City That Never Sleeps (1953)

city2John H Auer’s City That Never Sleeps is a bizarre mixture of realistic film noir, procedural crime drama like The Naked City and a fantasy fable like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Its such an odd combination that it has a surreal Twilight Zone-like feel, a sense of unreality persisting throughout which is at odds with its attempt to be gritty and ‘real’ (or at least as far as film censors would allow at the time).

It begins with shots of the city of Chicago at dusk,  “I am the city, the hub and heart of America…” instantly instilling the feeling of a Rod Serling introduction for a Twilight Zone episode, albeit here with the casual cosiness of the Angels chatting in the beginning of Capra’s classic. We are introduced by this narrator through short vignettes to the key players in the drama to follow, and then we are off and running on a busy night in which a troubled cop, Johnny Kelly (Gig Young), has come to a crossroads in his life and has to make some life-changing choices. Gig Young himself is a piece of casting that instantly evoked Twilight Zone again, as he appeared in what was possibly its very best episode, Walking Distance, several years later.

city1Kelly is a career cop, albeit a career for which Kelly seems to feel little inclination, forced on him by family tradition (his father a long-time cop near the end of his own career) increasingly resenting, and feeling emasculated by, the fact that his wife earns more than him (and endlessly reminded of it by his mother-in-law who feels her daughter married the wrong guy). So Kelly feels trapped in a job he doesn’t like and a marriage on the rocks, and tonight is the night he has to make a final decision regards quitting  his job and accepting the corrupting influence of crooked lawyer Penrod Biddel (a commanding Edward Arnold) whose offer of big money leads Kelly to think he can then leave town with his nightclub dancer mistress and set up a better life on his own terms.

Having prepared his resignation letter, Kelly begins what he expects to be his last night shift and finds his usual partner is off sick- replaced by an unknown Police Sergeant,  Joe (Chill Willis) whose voice is instantly recognised as the narrator who opened our tale. So there is an air of the supernatural here, with Sgt Joe playing a similar role to George Bailey’s Clarence, Sgt Joe’s subtle remarks to Kelly teasing and prompting him during their night patrol about the value and nobility in being an honest cop protecting the decent people of the city that never sleeps.

Kelly is already something of a corrupt cop and certainly an adulterer, and tonight is evidently his last chance before falling into a bad life of ill repute. The film seems to paint him as inherently a good guy being corrupted by others but I have to say, I took something of a dislike to him from the start. He’s obviously been cheating on his wife (and leading along his mistress Sally (Mala Powers)) and has been working for Riddel in a minor capacity, giving him tips about police cases for some time. This almost soap opera element is the films weakest part, but that may not have been helped by me missing some points during the first third. Riddel has enlisted Kelly to rid him off an over-ambitious associate, William Talman (Hayes Stewart), and the young partner with Talman is Kelly’s own younger brother, Stubby (Ron Hagerthy), who is being pulled deeper into Talman’s own schemes to ruin Riddel. So there is some extra tension there that I missed, becoming quite puzzled towards the end when Stubby and Kelly are obviously so apparently so close and familiar, and Kelly hellbent on protecting Stubby. Maybe I was distracted by the melodrama of Kelly’s wife smartly suspecting her husband of resigning from the force and going to Kellys father, John ‘pop’ Kelly Snr in an attempt to save her marriage and husbands career.

In my defence, there’s clearly a whole lot going on here- sections with Talman ruthlessly desperate to thwart Riddel, the machinations of Riddel and his own wife’s betrayal, the romantic triangle between Kelly, Sandy and her nightclub colleague Gregg who is desperately in love with Sandy. Throw in random crimes/incidents during Kelly’s night patrol with the mysterious Sgt Joe… all of it mixed up with the three seperate styles of film playing out (film noir/police procedural, fantasy fable)  and its quite a curious film. I did enjoy it, but the three styles of film don’t really gel, and I actually wonder if it needed the Twilight Zone-like Sgt.Joe/fantasy fable sub-plot at all.

