The 2017 Selection Pt.6

2017 selection 6Just a few additions to mention – and looking at the release schedules, it may be a little while (certainly September/October) before I start adding to the list again- barring any sales. Probably just as well with the backlog of stuff to watch and tv seasons in progress.

So anyway, what do we have? First, Kong: Skull Island, which I reviewed in an earlier post. I really enjoyed this and I’ve since watched the disc again, and yep, the film still works like a charm. Great stuff.

Next we have season two of The Expanse, which like the first season last year, I have had to import on blu-ray from the States thanks to the vagaries of broadcasting these days. The first season originally wasn’t picked up by anybody here in the UK, but with the second season in the can Netflix added both seasons to its roster (which doesn’t help me as I’m an Amazon Prime boy for my sins and I refuse to subscribe to every channel/outlet under the sun). Anyhow, I really enjoyed the first season -sort of a successor to Babylon 5 and the BSG reboot by way of Game of Thrones–  and am really looking forward to watching this. The discs this time around even have some decent extras, including commentaries. I have, however, decided to rewatch season one first as I’ll be damned if I can remember all the fine details of the plot from over a year ago. So a review may be a little while off yet.

Next along comes Arrow’s excellent blu-ray edition of Future Shock; a brilliant documentary about the creation and history of the galaxy’s greatest comic (at least, it was back in the day when I read it), accompanied here by hours of extras (extended interviews and the like) that more than makes it a mandatory purchase even in this era of trying to curtail my disc buying. I reviewed the doc last year when it aired on Film Four and am glad I never bought the DVD version, because I hate double-dipping and this edition is the definitive one. I’ve watched some of the addl featurettes/sections and extended interviews and it’s absolutely zarjaz.

Lastly, Ghost in the Shell, which I saw at the cinema back in April and was intrigued enough to buy on disc. It holds up very well on second viewing- probably improves in fact, if only because distractions of the original anime  are less of an issue when you know what is/isn’t going on with the plot and can consequently relax and enjoy it for what it is. It’s certainly spectacular to look at and well worth a rental.

 

Returning to Ghost in the Shell

g2.jpgBack in April I saw the live-action Ghost in the Shell at the cinema. While I found it a little frustrating in places, I enjoyed the film enough to buy the blu-ray, which I watched yesterday.

Visually the film is perhaps even more impressive on disc than it was at the cinema (maybe that says something about my Cineworld): the effects and art direction are very, very impressive. Indeed, some of the visual effects of the city augmented with live action (say, with Scarlett Johansson walking down a street or sitting on a rooftop with the streets below her) are pretty astonishing, how photorealistic some of this stuff is getting. As an effects showcase or visual spectacle, this is a major achievement, really bringing the original anime to life. I think I’ll be able to rewatch sequences over and over, just soaking up all that detail, in just the same way I did with the original Blade Runner decades ago- it’s that good.  I also like how we see odd-looking characters and background stuff going on that are not explained. Its there to either be ignored or pondered over (I prefer the latter), adding little to the plot but it’s all part of that layers of detail stuff.

There is one scene, based on one from the anime, in which the Major and Batou are standing on a boat just offshore with the futuristic night-time city blazing neon behind them, which is just jaw-dropping, really, how seamlessly everything is integrated- the camera moves, the lighting of the characters, the city behind them softly out of focus. Its that stuff that impresses me more than the whizz-bang effects stuff really. It’s slow and quiet but so disarmingly perfect.

