Who cares about the Avatar 2 trailer?

avatartooAvatar. That was that glossy sci-fi adventure movie with a paper-thin plot liberally borrowed from other books and movies that was really kind of silly. Technically impressive sure, but… Unobtanium? Unobtanium? Goodness, I’d tried to forget about that; I was SO close, and then this Avatar 2 trailer drops and… yeah, James Cameron pulls me back in.

Avatar. Er, yeah… that’s that James Cameron 3D epic that took the world by storm about twelve years back and was promptly forgotten. A bit like that “3D is the FUTURE!” nonsense- do they even make 3D televisions now, and how much damage did Hollywood’s rush to making 3D films do to blockbusters in general?  Avatar rather represents most everything bad about blockbuster movies today, in which the medium, whether it be 3D or Dolby Atmos or a gigantic Imax screen, is the message, rather than quality of drama or acting. Avatar took eye-candy to some whole new level, as if the setting -the alien world of Pandora- was a place to visit and experience in 3D (admittedly it was the best 3D I ever saw) and the only real reason to see the film. Divorced from the 3D and giant screen, the film has to rely on its script, its acting, and, er, that’s where it was found wanting, clearly. I have a copy of Avatar on Blu-ray… haven’t seen it in years. I haven’t even THOUGHT about Avatar in years. Can’t imagine many people have. I mean, it wasn’t like Star Wars or anything; Star Wars, when it became the biggest film of all time and entered the cultural consciousness, it was on tee-shirts and memorabilia and in books and comics and…  Avatar? That thing came and went, except that it did half of what Star Wars did, albeit the important half: it made lots of money.

In Hollywood, awards and critical plaudits are nice and all, but all they really care about is the money. Money talks, so Avatar is a pretty big deal. Outside of Hollywood, I’m not so sure, but in Hollywood, they care a bit less regards if a film is any good or not, as long as it makes gazillions of dollars, that’s where its at. And Avatar made a lot of money: $2.8 billion worldwide. That’s about as big as it gets until we start talking Marvel movies.

Doesn’t carry as much weight in my neck of the woods, mind; in my back room the Blu-ray is sitting on the shelf unwatched for years. I think that’s true of the collections of many film collectors and geeks and nerds (those two the same thing? I don’t know, maybe) and I don’t really think many people have been thinking about it or wishing to get more of Pandora in their lives, or that Unobtanium. I still can’t believe that Unobtanium nonsense, but I digress. I just don’t think people care.

I know James Cameron has spent the last twelve years or so not making movies. Well, not making movies that weren’t titled Avatar, because I think he has two or three of them coming out (or was it four?). I figured that was kind of sad, especially as it seemed to preclude him from signing-off on Blu-ray releases of The Abyss and True Lies, and derailed him making that Alita movie himself (a film whose failure possibly should have had him a bit worried about future Avatar movie prospects?). I mean, he’s off beavering away on more 3D CGI ‘movies’ (sorry MOVIES). and no-one cares, the darn king of the world doesn’t realise no-one cares about Avatar.

Or maybe not, maybe I’m wrong, because the trailer for Avatar 2 was revealed last week and it has at last count some 17 million views, which means somebody out there remembers Avatar, and is at least curious enough about it to watch the trailer. Who knows, maybe they are curious enough to don those 3D glasses again and pay top money to go watch it at the cinema this December. Maybe its going to be some kind of Second Coming.

But… but…

On the evidence of the new trailer for Avatar 2, the chief selling-point seems, depressingly, to be “look! Pandora is prettier than ever!” It doesn’t reveal much of the plot, but rather a sense of new places to see and ‘experience’ in 3D, i.e. more of the same, well, Avatar (except now some of the aliens are green). And the king of the world has spent the last decade making not one, not two, but three more of them? I may be wrong on that count, I never had much interest in Avatar sequels. I’m just wondering if I’m alone in that, and whether 17 million views of that trailer reveals I’m adrift of the cultural zeitgeist once again.

Casting kills Those That Wish Me Dead

Those That Wish Me Dead, 2021, 100 mins, Digital

Oh dear, I’ve copped another one. What you get out of Taylor Sheridan’s disappointing Those That Wish Me Dead mostly depends upon whether you can suspend your disbelief at the casting of the statuesque Angelina Jolie (and her make-up wizards) in the role of a death-baiting gorgeous wildfire firefighter haunted by a terrible guilt complex straight out of Cliffhanger. If, like me, you appreciate the eye-candy but scoff at what is patently ridiculous casting, then the film is sunk right from the start. Maybe the formidable pout of Angelina’s remarkable lips manages to distract one a little from the woefully generic script and surprisingly lacklustre fiery effects, maybe not, but if you’ve seen The Contract or pretty much any other thriller featuring ill-fated assassins hunting down quarry, you’ll think you’ve seen better films like this before, and you have.

