The 2021 List: October

Here’s my belated summary of what I watched during October, and the first thing that’s clear to me is that it was a very good month for movies. Mostly it was older movies that impressed, discovering such ‘new’ favourites as Pushover, Kiss of Death and Strangers When We Meet, but of course October also presented a genuinely new film in the shape of Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited Dune: Part One. I’m still a little on the fence regards the film but I’m pretty certain that when it comes out on home video early next year (its rumoured for late January) after a few viewings it’ll win me over- particularly as we now know that Dune: Part Two has been announced for October 2023. Curiously, at the end of the month I finally caught up with another Part One/Part Two movie, with It: Chapter Two, which I found pretty underwhelming and which left me musing the benefits and weaknesses of these films spreading narratives over two instalments.

Not that October was a slam-dunk for movies, as I saw what must surely be Peter Cushing’s nadir in film- the abysmal The Devil’s Men. Definitely not his finest hour- not so much regards his performance, as Cushing always turned out and made an effort whatever he was in, a professional to the end, but frankly the film was terrible and didn’t deserve him. His next film gave him an all-new generation of fans, when he appeared in Star Wars, but its a sad reflection of the film industry of the 1970s that it didn’t treat talent of his calibre with more reverence. Obviously that’s more me as a film-lover appreciative of the artform and its ‘stars’ with whom we strike an empathy and admiration for, than the cold eye of what’s essentially just a business: the history of film is scattered with under-appreciated talent thrown to the winds of fate, and no matter how much Hollywood marketing eulogises its own history and stars of old, the reality is rather different and far more dispassionate. Look at someone like Hitchcock (and hey, I finally caught up with Dial M For Murder!), who could hardly get a gig later in his career when he found himself lost in the shadow of  the new wunderkinds like Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas. Film history may paint a nobler summation of his worth to the industry, but Hitch always knew that you’re only as good as your last movie (or its box-office, anyway).

Television

119) The North Water

Films

117) The Asphyx (1972)

118) Lucky (2017)

120) Pushover (1954)

121) Chicago Syndicate (1955)

Unbreakable (2000) (4K UHD)

122) Glass

123) A Bullet is Waiting (1954)

124) Guilty (2021)

125) No One Gets Out Alive (2021)

126) Kiss of Death (1947)

127) Strangers When We Meet (1960)

128) Footsteps in the Fog (1955)

129) The Devil’s Men (1976)

Pitch Black (2000) (4K UHD)

130) The Forgotten Battle (2021)

131) Dial M For Murder (1954)

132) Dune (2021)

133) Army of Thieves (2021)

134) It: Chapter Two (2019)

Columbia Noir: Pushover (1954)

pushoverWatching old films for the first time from the vantage point of, in this case 2021, is that the perspective cannot be anything like watching a film when it first came out. In the case of Richard Quine’s 1954 noir Pushover, I suppose my viewing was skewed from having seen Fred MacMurray so many times in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and Kim Novak being, in my eyes, forever the doomed fantasy of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

In MacMurray’s case, he will always be the slimy cheat Mr Sheldrake that I despised so much whenever I re-watched The Apartment growing up, so I had no problem at all with Pushover‘s greedy detective Sheridan, smitten by Kim Novak’s Lona McLane and tempted by the chance of what he thinks is easy, life-changing money. Far as I was concerned, its perfect casting – I seem to recall reading of people actually being shocked by his turn in The Apartment as they had previously watched him in his run of wholesome Disney family titles, but on the evidence of films like Pushover, it seems to me he was almost lazily cast to type in Wilder’s dark comedy. There’s a nervous edge to him that’s fascinating to watch and I’m almost surprised he didn’t have a career typecast as a Hollywood bad guy. There’s something wrong about him, and he’s perfect here; I believed in his fall from grace absolutely. Of course, he’d done much the same in Billy Wilder’s earlier noir classic, Double Indemnity.

