Stories from the shelf (Part One)

shelfoneEvery shelf tells a story. Here’s the top shelf of a corner unit that contains many of my film soundtracks collected over the years (mostly the ‘premium’ limited expansions that I largely had to import from America). It possibly says more about how my brain works than anything else, as I clearly tried to make it alphabetical, or something, starting therefore with John Barry and a few titles beginning with ‘A’ then going somewhat astray. Lower shelves in future instalments will be all Goldsmith and Horner and Williams and more, but I’m going to start from the top and work my way down, so we begin with John Barry.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Barry, but I know many film soundtrack lovers are absolutely convinced he’s brilliant and top of the pile. One soundtrack I didn’t squeeze in here and probably should have is his soundtrack for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which is probably my favourite of his (and my favourite Bond film, too). I suspect the reason why that expanded CD isn’t on this shelf is because I’m not actually sure where it is…

You may find a recurrent theme going on, where notable absences come to my mind for the same reason.  I’ve been buying too many CDs for so many years, and part of the reason why I put up some more shelving last summer was to put my favourite and most treasured discs in one place so I know where to find them (this years project is to do the same with my books but hey-ho we’ll see how THAT goes). Part of the problem is that, once a disc is ripped onto my laptop/external hard drive, I can then listen to it often but without going back to the CD, so that disc actually gets untouched for months, years…

Anyway, back to this shelf. And Barry. My issue with Barry is likely the same reason his devotees are so devoted. Barry had a knack of finding a ‘killer’ theme and therefore compilation albums of his soundtracks are often very successful, but unfortunately (from my point of view) this would also prove to be Barry’s weakness in his actual full scores, and certainly score expansions on CD. Barry would write a wonderful theme for a film and then he would use that for most of the score, reworking it and re-orchestrating it endlessly. His fans adore this, I’m sure. My personal mileage varies so I only have select albums, and one or two even then only because I bought them in sales.

lion1This criticism, by the way, is possibly actually unfair, certainly in the case of the first disc here, The Lion in Winter, a film I haven’t even seen but I was recommended the score and yeah, its a wonderful piece of work. Some people refer to it as Barry’s Christmas album and that rather fits: its in a medieval mode, with choir and pomp and majesty. It features, typical of Barry, some simply magnificent themes (‘Eleanor’s Arrival’ is quite gorgeous, the kind of music that as soon as you hear it you stop what you are doing and purely listen, enrapt, and frustratingly this is one of those times where Barry doesn’t then reuse the theme continuously so my argument regards Barry comes undone). This is possibly my second-favourite Barry score. It dates from 1968, so its almost as old as I am (its aged considerably better).

dances1Second on the shelf is his immensely popular Dances With Wolves soundtrack, here the two-disc expanded edition from La La Land Records (a label you’ll see plenty of here, alongside Intrada and the late, lamented FSM) which was released in 2015. Soundtracks are often like Blu-rays, they seem to get released on anniversaries, something marketing boys seem to be fascinated by which endlessly irritates me. Disc releases of films seem to be delayed years in order to tie into some 15th or 20th or 25th Anniversary (the higher that number goes the more scared I become when its one I recall seeing it at the cinema). An interesting piece of trivia: Dances With Wolves was originally supposed to be scored by Basil Poledouris (of Conan the Barbarian and most pertinently, Lonesome Dove fame), but he backed out of it in order to fulfil obligations to his friend John Milius regards his delayed Flight of the Intruder film. Wolves would have been Poledouris’ break-out score, conceivably changing his career completely and fans of Lonesome Dove can only wonder at what Poledouris might have conceived recording the score for Kevin Costner’s hit Western. Poledouris’ career slid downhill after that, and the bittersweet sting in the tale is that Intruder got pushed back six months so Poledouris could have scored both after all. Life can be cruel. But then again, I guess Barry’s fans hear that story and grit their teeth thinking that they almost missed out on one of Barry’s most popular scores. Its certainly got some wonderful emotive themes and was a big part of the films success. 

Barry’s smouldering, evocative score for Body Heat follows: Lawrence Kasdan’s wonderful neo-noir is a fantastic film truly elevated by Barry’s moody score. Its possibly too repetitive (this is FSMs 2-disc expansion with full score on disc one and Barry’s original album on disc two with an added near-thirty minutes of theme demos that wears thin) but its so atmospheric, its almost like a sultry, smoky score of summer heat, which is exactly what Barry was aiming at. 

kongAnother FSM disc follows- Barry’s score for the 1976 King Kong. Back in the early 1980s, the vinyl album of this was in the bargain bins of record stores and I picked up a copy (as I recall it came with a poster): I was always seduced by that films poster art that was actually promising some other movie entirely (not the poster which FSM used, by the way, as they obviously intended their 2-disc edition to stand out from the original which FSM had actually reissued on CD a few years earlier). I didn’t see the 1976 film until several years later, when much of the music would make more sense, but the film always fascinated me because a paperback of the making of the film was one of the first books I ever read and one that really fired my imagination about movies and the stories about the making of them. So while this King Kong was really a disaster movie for all the wrong reasons, I’ll always have some affection for it. This Kong has something so typically Barry- an absolute belter of a love theme, and it sounds fantastic in some of its variations here in expanded form. Some of the action music is quite jarring and atonal but the romantic sweep of the love theme is quite timeless, Barry just had a gift for melodies like that (see also Somewhere in Time, Raise the Titanic and so many others). I will also just say that the track Kong Hits the Big Apple was a big-band number that was much derided by my freinds and I back in the day when we listened to the vinyl album, and it hasn’t really aged well since, but hey, it was 1976.  