Some kid’s dad has done the right thing and has gotten dangerous evidence that wrong-doers want him dead for, but which is oddly never explained – I mean, really, what’s dad done, what’s he found, what’s the evidence, who are the bad guys, what have they done, none of it is explained at all. So anyway, these faceless bad people hire a pair of mind-bogglingly inept killers – they cheat their way into one household, kill their targets but instead of slyly walking away leaving cops clueless they draw newscaster attention to their act by then immediately blowing the house up, said news items promptly alarming kid’s dad he’s next on the list. So kids dad decides its time his kid bunked off school and join him on a race into wild country and the safety of some freinds at a safety retreat, but our two bad guys have flown ahead and are waiting on the road. The trap goes awry, dad gets killed, but the kid goes on the run having pocketed the evidence and having seen the assassin’s faces, the chase is on. Just as well he bumps into death-daring death-wish-baiting unbalanced firefighter Angelina Jolie who can atone for previous failure (blames herself for the deaths of some kids the year before) by saving her new ward from the bad guys. I mean really, its that generic you’ll be rolling your eyes several times.

Formulaic and poorly staged as it is, its the casting that kills it. Angelina looks gorgeous even in her firefighter workwear which still somehow manages to show off her shapely butt and sports bra (really, don’t objectify her?) but I didn’t buy her in this for even a minute. Like the millionaire actors playing carnie bums in Nightmare Alley, this is casting which convinces no-one, surely and I have to wonder if its ever possible for some actors to function in films etc when their real-life fame eclipses their acting fame. Not that many others fair much better- Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, The Punisher, Baby Driver), Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones), alongside Angelina they all suffer from underwritten characters and predictable plotting. Maybe Taylor Sheridan thinks looking good and spouting witty one-liners is enough; well, maybe it is for a Marvel movie. In Sheridan’s defence this film is based on a book, so maybe I should point some blame towards that, but that being said, I can’t believe the book likely contained firecracker dialogue that screams this-might-be-crap-but-its-cool at me all the time, and did I really hear Angelina say “I’m lean, not skinny”? Ugh. I hate all this self-concious movie-cool nonsense (see also Copshop etc). I don’t think film-makers realise that we demand more from our movies than what typifies glossy generic Netflix Originals, and frankly, it may not be one, but Those That Wish Me Dead has Netflix Original all over it.

The Original Nightmare

NightmareAlley_grabs_0005_Layer 46.jpg

Nightmare Alley, 1947, 110 mins, Blu-ray

Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (although it feels better calling it Tyrone Power’s Nightmare Alley, as he owns the film, every scene he’s in) is like many films of its era, particularly those that are noir, an exercise in taut, efficient film-making. There is a lovely rhythm to it, the snappy dialogue that informs character and plot at the same time (without telegraphing anything, a neat trick), the brisk pacing, the way the scenes flow. No moment seems wasted. While the film is saddled with an unfortunate (likely studio-mandated) positive ending, it does everything up that last scene so well that its a forgivable cop-out; indeed, just stop the film before that very last scene and you’ve got a nigh-on perfect movie.  In comparison the 2021 version feels lazy, wasteful, padded, self-indulgent. It tells largely the same story but takes forty minutes longer, never earning it.

Sure, Del Toro’s film may be prettier, slicker, bigger, but it is so curiously badly staged compared to the original- I cannot fathom why, except to suspect that Del Toro became too seduced by noir’s visual qualities, losing himself in the image, the lighting, and failing to manage the storytelling, the narrative, becoming a slave of style over content. Sadly typical of so many films now.

Scenes like Stanton handing Pete the wrong, deadly drink by accident, and then his horror the next morning at what he’s done, is oddly confusing in the remake; is it supposed to be deliberate, if so why be so obtuse? It felt like shots were missing, it was so clumsily edited. Later, in the 1947 film, Molly’s appearance as the fake ghost out in the moonlit garden is spine-tingling, you can understand Ezra Grindle being absolutely convinced that its the dead returning to him- its bewitching and creepy, whereas in the remake the same scene is so lazily staged its almost to the level of perfunctory (Molly just walking up the path in the snow, whereas in the original there’s a sense of wonder- she’s walking between the trees, glimpsed for a moment then hidden, then caught in the moonlight, Grindle getting more enraptured at every glimpse).

nightmarealley47bThe most devastating difference between the two, and possibly the most alarming, is the quality of the cast and the acting. I think there is no performance in the 2021 film that is equal to the comparable performance in the 1947 film. Joan Blondell’s Zeena is more lively and motherly than the cardboard Toni Collette, Coleen Gray’s Molly is a far more enchantingly passionate innocent than Rooney Mara’s listless version. Helen Walker is absolutely convincing as Dr Lilith Ritter, an intellectual equal of Stanton Carlisle who outwits him with both smarts and charm, against whom Cate Blanchette suffers terribly in comparison, Blanchette all pose and style and no substance, her face literally becoming a mask.

