Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep, the first to star PI Philip Marlowe, was ready made for the big screen. It had a zippy, twisting and engrossing plot, propelled at pace by short, sharp chapters that feel like scenes from a movie. It is full of characters that are enigmatic, living in the shadowy underworld of Los Angeles, but they all jump out of the page at you because they are so flawed and real. Appropriately, the whole thing plays out in and around Hollywood. And perhaps best of all, Chandler’s dialogue is quick and witty, containing cool and sophisticated one liners that are easy to transplant straight from a book to a script.
The classic film version, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and directed by Howard Hawks, was released in 1946, just seven years after the original novel. Its place amongst other classics in a widely recognised Hollywood hall of fame is justified. It adds elements the novel was missing and brings screen legends like Bogart and Bacall together to successfully bring the charismatic Marlowe and feisty Vivian Rutledge to life. But it is also a largely faithful adaptation and owes its source material a huge debt.
What is the general story of The Big Sleep then? It is too complicated to properly explain briefly. Chandler’s original plot negotiated a weaving path between webs of blackmail, secrets and lies, fuelled by Hollywood excess. Essentially Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood who has two “wild” daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivien (Bacall), each with their own scandalous weaknesses. Carmen is being blackmailed by a dodgy bookseller doing something illegal on the side and Vivien’s estranged husband, who the General was fond of, has gone missing. Marlowe quickly unravels the blackmail but bigger problems continually turn up, leading him further and further into a tough investigation of gangsters, gambling and girls.
Elements of the original plot seem even more complicated on film because of the need to tone down Chandler’s frank portrayal of sex and drugs. For example Carmen is blackmailed because of naked pictures of herself but in the film she is wearing some kind of Oriental robe. Carmen’s attempts to seduce Marlowe, and therefore her dangerous nature, are also less overt in the film.
The best lines of dialogue are lifted completely unaltered from Chandler’s prose. There are far too many to quote. Almost all the dialogue in the book is slick and crucial to the irresistible noir style. The film’s script, by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, sticks as close as possible to the novel’s dialogue as well as its intricate plot and is consequently one of the best and most quotable in cinematic history, line for line.
The character of Marlowe comes to life because of his smooth talking street smarts. But this doesn’t mean that other characters are deprived of scene stealing lines. Even minor characters, such as a girl working in a fake bookshop called Agnes, get the odd gem. When Marlowe disarms her and asks “Did I hurt you much?” she shoots back “You and every other man in my life.”
Not all of the novel’s charisma could make it from the page to the screen. Despite an excellent performance from Bogart, accurately portraying Marlowe’s mannerisms and speech as the reader imagines them, it’s impossible to transfer the brilliance of his first person narration. Chandler gives Marlowe an incredibly strong voice and not all of the great lines in the book are spoken.
Marlowe’s nature as a detective means that he rapidly describes his surroundings vividly and unavoidably the film lacks the colour of these delicious chapter set ups, because it is in black and white. Marlowe also internally sums up other characters. We cannot see these first impressions on film. Despite the glamour of Bacall and the other actresses in the production, we’re denied such delicious and spot on imagery of the women as this; “she gave me one of those smiles the lips have forgotten before they reach the eyes”. No actress could express such subtlety. In the book we also learn a little more about Marlowe’s own state of mind and emotions, again through wonderful writing; “I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets”.
One of the changes the filmmakers did make was to intensify the relationship between Bogart’s Marlowe and Bacall’s Mrs Rutledge. The plot remains essentially the same, with some scenes tweaked and others, like a fairly pivotal one towards the end, omitted altogether and explained elsewhere. However Bacall’s character appears more often than she does in the book. The change in her character was probably for commercial as well as narrative reasons. Cinema audiences wanted to see a love story between their two big stars, not an unorthodox, cold and professional Detective teasing but ultimately knocking back a beautiful lady, as Marlowe does in the book.
Indeed the inclusion of the love story does fundamentally change Marlowe’s character in some ways. He is robbed of an ingredient of his allure as he is no longer a troubled but brilliant and determined loner when he admits that he loves Vivien. But it makes The Big Sleep work better as a standalone story and is considerably more satisfying than the end to the novel, which explains things but doesn’t exactly resolve them.
It is inevitable that the adaptation has its differences to the source material. And it is also essential that changes were made. I may miss Marlowe’s narration from the page and even the excitement of Chandler’s written action, compared to the film’s set pieces which are over in a flash. But the film gives me the unrivalled onscreen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, which sheds light on and makes the most of the flirtatious relationship from the page. It might even reveal new truths in Chandler’s story, whilst lacking others. Overall though it’s clear that both the novel and the movie are sublime; clever and gripping, sophisticated and cool. Entertainment at its best.
