The Good, the Bad & the * Ugly True Romance

true4kversOh dear, what has happened to my beloved Arrow Films? Is the boutique Blu-ray/DVD market suddenly on a slippery slope? A 4K release of True Romance, of both cuts and with a raft of extras making it pretty much definitive, is surely something to be championed and praised loudly, considering where physical media is going lately, but this release is blighted by some of the worst artwork I’ve had the misfortune to see in all my many years. It also appears to signal a cautionary note regards possible future 4K releases of The Thing (and maybe, even, Ridley Scott’s Legend if the rumours are valid) if they follow a similar release path to this one.

Zavvi (yeah, boo hiss, everyone) bought Arrow Films recently and its pretty clear now how things are going to pan out. Announced for release mostly as Zavvi exclusives True Romance will be released as a 4K limited release steelbook with lots of tat, a 4K steelbook minus the tat with a slimmed-down 30-page booklet (both of these the Zavvi exclusives), and seperate 4K and Blu-ray limited editions (with the ‘proper’ 60-page booklet) which will presumably turn up on Amazon for pre-order next week. Luckily I couldn’t care less for the £40 and £30 steelbooks but even the tat-less 4K set is £30, and with cover artwork as ugly this one’s got they are perhaps pushing people into the direction of the steelbook, but only braver than I risk ordering from Zavvi (not renowned for the best mail packaging around).

true4k5Of course what’s on the discs is what matters but I do wonder who’s in charge of the art direction on this release and greenlit the poster art. Likenesses are pretty poor and worst of all I don’t think any of the designs -even the steelbook, which is the least ugly one of the bunch- actually feels right for the film. It rather seems something of a fudge and a surprising one, as Arrow in the past has been pretty good with their packaging (although their Blu-ray of The Thing was borderline bad, now that I think about it). The thing (sic) that concerns me (other than the Zavvi exclusivity, which was inevitable really) is the sudden tendency to load the releases with tat in order to justify a higher price-tag (their American Werewolf in London was another example of this). Is this just a refection of a last-ditch effort to save physical media?

Can’t imagine Indicator going that way with Columbia Noir tee-shirts and badges etc but I suppose this is the influence of Arrow’s new owner: Zavvi is infamous for re-packaging the same old discs with all-new ‘premium’ packaging, especially regards steelbooks which for some reason seem to drive fans/collectors into a buying frenzy. I’ve bought the odd steelbook in the past but have never second-dipped a film just for the new packaging (I’ve not been in the slightest interested, for instance, in Zavvi’s recent steelbooks for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, as the discs are just the same as I already have and you’d have to be out of your mind (or under the influence of too much Soylent Green) to spend £25 just for fancy re-packaging, no matter how much of a die-hard fan you might be – and believe me, few are as die-hard regards Blade Runner as I). Its surprisingly easy to part fools with their money, maybe, but I fear for where this indicates physical releases going.

As far as True Romance goes, its possibly my favourite Tarantino flick (if only because it was directed by a better director) and I’m really pretty chuffed about it, especially in 4K, and the extras look really fine. I never bought the film on Blu-ray so that’s a nicer bonus as it will be nice to watch the film again for the first time in quite awhile… but man, this artwork…. 

 

Secret Behind the Door (1947)

secretdoorAfter what must have been several months or longer, I’ve finally gotten around to watching the fourth and last disc in Arrow’s unimaginatively titled ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ Blu-ray set that I bought last year. This last film was generally regarded as the weakest of the set and I have to agree, although it does have its plus points. 

Secret Behind the Door is a noir from consummate visual stylist Fritz Lang, who was no stranger to the genre and later would direct The Big Heat, the Indicator release of which a few years back blew me away and a film I would count amongst my very favourite noir. Secret Behind the Door is nowhere near as good as that later classic, but it does sport some absolutely top-notch visuals. There are a few shots that are amongst the best of any noir I’ve seen- shots that are framed in a particular way, and so consummately well-photographed with lighting and shadows in selected areas, that tell the story wholly cinematically without any need of narration or dialogue. Visually we see everything regards how characters relate to each other, body language, their positioning relative to each other within the frame, the scaling, lighting… really quite arresting stuff that is sadly let down by a script that borders on the implausible and then jumps off the cliff into the frankly bizarre.

