The Godfather Trilogy

gof2The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (1991/2020) – 4K UHD

Whatever I have to say about these three films is likely utterly redundant, but here’s a few observations for whatever they are worth.

Conventional wisdom seems to have it that The Godfather Part II is one of the greatest sequels ever made (true) and that its  also a superior film to the original, which is something I don’t agree on- I much prefer the first film. Watching these films in succession over a long weekend, while Robert De Niro is very good in Part II, he’s no replacement for Marlon Brando, who strikes such a powerful presence in the first film that his (admittedly inevitable) absence is keenly felt in the second.  I think the first film benefits hugely from its more focussed narrative, too.

I felt such a powerful sense of time and place watching the first film, especially here on the recent 4K UHD release.  The art direction, the cinematography, it all seems impeccable. Its something carried over with Part II and its two timelines.

Watching Part II, I wondered what it was like for the returning cast and crew making the second film after the first film had proved such a critical and commercial sensation.

That sense of time and place though, is something that for me,  The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone struggles with and it really hurts that film.  Other than a shot including the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and a few incidental details of vehicles being driven, I can’t say I was ever really convinced that what I was watching was taking place in 1979, which is a distinct failure considering how well the first film convinced that it was set in 1946-1955. Instead, Coda feels set adrift, somehow outside of time, hence losing some of it grounding. Perhaps a part of that is a result of the gap in the timeline (twenty years between Part II’s 1958 and Coda‘s 1979) and the similar gap between the films being shot (Part II in 1973 and Coda in 1990) reflected in both the recurring cast and the absence of others. Its right that characters can change over intervening years but no matter how good Al Pacino is (and he’s very good in Coda, often riveting to watch, and quite incendiary in places) I’m not really sure he absolutely convinces, that he feels right as the older Michael Corleone. To be fair, its  more an issue of the writing, but the older Michael feels too… mellow, maybe? He’s lost that lizard coldness that was so fascinating about him. The film suffers from some casting choices, too- Andy Garcia is okay but lacks the cinematic presence, the weight, his character needs, and the less said regards Sofia Coppola’s turn the better. The casting in the first film was excellent and  Coda definitely suffers by comparison.

I should point out I watched Coda for the first time here, and while its the third version of this film, I much prefer its original,  theatrical version – I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but thankfully the boxset contains the theatrical cut as a bonus 4K UHD disc and that’s the version I shall return to in future. Coppola, as evidenced by his repeated tinkering with Apocalypse Now, can’t quite leave his films alone, it seems.

The Weekly Summary #9

god1Week 9 of 2023. Maybe I should start tracking them as 8/2023 and 9/2023 or something. So anyway, this is how the week’s viewing went-

30. The Hatton Garden Job (2017)

31. Rocky (1976) – 4K UHD

32. Fire Down Below (1957)

33. Empire of the Ants (1977)

34. Fall (2022)

Star Trek Picard (season 3) Episode 3

The Godfather (1972) – 4K UHD

So The Godfather had been making me feel guilty ever since Christmas, when the 4K trilogy set was a present I received and I didn’t immediately get to watch it. Ever since, its been looking down at me from its shelf. Well, I figured this weekend was the ideal opportunity – the evenings were free for watching the trilogy over three consecutive nights (well, we’ll see how it goes but that was the plan, so hopefully its Godfather Part Two tonight).

It’s utterly redundant of me to say much about the film itself – The Godfather is a remarkable achievement, one of the best films ever made. Not certain if its one of my top ten favourites, it always seems to be one of those films easily admired, maybe harder loved (I always preferred Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America), but I’m certainly warming to it more as I get older. What I will say though is that everything everyone said about this 4K disc when it came out last year was all true, with zero hype- its got an extraordinary picture quality, elevating almost every shot to a work of art, and not in the showy way of early Ridley Scott films either. Instead it looks utterly ravishing in a strange, matter-of-fact way that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but instead serves the story and seems utterly authentic regards the period setting. It doesn’t ‘look’ like a film shot in 1971. It looks like a film shot in 1948 or 1955, its cinematography feels almost as if it was shot around the same time as Hitchcock’s Vertigo. You combine a film shot as well as this film is, with a fantastic script and with a perfect cast, well, you’ve got cinematic lightning caught in a bottle right there.

Maybe I should mention, at this point, all those other films sitting on the shelves in my den-cum-temporary-office in the back room. Alongside The Godfather sits the second Hitchcock 4K set, in which there are four films, I think, waiting to be watched (alongside THAT set is the first, in which the 4K disc of Psycho still inexplicably waits).  A few shelves down, Mad Max 2 & 3 from the 4K Anthology boxset are waiting (there’s the Cannes and Argento cuts in the Dawn of the Dead set alongside the Mad Max box too).  Looking back up the shelves, Eureka’s 4K set of the Police Story Trilogy waiting, too- I watched the first film some months back, but haven’t gotten around to the other two yet. Above that, there’s a few Kino Lorber 4K’s sitting together – among them a few still not watched; Phil Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Orson Welles’  Touch of Evil.  To be clear,  some of these are films I’ve watched several times over the years, these are ‘just’ 4K editions that I’ve bought hoping to savour them again in definitive editions, like Criterion’s 4K of Double Indemnity. Watching something ‘new’ seems to take priority over something ‘old’… I’m not confident about any logic in that, but seems to be how it goes, and there is a comfort knowing I have them there to watch when the whim takes me.  One of the other issues with some of these films is that the more obscure ones don’t really interest Claire, so I have to find time to watch them by myself which is an order of magnitude harder than watching all those films that Claire WILL watch, as there’s a long list of those waiting too.

