Thanks a lot, you cheating bastard…

omega1I don’t care what anyone says, The Omega Man is a cool film, and a great old-fashioned sci-fi film. Whatever ‘old-fashioned’ means- maybe its just the lack of any cgi or virtual sets, or its blatantly dated 1970s fashions and cars. Its odd that, for all its possible faults as a movie, it remains just plain cool, and gets cooler as the 1970s get more distant. Maybe you had to live in the 1970s and remember that decade with some fondness, but whenever I watch The Omega Man I’m rushed back to my childhood. Not that my childhood featured desolate streets and bad guys in spooky hoods prowling in the night, but… Likely people born in the 1980s or 1990s look back at something like The Omega Man rather differently, with the wrong kind of horror. But to me, its a cool film, a film made back when August 1977 was still in the future. Can you even get your head around that?

For one thing, it stars movie legend Charlton Heston. Say what you like about him as an actor or his real-life politics, but thanks to his Biblical epics he always seemed larger than life (Omega Man’s love-interest Rosalind Cash remarked to Heston  “It feels strange to screw Moses”). Certainly, Heston oozes a screen charisma so lacking in actors of our generation.  He had such a run of films back then, fighting a planet of talking apes in 1968, playing the last man on Earth here in 1971, and then discovering the horrifying secret of Soylent Green in 1973. I never really think of him as a sci-fi actor, but he made three solid genre films back then, and his presence is a big part of their success. Somehow a big ‘name’ like him gives them a certain gravitas and allows them to stand the test of time better than others. I remember an issue of Fantastic Films that had an interview with Heston discussing his genre films- I’d love to dig that out sometime. As I recall, Heston was fairly critical of The Omega Man, believing it to be one of his lesser films. He was probably right, but if he were alive today, I think he might be surprised how the film has survived and gained a cult status.

Sure, The Omega Man is patently a film from 1971 that was trying just too hard to be relevant in those turbulent times, with its interracial romance, casual female nudity, ‘hip’ slang/dialogue and its fashions (that jacket with the logo on the back sticking the finger to ‘the man’). There is something about the music score, funky and cool and jazzy, which I have mentioned here before. Its dated in places but when the main Neville theme kicks in its irresistable. But maybe all that is just what makes it so cool? Its like a film from some other planet (maybe the 1970s is some other planet), likely part of its appeal- it isn’t sophisticated, it is just a simple thriller with the good guy at odds with lots of hooded bad guys in an urban wilderness.omega2It is a little odd that they don’t even go for any matte paintings to give some scale to the ruined desolation, going instead with panoramic ‘live’ shots usually filmed in LA on Sunday mornings in deserted streets. I’m told you can actually see other cars moving in the far distance in wider shots but what the hell, I don’t even look for them; I’m enjoying watching the movie too much to care.  Why look for goofs when you’re enjoying a movie?

One of the films clear failings is that the director Boris Sagal was the wrong director for a film like this. While its actually fairly effective, given its limitations, in depicting its dystopian, nightmare vision of the end of the world from a monstrous man-made plague, I’ll admit there’s a certain lack of imagination in the direction of the film. ‘Functional’ is perhaps the kindest way to describe it. Heston suggested the closing shot of him lying, arms open as if in  Christ-like crucifixion, that is a flash of imagination (perhaps ill-judged, by which I mean it crudely sticks out) that the rest of the film lacks. Of course the shot also inevitably references Heston’s earlier Biblical epics, as much as possibly the Hollywood star’s ego.

I’m pleased to report that the Blu-ray edition of The Omega Man, whether you buy the HMV-exclusive or import the triple-feature edition that I did, sports a pretty solid picture. Its sharp and has fine detail (maybe a little too much for some make-up effects) and is no doubt the best the film has looked since its theatrical showing back in 1971. The extras are slim, unsurprisingly; a few minor featurettes, one of them a promo featurette from when it was made that particularly dates the film. They are rather interesting, but a commentary would have been nice.

