Monday, August 31, 2009

Hurt So Good

The fact that another Bank Holiday weekend was almost upon us slipped my mind until Friday evening when the news reported that just about every major road in the country was choked with traffic that was at a virtual standstill. Initially it didn’t make any real difference to what I already had planned but come Saturday, once it was apparent there were far less people around this way, I figured it would be nice to be out and about enjoying the sunshine.

While it was nice to wander along the near deserted byways, disturbing they eventually all led to streets clotted with the dregs of tourist season. Lumbering along and showing indifference to how their mewling spawn blithely scampered in everyone’s way and annoying the locals who had annoying turned out with the sort of nasty yappy little dogs that, if taken to the park where they belonged, would be used as sex toys by larger breeds. Struggling through them for all of three minutes, to get away I ducked into the nearest cinema.

At that time of day I suspected it would have less people in it than the average coffee shop. Though I may have been off in my calculation there was still enough room for everyone to keep their distance. Luckily, now that the holidays are on the wane, better fare than the typical mindless summer blockbuster is beginning to arrive. Looking for something more relaxing than being caught outside on the streets, I was just in time for the next performance of The Hurt Locker.

Because nowadays I only tend to want to mix with the proles if it’s absolutely necessary, watching one of the increasingly rare big screen spectaculars that was devised to be more than just an eye poaching, ear bleeding experience, ordinarily I would have waited until the film was available on shiny disc. About twenty minutes in I was beginning to wish I was watching it at home, simply because I’d be able to press the pause button every few scenes and spark up. As it was I had to sit there without respite and have my nerves shredded for the next two hours.

Unlike Sammy Rice, David Farrer’s tortured bomb disposal expert in Powell & Pressburger’s The Small Back Room, Staff Sergeant William James in The Hurt Locker is saddled with none of his qualms. Whether the near suicidal acts of bravado he displays when it comes to disabling the numerous Improvised Explosive Devices are clear signs of a death wish or simply the next fix for an adrenaline junkie are left for the audience to decide, although opening her film with a quote from The New York Times’ former war correspondent, Kathryn Bigelow specifically lingers on the finals words: “war is a drug.”

Breaking up the narrative into little more than a series of vignettes, The Hurt Locker perfectly illustrated the day–to–day existence the bomb–tech unit. Happy to get through the day still in one piece as they count down to the end of their rotation, the two other members of James’ team neither shared his compulsions and become so unnerved by his need to create additional risks they are pushed to consider killing him and making it look like the result of enemy action simply to save their own hides.

The real genius of The Hurt Locker was that screenwriter Mark Boal had been a war reporter whose article about the murder of an Iraq veteran published in Playboy formed the basis of In The Valley Of Elah. Like Evan Wright before him who, after being hooked up with the United States Marine Corps’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion for their push north into Iraq, wrote a series of dispatches for Rolling Stone before the eventual publication of Generation Kill, Boal spent two weeks with an elite EOD bomb disposal squad operating in Baghdad during 2004.

His experiences informed a script based on real observations rather than the useless political agenda of some wishy-washy, bleeding-heart Hollywood liberal. So by the time the credits rolled, rather than staying in my seat and shaking my head at such woebegone nonsense, I was stumbled through the door, scrabbling for my packet of smokes as I emerged blinking into the sunlight.

Yesterday, because the early morning overcast sky suggested that any idea of venturing out would no doubt be met with being pelted with rain I stayed in and caught up with In The Loop. It hadn’t been some part of a big plan to go from an Iraq War film devoid of a political agenda to a political black comedy that satirized the lead up to the Iraq conflict without specifically mentioning it. But by now it was apparent that the Bank Holiday weekend was upon us. With two channels simply giving up and stripping Carry On movies into their schedules, the only other alternative for entertainment would be to go out and pay somebody to repeatedly kick me in the face.

It may not have been as consistently funny as I expected, simply because the extended running time couldn’t sustain the breakneck hilarity and undiluted vitriol of a typical episode of The Thick Of It. If the sequences set in Washington DC proved to be the main letdown, In The Loop was still far better than the high profile, bigger budget American comedies filled with useless needy fucks played by useless needy fucks like Ben Stiller.

Any film that allows an enraged Peter Capaldi to spit, “Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!” into a government wonk’s face is all right in my book. Although it’s a shame there wasn’t room to aim the marvellously offensive “Tucker’s Law” outtake from The Thick Of It at one of the gormless agenda-setting Washington hawks whose existence simply proves that the experiment that is America has become an abject failure.

