Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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In the face of the fabulous new your thought is to kill it?  Los Angeles 2049. K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner for Wallace, the new incarnation of the Tyrell Corporation led by blind Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) whose right hand woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is enchanted by K’s story that a replicant may have had a child. He is ordered by LAPD (in the guise of Robin Wright) to get rid of any evidence that a replicant could have given birth in order to see off a war between replicants and humans. He returns to the site of a dead tree and finds something that makes him think he can remember something from his own childhood and it leads him into a spiral of discovery that involves tracking down his predecessor before Prohibition and the Blackout, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who appears to have something to do with the rebel replicants underground …. Where to start? This hybridised metafictive spawn of one of the greatest achievements in cinema is no easy ride. The way it looks for one. It’s horrible. Mostly greys with occasional harking back to the navy and neon and a sour yellow, a nod to the burnished autumnal shadings of the original. The Orientalised appearances are now more subtly rendered but are even more prevalent as though mixed into a Caucasian blender. Then there are the women. Luv is clearly meant to remind us of Rachael (Sean Young) while the reference to Nabokov’s Pale Fire is intended to tell us that there are two fictional characters sparring with one another here – but the question is, which two, and of them, who’s real and who’s a replicant? The quasi-Oedipal story steers right into a quagmire of identities and dreams and purported flashbacks. Other quotes – Kafka, Treasure Island, and even the songs that play as holograms in a burned-out Vegas – also serve to get us to look one way, instead of another. The idea of relationships as a figment of your imagination – literally, a hologram – is conceptually brilliant and well executed (in every sense) but takes too long as a narrative device to be told and then unravel. The ending is enormously clever and draws on facets of Philip K. Dick’s own backstory: it’s literally a tidal wash of action and memories. But are they real? Are they implants? Hampton Fancher is back but with co-writer Michael Green this time instead of David Webb Peoples. You can see the spliced DNA with Harlan Ellison (an insistence on procreation) as well as PKD  (what is humanity? what is reality?) and the literary turns which have some good jokes. There are some nice lines too and even if they’re on the nose they actually future proof it somewhat:  You’ve never seen a miracle.  Or, I know it’s real. Or, Dying for the right cause is the most human thing you can do. They actually conceal what is paid off by misdirecting us.  It gets away with its visual tributes to the original cast with the prostitute who looks like Darryl Hannah and Hoeks who clearly resembles Sean Young even in ill-fitting costume.  Directed by Denis Villeneuve who is one of the most audacious mainstream directors at the present time with Ridley Scott producing,  I appreciate what they’re doing here but it’s a pale twenty-first century facsimile, more replicant than human.  Ford enters the fray so late and Gosling is not my favourite actor albeit he acquits himself well as someone who starts to feel things he shouldn’t given his somewhat obscure origins as a police functionary. But I have feelings too. Nothing can compare with the sensory overload that is Blade Runner, the daddy of the species. Notwithstanding the foregoing, as all the best legal minds argue, the ending is brilliant. Oh! The humanity.

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The Real Glory (1939)

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I can start a fire by rubbing two boy scouts together. This loose reworking of Lives of a Bengal Lancer reunites that film’s director Henry Hathaway with star Gary Cooper, transposing the action to the Philippines mid-uprising by the Moro (Moslem) guerillas. Colonel Hatch (Roy Gordon) is ordered to withdraw his troops from their island station.  There’s an insurgent army threatening the Filipinos so he lines up some of his best men to train the locals – military doctor Bill Canavan (Cooper),  along with McCool (David Niven) and Larson (Broderick Crawford), who make a lively pair of heroes.  When Linda (Andrea Leeds) the daughter of Captain Steve Hartley (Reginald Owen) enters the fray there are the usual romantic complications but these are second to the action which is at times horribly violent but excellently handled by Hathaway who was by now an expert at the genre and made a total of seven films with Cooper. (He had also previously made another Philippines-set film, Come On Marines!). When Hatch is killed by the guerillas Manning (Russell Hicks) takes over and after the local river is dammed there’s a cholera outbreak. Canavan befriends ‘Mike’ and infiltrates a Moro camp. Lines get crossed and a rescue attempt turns into an ambush …  Hartley meanwhile is going blind and doesn’t want to admit it. Who will blow up the dam? Jo Swerling and Robert Presnell Sr. adapted the novel by Charles L. Clifford which dealt with the real rebellion during US occupation at the beginning of the last century. Niven isn’t used remotely often enough in this Samuel Goldwyn Production but Leeds makes a very good impression as an atypical romantic lead. This was her third last film before her marriage into the Howard family who bred racehorses – including that little fella that could, Seabiscuit.