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In the past month I submitted 3 scripts for plays and sketches to a theatre company that were looking to showcase new writers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. Against all of my expectations, one of my submissions, a sketch, was accepted and shall fingers crossed, be performed. My work will feature in the Laughing Horse, free fringe programme.
Nearer the time I shall probably shamelessly publicise the event all over Mrtsblog. If anyone reading this lives nearby or was planning to visit the excellent festival, as I was anyway, I would love it if you could check out my work! But as I say, details can wait. In the meantime I will look forward to all the brilliant acts and possibilities of the festival, from comedy to drama, and touring the city with itself, with its fascinating history. I am tremendously excited about the opportunity of having my own work realised on the best of stages and platforms. I have read about famous faces in comedy and culture, from Michael McIntyre to Stephen Fry, who learnt their craft dabbling in the cuthroat thrills of the Fringe. I cannot wait.
To further wet my own appetite, and hopefully tug a little at yours, I thought I would post the two submissions that weren’t successful here. The theme was Black Shorts and a short script with minimal props was required. My first submission, The Mannequin in Black Shorts, literally features a pair of Black Shorts, whereas the other two were merely dark and snappy in tone. Clearly, as they were unsuccesful submissions, these ideas are riddled with faults that I am the first to recognise. I am still learning, constructive criticism is welcomed.
Anyway here we are then. A taste of my play/script/sketch writing skills, that I hope to develop considerably in the future after such an honour and opportunity:
The Mannequin in Black Shorts
Two men sit across from each other on chairs. One (C) holds a pen and paper but rarely uses them. The other (Adam) occasionally sips from a glass of water and avoids eye contact now and then to fiddle with it. There is a prolonged silence before anyone says anything.
Adam: See I knew she was from London cos she rode on the right.
C: Sorry? What?
Adam: I knew she was from London because she stood on the right hand side.
C: So we’re on escalators now? Am I right? What’s your tenuous link to escalators Adam?
Adam: Do you have to call me that?
C: It is your name.
Adam: My emotions are up and down, escalators ferry people up and down. How’s that for a link?
C: What makes you so certain she was from London? Anyone could choose to stand on the right.
Adam: Anyone could choose to yeah. But she didn’t choose to, it was habit.
C: How do you know?
Adam: We went up like three or four of the things and every time she’s straight there on the right, gliding like a pro. And I know.
C: She could have been…
Adam: The way she dressed was very urban, no…metropolitan, too. She wasn’t from some rural backwater, she’s used to hustle, bustle, rushing and pushing and cruising on auto pilot through crowds and up and down incidental features of the landscape like escalators.
C: She could have been anyone.
Adam: She wasn’t.
Adam: Why what?
C: Why wasn’t she just anyone? Why does she have to be from London?
Adam: Because I know what I saw.
C: You have no evidence again. People from London could just as easily stand on the left couldn’t they? In fact if you were so used to standing on the right you might just stand on the left for no reason; just because you could. She could have been breaking a habit, couldn’t she? Admit that’s a possibility.
Adam: It would be a possibility if I was wrong.
C: Which you might be.
Adam: I’m not.
C: Well I do it.
Adam: Sorry? Are we here to discuss what you do?
C: I stand on the left just to mix things up. I get tired of standing on the right on the Tube.
Adam: You just proved my point.
C: Enlighten me.
Adam: You don’t live in London.
C: I don’t. But I don’t see why someone who goes there very regularly can’t have a strong habit or inclination to follow or break a routine.
Adam: If you lived there you’d just do it naturally. Like this girl. Without a second thought. BAM. “I’ll stand on the right”. No she doesn’t even think about it, it just happens.
C: Why is it so hard for you to accept that you might be wrong? Where do you get this unfounded certainty from?
Adam: I’m not wrong.
C: But can’t you at least admit that you could be?
Adam: You just don’t understand second nature.
Adam: See! You think too much.
C: Don’t you pay me to think?
Adam: I pay you to talk.
C: Does it matter what I say?
Adam gets up and wanders out of sight, returning with a fresh glass of water. C makes a point of loudly tearing the paper he’s been using for notes, starting on a new piece.
C: (lets out a big sigh) I think we’ve strayed off the point somewhat. Why don’t you keep telling me about the dream?
Adam: What dream?
C: The recurring one.
Adam: I already told you.
C: Hardly. I think you’re avoiding the subject. What are you afraid of?
