Category Archives: Film

Another day in paradise…..

In about 6 weeks or so, I will be returning to Sri Lanka with family & friends to celebrate (if that’s the correct verb) my 60th birthday.  It will be my second visit to the island, having travelled there about 7 and a half years ago in company with my Dad.

That trip was ‘sponsored’ by the National Lottery as part of the celebrations around the 60th Anniversary of the end of World War II.  Veterans like my Dad were given the opportunity to travel back (with an accomplice, namely myself)  to places where they had fought or been stationed.  In his case, he could have gone to any number of locations; anywhere from Nova Scotia to Australia and most places inbetween.

He chose Sri Lanka because it was somewhere he had long dreamed of returning to and could never persuade my Mother to join him; she would never have coped with the heat and humidity.   Anyway, whilst sailors tend to spend most of their time on board ship if not actually at sea,  Sri Lanka was a place where Dad got to spend a good deal of time ashore in 1944-5.


HMS Victorious getting up steam in 1944

This was because his ship, HMS Victorious, was sent in to the dockyards at Colombo for a refit in 1944.  Such a procedure necessitated getting all the crew off the ship to allow the work to be carried out.  The crew were dispersed to all areas of the island on a variety of ‘shore duties’ – many of them spurious.  Dad spent his first three nights in Ceylon (as he knew it) sleeping rough in the grandstand at Colombo Racecourse before being sent off to an RAF base at Kolutara.   He said that he spent a good deal of his time ashore playing cricket and also driving trucks up to Kandy,  in the mountains.

Subsequently, he ended up standing guard on a newly-created air base  in the centre of the island at Minneriya where the main runway had to be cleared of elephants before aircraft could take off or land.  With this in mind, a guard post – a flimsy construction of woven banana leaves on a wooden frame – was erected at the end of the main runway and manned 24/7.

On night patrol  with 3 other ‘ratings’,  my Dad (as a Petty Officer) was issued with a Navy pistol and sent down to this guard post towards sunset.  Once it got dark, the jungle – largely somnolent during the daytime heat – seemed to come noisily to life, with all manner of shrieks, squawks and howls reducing the tough Navy patrol to a set of gibbering wrecks.  For them, the worst moment arrived as a huge (but probably harmless) black snake slithered through the banana leaf ‘wall’ and into the hut.  In an atmosphere of considerable hysteria, Dad took aim at the snake and fired, at which point the mortally injured animal thrashed wildly backwards and forwards for about 10 minutes  – increasing hysteria levels – before it finally expired.  The English abroad, eh?


Fleet Air Arm crew ‘on guard’ at Minneriya in 1944

Dad and I called in at the former RAF Minneriya, which is now a Sri Lankan Air Force base  (SLAF  Hingurakgoda), but despite considerable efforts, we were unable to persuade the Sri Lankan military hotshots to let us in for a look around.  We obviously looked like Tamil Tiger desperadoes….

It was interesting to observe the change in the terrain around the base.  British servicemen had literally hacked the site out of dense jungle in 1944, but by 2005, the whole area was an open landscape, much of it agricultural.  Dad told me that during his time there, British fighter-bombers with extra fuel tanks were flying out of Minneriya to bomb Japanese fortifications in Burma.  One such group had a much-decorated South African squadron leader whose plane clipped the treetops upon take-off.  His plane came down in the jungle several hundred yards away and it took so long for  a rescue party to hack their way through to the wreckage, ants had consumed more than half of his mortal remains by the time the rescuers arrived.  Looking around what now seems to be a fairly benign landscape, this is hard to believe.

RAAF Dakota at Minneriya Airport, Ceylon, 02-11-1952.

RAF Minneriya in 1952 – by now most of the jungle was gone

Eventually, Dad rejoined the Victorious in Colombo, circumnavigating the southern tip of the island before docking at Trincomalee,  once described by Horatio Nelson as the finest natural harbour in the world.  After some time based at what is now the SLAF base at China Bay (one of Trinco’s many ‘creeks’ and inlets), Dad was off again, firstly to Sumatra, then the Philippines and some uncomfortably close encounters with Japanese ‘kamikaze‘ planes and finally  to Australia.  On VJ Day, as most of his celebrating shipmates were heading ashore to Sydney’s Circular Quay, Dad was banged up in the Victorious‘ sick-bay with chronic malaria and never did make it ashore in Sydney; he was transferred to a UK-bound ship and that was his War over with.


Allied warships in Trincomalee harbour in 1944

In 2005, he and I spent about a month travelling around Sri Lanka, but things were rendered somewhat more difficult than normal by two ‘extraneous’ factors.  Firstly, the appalling Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 had happened only a few months before our visit and some areas we wanted to visit were still struggling to get back on their feet.  Secondly, the ongoing struggle between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE (Tamil Tiger) rebels was still in full flow, so some parts of the country were ‘no-go areas’.

From Colombo, we headed north-eastwards to Dambulla and the ruined cities of Central Sri Lanka.  We also visited the airbase at Minneriya before heading for the east coast at Trincomalee.  There were plenty of police and military checkpoints along the road, but when they saw our white faces they simply waved us through.  We stayed at the excellent Welcombe Hotel on Orr’s Hill, well away from the centre of the town and gated as well.  I think that Dad & I were the only bona fide tourists in residence, because most of the other guests at the hotel were doctors, engineers, aid workers and so on,  representing a host of charitable concerns – Oxfam, Aid Australia, Médecins Sans Frontières and suchlike.

The east coast of Sri Lanka took the full brunt of the 2004 tsunami.  The Welcombe’s manager, Mr Da Silva, told me of how the headlands at the mouth of Trincomalee harbour had protected the town from the worst of the waves, whilst 10 miles north at Nilaveli, the devastation was colossal as waves swept inland for up to 2 miles, carrying massive amounts of debris with them.  South of Trinco towards Batticaloa and Arugam Bay it was a similar story.  Dad & I travelled north out of Trinco along the Nilaveli Road.  We made our first stop at the Trincomalee War Cemetery where Dad’s closest shipmate, Bill Allen is buried.

In the midst of a global conflict, Bill Allen met the most stupid and unnecessary of deaths.  Whilst stationed at  Trincomalee and awaiting further orders, HMS Victorious kept its crew occupied with various ‘busywork’ – such as my Dad’s regular cricket matches.  Being an aircraft carrier, the Victorious also used this ‘downtime’ to train its pilots and crew on the Barracuda dive-bombers which had replaced the old-style biplanes like the Alabacore and the Swordfish.   Bill was part of the crew of a Barracuda from the Victorious which collided with another plane in exercises off Trincomalee.  Dad returned to the ship after his cricket match to discover that Bill was missing, presumed dead and later the same day, the Victorious left to carry out bombing raids on Japanese-held refineries in Sumatra.IMG_0123As a consequence, for the next 50-odd years, Dad assumed that Bill’s body had never been found, but it was and he was buried – along with the Barracuda’s pilot – in the Trinco War Cemetery.  We visited the grave and left flowers – I would imagine we were Bill’s first ever visitors.  I tried to establish contact with his family in Leicester, but to no effect.

Further along the road towards Nilaveli, the littoral zone was strewn with tsunami debris and ugly clumps of wood and metal huts  that had sprung up as emergency housing for those affected by the tsunami.  Many of these had corrugated metal roofs and with the midday sun beating down, they must have been extremely uncomfortable inside.  However, we were told by some of the Aid Workers at the Welcombe Hotel that not everyone was interested in rebuilding communities.  Some people, provided with cash to build or buy new homes, apparently invested the cash in huge 4-wheel drive vehicles instead; it was noticeable how many of these huge 4×4’s could be seen on the roads around Trinco.

At Nilaveli itself, the formerly deluxe Beach Hotel had just been completely flattened by the waves, but work was already under way to rebuild it.  The beach itself was tranquillity personified – an empty, 30-metre wide stretch of clean white sand stretching in either direction for as far as the eye could see.  Only a tsunami -uprooted clump of mangrove root, lurking in the surf like a sea monster,  broke the calm.


Later, I bought a conch shell  from a stall outside Koneswaram,  on cliffs near Trincomalee and  one of the major Hindu temples of eastern Sri Lanka.  For a thing of such perfect, radiant beauty, it seemed ludicrously cheap – about £1.50.  Koneswaram – as is so often the case in sub-continental temples, palaces and fortresses – was overrun by predatory monkeys who were fed on dried fruit and pieces of mango by dutiful pilgrims.  But not by snotty Brits….

We headed southwestwards again and found our way via Kandy and Nuwara Eliya to Unawatuna, south of Galle on another tsunami-battered piece of coastline.  Strictly speaking, Galle faces west, but the tsunami wrapped itself around the coastline and crashed into the city, with 15 feet of water in the streets of the New Town and the cricket ground famously inundated.  Our hotel at Unawatuna was similarly swamped, with the 70 years -plus manager, Mrs Pereira, swept from her breakfast table and out into the street.  She probably survived because she clung on to a shard of wood that turned out to be a splinter from the hotel’s front door.

Undeterred, she worked like a demon to refurbish the place and  had pretty much done that by the time that Dad and I arrived to spend an idyllic week there.  Next door, however, was a small handicraft shop and this had been wrecked by the waves with all the shop’s stock washed out to sea and the building trashed.  The owner’s wife had a small infant clinging to her and this was known locally as the Tsunami Baby because the Mother was heavily pregnant when the waves came, was likewise washed out into the street, but somehow survived to give birth just 2 days later.  Almost out of pity, Dad bought a tsunami-damaged conch from the shopkeeper and now they both sit in my living room; I don’t know which one I prefer.

In a few weeks I’ll be returning to Unawatuna, though not to the same hotel.  Mrs Pereira only outlived the tsunami by a couple of years and like my Dad she has gone, now.  Her family continues to run the hotel, but it’s a lot more expensive than it was back in 2005;  there again, most of them are.  Had Mrs P. still been around, I suspect I would have felt obliged to stay there, but that’s no longer an issue, so we will be staying at the north end of the beach where it will be a little noisier and funkier in the evenings and where the surf culture that now dominates Unawatuna is a bit more obvious.  Not great for my 80-something Dad, but a bit more like it given the crew I’m travelling with.


Unawatuna Beach, looking south.

Unawatuna itself took a pounding from the tsunami and when I was last there, there were clear signs of this.  On the road into Galle, there was one bungalow in particular, built facing the sea, which looked as though it had giant holes punched through the middle of it – which indeed was effectively the case.  There were still piles of wreckage lying around and great gaps in the lines of palm trees facing the beach.  In Galle itself, the cricket ground – just across the road from the beach – was still being rebuilt.  This time, hopefully, we’ll be able to catch a game.


Tsunami damage at Unawatuna,2005

All of which lengthy preamble brings me to The Impossible(2012) – Beware spoilers if you haven’t seen it yet……, which is a new movie about the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, made by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona and based on the true story of the Belon family, who were caught up in the tsunami at a Thai resort and separated from each other before being reunited.

Sadly, the producers of the movie were unable to make the sums add up when it came to a Spanish-language version of the story, so the Belons became the Bennetts, who,  though based in Japan,  are quite clearly English.  Naomi Watts and Ewen McGregor play the well-to-do parents of three young sons who are escaping the cold of Tokyo for a Christmas break at a Thai resort which is all infinity pools and unctuous staff.

They have barely jumped into the pool before the tsunami strikes – some seriously impressive effects here – and the whole resort complex is annihilated before you can say ‘Tiger  Beer, please.’


Watts and her teenage son, Lucas, are swept inland by the waves, bouncing off cars, trees and pieces of furniture along the way.  Watts suffers a really gory injury to her leg and is clearly struggling.  Lucas (brilliantly played by Tom Holland) soon realises that he will need to rise to the occasion if they are to survive.

