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2011.29: Witchfinder General (1968) *** June 25, 2011

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 5 comments

Dir. Michael Reeves, 90 mins, TV Transmission.

This is a fascinating film, a proper ‘Horror’ film in a similar vein to the original The Wicker Man from the same period (what on earth happened to UK horror in the years since?). I’d never seen it before, expecting something in the Hammer Horror vein, so was very surprised by how it turned out to be rather different. While there is some gore and flesh here, really the film is more a chilling examination of ignorance and mans inhmanity to his common man.

The story of the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, who during the English Civil War found monetary profit by condemning and executing some 200+ ‘witches’ is fairly well known, and while there is actually little real evidence, the events undoubtedly occurred. Hopkins final fate seems to be uncertain, and the film wisely uses this to portray the events leading up to Hopkins death, towards the end of his crusade, so while much of it is conjecture and fiction, it is grounded in real historical events. 

Although hampered by evident budget constraints, the film is very effective, with lush location filming (spoilt somewhat by obvious day-for-night shooting), fine performances and a remarkable pastoral score. I don’t want to labour the point as I’ve mentioned it before, but many times it brought to my mind The Wicker Man in it’s sense of mood and style. It also reminded me of the old ’sixties tv serial The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe, somehow- I think that may have been due to the juxtaposition of the visuals and the music, which is very fine.

Vincent Price, minus his usual theatrics, is cold and menacing here with real presence - I was surprised how effective his subdued performance here is. Perhaps even more of a surprise is Ian Ogilvy, always to me a reminder of ITV’s slightly camp (at least as I remember it) remake of The Saint, who really shines in his role of the vengeful hero here, demonstrating an ability I’d have thought beyond him, frankly. Hilary Dwyer is wonderful as Ogilvy’s doomed fiancee. At the start she is your quintessential beautiful English rose not averse to using her womanly charms, and by films end she’s a lunatic, driven mad by her experiences.

Much like, again, The Wicker Man (sorry), this film has a rather bleak ending, in some ways akin to something Lovecraft might have wrote, madness falling upon those that survive the bloody denouement. I’m only surprised someone hasn’t noticed how powerful this film is and how rich its subject-matter is, and commenced a remake. It almost seems inevitable, just amazing that it hasn’t happened already.

2011.28: Legend (1985) *** June 15, 2011

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Dir. Ridley Scott, 114 mins (Directors Cut), Blu-ray

Legend has moments of arresting beauty- even after all these years, and all the cgi wonders we have seen, there are moments in Legend which have been unsurpassed. On the other end of the scale, its depiction of Darkness seems the very personification of evil, a blood-red giant with huge horns.

I remember watching Legend back in 1985. I watched it during a midweek afternoon at the old ABC cinema in town. I was all hyped-up from having been blown away by Scott’s Blade Runner three years earlier, and on first viewing Legend didn’t disappoint. Clearly it was no Blade Runner but I thoroughly enjoyed it, bewitched by the fairy-tale brought so convincingly to life (I’ve always thought that the first step to enjoying Legend was to simply accept it as a fairy-tale, not expect a sword & sorcery romp or an action fantasy adventure). A few days later, I went back and watched it again, the cinema for the second time pretty much deserted (it was clear from the start that Legend was an under-performer at the box-office). This time I wasn’t so amazed by the visuals and took in the story more, and noticed more readily its failings. It was clearly a flawed film (although nowhere so as the American version), and was the first time that I could see the criticisms of Scott’s earlier films (all style, no substance) being justified.

In years since I’ve seen Legendon VHS and DVD, and it’s always held up, visually at least. On television, even here in the UK, showings have been of the American version, a horrible travesty, butchered to nothing and shorn of its magnificent Goldsmith score. I am utterly amazed to this day that anyone could prefer that American version, and have seen forum comments and reviews of this new Blu-ray extolling the virtues of the American version, preferring it to the European and the DC. As we Brits say, Complete Bollocks. Its bad enough how much of the film was cut, including, bafflingly, some of Darkness’ best moments, but the ending, in which the soundtrack is assaulted by some insipid Jon Anderson song, is excruciating. How on earth anyone can prefer that to the DC is unfathomable. 

The DC came with the original R1 DVD in 2004, which was never released over here The DC was raised from an answer print discovered in boxes by chance in England (I believe when footage of Blade Runner was being searched for during the first, ill-fated, attempt to build that films ’proper’ DC/Final Cut). Rumours of Legend’s DC had circulated for several years but it had been believed lost forever.

