Criterion Badlands

bad1Put this one the 2019 list for sure; Criterion are releasing their edition of Terrence Malick’s Badlands on Blu-ray over here in the UK in May. I’ve never owned the film on any format -VHS, DVD, Blu-ray- so at least it’s not a double or triple-dip. In fact I haven’t seen the film in many years, not since I really caught the Malick bug with his later films (Thin Red LIne etc) and I’ve always been curious if I’d fall in love with it now I’m older (back then I had a distinctly ambivalent feeling towards it). Well, this is certainly the perfect opportunity to put that to the test.

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Avanti! again

avantiSo I returned to Billy Wilder’s Avanti! again. Its widely considered one of Wilder’s lesser films, and of course when compared to some of his greatest films (a list, remember, that includes Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard) I suppose that’s inevitable, but the film has a certain charm that draws me to it, perhaps more so than some of those ‘greats’ oddly enough. The fact that it stars Jack Lemmon is likely part of that, since he’s one of my favourite actors. But Avanti!… is strangely magical.

Even when it was first released, back in 1972, it was considered old-fashioned which was understandable looking at that era of 1970s American cinema – your Godfathers, Taxi Driver, Jaws, The Exorcist etc. But the funny thing is that once divorced from their original release, films like Avanti! (and certainly you could include Its A Wonderful Life alongside it, decades earlier) become utterly timeless in a way their contemporaries can’t. Avanti! is also so endearing, it really feels like love, my affection for it. Its a little bubble of romantic, sweetly funny joy and has frozen in time a sense of time and place forever. Revisiting Avanti! is just like revisiting a favoured place or fondly remembered friend that you haven’t seen in a long while.  It doesn’t hurt that the film features a gorgeously romantic score by Italian composer Carlo Rustichelli that can literally break your heart or laugh with joy- it plays almost throughout the film and gently seduces you without you even knowing it’s doing it.

avanti ostSome people have issue with the films languid pace and think it runs too long- clocking in at 2 hours and 24 minutes it is perhaps a little indulgent but when its a film you love, you just enjoy the extra time to wallow in it. As it is, rewatching it this time I felt the ending came just too soon, feeling rather abrupt. I wanted more of Lemmon and Juliet Mills (who in particular is so achingly bewitching and beautiful here), more of the island, the Rustichelli score, the gentle comedy Its one of my regrets that at the end, when Lemmon and Mill’s new lovers agree to repeat the routine of their parents and meet again at the islands hotel the next summer, I won’t ever be able to see it, rejoin their affair or see the adventures each yearly rendezvous brings. I want to feel what they feel, again, and again, but its locked away (well, at least I have the DVD and the Blu-ray and the soundtrack). We can but dream of what happened the next year, and the one after, and the one after that…

I came back to Avanti! by way of a German blu-ray that matches a US release from a year or so ago that was region-locked. Why we have to rely on German HD releases of quality films like this I don’t know- I would have thought this kind of thing (anything Wilder, frankly) was a sure thing for boutique labels like Arrow or Eureka over here. As it is, the two short cast  interviews included are slightly marred by burned-in German subs but the film itself is perfectly fine with English soundtrack and optional player subs. The HD image is a little problematic, likely derived from the same source/master as the earlier DVD but it looks fine with stable grain and no DNR: a fine filmic image with superior detail to the SD version. No doubt a fresh new master would sharpen things up better still and enable some improved colour ‘pop’, but really, a new master for a niche film such as Avanti! is unfortunately highly unlikely (but I’d like to be proven wrong).

I learned from the interview with Juliet Mills that the part of US STate Official J.J. Blodgett, played by Edward Andrews in the film, was originally written for Walter Matthau, but at the time Billy Wilder and Matthau were having a feud which nixed the actor appearing in the film. In hindsight you can tell it was written for him, some of that dialogue just drips for Matthau’s personality and comic timing, and him in it would just have made Avanti! even more perfect. Chalk that bit of casting up as another of movie history’s great ‘what ifs’.

 

The 2019 list

Rather than leave it until the end of year, I’ll do a running list of my progress each month, starting with… er, January. As far as counting goes, as usual I’ll only count ‘new’ views and while I’ll include tv shows in the mix, as last year I’ll count specials or entire seasons of shows towards the final tally for the year. I will however, while counting them in chronological order, keep the two (films and television) on seperate lists though, because I’m curious what the proportions will be at the end of year, as a lot of my viewing seems to be tv shows lately, if only because watching whole seasons naturally takes a lot more time. So without further delay;

TV Shows 

1) Dr Who 2018 Special

4) Two Doors Down Season Two (2016)

5) Glow Season Two (2018)

6) Luther Season Five (2018)

8) Short Treks: Calypso (2018)

12) Sex Education Season One (2019)

14) The Expanse Season Two (2017)

