In the Tall Grass

tall1Here’s a film which is clearly one in which the creative team just lost control. It starts well enough and seems competently staged; decent cast, intriguing premise… everything seems to be in place for an effective and rewarding horror film, but at the midway point it just falls apart. Its weird, it takes this weird turn and you can see it unravelling before your very eyes, like the whole film just gradually collapses in front of you. By the time it ends, if you manage to stay with it that far, its an aimless mess of a film that makes absolutely no sense. Which had me scratching my head: at what point did this ‘people get lost in a maze’ film get so complicated and become such a messy genre mash-up that it ends with a dumb time travel paradox?*

The director, Vincenzo Natali also wrote the screenplay so likely deserves most of the blame. The film is based on a slim short story co-written by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill (slim in that it lasts about 60+ pages and possibly would have made a great thirty-minute short film),  Evidently in his attempt to enlarge the story into a full movie Natali  got into all sorts of trouble. I haven’t read the original short so have no idea what he took  from it and how much he thought up himself, but I find it difficult to believe King and Hill let themselves get twisted up in a tale of an ancient and very evil rock, wormholes, cults, time travel, religious symbolism, mystical creatures, unwanted pregnancies, obsessive brothers, reluctant boyfriends etc. Well, maybe they did, you never know these days, but certainly Natali throws everything including the kitchen sink into it… except, of course, for a lawnmower (Damn. I thought I’d managed to forget that bloody awful film The Lawnmower Man).

One of my issues with horror films (or films in general, I suppose) when they get all weird, spooky, obtuse and Lynchian, for want of a better word, is that they should still have some kind of internal logic. Being obtuse shouldn’t necessarily mean being confusing. In the Tall Grass has several leaps of logic being excused by cutting to spooky imagery and effects as if that strange imagery is explanation enough- which it isn’t, its just the director’s lazy sleight of hand, an awkward excuse for what happens next.

So its all something of a shame. I wanted to enjoy it, and did for awhile. Sometimes short stories or novellas can be great launchpads for movies, you know, great ideas to spin a great film out of. So many films based on Philip K Dick material became their ‘own thing’ after spinning off the base ideas of a short story- so much so that few of them actually properly resemble the story they are based on (Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric SheepTotal Recall and We Can Remember it For You Wholesale). At the same time though, once they go off and do their own thing they can also fall apart (Minority report and the original The Minority Report story). I suspect this is a case in which the original story was pretty slim and by expanding it into a full movie, it all just fell apart. Perhaps only worth watching to see Patrick Wilson absolutely chewing up the scenery as if he’s convinced he’s in a horror film as good as The Shining and that he’s up to the task of emulating Jack Nicholson (answer: it isn’t and he isn’t).

 

*Spoilers: our pregnant heroine and brother are saved from the grassy horror, resetting back (and we’re just expected to go with it, its not explained how) to just prior to when they entered the field, and instead turn back and, er, go back home.  But it was because they disappeared that our heroine’s estranged boyfriend came out there looking for them and ultimately sacrificed himself to save them. If they don’t disappear, he won’t look for them, so he’ll be back home too. But if he stays home, he won’t have come out searching for them to save them, so they will perish in the field…. Its one of those causality loops that bugs me all the time, including Avengers: Endgame earlier this year. I know, I should just go with it. Its only a movie, as dear old John Brosnan used to say.

Party Like it’s 1989: Batman (4K UHD)

Its difficult for me to seperate the memories of that summer of 1989, and how big an ‘event’ film it was, from Tim Burton’s Batman itself. Its all wrapped up in the same thing- Batdance playing in the charts, Prince’s Batman album, the news reports about its release Stateside, all the marketing/tee-shirts/toys etc. I don’t know what the marketing budget was, but Batmania was huge that summer, with the Bat-logo seemingly everywhere. In some ways the film was a corporate juggernaut, from the casting choices to the use of Prince etc; it’s a testament to Burton’s efforts that the film still feels like it has a singular voice and vision in spite of the demonstrably hands-on studio behind him. 