The Legend DC may not be perfect, but it most closely resembles what Scott was originally aiming for when he made the film- it’s so clearly the better version it seems baffling that it never became the original finished article in 1985. Bad preview screenings (and no doubt memories of Blade Runner’s commercial failure) brought about a crisis of confidence and desperate cutting and the dropping of Goldsmiths score in favour of a Tangerine Score score assembled in three weeks. The mind boggles at what Studios will do when panic sets in- the oddity of Legend’s case is that Scott himself seemed to heartily approve of it all.

In my mind, the DC is the only version of Legend to watch and anyone who hasn’t seem it hasn’t seen the ‘proper’ Legend. Many sequences run longer, including scenes of Meg Knucklebones and Darkness that are so good I cannot understand why they were cut at all. The ending is subtly different but far superior, with the fairytale running full circle  (Lily awakens from what she feels is a dream/nightmare and leaves the forest and Jack in order to accept her responsibilities and duties of Royal court, wheras in the other versions she simply runs off into the sunset with Jack).

Being derived from an answer print, the source material for the DC results in a Blu-ray image somewhat lacking compared to some discs, with a text message from the director almost apologising for it at the start, but I found it surprisingly good and far better than the original R1 DVD. It’s also a better image than the American version that also features on the disc (for masochists everywhere), even though that is from a genuine HD master- there is something very wrong, to my eyes, about the colour saturation of that print. The important thing is that the Blu-ray is region-free so can be imported and enjoyed easily. The UK edition of Legend isn’t due for release until October, and while its unclear which version it will be, past history seems to indicate it will be a HD master of the original European version (for completists only then, far as I’m concerned).

The Monday Muse June 13, 2011

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Directors Visions 

Watched the pretty definitive Blu-ray of Apocalypse Now over the weekend- the Redux version. I’ve watched it once before, but doubt I will again- think its the original 1979 version for me in future. That French plantation bit just pulls the film to a jarring halt and adds nothing to it- the whole sequence just doesn’t work, as clumsily directed as it is acted by French thespians some of whom seem to have hardly a passing familiarity with the English language. Thankfully though, unlike his mate George, Coppola at least has the common decency to maintain the availability of the original edit, so viewers have the choice of which version to watch.

Apocalype Now is such a bold, riveting, mad, infuriating piece of work. I only wish, say, that Avatar, for all its $300+ million budget and technical bravura had a tenth of the sheer balls demonstrated by Apocalypse Now. Instead -and this seems to be the big difference between films of the 1970s and those of decades since- Avatar played it very safe, very dumb, very familiar. It’s all about these increasingly bloated huge extravaganzas being able to appeal to the widest demographic, getting the biggest possible audience. Now I’d argue that the work suffers, certainly as art- by which I’d say Apocalypse Now is a work of art, wheras Avatar is a product.

Just how great a film Apocalypse Now is, though, is up for debate- its certainly not perfect. But it does demonstrate one man’s vision, no matter how manic and out of control it would seem. Some cite Apocalypse Now as the last example of a director-driven film, or the last great American film of the 1970s. Coppola himself points the finger at Cimino’s Heavens Gate, a film that bankrupted its studio and crippled the perhaps mythic ideal of directors being in charge, replaced instead by the Studio Exec Producer who would keep tight rein on finances/budgets and accountability of the director. Ironically those producers would eventually wield more power than directors probably ever had, the Bruckeimers and Silvers creating just as huge, bloated epics, albeit more consciously aimed at the general public rather than critics finer sensibilities.

In the case of Avatar, well, James Cameron is no fool- he’s a highly intelligent person. But he’s more a technically-savy director than, say, an emotional one, and his films betray that. My favourite Cameron film is The Abyss, but some of the dialogue in that film is just cringe-inducing, and all his films -T2, Titanic, Avatar etc- are guilty of that. I  find that incredibly frustrating (pity no-one tells Cameron to get a ’proper’ screenwriter to give the dialogue at least an extra polish) and can only imagine a film as huge as Avatar having an uncompromising vision, a heart, a soul. 

It’s a little depressing that Cameron didn’t follow Titanic with a small, intimate piece, a character-driven film without the huge bloated budgets and fx that he seems to thrive on. Perhaps that’s beyond him (what measure of him as a director, then, I wonder, considering he’s got an Oscar in the cupboard?).  His next film is Avatar 2, no doubt another $300+ million opus… something I find really depressing. I quite enjoyed Avatar for what it was, but really, sequels to that film… its a waste of time and talent, its more a vehicle for printing money than as a showcase for cinema as art.

