Flee to the Movies… but not The Omega Man (obviously)

omega1Listening to Horner soundtracks in my car, commuting to work. Every day a new score, every day less cars on the roads, less people on the streets, the world slowly becoming more The Omega Man. Its funny how the routine drive to/from work that was once pretty changeless day to day, week to week, month to month, has suddenly been so transformed. It was getting so I could drive to work and judge whether I was running early or late by at which point on my journey I would pass by certain pedestrians walking on their regular routes to work or shop etc. I drive alone in my car but the familiar faces almost seem like partners on my journey. A woman who I have figured out to be a teacher at a nearby infant school (regular as a watch term-time, absent during the holidays), or an old man with a hunched back walking his dog… both gone now, and so many others. Suddenly that whole landscape has changed. Call it Covid-19 Blues, a lonelier car journey than usual.

Has anyone else noticed the horrible feeling of reality come crashing in, when you’ve just watched a good film and then its over and -boom- you’re back to the Real World with all this Covid-19 nightmare going on? I suppose its all a part of the escapist appeal of movies anyway, but its pretty horrible, lately, coming out of a great movie and suddenly realising whats really going on. There’s a moment of ignorant bliss, basking in the ‘reality’ of the film before that glow fades and reality bites. Anybody else pointedly looking at watching more positive/escapist films than stuff, like, say The Omega Man or Soylent Green etc? Its funny how, when life is fine, you don’t mind dipping into something Dystopian or dark, but when everything in the world turns lousy, that stuffs just plain too horrible to bear and you need something rosier, happier.

There was a time, back in 1982, when I remember Blade Runner seeming dark and moody and Dystopian. Its practically a Utopian Ideal now.

I hadn’t listened to Horner’s scores for awhile. I stumbled into it by accident, my USB stick on random suddenly dropping onto the Main Title of Brainstorm, and that was it, I was hooked, the random function deactivated, listening to the whole album. Brainstorm is such a clear, fresh and astonishing work: the first James Horner score I ever bought, on a TER vinyl that I feared I’d wear out (a few years later it would be one of my very first purchases on Compact Disc, an expensive Varese import). Pretty much every day I would be driving to a different score, my USB stick going alphabetically through the ones I’d put onto the stick a few years back: Braveheart, Cocoon, Glory… the latter in particular bringing incredibly vivid memories of distant days, of blasting out Charging Fort Wagner racing through Cannock Chase in my first car (a banged-up old death-trap posing as a Mini Cooper) with my mate Andy: sun-drenched forest and Horner in his prime, glorious indeed. Its funny the things you remember like yesterday, when yesterday can be such a blur.

Mind, the last several yesterdays don’t deserve remembering at all, do they, so I welcome forgetting the details, the general darkness enough to send me scurrying for something pleasantly positive from my shelves of discs. I re-watched Gladiator the other day (albeit a 4K-UHD edition I bought in a sale a little while ago) and it was great, held up pretty well. Oliver Reed is magnificent in that; every time I watch Gladiator I wonder at what the hell happened with that guy, what amazing roles/films we missed out on because of what I assume were his personal demons. I don’t know much about him- its a funny thing, mind, how he seems to turn up in quite a few of the Hammer films in the Indicator box-sets (he even has a turn in The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll that I watched a few nights ago: there was the weird feeling, seeing him in Gladiator, so old worn-out looking, shortly before his death,  while in Jekyll, so young and handsome (I guess the women in the audience adored his angry charms) with his whole life and career ahead of him.

johncAnother film I watched the other night, well a part of it, anyway, as I stumbled on it channel-hopping just prior to going to bed, was John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s wonderfully evocative love-letter to the old sci-fi pulps that Star Wars etc summarily ‘homaged’. Hadn’t seen it for awhile, I really enjoyed  what I saw and really need to find out my Blu-ray copy for a proper re-watch at a more civil time. It still seems mightily impressive,  looking gorgeous and sounding even better, with that fantastic Michael Giacchino score. That was a film from just before Disney purchased Lucasfilm (indeed, John Carter was killed by that particular deal) and you know, it was pretty clear to me from just watching half-hour of it, that the film was better than any of the Disney Star Wars films that replaced it. Whenever I see John Carter I wonder about all those other adventures on Barsoom we were robbed of. There ain’t no justice.

Ugh. I feel my mood slipping darkly. Maybe its time for The Omega Man after all… if you can’t beat it, wallow in it.

