The Killing 4K UHD

Kill4kI’ve come back to The Killing by way of its recent 4K upgrade from the folks at Kino over the pond. I last watched the film back in 2016. I have to confess, watching it again my memory of it was pretty fuzzy- I remembered the overall plot and some of the cast, but specifics, and indeed the ending, escaped me completely. To some extent it was rather like watching the film for the first time.

Which was nice, but worrying- I used to have such an excellent memory for films; I’d usually remember most everything. Maybe its just me getting older – hope this isn’t how dementia starts- but I rather suspect its a case of just watching too many films over the past few years. In some ways we’re living in a film buff’s paradise, the access we have to films these days, whether it be films we have collected on disc, or stream on the various platforms. Back in the 1970s we were at the whim of terrestrial schedulers on three networks so only watched films when we could, which increased the rarity and sense of occasion (I still recall the Jaws network premiere, and that of Star Wars and Alien, quite vividly, and movie seasons over Christmas holidays just made the festive seasons more special). Those were the bad old days, certainly, but nonetheless films seemed to have much more of a value back then. I suppose watching fewer films, they stuck in your memory more too.

But now, they almost seem to blur into each other- certainly some film noir, of which I have watched an awful lot of over the past few years. I suppose it inevitable when they share so many narrative and visual tropes and character archetypes. Alarming though, that I’d forgotten so much of this film. Maybe this blog should revert to its original purpose back from its Film Journal days, serving as a diary of viewing- not that this blog really ever diverted away from too much (though I have stopped compiling monthly/annual lists of the films). But whatever next? Index cards next to each disc on the shelf?

Because to be sure, someone who professes to be a film buff shouldn’t be forgetting details of films as exquisite as The Killing, one of the definitive heist movies and one of the best examples of a perfect film noir. Its a taut, gripping story about flawed characters, depicted by brilliant actors in memorable performances. Did I say memorable? Hmmm. Well, to be fair, while I’d forgotten so much of the film, I’d not forgotten the likes of Sterling Hayden here- what a gritty, convincing turn.

Kubrick’s third directorial effort and widely considered his first ‘proper’ film, The Killing is absolutely amazing and, dare I suggest, one of his best. Its certainly a film for people who don’t profess to like Kubrick’s filmography- it lacks his full ‘auteur’ stamp, as he didn’t have the complete control he would soon have following Paths of Glory and SpartacusThe Killing is more routine, more accessible compared to how inscrutable some of his films can seem.

That being said, its tricky to describe The Killing as routine- it certainly makes demands upon its audience, with a chronology-shifting narrative in which it moves forwards and backwards in time depending upon each characters involvement in the heist. It’s helped somewhat by a voice-over which is pretty wonderful but was, I suspect, possibly a studio-mandated element to help steer viewers along.

When I last watched The Killing in 2016, I hadn’t been aware even of the existence of Vince Edwards’ later noir, Murder by Contract, which I watched last year as part of Indicator’s Columbia Noir line of boxsets and which proved to be one of the best films I watched last year (so good was it, indeed, that I watched it twice). So anyway, back in 2016, Edwards was just another face- this time around, I immediately recognised him and enjoyed, again, another of his performances. Naturally Edwards will always be more remembered for his massively popular Ben Casey tv show of the 1960s but I think he’s brilliant in The Killing, Murder by Contract and City of Fear in which he has this weird charisma with the camera (and inevitably the on-screen ladies) that only certain actors destined to be stars have. So if my memory really does go south there will be index cards for Vince Edwards dotted around my shelves of Blu-rays.

killb4kRegards this 4K release of The Killing, it looks absolutely amazing. Lots of grain, detail and contrast- 4K with its HDR really suits these black and white films. Can’t believe I haven’t bought Citizen Kane on 4K yet (must be all those copies on DVD and Blu-ray making me already feel like a double/triple-dipping idiot). There is a lovely tactile quality to this film, in its detail evident in sets and clothing, and the HDR really improves the lighting which can be so intrinsic to the noir experience. The scene in which the guys sit around a small table lit by a lone bulb above them, their faces both brightly lit and masked in shadow, the cigarette smoke drifting about them- its like each frame is a painting and is one of the best film noir shots I’ve seen: in 4K its really something. While Kino doesn’t include booklets or anything at all like that, it does use original poster artwork which make its releases great collector pieces, in a similar way to the art direction on Indicator’s releases (this disc also has a reversible sleeve). Devoid of extras other than some trailers, the disc features a commentary track by Alan K. Rode which, from the twenty-thirty minutes I’ve heard, is absolutely terrific and which I look forward to listening to in its entirety. More on that in another post maybe.

House of Bamboo (1955)

bamboo3One of the attractions of film for me is the the way it freezes time and place, a time capsule, in effect. Curiously this even works for science fiction films and their visions of the future; Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the future seen through the prism of the optimism and ambition of the1960s, one of many movie futures that never happened (we’ll be lucky to see Kubrick’s space station wheel or moon-base before 2101, a century ‘late’, and we have yet to see 2019’s flying cars of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) but the point is, those future visions inform us of the times when a film was made and those visions created, something increasingly interesting as they become more removed from us.

