Thursday, March 25, 2010

On Days Like These

I never thought I’d ever say that insomnia has an up side to it. Awake well beyond the early hours of Monday morning, I started poking around on the computer and discovered the drama section of 4oD on YouTube. I’m sure everyone knows about this but I obviously wasn’t paying attention in assembly when the announcement was made.

Since that first night I’ve worked my way through the Channel 4’s marvellously bonkers adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time from 1997 than gallops through Anthony Powell’s twelve–volume cycle of novels in just under seven hours. Next up will be the channel’s version of Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn, which I haven’t seen since it was first broadcast. Then there’s The Gravy Train, the original Traffik, GBH, the marvellous Porterhouse Blue and even the whole run of both Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. Best of all Dennis Potter’s final pair of dramas, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, are also available, which is an absolute godsend.

Hopefully I’ll get to watch them at a more sociable hour, although when that will be is anyone’s guess. This afternoon six large containers filled with a mixture of documents, contracts, correspondence, annotated scripts, various clippings and all manner of publicity photographs, finally arrived, which have to be sorted through and catalogued. For the current project it’s like having the contents of Aladdin’s cave delivered to my door. Since I haven’t even bothered to break for an evening meal, stopping to try and get some sleep is highly unlikely even though after last night’s shenanigans I should be thoroughly worn out.

The time had come to celebrate our good pal H’s birthday. It was a much earlier start than usual and he had started even earlier, having a long lunch with a number of his actress friends. Although none of them carried on to the next stage of the celebration we were joined by the actor George Innes. By chance BBC2 had shown Stephen Frear’s Gumshoe over the weekend in which he appeared along with Albert Finney and Fulton Mackay. Although he continues to act on the screen and stage, in the last decade appearing in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Stardust, for men of a certain age he will forever be Bill Bailey, Charlie Croker’s Number Two in The Italian Job.

Although Michael Caine delivers the famous and favourite one liner, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”, once the gold is loaded into the three Minis and sent on their way, Innes gets to tell the rest of the crew, dressed up as football fans and sitting in the dormobile as they wait to make their escape from the traffic–jammed Turin, “Well, look happy you stupid bastards. We won, didn’t we?” Yet strangely enough, over a drink I found myself asking him about his time spent in America, guest–starring in episodes of Hill Street Blues, Magnum P.I. and Newhart.

Usually the first to leave on these nights, this time I was there right to the end. Instead of having to help someone I barely knew who was too drunk to get home on her own, this time I was in the company of our beautiful Persian Princess, who was just a touch squiffy and not wanting the night to end just yet. So instead of heading home at a time when we were just about sure our respective train lines were still running, she announced we should grab a quick bite.

Hand in hand, off we skipped looking for something to eat, eventually resulting in me just managing to get the last bus north from Marylebone and her having what sounded like the most horrendous journey east, taking in just about every means of transport available. Still, you obviously can’t have everything. I mean I’m still waiting for the birthday drink she promised me.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shut Down

After a few particularly trying weeks, during which time I repeatedly felt like pushing the keyboard aside so I’d have the room to bang my head upon the desk, I ended up spending the last couple of days researching Italian horror films of the 1970s and 80s. As a genre I had no previous knowledge of or real interest in, the most I could glean was that this particular branch of the industry is run by a bunch of phenomenal crooks that even puts Hollywood players to shame.

By early yesterday afternoon I figured that if I stayed in front the computer much longer I was liable to go insane so, in keeping with my half–arsed resolution to see more movies upon their initial release rather than waiting the four months or so until they pitched up on shiny disc, I pushed off to the cinema. Frankly, it was a mistake. I should have gone for a walk through the nearby park and up around the hill to help clear my head, then picked up some takeout on the way back and settled down to something a bit daft but nevertheless entertaining like Rocketeer or The Poseidon Adventure.

Being Friday I was looking actually forward to QI but upon checking the television listings I discovered that the regular BBC schedule had been ripped up in favour of the godawful Sport Relief. I have nothing against giving money to charity but these telethons are like watching a cute puppy roll over and then slowly be sick for hours on end. After a couple of minutes of watching the typical parade of clueless gurning media whores fumble about on live television any sane viewer would no doubt happily pledge all their worldly possessions just to make it all go away. So a trip to the pictures seemed by far the best alternative.

When I eventually got there I plumped for Shutter Island. It wasn’t my first choice but the journey to the multiplex took longer than expected, meaning that I’d already missed the first twenty minutes of Green Zone by the time I got to the box office window. The only other alternative was to catch The Bounty Hunter and I couldn’t really see that happening. Although I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane’s quintet of Kenzie and Gennaro novels and Mystic River, I was disappointed with Shutter Island when I first read it in hardback. I could see where Lehane was going when he said it was, “an homage to gothic, but also an homage to B movies and pulp,” but I still felt short–changed by an ending that probably would have worked better in a short story or a novella than a 325–page novel.