Notes on Blindness (2016)

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Hemingway wrote that people go bankrupt gradually then suddenly. Turns out people go blind the same way. I know a few blind people and they are distinguished by their stentorian, commanding, aggressive voices and compulsive need to dominate a conversation and be the centre of attention. Perhaps they are trained to this level of domination in the only way possible for them. The voice of former Birmingham University religion professor John Hull is different – quiet, considered, soft. Australian.  For it is his recorded diaries that form the voiceover narration and re-enacted conversations here, in the bodies but not the voices (they are lipsyncing) of actors  Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby. Hull lost his sight in 1983 just before his son was born. His illness was progressive and there are very unpleasant close ups of bloody eyeballs and some quite surreal patterns of blood to illustrate the effects on him psychologically as the visuals attempt to provide a correlative to his dimmed experiences, including losing the gallery of images of his family. He never regained a visual memory of Marilyn, his wife. His acceptance of his fate and his wife’s incredibly pragmatic approach to the situation are laid bare by descriptions of the lack of facilities for the visually impaired – to his astonishment, the only audiobooks available at that time were romance and detective fiction. He assembled an army of people to record serious books in order for him to carry out his work. His project was to keep working as an academic despite the dying of the light. The sad irony of the subject’s final question – not why he had been given this gift, rather what he should do with it – is compounded by the filmmakers’ (James Spinney and Peter Middleton) odd decision to add some written information in dark grey on a white background so tiny as to render it unreadable. Now I sort of know how Hull felt. He died in 2015. They also serve who only stand and tape.

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

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When I saw this last it was at its film festival premiere and my companion said he’d never sat beside someone who squirmed so much in discomfort at a movie. I was horrified by it. It starts with Julia Louis-Dreyfus going down on Richard Benjamin and then being entered by him from behind in front of her blind grandmother. Funny? Not so much. Turns out it’s a dramatisation of a scene from the latest novel by Harry Block (Woody Allen) and Benjamin is him, Dreyfus is his ex Lucy( Judy Davis) who promptly arrives at his apartment with a pistol prepared to shoot him because now everyone knows about them and their adultery – and she’s his sister in law.  There are other mini-movies drawing on Block’s work and there are both flashbacks and interactions between Block and his fictional characters. The film turns on issues primarily of Jewishness and its evocation both cinematic and writerly, hence the significance of Benjamin’s casting:  he is Philip Roth’s most famous on-screen avatar (Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint) and there are many, myself included, who would see this as a foul-mouthed excoriation of one of America’s greatest writers, and not merely a revisiting of Stardust Memories. And why, you might ask? I’m not a psychologist but Allen’s former paramour Mia Farrow was rumoured to have been involved with Roth for a spell and it has often been speculated that Allen himself was envious of his achievements. Roth has never really made me laugh, he has made me think, while Allen at his best makes me laugh like a drain. The reference to Block’s having an affair with his sister in law would appear to be material he had already plundered in Hannah and Her Sisters – an affair Allen allegedly had with one of Farrow’s sisters (and, some claim, more than one sister.) Then there’s the casting of his underage object of desire from Manhattan Mariel Hemingway and his behaviour regarding their son,whom he kidnaps, another dig into his own grubby public past, whether true or not. His muse Elisabeth Shue (sporting a Farrow-like mop of hair) splits for his best friend. And he hires a black prostitute to accompany them on their trip to a university where he’s being honoured and he slides out of focus just like one of his characters played by Robin Williams earlier in the story. (Face and fiction have blurred to the point that even he cannot tell them apart.)  Even after all these years I just can’t enjoy this tacky, tasteless outing, an admission on Allen’s part (perhaps) that psychoanalysis is a greenlight for perverted recidivism and that he had lost his greatest muse to strange desires. A very uncomfortable watch.

