Tag Archives: character

Blu-Ray Review: The Silent House


Whatever happened to traditional ghost stories set in creepy old houses? Modern horror has become a competition between filmmakers to outdo each other’s gore or to find the latest and cheapest gimmicky trick (think Paranormal Activity). Rarely do we get creaky doors teasingly opening wide into dusty rooms frozen in troubled times. Rarely are the scares psychological, preying on childhood fears of monsters under the bed and the empty house that sighs forlornly from somewhere in its darkened depths at the end of the street. Rarely do bold, genius storytellers emerge from the ranks of horror directors these days.

Director Gustavo Hernandez is certainly brave. His chiller, The Silent House, is based upon an unsolved murder case in 1940s Uruguay. It is set within a seemingly picturesque, isolated and derelict house in secluded woodland.  It is also filmed in one continuous take.

The effects of this are engrossing. The ambitious and meticulous technique works especially well for horror and has a surprising versatility. The camera essentially becomes a character. At first we feel like main character Laura’s imaginary friend, bobbing along behind her as she looks round the outside of the pretty house and listening in absentmindedly on the conversation between her father and the owner of the house, Nestor. Then later on, whilst still feeling tethered to Laura’s experience, we take up different positions and hiding places. Consequently we see things she cannot. And she sees, and does, things that we miss altogether.

Laura and her father are supposed to be clearing up the messy house filled with accumulated junk. They decide to sleep in the living room on armchairs and make a start in the morning. The owner Nestor has promised to return with food at some point. Laura does not drift off however. She is too distracted by the pounding noises from upstairs. She eventually convinces her father to investigate and then the nightmare begins. 

Light and sound are always integral to successful horror. Here the atmospheric lighting is achieved through candles and electric lanterns mostly. One scene however, in which Laura picks up a camera when the lights go out, is comprised of glimpses of the horror via the flashes of the Polaroid. This was impressive, immersive and shocking. The sound effects are vital to the endless suspense, with the score also eerily winding up the tension to unbearable levels.

The Silent House is an amalgamation of old fashioned scares and modern frights. The setting is full of strange objects, antiques and family heirlooms cluttering the rooms. Multiple doorways leave hiding places everywhere. Later in the story though the scares become nastier, more brutal and unsettling, resembling the darker trend of recent horror flicks. The dialogue is minimal, so we never learn much about Laura. We simply share some of her experience. The shocks and surprises catch you off guard and the twist at the end comes out of the blue.

For cynical viewers, there are of course the usual annoyances of the genre. Why does Laura choose the moments after a vicious attack to become fascinated by bits of junk? Why does she minutely examine paintings and photos when she knows someone is lurking beyond the door? Why does she return to the house after escaping in a wave of fear? Why does no one contact the authorities?

The incredible suspense and the plots holes in this film really got me thinking about the ordeal of the psychopath perpetrating the horror, as well as the victims. At one point (minor spoiler) a body is moved to be propped up in a chair with a doll. How embarrassing would it be to be caught moving the body? The attackers in these films, who are determined to taunt their victims, must be as nervous and jumpy as the audience as they set up their disturbing scenarios in the shadows.

The genuine ambush of the twist at the end explains a lot of these holes and weaknesses, which would be left glaringly and irritatingly untouched by your average horror. The Silent House is far from average though. It is rightly hailed as a “technical tour de force” by The Guardian and its trailers can justifiably claim to offer “real fear in real time”. By avoiding the sometimes messy and often over the top cuts of most modern fright fests, and adopting a refreshing perspective on events, this film really drops you right into the action.

The Silent House is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 1st of August. Go for the Blu-Ray version if you really want to appreciate the achievements of the filmmakers, in particular the lighting effects. Also keep an eye out for the Hollywood remake, as the rights have already been snapped up.

DVD Review: Sliding Doors


What if? It’s a big question in all of our lives. What if I’d told her? What if we’d stayed together? What if I’d got that promotion? What if I’d worked harder in school? What if I had had just one more day with her and the chance to say goodbye? If we’re not careful we can get snowed in by “what ifs”.

 We have to keep our heads down to escape drowning in never-meant-to-bes or choking on could-have-beens. The possibilities that we spotted passing by out of reach haunt us as regrets. The second chances we never even noticed are too numerous to contemplate and tease us occasionally in our dreams. Let the “what ifs” talk too loudly and their chatter overpowers the everyday routine. Let them grow too tall and even the little things are given dark significance in their shadow.

Sliding Doors is a film about the little “what ifs” bunching together in mundane ordinary life until they have enormous individual consequences. When it was released in 1998 it was greeted by a mixed critical reception but it has since gone on to gain a dedicated following. It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as fashionable young Londoner Helen, complete with believable English accent, who is fired from her job at a PR company. She heads for home via the tube. The film follows two separate paths through her life; one in which she gets the train and one where she fractionally misses it, unable to squeeze through the sliding doors of the title.

