Wednesday, 29 July 2009

THE PRISONER REMAKE - FIRST FOOTAGE REVIEW







After years of rumours and news snippets, the first footage from the new remake of cult ‘60s classic show The Prisoner has been unveiled. And look what we got – heavy weights Sir Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel squaring off, a mysterious plot, and some distinctive visuals. In short a highly intriguing quality production.

However as a longtime fan of Patrick McGoohan’s enigmatic original, what was my first reaction? Well to (mis)quote Chuck Heston -

“You finally really did it! YOU MANIACS! You blew it! GODDAMN YOU! GODDAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!”

Now I am not generally opposed to remakes in general, but The Prisoner falls into that category of classic works which become a tough sell for me. The original series is such a unique piece of television, you automatically have an awful to live up. But on the flip side, The Prisoner is such a confounding and ambiguous work, there is a good deal of scope for a remake to stretch its wings. Naturally I was sceptical when the project was announced but I could see the potential in a remake of this classic show.

However the first viewing of the 9 minute preview frankly got my goat. Several viewings later, I have stopped pounding the sand and surf by the overgrown Statue of Liberty, and it’s safe to say that I will be watching avidly come November. But I suspect what we are going to get is a mini series loosely inspired by The Prisonerrather than a real remake/reboot/reimagining. And here’s why…

Firstly it would appear that the key dynamics of the show have been changed. In the original series, Patrick McGoohan’s Number 6 was a spy (possibly John Drake, his Danger Man character) who after resigning his post was abducted and taken to the mysterious Village to be forcibly debriefed. In the new version however, it would appear that 6 has actually woken up there sans memories a la Jason Bourne.

Now this is a workable alternative start, but it would seem that the new production has lost the espionage paranoia theme. The thrust of the plot is now 6 trying to remember what he knows rather than the refusing and resisting revealing what information he holds. It may seem a subtle difference, but it is a big one; the’60s Prisoner was a battle of wills between McGoohan’s 6 and the forces behind the Village personified by a series of different Number 2s.

And this difference is carried through in the characterisation of Number 6. McGoohan was a symbolic Everyman figure, representing the individual versus society, whereas Caviezel is literally playing an average guy. The original Number 6 was in many ways as single minded and ruthlessly intelligent as the Village’s secret masters and as a character just as mysterious. Jim Catweazle (as he is known in this parish) is far more the ordinary man in the street, displaying none of the icy determination, the intellectual prowess and the grasp of strategy of the original version. And this softening of the character is inevitably going to rob the production of a lot of the dramatic interplay between 2 and 6 – it’s hard to see the sparks flying with a 6 who is more Joe the Plumber than Sherlock Holmes – which is particularly a shame when he’s paired with an actor of the calibre of McKellen.

Now in fairness, these elements may actually be present in the actual series and the preview has been specifically cut to present an appealing face to a general audience. But I can’t help feeling that the memory loss aspect of the plot is drawing more from Dark City and The Bourne Identity than the original series. And there also seems to touches of The Truman Show and Pleasantville thrown into the mix too.

However, the afore mentioned mix of elements could work together very well. Certainly it’s drawing from some very fine sources, all of which could fit nicely into The Prisoner universe. But the main change besides the different plot and character dynamics, the single thing that overwhelmingly struck me on first viewing, the key element that had me crying ‘misbegotten travesty’ on Twitter, was the new production’s mangling of a very important character – the Village itself. And it’s this fumbling of it’s portrayal that loses the new version its essential Prisoner-ness.

Basically, the look of the new Village is just all wrong. The point of the original Village was that you couldn’t be sure exactly where it was. Geographically it could anywhere in the world that have green fields and woods. Architecturally, the Village offered no clues either – the original was filmed in the unique location of Portmerion, Wales, a custom designed town which blends many different building styles into a beautiful and dreamlike whole.

However the new Village is clearly in the middle of an American desert. Though I am so British if you cut me I bleed Earl Grey, the problem here for me is not that a British show has been ‘merkinised’ but the fact that an element of the mystery of the Village has been lost.

However this isn’t the only problem with the new version of the setting. The producers seemingly have looked at the style of the original series and thought “right, retro is the Village style”. Now looking at the ‘60s Prisoner now what strikes you visually is the mad hatter’s tea party of pop and op art designs and space age lounge styles. All very retro – but the point is at the time the series was made this look was cutting edge contemporary. The original Village’s stylings evoke a parallel society where everything was slightly futuristic, homogenised and new, reflecting a holiday camp, an artists' colony and an idealised communistic state farm all at the same time.

The new version seems more like a like Disney’s Celebration, a town built around nostalgia for a golden age than never was. Again this is a concept that could work with the Prisoner mythos but ironically would have worked better if they had filmed in somewhere like Celebration with its identikit suburbs and white picket fences.

