Posted in bastards, movies, Review

Swallows and Amazons (2016)

photoThis 2016 adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s first S&A book sank without trace as far as I was concerned. I remember reading about the pointless name change from Titty to Tatty, which smacked of the kind of asinine decision that gets made when there are six separate production companies involved. How anything gets made with so many captains on deck, I don’t know.

I rented it on iTunes, and watched with a kind of fascinated horror – mixed with tearful nostalgia for the books I read as a boy and the 1974 film adaptation (which, for the record, had one production company and one distributor). That version featured my schoolboy crush, Kit Seymour, as the “Ruthless” Nancy Blackett, an actress who appears to have been plucked from obscurity, immortalised on celluloid, and then forgotten by posterity. The children in the 1974 film were, for the most part, cast for their ability to handle a boat rather than their training at some stage school. They were clearly non-actors and yet, for all that, were natural enough in their parts. The magic of film is that you only have to capture that one good take.

To be fair to 2016 Swallows and Amazons, then, it couldn’t hope to compare to that slice of my childhood, even if it had stuck to the fucking plot. But these charlatans, these bunglers, couldn’t even do that. Alarm bells begin to ring almost immediately, in the sequence featuring the children travelling up to the Lake District. There’s some nonsense involving men chasing each other around on the train. It’s as if a drunk editor was editing this film and The 39 Steps at the same time, and got mixed up.

Sure, Arthur Ransome was a spy and adventurer who witnessed the Russian Revolution, but we don’t need that biographical nonsense in the film. Its presence is a clear sign that the producers had nothing but contempt for the material and the audience: what could we do to make this shit interesting? The spy crap continues throughout, taking up valuable screen time that should be devoted to the children and their story, which at times seems so neglected it’s reduced to the status of a sub-plot.

And after all this indulgent espionage peril is spooned into the film, like so much thin gruel, it doesn’t manage to whet the appetite. As one reviewer pointed out, the sequence in which the kids lose their picnic hamper overboard is more gripping, by far, than the attempted kidnap by Russian spies of the Captain Flint character – who could so easily have been left as grumpy uncle novelist trying to finish a book instead of indulging his nieces’ pirate fantasies. The food the children manage to procure, in the hungry 1930s, is such an important part of the story that the loss of the picnic hamper is as devastatingly dramatic as this film manages to be.

Still, there are moments. Or, there is one moment. The discovery of the Swallow in the boathouse had an emotional impact that was squandered by the lack of attention that the film paid to the actual sailing. The shame of it all is that, what you really want out of this is the chance to make some of the other books into films: Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Pigeon Post, The Picts and the Martyrs… there are some really good storylines to be had, and all of the books had really strong female characters baked in, with no retrofitting required.

And it’s with the female characters that this film falls tragically short. Nancy and Peggy get precious little screen time, about which I have mixed feelings. The actress cast as Nancy just seemed completely wrong to me. Wrong colouring, wrong age (in year 11 doing GCSE drama, when picked). In a way, it was a mercy, but Nancy is supposed to be the heart and soul of the stories, so it really matters that they go it so wrong. I don’t blame the actors at all. This was clearly a scrambled mess of a production, made by people with no feel for the stories and no understanding of their appeal.

All I want to do now is watch the ’74, to restore my memories.

 

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Posted in entertainment, film, movies, Review

Ghostbusters

ghostbusters_cI queued up around the block to watch the original Ghostbusters in the winter of 1984. Those were the days, eh? I think in my life there have been no more than five occasions when the queue for the cinema tailed down the street and around the corner. If you’re somewhere near the back, you’d be thinking, no way we’re getting in, but you would persevere and be surprised. Cinema auditoria were big in those days.

I remain convinced that the version of Ghostbusters I saw back then was different to the version that has survived to this day. I’m convinced it was a 15 certificate at first but was then cut down to a PG version due to its popularity. And then the 15 version was lost forever. See, when I watched it again, later, it seemed to me that the comic timing was off, that the film was less coherent, that this artefact that had lost its power to move me had been bowdlerised.

Anyway, I’m probably delusional. Probably the film wasn’t that great after all, and I was just caught up in the excitement and atmosphere generated by queueing around the block.

