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’.

 

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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!

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.

Two Christmas movies…

I seldom if ever get chance to watch a film over Christmas, visiting family etc takes care of filling days that are just too short and exhausting. Christmas’ of old that I remember so fondly for watching Jack Lemmon films or film noirs or sci-fi b-movies are a distant memory, back when I was a youngster on long school holidays, not married middle-age and a few days off work.

However, I did manage to watch two very special Christmas movies just prior to the holidays- back on the 23rd I watched Its a Wonderful Life on blu-ray, and on Christmas Eve I watched Die Hard on 4K UHD. Both films are fantastic Christmas movies. While Its A Wonderful Life is an established classic and a firm favourite of mine (bought the books, the soundtrack etc), it is something of an acquired taste for some (a query at work revealed some spouses turn it off at the opening scenes where the stars are talking to each other- have some people no soul?). The film is surely a fable for the modern age and as relevant now as it was when first made – indeed maybe more so considering Trump is dissing Santa to kids these days.  

Die Hard is a film I hadn’t seen for several years, somehow, and while Its A Wonderful Life is a Christmas staple pretty much every year, this was the first time I actually sat down with Die Hard at Christmas. Of course it’s a Christmas movie (although some argue that it isn’t) but beyond that, it’s a great action thriller that delivers excitement, laughs, shocks and surprises – particularly the surprising notion that 1980s films can feel so old-fashioned now. Old-fashioned in a good way, you understand- this was back in those pre-CGI days when the script and characterisation took preference over the action and noise, but I think I’m reaching the end of the line when a 1988 film gets to feel old-fashioned, even if it is in a good way. Everything in Die Hard is finely tuned and while it isn’t perfect it’s damn near it, and while during the long dark nights of a moviegoers soul I’d take it to task for all the rip-offs inflicted upon us in the years since, that’s hardly the films fault.

Anyway, Die Hard remains the highlight of Christmas 2018 for me. I really did enjoy it, so much so I’ve already got it booked in for Christmas Eve 2019. Could be the start of a new seasonal tradition…

Film of the Year

Well, okay, while this may yet seem a little early to post something like this, it’s surely a foregone conclusion- I’m only confirming, afterall, something I suggested back when  I saw the film at the cinema in August. I watched the 4K UHD of Mission Impossible: Fallout the other night and can only suggest the film gets even better and more impressive on second viewing. I’d actually add that the 4K UHD is actually a better experience/presentation than the cinema screening I attended (alas, I didn’t see the film in Imax, which must have been breathtaking).  At any rate, this film is surely the best film I have seen this year. Its astonishing/riveting/thrilling/funny/surprising… its possibly the Perfect Summer Blockbuster, and God knows, that title has plenty of competition.

Whatever Bond does next, it’s going to be a fascinating thing to see.

fallAs far as Mission Impossible goes, you know, I’d love to see them now go in some other direction, maybe go small and into a low-budget, character-focused, espionage drama. I think that’s highly unlikely, but trying to top this one is so beyond risky, I’d almost suggest its foolhardy. I’m almost tempted to say they should call it a day, wait ten years and do another reboot, start afresh. But part of me really wants another Cruise flick with Ethan Hunt saving the world again whilst blowing my socks off.

Malick’s 2001: A Sense of Perspective

tree3Don’t know how much time I have right now, lets see how far I get before I get called away-

The similarities between Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  Space Odyssey might be fairly well-known, but I thought I’d mention them here, as the more I think about it, the more I find it surprising and illuminating in how they oddly complement each other.

2001 is one of the most epic films ever made, in its sense of the passage of time and where it places mankind in the cosmos. It begins with the Dawn of Man sequence, in which man-apes gain intelligence enough to use bones as tools -typically for humanity, these tools are weapons- and sets us on the path to orbiting nuclear weapons in one of the most famous jump-cuts in film history. This intelligence is ‘gifted’ by the Monolith, which is either an alien tool of communication or an alien itself. Increasingly marginalised first by the huge desert vistas of prehistoric Africa and then by the vast voids between Earth/Space Station/Moon and finally Jupiter, mankind’s unimportance seems self-assured until Bowman enters the Stargate and begins another step in evolution.