There is absolutely no doubt that this movie is a genuine tear-jerker.  Quite early in proceedings, Lucas has to help his ailing Mother climb a tree to an imagined point of safety and for both this is a visceral moment.  She needs to be strong for her son, but she is weak, bleeding and in pain.  He is unused to dealing with life in the raw and it suddenly dawns on him that he will need to find reserves of strength that he has never used before and take charge of a situation where he would normally defer to a parent if they are to survive.  He even finds the strength to rescue a far younger boy of about 6 and alert some local villagers who are searching for survivors, then ensure that his Mother is taken to the local hospital.


Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in ‘The Impossible’

Back at the coast, Ewen McGregor has rescued the 2 younger boys but has no idea of the whereabouts of Holland & Watts.  He decides that he must send the boys to safety in the hills on their own whilst he searches for his wife and eldest son.  The middle son, Thomas, played by Samuel Joslin carefully (and comically) explains to his Dad that he cannot abandon him to look after his younger brother because he’s never had to look after anyone before.

Meanwhile at the hospital, Lucas is anxious about his Mother’s worsening condition but can do little except wait.  Eventually, at her urging, he goes off to help other anxious Westerners to locate their families, but returns to find that his Mother has herself disappeared – and no-one knows where.  Eventually, the family are reunited but not before we experience some genuine apprehension about the likelihood of Watts’ survival.

There is no great secret to the appeal of ‘The Impossible’.  It’s a story about the resourcefulness of human beings and their capacity for compassion.  It’s a story about the strength of the human spirit and the powerlessness we feel when we are cast adrift in desperate circumstances.  Not that the happy ending experienced by the Belon/Bennett clan is necessarily typical.  At the hospital where much of the action takes place, the corridors and grounds are filled with anxious parents,  lovers and siblings who are desperately searching for loved ones who may be gone forever.  Even as the Bennetts are reunited, we see the grief and shock of many others playing out in the background.

And that is to say nothing of the local people who – unlike the Bennetts – cannot hop on to a jet and fly away to air-conditioned safety in Singapore.  Around the Indian Ocean, 283,000 people lost their lives and whole communities were decimated by this event.  Even so, I think it is futile to criticise Bayona for choosing to tell the story of a western family – it is for Thai and Sri Lankan film-makers and novelists and painters to interpret the events of 26/12/04 for their own audiences.  Even so, they will surely be able to identify with the depiction of events in ‘The Impossible’, if only because the story it tells is one that speaks in a language everyone can understand.

As for me, I return to Sri Lanka in the sure and certain knowledge that I will be meeting more local people who will want to tell me what happened to them on that fateful day – and those are the most vivid and evocative stories of all.


Hooked to the silver screen # 3 – Master of Disaster

Least said, soonest mended here.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’ has been subject to widespread acclaim, with ‘The Guardian’ voting it their ‘Film of the Year’.

Having enjoyed  Anderson’s 2007 film  ‘There will be blood’ and having previously seen and admired the work of both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, I had high hopes for this movie.  It seems to deal with the relationship between a demobbed drifter (Phoenix) and a figure (Hoffman) based loosely on L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology cult.

Despite seemingly having little or nothing in common, these two characters are bonded somehow and the movie wanders inconclusively through the period during which they are getting to know one another.  Hoffman in particular is tremendous – full of blather and bombast, only one step removed from the ‘snake oil salesmen’ of the American West.

Despite his tour de force performance, ‘The Master‘ meanders ineffectually along for 143 minutes before simply petering out.  I have read numerous analyses of what each character symbolises or how this is really a love story and none of what I’ve read  makes much sense to me.

It’s not that I am the kind of person who must always have their narratives served up in a linear and/or naturalistic manner, but I’m afraid ‘The Master’ – Hoffman’s performance aside – just doesn’t cut the mustard for me.

‘The Master‘ strikes me as a film that is weighed down by its own portentousness and gravitas.  “Look at me”, it seems to be saying, ” I am a very important movie about very profound issues.”  For me, it was just a waste of an evening.


Joaquin Phoenix & Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘The Master’

Hooked to the silver screen # 2 – 50 years of 007

Please note that for anyone intending to watch ‘Skyfall’, there are some serious spoilers herein…….

Being a fan of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies is one thing, but being a compulsive James Bond watcher is an obsession on a whole different level.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film – ‘Dr No’ – and this year’s Bond movie, ‘Skyfall’ is the 25th film to be  based on the Bond character, though the last of Ian Fleming’s original Bond stories was published in 1966 and the last movie to have any vague connection with the Fleming era was 1983’s ‘Octopussy’. 

Leaving aside the 1967  spoof version of ‘Casino Royale’, 007 has been portrayed by 6 different actors and despite huge variations in style and quality, most of the Bond movies have done seriously good business at the Box Office.

Everyone has their favourite James Bond and to some extent which Bond you favour seems to revolve around your age-group.  For old gits like me, the only Bond worthy of his ‘double-oh prefix’ is the original Bond, Sean Connery; everyone else is strictly second best compared to the SNP’s biggest fan.  Younger folk may prefer Roger Moore and his elevating eyebrows or Pierce Brosnan’s urbane charmer, whilst the Princess is a big fan of the current incumbent, Daniel Craig.

Still, whichever Bond leaves you shaken not stirred, it’s almost impossible not to notice the massive shift between the worlds inhabited by Sean Connery’s Bond and Daniel Craig’s latest version.

To prime myself for ‘Skyfall’, I ventured down into the LTSN Vaults to locate and view (for the first time in at least 20 years)  a copy of 1962’s ‘Dr No’, the original template for all that has followed since.  The story concerns your average megalomaniac, the eponymous Doc of the title,  half German & half Chinese, who is messing with radioactivity and radio waves on a small island just off the Jamaican coast.  His aim is to destabilise American rockets launching from Cape Canaveral but he soon finds himself under the scrutiny of the local British MI6 station.  Once he eliminates them, Bond is soon on the plane to Kingston.

When we first encounter Bond, it is in some high-stakes gambling club in London.  He is wearing a tuxedo,  smoking cigarettes from a  silver case and flirting across the chemin-de-fer  table with a striking brunette.  All the flunkies at the club treat him with the utmost deference and as he is summoned for a briefing with ‘M’,  the brunette can barely conceal her frustration –  Bond’s  status as a sophisticated denizen of London’s night-life is clearly established.

Sean Connery

On his way in to see ‘M’ he flirts again, this time with Miss Moneypenny, but it’s all business with Bernard Lee’s ‘M’, looking the epitome of the overworked civil servant and barely able to conceal his irritation with Bond’s maverick lifestyle.  As if to emphasise this, he calls in the ‘Armourer’ and forces Bond to swap his favoured (but  effete)  Beretta pistol for a brutal but businesslike Walther PPK – and is not fooled by Bond’s sleight of hand as he attempts to leave with the Beretta as well.

Once in Jamaica, Bond looks hot and bothered but still manages to repel no less than 3 attempts to kill him before he shrugs off his Savile Row threads for some funky beachwear and heads out to Crab Key to deal with the Bad Doctor.

Here the movie shows its age, especially in the way it deals with the character of Quarrel, a local fisherman who Bond pays to take him out to Crab Key.  Played by John Kitzmiller, the Quarrel of the ‘Dr No‘ movie is the worst kind of black stereotype.  He is  not particularly bright,  he’s rather superstitious and is also overfond of rum.  He rolls his eyes, refers to Bond as ‘Cap’n’ (might just as well have been ‘Massa’) and meets a grisly end when he is incinerated by a flame-thrower.   In the book, by contrast,  Quarrel has been Bond’s friend for several years, having trained him to swim long distances underwater and deal with potentially hostile sea creatures in the pages of ‘Live & Let Die’ – a novel which preceded ‘Dr No’ whereas the ‘Live & Let Die’ movie wouldn’t appear until 1973.  Ian Fleming may not have been the most enlightened of English colonialists, but he would surely have recoiled at the crude stereotype of Quarrel in this movie.

The best-remembered scene from ‘Dr No’ is undoubtedly the point where Bond encounters the shell-hunting Honeychile Rider, who emerges from the sea like a Teutonic goddess in a white bikini.   As Honeychile’s name might suggest,  in the novel she has strong links to Jamaica’s past and far from being the blonde bombshell of the movie, was in all probability partially Jamaican (creole).  Even so, it was the Swiss-German Andress who went down in movie folklore; the irony being that her English accent was so heavily Germanic that her lines were over-dubbed by another actress.

Ursula & Sean

So much for ‘Dr No’; the rest of the movie follows a predictable course.  After Quarrel’s death, Bond & Honeychile are captured and taken to Dr No’s elegant underground complex with hot & cold running everything and all mod cons.  The Doctor and Bond do some verbal jousting after which Bond is beaten up and locked up whilst the evil Doc prepares to destabilise another US rocket.  The technology of the ‘control room’ is quite hilarious – rather like something Gerry Anderson might have cooked up for ‘Thunderbirds’;  lots of big dials and goldfish bowl helmets.  In the end, of course, Bond escapes, frees Honey, destroys the control room and kills Dr No, escaping just before the whole complex goes up like a two-bob (nuclear) rocket.  The two survivors float off across the Caribbean with no fear of fall-out and consummate their relationship in the bottom of a sailing dinghy.  For 1962, it was probably pretty revolutionary stuff.

So what do we learn about the world through James Bond’s steely blue eyes?    We learn that it’s cool to travel the world (which not many Brits did in 1962)  and to be a British secret agent at the end of the colonial era.  We learn that women, like cigarettes and alcohol, are a resource to be consumed.   We learn that native Jamaicans,  if handled properly, will show you the utmost deference that is the Master’s due.  We learn that having a taste for obscure cocktails and knowing a little about wine is an instant sign of sophistication.  We learn that even the mighty USA has to play second fiddle when 007 is in town.  We learn that showing emotion is a weakness and that there comes a point where the talking has to stop and brutal force must have its day.  Bond sails through the corridors of Whitehall and the plantation club culture of pre-independence Jamaica like a man who is utterly certain of his place and the place of his country in the scheme of things.  He is one of the good guys and the bad guys like Dr No are just out there waiting for him to take them down.

Jump forward 50 years to ‘Skyfall’ , the latest Bond adventure to take to the big screen.  As has become customary with recent Bond films, everything kicks off  with a spectacular set piece. Daniel Craig’s 007 is in Istanbul, attempting to track down a computer disk  – carelessly mislaid by ‘M’ – which contains the names of every Western agent working under cover in any one of the world’s hotspots.  Bond arrives just too late to prevent the wholesale slaughter of a roomful of friendly agents and the theft of the disk.   He is then  driven by Naomie Harris at high speed through the narrow streets of the old city, before continuing the chase by motorbike across the roof tops of the Grand Bazaar and ultimately on the roof of a passenger train.  Finally, Harris, in contact with ‘M’ by radio, unwittingly shoots Bond and the villain escapes.

Daniel Craig;Judi Dench

Craig, Dench and Aston Martin in the background – old technology

Just this 10 minute sequence is worthy of a little closer attention, showing, as it does, that things have changed greatly for 007 since that Pan American jet from Miami touched down in Kingston back at the start of ‘Dr No’.  For one thing, Craig’s Bond is never in control in the way that Connery usually was –  he is playing catch-up from the very beginning.