The Gods of Greece are cruel!

jason1It is difficult not to now approach Jason and the Argonauts as much as a technological curio as a work of art. It dates back to pre-2001, pre-ILM, pre-CGI times; its stop-motion (‘Dynamation’ as Ray Harryhausen coined it), rear-projection effects cannot help but seem primitive and ‘fake’ compared to the sophisticated effects of today. But here’s the rub: define ‘today’. Back in 1978, Harryhausen’s movies seemed quaint and old-fashioned to my twelve-year old self, bedazzled as I was by Star Wars.  And yet here in 2017, those same effects of Star Wars seem pretty quaint and old-fashioned compared to the effects wizardry of, say, the recent Ghost in the Shell or this year’s crop of Marvel and DC movies. Who knows where things will lead, and how fake the effects of 2017 may seem in 2030?

And yet some might suggest there is an inherent ‘soul’ in those Star Wars miniatures from 1977 that is lacking in the virtual cgi worlds of today’s effects wonders. An artistry born of the limitations of effects technology of the time created beautiful shots that easily match the dizzyingly kinetic spectacles of today. Just because you can sweep a virtual camera over an impossible arc over a plain of tens of thousands of virtual combatants in a Lord of the Rings movie does not mean it is any more successful than a locked-down matte shot involving a few hundred extras. Very often such sweeping impossible shots, impressive as they may be, actually only serve to pull me out of the movie, a distance instilled from knowing the shot is impossible, the stuff of a sophisticated box of pixels. Maybe thats because I grew up with those locked-down matte shots, but I’d rather think that, no matter immersive a film may be, it can still pull you out of it by being too wildly unreal. Peoples mileage may vary, but there’s always a point at which it all just seems too much. The effects no longer serve the story; rather the story is simply serving the effects and spectacle. Even the most photo-realistic effects can have the whiff of a cartoon if they are losing any grounding of reality.

Jason and the Argonauts cannot help but feel dated. Ray Harryhausen was attempting stuff never seen before, bringing mythological creatures to life the only way he could, with his hands, one frame at a time, with the magical sleight of hand provided by a camera and projector. Shots are locked down, the filmstock becomes grainy, miniatures slip in and out of focus as they try to maintain depth of field.  But every shot has a magic all its own. You can sense the time and imagination and skill of Harryhausen over hours, days and weeks in some shots, a craft and soul rather devoid in the cgi wonders of today, as amazing as they might seem. Its something of the smell of old pulpy paper in old paperbacks and books, worn by sun and time. Its almost tactile.

Its old. Its rather fake. But it is also glorious. Its why we can watch the 1933 King Kong and fall in love with that ape- and there’s another Blu-ray I need to watch soon.

This Blu-ray edition of Jason and the Argonauts, presently an HMV exclusive here in the UK, is a damn fine release. The benefits of HD are not immediately clear, as the effects shots by their nature bring with them pretty monstrous leaps in grain but some of the close-ups of the armatures etc (the skeletons in particular) really do display impressive detail and creative artistry. And the non-effects sequences generally look great with the boosted detail and colour range. The extras are especially fine, with two commentary tracks that I really need to sit and listen to (the one with Harryhausen a historical document, surely) and a number of featurettes, one of which, The Harryhausen Chronicles, is a great hour-long doc narrated by Leonard Nimoy no less. Its an overview of Harryhausen’s life and career with lots of footage from the films he made. Brilliant stuff and something of a tease of many of the Blu-ray discs of Harryhausen films due this year (the Sinbad films first, then Mysterious Island and First Men in the Moon afterwards- I have the Twilight Time disc of First Men and its excellent; if Indicator surpass it then thats another double-dip).

The weird irony of this film is, after all the whining I do about modern films not having ‘proper’ endings and instead just teases for others, I’d forgotten how abruptly Jason and the Argonauts ends. Suddenly after the fight with the skeletons the film closes, and Jason never returns home to take his rightful place on the throne (the point of the whole adventure). It just suddenly ends with Zeus teasing further adventures for Jason. Due to the films (inexplicable) poor box office, those future adventures never materialised. Its almost incredible that Harryhausen only ever made one Jason pic considering how well it performed over the decades since on tv etc. The gods of Greece are indeed cruel, Jason.

