Kingdom of Heaven and the Shelf of Shame

kohWatched the Roadshow Directors Cut of Kingdom of Heaven last night; what a bloody brilliant movie that is. I think Kingdom of Heaven is possibly the best example of the transformative power of the Directors Cut- sure, the DCs of Watchmen and The Abyss are much better than their original cuts, too, but they remain flawed films in many ways, but the DC of Kingdom of Heaven is just, well, to put not too fine a point on it, a bloody brilliant movie, and is one of Ridley Scotts best films. His last truly great film, too, I suspect (I guess its only competition would be The Martian, but, well, I like The Martian but clearly Kingdom of Heaven is the better movie). This is the same guy who brought us Prometheus and Alien: Covenant? I find it so hard to believe; incredible. I make no apologies for stating that this film is one of my favourite all-time movies, which makes it a little odd to confess that I gave not seen it in several years….

Of course, I’ve watched the DC of Kingdom of Heaven several times before- first on a sumptuous R1 DVD edition many years back, and later when it arrived on a lacklustre Blu-ray edition (here in the UK, anyway). The reason why this post features in my Shelf of Shame series is that this copy is the Ultimate Edition steelbook, that contains the three cuts of the film via seamless branching (theatrical, DC and Roadshow cuts) with a second disc containing the exhaustive special features from that old DVD edition. To my frank disbelief I bought this edition back in 2015 and its been sitting on the shelf ever since, which is some kind of madness considering that, as I have mentioned, this is one of my favourite movies. Maybe its the length of the film. The Roadshow version, which features an Overture and an Intermission, runs well over three hours (as I adore the score for this film, I find that Roadshow version by some margin the best version to watch), and like Once Upon a Time in America, the longest films may be the greatest, but they do demand more time and consideration when scheduling.

Oh well, this lockdown and isolation we’re living during Covid19 has to be good for something, right? We have the time, I guess, to enjoy some of these longer films now.  And, er, I really need to rewatch Once Upon a Time in America, too, now that I think about it…

I hate double and triple-dipping but I’ll say here and now, this film desperately needs a 4K UHD edition. Please, someone, by all that’s Picard, make it so. This is one of Ridley’s greatest movies- they put that damned Robin Hood flick of his on 4K UHD, and those Alien prequels, but not this? Kingdom of Heaven looks fine in HD, but there is noticeable banding and blocking in some sections of this film, particularly during fade ins and fade outs, which I suspect is down to the sampling rate limited by the length of the film and the multiple branching over the single disc. Its hard to believe I’m berating a Blu-ray disc when it used to be the pinnacle of home viewing (I wonder how bad the DVD looks like?) but its clear to me that a 4K UHD would handle a lot of such sections, as well as the dark interior scenes, much better than a Blu-ray encode can manage.

I was really buzzing, though, after watching this. As its been a few years since last watching it, some of it surprised me, regards what I had actually forgotten, such as the layers of the storytelling, the different character arcs and moments, particularly in this extended version. Its quite complex and nuanced and features a great cast in great form, with brilliant direction and some really fine editing. Naturally its a beautiful-looking film, but some of the pacing and composition work… really, its the director at the absolute peak of his game, here. I can’t really understand why people talk about Ridley and mention Gladiator etc but not this, but I can only assume that’s because they saw the original version and not the DC. I recall watching that theatrical release back in, crikey, 2005, and being disappointed by it; sure it looked beautiful (as one would expect of Ridley, especially with period pieces) but the whole thing felt simplistic and formulaic. Which is why I rate this edition so highly as an example of just how good extended or directors cuts of some films can really be.

