Party like it’s 1989: Field of Dreams (4K UHD)

pris2Another 30th anniversary, and another 4K UHD release of an old favourite- this time Field of Dreams, a film blessed by one of James Horner’s best and most intimate of scores, and a story/screenplay that makes it the best Ray Bradbury movie that isn’t actually based on a Ray Bradbury story. Like Rod Serling’s early Twilight Zone episode, Walking Distance, this feels so much like a Bradbury tale it’s almost from some kind of fantasy uncanny valley.  As someone who spent much of the 1980s devouring much or Ray Bradbury’s short fiction and later novels, quietly laughing and shedding a tear at just the right moments with each turn of the page, Field of Dreams was, to quote the characters, not just incredible, it was perfect.

In just the same way as Alien is possibly the best Lovecraft film ever made, in how honest and sincere it is in conveying the alien horror of his best tales, so Field of Dreams is the best Bradbury film ever made- the fact that neither author had anything at all to do with the original source materials of either movie matters not one jot.

So anyway, I had to pinch myself a little this past weekend- I was a very lucky ghost watching The Prisoner of Second Avenue in a new HD master on Blu-ray and the following day a new transfer of Field of Dreams, splendidly brought to 4K UHD disc. While the disc will never win any awards or standout from the 4K UHD crowd, it’s the best the film has ever looked- a quick spin of the original Blu-ray disc reveals how limited that old edition really was, hampered by a lackluster print/master which in comparison really highlights the improvements in this new 4K disc. The image is more stable, the detail and filmic grain more defined and the colour depth really improved- HDR is mostly subtle and all the best for it, only really vivid in scenes with neon street lighting or in the baseball field at night.

The film, of course, is something of a marmite picture; often described as a male-weepie or adult fable, it’s a charming and finely-judged film that is really quite subtle – I think it will be interesting to rewatch Always, also from 1989, and similarly old-fashioned and gentle in spirit, to see how Spielberg’s less subtle hand fares (a bargain-bin blu-ray sits waiting on the shelf as I type this). I was naturally predisposed to fall for this film simply because it evokes so much of the magic Bradbury’s old Americana fantasies, but this shouldn’t detract from the qualities of the cinematography,  the performances (Kevin Costner is at the top of his game and James Earl Jones a greater joy everytime I rewatch this), the sublime score, the deft direction.  It has the feel of lightning caught in a bottle- a film has naively nostalgic and innocent as this shouldn’t have worked in the 1980s and beyond, but like Capra’s Its A Wonderful Life, it’s rather gained a timeless life all of its own.

Advertisements

The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Blu-ray)

pris1Thanks to Warner Archive over in the States we have a newly restored release of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and on Blu-ray no less. Naturally as I’m a huge fan of the film I ordered a copy and it arrived yesterday, so I watched it that evening. I can report that the film looks absolutely gorgeous, a beautifully detailed HD image with fine grain, incredible detail, no DNR, lovely colour- its damn near perfect, and the best I have ever seen this film look. As the physical formats continue to decline, it makes releases such as this all the more special and treasured, and I thank my lucky stars this is region-free, as I’m pretty certain fairly lowly-renowned films such as this is extremely unlikely to get released over here in the UK (which is a great shame, frankly, and I’d love some UK distributor to prove me wrong and release this and some other Jack Lemmon films in HD over here).

So I watched the film last night and I was quite overcome with how wonderful the experience was – this is one of my very favourite films and to finally have it in this splendid Blu-ray release is just wonderful. To say this release was worth the added expense of having to import it from over the pond is an understatement. The 2019 master is pretty amazing and gives the film a whole new life and vitality, you could be forgiven for thinking its a fresh new film shot last year, except for the fact that it being shot on film gives it a tactile grain and image superior to many modern films shot digitally. The film also features some really impressive widescreen composition, certainly that old pan and scan version I first saw must have been pretty horrific.

