Shadows and Fog (1991)

shadows2Part of Arrow’s Woody Allen blu-ray box-set that I bought last year, Shadows and Fog is one of his films that I hadn’t seen before, and I came to it not knowing what to expect, but you know, it’s a Woody Allen film, so you expect it to be… well, everything this film largely isn’t, as it turns out. Because this was a very, very, strange film- which is possibly the kindest thing I can say about it (the unkindest thing I can possibly say is that it demonstrated some kind of masturbatory level of self-indulgence).

Watching it, I quickly came to the suspicion that it was a shambolic mess,  experimentally shot like a latter-Terrence Malick film, without any script and just ad-libbed on the fly by actors briefed on a rough outline on what was to happen in each scene. It seemed that loose and unstructured- but of course, this is a Woody Allen so that’s obviously not the case, and it’s clear from the familiar Allen-styled dialogue that this was indeed scripted, unfortunately it’s just a really bad script… unless…

Unless, well, here’s the thing- I’ve been pondering this film most of the day and I’m just beginning to wonder if there is some kind of mad genius at work here.

shadows1Here’s the problem: Shadows and Fog is unfortunately an extreme case of style over substance, which is in itself a really odd thing for a Woody Allen film. Up to now, every Woody Allen I have seen has been pretty basic visually, there’s not usually too many bells and whistles, he’s usually just telling a story in a way that doesn’t draw any attention to itself. The story and the characters are the thing and Allen never wants to distract us from the characters or what they are saying and doing.

Allen’s genius (if that’s the word) is his gift for conflicted characters with neuroses and doubts and a world that is ignorant of them- usually his protagonists have no impact at all on the world around them.

shad3That’s maintained here but the style here is everything- this seems to be Allen’s response to (or declaration of admiration of)  film noir and its origins in German Expressionism and the b&w films of the 1920s and 1930s, and visually it’s drenched in those sorts of visuals and motifs- lots of backlighting and darkness and shadows. This is the thing that has bothered me all day- in this film, the world dominates the characters so much so that they (literally, I suppose) get lost in the fog. The film has a very dreamlike feel, and looking back on it, I have begun to wonder that perhaps this is indeed all a dream of its lead character, Kleinman (Woody Allen). It would explain such a great deal. For instance, the time and place, and the space that the characters move in, seems deliberately vague, and Kleinman seems distracted by anxieties about work, about relationships with freinds and neighbours and particularly women, as if its his subconscious dreaming mind filing away all his daytime issues. The film is quite episodic, and Kleinman bounces around not knowing what he is supposed to be doing and always seems pressured and bullied by others. In this respect, it makes some sense of the nonsensical attributes of the script, in how he moves in dreamlike fashion through dreamlike settings and meets presumably exaggerated dream-versions of people from his waking life. At one point he approaches his ex-fiance for help, and she ridicules him for jilting her at the altar before dismissing him: the encounter adds nothing to the narrative at all. But if this is indeed a dream narrative, it sort of makes sense. How, as well as his ex-fiance, he encounters his boss and later his chief rival from work, all as he aimlessly wanders the foggy streets on this timeless, endless night. It would also explain, in particular, his fascination with magic- a magician that may be a childhood hero, a circus that might be a childhood memory and the concluding moments of impossible magic/sleight of hand that could only happen in a dream.

Hmm. Maybe I need to see it again, because this ‘reading’ may actually help explain and improve the experience of the film. That’s the funny thing about films- watching this one I thought ‘this stinks, pretty much’ but having thought it over during today, I’ve more deeply considered its dreamlike attributes and arrived at this reading of the film- misguided as it may be. Even the bad films can linger and play around for awhile in your head.

So sure, maybe it’s just a lousy Woody Allen film and possibly one of his worst, but you know, maybe there’s something else going on here. But then again, there’s no excuse for Madonna being in this, unless he’s clearly exaggerating the dreamlike otherworldliness of the film with his casting.

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Returning to The Expanse

exp1.jpgWell if things have been a little quiet lately on this blog its largely due to me finally getting to a belated rewatch of season one of The Expanse, now that I have season three to watch as well as season two. Suffice to say that in the grand tradition of all things Netflix, I managed to watch all ten episodes over the past four days- maybe binge-watching is an acquired skill having watched so much on Netflix over the past several months, but it’s likely just the short days/long dark evenings that have helped.

