Archive for December, 2007

‘Let’s hope this Box is big enough for the both of us’

After a largely run of the mill Series Two, what could the third outing of Doctor Who bring us? Yes, it’s that time again - Christmas, and another boxset of the latest season featuring everyone’s favourite inter-planetary, inter-fourth dimensional adventurer. With Billie Piper gone, and past her sell-by date if you ask me, we had Freema Agyeman’s Martha Jones entering as the Doctor’s new companion. David Tennant went into his second series, now tightly associated with the title character and by all accounts a hit with the viewing public at large. Perhaps less so with the hardcore fans, the so-called Whovians, who not only saw his take on the Doctor as overtly hammy and with a tendency to gurn through his scenes, but also questioned the direction of the show itself. Head writer and driving force, Russell T Davies, might have done much for the cause of television, but was he the right man for Who?

DVD boxset coverCertainly, of all the show’s writers Davies would appear to be the one who’s most self-conscious that he is working for a slice of early evening family entertainment. As such, his scripts can often be accused of dumbing down the Doctor, and of inserting him into tales derivative of other staples. For instance, it seems clear that Davies wrote the most recent Christmas special, ‘Voyage of the Damned,’ with the express intention of recreating one of those overblown disaster movies i.e. Doctor Who meets The Poseidon Adventure. Davies also consumes himself most fully with exploring the series’ emotional themes. It’s in his stories that we learn the most about the Doctor’s background, how he relates himself to his companions and the ways in which he deals with the loneliness of being the last of the Timelords. Further to this are endless pop culture references, suggesting as ever that Davies has been inspired most of all by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nothing wrong with any of this, of course, though it does leave the other writers to produce tighter stories that are simply more entertaining and better fun. For sure, when Steven Moffatt or Paul Cornell appear on the credits, you know you’re in for a treat, and so it proves here, with both writers turning out intelligent and thrilling scripts that produce two of the very best Who yarns I have seen in a long while.

As usual, the boxset is a lavish affair, stuffed with extras and the rather gorgeous menus that now come as standard. It includes the entire run of ‘Doctor Who Confidential’ that accompanied the series, for the most part an unnecessary distraction - do we really need all those clips montages from episodes we have only just finishing watching? - that occasionally hits the mark. The episode directed by David Tennant is a highlight, and generally ‘Mr Who’ comes across as an engaging, affable bloke, not above laughing at himself or what he’s doing. His video diaries are signs of someone who isn’t taking any of this too seriously, and as a consequence are frequently a hoot. The set also features last year’s Christmas special, meaning we get fourteen episodes in total. Following is a brief summary of them all.

Rarely have I seen a bigger difference of opinion between Whovians and regular viewers than with the specials, screened at prime time on Christmas Day and by some distance the most hyped BBC programme of the holiday period. Always written by Davies and longer than regular episodes, the former group hates them with a passion, yet the viewing figures suggest they’re here to stay. Christmas 2006 brought us The Runaway Bride, starring Catherine Tate as the eponymous about-to-be-wed, Donna Noble, who mysteriously appears in the Tardis. The Doctor’s irritated instantly with her barking voice, apparent lack of intelligence and, well, the fact that the woman who introduced ‘Am I bovvered?’ to the world is within one hundred metres of his ship. The opening acts are about how he tries to get her back to the church on time, before exploring the reasons behind what happened and why her character is being pursued by robot Santas (who also featured in the 2005 special). It’s with a second viewing that I stopped worrying and learned to love the almost non-stop romp that follows. The very sight of the Doctor, at the door of his Tardis that is flying just above a motorway and keeping up with a taxi, imploring Donna to jump from the car to him as kids in the back of another vehicle shout words of encouragement, is a sure sign of this episode’s sense of fun and intention to entertain. Tate gets less annoying as things progress, though I hope her character’s shouty excesses are toned down when she joins the show as the official new companion in Series Four. The story’s baddie, a woman’s head and torso on the body of a spider called the Empress of Racnoss makes for an agreeable ‘PG’ villain; her web-themed vessel is really well designed also. It all gets a bit messier when the Doctor deals with her, the show suddenly losing its sense of humour to peer into his alleged dark side (basically Tennant stood in the rain and looking a bit grim). What follows is a long and tiresome conversation between Donna and the Timelord, Tate apparently dropping her dumb veneer to ‘get him’ and urge him to find a new lady. We find out that the Tardis can manipulate the weather to produce Yuletide snow, at the flick of a switch (huh?), and in a final broadside that Donna would prefer to stay with her unlovely family rather than travel with the Doctor, by which point the viewers were presumably crossing their fingers that this was her first and last appearance in his world. No such luck. 5/10

Alias Smith and JonesSmith and Jones is set up in such a way to introduce new sidekick, Martha Jones, to the series. A trainee doctor herself, Martha spends her time alternating between learning her trade and chatting on the phone to what appears to be a demanding family (who thankfully aren’t nearly as bad as Rose’s nearest and dearest). The Doctor turns up in Martha’s hospital, ostensibly called there by ’signs’ that turn out to be the entire building transplanting to the moon’s surface, all in time for the Judoon (walking aliens with the heads of rhinos) to investigate its inhabitants and catch a villain. But the plot is little more than a device. What we’re here for is to see who Martha is, and how she goes from leading her inconsequential life to being in the Tardis. Freema Agyeman shows signs of being a brighter companion than Billie Piper’s apparent ‘everygirl’ ever was, and there’s a handsome turn from Roy ‘Adam Dalgleish’ Marsden as the senior consultant. As is the template with Doctor Who opening episodes, this one is decidedly unmemorable. Viewers here for the second time will note the ‘Vote Saxon’ posters already appearing on the walls of London. 5/10

Things improve considerably in The Shakespeare Code, written by Gareth Roberts, who has gone on to pen much of ‘The Sarah-Jane Adventures.’ The Doctor wants to show Martha just what his machine can do, and whisks her off to England in 1599. There they meet none other than William Shakespeare (Dean Lennox Kelly), fresh from the success of ‘Love’s Labours Lost’ and about to follow it with the sequel, ‘Love’s Labours Won.’ Love’s Labours Won? It transpires that Shakey is being manipulated by a coven of ‘witches’ into ending his script with co-ordinates that, when read out loud, will open a rift in time and space and allow their fellows to pour into the world. The witches are led by Lilith (Cassandra Cole), easy on the eye and utterly deadly. Though alien, she uses devices employed by classical witches (effigies, broomsticks, etc) and no doubt inspires the Bard into including them in Macbeth. Elsewhere, the story plays delightfully with fuelling Shakespeare’s future plays, the Doctor feeding him lines from his own yet to be written works (’You can have that one’), whilst Martha serves as the subject for one of his most famous sonnets. Some time is spent on expanding the new companion’s unrequited affection for her partner, yet Shakespeare is an altogether superbly written character, genius enough to see the Doctor more or less exactly for what he is from the start. Sixteenth century England looks fabulous, thanks to some excellent CGI work and set design, and there’s an intriguing cameo from Queen Elizabeth I that hints at a massive, yet unexplored back story. It’s moments like these that show there’s more to the Doctor than we viewers get to see in our limited, 13-episode peeks into his adventures. 8/10

Russell T Davies is back on board for Gridlock, and it shows. The premise plays with the average viewer’s aggravation over motorway congestion by being set in a highway of the future, an endless trip that takes literally years to complete… that is, if anyone ever gets to the end. Of course, there’s more going on than meets the eye, and Martha gets to see this for herself when she’s kidnapped and joins the fast lane, which in reality is a death-defying ride amidst the snapping claws of Macra occupying the planet’s surface. The Doctor sets off in pursuit, and in a nicely winning scene leaps from car to car as he tries to get closer to the lower levels. Unfortunately, he also comes into contact with Brannigan, a man-sized cat (yes, really) played by Ardal O’Hanlon. The Face of Boe is in the mix at certain points to lend the episode a degree of profundity, though in general it’s all a bit silly and from the looks of things does nothing but reveal to the Doctor that he is not alone. Forgettable. 4/10

