The Conversation (1974)


Squeezed in between the two powerhouse Godfather films The Conversation can easily be overlooked, when one considers the career of Francis Ford Coppola. That's a shame, but not that surprising.

The Conversation is a film devoid of high profile scandals, and uncharacteristically timid in its visual approach. It doesn't have the grandeur of the Corleone family, or the madness of the Vietnam war to overload our senses. Instead, this is a quiet film that blends in with the wallpaper. It's Coppola's most intimate film, and perhaps his most personal as well?


The story deals with a surveillance specialist, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who has recently completed an assignment, where he was asked to record a conversation between a young couple who seems to be having an affair. As he is about to deliver the tapes to his client, he begins to suspect foul play. He refuses to hand over the recordings. The tapes are dangerous, he's warned. Someone may get hurt. This is not the first time Harry's recordings have put people in danger, but he won't make the same mistake again.

What will his client do to get the tapes? Can he trust his co-worker? Is he being followed?Already overcautious to a fault, Harry soon descents into full-blown paranoia. When you can't trust anybody, how can you even trust yourself?


The opening scene of The Conversation is famous. It deals with the actual recording of the titular conversation, in a wonderful, unruly, documentary style montage. The soundtrack switches back and forth between the various microphones recording the event, and the broken pieces of the dialogue is mixed with loud incidental music. We strain to decipher the meaning of the dialogue, based on limited information. It's frustrating, in a very satisfying way (does that make sense?) and you shouldn't be surprised if you catch yourself leaning towards the screen to hear better. It's fascinating to watch Harry Caul go back to the tapes later in the film in an attempt to uncover the truth, but what is the truth? How will we know, when the meaning of the conversation changes every time we hear it?

A lot of people in the information delivery business these days should watch this film and take notes. Interpretation of information is an interesting and increasingly relevant discussion to have. It seems to me that the more information we get, the less effective we become at processing it.

The first 10 minutes of The Conversation represents a lost art. A way of making movies that no one seems capable of doing these days, or maybe no one dares. The scene feels like random documentary footage. No one explains to us what it all means, no one takes our hand and says "this is how you're supposed to feel". We know nothing, we assume everything, and we won't know for sure until the very end of the film.

The real center centerpiece of the film, though, is Gene Hackman.

The character of Harry Caul is far removed from Hackman's other famous screen personas, be it Little Bill, Jimmy Doyle, or even Lex Luthor. None of these characters ever became one with the wallpaper, but Harry does, and Hackman plays the part so differently than the take-charge guys we've come to know him as.

Harry is cold and distant - emotionally unavailable, as the phrase goes. He's unapproachable, unlovable, untrusting. He seems to hunger for personal connection, and yet the character is so eager to be isolated that he even tries to escape from the camera. At one point he leaves a shot, and the camera follows him, when it becomes clear that he's not returning to the frame, but then Harry leaves again, when the camera once again finds him.

The conflicted nature of Harry's being is where I suspect we'll find the link to Francis Ford Coppola's personal life. The film was written in 1966, well before Coppola became a household name. It was released in 1974, before The Godfather, part 2 cemented his career, and earned him no less than three Academy Awards.

However, when one considers the raging talent on the verge of breakdown that we see in the behind the scenes footage from Apocalypse Now (1979), it seems clear to me that Coppola was always, to some extent, a man driven by fear. The fear of failure, fear of having his work taken away and bastardized, fear of losing those around him. We know how important family is to Coppola. It doesn't seem unreasonable to think that Harry is the result of Coppola meditating on his own demons, by giving the character all of his own flaws, and none of his success.

I haven't heard Coppola's own thoughts on this, and I prefer to make up my own mind, before I let Coppola offer his version. When it comes to talking about Coppola's films, no one does it better than Coppola himself. His audio commentaries for the two Godfather films (what third?) are legendary, as is the feature length documentary Hearts of Darkness (1991), detailing his struggle to create Apocalypse Now, which brings us to this new Blu-ray release.


So finally The Conversation makes its Blu-ray debut. Good call people. StudioCanal in England is responsible for this Blu-Ray/DVD combo release.

The problem with this film, indeed with most films more than 5 years old, is that they were not made for the kind of high-def sets most of us have today. Adding to that is the fact that many films of the '70s embraced a rough, dirty, gritty look. This means that The Conversation is a very grainy Blu-ray. The opening Paramount logo and the first shot looks HORRIBLE, but don't worry. This is often the case with older films. As we get further into the film it takes on a pleasant, if somewhat inconsistent, look. It's still grainy, and it still looks rough, but that's the intention, and if you don't like that, stick to CGI animated films and you'll be fine.

I did notice a few shots, when the image seemed slightly soft, suggesting a bit of digital noise reduction, I also noticed "fixed grain" a couple of times, where a sort of "net of grain" sticks to the image when the camera moves. Don't get me wrong, you're not going to find a better version of this film out there, but don't watch this right after a super clean, high def, modern film, it won't hold up to that comparison.