Its perhaps some testament to Lang’s skills as a director and control of the medium that he manages to hold together the film for as long as he does. By the end of the film we’ve somehow passed from dark romantic drama to murderous noir to Roger Corman’s Poe horror territory and somewhere beyond before landing with a terrific thud back into the land of ridiculous romance. I really wasn’t sure what I’d just seen, to be honest. 

Celia Lamphere (Joan Bennett) is a beautiful New York socialite who seems to have finally decided she’s spent too long carefree and single and its time she found the right man: in this case the safe choice of an old friend,  Bob Dwight (James Seay), who works with her wealthy brother. Dwight is besotted by her and is eminently dependable but its clear she doesn’t love him- he’s simply a safe choice. Before she acquiesces to his advances however she goes off on one last vacation/adventure, this time to Mexico where she finds a man who strangely excites her like she’s never experienced before; tall, dark, handsome magazine owner Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). In just days they marry, but moving to his mansion home near New York she suddenly discovers that not only was Lamphere married, he also has a son and a household full of strange characters including a dominating elder sister and a fire-scarred assistant.

Possibly strangest of all however is her new husband who acts increasingly odd and unhinged, soon revealing his pastime of adding a wing of rooms to his mansion in which famous historical murders of wives by their husbands or lovers took place, a chamber of horrors if you will, but the final room, behind door number seven, remains mysteriously locked and whose contents he refuses to divulge. Something to do with his recently deceased wife, of his new wife perhaps?

Clearly this is a psychological horror dressed up in noir tropes: certainly not an unlikely combination at all and as I have noted, it visually wears its noir stylings spectacularly well. It simply drips noir in most every shot- deep shadows, surreal lighting and framing, exaggerated angles and backlighting accentuating mood and tension. Unfortunately Redgrave doesn’t convince as romantic lead or as twisted, haunted and dangerous male- not that’s he’s really helped by a nutty script that goes dafter with every page. The oddest thing about the film -and likely what saves it at all- is Joan Bennett who seems so intoxicated by the premise that we can almost accept, to our utter bafflement, that she hangs around with her new husband and his deranged family more than a day in his mansion of horrors. I suspect there is a valid reading of the film in which every character is quite insane, including Celia, especially when, at the films end after Lamphere has almost strangled Celia to death and both almost died in a fiery conflagration as the house of horrors burns around them, we finally see them enjoying a second honeymoon back in Mexico. If Celia at this point has not got bountiful reasons to cite for a swift divorce, no-one has. Its like the cinematic definition of jumping the shark, but hey, maybe wives were more forgiving back then.

 

 

The Dark Mirror (1946)

DM1I watched Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror as it was included within Arrow’s Blu-ray boxset ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ which I bought a few months back (two of its titles that I’ve seen since being Force of Evil and The Big Combo). The Dark Mirror concerns the murder of a doctor, and thanks to witnesses there is an obvious suspect- but unfortunately for the frustrated police detective handling the case, the suspect has an identical  twin sister with a cast-iron alibi. Unable to distinguish which sister is which, the investigation collapses.

It sounds like a film noir, and indeed it opens like a noir, with a gliding camera accompanied by moody music entering an apartment and slowly unveiling the scene of the crime and the body with a knife in its back. Unfortunately the tone of the film appears to be all over the place not really helped by the curious casting of Thomas Mitchell prefiguring his dizzy Uncle Billy from Its a Wonderful Life (which was made in the same year, but came out at the start of 1947, so I assume The Dark Mirror was shot first). Mitchell’s Police Lt. Stevenson is too light-hearted with humorous lines lightening the mood – the character needed to be someone darker, more obsessed with the crime and maddened by the frustration of knowing a killer has escaped the law. Someone like Kirk Douglas, say, in the role would have raised the film to some other level entirely. As it is, the comic relief of the detective feels ill-placed and hurts the film: at one early point establishing the character, Stevenson’s dismissive comment about “Chinese music” is accompanied by composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s intentionally comedic quote of such music, a moment that seems something straight of a comedy. 