g1Deficiencies in the plot are less of a hindrance second time around, and my misgivings over a lack of empathy with Johansson’s Major are no longer the issue I felt at the cinema. It seems a deliberate choice to neuter the character emotionally- a result of having no memories and being as much an object created for a purpose  as her being an individual person. She is told she has a ‘ghost’ or soul in her fabricated body but she doesn’t feel it. She isn’t convinced she is a ‘real person’ until she has unearthed the truth about the girl she used to be. It’s rather similar to Robocop, in which even though Murphy has the memories of his past life, he is no longer that same person; his Robocop personna being subtly different, whatever his name/memories may say. It’s hardly Blade Runner-level layers of subtext but it’s interesting, even if it possibly damaged the movie regards audiences empathising with her emotionally-challenged personna/performance. As I say, less of an issue for me this time around, but even I noticed it at the cinema, feeling oddly disengaged from the proceedings. Mind you, part of that may have been from familiarity with the anime. I guess I may well feel the same watching Blade Runner 2049– how the hell do I just enjoy the film experience of that film and not get caught up in the cold objectivity of the fact of it being a sequel to the original and being utterly distracted by it?

So anyway, not a bad movie anyway, and a good first entry regards setting up the background of the Major and her future cyberpunk world. Would have been nice to see it progress to a second and even third film, expanding the story as the anime did in its own sequel and tv offshoots.

A quick trip to Box Office Mojo reveals the painful statistics though- Ghost in the Shell cost around $110 million to make (not bad, considering) so likely needed around $250 million to see a profit- the film completely tanked in America, only managing just over $40 million. The foreign total was more impressive; $129 million, but not enough to limit the damage of that woeful American take. So, no more Ghost in the Shell movies then. Likely no live-action Akira either. Good or bad thing?

One observation. Between HBO’s recent Westworld examining in such adult fashion the ‘what is it to be human?’ question and the nature of artificial memory and freewill/slavery as well as it did, and this Ghost in the Shell nailing that whole future-cyberpunk visual vibe, what’s left for Blade Runner 2049? In some ways, I have to wonder if the Blade Runner sequel is too late- a new generation of films/television has picked up the baton of the 1982 movie and moved it forward with some success.  Here’s hoping that it still has something new to say.

 

Sinbad!

Indicator’s recent box-set (the first in a series of Harryhausen sets) contains UK blu-ray premier’s of the Sinbad trilogy, with the usual great special features we have come to expect. I may struggle to get through those extras, but the films? Well, I’ve no wish to add to the ‘to watch’ pile, and I intend to justify every 2017 purchase by actually watching them, so this past week it’s been a Sinbad triple-bill at Ghost Hall…

7thvoy1The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

The oldest of the three films, it shows its age in places but also likely benefits from that age in its bold, technicolour-drenched, almost gothic stylings that lend it a similar charm to the best of Hammer of that period. The comic book-styled colours, and deep dark shadows are particularly vivid and atmospheric-it looks like a timeless European fantasy, unfortunately handicapped by the casting of two incongruous American leads- the bland Kerwin Matthews as Sinbad and a frankly terrible Kathryn Grant (who thankfully retired from acting soon after). The film is enlivened considerably by Torin Thatcher as the villain, Sokurah. He chews up the scenery and hugely improves the film- a towering over the top pantomime sorcerer, a joy to witness. He’s about the only human aspect to match up to Harryhausen’s wonderfully imaginative stop-motion creatures. The increased grain of the process photography doesn’t do the film any favours, especially in this beautiful new HD master, but the imagination and craft in the design, building and animation of the creatures is brilliant. The film remains a timeless classic and is served by a spectacular Bernard Herrmann  score that is probably the finest musical accompaniment to any Harryhausen feature.

golden12017.40: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

As the prefix above suggests, somehow I’d never seen this Sinbad film before. The surprising gap between this film and its predecessor results in a new cast and an initially disorientating change of approach. The cast is a definite improvement- John Phillip Law as Sinbad and the gorgeous Caroline Munro as his voluptuous love-interest. Initially Law struck me as an odd-looking Sinbad but I warmed to him considerably as the film went on; a good actor with great screen presence. Munro… well, she doesn’t have to act, she just looks incredible and I always had a crush on her as a young lad- well, what young man in the 1970s wouldn’t? You’d have to be a Vulcan with green blood in your veins not to fall under her spell. This is actually one of her better performances/movies, and as I’d never seen the film before a genuine treat.