As for technology, this is something that Bond movies have always embraced,   both in terms of the way they were shot and in terms of plot devices – cameras follow the speeding motorbikes, swooping across the roof of the Grand Bazaar in a series of breathtaking tracking shots – the Connery-era movies look very static by comparison.  Within the plot,  Dr No’s radio beams and Goldfinger’s lasers have now become ‘Skyfall’s ‘ hard drives and GPS trackers and suchlike.  Perhaps the only surprise about ‘Skyfall’ is that it isn’t in 3D, though that will presumably come.

skyfall istanbul rooftops

‘Skyfall’ – the opening chase sequence across the Istanbul rooftops

The next thing is that Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny is the driver of a souped-up Land Rover that hurtles through the Istanbul streets in pursuit of the bad guys. Despite a fairly obvious joke about her driving when she shaves a corner a bit too closely, Harris is about as far from her 1962 counterpart as it’s possible to get. Not only does she drive at high speed through crowded streets and use firearms, perhaps most tellingly of all, she is black.  Wonder what Quarrel would have made of that?  It’s pretty much for certain that Connery’s Bond wouldn’t have coped with it at all; in his world, women were either maternal or seductresses and black women were usually maids or housekeepers.

Poor James.  he has had to adapt his dinosaur ways to a vastly different world – even at work, things are changing;  the reassuringly gruff and headmasterly  Bernard Lee has long since been replaced by Judi Dench – a woman as ‘M’! What is the world coming to?  And ‘Q’, the armourer/quartermaster – initially played as an old buffer by the genial Desmond Llewellyn, who then handed over to the noticeably more eccentric John Cleese –  is now a mere youth (Ben Whishaw) who barely looks old enough to shave and seems to deal more easily with computers than he does with human beings.

Skyfall Q

Ben Whishaw’s ‘Q’ – definitely new technology

The issue for Bond as he recuperates from his Istanbul outing in some anonymous eastern beach resort (rather like Jason Bourne in Goa at the start of ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ ) is of course ‘M’.  She is the mother figure for whom he harbours both love and hate – something that she reciprocates.  Bond catches a TV news report giving details of an explosion at MI6 HQ and knows that he must return to rescue ‘M’ from another of her former protegés,  Silva (Javier Bardem), who is the real villain of the piece.  He has started to publish names of some of the agents from the missing hard drive on the internet (with fatal results for them)  in an attempt to discredit ‘M’ who betrayed him to the Chinese years beforehand.  He also stages the explosion which kills a number of MI6 employees.

Bond returns to find things in a chaotic state with ‘M’ under growing pressure to step down and the subject of parliamentary enquiries.   She even addresses the Parliamentary Select Committee with a few mouthfuls of Churchillian rhetoric – “Ask yourself; ‘How safe do I feel?'”  Bond, meanwhile, is subjected to a series of physical and mental tests to determine whether or not he is fit enough to resume active service and fails most of them but is cleared by Mummy ‘M’ to take up the 007 mantle yet again.

skyfall craig bardem

Craig and Bardem get up close & personal in ‘Skyfall’

Connery’s Bond would have found this battered, flawed, post-modernist 007 a very difficult pill to swallow.  The certainties of 60’s ‘realpolitik’ when we knew who the good guys were and who the baddies were have all disappeared for Daniel Craig’s Bond.  Silva is a maverick villain who has sprung from the very service that Bond represents, rather than being some doctrinaire Commie from  the Soviet or the Chinese bloc.  Also, the confrontational scene between Bond & Silva where Silva comes on to 007 would have reduced Connery’s Bond to apoplexy.  Craig just takes it in his stride – and maybe, just maybe it isn’t his first time….

With  Judi Dench’s ‘M’ fatally injured in ‘Skyfall’s’ climactic shoot-out and his Aston Martin similarly blown to smithereens, it might be tempting to see Bond as a relic for whom time has finally run out, yet at the movie’s end, 007 is up on the roof again, brooding over London’s skyline like some crabby guardian angel.


Moneypenny – who has given up field work after her Istanbul experiences – comes up to retrieve Bond and take him down for his appointment with Ralph Fiennes, the new ‘M’, who promptly asks whether 007 is ready to go back to work.  The franchise must go on…..

Hooked to the silver screen – back to Middle Earth

Having spent many years of late hardly visiting the cinema at all,  I have recently gone through a positive orgy of movie-watching.  Some might conclude from this that I have rediscovered my movie mojo and have finally tired of watching stuff on DVD or via scabby internet downloads.

However, there is another more plausible explanation and that involves the enduring appeal of a number of movie ‘franchises’, all of which – spookily –  seem to have invaded local multiplexes just in time for Christmas.   Who would have thunk it?   And, like a moth drawn to a flame, I have ventured out into the city to catch up with the latest exploits of two very different heroes – one standing about 3 foot 6 inches tall, with curly hair and furry feet, the other a gaunt and haunted relic of a United Kingdom that has long since disappeared.  I have also managed to catch up with ‘The Guardian’s  Movie of the Year, but that’s another story…..

Let’s start with hobbits.  Peter Jackson’s ongoing exploits with characters made famous by the late J.R.R. Tolkien have now brought him to ‘The Hobbit’, the slight and whimsical children’s tale that serves as a precursor to the more adult concerns of the ensuing ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Many people wondered how Jackson would cope with  ‘The Hobbit’, a slim volume detailing the adventures of Bilbo Baggins in earlier, simpler days  when ‘quests’ were just ‘adventures’ and a magic ring was nothing more than a device for concealing oneself from prying eyes.

The answer is that he has seemingly re-invented it as another movie trilogy, the first part of which – ‘An Unexpected Journey’ – has just opened in cinemas worldwide.  The second part – ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ – will follow next December and the final part – ‘There and back again’  – in the summer of 2014.

‘An Unexpected Journey’ has been released in 3D; a flavour whose month seems to have been going on for a couple of years now.  Having begun with ‘Avatar’, my enthusiasm for 3D has decreased exponentially. To be quite candid, I have yet to see a movie that is seriously enhanced by its use.  IMAX screens are a different kettle of widescreen fish, however and having recently seen and been duly gobsmacked by  ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ at my local IMAX,  I was quick to book the entire household in to see ‘An Unexpected Journey’  at the same venue.  Some types of movie are definitely improved by being viewed on these giant screens and Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies certainly fit that bill.

Bilbo & Gandalf

Bilbo and Gandalf  at Bag End

But that wasn’t the full story by any means;  the cunning local  IMAX entrepreneurs hit on a pre – ‘Hobbit’   stratagem that probably qualifies everyone in this house for some kind of psychiatric evaluation.  They emailed me to say that they were screening all 3 of Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies on their big screen and in their extended versions in the week prior to the arrival of ‘An Unexpected Journey’.  We were like putty in their hands and booked ourselves in immediately for a ‘Hobbit-athon’ of truly epic proportions.  Thus, on successive nights we spent 3.5 hours,  then 4 hours and finally 4.5 hours journeying to and from The Shire in company with the Fellowship.  A kind of fellowship emerged in the theatre as well; we would see the same couple of dozen faces each night and there would be vague, amused nods of semi-recognition – the acknowledgement of one obsessive for another.  Of course, the movies in their elongated versions looked magnificent on the giant screen and we were well & truly primed for Saturday night and the main event.

So, let me say first of all that I really enjoyed ‘ An Unexpected Journey’, though not without certain caveats.  First and foremost, it should be said that 3D is totally unnecessary for this film.  I could have watched it in standard format and been just as happy.  The film has many positives; Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis and Hugo Weaving all return to great effect – in fact the scenes with Serkis’ Gollum and Martin Freeman’s Bilbo are probably the strongest in the entire film.  The film, like its predecessors, is beautifully dressed and the photography again makes the best of the New Zealand locations.


Andy Serkis returns as Gollum – as bipolar as ever….

Of the new elements, Martin Freeman makes a splendid ‘young’ Bilbo Baggins, through whose eyes we experience these new Middle Earth adventures.   However, Peter Jackson and his writers struggle – as anybody would – to familiarise us with no less than 13 dwarves, whose effect for much of the film’s length is purely comedic in nature. Richard Armitage’s Thorin would probably be the exception here – he cuts a most undwarvish figure for most of the movie.  Otherwise, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner stand out from the crowd, but the others, frankly. seem to be there only to make up the numbers.

Apart from the orcs of the ‘Goblin City’, the travelling party have a new and powerful enemy in Azog the Orc, who is big and evil but more like a character from ‘Shrek’ when compared to the Uruk-Hai.  Sorry, just nowhere near as scary as Saruman’s Uruks.


Azog the Orc attacks – but he’s no Uruk-Hai….

The source material for ‘An Unexpected Journey’  does offer some real dilemmas – the encounter with the 3 trolls would be typical – where the tone  fluctuates between the whimsical comedy of the original text and the far more serious ‘back story’ of  Sauron and the  truly evil elements of Middle Earth.  Jackson’s three trolls are like giant caricatures of the Warwickshire farm labourers Tolkien would probably have encountered as a child whilst living at Sarehole Mill, to the extent that they rejoice in names like Tom,  Bert and Bill.   Having ‘petrified’  the trolls with sunlight, Gandalf then confides that something evil must be happening to drive trolls down from the mountains.  Similarly, the Goblin King, as voiced by Barry Humphries, is somehow a far less threatening character than the Moria orcs or Uruk-Hai of the ‘Rings’ movies.   In fact, the whole ‘Goblin City’ with its chase scenes along  elevated walkways  is more like something from a computer game than  the equivalent scenes from the novel.

So, not all of ‘An Unexpected Journey’ works and there are some fundamental reasons behind that.  In expanding the story of ‘The Hobbit’ to a trilogy of circa 3-hour movies, Peter Jackson now faces a challenge that is the complete antithesis of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ – there, he had to make some tough choices about what to leave out; so, no ‘Scouring of the Shire’, no Tom Bombadil etc. etc.  Here he must inflate the available material to fill the screen time and cover aspects of  Middle Earth’s history that  played no part in the original text of ‘The Hobbit’.  Whilst I am sure that he will manage it eventually, he’s not going to get everything right.  The next movie will bring further challenges – for example, how to integrate the expanding repertory of Brit character actors – to James Nesbitt and Sylvester McCoy, we will soon be able to add Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly and Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as welcoming back Orlando Bloom’s Legolas.  Let’s hope it doesn’t turn into one of those dreadful movies  like ‘The Towering Inferno‘  filled with celebrity vignettes of little worth.  Whatever the case, Jackson doesn’t seem to have  had any problem so far in expanding the running time – ‘An Unexpected Journey’ weighs in at a hefty 169 minutes and there is plenty to suggest that the second and third films in the cycle will be of an equivalent length.

50 years of ‘Lawrence’ – plus an Intermission

My favourite movie – David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia‘ – celebrates its 50th birthday this year and is enjoying a limited cinema release with a new digital print by way of commemorating this anniversary.

I can still recall my Dad taking me to our local ‘fleapit’ on Wellingborough Road to see ‘Lawrence’ when it first came out.  I had only the vaguest idea who T.E. Lawrence was (or had been) but even at a very tender age, I was captivated, both by Peter O’ Toole’s astonishing turn as the eponymous, troubled hero as well as the wide-screen landscapes of the desert which are a substantial part of the movie’s unique signature.

Since that first ‘sighting’ of Lawrence on the big screen, I have, like many Englishmen of a certain age, become embroiled with the whole mythology of the man’s life.  I have read Lawrence’s  own books and many other books written about him, I have visited his cottage at Clouds Hill and his grave at Moreton and have already written about him on this blog, here:

The enduring impact of T.E.Lawrence…..

in February of 2010.