But certainly the sense of films being time capsules applies chiefly to films of old, and its almost incidental to the storytelling process. A British film made and set in the 1960s is just a film made in the 1960s, they weren’t concerned with recording their milieu for posterity, but that’s what they have done- 1960s London being very different to that of today, and likewise Klute, French Connection or Taxi Driver all have visions of a New York of their time but now offering glimpses of a city long gone, for better or worse.    

Which brings me to one of the more arresting and fascinating aspects of Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo, a thriller set and filmed in post-war Japan. Its clear that Fuller seized the unusual opportunity with relish, because the location filming is quite extensive, offering a sense of time and place that is quite tangible. I would imagine that someone living in Tokyo today would find this film almost a revelation. Indeed a ‘locations then and now’ featurette, albeit prohibitively expensive would have been so fascinating (those types of featurettes are something I always gravitate to first if they are on a disc). I’m not sure how staged the locations were, but they certainly feel authentic, adding a docudrama feel to the film: there’s a sense of reality to it.

Which is perhaps just as well, because the film is quite bizarre otherwise, featuring an American gang of ex-servicemen who seemingly speak no Japanese, in charge of the Tokyo underworld, and the powerless Japanese authorities needing the help of American military police to root them out. Based upon an earlier Fox film, The Street With No Name, its a mob scenario like so many gangster noir films but transposed to the Orient – vividly filmed in glorious CinemaScope colour, its like no noir I’ve yet seen, and magnificently photographed.

The ‘hero’ of the film is Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) who arrives in Tokyo stirring up trouble until he is brought to the attention of Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) who’s the mastermind of the American gang. Stack is a blank, really pretty woeful with a one-note performance which must be what he approximates as a ‘Tough Guy’ but never really convinces. Did Stack always just get by with poor performances like this? Or is it possible its a deliberate commentary on the stereotypical rugged American hero stuck in a milieu where he doesn’t belong (shades of Michael Douglas in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain decades later), finding him wanting? 

bamboo2The film is thankfully saved by Ryan’s cool and collected criminal czar: I’ve seen Ryan in several films of late and he continues to impress- he’s not, as one might expect, chewing up the scenery here but is instead calmly threatening, and there’s a weird homoerotic undercurrent that I’ve noticed before in other noir. Its subtle enough that viewers won’t necessarily notice it, but its evidently deliberate as Fuller remarks about it in the booklet that accompanies this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release. Sandy takes a sudden liking to Eddie, who’s quite oblivious, but it becomes clear to us something is going on- Sandy’s rule that any injured gang member must be shot dead to avoid giving anything away to the authorities, is shown in action, but when Eddie is injured Sandy orders him carried to safety. Eddies standing in the gang rises, and he becomes Sandy’s righthand man, usurping  the increasingly irritated Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Sandy’s attraction to Eddie blinds him to the fact that Eddie isn’t who he seems- he’s actually Eddie Kenner, a military policeman posing as Spanier, a criminal who is still serving time back in the States. Kenner seeks to destroy the gang from within, but doesn’t himself realise that a mole in the Japanese police will leak to Sandy there is a mole in his operation, setting up a tense last heist…

Along the way there are some remarkable moments, like when Sandy, realising he has been betrayed, dispatches Griff in error- shooting him dead while he’s in a wooden bathtub that, riddled with bullets, starts leaking bath water while Sandy walks over and cradles his victims head, explaining why he just killed him (explaining himself to his past lover/confidant?). Or seeing original 1960s Star Trek‘s DeForrest Kelley playing one of Sandy’s henchmen; it just feels so incongruous seeing Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy as a bad guy .Or indeed any scene featuring the rather forced and unlikely romance between Eddie and Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) the Japanese widow of one of Sandy’s deceased gang members.

bamboo1But despite the inherent silliness of much of the plot and the hackneyed performance of tough-guy Stack, the film works, and much of this is thanks to the sheer fascination/eye-candy of the locations. The action finale in an amusement/theme park on the roof of a Tokyo tower block, children and parents rushing everywhere while bullets are flying and the city of Tokyo sits oblivious below, is as strange and visually arresting as it should sound (what Scott could have made of it in his Black Rain one can only imagine). I thought the setting for that last gunfight was quite extraordinary and a major achievement. House of Bamboo is a thoroughly odd film but one that just constantly rewards, I really enjoyed it and look forward to listening to its two commentary tracks (viva physical media!).

 

Agh, Commentary Tracks

Well, a pat on my back for watching a disc within a few weeks of buying it (doubt it’ll catch on) but life never gives without taking away, so add another commentary track to the list of all those that I haven’t listened to yet. 

(The disc in question was A Most Violent Year, a film which I first watched on a stream back in 2015 and which I really liked, so when I noticed it cheap on Amazon it proved a no-brainer. More on that maybe at a later time, but yeah its still a great film with fantastic cast/performances, but the Blu-ray comes with a commentary track which tempts and infuriates me at the same time).