Which brings us to Ghostbusters, the reboot, or 2016 version. As to the manufactured controversy about the casting: not going to dignify it with any more comment than this: the Saturday Night Live school of comedy produces comedians of a very similar bent. Doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, they’re all pretty much the same. I think the SNL comedy style is a bit laboured, a bit forced – the kind of thing that’s funnier in the telling than it is in the watching. Tina Fey excepted.

I saw it at the still-new Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium. This place never seems that busy. It was a Wednesday, I was in the 2D screening, it was quiet. Which is disappointing, because at least it would be something if people were queuing around the block. I genuinely think a lot of people aren’t aware of the new Odeon. The facilities aren’t bad. The place is clean, and doesn’t smell of rancid fat like the one in the Xscape in MK.

The film was OK. Moderately entertaining, one good jump scare. A couple of laugh-out-loud lines, some winning performances. But as a film, kind of instantly forgettable. Some new twists on the theme, but it’s basically Ghostbusters, so a recycled story from our zombie culture, our stuck culture, as Adam Curtis puts it.

I thought it was too loud, and I felt our seats were slightly too close to the screen. The Odeon chooses to charge extra for the plum (“Premium”) seats. Very few people occupy them. It’s a terrible waste, but fuck ’em.

The other technical issue I have is with digital projection and jitter. Static shots are fine, but as soon as the camera moves, especially if people are moving, it just jitters. With film, of course, you get analogue blurring, which is fine. But digital jitter gets on my nerves. And once I see it, I can’t stop seeing it.

So: an entertaining popcorn distraction, instantly forgettable, but enjoyable (technical issues aside) for the most part. That feels like three stars to me.

 

Posted in Books, movies, Publishing, Review, Writing

Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers – Review

Rudolph_Valentino_and_Natacha_Rambova
Valentino and Rambova

My favourite author* Tim Powers has released a new novel just four years after the last one (has it been so long, Tim?), which is very exciting. A new Powers is an event to savour, and you want to force yourself to read slowly so as not to use it all up.

My copy is a hard back with deckle edges (uncut pages), which is a design choice you come to understand when you reach about halfway through the novel.

Like the Fault Lines series (1992-1996) and Three Days to Never (2006), Medusa’s Web is largely set in contemporary Los Angeles, and like Three Days to Never it features spooky links to Old Hollywood.

Three Days to Never featured the handprints of Charlie Chaplin, whereas Medusa’s Web visits silent heartthrob Rudolph Valentino; set- and costume-designer Natacha Rambova (aka Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy from Utah); and star of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé Alla Nazimova (which was co-written by Rambova, who was also married to Valentino and rumoured to have had an affair with Nazimova).

Your grasp of Old Hollywood may stretch to Valentino, but Rambova and Nazimova call for more rarified  knowledge – or, like me, you go scurrying to Wikipedia to find out how much of this is true. In Hollywood, of course, everybody was somebody else, and every building (as Raymond Chandler so often noted) was a simulacrum. Rambova was Shaughnessy (a surname that makes me think of The Maltese Falcon); Valentino was  Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla; Nazimova was actually Russian, but was born Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon. The Garden of Allah was a mansion, was a hotel, was levelled and paved over along with all the rest of ‘the Hollywood village’ and the orange groves and Bunker Hill.

then-now-goa-1935-today
The Garden of Allah site, then and now-ish

So it goes with Tim Powers. His stock-in-trade is history with a twist of mystery. He clearly buries himself in the lore until he finds something odd, and then weaves a novel around it. This has worked successfully for romantic poets, pirates, cold war spies and Vegas mobsters.

While this novel pales in comparison with my all-time-favourite Declare (his 2001 masterpiece), it’s still entertaining and fascinating, if not as disturbing and/or gripping as some of his best work. If you have an interest, Declare is essential, The Stress of Her Regard should probably next in line – and then you’ll want to read the sort-of sequel, Hide Me Among the Graves. By which time you’ll be hooked, or not.

Right now, after the first reading, Medusa’s Web ranks quite low for me, but then I’d have said that about Three Days To Never until I read it for the second time a while ago. There’s usually enough here to require more than one reading. Even sitting here, writing this review and perusing images of Old Hollywood, I’m starting to like it better.

