Somebody call Kolchak

sierra3The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre (1964, TV Movie), 80 mins, Talking Pictures TV

A film cobbled together from a rejected TV pilot for a horror anthology series, The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre is a genuinely creepy, spooky horror that on the one hand is much better than its origins suggest, but on the other horribly undermined by underwritten characters and a quite nonsensical plot. Oddly enough, in that respect it feels quite modern- its all about the mood and chills and not at all about any drama or characters. Its really quite frustrating, in that it does most of the horror stuff very well – I’d imagine even  kids of today could be traumatised by some of its spooky moments-  but the rest doesn’t really hold up at all, and the pacing seems all over the place (as I’ll come back to later, I suspect that in its original edit it was intended to run under an hour -even with commercials- but had to be padded out in order to function as a TV movie).

The film was the brainchild of Joseph Stefano (at the time coming off both The Outer Limits tv series and having written the screenplay of Hitchcock’s Psycho) who was originally intending to launch a horror anthology series (The Outer Limits being mostly a science fiction show). I wasn’t aware of its origins when I watched it -I just thought it was one of those indie low-budget 1960s horrors, like Roger Corman’s stuff- but when watching it I felt like something weird was going on with some of the characters, definitely like it was setting up some TV show starring Martin Landau as an architect with a hobby of investigating ghostly goings on, a kind of Kolchak meets Scooby Doo kind of thing. Its funny how we can be tuned to such TV series conventions, and it seems I wasn’t too far off- maybe Landau’s architect wasn’t a series regular, maybe it was intended to be completely seperate stories like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but it certainly felt like Landau was being set up as a regular.

There was also a distinctly David Lynch, Twin Peaks-vibe to many of the shots, that kind of orchestrated, long-take weirdness that Lynch does, hanging onto shots longer than usual, leaving the viewer feeling uncomfortable just from the editing, and some of it coming out of leftfield like Lynch is so fond of doing. For instance, there’s an early scene when Viva (Diane Baker) has returned to her blind husband Henry Madore (Tom Simcox). He tells her they have a new housekeeper, Paulina (Dame Judith Anderson) who then enters the room, upon which Viva totally freaks out without warning or reason, backing away in utter, unexplained terror. sierra4The film uses Paulina, who in black-draped garb looks totally not normal, for a few tonally unsettling, Twin Peaks-style visuals that linger far too long and serve no story function, such as when she’s standing on a beach looking up at Landau’s home up on the clifftop above. Upon later learning of the film’s genesis, much of this is clearly padding-out the length rather than anything particularly calculated, but it certainly works to the film’s advantage establishing its unsettling mood.

As a horror film it is certainly rewarding viewing and one can forgive its eventual silliness because of just how successful it is evoking its creepy mood of, dare I say it, distinctly ‘old-fashioned’ horror. There’s a delicious sense of Hammer-era fun early on when we are told that blind Henry living in his lonely big gothic mansion thinks he is being haunted by his dead mother who rings him and sobs down the phone at him. We are told that his mother was terrified of being buried alive so when she died she was placed in the family crypt with a phone placed next to her coffin with a direct line to his mansion. I suppose that’s Edgar Allen Poe updated for the 20th Century. Landau’s architect, Nelson Orion -weren’t names brilliant in these old TV shows?- is hired by Henry’s wife to investigate the possible haunting, as the call can only becoming from the crypt, so its either genuinely his mother or its someone orchestrating some elaborate prank to make Henry seem insane. Eventually it transpires that Henry’s mother isn’t the only tyrannical mother with damaged kids, and if there is a ghost its of someone else entirely (hint: Henry’s dear departed mother has no connection with Sierra de Cobre), but by the time we get to that point the plot has collapsed under the weight of its own contrivances and we don’t really care anymore. Which is a shame, because early on its really good indeed. sierra5The cast, certainly, is better than one would expect; I thought Diane Baker, later a frequent face in imported American 1960s/1970s television shows I watched growing up, was excellent, swinging from calm to wild hysterics in a heartbeat. Martin Landau, bless him, is, well, Martin Landau. Actually I think it was because I noticed it was him in the cast that prompted me to watch this at all. I’ve always had an interest in Landau’s work, ever since he starred in Gerry Anderson’s Space:1999 show which was second only to Star Trek in my childhood as far as formative addictions go. I was just the same with Star Trek and watching with due reverence anything starring William Shatner -hey, its Captain Kirk!- and its something I never really grew out of, bless my foolish loyalties to childhood heroes.

