Who cares about the Avatar 2 trailer?

avatartooAvatar. That was that glossy sci-fi adventure movie with a paper-thin plot liberally borrowed from other books and movies that was really kind of silly. Technically impressive sure, but… Unobtanium? Unobtanium? Goodness, I’d tried to forget about that; I was SO close, and then this Avatar 2 trailer drops and… yeah, James Cameron pulls me back in.

Avatar. Er, yeah… that’s that James Cameron 3D epic that took the world by storm about twelve years back and was promptly forgotten. A bit like that “3D is the FUTURE!” nonsense- do they even make 3D televisions now, and how much damage did Hollywood’s rush to making 3D films do to blockbusters in general?  Avatar rather represents most everything bad about blockbuster movies today, in which the medium, whether it be 3D or Dolby Atmos or a gigantic Imax screen, is the message, rather than quality of drama or acting. Avatar took eye-candy to some whole new level, as if the setting -the alien world of Pandora- was a place to visit and experience in 3D (admittedly it was the best 3D I ever saw) and the only real reason to see the film. Divorced from the 3D and giant screen, the film has to rely on its script, its acting, and, er, that’s where it was found wanting, clearly. I have a copy of Avatar on Blu-ray… haven’t seen it in years. I haven’t even THOUGHT about Avatar in years. Can’t imagine many people have. I mean, it wasn’t like Star Wars or anything; Star Wars, when it became the biggest film of all time and entered the cultural consciousness, it was on tee-shirts and memorabilia and in books and comics and…  Avatar? That thing came and went, except that it did half of what Star Wars did, albeit the important half: it made lots of money.

In Hollywood, awards and critical plaudits are nice and all, but all they really care about is the money. Money talks, so Avatar is a pretty big deal. Outside of Hollywood, I’m not so sure, but in Hollywood, they care a bit less regards if a film is any good or not, as long as it makes gazillions of dollars, that’s where its at. And Avatar made a lot of money: $2.8 billion worldwide. That’s about as big as it gets until we start talking Marvel movies.

Doesn’t carry as much weight in my neck of the woods, mind; in my back room the Blu-ray is sitting on the shelf unwatched for years. I think that’s true of the collections of many film collectors and geeks and nerds (those two the same thing? I don’t know, maybe) and I don’t really think many people have been thinking about it or wishing to get more of Pandora in their lives, or that Unobtanium. I still can’t believe that Unobtanium nonsense, but I digress. I just don’t think people care.

I know James Cameron has spent the last twelve years or so not making movies. Well, not making movies that weren’t titled Avatar, because I think he has two or three of them coming out (or was it four?). I figured that was kind of sad, especially as it seemed to preclude him from signing-off on Blu-ray releases of The Abyss and True Lies, and derailed him making that Alita movie himself (a film whose failure possibly should have had him a bit worried about future Avatar movie prospects?). I mean, he’s off beavering away on more 3D CGI ‘movies’ (sorry MOVIES). and no-one cares, the darn king of the world doesn’t realise no-one cares about Avatar.

Or maybe not, maybe I’m wrong, because the trailer for Avatar 2 was revealed last week and it has at last count some 17 million views, which means somebody out there remembers Avatar, and is at least curious enough about it to watch the trailer. Who knows, maybe they are curious enough to don those 3D glasses again and pay top money to go watch it at the cinema this December. Maybe its going to be some kind of Second Coming.

But… but…

On the evidence of the new trailer for Avatar 2, the chief selling-point seems, depressingly, to be “look! Pandora is prettier than ever!” It doesn’t reveal much of the plot, but rather a sense of new places to see and ‘experience’ in 3D, i.e. more of the same, well, Avatar (except now some of the aliens are green). And the king of the world has spent the last decade making not one, not two, but three more of them? I may be wrong on that count, I never had much interest in Avatar sequels. I’m just wondering if I’m alone in that, and whether 17 million views of that trailer reveals I’m adrift of the cultural zeitgeist once again.

The Original Nightmare

NightmareAlley_grabs_0005_Layer 46.jpg

Nightmare Alley, 1947, 110 mins, Blu-ray

Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (although it feels better calling it Tyrone Power’s Nightmare Alley, as he owns the film, every scene he’s in) is like many films of its era, particularly those that are noir, an exercise in taut, efficient film-making. There is a lovely rhythm to it, the snappy dialogue that informs character and plot at the same time (without telegraphing anything, a neat trick), the brisk pacing, the way the scenes flow. No moment seems wasted. While the film is saddled with an unfortunate (likely studio-mandated) positive ending, it does everything up that last scene so well that its a forgivable cop-out; indeed, just stop the film before that very last scene and you’ve got a nigh-on perfect movie.  In comparison the 2021 version feels lazy, wasteful, padded, self-indulgent. It tells largely the same story but takes forty minutes longer, never earning it.

Sure, Del Toro’s film may be prettier, slicker, bigger, but it is so curiously badly staged compared to the original- I cannot fathom why, except to suspect that Del Toro became too seduced by noir’s visual qualities, losing himself in the image, the lighting, and failing to manage the storytelling, the narrative, becoming a slave of style over content. Sadly typical of so many films now.