So anyway, its such a pity that whenever there’s nothing on the television or I haven’t gotten my head into a book, I can’t just suggest to my wife Claire that we settle down with a commentary track from one of those discs (if I did, she’d give me one of her dirtiest ‘are you mad?’ looks for sure: commentary tracks are for film-nerds. True or false?). 

Not all commentary tracks are equal. Some are awful. Some are great. Some (certainly those when one gets John Carpenter and Kurt Russell together) are legendary. There’s some good commentaries by academics, film historians or critics- some can be very dry, or feel like they are just reading from prepared notes (which sometimes I’m sure they are), but often they can be more balanced than listening to tracks from cast and crew stroking each others egos and ‘goshing’ at whatever’s onscreen. Some can be surprising, I remember that the Matrix films had commentary tracks from philosophers and critics who didn’t necessarily even like the films. Which made me think at the time what a neat idea it was (although studios would obviously be appalled by it), to perhaps put negative views on some tracks, you know, get someone to argue for, someone argue against, the film in question. 

Great unrecorded commentary tracks:

  1. Alfred Hitchcock on Vertigo
  2. Stanley Kubrick on anything (although Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke together on 2001 would have been like brushing one’s hand against a Monolith, or falling into a Stargate, I suspect).
  3. Phillip K Dick on Blade Runner– wouldn’t that have been great? He might have hated the finished film but who knows, he might have loved it and just listening to him see that world through his eyes… sober or high, it would have been a ball.
  4. Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. Just imagine. 

I assure you that if either of those commentaries existed they wouldn’t have remained unlistened to. Crikey, I probably would have jumped into the commentary before even watching the movie. Anybody else got some ideas for great commentary tracks we’ll never hear?

Untenable Tenet

tenet2Continuing my impromptu season of Christopher Nolan movies (after Inception the night before) I dared to give Tenet a re-watch. I shall now invert this post so that I can read it in December last year and thus reveal to my earlier self immediately that no, it really doesn’t make any more sense a second time (Claire bought me this 4K for Christmas, and instead of being the gift that keeps giving its rather the gift that keeps confusing).

I tried, God knows I tried. I even switched the subtitles on midway, having grown exhausted trying to decipher the at times unfathomable dialogue lost in the audio mix (is Nolan being deliberately obtuse?), but alas even when reading all the dialogue exposition the film doesn’t make any more sense than it did when I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. One of the characters early on tells another to “don’t think it, feel it” or something along those lines; perhaps its a message more intended towards the audience. Its telling that Nolan doesn’t even name his main character, literally he’s ‘The Protagonist’ and nothing more. A few times when watching this film I had to wonder, is the joke on us?

On the one hand, perhaps I should applaud Nolan for outdoing his confusing tinkering with Time in Dunkirk, Interstellar and Inception. On the other hand, perhaps I should berate him for appalling crimes against storytelling. Sometimes you can be just too clever for your own good. Nolan is clearly inspired by the films of Stanley Kubrick, but Kubrick’s films, 2001, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, as obtuse as they may seem on first viewing, they ultimately have a sense of logic and make sense, even if it has to be explained to us.

Besides, I have the suspicion, in just the same way as Interstellar and Inception both tend to eventually slide into silly nonsense, that Tenet rather gets so wrapped up in twists of logic and Time-paradoxes that it rather cheats its own rules. I’m not sure Tenet plays fair with its audience. Maybe on some subsequent re-watch I’ll have some “Eureka!” moment but at the minute, I think Nolan’s playing a bit fast and loose here. I’m not certain Tenet ever makes coherent sense no matter how many times I’ll watch it. 

Which is frustrating, because the general premise is fascinating and worthy of a better movie, even if that premise (we are at war with the Future to prevent Armageddon), itself doesn’t make much sense (how does killing everyone on the planet in the here and now help the unborn Future?). I think a film with more traditional time travel would have worked much better- Nolan is trying to be too novel with his ‘inverted’ objects and characters, it is sophistication for sophistication’s sake. Its Skynet trying to confuse us to death.

I’m still trying to fathom how Kenneth Branagh’s Fitbit would trigger Armageddon whenever it suddenly can’t find a pulse, when said bomb in Russia seems to be on a countdown clock anyway. We’re just expected to accept all these info dumps of exposition and go along with it, just enjoy the spectacle and assume people cleverer than us can make sense of it all. 

At least it looks pretty: the 4K disc is quite gorgeous, particularly the many Imax sequences for which the aspect ratio opens up to fill the whole 16:9 screen. Detail and depth are breath-taking at times, the apparent depth of field making it look almost 3D. I just wish it made a bit more sense, or ANY sense, really. I’m afraid this is another example of Nolan finding a way of financing extraordinary set-pieces with his big fancy film-making Toybox. 

