Archive for March, 2007

Cack! Rome is where the heart is…

The following is a review of Rome Season Two, which has just ended on HBO. This isn’t just the finish of the series, but the climax of Rome itself, with no more planned. The new set of episodes tracks Republican history from the immediate aftermath of Julius Caesar’s death, to the eventual triumph of his adoped son, Gaius Octavian Caesar. It closes in 30 BC, the effective start of Rome’s imperial phase, and as suitable a point as any on which to call a close to this thrilling drama. No doubt, many readers will be waiting for it to appear on British television (nothing has been announced yet), or its release on DVD, which will hopefully be as lavish an affair as the superb Season One boxset. Please note that this review contains spoilers, though I’ll try to limit these as far as possible.

First, the inevitable question - is Season Two as good as its predecessor? For fans of the series, the initial run was a triumph, a richly detailed look at Rome’s political and social history that pulled no punches in its graphic depictions of sex and violence. Millions of dollars had been plunged into it, producing an epic affair that mirrored real life events whilst showing what life was like through all stratas of society. One of the first season’s biggest hurdles was in the amount of exposition it had to get out of the way before moving on to the good stuff. This covered a good deal of the first three episodes, and explains the merciless chopping of content to fit within two one-hour shows aired on the BBC.

Lucius VorenusProviding UK viewers could ‘hack the hacking,’ Rome turned out to be quite brilliant, full of rounded characters who could be defined as neither good or bad, but merely human. It ended with Caesar’s assassination, a climactic point that marked the supposed rise of conservative Republicanism, and the hegemony of Servilia of the Junii (Lindsay Duncan) over her hated rival, Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker). As we see very early in the new series, this is illusory. It isn’t long before Atia is back in full form, her lover Mark Antony demonstrating that real power sits with him. In the meantime, Titus Pullo marries Eirene (Chiara Mastalli), a remarkable turnaround considering he killed her true lover in the first series. While the likeable Pullo achieves some form of happiness, Lucius Vorenus is struggling to recover from Niobe’s suicide, and a feeling that he was partly responsible for Caesar being killed. Antony blames him, and to make amends he is forced to set himself up as a leader within Roman gangland, ensuring peace is maintained in order to help his master.

The ‘Joker’ in all this is Octavian (Simon Woods, who replaces Max Pirkis at a midway point in the series). Atia’s son learns he is Caesar’s heir, and that he stands to inherit all his adopted father’s wealth and titles. Nominally a position of power, Octavian has enough about him to realise that this means nothing unless he takes responsibility and enters public life. When he does, it’s with spectacular consequences for everyone. Octavian has to get the Senate on his side, seeing off tired old patricians like Cicero (David Bamber), whilst mobilising to square up to his one true rival - Antony. The series focuses on the battle for power between the two. On the one hand, Antony appears to hold all the aces - he’s popular, well-established, an experienced soldier, and he physically outmatches his young opponent, as is graphically demonstrated during one of the early episodes. But he also crucially underestimates Octavian. Rome shows how it’s possible for a rich nobody to rise to the top of the political tree, in the meantime leaving a trail of blood and no rivals to his throne. Antony drinks heavily, bullies others and throws his weight around, but he has little of Octavian’s shrewd intelligence and one-track drive towards the top flight. The series finishes in the fall-out of Actium, the decisive battle that was decided in Octavian’s favour. Defeated and broken, Antony has little to do but end his own life, leaving Cleopatra to deal with the consequences of their union’s downfall.

The political element to the story is never less than fascinating, much as we would expect from the series. To some degree, it’s even better than in Season One. At least then, you only had to look at Caesar in action to see why he was near the top of the food chain. In Octavian’s case, we have a character who lacks charisma, can’t fight, struggles to deal with people and seems ever cold. Somehow, he negotiates the tricky obstacle presented by Antony and wins the post of Imperator, a permanent role that will see in the imperial era. Almost tougher is his ascendancy to the head of the family. Following Atia’s ‘victory’ over Servilia, the most watchable character from Season One just about loses her lust for life. Antony leaves her, first when Octavian offers his sister’s hand in marriage, and later as the old boor’s alliance with Cleopatra blossoms into an affair. Atia still has her moments. A Roman noble this spirited could never be dull. But she isn’t the formidable harpie from Season One, and that hurts.

Yet as Atia’s star fades, others rise. James Purefoy as Antony is a revelation. If Caesar dominated the first series, he overshadows all other players this time around. Played to perfection, I think he completely fills the skin of his infamous character, and ought to remain my definitive Antony. Richard Burton, you have been easily depedestalled. There’s more too of Cleopatra, the slight Egyptian queen who comes to be a major player in the political arena. Though it’s hard to imagine this part belonging to anyone but Elizabeth Taylor, Lyndsey Marshal gives the role a good deal of spirit, always keeping an eye on the fortunes of her kingdom whilst falling for Antony. Max Baldry plays Caesarion, her young son, as a spoilt brat. As we know from Season One, there’s a serious question over his paternity. Was his father Caesar, or Pullo? We never find out for sure, of course, DNA testing being some two thousand years away, but this does lead to a warm scene where the young price asks Vorenus what his dad was like, and the soldier’s affectionate replies make it clear he’s talking about Pullo. Caesarion’s ‘Great Escape’ moment is one of the few garish instances in the entire series. Not a bad one as such, just a bit on the obvious side. Rome deserves better.

Mark AntonyAs for the two reluctant stars, the series tries - and largely succeeds - to find them new things to do. Vorenus and Pullo quickly establish themselves within the underworld, leading to a fresh set of adventures in which we’re shown just what life on Rome’s mean streets is like (much like modern times, to be fair). We get several new characters, principally the feisty Gaia (Zuleikha Robinson), who falls into bed with the pair of them and does her bit to make Eirene’s life miserable. Their side to the plot plays second fiddle to the historical events during this series. A running story concerning Vorenus’s estrangement from his own children becomes tiresome, and for some time the perpetual moaning Pullo puts up with from Eirene threaten to sap him of all his vigour. Once the pair are no longer intertwined with the fortunes of Rome (they are again by the season’s climax), their antics begin to lose some interest. Though there’s value in showing them deal with the rougher side of life, it’s simply not as much fun as when they’re caught up in the manoueverings of the people who matter. As ever though, Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson deliver fine performances. Vorenus’s fall into moral decay gives McKidd a new dimension to his character, whilst Stevenson excels as the perpetually cheerful Pullo. Considering all the nasty things that happen to him and his friends, it’s a blessing to see him always get up for more.

If Season Two isn’t quite up to the standard set by the first run, it’s because the latter was presented more or less impeccably. This one suffers slightly from the lack of Ciaran Hinds, who breathed so much life into Caesar; Simon Wood simply can’t compete as the robotic Octavian. Quite simply, Caesar is one of history’s most fascinating characters. His death casts a massive shadow over Season Two, one it never really overcomes. There are several occasions when simply more of the same seems to appear on the screen again and again. Octavia (Kerry Condon) has a steamy affair with Octavian’s friend, Agrippa (Allen Leech), but it ends without ever being resolved, as though it’s little more than an excuse to throw in a few extra sex scenes.

These, however, are minor quibbles. Rome has too much going for it to be dull, and even a slightly sub-par series is better than virtually anything else out there. The ending hits all the right notes, and though it finishes at a suitable point, leaves us wanting more. An online petition exists for the public to demand more, even if in all likelihood the massive investment in further episodes will most probably put paid to any actual plans. As Pullo would say, cack! At least the show goes out on a high, before its contents have a chance to get stale. It will remain one of television’s most elaborate and intelligent drama series, whatever BBC editors might do to make it less so. Ave!

Posted on 27th March 2007
Under: Telly, Epics | No Comments »

The Oscar Files: A Beautiful Mind

Year: 2001

Total Oscar Haul: Four

Oscar Nominees: Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge

Worthy Outsiders: Amelie, Donnie Darko, Shrek, Monsters Inc., Black Hawk Down, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ghost World, Memento, The Royal Tenenbaums, Mulholland Drive

Tagline: He saw the world in a way no one could have imagined

Tasting Notes: I admit I was astonished by A Beautiful Mind the first time I saw it. The plot seemed to revolve around this nice yet eccentric maths genius who was getting more embroiled in the world of international espionage. And then, more than an hour into the film, it turns completely upside down and starts telling an entirely different story. Challenging all the build-up of its first act, A Beautiful Mind stops being a thriller with an unlikely hero, and turns into a battle for the soul.

