Thursday, 5 July 2012

At the crossroads

Changes to this blog.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Blade Runner plus 30


The BBC looks at the 30th anniversay of Blade Runner and examines how well its vision of the future has stood the test of time.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Victor Spinetti (1933-2012)



Actor and raconteur Victor Spinetti has passed on after a brief bout with cancer.  Generally remembered for his appearances in A Hard Day's Night and Help, I shall always remember him as the Duke d'Escargot.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows continues to ask that burning question, what would it be like if Guy Ritchie made a Sherlock Holmes film?  It's the eve of Dr Watson's wedding and Sherlock Holmes is closing in on Professor Moriarty, who is bent on a nefarious plan to plunge the world into war.  Not surprisingly, this results in Watson getting scooped up against his will into the fray and off our heroes go on a cross-continent chase to foil the arch villain.

Like any sequel, Shadows suffers from want of the novelty that marked the first film, but Ritchie makes some wise choices here, such as toning down the steampunk feel of the first and playing up the buddy-picture aspect.  Ritchie is always careful to keep nodding to the Conan Doyle books, though anyone expecting the Byronic, cerebral Holmes from the pages of the Strand won't find him here.  Instead, we are strictly in odd couple territory.

Ritchie also hits the restart button very hard by killing off Rachel McAdams early on and replacing her with Noomi Rapace as the female lead.  Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are comfortable in their roles and Jared Harris does a credible Moriarity, though he never gives Lionel Atwell a run for his money.

The only real problem is all the digital rubbish.  Do we really need to fly down gun barrels to see bullets and shells ignite?  Must every action sequence cut to slow motion?  Must the entire film be in a bluish colour palette that makes it look like a very detailed comic book?

Fun, though forgettable, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is more a film to be caught on cable than sought on DVD.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Mad doctors and bug-eyed monsters


Modern Mechanix looks at the relationship between scientists and Hollywood during the Golden Age.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Who killed John Carter?


I re-watched John Carter on the new DVD release and I'm more convinced than ever that this film didn't die at the box office on its merits; it was sabotaged by Disney.  It's pretty common to love a film the first time you see it and discover that a repeat viewing reveals just how bad it really is, but with John Carter, I didn't have that experience.  I still contend that it was an excellent adaptation of A Princess of Mars that did justice to the source material, took the non-fan audience into full consideration and came out with a feature that was loads of fun and never had me looking at my watch.

The question is, why did it do so bad at the box office?  There may be other factors, but the main one, I suspect is, sabotage.

I'm not the first one to say this.  In fact, there's an excellent open letter to Disney that covers this written back in March.  Really, I can't do much more than echo and elaborate on what the author said.  It struck me as odd how little publicity was given to John Carter in the past year and what there was proved horrible.  The publicity stills looked cheap and dull like something out of a Syfy feature.  The trailer was so badly put together that fans re-edited it to better effect.

Then, as the opening approached, it went from odd to suspicious.  Where were the interviews?  The cynical little marketing bits on the cable channels or on Youtube?  No paperback editions of the Barsoom series with stills from the film on the cover?  No special edition hardbacks with the same?  No viral campaigns?  No posters?  No toys?  No Happy Meals?  No "fan art" that started popping up at just the right time?  No saturation coverage on Disney-owned outlets?  Odd.

Then the smell factor kicked in when I saw what little was out there.  Posters that made no sense.  Standies in the cinema featuring white apes that gave no clue as to what the film was.  Efectively, there was nothing out there.

Then, as the open letter pointed out, Disney was very keen on declaring it a flop as soon as possible.  All this while wailing about how much money they'd lost–including $100 million in advertising.  As the open letter pointed out, who did the publicity?  The characters from Entourage?

Then last Thursday, the final piece fell into place.  I saw the DVD cover that looked like something off of a Chinese pirate version.  More than that, I saw the lone special feature; a making-of video obviously made by the filmmakers that showed them as passionate, creative, high-powered Hollywood types who really wanted to deliver.  I also saw the concept art (where was this before the release?) and crews dedication to doing right by Burroughs.

My verdict?  I'm not enough of a Hollywood insider to point fingers, but from the outward signs, I must conclude that someone high up in Disney had it in for this film or someone behind it and did everything he could to ensure its failure.  Someone not only starved it of the oxygen of publicity; he poisoned it with bad publicity.  When else has a studio ever come out and said "Our film is crap.  Stay away."?

John Carter was murdered.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Review: Prometheus

Prometheus (2012)

Following an "invitation" left on Earth thousands of years ago, a team of scientists backed by an aging businessman travel to another star system to meet the aliens who created man, only to find much more than they'd bargained for.

I hate being disappointed by a film.  I love seeing a film that I thought would be good and was, I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing a film I knew would be bad and was, and I delight in seeing a film I thought would be bad and wasn't.  What I dislike is watching a film that I thought would be good and it proves to be like a beautiful sandwich where the meat turns out to be tough and dry.

So it is with director Ridley Scott's big-budget return to science fiction/horror, Prometheus.  I was really looking forward to this one.  I loved Alien and Blade Runner and from the advertising campaign it looked like this was Scott going back to his roots.  The poster was intriguing, the trailer was genuinely harrowing and the David 8 viral advert was brilliant.

Let's start with the positive.  This is a beautiful film that makes Avatar look like the 3D animation feature that it really was.  Scott has a tremendous visual imagination and he knows how to get his ideas up on the screen.    He also knows how to get the best out of his editor and cinematographer.  Prometheus is a joy to look at, the action sequences are clear and well choreographed, the framing is spot on and the editing leaves the audience with a crisp story that cranks along at just the right speed.  I must also say the costume and set design that echoes Alien without seeming like a pastiche.  It all works.

Then there is the cast.  With the exception of Logan Marshall-Green and Guy Pearce, who are woefully miscast as a driven scientist and insane, aged tycoon respectively, the actors do a remarkable job.  Micheal Fassbender as David gives a performance that deserves a Best Actor Oscar (The early scenes of David alone on the spaceship are beautiful and compelling) and Noomi Rapace as the visionary archaeologist steps into the obligatory Action Girl role nicely.  Unfortunately, their roles are so badly written that they don't give justice to their performances.