In any case, this is well worth a watch. Its just a pity the original, shorter edit doesn’t exist anymore because that would be an interesting alternate and might have proved more effective without the padding- although I have the suspicion its that padding with its longer shots that hang on just too long that make the film as successfully unsettling as it is.

Heeeerrre’s Uncle Charlie!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dune (2021): First Impressions

dune2021Well, I’ve not long come back from watching Dune at the cinema- yes my first trip to the cinema since watching 1917 back in January 2020, a pandemic ago that seems so long ago now (hard to believe that in another world, I would have seen Dune a year ago already, and we’d be hearing reports of Part Two gearing up by now).

So what did I think? I really liked it, very much so. But I didn’t love it. Maybe my affair with Villeneuve’s Dune will be one of those gradual courtships, a friendship that deepens into full-blown love, but this certainly wasn’t an experience like watching his BR2049 back in 2017. Watching that film was like falling head over heels in love instantly, a passion that hasn’t diminished any since. I adore that film. Dune was different. It was amazing and impressive and it seemed to do most everything right, but there was something that just kept me at arms length from it.

Maybe its familiarity with the book, objectively noting creative decisions whilst watching the film, and maybe it was familiarity with David Lynch’s 1984 film, objectively noting moments with the same dialogue or doing the same scene in a different way or omitting something Lynch did, or doing something Lynch didn’t (or technologically couldn’t). Sometimes it was difficult to seperate it as a new adaptation of the book rather than a remake of the Lynch film, some of it was so close. Oddly, I could feel myself really enjoying the film more when it was showing stuff not in the Lynch film, like Paul and Jessica’s escape from the abandoned terraforming station, that sequence galvanised my attention or freed me from all the mental comparisons in the back of my head. It was a complex, oddly unique experience watching this film, its carrying all sorts of baggage that isn’t fair or deserved.  At least BR2049 was just in the shadow of a thirty-five year old movie (albeit it managed to also be a sequel to Blade Runner‘s source novel -arguably more faithfully than the 1982 film was). 

So what did I think? Is it ridiculous of me to suggest – no, seriously- that it wasn’t long enough? That maybe criticism of Villeneuve’s slow burn of BR2049 resulted in him too mindful of audience patience and resulted in him consciously keeping Dune moving at a steady pace that perhaps lost some character beats? I can imagine readers at this point rolling their eyes in horror. Yes, maybe I’m being ridiculous to suggest I’d have preferred three hours of Dune over the two hours and thirty-five minutes we got. Would the extra twenty-five minutes have added anything? Maybe not. But I would have enjoyed more of Thufir Hawat and perhaps explanation of why we have Mentats and not iPads or AI supercomputers, or why we have shields and knives and not guns and blasters etc., some of the subtlety of world-building that makes the Dune novel so enticing and wonderful. Maybe I’m missing the Emperor and all those machinations that are clearly being left for Part Two. Lynch’s film struggled with exposition dumps in its first twenty minutes but in hindsight, the 1984 film’s opening scene with the Navigator interrogating the Emperor was a brilliant move and something I missed here. 

Really, that’s my only real fault with the film; that it wasn’t long enough (maybe I’m just greedy). The cast are largely excellent, bringing all the characters to life, and the imagery is just, well, pretty phenomenal, the yardstick for what any future sci-fi epic will be measured against for decades, surely. I’m not entirely convinced Zimmer was the right choice for composer, the film sounded like so many others whereas Johann Johannsson would have made it sound like nothing else we’d ever heard, but Fate has resulted in that being stolen from us (but surely there’s an alternative to Zimmer in this world?). The visual effects were as extraordinary as might be expected: given the time and budget these film wizards can conjure anything onscreen, it seems. Dune is absolutely a really impressive film and everything I’d hoped for. Its a film largely -painfully- without an ending but that’s just part of the deal of getting a part one and a part two and Dune finally -hopefully- being considered as one, five-hour long epic in a few years time. I wouldn’t put it past the producers to give us an extended cut before Part Two lands in cinemas in, what will it be, 2024? If only Villeneuve could have shot the two back-to-back in the manner Peter Jackson shot his Lord of the Rings