Russell Crowe being loveably nutsIt’s only with a second viewing that the movie begins to fall apart. For a start, there’s the degree of license it takes with the facts, the extent to which it can honestly say it’s based on a true story. Here’s the ‘true’ part - yes, there’s a mathematician called John Nash, he does indeed suffer from schizophrenia, and is married to Alicia. And, er, that’s it. You don’t have to spend long looking into Nash’s background to see that Ron Howard and his writers took huge liberties with Nash’s life story in coming up with a sanitised version for Hollywood. Its biggest crime is that it portrays Nash’s schizophrenia as a hallucinatory condition whereby he sees and talks to imaginary people regularly. This is great in terms of the dramatic impact it makes when you realise some of his closest colleagues and friends are products of his imagination. However, Nash only suffered from auditory hallucinations. The rest was all made up for effect.

Secondly, biographical information about Nash shows him to be far from the tortured hero played by Russell Crowe. In reality, he was difficult, spiteful and prone to bouts of cruelty. His relationship with Alicia suffered a number of ups and downs, far from the cosy image presented at the end of A Beautiful Mind. As it goes, Crowe does a reasonable job with the material. He may be difficult to like whenever he appears off the screen, but Crowe can act, and embues Nash with a great deal of sympathy. Jennifer Connelly in the role of Alicia doesn’t have an awful lot to do. When she’s not looking worried, she’s getting upset, and apparently that was enough to hand her the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ Oscar. I quite liked Paul Bettany, who puts in a winning performance as Crowe’s ‘prodigal roommate,’ whilst Ed Harris is reliably shady as a cloak and dagger government agent.

As entertainment, A Beautiful Mind isn’t bad. It’s made by the numbers. Ron Howard has always appeared to me to be a fairly pedestrian director, regardless of what he has to work with, meaning you get few genuine moments of inspiration, and here things are no different. Once the big ‘reveal’ has been opened, the remainder of the film is made up of Nash’s slow rehabiliation back into society, his battles against adversity as he has to fight both his personal demons and the prejudices of those around him. James Horner uses a choir of gothic voices to rise and fall in pitch along with every success and pitfall in our hero’s life, yet it’s always clear that he will turn out okay. That adds up to half a movie during which the tension has all been sucked out, and what we’re actually seeing is an extended climax.

Much like the stuff going on in Nash’s brain, it just isn’t true. What really stings about this movie is that Nash’s story is interesting enough to make for a damn fine picture that remains faithful to the facts. But that didn’t happen. Writer Akiva Goldsman came up with a yarn that could be spoonfed to audiences whilst going for cheap dramatic effects. A Beautiful Mind should have been treated with some degree of caution, or at the very least as a competent feature that was based far more on easily digestible fiction than actual events. As it turned out, the Academy swallowed it whole, and Goldsman picked up his Oscar, as did Howard, and the film romped home.

Was it the year’s best? God, no. The first instalment of Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy remains a classic in my eyes, of course, and I enjoyed Gosford Park immensely. But look at that list of worthy outsiders! 2001 produced some incredibly imaginative movies, the sort of intelligent, witty and occasionally challenging material that will stay with me far longer than this. Monsters Inc. is still my favourite Pixar, an amazing tour de force of imagination and gorgeous graphics. Then there are indie classics like Ghost World and Donnie Darko, beautiful French film Amelie, a decidedly noirish Coen Brothers effort in The Man Who Wasn’t There (aka The Film That Was Their Last Good One), and the immense Memento, the one that launched Christopher Nolan and made far better use of its central psychological condition than A Beautiful Mind could ever have hoped to.

The Mmmm Oscar goes to: Personally, out of all the films mentioned, I still hold Donnie Darko in a higher regard than it perhaps deserves. Maybe that’s because it’s cool. More likely, it’s the kind of film I can watch again and again, and find a new angle to focus on with every sitting. An honourable mention must also go to Memento, the low budget thriller that made such inventive use of the passage of time. In an Academy-friendly environment though, I must err towards The Fellowship of the Ring, still the best of the trilogy and a lovely adaptation of a novel that doesn’t lend itself easily to a film treatment.

The Oscar Files verdict:

Posted on 24th March 2007
Under: Award Fodder | 4 Comments »

What are The Oscar Files?

As well as being the name of my son, the Oscars are awards doled out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to supposedly the best films of the year. Whether the best films actually get them is a matter of contention with each passing ceremony. In the run up to ‘Oscar Night,’ studios with a vested interest in getting their baby on to the podium go on a kind of sucking up campaign, offering freebies, parties and indeed just about any commodity at their disposal to the Academy and media, all in an effort to increase their product’s profile and ultimately to be the winner. As such, the ‘best film’ isn’t necessarily the finest thing you’ll see from a particular year, rather it’s the best marketed. Another factor for the Academy is the politics of Hollywood. Has someone who’s been previously overlooked for an Oscar produced a movie that might make them worth a shout this time around? Is it so and so’s turn to get their name in lights? Academy Awards are often given on the strength of the winner’s previous body of work as much as they are for the current nomination. A very good example of this is the most recent victor, The Departed, which isn’t Martin Scorsese’s defining moment by anyone’s stretch of the imagination, yet he’d been ignored when the essential likes of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas were doing the rounds, and for that very reason was seen to deserve the acclaim this time around.

The ‘Oscar Files’ are all about cutting the crap. Freed from diplomacy, dogma, and never in any danger of receiving freebie bribes, this site will take a look at the ‘Best Picture’ from any year out of the 79 times the Academy has met to lavish praise on one special movie. I’ll be asking the essential question - was it really that good? It’s easy, of course, to watch something that won awards ten years ago, with all the hype surrounding it long faded, and judge it purely on its merits as a piece of art. But then, the point is to see who might have deserved the award instead. Numerous injustices have been cited over the long history of the Academy Awards, films that clearly should have won, others that have little business proudly declaring ‘Winner of Best Picture Oscar’ on their DVD covers. Hell, perhaps now and then the Academy got it exactly right, and I’ll agree with their verdict.

Written in a Passnotes style, the effort is to construct a year-by-year exploration of the finest flicks, whilst having a bit of fun at the same time. See what you think. Comments are always welcome, and I’d love to hear what your choices are as we move through the ages of Oscar…

Posted on 24th March 2007
Under: Award Fodder | No Comments »

‘Why are you slapping that monkey?’

Night at the Museum should be a terrible movie. The prospect of a CGI-driven family film fills me with dread. Ben Stiller, who I saw last in the lazy Madagascar, is entirely capable of producing either the best work of his career, or a phoned in performance within an indifferent comedy. The omens weren’t good for this one, and when The Guardian gave it one star, stating it was more like ‘Dark night of the soul,’ my impressions were confirmed. Mine wife really fancied seeing it, having been seduced by the trailer that featured the animated skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex pursuing Stiller. According to her, it looked like it would be good fun. I begged to differ, thinking a terrible mess is all we’d pay our monies to see.

But you know what? She was right. The critics were wrong, and so was I. Night at the Museum is no one’s idea of a comedy classic, but it is a laugh, and its heart is in the right place. That’s the last time I base my decision to see a film on The Grauniad’s say so. After all, movie critic Peter Bradshaw gave Mission Impossible III a sad, solitary star, and I thought it was one of the most exciting cinema experiences of 2006.

Night at the MuseumNight at the Museum is rated PG, and as a result appears to rein in many of Stiller’s worst excesses. The unconvincing results whenever you see him trying what The Boy calls ‘the sexy stuff’ don’t apply here. There’s some comic gurning, but not enough to become truly irritating. Its quotient of violence is most definitely of the ‘no blood,’ slapstick variety, and where the CGI’s concerned, it’s generally applied thoughtfully, if in liberal doses.

The story surrounds Stiller’s likeable loser, Larry Daley, who takes a night security guard post at the local Natural History Museum in an effort to show his son that he can maintain a stable life. Having long split up from his wife, Larry has to deal with visits to his former home that show her now married to Don (Paul Rudd), the very model of solid respectability compared with his own luckless inventor’s existence. Once recruited, it isn’t long before the museum’s exhibits come to life, powered by a magical Egyptian tablet. Larry is initially terrified by the wild animals, huns, miniature Roman soldiers and the T-Rex skeleton. A menagerie of historical figures and beasts riot through the hallways, many of whom seem bent on vanquishing him. However, a waxwork Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) befriends our hero, and inspires in him a sense of purpose - it’s up to him to control the exhibits; he can find a way. In the meantime, Larry has the three former security guards, led by Dick Van Dyke, to deal with, along with musem manager, Dr McPhee. The latter character is played by Ricky Gervais, and spends his time worrying about the institution’s dwindling popularity whilst ever appearing to have his sacking finger cocked when Larry’s around.

