All posts by Andrew Wickliffe

Malcolm (1986, Nadia Tass)

Malcolm has strange plotting. The film runs just ninety minutes—like you don’t really believe that official ninety minute runtime and it doesn’t feel like they’re rounding up from eighty-nine either. The film’s light and it seems to be coming from the drama. There really isn’t any. There’s charm instead. Almost cuteness.

The title Malcolm is Colin Friels, a thirty-ish Autistic man (though the film never describes his diagnosis or even if anyone understands he’s got one—1986 after all) who lives alone since his mother’s died. He’s a mechanical genius with a fascination about Melbourne’s trams. He even works for the trams for a while… but off-screen. The movie opens with him getting fired for building his own one-person tram. Strapped for cash, he has to bring in a lodger. He takes the first one who comes to see the room–John Hargreaves.

At this point, Malcolm seems like it’s going to be about kindly neighborhood shop owner Beverley Phillips getting Friels to socially develop thanks to Hargreaves. It seems like it for about three minutes, which is a long time in Malcolm. But then Hargreaves brings home girlfriend Lindy Davies and she stays. Like a day after Hargreaves comes in. It isn’t clear why Hargreaves and Davies weren’t just looking for a place together. Character motivations are not writer (and cinematographer) David Parker’s strong suit. Neither is the cinematography, just to get it out of the way. Malcolm has very flat cinematography. The film’s able to get through the flat lighting and the script’s absence of characters’ ground situations because of director Tass. She’s okay with composition, but she’s great at directing her actors. Friels, Davies, and Hargreaves all turn in these fantastic performances and, along with the mood (which is the script, is the direction), make Malcolm work. Even though both Friels and Davies kind of get the story focus shaft. It instead concentrates on Hargreaves, which doesn’t make any sense because the whole point of his life being different than before is specifically because of what Friels and Davies are now doing in it.

Hargreaves is really good. He gives the best performance in the film, which he shouldn’t, but he isn’t able to transcend the script. The part isn’t good enough. The closest the movie gets to dramatics often involves Hargreaves saying something shitty about Friels behind his back and Davies giving him hell for it, leading to offscreen bonding between Hargreaves and Friels. Eventually Hargreaves has some personal growth and isn’t a dick to Friels anymore but we sure don’t get to see it. There’s the potential for character development, then there’s a jump ahead past it. Multiple times. Parker and Tass are too obvious in what they’re not addressing. They draw attention to what they’re not doing and then still manage to be too deliberate in how they showcase the gadgetry.

After Davies moves in, Friels starts making different gadgets and machines to impress Hargreaves because apparently Friels thinks he’s cool. Or something. We never find out because whenever anyone wants to have a serious talk with Friels, they do it offscreen so Parker doesn’t have to write the dialogue. After the first act, Friels basically becomes a (necessary) third wheel in Davies and Hargreaves’s story, which is mostly from Davies’s perspective because Hargreaves doesn’t do anything interesting on his own. Not even when he does things on his own; the movie can’t make them seem interesting.

Hargreaves has a scummy bar friend—an astonishingly third-billed Chris Haywood, who gets about four minutes on screen and never a close-up. Haywood’s just around for when Hargreaves needs to do something away from Friels and Davies. Until Hargreaves reaches the point he realizes he’s got to grow and then he just runs away to different areas of the house.

Another success of Tass’s direction is the lack of claustrophobia, even when there ought to be.

Whenever Friels shows Hargreaves a new gadget, it’s an action set piece. They’re really cool sequences, often involving remote controlled cars or objects. Editor Ken Sallows always cuts the action well. They’re the film’s pay-off moments and they work.

But they really shouldn’t be the film’s pay-off moments. They supersede the characters. For the finale the actors don’t even get to participate in the big action sequence.

It’s a great sequence though and when the actors do come back, they’re able to make up for the lost time goodwill-wise.

Malcolm doesn’t succeed in spite of itself, it just doesn’t aim high enough. It also adjusts its aim lower as the film goes on. Its potential deflates as it goes.

But it’s really cute, really charming, often rather funny. Excellent performances from Hargreaves, Friels, and Davies. Nice score from Simon Jeffres.

Just wish the script were more interested in the characters.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nadia Tass; written and photographed by David Parker; edited by Ken Sallows; music by Simon Jeffes; produced by Tass and Parker; released by Hoyts Distribution.