But the key thing here is trading pop art futurism for retro nostalgia. Quite simply the new Village does not seem to possess the strange displaced atmosphere of the original. The Port Merion version not only could be anywhere in the world but had an unearthly quality which meant it was equally plausible for it to be located in an alternate dimension, the afterlife or even within a dream. Just as Jim Evelknivel is too much the ordinary man to be Number 6, the new Village is just too mundane to house the existential high strangeness that is at the heart of The Prisoner.

In the 9 minutes of footage from the new show, there are brief inserts that hint that the actual series does contain some of the mind bending aspects of the original, and one can only hope that the weirdness balances out the rather conventional escape from the odd place storyline the preview presents so strongly. But even if the show does deliver the confounding puzzles of the original, I can’t help feeling that not creating a setting of similar otherworldliness will severely limit it.

Now obviously I’ve inferred a lot from essentially a very long trailer but I suspect these points will stand. And I can’t really see the show delivering anything like the enduring mysteries of the original which are still being debated to this day. The change in the character concept of Number 6 and losing so much of the unique look and location of the original would suggest that the plot line will similarly be ‘normalised’. I think we’ll get a decent show but it will be The Prisoner in name only.



Thursday, 16 July 2009

HARRY POTTER & THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE



HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE

Expecto Spoilerum!

So after some delays, the 6th installment of Harry Potter finally hits the silver screen. And if you haven’t read the books or seen any of the previous films, this latest offering will probably be utterly impenetrable. By this stage of the game, either you are onboard the Knight Bus or not with this series.

For myself, I’m very much along for the ride. I came to the books late, and was in the cynical “oh c’mon they are just kids books, big deal’ camp. But a little after the release of the fourth book (Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire) I decided to put aside my preconceptions and see what the fuss was all about… and ended up hooked myself.

I will spare you a lengthy discussion of why I fell in love with the books, as I doubt I’ll persuade any non Potterholics out there. But I must briefly note a few key points for the purposes of this review. The first point is a structural one - it’s very clear that JK Rowling did work out the over arching plot for the series very early on – a refreshing change for anyone who has let down by innumerable lousy last installments of trilogies and needless sequelitius. Or both in the case of George Lucas.

The second point is a tonal one – I suspect a large element in the Harry Potter books becoming such a success is due to the way Rowling tells her stories. On one hand, the world she creates has all the depth and detail that appeals to genre fans that delight in such exercises in universe building. But on the other the stories are told with enough humour to win over non-fantasy fans. The comedic elements never cheapen the fantasy, and nor does she try to evoke ponderous and solemn reverence for her fantastical world.

The books balance their comedy and magic by aiming to tell a tale with real warmth and heart. Which brings me to my final point. - although the plot of the series is of an epic scale, the focus always remains firmly on the characters. Harry and his friends may be able to wield magical powers, encounter fantastic beasts and inhabit a mythical world but they always presented as real, relateable people.

And the books never loose their grip on this sense of humanity. Indeed later books in the series have been criticized as being over long, with some readers feeling that all that ‘boring’ character stuff should have been cut. But this is missing the point of the saga – the Potter series is not just another titanic struggle between the forces of Good and Evil, it is also a coming of age story. And this emotional growth of the characters is an important dimension of the books’ success.

So then, onto the film. In many ways, any Harry Potter film is tough to review, as basically they all succeed and fail in exactly the same ways. The series has been remarkable consistent in upholding the same levels of quality in terms of pace, performances and visuals. But equally they are all hobbled with the same flaw.

As noted above, part of the magic of Harry Potter is the characters – the little details of their lives rather than the broad sweep of the plot. And needless to say it’s these parts of the novels that are generally cut first from the screenplays. Each book chronicles a year in the life of our hero. But in the films, despite the seasonal changes to the sets, the action always feels as though it is unfolding over a much small period of time. Even Alfonso Cuarón, with his inspired use of the Whomping Willow in Prisoner of Azkaban, couldn’t evoke the sense of a three terms within the constraints of the running time.

And in fairness, no director could be expected to. With each book taking place over the course of a year, and having their plots so closely woven into this passage of time, cinema just isn’t a natural fit for a screen adaption; only a television series adaption could really capture the scope of the originals.

So it somewhat inevitable that every Potter film ends up being a collage of scenes and set pieces from the books being brought to the screen. As the series has progressed, with subsequent books becoming more complex, the screen writers’ job has become harder and harder. While readers of the books may fill in the gaps, increasing you have to wonder how much makes sense to the viewer who hasn’t read them. And additionally everyone and their owl have their own ideas of what should be cut or included.

Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince is unsurprisingly no exception to these rules. On the plus side, we have some of the best yet performances from the young cast, Michael Gambon finally stepping out of the shadow of Richard Harris, a wonderful turn from Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn and perhaps the most visually accomplished trip to Hogwarts since the third film. But the movie is still bedeviled by what was left out. Many reviewers have remarked that the plot dwells too heavily on the various romantic high jinks at the expense of detailing the growing mayhem in the wizarding world; a view with which I generally concur. And it is true the question of who was the titular Half Blood Prince is not dealt with as effectively as it could have been.

But at the same time, I did enjoy seeing some of this sort of character interaction finally making it onto the screen. And in generally the day to day stuff was handled with enough humour and threaded well into the main plot of the film. And the inclusion of these subplots did actually help create perhaps the best impression of the events occurring over a school year yet. Admittedly it felt more like two terms than three but it was closer to the spirit of the books.

It’s worth noting that the final three books are being helmed by the same director David Yates. The first quartet detail different attempts by Lord Voldemort to rise again, with him finally achieving a return to flesh and power at the end of The Goblet of Fire. The last novels however are a lot more closely linked and it is fitting that Warners have elected to keep the same pair of hands on the reins.

And it’s also worth remembering that the final book is set to be released in two parts – effectively as two films. Now firstly this decision for the final adaption gives Yates considerably more room to maneuver. But also this change in format will no doubt involve changes in both structure and pace to the final part of the saga.

With The Order of The Phoenix, Rowling herself gave Yates and co carte blanch to change the book as they saw fit in order to make the story work as a cinema experience. So perhaps we should be viewing these final four films more as a story in four parts rather than stand alone installments. And if you consider The Half Blood Prince as the middle section in a complete narrative, a lot of the editorial decisions make a lot more sense. For example, the first chapter of the Yates quartet, The Order of the Phoenix completely sets up Voldemort’s reign of terror and hence there is no need to reiterate it in The Half Blood Prince any more than it does.

And Yates certainly has his eye on the bigger picture. One set piece that was cut from The Half Blood Prince was the battle with the Death Eaters after the death of Dumbledore, partly due to concerns over lessening the emotional climax of the film but also to avoid overlap with similar scenes in The Deathly Hallows. Also Yates has said that some things cut from Half Blood Prince and Order of the Phoenix will be reworked into The Deathly Hallows.

Of course this all could be just a load of flapping bat bogeys and we won’t know either way until the final films appear. But certainly it will be interesting to watch this first brace of Yates Potters back to back with this angle in mind when The Half Blood Prince appears on disc later in the year.

However until the release of The Deathly Hallows, what we have here is essentially more of the same. If you like the franchise you’ll plenty to like, and if you don’t you’ll still be mystified by what all the fuss is about. As will its fellow films, the main problems are what isn’t on screen rather than what is. But as this is true of all the films, in the and you have to accept it as a given. In the words of Harry himself – “well after all these years I just kind of go with it”

Despite the humour and romance that fills a good portion of the running time, the film does turn impressively dark and moody. Towards the end, when the macabre Inferi suddenly rose from the lake, the two rows of school kids in front of me all jumped a foot in the air simultaneously.

Some reviewers have questioned how well all the character stuff will play to younger audiences. Well I can report that at my showing, the children were amazingly well behaved throughout the film and didn’t seem to get bored or fidgety through the romance subplots at all. The film nicely balances the emotions and teenage hormones with humour, which the kids really seemed to enjoy. And the lighter first half set ups sets up the moodier and more menacing last act really well.

Personally, I enjoyed it a good deal more than its predecessor, though bearing the above in mind I will be reassessing The Order of the Phoenix. And missing material concerns aside, think it is one of the better entries in the series. I’m certainly a whole lot more excited about the next two films. Quite possibly Yates is gearing up to deliver a final adaptation which will be the crown jewels of the film series.

One final question though, considering the constraints of acceptable cinema running times and the popularity of extended cuts on disc, why hasn’t Warners considered the option of longer versions for the home market?


Sunday, 12 July 2009

Friday 13th Retrospective Part 4 - Jason Goes Fourth



There will be spoilers and there will be blood!

More scarred than Blofeld! More cunning than Kojak! And yuckier than Yul Bryner! Everyone’s favourite psychopathic slaphead is back! And this time - it’s final!

Apparently tired of catching grief from the bosses at Paramount, series producer Frank Mancuso Jnr. decided enough was enough and it was time to wrap up the Friday 13th saga. Although Part 3 has out performed it’s predecessors during opening weekends (handy box office league table here fact fans!), the general critical climate was mounting against the franchise and slashers as whole. Plus there was the beginnings of a backlash against the increasing sequelitius infecting studios at the time – audiences were starting to learn that often a sequel’s worth could be calculated by divided the quality of the original by the number in the title.