Scenes like Stanton handing Pete the wrong, deadly drink by accident, and then his horror the next morning at what he’s done, is oddly confusing in the remake; is it supposed to be deliberate, if so why be so obtuse? It felt like shots were missing, it was so clumsily edited. Later, in the 1947 film, Molly’s appearance as the fake ghost out in the moonlit garden is spine-tingling, you can understand Ezra Grindle being absolutely convinced that its the dead returning to him- its bewitching and creepy, whereas in the remake the same scene is so lazily staged its almost to the level of perfunctory (Molly just walking up the path in the snow, whereas in the original there’s a sense of wonder- she’s walking between the trees, glimpsed for a moment then hidden, then caught in the moonlight, Grindle getting more enraptured at every glimpse).

nightmarealley47bThe most devastating difference between the two, and possibly the most alarming, is the quality of the cast and the acting. I think there is no performance in the 2021 film that is equal to the comparable performance in the 1947 film. Joan Blondell’s Zeena is more lively and motherly than the cardboard Toni Collette, Coleen Gray’s Molly is a far more enchantingly passionate innocent than Rooney Mara’s listless version. Helen Walker is absolutely convincing as Dr Lilith Ritter, an intellectual equal of Stanton Carlisle who outwits him with both smarts and charm, against whom Cate Blanchette suffers terribly in comparison, Blanchette all pose and style and no substance, her face literally becoming a mask.

I think similar things can be said regards all the cast: in the 1947 film, the actors have passion and conviction, in the 2021 film, they bluster and frown, largely lacking any real chemistry. Bradley Cooper invokes ‘Indiana Jones and the fun fair of Doom,’ more than Stanton Gate’s descent into Nightmare: in the 1947 film, Tyrone Power charms first, then horrifies as he becomes a heartless monster, before further descending into -literally- a physical monster when he is undone. His arc is the story of a guy who sees an opportunity but is eaten alive by it, whereas in the 2021 film, I’m not sure what Stanton’s arc is: but maybe its because Cooper can’t really convince as a bad guy, he can only do moody, as if that’s all his range. I’m surprised at this, he’s seemed pretty fine in most previous films I’ve seen him in but he seems out of his depth here, and it looks like Del Toro wasn’t helping.

The 1947 Nightmare Alley is a lean, brutally efficient tragedy of a man’s rise and subsequent fall, and a shining example of a time when films just told stories better. Its the one thing I’ve noticed in many of the noir b-movies I’ve watched this past year or two  their ability to be concise and effective in telling a narrative (and to be fair, Nightmare Alley is surprisingly ‘A’, its not a b-picture at all, its production values are obvious, clearly a sign of Tyrone Power’s clout).

Certainly, Nightmare Alley can seem dated at moments, like other films of its day maybe betrayed to some extent by the limitations of what censors would allow, but one can argue conversely that this is often one of their strengths; suggestion: we hear the geek eat a chicken, the sounds giving us a minds-eye picture more daunting than graphically seeing it as we do in the remake. There’s a lesson there which maybe current film-makers should heed.

How refreshing to see a film in which a man cannot be saved by the love of his woman (barring the films jarring coda). There is something genuinely quite haunting about this film as it gets under your skin; massively impressive for a film that is so obscure its arguable that it was buried by it studio, and one I hadn’t even heard of until the remake was announced. Well, at least some good came from that Del Toro film.

Recent Additions/ Capsule reviews

P1110251I’ve been weak, and succumbed to a few sale offers over the past several weeks, and there have also been a few disc releases of the films from last Autumn/Winter that I’d been waiting for.

Matrix Resurrections 4K UHD: A film of two halves, really, but my review can be found here.

Whiplash 4K UHD: I watched this on a rental a good while ago, when it absolutely terrified me. I don’t know why I’m putting myself through this again, except that the 4K disc was in a sale and yeah, it seemed like a great film last time around. We’ll see what I think if/when I can muster the courage for another anxiety trip…

Cliffhanger 4K UHD: A guilty favourite, my review can be found here.

Beverly Hills Cop 4K UHD: No, I don’t know what I was thinking. It was in a sale, I used to love the Axel F single back in the day (I have the 12″ in storage somewhere), I’d seen the film on a VHS rental. Once. Actually I quite enjoyed this disc, there must be something of a nostalgic pull from anything 1980s just lately. There’s a scene in a bar where a Prince song I didn’t know was playing on the soundtrack and it bugged the heck out of me until I learned from the credits that it was a Vanity 6 song (so yeah, Prince in all but name) but it only intensified that whole 1980s ‘thing’ running through this film. The hairstyles! The fashions! That Glenn Frey song!

Eddie Murphy was actually bearable back then. There’s a story about Eddie Murphy and Jack Lemmon on the Paramount backlot which I’ve probably mentioned before, so I won’t go on with it here unless someone wants me too…

West Side Story (2021) 4K UHD: I watched this a few nights ago; quite magnificent, I thought, and easily Spielberg’s best film in twenty years. I actually think there is something in Spielberg’s style, like his slow camera crawls into actor’s reaction shots, how staged his set-ups tend to be, how much he leans on John William’s music scores, that is wholly suited to musicals. I hope to give this a proper review post sometime, but yeah, I thought it was brilliant. The staging, the use of the camera, the art direction, the casting… I could imagine it winning all sorts of Oscars in a non-Covid universe in which this film made any money (shame Oscar seems to ignore a dud). It goes without saying that the music is sublime, I’ve always loved Robert Wise’s original film and have seen the show on the stage once (albeit something provincial) so it was a given I’d enjoy it, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Spider Man: No Way Home 4K UHD: Dude! Dude! Dude! Oh dear, the writing in this film… what, described somewhere as the best comicbook movie ever made? What? I’ll write a proper post about this film someday, but just an observation: there were a few times in the Lee/Ditko/Romita era comics that Peter Parker was revealed to be Spider-Man but those guys usually managed to write an elegant and imaginative way of Peter outwitting people and fixing things and maintain his secret identity. But the film Peter Parker shown here is some kind of selfish idiot or the films writers lacked the imagination and wit of 1960s comic writers/artists, because this film… maybe its cleverly undermining traditional super-hero tropes and the films actual uber-villain is Tom Holland’s Spidey himself. Or maybe I’m giving them way too much credit…

