Thursday, 29 December 2011

Trailer: Prometheus

Monday, 26 December 2011

Slow week

We have family visiting Chez Szondy this week at the same time I'm facing a string of deadlines that Christmas has already kept me away from for too long.  Therefore, though I'll be posting the usual video features on Ephemeral Isle, other posts will be as and when I can find time.

Normal service will resume as soon as possible.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas
Reel Ranting

Back after Boxing Day

Monday, 19 December 2011

Review: Cowboys and Aliens

Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

It's 1873 in the Arizona Territory and a man wakes up in the desert not even remembering his name or how he ended up with a strange device manacled to his wrist.  He rides into the town of Absolution, which he discovers is under the control of a ruthless cattle baron and that in his forgotten life he's wanted by the law.  All that, however, is beside the point when a fleet of alien ships strafe the town and snatch up the townsfolk like children jigging for frogs.

With a title like Cowboys and Aliens and a director like Jon Favreau you'd expect a film like this to at least be fun, but it turns out to be one of those pictures that never seems to pull it off.  The idea of mixing a Western with an alien invasion plot sounds great, but it takes a deft hand, a real love for both genre and a willingness to ruthlessly play with both set of tropes.  This film has plenty of good elements and a first-rate cast, though Harrison Ford is miscast as the villain and comes off as a cranky old man, but none of it comes together.  Daniel Craig was a great choice as the Man With No Name, but is wasted as is Olivia Wilde whose plot twist is telegraphed a light year away. We're never given any reason to care about any of the characters nor to be really engaged in anything that's going on.

Worse, the pacing is painfully slow.  At 118 minutes it's half an hour too long and takes forever to get started.  More important, everything that takes up all that time turns out to be irrelevant to the plot and conveniently forgotten at the end.  The alien menace is never credible.   The creatures are neither an unseen menace nor are they allowed to be more than running, jumping things that are about as inherently scary and awe inspiring as a band of cheesed-off gorillas.

But what is most maddening is not the stacking of needless Western clichés, but the repetition.  Heroes get captured, heroes get set free, someone has the drop on a character and a third party shoots the dropper before he can kill the dropee.  Rinse and repeat.

Based on a "graphic novel", the lesson to take away from Cowboys and Aliens is that basing a $160 million film on an obscure comic book is a really dumb idea.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Review: Asylum

Asylum (1972)\

A young doctor goes an insane asylum for a job interview only to be told that the director of the asylum has gone mad and is now one of the patients in  the violent ward.  He is then informed that if he can interview the ward patients and determine which of the four is the former director, he gets the job.  It seems simple enough, but his efforts quickly unveil stories of supernatural horror that may not be confined to the ward.

Asylum is another in Amicus's popular magazine format of horror stories from the 1960s and 70s, only instead of the framing device being a sinister stranger or a trapped group of bewildered strangers, its about a doctor interviewing insane people as part of a larger story.  It's an effective device and working from a script by Robert Bloch doesn't hurt either.  The individual tales, which include one of a man who dismembers his wife only to discover her bits won't stay put, a penniless tailor commissioned to create a magical suit, a young woman whose homecoming from hospital is marred by the appearance of a sinister friend, and a mad doctor into building homunculae all carry a nice blend of horror and whimsy that director Roy Ward Baker is able to infuse with atmosphere and moments of real creepiness by the simplest of cinematic tricks.

But what puts Asylum over the top is the Amicus talent for persuading top-notch actors to sign on for small roles that involve little more than an afternoons work.  Despite a small budget, Asylum boasts Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Barry Morse, Barbara Parkins, Robert Powell and last, but most emphatically not least, Charlotte Rampling.  Every one of them takes their roles very seriously and there isn't a second's mugging or winking at the camera to be found.   Because of this, they are able to convince the audience that they aren't just watching a string of gory tales, but are glimpsing into a world of utter chaos where reason is banished and madness reigns supreme.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Review: Howl's Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Sophie is a plain girl living a plain life working in a plain hat shop until a witch places a curse on her that turns her into a 90-year old woman.  Unable to face her family and friends, she goes to the wastelands to seek the witch and takes refuge in the castle of the wizard Howl–a moving castle that travels the countryside on mechanical legs powered by a fire demon that Howl keeps bound in the castle's hearth.  Posing as a cleaning lady, Sophie is drawn to Howl, who is an enigmatic young man who always speaks in an amused, though detached tone of voice and is tormented by some inner conflict.  Meanwhile, two kingdoms fight a terrible air war against one another using gigantic airships as the witch and a powerful sorceress hunt for Howl.

Like a lot of anime, the plot of Howl's Moving Castle is very hard to summarise.  In fact, there's very little point because it's heavily allegorical and serves mainly as a framework for visuals anyway. Director Hayao Miyazaki's screenplay based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones is a charming fairy tale romance that doesn't bear too much close examination.  It becomes obvious early on that this is less a coherent plot than the relation of a dream where logic is heavily internal and isn't expected to hold together very long anyway.  What must and does work is that the characters remain consistent and interact with one another in a logical manner, which Miyazaki achieves beautifully.

This is a stunningly lovely film with animation that is impressive by even the best Japanese anime standards and there is a playful quality to it all that acts as an excellent backdrop to a story that mixes whimsy with genuine emotion.   English-speaking audiences are also fortunate that when Walt Disney picked up the distribution rights they went to Pixar to do the dubbing.  Because of the huge differences between English and Japanese both in language and acting styles, this made for a challenge, but Pixar's choice of cast headed by Christian Bale as Howl and Jean Simmons and Emily Mortimer as old and young Sophie respectively reading from a script designed around not only translation, but matching screen action in an English-language context made for a much more accessible story that it is possible to get lost in.