Almost an interesting failure, ultimately its more than a sum of its many parts, largely saved by some great location shooting, particularly in the latter section when it goes full-on film noir with shafts of light, heavy back-light and low camera angles. Its a great, tense finale and there are some genuine surprises during the film too, including what happens to Kelly’s father who begins to realise his son is compromised by Riddel’s criminal schemes. The final set-piece involving a chase through the streets and over Chicago’s famous elevated railroad track is very good indeed and quite memorable – its almost a pity when the noir aspects are finally dispelled in order to give audiences a positive, life-affirming conclusion. I’m still not really convinced that Kelly deserved it.

The retro ecstasy of The Vast of Night

vastThe Vast of Night is a glorious throwback to sci-fi of old; deliberately set in 1950s small-town America on the desert border with New Mexico, a setting which evokes all the paranoia of that period which informed all those old b-movies of alien menace and Russian Cold War threat. Taking place (almost in real-time, 1917-style) over one long night in a deserted town (the majority of the towns populace at the High School watching a basketball game) it promotes its low budget as its biggest asset- almost like a radio play, everything is suggested, never shown, characters recounting events like campfire horror tales, callers describing things over the telephone or to the radio show. Something is in the night sky, we are told, something unexplained and hidden. People are disappearing.

The retro styling is reinforced by the film being framed as a television programme: the film begins as a slow pull-in towards an old, 1950s-style CRT screen as it begins an episode of ‘Paradox Theatre‘, complete with a Twilight Zone-homage title sequence and Rod Serling narration. We are pulled into the b&w screen, and its grainy monochrome image only gradually resolves into a colour image, although it always maintains its grainy quality. Occasionally, the film fades to black, as if breaking for commercials/’a word from our sponsor!’ before resuming.

And yet, for all its 1950s-television sensibilities, the film does maintain some very impressive, modern twists: the opening sequence is one long single take (possibly a faux-single take, like those of 1917, I’m not sure- its tempting to guess where the cuts and joins might be) as the camera follows the main characters from High School gymnasium and halls, through car parks and streets, breathlessly trying to keep up with both their hurried stroll and their rapid-fire conversation. A later shot takes us all through the town in, again, one apparent single take, from the High School and the streets and backyards to the radio station, brilliantly establishing both the geography of the films setting and the emptiness and deserted feel of the characters milieu. It feels incredibly authentic: considering its very low budget, the film brilliantly evokes its period setting.

vast2It reminded me a little of John Carpenters The Fog, a film that also made its low budget its biggest asset,  particularly recalling that films opening campfire scene and John Houseman’s ghost story which so vividly established the films atmosphere and old-school credentials. Another similarity to The Fog is the use of the radio station and DJ as a central narrative device to move the mystery forward, and describe events rather than see them. The biggest similarity to this of course is Orson Welles’ radioplay of The War of the Worlds, which fooled many of its nation that its events were all real.  Suggestion is most always better than physically showing something in a horror film, a little at odds with how the genre gradually became increasingly graphic over the years, resorting to visual gory excess to shock. While The Vast of Night is perhaps more a cold war/paranoia sci-fi thriller rather than a horror film, it is (mostly) all suggestion, using many Twilight Zone-like tricks to let the viewer’s imagination to do most of the work.

I found it a refreshing approach and a nostalgic nod to all those b&w b-movies I watched and loved as a kid (as well as those tv shows The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits). Curiously, I can’t imagine the film coming out at a more timely moment than during this Covid19 crisis we are living in; the films sense of isolation and fear of the unseen being quite perfect for late-night viewing right now. In that sense, The Vast of Night is absolutely perfect.