Batman was the first film I saw in a cineplex, when the Showcase opened up nearby and consigned the old dilapidated ABC cinema in town to history forever (and eventual closure). So Batman remains more a memory of time and place than just a movie that could ever be judged on its own terms- it’s the quintessential ‘event’ movie, in the same way as Star Wars was and Jurassic Park was. Some films are never ‘just’ films.

Its also worthy to note that Batman wasn’t influenced by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, as later versions were (Miller’s opus cast a long shadow over Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Snyder’s Batman v Superman). Instead, it definitely appears more focused on the very first comic books prior to Robin featuring- something evidenced particularly by its oddly 1940s ‘look’ which seems to set the film in some strangely timeless world, a curious mix of period fashions and art deco sets and futuristic gadgets mixed will all sorts of retro stuff. In this respect, it’s a lot more like Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, which itself had a very dreamy, almost lost-Americana feel in which even the films ‘present day’ had a strong sense of early-1970s kitsch even in 1978. Both films of course are commended for taking the original sources very seriously indeed- thanks to endless re-runs on tv of the camp 1960s show, Tim Burton’s film in particular had a big weight around its neck in this regard which is possibly hard to envisage now, all these years later.

The production budget for the film was $35 million, which in today’s money would equal something around $75 million- not as high as might be expected in this age of $150 – $200 million budgets, perhaps indicating the surprisingly smaller scale of the Burton film compared to the later versions (Batman Begins was budgeted at $150 million in 2005, about $198 million in today’s money). The scale of the film is also impacted by the technology of the time. The CGI of the post-Matrix era has really enabled film-makers to open up the possibilities and trickery in superhero films, leaving Burton’s film rather dated with its matte paintings and model shots.

But of course films are always of their time, and I recall even in 1989 being underwhelmed by some of the visual effects and opticals; Batman was always an old-school, overwhelmingly analogue film even in 1989, with obvious nods to German expressionism in film and Citizen Kane and Vertigo. In this respect it remains a certain achievement and a curiously beautiful artifact.

Indeed, it looks damn gorgeous on this amazing 4k release- I’m really quite astonished at how beautiful this film looks now in 4K. Sure much of the fakery still looks fake, but some of the matte painting extensions of Gotham are just breathtakingly beautiful to look at, with new detail and colour breadth. And the sets. Good grief the sets. The interiors are pretty astonishing in detail and lighting (the HDR really benefiting the shadow detail) and the exteriors are really a wonder (the Gotham streets built on the Pinewood backlot and shot at night really impress here with all the added detail). In some ways this Batman is one of the most impressive catalogue 4K UHD discs I’ve yet seen- the HDR isn’t distracting (you’re not blinded by bright lights etc like you can be in some rather revisionary remasters) but simply increases the sense of depth and detail throughout. Its really tastefully done, clearly retaining the intentions of the original film-makers but looking, frankly, better than it ever has, even during its original theatrical presentation in 1989.

An interesting thing rewatching this film after so many years (I really can’t recall when I last saw it, but it was possibly on DVD) is the casting- after seeing Heath Ledger’s Joker, I expected Jack Nicholson’s version to pale in retrospect, but Nicholson’s Joker still impresses, surprisingly still perhaps the definitive Joker so far. There’s something real and fascinating and gritty about him- of course Nicholson is a great actor with real charisma in front of the camera- it’s almost magical here. Jack Napier is clearly a Bad Guy, a self-centered criminal working his way up the crime-syndicate ladder who becomes distinctly unhinged once he becomes the Joker, with what I assume are Nicholson’s ad-libs elevating the movie in just the same way as Robin Williams Aladdin several years later. His Joker is mean and scary and funny in a really fine performance, and yeah, he actually kills people in this- I was surprised when watching this again to see both Joker and Batman kill people. Its a surprisingly violent film considering it also lacks some of the CGI hysterics/stunts etc that later contemporary superhero films are afforded now. Burton actually wanted to cast Brad Dourif as the Joker- boy would that have been a different movie.