No wonder he was annoyed at the Warner slate going to HBO Max this year. What’s the point of a Nolan film (Imax, extraordinary set-pieces, imponderable audio etc) if it just ends up in someone’s lounge? Inverted messages from the Future please to the comments below…

 

Farewell, Marooned

I’d watched Marooned (1969) once before; it would have been late-‘seventies, or early ‘eighties, certainly post-Star Wars, and on a network screening as part of a film-season of sci-fi movies, something which happened quite a lot back then. Over the decades since, I’ve occasionally seen moments of it again during subsequent television airings. Its not a film that has aged particularly well, even if it did win the 1970 Academy Award for Special Visual Effects, something which is perhaps indicative of how much of a game-changer Star Wars would be several years later. Its littered with numerous technical goofs, too, which unfortunately undermines much of the sense of reality the film gains by using NASA assets and locations.

Watching it again this one, last time (hence this being one of my ‘Farewell…’ posts) the thing that struck me the most, and which was evidently lost on my young self way back when, was the cast. Marooned has a pretty amazing cast, largely wasted, mind, in what quickly degenerates into formulaic melodrama, but seems to indicate some ambition behind the film: Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, David Jansen, James Franciscus, Lee Grant, Nancy Kovack and Mariette Hartley (who was a childhood crush of mine from her appearance in 1960s Star Trek). 

It is a pretty great cast, there, indeed- certainly one better than the material they have to work with, although it really has a great premise for a space movie, and indeed very prescient, predating the Apollo 13 mission of 1970 and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003, both of which lend a weight to situations in Marooned. Indeed, there are some moments which are so similar to moments in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 that one almost does a doubletake. A case of movie events mimicking real-life events that mimicked a movie. Likewise having read a book about the Columbia disaster and possible ways a rescue could have theoretically been attempted in better circumstances, its strange to see some of those proposals being dramatized in a film shot decades earlier. How extraordinary it might have seemed had Columbia’s crew been saved  in similar fashion to the rescue shown in Marooned.

What ultimately undermines Marooned is Hollywood’s understandable ignorance, of the time, of the space program and the mechanics of space travel, and of course natural technical obstacles for film-makers of the time (Kubrick’s 2001 notwithstanding). But certainly the public ignorance of the space program of the time is clearly evident as the film attempts to explain the what, where and how’s which would become largely commonplace years later but was quite alien and extraordinary in a world without digital watches or electronic calculators. 

Marooned strikes me as a film with a great, thrilling and enthralling premise that largely fails in execution- even after the popularity and success of the Apollo 13 film, there’s likely some traction in another film someday following in Marooned‘s celluloid footsteps- although I suppose one could cite The Martian as evidence that’s already been and gone.

Rocketmen: Ad Astra and Sunshine

ad astraI was going to write about Ad Astra, which I watched for a third (maybe fourth) time a few nights ago, but then I realised I’d written two posts about it before (once from its original cinema showing, and then again when I bought the film on 4K UHD) making anything I have to say this time around pretty much redundant. I do find it rather curious that the film, flawed as it is, still maintains some fascination for me. I sometimes think flawed films can be like that- you can watch it enjoying it for what it does very well, and then fall into a sort of mental trap considering what was wrong with it, how it could have turned out better, second-guessing the creative team’s choices. I wonder if those very same creative teams (chiefly the director and producer/s) end up doing the same themselves, or perhaps just walk away from it and happily never go back to it. Well, I suppose the recent example of Oliver Stone’s repeated tinkering of Alexander (four cuts so far) would indicate that some of those creatives really do find it hard to pull themselves away from nagging doubts and second thoughts. The truth of course is that in the case of my own considerations, they are seperate from the business pressures and considerations that are the harsh realities of making a film- films are rarely ever made in a vacuum, and one has to make allowances, the higher a budget climbs, regards the pressures and doubts of executives putting up all that production money. In my head there is a perfect Ad Astra film that pretty much tells the same story but does so without manic space baboons and perhaps with a more genuinely space-crazed father out on the edge of human civilization and cosmic void. 

You do take different things from films everytime you re-watch them. This time in particular I was troubled by how the film played it fast and loose with scientific accuracy while at the same time it acted like some kind of successor to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It posed as one thing but was really something else; maybe not to the extent of space fantasy’s like Star Wars but maybe closer to something like Alien or Sunshine

sunshineMentioning the latter, I re-watched that again last night. The curious thing about Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is that it is also one of my wife’s favourite movies; she’s not a great fan of space movies in general but there is certainly something about Sunshine that she really enjoys, and indeed whenever we re-watch it, its usually down to her suggesting it. Not something that ever happens regards re-watching Blade Runner, I can tell you, but nobody’s perfect. But Sunshine... well its a weird film; on the one hand it is heavily indebted to Alien and often gets criticised by its nods to Event Horizon later on in its proceedings. I described Ad Astra in the past as two films vying for dominance and neither really winning out, and the same is very true of Sunshine, which makes me wonder, what is it with these space movies? They are made as if they are one thing, and then they suffer a midpoint crisis and become quite another. Maybe its a bit of the old pre-2001 sci fi b-movie thing that was going on for decades, and which has left films post-2001 stuck in this weird cosmic no-mans land of trying to be entertaining but at the same time acknowledge that Kubrick’s film changed everything. 

