Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Shallows by Anthony Jaswinski

 In The Shallow a young woman called Nancy is stranded in sight of land, indeed, a mere stroll from the shore, cut off by a relentless shark.  

Nancy is a surfer (the film features some snazzy surfing sequences) in a remote part of Mexico, who finds herself perched on a tiny rocky “island” about the size of a double bed, watching the fin of a great white circling her.

Nancy is played by Blake Lively, who has previously appeared in some superior films including the science fiction oddity The Age of Adaline and Ben Affleck's crime thriller The Town.

One very smart move on the part of Anthony Jaswinski's script is making her a medical student, so she can try and repair the shark bite in her leg in a visceral scene involving earrings and a sharp pendant. Ouch. 

Another smart move was giving Nancy an injured seagull, also stranded, as her companion on her tiny island. When she grabs the seagull, whom she amusingly nicknames “Steven”, I was worried she was going to wring his neck and drink his blood. But no, thank god, she uses her medical knowledge to reset his dislocated wing. 

The seagull is so terrifically engaging, smart and cute, that I thought he must be a computer generated figment. But, holy guano, he's a real bird Sully the Seagull! A star in the making.

The Shallows is a nice little movie and quite suspenseful. Blake Lively is plucky and appealing, and evidently did her own surfing... So is it churlish of me to suggest that our heroine doesn't quite have the star power required for the part? Probably. Nevertheless, Jessica Alba, where are you when we need you? 

The film has striking photography by Flavio Martínez Labiano and is directed by the Barcelonan Jaume Collet-Serra. Now, in these posts I tend to concentrate on the writers rather than the directors — after all, I am a writer myself.

But Collet-Serra has a great track record, including a couple of my favourite movies of recent years, the breathtaking psychological horror flick Orphan and the highly superior Liam Neeson thriller Unknown (Collet-Serra rather specialises in Liam Neeson thrillers, with three to his credit and a fourth in the works).

Writer Jaswinski, perhaps not surprisingly, has some horror films on his CV and here he's turned in a smart, compact, resourceful script... although a couple of times it’s not clear enough about what’s happening. 

Why does Nancy have to abandon her tiny island for the nearby buoy? Evidently because the tide is rising to the point where the island will be entirely underwater. But, as I say, not clear enough. 

Much worse is the oil slick she ignites with a flare gun. Where the hell did that come from? Not the flare gun... that's painstakingly set up. But the goddamn oil slick.

However, much the most lamentable thing about the movie, and one that must be blamed on the director is the insistence on putting images and video from Nancy's phone up on the screen in big floating vignettes. Is this really going to be the convention from now on? 

Nerve frequently did similar things, though with far more justification. If this is going to be a convention, it’s a shitty one because it’s a major distraction and destroys any mood or sense of reality. 

The Shallows also shares with Nerve some wretchedly bland pop music on the soundtrack, though thank heavens there's far less here. And The Shallows does at least have a proper score by the redoubtable Marco Beltrami. 

In the end, despite all caveats, this is a better than average summer thriller and an honourable mention is due. Plus, did I mention the great seagull? 

(Image credits: Posters from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Star Trek Beyond by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung

Actors who play a recurring role often come to have considerable insights into their characters, and some useful ideas on how to write stories about them. 

After quitting the Bond franchise, Sean Connery was hired to contribute to the script for a maverick 007 feature — though I suspect this was just a foxy feint by the producer to lure him into playing the role again. (It worked: the movie was Never Say Never Again.)

But the principle remains sound, and it also helps in a science fiction franchise if the actor in question is a big genre buff... it means they know things like a starship isn't designed for atmospheric flight. 

Hence Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, the engineer of the Enterprise, has ended up writing not just a serviceable Star Trek script, but a terrific one.

Star Trek Beyond is the best movie in the new series. Or, if you want to be mean about it, the only one worth seeing. 

The film begins with a great visual gag which wouldn't be out of place in any SF franchise, then moves swiftly to an audacious end-of-act catastrophe when the Enterprise is blown to bits and the crew, in escape pods, end up on the surface of a hostile alien planet.

What ensues is a series of subplots making good use of the various protagonists, who have been separated after their disastrous downing. 

The characterisation is better than in the previous movies, and there is some splendid new blood — Jaylah is a wonderful female alien whom Scotty falls in with. (In an Arthur Dent-style misunderstanding she  believes his name is "Montgomery Scotty" and refers to him as this throughout.)

Played by Sofia Boutella (who was the unforgettable amputee assassin Gazelle in Kingsman), Jaylah has bewitching make up, with a black and white face reminiscent of Daryl Hannah in Clan of the Cave Bear. She has an hilarious moment when she sits down in the captain's chair on the bridge, slouching across it, while Chris Pine's Captain Kirk stares on with pained discomfort.

