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Posts Tagged ‘cobblers’

When I was a lad, especially prior to the home entertainment revolution, your actual classic Disney cartoons never turned up on TV: the corporation had hit upon a cunning wheeze to maximise its cashflow as far as these films were concerned. The trick was a simple one: rather than selling the films to TV networks, Disney just kept re-releasing them into cinemas on a seven-year cycle, meaning that every new generation got the chance to see them on the big screen. This continued until the dawn of the new modern age of Disney animation in the early 90s – I remember seeing The Jungle Book on its 1993 release. Things are different now, of course, with all of the corporation’s back-catalogue available on DVD. They have to find a new way of maintaining interest in these movies.

And the solution they appear to have landed upon is to remake all those lovely old cartoons as modern CGI blockbusters: a trend which started with Jon Favreau’s remake of The Jungle Book three years ago, and which is reaching full fruition this year – apart from the Mary Poppins sequel, which is not exactly the same kind of thing, we will see live action and CGI versions of Aladdin and The Lion King. First off the blocks, however, is Tim Burton’s new version of Dumbo.

The original Dumbo, released in 1941, was made in something of a hurry for Walt Disney, made economically after Fantasia proved to a glorious folly for the film-maker. The new film is twice as long as the original and basks in a budget of over $170 million dollars. The story remains very roughly similar, and concerns a rather down-at-heel circus, in the new film run by Danny DeVito. The year is 1919 and animal trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the First World War, in the course of which his arm has been CGI’d off, to be reunited with his (rather charmless) children. Their mother, along with many of the other circus folk, has died from the Spanish Flu, leaving everyone dispirited and emotionally scarred. (Good stuff for the tinies in the audience, this.)

Hopes are high that a new elephant recently purchased for the circus will turn the fortunes of the business around, as the animal is about to give birth. However, the mini-elephant, when it emerges, is an unprepossessing specimen, mainly on account of its freakishly large ears, and it is unkindly christened Dumbo. However, and you are almost certainly ahead of me on this one, Dumbo turns out to have an unusual talent – when properly motivated, those ears begin to flap and the pachyderm takes to the air!

So far, so very much like the 1941 version, you may be thinking. Well, yes and (very emphatically) no, for as you may have gathered, the more charmingly whimsical elements of the story have been almost wholly excised in favour of a bunch of largely one-dimensional new human characters. Think of an element of the original Dumbo that you remember with particular vividness and fondness, and I can almost guarantee that it is essentially absent from the new one. Oh, yes, there are plenty of call-backs and allusions, but only in the most superficial way – Timothy the mouse is gone, the extraordinary alcohol-induced hallucination sequence is gone, and the musical sequence with the singing crows has also gone (presumably it has been decreed that the crows could be construed as racially provocative). In their place are clangingly delivered messages about the treatment of circus animals and (for some reason) the evil of gender roles: in almost every scene, Farrell’s daughter gets to deliver solemn dialogue about how she is going to be A Scientist and Discover Things and Do Research And Experiments Using The Scientific Method. Nothing wrong with the sentiment, naturally, but why the hell are they crowbarring it into Dumbo?

I should point out that the new film blows through virtually the entire plot of the 1941 version well within the first hour, leaving a lot of time to fill before the obligatory happy ending. It is at this point that the new Dumbo stops being just dismaying and becomes actively baffling: arriving on the scene is wealthy entertainment tycoon V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who is opening a new theme park and needs a big attraction to lure in the punters. He initially comes across as a warm, avuncular figure, but (no real spoilers here, I think) eventually proves to be a ruthless, grasping, exploitative villain.

At which point one can only pause to wonder what on Earth the people at Disney think they are doing? Has no-one noticed the subtext of the new movie? This is a Disney film in which the bad guy is effectively a thinly-disguised version of Walt Disney, with ‘Dreamland’ presented as a thoroughly phoney and unpleasant place. It’s the worst possible advertisement for the world’s biggest entertainment brand. I can just about imagine someone like Tim Burton being amused by the idea of smuggling this kind of subversive idea into a film from the Mouse House, but this is barely subtle enough to qualify as smuggling – it’s hardly some buried subtext, more the essential message of the film. I say it again: has everyone at Disney gone mad?

