Elvis in the Nightmare Alley

elvis2Elvis, 2022, 159 mins, 4K UHD

As one might expect from Baz Luhrmann, Elvis is an exhausting, dizzying ride. Which, for fans of Luhrmann’s films, is something that fills one with a particular excitement and sense of anticipation- while for detractors of his style, must fill them with dread. To be brutally honest, that’s this film and my post here in a nutshell, I don’t really need to write anything more. Lovers are gonna love, haters gonna hate. Whatever its merits as a dramatic work, its intoxicating stuff, a trip to a cinematic carnival of the senses- bright lights, incredible music, a kinetic energy that is almost tangible: Pure Cinema.

But as far as being a dramatic work, I’m not entirely sure, for instance, how much this film really functions as the biopic some may have been expecting. Its there, but its almost incidental to the cinematic ride that Luhrmann is intent on taking us on. This isn’t really an examination of Elvis the man; his talent, his sexuality, his womanising, his drug-taking, which ideally would surely make -maybe someday will make- a dark and fascinating psychodrama. Instead this is Elvis the Myth, Elvis the Icon, Elvis the amusement ride.- strap yourselves in!

elvis3Which is not to suggest that this is superfluous, empty nonsense, its certainly more sophisticated than that. For one thing, its almost like a particularly nasty horror movie in a musical disguise: to be frank, I’ve spent the last few days quite haunted by it. There is something quite nightmarish about it,  if only because there is just something about Tom Hank’s notably grotesque Colonel Tom Parker that gets under one’s skin. He’s the Devil in a Stetson, and he seduces and betrays poor Elvis in such an intense, heightened way that it approaches religious allegory (albeit I’m sure plenty have equated Elvis with Jesus before) and Luhrmann even cheekily throws in a nod to Welles’ The Lady of Shanghai with a hall of mirrors in which the Devil traps our hero in his web. Parker is a sly Machiavellian monster who essentially ensures Elvis cannot himself be blamed for his own tragedy: Elvis is a victim here and Luhrmann ensures its a seductive proposition. He may be exaggerating the truth here but it is essentially the truth

Austin Butler is something of a revelation- writing as a veteran of seeing the John Carpenter Elvis: The Movie in the cinema back in my youth, in which, as bizarre as it sounds today, Kurt Russell ‘played’ Elvis, I reckoned nobody, surely nobody could ever convincingly play Elvis (a sentiment only further proved by later Hollywood depictions – Val Kilmer, anyone?). But there is something remarkable about Austin Butler here. Aided by some excellent make-up any disbelief gradually fades away; the sheer physicality of his performance is brilliant and likely worthy of an Oscar nod. Meanwhile, much has been said regards Tom Hanks buried under all that prosthetics (some seem to find it patently ridiculous) but as I noted earlier, I found his Colonel Tom Parker quite disturbing, and I suspect there’s a certain craft on display here (those eyes, dammit, for one thing) from Hanks that is unfairly belied by all that make-up: I think Hanks is excellent and I despised him utterly for most of the movie.

I was reminded, watching Elvis, of films like Oliver Stone’s JFK or, obviously, Luhrmann’s own Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge! (a film I adore); hyper-kinetic cinema, full of bravura cinematography and editing, bewitching use of music and visual effects, films that are dizzying glorifications of manipulation. Its easy to get carried away by it, and I wonder how well Elvis might hold up on repeat viewings, but I absolutely enjoyed it this first time around. There’s a nagging feeling of a rushed ending, of perhaps entire subplots missing on the cutting-room floor (already there are rumours of a longer cut or mini-series edition) and certainly a sense that we are seeing highlights of the icons life and not the substance of it, no real explanation of what made Presley tick. This isn’t that movie. But it is a Baz Luhrmann movie.

More than that though, far as I’m concerned, its a Baz Luhrmann horror movie: over the past few days I have been so surprised by just how much Tom Hanks’ Colonel Tom Parker must have gotten under my skin. Utterly disturbing, Hanks as a monster has quite totally freaked me out.  You’re the devil in disguise, Tom, and you got me all shook up.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist).