I think similar things can be said regards all the cast: in the 1947 film, the actors have passion and conviction, in the 2021 film, they bluster and frown, largely lacking any real chemistry. Bradley Cooper invokes ‘Indiana Jones and the fun fair of Doom,’ more than Stanton Gate’s descent into Nightmare: in the 1947 film, Tyrone Power charms first, then horrifies as he becomes a heartless monster, before further descending into -literally- a physical monster when he is undone. His arc is the story of a guy who sees an opportunity but is eaten alive by it, whereas in the 2021 film, I’m not sure what Stanton’s arc is: but maybe its because Cooper can’t really convince as a bad guy, he can only do moody, as if that’s all his range. I’m surprised at this, he’s seemed pretty fine in most previous films I’ve seen him in but he seems out of his depth here, and it looks like Del Toro wasn’t helping.

The 1947 Nightmare Alley is a lean, brutally efficient tragedy of a man’s rise and subsequent fall, and a shining example of a time when films just told stories better. Its the one thing I’ve noticed in many of the noir b-movies I’ve watched this past year or two  their ability to be concise and effective in telling a narrative (and to be fair, Nightmare Alley is surprisingly ‘A’, its not a b-picture at all, its production values are obvious, clearly a sign of Tyrone Power’s clout).

Certainly, Nightmare Alley can seem dated at moments, like other films of its day maybe betrayed to some extent by the limitations of what censors would allow, but one can argue conversely that this is often one of their strengths; suggestion: we hear the geek eat a chicken, the sounds giving us a minds-eye picture more daunting than graphically seeing it as we do in the remake. There’s a lesson there which maybe current film-makers should heed.

How refreshing to see a film in which a man cannot be saved by the love of his woman (barring the films jarring coda). There is something genuinely quite haunting about this film as it gets under your skin; massively impressive for a film that is so obscure its arguable that it was buried by it studio, and one I hadn’t even heard of until the remake was announced. Well, at least some good came from that Del Toro film.

The crushing disappointment of Nightmare Alley

nightmare2021aNightmare Alley, 2021, 150 mins, 4K UHD

Well I guess the title of this post tells it all; Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a misfire, vastly inferior to the 1947 noir original. After seeing all those gushing reviews at the end of last year and all that talk of Oscar (whatever that really means) I finally watched this imported 4K disc and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Sure its pretty, that is typical of Guillermo, he’s a great visual stylist, but I was actually shocked how badly staged this film was- scenes that are disturbing in the 1947 original just seem staid and even confusing in this version, and the star-studded cast are left wasted, Guillermo unable to extract any interesting performances from them: they look like millionaire actors playing bums and are about as convincing. I usually like Bradley Cooper but he lacks sufficient intensity to pull this off, and now that I think about it, most of the cast seem unaware they are in a noir, their performances tuned for something else. So I was left at the movies end wondering had I seen the same movie as those adoring critics, had I missed something?

Is it as simple as the critics thinking Guillermo their new darling (after the over-rated The Shape of Water), who can do no wrong, or that they are largely ignorant of the superior 1947 original film demonstrating how it should have been done? This one is just too long, horribly paced and curiously uninvolving, considering that the original freaked me out and had me disturbed for weeks afterwards. The original was as much a horror film as it was a noir and like so many noir, briskly paced with no fat at all, like some runaway train pulling its despairing character to his doom. There’s no relentless nightmare down this particular alley, little sense of its character at the mercy of terrible fate, and none of the surprises of the original.

So I am left wondering, what film were those fawning critics watching? I cannot understand, for instance, how none of them seem bothered by some glaring continuity errors that seem rather odd for such a well-regarded film. One early one bothered me so much that it likely spoiled the film for me entirely, as my head kept on referring back to it thinking it would constitute something of a twist, eventually, but it was a twist that never came. The Carnival is taken down to be moved some twenty miles to join another carnival site, and soon after arriving there, the geek escapes and following a tense search in which Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) suffers a head injury mysteriously absent the next day, the geek is captured and returned to his cage- but this location/tent is the one they left behind at the previous site. They carnies have not had time to put up the tent etc or dig the pit, and it wouldn’t be so clearly identical if they had, right down to rows of formaldehyde jars and their grisly contents. It doesn’t make any sense, frankly, and in that way that continuity errors sometimes do, took me straight out of the movie, and I struggled to get back ‘into’ it.