Starring Colin Friels (Malcolm), Lindy Davies (Judith), John Hargreaves (Frank), Beverley Phillips (Mrs. T), Judith Stratford (Jenny), and Chris Haywood (Willy).


This post is part of the Blizzard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Quiggy of the Midnite Drive-In.

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Heatwave (1982, Phillip Noyce)

Heatwave is not a film noir. It seems like it ought to be one, but it’s not. It’s got all the pieces to be a film noir, but the way director Noyce assembles them doesn’t result in noir. There are occasionally these heavily stylized slow motion sequences. Sometimes Noyce and editor John Scott emphasize relief, sometimes violence, sometimes heat. The film’s narrative distance isn’t noir enough. It’s a really cool narrative distance, but it’s not at all noir. It’s a breakneck paced thriller, only with two protagonists who don’t realize they’re in a thriller. They think they’re in entirely different stories.

Second-billed Richard Moir (who’s actually the lead) is an architect whose big new project is running into some snags. The project is a futuristic condo, made mostly of glass (Noyce never gives the model a close-up so nothing’s too specific), with trees inside and natural lighting and so on. To get the project built, the developers are going to kick out the working class residents and tear down their homes. The project is called “Eden”; Heatwave is perfectly matter-of-fact with quite a few things. It barely runs ninety minutes and has a bunch of characters, lots of story; Noyce and co-writer Marc Rosenberg never waste time, they’re pragmatic to the point of obvious but it works because Moir’s astoundingly naive. So long as he doesn’t have to compromise his designs, Moir doesn’t really care about anything. Wife Anna Maria Monticelli, who also works with him in some unexplained capacity, is a social climber. Moir’s from a working class background, Monticelli’s a blue blood. She wants to show the world her man’s made good. He’s indifferent but happy to play along; he’s getting recognized for his amazing architectural designs, everything else is gravy. But not even gravy worth caring about too much.

Then there’s top-billed Judy Davis. She’s a blue blood who went to college, got radicalized, now tries to help the working class with their plight. She works for independent, crusading journalist Carole Skinner. Skinner’s not a blue blood and she lends Davis some cred. There’s a non-subplot about Skinner and Moir being good friends before Moir went to the U.S. to study architecture and get better indoctrinated with capitalism. When he got back they weren’t friends any more. Or so the movie says. Moir’s got zero reaction to Skinner’s eventual mysterious disappearance. Notice I just gave Davis’s paragraph away? Gave it to Moir? Because the movie does the same thing, over and over.

It’s fine, it works out. But Moir’s nowhere near as interesting as Davis. At least in terms of performance. Moir’s just aloof and naive. Kind of pseudo-preppy. He’s constantly tagging along with the real alpha males, developer Chris Haywood and lawyer John Gregg. Davis gets to do a lot more. Even when Moir gets interested in Skinner’s disappearance, it’s only because he’s not cool with how scummy Haywood and Gregg are willing to go evicting residents. And because not-independent newspaper reporter and fun old guy John Meillon wants Moir to get involved.

Moir does stay involved for his own reasons… primarily Davis. He’s got the hots for Davis because she says and thinks all the things he didn’t know he kind of wanted to say or think. As for Davis… her being interested too is one of the film’s plotting efficiencies. Maybe one Noyce should’ve taken more time with, but Davis is always getting shafted on story time.

She gets a decent amount of action, but she also ends up with a bunch of the exposition. Noyce has this great device for exposition—characters sitting, listening to the radio. Because it’s too hot to do much besides sit and listen to the radio. Heatwave takes place during a winter heatwave. The film starts before Christmas, ends on New Year’s. Everyone is miserably hot, visibly miserably hot, no one ever complains, they just endure it as best they can. It’s a great built-in constant, agitating the plot whenever needed.

Heatwave’s efficient to a fault.

Excellent performance from Davis, really good one from Moir. Haywood’s good, Gregg’s good. Meillon’s decent. He’s functional for the script more than anything else. Meillon’s able to imply depth; the script doesn’t want it from him. It would be really nice if Gillian Jones were able to imply depth. She’s got a small but important role and… it’s not a good performance. Might not be Jones’s fault, given her character and the character’s writing. But still. That aspect of the film being better might have brought it up to another level.

Then again Jones is one of the noir pieces and Heatwave isn’t a noir.