All this springs to mind because late last night I stumbled on Terry Gilliam’s magnificent Brazil on the BBC iplayer. I watched the first twenty minutes before reluctantly stopping it and going to bed (I haven’t watched that film in years, the Criterion edition sitting forlorn on my DVD shelf). What a wonderful, witty, imaginative and uncompromising vision that film demonstrates. You can see Gilliams heart and soul in every frame. But its telling what happened to that film, how it was cut to ribbons in the States. Similar to what happened to Leone’s OATIA. Its the friction of art and commerce, and sadly, for the most part, it would seem ably demonstrated by films of the past few decades that commerce won.

Perhaps DVD/Bluray is the director’s get-out-jail card. One of the most fascinating things I find in following Ridley Scott’s career is how he has been forced to toe the company line, as it were, dance to the Studio’s tune (particularly after Blade Runner and Legend both flopped at the box-office), in order to make his movies and somehow add his own vision, his own authorship to them. Some attempts are more successful than others. Kingdom Of Heaven was very poor in its original cinema version, but his directors cut is vastly superior and pure Ridley. I’d maintain the DC of Kingdom Of Heaven would have fared far better at the cinema than the version originally shown. I wonder if the same will apply to Prometheus, currently being shot for release next year (Ridley back doing sci-fi… yikes!). 

2011.27: Thor (2011) **** June 12, 2011

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Dir.Kenneth Brannagh, 115mins, Cinema (2D)

A throughly enjoyable bigscreen comicbook adventure, its actually surprising just how much this film got right. I’ll state right from the outset that I was sceptical that this would make a decent movie; there’s just something about the Thor comicbook that I thought would be ridiculous translated to the film. I read the comics back as a kid when it was a supporting strip in Spiderman Comics Weekly back in the mid-seventies, and some of the original American monthlies in the early ‘eighties (I have no idea how many ‘reinventions’ the comic has had in the many years since)

It was nice seeing the film ‘green’, having no idea what the film would be like (other than word of mouth being fairly positive). In the old days I’d read magazines about films in pre-production and have an idea what I would be seeing (hell, in the old days you could read the novelization before the film even turned up at the cinema) but these days I like to avoid all reviews and spoilers if I’m mildly interested in seeing a film at the cinema. In these days of the internet that takes some doing. Having avoided the initial release period, most 3D showings seem to have gotten pushed back infavour of good old 2D (that POTC rubbish taking all the 3D screens probably) so I managed to see Thor in 2D. I don’t know what 3D did for Thor, but I’d suspect not much. Actually I think the 2D is why I enjoyed the film so much- that 3D stuff just keeps pulling me out of the movie. Am I alone in that? 

So what did the film do well? I enjoyed the Asgard stuff; big, bold, colourful, it reminded me of Mike Hodges camp/colourful Flash Gordon film, and also Stallone’s Judge Dredd somewhat. It could have looked silly but it worked. The Frost Giants and their icy realm was great too. Chris Hemsworth was very good in the title role and looked ok even in that slightly so-colourful-its-almost-camp costume. Anthony Hopkins usually grates on me when he sleepwalks roles like his Odin here but he was ok.

What was less successful I thought was Natalie Portman and her romance with Thor. Partly because it seemed just too sudden and forced, formulaic, the kind of romantic stuff we always see in these films- perhaps they should have had more faith in the material and left the romance for the sequel. But also because I thought she was miscast. Don’t get me wrong, I like Natalie Portman and think she’s a very fine actress (utterly mesmerising in Black Swan) but I don’t think she’s really suited to parts like this. Maybe its a physicality kind of thing, I don’t know, but it was a similar feeling I had with her in the Star Wars prequels.  

So anyway, Thor- not bad at all. Very entertaining and promising great things with the inevitable sequel- just hope they don’t race into that and spoil it, as seems to have happened with the lacklustre Iron Man sequel. 


The Monday Muse June 6, 2011

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 1 comment so far

Too many movies

Sometimes I feel like I’m hitting some kind of saturation point regards movies. There’s just too many of them, too much availability, too much access. Feels like there’s too many new films coming out and too many old films that I want to watch again, and too little time. Somethings got to give.