If you take exception to that then the only thing left to say is, “Fuckety-bye!”

Friday, August 28, 2009

Less Than Inspired

There have been quite a few instances where films based on the same concept have raced to beat each other to the punch at the box office. It may be down to the growing dearth of ideas in Hollywood during the past couple of decades or the fact that the stories were predominantly spectacle-based and made them perfect fodder for simple–minded summer audiences.

Dante’s Peak and the more–to–the–point Volcano competed against each other in a vain attempt to cock–punch some life back into the disaster movie. Deep Impact and Armageddon both presented doomsday scenarios in which the Earth would be smacked in the face by an asteroid, inconveniently wiping out all mankind. Meanwhile Kevin Costner appeared in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in the same year as the other movie starring the other bloke.

From those initial duelling concepts, at least each film had the good sense to come up with a very different scenario. Dante’s Peak was localized to laying waste a small town in the Pacific Northwest and made the foolish decision of attempting to be scientifically accurate, which just won’t do in these situations. On the other hand, the makers of Volcano simply failed to understand that filling the LA basin with molten lava might actually not be an altogether bad thing.

While Deep Impact veered toward the touchy-feely, pushing the global apocalypse as close as it could into chick-flick territory, Armageddon was about boys with toys, gaining extra points and a hearty audience cheer for smashing Paris off the face of the Earth. Even if Prince of Thieves had dodgy accents and the strange idea that Hadrian’s Wall stands between the White Cliffs of Dover and Sherwood Forest, for all its many shortcomings it was still more memorable than the other movie starring the other bloke.

Apparently Fathom Studios, the makers of Delgo, have made it known during the past week that they aren’t too impressed with the Avatar trailer that Fox squeezed out late last week, noting the striking visual similarities between the two movies even if the plots don’t exactly match up. To prove their point some bright spark has already gone through the available material and posted numerous shot–for–shot comparisons online for all to see.

James Cameron’s original detail-heavy treatment for Avatar has been knocking around for many years now. Clocking in at 114 pages, and filled with so much tedious detail that it seems to be desperately trying to convince itself it makes sense rather than tell a story, I wouldn’t be surprised if only the hardy few got through it all rather than giving up part way and just skipping to the end to see how it all turns out.

Fathom’s contention is that the independently financed Delgo has been in development just as long. Independently financed, initial concepts for the film appeared on its dedicated website as early as 1998, followed by further works–in–progress over the years as they doggedly scraped together the $40 million budget required to finish the film. Avatar on the other hand only went into production a few years back when the precious camera equipment that the movie couldn’t be made without was finally pieced together.

It may be seen as just sour grapes on the part of a company who spent all that time and effort only to see their movie make just under $512,000 on its opening weekend, which on a wide release meant it only earned an incredibly unimpressive average of $237 per theater. But though it was only on general release for a week before being pulled, given that Delgo appeared in December of 2008, that’s given Cameron or one of his flunkies almost nine whole months to come out and say something like, “Well, here’s a funny thing...” and mention that they were working along pretty much the same lines.

Obviously one significant drawback of being secretive about what you’re working on is that someone may also come out with the same themes or ideas without even knowing it. Even if it is simply one of the most outrageous coincidences, it doesn’t look good for Cameron who hasn’t exactly been squeaky clean when it comes to purloining existing material. Terminator got taken to task for bearing far too many similarities to The Outer Limits episodes Soldier and Demon With a Glass Hand. Obviously just as arrogant back then as he appears now, Cameron even went so far as to admit his pilfering to a visiting journalist, meaning that prints soon required an acknowledgement to the works of Harlan Ellison.

With Avatar four months away, the folk at Fathom have enough time to see whether it’ll be worth their while to take whatever legal action is open to them. Delgo wasn’t particularly original to begin with but I’m sure there are a lot of people in the film community who would like to see Cameron taken down a peg or two for the less than endearing behaviour he has repeatedly shown over the years.

In the meantime you always have to look on the bright side. After watching David Lynch’s utter abortion of Dune a couple of months back and then skimming through the novel to see how badly he had ballsed it up, I went back and re-read Frank Herbert’s trilogy of books. With Cameron pointlessly coming out and saying that Avatar was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ cycle of Barsoom books, because quite frankly what science fiction tale hasn’t been influenced in some respect by the adventures of John Carter of Mars, the last few evenings I’ve been reimmersing myself in A Princess of Mars.

