Last Week: one film leads to another. Endlessly.

they live byReal-life distractions got in the way of posting reviews last week, and it was a pretty weird week all round. I watched Nicholas Ray’s noir thriller They Live by Night having recorded it off a film channel on the cable box- not the best quality, and certainly no doubt far inferior to the Criterion Blu-ray which I nearly bought in their last sale several months back. Well, next sale-time I’ll be rectifying that mistake, because it was an outrageously great film and one I want to watch again in better quality. It really was one hell of a film.

Its a funny thing- for some reason, this particular January is actually becoming one of the best months I’ve had for catching really good films, although it is also becoming a little expensive purchasing catalogue titles on Blu-ray: my problem is how films seem to endlessly lead to others. You see a great film by one director and it leads to looking up what else he/she directed, or you are impressed by an actor so you look up their filmography. Sometimes it is the featurettes on a disc that do the deed, referencing films that I haven’t seen, which is great if they are accessible on streaming services but frustrating if it requires purchasing titles on disc. For example, a featurette on Indicator’s The Reckless Moment disc -and that’s another great film I need to post a review of soon- referenced James Mason and some of his films made around the time The Reckless Moment was made- one of which was Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, which from the scenes shown in the featurette looked interesting enough to get me buying it on a Blu-ray from network, but which itself somehow then led me to another Carol Reed film, The Fallen Idol, which again looked really interesting, and as both that and Carol Reed’s The Third Man are in a sale at both HMV and Amazon….

scarlst2Back to The Reckless Moment though, because I was so impressed by Joan Bennett in that film that I went looking at her filmography. Fortunately Fritz Lang’s noir Scarlett Street which starred Bennett was on Amazon Prime, and while it wasn’t the best quality (its obvious streamers dump these older films on their services without much attention to print quality etc), at least it was in its original black and white. Unfortunately, the edition of Lang’s The Woman in the Window, another noir starring Bennett, which is  available on Amazon Prime, is a colourised version (I thought those had been outlawed long ago, but colourised movies somehow still seem to be surfacing). My goodness its unwatchable, I switched that travesty off within minutes of it starting, so my only current avenue for that film seems to be a Blu-ray from Eureka. Oh my wallet. I did spot another Joan Bennett on a cable movie channel so have recorded it – The Woman on the Beach, which I’ll give a try, if only because it also features Robert Ryan- yeah, him. Again. Mind, goodness only knows what films both The Woman in the Window and The Woman on the Beach possibly lead to.

Strangely enough, I found myself watching two more episodes of 1970s popular cop show Starsky and Hutch last week. I don’t know why I’m so cruel to myself, but nostalgia can be a rude mistress. Anyway, one of these two episodes in particular was of some passing interest- the third season episode The Action, from 1978, featured an extraordinarily young Melanie Griffiths in a guest role, and also M Emmet Walsh (only a few years away from Blade Runner) and James B. Sikking, later of Hill Street Blues fame and parts in both Outland and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. That episode seems ridiculously overloaded with notable guest stars. The second episode I watched was a late fourth-season episode, with the series clearly on its last legs,  my attention drawn by the episode title (Starsky vs.Hutch, which was intriguing but the actual episode quite another matter). I stuck with the episode because of it featuring an unrecognisable Yvonne Craig (Bargirl sorry, Batgirl, in the Adam West Batman tv show) in a very minor -insultingly so, really, I has a hard time tracking her down- role, and the great Richard Lynch as the villain. Lynch played a psychopathic Vietnam veteran who hated blondes, hunting a dating bar/dance hall – only the brunettes were safe (but he wasn’t fooled by blonde wearing a dark wig, the cunning bastard). Lynch seemed to be a regular bad guy in television shows of that era (Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The A-Team, you name it he was a villain in it) and he had a notable turn in the fantasy flick The Sword and the Sorcerer (a poor-mans Conan which I gather is getting a 4K release before the John Milius film, somehow. Crazy world.).

On a curiously related note, I did see the very end of Conan The Barbarian during the week, catching the last moments of a showing on television when flicking the channels late at night. Every time I catch the end or mid-point of a film I have on disc -the Dirty Harry films were on over Christmas, so those are a few others- showing on the telly late at night, I think, wow, I’d love to sit and watch this right now, but its always at some ungodly hour. I must have had more stamina for late, late movie watching in the old days. I just can’t do it anymore.