Likewise the film had a real opportunity to be really dark and noir by playing up the difficulty identifying the twins. Once it has established they are both totally identical and the police case is thwarted, the film then has the two women wearing necklaces with their names (‘Ruth’ and ‘Terry’) so we always know who is who, bizarrely undermining their own defence, unless of course the women are switching necklaces. 

What makes the film succeed as a thriller (if not a noir) is the brilliant performance/s of Olivia de Haviland who plays the twin sisters. The film employs split screens and some opticals to excellent effect to allow de Havilland to be onscreen as the two characters at the same time (moving shots enabled by a double viewed from the rear). While the technical aspects might take the plaudits, the real success of the conceit is the timing and acting skills necessary for her to have convincing conversations with herself (actually seperate shots filmed apart). It really is impressive, a real tour de force. The lady was a hell of an actress, no doubt.

Its just such a pity that the film didn’t really go as dark as it might have, had it been what I would consider a ‘true’ or genuine film noir- had we not been able to be quite certain in the film which twin de Havilland is playing at any one time, mirroring the confusion of the police, then the film would have been a labyrinth of suspicion and doubt- indeed, a really fine noir might have ended maintaining the uncertainty of whether the correct twin had been accused of the crime and sent to the Electric Chair. Such mind-games were probably considered a step too far for audiences of 1946, because as I’ve noted, the girls wear necklaces throughout the remainder of the film and its fairly obvious which is the killer (the script/director can’t help but push de Havilland into playing one darker than the other, something which seems to pass Mitchell’s dizzy detective by). At one point they even have one of the twins dressed in white, the other in black- subtle, not.

The film also slips into traditional melodrama by having psychiatrist Dr.Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), brought in by Stevenson to try deduce which of the twins is actually the killer, then falling in love with the ‘good’ twin. Considering this twin was the one who was likely getting engaged to the doctor who was shown murdered at the start of the film just a few days earlier, its remarkable that the twin reciprocates his feelings immediately rather than be in mourning for awhile. This last point had me intrigued, considering that perhaps both twins were ‘in’ on the crime, and that they were actually both responsible, but the film failed to go that way.

I enjoyed the film but was frustrated, really, by the film not being quite the film noir I expected or hoped it to be. In the end its a routine romantic thriller/crime drama with very slight noir undertones, memorable mainly for the remarkable performance/s of Olivia de Havilland. That said, its a hell of a star turn and itself makes the film worthy of repeat viewings and some admiration. Just such a pity the film could not have maintained an even, darker tone throughout.    

1995 and a Waterworld mystery

waterworldA friend at work lent me a copy of Arrow’s recent release of Waterworld on Blu-ray, as I’d confessed to never having seen the film before, odd as that may sound, but, you know, some films slip us by. Well, back home Claire told me we had indeed seen it before, but I insisted I hadn’t. I mean, I honestly could not remember any of it, other than maybe the odd scene that I stumbled upon when it was aired on tv over the years (for awhile, it seemed to aired all the time on various cable stations etc, and even then I never sat down to watch it).

So Claire went off to find proof- and returned with her diary from 1995, which indeed confirmed that we had indeed seen it, at a Showcase Cinema on August 22nd, 1995. Which I honestly cannot remember, at all. Can a film be that bad, that forgettable, that it just fades entirely from memory? It still baffled me, as I could not remember it at all- indeed, it felt all a little bit scary. Is this how it begins, losing your mind?