Adam: Why do you ask so many questions?
C: Why do you like answering mine with your own?
Adam: How about answering mine and I’ll consider answering yours?
C: How do you expect me to do my job if I don’t ask you things?
Adam: You have no job. And by only asking questions you don’t do any work, you’re just trying to get me to help myself. Classic shrink. If I could do that I wouldn’t be sitting here.
C: I don’t need to work if I don’t have a job. You’ve told me before I’m not your shrink.
Adam: You’re not.
C: So what exactly are we doing here Adam?
Adam: Don’t call me that!
C: I’ll call you what I like Adam, especially if you’re not my employer. If I’m not your therapist, your psychologist, your counsellor, what am I?
Adam: It’s a nightmare.
(a longer pause, Adam looks away and C reflects)
C: Ah, so are we willing to admit you were avoiding the subject now?
Adam: Shut up.
C: Fine. That won’t get us anywhere though.
Adam: You don’t need to “get anywhere”. It’s my dream.
(Adam is visibly angry. C adopts a comforting tone, as if addressing a child)
C: Quite right. It’s your dream Adam, your problem. But would you like me to help?
Adam: Of course I want your fucking help.
C: Then perhaps I best not shut up just yet.
Adam: (heavy with sarcasm) Perhaps not.
Adam downs his glass of water and stares into the empty glass. C watches and waits. There’s silence for a time.
C: Are you ready to talk about the dream again yet?
C: So you say.
Adam: What’s that supposed to mean?
C: It didn’t sound so horrific.
Adam: Why do you have to be so fucking aggressive?
C: And you’re not? I’m not aggressive.
Adam: Cruel then, you’re cruel.
C: I’m not cruel Adam. This wouldn’t do you any good if I wasn’t frank. That’s all I’m trying to do; be honest with you. So. Can you tell me about the recurring dream again? How often does it happen?
Adam: I get the nightmare every night, sometimes more than once a night these days.
C: And what happens?
(Adam grunts and says nothing for some time)
C: What happens in the nightmare Adam?
Adam: I told you. I wake up in my bed and for some reason I go to the mirror. I look at myself and I’m looking at this waxwork model, like this shop dummy thing…
C: A mannequin.
Adam: … with no real face or anything original about it. I try to move away from the mirror but I can’t. I’m just this lifeless figurine.
C: Do you remember what the mannequin was wearing? Last time you wouldn’t say what it was wearing? Are you naked as the mannequin Adam?
(Adam laughs derisively with a snort)
Adam: No. You’d have liked that wouldn’t you?
C: Go on.
Adam: I’m wearing black shorts, like the type I’d wear to football practice when I was younger.
C: Do you have any memories of that football practice? Do you regret giving up football?
Adam: No the shorts were…They…
(His voice breaks and he seems unable to go on)
Adam: The shorts were stained.
Adam: You heard me.
C: Marked with mud? Stained from playing football maybe?
Adam: No not that sort of stain.
C: Then what sort of stain?
Adam: (quietly) No
Adam: I said no. Not blood.
C: Are you sure? There’s no need to lie Adam.
Adam: Not blood ok?
C: Do you know what sort of stain it was?
Adam: Of course I do! It was my dream.
C: Well you clearly don’t know everything about it.
C: Would you rather not say what sort of stain it was?
Adam: I think…
C: You think…?
Adam: I think YOU SHOULD LET ME TALK! I don’t want to talk about it.
C: But you said…?
Adam: I don’t want to say what type of stain, ok?
C: That’s fine.
Adam: Would you like a biscuit?
Adam disappears for a while. C puts his pen and paper on the floor. He taps his hand against the side of the chair while he waits. Adam returns.
Adam: There weren’t any.
C: Don’t worry.
Adam: Do you think Doctor Who is for kids?
Adam: Answer the question.
C: Yes. Yes I do.
Adam: Was that a loaded question?
C: I wouldn’t say so no.
Adam: What is a loaded question?
Adam: Surely all questions are loaded? To an extent.
C: Perhaps they are. I think you have a point there.
Adam: Why is Doctor Who just for kids?
C: I didn’t say it was just for kids.
Adam: Just answer the question.
C: Cos you pay me to talk right?
(Adam says nothing. There’s a pause.)
C: I think we’re all kids. I like Doctor Who.
Adam: Why do you like it?
C: It can be anything. It’s original and creative escapism. And it’s about running from loneliness. Anyone can relate to that.
Adam: Can they? And who says it’s about that? Isn’t that a bit heavy for kids?
C: I say it’s about that. It isn’t about that for everyone. It’s my interpretation.