Rambova, the exotic pseudonym of a woman from Salt Lake City, is intriguing. The Wikipedia article includes this nugget about her later life:

She published articles on healing and astrology, and helped decipher ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions, which led her to edit a series titled Egyptian Texts and Religious Representations. She also conducted classes in her apartment about myths, symbolism and comparative religion.

Nuggets like this are surely a magnet for an author like Powers. What if…?

In this case, we have some kind of multi-dimensional beings whose manifestation in this world takes a peculiar form, which becomes a fad among the Hollywood élite, and a dangerous addiction for some.

Returning home after the death of the aunt who raised them, Scott and his sister Madeleine reconnect with their estranged and odd cousins Claimayne and Ariel, who live together in a falling-apart Hollywood mansion and bear no little hostility towards them. Claimayne is nasty and Ariel is angry, and both of them have been addicted to the ‘spiders’ that allow them to travel in time – sort of. Scott and Madeleine are pulled back into the family psychodrama and find themselves caught up in events they barely understand.

Scott is your typical Powers hero, even down to the hand injury he sustains partway through (a trope Powers has used repeatedly since his first two novels); and his sister is also a familiar female character. There are no talking heads in boxes, another common Powers trope, but there is a clattering keyboard and a telephone that rings even though it’s not there.

My main criticism I think is that these characters do seem like shorthand by now: if you’ve read this author before you don’t need them fleshed out, but they are on the thin side and I can’t escape the feeling that this novel has had 150 pages or so edited out of it.

The greatest pleasures here are the glimpses of Old Hollywood, and the feeling that those black and white days of glamour and debauchery are almost tangible. Of course, almost none of it survives today, mainly because it was built of chipboard and stucco, like a movie set.

4a05813a_3x2crop.jpg~original

*Give or take Robert Charles Wilson.

Posted in bastards, entertainment, film, movies, Review

IMAX – not believing

imax-theatreBeen meaning to say something about IMAX since I went to see Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak a few weeks ago. It was playing on the IMAX screens in the new Odeon in Bletchley/Milton Keynes. Given that there were no other screen options, and given that I’d never experienced IMAX, I booked tickets.

First of all, the film: not all that impressed. Seemed like a mashup of his other films, but I’ll wait till I see it again in a non-IMAX format, because my whole experience was affected by the screening.

hated the IMAX screen. Its curve meant that people got weirdly distorted when they moved across to the side. I don’t see how a curved screen is any use for anyone other than the very few who can sit bang centre and far enough back (which in the Odeon, of course, are the “premium” seats). Movement seemed jittery, too, like on your 1080p TV screen, lacking the smooth blur that traditional 24-frame-per-second film stock gives.

I’ve seen those curved screen TVs in shops, and I think they look shit. Again, no good for anyone who is not sitting dead centre. Which I guess is fine in our lonely, single-person household society. But not for me.

Apart from the annoying curve and the jitter (both of which are deal breakers for me), which are distorting the screen image and distracting me, leaving me unable to suspend disbelief, I hated the height of the IMAX screen. IMAX talk on their web site of the “cropped” image of 1953-era Cinemascope anamorphic screens:

When a film is presented in CinemaScope it is cropped and uses only part of the image the movie camera captures. This is the reason most ordinary screens are very wide but not particularly high – like looking at the world through a narrow slit.

Which demonstrates the visual equivalent of a musical tin ear. They’re saying it as if it’s a bad thing. It’s like saying, ‘When you hear “Strawberry Fields Forever,” you’re only hearing the result of editing together the best parts of several different takes. The IMAX version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” gives you all the shit that The Beatles cut out because it was rubbish.’

The genius of film and photography is that it puts the world in a frame. The frame of cinemascope is the highest expression of that genius. A cinemascope landscape or close-up has an incredible visual impact: so much so that watching cinemascope films on an un-letterboxed 16:9 screen is disappointing. Great directors use the framing/cropping of Cinemascope as part of the art of filmmaking. Given the ‘uncropped’ option, where’s the art? You see more, so what? Fucking less is fucking more, you morons.

Watching IMAX felt like watching a giant 4:3 ratio (but curved) TV. The image didn’t even look like it was a high enough resolution to warrant the size of the screen. People looked odd, like you could detect the artifice behind the make-up. There was nothing happening in my peripheral vision other than distortion of the image. As to the sound: too fucking loud, man. Like an amplifier that goes up to 11: better, because louder? Fuck off.