Its no doubt some indication of my adoration of this little film that I have mentioned it so many times here on my blog. Its one of those films that I had an instant and intense emotional attachment to- I was in a very low place in my life when I first saw this film by chance on an afternoon tv airing, and it certainly struck a chord in me. Indeed, over the years as I have returned to it that connection, and my love of the film, has remained undiminished- perhaps even heightened as I have grown older and been able to appreciate it even more. Sure, there are better films out there- but few films, in all honesty, mean quite so much to me.

pris3A study of a middle-aged man who becomes unemployed and has a nervous breakdown is perhaps a strange one to describe as a comedy, but it is – its funny and it is sad and there is a feeling of truth and honesty about it, of ordinary people just trying to survive in a cold and indifferent modern city. Jack Lemmon of course is probably my favourite actor and he’s excellent here as the wounded Mel, displaying fragility and pride and, as usual, uncanny comic timing delivering his lines or reacting to others. Anne Bancroft playing his wife Edna, has really good chemistry with him and is no slouch herself with the comedy, and she engenders great sympathy during her characters moments of stress and concern. We really feel the warmth between this middle-aged married couple (I’d hate to imagine how young and physically utopian a modern film versions casting would be).  Thanks to some fine location shooting, the film also serves as something of a time-capsule, capturing a mid-1970s America and New York that does not exist anymore. Its familiar but also there is a distance, a sense of innocence lost: an interesting New York double-bill would be this followed by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, released only a year after and seemingly light years away from this films Second Avenue- it’s a double-bill I really shall have to try sometime.

pris4The film even features the first on-screen performance of an incredibly young-looking Sylvester Stallone. The fact that this year Stallone celebrates his 72nd birthday is a sober reminder of how old this film is and the years that have passed since, and of those we have lost. Jack Lemmon died in 2001, Anne Bancroft in 2005, Gene Saks in 2015, Ed Peck (you may not know the name but he’s a familiar face from a lot of 1960s and 1970s television) in 1992. Infact, of all the cast, I think only F. Murray Abraham (who appears in unlikely cameo as a taxi driver) and M.Emmet Walsh (the apartment buildings inept and  lazy doorman, later a hero of mine from Blade Runner of course), are still alive, other than that young turk Stallone. Behind the screen, playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon passed away in 2018 and the films director, Melvin Frank, passed away in 1988. Composer Marvin Hamlisch passed away in 2012; how I would love to own a copy of the films marvelous score on CD, something extremely unlikely to ever happen as I don’t believe any of the score was ever released, but you never know, stranger things have happened.

I only write about all the talent we have lost as an indication of the films pedigree and worth, and it’s unlikely place in film history as a little film that could – and a film I absolutely adore. Film fans can attach to films more easily and more faithfully than they can people. This film is proof of that.

 

Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)

Hammer’s 1967 adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit has always been one of my favourite films, simply because it scared the hell out of me when I was a kid-  it’s always impossible to shake that connection you have with a film that has such a key effect on you like that, you’ll see better films, sure, but you’ll always hold those early film experiences dear. Thankfully the film still holds up pretty strong today and the blu-ray I have of it is a prized part of my film collection on disc, but I never saw the original BBC serial from 1958 upon which the film was based, until now.

q1The tv serial Quatermass and the Pit dates from a far-different era to what we know now, as far away from today’s big-budget Netflix extravaganzas as one could imagine. The serial was aired over six episodes, broadcast on Monday evenings at 8 pm from 22nd December 1958 to 26th January 1959. Incredibly, each episode was mostly live, broadcast from BBC studios in Hammersmith, London, with some sequences previously shot on film (due to technical issues such as location shooting or reliance on physical special effects etc) inserted during the performance. It lends the whole something of the atmosphere of a play, with a genuine feeling of vitality and excitement, and edginess from the feeling that, well, anything might happen. Any mistakes can’t be fixed by an editor! Fortunately everyone seems to have been well prepared- rehearsals took place between the Tuesday and Saturday prior to each Monday transmission (camera rehearsals taking place on the day of transmission), but there’s clearly that tension of live performance, slight timing issues that might have been edited on film but had to be accepted here. There’s a lovely moment when Bernard Quatermass walks into an office and the door doesn’t close behind him as intended, and he turns during his line and closes it in passing before putting his hat and coat away. Its nothing at all, really, but it feels like a ‘real’ moment that the actor has to nonchalantly react to, as if he were in a theatre. Sometimes it’s the little things that give something its reality, moments that are edited out or corrected in subsequent retakes. The tension and edginess of being a live performance translates well into the subject matter and tactile horrors of the story.