Well of course all this is the elephant in the back of the room – will we get a Part Two? Critical response seems largely positive, fans of the book seem to like it, and audiences seem to be going to the cinema to watch it, so it looks promising. But who knows? I’m not at all certain that as a single entity, Part One really works. It lacks closure. Intellectually I think they closed the film at the best place they could, given Villeneuve wasn’t going to repeat Lynch’s folly of trying to encompass the entirety of Dune in a single film, but emotionally when the credits rolled it felt rather anti-climatic. Even though I knew it was coming, it still hurt the film. The Part One moniker is really important, because this Dune is only half a  film, really, half the experience, and the best stuff is really yet to come. Maybe that’s the root of my coolness toward the film- its not the whole film.

I dearly hope we get to see it, because if Villeneuve gets to make Part Two and he nails it, well folks we’ve possibly got the definitive sci-fi epic we all dreamed of when reading Herbert’s novel. If we’ve still got physical disc formats and 4K UHD when Part Two joins Part One on my shelf, all the better, because boy, that double-bill will be a frequent and hugely enjoyable pleasure that I can only imagine right now. Yeah, I can dream about it, but as Duncan says in the film, “Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake” and boy, I want to be awake watching a five-hour Dune someday.

 

Columbia Noir: A Bullet is Waiting (1954)

abulletOh this was cheeky, Indicator slipping this modern-day (well, modern in the 1950s) Western into a film noir boxset. Okay, there is some excuse for some noir undertones but really, its just spectacularly flimsy nonsense that doesn’t really validate its inclusion here: noir is a notoriously debatable style that can be seen in all sorts of widely different films, but this film… noir? Naughty, Indicator. That said, I suppose I’m thankful that it was included in this noir box, because there’s simply no way I’d probably encounter this film otherwise, and I’m always glad of experiencing something I might otherwise have never seen. I mean, when is this film ever next going to get shown on television, and when indeed was it ever aired on any network here in the UK in the past? This is a film that simply screams obscure.

My chief interest in the film is seeing a young Jean Simmons in an unlikely and rewarding role (I think she was a very good actress generally denied the roles she really deserved) and the way the film weaves the general plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a 1950s-set Western. It was something done, albeit with a science-fiction bent, not long after by MGMs Forbidden Planet (1956). To be honest, Forbidden Planet did it much more successfully- the unhealthy dynamic of a daughter on the brink of sexual maturity having lived too close to her father and remote from other people, when young males come upon the scene threatening to break up the status quo, is one that is clearly ripe for drama. Heaven only knows what either David Lynch or Lars von Trier could make of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in a film, set either in some dim period or present-day. Obviously you couldn’t expect something like that from a studio film in the 1950s, but oddly enough some of the social mores of the day can be decidedly troubling. There is a scene in which Rory Calhoun and Jean Simmons get caught in a romantic clinch that’s uncomfortably more akin to rape than anything particularly romantic, but I guess audiences didn’t mind their heroes getting a little rough with their romantic interests back then? It certainly felt an uncomfortable watch from the vantage point of 2021.

Its clearly not a noir, no matter what tenuous claim some might make about one character’s actions/motivations in particular, and really, its also not a film I’ll rush to return to, but I’m glad I own it and that I can return to it someday. I’m not familiar with Rory Calhoun but he’s very good here with considerable screen presence, and I understand he had a long career particularly in Westerns, so I figure he might become a familiar face if I watch a few Westerns over on TNT. The disc’s commentary, and a short featurette, both cast some light on Jean Simmons’ life and career that I was quite ignorant of- its actually rather alarming how the studio system and its old contract system (Simmons running foul of a contract with Howard Hughes’ RKO Pictures) harmed some careers, and Simmons’ marriage with Stewart Granger seems to have been shockingly dysfunctional, frankly. Likely my view on the latter is unfair but goodness me, in some ways it reflects the subject of A Bullet is Waiting in some curious way, as Simmons apparent tendency to look for something of a father figure in her love life (both Granger and her second husband Richard Brooks were rather older than she) seems to mirror an uncomfortable subtext of Shakespeare’s tale, dimly as it may have been transferred to a Western and a science fiction film over sixty years ago.  It adds a certain element to whenever I do return to the film, anyway.