Great photography Vincent Monton. Good music from Cameron Allan. Ross Major’s production design is another plus. Noyce’s direction is extravagant but never self-indulgent.

Heatwave is a rather good stiflingly hot Christmas, not noir but noir-y, stylish conspiracy thriller.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Noyce; screenplay by Noyce and Marc Rosenberg, based on a story by Mark Stiles and Tim Gooding; director of photography, Vincent Monton; edited by John Scott; music by Cameron Allan; production designer, Ross Major; produced by Hilary Linstead; released by Roadshow Film Distributors.

Starring Judy Davis (Kate Dean), Richard Moir (Stephen West), Chris Haywood (Peter Houseman), Bill Hunter (Robert Duncan), John Gregg (Philip Lawson), Anna Maria Monticelli (Victoria West), John Meillon (Freddie Dwyer), Dennis Miller (Mick Davies), Carole Skinner (Mary Ford), Gillian Jones (Barbie Lee Taylor), Frank Gallacher (Dick Molnar), Tui Bow (Annie), and Don Crosby (Jim Taylor).


This post is part of the Hotter’nell Blogathon hosted by Steve of MovieMovieBlogBlog II.

Sum Up | Clearing Moorings: James Horner and the Wrath of Khan

It’s impossible to imagine Wrath of Khan without the James Horner score. When Star Trek II came out in 1982, it was the third of the late seventies, early eighties sci-fi franchises. Star Wars and Superman were both looking forward to their third films in 1982, while Trek was recovering from its troubled 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In addition to age (as movies, anyway), Star Wars and Superman also shared the John Williams “sound” (though Superman II had Ken Thorne imitating Williams). The Motion Picture’s score was from Jerry Goldsmith, who came up with some great music, but it didn’t seem to compare—in the public mind—to Williams’s space-based scores.

Well, outside the Goldsmith’s new Star Trek theme. That piece announced a bold new beginning for the franchise (and later became the “Next Generation” theme). And Star Trek II announced a bold new direction too….

1982 Atlantic 7″ Single

The literal first thing composer James Horner does in Khan is bring back the original “Star Trek” theme. Just enough to establish, along with the titles, it’s Star Trek. And then the music starts going in new directions, mostly focusing on the “adventure theme.”

The Khan score, or so some quick Internet searching says, has three recognized themes. Kirk’s theme, Khan’s theme, and Spock’s theme. Spock’s theme is the only one to get broken out on the soundtrack album—though it’s just called “Spock.” It’s the mystical one. Khan’s is the foreboding one. Kirk’s is the adventurous one. I’m not eager to name the themes, outside Spock’s, just because it doesn’t leave room for the Genesis theme, which is separate from the others. The music, like everything in Khan, is exquisitely layered, exquisitely complex.

Soundtrack score album affection is a sometimes difficult one to explain. Especially as I’ve noticed I feel different about it now than I did in the late eighties and early nineties. Basically, it’s a “you had to be there.” Listening to a soundtrack score is not like watching the movie, but from the right angle—for me anyway—it can tickle the same hairs and produce some of the same feels. The Star Trek II soundtrack is very good at tickling said hairs. Both because Horner does such a fantastic job with the score and because the film, directed by Nicholas Meyer, uses it so well. Horner’s score, with its reused themes and its various echoes, stays in the active imagination even when it isn’t heard.

1982 Atlantic LP / 1990 GNP Crescendo CD

Khan (the movie) has a surprise open—it’s the Enterprise, but it’s got a female Vulcan in command (Kirstie Alley). Spock’s there, but he’s at his science officer station. It’s Enterprise versus Klingons and there’s no music, which is very different from when the previous film had its Klingon scene—even Khan reuses that footage. Goldsmith had a whole Klingon theme in The Motion Picture. Horner and Meyer let them act without accompaniment. Horner’s themes are specific (which is why calling it the Khan theme doesn’t make sense to me—it’s the Reliant theme); they can’t be broadly applied. Horner’s score tells the story of the film. The title music has some hints of what’s to come, the end credit music literally recaps what’s come before. The end credit music is some of the most complex in the score—though the action sequences are also exceedingly complex, just in a different way. The action sequences don’t use recall in the same way; when Horner uses the established themes during an action scene, it’s still moving at a clip. End credits it’s about inviting recollection, taking time to think back. The score’s very active with its audience and separate from the movie action. Though tied so close the film’s cut to the music.