 It's a shame that the end product is a dry turkey sandwich.  The whole premise behind the film is ill conceived and goes downhill from there.  Scott wanted to deal with big issues: Where did we come from?  Why are we here?  What is our purpose?  What is our relationship with our creator?   That's all very deep, but when man's creator turns out to be giant teddy bear aliens, all that goes out the airlock and we're left with much more prosaic questions, like how to get the squid monster out of the girl's belly.  At least Kubrick had the sense to make his aliens suitably mysterious and omnipotent.  Worse, the scriptwriters, who include one of the idiots behind Lost, fall into Lost's conundrum fallback and refuse to provide any answers to any questions large or small.

Sorry, but, like Lost, that's a cheat.  If you're going to raise questions about the meaning of life, then either provide an answer and take your lumps or have something interesting to say.  Don't just tease the audience as a prelude to taking the money and running.  That's not writing, that's a con game.  A con game built on cod theology at that.  If you hated Lost, you'll loathe this film.  If you liked Alien, you'll wonder what on Earth allowed this lot near the concept.

The writing is also lazy.  I could never figure out how Ridley Scott doing a space adventure could cause Guillermo del Toro to announce that he was abandoning his production of At the Mountains of Madness.  Having seen Prometheus, I now know why.  This film is Mountains in space.  It's the same story with the same beats and even the same outcome right down to the shoggoths.  However, what Lovecraft had to say about the origins of life on Earth, man's place in the universe and the beings who allegedly created us was a worm that worked overtime on the imagination and made you sleep with the lights on.  Prometheus invokes a powerful "so what?" reaction and makes you wish that Doctor Who (preferably Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker) would show up in the Tardis to get the story back on track.

The script doesn't even hold together.  It's riddled with basic mistakes such as characters not even showing basic curiosity, doing things for no reason other than it's in the script, and leaps of logic that would put the old Batman television series to shame.  How, for example, does a pictograph showing a man pointing at a constellation justify the conclusion that man was created by space aliens?  "Because that's what I choose to believe" doesn't cut it on any level of reasoning.

And this isn't an isolated example.  It's the standard operating mode of the writers.

Then there's the characters.  Scott's truck drivers in space idea was brilliant–in 1979.  It really set up the story to have a ship full of people who had no training for such a job investigating an alien spaceship.  It explained their vulnerability and heightened our sense of their peril.  It doesn't work in 2012.  These are supposed to be a ship of trained professionals who are going on a well-financed mission where they have a fairly good idea of what they'll be up against.  Instead, we get a load of emotional retards who yell and moan and complain in that infuriating naturalistic acting style that is as far from natural as it's possible to get.  The idea is old and it's played out.  Can't we, for a change, go back to the approach in The Thing From Another World or 1970's BBC sci fi and have grown ups who know what they're doing coming up against the menace?  How much more refreshing if the archaeologist, the corporate ice woman and the ship's captain had propelled the story with the dynamic of three competent, head-strong individuals who each want to approach the problem their own way and refuse to yield to the other two. That is a film I'd see.  I don't want to see a two neurotic women with daddy issues and a detached captain who doesn't care until the script tells him to care.

And don't get me started on Scott's recycling of the same old "procreation is horrible" idea that should have died with Freud.

This is a film where people do things that make no sense, like killing time having sex while shipmates are trapped in an alien temple being eaten by horrors or showing no curiosity when someone stumbles into a room half naked, covered in blood with a huge, freshly-stapled surgical wound in her abdomen.  Wouldn't this rate at least a "What the heck happened to you?"  And when your robot starts punching alien buttons that no one knows the purpose of, you might want to ask him in no uncertain terms what the **** he's doing instead of shrugging your shoulders in a naturalistic fashion.

It's a pity that the old studio system is dead.  I'd have loved to be able to look forward to the day when Scott's beautiful images could be pilfered by a better film as stock footage, but that spaceship has sailed.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Monday, 4 June 2012

Wes Anderson Bingo


I could do with a stack of these Wes Andeson Bingo cards.  Then I'd have some way to pass the time when I find myself trapped watching one of his plodding, self-involved, pretentious doll-house films.

Until then, I'll settle for the drinking game version.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Review: Riders to the Stars


Riders to the Stars (1954)

Mankind is reaching out into space, but the path isn't as simple as once thought.  Deadly cosmic rays are turn the first test rockets into dust and the US government recruits three pilots to fly into orbit to recover meteorites, which scientists believe hold the solution to the problem.  Can they overcome their personal fears and withstand the stresses of training long enough to complete their mission.

Riders to the Stars is another of Ivan Tors's close-but-no-cigar sci fi efforts.  While he strives mightily to produce an adult drama filled with real passion and white knuckle suspense, he ends up with an overwrought melodrama that is sometimes unintentionally funny due to its sheer earnestness.  We also see here Tors's on-going love of technology and desire to put up on the screen every bit of lab equipment he can get his hands on and to hell with wither the final set looks less like a space centre than a jumble sale at a high school physics class.  Riders has such lofty ambitions that it seems almost cruel to point out how badly it fails (the spacesuits are painful to look at and Dawn Adams fights like mad to screw some sort of performance out of her dreadful lines), but in the end, it ends up as little more than a footnote in the history of cinematic science fiction at the dawn of the Space Age.




Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Review: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

Little Sally is unhappy.  She's been packed off to live with her estranged father and his new girlfriend in a huge, exquisitely appointed Victorian mansion that he's renovating for a major magazine shoot before flipping it for a profit.  Lonely and neglected, Sally explores the grounds and discovers a sealed basement room with a bolted ash grate from which come voices–creepy, whispering voices that want to be her friends.  When the grate opens, at first Sally thinks that strange playmates have been liberated, but they soon turn out to be anything but.

