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Page and Screen: Are our favourite characters more alive in books or movies?


The idea of character is more complicated than we allow ourselves to realise. Of course put simply they are made up, fictional people in stories. But there are those who wish to challenge such a casual assumption. Some say they are merely bundles of words. Others question their independence, as we can never really know anything certainly about anyone besides ourselves. Therefore are characters simply versions of their creators? Are authors, screenwriters and actors getting it completely wrong when they try to imagine what it’s like to be someone who isn’t them? Should all characters be developed to a certain point? Some crop up as mere extras in a scene of a movie or a chapter of a novel but nevertheless leave an impression on us. Do they count as true characters even when we know next to nothing about them? Do we need to know anything about a character? Can we know a character at all?

Of course it’s sensible not to get bogged down in such questions. It’s pedantic, futile and stupid to waste energy debating whether any character can have true meaning beyond an author’s words. Often characters are simply a fact to be accepted, a vital part of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any genre of fiction. But it can also be healthy to think about the limitations of characterisation as well its possibilities. Characters are vehicles that carry us through any story, doors onto worlds of escapism. Writing believable and engaging characters is the most difficult part of creating novels or films. Anyone can have a half decent plot idea or conjure adequate passages of dialogue but very few can mould the perfect characters with which to tell their story.

On the page the biggest challenge is getting a character moving because, as I said, characters are vehicles. Uninteresting, average or amateur writing can start by telling us about motionless characters. Great writers can establish iconic figures with very little information, which is seamlessly part of the narrative. On the screen it can sometimes be easier to get a character “in”, as the motion comes from the medium itself and the viewer can be convinced by things like setting, costume or the glance of a talented actor.

Having said this it is often difficult to transform the subtleties of the written word when it comes to character depth. For example, fictional figures like Jay Gatsby and Jean Brodie make very brief appearances in novels named after them. However the books can still be predominantly about their distant personalities. The Great Gatsby is about the potential rather than the actual, with the central message that “a dream realised is a dream destroyed” according to Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. She argues that Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, is doomed to failure because by its nature the film will try to visually realise the dream of Gatsby and his grand home. DiCaprio will inevitably be more prominent than Gatsby was in the book.

Jean Brodie too is a similarly enigmatic character, observed only from the viewpoint of others. She has her image like Gatsby and she is only ever seen putting on her front. She is remembered for a bunch of catchphrases, such as “you are the crème de la crème” and “I am in my prime”. In Muriel Spark’s novel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) the perspective jumps around between Brodie’s pupils but we never get to know her, just her influence on the lives of her protégés.

This doesn’t make her flat or two dimensional but it probably means she is not rounded either. This does not make her a bad example of characterisation. We are made to think about the people we know; do we really only know their public performances? And we imagine more than we are told or shown about Jean Brodie. Spark throws in glimpses of her pupils in the future, of their deaths and careers, prompting further questions about the novelist’s power and Brodie’s desire to manipulate. So we know aspects of her behaviour.

The narrative blends of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Great Gatsby are difficult to imagine on screen in quite the same way. Their stories would undoubtedly lose something or become narrowed on a particular aspect. There are narrative techniques that have no cinematic equivalent.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory in 1993. It centres on one of the most fascinating characters of modern fiction, Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film. It might be that the role of a butler is the perfect lens for a multi layered story about class, identity, personality, culture and repressed emotion. Or it might be the talents of Ishiguro and Hopkins. But on the page and the screen Stevens is incredibly lifelike.

Subtleties and methods employed in the novel cannot be replicated on screen. For example the parallel narratives are largely lost and most of all Stevens’ unreliable narration. He is looking back on his career with nostalgia and it doesn’t take long for you to realise in the book that Stevens is deceiving himself about the past, holding back things and regularly revising his retelling. But Ishiguro pulls of the style masterfully. The half truths Stevens tells and the things he claims to forget or confuse reveal greater truths about him to the reader.