Strangest of all, Claire had a list in the back of her diary of all the films we had seen that year at the cinema- 34 of them. Yeah, that’s right, 34 of them. I don’t think I see that many films at the cinema in a decade now. My only excuse, we were courting back then, before we got married and settled down to domesticity and the joys of home cinema. But 34 films? Crikey. While my eyes water at the state my wallet must have been in back then, here’s the list, just for curiosity sake: When  A Man Loves A Woman, Timecop, Stargate, Nostradamus, Shallow Grave, Natural Born Killers, Interview With The Vampire, Leon, The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women, 101 Dalmatians, Nobody’s Fool, Outbeak, Legends of the Fall, Apollo 13, In the Mouth of Madness, Don Juan de Marco, Judge Dredd, Braveheart, Waterworld, First Knight, Congo, Batman Forever, Species, Die Hard With A Vengeance, Delores Claiborne, While You Were Sleeping, Pocahontas, Mortal Kombat, Haunted, Jade, Crimson Tide, A Walk in the Clouds, Babe.

Well, there’s a few there I can barely remember either. There’s a few I would like to forget but can’t.

As for Waterworld, well, we watched it Saturday night, and other than one or two scenes, such as the dive down to the submerged ruins (which I swore I recalled from stumbling onto a tv showing, to be honest) it absolutely failed to ring any bells memory-wise. It was like I was absolutely watching it for the first time. It was utterly bizarre. Unless Claire had gone to see it with some other fella I must have just wiped that film from my memory completely in some kind of post-traumatic shock. Well, yeah, it was a pretty forgettable film, so that would be part of it- that, and nearly 24 years.

The time to lock me away in a padded room is when I forget I ever saw Blade Runner, obviously.

 

What’s it all about, Darko?

donni1I first saw Donnie Darko back when it first came out on DVD. Must be something like fifteen years ago.  I enjoyed it, but for some reason I never returned to it, which is odd, as I always rewatch films eventually (why buy them, otherwise?), and fifteen years is a long time. Perhaps it didn’t engage me, somehow?  I guess maybe the format change to blu-ray and me boxing away most of my dvds to make room must have had something to do with it.

So anyway, Arrow releasing a new remastered edition of two cuts of the film on blu-ray finally has me returning to a film that, on paper, I really should love. Afterall, it has something of an underdog antihero for a protagonist and its about time travel and alternate universes and is set in the 1980s. Should be right up my street.

I opted for the theatrical cut for this return, mainly because general consensus seems to be it’s the best version. Also, having only seen it once over a decade ago, any changes in the directors cut from the theatrical wouldn’t be apparent to me anyway, and I’d like to be able to note the alterations if only to ascertain the reasons for that cuts existence.

I’ve decided to leave a detailed review until I do see that directors cut, which I intend to see very soon while the theatrical is fresh in my memory. A few observations though. How young everyone looks. How sad to see some who have since left us. How cool some of that eighties music is. How dodgy such early cgi now looks. How confusing some of the internal logic still seems to be (and why some of that central mystery/paradox seems unnecessarily hard to grasp). Have to admit, I still didn’t fall in love with the film. Its one to admire but emotionally I still didn’t connect somehow. Maybe Donnie himself is just too hard a character to love. Maybe its the unanswered questions at the end. Donnie sacrifices himself, and saves his girlfriend, but that resets other stuff, like leaving a child porn ring uncaught and the girlfriends mother possibly soon killed by her ex. A few letters/calls to the police before he went to sleep might have been wise. But maybe I’m still missing something.

Well, I’ll return to Donnie Darko shortly (hopefully). Arrow’s release looks gorgeous and the extras plentiful- its really a benchmark release even for Arrow (and bodes well for their edition of The Thing, woohoo!).

Let’s see if the third times the charm for Darko…

Solaris (2002)

Caught an airing of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris in HD on the TCM channel. Far as I know, the film has never had a HD release on Blu-ray anywhere in the world, so I was curious to see how it looks in HD. One word- beautiful.

solaris-planetOh go on then, another word- exquisite.  If its indeed true that there has never been a HD disc release of this film then that needs fixing pronto. Maybe Arrow Films might give it a go? I believe Solaris is a 20th century Fox release, and Arrow have licensed a few Fox titles in the past (Big Trouble in Little China springs to mind for one). If anyone one from Arrow ever reads this- make it happen, please.

