Django (1966)

django1I’m not one for spaghetti westerns- other than this one, I don’t think I’ve seen any that hadn’t been directed by Sergio Leone. The only thing I really knew about Django is that it was presumably the inspiration for Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). Django apparently was the subject of some notoriety due to its excessive violence, which horrified people at the time, although today its cartoony theatrics seem dated and almost quaint. It was directed by Sergio Corbucci, who would afterwards direct another spaghetti western –The Great Silence (1968) – which was known to me through its Ennio Morricone soundtrack which I bought on CD back when I was having a binge on Morricone albums a few years ago. Curiously I have that film’s Blu-ray release through Master of Cinema on pre-order for a November release, so when I noticed the connection seeing Django pop up on my Amazon Prime recommendations list, I gave it a shot, thinking it might indicate what kind of film The Great Silence might be. 

Well, it was sort-of a pleasant surprise. The dubbing is typically atrocious, the dialogue is dire, the story is so paper-thin it doesn’t really make any sense (its some vague revenge plot) and the acting isn’t any great shakes either: so on that front, the film was no surprise whatsoever. But there was something appealing about it. I thought the production design was impressive; I mean, its clearly cheap but there’s something arresting about the wind-torn, muddy streets of a desolate town that seems to be literally sinking into the mud. Its like the end of the world as much as the end of the West.

Corbucci’s direction is no-nonsense and straight forward with no ambition towards the mythic, operatic qualities of Leone’s work, although Django (Franco Nero) could be seen as an Angel of Death in some corner of Hell. The cartoony violence prefigures that of the Rambo films that followed Stallone’s First Blood (Django despatches dozens of bad guys with a machine-gun hidden in a coffin that he drags around through the film, and hilariously the ammo-belt feeding the gun never moves). I presume it was this body-count that infuriated everyone back in the day, and its quite funny watching the various stuntmen/extras flailing around in exaggerated death throes generally minus any blood squibs going off or anything- for a film decried for its violence its not particularly graphic. Today a film like this would get a pass for its violence but would be roundly condemned for its treatment of women characters, all depicted as whores, subjected to being beaten by male characters (or whipped, even) and an indulgent,  lengthy sequence in which three of them are caught in a mud fight that serves nothing but the pleasure of male viewers. Its literally a film from some other age and makes any of Leone’s excesses seem quite tame (Leone of course came under fire for his own treatment of women in his films, particularly Once Upon A Time in America).

I Walk Alone (1947)

walkI was rather frustrated by this one- a film noir starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (the first of several films they would appear in together) which also features Lisbeth Scott, who was so good in Dark City, which I saw a little while ago, albeit here in a fairly insipid role that’s unworthy of her. This film on paper promises so much but I don’t think it really worked. It gets bogged down with the frustrations of Frankie Madison (Lancaster) who has returned to his old haunts of New York after 14 years in prison to find he has been betrayed by his bootlegging partner Noll Turner (Douglas). Turner has no intention of honouring their deal to share in the proceeds of the criminal business they partnered in and that Madison did time for. The film seems to get so burdened with it -Madison takes an irritatingly long time for it to dawn upon him that he’s being ditched- and gets further weighed down by the unlikeliest of sudden romances when he seems to make an unlikely connection with Turner’s girl, Kay (Scott), who is getting strung along and ultimately betrayed, too, by Turner.

Yeah Turner’s quite a cad, yet another who seems to think he can go clean and turn his criminal empire into a legit business. Indeed the basic plot is very familiar, a trope of many crime/mobster flicks. In Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America Max looked after Noodles interests while he did time inside but ultimately when his own ambitions turn to going legit he realises he has to cut Noodles loose in similar fashion to how Turner wants to cut Madison out here. In America, Max’s betrayal of Noodles is complete -he even gets Noodles girl- but here Turner proves undone by his overconfidence and his woman scorned.

Douglas is very good as the lousy slime-ball Turner; the actor had a natural bent to such roles and to me his intensity always made him a more convincing villain, or flawed anti hero, than a traditional leading man (see his magnificent performance in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole). I think much of this is just Douglas’ strong personality, his obvious drive and apparent ruthlessness in the real world as an ambitious Hollywood player that leaked into his performances (or maybe I’m reading too much into it).

In any case, its impressive that Douglas manages to hold his own against the man-mountain Lancaster, whose massive physique is quite intimidating when measured against everyone around him. While he snarls and clenches his fists its easy to accept him as a thuggish brute, the brawn against Turner’s brains who realises he’s been wronged and sees violence as his only recourse, but his performance often slips over towards the over-dramatic, lacking the subtlety of Douglas, and as I’ve noted, there seems little convincing about his sudden romance with Kay. It feels tacked-on.

Ultimately the film fails to be the sum of its parts, but maybe my real issue is just that over-familiarity of the plot, which is likely more to do with all the films made in the decades since than a fault in the film itself, which may have seemed quite original back in 1947. I suppose what seems predictable in 2020 can sometimes just be the benefit of  hindsight from all the films between: the cross we film fans just have to bear.

The Cranes Are Flying (1957)

cranes1The best love stories are the sad ones, the ones of unrequited love or tragic love, the ones in which lovers do not skip happily into a rosy dawn or sultry sunset. What makes La La Land such a genuine pleasure (and its not lost on me, the strangeness of referencing La La Land when opening this review of Mikhail Kalatozov’s astonishing 1957 film), is that La La Land‘s ending is so bittersweet and tinged with such sadness, the lovers forever parted, the ending suddenly giving the film some meaning, some resonance, some weight, transforming everything we have seen before, its romantic, Hollywood-musical saccharine-soaked sweetness given sudden counterpoint.  There is no sweetness in The Cranes Are Flying, or if there is, its fleeting. This is a powerful and almost Shakespearean love story (I often thought of the doomed lovers of Romeo and Juliet during the film), and would be memorable if only for that. What makes the film a revelation, however, is in its execution, the sheer bravura on display in a richly cinematic experience.