The actor Peter Howitt wrote the script and directs a very grounded take on the idea of parallel universes and an alternate reality. The concept could have been lifted straight from sci-fi but Sliding Doors watches more like a meditation on the nature of fate, albeit with an uplifting rom-com tinge. One Helen, the one that gets the train, finds her boyfriend shagging his ex in her bed, only to fall for a handsome stranger. The other is delayed again and again until she arrives home late and unaware of the affair. She therefore carries on her life as normal, working flat out to support him as he “writes a novel”.

The plot is not all that clever, despite the engaging concept of two storylines running in tandem, and the dialogue is not especially witty or sharp. The real strength of Sliding Doors lies with the overlapping lives of rounded, likeable characters, well realised with accomplished performances. Paltrow is accessible rather than whiny in the lead role. John Hannah is convincingly charming and funny because of the way he says things, rather than what he says. John Lynch is a great actor, as he proves in the upcoming Ghosted, and he doesn’t come off badly here despite playing the cheating Gerry, who is often just left to look bumbling and British on the end of a full on feminine bollocking. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays mistress Lydia as a caricature but she serves a purpose and Gerry’s mate Russell (Douglas McFerran) down the pub is hilarious as the sensible one.

None of it is sublime, even the characterisation is simply above average for the genre. The acting is very good but not career defining. That said I really liked Sliding Doors. Its commonplace tone makes it all feel like it could happen to you. There are some slightly surprising twists in the climax and I was a little moved and amused in places. Its parting message is somehow both more resonant and bearable than most romantic comedies. Some things are inevitable. And there’s always hope.

Page and Screen: Flaubert’s cinematic Madame Bovary


Gustave Flaubert’s mid nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary might not appear all that remarkable if you read it today. At the time its focus on the limitations of marriage, along with its abundance of controversial ingredients like frequent and shameless adultery and suicide, made it a scandalous work of fiction. No doubt it would have been derided as deliberately explicit and shocking filth, masquerading as art, as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be around a century later. But today Flaubert is seen as the first truly modern novelist because with Madame Bovary he composed a recipe of ingredients that would be followed by countless storytellers, both on the page and the screen.

Read the blurb of Madame Bovary and its plot will resemble that of a lot of Victorian era fiction. The story follows Emma, a country girl living a simple life, whose charms captivate the young doctor who comes to treat her ailing father. The doctor is Charles Bovary, already a widower from an unsatisfying marriage. He and Emma marry and she becomes Madame Bovary. They move to the provincial small town of Yonville, where Charles takes a job. Holding such an important position in the intimate community, Charles and his wife become the centre of attention, be it from the atheistic chemist across the street with a high opinion of himself or the regulars at the inn. Emma quickly feels stifled by the rural and dreary existence, as well as her husband’s doting. She conducts two affairs, one with young clerk Leon and another with experienced seducer Rodolphe.

One of the ways in which Madame Bovary became a blueprint for the modern novel was its focus on the character development of Emma. It is often hailed as the first psychological novel because of this. Flaubert uses free indirect style to explore and articulate both Emma’s emotions and thoughts, be they gloomy, gleeful or giddy with romance. The technique allows the author to zoom in and out, at once using his own words and those that the character might use. Already we can see how this book not only inspired the form of later works but foreshadowed the methods of the filmmaker; sometimes sticking close to a character’s viewpoint, sometimes offering a broader overview of their actions and sometimes not seeing their actions at all.

Madame Bovary is cinematic in other ways too. Its entire structure is epic in the way that films often are, telling the story of a whole life, beginning at Charles Bovary’s school. In the early chapters we form an opinion of Charles as an ordinary but kind enough man, only to have this interpretation contrasted with Emma’s later bitterness towards him because of that very unsatisfying and indifferent kindness. This is another way the book is cinematic; it is constantly changing viewpoints amongst an ensemble cast. Despite the often intense focus on Emma’s romantic desires for meaning suppressed by bourgeois convention, we also regularly view Emma from the perspective of her lovers or the town chemist or some other figure. Cinema is constantly showing us how its main characters are seen by others to broaden our understanding of them.

Emma’s outlook on life is unquestionably romantic, some might say naive and neurotic, but it’s certainly passionate. However Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, written to atone for what he saw as the excesses of his previous work The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One way in which the book achieved this realism was with its down to earth subject matter. Flaubert based the story on a marriage breakdown of the time and peppered it with themes from everyday French life, many of which still resonate today.

This was a novel about reality in which the main character read novels of escapism. This was a novel set in a simple setting that climaxes with Emma’s debts spiralling out of control, as she drowns in the luxuries purchased to sustain a dream life and fill the black hole left by her emotional emptiness. The ingredients are recognisable from everyday life but Flaubert ramps up the drama, just as producers, writers and directors do with films today, and storytellers have done for years. Grand language such as “she awakened in him a thousand desires” may match Emma’s desires for romantic fulfilment but is always counterbalanced by Flaubert’s realism. Throughout the novel, whenever Emma reaches a peak of ecstatic fulfilment, the decline begins shortly afterwards.