Hence The Final Chapter appeared in theatre sans numeral. And apart from hoping to avoiding ending up in the comedy sequels league tables that were fast becoming a staple of end of the year film round ups, one does wonder whether it was also an attempt to airbrush the 3D fiasco out of history. Certainly Mancuso seems to have recognised that Jason’s latest screen adventure needed to raise its game and so set about assembling a quality crew for the picture.

His first shrewd move was to get Tom Savini back on make-up duties. The man who Fangoria had dubbed ‘the sultan of splatter’ was an immediate box office draw, and horror fans had already proved they’d endure the most incompetent cinematic dreck just to see Savini’s wizardry. With Steve Miner not wishing to return to the director’s chair, Mancuso then hired Joseph Zito, who had recently proved his slasher credibility with the fan favourite The Prowler. Finally though, demonstrating he’d learnt some most important lessons from Part 3, he hired some decent actors – netting up and coming stars Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman. All was set to give Mrs Voorhees’ little monster a spectacular send-off.

And indeed The Final Chapter is a rousing return to form, working the slasher formula to fine effect. All the usual elements here, but where this movie scores over the previous outing is they utilised in a story that actually makes sense, and even contains some characterisation.

In what is rapidly becoming traditional in the series, we are introduced into yet another previously unknown settlement on the shores of the geographically morphing Crystal Lake. However in this flick, we are shown a brace of houses nestling in the deep woods, one is a family home and the other a holiday property – a far more believable setting than the crowded Higgins Haven milieu with its multiple stores and that crazy farm stocked up on hay for non-existent horses. Zito returns the basics of the first two films, heeding Victor Miller’s wise words that a key plot mechanic is that the character should be placed in an isolated setting. Hence we get some good use of location filming and some nice camera work that emphasises the vast brooding woods that surround the houses.

In addition to creating a more effective location for the action, from the first shots of the hovering police helicopter and emergency services gathering at the aftermath of the Higgins Haven, The Final Chapter establishes a firm sense of reality. This time around it feels far more like the events are unfolding in the real world, rather than the Scooby Doo-esque universe of Part 3.

And also unlike the last instalment, the script writers actually seem to be familiar with real teenagers. Obviously in such in a Friday film the majority of the cast are just there to be Jason fodder, but the screenplay actually does bother to try and give all the characters some individual stories of their own. Certainly a lot of these are merely sketched in, such as the tension between Sam and Paul over his attraction to one of the twins, and the tentative romance between Sara and Doug. But these little touches make the characters believable and the group of teens a realistic dynamic. Plus they are not saddled with a pair of aging potheads in a ‘why they hell are they there?’ fashion.

Some of the group may be a little anonymous but the script avoids the tar-pit Part 3 sunk into -reducing the cast to a bunch of archetypal clichés i.e. The Goofy Joker, The Good Girl, The Bitch & The Smug Bastard Who Walks On His Hands. Indeed the script actually sets up two possible Final Girls and a number of potential male survivors, ensuring a pleasing element of suspense. It’s one of the challenging entries in the series for the game of Who Dies Next – admittedly it’s not massively taxing to guess correctly but it’s refreshing that Zito and co made the effort not to be totally predictable.

But where the film shines is the characters it follows most closely – Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman), Ted (Lawrence Monoson) and Jimmy (Crispin Glover). The mere fact that I’ve bothered to credit the actors should give you a clear indication of how well the characters work. Ted and Jimmy have a convincing friendship in the film with real chemistry in the performances. The script deftly captures exactly the kind of banter between guys their age and avoids the stereotypical jock and his nerdy friend path. They have real character and heart and are scripted as if they were in a John Hughes movie. But best of all we get to The Glover throwing some shapes!



Now when you’ve all stopped laughing, I’d like to point out that Zito doesn’t play it as a comedy scene – rather we have a rather accurate portrayal of a young fella trying and rather making a mess of pulling some cool moves to impress a lady. Perhaps only Crispin Glover could ever capture the required mix of weird gawkiness and attempted cool. It’s nice touch of verisimilitude which in the hands of other directors would have descended in slapstick. And, for you trivia fans out there, apparently the music in this scene was originally AC/DC’s mighty ‘Back In Black’ – and believe me it’s well worth the bother of syncing it up! Start the track at the 5 second mark of the above clip and watch the fireworks!

Corey Feldman also turns in a great performance; he’s cute without being cloying, smart without coming over as a wise ass, and most crucial for a child actor, natural. His character hits the right marks and come off as charming and relatable rather than an annoying brat. It’s often claimed that Tommy hobby of monster making is a homage to Savini – and indeed the masks and creatures that fill his room are mostly from Savini’s own works. But actually in addition to providing a plot point for the final showdown with Jason, Tommy’s love of all things monstrous instantly endears him to the target audience of horror fans.