There’s more to the movie, dense sub-plots involving a number of the exhibits - an Easter Island head, Sacajawea, Attila the Hun, fire-seeking neanderthals, Dexter the monkey, Pharoah Ahkmenrah, and Owen Wilson’s three-inch high railroad worker. I’ve only covered the basics, whereas in the movie swathes of plot whizz by in continual yet digestible chunks. Put it this way, it’s not a movie that’s likely to bore you. Night at the Museum is dished up in episodes of easy laughs and plot developments that experienced viewers will see coming a mile off, but should charm the pants off younger audiences. Much of it shouldn’t work. A number of gags are practically radioed ahead, just in case kids watching the film might think Larry’s in any real danger from the dinosaur fossil that’s chasing him, and this can flatten the pay off. On the other hand, great performances are coaxed out of the acting talent on display. I thought Steve Coogan as Roman general, Octavius, was a hoot, and Wilson was less annoying than usual. Maybe he should concentrate on playing miniature characters in the future.

More than anything, Night at the Museum is easy on the eye, and I don’t think any more was intended during its production. It reminds me a little of the last Doctor Who series, in the sense that it’s clearly been made as diverting entertainment, for as wide an audience as possible. As such, hardcore fans might be let down by the family friendliness of it all, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing. The same’s true of Night at the Museum, which had me won over with its sheer likeability. The pace never lets up, and some of the incidental comedy thrown in - ‘There is a 20-foot jackal staring at you right now. Don’t make eye contact’ - is expertly written and nicely delivered, more often than not by Williams, who puts in an admirably restrained turn as Roosevelt.

The only black mark comes in the form of Gervais, a criticism levelled by many, and with good reason. As welcome as it is to see Reading’s finest become more of a face in Hollywood, I get the impression that no one really knows what to do with him. As such, his character is required to have all the awkward, belligerent mannerisms of David Brent, without any good lines whatsoever. The shabby turn he puts in here is entirely reminiscent of his Simpsons episode, where his natural schtick seemed to be compressed into cliched rhetoric for American audiences. Don’t remember him this way. It’s worth noting that, once or twice, Larry’s dialogue seems to have been inspired by Extras’ screenplays, and as we all know Stiller is a Gervais fan. Naturally, this being a vehicle for him, he gets all the best lines.

In Kevin O’Reilly’s review for DVD Times, he commented that it’s nice to be surprised occasionally, which sums A Night at the Museum up. It could have been awful, but in fact it’s okay, and the lesson for me is obviously to pay more regard to Kevin than I might paid up film critics who appear to have an innate distrust of CGI and allow this to colour their judgement.

Posted on 23rd March 2007
Under: Comedy, Recent Releases | No Comments »

300 Prepares for Glory

Take your average epic motion picture. First, cut away a good hour of its running time, jettisoning the lengthy romantic interludes, politics, lingering over expensive sets, etc. Second, kit your heroes out with leather knick knicks and red capes, and don’t let any of them near the set if they don’t have a defined six pack. Third, ensure your villains outnumber the good guys to such a degree that the ratio would stagger Stephen Hawking. Fourth, for good measure turn your baddies into monstrous creations, featuring trolls and rhinos, the logic being that anyone would view an invader as demons anyway. Fifth, make use of the best special effects money can buy, and you should surface with something close to 300.

It’s tempting to suggest that those going to cinema with expectations of a historical drama will be disappointed. But will they? The main source for the events in 300 is Herodotus, who dressed up his accounts of what happened, as was the wont in antiquity. It’s unlikely that the legendary Battle of Thermopylae happened exactly as described, and that Herodotus’s story has as much root in the wish for stirring tales of epic heroes as it does hard fact. Of course, 300 is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, so any content based on what we know is little more than a passing nod anyway. Miller clearly picked out the elements of Sparta’s history that he thought would make for a good yarn - the privations that being a citizen meant, King Leonidas’s selfless heroism, the sheer odds facing the Spartans at Thermopylae - and developed them whilst omitting the grander sweep of the events surrounding Xerxes’s invasion attempt.

What we are left with is a stripped down - some might say dumbed down - action adventure, freed from the expositional aspects that can make epic movies an occasional chore. Within the film’s first half hour, Leonidas is already marching off to war with his three hundred finest soldiers. Under normal circumstances, audiences could expect to sit through a good hour or so of politicking, and in losing all this the pace of 300 doesn’t suffer one bit. First, we get a narrated description of the king’s youth, which leads nicely into a potted account of the hardships that children went through to become worthy Spartan warriors. Young Leonidas is beaten and whipped to make him tougher, and then sent into the mountains, clinging to snow-lashed rock faces whilst dressed in little more than a loincloth. Once he survives, the boy is ready to serve his nation, a superhuman soldier who fears nothing.

300We get brief glimpses of Leonidas’s home life before he’s off to fight, and it’s here that the movie sparks into life. Agreeing the only way they can hope to match a million Persians is by luring them into a bottlenecked gully, the Spartans - in their indomitable phalanxes - beat back wave after wave of assault. At first, Xerxes - a multi-pierced, seven-foot tall baldie who thinks of himself as a God - sends in normal soldiers, but later we get a storm of arrows so dense it blots out the sky, and afterwards masked Saracens who just happen to have a troll in their ranks. Nobody should survive this attack, but the Spartans do, losing few of their own whilst building walls out of the enemy’s dead. The fighting itself is amazing. The phalanx is shown as a super effective way to defend against opposition charges, and then the heroes break loose, advancing steadily whilst taking out multiple foes. At times, they deal out death so quickly that the poor Persians can’t possibly hope to keep up. This, we’re told, is because the Spartans are free men, whilst Xerxes’s army comprises slaves from across Asia, therefore they have more to fight for. What is never made clear is the reason our heroes battle so hard, when you imagine their lives would be irrevocably easier under Persian rule. All the same, whatever the Persians throw at them, Sparta fends it off with arrogant ease, and it could only take a betrayal to alter the path of fortune…

300 is a film of dizzying excess. It deserves its ‘15′ rating thanks to the number of hacked limbs, bared breasts and scenes of horror, such as the time when Leonidas passes through a destroyed Greek village, and finds all its inhabitants nailed grotesquely to a single tree. There are also moments of beauty. The CGI-rendered Sparta looks excellent, whether shot at night, or from a distance. Truly, the effects work on display is so good, such a stylized feast for the eyes that there’s no excuse for movies featuring lazy, unimaginative computer graphics anymore. Not only does everything look perfectly realistic, whether we’re witnessing an enormous army, a wall made out of corpses or the Spartan forum, it carries a real sense of identity, of belonging to its era. The film has a grainy appearance, as though it’s all been filmed on yellowing parchment, which lends a legendary sheen to the whole thing.

In fact, the visuals are so captivating you can forgive it for some fairly run of the mill acting performances. Shot before a blue screen, this wasn’t likely to be a thespian’s movie, and in the starring role, Gerard Butler delivers a turn that never shines. Looking a bit confused by it all, he’s at his best when safely enveloped within the Spartan phalanx or chopping bits of flesh into pieces. Vincent Regan, who’s known simply as Captain, does better, at least producing an emotional pitch when required and putting his work in the forgettable Troy behind him. Lena Headey, playing Queen Gorgo, is pretty but vacant, and there’s little for Rodrigo Santoro to do but look fierce in the role of Xerxes. Acting honours, if indeed there are any, go to The Wire’s Dominic West, who looks suitably oily as treacherous politician, Theron. Elsewhere, David Wenham is employed to narrate the action, and has the grizzled tones to sound exactly like a blooded old soldier who’s seen it all before. One of 300’s biggest strengths is a factor that weighed down the aforementioned Tory. With Brad Pitt in the main role, Wolfgang Petersen’s film was always going to be ‘Brad Pitt’s Troy’; the actor was bigger than the material to hand and overshadowed everything that followed. Here, in using a clutch of Z-listers, the same doesn’t happen to 300. The action comes first, which is altogether the intention.

Personally, I find those who compare this poorly to other epic fare to be missing the point somewhat. 300 is all style, little substance, and though the heroics on display carry some dramatic weight, the story serves as back-up to the incredible eye candy. It’s simple and effective, and ideal for those who might have gone to see, for example, The Two Towers, in anticipation of Helm’s Deep. Besides which, it’s not as though other so-called epics are truthful accounts that put their historical context first. I think this is a movie that should be applauded. It’s taken a story that’s thousands of years old and added a fresh spin that might only acknowledge the past fleetingly, but gives its viewers plenty to savour. Sure, it’s hardly worth a string of awards, yet I have certainly never seen anything quite like it.

