Friday, August 31, 2007

It's War!

Having been out in town this evening for a very enjoyable time with Work Buddy and The Governess, the journeys there and back again once again highlighted the need for a set of Rules of Engagement that should be issued to all tourists to this fair city from these shores and beyond.

For one thing, our public transportation system is not great at the best of times. It doesn’t need an influx of yahoos shuffling around like lobotomized penguins. Unless of course they’re eager to receive a cock punch so hard it’ll make their eyes bleed.

This Saturday British Film Forever turns its attention to War films. I don’t hold out for the best. In the Radio Times Matron Graham writes:

...only British Film Forever would come up with the following throwaway remark about Reach for the Sky, the biopic of legless Second World War hero Douglas Bader: “Viewers of this film might’ve thought they were having their legs pulled.” I wonder exactly who this witless commentary is aimed at?

I’m beginning to think the narration is concocted by someone who really wants the job of writing photo captions for Empire of Total Film. Trite as their compositions can sometimes be, I don’t think either editors would be dumb enough to give this person the time of day.

As well as Reach for the Sky, this week’s episode also covers that other great British war film United 93. ...Nope, I don’t get it either. While the content of the documentary may be maddening, the selection of films is particularly choice.

They begin Saturday afternoon with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp at 1.00pm on BBC2. On Wednesday night, starting at 11.50pm is A Canterbury Tale. Both were written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Both celebrate the wonderful inventiveness and eccentricity inherent in British film at its very best.

If you haven’t seen either, you have no excuse.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Totally Um-Bongo

It says something about your age when, come a Bank Holiday, you automatically start flicking through the TV listings wondering what time in the afternoon The Great Escape is going to be on and which Bond film will be following in its wake. Nowadays that particular ritual seems to be long gone, which is a shame but there’s always something else.

Still, for full-blooded entertainment Channel 4 served up... Congo. There are films that are just plain bad, films that are so bad they’re good, and films that are bad but in the most marvellous, entertaining way. That’s the category this film falls into. I would love to have been in the office when this little beauty got pitched. Put this little nugget into a couple of brief sentences? Where do you start?

It has wild, blood-thirsty apes guarding a lost city in Africa that take out an expedition that has come looking for big-ass blue diamonds. Then there’s the second expedition, led by a black white hunter, that includes a technology expert who might be ex-CIA, a shifty Eastern European philanthropist, and a wet-weekend primatologist who have come along for the ride so that his talking gorilla, who has been painting something to do with the city in her dreams, can be let back into the wild.

The first country the reach in Africa is on the middle of a coup. So they buy their way out. Then when they fly off border guards try to shoot down their plane. They knock out the heat-seeking missiles with flares from a Very pistol. Then they parachute out, and the black white hunter jumps out holding on to the anaesthetized talking gorilla. Then there a whole lot of native tribes until they get to the lost city... which happens to be underneath a volcano that is ready to blow its stack!

At what point did they reach the point and think, okay, I figure we’ve enough to be getting on with here. I mean there’s already a talking gorilla! How much more do you need? (Of course the gorilla uses some synthesized voice software. I mean a real talking gorilla would be just plain silly).

As for the cast it starts with Bruce Campbell, Laura Linney and Ernie Hudson as the white hunter who obviously found his character after watching way too many Stewart Granger movies. Then Delroy Lindo steps in as a leader of the African militia who takes his fee, onscreen, in cash, and actually says to someone, “Liar, liar, pants on fire” before making his exit.

Sandwiched around him is Joe Pantoliano. And slathered over the top is the shifty European, cut from a thick slice of ham by Tim Curry who has decided that underplaying the role would be very, very wrong.

I suppose, instead of going all round the houses like that, they simply mentioned that it was based on a book by Michael Crichton. I guess a talking gorilla could been brought up in passing. Post-Jurassic Park, the executive probably just gave a thumbs up, slid to his knees, and started sucking on the big money cock.

And strangely enough, with all that mayhem and madness, and a final showdown that included shooting the killer apes with a diamond powered laser gun before lava spewed everywhere, it turned out to be quite enjoyable in a guilty-pleasure kind of way. Forget Charles Bronson digging tunnels and Steve McQueen jumping barbed wire fences on a motorbike, or all the variations of Bond saving the world: This should be the new Bank Holiday movie.

Having said that, is there a film with more added everything than Congo?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Bagpuss Wrong

Five weeks in and British Film Forever at least finally tried to behave like a proper documentary. The researchers had eventually got off their backsides and sourced enough behind-the-scenes footage and promotional material so that the programme didn’t solely alternate between talking heads and clips.

Of course it could be that Magic, Murder & Monsters: The Story of Horror & Fantasy was an improvement only because this is a genre that writer Matthew Sweet is a big fan of. The selection seemed to be far more subjective list than in any of the previous episodes.

Because the Hammer films so obviously dominated British film horror, preceded by the hoary melodramas with Tod Slaughter hamming it up for all he’s worth throughout the 1930s and 40s, there was always the danger of Magic, Murder & Monsters concentrating more on the production companies rather than the films themselves. Certainly the pretty low-rent, fly-by-night outfits like Amicus, Tigon British Film Productions and Peter Walker Productions received far more airtime than they probably deserved.