The Shawshank Redemption 4K UHD: I wasn’t going to do it. Its one of my favourite films (I was one of the few who saw it in the cinema when it came out, so hey, kudos to me) but the Blu-ray was fine. But sales. Bloody sales.

Ratatouille 4K UHD: My favourite Pixar movie, and a lovely feel-good film that I probably need now more than ever. I don’t expect any great leap over the Blu-ray, but it does seem I’m upgrading too many of my favourite films to 4K UHD, especially when the sales make it seem a reasonable decision rather than inherently dumb, which it really probably is.

Backdraft 4K UHD: Sales. Sales. Sales. Actually, I watched it a few nights ago and I quite enjoyed it. I’d actually forgotten Robert De Niro was even in it, its been so long since I’d last watched this (probably on DVD). It takes a few too many liberties with my intelligence with some of its heart-tugging silliness “Look at him… that’s my brother goddammit!” but it does look awfully good in 4K. I seem to recall it was this film that made me dislike Hans Zimmer scores for years, my goodness he never did do subtle.

Death on the Nile 4K UHD: Watched this on Saturday. Its quite inferior to the previous Murder on the Orient Express, from the pretty woefully miscast cast to the strangely uninvolving plot… and I’m not sure the virtual sets nonsense worked at all. I guess it was a deliberate stylistic choice but it left it feeling very… distractingly artificial? I can accept that in a Star Wars prequel with George playing with his toybox but a period murder mystery that could have been shot on location?

Nineteen Eighty-Four Blu-ray/DVD: Ah, the Peter Cushing one, that I’ve never seen but always wanted to. I’m only irritated by the fact that since this arrived in the post, Amazon has been repeatedly reducing the price of this thing. I hate it when that happens, especially when I haven’t seen it yet. See also too many other discs currently unwatched to mention, but still, its the principle of the thing.

The Proposition 4K UHD: Saw this on Sunday. Lengthy fawning post to sometime follow. Quite breathtakingly brilliant. One of those times that I blind-buy a physical disc release of a film I’d previously missed somehow and discover something quite excellent. Does this qualify as a Christmas movie? Was John Hurt ever better?

Brute Force/ Naked City (Blu-ray): I watched Brute Force last night. Brilliant film. They really don’t make ’em like they used to. I shall catch up with Naked City sometime soon. This was another sale buy that had me wondering why I hadn’t succumbed to its charms before. Arrow’s double-bill package is well designed (lovely hardcase box) with a fine book to pour over, bountiful extras; another great example of why I still love buying physical releases of old films. But its gotten me ordering Jules Dassin’s Rififi on Blu-ray, further proof that it gets expensive sometimes as one film leads to another. Damn those trailers…

Preminger Noir: Fallen Angel

fallen1Fallen Angel, 1945, 98 mins, Blu-ray

Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews, Laura, Night of the Demon) is not a Good Guy; Stella (Linda Darnell) is not a Good Girl. So typically noir; these two leads are not at all likeable but they do feel real: its something I often find watching these noir films, a convincing sense of reality in how people behave, what they say, what they do, which sucks you into even the oddest noir drama. Much of  their behaviour can be quite abhorrent and yet its endlessly fascinating- also curiously refreshing, watching films with unlikeable protagonists who are broken or of bad character. They certainly don’t come much worse than Eric Stanton. Stella, meanwhile is a sensual beauty who knows how to use her charms: the kind of girl that instantly excites but hardly one you could trust, and you certainly wouldn’t take her home to meet your mother.

Stanton is a drifter, a chancer and a con-artist on his way from LA to San Francisco with only a dollar in his pocket, who is thrown off his bus when his ticket runs out, landing in the small coastal town of Walton. Walking to a lonely diner situated near the beach, he bides his time trying to work out some angle when Stella walks in, the waitress of the diner and the town’s main attraction for frustrated male folk. World-wise Stella is a beautiful woman who feels trapped in Walton and craves a way out – Stanton is instantly attracted to her, but she’s clearly only interested in someone with money or prospects, and will only sleep with someone after they have married her and given her a home (preferably somewhere other than Walton). It’s obvious that Stanton and Stella are made for each other but unless Stanton can figure out a way of making money he has no chance, and Stella already has her sights on Dave Atkins (Bruce Cabot) as a likely alternative.

After demonstrating his dubious skills when promoting a visiting fake spiritualist/mentalist, ‘Professor’ Madley (a memorable John Carradine). Madley cons the smalltown folk with messages from deceased loved ones, in particular upsetting rich sisters Clara Mills (Anne Revere, Secret Behind the Door) and June Mills (Alice Faye) with some bitter comments from their dead father that sees them rushing out of the hall in disgust and their neighbours flapping. Stanton sees in the sheltered, repressed Alice an easy mark; seducing her and quickly marrying her in a breathless romance with the intention of getting all her money then dumping her in favour of Stella. Indeed, this cad is so reprehensible, he even deserts Alice on their wedding night, visiting Stella instead- but this makes Stanton a prime suspect when Stella is found murdered the next morning.

