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


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