Voice from the Stone (2017)

voice2.jpgVoice from the Stone is a European-set mystery/ghost story… I think. Set in 1950s Italy, a nurse that specialises in helping children, Verena (Emilia Clarke, yeah, her with the dragons) is hired by moody sculptor Klaus (Marton Csokas, so brilliant in Kingdom of Heaven) to help his son Jakob (Edward Dring) who has not spoken since his classical pianist mother Malvina (Caterina Murino) died several months ago. They live on a remote beautiful estate with a grand old house, Malvina’s family being rich for centuries from the profits of working a quarry nearby that held a particularly fine stone. The quarry is now disused and flooded, and the house showing its age, the estate almost frozen in time as if unable to shake off the grand old days. Varena struggles to connect with the boy, who believes he hears his mother speaking to him from the walls. Is it possible that the house, and the boy, are indeed haunted by Malvina?

Its an intriguing premise for an old-fashioned ghost story, but I’m not sure this film really really wants to be a ghost story. Based on a book, I don’t know if this is a factor in the original work, but the film itself seems to be all over the place- not really helped by a lack of chemistry between Clarke and Csokas when a romance suddenly flares up between them, possibly engineered by Malvina who seems to be possessing the nurse. I say ‘seems’ because the film really feels like its in two minds- serious romantic drama or supernatural thriller, it can’t seem to decide which. By the end of the film. I wasn’t sure what was even going on. Was Varena herself going mad or was she really possessed? And was Malvina’s mother really a ghost or just some kind of projection of Varenas?  Maybe the film was trying to be sophisticated enough to have it both ways, leave it up for interpretation.

voice stoneIn anycase, it doesn’t pull it off, turning out to be a somewhat confusing mess. Which is frustrating because it looks ravishing and the cast is pretty good. I must confess to feeling a little ambivalent about Clarke, though- her range seems to consist of raised highbrows for confusion, frowned highbrows for intensity, and relaxed highbrows for mild amusement. LIke in Game of Thrones, I don’t think she’s really up to the material (something true of most of the younger thespians in that show, which is carried thankfully by all the older actors who elevate the material somewhat) – or maybe I’m just being unfair to her, maybe it’s just that I don’t ‘get’ what she’s doing.

Overall the film has a very fine sense of mood and atmosphere but this only carries it so far, and the confusing last half-hour really leaves a bit of a sour feeling of disappointment.  Perhaps it really wasn’t intended to be a horror film, but not for the first time of late, it feels like it was horror film made by film-makers who thought they were above such pulpish horror nonsense, and it just got away from them.

Ridley’s Blade Runner Blues

Some interesting comments from Ridley Scott during recent interviews whilst doing the press for All the Money in the World (or ‘The One That Erased Spacey’).  Interviewed by New York magazine’s Vulture website the subject turned to the recent BR20149 and he seemed to blame the film’s box office failure on the film’s length:  [Whispers] “I have to be careful what I say. I have to be careful what I say. It was fucking way too long. Fuck me! And most of that script’s mine…  I shouldn’t talk. I’m being a bitch.”

br2049It set me thinking. I mean, Ridley may have a point about the film’s length- its 163-minute running time clearly put off some viewers, but would it have made it a better film? To me, the pace of BR2049 is part of the film’s appeal- its leisurely pace is that of a tone poem, a sad study of what is human, what is real. And it must be remembered that a chief criticism of the original Blade Runner, even today, is its perceived slowness, something I consider one of its successes.

But Ridley’s words made me think just as much of his last few movies. I recall on one of the behind the scenes docs, he made a telling comment that one has to be careful in the editing room of rewatching a film too much, of losing objectivity. I can’t quote him exactly, but he said something along the lines of ‘even the best jokes wear thin once you’ve heard them too many times’, and that it is too easy to over-cut a film, and cut some good stuff out, not because it isn’t working but simply because of over-familiarity, of seeing it too much, and it can actually hurt a film, cutting too much.

I remember watching Ridley’s Kingdom of Heaven at the cinema and being thoroughly disappointed by it- it was empty-headed pretty nonsense, every bad habit of Ridley’s thrown into one vacuous historical epic. And yet his directors cut of Kingdom of Heaven, restoring really important footage, is simply brilliant, and is one of his best films (in fact, I’d rate it right up there behind Blade Runner and Alien, and like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment or Hitchcock’s Psycho,may be remembered as Ridleys last great movie).