What makes Sunshine so successful, I think, are the characters who are so well realised by the very good cast. In that respect, its something that Alien succeeded with in a clever shorthand that Boyle mimics well, and something that 2001 ironically failed at totally. Which is not to ignore the subtext of 2001 in that the humans were deliberately less human than HAL 9000, as if the bestial man-apes of the films prologue became less and less natural and ‘human’ as they evolved into technological creatures, the tools from bones becoming the spaceships of their space odyssey but their lives soulless and bland. That’s an intellectual argument that only Kubrick could get away with, but it does alienate many viewers. Films need empathy, some connection between the viewer and the characters depicted, in order to engage with those viewers. Something Sunshine succeeds very well at. Indeed, maybe it succeeds better than Ad Astra in telling the same story, as the Icarus II crew’s journey into space brings them in contact with a character who has been driven insane by the sheer immensity of space, the revelation of our place in space and time. Roy McBride’s journey to his father in Ad Astra is inherently the same as the Icarus II crew encountering the commander of the doomed Icarus I mission- Pinbacker’s violent and bloody rampage that threatens the second Icarus mission rather more intense and traditional, story-wise, than the encounter McBride has with his Dad, but in real terms its the same; character/s trying to save the Earth in opposition to an individual driven insane by a cosmic perspective. I suppose one could even argue both films owe a sly debt to the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, maybe.

And finally, of course I’M Spartacus

spartacusI’ve rather enjoyed this accidental run of ‘Ancient Movies’, and barring Ben-Hur (which I’d re-watched last year) the inevitable end-point had to be the classic Kubrick/Douglas film Spartacus from 1960. I refer to it as a ‘Kubrick/Douglas’ film but its obviously more Kirk Douglas’ film than it is a Kubrick film- there is really very little of this film that screams ‘Kubrick’ at the viewer. In fact, if there’s anything regards Spartacus that proves a little off-putting to me, its that the film very often feels like a Douglas vanity-project: possibly an unfair accusation, because producing and starring in a film as big as Spartacus is no mean feat, but when I watch the film there’s an uncomfortable (to me, anyway) sensation of watching a huge ego onscreen and everything else orbiting around it. I mean, Spartacus as a character has practically no negative features, he’s painted as a heroic, ‘perfect’ figure and not at all, in that sense, realistic. In that respect it does feel like a ‘old’ or ‘very Hollywood’ movie, but most likely its just a feeling that its the star actor/producer calling the shots rather than the director, and its clear that its not a directors ‘vision’ that we are seeing. Some films are like that, Spartacus is hardly unique, and its possibly just a reaction on my part from being used to watching a ‘Billy Wilder Picture’ or an ‘Alfred Hitchcock Picture’ or a ‘Ridley Scott Picture’.

Re-watching classic films can be a surprising experience, most often they of course still hold up remarkably well- they are ‘classic’ for a reason, after all. My surprise this time around was something regards the narrative, and hardly a  surprise at all really but I was take aback this time around by just how black the ending is. Naturally this is inherent in the basic story, as history tells us Spartacus and his buddies don’t walk off into the sunset for a happily ever after, and any film that did would be wholly inappropriate, for some reason this time around I was struck by just how bleak the film is. Maybe its a Covid thing, but I was taken by how much of a grim tone this film ends with: basically, the bad guys win, the good guys die, literally, every last one of them (even Charles Laughtons’ Senator scurries off to dispatch himself after settling his affairs) – its almost like its prefiguring the closing moments of Revenge of the Sith (albeit Lucas could only dream of that film having the gravitas of something like Spartacus).  Indeed, on that last point, while its clear that the Pod Race in The Phantom Menace owes everything to the chariot race of Ben-Hur, it would seem that George Lucas had his eye on other historical epics like Spartacus with how its grim finale is echoed by that of Sith. Its rather a pity that Lucas didn’t really nail that feel with his Prequel Trilogy in general- its possibly too coy a conceit but had that trilogy been like some great Roman spectacle moved into a space fantasy milieu then it would have better existed on its own terms away from the Original Trilogy – it does seem to me that Anakin suggests something of a ‘Messiah’ figure in the Star Wars saga and treating it more like a big biblical epic may have been beyond Lucas (hell, its only about selling toys, after all) but I have to wonder. Instead of some snotty kid in The Phantom Menace, had Anakin been a teenage slave like a slightly-younger Spartacus, later saved from a Hutt’s gladiatorial arena and then rising through the Jedi ranks to eventually fall to the Dark Side… Well I guess my daydream is more of a set of movies aimed at grown-up fans of the Original Trilogy rather than films preoccupied by a new generation of kids and what they want from Santa. 

But anyway, that’s all by the by and ancient history of its own, really. For some reason though I was rather struck by how bleak the ending of Spartacus is. Its authentic of course but I suppose I’m just reminded of how modern Hollywood seems to avoid any films with ‘downer’ endings.