Whatever next?

elvis4kStreaming, rather than disc releases, would seem to be where its ‘at’ this month, with a little, low-key fantasy thing from Amazon starting tomorrow and taking us through the Autumn (will I be able resist sharing my thoughts each week?). But there’s a few disc releases coming too. Next week the director’s cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture hopefully arrives, something I’ve been looking forward to greatly, although bizarrely I’m perhaps more intrigued by the (surprisingly) bountiful extras than the new cut itself. Its so rare these days for an ‘older’ film released by a non-boutique label to have so many extras (just look at the 4K edition of Poltergeist coming this same month). For what’s its worth, I’m NOT buying the tat box edition (on that front, I’m still waiting for standard edition of the 4K Event Horizon to be announced).  So anyway, next week I expect to be writing a review of Robert Wise’s flawed (but possibly now improved?) Star Trek movie. Beyond that, September also holds the promise of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a film my mom will be over to watch for a film night- I recall showing the trailer on my phone to my parents back when my Dad was ‘trapped’ upstairs due to his illness, thinking I’d be lending them the film someday in better circumstances (I’d often buy some films partly because I knew my folks would enjoy watching the Blu-ray copy). I never imagined that Dad wouldn’t be here to watch it, so everything about that film feels rather bittersweet now, just like that new Downton Abbey movie that came out on disc recently: I have little interest in it but my folks loved that show, particularly my Dad, funnily enough. Sometimes you just can’t figure what it is that people will connect to.

uninoirI still haven’t pre-ordered the (delayed, but now imminent) Indicator release of The Swimmer or their Madigan which is being released the same day. I own the Grindhouse edition of The Swimmer from Stateside so the film is one of those double-dips I try to avoid. As I’d have to keep that earlier disc anyway (because it has a lengthy doc that the Indicator doesn’t), I haven’t yet ordered it even though its a cult favourite of mine; its a situation where ideally I wait for one of Indicator’s sales and get to buy it at a reduced price.  I’ll be buying Indicators edition  for the inevitably better master/image quality, which is a good reason but hey, we’re heading for an Autumn/Winter of Discontent so yeah, more reason for my caution. I might just tag those two onto a pre-order for October’s Universal Noir set from Indicator that I likewise haven’t gotten around to yet, we’ll see. Beyond those, there’s the inevitable pre-order for Top Gun: Maverick because of just how damn good everyone tells me it is, even though I still haven’t managed to watch the first Top Gun (I actually tried several weeks back but gave up twenty minutes in, all it did was remind me of how much I hated Tom Cruise movies back when it originally came out – the idea of ever watching that Cocktail movie, for instance, ugh). Anyway, Tom seems to think we’re living back in the VHS era of waiting forever for home video releases, because he’s managed to hold back Maverick from physical home video for months longer than we’re used to, recently being confirmed for the end of October: crikey- that Tolkien thing on Amazon will be all done by then.

Meanwhile there is so much I already have on the shelf that I need to watch. More films in the Columbia Noir #5 box, and likewise the Alfred Hitchcock Classic Collection Volume 2 4K box which I succumbed to in a sale, of which Shadow of a Doubt was my first watch (there’s a few films in that set that I’ve never seen). Regards sales, I did (so far, anyway) manage to avoid buying the similarly-reduced 4K set of The Godfather; I know I will buy it someday, its as inevitable as MCU movies getting worse but… double/triple dipping? I think I had those films on VHS for goodness sake. Its a case of the price reducing enough to make it feel less of a guilty purchase (bit like that 4K of Heat that I’ve also avoided). Some of those 4K Kino titles, most notably Touch of Evil, are waiting to be watched.  Likewise the BFI’s Blu-ray of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been waiting for too long. And that The Third Man Blu-ray….  The only thing worse than having discs not yet watched is seeing them being reduced for less than I paid for them, it just adds insult to injury. Well, either that or seeing an unwatched Blu-ray now being re-released on a 4K UHD. That hurts.