Then we come to Barry’s The Black Hole score. Again, this was one I had on vinyl and it really suffers from Barry’s habit of just repeating ad nauseam a theme over and over. The Black Hole was an ill-fit for Barry; I don’t think this kind of space adventure flick was really suited to him, it was really John Williams domain and to be fair, even a great like Jerry Goldsmith possibly struggled at that kind of thing (although Star Trek: The Motion Picture is absolutely magnificent, but more on that later, as that’s a story for another shelf). I recall that The Black Hole was one of, if not THE, first digital recordings of a major film score., because they made a big deal of it on the cover of the album and in adverts I read in Starlog at the time (1979). In that respect, it seemed more something of the future than the actual music did. Its no disaster but I remember buying this expanded CD edition more out of a sense of nostalgia than a love of the music, although it is a pretty cool main theme (the heroic action theme is diabolical though, that REALLY didn’t suit Barry- Star Wars theme it isn’t). In hindsight the case of The Black Hole, and Disney so clearly trying to mimic the appeal/success of Star Wars, is really kind of funny when you consider that they spent over $4 billion buying the thing from George Lucas decades later- if you can’t beat ’em, er, buy ’em, seems to be the lesson of that story).

abyssThis post is getting too long already so we’ll skip on past a few Barry discs I bought in sales in order to instead dwell on Alan Silvestri’s score for The Abyss, here the expanded Varese two-disc edition that was something of a Grail of mine. I’m not a big fan of Silvestri’s scores, but I always loved The Abyss, score and movie. 1989: summer of Batman, soundtracks like Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, Pet Semetary… soundtracks that were coming out on CD then, vinyl being a thing of the distant past. The Abyss was a suspenseful, dramatic and strange score, even if its Main Title owed an awful lot to the opening of James Horner’s Brainstorm. Temp music rearing its ugly head again, I suspect (I mean, that thing is a blatant rip).  

Back then I still bought soundtracks from shops, even though that seems something so long ago. I remember the Saturday I went into town and bought both The Abyss CD and Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels CD, listening to both of them late that night on headphones (Strange Angels has always been a personal favourite album, by the way, which is possibly why I remember that day so clearly- oh and two girls in the town who I think were trying to pick me and my mate Andy up, but I was too distracted (okay, ignorant) to pick up on it at the time, foolishly batting them off. I had odd priorities for a teenager back then and I placed nerdy concerns somewhere higher than girls).  

Varese’s original The Abyss album on CD was typical of the time, limited to about 40 or 50 minutes or so (which was pretty good, as many hovered around the 30-minute mark due to music union issues), certainly far from complete and missing some of the music I enjoyed in the film- so the deluxe version released in 2014 really was something special, so much so that I posted about it here at the time. A limited edition, as so many of these score expansions on disc are, I recently noticed this edition being up for sale at £150 on Amazon. Yikes. I dare say quite a few CDs on my shelves might be worth something now, or at least for as long as people have CD drives/players. 

how2Here’s where my filing of my CDs becomes a little eccentric. What follows on the shelf are a number of discs linked by the actor who stars in the particular films, rather than by the composer: Avanti!, The Apartment/The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce How To Murder Your Wife/Lord Love A Duck and Barefoot in the Park/The Odd Couple (regards those last two, the films in question are definitely NOT Lord Love A Duck or Barefoot in the Park, its just that those each feature scores for two films by Neal Hefti). The actor in question is of course Jack Lemmon, and these are films I absolutely adore, and they date from a period when film music was really quite wonderful, melodic and memorable: scores that are great, for great movies that star a great actor. The actual music is quite varied and the composers quite different in style, but generally seem to have great romantic themes that really soar: Carlo Rustichelli’s Avanti! is beautiful and timeless, and Neal Hefti’s How To Murder Your Wife has a love theme that just.. well, I fell in love with THAT theme back when I first saw the film many years ago, and it never ceases to amaze me that it ever came out on CD one day, and one that actually featured the full score as well as the original album on a second disc.  I think I was buying film soundtracks at a particularly fortuitous time: the last score for a Jack Lemmon film that I’m really holding out for is Prisoner of Second Avenue, another personal favourite film whose Blu-ray I can endlessly re-watch. Maybe one day.

silentNext disc on this shelf is Peter Schickele’s Silent Running. This is another CD that is pretty special to me. Douglas Trumbull’s film Silent Running has always been a particular favourite of mine and its ecological themes have only gotten more prescient as time has moved on, and Schickele’s score is one that sounds really quite unique: its very 1970s, featuring small orchestration with folk songs from Joan Baez that should really date it (maybe they do, but that only adds to the films strange charm). It was one of the films from which I recorded the music via tape deck and holding a microphone to the tinny tv speaker, and listened to the cassette with the music mixed with some dialogue and sound effects.