Lucky (2017)

lucky1This was a delight; one of those little films in which, well, very little happens, other than character moments and observations of the human condition- you know, the stuff we seldom see in film these days. I can’t say its perfect, I thought some of it was rather forced and I didn’t ‘buy’ everything, but the good easily outweighed the bad. Its Harry Dean Stanton in one of his last films, for goodness sake, and any criticism I have regards the film is about the supporting cast and some of the script choices: Harry is perfect in this, you can tell it was largely written for him, little nods to his own life history scattered in the details. Mostly its a one-man show, and that’s when the film is at its best. Harry should have stayed in his house watching daytime telly, smoking and drinking too much coffee, sometimes cussing the television inanity. That would have been film enough for me.

Lucky is a sad, melancholy film; its also rather sweet, thankfully without resorting to the saccharine, a tricky balance. Its got a ninety-year old beloved actor playing a ninety-year old loner contemplating his own mortality, realising that everyone and everything and everyplace he knew or knows is either gone already or will be. David Lynch is wonderful, the rest of the cast is okay, but Harry towers over all. The fact that he passed away just a few months following this film’s release just makes it all the sadder.

Every time I see Harry Dean Stanton onscreen… I hear Ry Cooder music. Can’t escape it. That’s Paris, Texas and there is no escaping it, its like Cooder was sound tracking Harry’s face and not the movie. There were a few moments in this film in which, because of the similar desert setting and Harry’s endlessly craggy, lived-in face, that I almost thought this might be some kind of unofficial sequel, in just the same way as Jack Lemmon’s character in Glengarry Glenn Ross seems to be The Apartment‘s CC Baxter decades after the Billy Wilder film, ruined by the darkside of the American Dream.

And hey, this has got Dallas and Brett together again some 38 years after Alien. How weird is that scene: its possibly one of the films weakest, and doesn’t really fit in, I suspect, but hey, its got film nostalgia/event soaked up in it. You just can’t help but smile and wish it was a longer scene, just to live it a little more. And marvel with some horror at the 38 years.

A few thoughts on Dune 4K

arrow duneBack in 1985, 2010: The Year We Make Contact and Dune were out at the same time here in the UK- I had to choose one of them, I couldn’t see both. I chose the former and afterwards ranted all the way home feeling like I’d messed up (I didn’t really enjoy 2010 at all at the cinema, I felt like it was a gross insult to Kubrick).

Not sure why I felt the need to state that, except to add that I eventually caught up with Dune on VHS rental and had second thoughts: maybe I had chosen wisely after all.

So here we are decades later. My copy of Arrow’s 4K edition of Dune arrived today. I managed to find an hour late afternoon to sample the first twenty minutes of the disc, a few of the extras on the second disc and a listen to some of the Paul Sammon commentary. Thought I’d jot down a few observations while Claire is chilling catching up on the US Open now that we’re back home unwinding.

Firstly, from what I’ve seen the film looks absolutely gorgeous on 4K UHD, its a splendid piece of work, filmic with grain and with excellent detail and depth of colour. It looks really impressive and I look forward to watching the film when I, er, can (this is another example of just why this 4K format can be so special).