Much of Flaubert’s realist genius, diehard critics argue, cannot possibly translate from French to English without acquiring an air of clumsiness and familiarity. As James Wood points out in How Fiction Works, a sentence with magnificent and finely crafted rhythm in Flaubert’s native French, loses much of its magic in English. And if the translator tries to replicate the essence of the original too hard, he creates something laughable. “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait” becomes “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him” or if trying too hard “The notion of procreation was delectation”.

However Flaubert’s talent for precise and detailed description does translate and this is perhaps the most cinematic element of his realist style. Chapters will often begin with snapshots of detail or even lengthy passages really setting the scene of a particular room or place, sometimes incorporating a character’s mood and sometimes not. It might seem like an incredibly basic rule of storytelling, almost a childish one, to “set the scene” in this way, but Flaubert does so much more than just describe something. By selecting his details with the utmost care and deliberation, but seemingly effortlessly, he tells us everything we need to know about a scene.

At times he can do this incredibly concisely, with just a few telling details. One chapter, in which Emma has slipped away from Yonville to begin a love affair in the larger town of Rouen, begins like this:

They were three full, exquisite days – a real honeymoon.
They were at the Hotel de Boulogne, on the harbour; and they lived there, with drawn blinds and closed doors, with flowers on the floor, and iced syrups that were brought them early in the morning
”.

From our 21st century vantage point it’s very difficult to understand what upset the French so much when Flaubert was so tactful about his descriptions of sex and affairs. Very rarely does he resort to even explicitly describing a kiss.

Elsewhere he uses detail to paint lifelike pictures of minor characters, some of which, like this one, are never seen or mentioned again:

There, at the top of the table, alone among all these women, stooped over his ample plateful, with his napkin tied around his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, drops of gravy dribbling from his lips. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a little pigtail tied up with a black ribbon. This was the Marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duc de Laverdière, once the favorite of the Comte d’Artois.”

We can imagine a camera passing over a character such as this in a film, picking out the specific details Flaubert highlights, adding life to a scene and then moving on. Such descriptions have a quality James Wood terms “chosenness” whereby the author picks out a bunch of details that, together, give the most accurate and lifelike feeling of a person, place, object or action. This process is artificial, sometimes combining details from different time registers but writers like Flaubert make it appear natural. And film directors and editors do exactly the same thing. For example, when establishing the feel of a carnival, the editing process will cut together things happening at different times into one easily digestible chunk for the audience to swallow the best impression and mood of the scene.

Flaubert laid the foundations for new types of writing and storytelling that could marry the intentions of a realist and a stylist. It paved the way for novels that felt more journalistic with almost completely passive descriptions of people and places, from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, packed with lists of brand names. Isherwood even makes this statement early on in Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Then later on this passage mirrors even more closely than Flaubert a reel of edited film:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk jugs”.

The children cannot be “in tears” all of the time. Isherwood has perfected the technique that Flaubert pushed out into the open, for all writers to follow as a guide. James Wood sums up the passage far more succinctly than I could: “The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems a “slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet.”

It’s easy to forget that films too are intricate, vast and complex operations. Action scenes that burst into life spontaneously in shopping centres or even a stroll down a street in a rom-com are intensely choreographed. The plan laid out for the modern novel in Madame Bovary, and for writing detail in particular, has left us with as many terribly overwritten books as good ones. And even awful films are carefully managed. But the artificiality of cherry picking the best moments in life and stitching them together can be art at its best; art telling little white lies for a grander, more meaningful truth.

Film Review: Ghosted


Do you think you could hack it behind bars? If you’re a Daily Mail columnist you probably dispute the fact that prisons even have bars anymore. They’ve all been replaced you see, with tasty sticks of rock more in keeping with the dangerously liberal, comfortable satellite TV approach to treating filthy criminals. Being locked up is preferable to a five star hotel. Prisons are merely lavishly furnished warehouses for feral beasts that will be released back into the wilds of society unchanged. The fear factor has gone.

Bring back that shit yourself punishment and all of Britain’s ills will be cured. All this claptrap about human rights and civil liberties has been diluting the taste of our justice system since the 60s, so that it’s nothing more than a bitter sip of lemonade. Prisons should punish first and foremost, to act as a deterrent to the bad apples on the nation’s tree. When they fall they need to be crushed into a pulp and left to rot as an example to others; so the argument roughly goes.

Of course films are not the place to look for a frank and faithful look at the realities of prison life. Just because I’m put off a casual mugging by the possibility of gang rapes such as those in The Shawshank Redemption, doesn’t mean that actual perpetrators within the system encounter such things or that they are deterred by them. Cinema is a place for drama, tension and excitement. But a certain mould of gritty British drama always seems to capture something true about the cooped up existence of convicts, whatever the exaggerations.