 

 

The Brutal Big Heat

bigh2017.23: The Big Heat (1953) – Blu ray

There’s a scene in The Big Heat… happily-married, decent cop and father Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is at home with his wife and child. Already under the attention of ruthless criminals and their boss who is the kingpin of a corrupted city, Bannion hugs and kisses his loving wife, and for a moment everything seems right in the world. If this was a modern movie, they’d kill his wife or go after his child, I thought to myself. And then- bang. Bannion’s world collapses as his wife goes out to the family car and is blown up by an explosion intended for Bannion. Having ripped away from him his family, it sends Bannion onto a road of revenge and hate, giving up his badge and taking the law into his own hands. This a 1970s flick or a modern Liam Neeson thriller, right?

The Big Heat is a thoroughly modern film; other than featuring Production Code-mandated bloodless gunshots, it is surprisingly violent, and brutal. I don’t know why the death of Bannion’s wife seems so shocking, but it is, as if the film steps suddenly over some unexpected line that films from the ‘fifties aren’t meant to cross. But why the surprise, this is a film-noir, right? Perhaps it is how Glenn Ford, as an actor, seems to embody American decency and his family some American Ideal. Ripping it away from Bannion and the audience just seems something done in 1970s movies, not a film from 1953. A ridiculous notion I know, but all the same, I can only imagine how shocking this film was to viewers at the time, particularly with how Ford portrays the grieving Bannion’s descent into darkness and single-minded path of revenge. The film seems to start as one thing, then turns into another, darker piece with subversive undercurrents.

The clues come earlier of course- the first shot of the film is of a handgun, and the first scene is of a suicide. A woman hearing the noise of the gunshot walks down the stairs but does not react to the suicide scene; instead she calmly walks over and finds, and examines, what appears to be a suicide note/confession addressed to the District Attorney.  She takes the note and moves to a desk phone and makes a call. Its clear that something is wrong- and the District Attorney is not going to receive that letter.

We are about to enter a dark and pretty-much permanently night-time world of criminality and corruption which will cost our one good detective his family.  Its a pretty desperate, violent world, too- particularly for women. After one woman raises doubts about the suicide and is seen talking to Bannion, she is tortured and killed, and when another is caught talking to him, she has hot coffee thrown in her face, permanently disfiguring her. It’s as if they are caught in some web of fate being woven about Bannion’s sense of righteousness that even destroys his wife.  Its almost the definitive film noir, and Bannion becoming a wild card as dangerous to others as the criminals that he is hunting. Even his child daughter becomes a target of the criminals desperate to rein him in; distressingly, anything goes, there are no rules. How alarming this must have seemed to audiences back in 1953.

bigh2.jpgSo what price justice in this dark world? Bannion has to resort to his fists and his gun to get the justice he needs, threatening violence to others at every turn.  Eventually Bannion brings the criminals to account for their crimes and justice is served, and he returns to his job as a celebrated lawman, as if we are back in some old western. But it isn’t as simple as that seems- he has left three dead women in his wake and he has lost everything he held dear, indeed only left that which cost him everything he lost. There is a bitter irony to the closing moments. Somehow this just feels thoroughly modern.

Its a brilliant, thrilling and rather disturbing film.

Another blu-ray release from Indicator, this is pretty exceptional. There are some very fine extras alongside a great HD picture, and I must make special mention of the excellent booklet. I love informative booklets and this is one of the very best I’ve seen, with an essay, an archive interview with the director and several excerpts of reviews of the film offering various viewpoints. Highly recommended and essential for fans of film noir.

The 2017 Selection Pt.4

selection4bI’ve bought a few discs lately, which is putting into question my intent to curtail the expenditure this year and be a bit more selective, and required another updated photo of this year’s shelf. Beginning to wonder if I’m managing to keep the quality level up. So what of the additions since last time?

The Big Heat – Another Indicator release, and it’s clear those boys are after my wallet this year. Watched this only last night (review coming up sometime soon) and it was brilliant. Hadn’t seen this before, but as I love Film Noir (my second favourite film genre) it was a must-purchase, particularly as it was recommended online. It deserves all the praise, its excellent, and deserving special mention regards this Indicator release is that it features one of the very best booklets I’ve ever seen released with a disc.

Jason & The Argonauts – An old childhood favourite, and an excellent Blu-ray edition. The trouble with catalogue titles is that if you want more of them, and want them with plentiful extras and TLC, then you have to buy them, particularly now with physical disc sales diminishing. If you don’t buy ’em, they won’t release ’em- with that logic, it’s clear it is going to be an expensive year for Harryhausen films on blu-ray, with Indicator having several coming up. The cunning devils. I tell you, I may as well hand them my wallet.