As I mentioned earlier, I deliberately avoided watching any of the special features before I wrote this review. The main features among the extras are the two audio commentaries - one with Coppola, the other with Walter Murch. I can't wait to delve into these, maybe they'll earn a separate post! A vintage featurette "Close-Up on The Conversation" is included, as well as screen tests, a few interviews and other tidbits. A very nice package.

I can't stress this enough: If you want to learn how to make films, or just learn to appreciate films better, you need to sit down and listen to an audio commentary by Francis Ford Coppola.


Few films capture paranoia the way The Conversation does. Watching Harry Caul's life fall apart is devastating. Coppola is unrelenting as he slowly dismantles this already broken man right before our eyes, leading up to a heartbreaking, gruesome ending.

This is an unromantic, endlessly cynical film, devoid of any illusions of redemption. Like its central character it often feels distant and cold. It's a film that should be approached cautiously, with knowledge of its place in time and in film history, and with a minimum of appreciation for the technical aspects.

The Conversation is not easy to watch, but whoever said that a masterpiece should be?

Thanks to StudioCanal and Olivia Jarvis for making this review possible.


Terra Nova: Genesis, Part 1 & 2 (2011)

The Earth is dying. Mankind is slowly being smothered in our own filth. The only hope is a new amazing discovery. A time-portal into the past. 85 million years into the past, to be more precise. Here mankind has found a new paradise and established a colony that will enable us to start over. This brand new world is not entirely without problems, though. Dinosaurs, for example. Actual giant, hungry, bad-ass dinosaurs.

Well, that's sound pretty cool, doesn't it? Unfortunately that description hardly covers the awfulness that is Terra Nova, the new TV-series from Fox, which can best be described as a Lifetime movie, meets Jurassic Park, by way of a cheap SyFy knockoff of Avatar.

The single worst aspect of this show is the writing. Almost all problems stem from the fact that the writing is beyond lazy. Let's start with our lead characters, The Shannon family.

The family (mom, dad and three kids) live in a crummy apartment, and apparently you're only supposed to have two kids, but they have three, so when the "population control" soldiers arrive, the family hides the youngest daughter behind a secret panel in the wall.

The soldiers enter the apartment and IMMEDIATELY begin to violently trash the place (no time to properly establish a conflict here, we've got places to be!) and they find the kid almost IMMEDIATELY, because she begins to cry. Why, I can't believe that plan didn't work!

Then the dad punches the soldiers, because he gets REALLY mad. Cut. Now it's two years later and the father is in prison. Cut. Then the wife gets an offer to join the next team to Terra Nova. Despite having languished for years in prison, the father and the mother immediately come up with an escape plan, without discussing anything. Cut. The father sneaks out of prison. Nobody notices this. In fact, nobody notices him at any point during his elaborate and completely implausible escape, but when he walks down a random maintenance corridor a few meters from his goal - the time portal where his family awaits - an eagle-eyed security guy spots him. "Wait, who is that "suspicious character" in random corridor? He must be stopped!"

So the "clever" plan fails and what does the dad do? He runs. That's right, he just runs past the WORST security team EVER and jumps into the time-portal, and just like that the whole family is together again in Terra Nova. Did I mention part of the "clever" plan was transporting the youngest daughter in a backpack through security?

Oh, but we're not done yet.

After a brief "gosh you shouldn't have done that"-talk with the camp leader - Stephen Lang repeating his character from Avatar - everyone seems to forget that they're dealing with an escaped convict, who cheated his way to Terra Nova. Everything seems okay and the family gets a nice, big, new house. Ah, but the family unit is not in perfect harmony yet. Of course we need that so-obvious-it-hurts conflict between father and son, who - in another case of idiotic, simplistic storytelling - blames the father for trying to save his sister, and for taking two whole years to break out of maximum security prison. And speaking of family problems, you will find it hard not to vomit as everyone gathers in silent awe and watch the father reconnect with his youngest daughter, by pretending not to know her name. Cue the music and the Hallmark card filter. By the way, if my parents had pretended not to know my name when I was a kid it would have freaked the hell out of me.

In the lead role as the dad Jason O'Mara has about the same charisma as a dead tree trunk. In fact, I often mistook him for one, and that carefully designed stubble isn't fooling anybody. The mother (Christine Adams) is beautiful, but she's cast so young she could pass for the oldest daughter as well. The kids are bland Disney Channel rejects, incapable of a single believable expression. These people aren't acting. They're pretending to act.

Half an hour into the show all we've done is establish the lackluster family and the basic premise. We don't really know what the hell is going on yet. This seems to have surprised the writers, because all of a sudden they give us a scene where one character explains how Terra Nova was established to another character, who really should have all that information already. They also quickly explain that this is an alternate timeline, so they're not destroying the future by going into the past. Say what? Don't bother, it doesn't make any sense, and the series can't be bothered to explain any further (at least not yet).