But it does not escape me that I have not watched the 4K edition of Touch of Evil, but I HAVE watched Bullet Train, or, say, Top Gun: Maverick three times now since I bought that film on disc (I don’t rewatch ‘new’ films as much as I used to years ago, but something about Maverick pulls me back).

Anyway, enough of that self-flagellation. Time for best/worst of the week. Well, obviously The Godfather would be the best by a wide margin, but this only concerns films I have watched for the first time, and on that front, it transpires I was in for a bit of a surprise this week, when the 4K disc of Rocky arrived. Watching it, it suddenly dawned on me that I’d never seen the film before. I’d seen the ending before, as its repeated in Rocky II, and I’d seen bits of the film over the years, usually in showings over Christmas holidays. But I’d never actually watched the original film in its entirety before, and hey, turns out it was great, and now I know why some folks go nuts over it.  I think seeing Rocky III and IV on VHS rentals had given me the wrong impression of the franchise as a whole, leaving me with no interest in going back to the first film, but yeah, I had never actually watched Rocky. Somehow these things happen, you miss some films…  in this case I actually thought I had (maybe boxing films blur together in the memory), but there you go, and yeah, that was the best ‘new’ film of the week.

The worst of this week is easy:  Fire Down Below, which was really sunk (sic) by its cast, which itself was a surprise since it starred Jack Lemmon. I know, I know… a gambling man couldn’t be blamed for putting his money on Empire of the Ants but in a funny way, sure, its a bad film, but I enjoyed seeing those old stalwarts from 1970s/1980s tv shows in their wooden ‘prime’ so much so that, weighing things up, I enjoyed that film a little bit more.

“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.” – Unforgiven (1992)

unforgivUnforgiven, Dir. Clint Eastwood, 1992, 130 mins

Yesterday, I watched Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven again; probably for the first time in several years. Watching it, I wondered how I had left it so long. Some films, they are so good you could rewatch them every year; and yet we don’t. Maybe that’s a healthy thing, there is a danger of boredom in repetition. I have a friend who rewatches the films in his DVD collection far too often for it to be considered healthy, to the point at which I wonder if he’s ever really watching them – I mean, WATCHING them- or if instead the images just fleet past his eyes absently and he’s just tuned out without even realising it.

What a wonderful film Unforgiven is, though- what a pleasure to watch Clint Eastwood, such a cinematic icon, and arguably here still in his prime (he was 62 when this was released), and of course Gene Hackman, too, an actor who is so missed in films today- although it could well be argued that today’s films aren’t worthy of him, so who could blame him for retiring. Not forgetting, of course, Morgan Freeman, here another example of him, as he always seems to, making everything seem so effortless. My goodness, such a cast this film has (and I had not yet mentioned Richard Harris); isn’t it something magical, a great film with such a great cast? Its like planets reaching some celestial alignment.

I must confess, though, to being quietly appalled at the realisation that this film is now over thirty years old. I recall very clearly seeing it in its cinema release – it was in the then-new Showcase multiplex cinema, itself now gone. Hard to believe. Thirty years.

Measuring the passage of time by the anniversaries of films is worse than judging it by peoples birthdays, I reckon. Were we still renting/buying films on VHS back then? Measuring it by home video formats is even more concerning, just makes it seem even longer ago.

It’s not just a movie: Conan the Barbarian

conanposterConan the Barbarian, Dir. John Milius, 129 mins, 1982, DVD/Blu-ray

This is another of those films that I first caught on a pirate video over a school friend’s house. At the time, I actually found the film immensely disappointing, while one of my mates there who also played RPGs absolutely loved it, raving about the swordplay.

While I dismissed it on that cold Autumn night with a considerable ire, when I returned to the film the following summer after my parents started renting our own VHS machine (one of the new-fangled front loaders, no less) I found my opinion utterly changed. I watched that film practically on repeat, adoring the music, the cinematography, the film quickly becoming a new personal favourite. But why was my opinion so drastically changed?

I think it was from originally coming to the film -when watching that pirate tape- absolutely blind, quite unaware of how much the film distanced itself from Robert E Howard’s original stories, many of which I’d read by that time, and perhaps more tellingly also far removed from Marvel’s line of Conan comic books which I’d been reading since the mid-seventies – the popularity of which probably had an awful lot to do with the film getting made at all. In fact, I can put it all down to one scene in particular, when Conan has escaped from captivity and falls into a subterranean crypt, in which he recovers a sword from the grip of some ancient skeleton. I was expecting the skeleton to come alive. Well, to be sure, I think all of us watching the film that night expected that – I remember one of my freinds saying “Here we go…!” in anticipation. So we were all rather crestfallen when this didn’t happen, and the film didn’t really recover from that.

Yet again, that hoary old chestnut of criticising a film more for what it wasn’t than what it actually was.

saVAGE12BFor my part, the first issue of the Savage Sword of Conan (one of Marvel’s more adult-orientated b&w magazines) I ever bought, issue twelve in summer of 1976, had as its the main story “The Haunters of Castle Crimson.” This issue has always been one of my very favourites, and yes, as you may have guessed, it features Conan battling animated skeletons. As writer/editor Roy Thomas would later comment, the idea was from imagining Conan appearing in some Ray Harryhausen film such as 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts. The story was actually based on one of Robert E Howard’s non-Conan stories, an historical yarn set during the Crusades, so hardly an authentic REH Conan story itself. Thomas just spiced up the historical swashbuckling action with a heavy dose of Harryhausen-inspired sorcery, but goodness, I was ten years time at the time and it blew my mind. Looking back on it though, its patently obvious that I was still so enamoured with that story and Savage Sword issue that it set up all the wrong expectations in John Milius’ film.

