Recent Additions/ Capsule reviews

P1110251I’ve been weak, and succumbed to a few sale offers over the past several weeks, and there have also been a few disc releases of the films from last Autumn/Winter that I’d been waiting for.

Matrix Resurrections 4K UHD: A film of two halves, really, but my review can be found here.

Whiplash 4K UHD: I watched this on a rental a good while ago, when it absolutely terrified me. I don’t know why I’m putting myself through this again, except that the 4K disc was in a sale and yeah, it seemed like a great film last time around. We’ll see what I think if/when I can muster the courage for another anxiety trip…

Cliffhanger 4K UHD: A guilty favourite, my review can be found here.

Beverly Hills Cop 4K UHD: No, I don’t know what I was thinking. It was in a sale, I used to love the Axel F single back in the day (I have the 12″ in storage somewhere), I’d seen the film on a VHS rental. Once. Actually I quite enjoyed this disc, there must be something of a nostalgic pull from anything 1980s just lately. There’s a scene in a bar where a Prince song I didn’t know was playing on the soundtrack and it bugged the heck out of me until I learned from the credits that it was a Vanity 6 song (so yeah, Prince in all but name) but it only intensified that whole 1980s ‘thing’ running through this film. The hairstyles! The fashions! That Glenn Frey song!

Eddie Murphy was actually bearable back then. There’s a story about Eddie Murphy and Jack Lemmon on the Paramount backlot which I’ve probably mentioned before, so I won’t go on with it here unless someone wants me too…

West Side Story (2021) 4K UHD: I watched this a few nights ago; quite magnificent, I thought, and easily Spielberg’s best film in twenty years. I actually think there is something in Spielberg’s style, like his slow camera crawls into actor’s reaction shots, how staged his set-ups tend to be, how much he leans on John William’s music scores, that is wholly suited to musicals. I hope to give this a proper review post sometime, but yeah, I thought it was brilliant. The staging, the use of the camera, the art direction, the casting… I could imagine it winning all sorts of Oscars in a non-Covid universe in which this film made any money (shame Oscar seems to ignore a dud). It goes without saying that the music is sublime, I’ve always loved Robert Wise’s original film and have seen the show on the stage once (albeit something provincial) so it was a given I’d enjoy it, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Spider Man: No Way Home 4K UHD: Dude! Dude! Dude! Oh dear, the writing in this film… what, described somewhere as the best comicbook movie ever made? What? I’ll write a proper post about this film someday, but just an observation: there were a few times in the Lee/Ditko/Romita era comics that Peter Parker was revealed to be Spider-Man but those guys usually managed to write an elegant and imaginative way of Peter outwitting people and fixing things and maintain his secret identity. But the film Peter Parker shown here is some kind of selfish idiot or the films writers lacked the imagination and wit of 1960s comic writers/artists, because this film… maybe its cleverly undermining traditional super-hero tropes and the films actual uber-villain is Tom Holland’s Spidey himself. Or maybe I’m giving them way too much credit…

The Shawshank Redemption 4K UHD: I wasn’t going to do it. Its one of my favourite films (I was one of the few who saw it in the cinema when it came out, so hey, kudos to me) but the Blu-ray was fine. But sales. Bloody sales.

Ratatouille 4K UHD: My favourite Pixar movie, and a lovely feel-good film that I probably need now more than ever. I don’t expect any great leap over the Blu-ray, but it does seem I’m upgrading too many of my favourite films to 4K UHD, especially when the sales make it seem a reasonable decision rather than inherently dumb, which it really probably is.

Backdraft 4K UHD: Sales. Sales. Sales. Actually, I watched it a few nights ago and I quite enjoyed it. I’d actually forgotten Robert De Niro was even in it, its been so long since I’d last watched this (probably on DVD). It takes a few too many liberties with my intelligence with some of its heart-tugging silliness “Look at him… that’s my brother goddammit!” but it does look awfully good in 4K. I seem to recall it was this film that made me dislike Hans Zimmer scores for years, my goodness he never did do subtle.

Death on the Nile 4K UHD: Watched this on Saturday. Its quite inferior to the previous Murder on the Orient Express, from the pretty woefully miscast cast to the strangely uninvolving plot… and I’m not sure the virtual sets nonsense worked at all. I guess it was a deliberate stylistic choice but it left it feeling very… distractingly artificial? I can accept that in a Star Wars prequel with George playing with his toybox but a period murder mystery that could have been shot on location?

