Moby Dick 1956 *****

moby-dick-1-1024x576

Is John Huston’s Moby Dick a neglected masterpiece? If it’s not, you can call me Ishmael; this adaptation of Herman Melville’s literary opus was much derided on release, and gained little more respect when re-released in the 1970’s in a vague attempt to cash-in on the popularity of Jaws. And there’s a specific reason why everyone hated Moby Dick; it looked awful.

Blu-ray may seem like a specialist format to some; most movies look pretty good in the 1080p definition of a streaming service. But Moby Dick has looked dreadful since before most of us were born, and that’s because the innovative cinematography of Ossie Morris required considerable restoration. If you think you’ve seen this movie, think again; lovingly restored and presented on blu-ray, Moby Dick is something of a revelation.

Gregory Peck takes the lead as Captain Ahab; he doesn’t appear for a good chuck of the film, but the first view of him, erect like a masthead, makes a big impression. He’s setting sail with a tough crew of sailors including Boomer (James Robertson Justice), Stubb (Harry Andrews) and the man whose name launched a thousand coffee-shops, Starbuck (Leo Genn). Even more impressive is the taciturn, tattooed face of Queequeg, played by Friedrich Anton Maria Hubertus Bonifacius Graf von Ledebur-Wicheln. They’re in search of a great white whale, one which has made of with Ahab’s leg and makes off with considerably more by the time the film is over.

Peck was largely perceived as being too young for Ahab, but he’s pretty good here, and the age difference doesn’t seem to be an issue. Ray Bradbury provides some choice dialogue, notably a wonderfully unexpected soliloquy for Orson Welles as Father Mapple, who delivers a sermon from a nautical pulpit in one of the opening scenes. This is a literate film, made off the coast of Ireland, and for once, the production values are up to the task, with little back projection and a few jaw-dropping shots. There’s a few shots, notably the ropes catching on the whale’s back, which seem to have echoes in Jaws, but Huston’s film has a salt and grit all of its own.

Moby Dick’s reputation has collapsed due to poor presentation; it looked washed-out on tv and DVD releases, and this restoration is essential for film-lovers. It restores Huston’s vision, it showcases some great acting, and it’s the one and only show in town in terms of making great drama from one of the great American novels. If you’re looking for a gift for a film-fan who has seen everything, you can bet they’ve never seen anything like John Huston’s Moby Dick.

Doctor Sleep 2019 ****

sleep

‘When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the shining,’ says Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of the novel by Stephen King. It’s a fair point; I saw The Shining when I was 12, and was chilled, filled with dread, hugely impressed, but also genuinely didn’t quite understand what I’d just seen. Stanley Kubrick’s film has since been much discussed and dissected, with many fanboy and conspiracy theories about the possible meanings, and that elusiveness it a key part of the haunting appeal. The biggest problem Doctor Sleep has is that, by positioning The Shining as part of a larger story, the meanings are nailed down and the sense of mystery is palpably reduced.

That said, Doctor Sleep is probably the best adaptation of King’s work since 1980, and a lot more faithful to the letter of his writing. Young Danny is seen getting advice from Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) about how to put his demons to rest, imagining a series of boxes into which his fears are captured and forgotten. But Danny has demons of his own, and his battle with alcohol mirrors that of his father Jack. Danny starts life in a new town, but his ‘shining’ creates a connection to Abra, a young girl with a similar gift. Meanwhile, a new plotline details the antics of Four Non Blondes-influenced vampire Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) whose crew require the ‘steam’ of innocent young victims to survive. Rose has designs on Abra, and Danny is torn between his fears of his past and his desire to help the young girl.