This is what happens when you cross Daleks with New YorkersThe double-header, Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks is not without entertainment value. We’re in Depression-era New York, our eponymous baddies co-ordinating the finishing touches to the Empire State Building. ‘Noo Yoik’ certainly looks impressive enough, especially when viewed from the building’s top floor, and the Daleks’ plan has shades of the old Universal ‘Frankenstein’ movies about it. But it’s all a bit of a mess, starting with the spectacularly rubbish pig slaves, people who for reasons best known to them have been tinkered with by the Daleks to have pig heads and serve them. As for the Exterminators themselves, there might only be four of them but you would think they’d be more than a match for just about anyone, so why hide themselves away in the bowels of Manhattan? The scheme turns out to be a rather unlikely effort to ‘evolve’ the species by fusing them with humans, Dalek Sec emerging as a pinstripe-suit wearing cyclops who, worryingly for his fellow Daleks, begins to develop emotionally. Though there’s something pleasingly schlocky about all this, it never really works. Why do the Daleks plan towards Sec’s transformation, only to turn on him once he has changed? Why does Laszlo become only half a pig slave - is it just to make him recognisable to his lady friend, Tallulah (Miranda Raison)? What’s the point in setting the action in New York, when the majority of the actors are British, cue some fairly dodgy American accents? Why does the best character, Solomon (Hugh Quarshie) get killed off early? Most of all, how does the Doctor (who demands death from the Daleks more than once) manage to survive? It’s extremely daft, easily the low point of the series, and would appear to have been created as an attempt to curry favour with Stateside audiences. 4/10

Three mundane episodes, which only picks up a little with The Lazarus Experiment. I admit I enjoyed the Hammer feel to it all, the story of an inventor (Mark Gatiss) who makes himself young again, but with terrible unforseen consequences. Gatiss adds an instant touch of class, giving his character more depth than you might expect from a pulp baddie. I also liked the cameo from Thelma Barlow, playing the icy Lady Thaw. But the show demonstrates a decisive weakness with its special effects. CGI might look great when used to recreate locations and inanimate objects, but the monstrous Lazarus resembles nothing more than a piece of computer engineering, an obvious effect rather than a scary villain. When the creature takes over, it reminded me of some of the naff, CGI-heavy movies churned out earlier in the decade - ‘Van Helsing,’ ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,’ and most of all ‘The Mummy Returns.’ Lazarus could have doubled for the Scorpion King. As Doctor Who would demonstrate later in the series, the best monsters don’t need to rely on millions of pounds’ worth of effects to hit their target. 5/10

42 is much better, a distant relation of Season Two’s superior ‘The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit’ and, just like those episodes owing a debt to ‘Event Horizon’ with its baddies offing crew members, uttering the damning words, ‘Burn with me.’ The story concerns a spaceship that mines stars for certain minerals, but something has gone wrong and it is now falling into the sun from which it made its latest extraction. The Doctor and Martha turn up just as the crew have 42 minutes to save themselves, which means the action takes place in real time. The tension rises almost by itself, with people running around in ever deepening shades of orange as the sun’s surface looms. While the Doctor tries to figure out what’s happened, we get to meet the crew, led by Michelle Collins who almost does Bruce Willis levels of service to looking good in a soiled vest. Here, the situation becomes ever more impossible, the odds against survival lengthening with each passing minute. The best bit is where Martha and another crew member are jettisoned in an escape pod, which begins drifting towards the sun. The Doctor, still on the ship, is staring at them from a hatch window. He’s mouthing ‘I’ll save you!’ but they can’t hear him, the near silence of the moment punctuated perfectly and so suspenseful. What makes this episode work so well is its lack of reliance on gadgets. The Tardis is cut off from the Doctor, sealed in a room that has heated to unreachable levels. Nor is there too much use of the sonic screwdriver, our hero having to rely on his brains and bravery, and more than once appearing fallible. The familiar pop culture references are present and correct, but don’t cut into the main plot too deeply, and I didn’t see any connection between the title of this episode and an obvious nod to ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy,’ beyond the homage represented in its title. 8/10

'Are you the doctor?'Any impact made by ‘42′ was lost following the transmission of Human Nature and The Family of Blood, which genuinely takes Doctor Who to new heights and, along with ‘Blink,’ are why it’s worth owning the set. Putting to one side for a moment the reasons for him doing so, the Doctor turns himself into a human being. He’s now John Smith, a teacher living in England in 1913. Though he suffers strange dreams in which he’s some sort of adventurer, Smith for the most part enjoys his quiet life. He falls in love with the school nurse, Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes - brilliant), and endures a chaotic relationship with his ‘over familiar’ servant, Martha, which tests his patience. Given the double episode time to do so, writer Paul Cornell allows us to explore Smith’s world in detail, following his middle class life and relishing the opportunity to see what the Doctor would be like as an ordinary man. Peril awaits. The Doctor is being pursued by the Family of Blood, who need his energy to extend their lives, and when they occupy the bodies of other people, they start to close in. They’re aided by an army of animated scarecrows, using the familiar device of taking everyday objects and turning them into something sinister. Part of Smith’s job is to teach his students how to prepare for war, which of course will come in the following year. There’s something tragic about the young men going through their paces of practicing with machine guns, the Head Master’s insistence that he has fought in wars previously, leading to stories of firing on primitives that bear no resemblance to the oncoming Great War. One of the students, Tim Latimer (Thomas Sangster) has a gift of premonition, and begins to learn Smith’s secret once he has stolen the teacher’s fob watch, which also carries his Timelord identity. This really is wonderful television. Leaving the main story aside, the references to life in 1913 are neatly observed. Look out for the way Martha, a young black woman, is treated, or the fact that lower class servants have to sit outside the pub when having a drink. The story’s ‘money shot’ comes just before Smith has to revert back to being the Doctor. Resisting and tearful, he wants to remain as Smith and marry Joan, though he realises this is an impossibility. As a parting gift, the watch shows him in a series of vignettes what sort of life he would have if he got his own way, giving us the sight of the Doctor having children, growing old, clearly in love. It’s a beautiful moment within a pair of episodes that never fails to get it right, more so because it requires Tennant to act. 9.5/10

And yet somehow, Season Three gets even better. Blink was no doubt intended to be a filler, a chance for the cast and crew to catch their breaths before heading into the series finale. By happy coincidence, the writing duties were handed over to Steven Moffat, responsible for the best episode in the previous series (’The Girl in the Fireplace’) and due to hit Saturday night again in the shape of ‘Jekyll.’ The result here is an episode that is perfectly taut, ever creepy and sometimes terrifying, and one that produces its plot twists and revelations in sublimely timed peelings. The Doctor barely appears, doing little more than talking to the main character via a DVD easter egg, and though much has been made of the better stories often being those with less Doctorage, it’s certainly the case that Blink is all the more fun for focusing on other characters. Here, we meet Sally Sparrow, who’s investigating an old house and comes across a mysterious message. Gradually, she learns about the weeping angels, statues that are in fact aliens who cannot look at each other or they’ll turn to stone. They’ve already netted the Doctor, ‘killing him’ by taking the rest of his life and sending him and Martha spiralling back to 1969. From there, he communicates with Sally on DVD, outlining the principles of ‘wibbly wobbly, timey wimey’ that explains the set-up and gets her to send the Tardis back to him. The episode is called ‘Blink’ because you can’t take your eyes off the angels. Turn away, even blink, and they move with lightning speed towards you, and what look like benign statues are horrific monsters with sharp teeth and claws. Sally is played by Carey Mulligan, who invests her character with a wealth of emotion as she carries out her investigation. Finlay Robertson takes on the role of Larry, the DVD store owner who discovers the easter egg and finds himself embroiled in the mystery. He’s excellent. The scene where he’s confronted with an angel remains a series high point. Scared and unable to blink, his face conveys all the terror the moment deserves. Blink is the best episode on the set. Along with ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ and ‘City of Death,’ it is one of my favourite all-time Doctor Who stories, and fantastic television in its own right, a perfect use of prime time entertainment. 10/10

The final three episodes in the series form one over-arching story, but Utopia, due to its setting, should be considered separately. We find the Doctor and Martha in Cardiff, refuelling the Tardis (don’t ask) before jetting off for further antics. Just as they’re about to leave, who should come hurtling towards the police box but Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman)? The Doctor tries to go before he reaches them, but he manages to cling to the Tardis’s side as it hurls itself into the future… as far as it’s possible to go in the future, apparently. The trio find themselves at the end of the universe, humanity’s last remnants building a rocket that will supposedly lead them to Utopia, whilst outside their compound the ‘Futurekind’ lurk. The rocket is being constructed by Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi), but the old man’s having problems with the finishing touches, and the story becomes one of the Doctor trying to help him complete the job. But all of it is a smokescreen. Yana carries the same fob watch as John Smith did in 1913 England, which reveals to Martha that he must be a Timelord in disguise - but which one? And why is the Professor plagued by the sound of constant drums pounding in his head, which get louder whenever his distant memory is pricked by things the Doctor says and does? The ‘knock you over the head’ meaning of the name ‘Yana’ continues Russell T Davies’s obsession with wordplay when it comes to monikers.

