Le Mans ’66 – 4K UHD

lemans66Our UK title for the film known more prosaically as Ford v Ferrari in many territories (something that sounds foreign no doubt proving a hard sell to American audiences), this film was great- brilliant even. A breath of fresh air, really; a rather old-fashioned kind of film- you know, great cast playing memorable characters, a tight script that alternates between drama and warmth and humour effortlessly, a story with a beginning, a middle and end, and all told with all the embellishments modern film-making can afford, such as fantastic sound design and flawless visual effects. The nostalgia of the film was as much from its Old School sensibilities as much as its richly recreated period setting. In all honesty, I was absolutely buzzing after watching this, that kind of high when you know you’ve watched a film that just works, just clicks in all the right places, a film I can imagine myself watching years from now.

Indeed, maybe it was the chemistry between Matt Damon and Christian Bale, and the male bonding of the characters they so memorably played, but I find myself comparing this film to The Shawshank Redemption. Its that good. Sure, it doesn’t break any rule-books or offer anything particularly new, but what it does do is look simple when its nothing of the sort, and moreover it knows what it is, and delivers. Like The Shawshank Redemption, its a film with a great story and great characters within it.

It can’t be any accident, for instance, that the film is currently scoring a critics score of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an audience score of 98% – with those kids of numbers, you’d be forgiven for thinking this film had been an Oscar contender and a huge box-office success. Regards the latter, it was regrettably not so, grossing just $225 million worldwide on a $97 million budget, so likely not even breaking even. Another similarity to The Shawshank Redemption, then, and I suspect the film will gain more success at home from word of mouth in just the same way as Shawshank did At the Oscars it deservedly won two technical awards, but not any of the biggies. Shame that; I’m not going to suggest the film possibly really does enough to garner a Best Picture award, but then again, that award went to Parasite, a film which I’ve not seen yet but and okay, possibly a more deserving film from what I’ve heard, but…  a dark horse like the Old School Le Mans ’66/Ford v Ferrari would still have been great, sending a message to Hollywood that the Box-Office didn’t: more of these please.

But of course, in truth that Box-Office probably did send a message to Hollywood, just not the one I’d prefer- I really don’t know if the studios look much beyond those figures towards audience reception. Certainly the film seemed to have pretty much pleased most who’d seen it- the problem was just getting them in to see it. I won’t pretend that the film is perfect but I’ll easily forgive any of its slip-ups just for being what it is: a great, old-fashioned movie that deserved better at the cinemas. Oh well, there’s a long line of discs on my shelf that share that same description, and I’ll always return to them more often than many of the box-office blockbusters so quickly forgotten.

I’ll reserve final judgement until I’ve seen it a few times/digested it awhile, but really, this could be one of my favourite movies someday, sitting alongside Shawshank on the shelf.

1995 and a Waterworld mystery

waterworldA friend at work lent me a copy of Arrow’s recent release of Waterworld on Blu-ray, as I’d confessed to never having seen the film before, odd as that may sound, but, you know, some films slip us by. Well, back home Claire told me we had indeed seen it before, but I insisted I hadn’t. I mean, I honestly could not remember any of it, other than maybe the odd scene that I stumbled upon when it was aired on tv over the years (for awhile, it seemed to aired all the time on various cable stations etc, and even then I never sat down to watch it).

So Claire went off to find proof- and returned with her diary from 1995, which indeed confirmed that we had indeed seen it, at a Showcase Cinema on August 22nd, 1995. Which I honestly cannot remember, at all. Can a film be that bad, that forgettable, that it just fades entirely from memory? It still baffled me, as I could not remember it at all- indeed, it felt all a little bit scary. Is this how it begins, losing your mind?