The change of approach with the movie is also a bit surprising but quite commendable. It has a bigger budget and a more accomplished scale and style; less European fantasy and more real-world Arabic adventure, helped no end by some great location shooting. Harryhausen’s creations are as fantastic and memorable as ever, but by now his stop-motion technique was showing its age and limitations in the photographic process all the more apparent. Certainly the leap in grain and the impact on mattes leave the film suffering in HD. It’s a great pity but the beauty of these films is that they are such fun and so imaginative in design that you can easily forgive the limitations in the fakery. It’s still movie magic and few cgi creations have the heart and soul of a Harryhausen creation.

And I still haven’t mentioned Tom Baker as the villain, another evil magician, Koura. Less the panto villain of Thatcher’s Sokurah, Koura is more ‘real’, more genuine, and Baker is brilliant. This film was great, possibly the best of the three and I look forward to delving into the discs special features.

eyetiger1Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Oh dear. Horrible. Time (and Star Wars) finally caught up with Harryhausen, and although fans will always forgive the faults inherent in his stop-motion effects, this time the film around them was truly terrible. It’s also likely why this boxset exists- I can imagine genre fans rushing to buy 7th Voyage and, having now seen it, Golden Voyage, but really, how many would fork out hard-earned dosh on nonsense like Eye of the Tiger? I watched it once for completists sake having watched the other two, but now this disc is back in the box where it will stay. Sure, a Sinbad box makes sense but really, it’s surely the only way this film would ever sell.

To be fair, it’s not helped by the film committing one of my very worst pet hates in film- it runs the opening scenes under the title credits. I hate that. I much prefer text over a blank screen, or over graphics, whatever, but not over the opening shots of a film. Worse than that, the film compounds this heresy by showing the closing titles over the closing scenes of the film. The plot of the film involves rescuing the prince from his curse, returning him to human form and ensuring his coronation before the time limit, and then just as our heroes are triumphant and we see the fruits of their labours, boom, full-colour text is processed over the valedictory sequence. Horrible. I hate it.

Another thing, no matter how bad Kerwin Matthews was in 7th Voyage, Patrick (son of John) Wayne is even worse. Its Sinbad channeling a young Clint Eastwood. Seriously, close your eyes and listen to him- maybe it is his American drawl, but he sounds like he is actually mimicking Clint. Its utterly bizarre, and quite out of keeping with a Sinbad fantasy. There seems to be little chemistry between himself and Jane Seymour too, and Seymour herself is a pale reflection of Munro’s sultry heroine of the previous film. It’s all pretty weak and insipid, frankly: the villain (a sorceress this time, with a son for a stooge) is much inferior to those of the first two films, and the direction fairly uninspired. Even the music score is a pale shadow of the Herrmann and Rozsa scores previous. No, I really didn’t like it. Why waste time with this when you can rewatch one of the previous two?

Beauty and the Box-Office Beast

batb1.jpg2017.39: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Why is there a new live-action Disney Beauty and the Beast? It is a valid question, surely. I can only imagine it’s something to do with making money- well of course it is, otherwise it would be about adding something new to the cultural zeitgeist of the 21st Century and, well, this ain’t. Its surely also rather more about furthering egos and careers at the same time as Disney continues its almost incestuous trend of rebooting its back-catalogue of animated classics (previously rebooting Cinderella and Jungle Book, and I suppose Sleeping Beauty in its Maleficent, although I’d give that film points for trying a new angle).

In many respects, this Beauty and the Beast is just another example of an ideas-adverse/intellectually deficient Hollywood in action. And I’m afraid to say, it works: depressingly, this film is the biggest-grossing film of this year, so far. Currently something in the region of $1.2 billion worldwide. So more Disney reboots seem inevitable, for one thing- if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say.

Watching this film was a somewhat bizarre experience of re-experiencing something I had never seen before. Indeed, at its worst, it seems to follow so closely the original 1991 film, its as if that film was a pre-vis animated storyboard such as they use on many films these days. At its best, the film diverts somewhat, with three new musical numbers and added back-story for some of the characters, the brooding feeling of deja-vu dissipating somewhat as something actually new appears.