A quick note on IMAX. This is the first time I have ever enjoyed the ‘IMAX Experience,’ and based on this I see I’ve missed out. It might have been a bit much to have some Odeon employee telling us how to leave as quickly as possible once the show was over, but otherwise it’s all I can do to applaud the utterly superb screen size (eight storeys high, according to the announcement), and the sound quality. The only trouble is that now I want every cinema visit to be an IMAX Experience…

Posted on 22nd March 2007
Under: Epics, Recent Releases | No Comments »

Ten Movie Soundtracks to Treasure

Both Empire magazine and the Observer have recently produced their own lists of best film scores, and, never one to leave any bandwagon unjumped, I have half-inched the concept for this here site. As we all know, a great soundtrack can elevate the movie to which it’s attached. Famously, Star Wars was taken far more seriously by those test-viewing it after John Williams had worked his magic over the action. Talking of Williams, is it possible to even think about Jaws without that creepy and ominous signature tune running through your head? Or how about the nightmarish use of strings by Bernard Hermann for Psycho’s shower scene? Vangelis’s score for Chariots of Fire has endured longer than the film, whilst The Sound of Music’s soundtrack album remains one of the all-time bestsellers.

The following is my humble list of ten favourites, soundtracks that have really done their part to lift a movie in a significant and enduring way. Obviously, it’s entirely subjective. Your top ten would no doubt be very different to mine, and incidentally, I’d love to hear about these. Two rules - it must be a score written specifically for the film i.e. no soundtrack made up of individual songs, like Trainspotting, and I can’t choose a composer’s work more than once, otherwise this may turn out to be a list dominated by Morricone…

10. Jean de Florette (Jean-Claude Petit)
Jean de Florette It’s the Stella Artois music, isn’t it? Stella pinched Jean de Florette’s theme for a long-running string of commercials, each featuring scenes from a rural village, and the price punters are willing to pay for a ‘reassuringly expensive’ pint. Claude Berri’s morality tale is itself set in a forgotten corner of France during some unspecified time in the past. Petit’s score follows poor Gerard Depardieu around as he struggles to make a business of his farmland, never knowing that his new friend from the neighbouring plot is screwing him out of a steady water supply. As it becomes clear that Depardieu’s hunchback is doomed to failure, the music takes on an ever greater degree of tragedy, reflecting the dramatic irony afflicting him whilst capturing beautifully the sun and countryside simplicity of the surroundings.

9. The Ipcress File (John Barry)
The Ipcress File Perpetually intertwined with James Bond, Barry has provided excellent and memorable scores for a number of movies. His music for Dances with Wolves, for instance, reflects the rather beautiful sadness of the dying old west. But The Ipcress File perhaps towers over all of them. The film, based on Len Deighton’s fiction, was intended to be a downbeat alternative to Bond. Whilst 007 lives in a swirling world of Bollinger and Aston Martins, Ipcress’s hero - Harry Palmer, played by Michael Caine - is first seen fixing himself a morning coffee in his unremarkable flat. It’s a scene that looks like its era, the 1960s, and in many ways, this score is the sixties, featuring a signature arrangement that is simple enough to mirror the ordinariness of Palmer’s life, yet holds sufficient glamour and mysteriousness to tease out the hidden depths of a spy’s life.

8. Spirited Away (Joe Hisaishi)
Spirited Away Music isn’t the first thing one thinks about when watching Ghibli Studio’s marvellous animations, but in Spirited Away - its most famous export - the score and film combine to sublime effect. What elevates Hisaishi’s work is its essential ‘Japaneseness,’ the mixing of ethnic styles and instruments with a full orchestra to give it a distinctive Eastern feel. This is witnessed best in the scene where Chihiro watches a queue of masked spirits depart a steamer on their way to the bath house. The music finest moment, however, takes place on the train journey. As Sen and her friends travel to Swampy Bottom, they share the carriage with numerous spirits, all silhouetted human forms, who get off at various stops along the way. Sen glances outside at the blackened outline of a little girl, waiting on the platform for someone who doesn’t come, and perhaps never will. It’s a lovely piece filled with melancholy for the quiet sadness of everyone on that train.

7. Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring (Howard Shore)
The Fellowship of the Ring By the third and final part of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, Shores’s score covered virtually every second of the footage in what became a fairly bloated climax. In the first, the one where they had to impress us with this new world, his music is used intelligently and to best effect. Shore begins by providing a theme tune for the Shire that fits the hobbits so well, it’s almost impossible to read the early chapters of Tolkein’s book without whistling the Celtic-inspired refrains to yourself. But there’s more. Shore captures the otherworldly home of Galadriel, the heroic intentions of the Fellowship, and at its finest, the flight from Moria, as a chorus of voices is added to the orchestra to usher in the ancient evil of the mountain’s Balrog.

6. Superman: the Movie (John Williams)
Superman Williams is synonymous with big name movies from the last thirty years. Lucas and Spielberg’s continuing requests for his services ensures that his music is attached to some of the biggest names around, and it’s impossible to deny the contribution he has made to the likes of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and countless others. But what to choose as the best? Where have those fanfares been used to their most optimal effect? I’ve gone for Superman, having watched it over Christmas for the first time since I was a child, and unlike many that have undergone a similar ritual, it still shines as a classic movie that beautifully combines comedy, high emotion and a sense of mythology. Williams gets the superhero element of the film’s eponymous character exactly right in his theme tune, one so adored that it was allowed to play over some of the longest opening credits in celluloid history. Added to that are the mysterious strains that accompany Clark Kent’s discoveries of his own power, the feisty yet adorable tune attached to Lois Lane, and wholly suitable wonder and majesty that meets the scenes set on dying Krypton.

5. Blade Runner (Vangelis)
Blade Runner The darling of Film Studies classes is fortunate enough to hold hands with Vangelis’s finest work. His synthesisers have been used to excellent effect elsewhere. Both the scores for Chariots of Fire and Alexander are instantly identifiable, and either has its high points. But it’s here, where he, Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford all combined to produce their best stuff that you get the real pay-off. Blade Runner is set in a near future, and it’s entirely appropriate for the elegant, space age Vangelis soundtrack to go with those shots of beautiful, dark cityscapes, Rutger Hauer talking about the things he’s seen, and the heartbreakingly delicate music that is used when Sean Young appears as the lovely android, Rachel. Quite simply, a piece of majesty, and it’s criminal that we could only buy the soundtrack so recently.

4. North by Northwest (Bernard Hermann)
North by Northwest Hermann’s talents were called on to provide scores for three of Hitchcock’s best films - Vertigo, Psycho, and this - and in each case, he had to produce something individual for completely different features. The ’shower scene’ strings from Psycho represent the most famous of these, though personally I prefer the music box madness of Vertigo, complete with Spirograph images filling the screen. Even more, I think the soundtrack for North by Northwest ticks every box. One of the Master’s most accessible and relentlessly exciting films, Hermann’s title track provides a suitable sense of urgency, as lines cut across the screen, only to dissolve into the window frames of a glass-fronted tower block. There’s a real undercurrent of menace in the music, a sense that nobody is who they appear to be, whilst at the fore the frantic pace covers Cary Grant’s flight in a way that’s thrillingly sublime.

3. The Fearless Vampire Killers (Christopher Komeda)
The Fearless Vampire Killers What do you prefer? Those old Hammer soundtracks, where the composers simply filled the score with the wrong notes to provide music that was off-kilter and disorientating? Or this, with its authentic Eastern European sound and sense of being actually quite scary? Roman Polanski’s vampire comedy might not be to everybody’s taste, especially those raised on a diet of Christopher Lee and Francis Ford Coppola’s terrible take on Dracula, but it plays exactly like a tale set in some remote Balkan hinterland. The film has a genuine sense of place, and so does the soundtrack, which is all howling choruses and local instruments. Polish-born Komeda transports us to the serf village that’s in constant terror of its nearby vampire castle with a score that is gothic in nature, and fulfils the environment that Polanski was aiming for with a suitable ethnic air.

2. The Third Man (Anton Karas)
The Third Man In a moviemaking story that has become the stuff of legend, The Third Man’s director, Carol Reed, spotted Karas on a visit to Vienna before production began and instantly fell in love with his zither playing. Signed up to provide the score almost instantly, Karas earned worldwide fame for his unique and unusual work that fits the film like a glove. Roaming the bombed out streets and night time alleys of post-war Vienna, Karas’s zither provides a distinctive soundtrack, which is both beautiful and filled with an unnamed menace. It carries a sinister air, as Holly Martins becomes more embroiled in the Viennese underworld, a shady racket of black market goods, fake passports and the mysterious death of his best friend, who turns out to be not all he seems. The music was so effective that the film’s credits appear over the shot of a zither’s strings being plucked to the classic signature tune.