Like most anime, Howl's Moving Castle requires some active suspension of disbelief to buy into and much of its meaning requires thought on the part of the audience, but the beauty and charm of the film make it suitable even for the youngest of film goers.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Sometimes it takes a really bad movie to make you appreciate one that turned out to be not so bad after all.   The 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian starring the future governor of California was no classic. Director John Milus had a thankless task; adapting Robert E Howard's barbarian hero to the screen at a time when Hollywood only knew the character through bad pastiches and comic books.  With such a brief, it isn't surprising that the end result was often downright silly.  That's probably the best word for a scene where one of the baddies hits people over the head with a giant clown hammer.  Still, Milus did manage to come up with a decent story of revenge and manhood that treated most of the sorcery as just another part of the world. And Milus does succeed in getting us to accept that he has created at least a taste of Conan's Hyborian Age that would be recognisable to readers of Howard.

The 2011 version, on the other hand, is a travesty; a pointless remake that adds nothing and does a disservice to both the source material and its predecessor.  Once again, Conan is motivated by revenge against the men who burned his village and killed his father, but where this set up took ten minutes in the original, it now takes approximately the time needed to wear away the Alps with a spoon.  We then jump forward ten years or so and Conan, who can't afford a shirt and wears a skirt liberated from an interpretive dance troupe, decides to finally get down to some revenging.  This being 2011, however, there also has to be a mask involved that allows the wearer to "rule the world" for no obvious reason and an Action GirlTM who says she's a "monk" (Because the correct term "nun" wouldn't be cool enough) is thrown in for sex scenes and general running about.

General running about pretty much sums up the film.  Conan runs about here.  He runs about there.  He runs about a bit more to throw in some variety.  In between and during this running about he's also fighting and every fight is choreographed as an epic Final Battle with lots of CGI blood that makes one suspect that the director thinks human beings are plastic bags filled with Kensington Gore.   There's no sense of time and place and everything is so dusty that it isn't unreasonable to think that the tickets got mixed up and this is Prince of Persia.   Meanwhile, Jason Momoa scowls a lot–or tries to; it just comes across as a pout.  And despite all the mandatory Daddy Issues that modern scriptwriting invariably demands, this Conan comes across as nothing more than a bloodthirsty cipher devoid of any character or believable motives.

It makes one long for de lamentations of da women.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Monday, 21 November 2011


Big Hollywood looks at the top ten overrated actors.  I particularly like their take on Meryl Streep:
Undoubtedly I will be hung by my toenails for this pick. She is a marvel technically, but she’s always cold. I can’t think of a single film in which she has reached me emotionally. I always get the feeling while watching her movies that I’m watching a documentary about acting for a master class; I never get the feeling that her characters are real. On this one, I agree with Katharine Hepburn, who couldn’t stand Streep’s acting: “Click, click, click,” she once said, talking about the gears you can see turning inside Streep’s head.
I would have used the word scaffolding rather than gears.  She's always struck me as being a horrendously mechanical actress within whom you could always see the mechanism at work.  Worse, she herself buys in on the idea of her being "great" when she is, in fact, mediocre.

As to her bizarre accents, the less said the better.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Review: Dr Terror's House of Horrors

Winner of the Annual Film Title That Tries Way Too Hard award.
Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965)

One night, five ordinary men climb into a railway compartment.  A six man sits down.  This one is not so ordinary.  Speaking with a strange middle-European accent, he wears a coat that is almost a cloak and his hat and beard give him a sinister appearance.  He carries with him a deck of tarot cards, which he says can tell a persons future and what he can do to avoid it.  As the train travels through the night, the curious yet sceptical group allows the stranger to tell their fortunes, though the future doesn't look very bright for any of them.

anthology horror films have had a good run in Britain ever since Dead of Night and Three Cases of Murder, but they reached something of a vogue in the late 60s and early 70s.  Dr Terror's House of Horrors is one of the lighter entries.  Despite having a strong cast lead by Peter Cushing as Dr Schreck (Dr Terror) and Christopher Lee along with a young Donald Sutherland in a feature roles, Dr Terror reaches for thrills, but the stories are timid and anaemic–unwilling to grasp at anything really frightening and director Freddie Francis has real trouble establishing a proper atmosphere in any scenes except for the bookends on the train.  Still, the cast never indulges in the temptation to wink at the camera and Lee is obviously enjoying a chance to play against type as the waspish art critic who literally shrieks with fright.

It's not a bad film, but it isn't a good one either.  It's more of a cheap paperback sort of work that one would pick up at a newsagents to pass the time on, say, a night time train journey.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Neuromancer: The Movie

Maybe calling your production company "Cabana Boys" wasn't the best idea.

Remember that Neuromancer feature back in 1986?  No?  Maybe this promotional video made by the would-be producers to sell the idea to investors explains why.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Master Mystery

Most people know Harry Houdini as the greatest magician and escape artist of the 20th century–possibly even without that qualification.  Even today, 85 years after his death, his name is a household word, but what most people have forgotten is that he was the true equivalent of a superstar and was as active in the new medium of film as he was on the stage.

Over at Ephemeral Isle, we're commemorating this with a run of one of his most successful serials: The Master Mystery (Click the link to see the trailer and a list of the weekly episodes posted so far).

One thing to bear in mind while watching is that Houdini used these serials to showcase his escapologist credentials, so all of his getting out of tight spots are as real as the demands of filming would allow.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Review: The Magnetic Monster

The Magnetic Monster (1953)

To meet this challenge to our existence,  a new agency has been formed: OSI; the Office of Scientific Investigation.  The operatives of OSI are called A-Men.  A-Men; sounds like the final word of a prayer.

Or the set up for a very rude joke.

Top OSI agent Dr Jeffrey Stewart is called in to investigate an appliance store where everything has suddenly become magnetised.  Discovering that their is also a strong trace of radiation, the OSI team soon discovers that the source of the trouble is a new element that periodically generates powerful blasts of magnetic force as well as doubling in size every 11 hours. Tracking down the element, they learn that it can only be contained and destroyed by incredible amounts of electricity.  With only one place in the world capable of delivering the massive charge, only one chance to do so before it grows too big to control, the clock ticking and the fate of world resting on his shoulders, Dr Stewart has his work cut out for him.