Though I may not give a fig about Avatar, I am looking forward to John Carter of Mars, Disney’s upcoming adaptation of Burroughs‘ novels. After earlier attempts by the likes of the great Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett and Ray Harryhausen failed to bring the American Civil War veteran’s classic adventures on Mars to the screen, Pixar’s Andrew Stanton is finally good to go. With filming set to begin in November and a release date still two years away, it gives me time to work my way through all eleven books in the series. So I’m happy.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Manifestation Destiny

If there was money to be made, I’m sure at some point in the future the major studios will try and convince the cinema-going public that film viewing is best experienced by having everyone stick their heads in a bucket of sewage garishly coloured with food dyes, which is then hit repeatedly with weighty sticks. If that fate awaits us it means that in the meantime the shit has to remain smeared up on the screen. But to make us see it in all its glory, the big new gimmick is to get it in our faces in glorious 3D.

If stereoscopic cinema really is a valid artistic endeavour then surely it would only be used where necessary. Instead this growing shower, soon to become an utter deluge, simply boils down to Hollywood’s latest effort to crack down on piracy and make more money. Whether this works remains to be seen but today everyone got the opportunity to be hit in the face with an early shit pellet in advance of what looks like the massive turd being squeezed out later in the year.

Today was Avatar day. Being one of the lucky ones who didn’t have a ticket to see the 15 minutes of footage being screened exclusively at IMAX cinemas today, I had to make do with watching the teaser trailer that the article in today’s Evening Standard, which unbelievably took up two-thirds of page three, reminded me was now available online. Good or bad, at least it meant I could now visit the Apple website without that irritating countdown clock telling me how many days, hours and minutes it was until I could wallow in the majesty of James Cameron’s visual feast. Or not.

Was that it? Really? That was what we’ve been led to believe is spearheading the vanguard of a filmmaking revolution? Wow! No wonder the geeks at the recent San Diego Comic Con, which gives practically anything fantasy related a home field advantage, were warned not to raise their expectations. Of course I wasn’t watching it in three glorious dimensions and maybe that would make it far more aesthetically pleasing. But under the obviously archaic constraints of Quicktime it looked like utter dog toffee. An alien landscape that appears to have come straight off an old Roger Dean album cover? Oh, fuck the fuck off!

There’s an argument to be had that Cameron’s films have got progressively worse the more money he has in his war chest. Aliens remains an astonishing film considering the relatively minuscule $18 million dollar budget. Less money means having to be inventive. More money leads to indulgence. While these charges can be levelled at every filmmaker, Cameron’s work not only got more crappy but they got more sappy. This sentimentality never gelled comfortably with the more macho content of his films, which meant it felt like watching a brutal prizefight where the bruised and bloodied winner was then awarded a cute little kitten.

The Abyss worked when it racked up the tension between the disciplined Navy SEALS and the more easy going blue-collar workers within the partially flooded confines of their underwater drilling platform. Once the floaty aliens arrived it seriously plumbed the depths. Without them causing the submarine to pile into the rock wall at the beginning of the movie there was no story, but to have the undersea ETs ready to pass judgement on humankind’s destructiveness and then let everyone off because the estranged husband and wife admitted they still loved each other could have contributed to the audience contracting diabetes.

Terminator 2 may have been a little too slick and shiny for its own good but watching opposing robots maim, kill and then happy slap each other for a couple of hours makes for an entertaining diversion. But to hear Linda Hamilton’s character declare, “...if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too,” just before the credits rolled, meant that all the shootings, stabbings and shit being blown up real good counted for nothing when you had to shuffle out of the cinema gulping back a mouthful of your own sick.

So what to make of Avatar? The treatment had been knocking around for a while, long before the film went into production, so the basic premise is well known. Cameron has already gone on record as describing it as “Dances with Wolves in outer space,” and people have already flagged up the similarities to Return of the Jedi and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Or you could check out the trailers for Delgo and Battle for Terra, both of which opened in the last year and made so little money they hardly appeared on the radar. Is this what $260-odd million gets us? Because wasting that kind of money on something so totally derivative is just utterly obscene.