1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Ennio Morricone)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly A predictable choice, I fear, as regular readers of the site already know what I think of the movie, and its unbeatable score. I covered this in a separate blog about Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, and can find nothing better to say than to quote my own words from that link:

“It’s perhaps the most perfect accompaniment to what’s happening on the screen. Apart from the celebrated title track and the cemetery scene, you could pick any of his incidental pieces as a favourite. I have three. The first happens early, as Stevens’ young son watches Angel Eyes approaching. The music is both light and foreboding. Trouble’s clearly on the horizon. Tarantino pinched this brief piece to mark the first appearance of Bill in Kill Bill Volume 2, and he wasn’t wrong to do so. The second is more dolesome, and plays as Angel Eyes comes across a ruined fort of dead or dying soldiers. As the music begins to fade, we hear battle trumpets dying quietly in the background. And finally, the torture scene. Tuco is being punched to pieces by Angel Eyes’ henchman whilst in a prisoner-of-war camp. Outside, to mask the commotion, a loose band of captured Confederates are made to play a sad tune that is filled with regret, whilst Blondie is informed this happens every time someone is being tortured.”

Posted on 21st March 2007
Under: General Blah | 3 Comments »

Don’t you open that Trapdoor (because Adam Curtis is there)

I’m afraid, and not from hiding behind the cushion over another showing of The Grudge (poor film, but it scares the bejesus out of me). Conspiracy theories get to me. They tap into my healthy sense of paranoia and heighten my senses. I start thinking that every shadow in the room contains a secret, and no one is as they seem. It’s not very often that documentaries can provoke such a response, but then Adam Curtis has waited nearly three years to submit another elegant series tapping into our most latent, underlying fears. The Power of Nightmares was a television classic in 2004, an exploration of the way governments have elevated the threat of terrorism into something far wider, darker and insidious than it apparently is. The Trap (What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?) goes perhaps one step further, suggesting new attempts to undermine our freedom that come entirely from within. It’s extremely paranoid, extraordinarily well made, and as before, good scary fun.

The TrapCurtis fans will recognise the style instantly. The Trap is filled with pop culture references, footage from movies spliced into the narrative and music from the world of pop and film. For this series, Curtis seems to have got his hands on a copy of the score from The Godfather, as it’s all over the show. There are also various clever bits of film worked in, such as the shot filmed from the back of a tube train disappearing into a tunnel, the light from the platform receding to a pinprick. All this is used to back up the programme’s points, to help provide the visual meaning to what is being said. I haven’t seen anything like it since Natural Born Killers, except here the images and noise are used in a much cleverer way. In The Power of Nightmares, Curtis featured a clip from The Evil Dead to illustrate terror closing in, and that remains my favourite of his references, but there’s plenty here for viewers to enjoy. Sometimes, the only problem is that images are worked in so briefly it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on, to take in the message whilst the cavalcade of visuals flies by. But that’s a minor complaint, and doesn’t detract from the fact that this is documentary making at its most breathlessly entertaining.

The Power of Nightmares didn’t fudge its issue, which concerned the perception of terrorism’s scale. Curtis made several claims in the series, all sensational and loaded to challenge the government’s line on current affairs. Quite simply, it asserted that ‘global terror’ was a myth, that the country wasn’t under threat to anything like the degree implied by governmental policy and legislation. Instead, it suited those in charge to up the stakes, to keep the public in line basically by scaring them, and thus uniting them against a common enemy. This harked back to an old theory advanced by American neo-Conservatives who believed that the country was festering in an environment of liberal freedom, and needed to be brought in line. Curtis duly traced this theory back to its origins, at the same time looking at the roots of radical Islam, itself brought about in reaction to freer societies in the Middle East. It concluded that 9/11 was the result of a desperate, small-scale attack, and not the work of a far-reaching Al-Qaeda network that could strike again at any moment, but that it gave America and Britain the opportunity to instil this neo-Conservative thinking on their nations. The result was a state of fear that handed authority back to those in power, yet one essentially based on fantasy and illusion.

Sadly, despite its high production values, consistent argument and unique style, The Power of Nightmares has never been released on DVD, and the situation is unlikely to change. According to Curtis, this is down to the sheer number of images and music used, which would lead to labyrinthine rights issues in the event of a DVD being produced. The same will no doubt be true for The Trap, which if anything uses an even more bewildering succession of stock footage from all manner of sources. In other words, the only place to see it is on the telly. Part two was on last night (Sunday), the final chapter following on Sunday, 25 March, on BBC2 at 9.00 pm. Otherwise, it’s a case of trawling the BBC4 schedules, where the series is liable to find a home, or check out the various streaming broadcasts on the web.

Believe me, it’s worth the effort. Even if you don’t agree with Curtis’s cynical view of the world, it’s impossible to walk away unimpressed. The Power of Nightmares didn’t for an instant cast doubt on 9/11 and its sources. Those crazy theories can be found on various presences on the web, no doubt in-depth productions that can uncover frightening fresh angles in every photograph and see beyond all the post-tragedy speeches. More assiduously, Curtis asks why something like 9/11 happened, who was responsible, who benefited, and what the consequences were. In The Trap, he digs at the very roots of our society, with quite startling results.

The series looks at personal liberty, or as it turns out, our lack thereof. Using the findings of mathematician John Nash as a starting point, Curtis explains how his theories have been adopted as a political model, with disastrous consequences for society. Nash (quite a different figure from A Beautiful Mind’s tortured hero, as it happens) argued that people are self-centred by nature, that they plot strategically against each other to achieve the best ends for themselves. This displayed itself on the political stage within the Cold War, where the USA and Russia escalated their levels of nuclear might in a complicated expression of deterrent i.e. if one side disarmed, could they trust the other to do the same, or would that power then order a nuclear strike? The only way to stop a global catastrophe was therefore in calling the other’s bluff all the time, and nobody would dare attack because of the terrifying retaliatory consequences.

A trap, yesterdayThat’s all well and good for the barely comprehensible world of global diplomacy, but what happens when this thinking is turned to that most intimate of social units, the family? A group of pscyhologists asserted that even in the home, allegedly that most comfortable and relaxed of places, strategies and mind games are taking place all the time. Perhaps this is true in Sir Alex Ferguson’s house, but the very prospect of exactly that taking place is enough to send a shudder down anyone’s spine. You mean mine wife doesn’t really love me, and that what she’s really doing is plotting against me and The Boy for her own net benefit? Scary stuff, and it’s this that forms the backbone of the series, as Curtis attempts to explain how this attitude towards human existence has manifested itself in government policy. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s regimes both devolved economic power to the market, the idea being that this is the only real forum for freedom, and thus a route to happiness. There may be something in that, but what does a market-driven society - where everyone fights for self-gain - say for social conscience? And what if the people who run the markets are themselves corrupt?

Curtis doesn’t stop there, moving into the easy pickings arena of a target-driven society where aims, objectives and results could be determined by the objective power of numbers. On the surface, using maths to determine outcomes - school league tables, hospital performance ratings, even how ‘normal’ you are as a person - comes across as sound thinking. There’s no human element to numbers, meaning that without the ‘corroding effect’ of human opinion and bias, they can coldly produce the goods time and time again. However, there are flaws, and these Curtis picks at constantly. During a time when mental health could be determined by a Q&A session that mathematically projected your susceptibility to a number of recently discovered conditions, millions of Americans were on medication in an attempt to become ‘normal’ once more, but who decides what normal is? What about outside factors, like home life, family and friends, work, etc? What effect do these have on one’s health? These are aspects the numbers couldn’t assess for themselves, leading to illusory results where people believed they weren’t well. Some of the number crunching was also open to corruption, such as the way hospitals would manipulate their figures to look better at progressing operations than they really were? A chilling example was West Lothian Police, who produced the biggest improvement in crime figures for years, until someone looked into their statistics and found a number of offences, such as assault, had been categorised as ’suspicious behaviour.’ There were even some comic instances of target-driven performance cited, such as the fact towns were graded on the quality of life they offered, one of the criteria being a score for the dawn birdsong.

There’s plenty to pick at here, leading to the conclusion that in giving away much of their power, politicans had created a society based on social inequality, one where class and money are everything. As with The Power of Nightmares, whether you agree with its findings are entirely your choice. Its movie equivalent can be found in Morpheus’s red pill from The Matrix, or the revelatory chat Kevin Costner has with ‘X’ in JFK. Both scenes open their protagonist’s eyes to a wider world, fresh angles and previously unexplored perspectives. Much of what is discussed in The Trap is controversial, open to argument and challenges opinions. That last aspect is what makes it such a blast. Ultimately, Curtis’s aim isn’t to indoctrinate us to his way of thinking, but simply to make us think for ourselves. In a recent interview, he stated he wants his audience to ‘question the received wisdom they are told by governments and the media,’ to spot the weaknesses and flaws in official rhetoric. That, he maintains, is ‘proper public service broadcasting,’ and on those terms, The Trap is a programme of the highest quality.

Visit The Trap’s homepage at bbc.co.uk.