The Magnetic Monster is a science fiction version of the FBI procedural film.  While Stewart is given a home life and pregnant wife to give his character two dimensions instead of one, the real star of the show is the steps taken by the OSI as they hunt for the magnetic killer.  Producer Ivan Tors, as he demonstrates in his other film and television work, is fascinated with the mechanics of science and dressing sets with all manner of apparatus, but what makes this film most interesting is how Tors was able to take stock footage from a German sci fi outing that was banned in the US as Nazi propaganda and build an entirely new feature around it.  This meant moving the climax to Canada to explain why the workers at the atomic plant aren't dressed like Americans as well has having the principal actors kitted out like their German counterparts.  The trick works for the most part, though there are a few confusing set crossings that only make sense because of the need for the plot to match the footage.

Richard Carlson and King Donovan take their parts dead seriously as they try to sell the absurd premise and Connie Stewart as our hero's long-suffering wife makes the most out of a very thin part.

Not the greatest B-movie of all time, but a respectable journeyman effort in making do on a low budget and with stock footage as the feature's tent pole.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Bond 23 has title

The title of the new 007 thriller, heretofore known only as "Bond 23" has been revealed as Skyfall.  Let's hope it involves nuclear weapons

Ralph Fiennes is in the production and is rumoured to be playing Ernest Stavro Blofeld.  However, this has not been confirmed, as there is no news of a white cat being cast at this time.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Review: The Asphyx

The Asphyx (1973)

Sir Hugo Cunnigham is as happy man as the waning years of the 19th century has seen.  Head of an aristocratic family, inheritor of a great name, he is wealthy, educated, respected, a great scientist, social reformer and philanthropist.  More, he has three wonderful grown-up children, one adopted who is engaged to be married to his natural daughter, and he himself is to be remarrying after long years of widower-hood.

However, a spot shows up on his horizon in the form of a smudge he keeps finding on photographs of the dying that he's been taking as part of his philanthropic work.  At first, he thinks that these are photos of the departing soul, but then his natural son and fiancée die in a boating accident while he is filming them with an early cinecamera.  When he develops the film later and plays it, he sees the same smudge moving away. Driven by grief, he investigates and soon discovers that what he is seeing is the creature that carries away the soul at the time of death; a tormented thing called an Asphyx, after the spirit of Death from Greek mythology.  More to the point, Sir Hugo discovers that his apparatus that allows him to see the Asphyx also allows him to trap it, which means that he has the power to grant immortality.  Unfortunately, it can only be done at the moment of imminent death and so Sir Hugo's laboratory becomes a place of torture and death as he tries to bring life to the world.

The Aphyx is a curious film.  It was one of those small studio efforts to imitate the success of Hammer Films in the early '70s that met with varied success and this one fell into obscurity fairly quickly, which is a pity.  Indeed it fell so far that when I first went looking for it on the Internet a few years ago I kept finding sites dedicated to perverted sexual practices involving auto-erotic asphyxiation.   It's an undeserved obscurity because this is a nice little horror piece.  It makes the most of its very modest budget by spending every penny wisely and keeping the staging as intimate as possible.

The plot has some absurd coincidences in the beginning, but they only serve to get the story moving, so no real harm done.  meanwhile, Robert Stephens gives a very good performance as the loving father who descends into fanaticism and destruction through the purest of motives and Robert Powell gives an excellent, though understated supporting part.  With surprisingly good cinematography for a low budget production and a musical score that is refreshingly free of "spooky" leitmotifs, The Asphyx shows that some decent bits of horror cinema ran in the slipstream of Hammer.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Review: Man From Earth

Jerome Bixby isn't as well known a science fiction writer as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke, but he was more influential than most people realise.  If you've ever seen the Twilight Zone, the original Star TrekFantastic Voyage, or even It! The Terror From Beyond Space, then you've seen Bixby's work.  And if you regard someone wearing a goatee as evidence that they are an evil doppelganger from another dimension, then you have Bixby to thank for that.

Man From Earth (2007) was Bixby's last screenplay that he began working on in the early 1960's and completed on his deathbed in 1998.  Shopped around Hollywood by his son Emerson, it was eventually filmed by director Richard Schenkman for a budget of only $200,000.

Not surprisingly, this is not a film of action and special effects.  It's more of an old-fashioned television play that remains mainly on one set and relies heavily on dialogue to move the plot along. In fact, a stage version is available that is, as far as I can tell, nearly identical to the shooting script.

The premise is a simple one.   A group of academics throw a surprise going away party for a young professor named John Oldman who is inexplicably abandoning his career and moving away.  When confronted with this question, Oldman reveals that he is, in fact, a 14,000-year old Cro Magnon who somehow became immortal and who must now move every ten years to keep his secret safe.

Needless to say, Oldman's friends refuse to believe him and he has no proof to support his claim, but against their better judgment they are drawn into Oldman's story.  Soon they are using their specialist knowledge to pick holes in his narrative and find themselves faced with the question of whether he is lying, insane, or really a caveman who has survived into the present day.

Man From Earth is an intriguing story that strives to be one of emotions and ideas.  It tries to deal with the big issues of life, death, and religion to the point where it often lapses into a round-table discussion suitable for late night on Channel 4.  However, Schenkman keeps the emotional ball in play and the plot avoids becoming overly dry.