The camerawork in this film is just breath-taking in its audacity. Sometimes it is breathlessly intimate, extreme close-ups with faces filling the frame, so much so you almost imagine you could feel their breath, and at others the camera lifts up and away, pulling back to reveal vast, crowd-filled scenes that spring to mind the work of Sergio Leone or David Lean. A few moments it almost pulled me out of the movie, mentally considering the difficulty in organising/rehearsing/executing such complex visual choreography. And then there are the other times, when the camera is like a thing alive, wildly kinetic and racing through scenes breathlessly, mirroring the emotional state of the character/s. 

It was a similar experience to first watching Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane so many years ago- the sense of witnessing consummate film-making, bold experimentation in story-telling, Pure Cinema.

It left The Cranes Are Flying feeling very modern, here in 2020. What it must have seemed like when it first came out and in the early 1960s, I cannot really fathom, but I can imagine it seemed quite astonishing.  In a sense, its a film out of time, permanently detached from when it was created: one of those films that we describe as timeless. Most films made today lack the creativity and imagination displayed in this films every frame. Maybe that’s just as well- if every film were made like this, it would be exhausting.

cranes4Even above this amazing film-making stands the intensely impressive performance of Tatiana Samoilova as Veronica, the lover left at home while her fiancé Boris (Alexi Batalov) goes off to war. Samoilova dominates the film, a performance which refuses to be overshadowed by that incredible camera. She is a dark beauty at times aloof and beguiling, at others dark and gloomy, at others a wild fury, but always she is enchanting. Something in her eyes, perhaps. In any case, its remarkable that she holds her own against all the impressive film-making at play throughout this film. I wonder what she was like in her other films.

The Cranes Are Flying is clearly one of my best discoveries of 2020; I am always heartened by making such discoveries, thinking of all those great films out there that I have not yet seen, and perhaps also a little sad realising all those great films I will never see.

So what is The Cranes Are Flying? As readers may have gathered, its a Russian film, made in the post-Stalin era in 1957, when film-makers were enjoying new creative freedom. The film is a romance, a tale of a love affair swept up in Russia’s headlong rush into war. Its well-written, with clearly defined characters and, as I have noted, breath-takingly shot. Nearly every scene is beautiful to look at, exquisitely framed. The two lovers, Veronica and Boris, are seen at the beginning of the film blissfully unaware of the doom fast approaching, and the world events that will tear them apart. After a night out together, morning has come, and as they walk the deserted streets towards home, they notice a flock of cranes flying, high in the sky, and plan another date which never comes. The framing of every shot hints at the care and attention attached to this film.

cranes2Their affair is no secret, but as if guilty of how late it is, they each furtively return to their respective family homes, and in the interactions with their family members the film perfectly establishes the various relationships and dynamics in economical fashion. War is coming, and out of patriotic duty, Boris enlists, much to his fathers horror. Veronica is perhaps last to learn. 

After a remarkably-shot sequence in which Boris and his fellow recruits gather to depart, and Veronica vainly rushes past tanks and through crowds to say goodbye, the film chiefly stays with Veronica and the home-front, only briefly switching across to Boris’ sobering experiences on the front line. It is clear that Veronica and her experiences are the focus of the film, rather than those of her lover. Partly this is to maintain the mystery that Veronica feels, unable to find news regards whether Boris is alive. Two seperate air-raids devastate Veronica; the first costing her her parents, the second her personal dignity at the hands of Boris’ cousin Mark who is obsessed with claiming Veronica for himself (this a particularly expressionist sequence which is one of the most impressive of any film I have ever seen, a purely cinematic representation of almost apocalyptic sexual violence and quite horrifying). Veronica is left broken and lost and yearning for her lover, suffering the many deprivations of the civilians back home as war threatens to ruin everything and everyone. 

cranes3When the end comes, its one that makes perfect sense, and totally works, even if it feels rather brutal and quite devastating. I’d vainly hoped for a positive outcome, and while the film manages to end with a life-affirming sentiment, nonetheless its quite tragic (“well, that was depressing” commented Claire as the last scene faded out). Its not the end that I imagine most viewers are hoping for, but its perfect, really, considering what has come before. One can’t just help wishing for one more scene, one final coda with a happier outcome. I wonder if The Cranes Are Flying is one of those films in which, on subsequent viewings, one always has that vain hope, in spite of the knowledge of how the film really ends, a forlorn wish that lingers against the reality. The best love stories rarely end well.

 

Last week…

Still working from home, close on six months now. As we slip towards Autumn, it looks like there’s little rush getting the team back into the office, at best it may be for just two days each week, and that’s still some time off.  Its not lost on me that after all the fair weather we’ve had, the time I’m going to finally be expected to commute back to work will be when the frosts return/bad weather/possibly snow etc.

Meanwhile Covid 19 numbers are climbing, particularly here in the Midlands, and our Governments latest desperate roll of the dice, the ‘rule of six’ (limiting the number of people at any social gathering to just six people) begins tomorrow. A rule that can’t possibly be policed,  simply dependant on the public happily following the rule… I mean, its not as if its Mega City One and some Judge will be kicking the door down if there’s more than six perps chatting in the lounge or back garden. Mores the pity with some of the idiots out there. Regards Covid, so many people seem to be in denial, or just bored of it, and think everything is back to normal. Hence the numbers rising? All I can see is lots of idiots out there, most of them proving the (ironically old) adage of too young to know better. The next few weeks seem to be crucial. The days are shortening. Winter is Coming. Hang on, that didn’t end well, just ask HBO.