This is very clearly a bridging episode. The Futurekind don’t get to do much besides chase the odd stray human and sneer at people. Captain Jack appears to be present by simple virtue of being Captain Jack - apart from one scene, his presence is irrelevant, giving Davies the opportunity to shoehorn in some innuendo-scattered lines. It all comes racing together in the last five minutes, though, when Yana learns who he really is and we get the set-up for the climactic two episodes. Hats off to Jacobi, by all accounts a big Doctor Who fan. He captures so well the metamorphosis in personality his character undergoes, slipping fluidly from the kindly, ageing Professor into his sinister new shoes. The appearance on the soundtrack of ancient soundbites from Roger Delgado are also welcome. 6/10

The Master commands the sound of drumsLast, and potentially least according to the verdicts of some fans, we get the double-header epic that traditionally closes the new Doctor Who seasons - The Sound of Drums, and Last of the Timelords. These are always written by Davies, and seem to suck up half the show’s budget thanks to their expansive effects work. Last year, we had the sight of Cybermen and Daleks duking it out for the spoils of Earth. This time around, it’s the turn of the Master, who hatches a scheme to become Prime Minister of Britain whilst the Doctor is stranded at the end of time, and from there to turn the planet into a declaration of war against the universe. In a considerable casting coup, John Simm is on hand to play the Master, and what a glorious, scenery-chewing villain he is. Whether hamming it up with the American president, enjoying an episode of the Teletubbies, delivering pronouncements to the world or sparring verbally with the Doctor, he’s a brilliant exercise in unhinged nastiness. Simm seems to be enjoying himself in the role, making it hard to imagine this is the same bloke who, until very recently on our screens, was Sam Tyler. What really adds flesh to the bones are the things we don’t necessarily see, for example the bruises on his wife’s face that hint at levels of cruelty extending far beyond the limits of the episode.

The Master leaves the Doctor in the most impossible situation imaginable. Just as our heroes think they have him cornered, the Master turns the tables on them. Imprisoning Captain Jack and ageing the Doctor by one hundred years, only Martha has the opportunity to leave, and escapes back to Earth just in time to see the Toclafane - talking metal balls with a considerable bite - ravage London. One year passes. Martha’s family are now the Master’s servants on his airship base. The geriatric Doctor is kept, like an animal. The Master has reduced Earth to a slave planet. People build his missiles at the behest of the psychotic Toclafane. In the chilling opening to ‘Last of the Timelords,’ a supposedly alien broadcast advises that Earth has been closed and is in ‘terminal extinction.’

How the Doctor gets out of his predicament - at a later point, he is aged further to look 900 years old, a tiny ancient being that is held in a birdcage, and bizarrely resembles Dobby from the Harry Potter movies - is one of the most controversial aspects of the series. Reading many of the comments, it seems clear that the climax was perceived to be an enormous letdown, an illogical slice of extreme silliness that roped in elements of the Christ story, reminded me a little of ‘V for Vendetta’ and tried to say something profound about the power of the human spirit. Crazy it most definitely was, though I admit to being impressed with the sheer scale of the Doctor’s eventual triumph, and the fact that, no matter how long you tried to figure it out, what happened was a complete surprise. Not that Davies managing to smokescreen both the viewers and the Master detracts from its ultimate daftness. The conclusion was as far from the spirit of Doctor Who as it gets, which is the main problem. Oddly enough, I enjoyed it immensely, but I did so with my tongue wedged firmly in my cheek.

Elsewhere, we got scenes that mirrored flashbacks from ‘Return of the Jedi’ and ‘Flash Gordon,’ a hint that the Master might not be quite as dead as we think, and a revelation about Captain Jack that didn’t make a whole heap of sense, and wasn’t enough to justify his largely irrelevant presence in these episodes. Neither did the appearance of tracks by Voodoo Child and the Scissor Sisters add anything to the drama. On the plus side, Tennant played his aged self rather well, and Martha turned out to be a pretty good companion all told, far more than the mere Doctor’s foil that many become. Such a pity that she finished the series by leaving it (though she’s due to return in three episodes of the fourth season). Freema Agyeman can act, made her character credible and emotionally rich, and was given sufficient amounts to do. I can’t help but think the show will be less for replacing her with Catherine Tate. 6/10

He's got my voteIf Doctor Who is to have much of a future, certainly in terms of keeping its hardcore fanbase and viewers with an iota of intelligence happy, then it would seem that the best way forward would be for the producers to thank Russell T Davies for his input and his invaluable effort in reviving the show, and then send him packing. As each series to date has proved, the best stories are those written by other people. The likes of Moffat and Cornell appear to have a grasp of science fiction, sufficient respect for the mythology of Doctor Who, and most importantly the talent to fashion a fine, coherent and crucially logical episode that simply appears to be beyond Davies. But this won’t happen. Davies’s role in getting Doctor Who off the ground and his continued interest in the show suggest his involvement is far from over; indeed, it’s been intimated that his departure might very well coincide with the end of the franchise, so entwined are the writer and formula. David Tennant’s commitment to the stage in 2009 means that there won’t even be a series that year - Doctor Who’s very survival would seem to depend on the actor also. However great Tennant’s popularity (and I think he improved in the role during Season Three), in the past the producers would have found some reason to regenerate him for the sake of continuing the run of episodes. Therefore, are we to assume that no Tennant or Davies means no Doctor?

That said, the massive marketing campaign that accompanies a Doctor Who series, not to mention the endless amounts of tie-in merchandise (my son owns various action figures, books, posters, etc) tell a different story. The kids love their Doctor. We visited the recent exhibition at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry earlier in the year. The queues and sheer volume of children accompanying long-suffering parents give every impression that the Doctor will survive, no matter who makes the show or the actor filling his boots (or trainers, in Tennant’s case). And that’s just how it should be. The kids I have spoken to don’t care who is involved - they like the cool stories, the monsters, and the infinite possibilities that come with piloting a ship that can take you anywhere, at any time. As for older viewers, there’s the constant worry that Doctor Who is being left behind. Watch it just after an episode of ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ and in comparison it’s light and inconsequential; the plotholes become aching chasms, the lack of substance in a typical Davies episode turning into a real problem. Even more scary is the fact that the ‘pulp’ B-movie feel to ‘Voyage of the Damned’ and Davies’s writing credit on at least three episodes of Season Four suggest that changes aren’t going to happen in the near future, if at all.

Posted on 29th December 2007
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2007’s Biggest Disappointments

At some point, I would like to get around to talking about my favourite films of the last twelve months (I really must try and see Atonement first, which I reckon will be this year’s official ‘worthy’ movie). Until then, how about a look at the dreck, the flicks that made me sigh with disappointment about millions spent on so little return?

Naturally, articles like these focus on the latest instalment of Pirates of the Caribbean, but in all honesty I quite liked At World’s End. Maybe my underwhelming reaction to Dead Man’s Chest left me not expecting much, and therefore gave me the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised, but I found its humour to be good natured, and the return of Geoffrey Rush in the role of Barbossa turned out to be a real bonus. It wasn’t brilliant, of course. The whole story involving Calypso didn’t make much sense, but for once Depp’s lampoonery didn’t become too clogging, and the scene where the ship blows up (without letting on who’s it was, and who was on it at the time) was one of the year’s most well staged set pieces. Sadly for me, since mine son got his hands on the DVD, we’ve had to watch it on an almost continuous loop, meaning I can quote chunks of its ridiculous dialogue verbatim.

The Simpsons MovieNor does this scurrilous assortment contain titles that I thought might be fairly crap to start off with - stand up and take a bow The Invasion, Evan Almighty and Saw Far Too Many. The idea of a list of disappointments means the only inclusions can be films I thought might turn out to be all right, and weren’t. An obvious starting point is The Simpsons Movie, which wasn’t bad, but appeared to be weighed down by too many years of anticipation to live up to its expectations. TSM was funny, even riotous in places, but it played exactly like all it could ever really be - an extended version of a television episode, and by now we expected more. What exactly the ‘more’ is remains elusive. Had the makers tinkered with their formula to produce something that could truly stand out from the series, we would no doubt have been crying about how far America’s first family had strayed from what made it great. A no-win situation, in other words, and in that light the resulting motion picture probably pitched itself about right. What a pity that it arrived around fifteen years after a movie could have done anything that’s fresh. Funnily enough, its best moments weren’t when it messed about with the idea of the Simpsons being on the big screen, but rather when it reverted to what the series always did best - showing the family at home and at play i.e. the first half hour, before the dome arrives. I loved all the bits where Homer was arsing around with his pig, even if they reminded me of one of my favourite episodes too much (the one with Mr Pinchy, Homer’s pet lobster), and as with any other regular viewer, I suspect it was all a bit bemusing as the events on screen bore little difference to what we get several times a day on the TV. There wasn’t enough Mr Burns either, but it would have been impossible to cover everyone’s favourite supporting characters.