Adam: I think it’s childish.
C: Well not everything can be everyone’s cup of tea.
Adam: What does that even mean? You talk rubbish.
C: You chose this tangent. I’d rather talk about your dream.
Adam: Well I feel like ranting about the flaws of British television.
C: Adam stop this.
Adam: Stop what? Why don’t you sell me the merits of Doctor Who? You’re not even trying!
C: You should like him. He’s clever and he’s a bit like all the detectives you like.
Adam: I do not like detectives. I glean what I can for my own observational skills.
C: “Glean” is a very good word Adam.
Adam: Don’t patronise me.
C: You’re a walking dictionary.
Adam: Shut up.
(C leans forward exasperated)
C: Well listen to yourself! What are you even doing with your life? How old are you!?
The lights abruptly go down. When they slowly return Adam is no longer on stage. At the centre and towards the rear C stands next to a Mannequin in Black Shorts. At the front and to the left a security guard sits on a chair. At the front to the right a woman with a shopping bag hovers about as if browsing clothes on a rail. C’s appearance is the same as before but somehow scruffier and dishevelled.
C: (pacing around in frustration) I said listen to yourself Adam!
C: I’m sorry Adam but it’s your name. For Christ’s sake grow a pair.
(Another, lengthier, pause)
C: No, no, Adam you listen! (C turns and walks up to the Mannequin. He takes some deep breaths to calm himself before seemingly addressing it directly) Tell me about the dream. No buts or excuses this time.
(There’s a substantial spell of silence. The security guard stifles a burp and then coughs. The shopper bends down as if to feel the quality of material or inspect a price tag. She gets a text message on her phone. C tries to make eye contact with the Mannequin, occasionally looking away and nodding or shaking his head now and then.)
C: Well…I’ve never heard such self-involved, deluded bullshit…
(A brief pause)
C: Ha! It might be just my interpretation, but I can assure you that yours is further from the truth. You are not some tortured or fallen genius Adam. That dream is either a meaningless fart of activity from your brain or a yelp from your sub-conscious.
C: It means that maybe you know somewhere inside that thick head of yours that your personality is a lifeless empty shell you’re constantly trying to fill. And none of this endless madness is doing you any good.
C: (with a raised voice) Oh please! (shouting now) Last week you were insisting you were the heir to Hercule bloody Poirot!
(The browsing shopper glances round in C’s direction. As does the security guard who groans and starts to make a call on his phone.)
C: Sorry Adam but someone has to be honest with you…I’m you’re what!?…Friends don’t have an hourly rate…
(Security guard is up and walking towards C)
Guard: (in a thick masculine accent) Not you again. C’mon pal away from here…
C: You may feel you’re someone else here Adam, but I’m not going to call you anything besides your name…Are you paying by cheque this week? As usual?
Guard: (laying a hand on C’s shoulder) Listen, shut it Sigmund. People are tryin’ to shop.
C: (straining to talk to Mannequin) If that’s how you feel we needn’t meet again…(screaming at top of his voice as Guard begins to pull him away. Shopper glances anxiously repeatedly towards C and hurries off stage.)… BUT YOU MUST PAY ACCORDING TO OUR ARRANGEMENT!
(The Guard slowly guides C off stage, grappling now and then to keep him from the Mannequin. C begins to make indecipherable, animalistic noises)
Guard: Oi! Put a sock in it will ya, ya bloody loony!
They exit the stage.
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I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by the term “event television” at first. Apparently we don’t have much of it over here. Whereas they have loads of it over there. Here of course is, well here, and there is America, the US, the United States, the land of the free. I suppose now they can call themselves the conquerors of terror. Nevertheless, whatever our inferiorities on the hunting down madmen front, I thought it was a harsh and unfair assessment of our television schedules.
Course no one reads schedules anymore though, no one sits down to watch anything at the allotted hour. We’re all addicted to endless self gratification. We get up to have an iPoo, flush it down the iBog and wash our hands with interactive iSoap, ambling into the kitchen through the iDoors that open with that Star Trek noise, to sit down to our perfectly timed iToast. Then we float to work on our iMagicCarpets, reading an article about the latest iPod on our iPads. When we’ve got a spare moment we’ll catch up with our favourite shows, saved straight to our favourites automatically on iPlayer. Or we check out some new comedy, whenever we want, on 4Od. Thankfully ITV is pretty much forgotten online. Someone told me there was an itvplayer, but I didn’t believe them. What would be the point?