Heeeerrre’s Uncle Charlie!

doubt1Shadow of a Doubt, 1943, 108 mins, 4K UHD

Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt takes place in 1940s Santa Rosa, a leafy town that seems the very definition of Americana – its the America of Twilight Zone‘s Walking Distance, or Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Its decent, law-abiding folk who all know each other’s names, its lush lawns, rocking chairs on sun-sheltered porches, gleaming cars, a town library that stays open until nine p.m., police that don’t need guns. Maybe this community of decency and calm never really existed- David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks both suggested dark secrets hidden behind that entertainment-industry façade of American suburbia, but surprise, surprise, it would seem Alfred Hitchcock got there decades before, albeit Hitch was much more reserved than the subversive Lynch would later be.

Into the perfect American Dream of Santa Rosa arrives Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), visiting his elder sister’s family, the Newtons, for the first time in many years. His niece Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Theresa Wright) is bored with her perfect quiet life with her parents and younger brother and sister, and finds her well-travelled, charming and world-savvy uncle as exciting as she hoped him to be. She sees a kindred spirit sharing her wayward desire for adventure, but slowly as events unfold she begins to wonder if they are really alike at all, and what might lie behind some of his occasionally odd behaviour. Wright is really excellent here; she rather reminded me of Donna Reed, a pretty, wholesome American gal: she’s charming and quite captivating but also handles her descent into terror very well; if Charlotte had allowed herself to become seduced by her uncles’ darkness I can imagine she’d be quite compelling as a corrupted dark angel. Curiously Wright is a brunette, Hitchcock perhaps not yet succumbing to his later fascination with blondes.

Shadow of a Doubt has all sorts of subtext. In some ways its as simple as the snake in the garden of Eden, innocence tempted by the corruption of evil, or an example of American goodness being betrayed by the enemy within, a common theme of many film noir during the war and the Red Menace scares of the 1950s. Hitchcock, of course, loved the idea of hidden evil and danger -and its easy to discern in Uncle Charlie a prototype for mild-looking Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho. Indeed, Joseph Cotten is so good in this film he rather overshadows Perkins in that later film; ultimately, Bates was explained away as being crazy, but Uncle Charlie is calm, self-assured evil, and feels more real, more genuine.

doubt2There is always something clearly ‘off’ regards Uncle Charlie, right from when we first see him resignedly relaxing in an lodging house whilst being watched/hunted by two mysterious men. He smartly evades their pursuit and flees to Santa Rosa, but what has he done, who are these pursuers? One might suspect that he is innocent, threatened by criminals, but there is that shade of darkness about him that suggests otherwise. Once in his sisters home he charms the family and indeed the Santa Rosa community at large, but there is an undercurrent of mockery in his manner, which his niece quickly picks up on but initially assumes is the wisdom of his experience living in that big, exciting world outside that which she knows. Hitchcock seems to revel in wising the young girl to the reality of the world beyond the American Dream : “You’re a sleepwalker, blind,” Cotten tells her. “How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something!” It could be a speech from one of Lynch’s films, or a manifesto for America to wake up to the Nazi menace in Europe.

Cotten is excellent- his natural persona is that of a good guy, similar to that of someone from our own era like Tom Hanks, so it is doubly unnerving to sense the darkness behind the disarming smile and twinkling eyes. I’m rather surprised he didn’t become an Hitchcock regular; I think Hitchcock loved bad guys who could be your neighbour, and Cotten serves that to a tee.

And of course typical of Hitchcock, there are nice, self-aware touches in Shadow of a Doubt, such  Charlotte’s father Joseph’s conversations with his best friend and neighbour Herbie, who shares his love of lurid detective and crime pulps/novels and their conversations about the best ways to murder someone, both ignorant of a murderer living under Joseph’s own roof.

I really enjoyed Shadow of a Doubt– while it isn’t amongst Hitchcock’s very best films (its far removed from work like Vertigo), I’m not entirely surprised to have later discovered that it was said to be Hitchcock’s personal favourite. There is certainly a great cast playing well-defined and entertaining characters, a sharp script, some wonderful cinematography (literally there are shadows everywhere); in its own way, its a perfect little movie, and if it feels dated, that’s maybe because of the world we are living in.

Of course one of its biggest draws must be its magical visualisation of  the American Dream and that idyllic America that may or may not have actually existed outside of Bradbury’s fictional Green Town, Illinois. If it did actually exist, then this film is a potent picture of a paradise lost, and leaves me wondering what Lynch’s Twin Peaks might have been like had he considered giving it a period setting. But in any case, I can easily see what so appealed to Hitchcock about it, and can imagine that back when the film originally played in 1943, it could have seemed rather scandalous to many.