The Expanse is as great as I remembered– maybe even more so, as there have been clear advantages to rewatching this first season again. As before, one of the elements I most enjoyed was its gritty, future-noir detective story feel, inevitably a nod to Blade Runner so inevitably up my street. Thomas Jane is brilliant as life-weary/crooked cop Joe Miller who is put on a missing-persons case that he is expected to fail at. Instead of trying/failing/filing it away, something about the case and the woman, Julie Mao, raises his interest and it becomes something of an obsession. Meanwhile, out in the Belt near Saturn, the ice-freighter Canterbury picks up a distress signal from a ship called the Scopuli, but the derelict vessel they investigate is actually a trap- seemingly engineered by authorities from Mars, and the freighter is destroyed leaving a handful of survivors/witnesses in a fleeing shuttle. Political repercussions of the attack spread quickly throughout the system, bringing the opposing powers of Earth and Mars to the brink of war. Miller’s investigations lead him to links between Julie Mao and the doomed Scopuli and a conspiracy involving bio-engineered weapon tech of possibly alien origin, and the survivors of the Canterbury, led by Earther James Holden, become increasingly trapped in this web of intrigue themselves, eventually leading to them and Miller being caught together in events involving the deaths of thousands on Eros station.

There’s certainly nothing else quite like it out there, I think. The nearest thing I can suggest is that it’s like a sci-fi Game of Thrones but that’s lazy and not really fair- yes its epic with a big cast of characters and contesting factions/intrigue but beyond that the similarities end. GOT tended to lean towards sex and nudity early on to get attention and The Expanse (other than a scene early on in the first episode) avoided this. As its really a giant space opera set in the 23rd Century it really leans towards Babylon 5 (one of my favourite shows) but with a bigger budget and/or the benefits of obvious advances in CGI. It has a huge scale and looks absolutely gorgeous in HD- my player obviously upscaling to 4K on my OLED. It looks really filmic but is full of interesting characters and big ideas. Watching it this time around I noticed it’s a production from Alcon Entertainment, who were also behind BR2049, and yes, it’s certainly that same kind of intelligent, adult science fiction.  While there are things that can no doubt be picked apart by the experts, the show does lean towards a real-science, physically-accurate portrayal of space exploration that is refreshing and quite convincing- it’s certainly more 2001 than Star Trek, more Alien than Star Wars.

As I still haven’t read any of the books upon which the series is based, I can’t say how faithful it is or have any idea where it’s all headed- ironically though, as I had put off rewatching season one for awhile now, I now have two seasons to watch after this so the threads left hanging won’t be frustrating me quite so much this time around-  indeed with any luck I’ll be starting season two later today.

Irma in March

irmaHere’s some good news to start the New Year- Billy Wilder’s romantic-comedy Irma La Douce is coming to Blu-ray here in the UK courtesy of Eureka, currently scheduled for a release on March 18th. I have a copy of the film on DVD but am really looking forward to getting the film in HD- a 4K restoration was released on Blu-ray over in the States last June but it was region-locked, which annoyed me no end, but hey-ho, all good things come to he who waits (although I’m still waiting for Days of Heaven on Blu-ray over here). While not widely regarded as one of Billy Wilder’s best films, nonetheless Irma La Douce is a really nice film with a lovely score (I have the expanded score on CD and its wonderful). Stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine return after their earlier Wilder classic, The Apartment- it’s hardly fair to compare the two films, as The Apartment is one of the very best films ever made, but a new disc featuring Jack Lemmon is always something for me to get excited about.

The DVD I have is bare-bones but this edition will feature two commentaries (ported from the US release), a new video interview and the usual booklet with essay. At this stage of how things regards physical and streaming is going, any HD physical release of a film I like is something to savour and this is certainly going to be part of the 2019 Selection- yes its pre-ordered!

The 2019 Selection?

I didn’t do it last year (partly because I was consciously trying to limit buying discs), but back in 2017 I ran a regular series of posts entitled ‘The 2017 Selection’ which was a tracker of all the discs I was buying – taking photographs of the expanding number of discs on the shelf and noting when I managed to watch them (or not- one of the first discs I bought that year, which was John Carpenter’s original Assault on Precinct 13 on Blu-ray, ended up being one of the very last titles I actually watched in the tail end of December).

exp3So anyway, let’s resurrect this old beast, shall we? Hopefully I’ll manage to keep the numbers down and quality-level up. Just arrived today through the letterbox has been The Expanse Season Three on Blu-ray, which I bought during a timely sale on Amazon (its since gone back up in price already).