2007 brought with it the summer of the threequel, and two appear in this list, beginning with Spider-Man 3 (my review), which set awfully high standards for itself that the latest instalment couldn’t maintain. The trouble is that Peter Parker’s third outing isn’t a terrible movie. There are lots of good things to say about it, including its magnificent effects work and the intentionally hilarious bits where Pete turns evil… and emo! But it was all done so far by the numbers, with our webslinger lurching from superhero crisis to domestic problems in a kind of tiresome build-up of turmoil. I’m afraid that by the end, I couldn’t care less whether he sorted it out with Mary Jane. Poor Kirsten Dunst had next to nothing to work with, found herself speaking tedious lines relating to shoehorned in plot developments that made her character look petty and peevish, until the inevitable climax that found her - again, again, again - in peril. Most girls would have given up years ago. What was the point of Gwen Stacy? Was Aunt May present for any reason other than to deliver the occasional wise word? Why didn’t Harry get over it? His dad was clearly a wrong ‘un, yet he was willing to give up almost everything to pursue Spider-Man until his butler popped up at the optimum narrative moment to tell him his cause was all wrong. How much heartache could have been averted had he just done this sooner? The overall impression I got was a of a film where the characters didn’t act like people at all but merely as pawns, slaves to an overtly complex and definitely too long plot that required them to say and do things in order to shuffle things on a little. Considering this movie was written and directed by Sam Raimi, better was expected.

Spidey was an entertainment tour de force next to Shrek the Third (my review), a horrible bit of business that took fun characters and a treasure trove of plotting possibilities and somehow turned out to be an unfunny, awful mess. Saddled with a stack of people and narrative strands from the first two chapters, the writers of St3 apparently couldn’t decide what to do with them, and came up with a yarn that produced no sense of development. The film has the barest excuse for a story, and instead exists to splice in any number of cheap sight gags and unfunny sitcom moments. Take, for instance, the characters of Donkey and Puss in Boots, the scene-stealers from Episodes One and Two respectively. Criminally underused here, the movie contrives to switch their personalities (I can’t remember how, but it doesn’t matter), so that the Donkey is inside Puss in Boots, and vice versa. This had the potential to be witty, but instead nothing happened, the moment wasted as we were whisked from their predicament to something else. How they managed to waste the obvious voice talents of Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas is beyond me, yet somehow they did. That aside, the film continues to satirise other movies, with diminishing returns (surely comedy has moved on from movie parodies, especially after the people behind Epic/Date/Scary Movie ploughed that furrow so frequently and recklessly), and churn out endless bawdy jokes that will mean nothing to younger audiences. You deserve more. Pixar Studios might not always be perfect, but Ratatouille had enough class and charm to leave this shambles standing.

In our house, we’re enough in thrall to freak weather conditions to catch up with Flood, a sort of rip-off of The Day after Tomorrow that swaps ice for water, and moves the action from New York to that London. Our bad. What a terrible piece of hokum this was, featuring special effects that made Doctor Who at its most CGI look like a Weta production, unconvincing performances, and a story that held precious little human interest. This had the feel of one of those BBC drama documentaries (like the one about the super-volcano under Yellowstone Park), and had it been shown on television with some scientific rationale backing up the on-screen events, it might have been more palatable. Instead, the genuinely talented cast (Robert Carlyle, Tom Courtenay, Joanne Whalley-not-Kilmer) talk a kind of impervious techno-babble about flood effects whilst London is ripped apart by CGI water surges. At one point, we suddenly learn that Whalley’s character has two girls who might be trapped somewhere in the city. It’s almost as if, having completed the script, the writers realised there wasn’t enough human drama for the characters to deal with so hurriedly tagged on a nonsensical little storyline in which a mother is worried about her kids. Oh, then she learns on the phone that they’re safe, and everything’s all right again. Huh? Elsewhere, the budget was clearly blown on bad effects, as Flood contains one of the direr scores of the year (a bit like The Crystal Maze - no, really), and the whole thing ends abruptly, as though the producers pulled the plug before viewers could be made to sit through any more. They were doing us a favour. The Day after Tomorrow might not have been anyone’s idea of a superb work of art, but somehow Emmerich looks like Bergman next to this.

Note - this did NOT happen in real lifeBut it wasn’t the worst. My ire was directed most firmly against Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shekhar Kapur’s daft follow-up to 1998’s Elizabeth. The previous movie happens to be one of my favourite historical epics, a surprisingly mature look at the young queen’s rise from imprisoned black sheep to undisputed monarch. The film had style, looked fantastic, featured a splendid baddie in Christopher Eccleston’s Norfolk, and above it all towered Cate Blanchett as a credible young Liz. Vulnerable yet steel-hearted, Blanchett captured virtually every scene, and clearly the sequel couldn’t have been made without her.

The Golden Age once again stars Blanchett, and she’s very, very good in the lead role,  but the rest is almost wholly terrible. Anyone who has watched The Tudors (not to mention Elizabeth itself) will come to the table fully aware that films like this play hard and fast with historical facts, but here it’s as though the research has been carried out by a bored GCSE student. It features the Spanish Armada, Mary Queen of Scots and Walter Raleigh, yet the details are subject in all cases to what looks best on the screen. Clive Owen’s Raleigh starts off correctly as little more than a glorified pirate; by the end, he’s defeated the Armada singlehandedly by leading the fire ships into its massed fleet, leaping from rigging to rigging before obviously making his escape. The normally superb Samantha Morton is Queen Mary, and hers should be a meaty role. Instead, Mary is sidelined, being only present as the catalyst for war between England and Spain. In general, The Golden Age is a disjointed experience, jumping between episodic vignettes, the money clearly going on its admittedly fabulous costumes and make-up. You half expect Simon Schama to walk on between scenes, explaining what the hell’s going on, because it’s hard to work things out otherwise.

But the real crime of the movie is that it’s actually fairly dull. It shouldn’t be. The story of Elizabeth I’s reign is one filled with incident and intrigue, and the film has two dramatically perfect happenings to record - Elizabeth’s relationship with Mary, and the defeat of the Armada. Yet both events are rushed, shoved to one side in favour of the camera’s fascination with Bess and her non-romance with Raleigh. A wasted opportunity, and perhaps one where two films would have sufficed instead of one, thus rendering the story more cohesive and one that simply made any sense.

But that’s enough from me. What did you think? Has there been worse, some instances of movies I enjoyed that you found to be utter dross? Talking of which, we’re off to see The Golden Compass tomorrow. A mate of work called it ‘the worst film I’ve seen this year,’ so the signs aren’t too good. As a Pullman fan, not to mention a believer in giving something the benefit of the doubt, I live in hope, however forlorn and misplaced it may be.

In the meantime, it just remains for me to wish all my readers the happiest of Christmasses. Have a good one, and I’ll see you on the other side, several pounds heavier and with all those new DVDs unwrapped!

Posted on 24th December 2007
Under: Bobbins, Recent Releases | 2 Comments »

Hammer Time! The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

‘He fought the hideous curse of his evil birth, but his ravished victims were proof that the cravings of his beast-blood demanded he kill… Kill… KILL!’ 

Curse of the Werewolf posterThe one where a young Oliver Reed becomes a werewolf starts with a splendid title sequence. The credits flash across the face of said lycanthrope, who looks this way and that, shedding the occasional tear (or is it sweat?) and looking scared as much as he does scary. It’s a good thing we see him at this stage, as there’s no werewolfery to be had at all until much later in the movie. Those who bought tickets to see The Curse of the Werewolf, expecting fuzzy creatures for their money must have been sorely disappointed.