Posted on 20th March 2007
Under: Telly | 2 Comments »

A long time ago, in the underground realm…

For my next blog, I really had something else in mind. There’s a half-written article about Oliver Stone’s Nixon in my Drafts folder that was developing into a political rant before I stopped typing. Yesterday, in Woolworth I picked up Shakespeare in Love for a scandalously cheap two pounds. Watching it last night, I realised what a witty and clever film it is. Whether it deserved such success at the Oscars is another matter, and that led me to thinking about a series of pieces on the worth of Academy Award winners in general. There’s plenty more Hitchcock to uncover, and I intend another ‘Ghibli of the Week’ blog at some point, ‘week’ being a very loose term in my household.

Pan's LabyrinthHowever, having driven mine wife to work this morning, I popped into that massive Asda near the City of Manchester Stadium and, as usual, checked out their DVD racks. It’s difficult to fault supermarkets on their prices - I saw so much good stuff on offer that I could have become ‘fifty pound man’ for the day without ever scratching beyond the surface of the titles I fancied. It was to the charts that I finally made my purchase. Currently, there are some very good discs at full price, The Departed and The Prestige being two that I will definitely have to fork out for at some point. But the one I eventually lashed out my £11.84 on was Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy that combines the cruel reality of the Spanish Civil War with fairy tales.

Though anyone with even a passing interest about last year’s best films should have bought this already, or are waiting cannily for the price to drop, here’s a quick glance at the plot. Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in 1944, as the fascist regime in Spain is eradicating the last remnants of national resistance. 12-year old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is travelling with her heavily pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to a house in the country, where they are going to live with her new stepfather. It just so happens that the new man in her life is the captain of a Falangist army unit, who soon turns out to be ruthless in his pursuit of freedom fighters who are hiding in the mountains. Ofelia comes across servants who are quietly betraying him, passing goods and information to the rebels. In the meantime, she comes across Pan, a faun living in the centre of an ancient labyrinth near the house. To Ofelia’s surprise, she is informed that she is, in fact, a princess from the underground realm, and that she needs to complete three tasks in order to return home. Soon enough, her existence is spent half within the captain’s sadistic grasp, and otherwise in a fairytale world, where her adventures lead her into escalating danger, traps and frightful characters…

There’s so much that could have gone wrong with this project. Before seeing it, I had in mind a Terry Gilliam type affair, in which the moments of fantasy are frequently made irritating with off the wall characters and indulgent explorations of insanity. Refreshingly, Pan’s is nothing of the sort. In being told from the perspective of fairy tale fan, Ofelia, it is able to weave in its fantastical elements steadily and quite matter of factly. Things start promisingly as the girl meets an insect that she believes to be a fairy, and it isn’t long before she is led to Pan himself. Pan, ‘faun’ in Spanish, is a fantastically realised creation. Put James McAvoy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe out of your mind. Here, the faun is altogether otherworldly, an enormous, deep-voiced concoction of animal and humanoid. You’ve never seen its like. When Pan speaks, claiming ‘I’ve had so many names. Old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce. I am the mountain, the forest and the earth,’ its rich tones and bizarre appearance seem absolutely credible. And Pan is only the first fairy tale creature that Ofelia’s path crosses. On her way, she’ll face a giant toad, the screeching root of a mandrake, and a hideous monster that keeps its eyes in the palms of its hands.

But the real monster is, of course, the captain, a malevolent figure who Ofelia refuses ever to address as ‘father.’ Power mad and an all-round villain, the captain kills with impunity, delights in his torture methods and, without a prick of conscience, tells the doctor to save the child should his new wife have complications when giving birth. It’s nothing new to have wicked stepfathers feature in fairy tales, yet the captain is nothing less than a brutal exercise in sadism. The film’s ‘15′ certificate is justified early, when he pistol whips a man into his nose-crushed early grave.

The majority of Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in the world of the real. As the captain aims both to destroy the rebels and uncover the traitors in his camp, Ofelia tends to her sick mother and befriends Mercedes (Marbiel Verdu), a servant who is in constant contact with the resistance. It’s little wonder Ofelia wishes to escape into a fantasy world. And so do we, as the dark fairy tale she plunges into is a superb combination of design and CGI. In his review of the movie, Clydefro applauds it for using computer graphics so imaginatively. No argument from this corner. I’ve seen more than my fair share of lazily constructed pictures that try to compensate for their substandard plots and loosely drawn characters with dazzling visuals. Here, you get the lot. Del Toro and his team have managed to create a world that almost smells like something old and earthy, so well conceived are the graphics and costumes. The latter are worn principally by Doug Jones, who plays both Pan and the ‘Pale Man’ (below). In either case, the creatures are alien and scary, punctuated by unnatural tics and strange noises.

The Pale ManClydefro goes on the argue that more of the fantasy side would have been nice, as this half of the story beats the one taking place in the real world for interest. I disagree, though the scenes involving Ofelia’s fairy tale left me wanting more as soon as they ended. What the movie depicts so well is an environment in which no one would want to live. One interpretation is that Ofelia invents her fantasy as a form of escape, though this is never made clear. She certainly wouldn’t be blamed, as she witnesses real horrors exhibited by her new father. The captain, played by Sergi Lopez, is simply nastiness in a smart uniform, the creak of well polished leather accompanying his every step. His actions threaten to engulf her entire existence in pain, particularly as he makes it very apparent that she is more tolerated than welcomed at the house, and that she will certainly play second fiddle to her baby brother.

A more oblique take on the film is that Ofelia is imagining the ‘world above’ from her princess’s throne, that she is sampling life as a mortal and quickly realises it’s not one she wants to keep. The ending is ambiguous enough to suggest either perspective could be right, with further viewings refusing to provide a definitive answer. The truth is that trying to unravel what’s real and made up in Pan’s Labyrinth is a little like being at the heart of a confusing, multi-faceted maze, which is exactly the intention. More important, I think, is to enjoy it, to immerse in one of cinema’s most luxuriant fantasy yarns of recent years. It really does look good, uses its special effects with intelligence and meaning, and in Ofelia creates a young heroine who is worth rooting for until the very end.

The DVD I watched (Region 2) is amongst the better sounding experiences I’ve had with 5.1 surround sound. Pan’s Labyrinth is intended to be an extremely sensory movie, with very clever use made of noise (particularly in the fairy tale realm). The wing beats, clicks and squeaks of the tiny fairies were everywhere. Pan itself made all manner of alien sounds, including a strange, clucking laugh that reverberated around the speakers just as it did the film’s cave, and check out the menacing ring of the captain’s switchblade.

NB Before watching it for the second time, some of the film’s more horrific moments seemed to have clouded from my mind, and I was considering showing it to The Boy, who’s 7. This would have been a big mistake. Pan’s Labyrinth may market its childish fantasy elements prominently, but it fully deserves a ‘15′ rating, mainly for including several stomach-churning scenes. Put it this way, I won’t be letting anyone shove a sharp knife into my mouth for a long time…

Posted on 16th March 2007
Under: Award Fodder, Recent Releases | No Comments »

A storm in 300’s teacup

My ticket’s already booked. Next Thursday, I’ll be at the IMAX in Manchester to catch Zack Snyder’s 300, surely the best possible way to see this explosion of a movie. I confess I’m desperate to find out what it’s like. Always a fan of big-scale pictures, there are various reasons why I’m getting excited about this one - I love Greek mythology, have nothing but time for tales about ancient Sparta, and considered Sin City to be an excellent and indulgent piece of work. On the latter point, 300 is of course based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, and if it’s anything like Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation, I’ll be in for a rich visual treat.

Ancient Persians really looked like this ladOn the downside, I think it would be wrong to go in there expecting anything close to a historical document. By all accounts, Miller took the events of the Battle of Thermopylae - based mainly on Herodotus’s account, which was no doubt subject to various instances of literary license and exaggeration - and twisted them into a macho, highly stylized yarn about extreme heroism. What he depicted bears almost no resemblance to what really happened. Though it sounds as though his version of the Spartan way of life - a horror show of gruelling training regimes and sadistic ritual passages, and that was just for the good ones! - is a little more accurate, the events at Thermopylae are nothing more than comic book fluff.

And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with taking liberties with things that happened nearly 2,500 years ago. The Spartan performance at Thermopylae is the stuff of legend, the sort of thing to be tossed over by the likes of Bettany Hughes in a tight-fitting t-shirt, strolling around the alleged site and declaring that everything she says is subject to the dubious testimony of the time. Ancient politics, the reasons for King Xerxes driving a vast army through Greece, have little meaning for today’s audiences, and there would appear to be no point for concern over the extreme license that makers of the film have taken with the story.