A year later, I quickly reassessed my opinion of the film when returning to it, now knowing how much it distanced itself from the more fantastic elements of the Marvel comics. Many fans at the time much preferred The Sword and the Sorcerer, a low-budget attempt to cash-in on Conan the Barbarian‘s release which was probably more faithful to the spirit of those comics. Sword and the Sorcerer proved quite a cult success on VHS but it has dated horribly (the irony that it has been released on 4K UHD while Conan still waits, by Crom!). The more grounded approach of Conan the Barbarian, meanwhile, has proved remarkably prescient, especially in regards its production design and one can see a lot of its influence on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Game of Thrones HBO series – indeed, I recall when watching season one of GOT I kept thinking ‘wow, this is just how a Conan series should look’.   

While Conan was a pretty big film back in 1982, unusually so both in scale and budget (back then we were a long way off fantasy films and shows being taken seriously) and was very successful at the box office, it was also hampered by certain limitations. I can recall an interview in an issue of Starlog with composer Basil Poledouris lamenting budget cutbacks which resulted in the film being released in mono, hence restricting the power of his score (which was also recorded by a reduced orchestra from what he had hoped for). While its strange to think of films, even in 1982, being released in mono, the soundtrack album was originally the only opportunity to hear the music in stereo; I remember the album available here in the UK was an import of a French edition on vinyl, titled “Conan Le Barbare” (which was inevitably subjected to disparaging jokes about Conan the Barber trimming customers hair with his broadsword). Poledouris’ score remains one of the best all-time scores for any film; eventually it was re-recorded in full by a bigger orchestra, giving a suggestion of what Poledouris originally intended, and thankfully Intrada eventually released a full edition of the actual film recording across 3-CDs.

One of my biggest hopes for 2023 is that somehow we might get Conan the Barbarian released in 4K UHD, and even better, given the TLC that a boutique label such as Arrow might do. We’ve seen the 1984 Dune released like that, after all, so who knows. Even Dragonslayer is getting a 4K UHD release this year, so it would be a shame if Conan failed to appear on the format; I bet it would look gorgeous, and just imagine if its soundtrack was given the Atmos treatment (not something I’d be able to appreciate myself with my equipment, but nonetheless, it deserves it). I’d hope for a new, better commentary track though- while its fun on the current disc to hear Milius and Schwarzenegger hamming it up, Milius is utterly crazy and reckless with his lack of respect for original author Robert E Howard. Whenever I hear that commentary track I’m always amazed the film turned out as good as it did; Milius comes across as utterly clueless and eminently ill-suited to film a Conan movie. Go figure.

Jacobs feeling more Blu

jacobisblu (3)There’s already a few announcements for 2023 that suggest my wallet should be getting nervous. Amongst these is the news that The Abyss is at last coming to 4K UHD sometime Q1/Q2 (dependant upon just how well the new Avatar film performs in theatres I guess) and Arrow have decided to get back into the noir game with a much-belated second four-film Noir set. Meanwhile Imprint down in Oz has announced a new Blu-ray edition due end of March of Adrian Lyne’s Jacobs Ladder, one of my favourite horror films. The film has been released on Blu-ray before but those discs are considered problematic, so most of us devotees of the film are wondering if this will be a much-needed remaster (early indications are don’t get your hopes up). I suppose what all us crazy dreamers are really hoping for is a 4K UHD edition eventually, before all those disc replicators go belly up, but I’m intending to keep an eye on this Imprint edition just in case. I’ve never bought this film on Blu-ray, only having a R1 DVD from when the film came out on home video, and that Imprint artwork really does look nice – hopefully the disc does too.

How does it feel to be a decent, respectable married man?

Pit1Pitfall, 1948, 86 mins, Streaming (YouTube)

Here’s further proof that no matter how many films I’ve seen, there’s always some genuinely great ones waiting for me, most of which I’ve never even heard of. Here’s one of them, another of those noir with a darkness resonating through the decades: this one was released in 1948, seventy-four (seventy-four!) years ago, well before I was even born, and its been waiting, waiting…

Lizabeth Scott brought me here (heartfelt thanks to Colin for the recommendation); yep its her again in another noir- while its likely true that Too Late for Tears is her best performance, there must be a case for Andre De Toth’s  Pitfall being the best film she ever appeared in, certainly of those I’ve seen (and I’ve seen quite a few films of hers over the past several months). Simply put, this is one hell of a film. Regardless of its credentials as a noir (and it ranks as one of the best I’ve seen), simply as a drama/thriller this is an absolutely solid film and one of the best I’ve seen this year- a timeless tale of a man suffering a midlife crisis, succumbing to temptation (Lizabeth Scott, who else?) and everything crashing around him as a result- it really doesn’t end well for anyone, and yet its not the heavy-handed morality play one might have expected in a film from 1948- its much more sophisticated than that, and there’s subtlety too. Its marvellously directed, with well-written script a full of twists, the performances are all excellent (I doubt Raymond Burr was ever any better, certainly never nastier) – some films are pretty much faultless, and this is one of them.

