Agh, Commentary Tracks

Well, a pat on my back for watching a disc within a few weeks of buying it (doubt it’ll catch on) but life never gives without taking away, so add another commentary track to the list of all those that I haven’t listened to yet. 

(The disc in question was A Most Violent Year, a film which I first watched on a stream back in 2015 and which I really liked, so when I noticed it cheap on Amazon it proved a no-brainer. More on that maybe at a later time, but yeah its still a great film with fantastic cast/performances, but the Blu-ray comes with a commentary track which tempts and infuriates me at the same time).

So anyway, its such a pity that whenever there’s nothing on the television or I haven’t gotten my head into a book, I can’t just suggest to my wife Claire that we settle down with a commentary track from one of those discs (if I did, she’d give me one of her dirtiest ‘are you mad?’ looks for sure: commentary tracks are for film-nerds. True or false?). 

Not all commentary tracks are equal. Some are awful. Some are great. Some (certainly those when one gets John Carpenter and Kurt Russell together) are legendary. There’s some good commentaries by academics, film historians or critics- some can be very dry, or feel like they are just reading from prepared notes (which sometimes I’m sure they are), but often they can be more balanced than listening to tracks from cast and crew stroking each others egos and ‘goshing’ at whatever’s onscreen. Some can be surprising, I remember that the Matrix films had commentary tracks from philosophers and critics who didn’t necessarily even like the films. Which made me think at the time what a neat idea it was (although studios would obviously be appalled by it), to perhaps put negative views on some tracks, you know, get someone to argue for, someone argue against, the film in question. 

Great unrecorded commentary tracks:

  1. Alfred Hitchcock on Vertigo
  2. Stanley Kubrick on anything (although Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke together on 2001 would have been like brushing one’s hand against a Monolith, or falling into a Stargate, I suspect).
  3. Phillip K Dick on Blade Runner– wouldn’t that have been great? He might have hated the finished film but who knows, he might have loved it and just listening to him see that world through his eyes… sober or high, it would have been a ball.
  4. Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. Just imagine. 

I assure you that if either of those commentaries existed they wouldn’t have remained unlistened to. Crikey, I probably would have jumped into the commentary before even watching the movie. Anybody else got some ideas for great commentary tracks we’ll never hear?

Another Thing…

anotherThingWhilst on the subject of John Carpenter movies (cunning link there to yesterday’s post) I’ve found myself pre-ordering another copy of The Thing, this time the 4K UHD edition that Universal are releasing in September. I don’t know how many times I’ve bought this film on a home video format: DVD twice, Blu-ray twice… actually I think it may have been three times on Blu-ray, and that is just plain insane even to me. But it’s The Thing, and it’s on 4K UHD, and it is surely the last copy of this film I will ever buy. Please, lord, the last time. I’m beginning to think the 4K format is the work of the Devil.

It is rather quietly ironic, in what is supposed to be the slow decline of physical media, that we can still be suckered into buying these new editions of films we’ve bought so many times before. Its likely no accident that Carpenter is so well-represented on 4K disc (Prince of Darkness, Halloween, Escape From New York, The Fog and They Live with more likely to follow before the disc replicators finally grind to a halt), as his films have always been very popular on home video formats. I remember back when VHS started here in the UK, Escape From New York was one of the first big ‘hits’ on rental in 1983, partly because its a good film but also because it sported, at the time, a pretty amazing stereo track the likes of which previously unheard of in the home. Of course it was on VHS in pan and scan/pain an’a scam format but hey, it was 1983 and our televisions tended to be still black and white even then, and absolutely 4:3. How times change, but some Things (see what I did there?) stay the same, sort of.

These Vampires still suck

vampiresLast night I rewatched John Carpenter’s Vampires for the first time in maybe fifteen years, which probably indicates what I think of it. I first saw the film back in… well, it was likely 1998, because it was a R1 DVD that I bought before the film had even had its theatrical release here in the UK. Those were the heady, rather intoxicating days of R1 DVD players and delayed International roll-outs of movies. This time around, it was a Blu-ray edition from Indicator, which Amazon reliably informs me I purchased back in 2017… and which I haven’t watched until now. Clearly, I have a bit of a problem with Carpenter’s Vampires.