The way both Stanton and Stella abuse, manipulate and secretly mock the honest people around them makes Fallen Angel, in some ways a surprisingly nasty film – indeed, like the original Nightmare Alley (which also shares an uncomfortable interest in mentalism and exploiting peoples grief) it is one of the darkest noirs I’ve yet seen (I actually found Nightmare Alley so disturbing I still haven’t managed to write a review of it). If anything, Fallen Alley has more of the ring of truth than Nightmare Alley‘s literally nightmarish excesses, certainly in regards how the regulars at the diner fawn and moon over Stella (the proprietor, Pop (Percy Kilbride) and Mark Judd (Charles Bickford, The Woman on the Beach) a former New York City Police Inspector convalescing in Walton), there’s a reality to it, and a sadness of empty longing regards the older men wasting their attention on her when she’s clearly got her eyes set elsewhere. Both Kilbride and Bickford are great character actors, and it was nice to see King Kong‘s Bruce Cabot again.

Fallen Angel‘s biggest weakness compared to Nightmare Alley is its suddenly positive, rather unlikely ‘happy’ ending for Stanton, a love conquers all text that doesn’t ring true, unless the virginal Alice is herself only using Stanton to escape her controlling elder sister and the boredom of a cosy protected life in Walton. The ending doesn’t break the film, but it doesn’t carry the disturbing sense of inevitable truth which the conclusion of Nightmare Alley does (unless, as I say, maybe the con-artist is being conned, but the films not really suggesting that even as a possibility, its just me running off on a tangent).

Dana Andrews is very good; although I understand his tightly-strung noir roles might have had some impact on his life away from the camera. And Linda Darnell is just darkly, fascinatingly wonderful, albeit her own life had more than a slight taint of noir to it. Perhaps more on that, later…

War is Hell

come1Come and See, 1985, 142 mins, Blu-Ray

Where to start? I honestly don’t think I’ve seen anything like this film before, anything quite so exhausting, emotionally and intellectually. Some films are more akin to experiences than the usual narrative dramas that films usually are, and I think few films fit the description more than Elem Klimov’s stark and horrifying Come and See, a war film set during the German invasion of Byelorussia in 1943. Although even describing Come and See as a war film feels rather wide of the mark. Calling it a ‘war film’ feels almost an insult considering the gung-ho heroics depicted in so many war films before and since. Its true that one could perhaps better consider Come and See more of a horror film, depicting a young man’s descent into nightmare, a journey into darkness far more disturbing than that of Apocalypse Now, which is possibly the nearest film analogue to Klimov’s film that I can think of. Both films set the proposition that no-one in civilised times and environments can ever understand what war is, the sheer madness and brutality, and obscenity of it.

As I write this, of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, and civilians are dying, cities being flattened, over a million refugees fleeing to the West: the whole thing feels like an exercise in inhumanity, evil and hate that is impossible to comprehend. That its something happening in Europe, for the first time since the Second World War, events so close geographically to those that happened and are recreated in Come and See… well, I’m way out of my league here. Watching Come and See during this of all weeks feels like watching celluloid blurring with reality, the images of this Criterion Blu-ray echoed by those images of the news bulletins which, frankly, I’ve started avoiding. One can only stand so much.

What is the old adage, to be living in interesting times?

I find it difficult to recommend Come and See, especially now. It is possibly the very best war movie ever made, and also one of the best horror films ever made. Hell, it may be one of the very best films ever made. But entertaining it isn’t. This film has teeth. And frankly, considering how it mirrors real-world events in the news right now…. its either a sobering lesson or a depressing reminder that we, as a species, as a collective humanity, just cannot escape the baser, animal instincts within us. It seems we cannot leave nation-states and racial differences behind, the dogma of ‘us’ and ‘them’ proves impossible to escape.

come2So its 1943, in Byelorussia, and two children are playing, digging in the sandy ruins of old battles (presumably those of The Great War)- young Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko) finally discovers what he’s looking for- an old rifle, which he needs in order to join up with the Partisan fighters, against his desperate mother’s wishes. His mother knows what’s coming, but of course thirteen year-old Florya has no idea. Once enlisted with the resistance fighters Florya becomes gradually pulled into a series of bizarre, increasingly nightmarish experiences that we can, alarmingly, visibly see transform his young innocent face into a mask of horror and trauma. He literally ages before our eyes: Kravchenko’s performance, if one can call it that, is quite possibly the finest child performance ever. Klimov repeatedly uses the cinematic device of characters starring back at the camera, their gaze peering back into our own, and the gradual disintegration of Florya’s personality and psyche is writ large in every frame, confronting us. Early in the film, Florya meets a girl, Glasha (Olga Mironova), and the two become split off from the partisan forces and enjoy an interlude of childish innocence which feels incongruous and almost awkward in the film, but which serves as a constant reminder of childhoods end when the events of the war overwhelm them. As the film nears its climax and we see it reflecting upon what becomes of Florya and Glasha’s faces, we remember those earlier moments and it only intensifies the horror of childhood innocence transformed into something terrifying.