The Tree of Life reinforces this perspective of humanity in the cosmos, by actually outdoing Kubrick- Malick shows us the very beginning of the universe, the formation of the first stars, our galaxy, our sun and the Earth, and then the beginnings of life. We witness dinosaurs prior to them being wiped out by a cosmic whim of fate/gravity and a falling asteroid, and later we are thrown forwards to the death of all life on Earth as it becomes consumed by the death-throes of our sun. In this great cosmic scale of things, it’s like we never existed, our actual existence something of cosmic chance, any sign we ever existed lost as our planet is blasted to a cinder in the dark.

But Malick is also telling us something else here- that however insignificant we seem in this cosmic arena, we do matter, each and everyone of us. He shows us a family in 1950s America, childhood and adulthood, and the town in which they live. We see their relationships and how they care for each other, their laughter and their tears, their triumphs and frustrations and the joy of nature and being alive and the pain of grief and loss.

Kubrick’s film is rather colder- intellectual progress distances mankind from the natural world (we see people existing in sterile, created environments of space capsules and stations),  and also distances from each other (personal relationships decidedly cool and awkward, dialogue clipped and inane, formalities such as birthdays just perfunctory nods to old habits). The characters are, frustratingly, hardly alive, and pale in comparison to HAL, the AI that somehow seems more human than those it serves.

The world of 2001 at least appears to be quite Godless, as if humanity in creating its technological worlds has done away with God entirely and in so doing lost its soul, although it can also be ‘seen’ that 2001 is ironically quite a religious film, certainly if one takes the view that the Alien intelligence that guides humanity is God and the Monoliths are its Angels, and Bowman’s death a moment of resurrection as he becomes the Starchild. The Tree of Life meanwhile is more traditional and overtly religious in its repeated callings by various narrators to God, its use of religious imagery and rites and religious music. God is not a part of the machine/Monolith, here God is a part of nature and the film even depicts Heaven, a shoreline where our characters all meet again, even seeing themselves as different people of different ages- adult Jack meeting his child self and even his own mother, back when she was possibly younger than he appears  to be in the undefined ‘now.’ This later moment, when adult Jack witnesses his parents in the wake of his younger brothers death decades before, suggests that he is not reliving his own life as much as the life of someone else, but his perspective is one of almost Godlike omnipresence, of stepping through Time.

But the thing that both films clearly share is this sense of the Big Questions; what are we in this impossibly unfathomable universe, in which are utterly lost and insignificant in this immense incalculable span of time? What is our purpose, and are we alone? What is the meaning of life? is there something ‘More’?

In essence, 2001 burns cold and logical while The Tree of Life burns warm and emotional.  Both films share bold use of Classical music and methodology of Pure Cinema, a cinema of images and sound  rather than narrative. Both films have little dialogue, and little of this dialogue actually drives either film- rather it is the interplay of images and music that progress the films from beginning to end. Neither film holds the viewers hand and explains anything- both films demand audience’s attention and the effort to construct meaning from the events portrayed. It struck me whilst rewatching The Tree of Life the other night just how alike the two films are, and how masterful Malick’s film is- even to the point that it possibly surpasses Kubrick’s film.

I wonder what Kubrick would have thought of The Tree of Life, and indeed, what Malick (media-shy and private as he is) thinks of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Tree of Life may seem an unlikely example of what Malick would consider a science fiction epic but its connections and similarities to 2001 seem inescapable. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Oh well, it’s certainly something, if nothing else, when contemporary cinema can raise such musings.

Alas, the clock has turned and my time is up. Must go!

All Things Shining

all thingsI’ve been reading a book about Terrence Malick- well, to be more precise, its a book about Malick’s films, as he is so media-shy and prefers to maintain some privacy, and it consists of interviews culled over the decades from his associates, freinds and people who have worked with him on his films, and therefore offering glimpses of how Malick works. The book is All Things Shining: An Oral History of the films of Terrence Malick, by Paul Maher Jr. – I bought the kindle edition as it was only £2.30 compared to something like £16 for the paperback (there is another book  that treats Malick’s work in a similar way, Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected, which I also have my eye on).