Where Bixby stumbles is when he falls for the Hollywood cliché of thinking that in order to be serious one must bash religion in general and Christianity in particular. It is at this point that Man From Earth becomes predictable and pedestrian as it trots out anti-Christian arguments that didn't fly in the 2nd century and today seem merely glib.  Apparently, Christ was actually John Oldman trying to introduce Buddhism to the Jews and when he seemingly came back from the dead it caused the Apostles to start running off in a whirlwind of myth making like the cast of Life of Brian.  It's an idea, but the "Jesus survived the Crucifixion" wheeze is so old that it would have made St. Jerome send back a form letter in reply.  It could work as a premise, but Bixby needed to do his homework better.

Personally, I think that if Bixby really wanted people to question their beliefs and start some fresh discussion, he should have had Oldman say, "Yup, I was there.  Saw Him leave the tomb and was at the Ascension.  Good times." And then watch the secularists do a paradigm shift without a clutch.

This isn't helped by the introduction of a "Christian literalist" who doesn't believe in angels or miracles, but can be relied upon to say "sacrilege" and "blasphemy" at the drop of a prayer book.  She comes across as an old-fashioned character as do all the others.  The idea of a group of academics as a serious, enlightened jury to weigh the case of an alleged immortal caveman may have flown in 1960, but today, when the dirty laundry of so-called scholars is on display for all to see, it comes very close to comic.  From my own experience in the faculty common room, I'd say that instead of a heated, yet sympathetic discourse, a real gathering of soft scientists in such circumstances would quickly degenerate into blustering, back biting, territory grabbing, egomania, special pleading, political bigotry, and out and out whining leavened with the intellectual rigour that is normally associated with a nursery school riot.

Overall, Man From Earth is a refreshing film that requires attention and patience, but this is rewarded with a genteel and ultimately entertaining story capped by a twist that neatly resolves the conflict. At 90 minutes, it is too long for it's premise.  I can't help thinking that if Bixby had finished his screenplay in 1960, Rod Serling would have taken it and turned it into a taut classic of 24 minutes with far greater dramatic impact.

An immortal Rod Serling; now there's a premise for a film.

Originally posted on Ephemeral Isle.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Review: The Legend of Hell House

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

The Bellasco Mansion, better known as Hell House, is the "Mount Everest of haunted houses" and when an ageing billionaire wants definite answers to the question of life after death, it seems like the place to go.  So, he hires three psychic investigators to spend a week in the house for a fee of  £100,000 each.

Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, except the last team to try it twenty years ago ended up with almost everyone dead, crippled or insane, so when psychic medium Florence Tanner, physicist Lionel Barrett and his wife Ann, and Benjamin Fischer, the sole survivor or the previous attempt, move in, it's hardly for a holiday.

Directed by John Hough with a screenplay by Richard Matheson based on his novel Hell House, The Legend of Hell House is a rarity in haunted house films.  Unlike most, which are either jump-out-of-the-cupboard scream festivals, gross-out teen rubbish and the like, Hell House takes its premise with deadly seriousness and from the first frame to the last maintains an atmosphere of oppressive brooding.  Even when we're in the "real world", the air is kept up.  When Mr Barrett has a meeting with dying billionaire Rudolph Deutsch, it's filmed at Blenheim Palace, probably the most brutal great house in England, on an overcast winter's day.  There are no scenes of ordinary life, no sunny streets travelled through to contrast with the supernatural forebodings to come.  It's all in the same deep-bass notes and shadowed, befogged world.  This is carried over when the team enters Hell House, where the previous owner, depraved millionaire Emerish Bellasco,  blocked up all the windows to prevent outsiders seeing the orgies going on inside and where in 1929 all of his guests died in various ways while Bellasco vanished.  Since then, the house has been notorious for haunting that aren't just terrifying, but murderous.  This is a setting that does not lend itself to inserting wise cracks or comic relief.  Everyone in the cast sells the dead seriousness of the situation and with it neatly suspends disbelief.

It also helps that Matheson provides his characters with a real dramatic arc.  They aren't just victims front loaded for a bit of gore.  They are serious investigators with formidable credentials who should be able to solve the mystery of the house, but can't because they're being manipulated to fight one another.  Miss Tanner believes that Barrett is a soulless materialist who cannot accept the supernatural.  Barrett thinks that Miss Tanner is deluded.  Mrs Barrett grows susceptible to the influence of the house and Fischer seals himself off both psychically and emotionally because he has no desire to repeat what happened in 1953.  Each character has something to prove to him or herself and each ones motive conflicts beautifully with the others.

That being said, this isn't an exercise in character study.  The plot and direction are intense and the horrific bits are remarkably effective because they grow out of the characters and rely as much on the audience's imagination as o0n special effects.  Throw in a neat little mystery and it makes for a jolly little story.

To be watched in the afternoon.  With the lights on.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Specialty of the House

How do you tell a good screen adaptation from a bad one? It isn't that hard, just compare the one to the other and the distinction is evident.

Exhibit A: This is a good adaptation of Stanley Ellin's classic short story.

Exhibit B: This is an adaptation so foul that it exudes badness.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Review: Genevieve

Genevieve (1953)

There are some films that are popular, some that are classics and some that occupy a particularly warm place in the heart.  They're the sort that you catch on television or come across on Youtube and the result is a smile and an intense desire to put on the kettle, slip off the shoes and settle down for a happy hour and a half of cozy pleasure.  Such is Genevieve, which is surprising because the director was apparently a monster and the entire cast hated working with him.  That from such acid soil such a sweet film should emerge is surprising.

Genevieve revolves around one of those marvellous eccentricities of English life; the London to Brighton vintage car rally where motor cars dating from the turn of the 20th century re-enact the first  Emancipation Run in 1896 to celebrate the passage of the Locomotives on Highways Act 1896, which meant that motor cars no longer had to have a man preceding them on foot waving a red flag.  In this case, we follow the adventures of the McKim family: Husband Alan, wife Wendy, and the third member, Genevieve; a 1904 Darraq motor car.  They're joined on the drive down to Brighton by advertising salesman Ambrose Claverhouse, who is sharing his 1904 Spyker with his new girlfriend Rosalind Peters and a very large St Bernard named Suzie.