Anyway back to my point. Even if we did read schedules we’d just shout “SHIT!” and toss them down somewhere. But it’s ridiculous to say British TV lacks events. The Royal Wedding was an event that the whole world, especially the Yanks, wanted to see. And they couldn’t replicate it even with their superior budgets and 22 feature length episode series. Quite often BBC Sport will show some horses jumping about the place and that’s actually called Event-ing! How can things get more eventful? Even ITV has the odd football match. Football matches are events, I’ve been to some. And just because baseball has more interesting bats than cricket, and the Super Bowl is so good people watch it for the adverts, does not mean British sport is any less diverse and eventful than American ones.
I eventually discovered that “event television” refers to the scale and quality of drama, as opposed to sport or documentaries. American imports like The Wire, The Sopranos and Lost have become cultural staples in recent years on this side of the pond. Meanwhile good British drama is of the costumed variety. Only wrapped in frilly frocks will British drama make it from here to the bigger apples on the other bank. Other countries don’t care about our storytelling unless it’s Downton Abbey (there’s a persistent rumour that ITV made that!). Everyone wants the classy execution and paranoia driven plots of American drama though.
Being the dinosaur that I am, I haven’t watched any of the American series I mentioned above. I couldn’t possible tolerate the colonies beating us in terms of quality. I’m quite content to chuckle along dreamily to a familiar episode of Friends but that’s because such a programme has no far flung aspirations. It’s simply crude and silly humour.
In all seriousness though, I may not be familiar with The Wire and other renowned US drama but I have seen the higher production standards of American creations and the flaws of British drama are plain. Part of the reason Doctor Who is being so lovingly welcomed back is that it’s one of just a handful of shows capable of “event television”. Off the top of my head I can only think of Spooks as another show, not dependent on a typically BBC period setting, capable of generating awe inspiring thrills and twists for the duration of a series.
The controller of BBC One recently refused to authorise a second series of Zen, about an Italian detective played by Rufus Sewell, on the grounds that the channel had too many detectives. I believe this decision to be a mistake. Zen was not “event television”, its pace was too pedestrian, but for British audiences in particular it filled in some of the weaknesses of TV drama. It was filmed on location in Italy and set in the present day. It had sophistication, a strong cast and good scripts. It might well be true that crime as a genre in this country lacks impact because there are too many identikit competitors, but Zen genuinely stood out. It was certainly superior to Luther, which will continue.
The latest addition to Britain’s list of crime based programmes is The Shadow Line, which for what it’s worth, is on every Thursday at 9pm on BBC Two. It arrives with the bold claim that it’s bringing that elusive “event television” quality, to these shores. And this is no import. It’s written, directed and produced by the man behind Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff, Hugo Blick. It’s unquestionably his brainchild and therefore primarily his problem if the bold claims disintegrate into disappointment. It’s frequently compared to The Wire in all the hype, which was of course fairly meaningless to me.
At first glance The Shadow Line is at least interesting for taking an alternative angle and a refreshing approach. It’s about a murder investigation from both sides of the law. It requires you to stick with it for its seven episode run for secrets to be revealed. Its opening scene, however, has the potential to alienate the undecided viewer. Far from going out of its way to hook you, it drops you into a rather sparse and moody scene. Two policemen discover a body in a car, with the more experienced man quickly assessing the grim situation. He has a cold and detached manner that’s slightly unsettling and mutters under his breath as he recognises the victim with multiple gunshot wounds. The rookie with him is clearly naive. The old timer declares that they’ll be leaving this one for someone else to deal with.
It may be a slow burning and confusing set up but it was enough to draw me in. The realism to the dialogue and the detail of the camerawork is some of the best in the episode. Sadly The Shadow Line doesn’t always walk the line of successful “event television”, straying into the shadows of OTT stylisation a number of times. Not all of the acting is good and the script sags at points and tarnishes its excellent features with the occasional god-awful line of dialogue. The most memorable example is when a “tough female detective” decides to dress down an ordinary cop following procedure a little too closely with a speech about the first syllable of “country” and “constable”.
These lapses let down what is otherwise a promising episode. The characters range from the rounded to the farfetched. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph is a front man for heroin dealers, running a flower and fruit company built from scratch with his own cash. He has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s and is more sympathetic than any other character. He’s trying to unpick things from the criminal side, and is clearly more powerful than he’s letting on. On the side of the (clearly corrupt) law, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is a detective with a bullet lodged in his brain. He can’t remember anything about the assignment that got it there, or the suitcase of money in his wardrobe, which is a well handled climax to the episode. Both of these leads do a good job and get some good lines, with Eccleston coming out of it particularly well.