As for Kim Novak, I’m beginning to think my film education needs some revision. Novak didn’t make very many films, really, considering how famous/infamous she is, and I’ve actually seen almost none of them. I grew up seeing her late in life in the frankly awful television series Falcon Crest in the 1980s, and nothing else until I caught up with Vertigo and was totally blown away. But that’s it, until I saw her in the very average thriller 5 Against the House  early last year (part of Indicator’s first Columbia Noir set), a film which did her few favours, really, but in Pushover she’s quite incandescent. In this she has star written all over her, and I believe this was her Hollywood debut, no less. There’s always some kind of tag line about someone being the hottest thing to hit film since whatever, but in this case it would have been very true- Novak is hot, hot, hot. Just twenty-one, I understand, when she made this film, her turn is at times daring (her dress in her first scene that is practically see-through), at times sympathetic, at times over the top… its a tour de force and frankly totally distracting. I couldn’t take my eyes of her and she really makes MacMurray’s fall not just believable, but actually inevitable.

After the pretty mundane Walk A Crooked Mile, this film is a real return to form for this fourth Indicator noir box- Pushover is totally noir, totally cool and totally dark and fascinating. I loved it. There is something wonderful watching a guy’s increasing desperation as his scheme continues to unravel and the clear futility of him trying to get things back on track. Novak’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, and I think its quite a pity she was never (as far as I know) cast as a genuine, scheming femme-fatale in some dark noir. You’d believe she could turn a man to anything and I suspect, on the strength of this film, that Hollywood missed a trick. Or maybe not: its actually curious how much her Lona McLane is like her Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton character in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. For a woman who seems so naturally gifted with an ability to bewitch and control men, she always seems so fragile and easily manipulated by them: almost a sweet girl in a body built for sin, quite a combination, and perhaps an indication of her real persona?

In any case, Pushover is a simply terrific noir: it looks ravishing at times, mostly shot at night in streets hammered by rain, and it has all the usual tropes of lots of smoking and drinking, with a rather disturbing dash of voyeurism when a cop spies upon McLane’s pretty neighbour who doesn’t realise she’s being watched and really shouldn’t be, especially by a guy who creepily has the hots for her while he should be watching her neighbour. There’s shades of the more uncomfortable moments of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which curiously was released the very same year so while I thought, when watching Pushover, that it was simply mimicking Hitchcock’s classic, I should have given it more credit- I imagine both films were shooting pretty much concurrently and its just a case of Hollywood coincidence. 

Very often watching these ‘old’ movies, I see familiar names in the credits, catching my eye- in this case, that of Arthur Morton, who composed this films effective score but is much more famous to me for his later career as a Hollywood orchestrator, chiefly for the scores of Jerry Goldsmith, particularly Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Poltergeist, First Blood, Innerspace… you name it, practically  every soundtrack by Goldsmith I ever bought has Morton’s name in the credits. I didn’t actually appreciate he worked as a film composer in his own right, so hey, you learn something new every day. 

Director Richard Quine had earlier directed the excellent noir Drive a Crooked Road and would later direct one of my favourite comedies, How to Murder Your Wife, which I have on Blu-ray and really need to watch again sometime soon. He also made two more films that starred Kim Novak which I have on my watchlist already: Bell Book and Candle and Strangers When We Meet, which like too many older movies are just very hard to get hold of, certainly on Blu-ray. If only Indicator could turn their attention to them and treat them to that magical Indicator TLC.

 

Agh, Commentary Tracks

Well, a pat on my back for watching a disc within a few weeks of buying it (doubt it’ll catch on) but life never gives without taking away, so add another commentary track to the list of all those that I haven’t listened to yet. 

(The disc in question was A Most Violent Year, a film which I first watched on a stream back in 2015 and which I really liked, so when I noticed it cheap on Amazon it proved a no-brainer. More on that maybe at a later time, but yeah its still a great film with fantastic cast/performances, but the Blu-ray comes with a commentary track which tempts and infuriates me at the same time).

So anyway, its such a pity that whenever there’s nothing on the television or I haven’t gotten my head into a book, I can’t just suggest to my wife Claire that we settle down with a commentary track from one of those discs (if I did, she’d give me one of her dirtiest ‘are you mad?’ looks for sure: commentary tracks are for film-nerds. True or false?). 