Many, many moons ago back in the 1980s I used to see the vinyl album in stores but I never bought it (pocket money never stretched that far), and when it went out of print I just thought it would turn up on CD someday (everything seemed to eventually), but it didn’t. I think the reason was that the master-tapes were lost or destroyed, so when Intrada finally released it on disc in 2016, it was actually a recording sourced from a pristine vinyl copy, and surprisingly, it sounds pretty damn fine.  Plenty good enough to me, considering I’d been pining for a release for decades at that point. Whenever I see this CD on the shelf I have a bit of a ‘pinch-me’ moment. 

doorostFinally, Marcelo Zarvos’ The Door in the Floor soundtrack: I love this music. Its one of those deeply emotional, rather dark and reflective scores… the film is a pretty bleak drama, really quite sad, being about the break-up of a marriage that being destroyed by the unbearable grief over the loss of two children in an accident (it stars Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger and Mimi Rogers and is really quite good). Its one of those cases where the music is as integral and important as any other part of the picture. In this respect its like Vangelis’ Blade Runner: the score is the soul of the movie. Zarvos’ score is such a powerful work of longing and regret; to me it works completely seperate from the film the music it was written for. I suspect many will have never heard it or seen the film (it dates back to 2004, incredibly).

Crikey, this one went on a bit. Might have to pause awhile before I get around to the next shelf: Horner!

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Yes I know, ‘G’ (for Goldsmith) comes before Horner but there is a method to my madness…

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Soul (2020)

soulThis was a beautiful film. It looked beautiful (even for Pixar, this computer imagery is quite remarkable), it sounded beautiful (an interesting Jazz-infused score from Jon Batiste contrasting with electronic doodling from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) with a captivating script that felt refreshingly adult, not pandering to the young tykes in the audience as much as it might have. My favourite Pixar film remains the quite sublime Ratatouille but Soul runs it a very close second. I was quite taken by this one, and its really such a pity that it didn’t get the theatrical release it deserved, Covid forcing it to be premiered on Disney+ (quite fittingly, I suppose, on Christmas Day). 

Thankfully Disney don’t seem to have nixed physical releases just yet (perhaps seeing it as a way to recoup some of the losses of missing a theatrical distribution, or to get its greedy fingers into the pockets of those of us not yet enticed by its streaming platform) so through this 4K UHD release I’ve finally been able to watch it. I’m sure this is a film I will be watching many times in the future, its really quite wonderful. I’m not entirely sure it sticks the landing, the finale feeling a little ‘off’, but maybe a repeat viewing will dispel any doubts. 

Curiously, I only watched director Pete Docter’s previous Pixar film, Inside Out  once and never returned to it. I was quite surprised to read my old review of Inside Out and find that I really enjoyed it, because my recollection of the film remains pretty vague now (well, it has been five years and countless films under the bridge since), so I was perhaps unfairly a little cautious about Soul. Having seen Inside Out only once perhaps I should watch it again (if only I can find my Blu-ray; five years has a way of burying discs in the unlikeliest of places). Maybe I’ll be posting a re-review here when I manage to find it – at the minute it seems a job for Indiana Jones; I hope I’m not alone in discs disappearing without trace, but at times I can be searching for a film for weeks if not longer. Sometimes they never turn up, but they are in this house SOMEWHERE.

parentadvWhen the credits came up for Soul and I reflected on just how wonderful a film it was, I had the most curious train of thought. Maybe it was the Jon Batiste music score and the warm feeling that the film had infused in me, but I began to think how sad it was that Pixar never worked with Prince on a project. No doubt Prince with his track record (Parent Advisory stickers anyone?) would forever negate any possibility of him teaming up with an outfit as homely as Pixar or Disney, but that explicit content stuff dates pretty way back and Prince had moved on from that in his later years. I just considered what an amazing talent Prince was, and what he might have done musically if afforded an opportunity to work with creatives like those at Pixar or Disney. Or maybe I’m just wondering what might have been, had Prince not been so… Prince, in his later years. Because clearly few musical artists could amaze and frustrate his fans quite as much as Prince often would.

Its possibly because I’ve been reading Neal Karlen’s book about Prince ‘This Thing Called Life, Prince’s Life On and Off the Record’ (which is a very good book by the way) that I had Prince in my head at the time. Its the only explanation I can offer at why such a curious fancy struck me at that moment.

Thanks partly to the vacuum left by Prince’s untimely passing and the music from his vault released over the years since, some fresh perspective has been afforded regards Prince’s prodigious talent, strangeness and failings. I’m sometimes not at all convinced Prince was entirely human, he seemed to be on some other level, like a Da Vinci or a Mozart or a Einstein, and that judging him like the rest of us is unfair (or maybe that’s just a way of letting him off the hook for often being such a jerk).

Karlen’s book is very balanced, the guy certainly knew him as well as most could ever hope to- marvelling at Prince’s talent and rueing those disturbing failings, suggesting that the same talent that made Prince so great perhaps also destroyed him. Prince was a musical savant that was perhaps tortured by that same genius (the size of that vault of unreleased music gradually leaking out an indication of how obsessed he was, particularly in the 1980s with so much great music pouring out of him). There’s a few parts of the book in which Prince remarks about all the voices in his head, the endless creativity at his peak that stopped him getting much sleep… that’s a blessing and a curse, surely. Of course Prince wouldn’t be the only superstar whose success divorced him increasingly from normal life until he became an oddity, a contradiction and almost a self-parody of earlier heights. How can such a genius be such an asshole, is the same as asking how can such a genius NOT be such an asshole?