Come and See concludes with an astonishing  sequence of real-world images, newsreel footage and photographs, flashing by blistering quickly, in reverse, as if our protagonist’s gunshots are rewinding history, wiping out the decades of evils of the world, until, resting upon one image, one has to wonder if the question is, how much evil and harm can be done by one individual, how one person can scar the world. We are living in a world in which borders are rendered increasingly meaningless by technology and yet we are given a sudden reminder of the power of the individual, for good or ill, and that we must not forget the lessons of History, for fear of repeating it.

Or at least, that’s what I’ve initially taken out of it, other than a contempt for the inhumanity of man, but I may be rather wide of the mark, and individuals may differ. But its undoubtedly an astonishing piece of Pure Cinema, something not to be simply watched, but experienced.

“I’m tired. I’m through… It’ll happen to you too, someday.”

pickup1Pickup on South Street, 1953, 80 mins, Blu-ray

Another Sam Fuller picture, this time a dark crime-noir from 1953 during his spell at Fox, and two years prior to House of Bamboo which I saw back in November. Pickup on South Street his an excellent thriller, in which career-criminal Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) pick-pockets the purse of Candy (Jean Peters) and inadvertently stumbles into an espionage crisis involving Communist agents and a lot of unwelcome heat from the Feds and cops. To some extent this is a typical cold-war thriller reflecting the West vs East tensions of the time, as as such would ordinarily feel dated and an exercise in propaganda as several noir espionage thrillers of its era that I have seen are.

But of course I’m watching this when world tensions are at a fever-pitch as Russia has invaded Ukraine, and the news is endlessly discussing the collapse of relations between the West and Russia and the return of old Cold-War sensibilities. So there’s an added discomfort in this film’s depicted tensions, and what is old is new again.

Richard Widmark is very good in this, he’d memorably featured as psychopathic killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death several years before, and while there’s a similar energised tone to his performance here its thankfully more restrained and grounded; Skip is much less manic than Tommy Udo but none the less convincing. I was particularly taken by the performance of Jean Peters as Candy, reluctant courier for the communists and eventual love-interest for Skip (this romance an inevitable development but one that oddly convinces). Peters is very good and lifts what could have been a one-dimensional part into something much more interesting.  I wasn’t familiar with the actress and looking her up on IMDB, its little wonder-  she only made 23 features, working under contract to Fox between 1947 and 1955 before then pretty much retiring from the screen to be the wife of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. There’s worse career choices I guess.

pickup2Possibly stealing the show though is character actress Thelma Ritter, who plays streetwise police informer Moe Williams. I get the feeling that she’s the character that Sam Fuller was most interested in, what could have been a minor role elevated instead to possibly the most critical part in the film. I’m rather seeing that this is a  common aspect of Fuller’s writing and directing, drawn to characters who would ordinarily be in the background or of lesser importance to the usual larger-than-life heroes and villains. I’ve read that Ritter’s performance saw her nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year and I’m not at all surprised. Her final scene is outstanding, a sad and broken old lady weary of the world facing her final moments with resigned grace.

The film is also blessed by some wonderfully moody, waterfront locations that brought to mind early-sixties Spider-Man strips drawn by Steve Ditko, the eight-year old kid in me getting ridiculously excited seeing those scenes and remembering the web-slingers encounters with the mob in Ditko’s finely-drawn panels of criminal-infested waterfronts. The film is, typically of Fuller, very gritty and convincing, and indeed some of the action is quite shocking, particularly scenes of Candy getting beaten and the offscreen denouement of Moe is very effective. You can certainly tell its a Sam Fuller picture. As I have noted, in other hands a film such as this could have been just a typical anti-Commie propaganda piece of its time but Fuller lifts it into something much more. Its a very effective thriller with a great cast and screenplay, an excellent noir.

Snowy Spaghetti

great3The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio), 1968, 105 mins, Blu-ray

It started with Ennio Morricone, as it so often does. He composed music for so many films and television series (over 400) that its probably a familiar tale. Over a decade ago, when I was collecting CD soundtracks during a period when so many expansions and remasters were being released, and I delved into Morricone’s work, I bought many CDs utterly blind, generally based on recommendations online. You could listen to Morricone’s music without any prior knowledge of the films/television shows that it was composed for, and indeed even now, much of Morricone’s music that I know exists for me utterly independent of whatever it was composed for. Haunting music such as his score for The Red Tent/La Tenda Rossa exists for me utterly independent of its film (which reminds me, I really should attend to that).  One of the scores I bought was Il Grande Silenzio/The Great Silence, a Western that I had otherwise never heard of. Its score wasn’t really like any of Morricone’s other Western scores that  I knew- it’s a far cry from his Leone Western scores, for instance, an utterly different beast- it had a strange, haunting quality; somewhat moody, grim and driven.

Well, now I now why. My goodness, The Great Silence is bleak. It’s monstrously bleak. It’s ending -sorry, but we have to discuss its ending- is such a downer that I actually mumbled “what?!” when I realised it was actually the end and that there wouldn’t be another reel to set things right. I mean, that’s how it usually happens in movies –  the hero suffers or fails but he then recovers and makes things right, gives us a satisfying ending. There’s no satisfaction to The Great Silence‘s conclusion.: its frustrating and horrible and yes, its perfect in its way and I guess its the ending that The Great Silence was always relentlessly heading towards but all the same…. is the title of the film a reference to its main character or to the sound of the audience numb with surprise as the end credits roll?