Re-watching the film of course afforded me opportunity to watch my 4K UHD copy of Spartacus that has been waiting for too long. The film looks quite gorgeous, as one would expect – like the 4K UHD of Vertigo (shot in VistaVision) Spartacus benefits hugely from its Super 70 Technirama format, its larger film format affording a much more detailed image than usual that really shines on 4K. Naturally the film sounds gorgeous, too, with its timeless Alex North score that is at times brutal and others sweepingly romantic: Spartacus is one of those films that is much better for its score, the composer doing a lot of the films heavy lifting.

Spartacus is also one of those films more famous for its place in cinematic history, the reaction of the public at the time and its continuing popularity, and historically of course its cast and film-makers, than for its qualities, perhaps, as a film in itself. The film is not as perfect as its reputation perhaps suggests (later generations/s seem to much prefer Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, for instance) but its still a great film. The “I am Spartacus” scene has of course become part of the cultural lexicon of our age and again, part of the film that lives outside of the film itself, referred to an mimicked in all parts of pop culture. It proved to be a film and a role that was completely identified with Kirk Douglas for the remainder of his life, even if Stanley Kubrick largely disassociated himself from it. Kirk Douglas is Spartacus, in every frame as dominant an actor and onscreen personality as he likely was as a Hollywood producer: a little distracting for me this time around watching the film but perhaps symbolic of its place in Hollywood history.

And now, Agora

agoraLets talk film connections… well, here’s an example of one anyway- having watched Oliver Stone’s Alexander a few nights ago, I followed it up with another film set in the Ancient World- Alejandro Amenabar’s magnificent Agora. The connection is simple enough:  Alexander closes with Ptolemy an old man in the city of Alexandria in 285 BC, a centre of learning with a library that has teased and bewitched historians and academics for centuries regards the treasures it held within. Agora returns us to the Library of Alexandria in 400 AD, or thereabouts, and concerns the destruction of what remains of the library and how it ties into the fate of Hypatia, one of the most famous women of the ancient world who was killed by a Christian mob – perhaps a key event that signalled humanity descending into the Dark Ages. I think its a great film -much better than Alexander, by the way- and am always frustrated by how it seems to have slipped under most peoples radar. I don’t know if its relative obscurity is because its an independent, European film with limited distribution channels (I had to import a French Blu-ray several years ago to see it) or something down to its rather negative viewpoint of religion and early, formative Christianity in particular. I’d urge anyone who gets the opportunity to give Agora a watch.

Regards historical films. Does one judge Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus by its historical accuracy, or by whether its a great story well told? Should one disparage Oliver Stone’s Alexander because of his artistic license regards real events or academic debate, or just take it as a great romantic yarn about a major historical figure? Films are products of their time, and Spartacus is clearly a 1950s film and Alexander clearly a film with modern sensibilities concerned with the tensions between West and East that continue to dominate political discourse. Should any concern regards historical accuracy impact what one thinks of either film? How far can one go with historical accuracy before it lessens the entertainment value or dramatic qualities of a film?

agora2As far as I can tell, Agora is surprisingly accurate regards the events it portrays. Its Alexandria is a city in decline, with the Roman Empire on the wane, its pagan culture and Gods fading away to the steady rise of Christianity. There is a real feeling of change, the close of one era and the beginning of another. The Library of Alexandria has at this point been reduced to what scrolls remain in the Serapeion, a complex part Temple, part University, which is presumably a pale shadow of the Library’s earlier glory. Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is a philosopher who teaches there and works to make some sense of humanity’s place in the universe- she looks up longingly at the stars, trying to make sense of them, reaching for the perspective that the camera gifts us with our Gods-Eye views of the world (which I’ll come to later). I understand that the film largely exaggerates her intellectual prowess and what she discovers, but in most other respects it seems very fair to her and largely accurate. She feels like a very modern woman, independent, not needing the company or love of a man (rejecting overtures from a student) or feeling it necessary to fulfil the usual tasks of a woman. While not a Christian (the film infers she was, perhaps unsurprisingly as a scientist and philosopher, also an atheist) she had freinds who were Christians, most notably Orestes (Oscar Isaac), the Roman prefect of Egypt whose friendship caused her downfall as it made her a target of Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria who was feuding with Orestes for control of the city.  

I consider Agora a simply magnificent film and one of my favourites of the last twenty years. I think its beautifully well-made, looking absolutely convincing with excellent art direction and wonderful sets, featuring a very good cast, which also includes Max Minghella and Rupert Evans. Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in possibly the actresses finest role. Agora can be seen as a very sobering, even quite depressing film with a rather negative view of humanity, religion and Christianity in particular- moreover, how religion, or especially religion, suffers from very human failings such as intolerance and tribal politics. There is a sense of seeing humanity at its very best, but also at its very worst. I think the film has something to say, and says it very well. There is a real sense of perspective offered by the film, regards our place in the cosmos, our fragility, and how transient and unimportant our human concerns can seem: at certain times the film literally gifts us a Gods-Eye view of events, seeing the Earth from space and in some shots sweeping down from  a global view to gradually close in on the North African shoreline and further down to street level. At other times he camera rises up from scenes, almost reducing people to ants in the landscape. Its an almost revelatory suggestion of time and space and history made tangible, and quite intoxicating.

