Those were the days- Cinefantastique Vol 9, Issue 1

cinefantast9.1One of the pleasures of my old film magazine collection -scattered and rarely looked at, it may be- is how it affords the feel of a time machine in ways that the internet never will. Looking through old issues of Starburst or Fantastic Films or, in this case, Cinefantastique is a curious window into the past. My clear-out/tidy-up of my back room etc has unearthed all sorts of distractions that halt me in my tracks and make this clear-out stretch on into weeks. It could be endless at this point.

So Cinefantastique, Vol.9, Issue 1; its the Alien issue, and we’re presumably into summer/Autumn 1979.

Its the previews that always get me. Back when these mags teased the first images from coming attractions and always had an open, hopeful mind regards whether it might actually turn out ok or not. Naturally in 2022 I know better.

The first film previewed in this issue is Saturn 3, describing the initial genesis of John Barry’s project, and how the poor man was dismissed from the film’s directors chair amid tensions between the cast (and really, Kirk Douglas’ ego and Hollywood clout back then must have had the gravitational clout of a Black Hole that Disney would be envious of) . The article mentions Barry moving to a second-unit directing gig on The Empire Strikes Back and his sudden death from meningitis in May. I remember it also reported by Starburst at the time, awfully sad. Barry was a real talent and only 43 when he passed. Saturn 3 didn’t really turn out that great, but I have it on Blu-ray and had mixed feelings about it last time I saw it. It’ll never be great, but its interesting how different times/fashions/styles imbue even a poor film with a curious second-wind once removed from its immediate era. It just occurred to me that Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett are gone now, as is Roy Dotrice, who dubbed Harvey Keitel’s lines when the actor refused (or was unavailable to) re-record his dialogue.

Turn the page and suddenly its a two-page spread about Star Trek nearing completion. Back when Star Trek was going to be the biggest film ever, another Star Wars-type hit, or actually really good. Here we are 43 years later and Paramount are doing a 4K Directors Cut to finally get the damn thing done right. How strange is that? Imagine tapping a reader on the shoulder back then and saying “you’ll be waiting awhile longer yet.” Its a crazy world.

Those were heady times though. Turn the page and The Black Hole is coming, Disney doing a Star Wars knock-off decades before they resorted to buying the damn thing from Lucas to make it, er, official. The article actually makes Disney’s film look really promising. There’s mention of Tobe Hooper making a TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot, which actually turned out okay- when I first saw it on the BBC it creeped the hell out of me. A page is devoted to, ahem, Flesh Gordon 2. I’ve never seen either Flesh Gordon film, in fact I didn’t know there was a second one, was this even released or did Dino nuke it with his official Flash Gordon being made (a small section of the previews announces that Flash Gordon had begun shooting)?

Turn the page- The Martian Chronicles with Rock Hudson, Isaac Asimov NOT writing Battlestar Galactica, Dick Smith joining Altered States, and a little film titled The Empire Strikes Back. Its curious that even with the film a year away, much of the plot was known -and summarised here- and the magazine with a Sense of Wonder is predictably dismissive: “science fiction buffs hoping for a serious fantasy film come May, when THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is released, will have to look elsewhere.” Ouch. I always forget just how po-faced this mag often was, or the high standards that editor/publisher Frederick S. Clarke demanded (to his endless disappointment, far as I could tell). Even a year off, TESB was being shot down by Cinefantastique.

The Alien coverage is pretty interesting. I always find these articles from when the film came out really fascinating; without the perspective later making-of books etc have, the sense of the ‘now’ and Alien being just this one shocker of a movie, its really telling.  And of course, in this case, interviewing Ridley Scott with all those films we all know now, still unmade ahead of him. He mentions an initial idea of using the music of Tomita for the soundtrack, and describes Tomita’s electronic version of Mars, the Bringer of War from Holst’s “The Planets.” In a comment that may have been later picked upon by James Cameron, Ridley mentions that Mars music and says “..that music said all there was to say about what the alien was. Imagine many of them, a lot of them, having the capability of getting about. Christ Almighty!” Ridley you just broke the plot of Aliens in summer of 1979, and Cinefantastique had a scoop and didn’t know it.

The issue’s centerspread is Giger’s Necronom IV painting, which inspired the design of the film’s Alien creature. Its a beautiful painting, endlessly fascinating every time I ever see it. I pause over that spread for some time. What a strange, nightmarish genius Giger was. He always struck me as a bit of a one-trick pony with that biomechanical style (it certainly didn’t at all suit some of the later films he worked on) but he absolutely hit pay-dirt regards Alien. Timeless genius. There’s an interview with Bolaji Badejo, the Nigerian student spotted in a pub in London who donned that alien suit. Its an interesting article, but also rather sad – he died in1992, just thirteen years later, at the far-too young age of 39. Reading his comments at the time, hopeful he might appear in future Alien films in that costume… yeah, our perspective today can be rather depressing.

Stories from the shelf (Part One)

shelfoneEvery shelf tells a story. Here’s the top shelf of a corner unit that contains many of my film soundtracks collected over the years (mostly the ‘premium’ limited expansions that I largely had to import from America). It possibly says more about how my brain works than anything else, as I clearly tried to make it alphabetical, or something, starting therefore with John Barry and a few titles beginning with ‘A’ then going somewhat astray. Lower shelves in future instalments will be all Goldsmith and Horner and Williams and more, but I’m going to start from the top and work my way down, so we begin with John Barry.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Barry, but I know many film soundtrack lovers are absolutely convinced he’s brilliant and top of the pile. One soundtrack I didn’t squeeze in here and probably should have is his soundtrack for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which is probably my favourite of his (and my favourite Bond film, too). I suspect the reason why that expanded CD isn’t on this shelf is because I’m not actually sure where it is…