With Hammer Films famously set up home at Down Place, judging from the archive footage, Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg’s Amicus Productions operated from production offices at Shepperton that amounted to little more than large garden sheds laid out in rows like a miniature version of Stalag Luft III. While Amicus made portmanteau horror anthologies in the shadow of Hammer and Tony Tenser’s Tigon alternated between the horror of Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General with sexploitation films, Peter Walker combined the two with sadistic glee.

If this is a “celebration” of British film then something is horribly wrong. Described by one commentator as being close to snuff movies, the likes of Walker’s unpleasant Frightmare appeared to be applauded for being the precursor to the “video nasties”. Is that really something we should be proud of?

Prior to the launch of The Summer of British Film, the Radio Times polled readers to find Britain’s favourite movies. In the Horror category, The Wicker Man topped the list. Yet in Magic, Murder & Monsters Robin Hardy’s marvellous cult classic got hardly a look in.

Tacked on to the end of a section about Hammer’s girl-on-girl bloodsucker trilogy that began with The Vampire Lovers, it lazily used the Ingrid Pitt connection, and concentrated on the nudity in the Anthony Shaffer-scripted film rather than the neo-Paganism. Once the terrible fate awaiting Sergeant Howie’s is revealed, a clip of the burning effigy and the islanders joyous rendition of Sumer Is Icumen In, in the hope their fallow lands will now bear fruit, is referred to in the still misjudged narration as them “singing the song from Bagpuss.” What the fuck?

Again there were startling omissions and strange additions. Where was Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, made by Nik Powell and Stephen Woolley’s Palace productions? Why was An American Werewolf in London thrown so prominently into the mix over Dog Soldiers or 28 Days Later?

Its inclusion once again left hanging the question of what constitutes a British film. The narration admitted that The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr had been financed by 20th Century Fox but was “one of ours”, but in the case of John Landis’ comedy-horror film, saying that it draws on British horror traditions doesn’t seem to be good enough.

There was also the nagging question of Brazil and the "British" Harry Potter series of films. Billed as The Story of Horror & Fantasy, the fantasy part hardly got a look in. Raquel Welch in her fur bikini was brought up but there was no mention of the fact that in the mid-1970s Amicus came out with a trio of cheap and occasionally entertaining Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations – The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth’s Core, and The People That Time Forgot. They were by no means great movies, but that hadn't seemed to be a requisite of the previous seventy-odd minutes.

Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky and Time Bandits certainly fitted the bill, made by Umbrella Films and Handmade respectively, but his dystopian masterpiece Brazil was paid for and made for Universal Pictures. A disturbingly skewed version of Orwell’s 1984, it might have been nice if Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had been flagged up, but that would have meant including science fiction.

Writers like HG Wells and Aldous Huxley prove Britain can produce thoughtful science fiction in literature. Somehow the British film industry can’t successfully translate the genre to the screen and has been omitted from the series. Although it hasn’t stopped the schedulers from screening, as part of the season, The Quatermass Xperiment (labelled as horror in the documentary) and Doctor Who and the Daleks yesterday and Things to Come this afternoon.

Jeremy Paxman rounded off his James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture by saying “[Television companies] need, in short, to rediscover a sense of purpose.” Too late for British Film Forever.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Dead Chicken In Suffolk

The 32nd Edinburgh International Television Festival kicked off yesterday. This year the annual James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture was given by Jeremy Paxman.

Always high profile, the lectures are usually a stage for controversy. Last year Charles Allen, the outgoing Chief Executive of ITV, spent his time trying to convince everyone that the channel was in rude health.

In a year when British television has been hit by a succession of scandals, giving the press and lying shitbags like Tony Blair a field day, Paxman certainly didn’t pull his punches but dug further to reveal the true problems at the heart of television.

He began by asking “Never mind the scandals: what’s it all for?” The full transcript can be found here.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Rain On My Parade

Well, thank you Mr Early Morning TV Weatherman. You massive great butt crack! I’d swear he said it was just going to be overcast at worst.

It wouldn’t have mattered but the people behind a new magazine starting up later in the year wanted to see me this afternoon. By the time I got into Central London to run a few errands before heading out to their offices near Hammersmith it started raining.

It would have helped if I hadn’t left the A-Z along with the company’s address on my desk. After a bus and tube ride, and a vague memory of where they were located, the rain started to ease by the time I found the place.

Two hours later, after talking about what they were looking for and discussing various feature articles, I left and stepped into an absolute deluge. Drying out on the ride back to Blackfriars for the mainline train meant stopping at South Ken where the carriage filled up with sodden and irritable kiddies who were tired from a day out at the museums. Sweet.

It looks like I’ve got the gig. Of course nothing's certain until after the first pay cheque is banked.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Giving It All Away

One of the many criticisms of BBC2’s British Film Forever is that is seems to go out of its way to show the final scenes from just about every movie showcased in the series. Whether it’s the thrillers The Long Good Friday and Get Carter, If..., or even Brief Encounter and Sense and Sensibility, each film’s ending is given away quicker than blowjobs from a crack whore.

In recent weeks Lucy has had her fair share of grief for using certain movies to illustrate aspects of screenwriting and story structure. The thing is, however much she pussyfoots around to keep everyone happy, plot points are going to be revealed. While this would annoy an avid filmgoer who watches purely for entertainment, shouldn’t writers try to find out as much as they can, especially when it comes to movies they haven’t seen? It’s something to think about.