The Shadow Line has so many influences and so many paranoia driven secrets that it could be too much. Its emphasis is also so firmly on looking and sounding classy that at times it simply looks ridiculous, and will come across as arrogant and up itself. But I’ll keep watching because it’s a bold idea with good looks, that now and then, does feel like top notch telly. And “event” telly at that.
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My review of Ironclad can be found here – http://flickeringmyth.blogspot.com/2011/03/movie-review-ironclad-2011.html – over at the always fabulous Flickering Myth. I’ll also post it here for my archives. Along with some photos I took in Soho, where I went to De Lane Lea studios, for the screening. It was incredibly exciting and inspiring to be sitting in their waiting room, with signed photographs from most famous actors you can think to name. That’s cliche, and I’m not bitten by the fame bug like some. But you just felt like you were somewhere talented people gathered to make things happen, for the world to see. As a Bond fan, it was exciting to see Quantum of Solace posters and know the sound for the film was mixed there. Waiting for the time of the screening allowed me to discover that Soho itself was fascinating. It’s the hub of London’s film industry, with studio HQs everywhere. Also a wide range of Bloomsbury publishers inhabited the smarter buildings, near various TV production companies, such as Tiger Aspect, which I found in a corner of Soho Square, opposite a house the black, celebrated nurse of the Crimea, Mary Seacole, used to live in. All of this upmarket, swanky, creative establishment stuff, nestled side by side with posh restaurants and seedier strip joints. A diverse place for sure. A mini London – a place I could easily love to see everyday.
A party raged at The Soho Theatre (see above) to Rihanna music on a trendy London balcony. My camera struggled with the light to capture a shot down Dean Street of Post Office Tower.
Anyway here’s my review of Ironclad in full, it’s worth seeing:
The King’s Speech ruled at the Oscars and did so because of and despite of, three core ingredients. It’s a film that’s independently financed, based closely on historical events and proudly British. It proved that independent films could be both critically acclaimed and box office smashes. It brought to life even stuffy costumed history in a dramatic and engaging way. And it highlighted the world’s appetite for thoroughly English storytelling.
Director Jonathan English is aptly named then in the film industry at this precise moment. His latest project, Ironclad, is out on the 4th March. It shares many of The King’s Speech’s potential handicaps. It took eighteen hard months to raise the money for its ambitious scale and according to the earnest production notes, is a tale “torn from the pages” of English Medieval history. All those involved with the Ironclad team will be hoping that their film also shares some of the success enjoyed by this year’s big Academy Award winner. Producer Andrew Curtis certainly believes that like Tom Hooper’s Royal epic, English’s gritty medieval battle drama will prove that Britain is more than “this little village of filmmakers”.
It’s very hard to find anymore comparisons between Ironclad and The King’s Speech. Yes there’s a Royal involved, but Paul Giamatti’s megalomaniac King John in 1215 is poles apart from Colin Firth’s stuttering Bertie. He’s just been forced to sign the Magna Carta, a vital document that would go on to form the foundations of common law in England. This much is well known history, but the film claims the untold story is what John did next; hire an army of Scandinavian mercenaries to kill those behind the drafting of Magna Carta. It’s a piece of paper that concedes too many of John’s powers over his citizens, a humiliation, that he’s pretty damn pissed about. In a rage John sets out to retake his kingdom, only to be blocked by a handful of opponents at strategically important Rochester castle. From the very start Giamatti plays John, a historical villain we’re all very familiar with, as a man having an endless strop with catastrophic consequences. Revealingly Giamatti comments in the production notes that “I play Hitler, basically”.
Ironclad’s impressive cast is undoubtedly an asset for the film and most of the actors are likeably convincing in their roles. But just as there is a vast gulf between the characters of King John and King George, there is a chasm separating the performances of Firth and Giamatti. In the trailer my expectations for the film were drastically lowered by the sight of Giamatti’s unavoidably ridiculous face barking angry orders; adorned with a silly beard clogged by drool and drizzle. To my pleasant surprise he was better as John than the trailer makes him appear. This however does not change the fact that the American’s accent regularly has the odd wobble and that his scenes are generally the least enjoyable in Ironclad. There’s something about his portrayal of the King that just failed to convince me. Admittedly I do think a lot of this doubt was down to my unease at his weak, unintentionally comedic appearance, obvious from the very beginning and before he had opened his mouth.