You may find a recurrent theme going on, where notable absences come to my mind for the same reason.  I’ve been buying too many CDs for so many years, and part of the reason why I put up some more shelving last summer was to put my favourite and most treasured discs in one place so I know where to find them (this years project is to do the same with my books but hey-ho we’ll see how THAT goes). Part of the problem is that, once a disc is ripped onto my laptop/external hard drive, I can then listen to it often but without going back to the CD, so that disc actually gets untouched for months, years…

Anyway, back to this shelf. And Barry. My issue with Barry is likely the same reason his devotees are so devoted. Barry had a knack of finding a ‘killer’ theme and therefore compilation albums of his soundtracks are often very successful, but unfortunately (from my point of view) this would also prove to be Barry’s weakness in his actual full scores, and certainly score expansions on CD. Barry would write a wonderful theme for a film and then he would use that for most of the score, reworking it and re-orchestrating it endlessly. His fans adore this, I’m sure. My personal mileage varies so I only have select albums, and one or two even then only because I bought them in sales.

lion1This criticism, by the way, is possibly actually unfair, certainly in the case of the first disc here, The Lion in Winter, a film I haven’t even seen but I was recommended the score and yeah, its a wonderful piece of work. Some people refer to it as Barry’s Christmas album and that rather fits: its in a medieval mode, with choir and pomp and majesty. It features, typical of Barry, some simply magnificent themes (‘Eleanor’s Arrival’ is quite gorgeous, the kind of music that as soon as you hear it you stop what you are doing and purely listen, enrapt, and frustratingly this is one of those times where Barry doesn’t then reuse the theme continuously so my argument regards Barry comes undone). This is possibly my second-favourite Barry score. It dates from 1968, so its almost as old as I am (its aged considerably better).

dances1Second on the shelf is his immensely popular Dances With Wolves soundtrack, here the two-disc expanded edition from La La Land Records (a label you’ll see plenty of here, alongside Intrada and the late, lamented FSM) which was released in 2015. Soundtracks are often like Blu-rays, they seem to get released on anniversaries, something marketing boys seem to be fascinated by which endlessly irritates me. Disc releases of films seem to be delayed years in order to tie into some 15th or 20th or 25th Anniversary (the higher that number goes the more scared I become when its one I recall seeing it at the cinema). An interesting piece of trivia: Dances With Wolves was originally supposed to be scored by Basil Poledouris (of Conan the Barbarian and most pertinently, Lonesome Dove fame), but he backed out of it in order to fulfil obligations to his friend John Milius regards his delayed Flight of the Intruder film. Wolves would have been Poledouris’ break-out score, conceivably changing his career completely and fans of Lonesome Dove can only wonder at what Poledouris might have conceived recording the score for Kevin Costner’s hit Western. Poledouris’ career slid downhill after that, and the bittersweet sting in the tale is that Intruder got pushed back six months so Poledouris could have scored both after all. Life can be cruel. But then again, I guess Barry’s fans hear that story and grit their teeth thinking that they almost missed out on one of Barry’s most popular scores. Its certainly got some wonderful emotive themes and was a big part of the films success. 

Barry’s smouldering, evocative score for Body Heat follows: Lawrence Kasdan’s wonderful neo-noir is a fantastic film truly elevated by Barry’s moody score. Its possibly too repetitive (this is FSMs 2-disc expansion with full score on disc one and Barry’s original album on disc two with an added near-thirty minutes of theme demos that wears thin) but its so atmospheric, its almost like a sultry, smoky score of summer heat, which is exactly what Barry was aiming at. 

kongAnother FSM disc follows- Barry’s score for the 1976 King Kong. Back in the early 1980s, the vinyl album of this was in the bargain bins of record stores and I picked up a copy (as I recall it came with a poster): I was always seduced by that films poster art that was actually promising some other movie entirely (not the poster which FSM used, by the way, as they obviously intended their 2-disc edition to stand out from the original which FSM had actually reissued on CD a few years earlier). I didn’t see the 1976 film until several years later, when much of the music would make more sense, but the film always fascinated me because a paperback of the making of the film was one of the first books I ever read and one that really fired my imagination about movies and the stories about the making of them. So while this King Kong was really a disaster movie for all the wrong reasons, I’ll always have some affection for it. This Kong has something so typically Barry- an absolute belter of a love theme, and it sounds fantastic in some of its variations here in expanded form. Some of the action music is quite jarring and atonal but the romantic sweep of the love theme is quite timeless, Barry just had a gift for melodies like that (see also Somewhere in Time, Raise the Titanic and so many others). I will also just say that the track Kong Hits the Big Apple was a big-band number that was much derided by my freinds and I back in the day when we listened to the vinyl album, and it hasn’t really aged well since, but hey, it was 1976.  

Then we come to Barry’s The Black Hole score. Again, this was one I had on vinyl and it really suffers from Barry’s habit of just repeating ad nauseam a theme over and over. The Black Hole was an ill-fit for Barry; I don’t think this kind of space adventure flick was really suited to him, it was really John Williams domain and to be fair, even a great like Jerry Goldsmith possibly struggled at that kind of thing (although Star Trek: The Motion Picture is absolutely magnificent, but more on that later, as that’s a story for another shelf). I recall that The Black Hole was one of, if not THE, first digital recordings of a major film score., because they made a big deal of it on the cover of the album and in adverts I read in Starlog at the time (1979). In that respect, it seemed more something of the future than the actual music did. Its no disaster but I remember buying this expanded CD edition more out of a sense of nostalgia than a love of the music, although it is a pretty cool main theme (the heroic action theme is diabolical though, that REALLY didn’t suit Barry- Star Wars theme it isn’t). In hindsight the case of The Black Hole, and Disney so clearly trying to mimic the appeal/success of Star Wars, is really kind of funny when you consider that they spent over $4 billion buying the thing from George Lucas decades later- if you can’t beat ’em, er, buy ’em, seems to be the lesson of that story).

abyssThis post is getting too long already so we’ll skip on past a few Barry discs I bought in sales in order to instead dwell on Alan Silvestri’s score for The Abyss, here the expanded Varese two-disc edition that was something of a Grail of mine. I’m not a big fan of Silvestri’s scores, but I always loved The Abyss, score and movie. 1989: summer of Batman, soundtracks like Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, Pet Semetary… soundtracks that were coming out on CD then, vinyl being a thing of the distant past. The Abyss was a suspenseful, dramatic and strange score, even if its Main Title owed an awful lot to the opening of James Horner’s Brainstorm. Temp music rearing its ugly head again, I suspect (I mean, that thing is a blatant rip).  