I’ve seen bleak endings to films. That last shot of  Gilliam’s Brazil is utterly perfect but its hardly one to put smiles on audience faces, its intellectually perfect but nonetheless a gut punch to a viewers hopes. The Great Silence‘s conclusion is just like that. But goodness, its as bitter and cold and bleak as the film’s beautifully terrifying snow-swept landscapes. But what a magnificent piece of work.

great4I can’t say that I’m a huge admirer of what we refer to as Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre of the Western that references European films, mostly made in Italy hence the ‘spaghetti’ reference and immortalised chiefly by the films of Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck, You Sucker!/A Fistful of Dynamite.  There’s something amateur about many of them, likely stemming from the awful dubbing that often distracts me horribly. Indeed, I watched a few months back director Sergio Corbucci’s Django, which was a film he made a few years prior to The Great Silence. Django was a hugely popular film and quite influential, but it still left me a little cold. Ha, that’s quietly ironic considering the setting and denouement of The Great Silence.

But I will say this- The Great Silence informs Django, looking back on it. The Great Silence is a far better, far more mature work. Back when I saw Django -and hey, how is it possible it was as far back as last September when I watched that?- I noticed that Corbucci was considered with some reverence online and I couldn’t figure out why, but I can now. I can see, watching this later film, possibly what Corbucci was aiming for in Django. Sure, some of it is obvious, the mud (Django may be the dirtiest-looking film ever made) clearly a substitute for the snow he couldn’t afford at the time, but in the graphic violence and bleakness its clearly a precursor to what he achieved in The Great Silence.

greatsilencebluraySo what’s The Great Silence actually about, I hear you wondering. In the bitterly-cold Utahn mountains during the Great Blizzard of 1899, bounty-hunters are running amok, making fortunes by hunting down innocent citizens wrongly brandished as outlaws and criminals by the corrupt banker Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli). A widow hires a mute gunfighter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to revenge her dead husband who has been killed by Tigero (Klaus Kinski) a psychopath who clearly enjoys killing, preferring to shoot his quarry dead rather than take the option of capturing his bounties alive.

From that summary you can likely assume how the plot of the film would usually go, but The Great Silence is instead a very subversive piece of work which counters such expectations. Its dark and frustrating and really rather perfect in how it undermines what you would expect it to be. The landscapes are powerfully used, and beautifully shot, and Morricone’s score is haunting and lyrical and imbued with a sadness that in hindsight should have clued me in to what I was watching. Its far from the operatic ode to American cinema that runs through Leone’s work- this is something else, something clearly European, possibly predating the American westerns revisionism that would follow in the next decade (arguably culminating with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992).

The Great Silence is a mesmerising piece of work and something of a masterpiece indeed. On first viewing I can’t say I appreciated the darkness of its ending but thinking back upon it, it clearly makes the film more interesting than what a more traditional ending of the film would be. It clearly confounds audience expectations, though, and this is obviously why  the film wasn’t well-received back in 1968. Corbucci actually appreciated this would be the likely outcome, shooting alternate, happier endings that are included in Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc, but they come out of nowhere, countering everything that comes before and so don’t at all work (they are much worse than the tacked-on ending of the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner). The film is just what it is, and thankfully those alternate endings were never used, and their inclusion on disc just reinforces how wrong they are and how right the film is. I’m sure when I watch the film for a second time it will be much more satisfying.

Masters of Cinema’s lovely-looking Blu-ray has several interesting special features that I’ve been delving into, and three audio commentaries that I really want to listen to sometime if ever I get the chance. Clearly the film has become rightly well-regarded over the years since its first release. There is something beautiful in its darkness.

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Jesus in the Snow

The Ascent, 1977, 109 mins, Blu-Ray

ascent3There is, in its meditation of the war in the heart of nature, and Private Witt’s musings regards one’s last breath, of meeting one’s final moments with a sense of calm and grace, a thread of religious awe and inquiry running throughout Terrence Malick’s 1998 film The Thin Red Line. I wonder what Mallick thinks of Larisa Shepitko’s war drama The Ascent, a film that could almost be The Thin Red Line‘s precursor – he’s surely seen it. The Ascent is a 1977 Russian film set during World War II in the snow-swept, icy wastes of Nazi-occupied Belarus, and while it is touted as one of the finest war films ever made, it is also a deeply religious film that is haunted by the threat of death and the mortality of existence. The fact that Sheptiko herself died only three years later in a car crash whilst scouting locations for her next film only adds to the film’s poignancy: The Ascent was her third and final film, and its themes feel all the more intense when one considers her own fate just a few years on.

In truth, the religious symbolism within The Ascent might be described as clumsy, obvious, even banal, but I don’t think that matters in the slightest. In a strange way, it just makes it all the more powerful. The film is the story of two Soviet Partisans, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) and Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) who are sent out by their commander to search for food: their ensuing experiences out in the frozen wilderness hunted by Germans results in a transformation in Sotnikov, whose face becomes almost Christlike, transcendent, while the initially brave Rybak becomes overcome with terror at his impending death and ultimately betrays Sotnikov, completing a Jesus/Judas dynamic that proves to be the core of the film. Its far less a war film than it is a religious allegory.

Shot out on location in temperatures about forty degrees below zero, the landscape of gaunt naked forests etched against whiteness is as much a character of the film as the cast. One can feel the cold because it is genuine, and from all accounts the shooting was as harrowing as anything portrayed in the film. The absolute white and absolute black that fills the frame is stark and finely represents the light and darkness of the human spirit; I can’t imagine this film in colour; its clearly a film that demands to be filmed in black and white, just as Spielberg found with his film Schindler’s List years later.