Or so I thought. It turns out that 300 is nothing less than a devious piece of propaganda, designed to turn western audiences psychologically against Iran (the modern day centre of the Persian empire) at a time when relations with America are at their most tense.

‘Such a fabrication of culture and insult to people is not acceptable by any nation or government,” a spokesman for the Iranian government said. ‘[Iran] considers it as hostile behaviour which is the result of cultural and psychological warfare.’

Added to this are the comments of Iranian newspaper, Ayandehno, who had it that ‘In the film Iranians are considered to be monsters devoid of any culture, humanity and wisdom who know nothing except attacking other lands, threatening peace and killing human beings. There is no option other than to confront, fight and destroy this wicked tribe so that the world can be saved from this axis of evil.’

All this is news to me. Granted, I haven’t even seen the film yet, but I didn’t have to scrape my knuckles off the ground too long to realise that it would be very difficult to make any viewers watch a ‘recreation’ of events from 480BC and spot an obvious allegory to current politics. Even before looking at any possible correlation between ancient Persia and modern Iran, there’s the sure fact that though those Spartan warriors might look buff, no one in their right mind would wish to undergo a life verging on masochistic, which is exactly how the city state treated its citizens.

But this is paying the movie too much respect. Its connection with history is loose indeed, and I’m sure the makers had little more planned for their audiences than a collective dropping of jaws at the visuals, which from the trailers look absolutely magnificent. Sin City was cack in terms of its exploration of the human condition. It was all style, with no emotional substance to speak of, and that’s exactly what I’m expecting from 300. Seeing it as any more than this is to do both it, and the people who’ll pay to see it, a great disservice. I imagine that even the most headbanging hardline conservative won’t be persuaded that Iran is evil after a showing of 300. The connection simply isn’t there to be made, and claiming anything to the contrary sounds a bit like a well known cliche that relates mountains and molehills.

Apparently, this isn’t the first time that Hollywood has got itself in hot water with the Muslim world. A fair hoo-ha was sparked by Oliver Stone’s Alexander, in which ‘the Great’ has the temerity to conquer ancient Parthia, just to annoy modern Middle Eastern audiences. And then there was the stink threatened over Kingdom of Heaven, before people watched the thing and realised the bad guys were the Knights Templar, and not Saracen leader, Saladin, who was portrayed as wise and just.

Don’t get me wrong here. It isn’t my intention to belittle anyone for their views, but please, let’s get some perspective. There are better causes than a slice of cinematic hokum, which by all accounts takes its source material from the realm of fantasy long before it pays any attention to the events of antiquity.

In the meantime, my plan is to watch it (my first IMAX experience - how exciting is that!) and then share my thoughts here. Watch out for the review next Thursday!

Posted on 15th March 2007
Under: General Blah | No Comments »

Carry Yawn Cleo

Regular readers of the site will have spotted my review of the Rome Season One boxset from last week - a shame more of you didn’t comment, but , er, Rome wasn’t built in a day (groan). Currently, I’m keeping tabs on Season Two, presumably before it is chopped up and mangled for BBC audiences later in the year. I love this sort of stuff, I confess, and Rome pretty much has the lot - detail, lashings of plot, and a surfeit of sex/violence/swearing that has guaranteed it an ‘18′ certificate and the blushes of viewers everywhere. The second - and final - series looks likely to culminate in the decisive tussle between Octavian Caesar and Mark Antony for hegemony in the failing years of the Republic. Those who possess even a nodding acquaintance with ancient history should be aware of how it turns out, if not from general knowledge, then perhaps from watching the likes of Cleopatra, Joseph L Mankiewicz’s sprawling, four-hour epic and one of Hollywood’s most notorious productions.

Cleopatra coverMy copy has been gathering dust for a couple of years. A magnificent, three-disc special edition, I lavished a tenner on it, and have since noticed it on sale for even less. Is it worth the outlay? Certainly, it’s impossible to watch the movie now and not compare it to Rome. This is inherently unfair. Certified ‘PG,’ there’s just no way it can accurately recreate the debauchery, depravity and degradations depicted so memorably in HBO’s superb affair. Additionally, Cleopatra is over 40 years old, and it must be considered that contemporary, working class audiences would have been dazzled by the sheer spectacle of it just as a CGI-friendly 21st century viewer might demand more.

Then again, if the film is a masterpiece, then it’s definitely of the ‘flawed’ variety. It has gained some degree of infamy for reasons that have little to do with the finished product. There was the unholy mess that was its production. Going vastly over budget (it cost $44m, which when adjusted puts it beyond even the likes of Titanic and Waterworld), and suffering all sorts of disasters, it was a wonder the movie got made at all. Everything that could have gone wrong did exactly that, and by the time it was eventually completed, Mankiewicz was foiled in his attempt to release it in two three-hour chunks. The result was an edit that reduced it to half its intended length for theatre audiences, a version that was disjointed and difficult to follow. This edition has had an hour’s footage restored, but somewhere in a vault the lost 120 minutes or so that would complete it are waiting to be rediscovered. Some much-needed positive publicity came with the on-set romance of its stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. After everything that had gone wrong, the producers no doubt jumped on this sensational spin, and the public duly lapped it up. For a time, Burton and Taylor were the world’s most famous couple, an impossibly glamorous pairing that was on a par with the hype surrounding current celebrity ‘royalty’ of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Indeed, I can’t help thinking that rumours of the pair’s chemistry on the set of the decidedly average Mr and Mrs Smith handed it more exposure than it warranted.

And ‘average’is indeed the word where the subject of this beautifully presented set is concerned. Like the talking points surrounding the movie upon its original release, the things that are good about it have little to do with the quality of the material. It’s not that Cleo is a bad film exactly, but it’s far from the best. Even within the epic genre (one it did a lot to kill off), there are more worthwhile pictures, near forgotten classics that deserve the restoration treatment. Personally, I’d happily pay to see a similar job done on The Fall of the Roman Empire, a project that remains distant and unlikely. The reality is that Cleopatra is a bit of a dog’s dinner. It’s given the five-star treatment here, but it isn’t a five-star movie.

The story starts on the battlefield of Phillippi. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has emerged victorious against Pompey, handing the former power that is virtually dictatorial, whilst his eminent opponent flees to Egypt. Caesar follows. Along with finding Pompey dead, he argues that the succession issue in Alexandria (practically a Roman vassal, is is supposed to be ruled jointly between Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), but the situation has escalated into an internal conflict for sole control) could be resolved at the same time. Caesar is as good as his word. After a short battle, he ends the squabbling, places Cleopatra singly on the throne and, for good measure, marries her. The trouble is he’s so captivated with his ravishing new bride that he spends too long in Egypt. Back in Rome, concerns are growing amongst those who feel he has too much power and is fashioning himself into a king. Though his deputy, Mark Antony (Richard Burton) sees things differently, and carries some clout, the might Caesar has within the Roman world - along with his taking of a ‘foreign’ wife - is getting to be too much for the hard-headed Republicans, led by the orator Cicero (Michael Hordern) and Brutus (Kenneth Haigh).

Sure enough, Caesar is summarily offed on the Ides of March, falling ironically at the feet of Pompey’s statue in the Senate. Cleopatra, quite literally left holding the baby (their child, Caesarion, a symbol of her ambitions to one day ascend to the pinnacle of Rome) is again in a precarious position, but takes up with Antony, who like his mentor is bewitched. However, your man has problems of his own. Another power struggle has erupted in Rome, as the spoils of Caesar’s legacy are scrapped over by Antony and his main rival, Octavian (Roddy McDowall). Cleopatra sees this as her opportunity to renew Caesarion’s claims, and backs her man in an all-or-nothing scrap for hegemony…

Richard Burton as Mark AntonyHistory lesson over, and on the whole Cleopatra follows the main swing of the Roman Republic’s final days closer than most. Not only does it cover the main events, it also nails the characters of its major protagonists. You can see why Caesar commands the level of authority he does - shrewd and charismatic, he’s one of those rare historical instances of someone deserving the ‘Superman’ epiphets lavished on him. Capable of doing more in a day than you or I might manage in a month, and allowing for bouts of epilepsy, he’s the right man in the right place at the wrong time (though only just). Too brilliant to be held in check by the trappings of a Republican government, his enemies have to go so far as to murder him in cold blood in order to take him out of the picture. Antony, on the other hand, is a fine military commander but a drunken boor of a man. Bereft of Caesar’s subtle touch, it’s obvious he’s no intellectual match for Cleo. Once he’s under her spell, it’s more or less the end for him. As for the other main Roman, Octavian, McDowall plays him to near perfection. Slight, bookish, and without Antony’s massive presence, the man who would become the first Roman Emperor is no warrior. One scene finds him taunted by Antony and left to fester in his tent while the fighting rages on outside. However, Caesar knew what he was doing when he adopted Octavian. His battlefield is the Senate, and he possesses all the guile and political cunning to turn it against Antony. By the time he’s finished speaking, his opponent is public enemy number one. Once, the pair carved up the empire between them as equal partners. Now, not only does Octavian have the political machine under his belt, but he’s turned his personal crusade into that of Rome.