Secondly, Paul Sammon comes across as a total git as usual, name-dropping ad nauseum. God knows I should treat him as some kind of God due to his work promoting Blade Runner with his Future Noir book etc but he’s just the usual condescending Hollywood Diva reciting his own PR sheet to me. Possibly its unintentional, but the guy always grates me whenever I see him in interviews etc;  likely just a bit of friction from our own individual character types being at odds, but my goodness he always comes across as a twat. His commentary over the Blade Runner workprint was bad enough (how he turns a commentary track on Blade Runner into an exercise in boredom is almost a work of art  unto itself), but this one, its in a league all its own. “Impressionistic” is what he calls it, sort-of apologising early on prior to going off-topic with more name-dropping and yes, talking about himself more than Dune. Maybe the commentary settles down after awhile, but listening to twenty-thirty minutes of it was fairly excruciating.

In a sense though, I suppose its a perfect commentary track for Dune because Dune is just that kind of movie. Its a big bloated mess that gets some things perfect and screws up everything else. It looks gorgeous- the set design is amazing, the costumes etc are really impressive, the cast is mostly perfect, but the more it progresses the further it comes off the rails until by the end its a rushed, nonsensical train wreck, a terrible folly. Describing it as flawed is being far too kind. Its broken. Sammon’s waffle about his career etc is kind of perfect; its like he thinks the film is unworthy of his attention. 

So many times I watch Dune and ask myself ‘what were they thinking?’ After all, just look at the soundtrack. Its sort-of by Toto, although it probably really isn’t, at least not in the same way as Queen’s Flash Gordon score was- for one thing, this doesn’t sound like any kind of rock-band score. Its much more traditional than that. Its great, mostly, and works, mostly, but its so traditionally orchestral in places one wonders why they didn’t just go with a Goldsmith or Williams or Horner anyway. Rather than Toto as a band, its mostly keyboardist David Paich and his father Marty Paich who were responsible, and is largely symphonic with electronics and guitars thrown in for texture. Brian Eno’s Prophecy theme steals the show though: pity they didn’t ask Eno to score the entire film himself, that would have been something indeed.

So anyway, that’s about it. Its getting late. I shall return to Dune in due course. I certainly want to watch it one last time before Villeneuve’s attempt arrives and changes everything. In some respects, the inevitable technological differences will be really fascinating. Imagine if John Boorman had made his The Lord of the Rings film back in the 1970s and we could subsequently compare it with Peter Jackson’s trilogy when that came out (best we can do is compare Jackson’s films to Excalibur, I suppose, which is a fascinating comparison in itself).

Enemy (2013)

enemypostrrThe final shot of Denis Villeneuve’s surreal Enemy had me jumping out of my chair- its absolutely shocking and terrifying. I’m not certain what that shot actually means, because the film is something of an enigma, reminding me throughout of early Cronenberg movies. There is the weird sense of not knowing what is reality, and of a character having the fabric of reality pulled from under him: in Videodrome (1982), this is caused by a signal in a pirate video feed affecting the characters brain, while in Enemy it seems to be a video rental recommendation that triggers the main characters crisis. And of course the idea of twins/dominant personalities etc reminds of Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Enemy is a relentlessly dark, fascinating film and another example of just how impressive a film-maker Villeneuve is.

However, if you don’t like spiders, it might be best to give this film a wide berth, because it uses spiders as a major part of its surrealist imagery. The film opens at a clandestine sex show being witnessed by a group of men: after a woman apparently masturbates to orgasm in front of them, a second woman stands naked but for high heels, a menacing-looking tarantula spider then unveiled at her feet. One of the attendees, Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal) can only look through his fingers, evidently more scared of the spider than aroused by the woman or sense of danger. The scene ends with the woman apparently about to crush the spider under her heel. Spiders will become a regular motif during the film, usually haunting dream imagery- we see a giant spider over the city, a naked woman walking down a corridor with a spider’s head, and that final shot where I nearly lost my lunch. Spiders mean something. There also seems to be a visual motif for webs- whether it be the fractured glass of a window in a car accident, or in the street cables/telephone wires in the sky. 

enemy2If you have not seen this film, it might be best not to read the remainder of this post if you intend to give it a go, because I’m going to spend much of the rest of this trying to decipher the film and unravel what it might mean (albeit having only seeing it once, I’m likely wide of the mark). As well as certain Cronenberg movies, this film also reminds me of David Lynch movies, particularly my favourite, Mulholland Drive. Enemy is a mystery, a masterfully obtuse film that only suggests that it can make sense, that there is an internal code that can be used to decipher any meaning. For all I know, there may not be any solution.

Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a college professor living in a quiet, rather monotonous, uneventful life in Toronto. He doesn’t seem to have any freinds or much of a social life, and he seems unable to really connect with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent) other than on a basic physical level- they don’t seem to talk and he seems more attentive to marking his course work: they have an argument and she leaves. He seems so emasculated he doesn’t go after her. 

(Adam’s lectures concern “bread and circuses”, how totalitarian states placate the masses through diversions of entertainment, such as the coliseum of Rome: does this also reference diversions such as the sex show frequented by groups of men we see at the start of the film? Or indeed the virtual escape of films and cinema?)

A colleague at the college recommends a film, Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, and while Adam replies “I don’t like movies” (which may have further implications later on), when Adam passes a video store he rents the film out. He watches it, and then during the night wakes up from a strange dream and goes back to his laptop and plays part of the film again, upon which he realises one of the extras playing a hotel bellhop looks just like him (albeit minus Adam’s beard). Its not clear if he missed this when first watching the film, or if the film has changed- or perhaps if Adam is now imagining the likeness, ‘seeing’ this face in the background of a scene (triggered by the nightmare?) and a sign that he’s beginning to lose his grip of reality. Or perhaps he’s remembering?

Looking up the films credits, he investigates the actor who looks like him- discovering that this apparent twin is Anthony Claire, stage name Daniel Saint Claire, an actor whose talent agency is (conveniently/suspiciously/alarmingly) nearby. Clearly beginning to obsess over this strange doppelganger, Adam gets into the talent agency, is mistaken for being Anthony, who hasn’t been seen there for awhile, and is given a package marked for Anthony’s attention which reveals Anthony’s address (we will later discover that the package also contains a key, which likely links directly to the opening scene at the sex show, which possibly infers the whole film is some elaborate loop or one that holds multiple loops within one greater loop). From the address on the packet Adam divulges Anthony’s phone number and calls it, but Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers- she mistakes Adam’s voice for that of Anthony, and believes he is playing a prank call on her. At first amused she becomes frightened by Adam’s refusal to ‘fess up to the prank and abruptly ends the call. When Adam marshals the courage to ring again, Anthony answers, angry at who he believes is a stalker.

Neither man seems aware the other even existed, and they are indeed quite identical (Anthony now sporting the beard too) and each gets mistaken for the other: actually, however, the men’s personalities are quite tellingly different, Adam quiet and introverted, Anthony confident and assertive. Perhaps they are two facets of one personality, broken.

Now, strange things seem to be happening with Time in this film- in this respect it feels rather like a Christopher Nolan movie. I may be wrong about this, and having only seen the film this one time I cannot be certain, but I think the film is actually some strange loop, or loops within loops. And clearly, I’m not at all certain we have a reliable narrator, and that things we are seeing can be relied upon as ‘real’. Although the film seems to suggest the two men are two separate individuals, each living in seperate, quite distinct apartments with different women, I have to wonder. Helen berates Anthony for an affair, claiming that he is seeing ‘her’ again- I think she is referring to Mary.  Also, Adam searches a box of photos at home and discovers one of him in which half the photo has been cut out, hiding the second person in the photograph: later when he gets in Anthony’s apartment, he sees the same photo, now whole, on display in a frame, with the photo revealing the second person to be Helen. Are we witnessing two time periods, with Adam/Anthony losing his mind and slipping between the two? Anthony pursues, and has sex with, Mary; Adam sneaks into Anthony’s apartment and has sex with Helen (the latter suspecting who he really is but being attracted to him).

Anthony goes to visit his mother (Isabella Rossellini!) who congratulates him on having a proper job and no longer wasting his time trying be a successful actor. So was Anthony an actor who gave it all up to be a history professor, when he ‘becomes’ Adam, if that’s the case, which of them ‘belongs’ in the past and which in the future? I began to think my seperate timelines/multiple personalities theory had some weight, but its doesn’t completely hold true.