David Lean directs  a smiling Peter O’Toole somewhere in the Jordanian desert

Lawrence ‘s  ‘enduring impact’ has, of course, been substantially enhanced by  David Lean’s wonderful film but also, in my view, has something to do with this country’s post-Imperial status and the way in which we, as a nation have dealt with that.   Lawrence almost became a poster boy for a dysfunctional, crumbling Empire; emotionally conflicted and battered by circumstance, whilst retaining a certain fundamental English decency.  His fury and bafflement at the slings and arrows of the politicians,  the diplomats and the media somehow echoed the frustrations of thousands of ordinary servicemen and women who felt that they had fought in  (one or both of) the war to end all wars and if they were supposed to have won it, why did they so often feel as though they’d lost it?  For the story of a detached and reserved Oxford academic’s adventures in the deserts of Arabia to capture the imagination of so many ordinary British people is little short of extraordinary.

At the outset 0f the movie , in Cairo, O’Toole plays Lawrence as the Army misfit with his distracted manner and awkward exchanges with colleagues and  superiors.  He seems to inhabit, rather than wear his ill-fitting uniforms and is regarded with suspicion and ill-concealed irritation by his superiors.  In his first foray north-eastwards from Yenbo to meet up with Prince Feisal’s irregulars, he sits awkwardly on his camel and only as he gradually adopts local attire and becomes more comfortable with his life among the Bedouin does he seem more at ease.  In fact, only once in the film, after the fall of Akaba, whilst being interviewed by George Kennedy’s American journalist, does he ever really seem at peace with his role as the arbiter of the Desert Revolt.  The rest of the time he seems to veer from self-doubt and self-loathing to manic over-confidence and reckless humour.  It’s a tour de force performance and one from which O’Toole’s career never really recovered;  subsequently,  most people saw those vivid blue eyes and just remembered Lawrence.

Omar Sharif makes his unforgettable entrance……

Despite this ‘tour de force’ , after nearly 4 hours –   3 hours & 45 minutes plus a 10-minute intermission – we are  in many respects none the wiser about Lawrence’s motives;  – patriot or romantic?  pragmatist or accidental hero?  man of action or poetic dreamer?

And there are more questions about him…..  Away from the  War and the politics, there has been continuing speculation in this prurient age about Lawrence’s sexuality.  In 1962,  Lean was unable to tell what he thought was the full story of Lawrence’s capture and imprisonment in Deraa,  though the movie hints that Miguel Ferrer’s Turkish officer sexually assaults  Lawrence and he himself suggests this in his book, ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.  Yet again, we are forced to observe that so much of Lawrence’s story is untold and despite this movie and all the other books and documentaries and press articles, the man remains the proverbial enigma, elusive,  shrouded in mystery and so on.

Within the movie, Lean’s visual strategies often hint at this – Lawrence the public figure is often seen backlit atop a train carriage or in silhouette,  as a shadow or as a muffled figure, wrapped in his keffiyeh.  At the very end of the film, with Lawrence on his way to take ship to England, he’s back in Army khakis and being driven by an NCO in a jeep.  They pass a group of Bedouin who are returning to the desert.  Lawrence rises as if to salute them, but they do not recognise him.  He sits down again and (prophetically) a motorbike overtakes them – part of the extended ‘journey’ metaphors with which David Lean bedecks the movie.   Lawrence stares ahead – a man who is part of 2 very different worlds but not altogether at home in either of them.   Here in the very final frames of a 4-hour film, the hero remains  both obscure and obscured due to the fly-spattered, dusty windshield of an Army jeep.

We  cannot really see his face.  What do we actually know about him?

The official publicity materials for the movie tended to reinforce this approach – Lawrence’s face is similarly shrouded here……who was that masked man?

Without wishing to demean the efforts of a superb supporting cast – Anthony Quinn and Jack Hawkins were particularly effective – the other undoubted star of Lean’s movie is,  of course, the desert itself.  Some parts of the film were filmed in Morocco and Spain, but the most dramatic sequences were filmed in Jordan, particularly in the spectacular landscapes of Wadi Rum.  Seen on a super-large IMAX screen, these scenes are even more overwhelming and demonstrate a crisp, compositional flavour that just makes today’s CGI  epics look  flat and one-dimensional by comparison.  For all that it is 50 years old, ‘Lawrence’ has worn pretty well and for me it was a joy to see the film on an even larger screen than the one where I saw it originally.

 Some autographed publicity stills with Peter O’Toole and  Anthony Quinn as the larger-than-life Auda

 However,  the opportunity to see such a classic movie as it was meant to be seen does not seem to have transferred overmuch to a younger generation of fans. There was no more than a sprinkling of takers for this showing and most of them were as old, if not older than myself.  In the car park outside, we met some friends who were on their way in to see the latest James Bond movie – 007, of course,  being a character at least partly inspired by Lawrence.  Sadly, I suspect that box office business would have been somewhat brisker for Bond than it was for Lawrence.  Whether or not people will still be turning out to watch ‘Skyfall’  in 2062, however, is rather less likely.

Game of Adaptations…..

I’ve been reading fantasy novels for most of my adult life, though in recent years, my tastes have moved away from fiction towards travel books and historical biographies.  Even so, something will cross my radar now and again – such was the case last December when I was visiting my late father in hospital.  He had been moved to (essentially) a nursing facility in Daventry and as a non-driver, this presented something of a challenge in terms of access.  In the end I figured out a convoluted bus and train route that got me there and back OK, but with a good deal of hanging around.  Specifically, I had to wait around quite a lot at Daventry’s  ‘bus station’ – essentially part of a public car park, divided into bus bays.  When doing my regular visits to Dad, I always ensured that I was well-equipped with distractions – iPod, book, newspaper, water bottle, sandwich etc.

Even so, a local charity had opened up a second-hand bookshop in what looked like a disused office right next to the bus bays, so I wandered in one day, emerging  in time to get my bus with a well-worn US paperback edition of George R R Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’, which I’d picked up for £1.  I’d become aware of ‘Game of Thrones’ thanks to a fairly modest publicity campaign launched by Sky TV to publicise the fact that they were screening HBO’s adaptation of the book; an adaptation whose promo posters featured a photo of a rather grim-looking Sean Bean staring out at us and looking for all the world like Boromir with a serious hangover.

Sean Bean  looking grim as Eddard Stark on the novel’s front cover

Dipping into ‘Game of Thrones’  on the way home, I was immediately hooked and have subsequently acquired a DVD box of the aforementioned (first) HBO series as well as systematically working my way through all of the ‘Westeros’ novels currently available.  So, you might say that I’m a fan, though I am some way from being an uncritical one.  I’ll return to the novels later, but I just wanted to pause long enough to express my admiration for the HBO adaptation, which is beautifully ‘dressed’ and well-acted and a worthy addition to all the other excellent HBO series of the last ten years.  Martin is actually involved in the adaptation of his own novels for TV, but only as part of a team of writers, directors and producers.  Collectively, they have done a great job in bringing Westeros to life .  However, not all such adaptations are handled so deftly…..

Back in 2009 I wrote about how,  among the sober volumes of Nevil Shute and   J B Priestley on my parents’ bookshelves, there was one glaring anomaly; a luridly purple hardback edition of ‘Thuvia, Maid of Mars’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I  knew Burroughs’ name from the better-known ‘Tarzan’  books he wrote, but they somehow failed to capture my imagination in the way this one did.   I worked through  ‘Thuvia’ at top speed, then headed off to the local library in search of the remaining volumes in the series.

In 2009, I wrote about the dreadfully lame movie based on Burroughs’ Martian series:  ‘A Princess of Mars’ ( ‘Watching……’Princess of Mars’……..‘ – Dec 2009) Recently, I caught up with the new ‘John Carter’ movie, based on the first novel of the series, but haven’t bothered to blog about it, mainly because I didn’t really know what to say. 

To say that the movie received mixed reviews would be an understatement and whilst I wish I could refute all the negativity………in all conscience, I can’t.  I would have loved it to be a great movie, but sadly it’s just average, rather than really bad.  For me, the main problem with it is that director Andrew Stanton is like the kid who wants to set off all his fireworks at once.  The movie leaps from set piece to set piece without too much regard for pacing, character development or mood.  It’s just one long breathless roller-coaster ride where some aspects of the plot aren’t adequately explained at all, whilst others  are done to death.

Green Martians try to shoot down a Red Martian flyer in Andrew Stanton’s hyperactive ‘John Carter’

Such are the perils of adapting your story from an existing text;  by contrast, George Lucas was able to take his ‘Star Wars’ characters wherever he wanted at whatever pace he chose because the storyline, though a bit derivative and occasionally somewhat cheesy, was essentially his own.  The downside of this of course was that the cheesy element remained right to the very end with the ghastly Ewok ceilidh at the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’.  Tom Bombadil would have fitted right in with that.

Talking of which, in recent years, we’ve seen Peter Jackson and his New Zealand-based team of  actors, technicians, writers, designers, modellers, armourers, builders, costumiers etc, etc at WETA  take down the really big beast on the block with his adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Jackson did a pretty good job in re-inventing Middle Earth for new millennium audiences; get rid of Tom Bombadil and some other fringe passages, turn the relationship between Legolas and Gimli into something of a comedy routine and turn down some of the folksiness of the novels, crank up the CGI for the battle scenes….OK,  maybe Sauron and the Nazgul weren’t that scary, but Andy Serkis’  Smeagol/Gollum was inspired and the core cast members were generally first-rate. 

Jackson et al had some trouble with what were generally referred to as the ‘Tolkienistas’  – in summary,  elvish-speaking, self-appointed ‘Defenders of the Faith’ who quibbled with Jackson about plot details and character nuances, locations, elvish script and armour design plus a million other technical details  throughout the lengthy production.  By and large, though, I think most people would say that the action moved briskly along without those big chunks of Tolkienesque exposition to weigh it down and that the attention of the experts (like artist Alan Lee) and the quibbling Tolkienistas ensured accuracy and an attention to detail that surely made the whole trilogy the ‘best-dressed’  series of fantasy movies ever.

The great thing for would-be fantasy directors is, of course, CGI, whether that means stuff that is completely ‘rendered’ on computers, stuff that mixes miniature models and computer-rendered images or men in latex suits covered in lots of sensors, as per Andy Serkis as Gollum in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and both the returning Gollum and Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon, Smaug, in the forthcoming ‘An Unexpected Journey’, the first part of Peter Jackson’s take on ‘The Hobbit’.   Predictably, it’s becoming very fashionable to raise one’s eyes to the heavens whenever CGI is mentioned and there is no doubt that if used injudiciously (I’m afraid ‘John Carter’ is guilty of this) it does start to look somewhat fake. 

(Spoiler warning…beyond this, there is some discussion of the storylines of George R R Martin’s  Westeros novels , so if you are currently working your way through them, it might be an idea to stop now unless you want some surprises spoilt for you)

 I’m not sure how much CGI is used in ‘Game of Thrones’ – a minimal amount, I would think – because whilst the action of ‘Game of Thrones’ undoubtedly takes place in an invented location,  much of what passes for everyday life in Westeros has more in common with medieval European culture than anything else.  There are no elves or orcs or suchlike – just men, who – at the top end of the food chain – are kings and lords and knights in armour, complete with their retinues of squires and retainers, their fiefdoms and castles, their serfs tilling the fields and so on.

The main ‘fantasy’  (and CGI) element in  ‘Game of Thrones’  concerns The Wall, a monumental structure built by the men of Westeros from huge blocks of ice at some time in the indeterminate past.  The Wall is built across a neck of land in the far north of Westeros with the express intention of keeping out those living to the north of it in what seems to be a sub-polar wilderness of forest and mountain.  There are men here, too, usually referred to as Wildlings, but there is the hint of something else, supernatural beings of enormous potency known as ‘The Others’ , who seem to be growing in strength as Westeros’ lengthy cycle of seasons turns again towards winter.