Annoyed as I am with British Film Forever, in the end this particular facet is just small potatoes. Just about every film they’ve covered I’ve already seen. While that’s a pretty selfish thing to say, I find more and more that it’s the journey rather than the destination that interests me.

Late last night BBC1 screened The Day of the Jackal. Goodness knows how many times I’ve seen it but I still tuned in to watch the beginning and ended up staying right until the very end. Even before catching the movie the first time around I knew that Charles de Gaulle hadn’t been assassinated, in the same way I knew that the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, 617 Squadron breached the Möhne and Eder dams, and Monty’s Operation Market Garden was a complete and utter failure costing thousands of lives, before watching Titanic, The Dam Busters and A Bridge Too Far.

Knowing those facts didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the films. (Okay, so Titanic was a bad example to use). With The Day of the Jackal it was the deadly game of cat and mouse between Edward Fox’s ruthless assassin and the desperate French authorities led by the hangdog Michael Lonsdale that kept me watching.

Every film pretty much has some sort of plot twist to raise the stakes. Does it really matter if you know what it is beforehand? I bought tickets for both Se7en and The Sixth Sense already knowing their final reveals before entering the cinema. Having that information didn’t spoil my initial enjoyment of watching either film.

If a film simply hangs on a big revelation and has nothing else going for it, does it make you want to watch it again? Se7en had a lot more going for it than just the arrival of the delivery van. That was just the icing on the cake, and a big “Fuck you!” to the happy-ending crowd. I’ve watched the DVD numerous times since. On the other hand, The Sixth Sense was viewed more analytically: looking to see how Shyamalan went about misdirecting the audience before the big final reveal. I haven’t bothered seeing it again.

Jacob’s Ladder scared the shit out of me when I saw it at an NFT preview. Oddly, the fear wasn’t from the demon apparitions and other weird shit going on, it came from not being able to get a handle on the narrative. See enough films and, however many twists and turns there are, you start to get an idea of how close you’re getting to the end credits and how soon you can get a drink or take a piss or spark up.

With Jacob’s Ladder I had a feeling that, theoretically, I could be stuck in the theater forever. When it finally came to an end, and it turned out to be just another riff on Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, to say I was disappointed would be an understatement. That was it? The same thing happened with Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game which simply came down to a cock and bull story.

Having the marketing department bigging up a surprise twist can work against a film. Last year when I saw The Prestige, rather than sit back and enjoy the story, from the get go I was trying to work out the angle. I didn’t spot it, unlike The Usual Suspects (which I figured out only because, until it came out of the fax machine, the sketch artist’s drawing was always turned away from camera).

Rewatching the likes of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, The Game, Planet of the Apes, or Alien – which has two big reveals: one vital to the plot, the second adding texture to the story – already knowing the twists ahead of time turns into anticipation for the upcoming scene in a well made, richly layered film.

Anyway, this Saturday’s British Film Forever turns its attention to Horror and Fantasy. The trailer the BBC are currently running for it ends with the burning of a big wicker man on the coast of Summerisle. Nice.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

All Dressed Up And Going Nowhere Fast

Is it that time of the week to froth at the mouth over the hideous ineptitude British Film Forever? Well, yes, but I figured there’s really no point ragging on it anymore. At least not to the extent that fissures start erupting in your skull. You know when you get so utterly fucking angry at something that it reaches the point where it just saps all the energy out of you and you give up? I guess I’ve reached that point. So my head isn’t going to explode. Sorry Mr Barron.

British Film Forever isn’t a great documentary series. It’s not even a good documentary series. In fact it’s not even barely adequate. If, in the final few weeks, it gets just a little touch better then it might be able to put a tick on the box next to HIDEOUS MESS when it comes to the final summation.

Listening to the dreadfully ill-judged voiceover on last night’s Corsets, Cleavage and Country Houses: The Story of the British Costume Drama, I finally figured out what it had been reminding me of since the very first episode, four weeks back. Lacking any kind of through-line narrative, each edition reads like an exam essay from someone who only started revising the night before after wasting their lead time off on a massive bender, and then writing it up in the grip of a crippling hangover.

British “Costume Drama” basically breaks down into Literary Adaptations, Historical Epics & Biographies, and Costume Drama. With that as a starting point it could have led somewhere. You have Alexander Korda’s London Film Productions, which made the critically and commercially successful The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 and The Rise of Catherine the Great the year later; Gainsborough Pictures’ costume melodramas in the 1940s; David Lean’s post-WWII Dickens’ adaptations that would put him on the path to Lawrence of Arabia; films based on great British writers and playwrights like Austen, Hardy, Forster, the Brontes, Shakespeare, Wilde. Begin with that kind of template, branch out, and the story should pretty much start to tell itself.

Watching the episodes and the examples given throughout, the question that kept popping back into my head is: What makes them British movies, especially as we move from the 1960s onwards? This certainly isn’t an instance where you follow the money.

When the first part of the series bigged up the James Bond films, I was wondering whether they weren’t more of a British institution like Sherlock Holmes or... er, Biggles?! The money for the Bond series came from United Artists or now Sony in America. Cubby Broccoli was an American who came to the UK in the early 1950s, his producing partner Harry Saltzman was Canadian. The only thing rooting it in the UK was Eon Productions, their production company, being based here.