Also having a family, and specifically a child in the plot adds greatly to the film’s dynamics. Firslty it helps establish a more realistic setting for the action, rather than the usual bubble universe s of slasher film where adults are nowhere to be found and teen do what ever they like. But more importantly we expect that all the teens are fair game for Jason, as are any adult characters who cross his path. But placing a kid in Jason’s sights, and particularly the well drawn and likeable Tommy, significantly ups the levels of threat and the horror quotient, making Jason all the more threatening and monstrous when it becomes clear he has no qualms about butchering children.

It’s exactly this sort of well considered plotting and characterisation that makes this film such a success. You can adhere to the slasher formula as faithfully as you like, but if you neglect the setting and the characters, all the gore and nudity in the world will not prevent your film boring the audience.

Of course, being both a Friday 13th movie and the fourth part of a franchise there are some weak points in the script and perhaps inevitably some plot holes, but mercifully none of the yawning logical abysses of Part 3. One example is that we never see what happened to Mrs Jarvis – we see her encounter an unseen Jason but we are never shown a body later; it feels almost like there is a scene missing here. Another is that Jason seems to get away with dispatching the teens in the holiday house without anyone else hearing a sound – although to be fair this is a classic suspension of the normal laws of sonics prevalent in horror movies.

The big plot niggle however is the film’s timeline. Conventional wisdom holds that the events in this movie take place the day after Part 3, which leads to awkward questions about Rob, a character who has come to Crystal Lake to seek revenge on Jason who killed his sister in the previous massacre. If this is the day after, he must be particularly revenge fuelled to leave his family’s side so soon and why are his newspaper clippings – some of which presumably from that morning’s paper - so tatty.

However the film never actually explicitly states it is the day after. It makes more sense to assume that a few days at least have elapsed since the end of Part 3, and would explain why Tommy doesn’t get more of a roasting for leaving the door unlocked after there’s been a mass murder down the road the day before. But the bottom line is I’m inclined to forgive this logical lapse purely on the ground that the script succeeds on most other levels.

There is one other problem with Rob though. I did feel that the movie somewhat fumbled his story’s conclusion. Considering he’s been set up as the avenging hard man, he goes down very easily. Which in itself is no bad thing, but it’s a bit of a missed opportunity. I think they could have set up more effectively as a surprise twist. And we certainly didn’t need as much dialogue from him while Jason’s killing him – “Aargh he’s killing me!” is perhaps the dumbest line in the movie and stands out in a script that has largely avoided such lazy hokum.

With Savini back on board, obviously the make-up effects are to notch. Sadly a lot of his work has suffered from the censors’ scissors, but the scenes left in still pack a punch. As it stands, as the cuts are generally to the earlier gore set pieces, and so we are left with the most graphic splatter in the final act. This gives the movie an decent curve of escalating mayhem which culminates in the grand guinol killing of Jason. In Going Pieces – The Rise & Fall of the Slasher Film, Savini reports that audiences went berserk when they saw his epic tableaux of Jason falling face first onto the machete and sliding down the blade. And you can still see why today – it’s a fantastic effect and a satisfying piece of poetic justice for the villain.

And speaking of the villain, it time for our traditional look at Jason himself. As you’d expect with his creator Savini on the makeup duties, this Jason is easily the best so far. He’s still powerfully built but the lumbering quasi-hunchback look is gone, and rather than the rather pink and rubbery flesh as been replaced with a far creepier frog belly white skin and nasty blackened fingernails. And he’s far better served by the script, rather being seemingly retarded he’s smart, cunning and menacing. In The Final Chapter, he moves with swift shark-like deliberation instead of shambling about as he did in Part 3.

As mentioned earlier that he’s as keen to kill Tommy as anyone else really ups his villainy and fear factor. But it also nicely scotches the myth that his killing is a form of punishment on teens indulging in the old sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Also this is probably the last time we see Jason portrayed truly as the evil monster. Sure, he doesn’t have a road to Damascus style conversion, mends his ways and I looks after injured wood land animals in later films, but by his resurrection in Friday 13th Part 6: Jason Lives, he definitely become the anti-hero, the monster the audience loves.

And speaking of resurrections… Yes it the Dead or Alive question again. Now if previous entries have had fans debating Jason’s status, in this entry things become really murky! At the film’s start he is seemingly dead. Now the Alive camp could argue that he’s just in death-like coma, but there’s a fantastic shot when his (possible) corpse in placed into the morgue cabinet. Just before the door closes, we see a sudden plume of breath arise in the frosty air. Is it normal breathing returning to our hockey masked friend or him literally getting a second wind?