IMAX is the Spinal Tap of movie projection. Never again.

Posted in entertainment, film, movies, Review

Blade Runner revisited

I was 19 when I first saw Blade Runner. That year, 1982, was also the year of ET, Poltergeist, The Thing, Tron, Star Trek II, and a lot of other decent, but non-genre movies. This was the era of Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Starman, films that followed the successes of Alien and Close Encounters in the 70s, not to mention that other thing.

The original theatrical release was the one with the voiceover and happy ending and without the unicorn sequence. At the time, I didn’t think it was a bad thing. This was Ridley Scott’s follow-up to Alien; this one director had already made two of the best science fiction films of all time. But Blade Runner was a flop, right? Not to me, at least.

I was at university in Nottingham 10 years later, when the Director’s Cut was released. We were all excited to see the legendary (but not from Legend!) unicorn sequence, and to see the film without the voice over telling us what to think. The rumour that the sequence came from Legend relates to the way in which the waking dream doesn’t look like the rest of the film, I think. The lighting is different, the colour palette is different. But back then, I tended to receive the film in terms of its narrative plot, and, like everyone, I was fascinated by the question of Deckard’s status.

Now that I’ve watched the film (including the Final Cut) so many times because of teaching; now that I’ve paused and discussed it and dissected it, shot by shot; I see it almost entirely in terms of its visuals. I still find the question of Deckard’s status somewhat interesting (Deckard is Gaff), but I now see more visual clues than narrative clues, if you know what I mean. For example, the film is thoroughly obsessed with eyes, from its opening sequence through to the end. The eyes are the windows to the soul, and the artificial people and animals in the film all have red eyes (because they have no souls).

As to the unicorn, its painterly qualities actually match the painterly qualities of the rest of the movie. The scene when Deckard explores the Bradbury apartment while Pris hides under a veil looks like a Renoir or a Manet painting, the street scenes look like Hopper, and the production design is all Moebius.

I watched the new BFI print of The Final Cut at the new Odeon cinema in Milton Keynes yesterday. There was a queue at the entrance to screens 1-6 and we joined the back of it without asking whether it was the right queue. Of course it was the right queue. I said to my daughter, ‘Just look at the age demographic and the preponderance of spectacles.’ I could have added that it was a mostly male crowd, but I didn’t do a headcount. But this was definitely a group of people who had all seen the film before. Perhaps this will be the last time I see it on a big screen? Who knows. I watched with mixed feelings. I know the film inside out.

The big screen revealed some odd focusing issues in some scenes. At first I was willing to blame the projector, but it was clear in other, sharper shots, that the projector was fine. No, there are so many big close-ups in the film of actors who are in motion that the focus wobbles at times. I think if Ridley Scott had had more time and more budget he would have reshot these.

There are lots of uncomfortable scenes. The violent confrontation at the end is painful to watch. That’s the power of cinema, that transference of empathy from the screen to the audience through the anchor character to whom we relate. But one scene that stands out as discomfiting to modern sensibilities is the one where Deckard more or less forces himself on Rachael as she tries to leave his apartment. The scene plays out with her pinned by him against a wall and repeating what he tells her to say (‘Kiss me’). But then there’s a moment where she volunteers: ‘Put your hands on me,’ she says. So it’s all right, is it?

Rachael has just discovered that she is a replicant. She has feelings for Deckard. She doesn’t trust these feelings, because they might not be her own. That’s the source of her reluctance. What’s the source of Deckard’s forcefulness? Does he want her to understand that feelings are real even if memories are false? Or does he think that it can’t be rape if it’s a replicant? The whole thrust of his job is that replicants don’t have human rights.

One major problem with the idea of Deckard as a replicant is that he not only feels pain, but appears to be weaker than the others. He can’t jump across rooftops like Roy Batty. He gets beaten up a lot by all four of the escaped replicants. The only one he appears to be able to best physically is Rachael, whom he is able to force against the wall quite easily.