So it must come down to production companies, which includes the likes of Ealing and London Film Productions, Gainsborough, Charter Film Productions, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Archers, Hammer and Anglo Amalgamated, Enigma and Goldcrest. But if that’s the case how come Corsets, Cleavage and Country Houses highlighted Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and Shakespeare in Love?

Both had a lot of British talent both in front and behind the camera, and were filmed in England. But the former was made by Columbia Pictures and Sydney Pollack’s Mirage Enterprises, while the latter came from Miramax Films, Bedford Falls Productions and Universal Pictures. The subject matters may be English, but the films are anything but.

Looking back at the previous episodes of British Film Forever, if Merchant Ivory get a good look in this week with their Forester adaptations, how come The Remains of the Day – one of the very best examples of unrequited love – was omitted from the instalment on romance? While last week’s look at social realism highlighted Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, why wasn’t Barry Lyndon is this latest episode? Come to think of it, where was Ridley Scott’s sumptuous adaptation of Conrad’s The Duellists, made on a relative pittance and produced by David Puttnam?

Still, at least ending Corsets, Cleavage and Country Houses: The Story of the British Costume Drama with A Cock and Bull Story, Micheal Winterbottom’s film of Laurence Sterne’s “unfilmable” novel, showed a marvellous unforgiving self-awareness by the filmmakers. The next episode is Horror and Fantasy. So, no change from the last four weeks then.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ultimate Summer Movie

I caught The Bourne Ultimatum this afternoon. It wasn’t planned. I was taking a short cut through Leicester Square and saw that the box office was already open and the film was about to start.

This is a great, full throttle summer movie. Hell, it’s even better than Transformers. As a threequel, rather than trying to be bigger and better – which usually means bloated – it kindly continues the story to a logical conclusion.

Lean and fast, it clocks in at under two hours, making it actually shorter than the first film, so don’t go buying a large popcorn on the way in because the credits will be rolling before you get anywhere near the bottom of the bucket.

Along with the hardcore thrills and spills it also contains the third handy lesson in how to beat the living shit out of someone with an everyday object. I can’t wait to try this new one out at the local library.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Little Man In The Boat

Last April BBC2 screened The Lost World of Friese-Greene in which presenter Dan Cruickshank retraced the route from Land’s End to John O’Groats taken by Claude Friese-Greene back in 1926 as he filmed life in the countryside, in colour, for his series of short films called The Open Road.

Following in Friese-Greene’s tyre tracks, he revealed not only what had changed over the eighty years but, even more remarkably, how much still remained virtually the same. Along the way Cruickshank spoke to descendants of people who appeared in the original footage and even pensioners who had been young children at the time Claude and his camera passed through their towns and villages.

Cruickshank’s remarkable three-part series had a purpose. Which is more than can be said for the sudden nasty rash of programmes on BBC and ITV that are so keen to tell us how utterly wonderful England's green and pleasant land is.

Griff Rhys Jones is tramping up the British Isles’ mountains in Mountain, and after three weeks still hasn’t fallen off on yet. Great British Journeys sees Nicholas Crane, still substituting his bloody umbrella for any hint of actual personality, retracing the routes taken by British “adventurers” who still wanted to be back home in time for tea.

Starting this week, ITV has the asinine Britain’s Favourite View, which could be less insipid if it just tried a little harder, and now Robbie Coltrane: B-Road Britain. Although given the big man’s expanding girth, squashed behind the wheel of his little bright red Jaguar XK150 (which is quite a stylish motor as mid-life crisis cars go) it could easily have been mistaken for Broad Britain.

I’m sure the views from the B-roads are very pleasant as long as the hedges aren’t too high and it’s a bright, sunny day, but they’re not very practical if you actually want to get somewhere. I remember car journeys from my youth that didn’t involve motorways. Even on the A-roads they took fucking ages and everyone was usually worn out and miserable by the end.

Sticking to the back roads is for people who don’t have to be anywhere other than stuck behind a tractor for three hours, or don’t care what time they get to where they have to be. Of course the show wasn’t really about the roads but the wacky people he happened to meet along the way. And what a bunch they were.

Think the British are either uptight and reserved or just a little bit mad? Apparently we’re all off-our-tits crazy. Can you believe there is somebody walking free who admits to coming up with frisbee golf? Then again, the removal of a lens cap is the biggest arsehole magnet there is.

In years past, programmes of this ilk at least had the diligence to go abroad and ridicule funny foreigners. Now they can’t even be bothered to do that anymore, unless they’re afraid of being blown up.

Britain has got some really beautiful landscape. It’s a whole lot better when it isn’t being trampled over by an army of camera crews and out-of-breath presenters babbling equally tired platitudes.

Slapped into the schedules they all add to the evidence for the prosecution that we’re balls deep in the summer of shit UK TV. Yes, there’s always Heroes and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but if you’ve already seen them you’re basically well and truly twatted.

What makes it even more infuriating is that, now that the US networks are killing time with reruns until the Fall schedule kicks off, American cable channels are using the summer months to put out some very interesting and entertaining shows. AMC has Mad Men set in an advertising agency in 1960s New York, TNT is showing Saving Grace, starring Holly Hunter as a wearied police detective in need of a guardian angel, even Spike has come out with the bank hostage drama The Kill Point.