KIng Kong – I love this film. Another of those HMV exclusives that required a journey into darkness/in-store purchase. This is a nice package with a nice booklet, but I have a fancy R1 DVD copy in an embossed tin-box package with same extras etc (which is what this HD release is based on, although it came in a digibook in the States). Tempted to get it out and pop these blu-ray discs in place of the DVDs, so there may be a transformation in the 2017 selections’ next update. Looking forward to giving this a spin late at night sometime. Can’t beat curling up with this film around midnight.

Kubo and the Two Strings- I’d never even heard of this until it was released on disc early this year, and read some glowing reviews that put it on my watchlist. Amazon dropping it to a fiver last week was too good an offer to refuse (note to self: ignore sales/offers as much as possible in future. Maybe stop browsing online altogether. It won’t end well).  Very curious about this one as I usually love this kind of stuff.

Rogue One An inevitable purchase and what I’ll most likely be watching tonight. We’ll see if it measures up on another viewing (particularly regards how CGI Tarkin and Leia look on a smaller screen).

Well I’m off to hide in a hole so I won’t be able to buy anymore discs for a bit. Need to watch a few of these first (Garcia– I can’t believe I haven’t gotten around to watching Garcia yet!).

Almost magnificent indeed

mag72017. 22: The Magnificent Seven (2016) – Blu ray

Surprisingly good. A damn solid Western, proving there is life in that old genre yet.

Back when this remake was announced, I had the natural response of ‘why bother?’ It always seems weird when a perfectly fine, classic film gets the remake treatment when so many poorer films could possibly better argue for another shot. Films like Logans Run, say, of which a remake might benefit from better effects technology and ability to stay more faithful to the original book (although I’m certain fans of that film might cry foul at such heresy).  But why The Magnificent Seven? The original is perfectly fine, what could a remake offer?

Yet here we are, another version is with us. But it works. Its different enough to qualify as a reworked adaptation for modern audiences, has a good solid cast reflecting some of the male stars of this generation, but doesn’t push any revisionism too far. You could almost argue it’s actually quite old-fashioned in how it respects the original and the Western genre, but there is also a self-knowing eye on everything; it is a Western that knows it is being released in 2016.  The carnage alone shows its a modern movie- its surprisingly violent and the death-toll is up there with a Rambo flick; there are enough bodies littering the landscape at films end to befit a massive war movie. But it works.

Its an approach reflected in the music too. Here the film has a poignant status, as the score was started -and its main themes written- by composer James Horner prior to his death. Completed by the composer’s musical team (the score credited to ‘by James Horner & Simon Franglen’) it sounds like an authentic James Horner score, almost crushingly so, as it’s the last original music from him that we will ever hear (discounting the slim possibility of, say, his Romeo & Juliet score, which was recorded and then dropped, getting a release). LIke the film itself, the music references Western traditions and even the original Elmer Bernstein score, but remains modern and ‘current’ in its execution/orchestration. It was such a bitter-sweet thing though, hearing familiar Horner-isms in the music, moments that sounded like earlier Horner scores, a reminder of what we have lost. But its a strong score that propels the film forward and is no small part of the films success, and forms a fitting finale to the composer’s career.

So I’m just left to wonder, will we get a sequel, as the original film did? I believe this film was a box-office success, and we all know how fond Hollywood is of sequels. I’d actually like to see it, if it could be handled by this same creative team. There’s nothing wrong with a damn fine Western, and I’ve always got time for another.

Person Of Interest Reaches End-Program

poi52017.20: Person Of Interest Season 5 (Blu-ray)

So Person Of Interest ends as strong as it’s ever been; indeed, there is a confidence in evidence here in its final run of thirteen episodes that is almost joyous. Confidence enough to ensure plenty of fan-service to give the show, its characters and fans some wonderful moments of comedy and catharsis after five long seasons of adventures (my personal favourite the sequence in the image above, allowing the actors to mimic each other to comedic effect which must have been a scream onset). Such things are important, because the one major advantage that tv shows have over films – more character time, more involved character arcs and audience bonds with those characters – means that they simply mean more to viewers, particularly over several years of viewing. Season five affords the return of some faces from earlier seasons and some surprises as various arcs reach their resolutions.