Nineteen Eighty-Four Blu-ray/DVD: Ah, the Peter Cushing one, that I’ve never seen but always wanted to. I’m only irritated by the fact that since this arrived in the post, Amazon has been repeatedly reducing the price of this thing. I hate it when that happens, especially when I haven’t seen it yet. See also too many other discs currently unwatched to mention, but still, its the principle of the thing.

The Proposition 4K UHD: Saw this on Sunday. Lengthy fawning post to sometime follow. Quite breathtakingly brilliant. One of those times that I blind-buy a physical disc release of a film I’d previously missed somehow and discover something quite excellent. Does this qualify as a Christmas movie? Was John Hurt ever better?

Brute Force/ Naked City (Blu-ray): I watched Brute Force last night. Brilliant film. They really don’t make ’em like they used to. I shall catch up with Naked City sometime soon. This was another sale buy that had me wondering why I hadn’t succumbed to its charms before. Arrow’s double-bill package is well designed (lovely hardcase box) with a fine book to pour over, bountiful extras; another great example of why I still love buying physical releases of old films. But its gotten me ordering Jules Dassin’s Rififi on Blu-ray, further proof that it gets expensive sometimes as one film leads to another. Damn those trailers…

Revisiting Contact (1997)

contact2I have a fascination with space travel, alien civilizations and our own place in the Cosmos that dates back to me as a kid watching Star Trek. Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Carl Sagan’s book and tv series Cosmos only reinforced my conviction that we are not alone, that we should watch the skies and being alone in this vast universe is surely a big waste of Space. 

I never read Carl Sagan’s book Contact. I’m not entirely sure why, it seems a strange omission but life is weird like that, we make some choices which, looking back, don’t entirely make a lot of sense.   

So I don’t know what differences exist between Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film and the original book, or whether it is wholly faithful. It feels like something Carl Sagan would have written; certainly it has novel ideas and extrapolates from scientific ideas a plausible premise about First Contact. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter to me, although now that I consider it I really should catch up with the book sometime. Its enough that the film was, when I saw it at the cinema back in the day, and remains today watching my Blu-Ray copy, a pretty strong and quite satisfying film. 

Its perhaps a wee bit melodramatic, a little too Hollywood… maybe its just that its a product of the 1990s. I think it would have benefited by being made several years ago with a less emotive director, someone like Denis Villeneuve, really- its no mistake that the film I kept on thinking about while watching Contact was Villeneuve’s own First Contact film, his superb Arrival from 2016. Arrival is a better film by some margin, I think, but I would dearly love to see what someone like Villeneuve might have made of something like Contact, given the material and a big cinematic toybox.

I was oddly disturbed, funnily enough, when I considered that the last time I had watched Contact was before Arrival existed- this was the first time watching Contact in which Arrival was in my thoughts, and it made me consider the strange thing it is of re-watching films over the years. We are different, the world is different, the cinematic landscape is different: and that later point is perhaps the most telling of all. Films made decades later with better technologies inevitably have some bearing on whether a film still holds up years down the line. For one thing, I seem to remember the visual effects of Contact being pretty cutting-edge back in 1997; its funny how much some CG effects have aged spectacularly badly. Many of Contact’s visual effects hold up pretty well, and some of them, er, really don’t look good.   

The search for extra-terrestrial life always made perfect sense and great importance to me. As Arthur C Clarke put it,  “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Contact doesn’t voice it in the same way, it leaves that argument unspoken and I keep on thinking that Jodie Foster’s character, our central heroine, Ellie, should scream that sentiment out at her loudest voice: how can any one of her detractors critiquing her obsession with SETI deny it? Contact seems more concerned with arguments of Faith, examinations of Faith, either in God or Science and its a bittersweet stroke of genius that Ellie’s First Contact experience ultimately becomes a matter of Faith. Are we believers (of course we are, we saw what she saw) or are we non-believers (did we really just see what she thinks she saw)? I think the film would have been incredibly brave had it just left it that way- instead it tips its hat with a reveal that Ellie’s digital recorder may have recorded just static- but it recorded eighteen hours of it, which validates Ellie’s claims. It feels a little too literal, too obvious to me, I think I would have preferred a vaguer conclusion. I think what I’m getting at is that Contact is still an enjoyable and fairly strong film- it just isn’t sophisticated enough, for me today. Maybe its too literal. 

contactThe films constant tension between God and science, between Faith and Empirical Evidence is both its most interesting dynamic and its most irritating. It keeps on forcing its way in. It feels like something Carl Sagan would have written, even if he always seemed quite dismissive about anything Divine- God always seemed too simple a solution for Carl. My suspicion, having not read the book, is that a lot of the films preoccupation with God and science are from the Hollywood direction, not the book, but hey, I could be way wrong and should-have-done-my-research.