Back then I still bought soundtracks from shops, even though that seems something so long ago. I remember the Saturday I went into town and bought both The Abyss CD and Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels CD, listening to both of them late that night on headphones (Strange Angels has always been a personal favourite album, by the way, which is possibly why I remember that day so clearly- oh and two girls in the town who I think were trying to pick me and my mate Andy up, but I was too distracted (okay, ignorant) to pick up on it at the time, foolishly batting them off. I had odd priorities for a teenager back then and I placed nerdy concerns somewhere higher than girls).  

Varese’s original The Abyss album on CD was typical of the time, limited to about 40 or 50 minutes or so (which was pretty good, as many hovered around the 30-minute mark due to music union issues), certainly far from complete and missing some of the music I enjoyed in the film- so the deluxe version released in 2014 really was something special, so much so that I posted about it here at the time. A limited edition, as so many of these score expansions on disc are, I recently noticed this edition being up for sale at £150 on Amazon. Yikes. I dare say quite a few CDs on my shelves might be worth something now, or at least for as long as people have CD drives/players. 

how2Here’s where my filing of my CDs becomes a little eccentric. What follows on the shelf are a number of discs linked by the actor who stars in the particular films, rather than by the composer: Avanti!, The Apartment/The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce How To Murder Your Wife/Lord Love A Duck and Barefoot in the Park/The Odd Couple (regards those last two, the films in question are definitely NOT Lord Love A Duck or Barefoot in the Park, its just that those each feature scores for two films by Neal Hefti). The actor in question is of course Jack Lemmon, and these are films I absolutely adore, and they date from a period when film music was really quite wonderful, melodic and memorable: scores that are great, for great movies that star a great actor. The actual music is quite varied and the composers quite different in style, but generally seem to have great romantic themes that really soar: Carlo Rustichelli’s Avanti! is beautiful and timeless, and Neal Hefti’s How To Murder Your Wife has a love theme that just.. well, I fell in love with THAT theme back when I first saw the film many years ago, and it never ceases to amaze me that it ever came out on CD one day, and one that actually featured the full score as well as the original album on a second disc.  I think I was buying film soundtracks at a particularly fortuitous time: the last score for a Jack Lemmon film that I’m really holding out for is Prisoner of Second Avenue, another personal favourite film whose Blu-ray I can endlessly re-watch. Maybe one day.

silentNext disc on this shelf is Peter Schickele’s Silent Running. This is another CD that is pretty special to me. Douglas Trumbull’s film Silent Running has always been a particular favourite of mine and its ecological themes have only gotten more prescient as time has moved on, and Schickele’s score is one that sounds really quite unique: its very 1970s, featuring small orchestration with folk songs from Joan Baez that should really date it (maybe they do, but that only adds to the films strange charm). It was one of the films from which I recorded the music via tape deck and holding a microphone to the tinny tv speaker, and listened to the cassette with the music mixed with some dialogue and sound effects.

Many, many moons ago back in the 1980s I used to see the vinyl album in stores but I never bought it (pocket money never stretched that far), and when it went out of print I just thought it would turn up on CD someday (everything seemed to eventually), but it didn’t. I think the reason was that the master-tapes were lost or destroyed, so when Intrada finally released it on disc in 2016, it was actually a recording sourced from a pristine vinyl copy, and surprisingly, it sounds pretty damn fine.  Plenty good enough to me, considering I’d been pining for a release for decades at that point. Whenever I see this CD on the shelf I have a bit of a ‘pinch-me’ moment. 

doorostFinally, Marcelo Zarvos’ The Door in the Floor soundtrack: I love this music. Its one of those deeply emotional, rather dark and reflective scores… the film is a pretty bleak drama, really quite sad, being about the break-up of a marriage that being destroyed by the unbearable grief over the loss of two children in an accident (it stars Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger and Mimi Rogers and is really quite good). Its one of those cases where the music is as integral and important as any other part of the picture. In this respect its like Vangelis’ Blade Runner: the score is the soul of the movie. Zarvos’ score is such a powerful work of longing and regret; to me it works completely seperate from the film the music it was written for. I suspect many will have never heard it or seen the film (it dates back to 2004, incredibly).

Crikey, this one went on a bit. Might have to pause awhile before I get around to the next shelf: Horner!

P1100355 (2)

Yes I know, ‘G’ (for Goldsmith) comes before Horner but there is a method to my madness…

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What the Duck?

howardostSometimes you wake up and you wonder what universe you’ve woken up to. I read this morning that Intrada are releasing a 3-disc (!) edition of the Howard the Duck soundtrack. The complete score, so thats John Barry’s music that totals a whopping 100 minutes with loads of unreleased/rejected material/alternates, the Thomas Dolby songs and score by Sylvester Levay (whoever he is, but I guess he stepped in when Barry walked/wasn’t available).