The sad thing is, I lay all the blame here on John Carpenter, and I’m writing this as a huge fan of both him and his movies. Over the years he has made some great movies and most of them have likely made a fortune on various home formats – his films are loved by fans. Not just admired but genuinely LOVED. And the guy himself, although obviously I’ve never met him, seems a nice, laid-back, down to Earth and unassuming guy with an extraordinary talent for making cool genre films. And, perhaps more importantly, for making genre films cool.

But Vampires isn’t one of them. The problems are manifold, the bad far outweighing the good. Chiefly, for once it seems Carpenter is undone by his budget, which is odd because he usually thrived under the pressure of limited resources and time, but here he finally succumbs. Final takes look like first or second takes, the interior sets are some of the shakiest I have ever seen, the largely b-movie cast so woefully wooden they give the stakes and coffins a run for their money. Worst of all, the composition of the shots (always one of Carpenters strengths, his films really shining in widescreen once the bad old days of pan and scan were left behind) is terribly poor. There seems little ambition- the usual low-angle tracking shots, so effective in films like The Thing, The Fog and Halloween are simply awol here. Maybe the cheap sets made them impossible but there’s no indication of that eye Carpenter always had. The craft is absent, the ambition and imagination missing. Indeed, the better (and most visually interesting) shots look suspiciously like second-unit work, such as the make-up/special effects footage of the vampires crawling out of the earth and some of the stunts (the captured vampires being yanked out into the sunlight to burst into flame, for instance).

Frustratingly, the script shows sign of promise, but what should be a scary horror movie seems to be upturned into a modern-day Western, Carpenter hijacking a film to satiate his foiled ambitions to make a Western. James Woods is woefully miscast- he’s a fiery character actor but hardly up to an action lead more fitted for Roddy Piper, Keith David or someone similarly larger than life. Instead, Woods would have been perfect -absolutely perfect- as the crooked priest played here by Maximilian Schell; he’d have torn the scenery up as the priest who betrays God to join the master vampire Valek. I want to see THAT movie! He’d have been brilliant in a role largely wasted on Schell. Instead Woods looks out of sorts, uncomfortable in a physical role unsuited to him (Carpenters framing of shots does him few favours in this respect). Mind, Woods does look excellent compared to Daniel Baldwin playing his vampire-hunter buddy Montoya: Baldwin is excruciatingly bad here, I’ve seen chairs that stand more convincingly than him, and Conservative and Labour MPs with more chemistry together than Baldwin and poor Sheryl Lee as Katrina, a hooker turned-vampire who serves as some bizarro love interest for wooden plank Baldwin.

To be fair to the thespians, maybe the fault lies in Carpenter whose heart was alarmingly just not in it; really, this is the Carpenter equivalent of a modern Bruce Willis movie, and an indication of what was to come. He’d make one more movie three years later (the dismal Ghosts of Mars) and then one more in 2010 (The Ward, which I watched once and promptly forgot) before finally calling it a day. His slide in quality was so pronounced that his fans can be forgiven for being thankful he didn’t make any more. I often wish I would hear news of Carpenter getting back behind a camera and making a great movie like in the good old days but maybe his (unofficial?) retirement really is for the best. I’d be fascinated to learn what happened, but suspect he simply grew out of love with making movies. They are hard work, and the way the business was going even back in his day, it was just getting harder. I believe Carpenter has paid his dues and owes us fans nothing anyway: the films we have are enough, but I could certainly do without Vampires