Its a very interesting and revealing read. One passage caught my attention in particular, during the chapter about The Tree of Life. The film’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had this to say about the film, commenting on audiences walking out during performances (something I myself experienced when I saw the film at the cinema): “This reminds me of all the movies that I loved (in the ’70s) where we left the theatre and discussed and disagreed. We carried the experience out into the open. Things were not over explained and you went out with your freinds after and tried to make sense of something…” 

It made me think about how much films have changed from the 1970s to now- I’m not necessarily defending Malick’s obtuseness here as he has rather run astray with his way of making movies since then, so that even for a fan they can be infuriating (The Tree of Life is more a tone poem than a narrative but is clearly Malick’s strongest film post- Thin Red Line.) His films do, however, demand some attention and active work from his audience, whereas the standard way of making films now is to make them simple, make them loud. Back in the 1970s, films often had conflicted characters, genuine twists and some unfulfilling endings. We see less of that now. Indeed, when discussing contemporary films at work or with freinds, there may be some debate on whether a film is good or not but we seldom have arguments about what a film meant or what the director was trying to say. One of the things I love about BR2049 is all the layers of  subtext and threads of meaning in the film. I have previously mentioned here on this blog the anecdote of a frustrated forum post written by an American viewer who, at the end of the film where Deckard asks K why he did what he did, and who Deckard was to him, was left aghast and horrified when K just shrugs and after a silence changes the subject. We don’t need the film to spell that out- well, we shouldn’t, but modern audiences prefer to be told, not left to flounder at interpreting complex ambiguities of a film. It ruined the film for this forum writer, which struck me as typical and oddly funny.

Actor John Dee smith had this to say about The Thin Red Line as it approached its premiere and Malick was ordered to cut the film further to ensure it came in under three hours: “(Terry) doesn’t think this mainstream formula clustering bullshit audience he’s dealing with would benefit from it. He wasn’t just telling a story, he was fleshing out the human psyche. I don’t think America is ready for his work, and he probably doesn’t think so either.”

For some odd reason it had me thinking about the comparisons between Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Back when Interstellar came out, there were all sorts of ridiculous allusions made to the film being equal to or the successor to 2001, and it got me into quite a few arguments at the time. 2001 has something to say and a brave way to say it, and while Interstellar is a film worthy of some admiration, it doesn’t really have much to say and confuses much of what it does say. Contemporary audiences however seem to think that the film is very clever and challenging but they haven’t seen 2001 at all so really have no way of qualifying that judgement in my mind. However, I hesitate to recommend they actually watch 2001 because I really don’t think they’d manage it- would they even get through the Dawn of Man sequence? Kubrick’s film was odd back in 1968 and while it eventually found its audience I think it’s doubly odd compared to modern films, its pacing and ambiguity the absolute anathema of today’s audiences. Well, the majority, anyway, I guess you have to be wary of absolutes.

I think we have lost something though, the way most films are now. Clearly they are chiefly entertainment and intended to be popular and therefore financially successful, and being simple and undemanding seems to go hand in hand with keeping the majority of viewers happy. Perhaps the biggest culprit is the high budgets and the need to be hugely popular (rather than mildly popular) to recoup such huge investments – just witness the problems BR2049 had. I think if we could get more financial restraint more risk or openly ambiguous/complex films might have more chance of success. Conversely, I think it’s such a shame that you simply cannot make an intelligent big-budget film like BR2049 and still get an audience, and for this you have to blame either the audience itself, or society in general, or Hollywood’s slow decline into crass stupidity in its blockbuster school of film-making that makes popcorn movies really popcorn for the mind.

Or do we just blame George Lucas and Star Wars? I don’t think that’s fair (and there’s also an argument that Star Wars actually saved Hollywood and ended a steady decline in cinema audiences etc) but there is some validity to the view that Lucas began a trend of making entertainment via escapism and less of a tie to reality and issues beyond the auditorium. The problem is that escapism can slide into crassness, dumbness and stupidity, particularly if you make the package so loud and spectacular that audiences get carried away by the experience and not having to think- and films these days are so very loud and spectacular.

I rather suspect that future of serious and challenging cinema lies away from the multiplex and perhaps in the domain of Netflix and Amazon Prime, if they get enough time, and don’t get pulled into competing with all the fireworks of cinema offerings. A Terrence Malick film for Netflix might be something to see, I think.