The irony is, that theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven didn’t fare particularly well at the box office and got a general savaging from the critics, so what did that shorter cut achieve? There are numerous times when I have eulogised about how great the film is, to be scoffed at by others, and I have to ask them what version they saw. Its like there are two seperate movies with the same title and cast.

Thankfully, this is not true of BR2049; we got its directors cut and the critics loved it and I’m sure when people finally get around to seeing it on home video/streaming they will be pleasantly surprised by it or reconsider it on subsequent viewings. Sure, some will rally against it pace and length, as its more a ‘seventies movie than a present-day movie in some of its sensibilities.

God knows I’m a huge fan of Ridley’s work and have defended him so many times- I can always find something worthwhile in most of his movies, indeed even The Counsellor, which is widely pilloried, is a pretty good film to me, particularly in its extended cut.  I do find it annoying these days though, how how a film is perceived can often depend on which version one saw. In the old days, there was only one version of Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane, West Side Story or Casablanca (barring regional censorship). We didn’t need two or three seperate versions to tell a story.

Moreover, I do wonder if some of Ridleys comments stem from his ire at BR2049 being perceived by some as being actually superior to his original. Maybe he has been stung by such views, or the lavish critical praise for it in the wake of less-favourable reviews of his last few movies. Maybe I should take a leaf out of Ridley’s book….  I shouldn’t talk. I’m being a bitch.

 

 

The Martian (2015)

marty1As I write this, Ridley Scott’s The Martian has reached a US domestic haul of more than $197 million, with foreign receipts added its worldwide take is some $459 million, making it one of the directors most successful films. It hasn’t been released in China or Japan yet either so there’s plenty yet to be added, so it is sure to cross that magical $500 million barrier. It’s nice to see Scott with a genuine hit under his hat after a decade of his films struggling to find a sizeable audience.

It’s just a pity its The Martian. It is easy to assess why it has been so successful- it is based on a very popular book, has a likeable and popular lead, and is pretty much the perfect Ridley Scott vehicle for mainstream audiences- a simple story told with great visuals. It’s a good movie. But it’s a pretty weak Ridley Scott movie. Think Thelma & Louise over 1492: Conquest of Paradise.

marty2Maybe ‘weak’ isn’t the right word. Its just that… well it didn’t involve me somehow. Maybe its unfair, I read the book so I knew what to expect. Other than an unnecessary coda the film is largely faithful to the book and doesn’t take any liberties so any weakness in the film is surely inherent in the source material. And it certainly looks as spectacular as you’d expect for a Ridley Scott film. Indeed, how he manages to make a film as ‘big’ as this for ‘just’ $108 million is quite astonishing, frankly (something he likewise achieved with Prometheus). You certainly get plenty bang for your buck. And yes its great to see Ridley back in the sci-fi groove now after so many decades. There are some amazing sets and shots in The Martian that reminded me of 2001, and hints at what a film like that might look like if done today. But that’s just it; 2001 would never get made today. We can do better visuals now than Kubrick could ever have dreamed of, but we cannot tell the same kind of story. There is no room for the awe, the strangeness, the alien-ness of space anymore. Its more cosy and familiar now. I don’t think there is any moment in The Martian where we doubt our hero will ever fail to survive, or we really feel the stark terror and loneliness of life alone on an alien world. We’re too busy smirking at disco music.

God that planetoid in Alien was so strange and alien… so dark and moody and dangerous and nightmarish. Mars looks spectacular enough but its just another desert, frankly. I guess I just prefer Scott’s more arthouse, darker, rawer works, those films with his flair for visuals coupled with a darker twist. They are inevitably more esoteric, less audience-friendly. Not necessarily better movies, I’ll admit that, certainly, but I do find even a flawed film like The Counsellor rather more interesting and rewarding. However some might say that I’m talking utter tosh and The Martian proves that Ridley is better when he keeps it simple. The box-office would seem to confirm that. The tone of the film just felt wrong, somehow. Maybe it was just that disco music. It rather worked in the book, but onscreen, it was just distracting, undermining any tension.