Still, it seemed a worthwhile idea to see what Hollywood would make of it. After all, Lehane had been reasonably served well with Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Mystic River and Ben Affleck’s take on Gone Baby Gone, although the latter suffered somewhat by giving exceedingly short shrift to the character Angie Gennaro. Not only that, The Culture Show had recently broadcast an interesting interview with Martin Scorsese, conducted by the art critic Andrew Graham–Dixon, in which the director talked about what he had set out to achieve. Except somehow those good intentions didn’t seem to have translated onto the screen.

Scorsese may have picked up on Lehane’s homage to B movies but with the large budget and much longer running time Shutter Island felt like someone had taken an old jukebox classic and tried to turn it into an opera. Literally introducing a “locked room mystery” but quickly expanding it into a locked island mystery, it lacked the true psychological suspense by spending fat too much time lingering over long, static conversations. Throwing out multiple theories about what was actually going on at the isolated, inhospitable Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane might have worked on the page, but onscreen it felt like the narrative was going around in circles without going anywhere.

It didn’t help that the obtrusive pieces of previously recorded, “modern classical music”, most of which sounded like a punch up in an over zealous percussion section, intruded on a number of these discussions between investigators, patients and staff, rendering their suppositions almost unintelligible on all counts. And what was with the flashbacks? Having read Lehane’s novel a second time sometime during the summer of last year, I knew they were there by couldn’t remember so much emphasis being put on the liberation of Konzentrationslager Dachau. Although Dachau had Arbeit macht frei worked into its wrought-iron gates, the entrance to the camp shown in the film, with the motto inscribed over the gate, resembled Auschwitz.

Too obvious to be a simple error made by Dante Ferretti, Scorsese’s regular production designer, it made me wonder if this had been specifically introduced into the script. Because Ashecliffe was meant to be the first of its kind in the treatment of the criminally insane and Dachau was the Nazi’s first concentration camp, I wondered if the surprising prominence of the phrase was meant to be a visual clue. If so it was particularly heavy–handed, but then of course I entered the cinema already knowing the plot turns in advance.

Of course it may be that more was expected from Martin Scorsese, and to be honest this is the first film of his I’ve seen on its theatrical release since I gave up an afternoon poolside to watch Bringing Out The Dead at the small cinema on the eastern end of Key West. Sitting watching Shutter Island I wondered what the end result would have been like if Wolfgang Petersen, who had originally optioned the novel, had been behind the camera. Either way the film would perhaps have benefited without Leonardo DiCaprio playing the harried lead. Even in his mid–thirties he still looks like an upper sixth former fretting over his upcoming A–level exams.

Although Mark Ruffalo didn’t get the amount of screen time he deserved, whenever he appeared his demeanour made me think that perhaps he should have been cast as Jim Rockford in David Shore’s remake of The Rockford Files instead of Dermot Mulroney. If that was going through my head while I sat in the auditorium it obviously shows that I wasn’t really connecting with the film. Maybe to truly go back to the pulp roots of the B movies it would have been better if Shutter Island had been more black and white on all counts.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Blue Sunday

I suppose every once in a while it’s a good idea to do something completely out of character just to keep things lively. A few weeks back, on my way out of the BFI Southbank, I turned back to the usual crowd who were still hugging the bar and suggested that with my birthday coming up we should get together for a drink that weekend. While not unusual per se, making an event out of the occasion isn’t something I usually do.

I remember having a big birthday day when I was maybe six or seven, before we moved out into the countryside, and then a joint birthday party with a couple of fellow students during my first year at The Esteemed School of Art, but after that nothing special or than maybe a quick drink with a few people. Even my fortieth just came down to lunch and a quick pint in the afternoon with a couple of friends. Maybe my reasoning is that it would be rude to gather everyone together and then be the first to leave, which is usually the case whenever I’m out meeting up with people.

It may be that I’ve always preferred to be part of a small gathering where you can actually converse rather than having to stand amongst a whole lot of people, letting a cold bottle of beer grow warm in my hand while listening to idle chitchat. A few exceptions can always be made when the circumstances are right, but otherwise I think my aversion to seeing people en masse comes from being forced into joining in the Friday night ritual at The Esteemed School of Art where everyone decamped to the nearby pub and regurgitate everything that had happened that week. Even worse was at the animation studios, having to end a long, tiring week amidst animators bitching about who, amongst their brethren, had got a directing gig they obviously didn’t deserve. Both got old real quick so it was no wonder that I’d scurry off to see a movie instead.