Films 

2) Game Night (2018)

3) Ghost Stories (2017)

7) Shadows & Fog (1991)

9) Incredibles 2 (2018)

10) Beast (2017)

11) Death Wish (2018)

13) Polar (2019)

Music (not counted on the list, but I’ll track them)

Nocturne by Vangelis

Apollo 13 OST by James Horner (expanded two-disc edition)

So that’s 14 on the 2019 tally so far, which is pretty good considering it includes five entire seasons of television shows , and doesn’t include my rewatch of the whole of The Expanse Season One (it’s a wonder I found anytime to review them on this blog, just the idea of watching five seasons sounds like a slog). January highlight was The Expanse Season Two, which was pretty bloody amazing, frankly, and I’m still buzzing. You can be sure season three will be on the February list, because I’m watching it now.

One thing I will raise- January was dominated by streaming. I watched one series (Two Doors Down) on DVD, one series on Blu-ray (The Expanse Season Two) and two films on Blu-ray (Game Night and Shadows & Fog). Everything else was streamed, and the majority of it on Netflix. Being a late convert to all things Netflix, I’m a bit alarmed that my blog is fast becoming a Netflix blog, but I suppose it’s only reflecting the changing times we are living in.

The Expanse – Season Two

exp2b

I’m almost lost in it. Haven’t felt like this since the heady heights of season three of Babylon 5 or BSG in its prime – only this time around, I’ve not been limited by weekly airdates, watching this season on Blu-ray. Basically, I’d be watching an episode late in the evening, be so swept up by the story and curious to see what happened next that I’d ignore common-sense (and the clock on the wall) and be unable to resist starting the next episode and then… yeah, sneak up to bed around midnight or later and suffer at work the next day… and then repeat again the following evening. Somehow I was beyond hooked, and The Expanse had become all-consuming and irresistable. How had I managed to leave it two years between season one and two on disc when now I struggled to leave it be for several hours? I’m seriously considering buying the books and giving them a go, just to soak it all up again and perhaps find extra details.

I was very impressed with season one of The Expanse, and a frankly embarrassing, all things considered, lengthy hiatus between watching seasons enabled me to rewatch the first season again a few weeks ago just prior to finally giving season two a go. This rewatch probably helped me get the most of season two, as it literally follows immediately on from the events depicted in the first season’s final episode, and as I’m not familiar with the source material it helped to keep track of all the characters/factions. The first season of the show depicts about 65% of the first book, Leviathan Wakes, the remainder left for the first five or so episodes of season two- which seemed a bit odd to me, in my ignorance, when I first saw season one.  Suffice to say spreading the story out properly, beyond the restrictions of the first seasons ten-episode limit, was a very smart move. While it makes it hard/impossible for newbies to join the show cold, the second season really gets up and running very quickly, and the finale of that first book gives the second season a blistering mid-term crescendo that is breathtaking in the sheer audacity of its scope and it is to the show’s credit that it doesn’t go downhill from there, but actually maintains that level and manages a gobsmacking finale.

To be clear, while the first season was very good, this sophomore season is just simply amazing. Really, I was so blown away at just how brilliant this show had become in this very confident and assured second season. Its almost faultless; a refreshingly hard-sci fi series that tells a huge and involving, at times surprising and extraordinary space-opera tale that’s up there with Babylon 5 in its epic scale of politics and space-battles, balanced by a gritty and realistic approach that is clearly indebted to the BSG reboot of several years ago. Many times I would be watching the show thinking ‘this is how Babylon 5 might have looked with a bigger budget/modern tech’ and while we’ll never see the likes of B5 again with its brilliant, unique (and sadly lost, over the intervening years) cast, The Expanse has taken on the achievements of that show and taken it forward to the next level. Not coincidentally, it also seems to have carried the torch of being the next anti-Star Trek. Seriously, I have no idea when I’ll be in the mood to watching the new Discovery episodes now.

exp2You’ll have possibly noticed that I haven’t actually mentioned anything about plot or actual events etc. That’s because I don’t want to spoil this show for anyone- it needs to be experienced blind, full of those twists and surprises that I have found so enthralling. Which likely seems funny to some readers, particularly those in the US as season two is already a few years back for them.

Of course, there is one particular commonality between Babylon 5 and The Expanse– and that is cancelation. B5 always teetered on the brink each season and The Expanse actually did get canceled as its third season aired. Thankfully Amazon saved the day and I can now turn to season three confident I’ll see the story continue in 2019. It’ll be a bitch having to wait, mind. Having three seasons to watch like this spoils you. I’ve read that Amazon will have the three seasons of The Expanse up on Prime next month and hopefully that will ensure the possibility of a new wider audience prior to season four arriving later this year. The Expanse deserves bigger success.

Now if you will excuse me, I have that third season box waiting for me…

 

 

 

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.

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!