agora3In 1980 I learned of the Library of Alexandria through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos tv series, when through the magic of miniature effects and video compositing Sagan walked through the halls of the library talking about all the books and essays lost to us forever when it was burned down in the 4th Century AD. Sagan was a great populariser of science but tended to romanticise; the Library of Alexandria he walks through is glorious, huge; just how much of the library was even left by the 4th Century AD when Hypatia lived is open to debate among historians. Sagan cites the library’s destruction as the onset of the Dark Ages, that it lost to us all the works within, but in truth, no written texts from the Ancient world could have possibly survived to the present day even had the library not been sacked and burned. Its a point raised by Oliver Stone in his Alexander commentary that the memoirs that Ptolemy is seen writing about Alexander, telling us his story, did not survive and were lost to antiquity, ensuring that Alexander would remain an enigma to us. Preserving ancient works would have entailed copying them, repeatedly over long centuries and so many generations, over and over, with subsequent danger of embellishment or editing. Books and scrolls were on papyrus, and individually handwritten/copied, not printed. So it was never likely any of those ancient works could have lasted a few centuries (Ptolemy’s memoirs probably being lost before even Hypatia’s day), never mind millennia to the present day; but Sagan was right about the sense of tragic loss and the period of enlightenment shattered by barbarian hordes pulling humanity down into the Dark Ages. That being said, Hypatia of course sees nothing wrong with having slaves, so even that sense of ‘enlightenment’ that Sagan eulogised should be questioned.

 

Last Week

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                                              Great Scott! Those Mattes!

Well there goes another week in the mad tumble towards what some people are still hoping will turn out to be Christmas. Regular readers may have noticed a wee drop in the number of reviews being posted lately- its partly because I’ve been turning my attention to watching television shows this month, which obviously take more time to watch than a movie does. This week, though, much of my time has been taken up with other distractions, including watching Back to the Future and its sequel, the imaginatively titled Back to the Future Part II which have just been released on 4K UHD (I’ll likely get around to the third entry sometime today). Visually these films are rather more problematic than some catalogue releases on 4K UHD, which I gather is partly down to the filmstock used at the time and the optical effects, which is a particular problem with the second entry. I remember watching the film at the cinema and being wowed by those visual effects, particularly the flying cars (at the time seeming much more sophisticated than the flying car sequences in Blade Runner) and the clever split screen techniques. Watching them on this 4K presentation, some shots still impress but goodness some are pretty terrible, really: in some places the optical effects leave the flying cars looking like smudgy animation and at other moments almost pasted on like cut-outs. I don’t know if its a degradation of the original elements, or an inevitable consequence of 4K resolution and HDR making mattes etc much more problematic, but some of that once so impressive stuff looks fairly dire now and quite distracting. If anything, it makes those flying car sequences in Blade Runner all the more impressive as they seem to hold up much better (probably a case of the more simple shots being easier to realise back then, or the digital trickery that was applied to the restoration for the Final Cut).

I do have to wonder though about how this film originally looked in the cinema, my memories of it- were we so much more forgiving? Or is it something to do with how we watch films now on these 4K panels. Back when I saw the film it was blown up on a huge cinema screen, and yet still seemed to hold up better than now on my unforgiving OLED- or is it really just how I’m remembering it? Was my old VHS copy, say, simply much more low-resolution, low-contrast and therefore much more forgiving itself, too?

Fortunately the films themselves remain quite fun and endearingly old-fashioned- once all blockbusters were made this way; there’s a sense of innocence to them that was possibly cynically calculated for all I know, but nostalgia certainly clouds over some of the bad points. In some ways Part Two seems eerily prescient- the middle section looking rather uncannily Trumpworld- I’ll never see those alternate 1985 sequences the same way as I used to.

But thinking of how the films effects turned out some thirty years later on 4K UHD, and how problematic these BTTF films have been on home video over the years (some purists reckon the Blu-rays were unwatchable), made me think about home video and owning films. I remember a time when owning a film was impossible, frankly, and a time when expensive early VHS tapes were sold (I recall seeing a copy of Jaws in a cardboard slipcase for sale for something like £76 in a posh department store in 1982). Eventually films could be found more cheaply, early examples being the Cinema Club range I remember seeing in Woolworths. One of the latter included 2001: A Space Odyssey, a copy of which I had for Christmas one year.

But of course it wasn’t really a case of owning the movie, not properly. That copy of 2001 I had was on a pan and scan, horribly fuzzy VHS- if Kubrick himself ever had the misfortune to watch a copy I’m sure he would have been mortified. Which makes me wonder how film-makers re-watch their films and what they really think of some of the home video editions over the years, but that’s really another conversation entirely.

So anyway, it wasn’t really owning a copy of the film properly- more like owning a second-rate approximation of 2001. One could argue that of all the formats, the only version where I came really close to owning a genuine proper copy of Kubrick’s epic is the 4K UHD released late last year, which looks utterly gorgeous and certainly far superior to how those Back to the Future films look in 4K. Which is where filmstocks used over the years, and how certain prestige films were shot over the decades, complicate matters (Vertigo, for instance, is a revelation in 4K UHD).