How many film producers does it take to change a light bulb (or ruin a movie)?

nitehuntr1Night Hunter, 2018, 98 mins, Amazon Prime

I think I may be done with ‘new’, or modern-day, movies, and that I should possibly retreat to those 1940s- 1970s films made when, you know, they knew how to make films. Film-makers today, they just don’t know when to stop with all the nonsense. Why can’t they stop the faster, louder, darker, edgier, the whole more, more, more bullshit that infects what passes for film today, I’m just so tired of it. Even if a film seems to have an interesting premise, with a decent cast etc, the guys writing and producing it just can’t help but ruin it, so lost in the entertainment industry maze of more shocks, more twists and surprises as if that’s the only way to hold viewer attention. In this case, the once-promising opening degenerating into something that gets sillier and sillier. Its like they are perpetually terrified of viewers reaching for the channel button on the remote, or believe viewers won’t stay for an honest to goodness drama without regular, hysterical twists of fate.

Tonight we had the choice of a 1940s Hitchcock film I’d never seen, or this. I was attracted by the cast -Henry Cavill, Ben Kingsley, Stanley Tucci, Alexandra Daddario… sure, there was a time that a cast list like that might promise some kind of quality, but those days are long gone. Thespians gotta eat, or pay for that new sports car, so a gigs a gig, I get it. Anyway, we were tired, long day after a long weekend, I figured save the Hitchcock for a day when I’m sharper, and maybe that was the right choice – but really, it doesn’t feel that way right now.

So Night Hunter is about a serial killer, a devious and ultra-intelligent abductor and rapist of women who has been operating for years- Hannibal Lector with a twisted sex drive, basically, who outwits and surprises a police department at every turn – its Silence of the Lambs by way of Seven, but as usual these days it isn’t enough to just rip-off better movies, the film-makers instead have to do it bigger, louder, darker. Consequently there are plot-holes galore, leaps of logic glossed over in an instant, bizarre twists so out of left-field its like they come from an entirely different movie. The final twist/revelation is so preposterous it leaves a massive credibility hole in what passed for the plot that it beggars belief.

I counted thirty producer credits at the end of this movie. Thirty. That’s thirty pieces of the production budget spread across thirty voices, thirty different opinions. I’m not sure there were that many speaking parts in the whole bloody film. How the hell does it take thirty producers to make a movie? Is that how films are made these days? How can it possibly not end in a film that is such a mess as this one?

Supersly

samaritan1Samaritan, 2022, 102 mins, Amazon Prime

There’s so many films being made (mostly for streaming, it seems, albeit they might only end up there because they are SO bad that cinema releases are pointless), alongside so many TV shows, that we really are reaching some critical point of crisis as the talent pool (I’m using the term ‘talent’ charitably) is stretched woefully thin. There was a reason Star Wars films only appeared every three years, and why superhero films were rare, and why there used to be one ‘great’ sci-fi show airing on television at any one time, barring the heady days of, say, late ST:TNG seasons airing at the same time as Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. In the case of films, there were only a handful of effects houses (ILM, EEG, Dream Quest) capable of producing high-quality visual effects back in the optical compositing days. The talent producing these films were the best, as the adage quality rises to the top held firm, and while ‘serious’ actors tended to still veer away from genre stuff, the z-list acting pool tended to be side-lined to the straight-to-video/cable television horrors.

Not so today. The talent pool has been stretched so thin by all the productions ensuring Netflix and Disney+ have plenty of new content to keep their subscriber bases steadily increasing (we’ll see how that goes) that there are, frankly, people making and starring in films and television shows who are simply not up to the job. Unfortunately of course, there’s also the feeling that too many geeks have been let loose in the film-making playpen, so much stuff now just so much fan-service.

Well, that’s my theory to explain films like Samaritan. The bumbling efforts of DC (Joss Whedon’s Justice League etc) and the recent output of the MCU (Spiderman: No Way Home and the rest of Phase 4 that I haven’t seen) pale into insignificance as Sylvester Stallone stars in a contender for worst superhero film of the millennium. Its uncanny how bad so many films are of late, and this one’s up there with the worst: the fact that I have seen so many positive reviews for Samaritan just intimates that the critical writing pool is stretched a bit thin now too, but hey, that’s social media for you.