The Vast of Night is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

Party like it’s 1989: Field of Dreams (4K UHD)

pris2Another 30th anniversary, and another 4K UHD release of an old favourite- this time Field of Dreams, a film blessed by one of James Horner’s best and most intimate of scores, and a story/screenplay that makes it the best Ray Bradbury movie that isn’t actually based on a Ray Bradbury story. Like Rod Serling’s early Twilight Zone episode, Walking Distance, this feels so much like a Bradbury tale it’s almost from some kind of fantasy uncanny valley.  As someone who spent much of the 1980s devouring much or Ray Bradbury’s short fiction and later novels, quietly laughing and shedding a tear at just the right moments with each turn of the page, Field of Dreams was, to quote the characters, not just incredible, it was perfect.

In just the same way as Alien is possibly the best Lovecraft film ever made, in how honest and sincere it is in conveying the alien horror of his best tales, so Field of Dreams is the best Bradbury film ever made- the fact that neither author had anything at all to do with the original source materials of either movie matters not one jot.

So anyway, I had to pinch myself a little this past weekend- I was a very lucky ghost watching The Prisoner of Second Avenue in a new HD master on Blu-ray and the following day a new transfer of Field of Dreams, splendidly brought to 4K UHD disc. While the disc will never win any awards or standout from the 4K UHD crowd, it’s the best the film has ever looked- a quick spin of the original Blu-ray disc reveals how limited that old edition really was, hampered by a lackluster print/master which in comparison really highlights the improvements in this new 4K disc. The image is more stable, the detail and filmic grain more defined and the colour depth really improved- HDR is mostly subtle and all the best for it, only really vivid in scenes with neon street lighting or in the baseball field at night.

The film, of course, is something of a marmite picture; often described as a male-weepie or adult fable, it’s a charming and finely-judged film that is really quite subtle – I think it will be interesting to rewatch Always, also from 1989, and similarly old-fashioned and gentle in spirit, to see how Spielberg’s less subtle hand fares (a bargain-bin blu-ray sits waiting on the shelf as I type this). I was naturally predisposed to fall for this film simply because it evokes so much of the magic Bradbury’s old Americana fantasies, but this shouldn’t detract from the qualities of the cinematography,  the performances (Kevin Costner is at the top of his game and James Earl Jones a greater joy everytime I rewatch this), the sublime score, the deft direction.  It has the feel of lightning caught in a bottle- a film has naively nostalgic and innocent as this shouldn’t have worked in the 1980s and beyond, but like Capra’s Its A Wonderful Life, it’s rather gained a timeless life all of its own.

Extinction (2018)

ext1Oh dear. Irritation would be the better title. Okay, I’ll admit it- its the kids. They were driving me NUTS. The youngest has a cuddly toy which you just know is going to be left behind at the most inopportune moment and cause a trip back into danger to go back for it, the eldest daughter is a sulky teen who seems to live in an elevator until all hell breaks loose and the screaming starts. Actually, I would imagine the casting process basically involved a line-op of budding child actors asked to scream and cry on-camera on request. Shed enough tears and scream and cry until you go purple and and chances are you’ve got the gig.

Coupled to the children from hell are the stupidest adults I’ve recently witnessed onscreen. Even the nominal hero of the film, Peter (Michael Pena) is pretty dumb throughout- maybe that’s an attempt at realism on the screenwriter/directors part, because lets face it, people are generally stupid, and tend to panic under stress, but hey, we’ve all seen plenty of alien invasion movies, haven’t we? When an alien invasion force comes out of the sky with searchlights stabbing at windows for signs of life, and starts shooting the shit out of anything they see that moves, you don’t stand there gawping out of the panoramic window for ages, right? I mean, you’d also head for ground level too once you saw the rest of the city in flames, you wouldn’t head for the roof to find that, once there, there is nowhere else to go except, er, down.

Okay, I should cut the film some slack. Its maybe refreshing, even, to see people doing stupid stuff and being generally useless at fighting aliens. I probably would if not for those bloody kids.

extSo anyway, the premise is fine for a movie that is actually more Twilight Zone than Independence Day. Peter, an engineer, is having trouble sleeping. He keeps having nightmares that are fairly apocalyptic and its effecting his marriage and his work, where anything seems able to trigger a waking ‘vision’ (a desk lamp flickers the wrong way and boom he’s back in Doomsday). It gets so bad he’s walking out at night and he sees lights moving in the sky and no-one else can see them. Is he going crazy?