I don’t know, it was possibly an errant and unwarranted trail of thought, but I just wondered, like a what-if, regards all the disparate talents out there that if combined… like Lennon and McCartney being so greater together in The Beatles than they ever were once separated, or how great a film like Blade Runner became with the timely combination of Scott, Trumbull, Vangelis and all those other talented creatives at their peak at just that moment in time. I just thought how great a visual/musical experience a Pixar film might have been with Prince’s involvement, had he been able to work within a creative team rather than just on his own. It might have been a horrible disaster. But it might have been great.

Which is of course nothing at all do with Pixar’s Soul, so I’ll stop this stream of unwarranted consciousness from harassing your sensibilities any longer. If you haven’t yet seen it, do watch Soul, its a wonderful film.

The increasingly curious journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter

Juno to JupiterThis may be more normal in the music industry than I expect, but the journey of Vangelis’ latest project continues to confound  (although referring it as ‘latest’ seems almost premature at this point- who knows, he may be releasing another album before Juno finally lands). Originally scheduled for digital release anytime between July and September last year, with a physical release a few months later in November, we’re still waiting. Well, some of us- a digital store inadvertently released the album in August over the weekend of the 7th, apparently in error. How they got hold of the music files (possibly a promotional copy?) could either be an interesting mystery or a mundane clerical error, but Decca and Vangelis’ team yelled foul and put a stop to it, citing an actual release date in September which never happened, nor later rumoured dates in December or January this year (including a vinyl release having an bonus track not on the digital or CD releases). Last week it transpired that even Amazon had gotten tired of the curious marketing dance, cancelling my CD pre-order.

I’ve been listening to the album since August, and its a great Vangelis album that everyone of his fans should be listening to, and I’m sure they will once they can actually buy it. I actually deleted the draft review I wrote up in September just in case I was the one jinxing it by some supernatural conjunction of the spheres (I’d written it hoping to post it on the albums release date, but hey, hope springs Eternal). I expect that Covid-related complications regards production might have something to do with it, as the Deluxe CD version is packaged with a book about the Juno mission, and its likely that its this book delaying things rather than something on the music side. I admit though to being curious after such a long delay as to whether Vangelis himself feels the inclination to revisit and revise the music in some way, but that’s surely a longshot (which would possibly mean those of us who purchased the digital version in August have something of a rarity).

So anyway, with no further rumoured release date in the air at all, we fans just need to wait awhile longer. But it is such a curious tale regards this release. Of course with everything going on in the world, there’s much more pressing things to get excited about, but Vangelis releases are so increasingly rare that we fans can only be more fascinated by Juno’s increasingly curious journey. I’ll post more news as it arises. There’s probably a major announcement due any day/week/month now. It does occur to me though, that it took the space probe five years from launch to eventually reach Jupiter, so who knows, maybe the maestro’s mirroring real-life space physics regards the journey-time of his album.  Isn’t that a sobering prospect.

I can only repeat its a fantastic album, and really, in all the years I’ve been buying Vangelis albums  I’ve known nothing quite like this (except, ominously, the ultimate no-show of the Polydor Blade Runner album advertised on that films end-credit crawl in 1982 that had me visiting record stores every week in vain).

 

Millennium Actress 4K UHD

mill2I’m actually worried to note that Satoshi Kon passed away in August 2010; I clearly remember being saddened and shocked by the news (he was only 46)- but it just really, really doesn’t seem that long ago. Time and memory plays tricks on us, certainly I can vouch for it becoming increasingly obvious as I get older that the years are falling by faster and faster. But how is it that Kon passed in 2010? How can it be more than a decade, now, already?

One of the reasons I remember it so clearly was how sudden it was, announced from out of nowhere and accompanied by a message from him, written shortly before his death and posted onto his blog. In May he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and had chosen to spend his last months at home. From the perspective of 2021 I am thinking of two things: how Kon’s final message being posted on his blog feels so very of our age, and how it foreshadowed how I felt when Prince died (and indeed David Bowie just a few months before Prince). I’m not comparing Kon to Prince or Bowie at all, its just how shocking someone’s passing can be when you fool yourself into thinking they will be around forever. But then again, we always seem to do that. We always think we have years, decades. I suppose the last several months we have all shared should have us thinking differently. We should be thinking that we can count on nothing, and should take nothing for granted.

So Millennium Actress, Kon’s love-letter to Japanese Cinema (and by extension, all Cinema), to lost loves and unrequited passions, arrived in the post from All the Anime last weekend. I hadn’t seen it in far too many years, so I watched it late on that Saturday night. I’m glad to report it remains as beautiful and poignant a film as I remembered and still as emotionally draining. Anybody who loves cinema, and haunted by the impermanence of memory, surely cannot fail to be captivated by this film.

mill1Revealing too much about the film would be very wrong of me, so I’ll keep a summary of the general plot quite brief: a film studio, Ginei Studios has become bankrupt, and its backlot and film stages are being demolished. A reporter, Genya Tachibana and his cameraman Kyoji Ida are visiting the home of the studio’s most famous and popular star, Chiyoko Fujiwara, an actress who retired from both acting and the public eye some thirty years ago. While his cameraman has no knowledge of Chiyoko or her ‘old’ films, an increasingly nervous Tachinana is full of awe at finally meeting his favourite star. When the actress greets them, Tachinana gifts her a present; Chiyoko opens the package to reveal a key that she lost many, many years ago. The key seems deeply important to her, and they start the interview, Chiyoko reminiscing about her life and her career and what the key means to her.