So instead I’m just left with an urge to re-watch the 1947 original again and a pretty 4K coaster. I don’t know, maybe I need to muster the courage (and time, this thing is 150 minutes long) to give Guillermo’s film another try with lower expectations. But unless The Batman proves different next month, I fear this Nightmare Alley could likely be the biggest disappointment of the year.

At last (?) the Action Hero

actionheroThe Last Action Hero, 1993, 130 mins, Amazon Prime

Practically thirty years after its original release, I’ve finally gotten around to watching John McTiernan’s The Last Action Hero, a thoroughly peculiar film that maybe performs better today than it did back in 1993. Or maybe not. On one level the advantage of watching The Last Action Hero today is that it has now become, after close to thirty years, a nostalgia-fest for how action films and also television shows like The A-Team were back then. More than that, its a nostalgia-fest for a time when movies were projected on reels of film and the idea of a magic ticket pulling us into the screen has that analogue charm lost in these days of digital movies on hard drives: these days a film like this would conceivably be more something like Tron, a character pulled into a digital world. Where’s the romance in that?

At any rate, The Last Action Hero isn’t a very good film; its clearly something of a folly, one of those films that has too many cooks and a script that was still a draft or two away from being a good shooting script. Its always a wonder to me, the chaotic way some films get made, there’s definitely eerie echoes in The Last Action Hero of the ill-fated genesis of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the bizarre way studios mandate premiere dates that just can’t be possibly met. Here’s another film without a proper final cut, rushed into cinemas not properly finished or fine-tuned.

The real problem for The Last Action Hero is that’s practically two different movies itself. In one its a kid’s adventure film with a child becoming a part of one of Arnie’s onscreen adventures, a kind of wish-fulfilment for film lovers of all ages who would love to have that magic ticket to transport us to our favourite film universe, while in the other, its a self-knowing send-up of action movie tropes and movie violence. Its likely that if the film were made today it would be two movies- it seems a perfect premise for a Part One/ Part Two, the first film featuring the kid going into the movie world and the second film with the movie characters brought into our world. Doing both in one film leaves it pulling in two seperate directions, from which so many of the film’s problems arise.

In its movie in-jokes and self-aware humour, it does seem rather prescient, but I can’t decide if its references to other films/characters -cameos for Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct (1992)) and Robert Patrick’s T-1000 (Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)) amongst others- is either a reference to the conceits of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) or instead offering a glimpse of something like the multiverses becoming so popular these days in genre offerings. Are the in-movie mythologies referenced in The Last Action Hero an anticipation of how Matrix: Resurrections references earlier Matrix films, to the point of even projecting clips from them around on-screen characters, films within films? Or is it a prediction of the film multiverses such as we have seen in Spiderman: No Way Home which retcon earlier films/reboots into their narrative to such an extent that it actually becomes the narrative. Films are so meta now. They used to be just movies.

One of the eight million stories…

One of the most seductive aspects of Jules Dassin’s The Naked City is its extensive (and pioneering at the time) location shoot in New York during 1947. The film captures the hustle and bustle of the city, featuring New Yorkers travelling, shopping, working, attending their own concerns largely (and even entirely, thanks to hidden cameras) ignorant that a film was being shot. As a document of the time, the film is quite priceless, like a window into the past.

Moments catch my attention. Its like the film’s crime drama  narrative is an obstacle to the fascinating glimpse of the real lives, the real city. There is a scene early in the film in which Det. Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) walks a crowded street in search of clues to a murder. As he does so he almost stumbles over a dog being walked, and behind him we can see an attractive young woman walking in his same direction, screen right and after they cross the road (she reacts irritated by a car that gets too close to her) eventually passing out of shot screen left as Halloran enters a premises. I wonder who she is, who she was, what she was doing, where she was going, and what happened to her, what was her life. Impossible questions to answer. One of the untold eight million stories of this Naked City.

Not his Superman

superman78While reading through an old issue of Cinefantastique the other day (the Forbidden Planet double-issue, from Spring 1979, I assume) I came across a capsule review of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie which I hadn’t noticed before, and which, while I’m accustomed to the somewhat po-faced attitude of that mag’s editorials, quite took me aback. With due deference to its writer Robert Stewart, I quote the following:

“The film fails to explore the possibilities of having a new and modernized Superman tackle the real problems of the world in the late 1970s- assassinations, mass suicides, mindf–kers, famine, the CIA, sexism, racism, provocateurs, ageism, unemployment and economic collapse, corporate takeovers, bureaucratic  psychopaths, etc. Instead, he confronts villains not much different from those of the Batman television show…” 

My initial thoughts were that this guy probably loved Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: his review seems more a manifesto for Snyder’s films than anything to do with Richard Donner’s film (clearly Donner’s respectful approach to the original comicbooks went right over Mr Stewarts head). It’s one of those reviews which criticises a film more for what it is not, than what it is.