Of course such questions don’t really matter – what is important though is zombie or not, he does die at the film’s close. Not only do we have the marvellous Savini shish- kebab bonce sequence, but after this when he is showing signs that even this isn’t doing to stop him, Tommy Jarvis does thing we’d all do if faced with a slasher villain… Keep hacking at the creepy masked bastard, just be sure he can’t pull that “Haha I’ll not dead routine!” and impale us with a sharp implement of his choice.

Again it’s the great combination of action, character and performance that make this one of the most satisfying Jason defeats in the series. An iconic monster like Jason needs an equally iconic death in the last reel. And it also nicely sets up the interestingly downbeat ending. It’s a final nod to reality, showing us that triumphing over Jason has come at a great cost.

Friday 13th – The Final Chapter is one of the finer entries in the series and indeed one of the better slashers of the period. In many ways is it quite predictable, but while it doesn’t break new ground, it does deliver the fun and thrills in a deft fashion. Indeed this film’s strengths ensured the best yet box office figures and predictably the franchise would return again…

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009)



Now technically I’ve already reviewed Public Enemies – check out the latest edition of Cinerama to hear myself and Ian discussing the movie at some length – but after reading a whole sheaf of the reviews that have appeared over the weekend, I found I still had that a good deal more to say about it. Although there will be a little overlap with the Cinerama review, in the main I’d like to address some of the issues people out here are having with this film.

Now first off, I was very impressed with Michael Mann’s latest opus and thought he delivered a marvellously intelligent and engaging slice of period gangster action. However Public Enemies seems to be getting a lot of mixed notices, and while I accept and welcome diverse reactions to a film, I can’t help feeling a lot of the more negative reviews are somewhat wrong headed in their appraisal of this movie.

By far the most common problem is the endless comparisons to Mann’s earlier film, Heat, and the quintessential example is Mark Kermode's review which can be viewed here. And although superficially there are similarities between the two movies, they are very different animals. What many reviewers don’t seem to grasp is that Public Enemies is adapted from Bryan Burrough’s non-fiction book of the same name. And indeed, many of the more negative reviews don’t acknowledge the film’s literary origins.

Public Enemies, the book, details the history of the 1930s American crime wave in great depth, unravelling the real stories of not only John Dillinger, but The Barker Gang, Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson and the formation of the FBI. It is a truly epic work of crime history, giving the reader virtually a day by day account of the activities of the both the criminals and the law enforcement agencies tasked to hunting them.

Needless to say a book of such massive scope could never be compressed into even an epic length movie, and strictly speaking Public Enemies the movie is better described as ‘drawn from’ than “adapted from”. Although the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, Machine Gun Kelly and Baby Face Nelson appear in the film, Mann focuses on John Dillinger, perhaps the most mythic and iconic figure in the book. But even the Dillinger material in the book would stretch far beyond the usual movie running time if brought faithfully to the screen; hence Public Enemies slims down the detail to the pivotal scenes of his criminal career.

And this is the key point I feel some reviewers are missing – this is not a two-handed psychological crime drama like Heat. If anything, it’s actually a biopic and the main thrust of the film is to accurately recreate and portray the events of Dillinger’s life. Mann isn’t interested in spinning a yarn based upon some imagined Dillinger – he’s trying to create a snapshot of the times.

And this sense of historical accuracy permeates the film. Instead of the usual clichés – expository voice-overs, montages, newsreel inserts or spinning headlines – he goes for dramatic recreation presenting the events without editorial or narrative comment. Here is what happened, says Mann, and the viewer must judge for themselves.

Throughout his career as a director, Mann has often displayed an almost pathological disdain for exposition. He firmly believes in the credo ‘show, not tell’ often to the frustration of viewers. For example, the common reaction to both his first film, The Keep and one of his latest, Miami Vice is “what the fresh hell was supposed to be going in that flick?”.

And true to form, in Public Enemies, Mann avoids scenes where characters deliver info dumps on the history of the time. And although I would have liked a little more detail about the time and period the film is set in, I do think he delivered enough for the narrative work. The necessary historical detail is there but it isn’t overstated – Mann takes what is a more and more infrequent step these days and assumes a degree of intelligence on the part of the audience.

Let’s be clear on the type of history he is presenting here – he’s showing us a street level view of events, not a World At War impersonal overview. His method of shooting reflects this; his camera work presents Dillinger’s world from the perspective of a bystander. The cinematography gives us a breathtaking view over the shoulder of the characters. Public Enemies is history as reportage rather than thesis.

Some have complained that Mann’s decision to shoot in HD digital with hand held cameras is somewhat jarring for the period. Now the grammar of period pieces is usually to be stately and often to pull back to let the audiences see and the money that was spent on creating the sets and the detail of the period costumes. And this works extreme well for Merchant-Ivory films and their ilk. But for Public Enemies, where Mann is attempting to transport the viewer onto the doorstep of a bank robbery, the more kinetic hand held approach is more appropriate to convey the sense of history as it happens. The stately approach to period cinema is born of consciously looking back into the past, whereas Mann’s direction shows the 1930s as the characters saw it – modern and dynamic. It’s not history as something that happened years ago, this is history as it unfolded, blow by blow.