What follows is what makes the film so special and why it seems to have such a life of its own, and is also perfectly suited as an animated film- as Chiyoko tells her story, the film becomes a story within a story, the events of Chiyoko’s life interwoven with scenes and images from her films, and Tachinana and Ida caught up within them, inside the films and her memories. The film becomes almost surreal and Lynchian, as we are never sure what is ‘real’ and what is part of one of her films: instead, it all seems to be inexplicably, intricately linked, scenes not just being those that Tachinana remembers from watching his favourite films but also doubling for her own memories, the characters she is playing also being her, somehow. Even when we are watching what is clearly a scene from a film, it seems loaded with subtext for her own ‘real’ life. As if all the films she ever made represent her whole life, a kind of meta-reality frozen on celluloid.

The heart of the story is Chiyoko’s teenage encounter, before she ever became an actress, with a stranger being pursued by the authorities. She shelters him and she learns he is a painter and political activist- soon after the man disappears, leaving her a key as a token. This key symbolises her instant love for this man and her fervent hope that somehow, someday she will meet him again. Part of her drive to become an actress is to be famous enough that perhaps one of her films will reach this stranger so that he might return to her or contact her.

Kon made just four films, Millennium Actress was the second and seems to be rather in the shadow of his greatest popular success, the Hitchcockian thriller Perfect Blue, but I much prefer Millennium Actress. There’s a peculiar magic in it, and I am sure a part of it is just its love of movies, and of how magical and important films can be, how they can have a life all their own. Its also a love story, and like the best love stories, a rather sad one. Its true that the film derives its life-affirming message out of that sadness, which only makes it all the more special. Like all Kon’s films, Millennium Actress suggests that animated films can be as deeply rewarding as any live-action film and that there is much more to animation as an art form than popular Disney fairy-tales or Pixar adventures. There’s nothing wrong with Disney/Pixar films, but very often examples come along in anime that suggest animation can be greater; ‘Great’ even. Such is Millennium Actress.

mill3Regards the All the Anime 4K disc, I cannot really vouch for it to being anything astonishing but it is perfect, all the same. The film does not have any HDR applied which may seem odd but I can’t really say I noticed the lack- the film was never originally made with HDR in mind so it seems perfectly justifiable, to me, to not have it. I can understand why neon-drenched anime spectaculars like Akira possibly benefit from utilising HDR (funnily enough, fans obviously complained about that films HDR-less 4K release over here last year resulting in a recall/replacement) but something as intimate as Millennium Actress really doesn’t need it. The last time I watched the film was on DVD so I was impressed by the uptick in quality, but how much the 4K disc distinguishes itself from the standard Blu-ray that accompanies it I cannot say, as I have not seen any of that disc, and besides, my player/tv upscaling it to 4K rather the point or any chance I’d have anything worthwhile to note. One thing I will mention is the soundtrack; the audio on the 4K disc seemed particularly fine and the sublime music score by Susumo Hirasawa sounds wonderful. That score is fantastic and a huge part of the films success, and is its beating heart as surely as the music of Vangelis is that of Blade Runner. I imported the Millennium Actress  soundtrack on CD from Japan back in the day back when that kind of thing was difficult. A fine music score is a big part of a films success, and a films audio-visual experience a huge part of a films attraction to me. If I make a list of my favourite films, its a good bet they all have deeply involving and effective scores.

I watched the film in its original Japanese audio with English subs but there is an English dub if one prefers that. There’s a few nice extras; interviews with two of the Western dub cast and some of the Japanese film-makers who recall working with Kon. A commentary track would have been lovely but anime films aren’t renowned for being loaded with extras: the rights holders like to keep Western releases expensive and curtailed extras-wise in order to not encourage Japanese fans importing them.

Nothing ugly about this one

gbuostAbsolutely a surprise Christmas present for film score fans, Ennio Morricone’s classic score to the Sergio Leone western masterpiece The Good, The Bad and The Ugly has been announced by Quartet Records in the form of a 3-CD complete edition, following on from Quartet’s remaster of his 1982 score The Thing earlier this year. This western score is truly as iconic as its movie, instantly recognisable, back when film scores were Film Scores and intended to be noticed, front and centre of the film experience (the final stand-off practically an Operatic masterpiece that takes the film to some mythic level). This very surprising release looks magnificent- a dream come true for fans. Originally released as a standard 34-minute vinyl back in the day, and later expanded to a 55-minute CD that seemed to be the best anyone could possibly hope for (and a CD I bought some years ago) this edition is clearly definitive: the full score and alternates over the first two discs and the original vinyl edition (a re-recording I believe, as many soundtrack albums were back then) in stereo on the third disc, fully remastered. Pretty amazing news, and a fantastic release to close out the year with. Now that I think about it, it might be time to dig out my Blu-ray of the film for a watch over Christmas: they don’t make ’em like they used to, and no-one ever wrote film scores like Morricone.  