Since this is a comedy, things, predictably don't go well for the McKims as Genevieve insists on breaking down regularly in a way that serves as a metaphor for the state of the newlyweds' relationship, which is forever fracturing and mending itself as such things do.  The comic misadventures come to a head when Alan and Ambrose have a falling out the next day in Brighton and decide to settle matters by wagering £100 over who can be the first to drive back to Westminster Bridge in London.  The result is as insanely competitive a race as one can manage in two cars that could muster a dozen horsepower between them.

I can't say when I'd first seen Genevieve.  It's one of those features that always cropped up on rainy Sunday afternoons, but even as a boy I found its light comedy appealing.  But I never knew just how fond people were of the film until I watched a televised tribute back in the '80s to Pinewood Studios where it was produced.  There was a dinner for the various people involved with the studio who gave speeches and what not, and when the topic of a certain film was raised, the entire hall shouted out as one "Genevieve!"

It's a wonderful gem of a film with a cast that fit their roles like gloves and have perfect chemistry–especially between Alan and Wendy, who really do at times seem like a young married couple.  Kenneth More as Ambrose should have patented his brash character and no one can forget Kay Kendall as the tipsy Rosalind staggering up to the band stand, declaring that she'll "show them how to play the plumpet", only to belt out an eye-raising solo of "Genevieve".

And then, of course, there is Genevieve, who has so much personality as a motor car that really is first and last an inanimate object that she makes Herbie the Love Bug look like a pile of scrap for all his magical antics.

Backing up all of this is Larry Adler's inspired harmonica score and director Henry Cornelius's location photography that captures southern England in the 1950s for future generations.

If you haven't seen Genevieve, I envy you because you still have that first experience to look forward to.

And you can find it here.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray & Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Dorian Gray (2009)

Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray,  is one of those books that is extremely difficult to film.  In many ways a very light book, it also combines some  dark satire with very subtle thoughts on very weighty ideas about morality, decadence, corruption, society, sex, the worship of youth, and the individuality of evil.  So much of the text is internal and so much action occurs offstage that it is one of those books that it so easy to get very wrong indeed.

There have been any number of adaptations over the years, but perhaps the best was the 1945 version from MGM starring Hurd Hatfield.  It's not a perfect version.  There's far too much narration needed to keep up with the exposition and the drama is often bloodless because of the subject.  Dorian Gray is a young man at the peak of his beauty and when a friend paints a full-length portrait of him, the picture takes on the power to absorb all age, corruption and vice that Dorian might suffer so that Dorian always remains young and stainless no matter what horrors he indulges in while his picture grows older and fouler.  What makes the story works is what isn't seen.  First, because decadence unveiled is always tawdry, banal and uninteresting to the onlooker.  Ask any designated driver at a booze up and you'll understand.  It's far better to leave all that to the imagination.  Also, the story is not about Dorian's descent into corruption, but of the flawless mask he presents to the world despite all the evil and destruction he causes around him.  It is the mask that is important, not the vice.

Indeed, Hatfield's performance is mask-like with his carefully controlled expression giving little away.  He's a man who lives in a house as beautiful as a museum and just as uncomfortable and who commutes between gatherings of opulent splendour and dens of utter depravity.  It's a performance that is beautifully complemented by the fragile innocence of Angela Landsbury and George Sanders at his oleaginous best.  It's also telling that the only special effect is both simple and incredibly effective.  The film was shot in that magnificently clean black and white style that MGM excelled at in the 1940s, but when the camera turns on the painted picture, the film turns to full-blown Technicolor.

Not a perfect film, but an excellent embodiment of what Wilde was striving towards.

Dorian Gray, on the other hand, is an utter mess with director Oliver Parker thinking that the book is about a serial killer.  The film is a turgid mish mash of clichés as Parker shoves to timeline of the story around for no good reason.  Instead of beginning as the book and the 1945 film does with the unveiling of the picture, we see Dorian in a preposterous schoolboy getup walking through a London train staion where he is beset by pickpockets, prostitutes, rent boys and pearly kings.  The last one isn't true, but it's the only stereotype left out.  Oh, and we also get absinthe drinking (why?), flogging scars on Dorian (why?) and pointless close ups followed by more pointless close ups that seem to be mandatory.  For Gods sake, man, just show the artist painting and we'll get it.  We don't need an extreme close up of the brush to figure it out!

Worse, Parker is a lazy director, which is not surprising when you see how he butchered The Importance of being Earnest in 2002.  He starts scenes, gets bored with them, and ends them as if they no longer amuse.  He brings in a child abuse subplot that goes nowhere, he inflates and mishandles not one, but two love stories that clunk and clatter to no purpose, and he never develop his characters properly.

Worse, instead of keeping the debauchery in the audience's imagination, Parker jams every drop of blood, every sexual fetish up on the screen that he can get away with and not get an X rating.  It is cynical, nauseating and serves no dramatic purpose.  Even Colin Firth, who must have been blackmailed into doing this abomination, can't save it.

Dorian Gray has a running time of 112 minutes, but it feels more like four hours.  After 45 minutes, the plot begins to drag and by the one hour mark it is torture.  By the point where Parker loses all connection to the novel and turns it into a vampire flick set in the First World War with Dorian dressed as the Shadow, I'd given up on it entirely.  At the climax with Dorian's suffragette girlfriend (cliché overload!) trying to save him from the zombie portrait, I was more interested in whether or not there was any salami left in the fridge.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Javier Bardem is next Bond villain

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Javier Bardem slated to be the villain in the upcoming James Bond thriller sill titled "Bond 23".