And this sense of historical reportage doesn’t require the cast to pontificate and perform rhetorical acrobatics, but they do need to portray their characters through their actions and reactions. Bow here at Hypnogoria Towers, we’re big fans of what we term ‘face acting’ and are always when an actor can convey the internal workings of their character through expressions and body language. Unfortunately we seem to be in something of minority, with the general yardstick of thespian ability being the ability to merely deliver the lines well. But is it very pleasing to see this physical kind of action in a film like Public Enemies.

In keeping with the eye witness approach to the period, the script avoids giving the characters reams of lines detailing their thoughts and feelings and instead concentrates more on what hey are doing. And Mann makes great use of close ups to capture this. History is often a matter of interpretation, and therefore Mann is not seeking to tell us how Purvis, Dillinger and Freshette are feeling or thinking; instead he shows us their lives and gives the audience the space to make their judgements on their interior lives. To concentrate on the line count is the miss the point of both Mann’s approach and the subtleties of the performances.

Now viewers thinking that this is supposed to be a 1930s Heat have come away carping that we don’t get inside the character’s heads, their interactions are underwritten and the two males leads under perform. But there is a simple reason why this does not happen - THIS IS NOT A GODDAMN PREQUEL TO HEAT. This is a historical drama folks, and we don’t get huge brooding speeches from the leads detailing their philosophies of crime because IT SIMPLY DIDN’T HAPPEN THAT WAY. The dialogue sticks closely to how the people spoke and what has been historically reported they said, even in the more fictional scenes. And anyone familiar with Mann’s work should really have expected this approach from him in a film based on a historical work, given his famous attention to details and technicalities.

Apologies for the shouting, but there seems to be this widespread belief firmly entrenched in the minds of many that every Michael Mann film is a variant of on the same cops’n’robbers are the flip sides of the same coin plot. While it’s true it is a running motif in many of his films, when did it become mandatory for him to produce movies only on this theme? Heat is seems has become a huge albatross around both his neck and this movie’s.

It’s something of an irony however to recall initial reactions to Heat, which drew similarly mixed reviews. Contrary to its gold-plated critical reputation today, when Heat was first release there was a good deal of carping from viewers who had come to the movie expecting something different. The pre-release buzz for Heat made a big deal of the fact that this film would deliver PACINO! And DE NIRO! TOGETHER AT LAST! in the biggest clash of climatic titans since King King Vs Godzilla. And as it was they only crossed paths once in a single scene, leaving a lot of viewers feeling somewhat deflated. And I can’t help feeling that the same sort of lazy journalism that’s pushing the ‘Public Enemies is Heat in the dirty ‘30s’ line is setting up the same kind of disappointment. And more ironic still, there were similar complaints about pacing and accusations of style over substance...

However hopefully, as was the case with Heat, in time cinema lovers will come to judge Public Enemies on it own terms, rather than what they thought it should be. And like Heat, Public Enemies is a film that will repay repeated viewings. Both those who initially have been left a little underwhelmed and those who love it already will find that watching it again will reveal its strengths, subtleties and performances in greater detail.



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Wednesday, 1 July 2009

TRANSFORMERS 2: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN




Am I spoiling this film? Bay’s already done that!

Now I swore blind that I wasn’t going to bother seeing this movie… Well not at the cinema, at least. The first movie flat out annoyed me, mainly due to Michael Bay’s insistence on using ADD inflicted12 year olds hopped up on tartrazine to film the action sequences. Why bother spending millions of amazing robot battles and transformations and then whirl the camera around so much you can’t actually see what the hell is going on? It seemed like a huge own goal.

Anyhow, when the trailers for Transfromers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen hit, it did appear that, miracle of miracles, Bay had actually listened to the criticisms of the first film and this time round that reigned in his hyperactivity and was letting us see the Transformers doing their stuff. However when the reviews hit, it became clear that despite more coherent action sequences, everything else was a good deal worse than the first. And so I scratched it from the cinema visit schedule…

But then, I happened to see a particularly terrible movie – Street Fighter – The Legend of Chun Li (documented for posterior here) … So the day after seeing this slice of cinematic dreck, a film so inept one needs self-medication to get through it, and being somewhat worse for wear as a consequence, I decided to go and see T2:ROTF on the grounds that it really couldn’t be any worse…

And how was it? It was loud, obnoxious and hyperactive with senseless shouted dialogue ….and that was just the audience!