The King

thekingOne thing is certain about this gloomy, low-key, decidedly modern take on Henry V: Timothée Chalemet is a future superstar, and his performance here in the title role has me so intensely excited for Villeneuve’s Dune next year that its almost painful knowing that film is still over a year away. If his Paul Atreides is as dark and moody and charismatic as his young Hal here, we will be in for something truly special. He can hold the viewers attention with a frown or a stare, and is surprisingly adept physically considering his slender boyish frame- he commands the film in every scene he is in, holding his own despite the great cast that threatens to steal the film from him.

If only the film was the sum of its parts. Certainly, it looks great, with beautiful cinematography and excellent art direction and set design. It sounds even better, with an absolutely gorgeous score by Nicholas Britell that deserves Oscar attention but will no doubt be ignored. It runs over two hours so never feels particularly rushed, the editing as deft as one could hope for, giving the scenes time to breathe, and the performances opportunity to shine.  As for those performances, Chalemet as I’ve noted is excellent, but he is ably supported by a terrific cast – Ben Mendelssohn, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, all in very fine form. This film should be great.

But something seems missing. I suspect its the fault of a script that really fails to ignite, but also feel that the choice may be deliberate- this film could easily have descended into the formulaic theatrics of Braveheart or Gladiator or so many other stirring historical epics that sweep people away with spectacle and stirring words and OTT performances. This film is very low-key, a gloomy, almost melancholic take on material many will be familiar with, albeit more sincere adaptations of the bard. I would imagine its an attempt to be fresh and ‘new’ but it ironically works against it.

It’s a difficult thing, sometimes, having seen so many films, I’m certain it colours my perception of new films, possibly unfairly. Someone younger than twenty, say, coming to this film having seen few if any historical dramas might come away absolutely impressed and overwhelmed in a very positive way. A whole new generation might connect with this film in ways I cannot fathom, seeing things in Chalemet’s performance that reflects the modern world and how their generation sees it through this tale of a distant past. Something, for me, was missing, however, and I’ve been quite perturbed by it. There’s possibly nothing as frustrating as a good film that might have been truly great. Nothing quite as puzzling as trying to find what is missing and not being certain. As I’ve noted, I suspect its really a matter of the script and its focus on keeping things realistic and reducing the tendency for theatrics. I applaud the intent but wonder if it was ill-judged, but in any case, I am sure I will return to this film again, and that’s not something you can often say about Netflix Originals.

All the Money in the World (2017)

all1Here’s the thing about Ridley Scott films- with a catalogue of great or at the very least memorable films to his name, particularly his earliest films like Alien or Blade Runner, or perhaps later efforts like Gladiator, its difficult for any new addition to the list being given a break, or accepted as just being an average movie. There is this weight of expectation attached to them, as if every film he ever makes has to somehow measure up to his greats- sure, it’d be wonderful if they did, but its really an unfair expectation, isn’t it.

Besides, (reduce to a whisper)  I always suspect directors get too much credit anyway, so perhaps its unfair to saddle them wit all the blame too. In just the same way as its the players on the pitch in a game of football who get, or fail to get, a result, as much as the manager on the touchline who gets credited for masterminding a win or blamed/sacked when things go awry, on a movie production there are too many factors that effect how a film turns out for it to be fair that a director gets lauded or pilloried depending on the final product. I suppose much of this treads into auteur theory, with directors treated as the author of movies as if they created a film themselves- I suspect films are much more collaborative than that.

One thing I will say for Ridley Scott films, as I’m speaking clearly as a fan here who has followed his career since 1979 reading interviews in Fantastic Films way back then, is that he is a consummately formidable technician. His later films may not artistically or thematically match his first films, but he shoots them extremely well, speedily and on budget, demonstrating such control its something to marvel at in a world in which so many films go over-schedule or over-budget or dragged down by re-shoots.  Ridley gets the job done. The studios must love having him at the helm- box office be damned, at least they know a film is going to get made on  time and with solid quality, and The Martian has proved he still has hits in him.

That being said of course, All the Money in the World was troubled in post-production and required substantial reshoots,  a scandal involving allegations made against original star Kevin Spacey causing him having be replaced. The fact that, had it not been so well documented, watching the film you would have no idea that Christopher Plummer was a late replacement is a pretty formidable testament to the quality of Ridley Scott’s professionalism. Simply as an exercise in last-minute film-making its pretty jaw-dropping that the film even works.