But it is such a strange viewing experience, caught in some kind of Philip K Dick-style alternate reality, wondering what the bloody hell is going on. I knew very little of this film going into it, and actually wondered if it would have any musical numbers at all. In hindsight, I must have been some kind of bloody idiot. This is the 1991 Beauty and the Beast done in live-action, musical numbers and all… well, I say live-action; there is an awful lot of digital set-augmentation, digital characters and post-production tinkering of the image in general that at times it looks more animated than live-action, resulting in an almost painterly style to the image that, while it may be pretty to look at does actually make me wonder what actually defines as ‘live-action’ these days.

This 2017 edition is not a terribly bad film by any means, and it does have its moments, but its very existence is rather depressing, and it’s huge box-office success even more so, for what that success portends. I do find it very disheartening how easily the current generation of entertainment industry ‘luvvies’, from actors to directors to producers to craftsmen so readily exult in cannibalising the work and success of those that came before them. As if rejoicing that there is nothing new under the sun and how easy it is to retread paths already taken, basking in the box-office glow that all that audiences want is more of the same but with added sparkle.

I hate the new Star Trek reboots, despair at ‘new’ Alien movies and endless POTC films and Transformers films and all the rest. I really should be concerned that even my beloved Blade Runner is not impervious to current trends. They recently released a ‘new’ Spider Man film and I didn’t bother to even go see it; the thought never occurred to me- a sixth Spider Man film already, and the second reboot too, it just feels ridiculous.

Being a film-lover and writer of a blog such as this is, films like this Beauty and the Beast, as efficiently made as it is, and all the other reboots and remakes and sequels and prequels feels like a never-ending tide. Of course it is too sweeping a generalisation to suggest that this is all that there is, but it is all rather alarming. Yes there are ‘new’ films being made and not all reboots are pointless. But this tide is just getting stronger and I wonder how long it might continue or where it ultimately leads.

Hail the King

2017.38: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

kong1If Lara Croft was a photographer, then she’d look like Brie Larson in Kong: Skull Island. Not that Lara Croft: Tomb Photographer is a likely prospect for a future film/videogame, but its definitely the ‘look’ they were going for.

Kong: Skull Island is immense fun. Its one of my biggest genuine surprises of the year so far- its a film that from the trailers looked pretty lackluster to be honest, so the film didn’t really interest me too much- I gave it a miss at the cinema, as I expected it to be just another cgi snore-fest. Boy, was I wrong.

As it turns out, yes it is a cgi-fest in places but that cgi is very well done, indeed technically audacious and quite imaginatively executed with some thoughtful design choices and while it is a fairly dumb film,  its also great fun. The cast is great, the script witty and the direction has considerable flair. Its a far better film than I expected and really much, much better (and decidedly less calculated/by the numbers) than the recent Jurassic Park reboot.

Kong himself is huge here- I mean, crazily, ridiculously, mentally over-sized, but I suppose its all part of the intentional, over-the-top fun of the whole piece. This Kong is literally Godlike, a gigantic force of nature to finally put puny man in his place. This Kong won’t get beaten by humans in their war planes- this King tosses around helicopters straight from Apocalypse Now as if they are playthings. Its like monster-movie revenge for the 1933 original finale (and that of the 1976 and 2005 remakes); gloriously rewriting the traditional Kong story- I can almost imagine this being a Joe Dante movie, its so like Gremlins in how it has such naughty fun subverting conventions of earlier Kongs. Its glee could only be intensified had it somehow got a Jerry Goldsmith score similar to his riotous Gremlins score.Yeah, a Joe Dante King Kong movie- this is nearly it.

With credentials like that, this film is a must-watch. I can still hardly believe it, and can’t wait to watch it again. If they can keep the creative team together,  the Godzilla vs Kong mooted to follow will be an absolute riot. Hail the King indeed.