Reed himself doesn’t turn up until roughly halfway into ‘Curse’. Beforehand, we are treated to a long, long exposition, scene setting of such inordinate length that it makes the rest of the film appear rushed. Curse is set in Spain. It opens with a narrator telling us the tale of a beggar who rather rashly tries to scrounge money and food from the local Marquess. It’s obvious the latter isn’t going to be a nice piece of work, and sure enough the beggar ends up spending years in prison. Time passes. Our scruffy hero, now covered in more hair than flesh winds up raping a mute girl who’s thrown into his cell, duly croaks, and leaves her to bear his child. Thanks to the kind of bizarre logic that doesn’t bear too much thinking about*, this offspring turns out to be cursed, doomed to turn into a werewolf with the waxing of a full moon. Only love can save him from this terrible fate, the local priest maintains. First, this comes from his adopted parents, but later he’ll need to find a woman who loves him, or else terrible things will happen. Terrible…

We get a taster of just such terror early in young Leon’s life. His Christening goes awry when the baptismal water ripples, presumably a sure sign of evil in days of yore. Shortly after, some of the local sheep are found dead, and when a hunter shoots at what he thinks must be the culprit, Leon is found in bed the following morning, a bullet embedded in his leg. Luckily, his parents are caring enough to look after him properly, and Leon grows up as part of a loving family.

The werewolf in mid-transformation - note sweatUnfortunately, he also grows up to be Oliver Reed, delightfully hammy in the lead role. Personally, I have a lot of time for Ollie - the camera clearly loves him, and he possesses more than enough presence to keep this tosh moving. However, subtle isn’t really in his vocabulary, and as the adult Leon becomes ever more demented, Reed gets to chew the scenery to delicious effect. What he also does is emotion. Naturally, things go wrong for Leon once he sets out to work, laugh and love. He falls for a girl, possibly not the best choice as she’s the daughter of a merchant, he’s a peasant, and their romance is doomed from the start. Leon loses it, the full moon appears and, well, you can guess the rest.

In a lesser performer’s hands, Leon would be the stuff of utter schlock. Reed actually drags some sympathy from his character, falling into evident despair as he realises what’s on the horizon for him, and even managing to turn the werewolf - when finally he ‘morphs’ - into more than a two-dimensional monster. And rightly so. Leon hasn’t done anything wrong. The curse is none of his own doing, and it’s only fair that Reed elicits whatever feeling he can from the character.

The effects taking place during the ‘change’ are actually quite good. Nothing like as effective as Rick Baker’s work for An American Werewolf, naturally, but better than you might expect. Leon’s hands get furry before our eyes, and the first appearance of his werewolf face is suitably shocking. As always, I find the transformation of movie lycanthropes to be a little bewildering. Body parts change not all at once, but in neat, dramatically friendly stages, so that a clean-shaven Leon can glare in terror at his hands sprouting fur, before anything else happens.

Werewolf attacking Romain - this doesn't happen in CurseCurse features the steady directorial hand of Terence Fisher, who keeps things ticking over just enough to stay it from descending into complete silliness. The actors, Reed aside, play their parts with an admirably straight face, with special kudos going to Clifford Evans as Leon’s long-suffering, perpetually understanding father. In his hands, the character turns into more than a plot device - the loving parent who does everything he can to save the boy who never really stood a chance. Catherine Feller doesn’t do a great deal as the heroine, and I imagine eyes to be more drawn to Yvonne Romain, who plays Leon’s mother, looks good in a low cut peasant’s outfit, and doesn’t need to do a lot more than that. Fans of the cameo actor’s cameo actor, Michael Ripper, will be delighted to see he gets a fuller role in Curse. The Ripster plays a village drunk, and even gets the credit ‘Old Soak’ - stick that on your CV! Peter Sallis, of Last of the Summer Wine and Wallace fame also shows up, here filling the part of a town bigwig, and sporting a moustache that’s more improbable than anything glued to Reed during his werewolf scenes.

So why does it take so long for the monster to put in an appearance? My first guess would be that even by Hammer’s tardy standards, the cost of morphing Leon into the wolf and having the latter run around was a reasonably expensive business, and so kept to an affordable minimum. Second, and I hope this is more likely, the team just had so much fun shooting Reed’s histrionic acting that there was little need to cheapen the thing with prosthetic fur, ears, and the like. In all honesty, by the time the werewolf did enter for the film’s climax, I missed Ollie’s tendency to over-do it hysterically, all eyes rolling and sweat pouring down his face. There was just something quite electrifying about seeing him shatter into pieces on the screen. All of which said, the film’s climactic moments are well staged and features an angry mob wielding torches and pitchforks, something you don’t see enough of in modern attempts at Gothic horror.

Though hardly a classic, Curse is good fun, a noble attempt at fleshing out the legend of another movie monster classic. I left it feeling sorry for the main character, thanks to a whole-hearted turn from Ollie Reed, and as with all early Hammers, the effort to recreate both a foreign country and a different time whilst shooting in 1960s England works surprisingly well. Considering this is film making on a shoestring, the results aren’t half bad. And not great either. Curse is, er, cursed with a story that moves too flaccidly, kills off its real villain - the evil Marquess - far too early, and doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to say. Is Leon’s lycanthropy wholly the result of an accident of birth? Or does he have the chance to control the madness within him, blows it, and out come the claws? We never really know, and that weakens the film. Though not, unlike where poor Leon’s concerned, fatally.

  

* I looked this up on the IMDb, and apparently if you are conceived of rape and happen to be born on Christmas Day, then your first appearance on the birthday of Christ is unholy, and you’re knackered. This seems a little unfair to me - the film’s moral appears to be ‘Hope your mum doesn’t get knocked up after a violent liaison in late April,’ which doesn’t give anyone a sporting chance. Just as with Brides of Dracula, though, it’s good to see a religious undercurrent resurface in these early Hammers. Some wag also spotted that ‘Leon’ spelled backwards is ‘Noel.’ Coincidence? I very much think so.

Posted on 18th December 2007
Under: Horror, Hammer | 3 Comments »

Hammer Time! The Brides of Dracula (1960)

‘Transylvania, land of dark forests, dread mountains and black, unfathomed lakes, still the home of magic and devilry as the nineteenth century draws to its close. Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires, is dead. But his disciples live on, to spread the cult and corrupt the world…’ 

Brides of Dracula posterThe Ultimate Hammer Collection is boxed away, ready for Christmas (ten days separating me from Valerie Leon - ten days too many!) but in the meantime, and thanks to John Hodson I now have the Region One Hammer Horror Series, eight golden greats for $21.99 (just over one English pound per film, by my reckoning). First up is The Brides of Dracula, one of my personal favourites from the self-acclaimed House of Horror, but a movie I haven’t seen since I was a bairn and when David Peel’s teeth-baring tomfoolery actually seemed fairly creepy. Made for a princely £120,000, and featuring an almost childlike innocence compared with the sexed up Hammers of the 1970s, just how does a 47-year old flick hold up in 2007?

First, actually comparing something like Brides with, say, 30 Days of Night, the most modern retelling of the vampire myth, is of course ridiculous. Bloodsuckers have moved on so far since the early days of Hammer that even a television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer has better effects and a higher creep value than 1960’s sequel to Horror of Dracula. Another obvious flaw with the production is that it doesn’t feature Christopher Lee. In a strange cost-cutting measure, Hammer decided to make the film without its main star, retaining only the services of Peter Cushing as Dr Van Helsing. As a direct consequence of Lee’s absence, the first half of the movie sets out to explain exactly who the main vampire is, what he wants, and what it will take to stop him. And oddly enough, it works wonderfully well. With its castle setting, small-minded locals and beautiful heroine, Brides tells like a dark fairytale, a bit like Snow White but with more vampires and bats.

Our story begins with Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) on her way to Badstein to take up a teaching role at the Girl’s Academy. Via a mysterious interruption, she comes into contact with Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who requests that she stays for a night at her castle. Soon enough, Marianne learns that the Baroness’s son (David Peel) is kept prisoner there. He persuades her to release him, setting off a chain reaction of killings and undead risings that eventually involve Cushing’s Van Helsing.

That’s more or less it. The ‘brides’ refers to the evil Baron’s predilection for young girls, naturally leading to an effort to ensnare Marianne herself. Where the ‘Dracula’ reference of the title comes from, goodness only knows. The gap left by the head vampire’s absence isn’t filled adequately by Peel, a good looking yet vapid presence who hasn’t the presence to carry off his role fully. As for Monlaur, easy on the eyes she most definitely is; an actor of any stature she certainly is not. Thankfully, ‘the Cush’ is on hand to just about make up for the thespianic shortcomings. Once Van Helsing first appears in Brides, he takes over the entire project. The camera follows him obediently as he goes about his vampire slaying business, whether staking the seemingly grateful Baroness, or calling on an array of religious artifacts to aid him in times of peril. He’s supported by a fine cast of cameo actors, including Miles ‘Room for one more’ Malleson as a bumbling doctor, Freda Jackson’s reliably over the top servant, and the inevitable Michael Ripper, who puts in his work early as a Cockney-accented coach driver.