No word about whether or not he'll have a white cat.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Review: Night of the Eagle

Night of the Eagle (1962)

Witchcraft, magic, spells, curses, hexes; these are the stuff of the Dark Ages.  Holdovers from a time of ignorance and superstition.  Science has banished all of these from the world and there is nothing in heaven and earth that is not dreamt of in our philosophy.  Or so thinks Mr Norman Taylor, lecturer in psychology at a provincial English University.  To him, the world is as rational as a slide rule and ordered as a computer programme.  "I do NOT believe"  is his motto.  It comes as a shock, therefore, to discover that his wife Tansy not only believes in magic, but practices it; leaving all manner of talismans and amulets that supposedly protect she and her husband from harm.  In a fit of pique and wounded pride, Norman forces Tansy to destroy all her fetishes in the fireplace.  All very healthy and rational–until the next day when out of the blue a student accuses Norman of rape, another threatens him with a gun, and something comes scratching at the door.

Based on Fritz Leiber's 1943 novel Conjure Wife, The Night of the Eagle is one of those low budget horror films that Britain was so apt at in the 1960s. Taking a page from 1957's Night of the Demon, Twilight Zone veteran writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont played up the psychological elements of Leiber's novel to produce a sense of mounting dread and paranoia that is far more effective than any CGI effect because it plays on the audience's imagination for the heavy lifting.  Using only dialogue, character, camera work and sound, director Sidney Hayers soon has us believing that not only is Tansy a witch, but that the campus is rotten with witches and one in particular who wants Norman dead.  Hayers keeps the pressure up and maintains the dramatic pace enough to keep the audeince's disbelief firmly suspended in mid air and the whole plot moving forward until the climax when Norman's scepticism is shattered beyond all hope of restoration.

Though the story was originally set in America, moving the location to England makes sense because it not only produces the proper atmosphere, but it also allowed Hayers to recruit a B-list cast that was still capable of treating the story with the absolute seriousness that such a tale requires if it is to succeed.  Night of the Eagle may not have the polish nor the production values of its more profitable Hammer cousins, but it is an overlooked gem that bears tracking down.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Foundation Trilogy heads for the screen

Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy heads for the big screen with screenwriter Dante Harper and director Roland Emmerich.

Will Smith is tipped to play Hari Seldon.  This last bit is a joke.  I hope. Please let this be a joke.  Please.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Review: Gattaca

Gattaca (1997)

Some say that biology is destiny.  But suppose it wasn't God or Fate that set that destiny.  Suppose science did.  Suppose we lived in a world where we could be programmed with our potential neatly mapped out for us at the moment of conception.

Vincent Freeman lives in such a world.  In a future society, parents "choose" (pressured into choosing is more accurate) the best characteristics of health, beauty and intelligence to give their children the best chance in life.  Unfortunately, Vincent was conceived the old fashioned way in the back seat of a car, not in a Petri dish.  This means that he's part of the new underclass of "invalids" (as opposed to "valids"); people whose unimproved DNA marks them as unworthy of the opportunities of the genetically superior.  Desperate to prove himself by going into space, Vincent connects with a black marketeer who pairs him with Jerome Morrow, a genetically perfect man who fell on hard times when he broke his back in a car accident.  With Jerome providing urine and blood samples, Vincent takes on Jerome's identity and lands a job with the prestigious Gattaca corporation, who are preparing an expedition to the moons of Saturn.  Everything seems to be going well until a week before the launch when a senior executive is found with his head bashed in and the police find a hair from an invalid on the premises–one of Vincent's hairs.

Gattaca isn't that well remembered these days.  It has a very slow, rhythmic pace that disappoints audiences expecting a slam-bang sci-fi adventure.  It's also one of those very serious films where no one smiles except wryly and no one makes a joke except with grim irony.  After a slow set up where we're introduced to Vincent, his genetically superior brother Anton, and Vincent's situation where a mere blood test is enough to condemn him to life as a janitor, the film then turns into a procedural as Vincent moves in with the permanently depressed and drink-sodden Jerome.  We see Vincent "become" Jerome by means as simple as contact lenses to match his officially recorded eye colour and as harrowing as Vincent having his legs stretched several inches so he matches Jerome's official height.  Every day Jerome provides blood samples, skin samples, hair and bags of urine that Vincent conceals on his person to get past the ever present genetic scanners.  Vincent becomes a clean freak as he obsessively scrubs his skin and washes his hair to get rid of any traces of his true identity.  We also see the dangerous complication of Vincent becoming involved with Irene Cassini, a valid who is drawn to him, but suspects his secret.

We can't help wondering why Vincent puts up with all of this.  The world he inhabits is sterile and lifeless.  The only beauty anyone seems to appreciate is that of technology.  Why watch a sunrise when you can watch a field of solar panels greeting the new day?  What is he trying to do?  Outdo his brother, who turns out to be the head detective on the murder investigation?  Beat the system?  Escape this opressive society?  It's often unclear.

What is clear is the irony of the world of Gattaca.  It's ruled by an elite of supermen who aren't actually supermen.  Each day the genetically inferior Vincent matches their performance and often exceeds them.  The only thing the vailds have is an in-built ID card that entitles them to rule.  It's rather as if a new aristocracy has emerged that uses a genome instead of a family tree to prove their right to power.  And, not surprisingly, it's a credential that proves less valid than a landed gentleman's and much more restricting as the supermen are actually afraid of surpassing their prescribed potential while Vincent is willing to go to reckless lengths to exceed his that came at the role of the dice.

Not a perfect  film, but with perfectly pitched performances, a hypnotic score and a paced direction that is almost like watching a policeman walking a long beat, Gattaca  is that rare commodity; an adult science fiction story where adult doesn't mean adolescent.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Caves of Steel on the big screen?

All that's left.

Isaac Asimov's robot detective novel The Caves of Steel is slated for production by 20th Century Fox with John Scott III as screenwriter and Henry Hobson as director.