The duck was actually a turkey, as it turned out, but I well remember watching the film on a very wet afternoon when I should have been in college. I saw it in the old ABC cinema in town, in the fleapit that was the Screen 3, which had seen far too many porn movies, God what a suspicious fleapit that room was (well, it was possibly more a closet than a proper ‘room’ but…). I remember sharing the dubious damp experience (it took me the entire film to dry out) with a tramp, I swear he was a tramp who came in just to shelter from the rain- always wondered what the hell he made of that movie.

I later saw the film again on VHS and it never really aged well. Some films are just so ill-judged, however well-intentioned they may be, and it had a great cast and production quality, and the Barry score was very nice, as I recall. I own a few Thomas Dolby albums so I didn’t mind the songs either. But I never bought the soundtrack album, and it became very rare and sought-after, oddly enough. So a 3-disc complete set will be great news for some.

Me? I suddenly feel very damp of a sudden, like some kind of acid-flashback of a deeply traumatic experience. We never got a complete Blade Runner soundtrack but we got Howard the Duck? What the Duck? Ducking hell. You got to be ducking kidding me etc. etc.

The Apes of Wrath: War of the Planet of the Apes

war.jpg2017.69: War of the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Here is that rare thing- a blockbuster trilogy that embodies high-quality, intelligent film-making with each film getting better than the last. Part of me pines for a fourth entry or even, perhaps, a second trilogy that could  revisit and follow the events of the Charlton Heston original film, but part of me thinks that would be tempting fate in this world of franchises of ever-decreasing quality. Better perhaps for the studio to quit while it’s ahead. This is a great movie; I’d hate to see it spoiled by lesser entries.

The revelation of this film, particularly considering its title, is just how intimate it is. If this is a war film, it’s one more akin to Malick’s The Thin Red Line than, say, Rambo. It’s a surprisingly quiet, internal film- a film of quiet rage, and sacrifice.  There’s something of a Western about it, too- perhaps even Eastwood’s Unforgiven- its a much darker blockbuster than I expected.

Not that the film is perfect- it falters in a few respects. There are a few moments in the script where it stumbles markedly- a scene in which one of the apes gifts the human girl a flower from a tree too easily prefigures that same apes death with the subtlety of being slapped in the face with a wet kipper. Its an awkward moment of manipulation. that does so much of the rest of the film a disservice, but on the whole the film works splendidly, and for the most part you even forget that 90% of what you are watching probably resides in a computer somewhere.

Ah, yes, the effects. While I always seem to be moaning about CGI spoiling the quality of movies, as they often seem to be used to replace quality drama and screenwriting through spectacle, rather than actually support said drama/screenwriting, I have to admit that used properly CGI can really move film-making to some other level of cinema, offering realities that could not exist elsewhere. These recent Apes films have been pretty astonishing, frankly, on a technical level, bringing to the screen something utterly impossible just years ago, but this third film is really something else entirely- powerful, quality film-making featuring characters that simply don’t exist but which somehow out-act most ‘real’ actors (maybe it’s finally time for a Virtual Actor award from the Academy).  It’s not lost on me that this same year I marvelled at the creation of a gigantic ape in Kong: Skull Island. Regardless of the quality of the drama, there were moments watching this film, as with the prior films, that I just gasped at the marvel of how ‘real’ the fakery seems to be. It’s a modern sorcery and I have to wonder where it will all end.

I feel I must also mention a simply wonderful music score from Michael Giacchino- in a climate in which most blockbuster soundtracks just sound like background noise, it’s lovely to report that this is a genuinely moving score of orchestral  music with strong themes and intelligence. A definite throwback to the glory years of the 1970s with Williams, Goldsmith and Barry in their prime (the score does in particular carry nods to the music of John Barry).

On the whole, one of the films of the year for me.

 

A Nocturnal Vertigo

noct12017.44: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

This film may not be perfect, and it may not completely reach for what it strives for, but goodness me, I have to salute the ambition behind it, which is a rare enough thing to find in film these days. If anything it is this very ambition that may undermine it- crafted like a work of art as much as a mainstream movie, the film is exquisitely shot and framed but there’s a sterile coldness to much of it -likely deliberate- that distances the viewer from it (although it’s certainly not as emotionally detached as a Christopher Nolan film, say). Just getting through the main title sequence would be too much for some (and what it even adds to the film, or says, is a matter of conjecture).

Suffice to say that this film is no less than a modern-day Vertigo; a romantic, psychological thriller laced with awful sadness, regrets and loneliness that may leave you thinking about it for days. To complain that it doesn’t reach the heights of Vertigo (sic) is of course nonsense- Vertigo is a timeless classic that we may never see the likes of again. At least Nocturnal Animals aims high enough to deserve comparison – a fine compliment as it is.

noct2Nocturnal Animals is structured as a film within a film within a film- a fascinating puzzle to explore and obtain meaning from. In a sterile environment of empty spaces, Amy Adams is Susan, who lives a life of wealth and comfort as an art dealer, with a luxury home, beautiful (if increasingly distant) husband, servants and personal assistants. She seems to have it all- but seems to be realising she lacks fulfillment. A package arrives one morning containing the proof copy of a book written by her ex-husband, Edward, entitled Nocturnal Animals, which is dedicated to her. Having a quiet weekend whilst her husband leaves on business to New York (we soon learn this is a cover for his affair with a mistress), Susan reads the book, and we witness her minds-eye picture of the book as a film within the film. This book/film is a noir-ish pulp potboiler of tragedy and revenge in which she pictures her husband as the protagonist and her younger self as his wife. Bookended throughout all of this are her recollections, triggered by reading the book, of her past relationship with her husband -how they met, their affair and how their marriage painfully (for him) ended,  a timeline which is almost third film in itself. The difficulty in weaving these three timelines so well, so each informs and reveals things about the others, is something that deserves some consideration, and it’s  quite a feat that it works so well and that we always seem aware of ‘when’ things are happening, what is real and what is the book’s fiction. Actually, now that I think about it, that ‘real’ is pretty much subjective in itself, as the reality is Susan’s reality, the past as she sees it, just as the book is how Susan sees that. Revelations slowly unfold until we arrive at a painful finale that is both discomforting, frustrating and yet somehow perfect. There is a revenge in the real-world just as there is in the novel.