A remake of the cult classic 1973 television play, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is not a dreadful film.  In many ways, it's quite good, but it is an example of why remakes are not always, or even generally, a good idea even if the filmmaker is a talented professional who loves the original.  Though this version strives to be as scary as the original and works hard to recreate much of its vocabulary, it is, in the end unsuccessful.  Part of the problem is the attempt to break new ground with the child-in-jeopardy plot, which is disturbing rather than frightening as is the dysfunctional family subplot, which is merely distracting.

But the main problem is very simple: The budget is too large.  The mansion setting is too grand to be claustrophobic and all location shooting at airports and in New York only destroy what little atmosphere is created.  Where the original budget only allowed for three evil creatures who were never clearly seen and always wrapped in mystery, here we have an army of rat monsters with a detailed back story that dispels any hope of engaging the audience's imagination.  Worse, it drops major holes in the plot, not the least of which is why the creatures don't just grab Sally and carry her off the second they're alone with her.  In the original, the creatures were few and had to engineer events to "get" the adult Sally.  Here, they're a horde who have no such limitations.  They're also established as mortal as more than one is squashed in one of the set piece battles.  This got so bad that by the end, I was waiting for someone to hit one of the creatures in the mouth with a piece of apple pie, which would lead to a look of delighted revelation and the film ending with the family and their new friends all sitting around the kitchen table laughing over plates of pie and big glasses of milk.

It wouldn't have been any more disappointing.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Review: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)


Don't Be Afraid of the Dark(1973)

Moving into a new house can sometimes be a little unnerving, even a little scary, but it generally isn't an exercise in flat-out terror.  Alex and Sally Farnham are settling into their new home; a Victorian pile that belonged to Sally's recently deceased grandmother.  While remodelling, Sally comes across a sealed up fireplace door in the basement den.  Against the advice of their handyman, Sally forces open the grating and now she's seeing things moving in the shadows and she's hearing voices–voices that are whispering her name.

In the 1970s, The American ABC network had considerable success with their series of teleplays marketed as the "Movie of the Week".  Most of these were fairly pedestrian affairs, but one result was a minor renaissance in science fiction and horror plays that showed remarkable imagination and innovation.  The reason for this is that the producers were forced to work on tiny budgets and, having at their disposal professionals who'd worked in film since the '40s, rather than fighting against these limitations, they exploited them to produce plays that relied on sparking the audience's imagination rather than saturating it with special effects.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a classic example.  It's an intimate, claustrophobic tale of terror about a young wife who moves away from New York to a place of relative isolation while her husband concentrates obsessively on his job back in the city.  As the strange happenings become more and more obvious, Sally goes from doubting her sanity to trying to convince her spouse and neighbours that there is something seriously wrong.  It doesn't help that the "something" is working overtime to prove to everyone that Sally is bonkers.

There's also a lot of credibility given to the sense of mounting dread.  It's established that the somethings that are after Sally aren't numerous, nor are they all-powerful, so they can't just "get" her; they must manipulate the situation in order to get Sally isolated and helpless.  Meanwhile, Sally can't just bolt out the front door because it's never as simple as all that.  Writer Nigel McKeand is especially clever in that he never reveals too much about the menace.  We never get a good look at them and we're only told enough about them to make them credible without making them understandable.  They remain that most frightening of childhood horrors; the monster under the bed that wants to "get" you.

Kim Darby gives a stong performance here from introduction to the final, chilling voiceover while William Demarest as the handyman's very ordinariness gives real force as he relates a tale that is in frightening contrast to his world of planks and paint.

But the real mystery of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is why anyone thought this needed remaking rather than just re-releasing.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Review: The Whisperer in Darkness

The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)

In 1928, rural Vermont is struck by torrential rains and the consequent flooding washes down "things" found by the locals that spark off a minor sensation in the newspapers that draws Miskatonic University folklorist Albert Wilmarth.  Convinced that these sightings are just the result of superstition and yellow journalism, Wilmarth ends up in an embarrassing debate with real-life compiler of the weird Charles Fort.  Smarting from his defeat, he isn't too happy to be approached afterwards by the son of a man who lives in the mountain country of Vermont who claims to have not only proof of the existence of these "things", but that he's being watched by them and their human allies.  Soon, Wilmarth finds himself on a train to Vermont that will answer questions that he wished he'd never asked.

The Whisperer in Darkness is produced by the H P Lovecraft Historical Society, the same group that made The Call of Cthulhu in 2007.  Like Chtulhu, this is a amateur labour of love production by people dedicated to bringing the works of Lovecraft to the screen that are set in the period of his stories and reflect the cinema of the time.  In this case, they've gone forward from their previous silent pastiche for one more like the monochrome thrillers of the 1930s.  With obvious enthusiasm on the part of the cast and crew and a strong eye for detail, director Sean Branney comes up with a final product that has the production values and acting talent that shows that entertaining cinema is no longer reserved for the big studios with blockbuster budgets.

But what really puts Whisperer over is the strength of its script.  Though it remains much more faithful to Lovecraft than most adaptations, the screenplay acknowledges that adaption to the screen does not mean filming the book.  The character of our narrator Wilmarth is fleshed out with a back story and motives that turn him into a protagonist who is a proper character and the twist ending, which is jolting in print, but an anti-climax on video, is made the springboard for a more intense denouement.  And since it's impossible to make Lovecraft's hinted at horrors and atmospheric word pictures work here, the writers wisely decide to concentrate more on the effects of this knowledge on those it affects.

In all, a good example of a labour of loved backed by competent craftsmanship. 




Thursday, 10 May 2012

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Question



Is the three-point landing a cinematic cliche?

Yes.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Review: The Avengers

The Avengers (2012)

Thor's evil brother Loki comes to Earth to prepare the way for his invading alien army and Nick Fury of SHIELD recruits the planet's most powerful superheroes to battle the menace, but when you have a load of super beings who shouldn't even be in the same room, turning them into a team isn't easy.

That sound you hear is all the money being sucked toward The Avengers at box offices all over the world.  after years of build up via individual franchise films for Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor plus a steady publicity campaign that hyped the film into the biggest of the year, the payoff could only be delight or utter disappointment on a Phantom Menace scale.