I was astonished to read a quote from Rick Benattar, one of the film’s producers who had worked with Giamatti before on Shoot ‘Em Up, that said: “We got him (Giamatti) signed up to play King John and cast the movie around him. That’s how it really started.” Now as I’ve said, Ironclad’s cast is genuinely impressive. British heavyweights like Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance, star alongside established actors Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng and Jamie Foreman. One of Giamatti’s better scenes in the film is so good because he’s trading insults and witty jibes with the formidable Brian Cox, manning the ramparts of Rochester Castle with his soldiers. There’s also impressive young talent on show in the form of Kate Mara as the central love interest and Aneurin Barnard as a youthful, idealistic and inexperienced squire. I found the concept of a Medieval Magnificent Seven intriguing and those actors within the castle walls pull it off. But Giamatti’s John is Ironclad’s single biggest flaw and I find it incomprehensible that he was the starting point for such a diverse, quality cast of Brits. More than anything else, he just doesn’t look right as King John.
Enough negatives then, let’s start talking about the good Ironclad has to offer. Perhaps the main reason I was so surprised by how integral Giamatti was to the creation of the project, was that James Purefoy seemed to have the far more pivotal (and praiseworthy) role. He plays an initially mute Templar knight called Marshall, which is an interesting background for the hero of any movie to have. Marshall’s characterisation in the script may not all be remarkably subtle but it is for the most part original and Purefoy’s performance captivating. He more than capably handles the physical side to Ironclad’s action and apparently enjoyed wielding an authentic 5ft sword.
As producer Benattar says, Purefoy made his name as a “spectacular leader and lover” in HBO TV series Rome. Whilst he again plays the man that rallies those around him and falls for a woman in Ironclad, his restrained Templar knight battling a crisis of faith, is very different to arrogant, swaggering Mark Anthony and demonstrates Purefoy’s range of ability. Looking back at his career it’s a real shame that Purefoy hasn’t had more opportunities to completely inhabit a central figure in the narrative as he does here. Before Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, Purefoy was talked of as 007, and he certainly would have looked the part and had the acting chops coupled with a distinctive style. He is the heart of Ironclad and that’s saying something given the rest of the cast.
Aside from assembling such a well known, talented cast, director English was keen to make Ironclad stand out with visceral, realistic and gritty action. From the point of view of historical accuracy, Ironclad feels authentic, whatever liberties it probably took with actual events. The variety of weapons and the set all tend to convince, with the exception to the realistic feel being some dodgy CGI of the castle and surrounding area during otherwise good action set pieces. At times the desire to be hard hitting and true to the reality of Middle Ages gore also went too far, with some blatant green screen shots of limbs being cleaved off or bodies hacked in two. But again generally the filmmakers’ attempts to show “what it’s really like to kill someone with an axe” translate into gripping action.
What picking such fine actors allowed English to do was really ramp up the violence, action and drama and then count on his performers to lighten the sombre mood now and again. An interesting side plot of love between Derek Jacobi’s character’s young wife, played by Kate Mara, and Templar Marshall, is slightly different and a touch more interesting than your conventional diversionary romance, due to the knight’s vow of celibacy. There are also flashes of genuinely amusing, and very British humour, I wasn’t expecting from such a dreary looking film shot in rain battered Wales.
Vibrantly realised characters deliver one liners, which could be terribly bad, with attractive style. Asked whether the French will really come to the rescue, Charles Dance’s kindly Bishop of Canterbury, wryly quips “God knows”, glancing to the heavens. And Cox’s Baron D’Albany warns his companion as he makes him hold his sword, that “We may need protection” as they enter a brothel. Only such screen legends could deliver these lines in a way that doesn’t deflate the drama but enriches it with humanity and sprigs of light.
I cannot help but applaud Ironclad for what it proves; that British cinema can compete with the world and produce well acted, exciting action movies. It feels real and very English and director Jonathan can be proud; he deserves his film to succeed. But I can’t help but have reservations. Apart from the occasionally disappointing visual effect, Ironclad’s Achilles heel is Paul Giamatti. He is not terrible but feels out of place with the tone of the rest of the story. It’s a shame the producers felt the need to recruit an American star as an integral part of a very British project. For me his casting undermines the aim of a successful, British and independent film somewhat. That uneasy feeling I regularly got during his moments in the limelight was the only real disappointment of Ironclad; otherwise I found it a good and engaging film.
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There are instructional guides for everything nowadays. Bright sparks and academics compile recipes for far more than just food. Type the word “instruction” into Amazon and you get back motivational guides, martial arts handbooks, “Traditional Patchwork Quilt Patterns” and even “The Baby Owner’s Manual”.