Amy Adams. What can I say? Another amazing performance which, like the same years Arrival, deserved but somehow didn’t get a nomination. Perhaps there is some truth to the theory that having two deserving performances actually did her a disservice by spitting her vote?  Nonetheless these two films have raised her to some kind of remarkable level of craft and leave me keenly anticipating any film she appears in.

Special mention to Abel Korzeniowski’s beautiful, soulful score- as major a character in this film as Herrmann’s score is to Vertigo, performing much the same function. It’s a haunting work that is sparse but incredibly powerful. Korzeniowski is some kind of genius at this kind of stuff, whose romantic, haunting and yearning music served similar duties in the excellent Penny Dreadful tv series. It reminds me of John Barry as well as Herrmann. If only this quality of music was the norm and not the exception to film-scoring these days! This is of the quality we used to get in the 1970s, richly emotional, layered scoring. The film would be much lesser without it.

 

 

The Postman (1997)

post12016.62: The Postman (Amazon VOD)

Watching The Postman…. well, if nothing else, it demonstrates how tricky it obviously is to make something as successful, artistically and financially, as Dances With Wolves.

The Postman follows the template of Dances With Wolves so much its almost painful- it’s a Western in all but name, it features the same star, the same director, its nearly three hours long and is designed to be some kind of epic morality tale complete with a feel-good ending. Even after Waterworld the film must have seemed a safe bet for the studio (Costner was still a bankable actor at the time). Yet it stumbles at almost every turn- the star gives a by the numbers ‘I-just-have-to-smile-to-turn-on-the-charm’ performance, the direction is more suited to a tv movie than a Hollywood epic, the script is both underwritten and full of plotholes, the supporting cast seem to be floundering, unsure even of the tone of the thing, and the music generic and lacking all the subtlety and emotional contact of John Barry’s work. Its  just not a very good movie, and it really feels that Costner’s heart simply wasn’t in it. It’s never convincing or genuine, whereas in Dances With Wolves you can sense the desire and dedication in every shot, every scene, something completely lacking here.

Surprisingly, it’s based on a book, which means either the book is pretty bad or the filmmakers recognised in its plot the basic building-blocks of a Costner vehicle and went off and did their own thing, as Hollywood is wont to do. The whole thing feels hopelessly generic and predictable, but you do get the feeling that somewhere in there might have been a pretty good movie.

Sometime following a vague apocalypse that has returned America to a wild west landscape, a drifter with a penchant for acting out bits of Shakespeare for food and shelter gets forced into the militia-force of General Bethlehem (Will Patton), an ex-photocopier salesman with delusions of building an Empire. The drifter escapes and stumbles upon a derelict postal van with the corpse of its postman inside. He appropriates the uniform and a bag of letters destined for the fortunately nearby town of Pineview, and  once there he is greeted with mistrust until the letters from long-lost relatives melts their hearts and he is treated as a saviour. The drifter is now The Postman (ta-da!), and in the spirit of his old acting gig he concocts tall tales of a revitalised postal network and reborn US Government heralding Better Times. Of course its just a ploy to get better treatment and eventually he leaves with new letters from the townsfolk for their relatives which he seems little inclined to deliver.

While its premise is pretty daft I found the central arc for Costner’s anti-hero drifter to be refreshing, albeit in execution the whole thing lacks the subtlety it needs in order to work.  The Postman doesn’t do subtle- everything is telegraphed well in advance and is so comfortably predictable,  you pretty much know what characters are going to do and say ahead of the film. You know The Postman is going to eventually feel guilty for wrongly inspiring hope in the people that he meets, and you just know they are going to suffer when General Bethlehem turns up with his expanding photocopier business, sorry, Evil Empire. And you just know The Postman’s inspirational tall tales and false heroism are going to create the very thing he is lying about.

Did I mention that this film is just shy of three hours long? What on Earth made them think this material merited that kind of epic length/treatment? Did they really think they were making another Western fable in the manner of Dances With Wolves? The film seems to go on F-O-R-E-V-E-R. The sense of relief when the last cliche is reached, the last agonising monologue, the last waving of the flag, the last hymn to the United States of America happens, is palpable. God only knows this must have seemed unbearable in the cinema- at home its still a grit-your-teeth butt number where time seems to pass oh so slowly.

The one thing this film has going for it is one of the most brazen ‘WTF were they thinking’ moments in cinema history when Tom Petty turns up as, well, Tom Petty, leading a settlement of good folk that helps save the day. I mean, it’s not Tom Petty playing a leader, it’s Tom Petty being Tom Petty the post-apocalypse leader.  Its so bizarre its almost worth the three hour running time. This film is crazy. Just plain crazy.

 

Happy 36th, Saturn 3

Dedicated to Gregory Moss and all the bad films that some of us love

Sometime back in 1980, or maybe 1981 (its over 30 years ago, anyway) I found a hardback copy of the Saturn 3 novelization in my local library. I knew of the film from reading mags like Fantastic Films and Starburst, and while I hadn’t seen the film, I knew from the reviews the film was pretty dire. Curious, I took the book out and read it, and was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. It was an interesting piece of science fiction with a Frankenstein theme, about a robot going rogue on a distant science station near Saturn. It even had a surprisingly bleak (well, bittersweet, anyway) ending that I found quite poignant.

Some years later, I caught the film on its first network tv screening. Alas, the book that I remembered  was far better than the film.