It was not disappointment.  The Avengers is the end product of a very clever campaign on the part of Marvel. By introducing the members of the superhero team in previous films it didn't just build an audience to channel into the Avengers, it also brought that audience up to speed on who these characters are, so we didn't need masses of exposition to explain who Thor is or why Iron Man is a snarky billionaire or the villain's back story.  Instead, director Joss Whedon merely takes all that as a given and hits the ground running.  Even before the title credits we have an alien artefact going into overload, Loki showing up, shooting a load of agent, placing more under mind control, stealing the artefact, destroying a top secret installation and escaping in a car chase in a mine collapse.

It would be easy to call this a roller coaster or something like that, but the best way to describe is that The Avengers is what every geeky kid ever wanted a superhero film to be.  It's how a six-year old remembers Christopher Reeves's Superman: The Movie when it first came out.  It's how you always hope a comic book film will be and never is.  Best of all, it isn't a slavish and fanboy translation from comic book to screen.  Instead, Whedon has the sense to pick and choose from the Marvel universe.  He takes this bit, ignores that bit, changes others and comes up with a screenplay that is consistent with the earlier films, is respectful of the source material, satisfies all but the most hardcore fans, and (most important) makes it all accessible to audiences who don't particularly like comic books or superheroes but like blockbuster movies with characters with some life to them.

The action sequences are remarkable, not only for their scale, but also because, unlike many action films, they are properly choreographed so you have some idea of what is going on and the fights reflect and grow our of who the characters are, which many directors forget.

But it's the characters who make The Avengers work.  Without bringing the plot to a halt, but using it to push it along, we see the Avengers and the members of SHIELD brought unwillingly together. Tony Stark is no team player, Steve Rogers awakens 70 years after WWII and isn't impressed with modern society, Bruce Banner just wants to stay in control of himself, Thor is sick of human bickering and Nick Fury would like everyone to kindly remember the alien invasion and do something about it.  And, this being the Marvel universe, the heroes end up fighting each other at every misunderstanding.  It could have been a real mess, but Whedon keeps it in focus and things ticking along.

Whedon has never been my favourite director.  In fact, I rather dislike almost everything he does, but with The Avengers he scores a bullseye.  I rather suspect that it's because he brings a love of comics and a knowledge of them to the project combined with a real understanding of what is needed to appeal to a general audience.  He is a natural comic book film director.

The verdict on The Avengers?  This is no Lawrence of Arabia, but it is very probably the best superhero film ever made.  It delivers what was promised, and that's good enough.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Review: Rollerball

Rollerball (1975)

It's the 21st century, decades after the end of the Corporate Wars that put an end to nation states.  The distant corporations control everything and in return for their obedience provide the populace with everything, including the wildly popular sport of Rollerball; a combination of roller derby, hockey and motocross.  Johnathan E, Captain of the Houston team, is the world's greatest Rollerball player with an unparalleled history of success.  He lives lavishly, is envied even by the most privileged corporate executives and anything he wants is his for the asking, but something is wrong.  Someone wants Jonathan to retire and this faceless person or persons is doing everything he or they can to persuade, bribe or threaten him to quit.  Jonathan refuses and as he tries to learn more about how his world works, not an easy thing in a society where curiosity is discouraged, those who control Rollerball are making sure that if he doesn't quit, then this season will be his last because the game is rigged so that he can't come out alive.

Rollerball, directed by Norman Jewison with a screenplay by William Harrison based on his short story "Roller Ball Murder", is a vicious commentary on the growing violence in professional sports combined with a moving tribute to the triumph of the individual in the face of a society determined to prove this impossible.  James Cann is perfect casting as Jonathan E as is John Houseman as the corporate kingpin Bartholomew and Maud Adams as Jonathan's wife who was taken from him at an executive's whim.  And then there is Ralph Richardson's wonderful cameo as the computer scientist battling his stroppy creation that has inadvertently erased the whole of the 13th century.

Jewison acknowledges that the extreme violence was a direct result of Kubrick's Clockwork Orange of a few years earlier and that he felt that it backfired on him somewhat when instead of audience's being horrified, they actually started wondering when real Rollerball rinks would be built.  Life imitating art indeed.

But what really makes the film work is its central message.  Rollerball was created to prove to the masses that individual effort is futile, yet here is a man in Jonathan E who, without any agenda, demonstrates that the system can be beaten no matter how it is rigged.  Not only beaten, but in a way that exults rather than subverts a man's nobility.

For all it's violence, this is a film that couldn't be made today.  Such a call to human freedom on its most basic level sits most uncomfortably now that we live in the time of Rollerball.


Jonathan! Jonathan!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

David8


As part of the run up to the release of Prometheus, we have this disturbing pseudo advert for "David8".

Maybe having him talk like Hal from 2001: a Space Odyssey wasn't the most reassuring choice.




Monday, 16 April 2012

Review: Charly

Charly (1968)

Charly Gordon is a severely retarded adult who is given a second chance when he is selected for an experiment for a technique to raise human intelligence.  The operation succeeds beyond the dreams of the scientists, but it turn into a tragedy when the now super genius Charly discovers that the effects are only temporary.

Based on the Novella "Flowers for Algernon", Charly came to the big screen through the efforts of star Cliff Robertson, who created the role of Charly on Television as was determined to play the part in the film adaptation.  It's a wise choice on his part because Robertson is perfectly cast as Charly; making his sympathetic and even lovable without descending into mawkishness or self-righteousness.  In his performance, we see a man who has been offered a release from the prison of his own mind, his frustration at his slow progress, his confusion over his identity as he outstrips his fellow man and despair as he learns that he is only on parole from idiocy.  It's a very poignant story, but in many respects it acts as a bittersweet metaphor for the human condition as each of us must come to terms with out own enfeeblement and mortality.

Balancing Robertson is Claire Bloom as his adult education teacher who introduces Charly to the scientists and acts his guide.  In some ways, her journey is even more difficult as she must come to terms with a child in an adult body who she must accept as her intellectual equal, then her superior and then, most difficult as a man whom she falls in love with only to face losing him.