Anyway, last week. You may have noted that I had a busy/productive week regards watching films: i’m thinking of ending things, Under Suspicion, Bumblebee, City That Never Sleeps, The Man Who Finally Died. I didn’t get around to reviewing Under Suspicion– a thriller starring Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Monica Bellucci, Thomas Jane… a great cast, but wasted in a pretty lousy film that almost had me hitting that abort button. Only the great Gene Hackman kept me stuck with it: one of my favourite actors.

ohmssRegards re-watches, I managed two. The first was one that…well, we lost Dame Diana Rigg on Thursday, which was an awful shame, and I’ve been meaning to watch On Her Majesty’s Secret Service again for awhile now. Its an awful reason for doing it, but Dame Diana Rigg’s passing was the push that I needed; I reached for that Bond 50 Blu-ray set. OHMSS is my favourite Bond movie; its the film when the Bond franchise grew up and yes, graced with the best Bond Girl of all, the one that got Bond to the altar. But what a downer at the end. This time I watched it, it just seemed so remarkable, such brass balls of the producers to close out a film -and a Bond film at that- on such a huge emotional downer. And in a film with a new Bond, too. Talk about loading the dice for a serious gamble, like a real-life Casino Royale moment. Dropping George Lazenby and breaking the continuity (OHMSS really needed such a proper sequel with Bond out for revenge) was a terrible error, I think, and it would take Bond decades to grow those brass balls again.

vertigo1The second re-watch was the 4K UHD disc of Vertigo, that graces the four-film Hitchcock 4K set that was released last week. The film looks utterly gorgeous in 4K, really something special. We’ve seen some great 4K releases for classic films this year and this is one of the best, I think. Mind, is it just me, but as I get older, does Vertigo on subsequent viewings just get more disturbing, and James Stewart’s obsessive Scottie more repellent?  As a deeply flawed character who proves difficult to root for, he reminds me of Robert De Niro’s character in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America. The difficulty in revisiting films with such doomed, self-destructive characters is that you have to re-experience it all over again, with the knowledge of hindsight that the character itself obviously lacks. There seems something deeply personal, of both Leone and Hitchcock, in these two films, and I’m sure that’s part of each films endless fascination. Glimpses of flawed humanity’s darkness. Vertigo is such a powerful film, exquisitely filmed and scored (by the great Bernard Herrmann), and really so daring, its one of my favourite films and it feels a blessing to be able watch it again in this kind of quality. I’m building quite a collection of (hopefully definitive and final) editions of some of my favourite films in 4K, with some great additions this year.

dunetrailrLast week also brought us the first trailer for Villeneuve’s long-anticipated  Dune. Mind, it seems we will have to wait longer for the film itself, as word has it that the film will be delayed to next year now, with Wonder Woman 1984 being moved to the Christmas Day slot (Tenet‘s box-office woes causing much consternation for a troubled film industry struggling to manage the Covid crisis). Of course the Dune trailer looks great and pretty much everything we might have hoped for. I was a bit surprised that it looked, visually at least, like a Blade Runner 2049 sequel set Off World, it seems to share so much of the monochromatic, brutalist ‘look’ of his previous sci-fi epic. I’d hoped for something a bit wilder, more ‘out there’ and unusual, but we’ll see. There’s so much, after all, that we didn’t see.

Speaking of delays, news broke last week that Vangelis’ latest album, Juno to Jupiter, accidentally released on digital by a UK store over a weekend a few weeks back before being hurriedly pulled, has been officially delayed (again?). This is so frustrating, its a great album, one of his best in decades, but it seems so strangely (and unfairly) blighted by mishaps. Possibly its just a Covid thing effecting marketing etc, but I sincerely hope that perhaps this delay will facilitate a simultaneous physical and digital release, rather than the latter first (which was the original plan, and which possibly led to that premature release foul-up).  Its a great piece of work, and I was gearing up to finish my track-by-track review… well, I’ll just join the pack and let my review suffer another delay. Hey, its just so Covid, man.

I just hope that the Super-Deluxe of the Prince classic album Sign o’ the Times isn’t going to get delayed. Its only two weeks away now so seems to be all on track. Certainly review copies are out and some reviews have been released, track breakdowns on forums etc so my only worry is problems with stores getting stock out. Hope springs eternal- I’m actually on leave from work the week it gets released, and naturally I’m going nowhere, so the opportunity to just relax for a few lazy days, chill with that box of peach and black goodies is the nearest thing to Christmas I’m actually likely to see this year.

Legends of the Fall and the Shelf of Shame

legends7Well, another post in the Shelf of Shame series, this time concerning my Blu-ray edition of Legends of the Fall, a film I thoroughly enjoyed at the cinema back in 1995, and subsequently watched several times on DVD, but which I hadn’t seen since, even upon upgrading to the Blu-ray edition, which remained unwatched since I bought it (near as I can tell, sometime in 2013). One of the most sobering things about this Shelf of Shame series is the realisation of how many discs I have that I have watched only once, if at all,  and also regards just how much time is flying past and how much of a waste of money that collection on the shelves might possibly be, in hindsight.

Can we judge the worth of a DVD or Blu-ray or 4K UHD by how many times we have watched it? Is that fair or misguided? Does £20 spent on Alien on UHD suddenly become more palatable had the disc been watched five times? Should the monetary expenditure be more reason to watch less ‘new’ stuff and instead return more often to rewatching old favourites? Of course its not just films on disc, I could just as easily be remarking upon CDs and books, all the objects we accumulate.