A complication is that Helen is as mystified/horrified by the implications of her husbands doppelganger as the men are themselves- Helen visits the college and chances upon Adam, who does not recognise her, they have a conversation in which Adam thinks he is simply making small talk with a stranger, and he leaves, upon which she calls Anthony on her mobile and he answers, wondering where she is, apparently elsewhere- but of course we cannot see Adam as he has gone into the building and may have answered the phone himself, now adopting Anthony’s personality. Helen is upset, can’t understand what is going on- unless of course she KNOWS what is going on, and that she knows that he is suffering from a multiple personality disorder or some kind of schizophrenia, fearing perhaps he is not taking medication and he is slipping back into twin personalities/getting confused. 

The cast is uniformly excellent. Its possibly the finest performance I’ve seen from Gyllenhaal, and the women are brilliant (although Rossellini basically has just a cameo, its a very pleasant one). An intrusive, yet ambient score grates as it gets under your skin sonically; the visual effects are convincing (and at times horrifying). The ending suggests Villeneuve could make one hell of a horror film someday.  

It is a confusing, fascinating, quite disturbing film. Its some kind of genius. It again demonstrates that Villeneuve is without any doubt one of the most exciting and interesting directors working today: his filmography is really quite remarkable. Enemy displays some familiar fascinations of Villeneuve- the lingering shots of the city skyline, of buildings and location, remind of Polytechnique and Blade Runner 2049. The dark mood and slow pace reminds of most every film of his; but of all his films, Enemy feels unusual in its absolute morbid darkness, its Cronenbergian sense of unreliable reality. Maybe its an alien spider invasion movie, an arachnoid Invasion of the Body Snatchers and our protagonist is the only one who realises what is really going on. Maybe its a nod to Lovecraft’s From Beyond or Philip K Dick’s Valis, and Adam is glimpsing (through the spider images) reality pushing in on the ‘bubble’ of our perceived reality. Who knows? All I know is that the film creeped me out and really got under my skin.  

Columbia Noir: The Undercover Man (1949)

cnoir1undContinuing my posts regards Indicator’s wonderful noir collection Columbia Noir #1, we come to the second entry, Joseph H Lewis’ The Undercover Man, starring Glenn Ford as the titular hero… except, well, here’s where I return to that old chestnut of preconceptions, as my experience of this film was frustrated by expecting one thing, and getting quite another. In my defence, the title really is a glaring misnomer; it suggests an undercover cop or FBI agent infiltrating a criminal network and undoing it from within, and this film is nothing of the sort. In the end, this proved to be a very fine film regardless of the distractions from my misconceptions, but I’m certainly beginning to think that I’ll only get the very best from this set when I return for second viewings. 

Director Joseph Lewis would later go on to direct The Big Combo (1955), which is a beautifully-shot film full of noir visual tropes, so much so that its possibly a definitive noir and a perfect film for someone to watch in order to ‘get’ what a noir looks like. The Undercover Man has very few such visual flourishes, is definitely far less stylistic. I remember that The Big Combo teased that bad guys are better lovers and that perhaps strait-laced honest good guys were less interesting to women, and that the films homosexual hitmen suggested a twisted complexity hidden under the surface (much like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks many years later would explore the shadowy underbelly of suburban ‘decent’ American life). The Undercover Man lacks any such pretence or suggestion, and indeed as I have noted, actually refuses to live up to the promise of its own title.

Glenn Ford stars as treasury agent Frank Warren who is tasked to undo a powerful mob boss named ‘The Big Fellow’ who we never actually see other than in a fleeting reverse shot. Dramatically, this rather undermines the film somewhat, removing a lot of tension from the film and the friction of seeing Warren and his target even in the same room. This wasn’t entirely from choice, as the film was curtailed by the Production Code of the time which dictated that any film ‘dealing with the life of a notorious criminal of current or recent times’ could not use that criminals name for fear of glamorising or indirectly popularising that individual or his activities. The Undercover Man is actually about the treasury’s real-life pursuit and successful incarceration of Al Capone, but you wouldn’t really know it, as the film was even forbade from mentioning the city of Chicago, and its only really at the end that the penny drops regards what we’ve actually been watching. 

