; any such Rama film would have to be some four to five years away, and Villeneuve has been talking about a Dune Messiah movie. You need the patience of a Jedi these days, and I have to say, none of us are getting any younger.

arrival bookWhilst mentioning Villeneuve, I spotted a book coming out next February, a very belated tie-in for his film Arrival. The Art and Science of Arrival seems to be in the same vein as Tanya Lapointe’s previous Blade Runner 2049 and Dune books, and since its currently due out in my birthday month…  

Lapointe seems to be chasing after the film tie-in crown of the late J.W.Rinzler (damn you, 2021) and she’s gradually taking over the real estate of my bookshelf.  I’ll always think that the passing of Rinzler robbed us of the definitive’ making of’ Blade Runner book; it probably would never have happened, but one could dream of a Rinzler Making of Blade Runner as easily as dreaming of Electric Sheep, and it would surely have been something truly special.

The news that Netflix has already -already! after just THREE weeks!- cancelled its live-action Cowboy Bebop, which I actually quite enjoyed… well I suppose that’s either definitive proof that I’m way off the cultural zeitgeist -someone will be telling me that Disney’s Star Wars films are film classics next- or I’m smarter than everyone else (okay, okay, yes I’m utterly irrelevant, stop reading this now). While the show was clearly not perfect, I suspect its production in the midst of a full-blown pandemic could mark it as a Covid Casualty. I still think for all its flaws it had some promise, was pleasantly different to most other genre stuff we see lately (usually dark, serious and overblown, as if everything has to be Game of Thrones written from a JJ Abrams typewriter), and might have found its proper footing in a second season. I don’t get it with Netflix- they don’t seem so occupied with viewing figures/ratings like ordinary networks are, so if its worth investing in a ‘new’ property (I’m using the term ‘new’ loosely in these reboot/remake days) surely its worth backing that up with a second season? Bad enough I’m going to be waiting forever for a Mindhunter season three. Maybe I should cool down my expectations for the Netflix Conan.

Coming full circle to all things Villeneuve, Amazon Italy put my 4K copies of Dune and The Last Duel (hey, Ridley gets a mention, and hopefully a film review here, before the end of 2021!) through the letterbox so I know what I’ll be watching this weekend, and with the 4K disc of No Time to Die hopefully arriving Monday, crikey, Christmas has indeed come early. Hopefully the next lockdown won’t follow suit…

Late-night 4K Trek

Last night I did something I haven’t done in awhile; I had a half-hour or so before going to bed and decided to unpack my 4K Star Trek movies set and watch a bit of both Star Trek: TMP and Wrath of Khan. You know, load up the disc, drop into the film at pretty much random points, see how it holds up in 4K: not something I ever do, really- I much prefer to just sit down and watch the whole film. But it was late, and I’m not sure when I’m ever going to get around to these films.

(I’ve bought quite a few discs in the recent sales, far too many, to be honest, and the ‘to-watch-list’ is getting quite ridiculous now).

So for Star Trek:TMP I found myself watching the scenes after the Enterprise leaves Drydock: when it slips into the wormhole, the verbal sparks between Kirk and Decker after, Spock arriving… drawn into the film for longer than I’d intended, I stuck around for the Enterprise first encountering the V’ger Cloud just so I could wallow in some Trumbull effects and Goldsmith music. Its good for the soul.

General consensus has it that Wrath of Khan is the best of all the Star Trek movies, but I prefer The Motion Picture. It feels more… serious, mythic, a sense of Big Ideas. Of course Wrath of Khan wasn’t helped by TMP’s perceived failures, and while it does improve on some things (the character beats for Kirk, Spock and McCoy feel more akin to the TV show,. and they get plenty of screen time together) it does suffer from such a reduced sense of scale and ambition that some of the sets compare poorly to tv-fodder like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Anyhow, when I popped Khan into the player I watched the part when the Enterprise departs Spacedock (quelle deja-vu!) and up to Reliant’s first attack on the Enterprise. 

I enjoyed it more than I expected to. I figure its one of the best things about Trek- the shows variety. Looking back on the 1960s three seasons, the show was quite different, episode by episode. The Motion Picture is like more highbrow episodes like The Cage or City on the Edge of Forever, and Wrath of Khan is more, well, Doomsday Machine. Oddly, Doomsday Machine is one of my favourite episodes, the one I’ve watched more times than any other, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that Khan should be my favourite of the films. Well that’s just me being more contrary again I guess.