At the risk of going all Harry Knowles on you all, I must first note that this was one of the worst cinema experiences I’ve had in a while. Normally I find that Sunday afternoon screenings are fairly dead and you can see a flick in the company of that endangered species, people who go the cinema to actually watch the bloody film.

However I had severely underestimated the box office power of the All Spark, and consequently had to endure the movie in a theatre filled with noisy brats, gobshite parents behaving worse than their spawn, and disaffected loudmouth teenagers fistfucking each other with IPods by the sounds of it.

But onto the film itself…Now I’m not going to stand here and try and tell you that this is by any stretch of the imagination a good film. I entirely stand by the assessments of Mark Kermode and Ian Loring – if you clicketh the linkage to their reviews you’ll get a complete and accurate dissection of everything that is wrong with this film.

But …

… and you knew there was a but coming…

(insert Megan Fox joke here)

… I actually really enjoyed it, and furthermore I suspect that this movie will go down as a classic of its kind!

Yes, it’s too long. Yes, the plot makes as much sense as a chocolate fire guard. Yes, Megan Fox is out acted by her own arse! And yes, Michael Bay is probably clinically insane! Even as a summer blockbuster popcorn movie, it misses the target.

In Transformers, Bay missed the said target’s bull’s-eye with his shotgun blast direction, but in T2:ROTF, he changed tactics – this film is the equivalent of nuking the entire town the archery contest is in from an orbiting space platform.

Now it’s fair to say that I went into this movie with lowered expectations. Well, I say ‘lowered’ – more like I summoned the Lamia and had them dragged screaming into the fiery pits of Hell. I was fully expecting what Tim from Spaced would call “an overblown firework of a toy ad”. And in fairness, that’s all the Transformers films are meant to be. I knew it was going to be a mess of robots punching each others lights out, but what I wasn’t expecting was the sheer scale of the lunacy Bay has conjured.

It’s as if Toho Studios threw Ed Wood and Bert I Gordon into a vat of Oswley’s finest acid and gorilla testosterone, subjected them to Jeremy Clarkson DVDs in Clockwork Orange style, and then set the pair loose with an unlimited budget to transfer the resulting visions to the screen.

By the time Bay veiled the senile Decepticon, complete with metallic beard and walking cane, he’d film criticism breaking down like the laws of physics around a singularity and the movie burning through the ionosphere with the controls sets for the heart of the sun! This is cinema as a Disaster Area gig!

It is so epically stupid, loud and spectacular, and its myriad flaws magnified to such a degree, the movie is transmuted to the levels of high art. It’s true there’s not enough sense in the plot to fill a squirrel’s acorn cup and Bay is more concerned with crafting demented imagery than telling a coherent story, but other auteurs such David Lynch and Dario Argento are frequently equally guilty of this.

Both these directors’ works are often described as possessing the logic of fevered dreams, and about a hour into T2: ROTF I was beginning to think I was undergoing a cataclysmic psychedelic flashback of kaiju proportions.

And in many ways, that’s what T2:ROTF is – a multi-million dollar kaiju. The Transformers toys’ heritage actually does stretch back into the lands of kaiju. Cult Japanese scifi series Ultraman often featured giant menaces and was created by Eli Tsuburaya who brought Godzilla to the screen. Ultraman inspired the early ‘70s Henshin Cyborg toys, which developed into Microman/Micronauts lines which in turned spawned the first Transformers.

So it’s a very appropriate approach to viewing this film. All the usual elements of the genre are here - giant beings battling, wholesale destruction of landmarks, and comedy interludes, all wrapped up in a plot that verges on the surreal in its nonsense. You could perhaps forgive T2: ROTF its trespasses in the same way you would forgive poor performances and logical lapses in the average Godzilla flick.

Alternatively though, in the face of unrelenting set-pieces and demented imagery you could attempt an arthouse interpretation. Are Bay’s excesses are kind of satire on blockbuster action? Certainly I spent most of this movie chuckling in disbelief at what he was presenting on screen. Or perhaps it’s an allegory? Bay appears to be mowing down a whole herd of sacred cows in a picaresque journey of mayhem. Parents are mocked, students shown as idiots, the internet dismissed, education and science rubbished, and authority revealed as incompetent, and cultural heritage destroyed with the Pyramids – the only things that matter, according to Bay it seems is loyalty and honor…

Or perhaps Megan Fox’s arse. It’s hard to be sure. Film students – there’s a thesis here!

Transformers 2 may well be “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” but it so colossal in its delirum, I can’t help but admire it. It may be a turkey, but it’s a 12 storey titanium-plated Mecha-Turkey rampaging through Hollywood, laying waste to sense and reason with its atomic breath. It is quite sheer brilliant in its terribleness. Michael Bay is often described as a cult (though I might have misheard) and I suspect Tranformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen he created a future cult classic.