Not all commentary tracks are equal. Some are awful. Some are great. Some (certainly those when one gets John Carpenter and Kurt Russell together) are legendary. There’s some good commentaries by academics, film historians or critics- some can be very dry, or feel like they are just reading from prepared notes (which sometimes I’m sure they are), but often they can be more balanced than listening to tracks from cast and crew stroking each others egos and ‘goshing’ at whatever’s onscreen. Some can be surprising, I remember that the Matrix films had commentary tracks from philosophers and critics who didn’t necessarily even like the films. Which made me think at the time what a neat idea it was (although studios would obviously be appalled by it), to perhaps put negative views on some tracks, you know, get someone to argue for, someone argue against, the film in question. 

Great unrecorded commentary tracks:

  1. Alfred Hitchcock on Vertigo
  2. Stanley Kubrick on anything (although Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke together on 2001 would have been like brushing one’s hand against a Monolith, or falling into a Stargate, I suspect).
  3. Phillip K Dick on Blade Runner– wouldn’t that have been great? He might have hated the finished film but who knows, he might have loved it and just listening to him see that world through his eyes… sober or high, it would have been a ball.
  4. Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. Just imagine. 

I assure you that if either of those commentaries existed they wouldn’t have remained unlistened to. Crikey, I probably would have jumped into the commentary before even watching the movie. Anybody else got some ideas for great commentary tracks we’ll never hear?

Glory 4K UHD

gloryposterTonight I finally watched my 4K disc of Glory; first time I have seen the film for several years. What a magnificent film, what glorious (sic) music from James Horner. I was so lucky to be loving films and going to the cinema while films like Glory were being made, and someone like James Horner composing stuff like his scores for Glory, Field of Dreams, Cocoon, Apollo 13, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart

I texted my old and now-distant friend Andy that I’d re-watched Glory again, and reminisced about the day we first watched it. Andy, my cousin Tony and I had watched Born on the Fourth of July that afternoon, then gone over Tony’s for a takeaway tea (his folks were away) and later returned late evening to the Showcase cinema  to watch a film called Glory, that we knew nothing about other than it was a Civil War movie. We’d been impressed by a big carboard standee of the poster that had been on display in the lobby of our Showcase cinema for a few weeks: a beautiful image that promised… something. You know, back in the good old days of great, imaginative poster art. We didn’t expect, though,  that we would walk out at midnight, stunned, convinced that we’d just seen a better film than Born on the Fourth of July: it was the Oliver Stone film that critics were raving about. Glory seemed to just come and go, but it certainly left its mark on us. I searched out the Glory soundtrack CD a few days later. Popped it onto a cassette and blasted it out of the cheapo stereo in my beat-up old death-trap first car as I raced Andy and I through Cannock Chase in blazing sunshine several days later. Good times.

I grew up watching Jaws, Star Wars, CE3K, The Empire Strikes Back, Blade Runner at the cinema… and so many others. I was a really lucky guy, looking back. Films were better then. Film music was better then.

Glory looks really fine on 4K; its a gorgeous, grainy image with real depth and vibrancy, particularly those shots of the setting sun obscured by fire-smoke etc. Its a good example of how film-like the 4K format is with HDR. What a cast that film had too. And there is a very real, tactile feel to the film too, as there’s no CGI. Its all pretty much real, which just makes the battle scenes all the more impressive. After watching the film I put the commentary track on and watched it again, not something I do as often as I used to. Its one of those (rare) picture-in-picture commentary tracks, in which we can see the speaker in a smaller image in the corner. Anybody remember those? DVD and Blu-ray had some really ambitious, clever features like that, that the studios just don’t seem to bother with anymore. Its getting so that looking back at the glory days of DVD makes me feel lucky to have been around in those exciting days for a film-lover. I remember when every new special edition seemed to be more ambitious, films like The Abyss, Contact and T2, and the first boxset of the Alien films. I used to buy them on R1 from a local hi-fi store, but actually bought The Abyss disc when I was on holiday in San Francisco back in either 2000 or 2001. That’s a surprisingly long time ago, now that I think about it- but isn’t everything? That night I vividly recall first watching Glory with Andy and Tony was 32 years ago. 32 years ago!