The film was also pulled into the argument over inequality of pay between actresses and their male co-stars.  When Ridley and the studio decided the film could not be released with Spacey still in the film, he recast with Plummer but this triggered a clause in  Mark Wahlberg’s contract, which had co-star approval. Wahlberg, or his team of lawyers and agents, simply stated that he would not approve Plummer and attend re-shoots without an additional payment of $1.5 million, essentially holding the film to ransom. Co-star Michelle Williams didn’t have that clause in her contract so attended the re-shoots for something like $80 a day. To add further salt in the wound, Williams told the USA Today that “”I said I’d be wherever they needed me, whenever they needed me. And they could have my salary, they could have my holiday, whatever they wanted. Because I appreciated so much that they were making this massive effort.” Thinking about it, this film got such a beating you could argue it was one of those cursed productions you sometimes read about. I read later that Wahlberg donated his fee to Times Up, but I’m sure most of Hollywood wishes they had his management team.

(It might be interesting to note regards the inequality of actors pay that Wahlberg’s original fee for the film was $5 million -itself much less than what he is usually paid-  and Williams $625,000).

all2So having written all that, I realise that I written nothing really about the film itself. Well, considering all the hysterics surrounding it, I must say I was surprised how good it was and how much I enjoyed it. Clearly its one of Ridley’s lesser films but its nonetheless a solid piece of work graced by some fine performances, particularly Plummer who is frankly astonishing considering he was a last-minute replacement in scenes shot in just 10 days. His octogenarian billionaire, at the time the richest man who had ever lived, is a fascinating character and Plummer clearly relishes the role in every moment on screen. Its impossible to say what Spacey originally brought to the role but its hard to imagine the film is any the lesser without him. You might be forgiven for expecting Plummer’s scenes to feel rushed and perhaps feel ‘off’, be technically inferior to the original shoot but they actually become the cold icy heart of the film and its finest asset.

The film is based on  the true story of  the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) in 1973,  and the increasingly desperate struggles of his mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to ensure his release when his grandfather refuses to pay up. While the kidnappers threaten to start sending the boy back in pieces, his grandfather spends his money on paintings instead and his time gleefully monitoring ticker-tape reports of his ever-increasing wealth.

Wahlberg is perhaps miscast in the film. He plays Fletcher Chase, one of Getty Sr’s negotiators who Getty tasks with bringing the boy home without giving the kidnapper’s any money. In a traditional Hollywood thriller with someone like Wahlberg in the role, you’d perhaps expect something like a Taken movie to ensue as the guy does what a guy has to do to bring the boy home and let the body count be damned. But as this is based on a true story and that didn’t happen, it seems a bit of misdirection on the film-makers part. As it is, left without kick-ass action Wahlberg sort of drifts around looking a little lost. Why spend all those millions on him if he’s not doing what he usually gets paid all those millions to do?

WIlliams is very good, with a captivating performance that almost measures up to that of Plummer. Together they rather tease the classic movie that this might have been, but really its not a bad film at all. Ridley Scott captures the sense of period as brilliantly as ever, making it look so easy,  and moves the plot forward with the efficiency he is so famous for now, until the film ends in a climactic hide and seek sequence that almost feels like its from some other movie. The real center of the film is Plummer’s performance and this strange real-life Citizen Kane, which rather unbalances a film whose drama should revolve around the kidnapped boy. I suspect there are two films here, and its that second film made in the re-shoots that steals it.

Hail the Vikings!

vik1Anybody who can watch the return home of the Viking longship near the start of The Vikings (1958) without a stirring in their heart has no soul. The exquisite photography of the great Jack Cardiff, the gorgeous location, the soaring music of Mario Nascimbene… its one of the greatest scenes in movie history in my book. It’s a timeless, beautiful scene, harking back to some Golden Age of movies now lost to us. Everytime I watch it, it’s like falling in love again, and I wonder what it must have been like, seeing it on the big screen back in 1958. I don’t know why exactly- it’s some sublime combination of music, photography and age, intangible but undeniable; pure cinema.

I’m pleased to report that this scene, and the film in general, looks brilliant on Blu-ray. Our American cousins (and those here in the UK who are region free) will have known this for years, but it’s wonderful to finally have the film available to those of us in the UK who are region-locked, thanks to the Eureka label.  Indeed, while there are sections where the print shows its age, for the majority of the time it looks simply phenomenal and is the best quality I have ever seen the film. The rich colours of Jack Cardiff’s technicolour cinematography are breathtaking, rich and vibrant and leaping from the screen. For any fan of this film this blu-ray is a real treat.