I have mixed feelings regards whether thirteen episodes was enough to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion; no doubt a full twenty-two episode run would have allowed more time for Harold to run amok with his Machine- there’s a feeling that the series has been building up to the inevitable moment when Harold lets his Machine loose but it then only has a few episodes to go with it. A subtle thread running through several episodes, in which Shaw thinks she is actually stuck in an elaborate simulation, could have reached some major Philip K Dick-levels of doubts about reality, but it isn’t fully as explored as it might have been. There is also an interesting subtext that casts doubts on who the good guys really are, with some telling arguments for the ‘good’ that the Samaritan AI can do, and the benefits of losing Freewill for the ‘greater good’.  Its interesting stuff that, as flawed an argument it might be, might have benefitted from more time to weave its subtle charge. Likewise some of the bad-guys that have hounded our heroes for so long seem to suffer ends that feel too abrupt.

poi5bBut at least they get their ends and fans get the conclusion to the series they deserve. It may not be perfect but it is pretty strong- possibly even superior to that which Fringe got. The cautionary tale of Artificial Intelligence in a  technological society with hidden surveillance seems to have gotten only more timely and in some ways I suspect had the show started in 2017 it might have gotten more attention and success. Ahead of its time? Maybe so. In anycase, the comparative brevity of thirteen episodes ensures that the pace rarely lets up as the many character arcs reach their conclusions. Not only the bad guys reach their ends – there are some genuine surprises and twists and turns, with some sadness adding poignancy to some of the happier outcomes.

On the whole, I’m really happy with how Person Of Interest ended. Its possibly one of the last great genre shows on Network TV and I’m grateful it managed to survive long enough to tell its story. Not all shows get that, and when they do –Fringe, Chuck, Battlestar Galactica etc- it is something to savour. It feels like a Christmas present. Which brings me to-

poi5c

Ahhh, bless ’em.

The 2017 Selection Pt.3

2017s3Here’s the latest state of the 2017 selection. There’s been a few additions since my last update. And hey, I’m still trying to curtail the spending this year.

Heat: God, another copy. Its just one of those movies. I think I have a VHS copy up in the loft somewhere, a widescreen version that came in a big box, don’t know if anybody out there remembers that edition. Studios must love idiots like me. So I buy this thinking it might be definitive and before it’s even arrived people are moaning about colour-timing and sound issues. I don’t know. At least it was strangely (suspiciously, maybe?) cheap. So I’ve got it in HD for something like a third of what I paid for it back on VHS. I won’t mention the DVD  thats lying around someplace. And no, I haven’t watched this copy yet.

The Leftovers- Season Two: I mentioned this awhile ago, as its what finally got me around to watching season one, and (hurrah!) I’ve also watched this too- review coming soon. Yeah, I’ve watched something in the 2017 selection- will this catch on? (he wonders, noting he still hasn’t watched Assault on Precinct 13 or Vampires or Garcia yet) .

Dr Strange: Actually, yes, I’ve watched this too, as my review a few weeks ago will attest. Well, I hadn’t seen it at the cinema and I’d been curious about it for months.

Logans Run/The Omega Man/Soylent Green: A triple-feature blu ray set, with each film coming in at under £4 each. Well, I’m always a sucker for deals like that. These are three 1970s dystopian science fiction films, each flawed in their own way but each having redeeming features making them worth re-watching, at least for someone like me who grew up with them on tv- I guess  viewers born post-1990 needn’t bother, they’ll likely hate them. Their loss; hell, they are worth watching if only for the soundtracks (which I have on CD for all three- yes I am that nerd in the corner).

Arrival: The best film of last year. A compulsory  blu ray purchase. I watched the disc the other night and yes, it just confirmed Oscar had it all wrong- Amy Adams deserved a nomination at the very least, and quite possibly the statuette itself too. This is a science fiction film for the ages and deserves to be ranked up there with CE3K. I should probably do another review based on the home experience. Indeed, I could watch this all over again already. There’s something strangely rewatchable about this film, the way it flows, the direction, the acting… wonderful sound design. This film has me so excited for Blade Runner 2049 (if only they could do something about that title; it still feels awkward to me). Its made me wonder though, how rare it is to watch a science fiction film these days and think it’s one for the ages.