Riders of the Night’s Watch head north of The Wall in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

The Wall is – nominally – guarded by The Night’s Watch.  This is a ragtag band of criminals, unwanted bastards and sundry riff-raff, committed to the defence of The Wall for life,  who are hopelessly unequal to the task that seems to be heading their way.

To the south lies Winterfell, the home of the Starks, who are allied to the King and control ‘the North’ for him.  Things start to fall apart when the King heads north to Winterfell with the express intention of recruiting Lord Eddard Stark – Sean Bean’s character in the HBO series  – as the latest ‘King’s Hand’  or chief counsellor.  King Robert and Eddard are old friends and recognising that his enemies – notably his wife and her relatives; the Lannisters – are intent on deposing him, he turns to one of his few remaining trusted allies.  

The Starks are our way into the world of Westeros – Eddard and his wife Catelyn, their children – Brandon, Robb, Sansa, Arya and little Rickon plus Eddard’s bastard son, Jon Snow.  They seem as solid and immutable as the rocks of their Northern hills and a refreshingly down-to-earth antidote to all the politicking and posturing that goes on further to the south in the capital, King’s Landing.  Yet by half way through the first novel, the family is already starting to fragment – Eddard is accompanying the King south to become his Hand and has taken his two daughters with him.  Brandon has been pushed out of a tower window by Jaime Lannister  – because he witnessed him having sex with his sister, Cersei, who also happens to be Robert’s Queen – and is hovering on the brink of death.  Jon Snow has decided to ‘take the black’ and is travelling north to join the Night’s Watch.   Before the novel ends, Eddard is executed , the Starks are scattered to the winds and the whole kingdom is descending into the chaos of Civil War. 

It gets worse for the Starks, too.  Robb takes over from his father and  becomes ‘King of the North’ but is murdered at a wedding feast.  His mother is also attacked at the same feast and left for dead but somehow survives as a ghastly revenant.  Brandon is crippled but is rescued by some kindred spirits.  Sansa is kidnapped and compelled to assume a new identity, Rickon’s fate is unknown and Arya ends up on another continent with a new identity and some potentially lethal skills.  In the most recent book  ‘A Dance with Dragons’, Eddard’s bastard son, Jon Snow, who has risen to become Commandant of The Night’s Watch, is stabbed by multiple assailants and presumably killed.

Is nothing sacred?

It seems to me, using ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a model, that what Martin has done here in narrative terms  is effectively to assemble his equivalent of Tokien’s ‘Fellowship’, then kill them off  piecemeal before Mordor is ever in sight.  Like George Lucas and his ‘Star Wars’ characters, he is of course entitled to do what he wants, but it is rather disconcerting for the reader to engage with a set of characters only to have most of them killed off in such a way. 

There are two things that make matters worse here; firstly, with the death of Robert Baratheon and the execution of Eddard Stark, Westeros plunges headlong into civil war with about 5 competing ‘Kings’ fighting each other for the right to rule the Seven Kingdoms.  The picture is necessarily confused and readers may struggle to keep up with all the twists and turns.  In addition, the regular demise of major characters means that Martin has to introduce new ones or develop existing ones, with whom we are clearly less familiar.

In this specific regard, Martin is also not helped by his insistence on adhering to an internal structure whereby each chapter is delivered from the specific point of view of one of the characters.  All of which is fine until said characters are killed off or until Martin needs to introduce a major new subplot.  In the latter scenario, we are sometimes asked to absorb major new plot developments as seen through the eyes of a character with whom we are largely unfamiliar.  This sometimes works  OK (Theon Greyjoy & the Iron Islands) but other times works less well (the whole subplot revolving round the court of the Martells in  Dorne.)

Then there is Martin’s wild card;  Daenerys Targaryen, the girl Queen and her three dragons who are now loose and ready to create havoc.  Her subplot concerns her efforts to gather an army on the adjoining continent of Essos and return to Westeros with her reptilian game-changers to reclaim the throne taken from her family by Robert Baratheon.  As things stand , she appears to be stranded in the city of Meereen, learning how to be a Queen.  Her dragons have made her a magnet in terms of men who would seek an alliance with her via marriage or treaty and her story and the destiny of her dragons may well be key in what Martin has said will be the remaining two books in the cycle.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

HBO have now made a second series of ‘Game of Thrones’ and such has been its success that further series seem likely.  What may concern HBO is that the whole Westeros saga grows increasingly fragmented and dark as it progresses.  Parallels with Tolkien’s work are tenuous at best – often, events in Westeros are more reminiscent of The Wars of the Roses as interpreted by Lucrezia Borgia. 

There is no doubting the fertility of George R R Martin’s imagination nor indeed his willingness to confound reader expectations by killing off major characters at regular intervals.  Nonetheless, the fragmentation of the Westerosi  kingdoms into anarchy and mayhem and the emergence of major new characters and  narrative threads have pushed Martin’s ‘point of view’ chapter structure beyond the point where it is useful.  Once the story progressed beyond the first two books, Martin was dealing with a geographically dispersed narrative and levels of detailed plotting that required manuscripts of unwieldy size and length if he was to adhere to this structure.  His decision to split the stories of certain characters into separate books  rendered an already complex storyline even more so.  I can’t help but feel that the overall impact of the novels has been diminished as a consequence.  The next novel in the cycle,  ‘The Winds of Winter’  is allegedly due this year and I will freely admit to a fervent hope that he is going to be able to start pulling the threads of this enormous and complex saga together. 

‘Game of Thrones’ and its sequels undoubtedly represent the most high-profile sequence of interlinked fantasy novels for years – probably Stephen Donaldson’s cycle of Thomas Covenant novels were the last cycle which exhibited such ambition.  However, whereas Donaldson painted himself into corners by virtue of  the complexities of his plot,  Martin’s bête noire seems to be the internal management of his storylines.  Hopefully, it will all work out well for writer and readers alike in the end.

Prequels, Sequels and Building Better Worlds…..

I still find it hard to believe that Ridley Scott’s original ‘Alien’ movie is 33 years old.  Even now, it remains the benchmark for claustrophobic sci-fi/horror and although there have been some serious contenders since then, none have ever really matched it for style or substance.  Now, Scott has revisited the same general neck of the woods with his new movie ‘Prometheus‘, which is a prequel of sorts to the whole Ellen Ripley saga.

One of those ‘serious contenders’ I was referring to  was John Carpenter’s 1982 movie ‘The Thing’.  This was a remake of  the 1951 Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks feature  ‘The Thing from Another World’, often seen as a parable about the ‘Red Menace’ so beloved of Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes.   However,  John Carpenter dumped any political allegories in favour of a full-on visceral sci-fi/horror flick with great monster effects, courtesy of Rob Bottin and his team.

Like ‘Alien‘,  Carpenter’s version of  ‘The Thing’ takes place in a ‘sealed’ environment – a remote Antarctic outpost rather than a spaceship – and partakes of some of the same claustrophobia.  Also like ‘Alien’, it taps into the well-trodden ’10 Little Indians’ trope, where cast members are bumped off one by one.  The major difference is that whereas in ‘Alien‘, we know who (or what) is responsible for the carnage, in ‘The Thing’ we don’t.  Not sure which strategy produces the greater degree of  tension.

Last year, ‘The Thing’ (1982), too, got the prequel treatment thanks to a new movie – also (confusingly) entitled ‘The Thing’  (2011), which depicts events at the Norwegian Antarctic base discovered (in an advanced state of destruction) by Kurt Russell & Richard Dysart early on in the Carpenter version.  In the Carpenter film, the American scientists view videotapes shot by the Norwegians and retrieved from the wreckage which show that they had discovered a giant flying saucer  and some kind of alien corpse buried in the ice-sheet near to their base. 

Kurt Russell investigates mayhem in 1982’s ‘The Thing’

It is the story of that discovery and its implications that the 2011 version tells and the whole thing is painstakingly consistent with the details revealed in the 1982 version – too much so, in fact, because one of the many problems with this worthy but rather anaemic movie is that it tries too hard to respect Carpenter’s work.  According to director  Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., he had a laptop on set with (to quote him) ‘a million’ screen captures from the 1982 film in order to ensure continuity of plot, set design, costume etc.   The trouble is, ‘The Thing’  (2011) covers much of the same ground as its predecessor and although it’s all done diligently enough, it has only a fraction of  the impact of Carpenter’s film.  It’s also a movie which is only likely to appeal or make sense to those of us familiar with the 1982 film – anyone viewing it having not seen Carpenter’s film would probably wonder why they bothered making it at all.  Interestingly, I see that the 2011 and 1982 movies are now being sold together in a DVD package.

At the time, I can recall having discussions with friends about the relative merits of Ridley Scott’s  ‘Alien’ and ‘The Thing’ (1982).  The general consensus  was that Scott’s movie was superior in most respects;  something that can be summarised as follows: firstly Scott’s  H.R. Giger-designed alien is altogether sleeker, more intelligent, more sinister and more frightening than Carpenter’s shape-shifting monstrosity, secondly, the simple trick of making ‘Alien’s‘ chief protagonist a woman was inspired and thirdly,  our knowledge of  the crew of the ‘Nostromo‘ was carefully cultivated during the early scenes,  so that by the time they fell victim to the monster in their midst,  we actually felt as though we knew them to some extent.  McReady’s colleagues in ‘The Thing’ (1982) were just standard horror movie cannon-fodder /redshirts by comparison. 

Another problem with the Carpenter movie was the ending.  To say the least of things, this was enigmatic; with ‘The Thing’ and the base apparently blown to smithereens, McReady and Childs, the 2 survivors, sit down with a bottle of booze in the sub-arctic temperatures  ‘to wait and see what happens’ and we are left wondering if one of them or both of them are ‘Things’.  It’s a clever ending but an unsatisfying one on most levels. 

By contrast, at the end of the first ‘Alien’ movie, Ripley has blown her adversary out of the airlock of her lifeboat and settled down with Jones the Ginger Tom for a well-earned siesta in the suspended animation ‘pod’.  She reckons to be picked up by someone or other ‘within a few weeks’ as she drifts through ‘the shipping lanes’, whereas as viewers of James Cameron’s 1985 sequel (‘Aliens’) will know only too well, she’s drifting out there for a lot longer than that.  However, back in 1979, we knew nothing about the duplicity of Weyland-Yutani , about the Colonial Marines or about Newt, so it seemed a definite and satisfying conclusion to a great thriller.

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in 1979’s ‘Alien’

And so to ‘Prometheus‘, which I saw in full-on 3D IMAX at Birmingham’s Millennium Point last week.  3D has already ceased to be the novelty it was when ‘Avatar’ was released and I’m not sure that Ridley Scott makes many concessions to it at all in ‘Prometheus’.  Most of the recent marketing hype about the film has not been about 3D at all, but has seen the studio trying to distance ‘Prometheus‘ from the ‘Alien‘ franchise.  This movie has its own agenda, so we have been told, and the connections to Ripley and all that squirming alien horror are peripheral to the central themes of ‘Prometheus’.  We are into the realms of High Concept Science Fiction here – none of your men in rubber suits nonsense here; this story  is about nothing less than the origins of humanity.

What follows will inevitably contain some spoilers, so if you intend to see ‘Prometheus’ in the near future, you should probably give this post a bodyswerve for now and come back for another visit once you have seen the movie…..