Some great, classic films, some of which are my favourites, have been released on 4K UHD over the past few years, surely the last home video format we’ll ever be asked to buy, and which some of us are fortunate to watch on pretty large, sophisticated 4K panels. Returning to that £76 copy of Jaws I looked at in that department store so many years ago, I’m pretty confident it looked bloody horrible compared to the excellent 4K UHD disc of the film that came out earlier this year. Are we REALLY owning definitive copies of our favourite films now, ironically at the end of physical media?

The Terrornauts (1967)

terror1Wow, that’s a hell of a title for a sci-fi movie, isn’t it? Alas, the film, one of the strangest sci-fi films you might ever see, is in no way equal to the title, which is a terrible shame, because for the first fifteen-twenty minutes I was loving it, all the dodgy acting and dodgy sets and dodgy visual effects of it. Sure, part of the appeal, such as it is, of watching old low-budget genre films are those cheesy models and the comical amusement regards how they tried to depict aliens. Sometimes that can be enough.

The Terrornauts was a very low-rent supporting feature from Milton Subotsky’s Amicus films, a production company much akin to Hammer and very successful at horror anthology pictures in the 1960s and 1970s which made brief forays into science fiction (note the 1960s Dr Who movies starring Peter Cushing).  

A small team of British scientists are running a project titled ‘Star Talk’, which uses a Radio Telescope to listen in on the cosmos and try to pick up a signal of alien origin. Needless to say the Star Talk team -project lead Dr. Joe Burke (Simon Oates), electronics expert Ben Keller (Stanley Meadows) and office manager Sandy Lund (Zena Marshall)- are ridiculed by their peers, particularly Site Manager, Dr. Henry Shore (Max Adrian) who believes their fool project an unworthy waste of radio telescope time that would be beter utilised on, er, his own science research. To that end, Shore plots to close down their funding, and the barbed arguments between Burke and Shore are possibly the highlight of the whole film.  It reminded me very much of the lofty themes of the film Contact and surprisingly seemed quite serious and plausible, but the film can’t sustain this and quickly descends into farce and then, er, plunges further still. I just have to turn your attention to the image below to get what I’m talking about. Just look at that for a moment.

terror2The thing that, inevitably, really,  kept on coming to mind whilst watching The Terrornauts was that the film was released in 1967, and that 2001: A Space Odyssey followed just the following year, utterly changing everything for the genre. Watching films like The Terrornauts really lays bare just how extraordinary the achievement that 2001  was- it simply cannot be overstated. Its easy to look back on 2001 today and forget the sheer leap in quality and skill evident in the film, but watching films like Amicus’ offering makes it absolutley clear. 

Now of course there is a huge disparity of budget and ambition, of the calibre of cast and crew between films like 2001 and The Terrornauts, and any comparison is wholly unfair, and its true, in many ways 2001 changed very little. It wasn’t until Star Wars arrived in 1977 that sci-fi films really became popular in mainstream culture and deemed worthy of ambitious blockbuster budgets, as most genre offering remained low budget and lowbrow even in the wake of 2001 (one could ruefully argue that Star Wars itself is pretty lowbrow too, of course and that much of its success was purely in its execution).

terror4But The Terrornauts is pretty much below lowbrow; astonishingly so infact. As soon as I saw Patricia Hayes playing the facility tea lady Mrs. Jones  my suspicions were realised, but when Charles Hawtrey (of Carry On fame) turned up playing Joshua Yellowlees, an auditor investigating the Star Talk team’s accounts, I knew something was up as the film lurched towards the totally bizarre and then took a sharp left into space madness.

The team do indeed pick up a signal, track it down as coming from the asteroid belt infact, and after nipping to the High Street to buy suitable equipment (to which Charles Hawtrey shrieks with consternation at a piece of tech with a £75 invoice) they send a signal back. This signal reaches a huge alien installation on one of the asteroids which promptly sends a spaceship by return post which quickly reaches Earth, floats above the radio telescope installation and with some kind of tractor beam picks up the research building in which the Star Talk boffins work, along with Mrs Jones and Mr Yellowlee of course, and rushes back to the alien base. The Earthlings are then tested to see if they are intelligent enough to operate what turns out to be a deserted base maintained by a robot, and play a game of real-life Taito Space Invaders in battle against an evil Space Armada. In between all this excitement two of the team visit an alien planet inhabited by, er, green men (where Sandy is almost sacrificed to Space Gods Unknown) and the mystery of Joe’s childhood visions that set him on his career path of contacting aliens becomes plain. Eat your heart out, Jodie Foster, this guy has pathos.

The Terrornauts is one of those films that really needs to be seen to be believed, after which finds one grasping at a reappraisal of every genre film previously seen. The old adage, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ actually does have some merit here with this one. Its mad, its inept, its mind boggling, frankly. But it absolutely needs to be seen on a double-bill with 2001: A Space Odyssey, if I could only dare.

The Terrornauts currently appears on Talking Pictures schedules and is available on digital rental and DVD.