Watching McDowall in Cleopatra is a joy. In the early stages, he’s a bit-part player, under Caesar’s wing and seemingly without a hope of rising much further. It’s only when his adopted father is killed that he takes on a more central role. And yet it’s another minor character in the grand sweep of affairs whom the film elevates into the focus of the entire narrative. By all acounts, Cleopatra was very much a shrewd player, yet her corner was limited and Egypt was carried along with the rest of the Empire as Rome underwent its own transformation. In the movie, she’s far from a political pawn; indeed, her beauty is enough to reduce great men like Caesar and Antony to lapdogs, though you suspect the former has the measure of her. According to those historian spoilsports, the Egyptian queen was by no means a siren, yet Taylor, not plain by anyone’s definition, plays her as the image of almost supernatural loveliness, adding charm to her mystery, and surrounding her with the trappings of opulence and gaudy luxury. It’s in this that the film begins to fail as an historical epic. Fair enough, such movies never painted themselves as slavish records of factual events, but it does undermine the ring of truth that surrounds so much of it.

Cleopatra takes place during one of the most disturbing periods in antiquity, one punctuated by war and strife. A number of spectacular conflicts changed the course of western history decisively, making for a movie rich in battle, involving the de rigeur thousands of extras. However, with the focus on Taylor, we don’t get to see a lot of action. What we have instead is talking. A lot of talking. All the time. I’m no hater of movie dialogue, but for it to work, it has to have some substance, and more importantly be well written. Unfortunately, it rarely sparkles here. Few signs of the vaunted chemistry that was supposed to have lit up the stage between Burton and Taylor exist when they’re churning out line after yawning line of hackneyed words, words that are intended to be worthy of Homer and instead just drag. Caesar and Cleopatra’s initial flirtation, leading to full-blown romance, feels as though it’s played in real time, with scenes lasting far too long and the conversation going precisely nowhere. It’s as if Mankiewicz was so much in love with filming his actors, dressed beautifully amidst superb sets, that he didn’t known when to say cut. Because of this, Cleo is a bore. What makes it worse is that whenever McDowall is on the screen, particularly when he’s exploding at the Senate, you get glimpses of the film at its best. Here’s a master actor barking out lines that deserve to be barked. It happens too infrequently to have any lasting effect.

Mankiewicz seemed to have felt there was little point portraying battles when there were more intimate scenes between his characters to insert. The result is interminable build-ups to conflict, with the actual action taking up little screen time, which is a shame. Epics were called epics for a reason, one of these being the spectacular set pieces that called on armies of people dressed in contemporary costumes going at each other as the trumpets on the score shift into overdrive. These were scenes that reeked of money, the kind of thing that demanded the likes of Cinemascope technology just to fit in all those wide shots of expensive battles raging across the width of the screen. There isn’t much of that here. When they do occur, they’re dealt with quickly, presumably so they can move on to another lengthy moment involving yet more banter. This is never so much a letdown as during the climactic conflict at Actium. Antony and Octavian have been heading towards this moment since Caesar’s demise, but it’s resolved in minutes, the whole thing turning on the former’s critical error as though that was all it really amounted to. Whilst watching Cleopatra, I longed for a good fight, something to dilute the endless babble. I didn’t get it.

Perhaps there was a good reason for all this. When that year’s Oscars were doled out, Cleopatra was a clear winner in the design categories, and it’s not hard to see why. The costumes are exceptional, especially the variety of dresses, ceremonial get-ups and sometimes not much at all that adorns Taylor. Not only does the camera love her, she also happens to appear in some lovely outfits, reflecting the ornate richness of Hellenic Egypt. The effect is stunning. All this is matched by some stupendous sets, never better than in the harbour of Alexandria. You can almost see where the millions went when you look at the design work and graft that’s gone into it, the effort at creating something that really does look authentic. Aesthetically, Cleopatra is a thing of beauty. This is never better demonstrated than in the Queen’s entry into Rome, a parade that lasts several minutes and inclues the appearance of dancers, slaves, masked demons, smoke, thousands of pigeons and a 30-foot high Sphinx that’s pulled by an army of slaves. It’s hard not to get the impression that the film is in love with itself, vainly roaming over the incredible sets, building and clothes in hopeless, self-reflective adoration. The script is the unfortunate loser. Apparently, Mankiewicz set to rewriting the entire screenplay once he was on board the project, redrafting constantly and often producing pages of work whilst on the set itself.

Knowing that two hours of footage were lost, it’s staggering to think of what Cleopatra might have been. The length on display is more than enough, and in the meantime certain other elements seem to have been cut unfairly short. This is certainly the case with Martin Landau, who plays Ruffio, right-hand man to Caesar and later Antony, and appears to have lost an entire character arc. Scenes involving his dealings with Cleopatra have been truncated so we never get to see his dynamic in these instances, whilst the cause of his death is excised altogether. The result is that Ruffio has little to do except stand around following orders, whereas there are suggestions in portions of his screen time that a much more interesting and detailed character lurks underneath.

Elizabeth Taylor dressed as a birdSo what went wrong with Cleopatra? One way to find out is by watching Cleopatra: the Film that changed Hollywood, a two-hour documentary on disc three of the set that achieves the rare feat of being better than the movie it’s talking about. A Fox production, the documentary doesn’t go too far in criticising people, but it’s still a marvellous piece of work, as close as possible to being an honest account of the nightmare that summed up the film’s production. According to it, Cleopatra started as an exercise in churning out a moneyspinner, a cheaply made picture that would plough some millions back into the ailing studio’s coffers. How it went from that to the world’s most expensive film makes for excellent viewing. A mixture of wrong decisions, bad luck and Elizabeth Taylor, the production lurched from one crisis to the next.

Once Fox agreed to finance the film, Taylor was recruited for the title role. Legend has it that after screentesting Joan Collins, the studio contacted Taylor, then one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Joking, she replied ‘Sure, tell him I’ll do it for a million dollars.’ To her surprise, Fox had a contract drawn up, which was enough to generate some good advance publicity. It was a world record fee, but would to lead a string of unfortunate circumstances. Taylor suffered frequent bouts of illness, effectively halting work as her presence was required for most scenes. Taking enormous amounts of time off the project, the remaining cast and crew had little to do, which eventually saw off prominent members of the original team. Director Rouben Mamoulian resigned, citing work pressure and frustration. Also exiting were Peter Finch, recruited for the part of Caesar, and Stephen Boyd, who was to follow his role in Ben-Hur by playing Antony.

Another major headache was the choice of location. The Rome Olympics got in the way of the crew being accommodated in Italy, so they opted for the massive Pinewood Studios. Having built all the sets, and importing fresh Egyptian trees on a near-daily basis, bad weather put paid to any worthwhile filming, with fog and almost constant rain showers making Britain a predictably poor substitute for Alexandria. Eventually, and at risk of the entire production being shut down, the crew was able to de-camp to Cinecitta Studios (the location, incidentally, for the current Rome series), and with Mankiewicz in place, filming could finally begin. The film was haemorraghing money already, but things went from bad to worse. Actors’ problems, industrial disputes, set worries and constant pressure from Fox led to more cash outlays, not to mention 24-hour working days for Mankiewicz, who resorted to a diet of injections in order to keep himself going.

All this and more is uncovered in painful detail by the documentary. Cleopatra was the subject of so much investment that it was impossible to stop proceedings after a certain time. Bad luck dogged it even after its release, when a clerical error by the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stopped McDowall from being nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, an award he stood a very good chance of winning. Ultimately, what the programme depicts is the making of a folly, a fool’s errand. There was little chance of Cleopatra making a profit, certainly in the short term, and the press gleefully depicted it as an unmitigated flop. It wasn’t, but it took Fox several years to break even on the movie, and it was thanks to other releases that the studio survived.

What makes all this so laughable is that the story of how the film was made is infinitely more interesting than the movie itself. Like Hearts of Darkness, the account of the madness that lay behind Apocalypse Now’s production, this documentary is almost required viewing, and any film maker could do worse than catch this lesson on how NOT to do it before embarking on an new project. Sadly, Cleopatra doesn’t compare with Francis Ford Coppola’s labour of love. It’s not a disaster, rather miraculously given the circumstances, but for the money and sheer human effort that went into it, the end product should have been far superior to the expensive bauble that was released in 1963.

Posted on 13th March 2007
Under: Classics, Epics | No Comments »

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