 ‘Prometheus’ is almost certain to be just the first half of Ridley Scott’s take on the biggest of all questions: ‘Where do we come from?’  This puts him into some fairly august company in a pretty rarefied landscape where not too many have taken that small step for a movie-maker.  Of course, if ‘Alien‘ remains the benchmark for claustrophobic sci-fi horror, the grand-daddy of ‘Where do we come from?’ movies is Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001  – A Space Odyssey’ and whilst we must reserve judgement until part 2 of ‘Prometheus’ comes out, the early signs are that Scott’s vision of humanity’s origins is somewhat less cerebral than Kubrick’s.  Both films share the concept of humanity’s destiny being influenced or manipulated by extra-terrestrials, but whilst Kubrick’s mysterious visitors simply set up a breadcrumb trail of black monoliths for us to follow, Scott’s humanoid interlopers leave us their DNA in the ecosystem and  a star-map in cave paintings from all over the world, which is how the good ship ‘Prometheus’ arrives at the unexplored moon LV223 (not the same planet that features in the first two ‘Alien’ movies ) in search of answers.  Scott’s humanoids are referred to as ‘Engineers’ because of their assumed role in the engineering of human life on Earth.

The driving force behind the expedition is archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her lover/sidekick Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who discover the original cave-paintings and persuade the ageing capitalist plutocrat Peter Weyland  (Guy Pearce)to finance the Prometheus  expedition.  Various experts – a biologist, a geologist – are along for the ride and the whole enterprise is overseen by ice queen Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a Weyland employee, who is ultimately revealed as his daughter and has her own private, deluxe escape pod, complete with chandeliers and grand piano. 

Michael Fassbender continues the well-established ‘Alien‘  tradition of morally compromised androids, but whereas Ian Holm’s Ash was thoroughly nasty in ‘Alien‘ and Lance Henriksen’s Bishop was one of the good guys in ‘Aliens‘ (less so in ‘Alien 3’), Fassbender’s David is more subtle, his motivation and loyalties less immediately obvious.  In a way, he is the most de-humanised of all the androids in these movies, silently patrolling the ship like a pernickety Jeeves whilst the crew are in stasis, watching footage from David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and mimicking Peter O’Toole’s slightly distracted Englishness (and his hairstyle) in his dealings with the humans.

Michael Fassbender as David in ‘Prometheus’

Once the expedition ( a bit too rapidly and fortuitously) locates a hollow mountainous structure which seems to be the Engineers’ HQ, it soon becomes apparent that David has an agenda of his own, programmed into him by the sinister suits of the Weyland organisation.  Where Shaw is all faith, emotion and fervour, David is cool and calculating.  What’s more, he is clearly smarter and better-informed than any of his human counterparts.  Whilst Shaw’s souvenir from the base is the head of a decapitated Engineer (which explodes as she tries to examine it), David returns with one of numerous metallic flasks with which the Engineers’ base is stocked.   This contains the same dark fluid that we have already seen  leaking from many of the same type of  flasks in the base and David has little hesitation in deliberately spiking Holloway’s drink with a sample of it.  Holloway rapidly becomes ill and there is a great scene where whilst he is examining his bloodshot eyes in the mirror, we catch a fleeting glimpse of a worm or perhaps a miniature ‘Alien’-type organism in the white of Holloway’s eye.  Talking of worms,  inside the base, the leaking dark fluid seems to have had an unpleasant effect on the DNA of some simple indigenous worms, turning them into aggressive snake-type creatures with corrosive blood who soon kill off the biologist and geologist.  Sound familiar? 

Charlize Theron & Idris Elba don’t seem to like what they’re seeing

Holloway’s goose, is of course well & truly barbecued from the moment that David feeds him the proverbial poisoned chalice, but inbetween that and his final agonies, he and Shaw contrive enough time alone to have sex, leading to Shaw (by her own admission, sterile) becoming pregnant with the most unwelcome of foetuses, which grows at an extraordinary rate.  Fortunately for her, Vickers’ escape module is equipped with a device that can carry out automatic surgical procedures and once she realises what has happened to her, she has no hesitation in programming the machine to remove the foetus from her abdomen.  This is a set-piece that is, in its own way, nearly as shocking as the ‘chestburster’ sequence from ‘Alien’ and is equally visceral.  The difference is that Shaw somehow survives the procedure and is up and about within 30 seconds as though she’d suffered nothing worse than having an ingrowing toenail removed.  It stretches credulity that she is able to escape the still-thrashing ‘foetus’ inside the surgical ‘pod’, but her ability to then wander off into the module, discovering, en route,  Prometheus’ surprise package – a dying but still functional Peter Weyland, who has made the journey to meet his makers (and maybe score some immortality pills) – is probably pushing things a bit too far.  Post-surgical trauma, anyone?

Torches, dark tunnels; it never ends well, really…..

In addition,  the seemingly indestructible Shaw then recovers sufficiently to accompany Weyland, David and others on their expedition to an area of the base where David has located an Engineer who is still in suspended animation – and looking pretty much identical to the ‘Space Jockey’ from the alien ship of the first ‘Alien’ movie..    Once awoken, this giant humanoid shows himself to be a grumpy morning person by killing Weyland and his party.  Only Shaw and David (who, like Lance Henriksen’s Bishop in ‘Aliens‘ is  is ripped in half,  but still functional.) survive.   Shaw escapes to the outside whilst the awakened Engineer begins to fire up the engines of a familiar U-shaped spaceship and the base begins to fold back on itself to allow the ship to escape.  David informs Shaw that the Engineer means to continue with his mission to convey the cargo of noxious dark fluid to its intended destination; Earth.  Shaw then persuades the Prometheus‘ captain, Janek, (Idris Elba, previously from ‘The Wire’) to use the Prometheus as a guided missile to bring the Engineers’ ship down, which he duly does.  As the wreckage rains down, Shaw escapes but Vickers is crushed by the plummeting Engineers’ ship.

Prometheus rams the Engineers’ spacecraft

With her oxygen running out, Shaw makes for the Vickers/Weyland deluxe escape module which has survived the crash. Here,  she finds that her ‘foetus’ is trapped in the ‘Med Lab’ and is not only still alive but has grown at a massive rate.  At this point, the extremely irate Engineer, having survived the mid-air collision with  Prometheus,  bursts into the escape pod and is clearly intent on obliterating the pesky Shaw, but she manages to release her ‘foetus’, which battles with the Engineer before inserting a tentacle down his throat and subduing him.  Shaw makes her escape to find David who has also survived the crash and informs her that there are other Engineer spacecraft available nearby and that he can operate them.  Shaw informs him that she doesn’t want to return to Earth but wants to find the Engineers’ homeworld and find out why, having played a decisive and positive role in our evolution, they now seem to want to annihilate us.  

As they take off, back in the escape pod, something unpleasant and vaguely familiar bursts from the Engineer’s  chest.  

Thus, Part Two of the ‘Prometheus’ saga is neatly set up and given the apparent success of Part One at the Box Office, will surely get made.  I will freely admit that I found the movie hugely enjoyable as a spectacle, but then again, the first two ‘Alien’ movies are among my all-time favourites, so this was always likely to be a case of preaching to the converted.  The connection between ‘Prometheus’ and the ‘Alien’ movies is clear and incontrovertible, but the issue here for Scott and his ‘High Concept’ is not the monsters and the toxic black fluid but the Engineers and their motivations.   Like Ripley in ‘Aliens’,   Shaw must find common cause with a potentially treacherous android to attain her goal.  Shaw is a bit too driven and fey to be Ripley Mk. 2, but she certainly doesn’t lack for courage and you get the feeling that her belief, perhaps in God, but certainly in a higher purpose for humanity will drive her on.

Part One of another two-part prequel blockbuster is currently bearing down on us, as the world braces itself for ‘An Unexpected Journey’, the first part of Peter Jackson’s two-part adaptation of ‘The Hobbit’, which is due in December, with Part Two to follow in December 2013.  

Familiar faces such as Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis,  Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Orlando Bloom return from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, whilst Martin Freeman, Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sylvester McCoy join the cast for a project which was originally to be directed by Guillermo del Toro, but a raft of delays – often brought on by a variety of law suits – meant that del Toro was forced to jump ship, leaving Peter Jackson holding the baby, which is what the studios wanted all along anyway in all probability. 

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

Having seen the trailer for ‘An Unexpected Journey’, it does seem as though  Jackson has managed to transfer much of the ‘feel’ of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies to this one.  The problem with the book of ‘The Hobbit’ was not so much what was told as the way in which it was told – unlike its more ambitious successor, it was always a story for small children and whimsy usually won out over drama.  Peter Jackson has gone on record as saying that all the episodes in the book where Gandalf disappears – perhaps for a meeting of  The White Council – are things that he wants to cover, thereby, hopefully, ensuring that the tone and feel of the movies are more in tune with ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  With this kind of approach and with spiders, wargs and orcs, major battle scenes and a dragon to look forward to, there is the hope that the two films that make up ‘The Hobbit’ will be as compelling as their predecessors.

Un-American Activities: ‘The Wire’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’

I came late to  ‘The Wire’, something fairly typical of me in the way that I ‘consume’ television series.  I’ve written before about this in pieces on ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘This Life’.  My preferred strategy is to wait until all the fuss dies down and then borrow or buy a few box sets of DVD’s and watch these series at my leisure, either one episode at a time or in multi-episode binges.   All of which makes me possibly the last person in the known universe to blog about ‘The Wire’ but at least it gives me a chance to think through what it is I want to say about it.

Just in case there is anyone reading this who has recently returned from 10 years of exile on a tropical island without cable tv, ‘The Wire’ was made by HBO with a star-free cast and across its five seasons (2002-2008) aimed to take a cold, hard look at the life of a strictly non-hip US city – Baltimore – through the eyes of its police, its politicians, its journalists, its drug gangs, its dock-workers and so on.  Though many of the ensemble cast appeared in all five seasons, each season took a slightly different focus; thus Season 1 was largely about the interaction between the police and the drug gangs, Season 2 focused on the plight of Baltimore’s shrinking docks and those working there, Season 3 concerned itself with City Hall politics, Season 4 with the school system and the final season with the print media.

Much has been written and said about ‘The Wire’ and most of what has been written and said – in this country at least – has been  extremely positive.  Most fans feel that it offers an unflinchingly accurate portrayal of black urban street life, of City Hall ducking & diving, of the slow death of print newspapers and of the travails of a city police department, to name but a few of the areas singled out for praise.  Across all these different facets of city life, ‘The Wire’ is, above all, feted for its apparent ‘authenticity’.  This is a drama that seeks to portray the harsh realities of life in a modern American city and spends much of its time concentrating on the choices and compromises that people make to get them through their daily round.  There are good guys and bad guys, mavericks and team players, there is friendship, even love, but then there is corruption and disillusionment, squalor and death as well. 

There is hope, too. ‘The Wire’ is a long way from being just a nihilistic hatchet-job on the life and body politic of Baltimore (or the USA).  Through the five series, characters are redeemed, either by circumstance or by their own efforts.  Junkies clean up, gangsters go straight, failed cops find themselves having far greater success in other walks of life.  The milk of human kindness does flow through the veins of ‘The Wire’ and the only characters with whom the writers appear to have little or no sympathy are the politicians. 

Among many of my friends, ‘The Wire’ has been lauded as the greatest piece of extended television drama of all time.  The socio-political insights, the finely-drawn characters, the shrewd and effective plotting – all of these factors are cited as reasons why ‘The Wire’ is so good.  It lacks the obvious Liberal/Democrat wish-fulfillment of ‘The West Wing’, it lacks the sentimental  clichés of Italian – American life littered across ‘The Sopranos’, but offers us instead what seems like a non-idealised view of Baltimore life at the sharp end.  The story arcs remain credible throughout,  whilst the characters generally develop in ways that seem consistent and realistic.

