Monday, 30 April 2012

Silent Running

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


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