In the case of Ghosted, the debut film of writer/director Craig Viveiros, the principal truth is that for many men, the haunting consequences of their crimes are punishment enough. There is also a heightened but believable look at the community of prison life, with its rival factions and dominating personalities pulling the strings. And much of the dialogue is insightful but understated, with main character Jack musing that, if nothing else, empty hours in a cell day after day give you plenty of time to think.

Jack (John Lynch) is a sensible prisoner, keeping his head down and away from trouble, serving his time. He is approaching the end of his sentence and desperate to get out to see his wife. But at the start of the film she fails to visit him and blanks him when he calls. Just as freedom is within sight his marriage collapses, destroying his hopes for a life on the outside. Gradually we find out more about Jack, eventually getting confirmation that his young son is dead. He burns most of his pictures of him because “sometimes the reminders are too hard in here”.

With just months until Jack is free, a new inmate arrives in the shape of young Paul, played by Martin Compston of The Disappearance of Alice Creed fame. Paul is immediately welcomed by the manipulative Clay, who is described on the marketing material as a “wing overlord”, which sounds like an all powerful evil super villain, but in reality just means a nicer cell, a mildly lucrative drugs racket and the odd fellow prisoner to bang. After the initial niceties Clay starts to use Paul, so Jack steps in and gets him moved to his cell.

This puts Jack in the firing line, resulting in some tense standoffs. The balance of the prison politics is disrupted and Clay is humiliated more than once, prompting him to get revenge. But despite the palpable sense of threat, the really interesting part of Ghosted is the relationship between Jack and Paul.

Jack is the heart of Ghosted and Lynch relished playing him, praising the creative talents of newcomer Viveiros: “It’s been a long, long time since I read a script that’s centred absolutely one hundred per cent on the characters”. In return the director praises his cast who “pumped blood into the story”. Both men are right.

Ghosted is well acted, with even the thugs coming across as something more than just two dimensional bad guys; they have their vulnerabilities too. But Ghosted is also well written and confidently directed so that it does not feel like a debut. Some of the scenes in which Jack and Paul open up to each other, often simply discussing old memories such as when Jack was in Brazil or when Paul was in care, are exemplary examples of characterisation rarely seen in today’s commercial world of cinema.

Ghosted is released in cinemas on the 24th of June and will be available on DVD from the 27th. See it to support a quality British drama with an all star cast, which simultaneously pays tribute to classic prison stories and approaches the issue from a new angle. Try to spot the emotional hammer blow of a twist at the end.

 

Page and Screen: The Big Sleep


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.

Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood proves that the likes of Transformers: Dark of the Moon won’t save 3D


Last night I watched the last in the series of Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood on BBC 2. I actually watched it on TV! You can watch it here on iPlayer:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b011vmsd/Paul_Mertons_Birth_of_Hollywood_Episode_3/

I really enjoyed it and will be trying to see the first two episodes somehow. This episode chronicled the death of silent cinema, which Merton shows to be at the height of its creative powers when the technology for talkies arrived. Silent films starred ingenious performers, and were shot in inventive, imaginative and inspiring ways. They could afford to make classic escapism for the masses as well as experimental pictures, which also more often than not turned into hits by capturing the public’s lust for the cinema in new ways.

Talkies, Merton argues, brought the quality and the standards crashing back to basic levels. Yes audiences could hear the tinny voices of their beloved stars but they lost much of the magic of cinema when it was silent. They lost the live musical performances accompanying the pictures in theatres. They lost the moving camera angles, zooming in and out to visually dazzle and excite. They lost the cults of intoxicating mystery that grew up around actors, as soon as they heard their ordinary or often foreign accented voices. Instead there was wooden dialogue in front of static cameras. Imaginations were stifled and limited.

It’s impossible not to compare the arrival of the talkies with that of 3D films in the 21st century. In my view it’s obvious that the shift is not so dramatic. Sound is a far bigger leap forward than three dimensions. This seems an odd thing to say; when in theory 3D should mean the action literally happening in front of you. But we know the reality of 3D is mostly gimmicky after seeing the offers of studios in cinemas.

This might suggest that greater efforts are needed to improve the technology, so it’s truly as transformative an experience as listening to sound for the first time in a movie theatre. However Merton’s documentary focuses on the ability of good storytellers to adapt. Irving Thalberg, who died in his 30s, was the extraordinary man at the centre of last night’s episode.

A German immigrant, Thalberg grew up in New York, after being born with a weak heart. He spent long periods of his childhood mollycoddled and stuck in bed through illness. During this time he read classic literature, plays and autobiographies. And followed the fortunes of the film business.

Then he got his big break and headed to Hollywood as a secretary to the head of Universal Studios. He was unexpectedly promoted to Head of Production, because of the qualities he showed his employer, where he established a reputation in his early twenties, before moving to MGM in the same role. His influence transformed MGM‘s studios into a vast dream factory with all manner of storytelling resources on site. He handpicked films for suitable directors, mixing traditional stories with bolder projects. He ensured that before release all his films were screened to members of the public, which led to scenes being re-shot frequently. A modest man, his name never appeared on any posters.