Cattle Empire (1958)

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My principal interest in this oater isn’t in seeing Joel McCrea acting for Charles Marquis Warren, for whom this would serve more or less as the basis for Rawhide on TV, also written by Endre Boehm and with some of the same cast.  It’s really the opportunity to see cult star Gloria Talbott. She’s Sandy Jeffrey, daughter of Tom Jefferson Jeffrey (Paul Brinegar) and she adores John Cord. Joel is Cord, the trail boss hired by the same people who had him put behind bars (after his men went on a drunken spree) to drive their cattle to Fort Clemson.  Hamilton, the man who hires him, is now married to Cord’s ex (Phyllis Coates). But he’s also hired by a rival cattle baron. The beginning really grabs you, seeing this man dragged around the streets until you think there’s going to be nothing left. Then it settles into a fairly standard trail story with participants who’ve got mixed motives and prickly personalities. The scenery at the Sierras and Lone Pine is very attractive and mostly well used and Talbott really enlivens what could be a rather stereotypical character. There’s an interesting part played by Don Haggerty – as blind cattleman Hamilton – and an opportunity to catch Kurt Russell’s dad, Bing. And the suspense, for as long as it lasts, is trying to figure out whose side Cord will take.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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Who wouldn’t want to be the preternaturally gifted Tom Ford? A Single Man was such a wonderful piece of work and the real reason Colin Firth was recognized by the Academy for The King’s Speech (these things happen a lot). I was positively salivating over the prospect of seeing this. It’s tantalising isn’t it, given the talent involved? And the source novel, Tony & Susan, by Austin Wright, is stunning. And I like the poster. And the trailer. So then I saw it and thought, meh. Which isn’t what you want from an adaptation of what is a very fine postmodern literary thriller which sucks you in as you follow Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) progress through the eviscerating novel her ex-husband Edward Sheffield has sent her after a divorce, oh, years ago (in the book it’s 25) which is dramatised as a film within the film. She is now in the marriage for which she left him, to a more successful man and not a failing novelist, and Armie Hammer plays Hutton, the philandering art dealer, while she stays at their gallery and plays snark with fellow professionals and feels her life hollow out as Edward’s avatar Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal plays him as well in the film within a film) infects her brain. Episodes from her life with Edward and their breakup play as respite from her reading of the novel, in intermissions from the violent deaths of Tony’s wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), redheads just like Susan, raped and murdered in West Texas by a crew of rednecks led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson or whatever he’s calling himself nowadays. (Their destination in the novel is their summer home in Maine;  here it’s Marfa, Texas, the location for the great James Dean film, Giant – I wonder why?).  Michael Shannon turns up to help Tony identify the killers (a much more cursory treatment than the novel). Meanwhile Susan deals with her ridiculous friends and the scene with Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough at an opening is actually risible. It’s astonishingly badly directed. The point of the book within the book, Nocturnal Animals, is that it’s Edward’s revenge, his way of letting his LA-living bourgeois-loving ex, whom he christened a nocturnal animal, This is what you did to me. You left me on the side of the road to be ravaged and tortured. But it’s a literary device and in the novel it becomes truly postmodern when Wright allows Susan enter the story for the horrendous denouement – which can’t happen here since Isla Fisher plays her avatar in the film/novel within the film. There are changes, notably to Susan’s occupation and that of her husband but they don’t necessarily damage the text per se …  But the juxtaposition of the smooth LA gallerist with the awful Texan thugs doesn’t really elicit the emotions required to make the movie’s engine work. Adams does what she can in the present-day setup but the scenes are mostly DOA. She doesn’t even get angry when she hears her husband’s mistress on the phone. And the payoff doesn’t work as well as in the book for all sorts of reasons. A principal one is not just Ford’s own adaptation but – ironically – the aesthetics. For a great designer who transitioned to cinema with a magnificent looking debut that revelled in the California light beautifully shot by Edward Grau, here it’s Grimm and grimmer, sad to say since it’s talented Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey who’s responsible for the filthy palette presumably chosen by Ford. Imagine this master of colour, light, movement, fabric, shape, surfaces, tone, texture and what he’s capable of dreaming into life on the catwalk, and then look at this and ask, Why Tom, why? When you can do so much better? I’ll wait for the next collection. Disappointing.