If all Cameron is really concerned about is delivering a new and exciting visual experience, why didn’t he just create an extravagant amusement park ride? Yes, cinema is a primarily visual medium but there has to be more to it than just pretty pictures. We can go to an art gallery and sit in front a Monet or Rothko or Turner or Rembrandt for that. Every time Cameron sets out to push the outside of the filmmaking envelope he really should be reminded that before he starts tugging furiously on the money cock it helps to have a decent story that will be worth the effort that goes into making it. Otherwise “Avatar Day”, if it really is the future of movies, might just as well be called “We are so utterly fucked! Day”.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Juvenile Satires

In the predawn hours of Saturday morning I found myself pacing back and forth in front the living room windows, repeatedly glancing up at the night sky in anticipation of the first deep blue smudges to seep into the rumpled blanket of dark dreary-looking clouds blotting out the stars. During the past few months this had become almost routine but post-op I was hoping it would come to an end and I could get back to an enjoying an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Apparently not all the chemicals raging in my brain had got the memo.

Dressed, I had already made my way up the Broadway to the small 24-hour store, bought a packet of gaspers from the glassy-eyed member of staff propped up behind the counter, and was monotonously working my way through them at an alarming rate. Even when the streetlamps began to wearily blink out it was still far too early to shuffle off to the supermarket and aimlessly wander up and down the virtually deserted aisles looking for food I could actually be bothered to eat rather than be bought, ignored, and left to casually rot in the kitchen.

I flicked on the television and, after having my fill of the news, was wondering whether to fire up the games console and try to expel whatever frustrations and anxieties had woken me after only three hours sleep by furiously carving up the Perfect Dark simulants. In the end I figured the neighbours probably wouldn’t be happy to be woken by ragged bursts of angry gunfire reverberating from the speakers so, running out of options on the best way to kill time, I plumped for watching Watchmen instead.

I had planned on giving the film a miss altogether seeing as the first trailer pretty much failed to impress and most reviews that accompanied its theatrical release were less than favourable. Then at some point simple curiosity leap-frogged over whatever resolve I might have had, if I had been paying attention. Although in my defence it could have been due to a residual effect from the anaesthetic, especially since I went and got myself the R1 “Director’s Cut” with close to a half hour of additional potential suckiness stitched into the narrative.

Perverse as it may seem to get this longer version, I figured that since the extra twenty-odd minutes of material added to Spielberg’s 1941 had helped turn a hapless, unfunny, and far too frantic comedy into an almost decent dark satire, this could possibly be a good thing. So far I couldn’t see it doing the trick for Watchmen. A week or so back, when I first sat down to watch it, after staring glumly at the screen for about forty minutes I switched it off and went for a lie down. In total it took me three goes, over the course of two days, to eventually make it through to the end credits.

Back when I used to read comic books I’d been a fan of Alan Moore’s work, until Promethea sorely tried my patience and I simply shrugged my shoulders and gave up. When the movie adaptations of V For Vendetta and From Hell started to roll in, it became apparent that Moore’s stories, with their cultural preferences and literary pretensions that populated the comic book panels, only really worked on the page. Like the movies based on Michael Crichton’s novels that ended up as nothing more than bog standard thrillers once they were shorn of the scientific mini-lectures that bulked up his prose, without these little details the results were even more hackneyed. I didn’t expect Watchmen to be any different.

When you have such unwieldy source material that has to be reduced to fit a running time that won’t sorely tax the audience’s bladders the big question is how much do you pare the narrative down before it becomes a shadow of its former self? Back at the end of June, Five showed David Lynch’s Dune as their Saturday afternoon movie. Having not seen the film since the UK press screening back in late 1984, nor read the book since the summer I visited my folks in Spain a couple of years before that, I plumped up some pillows against the arm of the sofa and stretched out to get reacquainted with it.

And Christ almighty, what an utter fucking dog’s breakfast that was! Afterwards I dug out my battered old copy of the novel (priced £1.75), with its glaring typo in the first sentence and 40-odd pages of appendices bringing up the rear, and had a flick through to try where the film had gone so desperately wrong. After just a cursory glance through the book it became obvious that reducing Frank Herbert’s rambling prose down to a little over two hours would be a tall order in anyone’s estimation and Lynch was obviously stumped by the abundance of material.

In a less than valiant attempt to condense his tale of political rivalry, religion and ecology, gone were the intricacies of the rivalry between the Atreides and Harkonnen, the political machinations of the Padishah Emperor and the Spacing Guild, and whatever the hell the Bene Gesserit sisterhood were up to. Subtlety has never been Lynch’s strong suit and after simply cherry-picking snatches of dialogue that, out of context, ultimately sounded especially risible, he fell back on his tedious fascinations with organic and industrial decay. The only saving grace was that the man didn’t include the unsavoury vein of misogyny that blights his later work.