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So here we are, decades later, and Saturn 3 has a very minor part in sci-fi film history, I’m sure it’s mostly been forgotten, rarely even turning up on late-night tv. But even films like Saturn 3 have fans; there’s certainly no shame in it- indeed, there are several bad/unpopular films that I really like, although I don’t count Saturn 3 among them. I don’t think anyone consciously makes a bad film, and it’s nice to think that all that effort spent on a bad film somehow gets rewarded by someone somewhere being a fan.

Fellow blogger Gregory Moss, whose opinions I value is a big fan of Saturn 3 and created a website about the film and its troubled history. Even people who love the film have to admit that Saturn 3 is one of those films where the behind the scenes story is actually more interesting and rewarding than the film itself. When a special blu ray edition was being planned in America, the discs producers hired Greg to record a commentary track for the disc. Smart move, really- a knowledgeable and enthusiastic fan can give a better commentary track than a film’s producer or director, particularly if they’d rather forget the film completely than share in how they got everything so very wrong.

Unfortunately for me, the disc would be Region A, and here in the Region B UK I didn’t have a multi-region player.However, a few months ago Greg announced on his blog that a German label had licensed both the film and the American discs special features for a release in Region B-freindly Germany. I immediately ordered it; a handsome steelbook edition with a price that was actually quite reasonable. Saturn 3 is a film I would never ordinarily buy, and I’d rarely if ever have the urge to rewatch it, but I was really curious about Greg’s commentary track. Maybe there is something about a fellow geek’s love of a movie that gets other geeks eager to share in it, I don’t know. Maybe it was the nostalgic pull of a film more than 35 years old, a film from that other age that was my youth, a film as old as my teenage self feels distant.

Here’s a curious fact; Saturn 3 was released on February 15th, 1980. It shares my birthday (the day, not the year, you understand); so this year on the day that Saturn 3 celebrates its 36th birthday, I’m celebrating my 50th (as if anyone ever really celebrates being 50 years old). So happy 36th, Saturn 3.

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Films were different in 1980. Science fiction films especially so. Back in 1980, the shadow of Star Wars loomed large over science fiction films. It is nowhere more obvious that Saturn 3 dates back to 1980 than in its opening shot; a star-field is broken by a giant spaceship (spacestation?) that passes by overhead slowly filling the screen. Its as if the producers thought every sci-fi film had to start like that ionic opening from Star Wars (demonstrated by Alien too, just several months before). Unfortunately the visual effects of Saturn 3 were pretty dire even by 1980 standards- today they are horrible reminders of how truly special the special effects of ILM and Trumbulls EEG were back then.

Looming larger over Saturn 3 than even Star Wars is Ridley Scott’s Alien, released several months earlier in the summer of 1979. It seems that everything that Alien gets right, Saturn 3 gets wrong. Scott struggled himself getting decent effect shots completed for Alien, limited by the technologies available this side of the Atlantic, but got away with it with careful photography, shooting around the limitations set on him (Scott shot many of the effects himself). Saturn 3 fails spectacularly- the miniatures are terrible, they are shot terribly, they are composited terribly (grain is everywhere, mattes fail  and stars bleed through some of the spaceships, there’s all sorts of errors that abound).

More importantly, Scott knew that his film would succeed or fail simply with its title character. Luckily he stumbled upon, by way of Dan O’Bannon, H R Gigers disturbing art and a team was assembled with Giger to create one of, if not the, most successful movie monsters of all time. Even then Scott knew he had to be careful to shoot around the creatures limitations lest it be revealed to be, ultimately, a tall thin guy in a rubber suit.

Hector, the giant humanoid robot of Saturn 3 that goes rather awry, is in fact a  pretty good piece of design. It certainly looks authentic and the fact it lacks anything like a human face (or robotic approximation of one) works in its favour. But even its biggest fans will admit that it suffers from the technology of the day. You can always tell that the film is being edited around whatever workable footage the crew could get, and if rumours are to be believed, it was largely those difficulties shooting the robot that exasperated the actors and got the first director fired.

The story of John Barry’s involvement in Saturn 3 and ultimate exit from the project is a sad one that I won’t go into here (see Greg’s website for more). My own most personal link with Saturn 3 is John Barry and the news of his passing that I read in Starburst at the time. For a teenage geek like me who loved movies, John Barry was something of a minor hero. Its funny thinking back on it now, but back then I knew the names of costume designers and effects guys like my school friends knew and idolised football players. So when I read the news of his passing and what happened to him with Saturn 3, it was very sad, and I cannot think of Saturn 3 without feeling that sadness and remembering him. It’s easy for me to state that John Barry deserved better, that perhaps if Saturn 3 was a smaller film with a cast of unknowns with less egos involved, that he might have stayed with the production and it ended up a better film. But this is the real world in which great production designers don’t necessarily make great directors and where films only get greenlit with ‘name’ actors attached, and time is money in film-making and difficult shoots require difficult decisions.

sat5As it is, Saturn 3 is a pretty bad film that hasn’t aged at all well, but it is an enduring reminder of how beautiful Farrah Fawcett was. She’s actually cast well as Alex and the part suits her- there is an innocence and other-worldliness to her that comes across, but I don’t think she looks particularly comfortable at times with co-star Kirk Douglas as her lover Adam. Her casting as a love interest with the-then-64 year-old Douglas is astonishing really. I don’t think a film would get away with it these days but it isn’t just a casting oddity; the age gap is in the script. I think her character is actually supposed to be younger than Fawcett was at the time (33 I think), she certainly seemed younger to me in the novel, as I remember.