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (2020)

t2bpI fondly remember Train to Busan, it was Die Hard on a Train (with Zombies!), and there was a point early on in this film, in what turned out to be a prologue before the main plot proper, when I thought that this film was going to be Die Hard on a Boat (with Zombies!). I figured that zombies would get loose on the big boat of refugees sailing to freedom and that, trapped on the ocean for three or four days in its race to salvation, it would be a claustrophobic thriller with lots of story breaks/crises (the engines are on fire! We’ve sprung a leak! Zombies in the Lifeboats! etc). In hindsight that might have been construed, possibly rightly so, as a lazy sequel, a very minor twist on established formula as most sequels are. Maybe the film-makers for Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula should be praised for trying something different, for upping the scale and having some ambition – essentially what they have done here is a similar trick to what James Cameron did with Aliens following Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic, more intimate original. Unfortunately though its possibly too much of a departure, because this film has lost most of what made the original so great.

I suppose this is the danger of coming into a film blind having no idea what to expect other than, er, lots of blood and zombies. I just didn’t expect it to be quite so much of a departure from the first film, especially when all of the changes leaves the finished production such a crushing disappointment.

So its not Die Hard on Another Train or Die Hard On A Boat; indeed its not Die Hard at all. This is more Escape From (a Zombie-Infested) New York/a (Zombie) Road Warrior/Fury Road and on that level, of some bizarre self-indulgent genre mash-up, its almost fun. Diminish your expectations and settle for a low-rent John Carpenter-inspired flick and I guess its really quite enjoyable. Well, it would be if it didn’t feel quite so much like watching someone playing a videogame. There is so much CGI in this film, particularly in the Mad Max-inspired chase through a zombie-infested city, that it rather degenerates into a cartoon; Final Fantasy: The Zombies Within maybe. The night before I watched Baby Driver and thrilled to its real-life car chases and stunts, which really put the woeful CGI here into sharp relief and all the worse for that comparison.

Maybe its the sheer scale of the thing, having so much CGI (at some points it looks like a Sin City-style greenscreen movie) and thus the sheer number of shots forcing the quality of it all downwards – it happens all the time, you’d think film producers would have figured by now that Less is More. The best films heavily reliant on CGI effects struggle to maintain credibility, here its quite beyond them, the physics and weight of most of the vehicle shots quickly degenerating into videogame nonsense and the CGI zombie hordes soon quite boring rather than anything threatening. Its a shame; if they’d just left it as an Escape From New York-inspired heist film trying to rob a bank in a zombie-infested/criminal militia-run city, a kind of Apocalypse Now journey into zombie heart of darkness, it could have been intense, thrilling, scary.

This film is everything but scary. Maybe that was largely true of the original, too but that film at least had thrills and tension. Instead this has a crazy grandpa, blubbing kids, a morose wooden hero… and lots of shades of other, better movies. Not a terrible movie but not far from it really: biggest sin of all is how much it looks like one of those FAQ/Walkthoughs of videogames one sees on YouTube. Movies should be more than that.

Revisiting Big Trouble in Little China

Watched my Blu-ray copy of Big Trouble in Little China last night; first time I ever watched that disc, which really qualifies this as a ‘Shelf of Shame’ series of posts. 

Don’t know why I waited so long to get around to this (other than perhaps the crazy number of times I watched this film on VHS and DVD), as I love this movie, have done since I saw it at the cinema back when it first came out. I was so blown away by the film- I thought it was brilliant; funny, action-packed and so much sheer fun. Yet it just failed to get an audience at the time. It was so weird. I’ve kind of gotten used to it now, so many times I’ve walked out of a cinema buzzing and later its like I’ve seen a different film to everyone else. I’m way off the cultural zeitgeist, that much is clear.

But like with Blade Runner and so many others, VHS saved this movie. I wonder if streaming will ever save movies the way VHS did (and later DVD, I guess). Streamers don’t usually post viewer numbers but I suppose that’s just the same as most studios never posting VHS sales, which I was always curious about. I’d love to know, for instance, how many copies of Blade Runner have been sold over the years- someone must have those figures, surely? Those old days of VHS rentals and sell-through… one could just tell, somehow, when a film was very popular (certainly in the days of rental stores when you couldn’t get a booking without waiting days/weeks: Die Hard was another film when copies were like gold-dust). Streaming… its anyone’s guess how well new films are performing when they are streaming.