I also loved the fact that, halfway through, it dawned on me that the heavily made up alien bad guy Krall was actually Idris Elba.

Pegg co-wrote the script with TV writer Doug Jung (Banshee) and some uncredited assistance from the likes of Roberto Orci. Great job. This is the first of the summer blockbusters to really deliver the goods.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards, where there was a rich selection. As you can see, I've really gone to town on Sofia Boutella's posters. Poor Simon Pegg was pretty much unrecognisable on his... Clan of the Cave Bear is from GStatic.) 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The BFG by Roald Dahl and Melissa Mathison

The BFG, as you no doubt know, is a Big Friendly Giant, here incarnated quite brilliantly by Mark Rylance, put through the CGI mill, in a new film directed by Stephen Spielberg and adapted by Melissa Mathison from Roald Dahl's children's novel.

Roald Dahl is a masterful writer and something of a household god of mine for his brilliant, concise, acerbic short stories which are often deeply disturbing and hilarious at the same time. 

They also invariably have a sting in the tail. Allow me to recommend, for a start, 'Lamb to the Slaughter', 'The Great Switcheroo', and 'The Champion of the World'.

But Dahl is more widely known for his kids' fiction, with tens of millions of fans worldwide. So it isn't surprising that his back-catalogue is being busily strip-mined for movie adaptations — all the more so since the writer's death. 

As I discussed in last week's post, Dahl was unhappy with the way his work was treated on screen and blocked film projects during his lifetime. But since his passing there's been something of a goldrush of Roald Dahl children's movies, usually heavy on the special effects because of the fantastic nature of these tales.

The latest of these is The BFG, based on one of Dahl's most beloved works. Sad to report, the movie is likely to be gone from the cinemas by the time you read this. Despite being a Spielberg film it isn't showing much box office mojo and has already tanked in America. 

All this makes sense because, despite its many fine attributes, the movie doesn't work. But before we examine why that is, let's dwell for a moment on those fine attributes...

I already mentioned how terrific Mark Rylance is in a subtle, nuanced performance (playing a CGI giant!). There's also dazzlingly imaginative production design — I love the way the giant uses everyday human objects repurposed to his scale. So, for instance, a red London phone box with its top removed becomes a receptacle for kitchen implements.

Plus the movie has a fine score by John Williams, and there's a captivating cameo by a delightful little ginger cat. And a nice running gag about how there are giants more giant than the BFG... indeed, he's a shrimp by comparison.

But of course, none of this is sufficient to save the movie. One fundamental flaw is that there just isn't enough story... the screenwriter Melissa Mathison is certainly distinguished, and has a laudable grasp of movies for children — she wrote The Black Stallion and ET.

The lack of plot is a major flaw, though. The only real story here is the BFG versus the nasty, bigger giants (who eat children) and how he defeats them with the help of Sophie (named after Dahl's granddaughter), the intrepid little orphan girl he befriends.
This isn't enough to fill the movie, and there are long soporific sequences where the BFG and Sophie explore a magical realm together, yawn... (I really did nearly fall asleep during this bit).

And, it has to be said, the character of Sophie, as played by Ruby Barnhill is also a problem. It sounds terribly unkind, but I don't think she's right for the part.  

She's a superb actor. But the viewer just doesn't warm to her, or care about her fate. We don't empathise. Instead we sit there thinking, gosh, that little girl can really act, but feeling quite unmoved by her and her situation.  
Oh well, at least The BFG has the best fart scene since Blazing Saddles. It doesn't sound like much, and it isn't exactly the Odessa Steps sequence from the Battleship Potemkin... 

But I do find fond recollections of it almost tempting me to see the film again...

(Image credits: The movie posters are, as usual from the reliable Imp Awards. The book covers ditto from the ditto Good Reads.)

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Roald Dahl and the Movies

Roald Dahl has long been a favourite writer of mine, mostly for the grown up stories rather than the children's books — although those, too: I love The Fantastic Mr Fox. And while I've never read The BFG (stands for Big Friendly Giant), it's so much a part of the culture I almost feel I have.

Spielberg's movie of The BFG is the reason for my thoughts turning to Roald Dahl and his film incarnations. I'll post about the movie itself next week. But in the meantime here's a brief overview of the writer's work on screen.

Dahl was cantankerous, to say the least, and he had a long and fractious relationship with the movie industry, dating back to World War 2 when one of his very first stories The Gremlins almost became a Walt Disney picture. Disney spent several years developing it, but in the end it never happened. Here's a terrific radio documentary about it by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was, perhaps surprisingly, a Roald Dahl screenplay — he expanded considerably on Ian Fleming's flimsy kid's book — but Dahl was very unhappy with what the director (Ken Hughes) did with it. 