‘You did a man’s job,’ says Gaff at the end. As I pointed out to my daughter, Gaff doesn’t say, ‘You did a man’s job,’ he says the line without emphasis, as if saying, ‘You did some other guy’s job,’ which is to say, ‘You did my job.’ I think both of Edward James Olmos’ last lines might be fluffed. I reckon it’s possible that the shortness of time and the budget overruns meant that they simply couldn’t do multiple takes and had to live with these badly spoken lines. ‘Too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?’ is said with a fade on the last couple of words that robs them of emphasis and conviction.

Mistake? Or genius?

The film is visually stunning, and has an incredible soundtrack, an electronic version of a 1940s film noir score. For those reasons alone, it’s a must-see at the cinema. It’s also a thoughtful film as it explores the humanity of its non-human characters. When Batty rescues Deckard at the end, he shows that he values life, and displays a human empathy that seems to be lacking in the human characters. You’ve already seen it, but see it again.

Posted in bootlegs, documentary, entertainment, film, movies, musings, Review

Los Angeles Plays Itself

This 2003 documentary by Thom Andersen was finally made available for the home video market in the autumn of last year. I’ll confess that I hadn’t heard of it. I’m pretty up on things, generally. I mean, I knew about the Helvetica and Linotype documentaries. I knew about Side by Side. But not this.

So maybe it was my head in the sand, maybe it was something else. It all seems to have been a little hush hush. You don’t need to think very hard to come up with a reason why it took more than 10 years for the film to appear on DVD. And the same thought will explain why, even now, you can’t buy a Region 2/European version.

Rights. Clearances. You’d think the media conglomerates would be friendlier towards education and more supportive of academic work or film historiography. This film does shade towards a personal polemic, but it is still fascinating, detailed, brilliantly done.

But although I looked, I could only buy an imported Region 1 DVD or Blu-Ray, and I couldn’t find a legitimate download.

I could find an illegitimate download. It was low resolution (640×480) and looked soft and painterly when displayed on my HDTV. When I first played it, the sound was not just a little out of synch, but a good minute, playing the voice-over over completely the wrong pictures. Using different playback software fixed this problem. My daughter complained that the voice over was monotonous, and it certainly can be at times. But I found it interesting enough to watch all the way through. It reminded me of Adam Curtis documentaries. The clips were there to support the polemic.

The complaint in the film is that Los Angeles is often distorted or misrepresented in films. Cars turn corners in the movies and are suddenly 30 miles away. Characters exit a building to find themselves on a street 15 miles away. Los Angeles is often called upon to play other cities, or different countries: New York, Chicago, Switzerland. People are portrayed as living either in the hills above the city or on the beach. Rarely do we see them in the midst of the vast suburban sprawl where most of the inhabitants live. There are some wonderful modernist buildings in the city, examples of progressive, utopian architecture: but they are usually depicted as the homes of crime lords and drug dealers: only evil people choose to live in modern buildings.

My favourite sequences in the film were

  • the one about the Bradbury Building and all its appearances in film (including Blade Runner, which I’m going to see again tonight);
  • The Bunker Hill history, showing how its gradual destruction and disappearance was recorded in the movies;
  • The Chinatown sequence, discussing the background to the script, and the way in which the film’s fictionalised and temporally transposed story of water corruption serves to conceal the real scandals of Los Angeles history;
  • and the LAPD sequence, discussing how the police are seen as an occupying force, working against the interests of the people they’re supposed to serve: are they the only police force whose motto is in ironic quote marks?

There is much, much more. Street corners, diners, motels, locations that turn up again and again. Things that get knocked down and rebuilt as simulations. The film puts to bed a lot of the myths about Los Angeles. It complains that it is the only major city known by its initials – and blames the movies. The idea that ‘nobody walks’ and that ‘everybody drives’ is exposed as an example of a white privileged viewpoint. In Steve Martin’s LA Story, there are only two black characters with speaking roles: they are both in the service industry.

It was interesting to see excerpts of forgotten, independent, neo-realist films such as Killer of SheepThe Exiles and Bush Mama, depicting the Los Angeles ‘hidden’ by the movies, or only ever viewed through the lens of the privileged cop point-of-view, which sees brown people as the enemy within. These are ‘foreign’ films made in the heart of the city largely ignored by the film industry that is based there.

This page lists the films excerpted in the documentary, in order, including their repeated appearances. If you can get hold of a copy, highly recommended, rights be damned.