A remarkably fresh-faced Harvey Keitel is in fine form as the snake that enters Eden, but his performance is hampered by being dubbed over throughout the film by English actor Roy Dotrice – although I am tempted to suggest the strangeness of his voice being so ‘off’ actually helps the film in a way. Captain Benson is clearly odd and deranged and his voice not matching the face we know so well just makes him even more untrustworthy and suspicious.

sat4Kirk Douglas is fascinating; there are all sorts of real-world subtexts going on in the background of the films storyline. Here is a once-major star at the tail end of his Hollywood career clearly in denial of (or indeed raging against) his own age/mortality/twilight career. I mean, he’s in love scenes with the pin-up girl of the 1970s who is more than 30 years younger than he is. Funnily enough, Douglas spends more time with less clothes on than Fawcett, which is either very brave or foolhardy considering his age (maybe he still thought he was Spartacus). The dark side of me thinks it was the casting of Fawcett that got Douglas into signing on for the film, which adds another layer to the already rather dark subtext of all the characters in the film lusting over Alex. Adam is in a long-term loving relationship with her, even though their age difference makes it look ill-judged, Keitel’s Captain Benson brazenly and openly admits he wants to have recreational sex with her (and even seems to try to ply her with drugs), and once Benson’s brainwaves are programmed into Hector, the robot wants her too.

It’s bizarre and disturbing; in Alien, the creature simply wants to kill, but here, well, I’m not sure exactly what Hector has planned for Alex but it surely isn’t pleasant and is likely worse than simply just killing her. It’s HAL 9000 with a libido for goodness sake. Makes me wonder if the film-makers knew what they were getting into in the first place. This film really could have gone dark places but it isn’t that kind of film at all, which undermines the entire thing. Replacement director Stanley Donen (the films producer) was more familiar with musicals and lacked the ability to maintain much suspense. Comparisons here between Saturn 3 and Alien are even more striking- Alien is a brutal masterclass in tension but Saturn 3 is very, very weak. Which is odd really, as what Hector has planned for Alex is much worse than what the Alien has planned for Ripley. Imagine what someone like David Fincher could do with this kind of stuff, or Cronenberg.

You see, that’s the damned thing with Saturn 3– there’s a sense that there is, somewhere, a very good film here. With better effects, a more balanced script, a better director, maybe a less star-studded cast, who knows? (Who am I kidding all thats a completely different movie!). The whole twisted sex thing with Alex caught between an old man/father figure, a young creep and a deranged robot is an adult and challenging subject matter that deserved an adult thriller. Maybe even something as dark and adult as Body Heat. Imagine if Saturn 3 turned out like some kind of noir-ish ‘Body Heat in space’. Now there would be an interesting movie, even with the cast it has. Something hotter, darker, psychological.

But mainstream sci-fi films didn’t do that sort of thing in 1980 (indeed I don’t think they would be allowed to do that sort of thing even now), so Saturn 3 certainly isn’t that kind of movie. At the very least it needed to be as thrilling and intense as Alien, even if just a robot-on-the-loose kind of thing, but it falls way, way short. It’s a pretty bad film really, but yeah, it does have its fans. So I’ll join them today in raising a toast to this bad movie- Happy 36th, Saturn 3; you could have been a bloody disturbing movie.  And I’ll spare a thought for John Barry, and the film he actually wanted Saturn 3 to be. Barry’s Saturn 3 wouldn’t have been the dark sexual thriller I think it could have been. It might have been better.

Maybe the remake will be that disturbing movie. I’m thinking of that line at the end of Robocop; “they can fix everything,” only more along the lines of “they can remake everything” Yeah, even the clunkers like Saturn 3. Its only a matter of time, right?

Dances With Wolves (1990)

dances1I well remember seeing Dances With Wolves back during its cinema release. It was a lovely cinematic experience that harkened back to an old kind of less cynical, pre-Leone Western while displaying some wisely revisionist respect towards Native Americans. It starred -and was directed by- one of the genuine rising stars at the time and marked a return to film scoring by John Barry (the way the film sounded no doubt helping its rather nostalgic feel). I loved the film and bought the soundtrack and later the film on VHS (yep thats how long ago it was!) and later still another VHS copy of the deluxe-boxed extended cut (back when extended cuts were more of a rarity than now). The film was hugely popular at the time and has possibly suffered a backlash over the years, before being triumphantly remade by James Cameron into a sci-fi epic (okay I’m joking at that last bit– or am I?).

Last night I watched the film again for the first time in something like twenty years. Twenty years– and this is a film I really liked; its scary how the years sneak past you; indeed, I’m certain the last time I saw the film was on VHS. I did buy a copy of the film on DVD but somehow never got around to watching it. This time I watched it on Blu-ray, a German steelbook that I imported for the two cuts and substantial extras that are incredibly lacking on our theatrical-only UK disc.

dances2What got me buying the Blu-ray and actually watching the film again was the release late last year of the complete John Barry soundtrack on a 2-CD edition from La La Land records. Listening to that gorgeous Barry music – better now than ever, and rarer now that Barry himself is long gone and film music has rather gone down the Zimmer toilet these past years- had me reminiscing about the film again. Similar to how listening to James Horner soundtracks following his death last year has me reaching for my Apollo 13 and Field of Dreams Blu-ray discs.

I’m pleased to report that Dances With Wolves holds up very well after what is now 25 years- it remains a lovely film. I don’t think it’s particularly dated at all (though some of the hair-styles betray a rather 1980s vibe that likely wasn’t intentional) and it’s a joyful reminder of Orion Pictures logos* and Costner as a young rising star (his career never maintained that 1980s-1990s trajectory of The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, No Way Out, Dances and The Bodyguard). And yes it’s a reminder of great John Barry music that graced so many other great films. Its warm and its funny and its thrilling and full of awe-inspiringly lovely landscapes.

