Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Review: Contagion

Contagion (2011)

A woman returns from a trip to Hong Kong and within days she dies of a deadly new strain of flu.  The American CDC spring into action and we're treated to an all-star cast pursuing multiple story lines about the impact of this terrible pandemic and the effect that it has on the world.

This film is a dreadful tease.  On the one hand, we get the uplifting development of Gwyneth Paltrow dying in the first reel, but director Steven Soderbergh quickly destroys our pleasure by bringing her back in a string of flashbacks that show how she caught the bug.  Unfortunately, this is one of those breathtaking reveals that nobody gives a fetid dingo's kidney about.  The interesting thing about the virus is what it does, not that it came about because someone knocked down a tree causing a fruit bat to crap in a pig sty.

Contagion is, quite frankly, dull and unengaging at any level.  Having an all-star cast is fine, but you have to do something compelling with them.  More to the point, it does not excuse the director from having a lead and a main story.  Laurence Fishburne is the head of CDC.  Is he our hero?  Jude Law is a whistle-blowing blogger.  Is he our hero?  Matt Damon?  Kate Winselt?  Marion Cottilard?  Throw us a bone here.  Who are we rooting for?  Soderbergh's direction is hopelessly detached and bloodless.  He makes even the breakdown of civil society seem like something happening somewhere else that isn't worth caring about.  The story never leaves its initial slow pace and the search for a vaccine seems less interesting than developing a new toothpaste.  Even the end of the story isn't so much a climax as the impression that Soderbergh just got bored.

If this sort of story interests you, rent The Andromeda Strain (1971) or the first season of Survivors or even The Cassandra Crossing.  Save this one for when insomnia comes calling.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Review: Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

The Bounty is given the mission of sailing to the island of Tahiti in the South Seas to secure bread plant seedlings to transplant in Jamaica as a new food source for the British Empire.  The Captain of the Bounty, Lt William Bligh, is a monster; quick to take offence, harsh in discipline, jealous of authority and utterly callous of human suffering.  The passage to Tahiti is a nightmare of brutality and the foppish First Officer, Fletcher Christian is increasingly sickened by what he witnesses.  When the second leg of the voyage from the Polynesian paradise proves ten times worse than the one out, Christian is pushed beyond endurance and there is only one answer: Mutiny.

The Mutiny aboard HMS Bounty in 1789 is one of the most famous events in maritime history and one that still sparks controversy to this day. There have been four major film versions over the past hundred years with Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Mel Gibson starring in the role of Fletcher Christian, but the most spectacular and greatest failure has to be the 1962 MGM version starring Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh.

It is also the most infamous.  At the time production began, Marlon Brando was one of, if not the, hottest actors in Hollywood and he was well aware of the fact.  The project was already a budget-busting logistical nightmare with a replica Bounty that needed to be larger than full scale to accommodate the diesel engine to propel it when the wind wasn't cooperating, location filming in French Polynesia and the super-widescreen cameras.  Add Marlon Brando to this and it's no wonder that the budget shot up to a staggering $20 million–and made back only $13 million.  Brando was apparently a terror on the set and threw his weight around in a way that cursed the production.  The script had been written by a revolving door of writers including Eric Ambler and Ben Hecht.  Brando had Carol Reed sacked as director and effectively dismissed his replacement so that Brando did most of his scenes off his leash and takes rambled on forever.  Then there was his love of method acting that took up the set like a St Bernard in a baby's cot and ended up with farces such as Brando lying on cakes of ice during his death scene so he'd shiver properly.

The irony of all this is that of the entire lead cast Brando's performance is the worst by far.  Howard, despite being far too old to play the 33-year old Bligh, makes the part his own and creates a believable character.  He may be nothing like the real Bligh and the script may have utterly excised his heroism, but Howard gives a performance that is three dimensional.  Richard Harris as Seaman John Mills also gives a proper job and does so with an effortlessness that makes the results seem almost too easy.  Brando, on the other hand and for all his method, is all over the place.  His accent is laughable, his performance is erratic (he shows up in one scene in an improbable dressing gown smoking a pipe and grinning), and he utterly fails to command the stage.  In fact, the moment Howard makes his exit from the Bounty the whole film loses steam and rolls to a halt.  Brando, unable to carry on and without his co-stars support, looks like the talented poseur he was.