Jack Palance of course is brilliant, the only problem with his Carl Grissom is that he’s not in the film enough, Palance having a huge weighty gravitas in the few minutes of screentime he has. Kim Basinger and Jerry Hall remind us just how old the film is/when it was made, Basinger reduced to just screaming damsel in distress most of the film and Hall simply a trophy moll, it’s clearly all stuff they wouldn’t get away with today (Basinger replacing Sean Young as original choice for Vicki Vale, how weird would that have been for me as a Blade Runner fan). I always liked Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox, a finely tuned comic performance that is quite measured and successful considering its in the same film as Nicholson’s Joker. Wuhl has always been one of the things I liked most in this movie.

Batman is curiously dated- as I have said, it was dated even in 1989 in some ways, and hasn’t ageed well since, but I did enjoy rewatching it. The saddest thing is that so much was dropped/changed when the sequel was made, and while many seem to think Batman Returns is superior I really don’t like it. I preferred the originals big Pinewood exteriors and interior sets, and really hurt by how much of the cast that we lost (I always thought Batman 2 should have reprised Billy Dee William’s Harvey Dent and featured Two-Face as the villian, it’s such just a lost opportunity). Batman Returns just felt like too different a film, and the title oddly ironic, as it wasn’t the return of the Batman I had so enjoyed in 1989- it actually felt like a reboot.

You will have noticed I haven’t mentioned the biggest issue I always had with this film- Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and Batman. His Wayne is okay I guess, but his Batman really seems limited. Maybe it was the suit. It looks okay but it was clearly a bitch to shoot, it looks like he can hardly move in the bloody thing. The cape is almost a funny throwback to the 1960s show how it flaps around much of the time, and any fighting sequence is hampered by the suits inability to actually do anything in it without falling over. I always watch the film thinking about Spielberg’s ordeals shooting the mechanical shark Bruce in Jaws and feel that Burton must have had similar sleepless nights with that damn Batsuit. They managed to light it okay in most scenes, with the film’s expressionistic approach and deep shadows helping hide many of its failings, but it’s not the suit a real crime-fighter would employ without being put to death by the first serious super-villain. Its one of the things that dates the film really, but what the hell, it was 1989 I guess.

And of course, even as a big Prince fan, it really does seem weird, his music featuring in this. With it 1940’s looks it always seems funny to see Joker’s goons lumbering around with a 1980’s boombox and Partyman blasting out of its speakers. But yeah, what the hell, it was indeed 1989 afterall. Party on.

 

Napoleonic California: The Terror

terror32017.71: The Terror (1963)

An impossibly young Jack Nicholson plays a Napoleonic officer with a lazy californian accent, Boris Karloff plays a reclusive Baron with a shady past (with a twist straight out of leftfield) and Dick Miller plays his tough-guy servant as if he somehow stepped straight off a tough New York street. Its one of those old films full of utterly bizarre casting, a cheap-as-chips exploitation b-movie (Karloff filmed his scenes in just four days, using sets from Corman’s previous flick, The Raven, I think, just before they were torn down) that doesn’t make any sense at all.

And yet there is a certain charm about it. Partly it is that fun, twisted casting. It is strange indeed to see Nicholson phoning-in a performance so early in his career, or maybe it’s just that he isn’t taking any of it as seriously as Karloff, who clearly relishes it like it’s his crack at Shakespeare (but that was true of Karloff in every film). Any historical accuracy is purely coincidental, simply adding to the dreamlike sensibilities of the confused script and the vibrant, richly colourful lighting that reminded me of ’60s Star Trek.

Indeed, it’s almost shocking to reflect that as a ghost story (before it veers off into something else) this film almost works, in spite of all that is so wrong about it- the plot-holes and inconsistencies lend it an air of dreamlike strangeness that threatens to make it a much better film than it is. But of course, it’s all accidental, a combination of rushed and fractured shooting and a script that looks like it was cobbled from out-takes from other scripts (like the sets themselves, evidently, as many props and scenery look like leftovers from earlier Poe films by Corman). With its cast and strange sensibilities it’s a rewarding curio, if nothing else.