I saw the first season back in 2016, so yeah, way back really, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and then eventually bought the season two set when that fell in price on Amazon, but didn’t get around to watching it. Which would infer I didn’t really enjoy that first season all that much, but that’s really not the case. My problem is that the show is really quite elaborate and complicated (refreshingly so, infact, as I love the idea of a big sci-fi space opera to get my teeth into) but of course separating seasons of it over more than twelve months makes it harder to remember who’s who, what’s what and still get the most out of it. And frankly, there’s just so much stuff to watch it’s easy to get lost in the noise, which is what happened here as I intended to rewatch season one before jumping into the sophomore outing, but got distracted by all the new stuff out there etc… and here we are again, with me still procrastinating over season one with now two seasons  on the shelf.

Well, we’ll see what happens. Hopefully I’ll demonstrate more self-discipline this time around and actually watch season one again and progress onto those later seasons. Its funny though, coming at a series with this kind of delay (I think season three was originally aired several months ago now) and the distance it brings. The Expanse of course actually got cancelled and eventually saved by Amazon, with a fourth season airing on Prime sometime late this year which I’ll probably have to watch via streaming. I do hope a physical release is forthcoming somehow, I’d hate my disc collection to be rendered incomplete, but Amazon don’t have a brilliant track record for allowing some of its programming to be given physical releases (The Man in the High Castle a particular offender- which reminds me I still have to watch season three of that).

Agh, here we go again. The New Golden Age of Television can be a right inconvenient bugger sometimes.

Hannah’s turned Blu

hannahSo dipping into my Woody Allen box-set again, I watched Hannah and Her Sisters. I’d seen it once before, back in the VHS days not long after it came out, on a rental I think. Back at the time (the film came out in 1986) it was hugely well-regarded I believe and quite popular, but as tends to happen over time, it seems rather forgotten now. Or maybe Woody Allen films have always been niche and the period of their popularity inevitably transitory, I mean, Gods are transitory, just ask the Egyptians or those guys who wrote ‘Jedi’ on their census forms or maybe I’m way off the mark and Hannah is as well-regarded and loved as it ever was, maybe it’s just me and I’m wrong again, I don’t know, I don’t know what to think, I think maybe I should go see my analyst or pop some paracetamol and go lie down, do I look a funny colour to you?  Do I sound like Allen himself here in one of his voice-over monologues? It must be infectious.

I think Allen must have learned a lot from making Hannah because I can see a lot of it in the (superior) Crimes and Misdemeanors: the multiple plot threads, the quirky and imperfect characters and their relationships, and the concious theorising over God and mortality and the meaning of our existence while someone cheats on someone else.

The cast are pretty great, mind. Barbara Hershey is so beautiful and fragile and glowing in this, and seeing Carrie Fisher again out of the blue (I’d forgotten she was in it) was a sudden and pleasant surprise – she looks so young and vivacious. And a shockingly young-looking (albeit middle-aged, admittedly) Michael Caine, what a perfectly weak-minded foolish bastard he was in this. Or maybe he was a smart opportunist calculating bastard. I’m not sure which. But he most certainly was a bastard.

The blu-ray looks pretty good (as you would expect from Arrow), maybe not as impressive as Crimes did the other night but it’s got a nice filmic look with plenty of grain.

Yeah I really quite enjoyed this. There’s something nice and relaxing (almost comforting) about settling into a Woody Allen film, particularly from this period, and just soaking up its small insular charms. Maybe Allen’s films have always been from some other world, but compared to today’s cinema, it’s a world farther and farther away.

Game Night (2018)

game1Well, the Westie was kind of cute (and was, I have to admit, the reason we watched this, damn those marketing boys and their sorcery). Game Night is one of those entertaining comedy-thrillers that are empty-headed and mildly diverting and mostly harmless. Its also terribly manipulative and silly and cynical. The thing that struck me most while watching this was, what the hell is Rachel McAdams doing in low-rent stuff like this? Well, it was a pay-cheque I guess, but it reminded me of what some people must have thought seeing Alec Guinness in Star Wars all those years back. Not that I’m comparing McAdams to Alec Guinness, you understand, but you know, the point is there. I thought she was beyond stuff like this (her performance in True Detective some way in the distance, and raising another interesting comparison between movies and television now).