A Hidden Life Revealed

hiddenTerrence Malick’s  latest work, A Hidden Life, is a beautiful-looking film, but of course that is the norm for films from Malick, and it is also very long, again, the norm for Malick. Its musical score is utterly sublime in how it matches those striking images; sometimes original score (this time by new collaborator James Newton Howard) and often classical pieces, all, again, the norm for Malick. It also has monologues usually in breathy voiceovers accompanying that captivating imagery – again, the norm for Malick, but here, notably, they are fewer, sparser, less intrusive than in some of his films of late.

It is, without doubt, his best film since The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line, having slipped into self-indulgence of late with recent films, succumbing to his own worst excesses. A Hidden Life may not be his best, but its certainly a return to form. Its certainly got a lot to do with the fact that this is his first film in many years to have a traditional, linear narrative. I’m sure critics will point out, possibly quite rightly, that the film would be just as good minus a third of its running time- I’m a fan of his work (both The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life are among my favourite films) and even I would appreciate some keener editing,  but hey, if its the price we pay for getting films such as this (essentially extended Directors Cuts minus the usually obligatory truncated theatrical cuts most directors are mandated to initially sanction) then so be it.

A curious note regards the title; A Hidden Life is true of the film itself- as is becoming increasingly so with Malick’s films, no doubt due to financing and distribution deals, the film has been awfully hard to see over here in the UK, not getting much of a theatrical release and only a belated release on digital platforms, forgoing any physical release on disc at all, as far as I can see, which is why I have had to wait until now, with it eventually airing on Sky Cinema. There is something clearly wrong with this world when Malick’s beautiful movies do not automatically get released on 4K UHD; some of his films could sell the format but remain utterly absent (I’d noted a digital 4K release on Amazon but, well, I’m old-fashioned and stubborn enough in my preference for physical releases to vote with my wallet).

My only issue with the film, really, is one the film can hardly be condemned for, as it more concerns the real events that it is based upon: the film is the story of  Franz Jägerstatter (August Diehl) who was an Austrian conscientious objector during the Second World War who, refusing to take the Hitler oath as a Wehrmacht conscript, was executed in 1943. His stand as a conscientious objector to Hitler’s rule was condemned in his own village, his family vilified, and his name forgotten until a researcher stumbled upon his story in the 1960s. Its a noble and uplifting story and I feel guilty complaining about it- its just that, for me, the film didn’t really get me ‘into’  Jägerstatter’s head, so to speak- a devout Catholic, it was primarily his religious convictions that formed the backbone of his defiance, which I couldn’t really accept. I was just frustrated that he could make his stand and risk the endangerment and safety of his wife and three daughters (indeed their suffering continued long after his was over) and I could never reconcile his ability to do that to his family in the name of his moral stand, no matter how righteous its may be deemed to be.

That is, clearly, more of an issue with my own point of view than the film itself and its true that the films narrative does raise the issue of his family’s trials back home while he was in prison; its perhaps my own religious conviction being rather more suspect, my own sense of moral code proving dubious.

Its a point made by a painter during the film, who is painting religious iconography and murals within a church, the artist casting doubt on how beatific it is compared to the likely realities behind them, and how churchgoers themselves may have acted in the events: “I help people look up from those pews and dream,” he says. “They look up and they imagine that if they lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did.” Perhaps what Malick is doing is asking what we would do in Jägerstatter’s position: to me the truth is that there were no absolutes, and that I would have thought more of my family than my moral convictions and would certainly have signed on that dotted line that would have spared him. In all likelihood, the Catholic church is well on the way to making Jägerstatter a Saint someday soon, but some viewers might see him as something of a stubborn fool who abandoned his wife and children. Malick should perhaps be commended for keeping such ambiguities, if so intended, but it does leave the film, for me at least, one with a frustrating core.

Quartet Triptych

Got to hand it to the team at Quartet, the art direction on their OST releases is pretty outstanding, particularly their horror scores. Just look at this trio of classics that the label has released over the past several months: each one is a re-release of an old album that came out when the films originally came out (all but The Thing expanded), but now afforded artwork far superior to their original releases, certainly on CD. Each one has generally returned to the  monochromatic artwork of their original movie posters, accompanied by better typography and original logo artwork, proportions resized for the CD format but I’m sure they would look great on full-size vinyl editions. 

Jacob’s Ladder has only just been released, to coincide with that films 30th anniversary, a milestone which is as terrifying as anything in the movie: couple that to Ghost Story being 39 years old, and The Thing 38 years old… that Quartet Triptych is really horrifying, just looking at it. Its so sobering to realise what used to be so ‘new’ is now actually quite ‘old’, although what that suggests regards my reflection in the mirror this morning… oh well. At least these lovely covers make the soundtracks look new again, my reflection being something else entirely.

Vangelis’ incomplete Juno to Jupiter

Incomplete? Well there’s a twist for those of us who bought the download back in August. The saga of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter continues, with various updates suggesting release dates in October or even December- and a tracklist with an additional track at the close of the album, entitled Cosmos Autopator, which is either a vinyl-exclusive bonus track (God I hope not) or an addition to the album which was erroneously sold in August and which perhaps caused the delay in the first place (can you imagine Vangelis’ team screaming at Decca “You’re missing a final track!”). The cynic in me might suggest that Vangelis or his team decided to revise the track listing to ensure those who bought the album in August will need to buy it again when it eventually comes, but hey, we would anyway, right? Fans want their physical copy on CD or vinyl. Actually I think an additional track would prove a welcome bonus. Oh well, the strange journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter continues to confound, and I keep on holding fire on my review.