Anybody remember The Two Jakes?

jakesSo, I was suddenly caught reminiscing about The Two Jakes (1990). Haven’t seen the film in years- in fact, not since the VHS days when I bought what was  a pan and scan copy in the early days of sell-through.  The film seems largely forgotten now, oddy not available on Blu-ray at all (which, considering the pedigree of its cinematography, is something of a tragedy, probably- add it to the list of great films still waiting a HD release). The film was a blind-buy for me, inspired by my adoration for Chinatown (1974).

Well, there’s the elephant in the room: Chinatown is a classic, and didn’t really need a sequel. Shades of Blade Runner there, which is why my mind turned to The Two Jakes in the first place. You see, almost against the odds, The Two Jakes turned out to be a pretty damn good film in its own right- a different kind of film to Chinatown, really, but beautifully made. Its sincere to the original and doesn’t hurt it at all- infact, it exists quite separately but remains a fine continuation for the lead character of private eye J.J.Gittes.

It was directed by the star of both Chinatown and The Two Jakes– Jack Nicholson, and proved to be something of a labour of love for him I think- or an itch he simply had to scratch, something he had to prove? It was a ballsy move, starring and directing in a sequel to such a revered film as the original was. The cast around him was pretty impressive- Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly, Madeline Stowe. Written by Robert Towne and photographed by the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond, its credentials are plain to see, and it all paid off handsomely.

But you see the parallels: they are obvious. Distant sequel to a great film that doesn’t need one, a returning star with a fine new cast around him, a seperate story, a great cinematographer. Well. If Blade Runner 2049 turns out as well as The Two Jakes did, it will be great. Maybe a welcome moment of history repeating? Certainly it’s a fine example for the makers of the new Blade Runner. Maybe an omen for the fans, too.

The Raven (1963)

raven1Watching The Raven is a delight, but I must confess it hardly feels like a proper Edgar Allen Poe movie. In a similar way to how The Haunted Palace was really a H P Lovecraft story posing as a Poe story (bookending the film with Price reading passages from Poe’s poem The Haunted Palace to maintain its place in the Poe series of AIP films by Roger Corman), I got the feeling that Price reciting lines from Poe’s The Raven, and then diverting into something else entirely, was a way of launching it into some other literary territory. This time it wasn’t Lovecraft but another of his Weird Tales contributors, Clark Ashton Smith, that was the inspiration.

Or maybe not. I’m not aware of any specific leanings towards CAS being admitted by the films creators or mentioned in the films credits. I doubt that the films screenwriter Richard Matheson ever admitted to it or likely even intended it, but Matheson was obviously aware of the writings of Clark Ashton Smith so there is a suspicion that its possible. I may indeed be barking up the proverbial wrong literary tree, but it just feels very much like a CAS story.He wrote such wonderfully rich, powerfully vivid stories of sorcerers and magic, that The Raven‘s central theme of three extravagant rival magicians, played with such scenery-chewing aplomb by horror thespians Price, Karloff and Lorre, seems to somehow channel the spirit and vitality of CAS’ prose so well, intended or not.

The obvious problem for any movie based on Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting poem The Raven is that there is little cohesive narrative to it- certainly not enough to fill a movie. Richard Matheson solved the problem by using the poem simply as a starting point for the film; not only that, but he dropped any leanings towards any horror implied by the title or by the film being part of Corman’s Poe series of films, by instead turning it into a comedy. And it works- it just doesn’t feel, as I stated earlier, authentically ‘Poe’. Perhaps it was turning it into a comedy that lost ‘the Poe’, but Clark Ashton Smiths stories certainly had plenty of macabre humour, and the subject matter echoes some of his writings.

But all this may be utter tosh and hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, as The Raven is a hoot, whatever its literary origin/influences. You just have to be in the right frame of mind, as it can be rather disorientating early on, if you are expecting a serious horror film and find yourself instead watching this strange comedic tale. Its one of those weird films in which nothing seems real, the characters behaving very oddly indeed.