Its got a genuinely wonderful script. The script just works, and is the great foundation of the whole film (reading the soundtrack CD liner-notes I sadly learned that Michael Blake, who wrote the screenplay from his own novel, died in May 2015 at the age of 69, another sign of all those years that have passed since the film was released). I wish every film these days had such finely judged scripts with great characters and character arcs and a message and everything. Yes the film was entertainment but it also had something to say about America and its past and the plight of Native Americans.

And the film had such time to breathe. It isn’t edited down to within an inch of its life to satisfy audiences with attention-deficiency disorders.

Maybe the 25 years have increased the nostalgia factor. It is a funny thing watching films that we grew up on, have strong memories of. Like music albums, songs bringing old times and memories rushing back, films can be such time machines too.

 

 

* same feeling I get watching the original Robocop and The Termnator. I wonder if we will one day get so warmly nostalgic about seeing Star Wars films with the 20th Century Fox fanfare after years of Disney Star Wars?

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Strange Vinyl from the Garage…

Here’s a few weird vinyl things from the archives (i.e. the garage) that I unearthed Indian Jones-fashion recently…

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The Empire Strikes Back ep by Meco. Not quite in the disco groove of his original Star Wars disc, this remains a fantastic re-imagining of some of the themes from possibly the finest soundtrack, ever. Some of the tracks resurfaced on CD a few years ago but Meco couldn’t resist tampering with it, alas (maybe he was going for the authentic Star Wars/George Lucas ‘experience’). In a strange precursor to all those VHS copies of the pre-Special Edition Original Trilogy that we keep in the loft, this vinyl ep seems to be the only way to hear the original versions of Meco’s music. Nowhere near the hit that the original Star Wars disc was, this was actually something of a rarity here in the UK, especially in those pre-Internet days when you had to trawl through record stores looking for stuff. This copy actually belonged to a friend at the time who later gave it to me when his interest in all things Star Wars waned (i.e. he grew up- don’t know what that says about me still owning it decades later, but…) . Great music though- Meco’s medley featuring the themes for Darth Vader and Yoda was brilliant.

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Here’s an album also The Empire Strikes Back-related. After the success of Star Wars releases years before, with TESB  albums the RSO  label went a bit nuts (two versions of the soundtrack, the Meco disc,  a Boris Midney disc, even a jazz album). This is a story album- basically the film soundtrack (dialogue, music, sound effects) edited to tell the story of the film with a narrator to fill in the gaps/transition between scenes. These things may seem odd now, but back at the time they were really quite popular. The three Star Wars films all had one, as did The Black Hole… of course actually owning copies of films was impossible back then, so being able to listen to an abridged  version was as near as fans could get. This disc had a gatefold sleeve to help ‘see’ the film alongside the audio presentation.  Tried taking a picture of it without much success but hopefully you’ll get the idea…

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Meco’s huge hit with Star Wars a few years earlier had everyone trying to make money out of film scores, attempting to turn them into pop hit singles. This was a time long, long ago kiddies when there was such a thing as 7-inch 45rpm singles, the market for which was huge, culturally as well as financially- people by the millions used to tune into a top-40 countdown every Sunday.  Anyway, history lesson over, I feel old enough as it is. This oddity somehow surfaced on a market-stall in Willenhall, of all places. No doubt inspired by Meco’s Star Wars-themed music, this 12-inch single by some guy called Nostromo (a monicker inspired by Alien) tried to turn John Barry’s main theme for The Black Hole into a hit dance single, which of course it didn’t. Oddly, the b-side was an original piece titled ‘Gom Jabbar’, the significance of which utterly escaped me at the time. Kudos to the first comment that reveals where that song gets its inspiration from, and if anyone knows who the hell Nostromo is/was feel free to enlighten me.

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The beauty of 12-inch vinyl albums of course, particularly for movie soundtracks and the like, was the large reproductions of film artwork. It’s something we lost with reducing things down to the size of a compact disc. Album covers could be such beautiful things just to stare at when you were holding a big 12″ cardboard sleeve in your hands- a gatefold even better (I have the 2-disc/gatefold TESB soundtrack and its more than just an album, its a work of art/genuine souvenir of the film, with a booklet and everything, simply gorgeous).  Case in point, the soundtrack album for Logan’s Run, a great Jerry Goldsmith score graced with this extraordinary artwork. I believe its by Charles Moll, an artist who doesn’t seem to have done much other film poster work, mores the pity. I have to wonder if Moll designed the distinctive logo too, I presume so. The film itself may have been naff, but the bright colourful poster somehow evokes so much of 1976. At first glance it may seem cluttered, but close-up the artwork is tight and clean, highlighting objects and moments from the movie; I’d love to see what the original artwork looked like, what size it was. They certainly knew how to sell movies in those days, I miss great film posters like this, the 1970s were a great period for film posters.

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One last pic for now- this is the stark, arresting cover from the soundtrack album The Thing from 1982. The Thing always seemed to struggle for artwork on theatrical release, VHS, DVD and now Blu-Ray. Its one of those films that artists/marketing teams always seemed to struggle with. But to me they nailed it from the very start- I just love this cover design and think its such a perfect poster for that brutal horror classic. I gather its from the original pre-release in the USA, and got buried after the film tanked on its theatrical run. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, and I think this is great, but when the film died at the box-office I guess it was easy to blame the marketing. Damn it people, it was that bloody E.T. that killed The Thing (that long-necked critter killed Blade Runner too). Far as I know, this poster design was never used for any subsequent soundtrack release on CD or on any home video format. Don’t know about you, but I think it would look great on a Blu-ray edition. Hell, even further reduced on CD, its simple enough to work.

Well that’s it for now- maybe I’ll get some more albums out later. Oh go on then, one more. This is most likely (as far as I remember anyway), my very first record, which my parents bought for me from Woolworths back in the very early ‘seventies. Its another of those story albums. Can you imagine how cool that cover was to a kid about six years old?

 

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