In their wake comes Californication on Showtime. One of the problems I had with The X-Files, even before all their convoluted conspiracy story threads went completely wonk, was David Duchovny’s almost arid delivery. It looked like Cesare the somnambulist was his acting coach and, quite frankly, I’d seen more expressive wallpaper.

Then he began to appear on The Larry Sanders Show as a very different “David Duchovny”. There his deadpan delivery made much more sense and it’s back on show as New York novelist Hank Moody, living in LA and unable to write. Low self-esteem and self-loathing doesn’t stop him from trying to stick-and-stir inside everything with a pulse and then toss them like a used Kleenex. His novel God Hates Us has been turned into a movie called A Crazy Little Thing Called Love starring Tom and Katie. At least Moody gets his own back by banging the director’s wife.

Reviews have referenced Shampoo or called it a male version of Sex and the City. While the former seems relevant, Moody is far more complicated that Shergar Jessica Parker’s whiny character in the latter. Whichever one it ultimately veers toward, the character demolition of a date his agent’s wife fixes him up with is just priceless as is his kiss off: “Not only are you a cadaverous lay, you also have shitty taste in movies” – a line I could have used more than a couple of times in the past.

It also stars Natascha McElhone as his ex-partner. Luckily for us Five have already bought it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

California Dreaming

Right up until the very last moment it all began to finally start making some kind of sense – unless of course you count the appearance by the used car salesman. Then David Milch pulled a sneaky with the final shot surfing shot and accompanying voiceover that spoke of a far greater, stranger thing than anything that had come before. Where that would have lead only he knows because now that the season finale has rolled to a close HBO has decided not to renew John From Cincinnati for a second series. Which is a great shame.

Perplexing and entertaining in equal measures – which made it stand head and shoulders above just about every other current drama – as the series progressed and the themes of redemption, reconciliation and second chances gradually became evident, so that by the end, much like Deadwood before it, came the idea of disparate, lost, and once-estranged individuals coming together to form an extended family of sorts. Then came that final, brilliant tease and, to all intents and purposes, all bets were off.

After all, there are some things we know and some things we don’t and in the end that’s the best we can ask for. At least it was adventurous in both its concept and execution, making its audience think rather than simply sit there and be spoon-fed. When they put HBO release it on DVD I can’t wait to hear the commentaries. Hopefully they’ll lock Milch in the booth and not let him out until he’s had his say about every single episode. Whether it annoyed you or not, one thing John From Cincinnati has is one of the best title sequences ever. The trio of match cuts about one minute in are especially sweet.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Scratch And Sniff

Tired and uninspired television schedules are expected this time of year. Either the schedulers have buggered off to laze on a beach leaving office juniors who can barely be trusted to refill the photocopier in charge, or it’s a cunning ploy to make the upcoming autumn schedule unquestionably appealing by comparison.

With these dog days at the fag end of the season ordained as The Summer of British Film by the BBC, dumping insipid American movies into the mid-evening schedules, rather than a relevant British film, shows even more listlessness and lack of forethought than could ever be expected. This weekend may have been an aberration hopefully never to be repeated, but what past sins are we atoning for exactly to warrant Frank Oz’s misguided remake of The Stepford Wives or Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life?

Too much direct sunlight can do strange things to a person. That’s my excuse for watching the latter of those two evils. I didn’t expect to enjoy it so at least I wasn’t disappointed, but that said I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so jaw-droppingly awful in my entire life. If critics admonish movies based on amusement park rides or action figures, films based on computer games should be dragged out and thrashed relentlessly for being so utterly imbecilic.

If you make a film of something already heavily influenced by movies, what you get in return is a lazy and derivative slow vomit. With Lara Croft simply Indiana Jones with pneumatic tits, hips and blowjob lips, creating quivering underpants excitement for the computer game geeks, after each barely dramatic and perfunctory setpiece I expected to be told to move on to the next level.

Of course watching was merely a stopgap. After an hour I had planned to flip over to the third part of British Film Forever but when the time came I really couldn’t be that bothered. This week was Social Realism, which frankly isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Real life isn’t something I want to go to the cinema for, especially if it’s a ninety-odd minute lecture on the fact that it’s grim up north or that being poor and working class in an inner city isn’t exactly a laugh a minute. Pardon me if I say hey, no fucking shit?!

By the time I eventually flipped over the programme had reached Ken Loach and Mike Leigh which meant that suddenly the documentary on British film was spending a great deal of time covering television drama. With Loach’s films it feels like I’m getting a discourse from Fred Kite having an off day. Maybe I’m misreading them but Leigh’s movies are populated with deeply unpleasant characters that are either weak and resentful or complete bastards and harridans. If I want to see a bunch of lowlifes calling each other cunts I can go and stand at a bus stop for that. Topsy Turvy was great though.

Then, oh to be reminded of Distant Voices, Still Lives. It came out at a time when I was trying to get some action with a girl. She wanted to go, I went along. The previous film we had seen was some godawful, miserable European movie about two young sisters looking for their absent father. I think it ended with the two girls standing, for no apparent reason, beside a tree. This was after the elder sister had been raped by a truck driver who had given them a lift. By then I was probably wishing the film had been shot in 3D so the truck could come out of the screen and run me over.