How frustrating, then, that I’ve had to watch this on YouTube (never the best way to stream a film, particularly one with dark moments like Pitfall features, particularly in its brutally effective climax), and that somehow it is a film not available on Blu-ray over here in the UK (come on, Arrow/Eureka/anyone, get your act together, surely there’s a market for great period films like this)? There’s nothing quite as frustrating as REALLY enjoying a film and knowing you can’t add it to your collection or investigate further via commentary tracks, etc. Unless I finally relent and buy a multi-region player (something I’m loathe to do after building a collection of R1 DVDs that I later could never play) it seems I’m never going to have the pleasure of watching Pitfall in the quality it deserves. Oh well, I suppose I should think myself lucky I managed to see it in any form; many noir have fallen into obscurity, public domain and negatives/prints suffering the ravages of time: YouTube streams are better than nothing, and certainly better than Amazon Prime’s penchant for only holding noir in unrestored, colourised versions (as repellent an experience as it sounds).

So to Pitfall. Bored husband John Forbes (Dick Powell) is feeling frustrated by the American Dream: he’s got an attractive wife, a bright young child, a lovely home in the suburbs and a well-paid job in the city, but it all feels like a trap, the promises and dreams of youth unfulfilled. The thrill of marriage is long gone, its a sexless affair -we see him in his PJs in his bedroom, the two in seperate beds (albeit much of that was at the behest of the Production Code, it visualises it perfectly). John’s hopes of adventure and excitement reduced to routine breakfast in the kitchen, a regular commute driven by his wife and a 9 to 5 of relentless boredom in the office He’s sulky and bitter and his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) humours him, as if waiting for him to finally grow up/out of it. He has it all, but John muses surely there should be more before he finally grows old?

At the office, John gets involved in an embezzlement case, his insurance firm trying to claw back the expensive gifts purchased with ill-gotten money that Bill Smiley (Byron Barr) lavished on his beautiful fashion model girlfriend Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott). A hulking brute of a Private detective, Macdonald (Raymond Burr) has tracked down Mona for John, but creepy MacDonald, clearly no good and likely sacked from the police for shady practices, is smitten by her, deciding that he’s going to make Mona his own while Smiley is still swerving time in jail.

Pit2John himself falls under her charms whilst recovering the gifts from her. The attraction is accidental on her part- refreshingly for a noir, she’s not the femme fatale you might expect, she’s just a beautiful woman suffering attentions from the wrong men, and its clear at the end that she’s the real victim of the film. On their initial meeting, John notices Mona’s glamour pictures, and its obvious she represents everything John thinks he’s missing; excitement, adventure, maybe a second chance at the passions of youth. He doesn’t admit to being married or having a child and starts a liaison with Mona, meeting at quiet bars in afternoons and foolishly allowing her to keep a speedboat that Smiley bought her.

Macdonald meanwhile is proving something of a menace for Mona, harassing her and deeply angered when he realises that Mona and John seem to have started an affair. He beats up John (which John has to describe as a random mugging to maintain his own secret), further pursues Mona and later visits Smiley in prison to warn him of Mona’s affair. At this point, said affair is over, Mona having learned that John is a married man with a young boy has put a halt to it. John realises he has been a fool and that he should be content with his lot, and thinks he can resume his old life with his wife none the wiser; it was a foolish dalliance but no harm done.

Macdonald however has other ideas, seeing an opportunity to be rid of his two rivals- once Smiley has left prison, Macdonald gets him drunk, arms him with a gun and sends him to John’s house. John suddenly realises his sin has come home, arms himself with a gun and sits downstairs in his house in darkness waiting for Smiley to arrive. Upstairs, Jane is tending to her son when she hears shots break out. Rushing downstairs she finds John sitting with his head in his hands, “Call the police,” he groans. “I’ve just killed a man.”

The film isn’t yet over- Macdonald has gone to Mona’s to tell her she’s with him now, packing her clothes and announcing they are making a fresh start out of town. Mona is aghast, she’s always been repulsed by him but he has always refused to listen: far as Macdonald is concerned she’s got no choice in it, she’s just like a car he’s chosen to buy. She’s his, that’s the end of it. Well, Mona has a gun that might say different….

There’s a pretty grim coda to all of this in which John is emasculated by his wife, who having learned of his affair takes control of the marriage, dictating her terms. The police think John was acting in self-defence against an ex-con breaking into his family home, but Nona suffers the full weight of the law for shooting a man in cold blood. Poor Nona; stuck in an unhealthy relationship with a criminal, romanced by a dashing man who seems pretty decent but is actually lying to her, stalked by a crazy brute, she ends up heading for a long spell in prison.

My summary of the film really does it few favours- I can’t put across the character moments, the location shooting, the lighting, the imaginative camera set-ups (there’s some brilliant camera angles when Smiley is visited in prison, the framing through the partitions, faces filmed through a screen). Raymond Burr is utterly monstrous, a genuinely unnerving performance that is enhanced by the camera angles and expressive lighting but cleverly for all that it doesn’t slip into farce. Dick Powell meanwhile is excellent. I only know him from Johnny O’Clock and Murder, My Sweet, having had no experience of his earlier success as a singer/crooner in musical comedies, but he was clearly a fine actor moving into more dramatic material as he got older. There’s something genuinely authentic about John Forbes’ mid-life angst and frustration at the American Dream. Jane Wyatt meanwhile nearly steals the film from everyone- warm but pragmatic from the start, she’s fiercely protective of her family but once she realises she is a woman wronged she turns to ice, turning the tables on John and ensuring he’ll be paying penance for the rest of life. 