And he was very pissed off with what Hollywood made of his book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for a start changing the title to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with an accompanying shift of emphasis.

He was also very vocal about his disapproval of a burp gag which appeared in the movie. Although years later he'd recycle the idea, converted — in a very Dahl way — into a fart joke in The BFG.

In fact, the only movie of his work which he really liked was the Bond blockbuster You Only Live Twice which, again, surprisingly, featured a Roald Dahl script adapting an Ian Fleming book.

Roald Dahl was on good terms with Ian Fleming, indeed in the early 1950s Fleming suggested an idea to Dahl which became one of Dahl's truly classic, twisted short stories, 'Lamb to the Slaughter'. It's a favourite of mine and was memorably adapted for Alfred Hitchcock's TV series in 1958, in one of the episodes directed by Hitchcock himself.

But, as I say, Dahl was generally unhappy with screen versions of his work — he didn't like Nic Roeg's version of The Witches, either; Roeg had monkeyed with the ending. 

So, in later life, when he was more than comfortably off (read: hugely wealthy) from his book sales, Dahl turned down offers from the movies.

With his demise, the floodgates opened and we got, among many others, a neat stop-motion version of The Fantastic Mr Fox, an excellent animated James and the Giant Peach (with music by Randy Newman), a new improved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, title intact, from Tim Burton...

And now The BFG, to be discussed next week... But if you can't wait until then I suggest you pick up one of Dahl's masterful collections of short stories, like Kiss Kiss or Someone Like You.

(Image credits: The posters for You Only Live Twice, Willie Wonka, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Witches, The Fantastic Mr Fox and Charlie are all from the wonderful Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Legend Of Tarzan by Burroughs, Cozad and Brewer

I briefly discussed Tarzan's literary origins in last week's post. Now we come to the latest film incarnation of Edgar Rice Burrough's immortal jungle lord. 

There isn't any shortage of movies about Tarzan — certainly over fifty exist. Some other interesting ones are Tarzan and His Mate (1934) and  Tarzan Escapes (1936), which was partly directed by William Wellman and is surprisingly erotic when our hero is welcomed to Jane's jungle. 

And then there was 1984's Greystoke, which interestingly was subtitled "The Legend of Tarzan", and was the work of the great screenwriter Robert Towne... although he was so disgusted with the result he signed it with the kennel name of his dog.

Well, The Legend of Tarzan could easily be the best of all of them. It's not perfect but it is very, very good. It's directed by David Yates, who did a slew of Harry Potter movies and drafts of the script were done by Craig Brewer (Black Snake Moan) and Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit).

I liked the genuine African feel to the movie, and the engagement with colonial evils (although that involved rolling the story back a few decades). I also liked the fact that our hero was covered with scars, as he would be if he'd been scampering around the jungle for a large segment of his life.  (And there's a great scene where he gets bitten and uses ants to suture the wound.)

The dialogue is admittedly a bit dodgy in its modernity (use Ngram, guys!) and there are some other flaws in the screenplay The basic threat — 20,000 unseen mercenaries moored offshore in CGI ships — remains utterly abstract and is a basic failure of screenwriting. 

But it doesn’t matter. This is personal — it's about our hatred of the villain -- and Christoph Waltz makes a terrific villain, although his Samurai worry beads are utterly ludicrous – and about the kidnapping of the wife – which is absolutely classic Burroughs. 

The presence of Samuel L. Jackson ameliorates the White Man Saves Africa aspect of the story – although when you think about it, the solution (give the guy a black sidekick) is as bad as the problem. 

But it works, not least because Jackson is so damned likable. His encyclopaedic knowledge of firearms becomes a bit tedious, however. 

Best of all, I really did like the way that Tarzan’s origin story was woven through the main narrative, neatly arriving at the point where it explains why the secondary bad guy, excellently played by Djimon Hounsou, was so eager to kill Tarzan.

Incidentally, Hounsou performs with such nobility that the confrontation scene actually becomes transcendent.

And I absolutely loved all the animal stuff. This is a worthy companion piece to Jungle Book, itself one of the best movies of the year. And that's appropriate because Burroughs was inspired by Kipling when he created Tarzan.

Oh, and in case anyone is sceptical about the scene where Tarzan is affectionately greeted by his old friend the lion, in an emotional reunion, just check out this true life story It brings a tear to my eye every time.

(Image credits: With their rather boringly limited colour palette, all these poster are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Legend of Tarzan is in cinemas and I'm eager to write about it. But it occurred to me that this genuinely is a legendary character, and of sufficient stature to justify a post sketching some of his context and background. So we'll get to the movie next week.