Given what happened with I, Robot, where the studio took an existing screenplay, tacked on a few character names from Asimov's books and miscast Will Smith as the lead, I think I'll be content with what's left of the 1964 BBC production available above in its entirety.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Review: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Director Matthew Vaughan tries to breathe new life into the X-Men film series by adding heavy doses of Mad Men and James Bond sprinkled with bits of Cuban Missile Crisis and a dollop of Star Trek prequel/reboot trendiness.

The story is set in 1962. This already sets us on shaky ground because the series has already established that the X-Men operate in the present, which means that some of the characters would need Zimmer frames by now.  Anyway, the plot revolves around mutant superheroes Charles Xavier (AKA Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) as they join forces to battle the evil mutant Sebastian Shaw in his Blofeldesque plan to start an evil nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union because it's a really evil thing to do.  Unable to defeat Shaw and his mutant gang on their own, they recruit their own mutants who will one day become the X-Men and Magneto's villainous Mutant Brotherhood.

This is one of those films that you sort of like the first time, but on second viewing you start to loathe it. Vaughan manages to achieve inserting a certain degree of freshness into a plot we've already seen three times and his Marvel Comic's version of the 1960s, despite its anachronisms, is a happy change from Spandex, dark rooms and people staring at computer flatscreens.  The 1960s is also the only historical period that Hollywood doesn't try to lumber with a muted colour palette dipped in sepia, so it looks like the same planet the rest of us inhabit.  Unfortunately, he also takes unconscionable liberties with history by claiming that there was a moral equivalence in the Cuban Missile Crisis and that the United States was the aggressor for basing missiles in Turkey and the Communists merely responding.  This is news to historians because the crisis was due to the Communists having a massive strategic disadvantage to the United states in 1962.  Unable to attack the American mainland with their modest stockpile of ICBMs, the Soviets hit on the idea of sticking their medium range missiles in Castro's Cuba where they could plaster the American East Coast.  The American missiles that were withdrawn from Turkey after the crisis was resolved (That is, the Communists backed down and withdrew their weapons) were merely a bone thrown to the Soviets.  The Communists hadn't any choice since they'd been revealed as trying to bluff the US with an empty gun.  If it came to war, they'd have lost.

Still, this attitude on the part of Vaughan that the Americans were a bunch of troublemakers isn't surprising when one of the characters in the film is a CIA director who rants about how there's no place in the agency for women, which must mean that he hadn't been paying attention to anything the CIA had done since its creation when it ran scores of female agents.

The film is also lumbered with the same confusing premise of the previous three in the series.  Again we are in a world where, for inconsistently explained reasons, superhuman mutants (who represent disaffected teenagers, blacks, or homosexuals depending on the writer's whim) are popping up all over the place.  Normal people (who represent mainstream white Americans) are almost invariably hate-filled, violent bigots who loathe and fear the mutants for no reason other than baseless, irrational prejudice.  However, this is more of a hypothetical hatred since most of the normals are completely unaware of the mutants' existence.  Then there's the fact that when their existence is revealed it's by events that demonstrate that the mutants possess weapons that can never be removed,  that they can and do control minds, penetrate top-level security systems with ease, coerce or assassinate public officials at will, commit mass murder with impunity, hijack warships, and that some of them are not only willing to execute, but to attempt genocide on a global scale as part of a unilaterally declared war on the human race.  And that's when there's only a half dozen of them involved.  Yet, according to the premise of the series, anyone who looks upon mutants with less than open arms is a crazed,, paranoid bigot.  It's a bit like doing The Crucible and establishing that there really are witches running around New England destroying and murdering.

I must be missing something.

It also doesn't help that Marvel superheroes aren't just absurd, as all superheroes are, they're ludicrous.  I simply cannot take them seriously on any level.  You've got characters with hands where their feet should be, look literally like devils, fly by screaming or with real pixie wings, turn into diamonds, hurl destructive hula hoops, become walking atomic bombs and routinely violate the laws of common sense.  Those of physics they just throw out the window.  And these are the more restrained ones that Marvel chose for their films.  In the comics, they're like something out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting and the line between heroes and villains vanished decades ago as the X-Men comics descended into a story of gang warfare where "heroes" and villains swap sides out of sheer boredom.  If this film were a story about, for example telepaths or some other sort of basic supermen all sharing similar abilites that the audience could relate to, there'd be some foundation on which to build a believable story. But it isn't.

It doesn't help that the X-Men themselves are a team lead by a man whose main tactics for fostering human/mutant détente involve vigilantism, property damage, deliberately antagonising, if not frightening, those in authority, and flamboyant jumping about.  But even as melodrama or strained allegory X-Men: First Class is merely overwhelmed by its own excesses, overdone CGI action sequences, agenda and basic lack of verisimilitude.

This is a pity as the story does has some nice moments and a couple of neat threads that had potential.  Michael Fassbender provides a solid performance as a man named after an engine component who pulls off a performance that reminds one of how James Bond should be played and he has good chemistry with James McAvoy as the friend whom he ultimately betrays.  On the other end of the spectrum is January Jones, who really should look up acting in the dictionary because she's currently hasn't a clue.

In all, it's a film that aims at Thunderball, but ends up with Cairo: Nest of Spies.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Review: Revenge of the Sith

Less a review than an autopsy.

Caution: Profanity and pizza rolls.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Review: Attack of the Clones

The amazing thing about these reviews isn't just the cinematic insight of an ageing serial killer, but that they make the original trilogy actually look like good films.

Caution: Profanity and pizza rolls.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Monday, 12 September 2011

Friday, 9 September 2011

A salute to matte shots

A long post paying homage to that unsung hero of the cinema: The matte shot.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Did Close Encounters of the Third Kind create post-modernism?

Mr Spielberg, we'd like a few words with you, please.

If so, Steven Spielberg has a lot of explaining to do.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Three Musketeers trailer

In 3D!!!!!   Remember, these were the good bits.