As usual, the script betrays the writer’s/producer’s DVD collection, being a lazy rethread of better movies (in this case most obviously Unbreakable and others). Can’t anyone write anything original anymore? Watching films these days generally involves startling moments of deja-vu, and such lazily-written and mapped-out plotlines that twists are telegraphed way ahead: in this case of Samaritan, there’s a major twist late on that I predicted about ten minutes in. Writers these days seem incapable of surprises, they haven’t got it in them, so indebted are they to those DVD films on the shelf and hamstrung by a lack of imagination.

Or maybe we’ve just all seen too many genre movies. Maybe the reason why there seems nothing new under the sun is simply that its all been done. Its tired-out. We’ve seen the bright, hopeful classic stuff (Richard Donner’s Superman, Sam Raimi’s Spiderman), the darker, edgier stuff (anything with Zack Snyder’s name on it) and we’ve seen the adult, ultra-violent stuff (The Boys etc). With nowhere to go, projects look for ever-more obscure comics inspiration, or to retread those DVD favourites.

Samaritan is horrible. It almost feels like it should have been titled The Last Action Superhero, complete as it is with an irritating child character, Sam, a big fan of a superhero Samaritan, who disappeared twenty years ago following a climactic battle with his arch-enemy (and brother) Nemesis, the two of them having believed to have perished in a fiery explosion. Granite City (a poor-mans Gotham) is now under threat from rising lawlessness and anarchy, and thirteen-year old Sam, who believes Mr Smith (no, seriously) a refuse collector who just happens to live across the way in the same apartment building as he does, is Samaritan in hiding, hoping he can convince his hero to step up and save the day.

Sylvester Stallone seems to have a penchant for reluctant heroes who spend the majority of films delaying their inevitable violent validation. So many of his films seem to tease the fan-service heroics that are obviously coming. Mind, he is, what 76 years old now? Seems reasonable he can’t keep up the crazy stunts etc throughout his films anymore. But everyone knows the drill; keep up the baiting by bad guys, Sly turning the other cheek, show the good guys suffering, maintain Sly’s reticence to step up and beat the shit out of every piece of scum onscreen, always with the knowledge that its coming as obvious as night follows day. I don’t know how many bad guys Sly manages to burn, maim, cripple, kill, dismember or blow up in the carnage that Samaritan ends with, but its surely close to triple figures. I remember when those kind of numbers were questioned in the press by our moral guardians, but that’s by the by now. What’s most alarming is just how boring all that carnage is.

James Mason’s finest hour?

odd1Its always something of a surprise and marvel, that I still get to see for the first time so many ‘old’ movies that turn out to be very, very special- but markedly, how many of them are titles that I had simply never heard of before (which raises the question, what keeps them so secret?). Case in point- I finally watched Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out last night. I only learned of the very existence of the film from watching one of the special features on Indicator’s The Reckless Moment Blu-ray back in January. The Reckless Moment is one of my favourite films that I have seen this year and, as I wrote back at the time, its curious how one film leads to another- one of the docs on Indicators disc featured a clip of Odd Man Out which looked sufficiently intriguing to get me immediately ordering a copy of Network’s Blu-ray. But I hadn’t watched it until now.

I only just realised the reason why it took so long, and with it there’s a sudden appreciation of a before and an after. I think back to when I first watched The Reckless Moment and soon after ordered a copy of Odd Man Out and it seems like I was someone else,  something from another life. Which it really was: my Dad was still around, back then; it was just before the nightmarish whirlpool of events in February and March that led to the passing of my Dad, and all that has happened afterwards. Goodness knows what it will be like rewatching any of the films I watched back then, before everything that happened. Films have a way of becoming markers of time- when I first saw Jaws, say, or Alien…. I often mark the passing of years by the release dates of movies I watched, back at the time. Sadly, that’s for both good and bad, and this was one film caught up in that horrible period and which drifted out of sight and onto the shelf for a few months, waiting unseen.