Maybe I’ll enjoy it more second time around. I just expected Ridley to stamp some of his darkness on the project but it just turned out light and fluffy and entertaining like the book. I expect that, knowing that now, I’ll react to the film better next time. But I’ll still wonder at what it might have been. Maybe he’s keeping a three-hour version under his hat for a Directors Cut edition that will add some of that darkness and awe. You never know with Ridley. Afterall, Kingdom of Heaven was pretty poor at the cinema, but its later extended version is one of the very best films he has ever made.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

DF-04525 - Moses (Christian Bale) charges into a fierce battle.I have a suspicion that I haven’t really watched Ridley Scott’s Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, if only because there is a nagging feeling that I have just watched an incomplete work. Not a Rough Cut exactly, but Scott does have a track record of these things. Like Kingdom of Heaven, I have the impression there is a longer Directors Cut in the offing, although it must be said this theatrical cut worked much better than the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven did  (I don’t expect any incarnation of Exodus will equal the mighty DC of Kingdom of Heaven though- I suspect that film’s DC will be Scott’s last great movie, although obviously I’d love to be proven wrong).

Of course the danger is that I could cut the film too much slack thinking its deliberately compromised at studio behest to manage the running time. You could well be forgiven for arguing that Scott should have gotten it right first time, and 250 minutes is plenty long enough for any epic. I could moan about the current state of affairs in which I can see a film at the cinema in a version deliberately lesser than it should be with a more complete/superior version waiting in the wings. It may even damage the box-office for the film, as I well suspect many will be waiting for a longer/better cut on the eventual Blu-ray and will ignore the theatrical release completely.Which would be pretty ironic, as if the film fails to do the business the Studio may not see any worth investing in a longer cut for home release.

Of course I could raise a note of caution, in that we all thought we would see a better cut of Prometheus that actually made sense, but that never transpired, so there’s surely no guarantee of there ever being a better Exodus in the future (although I believe Scott has hinted at one and been quoted regards a four-hour version).

exodus2

So how to judge Exodus then, without waiting a few months for a longer (superior?) Directors Cut?  Well in truth I guess you can’t. The film doesn’t reach the heights it aspires to, and lacks the depth or subtlety it might have had, and there’s no guarantee it will work any better in any longer cut, if it even exists. And yet there’s a damn good film in there and it might actually be a great film in a longer cut. The good news is that we only have to wait until March for the films home release, so if that longer cut is ready we may not have long to wait. Here’s a few points that spring to mind for now-

1) The 3D was excellent; I’m not one usually swayed by 3D but in this case I’ll just say that Scott displayed a mastery of the frame with a keen eye for use of depth. It wasn’t too distracting but rather aided a sense of immersion. Much, much better 3D than I experienced in the Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies anyway.

2) Ridley Scott remains one of the finest visual directors working today, and indeed one of the finest of all time. Exodus is a beautiful-looking movie and really shines on the big screen (but of course we all expected that anyway).

3) As Biblical films go, I felt this was far superior and more successful than Noah. Noah may have been more radical/experimental but Exodus worked better as a movie. And that’s not to say that Exodus plays it too safe or doesn’t try to be controversial- it depicts God as a petulant/fairly irritating young boy and suggests that some of the story may be instigated by a trauma/brain damage suffered by Moses in a fall. Of course there is a fine line with films like this regards respecting people’s faith and beliefs (one persons religion is another persons science fiction/ Ancient Aliens fantasy).

4) I wish Ridley had made a Conan movie. I believe he was lined up for one in the late ‘seventies at one point. Some of the battle scenes in Exodus are brilliantly staged and shot (just look at that picture at the head of this post), and the ‘look’ of Egypt is such a tease for an adventure in a Ridley Scott Hyboria…. it’ll never happen, but file it under Great Films That Never Were for discussion someday. There were several moments watching Exodus that I thought, ‘wow. that would be great in a Conan movie’. Come on Ridley, forget Blade Runner 2…. have a stab at saving the Conan franchise and shoot The Hour of the Dragon.