Distant Voices, Still Lives probably means a whole lot to people who had similar instances in their upbringing. Without that flimsy connection it was like having strangers showing you their boring home movies. I’ve watched three-hour movies that seem to go by in a flash. Distant Voices, Still Lives seemed so utterly fucking tedious all I remember was wriggling in my seat begging for it to end. Just when I thought it was finally all over the title card Still Lives appeared on screen and it carried on. I did everything I could to stop screaming myself hoarse. Only 85 minutes long, the film felt like a life sentence.

Just being reminded of it was enough to send me into a stupor. The only time I livened up while watching the last half hour of Hardluck, Humour and Heroes was when it turned its attention to A Clockwork Orange. I may have missed something as I slid into a state of insensibility but how did Kubrick’s adaptation fit into social realism exactly?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Good Sport

For Hollywood studios looking to make the best return on their investments Matt Damon is the go-to guy. According to a survey in Forbes magazine he delivers the highest box-office returns for his salary, bringing home $29 for every buck, he’s more than twice the value of either Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks or Will Smith.

It turns out that as well as being money in the bank, Damon is also good for a laugh. At the end of the late-night Jimmy Kimmel Live, talk show host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel got into the habit of saying “Our apologies to Matt Damon, we ran out of time,” suggesting the actor had been bumped from the show due to time constraints, and the phrase stuck.

Damon played along, insofar as appearing on the show in September of last year, flipping out when the inevitable happened. A couple of months back they perpetuated the ongoing gag when Guillermo, a parking lot security guard who does a segment on the chat show called Guillermo's Hollywood Roundup, reported from the Ocean's Thirteen premiere.

Last week, on the eve of the release of The Bourne Ultimatum, Kimmel upped the ante. Enjoy.

Third Time Lucky

Inventor, painter and all-round polymath, Leonardo da Vinci may have created early prototypes of the tank and helicopter, but I doubt he would have declared “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” if he had foreseen the DVD.

Earlier this year Sony released Spiderman 2.1 with eight whole minutes of additional fisticuffs on the eve of the third film’s release. 20th Century Fox then brought out a “Special Edition” of 28 Days Later with new material that concentrated on the Juan Carlos Fresnadillo-directed 28 Weeks Later, which, by happy coincide was just about to be released onto cinema screens.

Now Universal have got in on the act with “Extended Editions” of both The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy on DVD in the run up to The Bourne Ultimatum. What makes them “Extended” versions, I’m not quite sure. A cursory glance at the packaging shows that both films seem to have their original running times and anyway, when it comes to tautly paced thrillers the last thing you need is unnecessary, additional footage slowing things down.

I didn’t catch up with The Bourne Identity until the “Special Edition” was out in the shops some years back. The disc’s play menu offered the chance to watch “the explosive extended edition”. Choosing that option, the film branched off to a new opening and closing sequence with the most appalling artifacting that did nothing to improve the story. In fact it was quite the opposite and, even more annoyingly, the disc had away with the Doug Liman commentary to make room for this nonsense. If I want to listen to that I’ll have to pick up a copy of the original DVD release.

When a popular author brings out a new novel the publishers are usually apt to reprint their back catalogue, redesigning the covers to fit in with the current book. They don’t ask the author to add to new more chapters to their last few books to entice readers to buy them a second time, which is why this method of shuffling around the DVD extras on re-releases as an incentive to get people to fork over more money that much more irritating.

In those instances, the repackaging of films into various Special Editions, Ultimate Editions and Definitive Editions seems to be at the behest of the studios. Where the filmmakers become involved is when we get Director’s Cuts.

I’m all for them as long as they make a significant difference to the film. In his introduction to the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott calls the 45-minutes of footage shorn from the theatrical release, “organic characterisation” rather than simply “adding a couple of shots at the beginning and a couple of shots end, and doing an elongated version of a lot of entries and exits of scenes.”

The most significant additions involve Eva Green’s Princess Sibylla and her son, which 20th Century Fox wanted removed because they argued it took the story off at a tangent. Though having not seen the film in the cinema, reviews indicate that the omission of these scenes in particular left her character slight and her actions leading up to the fall of Jerusalem confusing at best.

“Is it true that in Jerusalem I can erase my sins?” asks Orlando Bloom’s Balian. Over the years DVD seems to have become the perfect ground for meddlesome studios to acquit themselves of past misdeeds. The push and pull between art and commerce has always left executives interfering with the end product, whether it was simply wanting shorter running times to allow for more screenings per day, or having larger issues with the story content.

Looking at the recent spate of proper “director’s cuts” that have come to DVD rather than films with a few inconsequential nips and tucks, one thing common to nearly all of them is that they either completely stiffed at the box-office or didn’t meet expectations. This could be a cynical way for the studios to try and squeeze the last few drops of milk from a shrivelled tit, or their way of letting the filmmakers they previously overruled release theirs how they wanted to.

Warner Brothers seem to be more eager than any other to take this approach. In recent times we’ve had the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, Brian Helgeland putting Payback back together in the way he had originally envisioned and, at the beginning of October, Wolfgang Petersen's director’s cut of film Troy will be released with 30 minutes of new footage.

Any studio transgressions aside, the true antithesis of da Vinci’s quote is when directors keep doodling around with past projects, unable to let them lie. Recently arrived in the shops comes Warner Home Video’s release of Oliver Stone’s Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut.