But it did set me thinking, which was probably the point of the review (so bravo, Mr Stewart, wherever you are now). I’ve noted elsewhere that I’ve really not been a fan of the recent Spiderman films and much of this -and it applies to all three ‘versions’ of the character, the Tobey Maguire films, the Andrew Garfield films and Tom Holland’s films- is simply that none of them have really captured what I loved as a kid growing up reading the 1960s/1970s Spiderman comics by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. They are perfectly fine films as they are (well, to varying degree anyway) but none of them capture the characters and mood/spirit of those comics, so its inevitable that, for me, they are lacking something. They are probably more faithful to the comics of the past twenty years (that I have never read, although I did read part of the J. Michael Straczynski run of Spiderman comics drawn by John Romita jr. which are likely indicative) which is fine, and I should maybe give them the benefit of the doubt there. But my question is, am I being fair? Is it a case though of me disliking films more for what they are not than what they are?

Well, not exactly. I do think there are very real issues with the various films; retconning bad guys to be more sympathetic victims of misfortune than genuine villains is one of my pet peeves, likewise I utterly detest all the various Spidey suits of the Tom Holland films, all that nano-tech/Iron Man rubbish, all that metal arms out the back etc that defy reason, physics and gravity. That’s not any kind of Spiderman I want,  just further evidence of the Marvel films increasingly playing fast and loose with comics canon etc (as far as I know, as it could be something featured in the comics, but I doubt it). Likewise some of the writing feels pretty dire, with some fairly shocking leaps of logic, but that’s something evident in much film and television now; the talent pool is pretty weak now because there is just so much content being produced across film/television streaming etc. And yeah, in defence of writers, maybe its all those producers and executive producers interfering with the material- some films and shows I see now have as many as twenty and more producer credits, and I often wonder if the time will come when the number of producer credits will outnumber that of the cast.

I won’t even watch The Eternals; Jack Kirby’s 1970s comicbooks are amongst my very favourites. They possibly haven’t aged very well in some ways, but they were so bold and imaginative, full of the Chariots of the Gods stuff that excited me so much as a kid and was quite popular in that decade. The film, from what I have seen of it in trailers, has nothing in common with those comicbooks other than name (to be more faithful to Kirby’s work, it surely should have looked and felt more akin to 2017s Thor: Ragnarok film, which really captured the feel of a Kirby strip). I do know Neil Gaiman wrote a reboot/continuation and suspect the film has more in common with that than original creator Jack Kirby’s opus but I may be giving the film too much credit even there. Maybe I’ll get to watch it eventually but certainly I have little if any interest in it; the film was made to be something else, not something faithful to the original comics, and that’s surely true of much current Marvel Studios output.

Which is true, indeed, of what Disney is doing with Star Wars. They are making Star Wars tv shows and movies that are increasingly removed from the original film trilogy I grew up with, and they are as much not ‘my Star Wars’ as anything Marvel Studios films and tv shows are- and the same is true of the current crop of Star Trek tv shows. That being said though, some of these shows, certainly the Star Trek stuff that I have watched, are really woeful, regardless of how ‘faithful’ they aren’t in spirit and subject. The second season of Star Trek: Picard is especially diabolically poor, an absolute nadir for the Star Trek franchise.

Mind, even Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have their fans, I suppose, although those viewers must be especially forgiving of terrible writing, huge plotholes, leaps of logic (and illogic). Indeed I think the shows are fundamentally unforgivable in how crass and stupid they are, and seem to have been written by soap opera and tv sitcom writers rather than anyone actually skilled or knowledgeable of both science fiction or indeed the particular franchise canon (I can’t help but feel this is largely true of the Star Wars and Marvel stuff too, and I don’t know if this is from laziness, ignorance or simply an intent to strike off to pastures new on the back of established IP).

Thank goodness Blade Runner 2049 was sincere and respectful of the original film and extended upon the 1982 original film’s themes and mood thoughtfully, rather than just go the other, easier way, instead making a film about with a Roy Batty Mk.II or an action-based film about a new Blade Runner battling Nexus 7 or Nexus 8 improved, nastier Replicants. After all, it could have been, easily- look how generic the Terminator films became. I may not live to see any more Blade Runner movies, but at least I don’t have to witness what happened with Alien, its Lovecraftian alien creatures turned into spacesuit wearing bald guys in Ridley Scott’s ill-judged Prometheus. The more I think back on Prometheus, the more it actually seems a story about Space Gods akin to Jack Kirby’s 1976 Eternals comics repurposed to fit within the Alien franchise in order to get made (I can well imagine Ridley wanting to make a high-concept Space Gods movie and having to sell it as an Alien movie in order to get it greenlit).