Though rarely seen as such, Charly is fits squarely as science fiction at its best and exemplifies the sort of fantasy that has become very rare nowadays; a story of an individual faced with some scientific novelty that changes his life.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Review: The Prince and the Showgirl

The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)

It's 1911 and while in London to attend the coronation of George V, the Prince-Regent of Carpathia, decides on a bit of relaxation.  After attending  a show, he invites Elise Marina, one of the cast, to the embassy for a late supper.  What starts out as a fairly routine seduction ends up as a three day whirlwind of politics, infuriation and minor farce that ends in actual romance.

This film has passed into legend largely because this was a potential breakout role for Marilyn Monroe that ended in a nightmarish production that made Laurence Olivier give up film directing because of the horrors he went through with his costar.  That's a shame because none of the acrimony and hair pulling shows on the screen and the result is a fluffy meringue of a romantic comedy that highlights Monroe's talents as a light comedic actress.  Olivier gives her an indulgent amount of screen time and manages to pull a remarkable performance out of her even when she isn't speaking. There's even a wonderful sight gag as a hungover Monroe does a bump and grind stagger into a conference wearing a blanket in search of a water carafe.

This isn't a great film, but it's an enjoyable way to pass the time with marvelous work by the likes of Dame Sybil Thorndyke and Richard Wattis as well as Olivier as the repressed, yet potentially passionate Prince.  the script by Terrance Rattigan sparkles and the only real fly in the ointment is the coronation sequence that feels as if the film has been hijacked by a completely different director.

My advice, forget the history and just enjoy the show.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Review: War Horse


Not a clip from War Horse, but it should be.
War Horse (2011)

An exceptional horse named Joey is separated from the boy who raised him and is sold to the British Army during the First World War.  After going through a series of adventures that touch on various lives, the boy, now an enlisted man, and the horse are reunited at a field hospital in France.

Based on a novel and Tony-award winning play, War Horse is pure Steven Spielberg fodder sopped so heavily in sentiment and manipulative film craft that it can barely stand on its own.  The fact that it can stand at all with a running time of 146 minutes is amazing.  Spielberg goes for a more Old Hollywood look to this outing, but instead of adding anything to the story, Spielberg merely draws attention to his windmills and orange sunsets.  Most scenes drag on interminably and the "touching on various lives" means a parade of episodes that neither entertain nor enlighten.  About the only refreshing thing with this film is that, unlike most First World War  epics, Spielberg actually shows the Germans losing the war.

Final assessment:  This is a Spielberg film.  If you like Spielberg, you might like this.  If you don't like his direction, you will loathe this to the pith of your being.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (2012)

In a dystopian future America, the nation has descended into a brutal dictatorship divided into twelve districts that exist to serve the needs of the decadent inhabitants of the Capitol.  As part of their programme of control, the government requires that each district send two children between the ages of twelve and 18, selected by lottery, to participate in a bloody last-man-standing gladiatorial game.  Kaitness volunteers to participate in the games to act as a substitute for her sister, who has been selected in the lottery, and it sent off to the Capitol where she is introduced to a bizarre contest that is half show business and half fight-to-the-death.

And with this, we see the first flaw with The Hunger Games, both book and film, the wearisome need to slog through a turgid mass of exposition before the first chapter even opens.  What's doubly annoying is that this overwrought back story props up a plot that is so mindbogglingly predictable the entire film is already unrolling in the mind during the establishing shots.  There isn't a single twist or surprise in the deck.  It's also staggeringly derivative.  If you've seen Rollerball, you've seen this.  If you've seen The Most Dangerous Game, The Naked Prey, Several Outer Limits or Star Trek or The Incredible Hulk episodes, The Year of the Sex Olympics, the... you get the idea.  This trail has been trod so many times it makes Watling Street look like a goat path.  The only difference here is that the prey are children (a premise that is, quite frankly, sick. And this is a series aimed at teenagers!) and our protagonist is that equally overused cliche, Action GirlTM.

This isn't a total waste of time as a film.  Though the male and female leads are hopelessly miscast, they still do a good job and deliver decent performances and Stanley Tucci steals the show every time he's on screen–and not just because of his blue hair.  The look of the film is very good with sets and costumes that serve their purposes well and the over all design of this world is consistent.

The real problem with The Hunger Games is with director Gary Ross.  This is a man who obviously does not trust his script, his actors or anything else in the production, so he resorts to relentless cinematic gimmickry to try to salvage what he sees as substandard material.  His overuse of shaky camera work and extreme close ups is not only confusing, it is literally nauseating to the point where I had to shut my eyes several times to hold down my popcorn.  The action sequences are confused jumbles without choreography, the pacing is uneven and what  little sense of tension or chemistry between the principals is quickly evaporated under his hand.  Worse, Ross's scenes are usually nothing but an endless collection of reaction shots and he has no idea of how to use dialogue to move the plot forward.  The worst is that he never gives us any impression that any thought is behind any character's action; as if Katniss et al are running on anything other than feelings.

I will confess at this point that I'm no fan of the Hunger Games series.  I dislike coming of age films because directors imagine that they're easy when they are, in fact, extremely difficult to do.  You not only have to deal with a teenage protagonist, but you must also show the man within the boy or, in this case, the woman within the girl, and very few films can manage that.  Certainly this one doesn't.  The basic plot lacks the elements of dramatic tension.  There is no ticking clock, no fighting for a higher cause, no nothing.  It is simply an open ended fight for survival and nothing else.  To add insult to injury, things actually get easier for Kaitness when they should get harder.

There isn't even the redeeming quality of rebellion.  You never get the sense that Kaitness thinks that the system she lives under is wrong, only that she's caught at the sharp end.  In fact, the end is a complete sell out (I know, "spoilers") as Kaitness and her boyfriend happily smile for the cameras before heading home in triumph.  My wife says that this changes in the next film, which follows the later books.  But, as  I've said to more than one director while doing script rewrites, I don't give a toss about the next film, it's this one I'm dealing with.