q3Workmen on a construction/demolition site in Hobbs Lane, London discover a pre-human skull which excites the attention of Dr Matthew Roney (Cec Linder) a paleontologist who is baffled and thrilled by the skulls large brain volume that suggests a primitive man hitherto unknown to science. Subsequent excavations discover further bones and skulls and finally what appears to be the outer surface of a missile or bomb, which halts Roney’s work as the military are brought in and the site closed off.

Frustrated, Roney calls his friend Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andre Morell) in an effort to stop the military ruining his valuable archeological find. Quatermass and Colonel Breen (Anthony Bushell), who has recently been appointed to lead the British rocket Group against the professors objections, arrive at the site; more fossils are found as the strange metallic object is uncovered. Roney dates the fossils to some five million years, suggesting that the object has been buried all that time, a finding Colonel Breen considers ridiculous, instead hypothesizing that the object is an experimental german bomb that failed to explode during the Blitz.  Whatever it is, it is large and hollow, the interior apparently empty but for etchings on one of the interior walls that suggest an occult pentacle.

Most everyone feels a strange, foreboding atmosphere around the object, a sensation of unease. Intrigued, Quatermass makes enquiries about the history of the area; Hobbs Lane was formerly Hob’s Lane, Hob being an antiquated name for the Devil, and there are tales of ghosts and poltergeists told by locals and in press articles over decades. The military attempts to drill into an interior wall of the object into what appears to be a concealed chamber, the resulting vibrations cause some distress to those there and one soldier has an hysterical attack, screaming that he saw a dwarf-like creature walk out of the wall, a description Quatermass remarks matches a 1927 newspaper story of a ghost seen in Hobbs Lane.

Further drilling causes a hole to open up and Quatermass and the soldiers find inside the remains of insect-like creatures, evidently aliens that resemble some kind of locust with horn-like antennae.  Examining the remains, Quatermass and Roney postulate that the creatures may be Martians that arrived on Earth five million years ago. Colonel Breen still believes it the work of Germans, evidently an elaborate hoax to instil panic in wartime England. Quatermass, however, feels that the object is yet dangerous, in some way affecting those near it with horrific visions and causing poltergeist-like activity, and evidenced thus in the historical record as far back as he can investigate in records centuries old. What Quatermass does  not realise is that the object, or alien vessel, is itself alive and is becoming activated by the human activity around it, and will soon result in a transmission that will affect the public nationwide in a night of violence and terror…

q2.jpgHaving seen the Hammer film several times before, I was naturally familiar with the general plot, and it is evident the film was faithful to the serial. But naturally the longer running time (each episode was allocated about 35 minutes incase the live performance over-ran beyond the usual 30-minute runtime) over six episodes allowed more detail, background and character moments than the film was afforded over its own 97 minutes. Aired in black and white it feels much like a Twilight Zone episode, the monochrome aiding the mood with its stark lights and shadows, and of course it feels naturally authentic in its 1950s period setting, today almost lending it a kind of strange, alien-world vibe with its antiquated technology and scientific knowledge.

I’ve become familiar with Andre Morell through his work with Hammer, over the past few years seeing him in Hammer’s The Camp on Blood Island, Cash on Demand, The Plague of the Zombies, The Mummy’s Shroud and The Hound of the Baskervilles. He was an actor with a commanding presence and powerful voice, and his Quatermass here is generally considered the definitive one, as it was played by other actors in the earlier BBC serials and ensuing Quatermass films/projects. I was surprised to discover that he declined the role in Hammer’s own feature-film adaptation. Andrew Keir played Quatermass in Hammers version of Quatermass and the Pit and, being the performance I became familiar with he’s always seemed my Quatermass, but I have to admit Morell is brilliant here and it’s such a pity he didn’t reprise his performance in the film.