Big Trouble in Little China does seem to be one of those films that gets better with age. It still seems an unlikely film amongst all the others in John Carpenter’s filmography, it feels a little odd. Carpenter’s films are usually so dark and edgy, and China feels just so light and fluffy, daft and fun, almost like a cartoon brought to live-action. The humour is off-key, something which really flummoxed the studio at the time (‘what? Jack Burton’s not the hero? He’s an idiot?’) and left them lost regards how to sell it. Maybe it would have worked better as a more typical low-budget Carpenter flick, like Escape From New York, without a big budget loading the film with all sorts of false expectations (people seemed to think it should have been another Indiana Jones movie, but Jack Burton is no Indiana Jones- even though Kurt Russell is just so good in this). So typical of John Carpenter though, subverting expectations. I miss that guy. It was a better world when he was still making movies.

He’s making original CD albums now, just to prove how messed-up this world is. He should be making MOVIES, darn it.

There’s been lots of talk over the years about remakes/sequels/reboots of BTILC and EFNY. They should follow the BR2049 route, bring back both Carpenter and Russell and show us Jack Burton as a retired old bum in a bar getting roped into an alien invasion storyline and missing things up all over again. Okay. Horrible idea, but no more horrible than some of the sequel projects mooted over the years. 

The 1980s was a pretty cool decade for genre movies, wasn’t it. Cooler than we possibly realised even at the time; when we were in that decade, post-Star Wars boom as it was, it rather felt like it would last forever but times change, tastes change, etc. Mind you, I just remembered that Howard the Duck was released the same year as BTILC. So maybe I should discard these rose-tinted glasses.

Last night, on Halloween

returnMost film bloggers, for obvious reasons, spend October devoted to watching horror films- its inevitable really; timely at best, tiresome at worst, and I’ve done it myself in years past, to some extent. Not this year, though during the month I did watch one decidedly sub-par horror film (The Curse of la Llorana) that rather proved that there’s nothing quite as boring as a bad horror film, and that, God Knows, there are far too many of them. Besides, there is enough horror on the news every day without adding to it by watching horror movies. 

I’m finding -indeed, I just commented as much on someone else’s blog- that Covid is changing how I’m looking at things, that I’m suddenly looking through some strange prism, like how the world seems to change when reading a good Philip K Dick story, or H P Lovecraft. Its like watching a colour movie gradually fading into black and white.

So anyway, last night was Halloween, so it would have been rude not too finally succumb to the season by watching a horror film. Actually, I watched two, picking two of my favourites: John Carpenter’s classic The Thing, from 1982 -a very good year for movies-and for a change of pace (real-life schedulers please note) Dan O’Bannon’s delightfully irreverent zombie flick Return of the Living Dead, the unofficial sequel to George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead

thing3The weird thing is that Covid is changing how we look at certain movies, because Carpenter’s The Thing, in the past accepted as a reflection of the Aids epidemic, inevitably now reflects the paranoia and unseen menace of  the Covid Pandemic. The enemy within, the spreading alien contagion, the betrayal of our own bodies. I won’t labour the point, but it did make watching the film this time around a different experience. Part of that is so much bullshit- its what we are seeing, not what the film was originally  intending, and the important thing is that its still a great film, but its a reminder that films never change, but we do, and the world around us. Naturally I was watching Arrows Blu-ray edition from a few years back and it looks quite beautiful (I actually thought it had come out last year, but was horrified to learn it came out back in 2017, yet again me being baffled by the passage of time) – I understand a 4K UHD edition is likely coming out next year, and have to wonder just how much it can improve upon Arrow’s disc, and wonder if I will be suckered into buying this damn film again. Its clearly Carpenter’s best film, and one of the best End of the World movies ever made. I understand they are making a remake/reboot, somehow with Carpenters blessing  (probably the cheque he gets handed to him, he loves easy money, bless him).