Well, turns out that Odd Man Out is pretty extraordinary for reasons I don’t really have opportunity to dwell on here just yet. I’ll give the film a ‘proper’ review later, but suffice to say I was utterly amazed – quite devastated, in all honesty, by its ending. The cinematography, the locations, the script, the casting… what an amazing roster of character actors with such vivid, memorable faces, many of which looked life-worn and real in ways modern productions could never hope to match. There felt a kind of indisputable truth to it, even though the film overall had the sense of being more parable than drama, a rather adult fairy tale of one mans last few hours on Earth. There’s nothing particularly seasonal regards the film, but the later sections as the night takes hold and snow starts to fall nonetheless lent the film a feel of a Christmas Noir- a noir twist on Frank Capra’s Its A Wonderful Life, perhaps.

Was James Mason ever better? I don’t think so; his is an extraordinary performance, considering the limitations, physically, that the film put upon him. But the question lingers on- how do films such as this remain hidden for so long, so completely that I had never heard of it until at the beginning of this year? I’m sure that its well-regarded and popular amongst everyone that has seen it and its more a question of my own ignorance I suppose, but really, I can but hope that me posting about this film allows others to take heed and give it a punt. There are Great movies out there that I just haven’t had the pleasure of watching yet- its something rather life-affirming I suppose, so while when I think of this film and have feelings of regret regards the personal events that surround it, maybe there’s hope there, too.

On the trail of a complete and utter b—–d.

rogue1Rogue Agent, 2022, 115 mins, Netflix

Devastatingly handsome, smooth-talking bastard Robert Freegard (James Norton) is a bartender one minute, a car salesman the next, but the job’s are just a cover, as he’s really an MI5 spy. He recruits agents to assist him in his war against terrorists, following him around the country, sometimes falling in love with him, usually giving all their money to him. But he’s too good to be true, girls. He’s a fake. He’s a conman. This guy is the Hannibal Lecter of Tall Stories, a sociopath with a brilliant intellect, an uncanny ability to charm women, sleep with ’em and scam ’em-  utterly irredeemable. The T-1000 of smooth-talkers, the police cannot stop him. Only a woman can: Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), one of his victims who loses a fortune to him and then abandons her career as a lawyer in order to show the police how to do their job and bring Freegard down before further vulnerable women are conned by him.

There is a type of movie which… well, a type of movie that holds a certain philosophy, which is that all men are either bastards, or quite incompetent. This is one of those movies. To be fair, the bad guy is indeed a total utter bastard, and shockingly, its all based on a true story. But… well, you have to take everything with a wee pinch of salt. Rogue Agent is unfortunately blunt at times: especially with regards men being incompetent, whether it be a father giving away the family fortune in a vain attempt to help his wayward daughter, or a detective tasked with tracking Freegard down. When a film casts Clem Fandango from Toast of London (Shazad Latif) as a witless police detective who can only bring Freegard down through the help of Alice and another woman, FBI Special Agent Sandy Harland (Edwina Findley), well, while it may be a man’s world, its perhaps just as well that sisters are doing it for themselves.

I suppose it could almost qualify as a genre, maybe: just name any movie in which the men are useless and it takes a woman to save the day (hello, Disney/Marvel etc). Anyway, this is one of those movies, and they usually ruffle my feathers but in this case, I’m with the ladies. This ‘rogue agent’ is a complete and utter bastard. Based rather incredibly, as I have mentioned, on a true story, it concerns the antics of conman Robert Freegard, who posed as an MI5 agent to trick, coerce, kidnap, seduce and rob his victims who were usually -albeit not exclusively- female.

Its a great, stranger-then-fiction story that deserves a better film; Rogue Agent is nowhere near as sophisticated as it should be. Norton is very good as Freegard, albeit he’s inevitably more beautiful and masculine than the real Freegard was, but the film never tries to explain where he came from, or why he does what he does- he remains an enigma, unknowable. Likewise, Arterton is possibly ill-served by an underwritten character- again, a very beautiful person, the films only indication that she’s somehow vulnerable to Freegard’s antics is that she smokes a lot; I mean, that’s as sophisticated as it gets- we can tell she’s a little unhappy and susceptible to a mans attention because she smokes too much.