Which I suppose means I should remain absolutely fearful regards that Blade Runner tv series which Ridley is producing. Maybe my luck is going to run out; and certainly, I will feel much more aggrieved regards something spoiling my appreciation and adoration of the 1982 film than I am by some Spiderman film not really being the web-slinger that thrilled me when I was seven years old.

Recent Additions/ Capsule reviews

P1110251I’ve been weak, and succumbed to a few sale offers over the past several weeks, and there have also been a few disc releases of the films from last Autumn/Winter that I’d been waiting for.

Matrix Resurrections 4K UHD: A film of two halves, really, but my review can be found here.

Whiplash 4K UHD: I watched this on a rental a good while ago, when it absolutely terrified me. I don’t know why I’m putting myself through this again, except that the 4K disc was in a sale and yeah, it seemed like a great film last time around. We’ll see what I think if/when I can muster the courage for another anxiety trip…

Cliffhanger 4K UHD: A guilty favourite, my review can be found here.

Beverly Hills Cop 4K UHD: No, I don’t know what I was thinking. It was in a sale, I used to love the Axel F single back in the day (I have the 12″ in storage somewhere), I’d seen the film on a VHS rental. Once. Actually I quite enjoyed this disc, there must be something of a nostalgic pull from anything 1980s just lately. There’s a scene in a bar where a Prince song I didn’t know was playing on the soundtrack and it bugged the heck out of me until I learned from the credits that it was a Vanity 6 song (so yeah, Prince in all but name) but it only intensified that whole 1980s ‘thing’ running through this film. The hairstyles! The fashions! That Glenn Frey song!

Eddie Murphy was actually bearable back then. There’s a story about Eddie Murphy and Jack Lemmon on the Paramount backlot which I’ve probably mentioned before, so I won’t go on with it here unless someone wants me too…

West Side Story (2021) 4K UHD: I watched this a few nights ago; quite magnificent, I thought, and easily Spielberg’s best film in twenty years. I actually think there is something in Spielberg’s style, like his slow camera crawls into actor’s reaction shots, how staged his set-ups tend to be, how much he leans on John William’s music scores, that is wholly suited to musicals. I hope to give this a proper review post sometime, but yeah, I thought it was brilliant. The staging, the use of the camera, the art direction, the casting… I could imagine it winning all sorts of Oscars in a non-Covid universe in which this film made any money (shame Oscar seems to ignore a dud). It goes without saying that the music is sublime, I’ve always loved Robert Wise’s original film and have seen the show on the stage once (albeit something provincial) so it was a given I’d enjoy it, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Spider Man: No Way Home 4K UHD: Dude! Dude! Dude! Oh dear, the writing in this film… what, described somewhere as the best comicbook movie ever made? What? I’ll write a proper post about this film someday, but just an observation: there were a few times in the Lee/Ditko/Romita era comics that Peter Parker was revealed to be Spider-Man but those guys usually managed to write an elegant and imaginative way of Peter outwitting people and fixing things and maintain his secret identity. But the film Peter Parker shown here is some kind of selfish idiot or the films writers lacked the imagination and wit of 1960s comic writers/artists, because this film… maybe its cleverly undermining traditional super-hero tropes and the films actual uber-villain is Tom Holland’s Spidey himself. Or maybe I’m giving them way too much credit…

The Shawshank Redemption 4K UHD: I wasn’t going to do it. Its one of my favourite films (I was one of the few who saw it in the cinema when it came out, so hey, kudos to me) but the Blu-ray was fine. But sales. Bloody sales.

Ratatouille 4K UHD: My favourite Pixar movie, and a lovely feel-good film that I probably need now more than ever. I don’t expect any great leap over the Blu-ray, but it does seem I’m upgrading too many of my favourite films to 4K UHD, especially when the sales make it seem a reasonable decision rather than inherently dumb, which it really probably is.

Backdraft 4K UHD: Sales. Sales. Sales. Actually, I watched it a few nights ago and I quite enjoyed it. I’d actually forgotten Robert De Niro was even in it, its been so long since I’d last watched this (probably on DVD). It takes a few too many liberties with my intelligence with some of its heart-tugging silliness “Look at him… that’s my brother goddammit!” but it does look awfully good in 4K. I seem to recall it was this film that made me dislike Hans Zimmer scores for years, my goodness he never did do subtle.

Death on the Nile 4K UHD: Watched this on Saturday. Its quite inferior to the previous Murder on the Orient Express, from the pretty woefully miscast cast to the strangely uninvolving plot… and I’m not sure the virtual sets nonsense worked at all. I guess it was a deliberate stylistic choice but it left it feeling very… distractingly artificial? I can accept that in a Star Wars prequel with George playing with his toybox but a period murder mystery that could have been shot on location?