On screen Hopkins has none of these advantages to introduce Stevens to us as something more than a servant. But he does have the benefit of the visual. He can communicate with an expression or look in his eye the sort of doubt, regret and reserve it took Ishiguro dozens of pages to build. And whilst Ishiguro’s execution was pitch perfect in The Remains of the Day his preference for the unreliable narrator took some considerable practice to get right. In a previous of novel of his, An Artist of the Floating World, passages like this appear so often at times, almost on every page, that they become extremely cumbersome and annoying:

“These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated retelling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.”

Here Ishiguro is trying so hard to create a complex character that he is constantly alerting us to his efforts, shattering the reader’s immersion in the story. He is basically overwriting. So screen adaptations can often ditch bad writing to bring out the best elements of a believable character for a good story. But then there are also bad actors.

Anthony Hopkins is undoubtedly a fine actor. With roles like Stevens and Hannibal Lecter, he has established himself as a respected and acclaimed “character actor”. This term usually refers only to eccentric or developed individuals in a story. Our favourite characters can be just as alive on the page or the screen; they are simply represented in different ways. But they also need not be eccentric, developed or rounded to be alive and touching. They can come in all shapes and sizes.

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DVD Review – Max Schmeling: Fist of the Reich


Nazi Germany is a historical setting we are all familiar with. Films set within the Third Reich often have similarities; good natured people trying to help persecuted Jewish neighbours, informers, political intimidation, concentration camps and the striking red background of the swastika. Equally there are areas often overlooked. The boxing rings for example.

Max Schmeling is a German film directed by Uwe Boll which tells the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest boxers. He became world champion in the early 1930s, getting his big break by beating the title holder by default after an illegal “low blow” from his opponent. The film begins by following Max as a paratrooper for the German army in Crete, where everyone seems to know his name. During a conversation with a British prisoner he recalls how his fame started, flashing back to his regret at being denied the world championship outright. The rest of his career became a struggle to prove he deserved that title.

Schmeling wanted to prove himself outside of Germany as well as within it. He wanted to be the best in the world. He was already a national hero but he wanted to win other countries over with his ability. He frequently flew to America for huge matches at iconic venues such as Madison Square Garden. He was beginning to win admiration around the globe until his task became a lot harder with the rise of the Nazi party. As Germany’s image was soured so was Schmeling’s. One of the interesting themes in this film is that Schmeling saw himself as a boxer first and a German second. And that Nazism would simply pass as though it were an adolescent phase.

Hitler wanted Schmeling to be a symbol of the Aryan race and Germany’s might. As Schmeling sought to arrange fights with the formidable black American boxer Joe Louis, an opponent with an unbeaten record and extraordinary number of KOs that would enhance his boxing credentials should he somehow beat him, the Nazis tried to portray the clash as a battle between races and ideologies. Schmeling was naive in one sense but extremely brave in another, to carry on regardless of this manipulation and insist it was just a boxing match. Through his honour he simultaneously became a political pawn by refusing to recognise the wider significance, and rose above the Nazis by continuing with his dream.

So this film is an epic historical drama, encompassing wide areas of German life before and after the Nazis took power. We see both the glitz of the Weimar era and the race riots of Kristallnacht on the streets of Berlin, when Jewish shops and residents were viciously attacked. The period detail, particularly the costumes, and the variety of locations, are impressive. It is also a story of the rise of a sporting great, with Rocky style montages as Schmeling trains for his big fights and moments of tactical deliberation. And there is a love story, when Schmeling meets his soul mate in actress Anny Ondra and manages to marry her.

The love story gives this film something extra. There are, as I said, a lot of stories set in Nazi Germany, often with romances, sometimes with sporting heroes trying to avoid the control of the regime. But this romance is particularly convincing. Henry Maske gives an Arnie-esque performance, as a simple man falling for a beautiful woman. And Susanne Wuest is believable as first a teasing woman suspicious of a brute pursuing her affections and finally an actress frightened by what the Nazis are doing to her profession.