I appreciate I’ve possibly overdrawn the ‘beautiful characters’ angle, but really, for a film with such a bizarrely fantastical story, its a shame that it pushes over the edge of implausibility even further by making the two stars so pretty and, well, perfect. I can see why casting a guy who can be as smooth as James Bond might make his skills as a conman seem more plausible and its possibly sexist of me to suggest that Arterton is too gorgeous for the role, but when she dresses up for her first date with and she see a Bond Girl in the mirror… Agh. Maybe that’s just me.

So anyway, not a great film but not a bad one either, certainly worth a watch if only to experience the totally stranger-than-fiction story that will leave you quite incredulous, especially when you finally learn what happened to Freegard afterwards. Be careful out there, ladies.

Farewell Armageddon

ARMA1Armageddon, 1998, 150 mins, Streaming

Ah, but who am I kidding? The ‘Farewell….’ series of posts are about films which I believe I have watched for the last time (there’s only so much time, and so many films to watch, after all) but deep down I know I’m sure to return to this film again, someday (hell, it would probably only take a 4K UHD release to start me reaching for my wallet).  I KNOW that Armageddon is a terrible movie- its not a lot saner than Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall, which is what brought me to this one again, but certainly its a whole lot better than that disastrous disaster movie. What actually makes it a better movie is an interesting conundrum though. Is it the cast? The music? As far as scripts are concerned, both are incredibly silly, over the top spectacles that use big special effects to cover up all sorts of chasms of logic and scientific inaccuracy. One can feel self-respect and brain cells melting away with every minute of screen time. Its an endless marvel watching the actors earnestly spouting the cornball dialogue like their careers depended upon it – Steve Buscemi gets away lightly with what are probably the film’s best lines, but most everything Billy Bob Thornton utters during Armageddon is cringe-inducing, and Bruce Willis’ wry smirk seems to indicate he knows that he’s got worse movies/scripts coming.

While I shall likely (hopefully, even) never watch Moonfall again, I’ve probably watched Armageddon twelve times or more over the past twenty-plus years since I first watched it at the cinema, and parts of it more than that – I can’t help myself watching it if every time I stumble upon it screening on television, for instance, so I’ve seen the last half too many times to mention, probably. My routine excuse is that its so bad its good, like Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, another guilty favourite (although in that films case I can rationalise it as imagining it is the film Hammer might have made had that British studio still been making its horror films into the 1980s, which actually improves the experience no end).

A more interesting, certainly more fitting, comparison than Moonfall would possibly be between Armageddon and 1998’s other meteor impact film, Deep Impact, which seems to be on television just as often, if not more. Deep Impact is widely accepted as being the better film, even if its not the most re-watchable of them. Which maybe adds another question, regards what actually makes films re-watchable anyway. Maybe its just anticipating the cheesy moments, the clunky one-liners, the idiotic science, as if there’s some perverse pleasure in it. I do know there’s better movies I should be re-watching.

That all being said, for all I know someone out there, maybe LOTS of someones, rate Armageddon as their favourite movie of all time.  I’d love them to explain why.

Point Blank’s unreliable narrator

pointbcPoint Blank, 1967, 92 mins, Blu-ray

There is something very, very odd regards John Boorman’s crime drama Point Blank, mostly because it doesn’t make much sense at all. A (deliberately) disjointed prologue shows anti-hero Walker (Lee Marvin) being double-crossed by Mal Reece (John Vernon), shot at point blank range and  and left for dead in a cell in abandoned Alcatraz. We thereafter see Walker recover, wander as if in a daze around Alcatraz and then step into the waters of the bay to swim over to San Francisco. Its something frankly preposterous, especially for a man critically injured by gunshots.

Later, we see Walker half-undressed and he bears no scars of bullet-wounds at all. I commented to my wife regards this, questioning was it a continuity error, or a lack of attention to detail,  but I suppose all this leads to the question that has concerned viewers of the film for decades: did Walker actually die in that prison cell when he was shot, or perhaps did he drown in the bay? Is everything we witness post-shooting actually the fantasy of a dying man (I’m reminded of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, another film with an unreliable narrator, with many reading most of that film’s narrative as the opium- fuelled dream of Noodles (Robert de Niro)). Or instead is Walker, every time we see him after being shot, literally a vengeful ghost, the film a horror story dressed up as neo-noir? Indeed, a few times we see him advised/courted by Yost (Keenan Wyn) a mysterious character who weirdly drifts in and out of the proceedings; appearing and disappearing – we are led to believe he is a federal agent (at least, that was my first impression, Yost seeking Walker’s help in taking down ‘The Organisation’ protecting Reece) but Yost could perhaps be seen as a guardian Angel (or Demon?) guiding Walker on his path of supernatural revenge, feeding him information.