Thalberg’s MGM was at the top of its game when talkies arrived, courtesy of rivals Warner Brothers. But before his death Thalberg oversaw a successful transition to sound, with that same focus on good storytelling. As a producer he called the shots, made decisions in the company’s financial interests, but never compromised a good story.

3D audiences have been declining and champions of the technology pin their hopes on Michael Bay’s third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon. In press previews the 3D is said to be cutting edge, mind blowing and the best yet. But as this Guardian writer, Ben Child, points out, Bay’s films are so loud and bombastic that they simply become tedious. And the only real hope for 3D is that someone, a great individual of Thalberg’s ilk, can steer a truly great and inventive film project to fruition. One that makes the best of 3D‘s unique assets but one that, above all, tells an unbelievably good story.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2011/jun/10/transformers-dark-of-the-moon-3d

The House of Fiction: English Stately Homes


http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/11/country-house-novels-blake-morrison

The above link leads to a feature piece in The Guardian by Blake Morrison about the relationship between the English country house and novels. It points out a recent trend for both bestsellers and box office hits based upon them, from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro to Ian McEwan’s Atonement. And the piece is prompted by the release of next month’s The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst.

I don’t have a great deal to say about the subject but urge you to read the article. It does an admirable job of attempting to explain the continuing appeal of a surely overused setting. Costume dramas on television are mostly far too common and predictable, always set in the same beautiful but samey surroundings. I do my best to avoid them unless they standout for some reason. But novels set in such cavernous buildings, stretching on and on, filled with history and possibility, remain surprisingly diverse. Perhaps because they continue to attract the best of British writers.

McEwan used Atonement to meditate on the very idea of storytelling and writing fiction. He explored youth, love, sex and passion. He touches on high politics and decision making of immense importance, as does Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day. I have always enjoyed Atonement less than McEwan’s other novels, but The Remains of the Day is the best of Ishiguro’s I have read so far.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a book confined to a stuffy setting with the standard conflicts between staff and intrigues between different social classes. But Ishiguro’s book encompasses so many themes, through the narrow lens of his butler’s restrained narration in a grand and important location. Darlington Hall plays host to international conferences but also humorous misunderstandings, battles of professional pride and tender personal affairs.

For me though the crucial features of good novels like Atonement and Ishiguro’s Booker Prize Winner, were not dependent on the setting. Bryony Tallis’ manipulative and naive vendettas could have been as strong and affecting in any home. Stevens the butler could have perhaps worked in a hotel. And indeed it was his job, his life consuming occupation, that made for such a compelling novel, about culture, class and personality. The butler seems to be the perfect mould for a distinctive, humorous and subtle character of great scope and hidden emotion.

Having said this though, the houses and halls did play their vital background roles. It’s difficult to imagine Stevens in any other setting. It’s tough to envisage a symbolic fictional location that could mirror quite as well the themes of appearance, dignity and decay.

There is really nothing wrong with the continued use of stately homes in novels, as long as the story being told is always a different one, reliant primarily on characters, plot and ideas, rather than ready made sets for the drama. You can’t just add water to the stately home to create a bestselling novel. But they provide pretty firm foundations on which the ingredients of a great novel can be built.

 

Battle of the Bonds: Michael Fassbender vs. Daniel Craig


Ok so I know technically Michael Fassbender isn’t a Bond but there was no way I was calling this anything else. If you’ve seen the new X-Men film you’ll know Fassbender essentially gives a super powered performance of our favourite suave secret agent. My review points out as much here.

Critics up and down this green and pleasant land are saying they’d like to see Fassbender play Bond in future. Some are even calling for the head of Daniel Craig now, just two films after Craig successfully rebooted cinema’s longest running franchise to acclaim from commentators and audiences alike. But the problem is Casino Royale was almost six years ago. Since then we’ve had the action packed disappointment of Quantum of Solace, in which Craig was still good but hampered and limited by a mostly naff script. We’ve also had the crisis of MGM delaying the release of Bond 23. All the while Craig has been ageing, the poor thing.

I am a huge fan of Craig’s interpretation of Bond but even I have to admit that he’ll be under pressure if Bond 23 doesn’t vastly improve on Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace. Sam Mendes is at the helm and the signs are good but then most of us Bond fans were saying that on the web about the last one. Forster was supposedly a director who could tell a story but we were left with some decent action at the start, which felt like it was still part of Casino Royale, followed by a disappointing story with flashes of average action that was an unsatisfying epilogue to the reboot at best.

Because of the delays then, as well as the unstoppable onslaught of human decay, Fassbender has the edge on youth. His career is also shifting into a top gear; at a time when Craig’s is also attracting big enough projects that could tempt him away from Bond should the 23rd instalment prove be a sinking ship.