Friday of course brought the final-ever episode of The Expanse (I’m still hoping that Amazon or Alcon Entertainment or the showrunners are bluffing us about it being The End). I had a long day work-wise on Friday (not helped by an eleventh-hour report of sickness re: our old nemesis, Covid) so had to bide my time until late in the evening before I could watch it. It was a bittersweet experience- a great finale, certainly, but we all know there’s three more books waiting to be adapted (as well as a few novellas) so we know the story isn’t complete and indeed, the seeds laid at the start of each of this season’s episodes for what happens beyond this final episode only added to the frustrations of all fans, I expect. But yeah,  its clear that the sixth book was a good cutting-off point (in the books there is a 30-year gap between books six and seven) so it makes some kind of sense. Anyway, Expanse Season Six is another post in the queue list. It seems a long time since I wrote about its first season, years ago; I just can’t believe I’m now writing about its ending.

Knives Out (2019)

knives1With Knives Out, Rian Johnson returns to what he seems to do best- films full of artifice, manipulation both subtle and obvious, with plenty of twists and turns and entertainment. Its something that time travel movies (Looper (2012)), and whodunnit movies (Knives Out) are eminently suited to, especially when characters are your own creation and can act in whatever way best suits your movie and screenplay. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) a famous mystery writer can suddenly take a 180 in behaviour and it doesn’t ring untrue because we haven’t seen him establish other tendencies in three other movies.

It doesn’t, ahem, suit established franchises like Star Wars and its characters who have established mythology and behaviour. But lets not go into that again.

So yeah- Knives Out. Turns out its a pretty great movie, a hugely entertaining entry in the whodunnit genre offering a labyrinthine plot in which super-sleuth detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig obviously relishing the opportunity to chew up the scenery like never before) is tasked with solving a complex murder mystery when it appears that Harlan Thrombey’s suicide is not as it seems. The conceit of the movie is that we are let in on what actually happened and once ‘in’ on the mystery we can still be manipulated by the film as we may not actually know what we think we know.

Its an absurdly old-fashioned film, in surprising ways, gathering an old-fashioned parade of star actors in its cast, like some Hollywood studio picture of old (Plummer, Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collete, Ana de Armas headlining… a list of talent old and new, with a few character actors like M.Emmet Walsh and Frank Oz thrown in for good measure). It reminded me considerably of Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express, a film I likewise enjoyed with its strong cast and old-Hollywood sensibilities. Paradoxically, of course, Knives Out is also very modern and feels very contemporary. Its a grand, almost intoxicating mix and I thoroughly enjoyed it. What in the world was Rian Johnson doing messing about in the Star Wars universe?

Knives Out is of course out on DVD and Blu-Ray, and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. 

The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Blu-ray)

pris1Thanks to Warner Archive over in the States we have a newly restored release of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and on Blu-ray no less. Naturally as I’m a huge fan of the film I ordered a copy and it arrived yesterday, so I watched it that evening. I can report that the film looks absolutely gorgeous, a beautifully detailed HD image with fine grain, incredible detail, no DNR, lovely colour- its damn near perfect, and the best I have ever seen this film look. As the physical formats continue to decline, it makes releases such as this all the more special and treasured, and I thank my lucky stars this is region-free, as I’m pretty certain fairly lowly-renowned films such as this is extremely unlikely to get released over here in the UK (which is a great shame, frankly, and I’d love some UK distributor to prove me wrong and release this and some other Jack Lemmon films in HD over here).

So I watched the film last night and I was quite overcome with how wonderful the experience was – this is one of my very favourite films and to finally have it in this splendid Blu-ray release is just wonderful. To say this release was worth the added expense of having to import it from over the pond is an understatement. The 2019 master is pretty amazing and gives the film a whole new life and vitality, you could be forgiven for thinking its a fresh new film shot last year, except for the fact that it being shot on film gives it a tactile grain and image superior to many modern films shot digitally. The film also features some really impressive widescreen composition, certainly that old pan and scan version I first saw must have been pretty horrific.

Its no doubt some indication of my adoration of this little film that I have mentioned it so many times here on my blog. Its one of those films that I had an instant and intense emotional attachment to- I was in a very low place in my life when I first saw this film by chance on an afternoon tv airing, and it certainly struck a chord in me. Indeed, over the years as I have returned to it that connection, and my love of the film, has remained undiminished- perhaps even heightened as I have grown older and been able to appreciate it even more. Sure, there are better films out there- but few films, in all honesty, mean quite so much to me.