So anyway, as we tumble towards April, this is the latest photo of my disc purchases this year. And yes, by year’s end, I vow to have watched everything in this photo.

Person Of Interest Nears End-Program

poi42017.16: Person Of Interest Season Four – Blu-ray

Person of Interest almost seems something of a curio in this changed landscape that is television today. It isn’t a cable blockbuster, and it isn’t a season of ten or twelve episodes. No, this is a throwback to how tv shows always used to be, a 22-episode season on Network TV, complete with scripted teases/pauses for commercial breaks. These days, that’s almost an oddity. One could be forgiven that television has moved on, what with Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and MadMen and  other shows on cable, and so many other shows airing on providers such as Netflix and Amazon. In many ways, television has indeed moved on- Person of Interest seems from some other era.

Which is, to be frank, part of its appeal. While it does have a story-arc that stretches across each season, and indeed over all the seasons as a whole, many of the episodes generally work as seperate stories focusing on guest-stars and characters/storylines unique to each episode, often ending with an old-fashioned ‘reset’ that sees the regular characters ready and waiting for next week’s adventure. Its almost quaint, and yet it feels almost comforting in a tv landscape that can make so many demands on viewers. I recently tried watching episode 1 of series two of The Expanse and it had be scurrying away to my season one boxset, as I couldn’t really make any sense of this new episode. I hadn’t seen any of the show since last June/July and I could only recall a vaguest sense of the plot and the new episode utterly lost me, frankly. Its exhilerating to have such sophisticated storytelling that makes such demands on the viewer but it can frustrate too. Person of Interest is decidedly Old-School- not necessarily drop in/drop out whenever you like, but its all fairly familiar and tends to bring you up to speed easily enough.

At times that’s one of the shows problems- it isn’t really sophisticated at all. Very often the dialogue awkwardly explains what is going on or someones backstory or motivations, stuff viewers are familiar enough with if they are paying attention, but handy to keep casual viewers up to speed.Although sometimes it feels like it is filling the blanks for those who are late getting back from the commercial break. Which is ironic, as I’m binge-watching it on a box-set, so there are no breaks to commercials for cat food and recaps from a few episodes back are pretty redundant watching an episode or two every night..

poiWhile the show is inferior to Fringe, possibly the last genuinely great Network-based genre tv show, its nonetheless impressive that it maintains a pretty high quality level whilst somehow making 22 hours of television each season. Thats not easy, especially when it tries to maintain film-quality production levels each week, with plenty of location footage on the streets of New York.  Like Fringe, Person Of Interest struggled with ratings, something Network TV is notoriously rabid and ruthless about, but thankfully a truncated season five offers some kind of conclusion to the show. I’ll see soon enough, having now finished season four.

Maybe the show doesn’t really attain the heights I’d hoped for it a few years ago, but it is good fun, and it certainly has that old-school appeal that many of the new blockbuster shows, for all their complexity, often lack.  Part of the charm of the show is naturally its great cast of fairly entertaining and interesting characters, the saving grace of many such shows and why we keep on returning to them, but it also feels like the kind of television I used to watch back in the 1970s and 1980s. Sure the production values and overall quality is way higher than all that Glen Larson stuff etc but it has that old comforting feel. The tv equivalent of a comfort blanket and a handy undemanding escape from reality. That seems like faint praise, but I don’t intend it to be.

Now, where did I put that Season Five box..?

What it means to be young: Streets of Fire

sof1Whenever I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire I always think about VHS. Its like they are inseparable, and might explain why it’s been more than twenty years since I last saw it. Watching it on blu-ray just feels… almost weird, and although the picture is inevitably better it almost seems inferior without all the grain, drop-outs and blooming reds of watching it on tape.Bizarrely, looking back on it, some films almost looked better with that grainy VHS fuzziness, and I’d likely include Blade Runner in that, too. VHS just had this thing for smoke/steam/neon, the way images would go grainy and the colours bloom out into a pulsing mess. It was kind of beautiful. In crystal-clear HD it can sometimes look, well, too clean.