It isn't often that a trailer, which is meant to make you want to actually part with coin of the realm to see the film,  reveals what a stinking piece of dreck it actually is.  This film clearly has a message and it's, "Avoid this Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off as if it had lice or you'll spend the rest of the evening moaning about how bloody awful it was.

But it's in 3D!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Review: Follow Me

Follow Me (1972)

London accountant Charles is certain that his American wife Belinda is having an affair and hires a detective to follow her.  Unfortunately, and unknown to Charles, the lantern-jawed investigator he hires has an accident and is replaced by an eccentric Greek named Julian Cristoforou, whose methods of surveillance are peculiar to say the least.

Based on a stage play and originally intended as a vehicle for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, director Carol Reed took the script and moulded it into lean little gem of a film that is quite obscure today, but that only makes discovering it as pleasurable as making a find in an antiques shop.

I'm not a fan of romances.  In fact, my wife always warns me when one is coming on the telly so I have a chance to leave the room.  I think it's partly that I generally dislike the genre because I regard as sentimental, manipulative and  tending to attract incredibly lazy writers and directors.  The laziness is the worst of the sins.  Hence my wife having no desire to hear my teeth grind and watch my hand reaching for the imaginary blue pencil while she enjoys (God knows why) the proceedings.

Follow Me is the exception to this. The writing is witty and the cast beautifully matched.  Reed's direction is light and seemingly effortless. And the London location shooting makes a perfect backdrop that opens up the original stage setting without overwhelming it or feeling tacked on.  I suppose it's this theatricality that draws me.  It produces more structure and requires more discipline, which serves the story much better than the flaccid naturalism that modern films lapse into.  The actors project in this film, never mutter as they do in modern films, because the script expects it of them. The haunting John Barry score doesn't hurt either.

There's another and stronger reason, though.  Follow Me is something that films no longer manage.  It's charming.  It isn't arch, ironic, edgy, self-aware or any of those dreadful company.  I hate romances, but I love charm–especially when it talks to the universals, which is what defines art.  Follow Me is so delightfully middle class without feeling any obligation to be "authentic".  Theres a gentility and even tenderness that seems impossible today, but for all that, it is also wryly amusing with a dry wit to counterbalance a plot that could easily become mawkish.

Topol dominates the story, as he should, as the self-styled "public eye" and Mia Farrow has the proper air of a free spirit trying to live in a strait-laced new world.  The only unfortunate part of her performance is that, though it's made clear that she'd from California, her Belinda remains a very English character with very British lines delivered in an American accent.   That, however, is more Reed's fault for not having the lines properly translated.  Michael Jayston makes up the trio as the staid anchor of the piece who combines both the conflict of a character who needs to be less schoolmasterish and a husband who is seeing his wife slipping away from him and not knowing what to do.

It's not an easy film to find, but if you do happen to come across it, give it a go.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Costumes and copyright

More powerful than a locomotive, but not a lawsuit.
Whenever I watch a DVD, I avoid the commentaries and the "making of" extras unless the film in question is at least 20 years old.   With one that came out a few months ago, I fully expect everyone involved to still be selling the product and therefore watching every word they say on the disc while the buffer of passing years means that we're more likely to hear how the brilliant, insightful opening sequence with its kinetic improvisation was actually due to director having to deal with a lead actor who showed up for work drunk as a lord and that the shooting script had been eaten by weasels.

Such is the case with Superman in the 21st century.  Both in the comics and the upcoming Superman feature Man of Steel, the Last Son of Krypton's wardrobe is getting a makeover with the red trunks gone and the whole thing looking more like body armour.   The film makers and comic book publishers claim that it's all about "rebooting" the series and "reimagining" the character for a new generation in a way that will revitalise the franchise, make Superman more relevant, give everyone on the Isle of Man a puppy, whiten teeth with fewer calories, etc.

Jeans?  Good grief.
Let's never speak of this.
Not exactly.  It turns out that Warner Bros. is facing defeat in a lawsuit with the heirs of Superman's creators Siegel and Shuster regaining the rights to various elements of the character; the effect of which is that if they want to continue using the original costume, they'll have to pay royalties, which to a studio executive is like asking a vampire to step into a tanning booth.  Did Warner say to themselves, "Superman's costume is as iconic as Uncle Sam's and for decades we've resisted demands by bored, self-indulgent artists to change it (and the one time we relented, it was a really bad idea), so to maintain integrity, we'll pay the royalties."  No, they were never that high.

Instead, they took the cheap out and changed the costume.

What annoys me about this isn't the change, but the hypocrisy.  Eon Productions faced a similar problem back in the seventies when Ian Fleming's script collaborator on Thunderball claimed the rights to SPECTRE and other story elements.  Not wanting to face a shakedown, Eon dumped Blofeld et al, which was their right, but at least they were honest enough to admit in public the reason why.

Just a matter of money.
The other thing that annoys me is that it's a perfect example of how the copyright laws need to be changed.  You can't hold a patent on the most vital technology for even 20 years, but the rights to a fictional character's tights can be locked up in what is effectively perpetuity.  This allows those involved to rack in profits on the work of people long dead without contributing anything by themselves, muck about with the material in the most cynical of ways, and allow books, characters and films to languish and die unread and unseen in copyright prison.  As a writer, I fully expect my rights to my works to be protected and that my daughter can get a reasonable cut after I'm gone, but should someone I've never heard of be cashing a cheque that I worked for 60 years after I've shuffled off the mortal coil and be able to make works unknown because no one dares republish them?  No, thank you.

This is definitely a job for Superman.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

10 best apocalypses

Big Hollywood looks at the ten best apocalyptic films

Apocalypse Now didn't make the cut.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The Lost Ark of the Covenant goes on display

The Lost Ark of the Covenant and other incredible treasures go on display at the Montreal Science Centre as part of a travelling exhibit commemorating the life and works of Dr Henry "Indiana" Jones.

That's pretty impressive for a man who was denied tenure.