 Enough build up. Let’s compare a few necessary requirements for an actor playing a 00 agent. Bonds do battle.

FILMOGRAPHIES

Fassbender:
                                                                                                       
300 (2006)
Eden Lake (2008)
Hunger (2008)
Town Creek (2009)
Fish Tank (2009)
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Centurion (2010)
Jonah Hex (2010)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Jane Eyre (2011)

Craig:

Casino Royale (2006)
The Invasion (2007)
The Golden Compass (2007)
Flashbacks of a Fool (2008)
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Defiance (2008)
Cowboys and Aliens (2011)
Dream House (2011)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Round 1 – Acting Chops

Going from both men’s biggest hits and breakthroughs to the mainstream in 2006 (300 and Casino Royale) to the present day, it’s probably Fassbender with the more impressive list. There were meaty roles for him in Hunger, Fish Tank and the upcoming Jane Eyre. Hunger in particular alerted directors everywhere to his talent. The film carries a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is “anchored” by Fassbender’s performance, according to Empire Magazine. Working with Quentin Tarantino is no bad thing for a CV either.

Craig on the other hand followed up his cold and commanding debut as Bond with the critically panned The Invasion with Nicole Kidman and average kids film The Golden Compass, which was supposed to launch an all conquering series to rival Harry Potter. Flashbacks of a Fool was a favour to directing friend Baillie Walsh, in which he gave a performances as a washed up actor fallen from grace. It was good but not the main role in the film, as the rest was told in flashbacks to childhood and in any case it wasn’t a big hit. He pulled off an impressive accent in Edward Zwick’s Defiance and generally convinced as a leader. Only recently has Craig got some really appetising projects on the go though, working with the likes of Spielberg for Tintin, David Fincher for Dragon Tattoo and Harrison Ford and Jon Favreau for Cowboys and Aliens.

Verdict: Even with that lull for Craig, it’s difficult to separate the abilities of these two.

Round 2 – Sex Appeal

I am definitely the wrong person to ask about this. But there’s no doubt that Bond has to be able to inspire a certain longing in the ladies, with a mere gesture or flirtatious glance. Both actors have charisma and cool credentials. Fassbender dresses up smart in the latest X-Men, as well as donning casual hard man leather jackets and camp superhero costume, cape and all. In Fish Tank his character’s raw masculinity was irresistible to mother and daughter alike. Inglorious Basterds saw him with slick and precise hair and a uniform. After starring as Mr Rochester as Jane Eyre later this year, further legions of women will join the ranks of his swooning admirers, with the earliest recruits hooked by the sight of his muscular and barely clothed physique in 300.

From what I’m told Craig is not a bad catch either. Certainly upon news of his casting as Bond and following the first viewings of those notorious blue Speedos, the females in my social circles could talk of nothing else in fits of giggles for days. Perhaps they’ll like the sight of him in a Cowboy hat.

Verdict: I really don’t know, they both seem to be handsome chaps and I imagine it comes down to personal preference. However if I had to make a decision, I’d say that Fassbender’s mixed Irish/German heritage makes him more exotic. Plus he seems taller. I hear that’s good.

Round 3 – Who would win in a fight?

Fassbender fought like a lion on speed in 300. And as I’ve said he had very little on. That’s impressive and a Spartan warrior takes some beating. However Bond doesn’t fight with swords, well not very often. He’s got to be able to beat a man to death with his fists, win shootouts and take out bad guys in witty ways. Fassbender did a lot of grunting and killing in 300 but where were the one liners? And in Inglorious Basterds he got shot almost immediately after some lengthy chit chat. Bullets are meant to swerve to avoid 007.

Or in Craig’s case, merely puncture his huge pecs. Craig has proven himself already as Bond, especially physically. His stunts and fight scenes have brought the series up to date. Some have criticised the mimicking of Bourne-esque action, which is valid for Quantum of Solace but off the mark for Casino Royale. In the past Craig has blown up enemies of Israel in Munich and taken on the Nazis in Defiance. Judging by the trailers he’s going to kick some Cowboy/Alien ass this summer too.

Verdict: Fassbender needs more time to learn the ropes but unless he’s got his metal moving powers still, looks like Craig will knock him out.

Round 4 – Staying true to Ian Fleming’s original

In X-Men: First Class Fassbender proves he can speak menacingly in Spanish, French and German. He is ruthless and suave and all action. He has a taste for the ladies and strong principles which he stands by. He is loyal. All of these qualities and more that Fassbender displays as the young Magneto, travelling the globe conducting his own private espionage, are those of Ian Fleming’s original spy. If Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson were ever bold enough to take Bond back in time, Fassbender would be perfect for another reboot. His British officer look in Inglorious Basterds, combined with his Magneto, creates a pretty cool version of James Bond licence to kill.