Return of the Living Dead, from 1984… crikey, I can still remember seeing this in the fleapit ABC cinema in town back in the day.  Its a cheap and nasty b-movie that revels in being silly, which is an angle even more brilliant now than back when it came out, mainly because of all the zombie stuff we’ve seen since, particularly The Walking Dead (Return should be aired immediately after every season finale of The Walking Dead, if only for a Reality Check). Zombies are a stupid idea; the central premise overwhelmingly daft, its amazing that people get suckered into taking it so seriously, when you really think about the ‘logic’ of it.

There’s a lovely moment in Return when the rain, infected by the ghastly chemicals that reanimate the dead, soaks into the soil of a cemetery (the ‘Resurrection Cemetery’, ‘natch) and the dead start to rise, and a skeleton promptly thrusts itself out of the wet earth, its jaw drops, and the soundtrack breaks into song “Do you wanna PARTY?!!” Its daft, irreverent, silly, hilarious. These zombies know how to rock, and they know how to party . “Send more Paramedics!” one of them gasps into a radio handset, and once that meat has been exhausted, another calls in “Send more Cops!” Its all about the brains, stupid. Considering its humour, the film is also surprisingly dark, its ending inevitable, rather echoing the dark inevitability of the conclusion of The Thing

Trucking Hell: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977)

sorcererWilliam Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a wild journey into darkness that shares much with Apocalypse Now‘s nightmarish sensibilities. Four men are forced to flee civilisation in order to escape punishment for their crimes and they wind up in some hellish, unnamed South American country teetering on the brink of revolution, in a village being reclaimed by the Jungle from which it was torn. A world being washed away by the rain and buried in the mud. The only possible escape these men have is a near-suicidal journey driving two trucks over two hundred miles through dense wild jungle, each truck carrying loads of dangerously unstable old nitroglycerine which is needed to blow out an oil refinery blaze. A journey from darkness into darkness, from Hell into Hell.  The film’s conclusion feels as bleak and inevitable as the ending of John Carpenter’s The Thing. A pleasant and jolly film this is not.

Unsurprisingly, the film did not fair too well when it was released during the summer of Star Wars in 1977. Indeed, it was as doomed as the four protagonists it features- that summer, audiences wanted escape and a positive, life-affirming message. They didn’t want the nihilism of Sorcerer and simply abandoned it, the film becoming a notorious financial disaster. The film suffered a similar fate to Blade Runner and The Thing five years later, when they were released during the summer of Spielberg’s extraterrestrial calling home – but I think like those two films, Sorcerer has benefited from some kind of reappraisal over the years. Its not a perfect film; its messy and unfocused and often gratuitous in an almost adolescent way, but I found it absolutely fascinating and very disturbing.

Its a very intense film, with a nightmarish feeling akin to Adrian Lyne’s  Jacobs Ladder, or the dread inevitability of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart: I’m not at all surprised by readings of the film that consider the four protagonists literally in Hell, suffering for their sins. Its unrelentingly grim, and not one of the four protagonist’s stories ends well: this, in the summer of Star Wars? In hindsight, the fate of the film seems inevitable.

The bridge sequence, in which the trucks try to cross a river in a terrible storm over a dangerously unsafe rope-bridge is incredibly well realised, particularly as it dates from a pre-CGI era.  You can almost feel the wind and the rain of the storm and share the nervous terror of the protagonists as the bridge threatens to collapse. What it must have been like watching that in the cinema back then…. how intense that must have felt. And of course, how incredibly difficult filming it. Watching Sorcerer was the nearest thing to watching Apocalypse Now, aghast at the obvious horror it must have been making it: at least with Coppola’s film the hard work must have seemed worth it, vindicated by the critical and popular response to the film on its release. How crushing it must have seemed for those behind Sorcerer when all that work seemed wasted upon the films critical and popular failure. 