Nineteen Eighty-Four Blu-ray/DVD: Ah, the Peter Cushing one, that I’ve never seen but always wanted to. I’m only irritated by the fact that since this arrived in the post, Amazon has been repeatedly reducing the price of this thing. I hate it when that happens, especially when I haven’t seen it yet. See also too many other discs currently unwatched to mention, but still, its the principle of the thing.

The Proposition 4K UHD: Saw this on Sunday. Lengthy fawning post to sometime follow. Quite breathtakingly brilliant. One of those times that I blind-buy a physical disc release of a film I’d previously missed somehow and discover something quite excellent. Does this qualify as a Christmas movie? Was John Hurt ever better?

Brute Force/ Naked City (Blu-ray): I watched Brute Force last night. Brilliant film. They really don’t make ’em like they used to. I shall catch up with Naked City sometime soon. This was another sale buy that had me wondering why I hadn’t succumbed to its charms before. Arrow’s double-bill package is well designed (lovely hardcase box) with a fine book to pour over, bountiful extras; another great example of why I still love buying physical releases of old films. But its gotten me ordering Jules Dassin’s Rififi on Blu-ray, further proof that it gets expensive sometimes as one film leads to another. Damn those trailers…

A peculiar tonic: The Out of Towners

outotThe Out of Towners, 1970, 101 mins, DVD

With everything that has been going on recently, my clear-out/review of books/discs etc has been put on hold, the garage still full of boxes. Occasionally I make an effort when I can focus on something but don’t have much heart in it.  Curiously though, yesterday glancing through one of the boxes of DVDs I noticed Arthur Hiller’s 1970 comedy The Out of Towners, starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. I’d forgotten that I even owned it, recently tempted by an Australian Blu-ray release from Imprint… I hate forgetting that I had the film on disc, even an old DVD; I never used to forget that kind of stuff. Either my memory is going, or I just have too many discs: cue Orson Welles impression: what curio lurks in the remotest corners of all those boxes?

Yesterday I had to register my dad’s death, having finally been notified that the hospital had emailed the certificate of death to the district registry office. As I’m his eldest son it seemed right that it fell to me, and as my mom wasn’t up to it, one of my brothers went along with me. Seeing my name printed on my dad’s final death certificate as ‘informant’ looks…. horrible, frankly, as is the finality of my dad’s life (birth date, date of death etc) just summarised like that, like a book being closed, too soon.

So not the best of days; and last night caught mid-evening with a few hours clear after walking Eddie, I recalled noticing the Out of Towners DVD and suggested putting it on. Films are inevitably subject to mood and I’ve been caught a few times over the past few weeks at a loss for what to watch; what’s safe, what isn’t (clearly Field of Dreams is out of bounds for some time yet). I figured a Neil Simon comedy from 1970 starring one of my favourite actors would be harmless enough.

So the damnedest thing happened. When the film ended I suddenly realised that, for the space of a ninety minutes or so, I’d forgotten my woes, drifting off into a safer world. Movies can be an escape, and The Out of Towners proved a surprising tonic.

Its not, in all honesty, a particularly good movie. I know it was popular when it came out, but its never been a particular favourite of Jack Lemmon’s films for me. I much prefer the far superior The Prisoner of Second Avenue, another Neil Simon comedy with, oddly enough, similar locations (both set in New York) and themes.  I think The Out of Towners gets derailed by the increasingly farcical calamities it inflicts upon the husband and wife Lemmon/Dennis characters. Simon’s comedy works best in its sparkling dialogue, and subtly-observed character beats and observations, and The Out of Towners has less opportunity for this as it progresses and gets ever more manic.  Its not a bad film, but comparisons with The Prisoner of Second Avenue does it no favours at all. I simply adore Prisoner, its one of my very favourite films.

But The Out of Towners is safe; its harmless, silly fun and it certainly worked wonders for me: I guess its true, even an average/poor film can be the right film at the right time, its like some strange sorcery at work. I suppose if we could figure that out and we watched the right films at the right time, we’d all be happier even at the worst of times.

Linda Darnell, Noir’s Fallen Angel

lindadurnellnoirLinda Darnell, dark-haired, long-legged beauty who bewitches hungry men in Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel and anyone who has watched the film over the long years since. Sexy, sassy, fragile and doomed, she’s surely one of noir’s most memorable sirens. I met her for the first time just a few nights ago.