Strangest of all, Claire had a list in the back of her diary of all the films we had seen that year at the cinema- 34 of them. Yeah, that’s right, 34 of them. I don’t think I see that many films at the cinema in a decade now. My only excuse, we were courting back then, before we got married and settled down to domesticity and the joys of home cinema. But 34 films? Crikey. While my eyes water at the state my wallet must have been in back then, here’s the list, just for curiosity sake: When  A Man Loves A Woman, Timecop, Stargate, Nostradamus, Shallow Grave, Natural Born Killers, Interview With The Vampire, Leon, The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women, 101 Dalmatians, Nobody’s Fool, Outbeak, Legends of the Fall, Apollo 13, In the Mouth of Madness, Don Juan de Marco, Judge Dredd, Braveheart, Waterworld, First Knight, Congo, Batman Forever, Species, Die Hard With A Vengeance, Delores Claiborne, While You Were Sleeping, Pocahontas, Mortal Kombat, Haunted, Jade, Crimson Tide, A Walk in the Clouds, Babe.

Well, there’s a few there I can barely remember either. There’s a few I would like to forget but can’t.

As for Waterworld, well, we watched it Saturday night, and other than one or two scenes, such as the dive down to the submerged ruins (which I swore I recalled from stumbling onto a tv showing, to be honest) it absolutely failed to ring any bells memory-wise. It was like I was absolutely watching it for the first time. It was utterly bizarre. Unless Claire had gone to see it with some other fella I must have just wiped that film from my memory completely in some kind of post-traumatic shock. Well, yeah, it was a pretty forgettable film, so that would be part of it- that, and nearly 24 years.

The time to lock me away in a padded room is when I forget I ever saw Blade Runner, obviously.


The Great Escape Pt 2: Papillon (1973)

pap1Ladies and gentlemen: the Randomness of the Universe. Its a terrifying thing; Lovecraft wrote about a universe of chaos, of a mindless cosmos utterly ignorant of us, and our place so insignificant within it that the stark reality of it was enough to drive men mad. Patterns within it, a sense of meaning, well, that’s all just constructs of our minds, it’s just the way our brains work. Its why we ‘see’ recognisable shapes and objects in clouds. We discern patterns that aren’t really there- we see ‘God’, we see ‘meaning’ in our lives, some rational explanation for existence. We are good storytellers too.

How does any of this relate to Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 prison epic Papillon?

Well, here goes: several weeks ago I stumbled upon the film Papillon airing on BBC that evening. This in itself was something of unusual good fortune, as I watch very little (network) tv and seldom look at the tv listings or digital guide. Papillon has always been a minor-favourite film of mine. I remember first seeing it one Christmas, decades ago now, back when films were an important part of the Christmas holidays and staying up late to watch a movie something of a treat. Thinking about it, maybe that’s how I fell in love with movies. I must have been maybe twelve at the time, something like that, and the film made quite an impression. I’ve seen it several times since, but not for some years now- possibly it was back in the VHS era when I last saw it. Yeah, thats going back some, when you think about it.

So anyway, I set the tivo to record it, thinking it would be good to see it again, in HD now and widescreen too. Maybe I would eventually get around to it, maybe I wouldn’t- quite often I record films on a whim and wind up deleting them to make room for other, more pressing, stuff. I have seasons of tv shows on that tivo hard-drive (latest casualty of the delete button, the Legion tv series).

papostMidway through last week I received an email from Quartet Records, a French label who released a 2-disc set of Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall soundtrack awhile back. In itself this wasn’t unusual, once you are on someone’s mailing list in this email age you are guaranteed occasional news of releases, and I have had a few from them time to time. This time though the email referred to an imminent release of theirs which caught my attention- they were releasing a new edition of Jerry Goldsmith’s Papillon soundtrack, expanded from newly-discovered master tapes featuring music not used in the film. I’d always been as fond of the score as I was the movie, but had never bought any of its previous incarnations on vinyl or CD… not sure why- but in anycase, here was an opportunity to finally rectify that with a definitive edition. And hey, no double or treble-dipping involved, for once- and so soon after the release of Goldsmith’s Thriller scores on disc (as I wrote on the FSM forums, how weird that life can still surprise with new Goldsmith releases after so many years).