Normally I would be quite amused by the extravagant way that the world’s biggest entertainment company is cheerfully shooting itself in the foot, but the execution of this part of the film isn’t really any better than that of the opening act. The characterisation is still thin (the best part probably goes to Burton’s girlfriend Eva Green, as a trapeze artist), the general tone of the film gloomy and grotesque. No-one seems to have figured out that a concept which is effortlessly charming when realised with cel animation and anthropomorphic talking animals just seems weird and slightly disturbing with photo-realistic CGI and human performers: we are clearly intended to find Dumbo irresistibly cute, but the glassy-eyed creature front and centre for much of the film comes direct from the Uncanny Valley.

I suppose one should even be slightly grateful for how comprehensively misconceived the new version of Dumbo is, for few films in recent memory are quite as worthy of this kind of self-sabotage. It’s a film which trades heavily on the audience’s fondness for the original film – fondness which is entirely warranted, I feel obliged to mention, for the 1941 film is packed with charm, imagination and pathos – but then attempts to lure them in to see something which barely qualifies as a remake, having a substantially different tone and story, and including none of the moments you remember. One can only assume the other films on the way will be better – it’s hard to imagine how they could be much worse – but Dumbo is, well, mostly just dumb.

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You’d think that you knew where you were with a film luxuriating in the (frankly brilliant) title Devil Girl from Mars: the details practically fill themselves in, after all. We are dealing with a product of the 1950s, low-budget, most likely dreadful (in an entertaining sort of way), an American B-picture. And you would be right in all respects but one.

David MacDonald’s film opens with stock footage of a plane flying peacefully on its way – but it then abruptly (and rather unconvincingly) explodes, plunging us into the title sequence and the startling revelation that there are some fairly well-known names in this film – not just Hazel Court, whose finest big screen moment may well have been The Masque of the Red Death, but also John Laurie, whose immortality is assured not, as you might expect, by his appearances in classic films like The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but by the years at the end of his career spent playing Fraser the undertaker in Dad’s Army. What is this quintessential Scotsman doing in a sci-fi B movie?

Soon the question becomes one of ‘what’s a sci-fi B-movie doing in Scotland?’ for it rapidly becomes clear that this film will be almost exclusively set in and around a remote Scottish pub, which is operated by John Laurie and his wife. Various other characters turn up: their barmaid (Adrienne Corri), who hails from down south and is here for somewhat mysterious reasons, a renowned astronomer turns up accompanied by a journalist, drawn by a report of a meteorite falling somewhere in the vicinity, and so on. There is also a fashion model (Court) on the run from a failed liaison, and an escaped convict who is literally on the run from the police.

Confirmation of the special quality of this film comes when the barmaid greets the escaped convict, for he is the (somewhat wrongfully imprisoned) man she loves. The guy’s name is apparently Robert Justin, but, he says, he has decided to change his name to Albert Simpson to conceal his identity. Corri’s character doesn’t bat an eyelid and proceeds to call him Albert for the rest of the film without making any further comment.

Things proceed in this sort of slightly demented manner for a while, creating a sort of Grand Hotel ambience of stewing subplots (only with more of a neeps and tatties flavour to it). But then everyone is astonished by the landing, in the pub garden, of one of your genuine flying saucers! From within it emerges Nyah (Patricia Laffan), an imperious interplanetary dominatrix whose costume inevitably puts one in mind of plumbing supplies.

Nyah informs the assembled company that they are cut off from the outside world (which if nothing else helps to keep the budget down). Mars, apparently, is short of red-blooded males and she has come to take a few off there to help re-populate this dying planet. Having dropped this bombshell she goes back into the flying saucer so everyone else can think about it and talk about what to do next.

It becomes apparent fairly quickly that this is Nyah’s preferred modus operandi: she occasionally comes out of her flying saucer to perform some shocking (but still economical) demonstration of her satanic space technology, then goes back in again to allow everyone else to react. Eventually, however, the stubborn resistance of the humans proves to be too much for her to tolerate, and she unleashes her robot, which is likely to prove too much for many audiences to tolerate. It basically looks like a fridge on legs, staggering about very, very slowly, and pausing only to unleash its death ray on various bits of the local countryside.

The clued-up viewer will rapidly come to two conclusions, based on this sequence: firstly, this whole movie is inspired, if that’s the right word, by The Day the Earth Stood Still (alien visitor and robot companion cause a commotion), and secondly, some parts of this film are surprisingly good, relative to how utterly awful the worst elements of it turn out to be. The actual death ray stuff is rather well executed, though very similar to similar effects in The Day the Earth Stood Still and The War of the Worlds; some of the shots of the flying saucer are also quite acceptable.