Half Man, Half Ant, All Terror!

matinee2017.35: Matinee (1993)

One of the few Joe Dante films I hadn’t seen, I admit I’m spectacularly late to the party with this one. As it turns out, it’s an utterly charming film that deserves a reappraisal- it may turn out to be one of Dante’s very best. It has the feel of The Burbs, and if you enjoy that film, I’m sure you will love this one. It has that same gentle tone of warm comedy and pokes fun at its characters and its situations- anyone who grew up watching the sci-fi b-movies made in the 1950s, full of Cold War paranoia and wild fears of radiation will find much to enjoy with its film-within-a-film, Mant! which serves as a delicious tribute to all those old movies (“oh, Bill….!”).

And of course, being a Joe Dante picture, there are plenty of actor cameos from other Dante films, which offers a great drinking game for genre fans- it is like meeting old friends and it is fun noting them and the other Dante films they appeared in. It even has a great little score by Jerry Goldsmith that serves to remind us how much films have lacked since his passing, and how much soundtrack music has changed for the worse.

What surprised me was just how substantial the film is. It doesn’t just poke fun at old 1950s b-movies, it recalls with some sincerity the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and an era when nuclear apocalypse was a very real fear. There is a wonderful juxtaposition of the real crisis and the real drama, reflected in  the exploitation of horror movies of the time with their giant insects and science gone horribly wrong.

Sometimes films are made and released at just the wrong time, and for no fault of their own fail to find an audience. Thankfully, sometimes they eventually get their due and I suspect that this Arrow edition on Blu-ray will ensure that Matinee is now discovered by genre fans who missed it first time around, if only they will give it a try. Certainly it is a must-see for any Joe Dante fan. Why in the world is he no longer making films?

 

The 2017 Selection Pt.5

coll4My efforts to restrict disc-buying seem to be working. Maybe it is the lull before the storm, but this post is my first ‘2017 Selection’ update since April, some three months ago, so I must be doing something right.

First addition to the pile is the first season of Jessica Jones. I really enjoyed Daredevil earlier this year, and this is another of those Marvel Netflix shows. I bought it in a sale, and it’s still in the shrinkwrap. But I’m sure I’ll get around to it sooner than I do the second season of Fargo, which I have already seen on its network airing some time ago. I enjoyed the show immensely- it is terrific television, but here in the UK we are deemed unworthy of a Blu-ray release (another indication of the waning format?) so I bought a copy from the States, again, my purchase triggered by seeing it cheap. My Tivo currently has seven episodes of season 3 to watch, and the romantic in me would love to watch season two again beforehand but the realist in me knows that’s never going to happen. This Season Two set may languish unwatched for some months yet but it’s going to be a real pleasure to revisit the series again eventually. This season was one of the best tv shows I have ever seen, set in the Seventies with great source music and references to CE3K that still bring a smile to my face every time I remember them.

Next is Matinee, a Joe Dante film I have somehow neglected to see, in an Arrow release that finally dropped in price. Yes another purchase triggered by a sale. There’s a pattern clearly taking form here, promptly broken by Indicator’s recent Sinbad boxset, which I pre-ordered when it was first announced. Ray Harryhausen. ‘Nuff said.

Two more new releases follow, here two films that I failed to see at the cinema although I was rather tempted- my issue is, the price of two cinema tickets these days is more than the price of buying a disc, and if it’s likely to be a film I’ll enjoy enough to buy on disc anyway, well, why not save the cinema price and use it for the disc instead? It’s the kind of logic a Vulcan would be proud of – and only completely shatters if it’s a film I end up not liking, alas. Well, as anyone who read my Logan review the other day will know, sometimes it all works out fine.

Logan Falls

logan2017.32: Logan (2017)

In the Special Features section of this disc, one of the film-makers behind Logan states that the goal was for the film to be the superhero equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. If so, it misses that target by some margin, but it’s clear that there is considerable ambition here for it not to be ‘just another super-hero flick’.