Just when the jury is in and he’s destined for a visit from the bug-squad, the sky lights up late one evening and an alien invasion force arrives, blasting the shit out of everyone that moves and laying waste to the city. So Peter’s visions were of the future, somehow?

So the majority of the film becomes a family Die Hard/Irwin Allen disaster flick, with Peter having to get his family and some freinds to safety (thankfully Peter’s wife is an architect or planner on the council and knows about some tunnels hidden beneath the city). They of course have to get past homicidal aliens and through the ruins of the building and the city plaza beyond and somehow keep the wailing hysterical kids quiet for more than five minutes.

There is, thankfully, a mildly diverting twist that sort of explains much of what precedes it and almost saves the film. But by then the execution of it all has just sunk it. I won’t go into that twist for the sake of it spoiling the film for anyone who hasn’t yet watched it, but if you’ve seen any of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone’s you’ve probably seen something much like it before.

Not the best Netflix Original then, but likely not the worst either. I would just note an observation that, again, the film ends in a fairly open-ended manner just begging for a sequel (although perhaps not quite so abruptly as the ironically-titled How It Ends), which is either mirroring how theatrical releases seem to be structured these days, particularity blockbusters,  or that the origins of this project lie in the television series arena.

 

Bring on the Bad Guy!

split

2017.46: Split (2017)

It has been a long time since I actually looked forward to a film from M. Night Shyamalan; probably as far back as Unbreakable back in, 2000. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and after the great The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, his further films, Signs, The Village and Lady in the Water clearly showed him to be a director/writer who loved one-line concepts, nifty ideas from which he would extrapolate a movie, often complete with a ‘twist’ stinger. The idea works in theory – Rod Serling did it consummately well with the classic The Twilight Zone anthology series, but a movie is a different beast to a half-hour tv show and it soon became tiresome, for me, anyway, and I finally gave up with The Happening, a film with the most ironic title in film history, as far as I’m concerned, as nothing happened for the whole bloody film.

I never watched The Last Airbender, or After Earth, or The Visit.

Split is a return to form, though, and even teases an Unbreakable 2 at the end (which is titled Glass, perhaps to dispense with the problem of calling it either Unbreakable 2 or Split 2, and ahem, avoid any risk of splitting fans). That said, I think some of the positively ecstatic reviews are more a result of  James McAvoy’s brilliant turn as Dennis, a character who has 23 personalities with a 24th threatening to surface with horrific results, than the quality of the film itself. McAvoy is pretty phenomenal, completely convincing as ‘Dennis’ keeps appearing with a different personality. The viewer is quickly able to identify each distinct personality as much from McAvoy’s visual ‘ticks’ and his voice as much as from what clothes he is wearing. Indeed, later on in the film as the personalities seem to switch during single shots McAvoy’s performance becomes almost breathtaking in its subtlety and clarity.

Beyond McAvoy’s performance, though, the film does fall into problems. The films heroines (captured teenagers imprisoned by Dennis for a grisly fate at the hands/teeth of personality #24) are a pretty bland bunch, and like many  M. Night Shyamalan films, the film is ultimately just too long to sustain its one-liner plot. The film is also surprisingly low on scares/tension until the end, and even there the final ‘twist’ is unfortunately a little weak. If Unbreakable was a superhero origin film, then Split is a supervillain origin film, so what was ostensibly a horror/thriller becomes, in ironic movie split-personality fashion, a superhero genre film- yeah, another one. Which in hindsight is rather fun, I guess. But maybe it is one clever conceit too many and M. Night Shyamalan falling into his old pitfalls.

Still, certainly a return to form for the writer/director and hopefully it bodes well for his next film- yes, one I’m actually looking forward to. So job done, I guess.