Two aspects really elevate Brides into a minor classic. The first is the set design, which makes excellent use of Bray Studios, transforming Down Place into nineteenth century Eastern Europe. Brides looks wholly authentic. The Baron’s castle is both ostentatious and gloomy, with its gorgeous gothic furniture, dark recesses and absence of humanity. Similarly, the windmill that features in the film’s climactic scenes gives every impression of hardly being used in years. Perhaps best of all is the inn where Marianne makes her first appearance. All chipped walls and rough wooden tables, it’s possible to get a real sense of contrast between the Transylvanian peasants’ lives with the castle’s richness. Also worthy of note is the cinematography. The camera might love its girls wearing nightdresses, but it enjoys roaming the castle’s quarters even more.

Very scary, David, I'm sureBrides features a fast-paced script that rattles through its fleeting 85 minutes. Jimmy Sangster, along with four other writers, was responsible for the screenplay, and belying the obvious ‘too many cooks’ analogy it sparkles with good-natured wit that blends seamlessly with the horror-themed main drag. Minor characters, such as Otto Lang (Henry Oscar), head of the Badstein Academy are made memorable thanks to idiosyncratic bits of dialogue. In Lang’s case, he treats both the Baron and Van Helsing with pompous disdain, before he finds out who they are and subsequently melts into gushing toadying.

All this helps to mask the weaknesses of the plot, in which Van Helsing is able to cow any opponent into undead terror simply by wielding a crucifix. We all know that vampires have a distaste for religious iconography, yet ‘Van’ himself appears to set far more faith in his own methods than those of God, who he nevertheless relies upon continuously to get him out of trouble. Ultimately, you get the impression that if, say, bananas held anti-vampire qualities, your man would happily carry several bunches in his medical bag, whether he believes in them or not. The crucifix’s power is also responsible for the movie’s climax, a monumental cop-out that feels altogether rushed. While we’re on the subject, the Baron turns into a bat pretty much at will – why doesn’t he just escape his chains in this way?

For all Brides’ minor faults, it’s still several leagues in quality ahead of Hammer’s run of the mill output, and a film into which a great deal of heart has been poured. I must add that the R1 restoration treatment is little short of first rate. Brides brushes up beautifully with its clean transfer and crisp mono sound. It makes me look forward to the rest of the set with some relish.

   

Posted on 16th December 2007
Under: Horror, Hammer | 13 Comments »

Prince with a Thousand Enemies

I think it was Watership Down’s appearance on a Channel 4 Top 100 show that made me dig out my copy, the ‘Deluxe Edition’ - bought for a couple of quid when I was feeling flush - and experience it all over again. Certainly, there aren’t many ‘U’ rated animated features like it, and on a personal note it’s one of the first movies I remember watching in full. As a treat one Christmas, my school (I can’t have been any older than seven) stopped classes one afternoon and screened it on some dinosaur projection system. I can imagine the teachers’ train of thought - nice film about rabbits… good family fare… nothing harmful or corrupting there, and then what must have gone through their minds as the horror-strewn odyssey unfolded on the screen. I bet there were a few nervous Number Six smoked in the staff room that afternoon.

For my part, I loved it. Seeing it as an adult, I fully appreciate the argument that it isn’t really a film for young kids, and clearly by any family-rated movie’s standards, it contains a lot of blood and more than its fair share of haunting imagery. On the flip side, I would also maintain that Watership to some extent delivers precisely what children want from their films, and very rarely get i.e. an unblinking, warts and all, visceral experience. Added to that are enough allegories and lessons to be found within the action to stun your young darlings out of their typical sanitised viewing fare and watch something that contains a genuine degree of heart. If Watership has an overall message, it is that life is always precious, and very often fragile. Behind all the liberalist moaning about how children could have nightmares from seeing it, isn’t that what really matters?

Not on Frith's watch, you don't!Not that I am suggesting for a second that you ought to strap your kids down, prise open their eyelids Clockwork Orange style and force them to watch, just that there are good reasons for them doing so.

The film is of course based on Richard Adams’s bestselling novel, which just like the former is allegedly for the younger end of the market, though it was some time before I could actually plough through it, neither have I read it in years. I do however recall the movie adaptation closely following much of the text, and crucially getting it right in terms of the spirit and themes Adams attempted to introduce. What really impresses me about the story is the mythology Adams has created for his rabbit characters. These aren’t Disney bunnies, humans in animal form. They have their own stories, their own names for things (e.g. ‘Hrududu,’ the rabbit word for moving motor vehicles, which is presumably - not to mention ingeniously - based on the noise they make) and, critically in terms of the plot, their own ideas about death and the afterlife. The rabbits’ story about how they are all descended from El-ahrairah, the original prince of all rabbits, is told in the film’s prologue, a sublimely nasty piece of film that is shown as a kind of animated series of woodcuts. What it does is firmly establish the rabbits’ own sense of their place in the world - perils are all around. They have a thousand enemies, a fact reinforced by the sequence of dangers experienced by our heroes. Yet they aren’t helpless. Frith, the rabbits’ God represented by the sun, gifts them with cunning and speed.

‘All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies,’ Frith advises. ‘And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you - digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.’

In the world of Bambi and Thumper we are not. Watership presents an altogether harsher reality for the rabbits, and tragically enough ‘reality’ is the key word. Who would want to come back as a bunny after watching it? The story proper opens with frail ’seer’ rabbit, Fiver (Richard Briers) begging his leaders to leave the warren and search for a new home. A human sign erected nearby has given him a vague yet horribly strong premonition of danger, illustrated as he sees their field covered in the dying oranges of the setting sun, which turns into blood. Unfortunately, the chief rabbit is unmoved when Fiver and his brother Hazel (John Hurt) present their case. Fat and complacent, the head of the owsla (rabbit soldiers) doesn’t want to know, and our heroes are compelled to steal away in the night with several others who believe their story. Sure enough, as the rabbits leave, they pass a board they obviously wouldn’t be able to read that tells us the land is scheduled for development. Later in the film, a captain from the owsla catches up with the runaways, and tells them the warren was blocked up by humans. In probably the movie’s most horrific scene, we see red-eyed rabbits clamber over each other, asphyxiating in their desperate struggle to escape.

'Violet's gone' - the post-hawk falloutWhat follows is the rabbits’ journey through an eternity of (mostly) perilous encounters, on their way to Watership Down, which Fiver describes as ’high, lonely hills, where the wind and the sound carry, and the ground’s as dry as straw in a barn.’ By all accounts, Watership Down really exists somewhere in Hampshire. In the film, it looks for all the world like Pendle Hill, one of the landmarks of Lancashire. Some of the dangers they come across are mild - a badger (or ‘lendri‘) leering at them with blood-soaked teeth from the bushes. Others are less so. One rabbit is randomly picked off by a swooping hawk when she ventures from the safety of a cornfield. Hazel’s attempts to ‘rescue’ some tame doe rabbits from a farmhouse hutch are ever undermined by the presence of an ill-minded and predatory cat.

Creepier still is the heroes’ encounter with Cowslip, a seemingly friendly rabbit who offers to share his warren with them. Things seem too good to be true, and of course they are. The warren is riddled with snares and traps, its occupants ‘kept’ so that they can be killed and eaten by humans. Fiver, for all his moaning, is the one who sees it first, and who later helps to rescue the macho Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) from just such a snare.

The story culminates as the rabbits discover Watership Down, and find it’s every bit the perfect warren for them. Unfortunately they’ve arrived without any females, and the only place they can find any willing to join them is ruled by the sadistic General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) and his ‘claw first, speak later’ owsla. The survival of the warren depends on whether they can extricate any of the does, some of whom are willing to come, but aren’t allowed to leave…

The fear of meeting the Black Rabbit of Death is all around. ‘When he comes for you, you have no choice but to go,’ Fiver warns, and in one of the film’s more dreamlike sequences, he indeed follows the black rabbit, which he believes is leading him towards the wounded Hazel. This is the bit with ‘Bright Eyes,’ the slightly mawkish theme tune composed by Mike Batt and featuring the vocal stylings of Art Garfunkel. It’s a scene that actually works incredibly well, Garfunkel’s voice taking on an ethereal quality as the black rabbit leaps elusively out of reach. We’re supposed to think of the black rabbit as a sinister character, just like death implies, but by the film’s end, we realise he’s in fact nothing of the sort.