The Hand of Night (1968)

hand1Frederic Goode’s The Hand of Night is a particularly peculiar horror film, horrifyingly tedious, appallingly directed with utterly woeful acting, but somehow fascinating. Whilst trawling through the Talking Pictures schedules these past few months I appreciate that I’ve seen some really obscure films that I would otherwise not ever had the opportunity (or misfortune) to see, and The Hand of Night is one of the best/worst examples of this.

Its also an example of how we film fans can get caught out by movie-connections, usually attracted to films by the cast- in this case, the only reason why The Hand of Night caught my eye for recording/later viewing was William Sylvester in the starring role- Sylvester being familiar chiefly from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a few other genre films. The fall from grace of working on a timeless classic like Kubrick’s epic to working on this dismal horror effort must have been the equivalent of leaping off a cliff, but as I’ve commented before, every gig’s a pay-cheque.

hand2So lets start with whats good about the film- well, its very odd, with a really bizarre film score attributed to someone named Joan Shakespeare which is alternatively spooky-weird or was composed for some other movie- it seems to either work incredibly well to maintain a dreamy aspect to the film or it just feels totally wrong. Clearly a product of the 1960s, it also strangely evoked the earliest film-scores of Vangelis (Sex Power, L’Apocalypse des Animaux  and Ignacio) which was really disorientating for me, a reference likely lost to anyone unfamiliar with the Greek maestro’s early work. The title sequence is quite promisingly moody. The film is full of death references- Sylvester plays Paul Carver, a bitter, haunted man who has travelled to Morocco to see a doctor (who has unfortunately died when Carver gets there). Carver is either trying to get over the deaths of his wife and children in a car accident that he somehow survived three months before, or working out how to kill himself, its not entirely clear. On the one hand he makes for an interesting protagonist, being so wracked by guilt and self-pity. He befriends Otto Gunther (Edward Underdown) on his flight to Morocco- Gunther is an archaeologist whose project is a dig at a Moorish Medieval tomb, and at Gunther’s home Carver meets Gunther’s pretty young assistant Chantal (Diane Clare) who clearly takes an immediate shine to Carver. Chantal was the fiance of Gunther’s son before he died. So there’s this weird thing about Death through the film. Dead family, dead doctor, dead fiance, a tomb for a Moorish princess… Carver’s apparent death-wish stemmed from the guilt of surviving the crash that killed his family. So there is this subtext going on that made me think there was more to the film than seems on the surface, but, er, I was wrong.

Well, that’s the good, the bad about the film is pretty much everything else. The cast is pretty awful- I’m not certain if its bad casting (Underdown and Clare, struggling with bad accents, are either really bad actors or woefully ill-cast in material that doesn’t suit them), or the cast in general being hampered by really bad dialogue and direction. The budget was obviously slight, and although the location adds some exotica to the proceedings it is ruined by scenes obviously shot day for night, and editing that seems to slip day scenes into night scenes ruining even that ‘shot day for night’ material.  The ‘villainess’ of the piece, the beautiful Marissa whose tomb it is that Gunther is excavating, is more succubus than traditional vampire (no fangs on display here), and is played by Aliza Gur with no sense of threat or danger whatsoever, crippling the film. She looks beautiful and mysterious but stumbles every-time she opens her mouth to speak -clearly Gur was a model more than an actress (she was Miss Israel in 1960), or perhaps she too was hampered by that dialogue and terrible lack of direction, not that she has to do much other than lounge on a divan sexily or stand, er, mysteriously. Diane Clare, who is really, really terrible as Chantal, apparently left acting altogether after this film. Clare appeared in The Plague of the Zombies and The Haunting and lots of other films and tv series prior to The Hand of Night so she must have been a better actress than this film suggests.

William Sylvester was mostly a tv actor, so The Hand of Night was one of his few film gigs; turns out 2001: A Space Odyssey really was the oddity in his career, notable by its exception, so that shows where movie connections gets you, watching films like The Hand of Night. There’s nothing in this film that suggests that Sylvester merited a successful career in films- while he handles the haunted, guilty aspect of Carver very well, its the romantic and physical stuff here that displays his limits. He has no chemistry at all with Clare (and he’d have to be some kind of eunuch not to have some chemistry with the sultry (albeit wooden) Gur), but for most of the film he seems a duck out of water.

Not that the film could have been saved by a better lead. This film was pretty broken at the script stage and the director clearly wasn’t particularly enthused by it. Some b-movies can’t help but seem terribly cynical affairs, woefully short of any ambition. Sometimes they can be genuinely interesting and daring, but this isn’t one of them.

Last week…

Still working from home, close on six months now. As we slip towards Autumn, it looks like there’s little rush getting the team back into the office, at best it may be for just two days each week, and that’s still some time off.  Its not lost on me that after all the fair weather we’ve had, the time I’m going to finally be expected to commute back to work will be when the frosts return/bad weather/possibly snow etc.