Flanagan is something of a whiz with post-modern horror; his Ouija: Origins of Evil showed he could take rote characters and plot elements and fashion something fresh and memorable from them. And his Haunting of Hill House tv show brilliantly used the original Shirley Jackson novel as a base for a much more expansive but spiritually connected story. He was the perfect choice for the film, and does well to create a work that’s faithful both to King and Kubrick; fans of The Shining in all its incarnations will know that Halloran’s fate differs in the film to the book, but Flanagan cleverly fudges whether the character is alive or dead as the story starts. He clearly enjoys working in the Stephen King meta-verse, and Doctor Sleep also links ingeniously with many of King’s preoccupations.

Kubrick famously cut many of the supernatural elements from King’s novel, and created something suggestive, grim and foreboding. Flanagan and King have repurposed many of the familiar elements as part of a new and very different story, one that riffs neatly on the original property while going off in a fresh direction. McGregor gives probably the best performance of his career as Danny, wrestling with his demons in some depth, while Ferguson is a slippery foe in Rose. Doctor Sleep can’t aspire to be the game-changer that Kubrick’s The Shining was, but it’s a styling, entertaining sequel that thrills and chills on route to a satisfying finale that brings back the many demons of the bad place for one more chilling go-round.

 

The Dead Zone 1983 ****

dead zone

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining proved to be a game-changer in terms of horror, with a major director transforming a genre tale into something at once more mainstream and also more arty. Adaptations of Stephen King’s work that followed were a mixed bag, but the property seemed to drive the project, and major talents like John Carpenter mixed with accomplished journeymen like Mark L Lester and Lewis Teague. For David Cronenberg, fast becoming a major name in horror, taking on a King project was a promising idea, and The Dead Zone establishing a number of cinematic tropes that have stuck.

The setting, of course, is Castle Rock, and the central character Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a man out of time, left in a five year comatose state by an accident, and emerging from the fringes of life and death, a magnet for bad things happening like Henry Deevers in the Castle Rock tv show. On his hospital bed, Smith sees a nurse’s house burning down with a child inside, and a boy he tutors will fall through cracking ice at an ice-hockey match. Smith has a gift for precognition, and with the help of a doctor (Herbert Lom), he is able to use his gift to stop these deadly events from happening, as well as helping local police to track down the Castle Rock Killer. An encounter with a crooked politician provides the climax here, with Martin Sheen reversing on the JFK character that was his 1980’s signature role.

The Dead Zone has an effective, wintry feel, bolstered by Walken’s wonderfully off-beat characterisation of Johnny. Castle Rock is shown as a bad place in various ways, with crooked politicians and businessmen, sick, twisted individuals on the loose and a decaying set of morals. And the ending packs a punch; rather than the every-increasing circles of horror featured in the Castle Rock tv show, Cronenberg nails the story down to one brief, satisfying plot twist.

The Dead Zone has a few nasty details, but it’s generally a classy, accessible horror film that’s gained in richness over the years. Many of the ideas contained here have become clichés, but Cronenberg’s restrain and visual austerity are nicely matched here by King’s ability to conjure up the inner lives of the Castle Rock denizens.

Cujo 1983 ****

Cujo_8926700_96807._V347923551_SX1080_

What’s so good about Stephen King’s killer dog movie? In Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre, the author writes persuasively about the 1979 version of The Amityville Horror, and a scene in which a sum of money goes missing from the Lutz family. He writes about how, rather than the flies and the axe attacks, it’s the financial horror that the Lutz family experience that really grounds the film, and King’s own ability to ground a horror conceit in domestic purgatory is very much to the fore in the film of Cujo.

Cujo is, famously, the killer dog featured here, but there’s no much Cujo in the first half of Lewis Teague’s film, bar an intro which shows the mutt being bit on the nose by a rabid bat. Instead, Teague’s film gets into the minutiae of one particular cell of the Castle Rock organism; Donna (Dee Wallace) has decanted from New York, her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) who is struggling with an advertising account gone rogue. Meanwhile her lover Steve (Christopher Kemp) beats her husband at tennis, runs down the street shirtless and doesn’t take it well when Donna dumps him.