So while the idea of putting something together this year might have sounded good at that exact moment, it was stillborn thereafter. Any thoughts of meeting again for more drinks dried up the moment I stepped outside onto the South Bank to help prop up an ex–girlfriend of one of the crowd. Toward the end of the screening she had bounded from her seat like a filly out of the gate, disappeared for goodness knows how long and eventually reappeared, now stumbling around like a new–born calf, long after we had retired to the Riverfront bar. It turned out that whatever drinks she had downed formed a unique cocktail that incurred such a violent expulsion in the Ladies Room that panic–stricken BFI staffers had apparently coned off the area and called in a rapid–response hazmat team.

Now she desperately needed to get home and because her old partner still wanted to carry on propping up the bar instead I offered to help her out, not realizing that the gauge might have read empty but there was still a little left in the tank. Getting the Underground didn’t seem the ideal choice of transport so we headed over the bridge, looking like we were enacting Napolean’s retreat from Moscow with me wondering if it would be indelicate to simply throw her over my shoulder to help make headway. When we eventually reached the Strand the traffic was so snarled up that we got the tube, not realizing the rocking and rattling of the train wasn’t exactly ideal for her delicate situation. It didn’t help that she had long fine hair that wasn’t tied back.

Throughout our trek all the people we came into close contact with directed their withering looks not to the young lass bent double with strained stomach muscles and sick in her hair but to the middle–aged man who had diluted his one pint of lager that evening with lemonade, suggesting their primary thought was: What sort of person gets a woman in this state? I wanted to explain, “I only met her four hours ago, this is nothing to do with me!” but I figured that I had to show that gallantry still had a faint pulse. When we eventually parted at Baker Street, where she decided she could continue the few stops west unaided and I could continue north, once I was settled and poring over the crossword, I decided that was probably enough fun and games for a while.

At least that was the excuse I was going with. Luckily nobody picked me up on it, which probably showed how much they cared (or even remembered that night), and I was happy to let it slide. When a dear friend emailed Friday evening to see what I was doing on my “big special day” and remind me that we still hadn’t managed to get together since Christmas, rather than take the initiative and invite her out I replied that I just wanted to see this month out with a day of Powell & Pressburger and pizza. So after nipping out early Saturday morning for croissants and fresh lemon juice from the nearby M&S food hall I kicked off with ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ and A Canterbury Tale, then A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The Red Shoes got bumped because of past history. I gave the pizza a miss too.

Waking up on Sunday morning I decided that I should at least try and do something special during what remained of the weekend. Except I couldn’t think of anything to fit the bill, so I went to see Avatar instead. Nearly three months on from it’s release, what more is there to add. It’s a lot of blue. It’s better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It didn’t do anything for me at all. I do wish that I had seen it earlier, when there was a choice of versions to watch. Now it was just the 3D version available, making Avatar my introduction to the format. I don’t mean to be a tricky customer but I don’t do glasses. As a kiddie I took a spill and had the bridge of my nose mashed into the tarmac so glasses never sit right on my face. Even during summer I just squint my way through the bright sunlit days.

So the 3D didn’t do much for me than provide a mild irritant. When I wasn’t fiddling with the specs a couple of the camera moves reminded me of being on the Star Tours and Back to the Future rides, lurching forward in my seat as a reaction to what was being projected in front of me. Ultimately the depth of field just exacerbated the lack of depth to the narrative and after a while I found myself playing guess the camera move, trying to figure out where it would go next to put the action right in my face. As obvious as the story was, there were still one or two small surprises, but they only came about because I’d never managed to get all the way through Cameron’s ‘scriptment’, which has been floating around for goodness knows how long, or the actual script, which surfaced toward the end of last year.

Neither had been much of a page–turner simply because tedious detail suffocated the life out of the story, and with both I skimming through them before simply giving up even though the end was in sight. Although Avatar has been accused of stealing from Dances With Wolves, Delgo, Battle for Terra, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Poul Anderson’s short story Call Me Joe and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom cycle, sitting there in the cinema I was reminded more of Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Having read it was seems like a lifetime ago, so any recollection may be fuzzy at best, my abiding memory of the book is that Niven took so long setting up this artificial world, much like a thin sliver of a Dyson sphere, that when the characters finally get there nothing much really happens.

Of course I may be wrong. But with Avatar it seemed like so much effort put in for so little return other than shouting to the world, look how big and clever we are. Unfortunately I didn’t succumb to such shallow charm. Whereas by the end of The Hurt Locker my nerves felt utterly shredded and I was eager to scramble out of the cinema and spark up, as Avatar finally came to a close I was squirming in my seat feeling like my bladder was about to explode. I was trying to decide whether I should have gone earlier or not gone at all.