Personally, I’ve never owned a pet. As a child I would recoil at bounding dogs, repulsed by their drooling eagerness. I’d love a canine companion now, my very own incarnation of man’s best friend to walk and pamper and pat, but I wouldn’t know the first thing about caring for an animal. Well I’d like to think I wouldn’t kill it too swiftly, but it would be handy to avoid charges of animal cruelty or worse, incur the brutal intimidation and mudslinging of animal rights activists. So another scan of Amazon and perhaps “The Dog Owner’s Maintenance Log” is for me or “Dog Grooming for Dummies”.
I can’t help but think that, given my inept fondness for dogs, I’d be even more out of my depth with a creature that’s much harder to love. A tarantula or iguana for example. I know for a fact that should I bump into a dragon in a dark alley or atop a windswept cliff, a pocket sized book entitled “How To Train Your Dragon” would be of considerable use.
There are countless books and “must have” guides to the film industry as well, with everything from screenwriting to lighting covered somewhere in print. I’m willing to bet that somewhere there’s a section on the importance of a title for your Hollywood Blockbuster. Get that name wrong and nothing else will matter. The title of your story should be an instant hook, with an air of mystery and definitely not so dull as to repulse potential viewers before they’ve so much as glanced at the rest of your poster. At first How To Train Your Dragon seemed a poor idea for a film title to me, despite the inevitable quirky interest around that last word. It’s a name for a user’s guide not an all conquering family movie phenomenon.
How To Train Your Dragon became something of a surprise hit though last Easter, and had not only sizeable audiences but unanimous critical praise. Rotten Tomatoes carries a 98% critic rating and 90% audience satisfaction for the film. For me this was initially surprising, given that How To Train Your Dragon contains hearty helpings of a foul smelling ingredient most recipes for good films would advise strongly against.
How To Train Your Dragon is completely predictable. And predictability, it’s easy to learn watching, writing and reading about films, is often just another word for bad. Samey storylines you’ve seen before, nine times out of ten stir up nothing but annoyance in the mind of an audience, and if not audiences then almost certainly reviewers. If the trajectory of a film is obvious and its ending plain from the opening scene, it doesn’t usually make for engaging entertainment.
But How To Train Your Dragon has flagged up an important truth for me. Some films thrive on the predictable, namely family films. There has to be a certain satisfactory happy ending, a particular sense of bonding and struggle, a recognisable group of relationships between characters. And I was wrong to say that How To Train Your Dragon is completely predictable. It’s got a refreshingly non-American setting for a start and a reasonably original twist on a familiar premise.
There’s something of a 3D trend in films at the moment, specifically in animation. I get the feeling that a handful of moments in this film, spectacular flying sequences and fluid fire, would be as good as anything yet seen in 3D. But as it was I made do with the small screen, DVD experience. And How To Train Your Dragon is still a pretty little film.
It kicks off with a funny and adrenalin pumping action sequence, with a Viking village under attack from marauding dragons swooping from above. Buildings explode and burn vividly in the night, illuminating the dark coastal scenery. We’re swiftly and efficiently introduced to all the main players with considerable humour and the set-up of age old conflict between two races is established. For an animated film it’s a surprisingly impressive start. And best of all the ending trumps this memorable beginning.
We meet Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel, working out of the way in a Blacksmiths. He’s the weak son of Viking leader Stoick the Vast, voiced by Gerard Butler as an essentially family friendly version of his Spartan king in 300. Hiccup’s a disappointment and an outsider. But as the film progresses he finds he has a strange affinity with the dragons and begins to uncover the reality of their nature. He’s guided along the way by sympathetic Gobber (Craig Ferguson), a Viking trainer, and finds a love interest in Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera. Astrid is cleverly and amusingly introduced in the opening action scene, walking away from an explosion in a satire of typical action films, to the sarcastic, smitten voiceover of Jay Baruchel.
In my opinion How To Train Your Dragon, a Dreamworks production, lacks the heart wrenching sentimentality and visual wow factor and beauty of a Pixar film. But as other films like the Shrek franchise show, Dreamworks do funny, tongue in cheek, successful animation, with good characters, really well.
Two interesting DVD extras delve into the casting process behind the film and its technical processes respectively. I find the process of characterisation and casting when there’s only a voice to work with extremely interesting and it’s intriguing to hear the filmmakers’ thoughts on how they got that right. In the visual production segment of the extras there’s a wonderful explanation of the various types of dazzling fire used to help distinguish between the wide varieties of dragons on show.
In short How To Train Your Dragon is a perfectly cooked family meal. It’s hardly dining at the Ritz but no one likes a snob and sometimes there’s nothing more fun than well executed comfort.
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