If that’s not enough, we then get into Donna and Vic’s car trouble, and their attempts to get their shonky Ford Pinto into shape, which involve mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) and his family. All of these characters are extremely well described, and as a film, Cujo generates a heap of suspense before working out exactly how Donna’s life is going to fall apart. If there’s not much Cujo in the first half, the second half is all Cujo, and Donna and her son are trapped agonisingly in the confines of the Pinto while the rabid dog rampages outside.

If audiences were perhaps overwhelmed by the intensity of the latter stages of the story, the not-quite-terrifying dog make-up, or the less than satisfying ending, the majority of Teague’s film is way ahead of its time, respecting King’s characters and setting, while doubling down on intensity. Before he became a notable directorial talent, Jan De Bont does a great job with the look of the film, making something iconic of Donna’s Pinto in the abandoned yard and predating his excellent work on Die Hard amongst other films.

The name Cujo is still often bandied around when naughty dogs are mentioned, and Cujo the movie is probably ripe for a CGI-heavy remake; if anyone goes down that road, it would be ideal if they constructed the long, careful, patient build-up Teague manages here. Cujo the dog seems to feed off Castle Rock’s bad energy, and there’s far more to King’s story than just a woman in peril.

Flashpoint 1984 ***

flash1When is a movie not a movie? When it’s made for home entertainment? These are the arguments that no-one was asking when HBO opened up their theatrical release account way back in 1984 with Flashpoint, an adaptation of a novel by George LaFountaine. Truth by told, Flashpoint is a cut above most tv movies and fully deserved to be seen theatrically; it’s also gained a certain post-JFK notoriety by chiming in with the themes of Oliver Stone’s celebrated conspiracy pic.

Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams play Bobby Logan and Ernie Wyatt, two Texas border patrolmen who start to question their roles; there’s a prescient discussion where a dropped-in suit (Kurtwood Smith) suggests that if there wasn’t a migrant problem, it would be necessary to create a crisis in order to justify the US government spending on border fortification. That seems like quite an accurate prediction of 2019’s fake news and national emergency, but such allusions are not Flashpoint’s main line of enquiry. The patrolmen find a jeep buried in the sand with skeletons, a high-powered gun, and a stack of money which they trace back to early 1960’s Dallas; could they have stumbled on part of a cover-up directly related to the assassination of president John F Kennedy?

Director William Tannen’s thriller doesn’t deviate too much from conventional thriller mechanics, but there’s lots for genre fans to enjoy here, starting with another amazing Tangerine Dream score. Smith, Rip Torn and Miguel Ferrer all add gritty support turns, and the film certainly explores border politics in a thorough way.

The zeitgeist moved towards slicker, flashier, Miami Vice-type investigations, leaving Flashpoint high and dry and the box office, but it deserves to gain a little more recognition for packaging politics and thrills together effectively. If nothing else, Williams and Kristofferson are pretty much convincing as the cops, frequently stripped to the waist, tanned, sporting sunglasses, and driving nifty looking jeeps that bounce around the desert with not a drop of CGI in sight.

Angel Heart 1987 *****

I was still a teenager when I saw Alan Parker’s 1986 genre-bending horror/detective story; just old enough to beat the 18 certificate. The film ran for several months at my local Odeon; I returned over and over again to watch the print turn ragged on the screen. While friends waxed lyrical on Scorsese and Godard, it was Alan Parker’s film that caught my imagination, so to see a restored blu-ray pressed decades later is a welcome opportunity to revisit a well-thumbed, well-loved text.

The story is simple in synopsis but surprising in execution. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a down-at-heel private eye hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to investigate a missing singer by the name of Johnny Favourite. Those unlucky enough to cross Angel’s path end up dead; Angel senses he’s being set up, but it’s only when he travels to New Orleans that the gumshoe begins to realise that supernatural forces are at work, and he’s little more than a pawn in the game.