The rest of the cast is universally fine; Bushell suitably infuriates as his characters closed-thinking hampers the efforts of Quatermass to raise the alarm, and Canadian actor Cec Linder is very good as the scientist friend of Quatermass- notable among the minor cast roles is Michael Ripper as one of the military worksquad. The acting of all the cast is pretty impressive considering a great deal of it was performed live.

q4The scale of the production is obviously limited by its age and budget, but I think this works in its favour. In its live performance it has the feel of a play and stagecraft, and it also works in similar fashion to a radio production, larger-scale events often occuring offscreen and being described by characters (looking through doorways or windows for instance, or watching tv transmissions)  and thus benefiting from the viewers imagination. Its a technique that works brilliantly on radio and it’s the same here. As the scale of the horror escalates out of Quatermass’ control, thus it becomes increasingly handed over to the audience’s imagination. Of course a modern adaptation would be more literal and show more (as did the Hammer film version, albeit itself limited by budget naturally) but I don’t think a contemporary version would necessarily improve on this thrilling original. That said, the film is obviously Nigel Kneale examining racism and using his tale to explain it as a genetic modification of apes by ancient Martians in their attempt to colonise the Earth- in the grand tradition of the later Star Trek, Kneale’s tale is an allegory of racial tensions of his time (1950s Britain being plagued by race troubles culminating in some attacks and riots) but obviously it’s all quite timely for us today in our own era of Political fragmentation, Brexit and immigration issues.

The grand twist of both serial and film is that while it is a tale of alien invasion, it’s one that occured five million years ago, and by some accounts the aliens won, as we are the descendants of their genetic manipulation (the original Earth-Apes being wiped out). While they themselves perished (the Martians destroyed themselves in Wild Hunts on the Red Planet, in which Martians of different groups ultimately slaughtered each other), their legacy of bigotry and racism continues through us. At the conclusion, Quatermass delivers a stark warning directly to camera: “If we cannot control the inheritance within us, this will be their (the Martians’) second dead planet!” he snarls. In the Atomic Age of 1959 and on the eve of the next decade of manned spaceflight, it must have been a foreboding and chilling ending. It rather worked that magic on me, in 2019.

This was quite excellent and yes, superior even to the Hammer film that I have loved all these years since a kid. I watched the serial on iplayer, but it has also been released on Blu-ray, which includes some considerably intriguing special features so I’ll no doubt be ordering a copy someday. As its free on iplayer, it’s surely a no-brainer for genre fans unfamiliar with it to give it ago. Its somewhat dated, but endearingly so- this has the feel of something to treasure. This is science fiction of ideas and grand concepts and its rather disturbing too- quite refreshing compared to the big on spectacle, empty-headed nonsense that passes for science fiction so much of the time these days.

And maybe a remake/reboot of this would indeed be quite timely and pertinent to the times we live in. Blame the Martians.

Jacobs Ladder Sequel?

Well it’s been threatened over the years, but it looks like it’s finally coming- the trailer has landed for the Jacob’s Ladder remake/reboot/reimagining or whatever they are calling it. This is so wrong on so many levels it just, well, leaves me pretty speechless. I could understand if they had gone back to the original script and made the film that they couldn’t make back in 1990, maybe, but instead… well, going by the trailer I’m not sure what they’ve done. It looks pretty horrible, and I’m sitting here not quite believing they even had the nerve to go there….

Back to the Moon 3: 2024 reality check

Well it was nice while the positivity lasted, but reading some more into the Orion/Lunar Gateway/Artemis situation, it’s clear that things are murkier than I’d hoped regards possibly returning to the moon in 2024, as this article indicates. I can’t say I was surprised, the manned space program since the days of Apollo has always been dictated to by the political establishment, its inevitable considering the funds involved but nonetheless as a keen enthusiast in stretching frontiers and exploration (hell, I was a Star Trek Original Series kid, it’s in our blood) I was pretty excited by the possibilities. You’d think I’d learn to curb my enthusiasm a little.