I’m horrified that its been several years since I bought Legends of the Fall on Blu-ray and that I hadn’t watched it: for one thing, where indeed have all those years gone? On the other hand, one has to consider the worth of spending as much money as I have on discs if they are going to just sit there unwatched. I suppose a related inquiry would be, those films we enjoy and even love, how many times can we, and should we, return to them? I always feel its rather strange when someone says they only ever watch films once, but maybe they have a point. For my part though, I cannot imagine that: films are things I cannot help but return to, if I enjoy them. Even if this Shelf of Shame series would suggest some failure at that.

Its also very true that the only reason why I finally reached for this Blu-ray disc and actually watched it, was the release of the complete score on Intrada’s recent CD that arrived a few days ago. Listening to the score was a reminder of just how much I loved the film when I first saw it and of course that wonderful period from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s when James Horner’s scores were such a soundtrack to my life. I know there are many naysayers regarding Horner’s music in film-music circles, but for fans such as myself who were there pretty much at the beginning of his career, that period of Horner’s career is akin to people looking back to when The Beatles were making music.

legends2It is often true that rewatching films can offer a sense of perspective, looking at it from the vantage point of someone in 2020, older and (possibly) wiser, and naturally offering an inevitable giddy rush of nostalgia. Watching Legends of the Fall last night was a bewitching experience of impressions: the sense of tumultuous David Lean epic, huge breathtaking landscapes dwarfing the humans in nearly every frame. The great cast: a young Brad Pitt in one of his first leading roles, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Karin Lombard, who I recall appeared in a few films at the time (its funny how faces seem to appear in a number of films at a certain time that seem to then disappear- in her case, rather than disappear she simply moved to a successful series of tv roles I never saw). Of course there is the hauntingly beautiful Julia Ormond stealing the film from everyone around her with a wonderful performance. While watching the film I couldn’t help but imagine what a more ‘adult’ Star Wars prequel trilogy could have been, had it centred Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side around some Legends of the Fall-like doomed love story with Ormond as the object of his ill-fated affection (I could certainly more easily imagine a passionate and feisty Ormond as the mother of Leia and Luke than Natalie Portman). Above all else in the film, there is also that sweeping, overwhelming James Horner score that dominates the film in a way that scores really don’t anymore.

The funny thing was, even though it may have been ten or fifteen years or more since I last saw the film, I could still remember some of the lines just before they were spoken, and yet other moments came as quite a surprise, elements that I had quite forgotten. The film remains something of an oddity; even in 1995 when I first saw it, it seemed a film at odds with contemporary Hollywood; this is a film about myth, and legend. Its clearly not intended to be a true tale, its so larger than life its more a piece of modern myth-making, a tale of the early-20th century more in line with Sergio Leone’s filmography (as much a late-period Western as Once Upon A Time in America is a realistic gangster movie).

legends3That thought suggests a tantalising what-if: imagine what Sergio Leone could have done fashioning Legends of the Fall into one of his typical three or four-hour epics. It has all the elements of his films; a male-dominated list of characters with a chiefly male-dominated worldview, epic landscapes, huge battles scenes with hundreds of extras, a sense of larger-than-life fantasy, of Pure Cinema. With Leone at the helm, it would have certainly benefited from a better climactic gunfight- Leone was a master of them, turning them into operatic ballets of violence, whereas the one Legends of the Fall has ultimately feels clumsy, overwrought, relying on slow-motion to add gravitas and James Horner’s dramatic scoring.

legends1The story of Legends of the Fall is quite simple but unrelentingly dark when one considers it: I’ve always thought of the film as an overwhelmingly depressing piece (depressing in a good way, if that’s possible, like the grim denouements of so many Film Noir). At its very simplest, a beautiful young woman, Susannah (Julia Ormond), enters the lives of the Ludlow family living in the Montana wilderness, and destroys them, before finally blowing her own brains out from the guilt and sense of unfulfilment.

The film describes Tristan as the rock against which all the others broke themselves against, but that’s missing the point that Susannah is almost like a snake entering the Ludlow Eden in the films beginning. Admittedly she intends none of this, she’s just being true to her nature- beautiful and kind, but she’s finding her place in the world where she becomes an unhappy catalyst of doom. Its funny how Tristan later considers that he may be damned, and has pulled everyone he knows into this damnation, but that could just as easily have been a monologue of guilt spoken by Susannah.

But isn’t Legends of the Fall great? Sure, its not perfect, and it rushes things (a conscious decision of director Edward Zwick, who preferred to pace it as a stream-of-consciousness, of a tale spoken to someone over a campfire and consequently sweeping the narrative forwards with little reflection). But its a hell of a movie- that’s MOVIE in great big capital letters, full of passion and epic moments- yeah, Pure Cinema in the Sergio Leone vein, a win-win in my book.

Curious fact I hadn’t realised before: the novella the film was based on was written by Jim Harrison, who was also the author of the short story Revenge that was turned into a Tony Scott film from 1990 that I later discovered on VHS rental and seems largely forgotten now but which I really liked. It featured a beautifully haunting score by Jack Nitzche which is one of my most treasured CDs. In retrospect, both films share common themes so the connection is not surprising, but I hadn’t been aware of it before. You learn something new all the time (really must read that Jim Harrison novella that inspired Legends of the Fall).