This is a shame because it is a beautiful film to watch and it did what the great films of the early '60s did best; spectacle. The widescreeen technicolor turns the voyage of the Bounty and her visit to Tahiti into a gorgeous travelogue that makes it a pity that it can't be seen on the big screen as it deserves.  However, cinematography wasn't enough and the lingering legacy of the 1962 Bounty is the image of Marlon Brando in this Royal Navy costume storming out of the première after the audience started laughing at his performance.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Review: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

A giant space cloud destroy a group of Klingon cruisers and a Federation listening post and is on a direct course for Earth.  Admiral James T Kirk takes command of the Starship USS Enterprise and heads to intercept and, if possible, stop the menace.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is The Phantom Menace of the 1970's; a sci fi feature that fans of the original series had been looking forward to for almost ten years,   were barely able to remain in their seats waiting for the house lights to dim and when they came up again, looked at one another and said, "What the heck was that load of parrot offal?"

Trapped in development hell for years, captained by a Gene Rodenberry determined to make an adult epic that would make people forget that the original series was just a space opera with pretensions, STTMP went into production with no idea of how the story would end and budget overruns that made it the most expensive Hollywood production up to that time.  The result is a film that does indeed look as if a small mountain of money has been spent on it, but also one that is a complete mess.

For one thing, this hasn't been nicknamed "The Motionless Picture" for nothing. The pace is glacial and its two and a quarter hours running time seems twice as long. Most of the "action" involves Kirk and crew looking at the ship's view screen, what it is they are looking at and then back to the view screen.  The film also lacks any villain or major conflict and the grey costumes against grey sets is about as visually interesting as a piece of ship's plating.

Worse, the film has a sloppy feel to it. Rodenberry's intent is to basically short circuit the past decade and pretend no one ever left the Enterprise or ever wanted to.  The actors are given no chance to play their real ages nor are they in any way believable.  Rodenberry won't even let Kirk's promotion to admiral stand; having him take a temporary reduction to captain so he can sit in his own chair.  In a real navy, Kirk would simply have taken command of the mission while allowing Decker, the current Enterprise captain, to command the ship.   A small point, but a telling one.

As to the plot, the constant rewrites during production is obvious as one clumsy bit of dialogue after another is dropped to the floor and an endless string of unsupported exposition is deployed to shore up an increasingly improvised and implausible story.  It also doesn't help when a thin premise, and one already used by the television series, is dropped onto such a rickety framework.

At least it made enough money to justify a far superior sequel, so it's not a total loss.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Review: Apollo 18

Apollo 18 (2011)

In 1974, the US department of Defense sends a secret manned mission to the Moon.  "Found footage" hidden for decades chronicles the fate of the mission and the real reason why man has never returned to the Moon since.

Some films aren't just bad, they're horrendously, gob-smackingly awful things fit only for jamming down the memory hole as fast as possible.  Not only does Apollo 18 exploit a found footage gimmick over a decade past its sell-by date, but it uses it in service of a script that is not only a disservice to the men who risked their lives opening the lunar frontier, but uses the Apollo programme as the backdrop for a mash up of Alien, Capricorn One, The Blair Witch Project and a really freaky inverted conspiracy theory that claims that we did go to the Moon, but stopped because it's infested with spiders.

This is no spoiler because everyone who has an IQ above that of room temperature can figure out the plot in two seconds.  An Apollo mission is sent "secretly" to the Moon to set up monitoring equipment of some kind.  How you can prepare and launch a Saturn V rocket in secret is beyond me, but this is Hollywood.  The two man landing team set up what they think is secret monitoring equipment of some kind, then discover a one-man Russian lander with a dead pilot and that the moon rocks they've been collecting are really spiders that somehow and for some reason infect people.  This, however is never explained.  Nor is the "startling" revelation that NASA knew about the spiders all along, yet sent two men down to... I don't know, feed the spiders?  Your answer is as good as mine.  Nothing is resolved and nothing makes sense.

Nonsensical, lumbered with continuity problems and plot holes, and exhibiting so much scenery chewing that it's a wonder the space capsules weren't filled with saw dust, Apollo 18 is truly lost in space.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The decline of Hollywood

There's good, there's bad and then there's annoying.
If you surf the Internet, especially the cinematic corner of it, one complaint that keeps cropping up with greater frequency is how Hollywood (shorthand for the film industry) is in decline and has been for the past ten to fifteen years.  It's not a hard case to make.  The dominance of comic book films and blockbusters; a lack of originality; a penchant for franchises, remakes, reboots, reimaginings, sequels and rip offs mark the current crop of cinematic output.  And then there's the increasingly poor directing; even poorer acting; and appalling scripts have become the hallmark of a medium that I love and once thought of as the only true art form left in the modern world.  It is, indeed, not like the Hollywood that gave us Citizen Kane or 2001: a Space Odyssey or even Laurel and Hardy.