The Black Rabbit of DeathAll of which takes place before an animation style that, though primitively crude by twenty first century standards, has a rather beautiful watercolour look to it. The English countryside scenery is detailed and gorgeous, and the animators’ attempt to create a very different ‘look’ for the appearance of rabbit myths and legends is bold indeed. If anything lets it down, it’s the sometimes unnatural way the animals move, no doubt a result of the technologies available at the time. It’s never terrible, and there’s something quite charming about it compared with modern, clinical attempts to naturalise movement in this most artificial of art forms. However, considering it’s around the same time that Miyazaki was putting the finishing touches to The Castle of Cagliostro, the limitations are visibly clear.

But this is nitpicking. The voice cast more than makes up for shortcomings in the animation. My pick of the bunch is Richard ‘Treacle’ Briers, who lends Fiver exactly the nervous quality you would expect from a rabbit who, pre-dating M Night Shyamalan by twenty one years, can see dead people. John Hurt is also on fine form as Hazel, and clearly has the kind of vocal range that makes him ideal for heroic characters (he also made for a memorable Aragorn in the Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings). A roll call of British luminaries - Ralph Richardson, Simon Cadell, Roy Kinnear, Michael Hordern, Denholm Elliott, etc - make up the rest of the cast, and there’s a winning turn from Zero Mostel, who in his last ever part provided the voice of Kehaar, the gull who helps the rabbits when not being the film’s much needed comic relief. His angry ‘Piss off!’ at Bigwig somehow slipped under the censors’ noses, which kind of sums up the movie in general.

In between seeing Watership Down for the first time, not very long after its original 1978 release, and buying the DVD earlier this year, I hadn’t viewed it often, though I’m sure it’s on steady rotation and seems to be a staple of the early afternoon Christmas films circuit. I would certainly recommend giving it a chance. The blood, nastiness and some genuinely unsettling scenes of surrealist horror add to the goals of the rabbits, the prince with a thousand enemies, and it helps to be forewarned that this has no place beside Disney levels of cuteness. In terms of British animation, it’s a real triumph, a movie with heart and soul, and for an art form that contemporaries would have dismissed as ‘cartoons’ it still holds up surprisingly well.

Posted on 6th December 2007
Under: Animation | 1 Comment »

Getting Hitched - ‘A Comedy about a Corpse’

After writing about Rear Window the other week, I couldn’t wait to get back to the Alfred Hitchcock boxset and the next title in the series. Though the set contains some undoubted Hitch gems, it also houses a number of lesser known films, or at least titles that don’t have the same level of kudos as the aforementioned Window, Vertigo or Psycho. One such example, and a movie I saw for the very first time before writing this, is today’s topic, a departure for Hitch that took him into the realms of lighthearted black comedy.

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The Trouble with Harry started out as a novel (by British author, Jack Trevor Story), was adapted for the stage, and later Hitchcock bought the screen rights for $11,000. Upon its release, it was deemed to be a flop, yet its subsequent success in European cinemas enhanced its reputation, and TTWH probably made its money back after another round of American screenings. Perhaps surprisingly, it was to be one of Hitch’s personal favourites. When asked in 1974 about his body of work, TTWH was one of four movies the director claimed he wanted to have staying power with audiences (The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt and North by Northwest, since you’re wondering), and perhaps it isn’t that difficult to see why. Whilst Psycho and Vertigo are acknowledged masterpieces, they’re both dark pieces of work that explore the grim recesses of the human soul. Our Harry, on the other hand, is never less than fun, and I suspect Hitch hoped the movie would reflect his own sense of humour.

The Trouble with Harry posterCertainly, TTWH is a good laugh. Its simple yarn, which is based on the discovery of a dead body laid amongst the autumnal trees of a New England fall, turns into high farce as the story progresses. Hitch proved he could find wit amidst the usually morbid subject of somebody’s death. And as usual, the plot, which follows the fortunes of four characters who are in different ways linked to Harry, produces so much more from its focal point. Throw in a Bernard Herrmann score (the composer’s first collaboration with Hitch), some great performances, and a tone that sustains a light, breezy atmosphere, and you end up with a film that might not be a Hitchcock classic, but by most people’s standards is well worth a second look.

Harry, the movie’s central character has no lines, doesn’t move of his own accord, and we see little of him beyond his feet, which are wrapped in blue socks with gaudy red toes. That’s because Harry’s dead. Lying flat on his back in the woods, a hole in his head that might have been made by a bullet or a shoe heel, Harry’s unfortunate corpse comes into contact with a number of the local town’s denizens and very nearly gets several of them into peril.

The film opens with a shot and raised voices, shortly before a small boy discovers the body. Herrmann’s typically ominous score suggests only one thing - murder most foul. Elsewhere amidst the trees is Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn). Out to shoot rabbits, but showing no success for his efforts, the softly spoken gentleman blames himself for Harry’s death. He must have shot him by accident, Wiles argues to himself, and so he sets about preparing to bury the evidence. Whilst doing so, he comes across Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick), who shows next to no concern about finding someone hauling a dead body along by the feet (’What seems to be the trouble, Captain?’) and instead invites him over for blueberry muffins and coffee. Harry’s wife, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine), also finds the corpse. In another movie, her lack of remorse over his death would be at least callous, and certainly chilling. Here, it’s farcical. Local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) gets roped into the Captain’s plan to dig a grave for Harry, that is when he isn’t dreaming about the lovely Jennifer, and the possibility of selling a painting or two.

Ultimately, Harry winds up as a bit of a plot device, albeit a troublesome one as his very presence becomes a burden for those who would be rid of him. What the film’s really about is the web of relationships that develops between the other characters, all of whom have been drawn together by him. Sam fancies Harry’s widow, and his attempts to woo her form a major plot strand. More charming by far, however, is the faulting courtship between Wiles and Ivy. Neither is very confident - the Captain frets about not making a fool of himself, whilst Ms Gravely gingerly buys a special cup and submits to a haircut, all to prepare for her blueberry muffins date. As the quartet move closer together, they find more and more labyrinthine ways to dispose of Harry. His poor corpse is buried and dug up several times as the characters look for reasons to shake him off quietly or let the authorities come across his body.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Shirley MacLaine’s big screen debut. The movie was unavailable for public screenings for nearly thirty years when Hitchcock bought back its rights and left it in legacy to his daughter. By the time it was re-released in 1984, MacLaine had become Hollywood royalty, fresh from her Oscar winning turn in Terms of Endearment, and fans got to see a much younger and prettier model in this lost vintage. In the winning role of Jennifer, she’s all charm, heartbreakingly pretty and the very epitome of a 1950s modern girl. It’s impossible not to see what would have attracted Marlowe to her.

Our heroes wait patiently for Harry's re-releaseYet hers isn’t the lasting performance. This honour goes jointly to Gwenn and Natwick. Their characters are twee and loveable without ever becoming mawksome. The former, an Oscar winner himself (he was Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street) is a delight, his soft English accent - retaining its trace of his London roots - giving him the harmless exterior that turns out to be just as true on the inside as he wraps himself up in doubt over what to do about Harry, and the lovely Ms Gravely. Natwick is similarly superb and wonderfully funny as the highly strung Ivy, who also believes she has something to do with Harry’s demise when not getting herself worked up over the Captain. Theirs is a charming middle-aged relationship, and you’d put money on their connection lasting much longer than that between Jennifer and Sam, such is the chemistry between them.

Perhaps the weakest link is Forsythe, who ought to have the plum role as our likeable young hero who gets the girl, but who never seems entirely at ease with it. For one thing, Sam is supposed to be a struggling artist, but he looks every inch the dandy, your wealthy man about town. He’s broke, yet he lacks nothing in self-confidence. It isn’t really his fault. Who wouldn’t recede when sharing the screen with acknowledged top drawer thespians, and a young actress who was destined for greatness? Forsythe is easy enough on the eyes and doesn’t put too much of a foot wrong. He just isn’t quite as memorable as his peers, and it’s unlikely you’d watch the film again on his account alone.