I think The Ascent is a very powerful film, and feeling rather rueful that I have only discovered it almost forty-five years after its original release- its another example of physical media bringing something to my attention that I would likely otherwise have missed, and evidence that there are still great films waiting out there that I have never even heard of, never mind not seen yet.

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Valentine’s Day Special: How to Murder Your Wife

how2aHow to Murder Your Wife, 1965, 118 mins, Blu-ray

This year it was my turn to choose a Valentine’s-day movie to watch. Whenever its Claire’s turn, she’ll invariably pick Silver Linings Playbook for another watch, or one of the versions of Romeo & Juliet. But this year, as I note, it was my turn, so I chose Richard Quine’s wonderful black comedy How to Murder Your Wife, or Como Matar a La Propia Esposa per my Blu-ray copy imported from Italy would have it (this is another of those films starring Jack Lemmon that inexplicably remains unreleased on HD here in the UK).

I adore How to Murder Your Wife. Its a quirky black comedy starring one of my favourite actors (with the added bonus of the great Terry Thomas, too) that is funny and romantic and yes, hardly the kind of thing that could be made today. Its wrong for all sorts of reasons that for me make it so absolutely right: it is so of its time, those glorious swinging sixties that I was born a little too late to enjoy but which seems to wonderful in these Hollywood movies. The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie, The Odd Couple through to Avanti! and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, all films starring Jack Lemmon that seem to be glimpses of another, simpler world. I don’t know if that world ever really existed, or it was just something wholly built of Hollywood artifice, but its a world I love to escape into through these movies.

Its something in the cinematography, the sublime art direction, in the colours, the fashions, the generally middle-aged casts, the glorious music scores. Regards the latter, How to Murder Your Wife is graced with a wonderful lush Neal Hefti score, as was The Odd Couple. Claire remarked upon the music this time around, regards how much some of it reminded her of Avanti!‘s score, even though, as I observed, that was by another composer altogether (Carlo Rustichelli) – its just a style, a mood. A jazzy, upbeat band feel, wonderfully romantic in places with sweeping strings. Over the years I have collected theses scores on CD- The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce, Avanti!, The Odd Couple, How to Murder Your Wife… I adore the music as much as I do the films, and only the score for The Prisoner of Second Avenue escapes me, but maybe someday.

Would this film be charged with misogyny today? Could you even show this film on television today without a backlash of wailing from women’s rights groups? Would they all be missing the point? IS the film’s poster taglines “Women: warning! See it before HE does- the wife you save might be YOU!” or “Bring the little woman… maybe she’ll die laughing!” too close to the bone?

how2dI can imagine the ire of some people watching this film today. Its mostly white, privileged cast of affluent New Yorkers, many of them affirmed bachelors, with the hero of the film Stanley Ford (Lemmon) living in a lovely town house in Manhattan with his own butler/man servant. Stanley enjoying one-night flings with a bevy of beautiful women, his wealth (from his wildly popular syndicated newspaper strips featuring the adventures of super-spy Bash Brannigan, oh so sixties!) ensuring a carefree lifestyle regarded with some jealously by his henpecked married lawyer, Harold (the great Eddie Mayehoff).

It all comes crashing down for Stanley when he attends a freinds stag party – held like a funeral wake until the friend announces his fiancé has cancelled the wedding- and wakes up the next morning to find, to his horror, that he has drunkenly married a beautiful woman (Virna Lisi) who popped out of a cake during the ensuing party.  Stanley tries to extricate himself from the marriage to no avail- the woman doesn’t speak a word of English and as his lawyers wife Edna (Claire Trevor) sweeps the new Mrs Ford off to the shops for a complete new wardrobe, Stanley’s loyal man-servant Charles (Terry Thomas) leaves, refusing to work for a married couple on a matter of principle. Stanley’s once-idyllic lifestyle is in tatters, albeit lets be fair, anyone waking up to find himself married to the gorgeous Virna Lisi hasn’t got it all that bad. Its all part of the arch fun of the film, established from the start by Terry Thomas’ voiceover and first scenes in which he breaks the fourth wall and openly addresses (and reacts to) the camera and the audience behind it, something which bookends the film at its close when Charles gives in to the charms of Mrs Fords mother, newly arrived from Italy.

I absolutely love this film, its a joy to watch every time. There’s something so of its time about it. Maybe its dated, maybe its shamefully politically incorrect. But the cast is wonderful and Virna Lisi surely one of the most beautiful women in the world, and a gifted actress too with a talent for comedy. What’s really not to love? For me its the perfect Valentines Day movie, silly and funny and very romantic. Neal Hefti’s score has a love theme that can melt anyone’s heart and hey, love wins through in the end so ladies, surely you can forgive the film its fun at poking at the institution of marriage? Is that marriage thing even a thing anymore anyway?

Ah, sorry, yes dear, after twenty-six years of wonderful marriage I can assure everyone that, whatever this scandalous film possibly suggested back in 1965, marriage is still a fine institution and as valid as ever. I hope everyone had a very happy Valentine’s day- and that maybe next year, they give this film a spin.

