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 d├ętente 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.