Tracking tells me my expanded Glory soundtrack disc from La La Land left America yesterday. Its on its way. Really looking forward to hearing it. Eat, drink and be merry, Morgan Freeman tells me on the commentary track, for tomorrow we die. That’s one way of summing up Glory, and maybe life too.

Well, I’m tired. Time for bed, folks. This film was a good one.

Glory expanded edition

glory1Christmas is coming early. I’ve been waiting for someone to do this soundtrack proper justice for years, decades, and here it is at last- one of the last James Horner remasters/expansions, I imagine, certainly one of the last few I’ve been holding out for. What is left, Field of Dreams and maybe the 2-disc Brainstorm? Yeah, I’m still hoping for the latter: it’d be ironic and strangely fitting if that soundtrack, the first James Horner album I ever bought (on the old TER vinyl), turned out to be my last one too. But its a crazy enough world, this Glory is proof enough of that.

I look forward to being able to write a review in a few weeks.

Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)

memoryI enjoyed this documentary far more than I had expected to, believing that it was largely redundant at this point, after all the documentaries made about Alien featured on various DVD and Blu-ray releases over the past few decades, and of course all the books written about the film- most recently the late J W Rinzler’s magnificent The Making of Alien volume. An additional handicap is that some primary interviewees are no longer with us (Dan O’Bannon, H R Giger) and Ridley Scott was presumably not available/not interested, therefore forcing the film-makers to use video interviews from those old Blu-ray documentaries with the now so-familiar soundbites. The film’s editor Terry Rawling was a pleasant surprise appearance; he died in 2019 so I suspect this was one of the final interviews that Rawlings attended, if not the last.

And yes to some extent Memory is indeed redundant because there is little here that’s really new regards Alien lore for fans of the film. In some respects its largely a Readers Digest of all the factoids that Alien fans have learned over the years, but I did enjoy some of the points about mythology and symbolism, and how Alien really represents where society and its audiences were back in 1979 – it was clearly the right film at the right time, capturing the cultural zeitgeist and resonating through all these years since. I think there are some very valid points made and some views quite illuminating, particularly regards universal archetypes and myth.

Maybe the films argument that Dan O’Bannon was some kind of genius is a bit of a reach, but its no accident that O’Bannon was connected to some of the most important or memorable film projects that I have seen over the years- Dark Star, Alien, Total Recall, The Return of the Living Dead and Lifeforce. Some of them are great and the others are at the very least great fun (and I REALLY want to catch up with his last directorial effort, the Lovecraftian horror The Resurrected, which has escaped me for years, frustratingly). You don’t get a resume like that in Hollywood without having some talent, and he’s surely qualified as a genre great. Yes, Alien was very derivative of other, earlier movies and the genius of Alien is mostly that of Ridley Scott’s approach of elevating schlock b-movie fodder into serious, top-list quality motion picture, but one can’t deny that what made Alien unique was Giger, and it was O’Bannon who knew the artist (from the aborted Dune project) and championed his work for the film.

On the whole though I really enjoyed this documentary: the title is ironic considering so much of it was like a stroll down memory lane of Alien factoids and familiar faces. But yeah, this is Alien, and I don’t mind being reminded why the film is so bloody great, so this was certainly a very pleasant watch.

Memory: The Origins of Alien is currently available on Channel Four’s On Demand service up to late September, and is also available on DVD and digital download/rental.

Another Murder By Contract

murder2Its becoming clear to me that August has been a largely a month of re-watching movies, whether it be because of new 4K editions (True Romance), revisiting films that perplexed me first time around (Tenet), or just revisiting old favourites, as in the case of this film, the noir classic Murder By Contract, which came out as part of the second of Indicator’s Columbia Noir boxsets and which I first watched back in March. The fact that I have returned to it within the space of six months hopefully indicates the high regard in which I hold this film. Its really quite extraordinary. There probably isn’t anything more I can say about the film that I didn’t when I first reviewed it, but it is a remarkably cool film, from the catchy guitar score by Perry Botkin (which so good its unfathomable that Tarantino hasn’t used it in one of his films somewhere), to the deadpan performances of its cast, particularly that of Vince Edwards as psychopath assassin/amateur philosopher Claude, a character who will haunt me for years. Part genius, part idiot, a handsome dude who is horribly detached and casual in his violence until he finally, incredibly comes undone by his final target. It’d be a bit akin to casting a young Harrison Ford as Jack the Ripper or Scorpio; you want to be with Claude as he seems so cool but you know you’d be much safer in another country.