For all that, I am sure that there are many middle -class  people living in Baltimore who barely recognised their own city from ‘The Wire’ and who probably have a very different take on how it is to live in that city.  At the very end of Season Five, Dominic West’s  (ex-)Detective McNulty pulls over to the side of a road and looks out over the city.  Through his eyes we see snippets of  a possible future; characters move up or move on or sink into the mire, either regaining or losing their integrity along the way.  But we also see a Baltimore that we never really see in the other 59 episodes – we see long-shots of a city with broad avenues and grand buildings, we see bustling streets with a ticking heartbeat that is a long way from the ‘corners’ of the West Side or the grim post-industrial landscapes of the old docks.

I’ve never been to Baltimore so can’t really comment on the veracity of ‘The Wire’s portrait of a city in virtual meltdown.  However, I find it hard to believe that there aren’t other Baltimores where people lead lives that are quite different from McNulty and  Omar,  from Lester and Bubbles,  from Daniels and Marlo.  The fact is that Baltimore is really just a shop window for the themes of ‘The Wire’, themes that could probably apply to any large American city with a substantial black population and a fading blue-collar tradition – Washington DC or Cincinnati  for example.  Those themes – racial tension, political corruption, drugs, economic downturns, education, media manipulation of facts, broken homes and broken dreams are universal to all such cities.

McNulty, Bunk and Lester; allegedly the ‘Good Guys’

The status of ‘The Wire’ as a favourite of critics and huge numbers of fans across the world  cannot, however, disguise the fact that it was some way from being a mainstream hit in America.  Many people who didn’t subscribe to HBO wouldn’t have seen it anyway and many others were in all probability put off by what creator David Simon has itemised as  “the complexity of the plot; a poor time slot; heavy use of esoteric slang, particularly among the gangster characters; and a predominantly black cast.” (Wikipedia). ‘The Wire’ would often find itself up against NFL games on the Sports channels and other more mainstream series such as ‘Desperate Housewives’.  Ratings were increasingly poor on a season-by-season basis, though HBO apparently accepted that many fans were picking up illegal postings of the series via the Net, watching it online via HBO On Demand or simply waiting for the box set to come out.

For me, there’s something else about ‘The Wire’ that would explain why it nearly got cancelled twice and why it was consistently overlooked by the people who dish out TV awards.  In my view, many Americans would have a problem with ‘The Wire’ because it paints the urban society of – in this case – Baltimore, but by inference most major American cities in such an unflattering light. 

If we backtrack to 1980, we can see another example of this phenomenon with Michael Cimino’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ – a movie that became almost a watchword for the excesses of the post-‘Easy Rider’ crop of ‘auteurist’  Hollywood directors.  Anyone who has read Steven Bach’s book about the movie (‘Final Cut’) will quickly have gained an appreciation of all the errors of judgement that Cimino made in making ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and there is no doubt that there were many of them. 

 Cimino’s arrogance and his cavalier attitude to cost and budget over-runs ensured that his reputation took a pounding even before ‘Heaven’s Gate’ was ‘in the can’.  His  hubris was probably the last straw for the studios, ensuring that the era of the Hollywood auteurs was effectively over.  From that point onwards, studios exercised far closer control over budgetary issues and prima donna directors.

However, what that left us with was ‘Heaven’s Gate’ itself. Despite being drastically cut in its initial 149-minute cinematic release, what was clear was that this was what David Thomson has referred to as a ‘wounded monster’ of a film and even expanded and revised versions continue to divide opinion – many people think it’s the worst movie ever, others that it’s a great film.

I definitely fall into the latter camp; for me, the cinematography (by Vilmos Szigmond), the music (by Bob Dylan alumnus David Mansfield) and many of the performances are masterful.  It’s a long way from being the perfect movie but it is pretty damn good on many levels . Most significantly, the fact that Cimino chose to plant a bomb under some of the most cherished myths of the American West was a brave and adventurous strategy that would have gone down a storm just a few years earlier.  Ralph Nelson’s ‘Soldier Blue’ from 1970, an infinitely less accomplished piece of work in almost every respect, had drawn a favourable response in its depiction of how Native Americans got well and truly shafted by the American ‘establishment’ – as I recall, it’s a depressing and not particularly well-made movie.  ‘Heaven’s Gate’  – a much better movie on every level – did a similar job for the plight of the poor European migrants who flooded west and began to set up homesteads on the massive ranges that had previously been the exclusive province of rich cattle farmers.  Even so, it got completely trashed by most critics.

‘Heaven’s Gate’ – the Harvard Waltz Sequence; the ruling class at play

‘Heaven’s Gate’ is based on events that happened during the so-called ‘Johnson County War’, which took place in Wyoming in April 1892.  The Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) – an organisation of rich cattle farmers with links to the Republican Party – hired gunmen to stop the sporadic outbreaks of rustling carried out by starving migrant farmers.  These gunmen often dispensed summary justice, killing suspected rustlers without recourse to the mechanisms of the law.  The WSGA gunmen were eventually pinned down in farm buildings near Fort McKinney by a Sheriff’s posse of about 200 men , but were saved from annihilation when Wyoming’s Acting Governor sent an urgent telegram to President Benjamin Harrison who ordered the Sixth Cavalry, based at Fort McKinney, to intervene.  The WSGA ‘enforcers’ were close to being routed but the Army’s intervention meant that they were instead spirited away and held at an army fort near Cheyenne.  Documents taken from their leader implicated many of the leading lights of the WSGA in a plan to systematically murder up to 70 suspected ‘rustlers’.  Despite all this, the ‘enforcers’ were eventually freed on bail and many fled south to Texas.  In any event,  the case was dropped when the Johnson County authorities refused to pay for the upkeep of the ‘prisoners’ or the costs involved in bringing them to court.  The whole affair swiftly fizzled out, though feelings in Johnson County ran high for many years.

Many of these events form the basis of the action in ‘Heaven’s Gate’.  Kris Kristofferson’s sheriff attempts to mediate in the disputes but he is very much of the same social background as the WSGA and though he tries to do his job honestly, he clearly does not relish being seen as a ‘class traitor’.  Cimino depicts the WSGA leaders and vigilantes as the bad guys and the huddled masses of the incomers as the good guys.  It’s an almost Marxist take on the mythology of the West with the proletarian migrants taking on the fat cat WSGA and almost winning, but for the intervention of the Army at the 11th hour.  In a coda at the movie’s end,  we see an older, disillusioned Kristofferson aboard his steam yacht off Rhode Island.  He has returned to the East and re-assumed his position of privilege within the ruling elite.

‘Heaven’s Gate’ – the Roller Rink sequence; the huddled masses take to the floor

‘Heaven’s Gate’ was released in 1980 and it could be argued that a kind of Marxist Western was never going to play too well in an America where an old school ex-Hollywood cowboy was riding the range in the White House.  In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s popularity as President was probably approaching its zenith and for that reason alone, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ was doomed as far as ‘middle America’ was concerned.  It portrayed some unsavoury truths about the American West, truths that many Americans saw as ‘unpatriotic’ at a time when gung-ho was the name of the game and pinko liberals were lying low.  No wonder it bombed at the Box Office, though predictably, the movie fared much better in Europe. However, in all likelihood, had the movie been released 5 years earlier, it might well have been received more sympathetically in a country still just about clinging to the tail-end of 60’s ideologies.  By 1980, the USA had changed and become much more conservative, Hollywood had changed and the studios were sick of all these bratty directors and their grand narratives of American dysfunction.  It was time for Rocky and Rambo and all those rugged American heroes; no-one had much time for class warfare in 1890’s Wyoming.

Returning (finally) to ‘The Wire’, it seems to me that there are strong parallels with ‘Heaven’s Gate’ in this specific area. Like ‘Heaven’s Gate’, ‘The Wire’ asks ordinary Americans to face some unpalatable truths about their history (in the case of ‘Heaven’s Gate’) or about their cities (in ‘The Wire’) and it seems to me that some conservative-minded Americans aren’t always that good at acknowledging the Elephant in the Room – same with the Tories in this country.  For some Yankee chauvinists (particularly those of the Rush Limbaugh school of twisted thinking), everything has to be wonderful from sea to shining sea and anyone that doesn’t think so is probably some kind of dangerous subversive commie terrorist (or similar) and should relocate to Pakistan or Eye-Rak.  Like Frank Zappa said all those years ago, ‘It can’t happen here.’

The fact is that for many middle-class Americans, the inner cities of their country have become no-go areas.  Drugs, violence, homelessness, life in ‘the Projects’ – all these issues are something that many Americans have just blanked out.  They’ll deal with as much of it as they have to and hope the cops can keep the lid on the rest of it.  Same story here, really; the recent Tottenham Riots showed a side of London life that many Londoners knew nothing of and didn’t really want to engage with.

The Wire: Michael Kenneth Williams as Omar; ruthless, driven, gay, feared, a loner with his own sense of morality and – allegedly – a favourite of Barack Obama 

In some respects, ‘The Wire’ – particularly in its final season – is even more damning of American society than ‘Heaven’s Gate’.  Season 5 is built around the idea of a lie that just gets bigger and bigger; there’s an element of black comedy in here somewhere. The Baltimore Police Department is suffering from budget cutbacks and overtime bans, so Detective McNulty effectively ‘invents’ a serial killer preying on the homeless, knowing that City Hall will be compelled to loosen the purse strings as this is such an emotive issue.  McNulty then surreptitiously diverts the resources and manpower he is given to continue the pursuit of drug lord Marlo Stansfield.  However, the lie just gets bigger and bigger; Mayor Carcetti picks up on the ‘serial killer’ case to use as a weapon against the State Governor’s lack of action on homelessness and promote his own claims to replace him.  The local ‘Baltimore Sun’ newspaper also gets involved, with an unscrupulous reporter further embroidering the story in order to advance his own career.  In the end, only a very few of those who are supposed to be on the side of truth and justice are free from the taint of this lie and by the time the truth emerges, it’s too late for anyone to unravel the multiple layers of deceit in which so many have become complicit. 

Comparing ‘The Wire’ to ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is  – of course – an idea that you can only push so far.  I have  a lot of time for both, but there’s no doubt that ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is deeply flawed on many levels whilst retaining an indefinable ‘je ne sais quoi’  that makes it a far more interesting proposition than many other movies of its type.  At the time of its release, the smokescreen of outrage at Cimino’s perceived excesses tended to legislate against any genuine appraisal of the film , but many contemporary analyses take a less polemical stance. Sure, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ has many flaws , but at times it’s an interesting and beautifully-staged movie and if you haven’t yet seen it, I urge you to do so.

By contrast, ‘The Wire’ – for me – offers a far sharper critique of American society – then again, it has a much broader canvas on which to tell its tale.  Across 60 episodes, it illustrated – often graphically – the crushing realities of life in the inner city, the bureaucratic minefields of police work and the institutionalised corruption of local politics.   ‘The Wire’  told a story that often exposes aspects of American life with which few establishment figures could be comfortable.  It also laid down a new standard of excellence for television drama and I think it could be a long time before we see anything that combines such a compelling story-line with so many insights into American society.

Watching ‘The New World’ (2005)

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Terrence Malick is that in a directorial career stretching back to 1973’s ‘Badlands’, he has directed only 4 features.  ‘The New World’ is the most recent of these (2005) and is based on the supposed love affair between the English explorer & soldier John Smith and the Powhatan ‘princess’, Pocahontas.  The film is otherwise largely concerned with the attempts of the English to establish a settlement at Jamestown in modern-day Virginia during the early years of the 17th century.  This was to be the first permanent  English settlement in what was to become the U.S.A.