And thats another curio about those two films, as each of them crashed and burned at the box office but gained a second life -and revaluation- on home video. Streets of Fire in particular seemed to me to just capture the zeitgeist, almost, of that time and that new home-viewing technology. It was bold and colourful and fairly gritty and had rock songs and a great Ry Cooder soundtrack (an unreleased score, too, another weird synchronicity between SOF and BR). It just seemed made for video, back in the era of the early days of MTV remember, and of course seemed light years ahead of the films being shown on network tv at the time.

How to explain the new thrill back then of video rentals, picking films from their box art on a shelf and taking it home to watch? Impossible in this day and age of streaming and downloads and buying films to explain how much of a revolution it was back in the 1980s and only having four channels on the television, and that heavily sanitized by censors etc. Of the delicious tactile thing of that plastic, rattling case and the tape inside? Beats shiny discs in just the same way as vinyl will always be more romantic a thing than cds or mp3’s.

So I’ll aways remember Streets of Fire as being a video rental back when those things were something special and an exciting departure from the stuff on television. And it was a pretty cool movie anyway. It looked like a retro/futuristic fantasy much akin to Blade Runner, had sharp witty dialogue and yet an old-fashioned feel, like something out of a Jimmy Stewart western. It had this breathless pace, carried by that throbbing, beautiful Ry Cooder score, the heartbeat of the movie. It had a great young cast. And Walter Hill directing it.

Watching it now on Blu-ray… well, there was the first thing that was off about it. Watching it on disc instead of tape. The reds didn’t bloom, the picture was clear of drop-outs and I didn’t need to fret about the tracking. Man, thats no way to watch Streets of Fire.

sof2In all seriousness, Streets of Fire today holds up pretty well.  Its a neo-noir Western/gangster flick/Musical, this weird stylistic hybrid that maybe doesn’t really work but has a fine time trying to. There is such a blatant naivety about it, a weird fairy tale of youngsters pretending to be old-school movie stars in a big Hollywood movie. It really is a silly Rock and roll fable with intentionally cheesy dialogue and characters straight out of old Westerns, familiar archetypes that are so old-fashioned as to be almost endearing, as if it’s teenagers appropriating those archetypes, Hollywood being self-reverential. It has likely dated poorly and new viewers no doubt find it oddly disjointed and bettered by later, better films, but old fans like me will love it forever.

Maybe you just had to be young. I don’t know. There are far worse films.

And the cast! God lord they all look so young (because of course they really were). Diane Lane so beautiful  (and apparently utterly vexed she couldn’t perform her character’s songs herself), Amy Madigan, Rick Moranis, Bill Paxton (this is the first film I’ve seen of his since he passed away, rather bittersweet), William Dafoe… a great cast, all destined for greater things. And then of course there is Michael Paré in the lead role of Tom Cody, the film’s biggest casting misstep. He doesn’t really work, the biggest problem being his lack of chemistry with Lane. He’s not a bad actor, he just feels like he’s in the wrong movie (besides, is it an actor’s fault if he’s miss-cast? How come he is then expected to carry the blame for a film’s failure?).

MSDSTOF EC052
STREETS OF FIRE, Michael Pare, 1984

Not that Paré doesn’t have his moments, but he’s clearly more of a supporting/character actor than the charismatic, charming major lead which this film needs. Then again, it was his first big movie and he needed help that he apparently didn’t get from the director, left to flounder like a fish out of water and it shows through most of the film. Its sad and there’s a charm to how wrong he is, like he’s some kind of acting underdog who you just want to somehow succeed. Apparently they came really close to signing a pre-superstar Tom Cruise instead, and you have to wonder how that Streets of Fire would have looked/fared with Cruise in the lead (and Daryl Hannah originally intended in Lane’s role, too, at one point). At any rate, you can’t lay the blame of the film’s failure simply on Paré. There are more responsible parties who would always prefer that, of course.

More importantly, and most damningly, there are several key stylistic choices that really derail the film. The keyed-down violence is one of them. The thinking was that as its a fairytale/Rock and Roll fable nobody should get hurt and almost all the cast be under thirty, but that lack of gritty violence and/or gore just, well, bleeds the life out of it. It looks dark and edgy, has a great Cooder score that throbs and pulses, but it all feels watered-down and neutered, there’s no sense of real threat. Its a pity there was never an alternate, stronger cut, or that the film wasn’t shot in two different ways to offer that choice. But it was only shot the one way and by the time it came together it was too late to ‘fix’ it I guess. The good guy doesn’t really have to suffer to succeed, and the bad guy never really has the chance to be anything bad. There isn’t any real intensity to any of the drama.