The Irishman

irish1I’m curious regards how people will remember The Irishman– whether it will be for the quality of the film itself, the remarkable cast laden with all sorts of cinematic baggage, the CGI employed in de-ageing said cast, or the fact that the film ended up pretty much straight onto Netflix as if it were some direct to video flick. I’m pretty sure all that ‘direct-to-video’ nonsense is hardly relevant now, as Netflix have put some pretty substantial films straight onto its servers, all sorts of films, some good (and some bad, its true) with all sorts of high-calibre names attached to them, but there’s still a feeling of shock and wonder that the latest Martin Scorsese film with THAT cast turned up on the telly last week. The times, they are a changin’.

Far as I was concerned, Netflix seems the perfect place for a film well over three hours long without men in capes or women in spandex and explosions going off every twenty minutes- is it wrong of me to suggest that there is no place for films like The Irishman in cinemas anymore but one has to wonder. Certainly watching it at home affords a greater degree of comfort and control over that running time- instead of dashing off to the gents and hoping we don’t miss anything, we can at least pause the stream (ahem, film, not that OTHER stream) for nature’s comforts and perhaps a fresh cup of tea, beer, whatever. And of course some of us have screens that give us a better image quality than some cinema screens anyway, and without distractions of mobile phones or bored chatting etc.

Regards the film itself, I have to confess strangely mixed feelings. Part of this is nothing really to do with the film at all, but rather the inevitable comparisons to old classics in the Scorsese filmography, particularly with the cast he has assembled. Surely its inescapable, particularly with both Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci involved, I mean there’s two huge movies casting their long shadows rights there, and there’s then the odd nostalgia of seeing De Niro and Al Pacino together in a film, harking back to Michael Mann’s classic Heat. Seeing all of them and the clear signs of the passing of years, it can’t help but be distracting. I mean, Harvey Kietel for crying out loud, who also shared the screen with De Niro in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, even manages a (understated) cameo. Its like this is a Greatest Hits package or something. How can a filmbuff not watch this film with equal parts thrills, giggles and horror?

And there’s the rub- there’s the feeling, for me at least, that this is not just a movie. There’s a kind of meta-reality going on here that feels almost as self-knowing as a Quentin Tarantino joint. Its good, but its also uneasy enough to give one pause.

Those comparisons to old classics are valid and telling, too. Goodfellas is the prime one, and its very interesting how much darker and melancholy The Irishman is. To me this new film carries the weight of mortality and time constantly, from the familiar mobster setting, the ghostly young faces of De Niro and company flitting like unworldly shadows of their past cinematic tales, and the relentless perspective of the End of All Things (so many characters appear onscreen alongside text describing the manner and dates of their deaths it almost feels like a running joke).

irishSo where this leaves me regards judging the film, I don’t really know. I did enjoy it, and I think I admired it more than loved it (Goodfellas was an easy thing, it was so much fun, but this film is darker, colder, more KNOWING, somehow). I really do think that, ironically (considering its length and rather morbid mood) that this film needs time. It needs repeat viewings and the benefit of time to digest it, imbue it with a perspective. Taken away from the CGI trickery and the Netflix hoopla, the film may get a reputation for itself, and hopefully one distanced from those echoes of other films. The cast are as one would hope, quite excellent. De Niro hasn’t been this good for years, and am I the only one looking at him in this and comparing it to Once Upon A Time in America? In that classic (and equally morbid and reflective) film, De Niro was young and the passing of in-film decades required that make-up made him look old- here he is old and requires trickery to make him young. Its the inverse of that old classic Leone film and quite fascinating to me. I couldn’t take my eyes of him. Pesci is a real surprise, and is clearly a better actor than I remembered him to be without the wild over-acting of his more excessive roles, he carries real weight in the under-stated performance here. Pacino is clearly having a ball, in what may likely be his last great role- not because he’s not capable of more of them, but that movies with such roles he deserves are so rare. Kietel is possibly wasted in what amounts to a cameo, but the cinematic weight behind him imbues his scenes with a kind of… I don’t really know what it is, but you can feel it, just seeing him and De Niro and Pesci at the table. Legends. Ghosts.

God only knows what this film will be like in ten, twenty years when some of these actors pass on. Already such a dark film and carrying all that weight of nostalgia, I cannot imagine what that future perspective will feel like.

 

The Mule

muleWe should be grateful that Clint Eastwood is still around, and that he’s still making movies (really, between him and Ridley Scott, we’re given some sober reminders that the Old School can still hold their own at times). In The Mule he even puts himself in front of the camera, taking the lead for the first time since Gran Torino (I may be wrong there, but I think I have got that right). Its a curious thing seeing him in this. Sure, the years have weathered him and its alarming, seeing a screen icon such as he showing the toll of years just as we mere mortals do in the Real World.

Inevitably however, that status of screen icon, and all the cinematic history his face represents, can cast its own dark shade upon everything he now does. The Mule is a decent, efficient and entertaining film, but it is no classic, and while it is likely one of the better efforts of his later years, it cannot help but pale compared to his best films, his best roles- particularly those whose reputations lie more in what they represent than their actual quality. Against that kind of comparison, even the greats can falter.

So I’ll watch films like The Mule and be thankful that I have lived in a world and a time in which Clint Eastwood has plied his craft, both in front of and behind the camera, and while he may not equal the names like Jack Lemmon, Sergio Leone, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder or James Stewart,  still working today there are far lesser than he with greater status than they deserve- its just the way the world is. For my part I’ll just savour the films and the fact he’s still around. And as far as The Mule is concerned, it may not be anything astonishing or contain too many surprises, its still a welcome reminder of when films all had beginnings, middles and endings, and didn’t feel the need for capes and superpowers or CGI spectacle. Eastwood may be overshadowed by the decades of cinematic history behind him, but its a fine reminder of it too.