A short but enlightening “Making of” feature on the DVD reveals the reason for the authenticity of this relationship on screen; Maske is not an actor but a boxer. Therefore, as Wuest puts it in an interview, we have a boxer playing a boxer and an actress playing an actress. Director Boll was impressed with Maske’s performance and put it down to his ability to effectively play himself, identifying with Schmeling to inhabit the character.

Overall this might not be the most original film experience but it is immensely enjoyable. All of its various elements are superbly executed, from the production standards to the acting, from the music to the exciting and raw boxing matches themselves. This feels like an incredibly real snapshot of history and it’s a story that deserves to be well told about a remarkable man.

3D Cinema Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides


You can rely on Disney’s well known Pirate franchise for one of the universal laws of cinema. As sure as night follows day and the tide washes in and out, each successive film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series will be worse than the last. Like a basket of juicy fruit left to rot on a sunny beach, the individual ingredients that made the first film so fun gradually lose their enjoyment. You can also bet your house that in increasingly more desperate attempts to recapture the magic of the Black Pearl’s virgin voyage, the plots will acquire more baffling layers with each new instalment. And this film’s ending proves once again that there will always be room for yet another adventure.

However this film does break some new ground. For example for the first time ever, the title is as confusing and vague as the many competing strands of the story. The tides are certainly no more or less important than before and there is nothing strange about the film; within Captain Jack’s world at least mermaids and myths are pretty standard fare.

Things get off to a familiar but promising start. Our beloved scallywag Jack Sparrow is in London to rescue sidekick Mr Gibbs from a trial, which would be swiftly followed by a hanging if the bloodthirsty crowd had their way. After some costumed shenanigans and typically camp stalking about, Jack and Gibbs find themselves at the King’s palace. The crown wish to find the fountain of youth before the crafty Catholics in Spain and they’ve heard Sparrow knows the way.

Jack gets an audience with the King in a sumptuous room and Depp gets ample opportunity to showcase the physical comedy and wordplay audiences have come to love. The King is played by Richard Griffiths in a delightful cameo. Needless to say Jack manages an escape. Later in the film Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa takes the time to mentally plan an escape route, presuming that’s what Depp’s madcap Sparrow does, only for Jack to reply that he sometimes “improvises”. The running and jumping through an impressive CGI London in the film’s opening segment, is ad hoc Jack Sparrow action at its best.

Sadly the film simply cannot maintain the entertainment levels as chase follows chase and sword fight follows sword fight. Most of the action is surprisingly inventive, especially since we’ve had three films already but at times even Jack’s luck over judgment leaps of faith enter ridiculous territory. The stunts become monotonous by the end because of the film’s relentless opening barrage, tarnishing the drama of the finale. There are no explosive cannon battles for those who love their ships and nautical duels. Instead of boarding we get an awful lot of trekking through the jungle.

Having said this, two standout scenes are exciting and engaging. I’ve already mentioned Captain Jack prancing his way around London but the first mermaid attack scene is also terrific. Only the Pirates franchise could deliver such a scene. It’s got frights and bites, fangs and bangs. The mermaids are less interesting by the end, but here they are introduced in a lengthy scene as seductive and dangerous. The attack comes as a real shock and well managed change in pace after they are lured in to enchant some pirates left as bait.

The mermaid battle is an epic, long scene and the film is so long that it loses much of its epic feel. Sub plots like a half formed romance between a mermaid and clergy man could have been slimmed considerably or dropped altogether .The runtime is literally bladder bursting, as a friend of mine dashed from the room as soon as the credits rolled. I was content to sit and watch the names of the cast fly at me in 3D however, because of Hans Zimmer’s magnificent music, which remains the best thing about the Pirates of the Caribbean. There are some nice variations and new additions to the main theme in this instalment but I can’t help feeling it’s time he focused his talents on new projects, rather than continually recycling one stunning track.