pris3A study of a middle-aged man who becomes unemployed and has a nervous breakdown is perhaps a strange one to describe as a comedy, but it is – its funny and it is sad and there is a feeling of truth and honesty about it, of ordinary people just trying to survive in a cold and indifferent modern city. Jack Lemmon of course is probably my favourite actor and he’s excellent here as the wounded Mel, displaying fragility and pride and, as usual, uncanny comic timing delivering his lines or reacting to others. Anne Bancroft playing his wife Edna, has really good chemistry with him and is no slouch herself with the comedy, and she engenders great sympathy during her characters moments of stress and concern. We really feel the warmth between this middle-aged married couple (I’d hate to imagine how young and physically utopian a modern film versions casting would be).  Thanks to some fine location shooting, the film also serves as something of a time-capsule, capturing a mid-1970s America and New York that does not exist anymore. Its familiar but also there is a distance, a sense of innocence lost: an interesting New York double-bill would be this followed by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, released only a year after and seemingly light years away from this films Second Avenue- it’s a double-bill I really shall have to try sometime.

pris4The film even features the first on-screen performance of an incredibly young-looking Sylvester Stallone. The fact that this year Stallone celebrates his 72nd birthday is a sober reminder of how old this film is and the years that have passed since, and of those we have lost. Jack Lemmon died in 2001, Anne Bancroft in 2005, Gene Saks in 2015, Ed Peck (you may not know the name but he’s a familiar face from a lot of 1960s and 1970s television) in 1992. Infact, of all the cast, I think only F. Murray Abraham (who appears in unlikely cameo as a taxi driver) and M.Emmet Walsh (the apartment buildings inept and  lazy doorman, later a hero of mine from Blade Runner of course), are still alive, other than that young turk Stallone. Behind the screen, playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon passed away in 2018 and the films director, Melvin Frank, passed away in 1988. Composer Marvin Hamlisch passed away in 2012; how I would love to own a copy of the films marvelous score on CD, something extremely unlikely to ever happen as I don’t believe any of the score was ever released, but you never know, stranger things have happened.

I only write about all the talent we have lost as an indication of the films pedigree and worth, and it’s unlikely place in film history as a little film that could – and a film I absolutely adore. Film fans can attach to films more easily and more faithfully than they can people. This film is proof of that.

 

Calvary (2014)

calvary2016.42: Calvary (Amazon Prime/VOD)

Calvary seems to be a rather respected film. I’m a bit at odds with that opinion, as I really didn’t think much of it. To me it is far too deliberately oddball for its own good, treating its subject with an irreverence that is questionable. It isn’t as sophisticated as it thinks it is, and is far inferior to the kind of films it aspires to be (I suspect it is aiming at something like a Magnolia or Short Cuts, something like that). Tonally it is all over the place.

The central plotline is more than a little crazy (deliberately so?) – during a routine confession, one of Father James’ parishioners  reveals that when he was a child he was repeatedly abused by a priest and that in return said parishioner will kill Father James in seven days on the town beach. The parishioner accepts that Father James is innocent but suggests maybe that’s the point- better a dead good priest than a dead bad one (the abuser has passed away during the years since). Repeatedly during the film we see people moaning about priests and the Catholic church, as if the church and its priests are all guilty by association. Anyway, the central throughline of the film is the passing of those seven days and Father James coming to terms with his destiny on that beach at films end, as if he is atoning for the crimes of that unnamed priest.

The film skirts over some of this twisted logic like it does much everything else, and glosses over it with comic moments and eccentric casting (Dylan Moran, M. Emmet Walsh, Chris O’Dowd playing various oddballs). How is it that Father James is unable to recognize the voice of this parishioner of many years? Why has that parishioner decided to kill him now, what has changed over the years for him to arrive at this course of action? Why doesn’t Father James later obey his superior and call in the police? And who burns down the church later on (the intended killer revealing he didn’t do it)? Why is Father James the focus of the film and not the poor soul who was abused, why doesn’t it examine the abused guys fractured mindset and why he feels he has to kill Father James?

The one redeeming feature of this film is Brendan Gleeson; his acting here is fantastic. He quietly manages to infuse his character Father James with some depth beyond what the unfocused script gives him to work with. Yes, unfocused certainly seems to be the word for this film. Is it a thriller, a character piece, a political piece, or a comedy? Certainly other than Father James, everybody else in the film seems to be plain bat-crazy. Its like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest or the asylum scenes in Twelve Monkeys. Obviously humour is patently being raised here with such oddball characters, but to what end? To diffuse the thriller aspect, or to minimise upsetting parts of the audience, or to make child abuse palatable?

Is the film a character piece about Father James (if so it fails, despite all Brendan Gleeson’s efforts) or a comedy about people disenfranchised from the church? Is it a piece about the clergy’s failure to atone for and punish those who abused children in their care? Is this film somehow supposed to be responsibly raising that issue as some form of entertainment? Is it patronising? Is it suggesting that everyone who was abused whilst in the care of the church should go out and kill a priest? Of course it isn’t, but why then make a film as a comedy with that as the central plotline? I don’t know. I just didn’t get it.