In any case, the sheer insanity of the film, its almost delirious sense of unrelenting nightmare, well, I found it quite an almost perverse pleasure. They certainly don’t make films like this anymore. 

 

 

Tomita’s Engulfed Cathedral

I spent an increasingly disheartening half-hour searching through piles of CDs buried in a corner; I have too many CDs, and surely a clear-out is due, and at times such as this I can see the positives in digital downloads over physical – is it inevitable that someday I’ll opt for a download over a CD? Anyway, as is ever the case in such moments, I failed to find what I was searching for, but instead stumbled upon a quite-forgotten Tomita CD; Snowflakes are Dancing. Its an electronic album from the mid-seventies based upon some of Claude Debussy’s works; my old friend Andy had it on vinyl back in the mid-eighties. I had fallen in love with Debussy’s Clair de lune many years ago (anybody recall the Disney animated short?) and Tomita’s version was always a favourite. Andy used to play both that and The Engulfed Cathedral late in the evening, sometimes. Hugely atmospheric music, and sounding quite unique here (the nearest I can compare to Tomita is possibly Wendy Carlos, but that’s still pretty wide of the mark). John Carpenter did his own electronic rendition of The Engulfed Cathedral in his film Escape From New York, which is where I suspect most of us of my generation first encountered it.

So anyway, I never found what I was looking for in that pile of CDs, because I succumbed and put the Tomita CD on the player instead, listened to The Engulfed Cathedral for the first time in years. Glorious. Its like years falling away, so strange. Anyway, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, here’s a YouTube link to it:

The Invisible Man (2020)

invisThe opening of The Invisible Man shows it to be a taut, tense and efficient thriller, a promise that is fulfilled through most of its running time. Unfortunately, the script becomes so forced as it relentlessly ramps up the twists and tension that it starts to run foul of its internal logic (neither of the brothers notices that one of the Invisibility suits has gone missing from the lab?) until it rather fizzles out in the the end, which is unfortunate. It reminds me of John Carpenters early films like The Fog and Escape From New York, which demonstrated wonderful premises but had scripts that failed to stick the landing, so the speak, with endings that failed to be worthy of their set-ups.

So its a little sad that when The Invisible Man reaches its finale, it splutters rather than soars and left me a little deflated as it stumbled over one too many contrivances and plot holes. On the whole though, it remains a very good thriller and a welcome change from the typical problematic reboot (the 2017 reboot of The Mummy, for instance). The overwhelming saving grace of the film is of course the star turn by Elisabeth Moss, which is mightily impressive and commanding. Moss carries the film all by herself, with a performance that raises the film to some other level, and promises that her career may finally be moving up from television to the silver screen (not that this carries the acting career kudos it used to, really- these days possibly the opposite is true).

The Thing returns looking very 1982

thingYou’d have to have been around in 1982 to understand why this seems to be a Big Deal for me. Quartet Records have announced a remastered edition of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for John Carpenter’s film, and while it doesn’t feature any additional music -or indeed inclusion of the roughly ten minutes of electronic underscore added to the film by Carpenter and his then-frequent collaborator Alan Howarth- it does instead feature the original album cover art used on the vinyl release back in 1982. I loved this cover back in the day and its meant that the original vinyl release has remained a valued possession all these years.  It just always seemed to encapsulate the film and the music better than any other art used to promote the film or soundtrack editions ever since, and it will be great to finally have a CD release featuring it. The music will probably shine from its restoration and remaster, too, and the added news that Jeff Bond, who always writes entertaining and informative liner notes, has prepared this editions new liner notes ensures I’ll have to get a hold of this one, even if saner and wiser folks will be scratching their heads wondering what on Earth is the big deal.

Naturally, we’re living in an age of mp3s, downloads and streaming, and the value of the ‘overall package’ of art and liner notes must seem immaterial to most, if not utterly prehistoric – and 1982 does seem some kind of prehistory to many I guess.