The Motion Picture is such a 1970s film. Its rather lovely, all the costumes (well, maybe we could do without those security dudes) and the sense of the film being ‘a motion picture’ at a time when that actually meant something. Wrath of Khan is very much a 1980s picture: its funny how films were already sliding into being marketable properties, perhaps more entertainment than art-form. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I was getting tired when I switched off the television. I just had a weird feeling of something seismic happening between the two films, which I hadn’t noticed before, something that’s still happening today.  

When my head finally hit the pillow upstairs, I found sleep didn’t come easy. Instead I was thinking back to 1982, when Khan came out, that wonderful year of Poltergeist, Tron, Conan The Barbarian, The Thing, E.T., Blade Runner,  First Blood, Creepshow, Firefox, The Dark Crystal…the bastard children of George Lucas’ Star Wars, of five years before, Hollywood finally thinking it had figured it out. The irony being, its still trying to figure it out, but we just don’t have wonderful years like that anymore.

The 2021 List: November

I think it’s time we blow this scene, Get everybody and the stuff together
OK, 3, 2, 1, let’s jam!

ahem. Sorry about that, I think my head has been rewired from watching all of that tv show over just four days. Here’s what was the good, the bad and the ugly of November-

Television

155) Cowboy Bebop (2021)

Film

135) The Village in the Woods (2019)

136) The Brothers Rico (1957)

137) The Contract (2006)

Sneakers (1992)

138) Major Dundee (1965)

139) Crossfire (1947)

140) Red Notice (2021)

141) Scandal Sheet (1952)

152) Carmilla (2019)

In The Mouth of Madness (1994)

153) Reminiscence (2021)

154) Born to Be Bad (1950)

Spider-Man (2002)

156) House of Bamboo (1955)

157) Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

One television show. Its funny, there’s quite a few television shows out right now that I haven’t gotten around to yet, and worse still, plenty I’ve missed over the past several months, but my focus of late still seems to be predominantly movies, and hey, films on disc even! Six of the above, in fact were on Blu-ray or 4K disc.  

Sadly, the worst of the bunch was the more recent ones- The Village in the Woods, Carmilla, Reminiscence and Red Notice… no, nothing much to see amongst that bunch (I think Reminiscence the best of a bad selection), and instead I was better rewarded by old films on catalogue releases (some more from that last Columbia Noir box, and Arrow’s Major Dundee, Masters of Cinema’s House of Bamboo) and a few noir dug up from obscure corners of cable channel scheduling and Amazon Prime. Amazon seems a surprisingly good source of old films, albeit they can be a little hard to dig up: I imagine most of them have monthly streaming figures lower than the fingers on my right hand, or the hits on my posts. 

Curiously, I did also manage to re-watch a few films I haven’t seen in awhile: I finally bought John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness on a German Blu-ray (so that’s the UK 4K release announcement due any day now), and I also bought Film Stories’ Blu-ray edition of Sneakers, a film I hadn’t seen since back in the cinema, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which I noticed last weekend had just three days left on a 4K presentation on Amazon Prime, intended to just watch the start and then two hours later wondered where the time had gone. One of the rare unplanned viewings that just happen: right film, right time… I was surprised how well it still held up. And of course horrified that the film is nigh on twenty years old already. That kind of thing is happening all the time now, I notice films I watched at the cinema or had on DVD and they feel quite recent initially, but when you dare look at release dates… well its true; ignorance is bliss, I’d be better off not looking. 

 

Reminiscence 4K UHD (2021)

rem1Lisa Joy’s tech-noir thriller Reminiscence is a film which, like a few this year, I unfortunately missed at the cinema, which annoyed me as it seemed right up my street – someone went and made an adult, intelligent sci-fi thriller and I didn’t get to see it, and like BR2049 it bombed spectacularly. So I was really looking forward to seeing it when it came to home video, and naturally I went the full 4K UHD route (with hindsight its a pleasant surprise it has turned up on the format at all), but it proved rather disappointing.  It turns out that, for all it does well -and it does indeed do some things very well- its badly flawed, unfortunately. It’s not bad, exactly- it just doesn’t tie together somehow, it doesn’t really work, overall, which is frustrating because some elements are very good indeed. Its a case of being clumsy where it really needed to soar, and perhaps being overly familiar.