So anyway, although I was coming off (another) twelve-hour stint at work in another long week of them, I took ten minutes to log-in to the Quartet website and preorder the disc. Just as well I did, as it turned out- this edition was limited to 1000 copies and sold out within a few days of being announced, indeed the very next day after I put my order in (apologies if I’ve just spoiled your day).

So here we are with the randomness of the universe deceiving us with some apparent reason. I stumble upon the film airing on BBC 2, I record the film on my tivo, the score suddenly turns up out of the blue in some definitive edition… its like I’m being told to rewatch the film again. It’d be rude not to, right?

Papillon was directed by  Franklin J. Schaffner during a spell of great movies that included the original Planet of the Apes, Patton and Papillon, and would go on to include Islands in the Stream and The Boys From Brazil– all of these films also being scored by Jerry Goldsmith. Its quite a run of films. And the scores are greats too, with Goldsmith in his prime. Actually, this was likely why I first paid attention to the film so many years back- I would always watch films that I knew Goldsmith had scored for. Yeah, I was a pretty weird kid back then- most people watch films because of who stars in them, and here was I watching films because of who had scored the music (I should have gotten out more, clearly, but the ‘seventies could be pretty dismal).

PapillonPapillon dates from 1973. Films were different then, even prison epics like Papillon. It has a slow, steady pace that is quite deceptive in how it establishes character and place. It seems very low-key, surprisingly lacking any Jerry Goldsmith score for almost half of its two and a half-hour running time. The film pulls you in with its brutal sense of reality, of time and place. Have I mentioned that this is one of the greatest prison-break movies ever made? Well, it is possibly second only to The Shawshank Redemption… and watching Papillon again I have to note that it must have been an inspiration for Stephen King when he wrote the original story that The Shawshank Redemption was based on. The sense of male-bonding, the passage of many years of trials and adversity, the inhumanity of jailers and inmates, the life-affirming message of friendship and freedom. Its like a cinematic guide to how to write/shoot a prison movie: shady characters, noble inmates, betrayal, loyalty, cruelty, harrowing ordeals such as periods of solitary confinement.

The difference between the two is clearly that Papillon is based on an (allegedly) true story from the best-selling memoirs of Henri Charrière, a burglar arrested for the murder of a pimp (which he always denied) and sent to the brutal penal colony in French Guiana; Devils Island and the St. Laurent du Maroni prison camp from which escape was deemed impossible. Back when prisons were, well, prisons, with no pretence of rehabilitation or mercy. While some doubt has since been placed upon Charrière’s story, its nonetheless a great story and makes for a great movie. The actors are pretty epic too, to be honest. Steve McQueen is hugely charismatic with a great presence onscreen ( a ‘natural’ actor I guess, who, like actors such as Charlton Heston or even John Wayne brought a huge sense of personna to every role, regardless of their actual acting talent). Dustin Hoffman is particularly impressive too, and the kinship and bond these two actors demonstrate clearly prefigures that of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman years later.

pap4One observation- there’s a sequence in the film during Papillon’s escape attempt that he wears a loose-fitting shirt and slacks and a crumpled hat, and he looks like the clearest prototype for Indiana Jones. Its so like he’s wearing the same outfit, I had to do a doubletake. Don’t know if this was simply accidental or something indicative of Spielberg or Lucas loving movies- I seem to remember James Steranko doing pre-production art for Raiders, maybe he was a fan of Papillon. Or maybe its just more of that random universe slipping cosmic tiles into place. In anycase, Steve McQueen looks like he could have been a pretty cool Indy. He would have liked doing his own stunts, for one thing…

Very often as I’ve gotten older, revisiting ‘old’ movies can be rather disappointing, but not so here- this film is more impressive than I remembered. There is something fascinating in the widescreen framing, the steady, long-held establishing shots that don’t try to amaze you in the way so many current films do with fancy camera moves and effects work. The cinematography of course is all in-camera, with none of modern film-makings tinkering in post; it looks very authentic and real. There’s just something ‘classy’ and confident about it. Yeah, films were rather different back then. Less ‘wow’, and all the better for it.