The cast is really good. Jodie Foster is great as Ellie, and its wonderful seeing Tom Skerritt as the  boo-hiss villain of the piece, scientist/bureaucrat/bastard David Drumlin. James Woods of course could play the frankly despicable -if wholly believable- government senator Kitz in his sleep, and seeing him in this I wonder again why we see so little of him these days (has he retired?). How wonderful, too, is John Hurt as tech magnate S. R. Hadden (and me suddenly realising he’s a fellow Alien colleague of Skerritt, and yep they both die in this film too). Really, the cast is one of the films strengths. Even a rather young-looking Matthew McConaughey, who always irritated me in the film and still does -too cool, too self-confident, too sexy, too Hollywood- has the novel perspective gifted from his later roles, particularly Interstellar, a film that assumes intelligence but is frankly quite behind Contact in that regard (Interstellar’s twist that the ‘aliens’ are our future selves communicating via a Cosmic Bookcase is just… I’m always rather lost for words). 

As I’ve gotten older my own faith, as it were, that it would surely be just a matter of Time before SETI found some evidence of an alien signal and proof of neighbours in the Cosmos, has not been realised. Years and decades went by and the euphoria of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was eventually worn down by mundane reality. When that film originally came out I read something by someone remarking that the events of CE3K had they happened would have been kept secret, we -the public at large- would never have been told, it was an event just too big, too huge. It would change too much, so such revelations would be hidden away for our own safety. Reading that as a kid, I dismissed it with my usual youthful enthusiasm, but as I’ve gotten older and more jaded… partly I think, how do you keep such secrets secret in this Information Age, but then I think, grow up. They can hide anything.

Maybe something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind couldn’t be made today. Its message of Good Aliens after decades of Hollywood alien invasions felt quite radical at the time, even if its sentiments proved short-lived with Alien and Independence Day and so many others reasserting the alien’s rightful place of outsiders and menace. Are we ready for First Contact? Robert Zemeckis’ film suggests that we’re not, and its possibly right, but its a great question to ask and ponder over. For my part, a recurring problem for me every time Contact finishes, is that its somehow pressed some magical ‘reset’ button worthy of 1960s television- there is no mention of the alien technology just sitting waiting to be used again, or the various applications of that technology that would filter down into military and civilian use. Ellie is even back at her old job listening for signals again. James Woods dismissing the whole thing as an elaborate hoax by some high-tech industrialist is like some kind of magic trick, and its that one moment in which Contact becomes, at the last moment, utterly stupid.

Just as at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there would be no going back, and maybe the REALLY interesting films, in both cases, would be the films telling us what happened next, but neither CE3K2 or Contact 2 ever happened. Sometimes film-makers get away scot-free.

Sir John Hurt has died.

kaneKane: I’ll volunteer to be in the first group to go out.

Dallas: Yeah, that figures.

Kane. He was the heroic one. The one with an explorer’s heart. First out of the Hypersleep chamber, first one into danger… first one to succumb to the beast. Only this was the 1970s, and heroes looked kinda ordinary back then. Actors then, they looked like ordinary people, you could identify with them, and nobody looked as normal and ordinary as John Hurt. He always looked like a guy who might live next door or you could share a few pints with in the pub. So Kane, although he was a hero, he was a different kind of hero to what we usually see now. Not someone particularly fit or tall or powerfully-built. I don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t a hero at all. Maybe he was just an ambitious company man eager to make a bonus. Maybe he was a damned fool stuck in a dead end space-trucker job dreaming of the romantic space fantasies of centuries-old fiction, suddenly on the brink of the greatest adventure of all -first contact. In anycase, his heroism/curiosity/ foolishness (delete as applicable) got the better of him, and he got bitched by a facehugger and the rest is history.

Can’t believe I’m writing another one of these again. Waking up to the news this morning that Sir John Hurt had passed away yesterday was another one of those kicks to the gut. Its strange; over the years and so many movies and tv appearances, we get some kind of daft feeling that we ‘know’ these actors, when we clearly really don’t. But we grow attached to them, we re-watch their performances and relish them. Years pass by. We re-watch those performances. They become part of our lives.