On the one hand, this must surely be applauded for a genre that seems to land another new film at the multiplex every other week. On the other hand, it all seems so 1980s, all this revisionist, oh-so-serious superhero-in-the-real-world stuff. I find myself missing the simple fun and innocence of stuff like Superman: The Movie.

Which does seem odd, considering how I embraced stuff like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns when they came out- but there’s the problem; they came out in the 1980s, decades ago. I don’t read super-hero comics anymore but I hope that they outgrew all that. How long can you agonise over the existential crises of superheroes in the Real World before it all gets all just a little bit… boring?

To be fair, I’ve never really been much of a fan of the X-Men films anyway. I quite liked the first, but thought the second one got away with ripping off Wrath of Khan way, way too easily and the third film was a franchise-killing shambles. I did enjoy First Class but the franchise promptly kicked any goodwill into touch with Days of Future Past, which to this day baffles me so much I still haven’t dared get around to the next title in the franchise, X-Men: Apocalypse.  My central issue with the films is all the allegorical musing, usually hammered at the audience with the subtlety of a brick in the face, of mutants and racism and inequality and prejudice blah blah. It’s ok. I got it with the first film. Don’t endlessly beat me with a stick over it. The fun-sucking seriousness of examining outsider superheroes in the ‘Real World’ is something that runs through all the X-Men films and just seems to bleed them dry. But the one thing that runs through the X-Men films and pretty much saves them is Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, even if his solo spin-off films have pretty much oddly faltered. Which leaves us with Logan.

Logan at least distances itself some way from the other X-Men films by setting itself in the future- 2029 in fact, and a time when the other mutants are long gone. The multiple timelines of the X-Men films are mystifying to me but I guess they all got killed or imprisoned by the Government at last? At anyrate, it seems super-heroics are a thing of the past in 2029, and Logan is pretty much in hiding, protecting a heavily sedated Professor X who is suffering from dementia (“the most deadliest brain on the planet” as someone blithely offers at one point).

Er, didn’t I see Professor X get killed in another X-Men movie? Agh. I hate X-Men movies- so many timelines it’s like a Dr Who franchise run amok.

I came into the film rather expecting a downbeat, reflective piece as Logan and Charles Xavier deal with old age and the approaching end of their lives, while perhaps considering their past, lost friends, their successes and failures. Instead it actually appears to be something of a reboot, as a new generation of mutants, this time the products of mutant lab rats, appear on the scene needing protection from Logan and an inevitable passing of the baton. As a whole, it works very well, but the distraction of new kids on the block rather negates any powerful soul-searching that, say, a proper superhero Unforgiven might be blessed with.

That said, it is entertaining and Hugh Jackman is quite superb in his Wolverine swansong (even if the X-24 villain rather leaves the door depressingly open for a rebirth for the character should the salary offers prove tempting enough for Jackman). It is distinctly R-rated with lots of gritty violence that cements its real-world dynamic- if this had been released, say, before Deadpool, its impact would have been yet more substantial, but it gains greatly in what it lacks re: Deadpool‘s more comedic approach. It doesn’t quite feel like the daft nonsense it might otherwise. Here heroes can bleed and get drunk and swear, and, yes, die.

It just irritated me a little to discover it wasn’t the ending of an era but rather a reboot for another one. I think I would have preferred a ‘final chapter’ for superheroes in general, something akin to the end of all superheroes and an evaluation of where that would leave a world suddenly without them, which really would have been an Unforgiven-type film. As it is, its an entertaining and at times thoughtful diversion, but make no mistake, there’s plenty more X-Men action left and perhaps even a rebirth for Jackman’s Wolverine. The cynicism of the latter would be frankly horrible, so let’s hope this is truly the end for Jackman at least- as such, it’s the best X-Men movie yet, but might yet prove to be its most cynical worst. Time will tell.