Pitfall is a genuinely great film that’s been hiding in the shadows. Its probably up there with Billy Wilder’s noir classic Double Indemnity for me, in how it feels so realistic and grounded in a reality which is so everyday, and as relevant today as it was in 1948. Sometimes film noir portray a dark world outside of the average viewer’s experience, and that’s part of its appeal with its criminals and desperate doomed heroes and seductive sirens, but Pitfall is a noir that speaks to what we all live and experience, and brings a noir nightmare into everyone’s lounge.  Utterly compelling.

Please, Arrow, somebody, release this film over in the UK or somewhere sharing my region code.

Back to Rain City

P1110381 (3)Trouble in Mind, 1985, 111 mins, Streaming (HD)

I returned to Rain City, for the first time in what is… well, its been awhile, probably over twenty years, now that I think about it- last watched it back when it came out on DVD.  As regards the very first time I watched it, that was a TV network airing, which I’ll return to a bit later.  Watching it again after so many years though, its a little surreal, the film’s music cuts through those years like a knife. I’m sitting here, watching the film, and I can almost turn my head and see my younger self sitting alongside me: he’s younger, slimmer, single. There’s decades yet ahead of him, of films good and bad. I wonder what he’d think regards one day returning to this film in 2022 and realising it really was as good as I remembered. Hey, I feel like telling him, you always had good taste in movies.

It was probably back in 1988 or 1989 when it was first shown on television here in the UK, late night on BBC2. I think the schedule guide in Radio Times mentioned that it was a futuristic noir in the style of Blade Runner, which naturally got my attention. Broadcast, as usual for the time, in pan and scan, I recorded it onto a VHS tape, and subsequently rewatched it many times. That Blade Runner reference was partly relevant, partly misleading- this film was something else entirely, although it does mirror Ridley Scott’s film in how the past and future collide visually. There are times it seems to be set in some alternate post-war America in the 1950s or 1960s, or some odd post-apocalypse future. Cleverly it doesn’t repeat Ridley Scott’s mistake in giving the film a date onscreen.

How do we fall out of touch with some movies? Is it because I eventually couldn’t play that VHS tape anymore- hey the horrors of home video format obsolescence!-  or that it has seldom, if ever, been shown since on tv, that the DVD release was pretty damn poor (not even widescreen, as I recall) and that its never been released on Blu-ray, inexplicably ignored by the boutique labels like Arrow or Eureka. I suppose I could just as easily ask how do we fall out of touch with people.

Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind; ostensibly it stars Kris Kristofferson, Keith Carradine, Lori Singer and Genevieve Bujold, and they are all great in this, as is Divine as a surprisingly chilling crime boss, but the truth is, the real star of the film is the evocative music of Mark Isham and the voice of Marianne Faithful whose two songs bookend the film. I love the music, I’ve written about it before.

The music is so important because Trouble in Mind is a film of mood, expressly designed for movie lovers; it never feels entirely real, instead it exists in a dream logic of old noir movies and I think that’s why this film feels different, watching it again after so many years. So familiar that I remembered scenes and even lines of dialogue, and yet so much seemed stranger than I remembered. Its a much more mysterious film, informed perhaps by all those noir films I’ve seen since. This time I watched the ending and realised that Kris Kristofferson never really got the girl, he’s only imagining her with him as he drives off towards his dying moments, serenaded by Marianne Faithful’s siren call.

P1110382 (2)There isn’t really much of a plot, it instead feels like what might have happened after the ending of some other noir movie (that of course never existed). I have written before about the way film-makers choose to end their films, the when and the where… how curious I am about that, about how they choose the moment, that last line, that last look from someone or shared between characters. Older films, especially those of the 1940s and 1950s, can end suddenly, almost brutally… very often it feels like we’re left missing something, and indeed most modern films tend to add a scene or two, like a coda (Marvel films, of course, can’t help but add additional scenes even into the end credits). At any rate, often a lingering sense of frustration is left in me (which is a Good Thing, I mean, who wants a good movie to ever really end?), when I’m wondering what might have happened next. Trouble in Mind feels a little like ‘what happened next’, like its one long epilogue. Noodle’s dream after we see his smile in that last shot at the end of Once Upon A Time in America.

It begins with a character dressed in black leaving prison and subtle references in subsequent scenes to a murder (eventually featured in a flashback), and it often seems like that murder and the events surrounding it was the ‘proper’ movie, and that within Trouble in Mind we’re just watching what happened after the end of it. The limping ex-con is John ‘Hawk’ Hawkins (Kristofferson) and the murder was an act of sacrifice, revenge for Wanda (Genevieve Bujold), Hawk’s wronged love. Now out of jail, this ex-cop returns to the location of his old life but finds Wanda changed, unable to resume or rekindle that old romance, and Hawk is caught in a changed world in which he no longer fits. Maybe that old film ended at the right place after all, when it showed him standing above that dead criminal and destined for jail- at least that’s how I imagine it.

Restless characters ricochet off each other, are kind and cruel and fall in and out of love, make mistakes and sacrifices while around them Rain City is like some dream, a place that speaks in the Saxophone that mournfully soundtracks most of everything. Trouble in Mind is less about its almost inconsequential plot and its corny, bumbling hoods than it is about the conversations and moments between those characters. Its about the camera slowly lingering over the models of street scenes that Hawk has made. Its about Hawk and Wanda smoking so much its like the cigarettes are extensions of their characters. Its about incidental background characters that we get glimpses of, wondering what their stories are, stories we’re never told. Its about Marianne Faithful’s voice. Its about Rain City’s lonely corners, how the film drips with melancholy.