 

Last week: Once Upon a Time

onceThis last week I’ve been contemplating re-watching Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America. I say ‘contemplating’ because its a formidable work to really take in- the restored cut released a few years ago on Blu-ray totals 251 minutes, which is just over four hours. That’s not four hours of big CGI action and stunts that can pass by without any effort regards actually thinking about what you’re watching- this is four hours of complex, bravura film-making at a sometimes glacial pace that shifts backwards and forwards in time across decades, between reality and opium dream. This is four hours that requires attention and respect. You don’t put Once Upon A Time In America on just to pass the time with a favourite movie. This film is an experience, and a sometimes demanding and daunting one. I’m sure some people hate it. I love it.

But I don’t watch it very often. Some films you can watch and rewatch quite regularly but America isn’t one of them- its just not that kind of film. I think its a film that should be savoured, and every time I do watch it, its a wonder to behold. As I grow older I find myself increasingly wondering how on Earth it even got made. America could never get made today. It just wouldn’t get done. I don’t think something, anything like this film, could ever get made now. Maybe it was the last of its kind.

Louise Fletcher. The first film I ever saw her in was Brainstorm. I loved the film but it was largely dismissed even at the time it came out, remembered now mostly for the tragic real-life story behind the scenes, a film practically disowned by the studio that made it and had to be forced to release it. Louise Fletcher was brilliant in Brainstorm, a revelatory performance for me; I thought she was wonderful. A few years later, having been familiar with Once Upon A Time In America for awhile through a VHS rental and later buying a VHS copy on a trip to London, I became confused by reports that she was in the film. I couldn’t remember her being in it, surely I would have noticed her. I put it down to bad information/poor journalism, but her name kept on coming up related to the film.  Eventually I learned that she actually had been involved, but that her role had been completely cut out. A film that was already 226 minutes long in the versions I had seen (I have always had a morbid fascination with one day seeing the infamous 139-minute cut but never have) somehow managed to cut her part out of it, an Oscar-winning actress? America is that kind of movie. Huge, monumental, astonishing, ridiculous.

The cast that is in the film is remarkable, but the stories about what the film might have been are equally remarkable, really- the film took so many years to make,  and over its lengthy gestation all sorts of names were connected for a time. Once upon a time, America featured Gerard Depardieu as Maz, and Richard Dreyfuss as Noodles (and James Cagney as the old Noodles? Crazy). Once upon a time, Tom Berenger was Noodles (and Paul Newman the old Noodles, even crazier!). Once upon a time, Brooke Shields was Deborah.

America always had Ennio Morricone scoring its music. Indeed, the music existed before the film was even made- Morricone wrote much of the score’s themes before it was shot and Leone filmed scenes to match the music. Once upon a time, films were made that way. Its why the score is as important as any cast member of the film; the score is the films soul.

I want someone to write a book about Once Upon A Time In America, a huge definitive book that delves into its long pre-production, its filming, its reception, its failure,  the death of the genius behind it, and its long road to reappraisal. Maybe that book would be as daunting to write (and read) as the film can be to watch.

The longest current version of the film is 251 minutes long, but it could yet be even longer. Leone’s initial cut was 269 minutes long, and I understand the missing 24 minutes exists, but cannot be incorporated into the film because of rights issues. Rights issues. Even the behind the scenes of the film is ridiculous. 35 years and Leone’s original vision is yet incomplete. Its like the plot of a movie, larger than life. Fitting enough I guess, as the film is always larger than life, more an ode to American myth, and Cinematic myth, than any reality. In just the same way as his Westerns are bigger than any real West.

I wish Leone had lived longer, and had been given opportunity to have made more films. Cinema is the lesser for his loss. But the irony of course is that America is the price of that loss, because the film and the troubles behind it are what is widely accepted as contributing to his untimely passing.

I’m sitting here writing this. I should be watching America.

Autumn just got more expensive

oatw1.jpgOh God, look at this. I have to stop browsing on Amazon. This looks brilliant- 366 pages, large-format, previously unseen photographs and documents, shot-by-shot guide to the making of this classic. I have Frayling’s Leone biography Something To Do With Death which I seem to pick up and browse through every month, so this new book by him concentrating on the incredible Once Upon a Time in the West should be indispensable. What is it with this time of year and big expensive book and disc releases? I know, I know, its that long shadow of Christmas looming over all. I only wish he could one day give the same attention to Once Upon a Time in America,  but hey, you never know, maybe one day.. .

Amazon just told me that I bought that Frayling book on Leone back in 2000. Ye Gods.

Film notes: Blade Runner 2049 Pt 1.

br2049sonyGlitchy, animated logos for Sony, Columbia pictures and Alcon Entertainment, like they are corrupted data or breaking down, play to a soundtrack that is instantly Blade Runner: drums drenched in reverb with plaintive high-notes recalling the sound of the CS-80 that was so much the musical soul of the original. The studio logos already hint that things are very wrong.

br2049columbWe don’t get any credits. Which is a shame, as I always liked those of Blade Runner, from back in the days when films took their time, and skillful choice allowed the mood of the music and the type-face of the credits to settle the viewer into the mood and tone of what will follow (in Blade Runner, the starkness of white on black, except for the blood-red film title, the dread of the Vangelis music – from the very outset, we know Blade Runner is not going to be a fun movie). But BR2049 is a long film, and the film-makers are not going to waste any time getting to it. We have waited 35 years, after all: a lot of tears lost in the rain.