This is now the third version of Alexander on DVD, after the theatrical cut and Director’s Cut, each one progressively longer than the last. If you want it longer there’s only the five-hour Fanny and Alexander left, although it lacks battles with elephants.

If Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut was how Oliver Stone meant it to be seen, what does that say about Alexander: Director’s Cut released just over two years ago? Stone may be passionate about the subject matter even if the audience doesn’t give a fig, but there are times when you just have to “abandon” it and move on. Which brings us to the release, later in the year, of Blade Runner: The Final Cut.

I saw Blade Runner when it was first released in 1982, then caught the Director’s Cut ten years later when it was screened at the London Film Festival. Certainly a fan of Ridley Scott’s work, of his films that I like, I probably like Blade Runner the least. Sure it’s visually arresting, but there are times when the look threats to take over the film and swamp the slender plot.

Why a Final Cut? Well, it turns out that The Director’s Cut was really the director’s cut. It may have ditched the voice-over and upbeat ending but Scott had been too busy preparing to shoot 1492: Conquest of Paradise to give the film his full attention. Shooting his Columbus epic even precluded him from introducing the new version of Blade Runner at the LFF.

Obviously now he’s found the time to do it justice and deliver, well, the final cut, free from the original studio interference in time for the film’s 25th anniversary. Details of the Region 1 DVDs have become available. Hopefully the Region 2 discs will follow suit.

The remastered 2-disc edition of The Final Cut comes with three separate commentaries: one from Ridley Scott, another from screenwriters Hampton Fancher David Peoples, and the third involving visual futurist Syd Mead; production designer Lawrence G. Paull, art director David L. Snyder and special photographic effects supervisors Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich and David Dryer.

Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, Charles de Lauzirika’s extensive three-and-a-half-hour documentary takes up the second disc, looking into every aspect of the film from it’s literary roots to its controversial legacy. If Lauzirika’s work on the 2-disc Special Edition of Alien, and the 4-disc Definitive Edition of Kingdom of Heaven is anything to go by, this should be the last word on the subject.

The 4-disc Collector’s Edition includes all of the above together with three previous versions of the Blade Runner on the third disc: both the original US theatrical cut and international release from 1982, which differed from the American version insofar that it contained some extended action scenes, along with the 1992 Director’s Cut.

The last DVD in the set contains an archive of additional features that includes features on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’s author Philip K. Dick, original promotional featurettes, screen tests, trailers and poster galleries, along with a further 45 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes.

There’s also a limited 5-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition containing everything plus the remastered Blade Runner Workprint whose discovery kicked the whole restoration off. Really, if you need five versions of the same film and you’re not a specky film scholar it’s time to take a good look in the mirror and re-evaluate your life.

While Blade Runner: The Final Cut affords Scott the luxury of delivering his definitive version of the film, Warner Brothers get to rub their hands together with glee at the thought of all the money that will come flooding into their coffers from fans ready to recite every word of Roy Batty’s final speech.

For once everybody wins. Now that we can finally celebrate Blade Runner in style, can we also please leave it and move on.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Banged Up!

I’m locked in! How strange is that? This afternoon, while I was out, somebody tried to break into my flat.

They got into the communal stairway I share with the flat above me but didn’t get any further into either of the flats. What they did do, trying to force my door with brute strength, was royally fuck up the Chub lock so it wouldn’t unlock.

Luckily I had left one of the bedroom windows open just to let some air in while I was gone. Before you say, well that’s a dumb thing to do, the window looks directly at the side of the M&S food hall right next door. From the outside, you can only see the window if you’re standing directly outside it. I can be dumb, but I’m not that dumb.

Unable to get through my front door, I had to borrow a ladder from the owners of the ground floor unit below me, get onto the flat roof of their extension. Because it was an A-frame instead of an extension ladder and not tall enough to reach, I had to balance precariously on the narrow handle above the top step and, Health & Safety be damned, take a leap of faith to haul myself up onto the roof. It wasn’t pretty.

Covered in all kinds of dirt and crap, I then had to climb up onto the higher flat rectangle the bedroom window and adjacent kitchen window look out onto. Pulling the window as far as it would open, I boosted myself up onto the ledge, squeezed through and then hurled myself, puffing and panting, onto the bed with the same lack of dexterity I had shown the moment I stepped off the ground.

I tried the lock from the inside. The fucker still wouldn’t budge! Since it’s a rental I called the estate agents who handle everything for the landlady. I’m a great tenant; they hardly hear a peep out of me. But even then, this late in the afternoon, they wondered if I could wait until tomorrow for a locksmith. Since I’m an obliging kind of guy, no problem.

Except, once I put the phone down I remembered my bag with my mobile, Filofax and all the paperwork from today was still out on the landing and out of reach. More importantly, the cigarettes were also on the other side of the door. Shit!

I went back out the window, back onto the roof and... found the ladder had been removed. I sat there for about half an hour before someone eventually came along. Explaining what had happened, unable to keep a straight face, I dropped them the keys. Very obligingly, they collected everything from upstairs, came back down and threw it up to me.

I’ve lived in London since 1984 and this is the first time anything like this has happened. I guess that would make me very lucky. Hopefully the locksmith will turn up first thing. There were less cigarettes in the packet than I thought.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

More Like Hate, Actually

Against my better judgement I watched the second part of British Film Forever to see if it would somehow manage to improve on last week’s execrable first episode. It didn’t.