The cast in particular is a joy, and includes a very young Jack Nicholson which seems quite bizarre, in a ‘was he ever really so young?’ sort of way (all the time I have known of him he always seemed middle-aged onwards re: The Shining, Batman etc, so much so that seeing him so young, and so, well, heroic/innocent/non-crazy in this does seem weird). Indeed Nicholson’s casting, considering his fame afterwards, in such a minor role in what is obviously a very b-movie production just makes the film seem more nuts than intended, somehow. Chief delight though are the great actors chewing up the scenery, hamming it up with the warm Matheson script (and ad-libbing and improvising like crazy when they aren’t, apparently). It looks like the film was just great fun to be involved with when making it, and its infectious too- by the midway point, whatever misconceptions you may have had, you can’t help but get carried away with it.

It is, to be sure, daft 1960s hokum, like the Batman tv series or the campier episodes of Star Trek. As opposed to Hammers more serious Gothic horrors of the period, these Corman films always had a West Coast, Rock and Roll, ironic sensibility and none more so than in this film.

Fifty Great Films: Chinatown (1974)

chinatown1Ah, that gorgeous Jerry Goldsmith score…. Watching Chinatown again (this time on Blu-ray) having not seen it for a few years…. I wonder what is left to say, after so many years, about such a universally recognised classic film-  well, its certainly a great film. One of the greats, to be sure, which had me thinking about writing a group of posts as I watch/re-watch what I consider to be fifty great films. Hell, at the very least its a great excuse to re-visit some old faves. So Chinatown is the first.

Chinatown is one of those films that just seems to have come together at the right time at the right place. Everyone involved, cast and crew, is at the top of their game and that strange synchronicity occurs, in which something truly great is created as if by some strange alchemy of art and craft and business and circumstance. I had almost forgotten just how great and nuanced an actor Nicholson once was. Here he is just at the right age and at the right place at the right time to be JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes, in just the same way as Robert DeNiro was perfect as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Some guys are just born for a part. And Jerry Goldsmith, at the height of his powers, knocking this score out in just nine days. Good grief. Robert Townes screenplay… John A Alonzo’s cinematography… the cast… its all motion picture gold.

Watching it again I was rather oddly reminded of Blade Runner, which would be made less than a decade later; another film greater than its parts that the passing of time just enriches somehow. But maybe that’s just me referencing Blade Runner again… (yeah, you can be sure Scott’s classic will be amongst my top fifty). But Chinatown just, well, seems to share Blade Runner‘s feel somehow. Chinatown is as much about its sense of place and time as it is about its characters (its 1930s LA as much a character of the film as the 2019 LA of Scotts’ future noir would be in its own film); events unfold carrying the protagonist along, the pace is slow, measured… Jack Nicholson’s weary J J ‘Jake’ Gittes seems as aimless as Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard. They are both trapped in worlds and lives they don’t really control, victims of fate; witnesses of the films events- I guess that’s the whole film noir/future noir vibe.

A summary of the story almost seems perfunctory, incidental. In 1930s Los Angeles, cop-turned-private eye JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes (Jack Nicholson) makes a living from sleazy divorce cases, and is called upon to investigate Hollis Mulwray, the head of the Department of Water and Power, whose wife believes is having an affair. The case seems like straightforward adultery – but a mystery soon unravels and Gittes finds he is way over his head in something much murkier and deadlier. Each time he thinks he has a grip on things a new piece of evidence seems to undermine his expectations, a revelation setting off another bombshell/twist until we reach the devastating, inevitable conclusion. Its a dense film – it is, thank God, one of those films that if you walk out and miss five minutes then you have no hope of returning to it and still following it, or at least of picking up its nuances. It certainly reveals much in repeated viewings, although there is a sense of recurring nightmare here, when we know what’s coming, but somehow forlornly hope events will change for the better (but of course they don’t). Its a great, great film, a study of futility and corruption and human greed and sordid depravity and of coldness. The good guys don’t always win, the innocent don’t always get justice, the bad guys don’t always get punished. Sometimes you just can’t do anything, you are simply a victim of inevitable fate. The last line spoken lingering for a long time  in the viewers mind after the film concludes-

“Forget it, Jake… it’s Chinatown.”