13 logoSo anyway, I’ve been spending my last several days listening to a great Apollo-related podcast, 13 Minutes to the Moon, which is really worth investigating if you are interested in Apollo and the upcoming anniversary. Its very similar to HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon series in approach, but there’s something nice and intimate at just listening to something, attentively considering what interviewees are telling us, it’s a different experience to just watching a documentary on television. Episode 8 has just been made available, so that’s what I’ll be listening to tomorrow.

The series has certainly been giving me the benefit of perspective each morning on the commute, before I suffer the pull of inevitability and return to my desk job, and conversations about the Women’s World Cup, the Cricket World Cup, or Wimbledon, or the Conservative leadership contest and Brexit. I tell you, it’s a warzone out there. Life wasn’t any simpler in the 1960s (1968 was proof of that, with two great similarly-focused episodes in both 13 Minutes to the Moon and From the Earth to the Moon will testify) but to a kid watching Star Trek back when Apollo was being put out to pasture, it seemed much simpler, and humanity sure seemed to just dream a little harder. The world just seems so strange now.

Back to the Moon 2: Eno’s Apollo

apollo2Sticking with the topic of July 20th’s anniversary, I thought I’d remark upon an interesting release timed to coincide with it- Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks is getting a re-release on July 19th, remastered (again? Hey, I’ve been here before) and now in an extended edition across two discs.

Written, produced and performed by Brian Eno with his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois, the album was recorded in 1983 for Al Reinert’s documentary, For All Mankind. The album is probably most famous for its beautiful highlight Ascent, one of the loveliest pieces of ambient music I ever heard (and the ‘inspiration’ I suspect for Eno’s contribution to David Lynch’s Dune, the Prophecy theme– no doubt Ascent was on the film’s temp track).

The second disc here is all-new music from the three musicians (their first reunion since the original album, apparently) and is a collection of new tracks designed as an alternative score to Reinert’s documentary. Intriguing prospect, but as I alluded to earlier, I’ve already bought this album twice on CD. Triple-dipping an album? I thought that nonsense went out with the umpteenth edition of Blade Runner. Oh well, here we go again.

One of the new tracks written and performed by Brian Eno can be heard here, sounds promising-

 

 

 

Back to the Moon

Hey, here’s some topical news I thought I’d mention here as we’re approaching a certain special anniversary this July 20th- NASA has today successfully tested their Orion spacecraft’s launch abort system, an important stage towards its goal of returning to the moon. What I found really interesting is the schedule they have in place, which currently has NASA returning to the moon by 2024. Which really isn’t that far away when you think about it.

orion

Orion looks similar to the Apollo capsule, but this is deceptive- it is larger, able to carry four crew rather than Apollo’s three, and thanks to an array of solar panels will be able to stay in orbit for months at a time. An unmanned test of the hardware will be repeated by a manned mission that will take its astronauts on a long orbit around the moon that will last about 25 days – a far cry from the 8-day period of Apollo 11 or the 12-day period of the final Apollo 17. This is clearly a ‘bigger, further, longer’ equivalent of the Apollo 8 mission, and I cannot see details of an actual  lunar lander other than this non-NASA link here so I suspect any lunar landing will be later.

I have seen reports of a Lunar Gateway, which is a planned space station orbiting the Moon and used as a bridge between the lander vehicle and the Orion capsules travelling to/from Earth, and also serving as an eventual launchpad to Mars. Heady stuff. Just thinking about a space station out there brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while the Lunar Gateway is obviously much smaller, I have to marvel at the sheer ambition of it; to my mind still the stuff of science fiction movies, but you never know.

Apollo was certainly ahead of its time and the technology we had; maybe the tech has finally caught up with the ambition of landing on the moon and the grand vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Such a pity both Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke aren’t here to see it – but I hope I’m still young enough to be around to see it myself…