Hang on though; surely this is still worth seeing just for another outing from Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow? Isn’t he the single most important pillar upon which the blockbusters are based? I always assumed, like many critics, that the romantic pairing of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in the previous films was holding back Depp’s brilliance. But having seen On Stranger Tides, in which Depp must mostly steer proceedings alone, his performance is somehow less effective without them.

He is at his best in this film when dancing around other characters, making light of them. Penelope Cruz is suitably sassy and sexy as a pirate, albeit with an unrealistically attractive cleavage for a hardened sailor, and she and Depp have some fun exchanges, but putting Sparrow at the heart of a love story doesn’t work. Even the filmmakers realise this by backing out of it somewhat at the end. Captain Jack Sparrow is not the emotional type. And what made him so attractive to audiences, was the way he mocked the clichéd relationship between Bloom and Knightley. Making him part of the conventional storyline robs his performance of some of its power.

Depp is still fantastic fun at points though, rising above an overcomplicated script with a bizarre fascination for throwing in random and rubbish rhymes. This film may just go through the motions and it may be far too long, but it’s undeniably grand and fairly pleasing despite the odd yawn.

Rather than fork out for its occasional 3D gimmicks of a sword jutting out of the screen though, I would recommend ditching the high seas for inner city London and Joe Cornish’s critically acclaimed directorial debut, Attack the Block. I saw this just hours before Pirates 4 and without adding anything new to the chorus of praise around it, I will just say go and see it. It is funnier and more thrilling than Rob Marshall’s blockbuster and doesn’t deserve to sink.

Blu-Ray Review: Buried


Being buried alive is up there with drowning and burning to death on the commonly accepted list of the worst ways to snuff it. Cinema has a long history of exploring and exploiting these fears for our viewing pleasure and pain. Certainly there are countless films about infernos or choking on salt water. There are classic scenes in tunnels with dust and dirt threatening to submerge our heroes. But never before has a film been quite so confined beneath the earth as Buried is.

Buried opens, after a slick titles sequence that gives the impression of descending through the soil, with a completely pitch black screen, affording me an opportunity to discover and enjoy high definition darkness. Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver in Iraq, wakes up in a box below ground before our eyes in this nothingness. This is Buried’s only location, a wooden coffin. It therefore might not seem the best film to enjoy on Blu-Ray, as there are no luscious visuals and locales to gasp in wonder at. The ever so slightly sharper picture and sound quality does truly allow you to appreciate the astounding technical achievement of Buried though.

The textures of the sand and the splintered wood feel real enough to touch at such intimate proximity. Conroy’s face, along with all the varied expressions it shifts through, looks incredibly lifelike. The excellent soundtrack, along with Conroy’s rasping breathing, is crisp and clear. The flame from a lighter looks vivid and dazzling in the sparseness of the coffin.

And the additional special features that come with a Blu-Ray disc are worth a look for once. As Ryan Reynolds, who plays Conroy, says in an interview, realising such a concept from a good script was a feat of engineering as well as filmmaking. Director Rodrigo Cortes explains that seven different coffins, each used for different types of shots, were used to make the 90 minutes or so of film. The variety of camera angles and techniques is incredibly impressive, with Reynolds highlighting that unlike a lot of films the same shot was scarcely used twice here. Most of the shots are entirely realistic, placing you firmly in Conroy’s shoes, with just a couple of exceptions, zooming out and away from him to really emphasise his isolation and loneliness.

One of the crew members interviewed says that if Hitchcock were alive today this is the sort of thing he’d be doing. There is undoubtedly the sense that new ground is being broken, in terms of storytelling and filmmaking. The majority of mainstream releases these days are miles away from the level of audience immersion on show in Buried. Even on an ordinary TV screen in a comfortable living room you feel Conroy’s claustrophobia and live his rollercoaster of emotions. This is as much down to Reynolds’ captivating performance as the fine detail and execution of the production team.