Released in 1958 (with such a low budget it was allegedly shot in just eight days), Murder By Contract was made at the tail end of the ‘classic’ American noir period, nodding towards the stylistic changes that the 1960s would bring (and the eventual advent of neo-noir). As much as it is a richly bleak noir it is a very, very black comedy. In some moments, its a little like the Wile E Coyote/Road Runner cartoon hijinks transported into a noir movie and really quite unlike any other film I have seen, other than Kiss Me Deadly and Taxi Driver, two examples which hopefully indicate just how odd a film this really is. Its a work of some crazy genius, one of the best films I will have watched this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I give it another watch before the end of the year. Some films really make a connection and this one did with me.

Another Thing…

anotherThingWhilst on the subject of John Carpenter movies (cunning link there to yesterday’s post) I’ve found myself pre-ordering another copy of The Thing, this time the 4K UHD edition that Universal are releasing in September. I don’t know how many times I’ve bought this film on a home video format: DVD twice, Blu-ray twice… actually I think it may have been three times on Blu-ray, and that is just plain insane even to me. But it’s The Thing, and it’s on 4K UHD, and it is surely the last copy of this film I will ever buy. Please, lord, the last time. I’m beginning to think the 4K format is the work of the Devil.

It is rather quietly ironic, in what is supposed to be the slow decline of physical media, that we can still be suckered into buying these new editions of films we’ve bought so many times before. Its likely no accident that Carpenter is so well-represented on 4K disc (Prince of Darkness, Halloween, Escape From New York, The Fog and They Live with more likely to follow before the disc replicators finally grind to a halt), as his films have always been very popular on home video formats. I remember back when VHS started here in the UK, Escape From New York was one of the first big ‘hits’ on rental in 1983, partly because its a good film but also because it sported, at the time, a pretty amazing stereo track the likes of which previously unheard of in the home. Of course it was on VHS in pan and scan/pain an’a scam format but hey, it was 1983 and our televisions tended to be still black and white even then, and absolutely 4:3. How times change, but some Things (see what I did there?) stay the same, sort of.

The 2021 List: July

There goes July- the past few weeks have been rough at work due to sickness and leave, both within the office and nationally as a business ‘out in the field’ so I’ve been neglecting my blog somewhat (what do you mean, you didn’t notice?). Must try and fix that, and I’m wary of a backlog of reviews piling up, even if I’m struggling to find time/energy to actually watch anything.

So what have I been watching? Well, other than what is on the list below, I have been re-watching some old discs/films, some connected to films on the list below. Watching Herbert Lom in Hammer’s version of The Phantom of the Opera got me watching the Indicator disc of Mysterious Island that I’d bought a few months back (in which Lom plays a very impressive Captain Nemo), and seeing the lovely Barbara Shelley in The Shadow of the Cat resulted in me bringing down Indicator’s first Hammer box from a few years ago and watching The Gorgon again. There’s something both familiar, comforting and sometimes revelatory about returning to films having not seen them in awhile, and I’m kicking myself for not at least dropping a paragraph or two here regards those two in  particular. I’ve also been trying to watch Arrows 4K disc of True Romance that came out a few weeks back but the time never feels right or I’m just too damn tired to give it the attention it deserves. I was one of the few that saw it back during its first theatrical run and have always loved it, so watching it in 4K is something I’m really looking forward to.

While there were a few clunkers in July, I did watch some particularly fine films, notably The Killers and Criss Cross, two astonishingly fine film noir. The first led me to the second, and I love that about films, how one can lead to another, some being fresh discoveries of films I’d never heard of before. Amazingly, I’m of a mind that Criss Cross may actually be a better film than The Killers, even though the former clearly had more impressive visual ‘noir’ flourishes, there seemed something more complete and efficient regards Criss Cross, a film that quite took my breath away, it seemed so perfectly formed. I really must work on a review of that film.