But what made me admit that Hollywood is in decline rather than a slump is that it has fallen so low that it is now in the same realm as popular music.

What do I mean by that?  It's something that I noticed a couple of months ago.  I love classical music.  It is my favourite musical genre and the only one that I don't mind hearing in the background while I'm occupied with other matters. Turn the wireless to Radio 3 or, better yet, Classic FM and I'm happy.  Nothing delights me more than to walk into a secondhand book shop and discover Mozart wafting over the Tannoy.   It's a little slice of heaven.  Indeed, it's one of the reasons I enjoy visiting the local library, which plays Debussy in the car park.  Turn on any other music, or worse, talk and I immediately want to reach for the "off" button.  Last year, the library switched from classical to pop for a couple of weeks and I felt as if I'd leaned over to sniff a flower only to have it squirt lemon juice in my face.

So I like classical music.  What's playing in my office at the moment?  I have no idea.  What classical tunes do I have on my MP3 player?  Hardly any.  Can I name three works by Mahler?  No.  That's because I don't care. I'm happy to listen to whatever comes on.  It's all good.

What is on my MP3 player are pop tunes of various types from soundtracks to rock music to jazz to who knows what else.  Do I like it as much as classical?  No.  So why is it there?

That's where the epiphany came in.  Going through my music collection, I realised that there was a common factor in all of them:  Every single one annoyed me.  I came to understand that the music that I'd selected for my player weren't the ones I liked the most, but which irritated me the least.  And it's the reason why I cannot work with pop music playing.  Because it's so annoying, I have to actively listen to it.  My brain is processing what is aggravating my synapses.  Part of my cortex is always occupied with the insipid lyrics, the simplistic tunes and the untrained voices–not to mention that MSG of the music world, reverb.

What I'd discovered is that, with a couple of notable exceptions, I do not like pop music.  At best, I only find it interesting the way any bad piece of art can be interesting.  Why this is, I can't say exactly.  It's isn't what pop music is, but what it lacks.  There's something missing; an element of polish, craftsmanship or complexity.  It's the difference between  a talented artist who grabs at the low-hanging fruit of his art to create flashy works and an equally talented man who toils for years to master his craft and creates something beautiful. Anyone can bang out a chord on a guitar with an afternoon's practice; it takes months to get anything except a screech out of a violin.

And so we come to Hollywood's decline.  What convinced me that cinema is on the skids is that as I review the new films I've seen over the last ten to fifteen years, I liked very few of them, loathed most of them, and the rest irritate me.  I may be willing to watch a film once.  I may even enjoy it the first time through, but never completely and I certainly don't want to see it again.  I thought Star Trek was a nice little roller coaster, but the only reason I keep the DVD is because the Rifftrax make it tolerable.

That's an important distinction.  If I select a DVD from my cabinet and the film dates to, say, 1968, odds are that I'll be willing to watch it again.  Indeed, I may have lost count of how many times I've seen it.  I even know what kind of refreshment I want as I pop the disk into the player.  Blade Runner?  Brandy.  Theatre of Blood?  Nice cup of tea.  Xanadu? So much cheap plonk that it becomes hilarious.  On the other hand, if someone asks if I want to see Spider-man or Casino Royale again, I'll say no, thank you.  Bear in mind that this is from a man who's seen You Only Live Twice immeasurable times and will even watch a Roger Moore when the wife isn't home.

Maybe this isn't scientific, but I feel that I've stumbled on an effective litmus test of an art form in decline.  It's when something isn't so awful that it's easy to reject it outright as crap, it's when it's done well enough that I'll tolerate its presence, but it still gets on my nerves and I'd rather be watching something better.

That sums up the state of Hollywood today:  It's annoying.

Friday, 6 January 2012

We're back... Sort of.

Good news: The internet connection is finally fixed and I'm back on line. The bad news: I have insane deadlines over the weekend thanks to all the disruptions.

Back Tuesday.