It wasn’t always this way of course. Back when I was young, back in the 1970s (back when they made the best movies, funnily enough) movies were something special. There was no VHS or DVD or Blu-ray, no rentals or PPV, or cable/satellite movie channels, no multiplexes.  There were only three channels on tv and they usually showed movies many years after their theatrical runs. So movies, when they were on the cinema or (eventually) on television had a sense of being really special, of being something to be treasured and paid attention to. When a big film hit the cinema you’d rush to see it once and usually if it was any good, go back and see it again (and maybe again), as it might be years until you’d get to see it again. You cannot imagine the impact of films like Jaws or Star Wars back then compared to how things are now. 

I’m not saying that today things are awful and it was so much better ‘back in the day’. Only a fool would moan about being able to own an HD copy of The Thin Red Line or Blade Runner and watching them whenever you like and however many times you like. Or being able to listen to film-maker commentaries. In many ways today is a Golden Age for film buffs.

But I often pass bargain bins in shops/supermarkets with DVDs piled up for as little as three quid each and wonder if that’s a good thing, at how much films have been cheapened into a disposable throw-away piece of culture. DVDs have become like the cheap paperbacks of my childhood. Even Blu-rays, which you would think would be a high-end quality item, are not immune- I bought Raging Bull on Blu a few weeks ago for a fiver -a fiver!- in Tesco.  That’s one of the classic films of the 1980s in HD dumped into an impulse-buy bargain bin. Sure its a bargain but is it a good thing in the long-term? It seems that, no matter how special or unique the movie is, give it six months and you’ll pick it up for around a fiver.

What I’m wondering is, are films, as a part of our culture, being diminished somehow? Regardless at how the quality of the films made now compare to those made decades ago, is it healthy for films for them to be flogged for two or three quid in the supermarket (or even less in the local poundland)?  We are in the weird situation of blockbuster films that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make, being flogged for much less than a fiver- is that damaging their intrinsic worth? I remember in my childhood Gone With The Wind had a huge mystique…. likewise Kubrick’s 2001. These were films I hadn’t got the ability to see, but which seemed to be talked about in hushed whispers, commented on in film-books and magazines with some real reverence. I cannot imagine that ever happening anymore. Films are everywhere and they are cheap and they have, well, lost something.

Back when I started collecting films on VHS, back when film retail was something new, the films seemed special, something collectable, something to be looked after and displayed. Nowadays they are almost throw-away. Half my DVD collection either ended up in a charity bag or is up in the loft in a box somewhere… I don’t recall what happened to all my VHS collection… likely most of it wound up in the bin. Will my Blu-ray collection go the same way? I have already vowed to curb my film-collecting habit and not buy so many films on Blu.. double-dip, triple-dip… its madness.

But I digress. I didn’t intend to rant over how little our treasured collections are actually worth or how daft those slip-cover fanatics are. Its like rentals: I have rentals through Lovefilm, I know it gets a bum rap in some circles but I find its a pretty good service, and I can get through three or four films in a week if I try… but it gets a bit wearing watching so many movies when so much of it is pretty poor. I suffered through a rental of Resident Evil 4 the other night and decided that life is just too short to be wasted on such shit. My threshold for crap seems to be getting increasingly limited as I’ve gotten older.

And watching so many ‘new’ films means less time to watch the old faves I’d like to watch again… I bought Once Upon A Time In America a few months ago on Blu but haven’t gotten around to watching it… North By Northwest about a year ago, the Eastwood/Sergio Leone Western trilogy box on blu for a tenner several months ago is sitting on a shelf unwatched. I’ve got Once Upon A Time In The West and Legend on Blu in the post to me, but God knows when I’ll get chance to watch them. There’s just too many movies. Too little time.

2011.26: Red (2010) ** June 3, 2011

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Dir. Robert Schwentke, 107 mins, DVD

Another film based on some obscure comic/graphic novel, apparently (aren’t 80% of films these days?), so we inevitably get lots of OTT cartoony violence. There’s a big fight between Bruce Willis and Karl (Judge Dredd!) Urban that’s so violent they’d need a trauma team in to sort out what should be left of the pair of them, but instead Willis carries on without hardly any bruising. I guess you shouldn’t take these films too seriously (yeah, like 80% of films these days). The one thing that, rightly or wrongly, really disturbed me was that in a film that featured retired CIA ops as heroes and in so doing had a welcome older cast (Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, all in fine form) had to have a much younger Mary-Louise Parker to play the pensions clerk who is Willis’ love interest. Willis is probably older than Parker’s father in real life. I just think it was a missed opportunity. Why not go with it and have an actress around Willis’ age to play the love interest? Hell, it would seem an ideal opportunity to go get Cybil Shepherd and reunite the Moonlighting duo. Instead it just made a daft film only dafter.

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