Garcia at last

garcia12017.31: Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia -its all there in that horrific, oh so typical 1970s b-movie title- is something of a masterpiece.  But it’s rare that watching something you can admire so much can make you feel so dirty too. It must be something like sitting next to director Sam Peckinpah whilst watching it and realising that he’s a thoroughly nasty individual who you’d prefer not to ever meet again. It’s certainly a rare thing nowadays, watching a film and feeling that, rather than seeing something generated by a committee, you are stepping into someone’s sole creative vision, unpleasant as it may be. If Peckinpah was indeed haunted by his demons, then they are all up on that screen to be seen by all.

Peckinpah was no doubt a fascinating, disturbed individual- Arrow’s superlative Blu-ray features ten hours of interview footage about the director that is much too daunting for me to tackle right now, if ever. I’m sure Peckinpah had his redeeming features, but by the time he made Garcia he was an alcoholic and the booze had pretty much destroyed him- its surely no accident that Warren Oates in the role of Bennie looks so like Peckinpah with his dark shades etc, the film approximating some kind of autobiographical features as Bennie spirals towards his doom.

This is a film to provoke as much as entertain, turn away as much as enthrall. There are sudden moments of violence towards women, for instance, that are quite harrowing to watch- Garcia often feels like an artifact from some distant age. Its really quite brutal, a dark fury running throughout- a rage against life, against women, against booze, against God.

And yet you can’t take your eyes from it.

So, Warren Oates is Bennie, a washed-up piano player falling into a liquor-soaked oblivion in a dead-end Mexican bar, having spent his life digging himself into a deep hole he can’t climb out of. A powerful Mexican crime-lord, El Jefe, discovering his daughter is pregnant has demanded the head of the man responsible- Alfredo Garcia. The reward is huge enough to set dozens of desperate men on the hunt, including two bounty hunters who stumble into Bennie’s bar looking for clues. Bennie thinks he has a lead- his girlfriend, a prostitute named Elita (Isela Vega), knows Garcia, and she subsequently tells him that Garcia is already dead.

Bennie decides to turn this to his advantage- the money from the reward could rescue Elita and him from their dead-end lives, so they jump in his car and travel across country to find Garcia’s grave, dig up the body and take his head back to El Jefe. Along the way they have to dodge bounty hunters and other bad guys they stumble across- but Bennie is a drunken fool shit out of luck, and all he manages to do is get people around him killed as he digs himself deeper into that hole he is already in. By the end of the film, all Bennie has is the sack containing the decomposing head, swarmed by flies in the relentless desert heat- even as he succumbs to madness, perhaps his prize could still finally be his way of getting even?

garcia2Garcia is a hard, twisted film. Its the kind of film Tarantino must wish he could write and direct- there is something horribly authentic about its internal logic, its mindset. Life is venal, cheap, dirty- this is a world in which men have no redeeming features at all. Women are repeatedly demeaned and marginalised, but there is also some purity to them, even the prostitute Elita, while the men are pretty much all no-good, greedy fools dominated by their lust for wealth and women- except for the two bounty-hunters that approach Bennie at the beginning. It is suggestive that they are homosexuals, something they are secretive and ashamed of, manifested by a violent hatred of women (one of them beating a prostitute unconscious for provocatively touching him).

Its utterly bizarre and quite unlike any film made in the last few decades, a throwback to a time -1970s American cinema- and a director who seemed to belong to some other era. Its not a Western, it’s not a film-noir, and yet it is both, as well as being rather horrific. The curious thing about watching films as old as this now -it dates from 1974- is how you can in hindsight trace its impact on subsequent cinema and film-makers. There is a scene for instance, with a naked, post-traumatic Elita sobbing under the spray of a shower, comforted by Bennie, which is clearly the ‘inspiration’ for a scene and imagery in 2006’s Casino Royal. There’s no doubt that Peckinpah, for all his faults and demons, cast a long shadow over cinema, and Garcia is likely his masterpiece. But it’s certainly not easy to stomach.

 

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.