Malick is a notorious perfectionist when it comes to the technical side of movie-making – especially lighting & cinematography –  but he has thus far managed to avoid a ‘Heaven’s Gate’-type debacle in his career.   In  movies like ‘Days of Heaven’ (1978)  he displayed an appetite for auteurist self-indulgence that was potentially as fatal to his career as Michael Cimino’s proved to be with ‘Heaven’s Gate’, but unlike Cimino, he got away with it. 

Terrence Malick in 1999

Typically, location shoots for ‘Days of Heaven’, set in the Texas Panhandle, but filmed on the Canadian prairie, were compressed into what is usually referred to as ‘Magic Hour’; not an ‘hour’ at all, but actually about 25 minutes after the sun has set but before it actually gets dark.  Malick and his cinematographer, the late Nestor  Almendros, loved the quality of the light at this time of day and would keep cast & crew sitting around all day waiting for dusk.

‘Magic Hour’ in ‘Days of Heaven’

Actors queue up to work with Malick – when he returned to directing with ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998) after a 20-year sabbatical, the cast list read like a who’s-who of male Hollywood stars.  As well as Nick Nolte, John Travolta, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, John Cusack and George Clooney, who feature in the released version, the performances of Mickey Rourke, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen, Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman and others were abandoned on the floor of the cutting room.  Malick is sometimes seen as an American who directs like a European, but whilst his movies have often had the critics in raptures, they have never performed particularly well at the box office.

In the long grass – ‘The Thin Red Line’

Environment is another key issue in Malick films; Richard Gere & Sam Shephard confront one another against massive prairie backdrops in ‘Days of Heaven’, the ensemble cast of ‘The Thin Red Line’ edge nervously through a forest of tall, waving grass as they seek out their Japanese foe and in ‘The New World’, Colin Farrell and Q’Orianka Kilcher play out their ill-fated affair in the woods and meadows of Virginia.  These are small figures in large landscapes, a strategy otherwise seen in the work of David Lean – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘Ryan’s Daughter’.  Malick loves fields of waving grass and both Farrell and Kilcher wander forlornly through them to symbolise their love for one another.

Soulful introspection and more long grass – Colin Farrell in ‘The New World’

It’s this, if anything, that makes ‘The New World’ a pretty arduous watch.  It’s essentially a love story, with the travails of the Powhatan Indians and the English settlers just a backdrop to the main narrative.  Malick placed considerable emphasis on authenticity, with particular regard to the Algonquin dialect spoken by the Powhatan Indians and the trappings and features of the English settlement at Jamestown.  Whilst Smith’s account of how Pocahontas saved him from death when he was initially captured by the Powhatans has never been corroborated, what is beyond dispute is the fact that once Smith was recalled to England in 1614 to lead another expedition to Maine and northern New England, Pocahontas married the English tobacco farmer John Rolfe and bore him a son.   She was baptised into the Christian faith as ‘Rebecca Rolfe’ after her marriage and became a celebrity when the Rolfes returned to England in 1616. She was received by King James and had a final encounter with Smith, though not as Malick depicts it in the film’s coda.  There is little genuine evidence to support the notion of a romance between Pocahontas & Smith, but it is something which has nonetheless entered folklore.  The Rolfes left London in 1617 to return to Virginia, but Pocahontas was taken ill  – possibly with pneumonia – shortly after  departure and their ship put in at Gravesend, where she died and was buried.  She was probably about 22 years old. Bizarrely, there is a statue of her in the churchyard of St George’s Church, though the exact location of her grave is unknown

The statue of Pocahontas in Gravesend

The scarcity of Malick’s filmed output means that each of his movies is received with a certain degree of reverence and this is not without merit.  Certainly, ‘The Thin Red Line’ is as good a movie about the harsh realities of modern warfare as you could ever hope to see and infinitely superior to Clint Eastwood’s ‘Flags of our Fathers’ which is a near-contemporary (2006) and covers a similar period of World War 2.  However, whilst ‘The New World’ is a beautifully-dressed movie, the centrality of the affair between Smith & Pocahontas and the way this is presented was always going to be key.  Farrell broods effectively enough and Q’Orianka Kilcher’s elfin charm is always compelling, but the language barrier at the outset of their relationship and a degree of reserve thereafter  means that Malick must portray their affair in largely non-verbal terms.  In that respect, there is rather too much wandering through the woods and meadows and gazing soulfully into one another’s eyes.  By the end of the movie, this has, frankly, become rather hackneyed.

There are various ‘cuts’ of ‘The New World’ in existence including one lasting a few minutes shy of three hours.  I’ve only seen the standard 135-minute version and –  to be honest – that’s probably more than enough.  For me, there probably isn’t enough substance to the narrative to sustain the film for more than two hours and a tighter cut might have helped its overall impact.  Despite such carping, there is nonetheless something about this movie that has brought me back to it for a second viewing and who’s to say that I won’t return to it in a few years time?

Watching ‘Predators’ (2010)

Along with Ripley’s ‘Aliens‘, the ‘Predator’ series was one of the big monster movie franchises of the late ’80’s/early ’90’s.  The original movie, directed by John McTiernan, was a huge box-office hit and performed equally well on VHS & DVD.  The problem with the movie for most people was the monster at the heart of the film.  And no, I don’t mean with the toothy alien with green blood and a cloaking device. 

For a lot of people, Governor Arnie was the big problem with that movie.  Jim and John Thomas had written a cute little B-movie with a twist….. the hunters hunted by something smarter and fiercer than they were.  Unfortunately, the lines allocated to Arnie were mangled and minced by this slab of Teutonic Teak, his companions a selection of stereotypes; the Native American, the cigar-chewing redneck, the cool black dude,  the winsome local girl they end up rescuing….and of course, Arnie’s former colleague, Dillon (Carl Weathers) , who has abandoned ‘field ops’ for a suit and tie as a CIA agent.

This, of course, makes Dillon a weak link and,  like Paul Reiser’s Burke in ‘Aliens’, Dillon has become a ‘suit’ and therefore, like any and all executives, inherently untrustworthy.  Arnie puts him in his place at the start of the movie thanks to a comical piece of macho bullshit – a handshake that becomes an arm wrestling contest  with some nice bicep-popping close-ups for the iron pumping gym crowd.  Arnie soon wrestles Dillon into submission, dropping in some leaden gag about how he (Dillon) has lost his edge due to ‘pushing pencils’ in his new role.

Macho do about nothing….Arnie & Carl Weathers do the homo-erotic bonding thing in ‘Predator’

And so, on into the jungle, for a tale of mayhem and carnage.  The honest ‘grunts’ have been misled as to the nature of their mission and what started as a rescue mission becomes a fight for survival, a fight that ultimately only Arnie and the girl survive. In its own way, and given the jungle locations, the screw-ups and the disinformation, the elusive ‘enemy’,  the lack of leadership from above and so on,  ‘Predator‘ is another of those Hollywood Vietnam allegories, retelling the story so that defeat is the fault of everyone except the dumb but honest guys in the firing line.  Oh, one more thing: never trust a movie where the lead character is called ‘Dutch’.

What probably rescued ‘Predator’ was the beast itself, rarely seen until the closing minutes, but an effective enough rubber-suit beast for the time.  The success of the movie ensured a sequel, which duly followed three years later.  ‘Predator 2’  (again written by the Thomas boys and this time directed by Stephen Hopkins) avoided the pitfalls of a straight sequel, shifting the action to a lawless Los Angeles, where Jamaican and Colombian drug  gangs are slugging it out with  the LAPD in the middle of a heatwave.  A mistake according to Arnie, who opted to do a ‘Terminator’ sequel instead.  Grim though it is, L.A.’s meat-packing district  lacks the visceral ‘otherness’ of the Guatemalan jungle.  Mind you, the movie also lacks Arnie, which has got to be a step in the right direction.  Danny Glover does a fair turn as the veteran cop Harrigan, who must ultimately confront the Predator.  Again, we get the usual Republican/’blue collar’ schtick as Harrigan is dogged by the incompetence of his superiors and hindered by interfering bureaucrats and federal stooges.  In the end, only Harrigan’s stubbornness and willingness to bend the rules sees him through.  ‘Predator 2’ has a couple of good set pieces, notably one that takes place on a subway train, but the beast doesn’t translate to urban America as dramatically or as effectively as Spielberg’s tyrannosaurus did in ‘The Lost World’.  ‘Predator 2’ conspicuously failed to match the success of the original movie at the box office and among the critics.  It made its costs back but failed to show much of a profit, so that seemed to be it for the Predator.

For now, I’m going to pass by the whole ‘Alien vs Predator’ subfranchise and jump straight to this year’s ‘Predators’, directed by Nimród Antal and based on a storyline written by Robert Rodriguez as far back as 1994.

Just a warning before I continue – what follows contains ‘spoilers’, so if you plan on watching ‘Predators’ and don’t want to know what happens, stop here.

Twenty years have passed since ‘Predator 2’ and science fiction movies (in particular) have benefitted from developments in CGI technology since the last Predator movie was made.  Despite the possibilities this could offer, ‘Predators’ essentially revisits the ‘Agatha Christie’ school of movie making; an ensemble cast who get bumped off one by one, until only the hero and heroine are left and the door is left wide open for a sequel.  2010’s ‘Dutch’ is actually called Royce and is played by Adrien Brody; about as far from Arnie as you could get.  Brody has won an Oscar for his acting but the storyline and  script makes it highly unlikely that he’ll be winning another here.

As in the first movie, ‘Predators’ offers us the usual mish-mash of stereotypes as Royce’s companions – this time a Yakuza hitman, a sexy Israeli sniper-ette, a mystic black African warrior, a grizzled Mexican enforcer, a trailer trash psychopath and a beefy Russian.  Mystifyingly, there’s also  a character who appears to be a standard American doctor with no appreciable military skills at all.  All of this disparate group have been plucked from their daily round and awaken to find themselves parachuting down into a forested planet which turns out to be nowhere near Guatemala, but is in fact a kind of ‘game reserve’ run by the Predators rather as we might run a Safari Park. 

Adrien Brody in ‘Predators‘..”I must think tough, I must think tough, I must think tough…..”

Royce clearly seems to have a background in what are referred to in an offhand way as ‘black ops’, which apparently has nothing to do with power cuts in hospitals, but is shorthand for murky extra-governmental espionage and SAS-type missions that go on beneath everyone’s radar.  Royce quickly assumes the mantle of top dog in this motley crew, who bond together for no discernible reason  and despite the fact that none of them have ever met.  There is no military chain of command here and though Royce seems disinclined to lead them, they nonetheless follow him like a flock of loyal sheep until he assumes ‘command’. 

I’m sure I don’t need to catalogue the thinning of the collective ranks by various violent means; we’ve all seen this kind of thing before.  Along the way, the group encounter a particularly unpleasant pack of extra-terrestrial horned canines , who attack them.  Despite having enough lead fired at them to re-roof most of Britain’s cathedrals, the pack are not disheartened one bit and keep attacking until finally called back by an unearthly whistling noise emanating from their Predator masters.  The group also encounter a rather portly Laurence Fishburne,  a semi-deranged survivor a of a previous parachute drop, who doesn’t survive much longer and seems to add little to the narrative flow.

Nice doggy…..

In the end, the nice guy doctor is revealed as a psycho and gets his comeuppance whilst Royce uses Arnie’s old smearing himself with mud thing to see off the Predator threat and save the girl.  As they walk off into the forest, another set of victims are seen parachuting in.  Cue sequel(s).

‘Predators’ isn’t actually a bad movie per se,  but it could have been so much better.  Brody does OK but doesn’t really convince as this year’s Captain Macho.  As for the storyline, at times the exposition is fuzzy and ill-defined and we don’t actually learn that much more about the Predators themselves.  Robert Rodriguez has suggested that planned sequels will develop the plot to reveal more.  Jam tomorrow, then.