Its more beautiful than I remembered. How is this film largely forgotten and not more greatly loved?


Returning again to Gattaca

Gattaca1Gattaca, 1997, 106 mins, 4K UHD

The future in films is always a pretty complicated thing- sometimes Utopian, sometimes Dystopian, various visions that, as the years go by, might in hindsight seem surprisingly spot-on, or surprisingly wide of the mark. Back in 1968 during the glory days of the space race, 2001: A Space Odyssey must have seemed pretty convincing, and while it remains largely definitive and prescient regards technology and space travel, in hindsight it was clearly at least a century out regards its timeline. When Blade Runner came out in 1982, its narrative setting of 2019 already seemed unlikely, as reality proved – but I find it endlessly amusing that reality also turned what was in 1982 a Dystopian vision instead into a Utopian one. Reality has fairly out-nightmared Ridley Scott, and when I watch Blade Runner these days it seems positively escapist entertainment.

Gattaca posits a future that does not belong to us ordinary, natural homo sapiens. Its something that I began to appreciate as I grew up, reading science fiction novels and absorbing science news, for example about how dangerous and inhospitable space is. It became pretty clear to me that humans leaving the Earth behind will be different, either coldly efficient like Kubrick’s astronauts and scientists, or physically enhanced to withstand the rigours of cosmic radiation or living in zero/low-gravity. I doubt future humans will be so comfortably familiar as they are, say, in Star Trek. I think future humans will be different, just as we would look different to prehistoric humans: in the same way as we have been shaped by our environment and technology, so will future humans who may not, physically, appear as wholly human as we might expect. A lifetime out in the Asteroid Belt, or on a Jovian or Saturnian moon would result in a physique, and likely mental, aspect quite unlike that of us today.

Maybe I’m too critical, maybe humanists would point towards a more reassuring, familiar shape for humanity out in the solar system and the stars, would argue that we won’t really change much at all. All I’d suggest is that when I was a kid, nobody would have believed that everyone in streets and buses and trains would be so endlessly tied to and fascinated by the little screens they carry around with them. Technology is already shaping us and our behaviour. I remember going for a meal and seeing another couple, arriving at another table after us, immediately upon sitting down each taking out their mobile phones and, instead of talking to each other, instead ignored each other, absorbed in their little screens and messages. It caught my eye and seemed quite alien, but you see that kind of thing all the time.

Gattaca suggests a biological advance, of genetic enhancements purchased to order prior even to conception, or immediately after, geneticists removing bad genes, replacing or improving them, ensuring a physical and mental perfection, or at least as near damn it. Wealth ensures success and opportunity, while poverty, the economic inability to utilise the biological tinkering  ensures membership of a social underclass. Its not far removed from how education separates many today into different social classes and opportunity (the last five Prime Minsters, for instance, all attended Oxford –  not certain if that’s a pro-Oxford commentary or not, considering how inept may of our Prime Minsters have actually been in the job).

Gattaca has always felt utterly convincing to me, like its future is inescapable. I’m not suggesting that’s its prime appeal; I think its best feature is its human drama, but nonetheless there is some fundamental truth to the future it envisages. Its a future horribly sad and dystopian, albeit tinged with a message of hope for the human spirit, a last hurrah for the humanity we are today. Vincent’s triumph is one for all of us, but I always think its a final one, that the future belongs to the others, those enhanced humans who curiously don’t seem to interact at all. There is largely something curiously cold and robotic about Vincent’s colleagues, not quite human, as if its suggesting that its our imperfections and limitations, and how we work work around them, that make us human.

I first saw Gattaca during its original cinema run here in the UK in 1998 and was immediately captivated by it, and have remained so ever since. Its one of those films that is pretty much perfect. Great script, visually impressive, great cast, wonderful music score – its up there with The Shawshank Redemption, Field of Dreams, and Glory for me, to name a few examples… films that may or may not be defined as Great Cinema like Citizen Kane, say, but are nonetheless essentially perfect.

Gattaca‘s premise is fascinating, scarily convincing, its script finely written with great characters and a great setting, using the films limited budget to its advantage, leveraging its future setting into the background, a ‘less is more’ approach that is refreshing. Nowadays it would be ‘bigger’ and more spectacular, no doubt, thanks to temptations of easy CGI enhancements, but I feel this would work to the films detriment. Instead, in just the same way as Alan Rudolph’s Trouble In Mind (1985) did,  the film thankfully focuses on its characters, and its cast, who are all at the top of their game- indeed what a cast! Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Alan Arkin,  Elias Koteas, Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine, Tony Shalhoub, Xander Berkley… this time around I spotted Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris playing a cop (probably because I hadn’t seen Breaking Bad last time I watched this film). Its a wonderful cast, really one of the films pleasures.