Cat O’Nine Tails (1971)

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Not Dario Argento’s favourite of his own films – too American, he thinks. But it’s more coherent than most of his output and graphically interesting at the very least. Karl Malden is crossword-setter Cookie Arno, a blind man who overhears an odd conversation in a car while walking past a science lab, the Terzi Institute, where couples are helped to reproduce. His little niece Lori (Cinzia de Carolis) helps him identify the man speaking. She lives with him since her parents died and all they have is each other. The man breaks into the institute. A scientist, Calabresi, knows what’s been taken and by whom and agrees to meet someone. Then he falls under a train. Journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) is investigating the death and it’s the first of a series – even the newspaper photographer who is developing what Cookie identifies as potentially incriminating evidence of the train death being a murder is garrotted. Eventually the killer is after Giordani – and Cookie – and Lori … Argento’s sophomore outing is fabulous looking – constructed around the prism of vision, point of view and perception. Everything is continuous within the spatial organisation, characters’ movement through interiors, colour, the repetition of shapes (look what he does with triangles and pyramids), and there’s a great chase using an underground car park plus a spectacularly odd sex scene between Franciscus and doll-like Catherine Spaak, playing the daughter of the Professor running the lab where an unusual research project concerning chromosomal dispositions toward criminality has triggered a serial killer. There’s a  fantastically inventive soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and the crisp cinematography is by Enrico Menczer. There’s no cat, by the way:  that title is an expression used to describe the number of false leads in the case. This is stylish as hell if not quite as shocking as some of the Maestro’s work. And the cars! Shot in Berlin, Turin and Cinecitta.

Night People (1954)

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According to his biographer Tom Stempel, writer/producer Nunnally Johnson found himself at a loose end on the London set of The Mudlark in 1950 so he decided he needed to direct himself albeit a few years happened before it came to pass. Henry Hathaway told him he wouldn’t make a good director because he wasn’t a bastard. He co-wrote this from a story written by Jed Harris (a theatre producer) and Tom Reed (with an uncredited assist from WR Burnett) and it was developed from a science fiction property owned by Twentieth Century-Fox previously known as The Cannibals. Johnson wanted to shoot a film with Gregory Peck and as they’d worked successfully on The Gunman the star readily agreed. They shot this Cold War thriller on location in Berlin and also at the Geiselsteig Studios in Munich, utilising Cinemascope (by Charles G. Clarke) which of course bore its own compositional limitations. Peck plays Steve Van Dyke, a tough-talking Colonel who’s charged with rescuing a 19-year old conscript kidnapped by the Russians (supposedly) from the American sector. He has a shrewd team in secretary Rita Gam and sideman Buddy Ebsen (who gets some good humour to play) but can his female informant Hoffy (Anita Bjork) be trusted? And the soldier’s father (Broderick Crawford) is an axle grease magnate with attitude and influence (he plays golf!) who arrives in Berlin to sort things out (he thinks) and whose face-off with Van Dyke is one of the highlights. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about who people really are and from a dramatic point of view the major problem is that much of the double-dealing takes place in a hospital environment regarding the fate of the individuals that the other side want in exchange for Leatherby. The complexity derives from the identity of the exchangees, anti-Nazi conspirators – and who might really be after them. From a visual perspective it’s nice to see the Brandenburg Gate in colour but the film lacks a chase or something to justify the location and it would be good to see more of the day to day work of the Military Police in the divided city. The conclusion is particularly weakly executed.  Johnson’s daughter Marjorie Fowler was the editor on the picture. It got some negative reviews for its perceived propaganda purposes but Johnson had no such intention and in fact Van Dyke is scrupulously attentive to his Russian friend.  The man who wrote The Desert Fox was hardly a political tool. Johnson had written How to Marry a Millionaire the year before which created the dumb blonde persona for Marilyn Monroe with whom he’d also worked on We’re Not Married:  she of course made the persona her own and there’s a neat visual reference to her in the opening scenes when Leatherby takes his girl to her movie Niagara. Johnson would go on to write How To Be Very Very Popular for her but she refused to take the role which she believed was beneath her. Nonetheless, they remained friends.  There were rumours about a Johnson-Peck on-set feud but as Stempel explains, this was a ruse so that the philandering Darryl F. Zanuck could visit one of his mistresses in Europe and he fomented the longstanding story as an unfortunate public cover. Peck and Johnson would go on to make The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. This is a hard film to get hold of – mine is a Spanish version which thankfully had an English audio and is in the Scope ratio. Region 1 dvds are not as good and squeeze out the image. For students of Cold War cinema or fans of Gregory Peck and the late Rita Gam, it’s an interesting diversion.