We've come a long way from earlier sports sci fi films highlighting the dogged determination to prevail despite facing a system that is rigged to ensure the hero's failure.  Let's look at the Hunger Games circa 1975:


How a dystopian sports film should end.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Deadline


I've got two deadlines due today,  so posting will be a bit spotty through tomorrow.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Metropolis

Retronaut has some great behind the scenes shots from Frtiz Lang's Metropolis. 

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Review: The Wrong Box

The Wrong Box (1966)

The Finsbury family has a problem.  The eldest brothers, Joseph and Masterman Finsbury haven't spoken in over forty years.  They are also the only two survivors of a tontine with the last one left alive receiving a fortune of 100,000 pounds sterling.  This is causing something of a strain because Masterman has been dying for sometime and Joseph, whose venal nephews Morris and John have been striving mightily to keep in good health has apparently died in a train wreck.  Not wanting to see a fortune slip away, Morris is determined to keep his uncle "alive" until Masterman dies.  Meanwhile, Masterman's grandson Michael pines silently for his cousin Julia who pines silently for him.

Then things get odd.

Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson/Lloyd Osbourne novel of the same name, The Wrong Box is a charming, Ealingesue comedy that combines benign humour with morbid wit and a dollop of '60s satire.  Sending up Victorian mores, melodramas and railway toilets all wrapped in a farcial package, it provides 105 minutes of harmless comedy.  That, however, doesn't translates into dull.  The cast headed by Ralph Richardson and John Mills with Michael Caine, Nanette Newman, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore do a marvellous job of playing the silliness of the plot with dead-straight conviction while Tony Hancock and Wilfrid Lawson scoop any laughs that might have rolled by.   The storyline starts out following the novel fairly closely, but instead of making the wayward body one element of a broader comedy, Director Bryan Forbes turns it into the centre of pure farce that ends in chases,confusions and people being hit with handbags.

He also takes the opportunity of introducing Peter Sellers as a "venal doctor" whom Peter Cook approaches  in search of a phoney death certificate.  Whatever the failings of the wider picture, the singular opportunity of seeing Sellers and Cook playing off one another is worth the effort of setting the DVR.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Review: My Week with Marilyn

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

The myth of Marilyn Monroe the sex goddess has long been put to rest, though why any folklore should still cling to an actress who's been dead for half a century is another matter.  It's now fully understood that her bubbly, airhead seductress persona was just an act put on for the public by a deeply insecure woman who was never convinced of her own talent or personal worth.  Unfortunately, the myth of Marilyn the tragic heroine of her own life is still alive and well.  She's become the Hollywood version of Princess Diana; a beautiful woman of some talent who was catapulted into the wanted, yet unwanted position of most famous woman in the world who lived a brief, unhappy life that ended too soon under questionable circumstances.  

But the myth surrounding both these women hides some unpleasant truths about them.  Neither were notable for any real intelligence or common sense.  Both were profoundly selfish and incapable of seeing the damage that their self-pitying, self-absorbed attitudes had on those around them.  Both showed staggering unawareness and ingratitude for the incredibly lucky hand that providence had dealt them.  And both have enjoyed years of emotionally correct demands that we must all have the same feelings toward them and that we must all draw the same conclusions about them.  In Marilyn's case, we must regard her as a potentially great actress who was hobbled by her upbringing and an unjustly lonely victim of those around her who exploited her and showed her a lack of kindness. 

And, of course, we must praise her cinematic oeuvre to the echo because she came to a bad end.  Never mind that Hollywood is a rotten town, that film making is a rotten business, that legions of more talented actresses put up with far worse for far less reward, we must all regard a woman who had a talent for spontaneous showmanship and a passable light comic actress as one of the greats.

Such is the approach of My Week with Marilyn.  Based on the diaries of filmmaker Colin Clark when he was a star-struck youth acting as third assistant director to Laurence Olivier, this film chronicles the rocky making of 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl; the film that made Olivier give up film directing.  Monroe comes on the set as an honoured addition to the project, but within days her unreliability and dependence on her mother-hen acting coach starts to drive director Olivier to despair.  When Monroe takes a shine to the young Colin, he becomes her unofficial minder and we follow the passage as he falls in love with the actress.

My Week looks very nice and it has the sort of cinematography and first-tier cast including Kenneth Brannagh and Dame Judi Dench that fast track a picture toward an Oscar.  Michelle Williams works overtime trying to capture the uncapturable goal of portraying Monroe and Eddie Redmayne as Colin gives off such an air of puppy love that the studio floor must have been strewn with newspapers.

It is, however, a staggeringly sentimental film that surrenders itself entirely to the "poor Marilyn" treatment without much thought that her emotional crises are putting the careers and fortunes of other real human beings at hazard. It is also a supremely annoying film because it suffers from that curse of the modern age; the belief on the part of directors that just because modern sound equipment can pick up a whisper, the actors can whisper.  Watching the film, the wife and I had to keep turning up the volume until I became puzzled by this constant hissing sound I heard in the background.  Then it dawned on me.  We'd turned the volume up until it pegged on maximum and I was hearing the noise from the electronics, but I still couldn't hear the damn actors.

Here's a tip.  We actually understand that when actors speak louder than they would in real life (actually, anyone would speak louder than this lot unless they were hiding from zombies) that they are doing so in order for us to hear them.  We get it.  It's an acting convention.  So, don't worry.  Just tell the actors to PROJECT!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Review: Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1


Oh, for the love of God, do something, you apprehensive, brain-damaged, mouse-haired sea cucumber!
Bill Corbett's assessment of Bella
Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (2012)

Bella and her 100-year old vampire boyfriend finally get married and give birth to a demon-spawn child that the local Red Indian werewolves want to destroy.  I can't believe I just wrote that. Yes, the plot is that thin and that silly.

The original Twilight film was so mind-bendingly bad that I came away with the happy consolation that no other piece of cinema could be worse.  This is much, much worse.  How bad?  The wedding of Bella and Edward takes 30 minutes of screen time.  No, that is not a typo.  It was 30 minutes.  Then they went on their honeymoon that took up another 15 minutes (Including three games of chess.  I'm not kidding).  Then she becomes unexpectedly pregnant with a story logic that shows that Stephanie Meyer makes things up as she goes along, Bella is nearly killed by her Child of Satan, the werewolves are determined to kill it, and Edward and his vampire family try to protect Bella.