Text  offers us a glimpse (some details will follow later in the film) of what has happened in those intervening years since 2019: following violent rebellions Replicants were prohibited and the Tyrell Corporation went bankrupt. A subsequent collapse of eco-systems threatened all life on Earth and a worldwide famine was narrowly averted by Niander Wallace, whose company then acquired the remains of Tyrell Corp and resumed Replicant production of a safer model guaranteed to ‘obey’. It does not refer to these new models as Nexus: refers only to pre-Wallace Nexus 8 models with indefinite lifespans who are still on the loose, and still hunted by detectives named Blade Runners.

A subtle nod perhaps to the (non-canon? its hard to tell with so many multiple versions) theatrical cut of Blade Runner, in which during the ‘happy-ending’ version, Deckard referred to Rachel as having no termination date. She was, presumably, a Nexus 7? Were indefinite lifespans an attempt  to maintain obedience and order in an increasingly unstable/rebellious slave force?

To be clear: this 2049 is not our future. It is the future of the 2019 envisaged by Blade Runner, these films now an alternate universe, a tidy way of disparaging any criticism in our soon post-2019 world that we never got flying cars and humanoid slaves. It adds yet further weight to the original, no longer a work of future speculation but rather a picture of another, different universe. Perhaps one in which the Axis won World War Two, a cousin of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle? Already this new film informs and re-vitalizes the original. Blade Runner no longer a vision of the future but rather one of an alternate past.

br2049eye1br2049eye2In a clear reference to the first film, BR2049 opens with a  gloriously-photographed, magnified eye staring back at the viewer, echoing that of the original’s eye starring out at us with the Hades landscape reflected in it. The eye was of course a major visual motif in the original: the Voight-Kampff machine focused on it to help discern Replicant from human, the eye the window of the soul, betraying simulacra from authentic*.

It is not revealed in the film, but the film-makers have since remarked that the eye that we see here belongs to Dr Ana Stelline. What is the significance of this? Does the fact that her eye, and the very last last line in the film (her observation, “Beautiful, isn’t it?) bookend the film actually mean anything? Does Ana ‘see’ what K sees? is there perhaps more to the code within the memories that she has implanted in so many Replicants? Or is her eye merely asking a question of the viewer, a demand of attention, or of an answer at the film’s end? We shall return to this later perhaps, for now we do not know of Ana or her importance to the plot.

br2049openWe see a landscape of solar farms, fields of solar arrays as far as we can see. This is California, 2049: an artificial landscape of metal and plastic devoid of life: a world of grey, almost calm, far removed from the acid rain and violently belching fire-stacks of 2019’s Hades landscape. The screenplay describes these solar farms as derelict; “All dead and abandoned to the dust and wind.” Watching this sequence knowing that they aren’t functional adds extra meaning- everything is collapsing; this is the end of the world.

Already the film is setting its agenda of expanding on the original- we are out of the city, reaching out to the world outside. A world that has visibly changed and yet also reflects the changes in our own world; this is our world seen through a prism of Blade Runner: a world of climate change and threatened environmental disaster made real.

A spinner car races through the grey sky. On board the pilot sleeps, finally awoken by an alarm- we do not yet know that this is Officer K or that he is a Replcant- but is this awakening akin to being switched on/activated, perhaps even literally so?**

The spinner car reaches a barren wasteland that almost looks like the surface of the moon, landing at a protein farm, a reference to the famine hinted at in the text introduction. This first scene is another nod to the 1982 film, albeit one perhaps only die-hard fans would be aware of; it is based on an un-filmed prologue written for the first film. A lingering shot of a pot simmering on a stove is full of reward for the die-hard fans who remember the storyboards of decades ago. The fan-service does not dominate the film, but clearly this film is a work of respect and care towards the original eagerly appreciated by fans who cannot believe that this unwanted sequel is as good as it is.

This sequence is shot in a largely static, restrained and rather monochrome manner- dark silhouettes framed by windows of pure light, this is perhaps the last time things will be as ‘simple’ as black and white for K. This sequence reminds me of Sergio Leone films, particularly the slow beginning of Once Upon A Time in the West– it feels like a Western somehow; the wooden, creaked floorboards and spartan, almost analogue building looking like a throwback to the 19th Century Old West.

br2049sappThe protein farm is being managed by Sapper Morton, a Nexus 8 combat medic who has been on the run since 2020.*** Morton washes his hands as if a slave to routine, and it is interesting that he then puts on some wireframe spectacles. Is his eyesight failing, the machine succumbing to age, or is it a reference back to Tyrell wearing his trifocal lenses, or perhaps part of an almost subconscious disguise,  as if masking the ‘window to the soul’, the eyes that betray a Replicant’s true nature?

All movement is slow, deliberate, the dialogue an almost delicate dance- Morton resigned, perhaps, to his fate, time finally having run out for him, K pleasant and polite, as if doing his duty with an element of regret. K says he would rather avoid the violent alternative although he no doubt knows it is inevitable. The violence when it is unleashed is short, sharp, brutal, Morton smashing K through a wall before K finally incapacitates him. K doesn’t seem as big as Morton but he is apparently more powerful.

Finally it is revealed that Officer K is indeed a Replicant, Morton condemning him for hunting his “own kind”. K doesn’t consider them the same, as his kind doesn’t run. “Because you’ve never seen a miracle,” Morton tells him, before K shoots him twice in the chest. There is a lovely moment here, as the camera shakes as Morton crashes to the floor. K looks a bloody mess, as beaten up as Deckard did in Blade Runner– I only remark upon this as back when Blade Runner was first released, it seemed so usual to have a hero get so bruised and bloodied as Deckard did, almost a hyper-reality (the blood from his cut lip spreading in his whisky glass…).