So many films and tv shows one sees these days, if they aren’t actually remakes or reboots, they still often seem to be a combination of the ‘greatest hits’ of someone’s DVD collection. Maybe its the entertainment industry’s sincerest form of flattery, or a reminder that there really is nothing new under the sun.

Reminiscence is hitched upon the central conceit that an invention enables people to re-live some of their past experiences which can be visualised for others to see and record, and this also enables access to forgotten memories or the ability to vividly recall things otherwise only dimly remembered. The law enforcement agencies use this machine to interrogate suspects who can be prosecuted by the evidence their memories reveal – an inversion of the ‘future crime’ of Memory Report, then, but similarly projecting crimes for others to see and record for evidence, criminals being betrayed by their own memories or those of witnesses.   

The seductive aspect of reliving good memories, especially in the distinctly dystopian world which Reminiscence proposes, reminds one of another tech-noir thriller, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, and its device which enabled the recording of events for others to experience, itself similar to Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm of some years before. Some characters in Reminiscence are doomed to endlessly  return to and re-experience good times in just the same way as Ralph Fiennes’ Lenny in Strange Days, and indeed this is something mirrored by the ultimate fate of this film’s main character, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), who can’t let go of his muse, Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) any more than Lenny can shake off his obsession over his own lost love. So Reminiscence seems to come to us now third-hand, almost, rather than be anything actually new, ironically leaking reminiscences of other films-  I don’t really mind that if its done in some new and interesting way, but this is where the film slips up.  While there is some political subtext and a crime to solve, Lisa Joy treats that as secondary to its romance woven through the narrative, and its that which doesn’t entirely convince. Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson are very good actors but they just seem a little too ‘perfect’ to convince as the flawed, haunted characters that Joy wants them to be. There is a feeling that we are always watching beautiful people merely approximating what desperate, hungry and haunted characters might be like were they a little more, well, ordinary like the rest of us. Perhaps this is always true of Hollywood product. 

There is, to be sure, a really great film in here, somewhere. Considering recent world attention on Climate Change and rising sea levels, seeing a film portraying a possible nightmare scenario spun off of that -in this case a half-submerged Miami and days so hot that everyone sleeps in the day and spend the majority of their waking hours during the night-as vividly as this film does is something timely and fascinating. And the reliance of the survivors upon the new technology to re-experience memories and experiences of better times as an avenue of escape is very interesting, and similar to how people during the pandemic have eulogised old pre-COVID traditions and pursuits like, hey, going to the cinema like we used to, or perhaps re-watching films that remind us of better times. There is perhaps a subtext there upon fantasy and escape and what catharsis films themselves provide us, and what a dead-end that may be. 

So what goes wrong exactly? I think its partly the romance that doesn’t wholly convince, and as that’s the central interest for Lisa Joy that’s a pretty fundamental failing. The crime that hangs in the background concerning a wealthy family, an illegitimate child, a bent cop and resultant murders just doesn’t interest either, really. Maybe its just too many balls to juggle in the air; I rather suspect that Lisa Joy has more success with so many narrative threads when she’s spacing them over an eight or ten-episode series on HBO rather than a two-hour movie, and films always tend to need cohesive, satisfying endings, not more mystery boxes. 

As someone who has watched quite a few film noir lately, I also think that Reminiscence could have possibly done without its narration, a noir device that doesn’t, to be honest, really work for me here. I always prefer film-makers to show me, don’t tell me, and the best noir, no matter how complex they may be, can often manage just fine without a voice explaining it all. Maybe I’m wrong and don’t appreciate that post-millennials are lazier. 

Maybe Reminiscence is just another victim of dystopian films just not appealing to audiences right now- maybe we’re swerving back to the days of post-Vietnam 1977 and audiences just want escapist fun. We’re living in a dystopian world as it is, and we know the future increasingly looks bleak; we don’t necessarily need films to remind us, or show us how bad it might get. Or maybe we just want better movies.