Regards the film itself, it still holds up very well. Indeed, while it may be inferior to the 1972 Russian original (albeit more accessible), it remains a film that gets better with age. Its a slow, meditative film, an oddity back when it was released and only more so now as films get faster and louder with every summer season. I’ve always maintained that Alien entities are Unknowable- Star Treks friendly biped aliens with bumpy foreheads and perfect English are all well and good, but proper science fiction dealing with Alien contact should always be more 2001/Solaris than Star Trek. The biggest mistake Prometheus made was trying to explain the mysterious Space Jockey and the derelict craft from the original Alien. Contacting and understanding an Alien should be more like getting to chat with God- these are entities so utterly Alien they are, frankly, beyond our comprehension.

Which is the beauty of Solaris. Its generally accepted that the planet Solaris is alive, an Alien entity that can only communicate with humans through their memories and unconscious desires/fears… by taking corporeal form in the shape of loved ones, whether dead or left behind on Earth, the Alien Solaris attempts to understand our form of life, our physicality, mortality, our sense of space and time. Its possibly more it trying to fathom us out than us figuring it out, a fascinating realisation that to Aliens, we are as Alien to them as they are to us.

sol5

 

I believe producer James Cameron (once slated to direct this film, thank goodness that didn’t work out) commented that the film was originally much longer, that it was drastically tightened up. I’d love to see that longer version. It occurs to me that Solaris would benefit from the tv mini-series approach of the recent Fargo series. I’m certain most fans of the Coen brother’s cult movie were horrified at the prospect of it being transferred to a television series but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the year, possibly even superior to the original movie, The story of Solaris spread across a ten-episode miniseries, with more characters on the space station and hence more visitations and encounters, and more time to ponder man’s place in an increasingly strange universe, would be fascinating. Of course, there’s as much chance of that ever happening as there is a longer cut of Soderbergh’s film being released- a huge fat zero.

Cinema Paradiso (1988) Theatrical Cut

cinema1You can so easily get swamped by all the soul-less, money-grabbing amusement park rides masquerading as films these days and forget that there is a real art and magic in cinema. That there are such obscure concepts as plot, acting, characterisation, empathy, meaning… its not all loud explosions, frenetic action, effects-laden spectacle. Thank goodness then for films like Giuseppe Tornatore’s simply beautiful Cinema Paradiso.

I’ve come late to the party on this one. Dating back to 1988, I’ve only now finally watched this, thanks to Arrow Films recent Blu-ray, that features both the theatrical cut and the directors cut which, running nearly an hour longer, I haven’t seen yet.

Cinema Paradiso is a film about life, friendship, the passing of time, the loss of innocence, but mostly its a love story.  Set a just after the Second World War in a small, dead-end Sicilian village, a  little boy, Toto, enraptured by the silver screen dreams of his village cinema, befriends its life-weary projectionist, Alfredo. Toto’s father is missing from the war, and Alfredo has no children. The projectionist becomes a surrogate father to Toto, the two of them sharing a love for the cinema and the films projected there,  a love shared by the whole village that gathers to be swept away from their insular lives of poverty and hopelessness by the silver-screen dreams created worlds away.  The film is a poem for the life-changing joy and universal language of cinema, of cinema that means something.

The film has a perfect cast, a finely-judged screenplay, and a poignant score by the great Ennio Morricone. Anybody who loves movies cannot fail to be touched by this film; its the kind of film you can easily fall in love with, seduced by its laughter, sadness and joy as we watch Toto grow up, and witness what becomes of him and his cinema and all the villagers who flocked to the films. I won’t dwell further on the story; its twists and turns are a discovery every viewer should experience without any fore-knowledge.

I’ve no idea if the longer directors cut actually improves the film- is such a thing even possible? I intend to wait a few weeks before watching that version, I’ll let you know what I think then. For now, I’ll just prefer to recall this wonderful film as it is for awhile longer. In an age becoming increasingly Digital, this film is a potent reminder of a time when films were tangible things, things you could touch. Reels of film, dreams stored in steel cans, film which, thanks to the sorcery of a play of light, could suddenly become alive when projected onto simple screens.