Familiar faces of actors from that 1960s/1970s period grace the film leaving a warm, fuzzy feeling of reacquaintance, memories of other films, other tv shows. A nostalgia for the period. The Goldsmith score when it finally takes hold is wonderfully indicative of his scores of the time and movie music in general back then. Its clearly a film of its time. Its a genuine great, and oddly not available here in the UK on Blu-ray yet. What gives? This film so deserves a good HD presentation on disc with a commentary track or two- odd how some films have still somehow slipped through the net.

Its a great prison-break movie and a great reminder of just how good a star Steve McQueen was. Hmm. Maybe its time I rewatched The Great Escape again…


The Shawshank Redemption- Expanded OST

shawshank-coverJust released -and weirdly (Twilight Zone-time again) announced around the time I recently rewatched the film – is an expanded, two-disc edition of Thomas Newman’s fine score for The Shawshank Redemption. Back when the film first came out, I recall the score sounded very fresh and unique, with that Thomas Newman ‘sound’ that afterwards defined his music in other films like American Beauty, The Green Mile and Road to Perdition, so much so that it is clear that Shawshank is the definitive Newman score.

It feels hand-crafted and personal, a deeply emotive score. It is dark though. Listening to this expanded edition, that as usual for these expanded releases, is sequenced in chronological order, it is a grim reminder of the darkness of the film itself, littered with moments of hope and light but overall quite relentlessly dark, until, like the film, the music reaches a valedictory finale. I hadn’t realised how bleak it would sound in this complete form. I listened to the score on the way to work last week and found its darkness had infected my own mood for remainder of the whole day (alas, I didn’t get to the grand finale before I got to work). I guess that might be an argument for the shorter, resequenced kind of soundtrack presentation albums usually tend to have (although I believe Shawshanks original album had a chronological sequence too, its brevity might have helped).  Its certainly no fault of the music itself, its rather just the natural progression as the score matches the ebb and flow of the film. In this expanded edition, there’s just so much more of it and that hopeful finale just a longer time coming.

At any rate, it’s a great score and this complete presentation with a second disc of alternates/album versions and source cues is the definitive edition of the definitive Newman score. The booklet is as thorough and informative as these La La Land records releases are, making the whole package a great deal for fans of the film and its score. La La Land of course really are on a roll with some of their releases of late (the complete Braveheart and Dances With Wolves prior to this). It all rather feels like the last hurrah of the CD format/physical product era but it’s great while it lasts.


The Green Mile (1999)

green1The Green Mile (Blu-ray)

Sometimes, looking back on the things I’ve watched, the connections seem obviously apparent. A few weeks ago I watched the first season of Mr Robot, a series that owes much (some would say too much) to the film Fight Club. So having had that film on a blu-ray sitting unwatched on a shelf for a number of years it seemed the perfect time to finally load it up and watch it again. Even while watching that film it seemed inevitable that I would then turn to another David Fincher film, his masterpiece Se7en.

Over the years I’ve bought films on Blu-ray (upgrading from VHS or DVD copies) usually because I’ve caught them on sales, pretty cheap, and put them on the shelf to watch when I’ve got chance, and they sit there for years while I spend my available time watching new films or films I’ve not seen before,

It is nice to rewatch some of my favourite films- as I have said before, it offers some manner of perspective when you watch ‘great’ or favourite films and compare them to current, ‘new’ films. And sometimes having watched some new films that turned out pretty bad (in this case, In The Heart of the Sea and Stoker) it is good to turn to something more… reliable.  So that’s why I watched my Blu-ray copy of The Shawshank Redemption the other night.

The connection between Shawshank and The Green Mile is clear and my turning to that film next seems inevitable. It is unfair though to directly compare The Green Mile to Shawshank, even though both are ‘prison’ films and both are period films, and both are adult fables. And of course both were written and directed by Frank Darabont.