Michael Seresin’s photography is the first thing to notice here; poor DVD prints haven’t helped the film’s reputation, but this blu-ray looks as good as if not better than the original; it’s hard to think of another film that looks as moist as this, which detailed textures to snow, paper, clothes, sweat and blood. The result is a film that’s vivid and atmospheric, with dream-like interruptions scored to the sound of a beating heart, telling a story with an outrageous twist ending that’s tricky to fully explain in detail.

Based on William Hjortsberg’s book Falling Angel, Parker shifted the action largely from NYC to New Orleans, and also changed the time-period and a few crucial details; elements from the book like the magic show are dropped, despite being remarkably cinematic in their own right. Parker’s use of mirrors, fans and blood is very much his own pictorial style, and while audiences weren’t sure of Angel Heart at the time, it’s clearly a misunderstood work that had a huge influence on Christopher Nolan

Parker’s wry commentary starts by discussing the problems of directing cats; it’s also implied that herding De Niro and Rourke through a number of scenes together wasn’t much easier. De Niro makes something iconic of his devilish character, but it’s Rourke that’s the revelation here. It’s not surprising to hear that Rourke couldn’t act the same scene the same way twice; his work feels spontaneous, and there’s an edge that makes Angel feel both larger than life and vulnerable.

Some of the other extras on this fresh re-issue suggest that Parker was prepared to bend the rules of voodoo in order to get what he wanted from his New Orleans shoot; such comments are interesting, but don’t detract from the film’s power. In the classic notion of drama, Angel’s investigation of his case is a search for himself, and a discovery of an unpleasant truth about human nature. Parker’s film may have been better known for its sex scene than it’s dramatic content at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, Angel Heart is an essential purchase for fans of all the considerable talents involved, and for horror aficionados in general.

ANGEL HEART is  released on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on October 14th 2019 and can be streamed below…

 

The Goldfinch 2019 *****

goldfinch

Everything you’ve heard about The Goldfinch is wrong. Or at least, the slew of negative articles about John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s bestseller only tell part of the story. Those who are unfamiliar with Tartt’s uniquely porcelain prose, or her wonderfully wandering, lyrical storytelling style, must find a film version of The Goldfinch must be a confounding experience, and one that provides a rare opportunity to take a sky kick at corporate behemoth Amazon, whose Amazon Studios label co-produced this prestigious film. But amongst the articles crowing about the potential amount of money lost, and gawping at film-makers who dare to turn their vision to white privilege, there’s a secret truth about Crowley’s film; it’s a meticulous, beautifully mounted adaptation that deserves an audience.

The Goldfinch is about a boy, Theodore Decker, played by Oakes Fegley and then by Angel Elgort. At the age of 13, Decker sees his mother killed in a bombing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and staggers from the chaos with a copy of a rare painting of a Goldfinch in his rucksack. Despite gravitating towards the mother of a friend (Nicole Kidman) and an antiques dealer (Jeffrey Wright), Decker is sent in Dickensian fashion to stay with his errant father (Luke Wilson) and his partner (Sarah Paulson) in a semi-constructed suburb of Las Vegas. A drug-addled friendship with a young Russian (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard) provides Decker with some much-needed relief, but the painting remains a secret, a connection with his mother that Decker finds impossible to let go of.

Condensing a 600 page novel into a script is a tough assignment, and Peter Straughn’s work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Wolf Hall marked him out as a perfect candidate for the job. He finds an ideal ally in cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brings a stark clarity to the film, which buzzing lights in the background suggesting another world just out of reach. And Crowley is a uniquely sensitive director, able to capture the uncertainty of Decker as a boy and a young adult, and to make his struggle with grief accessible.

Sensation seekers need to apply for a finely wrought film like The Goldfinch; there’s no explanation for the bombing, and the resolution is deliberately satisfying in a thematic rather than a crowd-pleasing way. Opening against Hustlers, one of the few adult orientated films of 2019, was probably the final nail in the coffin for The Goldfinch theatrically, but those who ignore the general disapproval may well be surprised; it’s a first rate film.