The Great Escape (1963)

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The famous (blacklisted) screenwriter Walter Bernstein once said that the success or failure of a film could be determined by its premise. Paul Brickhill’s true account of hundreds of Commonwealth POWs doing their darnedest to escape from Stalag Luft III by a tunnel made for a sentimental classic that still thrills and excites no matter how many times you watch it. Almost twenty years after hostilities had ceased there was no let-up in war films and everyone knew what side they were on. James Clavell and WR Burnett adapted the book. Burnett had adapted Gunga Din which was shot as Sergeants 3 by director John Sturges a couple of years earlier.  He was good at handling action and The Magnificent Seven also demonstrated his capacity to bring an ensemble together in a balanced way albeit in a fashion that flattered the egos of the stars. A surprising cast was assembled and boy did they deliver the goods – even James Coburn, utterly miscast as an Aussie, entertains. Amongst their number James Garner does a William Holden as the Scrounger, whose friendship with the Forger (Donald Pleasance) gives them both a taste of freedom, Richard Attenborough is terrific as steadfast Roger Bushell (a variant on Alec Guinness’ turn in Bridge on the River Kwai),  Gordon Jackson has the unfortunate task of replying to the Nazis at the station, and David McCallum is Ashley-Pitt or Dispersal, the man with the blond pageboy cut who falls at the last hurdle.  It falls to James Donald to pass on the bad news.  It is however Steve McQueen as Virgil Hilts, the Cooler King, who cemented his place in film history bouncing off the barbed wire fence on that motorbike. Cool is the word. To quote Susie Hinton, The Motorcycle Boy Reigns! Simply a classic.

Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)

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Fini Straubinger is a 55-year old Bavarian woman who became blind and 95% deaf aged 15, years after a childhood prank went wrong. Her mother confined her to bed for 30 years, isolating her from all activity. Now she spends her time travelling in the region, becoming friends with people similarly afflicted. Much of the film is about Fini’s interactions, assisted by her friend who uses a manual alphabet of taps and strokes for communication. They go on an aeroplane, pet animals at a zoo. Fini’s perception of her situation is in the realm of the poetic. She describes the colours she sees and the range of sounds, from a constant trickling of sand to bells ringing, as the everyday base from which her remaining senses proceed. People are never totally deaf or blind, she explains.The most distressing scenes are with children born deafblind who have horrible physical problems and whose parents gave up on them. Or the man who suddenly became blind aged 35 and went to live in a stable with cows because his family wouldn’t help. Werner Herzog’s work is extraordinary because it elicits our sympathy without once stooping to pity or sentiment. Bach and Vivaldi are judiciously utilised to fill the parts the poetry doesn’t reach.