Forsythe’s slightly uneven presence aside, there’s little about TTWH that’s open to criticism. Hitch was enjoying his own golden age whilst making the movie, and it’s clear that this is a very polished piece of work. All the same, it can’t help but fade when compared with the director’s recognised greats of the 1950s. Partly this has to be down to its tone. TTWH is frothy and light. It’s almost as though Hitch made it to shed off some of the heavy-going material he was working with at the time, such is its leisurely pace and characters who appear to have few skeletons lurking in their closets (though at one point in the movie, that’s more or less exactly what they’ve got). Some of the film’s scenes take place during the night, yet overall this is a piece made for daylight, a glorious fleshy autumn filled with dying leaves, blue skies, and the local doctor tripping over the corpse during his constitutional, only to obliviously pick himself up and move along. The town is filled with nice people. Even Royal Dano’s doubting deputy sheriff comes straight out of Bedford Falls; it’s a place where nothing bad really happens and even terrible catastrophes can be resolved.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Harry marks a delightful change of pace, a nice, funny piece of work that has real heart going for it. If it isn’t perfect, then that’s because Hitchcock was doomed to be better when handling darker material, the pinnacle of which was still to come. As a lighthearted ninety minutes of entertainment, however, it takes some licking. Many have tried, and very few have succeeded in exceeding its easy charm and good-natured wit, and you end up wondering just how much of himself the master put into it.

My favourite bit? Undoubtedly the scene where the captain is walking into town and spies a police car in the road. Carrying his rifle, the firearm he believes killed Harry, he tries to hide it inside his jacket, before opting to hold it against his leg and affect a limp to shield it as he strolls past the cops. Gwenn carries the moment splendidly, a bag of nerves trying to manage a blithe greeting while all around him, Herrmann’s flutes maintain a slightly mocking lilt.

Posted on 3rd December 2007
Under: Classics, Hitchcock | No Comments »

Legionnaire’s Disease

In the absence of anything about The Last Legion held within the vaults of Film Journal, it falls to me to comment on this deeply flawed yet not entirely unworthy offering. Considering its rather epic budget ($67m, which isn’t exactly Titanic, but decent spending by most people’s standards) and the largely British cast, the movie limped on to screens in the UK in a way that was almost apologetic. Derided by critics, ignored by audiences, it left just as quickly, and no doubt the studio will be wringing its hands over the DVD market’s prospects.

The Last Legion - probably NOT coming to a cinema near youSome films just don’t make it, I guess, and TLL isn’t anyone’s idea of a classic. Its attention to historical detail is only as accurate as the plot demands. Some of the casting decisions are bizarre, and so much story is packed into 100 minutes of celluloid that swathes of plot rush by at a frankly bewildering pace. At heart though, it doesn’t aim to be anything more than an action adventure flick that happens to be set in antiquity, and on those terms it’s actually solid entertainment. Its basic premise is to suggest the origins of King Arthur, and this it achieves in a far more satisfying way than the pompous and terrible 2004 movie, King Arthur.

Our story begins as Rome is about to be sacked by Gallic barbarians. We’re introduced to Romulus Augustus (Thomas Sangster), a child destined to be the next Emperor, and also to Aurelius (Colin Firth), the soldier whose job it becomes to protect him. Ben Kingsley is Ambrosinus, Romulus’s tutor, whilst Kevin McKidd is on hand as the main baddie, a hooded barbarian who plays basically the same character as in Rome, only here he’s batting for the opposition. Anyway, Lucius Vorenus Wulfila helps his chief (played by traditional heavy, Peter Mullan) put the city to the torch and capture Romulus. The Gauls realise they can’t kill their young prisoner, so he’s exiled to Capri. Aurelius follows, along with Mira, a Byzantine warrior who, in a colourful example of casting, is Bollywood princess, Aishwarya Rai. The plot follows our heroes from the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire northwards, and eventually to Britain, just in time to kick start the Arthurian legend. The latter incidentally, is founded largely on a sword uncovered by Romulus, which was built for Julius Caesar, can slice through just about anything, and is clearly going to end up becoming Excalibur. Tenuous? Just a tad, but there’s a glimmer of logic leading up to this point if you follow it closely.

Given the summary above, it’s little wonder that the plot skips lightly over background events. The film has to cover Rome’s fall, political intrigues over the Empire’s future and its conclusion in Britain, which should offer enough material for a mini series, or at least double its existing running time. Instead, it can do nothing but hang on to the coat-tails of its main characters as they charge from one location to the next. Bits of it don’t make a lot of sense, and there’s next to nothing in terms of character development, simply because there isn’t time to get to know our heroes. We never figure out, for instance, what motivates Aurelius to honour his guardianship of Romulus once the Roman Empire has disintegrated around him. Why Mira goes with him is a mystery. The reason for the action shifting to Britannia isn’t explained in anything like sufficient detail, and why Wulfila pursues doesn’t make much sense either. It appears this is one of those movies where characters take action, choose their sides and so on through an innate sense of goodness or because they’re a wrong ‘un, and that’s it. That might have been fine if TLL was made in the 1960s, but I think the 21st century audience expects a little more than that. Contrast this with, say, Lord of the Rings, where it’s made absolutely clear where the characters are coming from and what makes them tick.

What's he doing in this?TLL contains some of the worst examples of casting I have witnessed in a long while. Perhaps its biggest crime is to install Colin Firth as a kind of proto-Aragorn hero. Mr D’Arcy works hard and tries his best, but he never looks like fleshing out the role, one that cries out for someone with the presence of Viggo Mortensen or Russell Crowe. Rai fares better as our heroine for the evening. She’s never called on to act, but in the fight scenes – and there’s lots of them – she has more than enough grace and poise to make short work of her lumbering opponents. Elsewhere, her role demands only that she looks pretty, something she can do effortlessly. Goodness knows what Sir Ben of Kingsley is doing – his character is so badly drawn that it’s all the award winning thesp can do to retain his dignity whilst hitting people with his stick or practising sorcery. McKidd phones in his performance – he deserves a lot better. And then there’s Sangster, around whom the entire story hangs. Can he carry off the role of young Caesar, showing the steel that already resides inside the body of a child? Sadly not. Sangster spends most of his time looking a bit bemused by what’s going on, which is fair enough considering the number of plot holes, narrative threads that just disappear, and being saved by a gang that includes Gandhi, Mark Darcy and her off of Bride and Prejudice.

Any movie based in ancient times needs to be underpinned by fairly bottomless pockets, lashings of cash used principally on lavish sets and healthy dollops of CGI. TLL is at its best when offering location shots. Hadrian’s Wall looks wonderfully authentic, and a pre-sacked Rome is well rendered, particularly from the vantage point of a colossal imperial statue upon which Romulus climbs. Elsewhere, it takes a turn for the worse. A scene that is supposed to show the passing of the seasons whilst ‘Excalibur’ remains embedded in its stone sheaf is far too ambitious. As the sword ‘weathers’ and the landscape passes from summer to autumnal rains to snowy winter, etc, the animation looks exactly like what it is – a detailed but wholly unrealistic cartoon, one that’s so obviously artificial that you wish they hadn’t bothered with it in the first place. Other scenes suggest that though TLL’s effects department can produce nice backdrops and cityscapes, when something is actually required to move (e.g. a Gaul falling from the battlements of Capri) the CGI is lacking. Though I have no idea whether the price tag on a movie affects the quality of its special effects in these days when everything is done via the click of a mouse, I get the impression that TLL was done slightly on the cheap, and that they ran out of money where producing some truly impressive CGI might have helped. The overall effect isn’t helped by a script in which no one says anything that isn’t a cliché, or A STATEMENT, and music that never really stops, whilst at the same time producing nothing of note despite fiddling away endlessly in the background.

What's she doing in this?Given the above, you would be forgiven for thinking that, like most of the film’s critics, I hated TLL. To say it’s a flawed project is something of an understatement – there’s enough that’s wrong with it to make it easy to despise, and certainly, any movie that has the talents of Ben Kingsley, Colin Firth and Aishwarya Rai to hand should have done better. Then again, I would suggest that viewers expecting a film of any great significance are bound to be disappointed. TLL is a romp, an action adventure in the classical tradition. Its heroes are, well, heroic. The villains are bad to the bone, and that’s the limits of its depth in terms of characterisation. The action scenes are genuinely thrilling and choreographed beautifully, especially when Rai is on screen. The set piece when our heroes infiltrate Capri is perhaps the pick of the bunch, but this lot can scrap effectively given any location and opponent.

At heart, TLL should be enjoyed as little more than mindless entertainment, something through which to chew popcorn like cud and switch one’s brain off for a couple of hours. It’s far from great stuff - historians (like me) could very well be insulted by the fallacies inherent in the script, though this is hardly the first instance of a swords and sandals affair shelving facts in favour of nudging the story along. Fans of Firth aren’t going to be overjoyed by their hero’s underwhelming performance either. For all that, it’s good fun. The running time ticks by amiably enough, and viewers expecting a good, daft time won’t be too disappointed with this deeply flawed and very silly hokum.

Posted on 2nd December 2007
Under: Epics, Recent Releases | No Comments »

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