I often wonder if the magic of films has been lost a little simply because they have become so mundane-  after all, films are everywhere now, we are no longer limited to that communal experience of watching a film in a darkened theatre. Now we can own all the films we like, watch them whenever we like, whatever parts of them we like. They have almost become disposable. In many ways film-lovers have never had it so good as we do now, but perhaps there is something to the argument that films have lost part of their magic by becoming so accessible. Cinema Paradiso is a reminder of a not-so distant time when films were something very rare and special, when you would perhaps watch a great film and then only have it replayable in your memory for years, something to be recalled and savoured. I myself remember those pre-VHS days of Christmas movie seasons on the BBC and ITV, looking for old favourites being shown over the Holiday Season, rare opportunities to revisit them like distant old friends arriving for another Christmas. Well, much of that simple magic has gone. Times have changed, eh?

 

Glorious Lifeforce

lifeforce

RETROVIEW: LIFEFORCE (5 STARS): In an astonishingly realised future London, SAS agent Caine hunts aliens brought to Earth from an alien spaceship found near Halleys Comet. But these aliens are Vampires feasting on the souls of humanity, led by a beautiful vampire queen whose magnificent bosom haunts the erotic nightmares of Carlson, the astronaut that her bought her evil to Earth. But is Carlson human, or a space vampire himself?

This film is perhaps the most under-rated sci-fi movie of all time. It is a masterpiece of dark brooding psycho terror, and a classic work of prediction. Forget 2001, this is how the future will REALLY look. The fx are so terrifyingly realistic that you will feel like you are seeing documentary footage of the end of the world, and Tobe Hooper’s gripping direction keeps you on the edge of your seat with panic. Mathilda May’s awesome space vampire whose naked bosom spells death for humanity has never been equalled. Frank Finlay’s depiction of a homosexual scientific genius on the brink of insanity deserved an Oscar, while Peter Firth’s subtle portrayal of the cool, sophisticated SAS Vampire Hunter steals the show, surely marking him as a future James Bond. We can only watch in numb terror as we realise that the future of the world is a Jean Michel Jarre concert populated by zombie joggers gone mad.

Who can tell if this awful fate awaits mankind in the future? Will this epic vision come true? Only one thing is certain- that when Hallleys Comet returns next century, the public will be s***ting bricks. 

Hmm, sorry about that. That was a piece I wrote for a fanzine many years ago, a tongue-in-cheek review of the R1 MGM DVD. Thought I might post it here in celebration of Arrow Films superlative Blu-ray release of Lifeforce here in the UK.

Watching this new Arrow Blu-ray of Lifeforce, I thoroughly enjoyed it, more than I have in ages. Maybe I was in just the right frame of mind. Its such a mad, overblown movie (Its also a hideously bad movie but…)  well you know how it is, sometimes some movies are so bad they are actually good? Or maybe I’ve seen so many bad, boring films in the years since that even Lifeforce seems good by comparison. I remember watching it at the old ABC cinema in town on its original release. Although Mathilda May obviously left an impression, the most lingering feeling was that something was very wrong with the movie. The premise was silly to the point of absurd (a UK-based Space program, a space shuttle -bizarrely bigger on the inside than it seemed from the outside- travelling out to Halleys Comet to find an alien ship shaped like a umbrella), the  script was shockingly rife with awful dialogue provoking more titters than shudders, and actors hammy performances more fit for the ‘sixties Batman tv-series than a big-scale serious horror movie. I mean, it was a horror movie, right? Or was it a tongue-in-cheek comedy poking fun at the horror genre? Was the whole thing really a genuinely serious attempt at a blockbuster sci-fi horror movie? Or was it a madly over-budgeted Carry On movie? Back then I wasn’t sure, and to this day I’m not sure Tobe Hooper really knew what he was doing. Its mad, its bad, but goodness me its also glorious. Spielberg got away with something just as daft with his 1941, so I say give Tobe Hooper a break- he made a great movie.

Great fun, and this Blu-ray is one of the releases of the year.