Oh, Lord.  It doesn't get any better explaining it the second time around.  This is a nightmarishly slow film with characters from previous installments showing up so briefly that I'm surprised that they bothered getting into costume.  Some even got a line.  A line.

To catalogue just how appalling this dreck is from the script to the direction to the editing to the casting to the acting and even the horribly bad idea of selling tickets to see this is just to invite people to think I'm looking for pity for what I suffered.  I don't need pity.  I need a survivor's support group.  This series was bad to begin with, but now it has become such a self-absorbed, disappear-up-its-own-backside of a story so divorced from the real world that only 13-year old girls with serious issues or economists would suspend their disbelief for a nanosecond.

Going over my boredom tear stained notes, I've selected what I see as the worse fault of it all: Bella.  Or, to be precise, how the other characters react to her.  She is the most vapid, soulless, unthinking motiveless, passive, ineffectual character in all cinema.  Worse, she also has no sense of morality.  In previous films, she has watched a crowd of innocent people being led to the slaughter and said nothing and her boyfriend has confessed twice to being a serial killer, but shrugs it off as him being too hard on himself.  Yet in spite of this, every other character in this film have made her the absolute centre of their universe.  Even the werewolves are going after the demon baby to protect her!  Her safety and happiness are their overriding priority over everything else.  This despite her being, in the words of Mr Corbett, a brain-damaged sea cucumber who names her child "Renesmee".

Don't name your child Renesmee.

All I can say is, that I'm definitely buying the DVD of this; several, in fact.  Then I'm taking up skeet shooting.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Review: La Jetée

La Jetée (1962)

A man from a post-apocalyptic future is sent back in time against his will to seek aid for his people only to fall in love with a woman from the past and mixed in with this are the mysterious events surrounding a shooting that the man witnessed as a child.

La Jetée is one of those bizarre fruits of the 1960s, the avant garde French film.  That mean's it's all terribly and self-consciously experimental.  With a running time of less than 30 minutes, it isn't exactly a feature film and since it's made up almost entirely of stills with a droning narration, it isn't so much a film as a mid-20th century attempt to anticipate the PowerPoint presentation.

Like a lot of French films of the time, this one got all sorts of praise and commentary for its innovation.  It's been called a cinematic short story, but that's nonsense.  Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock filmed short stories.  That's what their television careers were about.  This is more like a filmed story synopsis, since the stills are nothing but a photographic storyboard of an actual feature and the narration is nothing but a monotone outline of events without description, dialogue or any inner life revealed.  If you've read the first paragraph of this review, you know everything about La Jetée except the ending, which isn't too hard to figure out.

Speaking of Hitchcock, the thing that annoys me about the avant garde is how infernally lazy that load of young louts running about with their hand-held cameras and Gauloises were.  I don't have much time for flim school students who lifted tricks from Hitchcock and, instead of using them as Hitchcock did as a tool for story telling, shoved them individually upstage and centre as if they'd done something clever.

Worse, they always made a big thing about being "experimental".  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for experimentation in cinema, but if you are experimenting, kindly go off and do so in private and call me when you're ready to make a proper film. Until then, I have no interest in your rushes, test footage or other refugees from the Extras section of a DVD.  Putting a title card in front of your playing with your new box of filters and calling it "art" doesn't make it so.

La Jetée is a good example of this self-indulgence.  Terry Gilliam remade it in the '90s as Twelve Monkeys and because I've never bought the DVD, I have no idea what his tests look like and I'm happier for it. 

Monday, 12 March 2012

Review: John Carter

John Carter (2012)

Confederate war veteran Captain John Carter tries to drown the memories of his dead wife and child by searching for a "cave of gold" in the Arizona territories in 1868.  Ironically, he finds it when he takes refuge from a band of Apaches.  Through a mysterious amulet he finds there, he is transported to the planet Mars where he is captured by the Tharks; the green men of the dying world the natives call Barsoom.  And so begins a swashbuckling adventure for the hand of a Martian princess that will decide the fate of two worlds.

A Princess of Mars, the 1912 novel upon which John Carter is based and the original film title holds the record for a book being in Hollywood development; 79 years.  The first attempt was an aborted 1931 attempt that would have been the world's first animated film.   Unfortunately, Princess has always proven to be an incredibly difficult and expensive book to put on film.  It is an exotic tale that demands exotic locations, costumes, props, pageantry and special effects.  It also requires strict discipline on the part of both producer and director to stay faithful to the material.  On the other side of the coin, it's a story that the screenplay writer can't remain too faithful to because it's been so influential over the past century. Countless books and films have been inspired by it from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Avatar and to simply film the book would condemn it to the fate of Judge Dredd; a film that remains faithful to a seminal work that everyone imitated, but looks old hat.

This final incarnation by Disney is like finally being able to stop holding one's breath.  It's not a great film; let's be honest about that, but it is a very good one.  The pace is very fast with only one or two slow stretches, the visuals are gorgeous, the script both takes the material seriously, so there's no winking at the camera, but it still has humour that derives from situations and characters.

Most important, John Carter doesn't fall into the trap of last year's deeply disappointing Green Lantern.  The latter felt compelled to dump every datum of mythology, back story and world building that it could until it sank under the weight of its own fanboy exposition.  John Carter only tells us what we need to know to keep the story going forward and no more.  This is a stripped down Barsoom and all the better for it.  Like Tolkien, the detail is there, but kept in the background until needed.  This keeps to story telling lean and to the point.

The design of the film is luscious, which is what Barsoom needs to be.  After all, Burroughs's Mars is a dying world populated by a people slipping into barbarism as they try to survive and it needs that feel of exotic splendour combined with dead cities, savage green hordes and super science to make it all work.