Of course being such a fan of this film, I’ve purchased it on home video a number of times; back in the early days of R1 DVD, later on Blu-ray and now on a 4K UHD that looks quietly gorgeous in that understated way that fits the film so well. This isn’t a film to ‘wow’ viewers with HDR but it does afford a level of detail and breadth of colour that is lovely. I often find myself referring to Gattaca and people looking blankly at me, and I often wonder when, if ever, its time will come (it seems to have been largely forgotten over the years, as some films strangely do). Maybe one day in decades hence when people are buying designer babies and choosing sex, hair colour, etc like we choose options when buying cars, people will note how eerily prescient Gattaca was; not all Hollywood futures come true (thankfully, in some cases), but perhaps this film, softly whispering down the decades like a cautionary Ray Bradbury or Rod Serling story, will be appreciated not just for being a great film but also a warning of what lies ahead and what might be avoided. Nearly two decades earlier, Star Trek: The Motion Picture proclaimed that ‘the human adventure is just beginning’ and while Gattaca darkly suggests otherwise, it perhaps also ponders there’s maybe an alternative, or that at least we should consider what being human really means.

Books- The Art of Ron Cobb

ron2I’ve written here before about our formative years, how the films, books, music that we connect to during that important period of our lives – our teenage years, usually- remain so strong for the remainder of our lives. For my part, I’d cite the period between 1976 -1986  as the time when so much resonated with me and would stay with me; so much so that I’m tempted to suggest that I’m still pretty much that same awkward quiet kid I was back then (only grumpier and not so slim). I still love the films I did back then, listen to the same music, read the same authors… sure, new stuff has come over the decades since and much of it great but nothing rings quite so true as the stuff I fell in love with back then.

A curious spin on this is everything I read in film magazines of the time, Starburst, Fantastic Films, Starlog, Cinefantastique, all those articles, reviews and interviews that offered tantalising, exciting glimpses of the magic behind the films. Back in those pre-Internet days those monthly/bi-monthly editions, largely from over the pond, were our only window to what was coming, how films were made, the talents responsible for all the magic that thrilled us.

As an example, back when Alien was coming out in 1979, the magazines offered commentary and interviews related to the film- particularly Fantastic Films, a sort-of poor man’s Cinefantastique (the clue is in the mags cheeky title) that I absolutely adored and which I have written about before. Fantastic Films’ coverage of Alien was exemplary; lengthy interviews with Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon and others, with colour stills of the film and storyboards and paintings depicting the work that went into creating Alien. Bear in mind that Alien when it later reached our shores was given an ‘X’ certificate (surprisingly, if I recall correctly, not for the graphic horror but rather for its bad language) which meant that I couldn’t/wouldn’t see it for a few years. I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and later the incredible Movie Novel that was as close to owning the film as we could get in those pre-VHS days, but it was those articles in Fantastic Films that caught my attention, put images to Foster’s prose and ignited my fascination in all the work involved in making genre films.

cobb1Which brings me to the work of Ron Cobb, whose paintings and sketches for Dark Star, Star Wars and particularly Alien that featured quite heavily in the mag alongside its interview with him (and particularly a little later in a making-of book, The Book of Alien). This was art that was beautifully executed with a sense of weight and solidity that made the fantastic so real and utterly believable. The genius of Alien was that Ridley Scott cannily used Cobb’s realistic, authentic-looking set designs for the Nostromo and associated gadgetry as a counterpoint to the surreal nightmarish visions of H R Giger that represented the distinctly non-human horrors.  The sense of reality so intrinsic in Cobbs work curiously made Giger’s just look more real. I pored over the images, read the interviews with Cobb, and like all those other names I’d be reading about back then – Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, Ralph McQuarrie, John Mollo, Derek Meddings, John Dykstra, Douglas Trumbull, John Barry, Syd Mead, countless others – would follow Ron Cobb’s work over the years that followed, in just the same way as my more conventional school mates followed footballers, cricketeers or pop stars.

cobb4Cobb would go on to work on Conan the Barbarian (Cinefantastique‘s double-issue about that film proved to be a definitive reference on that film and Cobb’s involvement) and The Abyss and many others. Keen eyes would watch Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in 2012 and note the titular ship’s bridge design was heavily indebted to unused designs created by Cobb for Alien way back in 1979 – it was like seeing an old friend again out of the blue. While appreciating the clever claustrophobia of the film’s Nostromo, I always stared at that painting over the years wondering how fantastic it would be to see it for real, in a movie (Prometheus alas lacked the glories I imagined in my head, although that set did look pretty fantastic).

Cobb’s passing in 2020 hit me like a bolt, a sudden reminder of the passing of time in just the same way as fans are shocked by the deaths of movie stars and pop stars. Cobb was one of the names I grew up with, a name I’d see in film credits and in books and mags with the affection one has for childhood heroes. I suppose many filmgoers would not recognise the name even though he was so hugely responsible for so much of the success of the films they loved, but those of my generation who devoured all those 1970s/1980s film mags could measure the loss. Cobb was a giant part of what made the fantastic in so many films look so real.

So this new book has just been published, The Art of Ron Cobb, which is a hardback, coffee-table artbook collecting much of the artists remarkable work for film and other media – some of it very familiar and some of it new and surprising. Its a beautiful book, one of the best of its kind that I’ve seen and absolutely required reading for any fan of Cobb’s work, although to be fair, anyone familiar with Cobb’s art would surely buy this book as soon as they learned of it, so I feel like I’m wasting my time preaching to the converted. Its just a pity that Cobb, of course, is gone, and that this appreciation is posthumous- how much more wonderful it would be had it been curated by Cobb with his own annotations and recollections.  Somewhat out of leftfield, I’m reminded of that strange sadness of those Super Deluxe editions of Prince’s 1999 and Sign O’ the Times – great boxsets of material out of the vault etc but wondering how much more priceless they would have seemed had I been able to read Prince’s own memories etc about all that music. Its a shame these things don’t seem to come out early enough to ensure the artists own involvement, albeit in Prince’s case (and Vangelis, too, regards any release of  music from the Greek maestro’s own vault of unreleased material), is that they themselves seem to have opposed such collections being released in their lifetime. I’m reminded of all those film stars and directors who have passed away without recording commentary tracks for their films for posterity.