Its really a very peculiar film, quite disorientating even today- goodness knows what the response was back in 1967 (the film eventually proved a cult hit over the years and highly regarded but its odd structure and narrative concerned the studio and initial audiences). I’m pretty confident I’ll enjoy it more on subsequent viewings but this first time around, I was quite taken aback by its curious, almost Lynchian sense of time out of joint (some scenes are literally edited out of sequence, it seems) and being subject to an unreliable narrator who may be dead, or may be dreaming. I’m still not certain what to think. Its notable also just how, well, European-arthouse it looks, with all sorts of curious angles and camera set-ups that only intensify the sense of unreality that pervades the film.

There is definitely an impression that this is a film distinctly of its time- back when Old Hollywood, under the continuing threat of television, was changing into what would become the American Cinema of the 1970s, the rather auteur, sometimes quite radical movies such as Taxi Driver, Klute, The Exorcist, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now and so many others, before that itself began to transform into the corporate Hollywood we are living with today. Watching Point Blank‘s rather surreal narrative I found myself thinking of The Swimmer, released just a year later. Both are so strange one cannot imagine them being made the decade before or the decade after.

Point Blank was based on a book “Hunter” by Richard Stark that also served as inspiration for the Mel Gibson-starring Payback from 1999, a film I really enjoyed (especially in its directors Cut version)- Payback has a more routine, dare I say reliable, narrative and I really must get that Blu-ray out for a rewatch sometime soon. It will be fascinating to compare the two very different approaches to the same revenge story. I also find obvious similarities between Point Blank and Get Carter from 1971 that I watched a short time ago, another more routine revenge tale when compared to John Boorman’s film.

Artwork’s getting ugly- would you like to know more?

STARSHIP4KWell as if horrible remakes, reboots and wrecking favourite franchises isn’t bad enough (nervous glance towards Amazon’s LOTR show coming September), it seems the studios are letting the talentless cretins with those devils-own typewriters loose on creating the artwork for physical releases of old movies now- anyone would think they deliberately want to sabotage physical disc sales to further excuse the continued push towards streaming/eventual PPV. Its a conspiracy worthy of an X-File: you can imagine some suit in six months saying “we released this fan-favourite movie on disc and no-one bought it! Physical media is dead etc etc!”

Just look at this steelbook release of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers– surely one of the ugliest covers yet? You’d have to be a pretty hardcore fan to part with hard-earned for this. The unfortunate ‘twist’ for some will be that this re-release of an old 4K disc has Dolby Vision (the original ‘just’ has standard HDR10) which in theory could result in a better picture quality depending upon one’s set-up, but if a cover like this is intended to sway fans into a double-dip for said DV…. Well, I guess the hardcore could buy this and switch the disc into the case from the old release, maintain their self-respect that way…

lawrence4kIt seems that Blade Runner inexplicably NOT getting a physical re-release to celebrate its 40th Anniversary this year possibly has some consolation – at least we’re not getting some ugly art to pour salt on the wound of no new special features/all the cuts in 4K, no Dangerous Days doc finally in HD etc. 

Its like there is a parallel universe in the physical media community, in which Kino use original artwork for its covers and folks like Indicator likewise, with lovely books and packaging etc, and meanwhile the major studios are doing, er, THIS to some of the finest films ever made. I suppose the issue from their perspective is that some of these old, old favourites from those distant shores of the ancient 1980s/1990s (never mind the prehistory of the 1960s) is that they have been released several times over different formats and the artwork must be pretty tired by now. I don’t agree at all with that, I’m a huge fan of original artwork (I still grimace at that most recent release of Alien in 4K) but its clear that, whatever the boutique labels are doing, the studios have some problem these days with original artwork.