One of the (perhaps dubious) pleasures of watching old films, certainly those from the 1940s and 1950s, is when I see someone who grabs my attention and I wonder what other films they have been in. Sometimes it might be a face that seems familiar somehow from some other film, like Anne Revere in Fallen Angel. Sometimes it might be just be being struck by a performance (Ronald Lewis, or Laurie Zimmer for instance) or simply being taken aback by a woman’s beauty, as was the case of Gia Scala in The Garment Jungle. These are actors and their faces given some measure of immortality, and endless beauty, moments of their lives frozen in time on celluloid, with lives and careers that can be researched and reviewed in minutes, summarised in mere paragraphs. I’ve been here so many times before but its endlessly fascinating.

One sometimes forgets, in the ‘heat’ of being caught up in a thrilling or absorbing noir, that any given scene is something filmed, usually on a studio set, at a time incongruous to that being filmed- maybe its a Tuesday morning or a Friday afternoon, and when the director yells ‘cut’ everyone breaks and costumes are doffed and casual clothes are put on, Hollywood magic dispelled and real-life returned, whatever ‘real-life’ was back in 1944 or 1949, a reality as distant and foreign to us now as anything captured in Hollywood fantasy. Naturally working in Hollywood was rather more mundane than the magical spectacle the Hollywood spin-masters or tabloid gossip writers would have it, and careers harder and less care-free. Hollywood lives could be as noir as anything in its darkest thriller.

All these years later, of course, Hollywood and its denizens are like that of some other, alien planet. The music they listened to, the cars they drove, it’s not really something we can ever ‘know’ except, ironically, from the versions of that world that we see in those movies. We can’t ever really ‘know’ Linda Darnell, only glimpses through the filmography (fifty-six credits in films and television between 1939 and 1965) and the milestones of her personal life.

So Linda Darnell; born October 16th 1923, died April 10th, 1965, aged 41. Right there one is taken aback. That’s a young age, just twenty years after the film I’d just seen, Fallen Angel, in which she was just 21. It gets worse: in the tradition of all things noir, she didn’t die well: she died after being caught in a fire at a freinds apartment, painfully lingering for a few days having suffered horrific eighty-percent burns. Some accounts have it that a dropped cigarette on a downstairs sofa ignited the fire; one account claimed that Darnell was initially trapped upstairs but fire-fighters found her lying near the burning sofa. Its probably overly-dramatic hyperbole in accounts that describe her falling asleep on the sofa watching one of her old movies, reliving past glory before absently dropping a still-lit cigarette- that’s like something from that old Twilight Zone episode, or Sunset Boulevard, or a typically dark noir. A case of Hollywood life blurring into Hollywood myth?

It doesn’t get much better, the more I read. Her beginning was almost as noir as her end.  Born to parents who were not happily married, Linda Darnell (originally Monetta Eloyse Darnell) was one of four children (plus two from an earlier marriage) but she was evidently the prettiest- her mother Margaret ‘Pearl’ Brown was a failed actress herself and decided, like the darkest of noir mothers, to succeed vicariously through her daughter, pushing her into a modelling career and later into theatrical work at a very young age. Darnell said “Mother really shoved me along, spotting me in one contest after another. I had no great talent, and I didn’t want to be a movie star particularly, but Mother had always wanted it for herself, and I guess she attained it through me.” Pearl would later, unsurprisingly earn a bad rep in Hollywood for being pushy and domineering.

Marriages often offer a glimpse of a life beyond that captured by the camera: husbands were Paverell Marley (m.1943, div.1951), Phillip Liebmann (m.1954, div.1955) and Merle Robertson (m.1957, div. 1963). Three marriages, so very Hollywood: tempestuous affairs (Howard Hughes, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and numerous marriages spell a grim love-life to me (maybe I’ve never lived, but did Darnell live well?) Paverell was over twice Linda’s age; 42 to her 19, they’d eloped to Las Vegas. The second marriage was a loveless one, apparently- of all things, a business arrangement (a wealthy man’s trophy wife?) that proved a nightmare she couldn’t maintain, while at the divorce proceedings for her third marriage, Darnell accused her airline pilot husband of infidelity and fathering the baby of another actress. So love was something that didn’t go particularly well for her: an ironic price of beauty, perhaps?

Unsurprisingly, Darnell suffered from depression and alcoholism and a faltering film career full of what-if’s and maybes, finally released from her contract with 20th Century Fox in 1952 (just seven years after Fallen Angel). “Suppose you’d been earning $4,000 to $5,000 a week for years. Suddenly you were fired and no one would hire you at any figure remotely comparable to your previous salary. I thought in a little while I’d get offers from other studios, but not many came along. The only thing I knew how to do was be a movie star. No one expects to last forever in this business. You know that sooner or later the studio’s going to let you go. But who wants to be retired at twenty-nine?” she would later ruefully comment, aware there was likely little unusual regards her career. How many other beauties suffered a similar fate in the noir reality of  Hollywood’s dreamland? Well, not many of them are immortalised forever in something as memorable and iconic as her performance in Fallen Angel, certainly.