It’s unlikely the producers will ever take Bond into the past and a Cold War world again because they feel that would tarnish the earlier films which covered that ground already. Bond needs to find a way to carry on in the modern world whilst retaining the best elements of the original. And Daniel Craig’s version of the character found that path with Casino Royale. His more human and more brutal portrayal took Bond back to his literary roots with tremendous results.

Verdict: Impossible to split. Fassbender has the potential to be a classic Bond as Fleming imagined him but Craig has already proven himself as a Bond inspired by the books as well as the films.

So at the end of that battle we know nothing new. It’s a draw on points. Basically Fassbender might be a good Bond when Craig steps aside but for now he’s doing a good job. What happens next all rests on Bond 23.

What do you think? Would Fassbender make a better Bond than Craig?

DVD Review: As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me


Last year Peter Weir made his directorial return with The Way Back, a star studded and old fashioned tale about the possibly true and possibly grossly exaggerated escape of a group of Polish prisoners of war from a Siberian gulag. Its critical reception was mixed, with some praising the film’s ambition and visuals, whilst others bemoaned its fatal lack of emotional engagement.  However a German film, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, beat Weir’s epic to the broad concept by nine years.

Released in 2001 As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, now available on DVD, follows a German officer fleeing from imprisonment on Siberia’s easternmost shore. And for this reason its ethical foundations are considerably flimsier and more controversial than The Way Back’s.

This is saying something because The Way Back was based on a bestseller by Slavomir Rawicz, which since publication, has been disputed and branded a fake from a number of sources. And yet Weir’s film is unlikely to be attacked for historical bias of any kind. The story of Poles and Jews getting one over on their persecutors, be they German or Russian, is a common and acceptable one. Make your hero a German who has fought for a Nazi controlled state and buying into the character becomes far more complex.

Some might say that the way in which As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is told twists and distorts historical fact. We see Bernhard Betterman’s Clemens Forell hug his wife and young daughter goodbye on the platform in 1944 Germany. Then we cut swiftly to Forell being sentenced to 25 years forced labour in Siberia. He is charged with war crimes but the implication is that Forell is being unfairly condemned by corrupt and vengeful Communists. Then there is a long and grim train journey across the cold expanse of Russia, with glimpses of the grim hardships to come. Finally, exhausted from malnutrition and a hike through the snow, they are thrust into life at a camp.

Throughout all of this we discover nothing about Forell’s war record and his potential sins and little too about his political sympathies. He is shown to be a compassionate and brave man though; in other words a typical hero. He treasures the picture of his family and uses it for galvanising motivation that replaces the sustenance of food and drink. It is never explicitly mentioned during the camp scenes and moments of inhumane, cruel punishment but the shadow hanging over the story the whole time is that of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. You can’t help but feel uneasy as your sympathies inevitably gather around Forell in his struggle.

Of course the debate about the moralities of the Second World War and the balance of its sins can hardly be squeezed into a film review. Indeed the sensible view is probably to admit that it’s an unsolvable problem; evil was committed on both sides on an unimaginable scale. Stalin’s Russia was carrying out atrocities throughout the 1930s, long before the worst of Hitler’s cruelties were inflicted and on a larger scale than the Holocaust. It’s impossible to reason with or categorize such statistics of death and horrific eyewitness anecdotes. But this is a film that unavoidably makes the viewer think about such issues and not necessarily in the best of ways.

I don’t object to a story from a German soldier’s perspective. In fact I find it refreshing and necessary to witness an often overlooked point of view. But As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me glosses over too much at times, so that it becomes ethically dubious, compromising and limiting your investment in the narrative. The filmmakers will probably argue they are simply telling the story from Forell’s viewpoint alone. I think this argument falls down because of the film’s other weaknesses in plausibility though.

As Forell slowly makes his way back, first through Siberian snow, then Siberian summers and on through other outposts of the USSR, in a muddled route elongated by the help and hindrance of kind (and not so kind) strangers, we are continually shown glimpses of his waiting family in Germany. These scenes are so unconvincing that they spark the questions about the rest of the film.

The lives of his family are completely unaffected by the war, with only two exceptions; one is his ever present absence and the other a throwaway remark by the son Forell has never met, which his mother labels “Yankee talk”. Presumably they have therefore encountered American occupiers in some way. Forell’s daughter is only ever shown getting upset or dreaming about her lost father. I’m not being callous but the girl was young when her father left and her reaction is so simplistic that it punctures the believability of the entire story. I’m not saying she wouldn’t be absolutely devastated by her father’s absence but she would perhaps have moved on in some way. The possibility of Forell’s wife finding another man is never raised and they never give him up for dead.

All of this, coupled with the chief of security from the Siberian camp pursuing Forell across Russia like an ultimate nemesis, transforms As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me into am unrealistic fairytale. Forell is helped by a Jew at one point but the issue is merely touched upon. The period elements of this film are so secondary that they become redundant, but then the film does not claim to be “inspired by true events”.