It wasn’t a surprise that Longing, Loving and Leg-Overs: the Story of British Romance stumbled about like a drunken buffoon climbing out of the audience and trying to join the end of a chorus line. What was utterly staggering was, having been quite snarky last week about Diana Dors’ career and Orson Welles’ behaviour during the making of The Third Man, this time around the unbelievable cock knockers decided to take a pop at Powell & Pressburger. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!?

When you talk about Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s contribution to British cinema – or, in fact, world cinema – the superlatives start stacking up pretty damn quickly. If you compare their golden era of films made in the 1940s and early 1950s to other movies of the eras, their wit and invention, design, cinematography, and sheer virtuosity in filmmaking leaps off the screen and simply bowls you over.

Phil Jupitus seemed an odd choice of commentator but he was spot in his assessment of the delight in seeing the opening target appear on screen to announce A Production of The Archers – an image that always offered so much and delivered far greater. From then on, even with soundbites from Ian Christie, DP Jack Cardiff and Kevin Macdonald, Emeric's grandson who won an Oscar for the documentary One Day in September, the retarded fucknuts behind this big steaming 90-minute swirl of dog toffee seemed to make it their mission to put the pair down.

Black Narcissus is certainly melodramatic, but then Rumer Godden’s novel was about the English in the Colonies resisting the urge to go native and failing. And anyway, there’s Jack Cradiff’s utterly magisterial cinematography and the close-up of Kathleen Byron’s intense Sister Ruth putting on the bright red lipstick to marvel at. Then came The Red Shoes. Instead of celebrating it as the definitive ballet movie, the emphasis was on it signalling the downfall of the famous partnership. Huh?!

Yes, J. Arthur Rank and John Davis, The Rank Organisation’s chief executive, may have actively disliked the film and The Red Shoes may not have been commercially successful in the UK, but it was still bravura filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated. Popular elsewhere, it managed to garner BAFTA and Oscar nominations for Best Film, and won Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and composer Brian Easdale for Best Score.

Once Powell and Pressburger left Independent Producers and returned to London Films they still followed their visions. Their quartet of movies made for Alexander Korda were still definitely recognisable Powell & Pressburger productions. Any problems came from London Films not having the surefooted financial backing as Rank. Korda’s need for international co-producers certainly led to problems with Samuel Goldwyn on The Elusive Pimpernel and David O. Selznick during production of Gone to Earth, their Hardy-esque adaptation of Mary Webb's Thomas’ novel, both of which were released in 1950.

If that was the end, what does it say about The Tales of Hoffmann which came out the year later? Like Oh... Rosalinda!!, their updated adaptation of Johan Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, their feverish and utterly exhilarating phantasmagorical interpretation of Offenbach’s unfinished fantasy opera is perhaps one of their finest achievements. Filmed to a pre-recorded soundtrack, The Tales of Hoffmann is unequalled in its marriage of music to moving imagery.

Sure, the partnership only lasted a couple more movies, during the years they went back to Rank. After Pressburger retired, Powell’s career was effectively destroyed by the unbridled ferocity of the criticism that greeted Peeping Tom, released twelve years after The Red Shoes. Still, the brief snippet of home-movie footage from Powell’s marriage to Thelma Schoonmaker was interesting, reminding me of his Who’s Who entry, in which Powell listed his recreation as ‘Leaning on gates’.

Oh, and if you want to discuss films about lost love, how come The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp didn’t get a mention? Or, in the case of love against all the odds, A Matter of Life and Death? Then again, they’ll probably be denigrated by these moronic, pustular production-monkeys in the forthcoming episode on war movies.

Friday, August 03, 2007

True Love

If last week is to go by, Longing, Loving And Leg-Overs: The Story Of British Romance, the second slice of the great steaming loaf called British Film Forever is probably not worth the effort, unless you like a long stream of inane drivel. Where the BBC has got it right is in the films selected to make up the themed afternoon double-bill.

I Know Where I’m Going! and The Red Shoes are amongst the best films made by the extraordinary creative partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger during the 1940s. Released in 1945, I Know Where I’m Going! continued the themes of characters’ spiritual relationship to the land that had been key to the duo’s previous film, A Canterbury Tale, which is being shown later in the season. Away from the Kent countryside of Powell’s birthplace, I Know Where I’m Going! relocates to the wilds of Scotland where it is infused with an added dimension of Celtic Mysticism and folklore.

Watch the first couple of minutes to see how Powell & Pressburger establish Wendy Hiller’s determined and driven Joan Webster in the bravura extended title sequence. With the final leg of her journey north is delayed, as bad weather denies her the opportunity to make the crossing to the Hebridean isle of Kiloran, she changes from someone who knows exactly what she wants in life through the realization that life has so much more to offer.

While I Know Where I’m Going! doesn’t have anything like the celebrated jump cut that opens A Canterbury Tale, there are enough of their trademark visual flourishes, especially in the opening sequence when it comes time for Joan to change trains in Glasgow. Oh, and after you become entranced by Erwin Hiller’s remarkable cinematography, remember this: Because he was committed to appearing in a play on the West End at the same time as filming his part of Torquil MacNeill, Roger Livesey never set one foot in Scotland.

As for The Red Shoes, it is simply a masterpiece. And that’s all that needs to be said.