To get the obvious out of the way, The Green Mile is no Shawshank– it is a lesser film, certainly. It is not a bad film, but The Green Mile is less grounded in reality than Shawshank, and suffers for it- it’s a supernatural film, and is therefore something more of a traditional Stephen King story. Perhaps because of this, it’s more difficult to invest oneself in- I can see the appeal of re-watching Shawshank as nauseam  (as some fans do) as there is much to get out of it; the friendship, humor and reward of perseverance demonstrated in it. The Green Mile though is actually a rather bleaker tale and most importantly doesn’t have a cathartic moment at the end.

Indeed, rewatching it again, I was taken aback by just how bleak it is- yes there is some humour, but there is a lot of pain and misery, as you might expect with characters on the brink of death both in prison and without. Hope runs throughout Shawshank, hidden though it may be at times, and the goodness of basic humanity is evident too- but there is little hope in The Green Mile, only the certainty death, and even miracles are rewarded with the Electric Chair. Even when death is uncertain, as we find protagonist Paul Edgecomb at the end of the film living an extended lifespan of perhaps even centuries, that uncertainty is almost a curse, and death something possibly that would be welcomed. Hardly as life-affirming a message as Shawshank was blessed with.

I do find myself wondering whether Stephen King ever considered writing a sequel to The Green Mile, giving Edgecomb another adventure/life-changing experience, perhaps as he nears his own end. Perhaps there might be a more life-affirming message there, perhaps some commentary on age and life, and perhaps a purpose for him as yet undisclosed in The Green Mile. There are still mysteries- just who was John Coffey, and where did he come from, how did he get his strange powers? In a way those mysteries (who was Coffey, what will become of Edgecomb) are a strength of The Green Mile, but they do handicap any sense of closure or completion at the end of the film. I’ve read of Shawshank being like a comfort blanket for viewers, a positive experience for all its own drama and darkness, but this is something that cannot be said of The Green Mile. People walked out of the cinema after Shawshank feeling uplifted, but when I came out of The Green Mile I remember feeling rather troubled.

The Green Mile ends with the miracle dead, and our hero having lost everyone that was ever of value to him, the world moving on in ignorance. No, The Green Mile is not a feel-good film.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

shaw1The Shawshank Redemption (Blu-ray)

For what it’s worth, I’ll start this by just pointing out that I saw The Shawshank Redemption at the cinema back on its release in 1994. I don’t know why I feel the need to point that out, but this film was such a ‘sleeper’ hit, only becoming popular on home video really, that it feels pertinent to mention that when there is so little ‘new’ to add about the film, as so much has since been written about it. It is now on so many people’s Top Ten lists it is easy to forget that the film took years to gain its audience and popularity.

I don’t think it is any accident that it reminds me so much of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, another perennial favourite that was ignored on its original release. Both films are life-affirming, and I think it’s fair to say that both films failed to get initial success because they sort of suggest they are going to be one thing, and then turn into something else. Frank Capra’s film seems overly sweet and simple at the start but becomes rather dark, and Frank Darabont’s film starts as if it is just another prison flick, when it becomes something more. And yes, both films champion the human spirit and having faith in oneself and in others, and both films are uplifting cathartic experiences.

Returning to the film after a number of years, and watching it for the first time on blu-ray, I was pleasantly surprised that it really is as good as I remembered. Sometimes films fade or disappoint when revisited after a space of time. Shawshank remains as vital and sincere as it ever was. The script is excellent, the cast engaging, the music score perfect, the direction remarkably restrained of any artifice or stylistic heavy-handedness. The film tells its story at a leisurely pace (over something like two and a half hours) but it never feels long. It feels just right, and the eventual finale is note-perfect and thoroughly deserved. There is, afterall, a simple reason why it is on so many people’s Top Ten lists. It is simply a damn fine film.