 It’s possible to enjoy this film if you look at it as simply one man’s impossible journey back to his impossibly perfect family. At way over two hours long, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is hopelessly brutal at times but somehow snappy too. It’s an engaging enough example of traditional storytelling, despite my doubts, but the only truths to be found are symbolic and stereotypical.

Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 7 – A Good Man Goes to War


Before you read on: Spoilers sweetie.

The Guardian series blog, written by Dan Martin, has been my first port of call as soon as the credits roll after every episode of this series. The story arc is so layered and baffling, with the hints and in jokes so carefully hidden, that even after a second viewing it’s difficult to pick up on everything. Thankfully the Guardian blog has been there whenever I’ve really struggled to get my head together and form some thoughts of my own. And the comments section is the perfect breeding ground for theories about where things are going.

This week’s mid-series finale gets a rather bruising verdict on the Guardian website. Very rarely do I disagree with it but this week I definitely do. I see where they’re coming from. It’s certainly true that not a lot happened despite the build up and the scale. And the cleric characters on Demon’s Run, particularly the token gay couple, the thin/fat marines, are chucked into the mix briefly and rather pointlessly. It was undoubtedly disappointing that the Cybermen were waggled before us in the pre titles sequence and that the Doctor’s dark side, whilst brilliant, did not plumb any seriously shocking new depths. But I think Dan Martin is missing the point of A Good Man Goes to War.

In many ways it matters little that the standalone story element was lacking this week because this was an epic conclusion to the first seven episodes. Rather than a war, this was the climactic battle. After the weaknesses of the flesh based double bill, I actually thought the story was improved to a much greater level and it was a joy to get Moffat’s writing back. The Doctor’s dialogue was so much wittier, cleverer and funnier.

Indeed the most surprising thing about A Good Man Goes to War was just how funny it was. The variety of the humour on show really added to the cinematic and epic feel. Besides the usual comedy deriving from Smith’s performance, for example in the scene where he’s trying to work out how Melody came to have Time Lord DNA, there are laughs from the other characters Moffat brings in as the Doctor’s allies.

The Sontaran nurse was absolute genius and perfectly in keeping with what the Doctor would do. When he tells Colonel Runaway to keep his back straight so as not to damage his posture, I laughed, during my first and second viewing.  However it was only on my second viewing that I noticed a filthy lesbian tongue joke between the mysterious Silurian detective and her female sidekick, after the Silurian asks “why do you ever put up with me?”. I can see an adult spin-off show, with the potential to be far better than Torchwood, for those two. There was also a jolly fat blue thing that we’ve seen before, who was a delightfully wise presence.

With all the grim seriousness and concentration required to keep up with the secrets and twists of the story arc, the laughs were absolutely essential to making A Good Man Goes to War enjoyable. After the endless tension that has been coiling and tightening over the preceding weeks, I thought that this seventh episode actually had merits of its own, by leaving the ongoing secrets for the dramatic and emotional final ten minutes. Even if it didn’t go as far as it could’ve done, this episode was a fascinating exploration of the Doctor’s character.

We get to see the theatrical, arrogant side of the Doctor as he pulls off his genius takeover of the base. Matt Smith is in his element here and the impact of his performance is all the greater because Moffat kept him off the screen during the beginning as the team assembled, using the TARDIS alone. Moffat has previously said he wanted to put the “who” back into Doctor Who, and he’s done that with his confused, overlapping timelines and references to off screen adventures. But in A Good Man Goes to War he asks the question more directly and the Doctor ponders his own legacy, just as he did at the end of the last series when the monster sealed within the Pandorica turned out to be him. River Song then delivers some home truths. This episode may have been light on story but all of the key characters are explored in greater depth than before.

To River then. Finally we know who she is! And at last we have substantial answers to big questions looming since the beginning of the series. I was genuinely more satisfied by the big reveal than I thought I would be. But at the same time I am left craving more. I want to see the next episode. Moffat has, predictably, left an awful lot of questions unanswered. With a title like “Let’s Kill Hitler” my mind is already in a whirlwind of excited anticipation about the next episode itself too, let alone the answering of more secrets.

People tend to focus on the big question of this series: the Doctor’s death. But I am still waiting for the unresolved events  of The Big Bang at the end of Series 5 to be explained. Who manipulated the TARDIS? Who organised the coalition of baddies to imprison the Doctor? Surely they must have some sort of connection to this year’s big enemies? Why are the clerics anti-Doctor now after working with him against the Weeping Angels in the last series? Who is Madame Kovarian?

So many questions and so many throwaway lines I can’t dwell on, partly because it would be useless and dull for you if I asked questions forever and also because I am falling asleep. Stevie Wonder performed in 1814 London. Just remembered that. But we mustn’t tell him!

See you in the Autumn.

EDIT: Blimey forgot the Headless Monks completely. And not because they were bad. A good idea but underdeveloped. Worth it just for having new monsters and that wonderful moment when the Doctor disarms all the clerics.