Nonetheless, while this book is largely minus Cobb’s own ‘voice’, its pretty definitive, really- a case where the art does the talking. I keep picking it up and re-reading it, dipping into chapters on particular films. Its a fine document of Cobb’s skill, his eye for design, and his impact on so many films over the years – some of it a surprise to me. Of course, its also a reminder of times when artists worked on canvas and artboard rather than on tablets and graphic workstations; there’s a sense of analogue craft here that is richly nostalgic. The whiff of art marker and gouache and acrylic. This book is a treasure.

The Killing 4K UHD

Kill4kI’ve come back to The Killing by way of its recent 4K upgrade from the folks at Kino over the pond. I last watched the film back in 2016. I have to confess, watching it again my memory of it was pretty fuzzy- I remembered the overall plot and some of the cast, but specifics, and indeed the ending, escaped me completely. To some extent it was rather like watching the film for the first time.

Which was nice, but worrying- I used to have such an excellent memory for films; I’d usually remember most everything. Maybe its just me getting older – hope this isn’t how dementia starts- but I rather suspect its a case of just watching too many films over the past few years. In some ways we’re living in a film buff’s paradise, the access we have to films these days, whether it be films we have collected on disc, or stream on the various platforms. Back in the 1970s we were at the whim of terrestrial schedulers on three networks so only watched films when we could, which increased the rarity and sense of occasion (I still recall the Jaws network premiere, and that of Star Wars and Alien, quite vividly, and movie seasons over Christmas holidays just made the festive seasons more special). Those were the bad old days, certainly, but nonetheless films seemed to have much more of a value back then. I suppose watching fewer films, they stuck in your memory more too.

But now, they almost seem to blur into each other- certainly some film noir, of which I have watched an awful lot of over the past few years. I suppose it inevitable when they share so many narrative and visual tropes and character archetypes. Alarming though, that I’d forgotten so much of this film. Maybe this blog should revert to its original purpose back from its Film Journal days, serving as a diary of viewing- not that this blog really ever diverted away from too much (though I have stopped compiling monthly/annual lists of the films). But whatever next? Index cards next to each disc on the shelf?

Because to be sure, someone who professes to be a film buff shouldn’t be forgetting details of films as exquisite as The Killing, one of the definitive heist movies and one of the best examples of a perfect film noir. Its a taut, gripping story about flawed characters, depicted by brilliant actors in memorable performances. Did I say memorable? Hmmm. Well, to be fair, while I’d forgotten so much of the film, I’d not forgotten the likes of Sterling Hayden here- what a gritty, convincing turn.

Kubrick’s third directorial effort and widely considered his first ‘proper’ film, The Killing is absolutely amazing and, dare I suggest, one of his best. Its certainly a film for people who don’t profess to like Kubrick’s filmography- it lacks his full ‘auteur’ stamp, as he didn’t have the complete control he would soon have following Paths of Glory and SpartacusThe Killing is more routine, more accessible compared to how inscrutable some of his films can seem.

That being said, its tricky to describe The Killing as routine- it certainly makes demands upon its audience, with a chronology-shifting narrative in which it moves forwards and backwards in time depending upon each characters involvement in the heist. It’s helped somewhat by a voice-over which is pretty wonderful but was, I suspect, possibly a studio-mandated element to help steer viewers along.

When I last watched The Killing in 2016, I hadn’t been aware even of the existence of Vince Edwards’ later noir, Murder by Contract, which I watched last year as part of Indicator’s Columbia Noir line of boxsets and which proved to be one of the best films I watched last year (so good was it, indeed, that I watched it twice). So anyway, back in 2016, Edwards was just another face- this time around, I immediately recognised him and enjoyed, again, another of his performances. Naturally Edwards will always be more remembered for his massively popular Ben Casey tv show of the 1960s but I think he’s brilliant in The Killing, Murder by Contract and City of Fear in which he has this weird charisma with the camera (and inevitably the on-screen ladies) that only certain actors destined to be stars have. So if my memory really does go south there will be index cards for Vince Edwards dotted around my shelves of Blu-rays.

killb4kRegards this 4K release of The Killing, it looks absolutely amazing. Lots of grain, detail and contrast- 4K with its HDR really suits these black and white films. Can’t believe I haven’t bought Citizen Kane on 4K yet (must be all those copies on DVD and Blu-ray making me already feel like a double/triple-dipping idiot). There is a lovely tactile quality to this film, in its detail evident in sets and clothing, and the HDR really improves the lighting which can be so intrinsic to the noir experience. The scene in which the guys sit around a small table lit by a lone bulb above them, their faces both brightly lit and masked in shadow, the cigarette smoke drifting about them- its like each frame is a painting and is one of the best film noir shots I’ve seen: in 4K its really something. While Kino doesn’t include booklets or anything at all like that, it does use original poster artwork which make its releases great collector pieces, in a similar way to the art direction on Indicator’s releases (this disc also has a reversible sleeve). Devoid of extras other than some trailers, the disc features a commentary track by Alan K. Rode which, from the twenty-thirty minutes I’ve heard, is absolutely terrific and which I look forward to listening to in its entirety. More on that in another post maybe.