The casting is also spot on.  Taylor Kitsch plays the Captain from Virginia very well and the script gives him a tragic back story that he needs to overcome, but which doesn't cripple the original idea of the character.  Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas shows what CGI acting should be able to do, Mark Strong and Dominic West make credible villains and Jame Purefoy give refreshing light relief as Kantos Kan (glad he made it from the book).

But the biggest casting hurdle was Dejah Thoris.  The stunningly beautiful, regal, yet doughty and resourceful Princess of Mars is extremely hard to get right and very easy to get wrong, but the choice of Lynn Collins gets as close to the right note as it's possible to get in real life–or on the screen.  She provides the right blend of grit and vulnerability with an air of grown-up sexuality that Dejah must have.

The plot may be a bit confusing at first for those who know the book well, but remember that it had to be altered for the screen and that the action had to be split up into set pieces for the right impact and your patience will be rewarded.

The buzz for John Carter has been poor and many critics gave up on it even back in the earliest teasers, but here's hoping that the audiences disagree, because if the other Barsoom novels come off as well as this, we could have a franchise that makes Harry Potter look like a damp squib and is actually worth watching.

Welcome back, Carter.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Review: The Day Mars Invaded Eath

The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963)

Dr David Fielding is head of the project to land the first probe on the planet Mars.  The mission is regarded as a complete success even though the probe was knocked out of action within minutes.  Deciding to reconnect with his family, he flies back California where his wife and children are living as caretakers on the empty estate owned by Mrs Fielding's family.  Soon the Fieldings are seeing doppelgangers of each other in a growing nightmare of confused identities.

The Day is essentially a haunted house film mixed with The War of the Worlds and a rehash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  It's very slow to get going with a domestic  subplot that goes nowhere and the ending is so heavily telegraphed that it surprises no one when it shows up.

The low budget actually enhances the film with the location shooting at  Greystone Park & Mansion with the grainy black and white cinematography provide a suitably sad and gloomy air to the proceedings where colour would have made  things much too cheerful.  But the saddest thing about this film is that there is no resolution; no payoff.  Even an unhappy ending needs some sort of dramatic logic to it.  Here, everything is as much up in the air at the end as at the start.  What we have here is a five minute set up sequence in the first episode of an old Doctor Who serial stretched out to 70 minutes.

It's a pity we don't see the rest of the story.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Review: The Lorax

The Lorax (2012)

I was not a fan of Dr Seuss's 1971 book The Lorax nor was I of the cartoon version produced for American television.  No, that's not quite true.  "Not a fan" is like saying that I'm not a fan of the Blitz or liver flukes.  I thought that the story was the weakest that Seuss every drew and the cartoon was such heavy-handed "green" propaganda that it's a wonder that it didn't end by condemning fire and the wheel.  Compared to the 2012 feature version, however, both were finely nuanced and light-hearted parables of conservation.  The Tone of the original cartoon was, for all its brow beating,  fast-paced, but simple and ended on a suitably added dollop of hope and pathos at the end.  The big screen remake is more like a gong being rung next to one's ear for every frame of this over-extended pile of dreck.

The story of the Once-ler coming across a forest of trffula trees and clear cutting them in order to make a type of clothing called thneeds only to be told to lay off by a magical creature called the Lorax, who "speaks for the trees" remains, but it's, expanded, amped up and relegated to a flashback sequence as part of a pointless, larger story about a smart-mouthed brat who lives in a plastic city who is looking for a real tree to give to a local girl because, to put it frankly, he wants to get laid.

That may seem like a harsh way to say something about a character in a children's film, but that is what this story is; a cynical, preachy piece of plastic laid at the feet of the Earth First crowd and at it's heart, it is nasty.  Mind you, this laying is being done by a major studio who did the film in 3D to squeeze the last buck out of the audience's pocket in order to condemn Capitalism.  The characters are all obnoxious, the villains are caricatures of the lowest form outside of mimeographed Marxist leaflets (one song is "How Bad Can I Be?"), the musical numbers are overdone, overloud and not over soon enough.

This a film that treats the felling of one tree as a literal tragedy of sickening proportions.  For the love of heaven, my house is heated by wood!  The message is that the human race is a disease and that the free market an abomination.  However, like the previous incarnations, there is no logic at all to their case.  The Once-ler and the bottled air merchant O'Hare rule their worlds as dictators without any competition, no government to answer to and no concept of their own self interests.  Why does the Once-ler chop down the truffula trees?  Why not harvest them?  We're told in passing that this is "too slow", but so is cutting down the trees by hand.  This in the film is mechanised, why not harvesting?  This is as idiotic as chopping down an apple orchard to get at the fruit.  And speaking of fruit, the trees are depicted as bearing delicious apple-like things.  Why aren't these marketed?  Wouldn't that be an inducement not to chop down the trees?  More to the point, why aren't the trees replanted?

If anything this is not a case for not cutting down trees, but for proper forestry and the danger of resources being owned in common rather than by the harvester.  They don't call it the Tragedy of the Commons for nothing.

Then there is the character of O'Hare, who is a con man who wants everyone to live in a city they can never leave while they buy bottles that contain nothing.  It's ironic that the filmmakers don't notice that this is a perfect description of Al Gore.  Of course, we can't expect Hollywood to do a film about, for example, a fanatical "green" government that turns a green and fertile valley into a dust bowl to favour an insignificant fish  or a Socialist regime where protecting the environment is of no importance compared to carrying out Party directives no matter how insane.

Beyond that, in this plastic city where we keep being told everything is horrible, there's no sign of anything being actually wrong and everyone appears genuinely happy–even the tree-yearning Audrey.  At least in the cartoon there were scenes of polluted skies and rivers.  Here, the filmmkaers want a story of eco-catastrophe where everything stays bright and cheerful for the kiddies.

Now that I think of it, I'm being too hard here.  In fact, The Lorax is a parable about nuclear energy where the Once-ler is, in fact, a rabid environmentalist who is shutting down nuclear plants right and left while the Lorax is an advocate of a sane policy to build more plants to provide cheap, clean energy and free the imprisoned people with motor cars so they can escape their urban prison.

Now that's a screenplay I can get behind.


A plea for forest management policies