We see a shot of K’s hands in the sink, washing clean a bloodied eye. Sapper Morton’s eye. K has cut it out of Morton’s head, its electric tattoo proof of Morton’s Replicant nature, and of K’s bounty.  Memories of Hannibal Chew’s laboratory, and Leon placing those grisly trophies on the technicians shoulders.

br2049farm.pngThere is a lovely shot next, typically understated as so much of this film is, deceptively simple yet utterly convincing, as K leaves the building and returns to his car. The world is dull and grey, and the only sign of organic life is a dead, skeletal tree. K dwarfed by the landscape, a perspective we will see repeated throughout the film

K enters his spinner. It looks old and worn and dirty and authentic, lived in. It feels real, doesn’t feel like an elaborate, sophisticated prop. Again, that sense of reality to all this.  “You’re hurt,” his superior, Lt.Joshi, notices when he calls in. “I’m not paying for that,” she states. Pure cyberpunk. Almost a throwback to the original Robocop (“I’m a mess”/”They’ll fix you, they fix everything”), and a reminder that everything has a cost.

brflowerSomething outside catches K’s eye. He walks out towards the dead tree, and finds an incongruous element of colour, a flower; a single, yellow cowslip, placed near the tree. It being there must mean something. There is a mystery here, and that colour signifies that the black and white world that K knows,  his purpose and place in that world,  is about to slowly be pulled away. He orders his pilotfish drone to scan the area, and it discovers something buried. “Get back here before the storm,” Joshi orders him, stating she will send a dig team to see what has been buried there.

br2049citybr2049cityshot3br2049cityshot4We cut to a series of effects shots, exteriors of a smog-enshrouded city, the outskirts deserted and devoid of life,  and K’s spinner flying through wind and rain. Grey light persists until the electric neon of the city centre dominates, and we catch a glimpse of a massive structure, the Sepulveda Seawall, another visual hint that everything has gotten worse. As the effects shots show K’s spinner reaching a huge mega-structure that is the LAPD headquarters, the audio plays his baseline test. “Subject: Officer K D6-dash-3-dot-7.
Let’s begin.” Echoes of the old VK-test, somehow, but this is stranger, all the more bizarre. It feels very 1970s, in a strange way.  It is unexplained how it works- this film does not feel the need to explain everything. K Passes. “Constant K” the disembodied voice announces.  “You can collect your bonus.”

Its curious that a Replicant in this world, employed by the LAPD, gets paid and has his own apartment with some sense of private life away from his function, his job. Likely this is how he maintains his psyche-profile and passes his baseline test, which is evidently method of detecting post-traumatic stress that might threaten K’s obedience and an early warning of a Replicant going AWOL or faulty. Replicants seem to a part of ordinary society now. Which makes one wonder who is human, who is not, in all the crowd scenes.

At any rate, K has in mind something to buy with that bonus.

Perhaps a scene has been cut here, for I suspect there may have been a scene in which K purchases his ‘anniversary’ gift for Joi from the market they visit later when he seeks to discover the provenance of the wooden horse sculpture. Doc Badger may have been someone K knew well, and looking at all the gadgets surrounding him and his illicit trading hinted at in that later scene, I believe it was he that K brought the device from. Who knows? That damn four-hour cut is a constant tease.

br2049streetCut to that gorgeous street scene, of a huge snow-melting machine clearing the slush from the road as K walks towards his apartment complex. Its beautiful and complex and perfect. Its so very different to Blade Runner and yet so very Blade Runner, a fine balance so clever its breathtaking how often this film carries it off. Again, it feels like we are seeing a real world, in which so much is hinted at or unexplained. Its simply ‘there’.

End of Pt.One

 

* The eye motif runs throughout Blade Runner and has been endlessly discussed over the years. As well as the eye staring back at viewers at the beginning, examples include Tyrell’s eyes hidden by thick trifocal glasses (echoed in BR2049 by Wallace being completely blind rather than just visually impaired),  eyes that were crushed by Batty in the Replicant’s rage. Hannibal Chew of course designed eyes, Rachel’s eyes glowed oddly at times, as if reinforcing her false nature. BR2049 continues this ‘tradition’ with the digital tattoos stenciled/imprinted on the eye under the lower eyelids, literally betraying the owners true artificial nature in an instant.

** If one were to assume Ridley Scott’s statement of Deckard’s Replicant status as correct or canon (I don’t subscribe to this view, but its fun to play mind games sometimes), one could consider the following reading- have Blade Runners always been Replicants, as if it takes  Replicant to catch a replicant? This would suggest that Holden was a Replicant (Bryant’s later comment that he can “breathe ok as long no-one unplugs him” would carry deeper connotations) and that Deckard was ‘activated’ upon Holden being destroyed/damaged, as a replacement. Activated on the streets of LA near the noodle bar, with false memories etc, Gaff would have been on hand to pick him up and take him to Bryant, to set him off on his mission/purpose. The start of the story for Deckard literally as he appears first in the film, everything fabricated: his apartment with the photos of an ex-wife he never had, false memories and souvenirs to cushion his emotions and keep him stable. A very paranoid reading, to be sure. Especially when one considers Wallace’s almost offhand suggestion that Deckard and Rachel were programmed by Tyrell to meet and fall in love. There is no freewill in this particular nightmare scenario that really is darker than dark.

*** Dave Bautista is a revelation here, in a powerful and emotive performance that lingers long into the film. Everyone involved in this film seems to have elevated to their A-game for this project. This film hardly needs a prequel or sequel but whenever I see this scene I am struck by how fascinating a prequel would be (film or book) detailing Morton’s experiences on the battlefield and then escaping and hiding out in these wastelands.