Which is possibly overly disingenuous of me as I quite enjoyed the film. Its certainly slickly done, but it always feels knowing and manipulative and seldom surprises. Maybe that’s the point, I mean, the audience for films like this will expect films like this to do what they do, be what they are. They won’t want the film to be terribly realistic or fully make sense. But one of the characters gets shot in the arm, the bullet goes straight through and there’s quite a lot of blood in one scene (to comedic effect) but the guy should be in terrible pain/feeling faint/out for the count but instead goes around on an adventure for several hours involving chases and fights and stunts and I’m thinking, ‘he’s got a hole in his arm, he should be crying like a little girl or something‘ but of course instead he’s racing down a runway in a sports car bringing down a jet-plane that’s trying to lift off and then facing off the bad guys and…

Yes, its lightweight nonsense. Just feels a bit cynical, the whole thing, but maybe that was just me in the wrong mood.

 

Blu-ray Misdemeanors

crimes.jpgWhile it is probably in truth not his best film, and as I’ve not seen all his films I’m certainly not best-qualified to judge anyway, but of all those that I have seen, Woody Allen’s 1989 crime drama Crimes and Misdemeanors remains my favourite. Having bought Arrow’s Blu-ray edition of the film back in September I have finally gotten around to watching it, the first time I have rewatched the film for many years (I think the last time was back on VHS).

The film holds up fantastically well, a sometimes sober and sometimes funny drama about relationships and guilt and crimes minor and terrible. Its the kind of thing that, back in the 1970s/1980s, certainly, Allen was very good at doing- small, intimate dramas that are as much ruminations of thought as much as they are entertainment. Crimes and Misdemeanors is fascinating and enlightening and has twists and turns and plenty to think about afterwards (always a sign of a good movie). I can well understand how it struck such a chord in me back when I first saw it on a VHS rental- I was always a sucker (still am, really) for any film that had Big Thoughts about the nature of existence, morality and God. Ironically I think I have to admit that what drew me towards it was the casting of Martin Landau, an actor who, back then, I really only knew from my childhood favourite Space:1999.  The opportunity to watch him in something else after that span of time was obviously a big draw.

The funny thing is, ever since, I have had a rather low opinion of Landau’s range as an actor. Its likely unfair of me as I still have never seen him in much of anything – Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sleepy Hollow, Ed Wood and Space:1999 is really just about it, so again, like in judging Allen’s filmography, I’m hardly really qualified.  Its just that, when I later returned to Space:1999 and its Blu-ray box set, it was clear that Landau was horribly miscast as Commander John Koenig (unless having a bumbling, zero-charm unfortunate beaurocrat in charge of a moonbase was deliberate). Reading that Landau and his then-wife and co-star Barbara Bain played the Hollywood prima donna game whilst making the series (Landau maintaining that he was only ever shot in profile from one side and that he often counted his lines and demanded script changes to ensure he was the ‘star’ each episode), while hardly making him anything unique, rather made him an actor I was less inclined to admire.

So anyway, rewatching Crimes and Misdemeanors, whatever my opinion of his limits as a character actor, it’s clear that this was a role that was perfect for Landau. He just nails it. Here is a man, successful Ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal, who is clearly loved and respected in his profession and community, who has led something of a double-life, having spent two years in an affair with a mistress and having managed some dubious financial practices with other people’s money to keep himself afloat. He projects this image of a nice, decent man and yet is a liar and cheat, both to his mistress who maintains that he made promises to her, and his wife and daughter and his colleagues in business. And he deceives himself as much as he does others, excusing his financial cheating as for the greater good and his affair as a foolish whim,  justifying his arranging his mistresses murder (to ensure her silence when she threatens to reveal everything to his wife) as a necessary evil to ensure the safety and comfort of his immediate family and all he has built up. When he feels guilt and the weight of his religious upbringing he has debates with a confidant, his brother and the ghosts of his father and old family, but it’s all about making his actions allowable and justifiable, not bringing himself to account. He lies to everyone, and himself and ultimately to God. But in a morally uncertain universe, is that such a crime? Especially when it eventually transpires that he gets away with it.

The Blu-ray looks terrific, especially upscaled to 4K on my OLED- the film has a lot of grain that adds great texture and detail to everything such as clothing and faces. There’s such a tangible sense of filmstock about it. I’m sure that it’s never looked better and that it really captures the ‘look’ of back when it was projected in cinemas. Revisiting old favourites after some time can always be a somewhat sobering experience but I’m glad to write that Crimes and Misdemeanors, my favourite Woody Allen film, remains one of my very favourite films of all. I certainly look forward to revisiting it again with this fine Blu-ray release.