Riding to the undiscovered country

ca3Ride the High Country, 1962, 92 mins, Blu-ray

I’m not the biggest fan of westerns. Maybe I saw just too much of John Wayne growing up, but the myth of the American West that Hollywood and early television was both fascinated by and creative of, the good guys and bad guys, the nobility of the gun, the racist view of Native Americans, the freshly laundered and pressed shirts and jeans… its the stuff of parody and farce and maybe a little distasteful too. The reality of the West had little if any part in the Hollywood films, whose stories were the stuff of reassuring fables in just the same way, I suppose, as the early cop shows, stories where the cops were righteous and good, and the criminals always got caught ( I well remember the consternation when UK crime series The Sweeney aired in the 1970s and sometimes episodes ended with the criminals escaping justice, leaving the police thwarted and powerless: a far cry from how Kojak, Columbo and Starsky and Hutch were getting along).

What I’m getting at is, I can see the appeal of those Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, the technicolour vistas, the sense of freedom, the popularity of the simple good versus evil plots… after all, that was the same initial appeal of Star Wars in 1977 to the mass general public, and I recall the wise observation at the time (by who, I cannot remember) that Star Wars was the first Western set in space- because that was what it was. While George Lucas obviously has one eye on the Flash Gordon serials he had the other on the simplistic Westerns that had faded in popularity through the 1960s and largely disappeared by the 1970s. But the Westerns that I gravitated to came after the Old Hollywood variety had largely had their day- I loved the Leone films, the Dollars trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and films like The Outlaw Josey Wales. They had a  decidedly shady sense of morality, a tactile sense of dirt and reality, that totally ripped apart the tidy old Hollywood Western tropes (even if the Leone films were actually his love-letters to American Cinema).

Sam Peckinpah was a director whose life is as fascinating as any of his films, and who became famous (or infamous) for his increasingly revisionary and violent Westerns.  It is telling, however, that Ride the High Country is markedly different – and indeed, its quite alarming, almost, to consider the shift in tone between this film and his next – the ill-fated Major Dundee. One can read -and of course many have- Ride the High Country as a clear marker of the shift from the western of Old Hollywood towards those that were coming thereafter.

Indeed, the film almost feels like a pause for breath prior to the era of the Spaghetti Westerns; its a reflective film that considers both the end of an era (we see automobiles starting to replace horse-drawn carriages, and uniformed police walking the streets replacing the law of the gun), and perhaps also the end of a certain kind of Western film/adventure. Aging lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), taking a risky job transporting gold from a mining camp up in the mountains down to the bank in a burgeoning town, bumps into an old pal, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and recruits him to help him in the risky enterprise. Westrum has been reduced to featuring in a carnival show that promotes the myth of the West, perhaps a commentary about the fake narrative that popular authors and Hollywood would continue thereafter. Westrum has a young sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) who he brings along for added security during the perilous trip back with the gold, but unknown to Judd, Westrum actually intends with the help of Longtree to abscond with the gold himself for one final payday. What he feels he is owed having been left with little to mark for his years in the West.

Along the way up to the mining camp, the two old men consider their past and the changing world around them. They feel, as many reaching maturity of middle-age do, a sense of not belonging, of disenfranchisement from the changing world they find themselves in. They share stories of the Old West, and those they knew who have mostly died with that Old West. They might as well be reminiscing about old movies: the two actors McCrea and Scott were Western stars of old, a sense of meta-reality leaking into the film in just the same way as the revisionary Unforgiven acted as a swansong/commentary for both Eastwood the actor of so many Western films as well as its narrative’s lead character William Munny. One almost has to wonder; are McCrea and Scott’s characters recounting tales of their past in-narrative lives or those of characters the actors played in decades-old Western movies-  as someone not at all familiar with those films, it doesn’t make much difference, it could be either and the film still functions the same. All this lends Ride the High Country some added weight, and indeed its general plot is arguably inconsequential to its considerations of integrity and morality and the passing of the West, both the real in-narrative one and and the mythical West of McCrea and Scott’s old films. Its a lovely film, even if it feels like one awkwardly positioned between eras, and McCrea and Scott are both excellent.

Along the way to the mining camp they arrive at a remote farmstead run by Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong, a veteran of 1960s and 1970s television and even an appearance in Predator) and his frustrated daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley) who runs away from her strictly religious and disciplinarian father, seeing an opportunity to tag along with the cowboys up to the mining camp where her unlikely fiancé Billy Hammond works. I used to have something of a crush on Hartley when growing up, from her guest appearance in an episode of the ’60s Star Trek show, and she is very good here as a foolish, sheltered young girl on the cusp of womanhood who is destined for a sudden growing-up lesson when she learns her Billy is a disreputable lout whose brothers seem to think they have as much right to bed their new sister-in-law as her husband does, her wedding day quickly turning into a nightmare. Realising her mistake she rushes back to the safety of Judd, whose moral code ensures he will protect her while the more pragmatic Westrum is more concerned with the gold. Pursued by the Hammonds and with Judd inevitably betrayed by Westrum, the film ends in a deadly gunfight in which a reconciled Judd and Westrum battle the Hammonds, who have murdered Elsa’s father and staged a trap at her home.

One of the men is redeemed, and the other embarks on one final journey to an undiscovered country, having vindicated his moral code one last time. Ride the High Country is a very good film, lovingly shot and with a very fine cast in top form. Its story is very entertaining but its the films position in the pantheon of the Western genre, and the meta-narrative of its aging stars of Westerns of old and the director who would soon play his own part in transforming the Western forever, that makes it particularly interesting and rewarding.