To give its prospective audience a fighting chance of understanding just what the fuck was going on, Dune had been prefaced with a remarkably artless and clunky prologue. Pelting viewers with a rapid succession of facts on the rival parties, the Fremen and the prescient spice Melange found on the desert planet Arrakis, it was like a furious last-minute cramming session for an exam nobody wanted to take. Using such a leaden device, especially in the case of 2007’s The Golden Compass, suggests that when it comes to the more fantastical material the filmmakers are simply unwilling to believe that a wider audience, unfamiliar with the source material, has the ability to accept the basic premise and then fill in any blanks for themselves as the film goes along.

In its favour Watchmen took a different tack by using an extended title sequence to introduce its own shewed version of history to establish the story’s setting. Unfortunately the set-up was delivered with such panache that the rest of the film failed to match up to it. That opening section worked so well because it was based primarily on an interpretation of the supplementary texts from the back of the earlier issues of the comic while everything that followed lacked that singular freedom.

Even though great swathes of unnecessary material that was supposed to make Watchmen “unfilmable” had been mercifully hacked out, director Zack Snyder’s obvious reverence to the comic book soon became apparent as Dave Gibbons’ beautifully rendered panels were slavishly replicated through the camera lens. After a while this nerdish devotion of his started getting in the way of driving the plot forwards. Without these distractions, the film could have been a lot leaner. And the appalling bouts of slow motion, which are apparently this idiot’s trademark, didn’t help.

Reading Watchmen when it first came out in the late 1980s, it soon became apparent that Moore was using the story to conduct a living autopsy on comic book heroes by suggesting that costumed crime-fighters are little more than an unruly bunch of sociopaths, psychopaths and misguided do-gooders. Even Doctor Manhattan, the one character actually imbued with super powers has his own issues, gradually distancing himself from humanity. The rest, meanwhile, are nothing more than vigilantes hiding their dysfunctions behind their fancy dress.

While Synder makes a big deal that the middle-aged Nite Owl’s inability to get it up can only be cured by getting back into costume – and congratulations have to be in order for anyone who can sustain an erection while Leonard Cohen, officially the world’s most miserable bastard, warbles on – it seemed strange that he didn’t push The Comedian to become the extreme fascist he appeared in print. Yes, he still attempts to rape the first Silk Spectre, roasts PLAF soldiers and murders his pregnant South Vietnamese girlfriend, but the defining description of the character had to be:

With so much of Doctor Manhattan’s dry commentary bogging down the second act it seemed strange that this one pertinent observation had been omitted, especially when it would have been far preferable to the burst of the Walkürenritt leitmotif that rather crassly accompanies the Vietnam battle sequence.

Adding so much graphic violence to the graphic novel’s contents, it seemed odd that Laurie Juspeczyk’s smoking habit should be so thoroughly erased, especially when the point of her activating the Owlship’s flamethrower was because she thought it was the cigarette lighter. Apparently even in the fucked up world of Watchmen shooting a woman’s fingers off and hacking someone’s head open with a meat cleaver is permissible yet sparking up is an absolute no-no.

Still, the movie wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the utterly fetid film version of Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where, once the various literary characters were assembled on screen, the plot promptly fell to pieces. Neither was it as retched as Robert Rodriguez’s utterly gormless and monotone take on Sin City that was so reverential to Frank Miller’s original comic book series that it simply transferred the material to the screen rather than translating it. While the hard-boiled utterances spouted by Miller’s boorish characters might have been fun to read, as dialogue it sounded completely ridiculous.

For all its failings Watchmen did have a couple of nice touches. The puff of smoke witnessed on the grassy knoll turned out to have come from The Comedian’s cigar, and when Adrian Veidt gathers the costumed crimefighters together as a team Rorschach dismisses the union as a publicity stunt, saying he’s “not in it for the ink”. Though those two instances helped me endure the movie in one sitting, in the end I couldn’t quite see what the point of the film was.

At least Dune came to a close with a happy ending of sorts. As the rain inexplicably fell on the plains of Arrakis and little Alia faced the camera and lisped, “For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!”, I was shaken out of my stupor and was doubled over with laughter. When Watchmen juddered to an end I looked at the time and realised I could have been at the supermarket twenty minutes ago.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

...In Age We Understand

Flagged up by Alan Sepinwall of New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger during his session with Craig Ferguson during the Television Critics Association’s current press tour, here’s the host of CBS’s The Late Late Show explaining why it’s all going to shit. Enjoy.