Lately I’ve been watching the German epic series Babylon Berlin, which has been on my watchlist for a long time now and will get a review in August when I’ve completed the first sixteen episodes (confusingly, they were ‘sold’ to foreign markets as two seasons of eight episodes each but I understand that in Germany it was one run of sixteen). Its astonishingly good, up there with the very best shows I’ve seen like The Wire etc (yep its THAT good). Its depiction of 1929 Berlin, during the last years of the Weimer Republic is so vivid, there’s a tactile feel to it which is almost quite horrifying. I’ve often said here that good period dramas are almost like science fiction, positing worlds as alien to us as anything envisaged for the future. I think that’s quite true of something like Babylon Berlin, which is not just depicting a world of a century ago, but one quite foreign as regards culture and politics (its really quite mystifying, but fascinatingly so).

Television

79) Superstore Season Four

86) Ratched Season One

Films

77) The Tomorrow War (2021)

78) The Killers (1946)

80) The Shadow of the Cat (1961)

81) The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

82) Nightmare (1964)

83) Synchronic (2019)

84) Saint Maud (2019)

85) Fast & the Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

87) The Sting (1973)

88) Between Midnight and Dawn (1950)

89) Chernobyl 1986 (2021)

90) Blood Red Sky (2021)

91) Criss Cross (1949)

The new Dune trailer

Oh this looks good. This looks so VERY good. Anyone else get a tingle watching those Ornithopters flying over the sand dunes?

But is anyone else concerned that the last ten years of dumbing down blockbusters may have robbed this film of its audience? Nobody turned up to go watch BR2049, and that film wasn’t being dumped on HBO Max at the time either. I don’t know how much of an impact that HBO Max thing will prove to be, or how much Covid will be in the equation come October, but considering the money that Dune needs to make in order to break even/get Part Two greenlit…  My biggest concern is simply that, are audiences going to go in droves to watch a sci-fi epic minus caped superheroes beating the shit out of bad guys while wrecking a city? Are audiences going to sit still for a film with ideas? 

Mind, Dune is an epic story with epic spectacle so maybe that will pull people in. Films are so stupid now though, particularly the ones that make any money. I’m still reeling from the assault on my senses that was Godzilla vs Kong and that Hobbs & Shaw thing. Is that what films are now? While I take some comfort from how Disney’s Black Widow seems to have under-performed recently, that also makes me nervous regards how streaming (and yeah, Covid) seems to have pulled people away from the movie experience, wondering if things have changed forever. Have the weekly drops of content on Netflix and Disney+ so diluted peoples appreciation of tentpole releases (I have to wonder if Disney putting Marvel and Star Wars content for ‘free’ onto subscribers televisions is a kind of self-sabotage) weakened and diluted the appeal of said franchises as regards getting bums on seats in cinemas, like it used to be? We’ve already seen how people don’t seem interested in buying films on disc anymore. Some of the high-end stuff being dropped on Netflix is often poor but production-wise, they are essentially exactly the same thing as is seen in cinemas. I remember when I was kid, I saw The Empire Strikes Back at the cinema on a Saturday afternoon and when I got home Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was on the telly, and funnily enough it was the episode with the asteroid sequence and Buster Crabbe but it was so different in quality, the chasm between home entertainment and cinema entertainment was plain. That’s gone now, and seeing ‘new’ Star Wars and Marvel stuff straight onto the telly…

I’ve noted before that movies don’t seem as important or special as they used to be in my youth, back when Star Wars would be on the big screen only and when you’d wait for years to ever see Jaws again- gradually films have become more disposable. In a world where you can buy Avatar for a fiver, is there any wonder that Avatar itself fails to have any real cultural significance (and I’m really curious how those Avatar sequels will perform in a few years time). Are movies, as we fans remember them as ‘MOVIES,’ essentially dead, and things like Dune simply being made for a world and business model that no longer exists?

One has to wonder if Dune: Part Two will eventually just be a mini-series on HBO Max.