Even the title of the film hints at problems- originally the Bruce Springsteen song was to be the main/end title music for the film but Springsteen wouldn’t allow it to be used. Oddly enough, before Cooder got involved, the original score was by James Horner, which was even recorded but got rejected. So you also have to wonder how that might have affected the film- although I love what Cooder did, a Streets of Fire with an early James Horner score would sound, and feel, quite different. Its also another clear sign that the film was in trouble, that they just couldn’t nail the stylistic feel they were after or got lost in second-guessing themselves, all clear signs of a film in trouble.

Not that I really cared back when I watched this on VHS. It still seemed pretty cool. Its only watching it again decades later that it is all too apparent where the film falters and what it could have been.But its still fun. One of those ‘what might have been’ movies, and anyway, to me it will always feel like a love-letter to the days of VHS. So all that young cast and cheesy songs and 1980s MTV stylings, and a ‘straight-to-video’ actor in the lead role, all of that kind of works. It throws me back to when I was young. Got to love films that do that.

Marveling at Dr Strange

dr strange12017.15: Dr Strange (2016),  Blu-ray

They make it look so easy, don’t they? It must piss those boys at DC right off, seeing Marvel Studios parading its expertise at putting comicstrip adventures up on the big screen. Its pretty amazing really. When you really think about it, all this superhero nonsense is inherently juvenile, silly nonsense, but its actioned with such earnestness and conviction that audiences just lap it up. Why audiences are so ready for tales reduced to base concepts of good and evil and larger than life heroes and villains, modern mythologies to replace the Gods and Devils of old, I don’t know. I suppose that in this fairly-new millennium these superhero films function the same way as the Bonds and Star Wars of before, perhaps even on a bigger scale. The appeal, after all, is pretty universal- these films are hugely successful worldwide, across all kinds of racial and territorial boundaries. In an increasingly complicated and uncertain world, there is perhaps an appeal to simple heroes and villains.

So yeah, we can go about this review in two ways. On the one hand, Dr Strange is terrific entertainment with an engaging cast and pretty remarkable spectacle. On the other, well, its fairly routine Marvel Studios stuff. The film seldom really surprises and pretty much telegraphs much of what happens well in advance, particularly if you are familiar with Marvel’s output. Of course, that familiarity might be part of the charm of these films- all together they represent the Mother of All Box Sets, and there is an undeniable comfort blanket in losing yourself within this Marvel Studios universe, in just the same way as the comic Marvel universe had an escapist charm through my childhood. Barring a few missteps, those 1960s strips that I read in the 1970s weekly reprints of my childhood have been brought to vivid life- and most of those missteps are a personal thing regards updating 60s strips to our modern world. Yeah, I can’t help that, its just a personal thing- Spiderman’s New York will always be a 1960s Mad Men episode to me; it just feels odd in a modern world of mobile phones and computers seeing guys dressed up in funny costumes.

Heres the elephant in the room of course- its all looking so easy for Marvel, and yet DC seems to be finding it all so difficult. Likely that apparent ease is nothing of the sort and hides some really tricky work in the background, but up to now they have pretty much pulled things off very well. We have not seen Marvel blunder into making an artistic and commercial dud. At this stage, I doubt we will; if Marvel Studios ever does begin to stumble for success, it’s all the more likely it will be from audience fatigue rather than bad movies.

dr strange.jpgSo Dr Strange is a pretty strong Marvel movie and another addition to its roster of cinematic heroes. It isn’t perfect but it is reliable fun. And yeah, when I think about those 1960s strips by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and how so much of them have been transposed to the movie screen here, it is frankly astonishing, how well it comes off without feeling camp or silly. Other than that, I don’t have much to really say, other than I really need to watch it again, as some of those big effects sequences were so busy I sometimes lost track of what the hell was going on- I kept thinking of that line from Jedi – “There’s too many of them!” There was so much going on in some of those mind bending effects shots.