Meanwhile Covid 19 numbers are climbing, particularly here in the Midlands, and our Governments latest desperate roll of the dice, the ‘rule of six’ (limiting the number of people at any social gathering to just six people) begins tomorrow. A rule that can’t possibly be policed,  simply dependant on the public happily following the rule… I mean, its not as if its Mega City One and some Judge will be kicking the door down if there’s more than six perps chatting in the lounge or back garden. Mores the pity with some of the idiots out there. Regards Covid, so many people seem to be in denial, or just bored of it, and think everything is back to normal. Hence the numbers rising? All I can see is lots of idiots out there, most of them proving the (ironically old) adage of too young to know better. The next few weeks seem to be crucial. The days are shortening. Winter is Coming. Hang on, that didn’t end well, just ask HBO.

Anyway, last week. You may have noted that I had a busy/productive week regards watching films: i’m thinking of ending things, Under Suspicion, Bumblebee, City That Never Sleeps, The Man Who Finally Died. I didn’t get around to reviewing Under Suspicion– a thriller starring Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Monica Bellucci, Thomas Jane… a great cast, but wasted in a pretty lousy film that almost had me hitting that abort button. Only the great Gene Hackman kept me stuck with it: one of my favourite actors.

ohmssRegards re-watches, I managed two. The first was one that…well, we lost Dame Diana Rigg on Thursday, which was an awful shame, and I’ve been meaning to watch On Her Majesty’s Secret Service again for awhile now. Its an awful reason for doing it, but Dame Diana Rigg’s passing was the push that I needed; I reached for that Bond 50 Blu-ray set. OHMSS is my favourite Bond movie; its the film when the Bond franchise grew up and yes, graced with the best Bond Girl of all, the one that got Bond to the altar. But what a downer at the end. This time I watched it, it just seemed so remarkable, such brass balls of the producers to close out a film -and a Bond film at that- on such a huge emotional downer. And in a film with a new Bond, too. Talk about loading the dice for a serious gamble, like a real-life Casino Royale moment. Dropping George Lazenby and breaking the continuity (OHMSS really needed such a proper sequel with Bond out for revenge) was a terrible error, I think, and it would take Bond decades to grow those brass balls again.

vertigo1The second re-watch was the 4K UHD disc of Vertigo, that graces the four-film Hitchcock 4K set that was released last week. The film looks utterly gorgeous in 4K, really something special. We’ve seen some great 4K releases for classic films this year and this is one of the best, I think. Mind, is it just me, but as I get older, does Vertigo on subsequent viewings just get more disturbing, and James Stewart’s obsessive Scottie more repellent?  As a deeply flawed character who proves difficult to root for, he reminds me of Robert De Niro’s character in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America. The difficulty in revisiting films with such doomed, self-destructive characters is that you have to re-experience it all over again, with the knowledge of hindsight that the character itself obviously lacks. There seems something deeply personal, of both Leone and Hitchcock, in these two films, and I’m sure that’s part of each films endless fascination. Glimpses of flawed humanity’s darkness. Vertigo is such a powerful film, exquisitely filmed and scored (by the great Bernard Herrmann), and really so daring, its one of my favourite films and it feels a blessing to be able watch it again in this kind of quality. I’m building quite a collection of (hopefully definitive and final) editions of some of my favourite films in 4K, with some great additions this year.

dunetrailrLast week also brought us the first trailer for Villeneuve’s long-anticipated  Dune. Mind, it seems we will have to wait longer for the film itself, as word has it that the film will be delayed to next year now, with Wonder Woman 1984 being moved to the Christmas Day slot (Tenet‘s box-office woes causing much consternation for a troubled film industry struggling to manage the Covid crisis). Of course the Dune trailer looks great and pretty much everything we might have hoped for. I was a bit surprised that it looked, visually at least, like a Blade Runner 2049 sequel set Off World, it seems to share so much of the monochromatic, brutalist ‘look’ of his previous sci-fi epic. I’d hoped for something a bit wilder, more ‘out there’ and unusual, but we’ll see. There’s so much, after all, that we didn’t see.

Speaking of delays, news broke last week that Vangelis’ latest album, Juno to Jupiter, accidentally released on digital by a UK store over a weekend a few weeks back before being hurriedly pulled, has been officially delayed (again?). This is so frustrating, its a great album, one of his best in decades, but it seems so strangely (and unfairly) blighted by mishaps. Possibly its just a Covid thing effecting marketing etc, but I sincerely hope that perhaps this delay will facilitate a simultaneous physical and digital release, rather than the latter first (which was the original plan, and which possibly led to that premature release foul-up).  Its a great piece of work, and I was gearing up to finish my track-by-track review… well, I’ll just join the pack and let my review suffer another delay. Hey, its just so Covid, man.

I just hope that the Super-Deluxe of the Prince classic album Sign o’ the Times isn’t going to get delayed. Its only two weeks away now so seems to be all on track. Certainly review copies are out and some reviews have been released, track breakdowns on forums etc so my only worry is problems with stores getting stock out. Hope springs eternal- I’m actually on leave from work the week it gets released, and naturally I’m going nowhere, so the opportunity to just relax for a few lazy days, chill with that box of peach and black goodies is the nearest thing to Christmas I’m actually likely to see this year.