Tarzan, along with Sherlock Holmes, is one of the universally recognised literary heroes. Famous all over the world for over a century, he is part of the fabric of life.  

Indeed, my father used to get irked if people mispronounced the name — Dad insisted on the stress on the first syllable:"TAR-zun".

Edgar Rice Burroughs may not have been one of the greatest prose stylists, but he was a genius. And he was by no means a one-hit wonder. His Martian adventure stories, starting with A Princess of Mars, were colourful, vigorous pulp science fiction and enormously successful.

But Tarzan is his finest and most enduring creation. Written under the influence of Rudyard Kipling and Jack London (and the legend of Romulus and Remus), Tarzan of the Apes nonetheless was unique and vividly original. 

It was first published in All Story Magazine in 1912, the same magazine and the same year as A Princess of Mars (what a year!).  Burroughs was paid $700 for it. 

An immediate hit with readers of the magazine, Tarzan didn't instantly command a wider audience. When Burroughs sent off copies of the story to book publishers, he was initially turned down flat.

I love the anecdote of what happened next. Burroughs promptly wrote a sequel, but the editor of All Story, Thomas Newell Metcalf, didn't think much of it. In fact, he rejected it. 

In a classic piece of meaningless editor-speak, he said the story "lacked balance". So Burroughs just turned around and sold it, without a word being changed, to another magazine for $1,000. Of course, it was a big success.

Burroughs then proceeded to play the magazines off against each other and thereby jack up his fee.

All writers love anecdotes like that. This one is true, and it's documented in John Taliaferro's Tarzan Forever, one of three books I have about Burroughs on my shelf (as opposed to the several dozen by Burroughs). The others are Edgar Rice Burroughs Master of Adventure by Richard Lupoff and Edgar Rice Burroughs The Man Who Created Tarzan by Irwin Porges.
The Porges book is huge, big enough to stun an ox — or, if you're Tarzan, probably a rhino. And the Lupoff biography is beautifully illustrated. But I'd recommend the Taliaferro as the best introduction to the fascinating subject of Tarzan and his creator.

(Image credits: The beautifully stylish cover of the first edition, by Fred Arting, is from Wikipedia. The Taliaferro cover is from Simon & Schuster. The Porges is from Good Reads. The Lupoff green Frazetta cover is also from Good Reads. The earlier red Frazetta cover is from James Reasoner's blog.)

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Neon Demon by Nicolas Winding Refn

If I mention the cannibalism and necrophilia I’m in danger of making this movie sound interesting... But it isn't, really. It's a boring, arty dud

(Before we go on I should perhaps issue a warning. This post contains spoilers. It also mentions some scenes you may prefer not to read about while eating your breakfast.)

I must confess, I saw a trailer for The Neon Demon and I was immediately hooked and eager to see it

The imagery looked stunning, like Nic Roeg at his most lush. You'll get a taste of what I mean from these posters.

Bu if I’d known it was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, I  would never have rushed to get a ticket. Certainly Refn's movie Drive was striking and memorable — although it fell apart at the end, in a foretaste of things to come. 

But his next film, Only God Forgives, certainly ranks as one of the worst I've ever seen. (Where the hell did that guy get the sword?)

Admittedly, Neon Demon is vastly better... but that still leaves a hell of a lot of room for it to be bad in. 

Neon Demon tells the story of Jesse (a plucky Elle Fanning), a teenage girl who comes to LA hoping to be a model. She has sudden and giddying success, but also makes some dangerous enemies... Again, this all makes it sound quite interesting. 

However, Refn is like Kubrick without the genius and Lynch without the madness. And he calls to mind Cronenberg at his worst. Indeed, it’s as if someone wanted to emulate Kubrick, Lynch and Cronenberg while adopting the approach of Lars Von Trier at his most pretentious and boring.

Have said all that, The Neon Demon has the occasional highly effective moment – Keanu Reeves is quite impressive and there’s a nice bit involving him and a mountain lion. (Which accounts for one of the posters here.)

Apart from the incomprehensible artiness which besets this film, though, Refn makes a fatal rookie mistake. He kills off Jesse, but he doesn't end the movie at that point. 

It grinds on for another 15 minutes or so, continuing long after it has stopped in the minds and the emotions of the audience.

He does this because he wants to include a grisly gag about the two super models who helped to kill, and eat, poor Jesse. They are at a photo shoot when one of them gets up an upset stomach. She regurgitates one of Jesse's eyes. The other super model promptly pops it in her mouth and eats it.

So you can see we're not exactly talking about Citizen Kane here.

You'll also notice the prominence of Drive on these posters. That's because it's the only movie which Refn's directed that anyone would want to see. 

So far.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards.)