What might be a surprise for some is just how well the film holds up in general. I suppose it could be argued some of the Boys Own Adventure battle scenes look a little bit cardboard swords and shields, but the star cast and the tight, efficient script sails (sic) above such censor-ridden limitations (I recall the trouble Hammer had back then with censors so can only imagine how The Vikings was limited with what it could manage). At its heart is a rolocking adventure with bold heroes and a dastardly English king, and I suppose it could well be argued that Kirk Douglas is more anti-hero than hero, lending a rather modern sensibility to his role. To be clear, this film is pretty perfect and in no way needs a remake, but I’m surprised one hasn’t been done – a blockbuster, star-ridden remake akin to Braveheart or Gladiator seems a no-brainer.

Thankfully we’ve never seen that remake, though. Not yet, anyway….

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

fall22016.37: The Fall of the Roman Empire (Network Airing)

Back when I saw Gladiator, people often seemed to talk about The Fall of the Roman Empire, and now I know why- the first twenty minutes or so of Gladiator is pretty much the first hour of The Fall of the Roman Empire. We meet Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), on a long campaign away from Rome battling the Germanic barbarian hordes. Vast dark forests, falling snow… just like in Ridley Scott’s movie. Noble Roman army Commander Livius (Stephen Boyd), who is in love with Aurelius’ daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren) is the man that Aurelius wishes his own son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), could have been. Surely I’ve seen this film before, I thought, only it starred Richard Harris, Russell Crowe , Connie Nielsen and Joaquin Phoenix? Indeed, other than the character of Livius being named Maximus in the Ridley Scott film, even the characters names are the same.

Aurelius is close to dying and advises Livius that it is he who Aurelius intends to be his heir. Unfortunately before Aurelius can put things in writing to ensure his wishes are obeyed, he is murdered by aides of Commodus and it is he who becomes Emperor.  It is only at this point that the two films diverge, Gladiator becoming a Ben Hur-inspired story of betrayal and revenge of a murdered family, whereas The Fall of the Roman Empire descends into something of a long-winded potboiler. At least we care about what happens to Maximus- in this film, Livius, by allowing Commodus to the throne without any argument, actually dooms Rome. Some kind of hero. Even at the end of the film with half the cast dead and Rome finally falling apart, all I could do was point at Livius and say “it’s all his fault!” With heroes like that, who needs villains?

The Fall of the Roman Empire dates back to the tail-end of the period of big historical/ Biblical epics that gave us Ben Hur,Quo Vadis, The Robe, Cleopatra and Spartacus and so many others. The Fall of the Roman Empire may actually have been responsible for ending that cycle of films because it is pretty awful and was a terrible commercial failure at the time (less than two million earned against a $20 million budget, a shortfall that was catastrophic).

The problem is the script. This is an overlong and dreary film- at something around three hours long it actually feels much longer. Its certainly is ambitious -its huge scale alone is testament to that- but the film needs some solid foundation to its spectacle. The cast all seem to be woefully miscast (Boyd is a good villain, but a lousy hero, for instance) and all at the mercy of the terrible script- the dialogue really is simply awful. Director Anthony Mann seems more interested in the huge scale of the production and getting it on the screen than looking after his actors and giving them any meaningful direction. Yeah, he put impressive visuals on the screen but it’s all for nothing, a warning for future directors of blockbusters that doesn’t seem to have been heeded.

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Visually it really is quite spectacular. The sets are terrific and the photography really quite beautiful, particularly the outside location stuff- at times it looks quite modern. The scale is huge; The Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most impressive such films that I have ever seen- huge outdoor sets,with  vast armies of extras. The scale is quite breathtaking, particularly as it’s of the pre-CGI era when the massive crowds are real (an organisational nightmare I’m sure) and likewise the sets too. Sometimes I would look at some of the shots convinced it involved a matte painting but then the camera would move and the extras in the distance reveal its all indeed quite real. Incredible production design really- quite immense, but it only accentuates how terrible the story is. You don’t really care about any of the characters, none of them really convince. It’s a terrible mess of a film, well-intentioned that it may have been. A cast of thousands can be just as boring as a modern blockbuster with thousands of virtual characters. Maybe the film-makers thought that with such huge sets and vast extras that that would be enough, that their work was done. Alas, they hadn’t really started.

But it does really look beautiful.