Reynolds copes with everything the script asks of him with very little to work with. He takes us from panic to paranoia, from despair to determination and back again. He deals equally well with anger and heartbreak, often conveying an emotion simply through breathing or a look in his eye. He is helped by some good voice performances by those he interacts with on the phone, his one real lifeline, its battery constantly withering away. Particularly good is Brit hostage negotiator Dan Brenner, played by Robert Paterson, who is convincingly professional and genuinely sympathetic. He managed to calm me down as well as Conroy.

Somehow Buried contains what I can only describe as an action scene, in which both the acting of Reynolds and the inventive wizardry of the director, combine with unbelievable effect. Without giving too much away, there is a snake involved. I was literally on the edge of my seat. And the reason this scene was so scary, gripping and exciting, was how well established the character and situation is beforehand.

As well as inexplicably pulling off a believable and enthralling thriller in a box, Cortes’ directing and Chris Sparling’s script also manages some thought provoking dialogue on major issues of our time. The way these topics are explored is seamlessly part of the action and not forced. During the course of Conroy’s phone conversations we explore not just the depths of his character, but the limits and immorality of bureaucracy and the subjective nature of the word “terrorist”. Buried therefore also has political credentials, without ever leaning too far to one side of the debate.

 With similar limitations to Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, Buried is a film reliant on its lead actor. Whilst James Franco was good, Reynolds is even better. In fact Buried is better full stop. For the moving climax alone, that will have you unable to look away through confused tears, it is worth watching. Buried delivers a master class in acting, cinematography, dialogue and political comment. It is a unique and bruising ride of a story. And a must see film experience.

Angelina Jolie gets the boot for Tomb Raider resurrection


It seems certain that Angelina Jolie will not reprise the role of Lara Croft, the voluptuous pistol wielding archaeologist from the successful Tomb Raider video game franchise.

The writers behind the script for Iron Man, Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby, are attached to a project to reboot the character with an origin story. Earlier this year GK Films acquired the rights to the series, with producer Graham King (The Departed) set to take charge for a 2013 release.

Despite proving a perfect fit physically for the role, almost precisely realising the impossibly busty  figure from the game to the delight of many, Jolie’s two films as the gun toting heroine left both cinemagoers and gamers cold. The new writers are aiming to put this right with something more than a passable action movie with appealing eye candy. In an interview with Variety they set out their high hopes for their reinterpretation of the character: “We aim to write an origin story for Lara Croft that solidifies her place alongside Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor in the pantheon of great female action heroes.”

The casting rumour mill is inevitably churning already. The writers may want to rework Lara’s colossal cleavage into a critically acclaimed cinematic icon but the filmmakers are unlikely to depart from the expectations of a seriously hot chick as the lead. Hence the whispers a while back of Megan Fox of Transformers fame taking over from the equally lusted after Jolie. Such a casting would stick to the current formula and guarantee a decent box office return, but given Fox’s performance record her casting would probably also tarnish the writers’ high minded vision.

Jolie’s English accent wasn’t exactly authentic during her time as Lara, prompting some to call for a young English actress to take over for the origin story. Harry Potter’s Emma Watson has been a surprise candidate mooted in some quarters, with other Brits speculated about including Rebecca Hall and Gemma Arterton. Of course there are the usual Hollywood names such as Scarlett Johansson in the mix too.

The casting of a relative unknown is a possibility, especially with the serious approach the writers appear to be taking. The Tomb Raider brand itself would give the film clout in theatres but it seems unlikely the production company would risk it without a big name star.

Whoever is picked for the role will need the flexibility to portray Lara’s transition from aristocratic, carefree heiress to globetrotting adventurer and adrenalin junkie. The plot is expected to draw on the plane crash that stranded the character in the Himalayan Mountains for two weeks and inspired her to give up a comfortable and luxurious existence.

Who do you think can step into Jolie’s shoes? Where can the franchise improve? And is this a film finally capable of giving the world a female action hero for the 21st century?