The science isn't the only thing that doesn't make any sense here. If this world is so dangerous, why are the fences crap? The colony apparently provides every new family with a shiny, brand new condo, but they can't build a decent fence? And why would these people arm themselves with guns that have NO effect on the dinosaurs, the very creatures they're trying to protect themselves from? (Well, actually that one is easy: This is once again due to lazy writing, you see, several sequences in this episode rely on a confrontation between dinos and humans, and if the humans can just kill the dinos, the scenes are over too quickly).

Terra Nova is a compendium of unrealistic behavior, overly simple solutions to hastily established problems, trivial dialogue and obnoxious, flat characters. If only the writers had a single original idea. We've seen this type of Utopia story a million times before. It never really works. Add to that some utterly unconvincing, bargain basement CGI, some laughable bad guys, and a few painfully obvious setups for upcoming mysteries. The only real mystery here is how this script avoided the trashcan. Even the costume design sucks. These characters dress like completely ordinary folks in 2011. No sign of the fact that we're 200 years into the future, or - when we reach Terra Nova - that most of these people have lived in an isolated, fairly rough place, with limited resources. They look like they've just stepped out of a catalogue.

The opening episode of Terra Nova is a charmless, soulless and utterly unimpressive piece of work. No, I tell a lie... Terra Nova actually makes me long for the banalities of Avatar. That IS kind of impressive.


Quatermass and the Pit (1967)


It starts as a rather innocent excavation of a subway tunnel in London. Some humanoid skeletons are found, and next to them a metallic object. Perhaps it's an old unexploded bomb? The diggers take no chances and call in the military.

Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) arrives to take charge, and with him a curious professor by the name of Quatermass (Andrew Keir). His speciality is not the trivial human conflicts of Earth, his interests lie beyond this planet, on the moon, in space, and beyond.

When the metallic object is fully uncovered one thing becomes clear: This is not a bomb. It's a spaceship. Suddenly professor Quatermass finds himself far more useful than anyone had anticipated.


The first thing you should know about this film is that there are several other movies and a few TV serials carrying the Quatermass moniker. The second thing you should know is that this is effectively a standalone story, so no prior knowledge of the franchise is required...

Any movie that opens with the uncovering of a mysterious, possibly alien, object has my vote. However, this is not a $250 million CGI Hollywood production, so don't expect trips to the dark side of the moon and a planet wide alien invasion force. This is a relatively cheap British B-movie and most of it takes place in the same location, or rather set - that almost convincing excavation site. I don't mind that. If the story is interesting enough, cardboard sets and stuff hanging in strings are okay. And the core story IS interesting. A mysterious spaceship and weird artifacts! I was glued to the screen during those early discussion, when the scientists were desperately trying to make sense of it all, and then of course there's that bone-chilling moment when the ship opens... Ah! I've said too much already!

I also appreciated the final act of the movie, where all hell breaks loose and the story opens up to include the entire city. There's panic in the streets, and the future of the entire human race is on the line!

Oddly enough, while I was unbothered by some of the B-movie antics, I couldn't help but notice how casually every character treats these events, from a safety and security point of view.

When the humanlike skulls are first brought forward, the lead expert violently hacks away at the (obviously ordinary) clay that covers it, without any fear that he'll damage the precious find (I'm reminded of that less than scientific fossil uncovering at the beginning of Jurassic Park). The men who examine the spaceship wear gloves AFTER they realize it gives them cold burns, when they touch it, and no one wears masks or any other kind of protective gear. Highly irregular. And I haven't even gotten to security yet! Anybody could just walk into the dig site without being checked. At some point a reporter asks when he can get in, he's told he'll have to wait until the morning, but he could literally walk straight into the place, if the solitary guard was momentarily distracted.

In spite of all this, I still enjoyed the hell out of this movie! It was silly, it had some problems, but it was fun! I'm reading 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clark at the moment, and frankly the cheesy B-level story here was a bit of a relief, compared to Clark's fascinating, but cold, scientific storytelling.


Prior to watching this film I checked out a recent release of the first two feature films The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957). They were produced more than 10 years earlier and to the best of my knowledge on an even lower budget. They were in horrible condition, so it was with some reservation that I popped this Bluray into the player.

Luckily Quatermass and the Pit (1967) fared much better than the others. With striking bright colors the quality of the image is already far better than I had hoped. There's quite a bit of grain present, but the image still felt sharp, despite the obvious shortcomings of the source material. One must consider the age of the a film, and taking that into account I don't think we'll ever get a better version than this.

The extras consist mostly of interviews. Everyone from Julian Glover to Joe Dante gets a chance to weigh in on the film, and the combined running time is close to 2 hours! This may seem a little dull - just talking heads interviews - but there are some very interesting stories to tell here. Also included is a 24 minute "World of Hammer" documentary and some trailers. Overall a very nice package.


I'm glad I finally had a chance to check out this classic film. I'm always interested in discovering unseen science fiction movies - new or old - because this is a criminally undersupplied genre. Anyone who feels the same way can safely check out Quatermass and the Pit. You need to get past the shoddy set, the cheesy dialogue and most of the other B-movie elements. If you can do that, this trip into the pit with professor Quatermass is a perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Thanks to StudioCanal and Edith Chappey for making this review possible.