Ford is very good, as ever. When I was a kid he was one of my very first ‘favourite’ actors, as he seemed to appear in a lot of the films airing on television during my childhood (I recall my pleasure at seeing him appear in the ‘new’ film Superman: The Movie after so many instances of only being seen in old b&w movies). He appears in an earlier Indicator noir release, the brilliant The Big Heat (1953) which is another great Blu-ray disc well worth searching out. He’s the embodiment of the all-American, decent guy, quietly solid and dependable in the face of adversity: I get the feeling he could do this stuff in his sleep, but that’s possibly underappreciating the work he’s doing. Some of the greatest actors never look like they’re acting, managing to avoid drawing attention to themselves: the opposite of those perhaps more famous actors who just seem to be showing off all the time, with performances that actually often detract from the films they are in. Like Lewis’ later The Big Combo, this film seems (almost accidentally in this case) to suggest that good guys are pretty boring and its the bad guys that are more interesting- very noir. Nina Foch returns from the previous disc in this set, Escape in the Fog, but I have to confess I wouldn’t have recognised her (possibly because that film left such a little impression). Here she plays Frank Warren’s wife, Judith, and she leaves a much better account of herself here in a much better role even though she has less screen time. 

Once I realised this film really wasn’t going to be the film its title suggests, I really quite enjoyed it. The film suffers from that lack of tension from not actually putting ‘The Big Fellow’ onscreen (an off-screen bad guy always makes for an awkward foil): simply compare this to The Untouchables approach of actually showing Al Capone (and casting Robert De Niro, no less) and while The Undercover Man is likely more historically accurate, the latter film is a more satisfying, albeit traditional, film experience. Which is not to disparage The Undercover Man‘s own pleasures, its just a very different way of telling essentially the same story and an interesting comparison of different films and the different eras they were made in.

mother!

motherHmm. Let’s get the positive out of the way first- this was possibly the nearest I’ve yet seen to a dreamstate, that is, the sense of being inside a dream, that I have ever seen in a movie. The strange, disorientating, anxiety-ridden sequence of events closely mirrored the feeling I have had in dreams, of being inside/outside of events, the sense of bewilderment and things not really making any sense. If Darren Aronofsky’s aim was to achieve that sense of being in a dream in this film, indeed if that’s what this film really was, a repeating, never-ending dream loop, then I’d say he succeeded, triumphantly.

On the other hand, if he was making some commentary within a deliberately obtuse narrative, some kind of biblical morality tale or something that held within it some kind of meaning, then he failed utterly and the film is garbage.

I don’t refer to films as garbage very often. Flawed, usually. Directors, producer, actors etc don’t in my experience deliberately try to make a ‘bad’ picture- I certainly hope that every film project is made with at the very least, the best of expectations from the start. Outside forces, whether it be cost overruns, location issues, studio interference, there are all sorts of reasons why films can turn out lousy. But when a filmmaker is given pretty much complete creative control, and indeed Final Cut, then the buck stops with him/her. And I think that’s where mother! stands. Its a misguided, wholly self-indulgent piece that fails to connect.

You can be obtuse. I don’t mind David Lynch going all weird at times during his recent Twin Peaks television project. Its fun to try to make sense of things, and indeed, while we may grasp at some explanation and fail, there is always the sense that Lynch himself or his collaborator Mark Frost has a roadmap, that there is some narrative framework there that may elude us, but it’s there. I didn’t get that with mother! and neither did I care. I didn’t empathise with any of the characters, it was all happening at some distance and I didn’t care for it at all. What’s the point of a film if it doesn’t connect in some way and engage the viewer? Surely when you make a film, you enter into some kind of contract with the viewer of that film, even if it’s intended to confuse, to at least make some kind of sense or suggest there is some underlying meaning, even if the viewer cannot grasp it. Somebody can watch Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and be confused by it, but they can have some sense of a narrative arc to the film, the sense that there is some kind of ‘message’ or intention on the part of Kubrick to at least challenge the audience. If only a challenge to watch it again and try to piece together some interpretation.

Here’s a film, rare that it is, that I have no wish to ever see ever again.

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-