And all the story and all the emotion come through on the soundtrack album too. I don’t think I had the album on LP. I know I had the CD, from GNP Crescendo (came out in 1990). The early nineties were the peak of my soundtrack enthusiasm. It didn’t survive high school. Though I also started watching a lot more movies then (instead of the same ones over and over); maybe it was a combination of things. I didn’t really have a handle on what I liked about soundtrack albums back then… not to mention I had… collecting problems. Have collecting problems.

2009 Film Score Monthly CD

In 2009, Film Score Monthly put out a “Newly Expanded” edition of the Star Trek II soundtrack with more than twice as many tracks as the original soundtrack release. The expanded edition’s track order matches the film’s order of events, remastered from the film mixes. It’s all the music from the film, not just select arrangements.

But if I’m listening to Star Trek II and not watching Star Trek II… I don’t want to hear all the music. I don’t want short tracks, I want the long ones produced for the soundtrack album. Horner’s able to tell the story of Khan in nine tracks, forty-five minutes. Sure, it’s mostly the action and it leaves out Kirk’s (great) old mope arc, but it’s also grand adventure. The grandest adventure.

I had no idea how to write about James Horner’s Khan score so I watched the movie scenes cut to the original nine soundtrack album tracks (and the album’s jumbled order). I’ve seen film so many times I could still “hear” the now silent dialogue. The experience did not provide a profound new version of Khan. Instead, it was Khan; abbreviated but amplified.

2016 Mondo LP

The original, nine track Wrath of Khan soundtrack is available through music streaming services. The expanded version, which also came out on LP from Mondo, is out of print.

There’s not much like Horner’s Star Trek II score. It’s an integral part of the film’s success, it’s a success on its own, it’s superlative both on its own and as part of the film.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture might have begun “the human adventure” in 1979, but Khan—in no small part thanks to James Horner—guaranteed the Star Trek film adventure would keep going.


The Song of Styrene (1959, Alain Resnais)

The Song of Styrene is gorgeous. The way director Resnais showcases the plastic press-styrene becomes plastic through chemical processes (Song of is an industrial promotional film)—it’s a solitary object, removed from the factory setting and just amazing and new looking. Even when something’s weathered, like the industrial plants, it all looks new. Very futuristic, very clean. When there’s the eventual shots of coal, it’s stunning how much it contrasts with the very clean, very futuristic look of everything else. Coal is elemental, even as the narrator talks about its mysterious origins (Song is from 1959).

You’d think someone might notice how the story of a created plastic whatever going backwards to being coal gas is visibly clean to dirty; there’s not a “look how this dirty rock turns into something beautiful” sentiment either. Song has narration. A lot of narration and narrator Pierre Dux goes from being excited about plastic being pressed to excited by the power of fossil fuels. Song is a very obvious promotion, albeit a visually impressive one.

It’s not an intellectually impressive one. Not even for 1959. Maybe it’s Dux’s narration or Pierre Barbaud’s music. Until the fossil fuel blathering starts, the Barbaud’s music is Song’s biggest problem. It doesn’t not match Resnais, cinematographer Sacha Vierny, and editor Claudine Merlin’s visual charting of an industrial plant, it just doesn’t add anything to the visuals. Resnais, Vierny, and Merlin have it covered. The music and narration are just noise, disingenuous noise.

During that visual survey of plants, tracking the pipes and so on, Song hits its peak, which is something given how cool the opening with the plastics gets. But Song tells the story backwards, which Resnais doesn’t—it’s not like visual sequences play in reverse—and it hurts the potential. For a 1959 energy company promotional video about the wonders of fossil fuel and how it makes everything clean and modern… Song’s pretty good. The visuals engage enough the narration and intent don’t really matter. But it doesn’t transcend that intent. The attention Resnais places on the solitary plastic press doesn’t carry over to the industrial plants; such a feat would be outside the technological capabilities of a 1959 promotional short. But it’s also what Song would need to be anything more. Resnais, Vierny, and Merlin letting loose instead of dancing in place, the script, narration, and music moving the film along instead of the actual filmmaking.

And opening with a Victor Hugo quote about the human condition is, in the end, a little much.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Alain Resnais; written by Raymond Queneau; director of photography, Sacha Vierny; edited by Claudine Merlin and Resnais; music by Pierre Barbaud; produced by Pierre Braunberger; released by Les Films de la Pléiade.

Narrated by Pierre Dux.