Only last weekend I re-watched John Hurt’s remarkable turn as Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place. He is so great in that movie. I mean, Hurt will always be Kane to me, from Alien. Its the first role I really saw him in and of course Alien was a pretty big deal to me growing up. I’d see Hurt in so many other roles after that, both from before and after Alien… He was so impressive though in 10 Rillington Place… his Timothy Evans, brash, foolish, easily led, unable to comprehend the events overcoming him, he seems so real with Hurt playing him. I thought he was brilliant in 1984… amazing in The Elephant Man… man, he was in some really great movies, and he was great in them. His face seemed lived-in, real, his voice… he had a great voice. Anybody remember him in the short-lived tv series, The Storyteller? He was brilliant in that. But he’ll always be Kane in Alien to me. I’ve watched that film so many times, seen that little bastard leap out of Kane’s chest so many times… well.

RIP John Hurt. I’ll raise a glass to your shade tonight. I guess this is the times we live in, but 2017 is quickly carrying on like it’s 2016.

The Monstrous Mr Christie

place10 Rillington Place (Blu-ray)

I first saw this film many years ago, I think on a late Friday-night showing on tv. It made quite an impression on the young me, as it is a powerful film, and its lesson that authority is not always right and that justice can be flawed resonated with me greatly. Now that I’m older and watching it again for the first time in decades, it’s clear to me now just how deeply disturbing and nuanced, and commendably restrained, this film really is. Quite a few times during this film I considered how it might well turn into an exploitation horror flick in other hands, and often thought how favorably it compares to Hitchcock’s Psycho, a film much more popular (infamous?) than this. I’d say this is one film that really gives Psycho a run for its money, and really makes me wonder what kind of film Hitchcock would have fashioned from its horrifying story and its sexual undertones.

The real chills about this film is that pretty much everything it depicts is true, and indeed it is the real titular house of horrors that features in the film’s exteriors, which adds a real sense of morbidity and uncomfortable voyeurism to the film. This last point in particular is quite pressing, because all the way through I felt like a voyeur witnessing the events that really transpired. The film is, as I have mentioned, remarkably restrained- the murders themselves are shown in a dramatic, almost documentary detail but in no way exploitive, and the perverse acts that Christie acted upon the women’s bodies is only hinted at. The depths of the viewer’s imagination is ample enough to ensure that we know he was an utter monster.

place2Its interesting that the film doesn’t attempt to explain why Christie did what he did, his past and how that might have created the monster he became. He is always an enigma, a twisted mystery in the guise of an ordinary, bald bespectacled man, and this makes him all the more horrifying. There is no comforting explanation, no reason why. At least in Hitchcock’s Psycho we have a psychiatrist who offers an explanation, simplistic as it might seem,  for Norman Bates madness. 10 Rillington Place offers no such comforting explanations for its monster, no sense of rational reason. Christie is a monster who looks and acts like that guy in the bus queue or walking a trolley through a supermarket. His almost quaint English ordinariness is frankly chilling when you consider what he was capable of and he remains one of cinema’s truly ‘great’ monsters. We cannot truly know him or understand him- he simply ‘is’, and that’s truly scary.

Richard Fleischer’s direction is assured and more sophisticated than one might expect for a film such as this. It looks utterly authentic, with great moody photography and dismal, claustrophobic sets that display just how grim post-war Britain was. The acting is sublime throughout the cast, and it is no small measure of John Hurt’s remarkable performance as the doomed simpleton Timothy Evans that he steals the film from under Richard Attenborough’s nose. Attenborough’s performance is subtle and quite disturbing- there is clearly all sorts of horrible stuff going on behind behind those eyes as he looks at the women he preys upon.

This Blu-ray disc is the first Indicator release I have bought, and it promises much for the quality of future releases this year (although my wallet might well blanch at the prospect),  with several Hammer and Harryhausen films among them. The picture quality is tremendous,  really showing off the photography and the textures of the sets and clothes (though maybe Attenborough’s make-up isn’t done too many favours at times). Two commentary tracks and a number of interviews are the highlights of an ample set of supplements. I’ve sampled a good half-hour of John Hurt’s track and he is a disarming and self-deprecating talker, with great recollections of making the film, the personnel and the true events that inspired the film and the book it is based on.

All in all, a great package and a great film that deserves all the praise it gets. That the BBCs recent three-part dramatisation failed to equal it, and indeed perhaps even got mired in being too faithful to how the film tackled the story, speaks volumes about how good this film really is. Its dark and morbid and moody and horrific. Mr Christie is a monster who will haunt us for many years to come.