That said, most of the stuff in this movie which is not openly ridiculous comes from the homespun British drama side of the mash-up, rather than the flying saucer sci-fi aspect. The sets and props of the pub are fine, if hardly ground-breaking; most of the subplots are the stuff of programme-filling potboilers, with people in fraught romantic relationships – melodrama, really, but the UK made hundreds of now-forgotten films about this kind of thing back when our film industry was more substantial. The melodramatic aspect of the subplots is really no better and no worse than that of many other films of this period. Apart from how corny the plot is, the real revelation is just how parochial the film feels – at one point the convict and his girlfriend are discussing his possible future, and the prospect of his fleeing the country comes up. ‘You don’t need a passport for Ireland!’ he says, in a sudden moment of inspiration. For a film that deals with cosmic ideas, the horizons of this film are often very close at hand.

In the end this is really not very good science fiction – the palest shadow of The Day the Earth Stood Still, certainly – there’s no concerted attempt to bring any kind of depth or allegorical content to it. Klaatu in the more famous film is clearly intended as an analogue for Christ; Nyah, in this one, never feels like she’s much more than a woman in a vinyl costume and a shower curtain. It’s sci-fi as spectacle, bereft of intellectual content – if I was feeling particularly nasty, I would mention that the sound recordist on this film was one ‘Gerald Anderson’, later to go on to make many much-loved sci-fi TV shows that look fantastic but are seldom noted for the brilliance of their scripts.

Devil Girl from Mars isn’t even as innocently enjoyable as most of the Anderson shows: but entertaining it is, if you enjoy bad movies which unashamedly display not just their own limitations but also their own weirdness. Much of it is bad, but parts of it are very funny indeed: a good enough deal for me, and probably for many others too.

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  1. Cornwall, 2010. Possibly a Thursday. 

JIM (James Purefoy) and his crew of fellow lobster fishermen gather by their boat.

JIM: ‘Morning lads. Now, as you know, I am Jim Trevelyan. You probably vaguely recognise my face from various direct-to-DVD thrillers and character parts in prestige TV shows, but in this here film I am the stubborn, unsophisticated, but stalwart and principled patriarch of this fishing village, and I will be making it clear in all my dialogue just how Cornish and authentic I am.’

CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘Arrrrrr.’

JIM’s daughter ALWYN (Tuppence Middleton) joins them.

ALWYN: ‘Now, I am your daughter, Dad, and you probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British movies. I am a feisty single mum, as this allows me to show my grounded, maternal personality while still being available for a trite romance. My job is to talk almost entirely in platitudes and clumsily communicate the message of the film, about the importance of The Important Things in Life.’

JIM: ‘We had best be about our lobster fishing and singing, for we need to establish the tone of this film, while still providing the opportunity for some scenic footage of Cornwall.’

The boat sails about scenically while the FISHERMEN sing heartily.

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘We sing and fish the whole day long, from dawn until it goes dark / We’ve Cornish clichés by the ton, we’ve even more than Poldark.’

 

2. London: a phoney, shallow necropolis of the soul, apparently, although I bet the film producers are happy enough living there.

DANNY (Daniel Mays), a music business type, meets his boss TROY (Noel Clarke) and some other friends of little significance to the plot.

DANNY: ‘Hello lads! I am the go-getting, outwardly jaded city boy just crying out to be put back in touch with The Important Things In Life. You probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British films, although I was in the recent stellar conflict movie that everyone agreed was good, too. Shall we all go on a stag weekend in Cornwall?’

TROY: ‘Sounds good to me! I am your cynical, money-grubbing American boss. You probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British films, but I was in one of the Star Trek movies, too (although not one of the good ones). In this movie I have a beard and I’m having to do an American accent, and it seems to have destroyed my ability to act. It’s like I’m first-series Mickey Smith again.’

DANNY: ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Shall we go off with the intention of mocking the Cornish yokels, little realising one of us is in for a life-changing experience?’

TROY: ‘Yeah, all right.’

 

3. A harbour in Cornwall.

The FISHERMEN are preparing to give an outdoor concert.

JIM: ‘All right, we’ve established all the main characters in very broad strokes, it’s time for the inciting incident. Let’s get this plot underway.’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘I love my boat, I love my hat, I love my lobster pot / Let’s sing a bit more in this style, it’ll help to start the plot.’

DANNY and TROY are watching the concert.

TROY: ‘Danny! As a strange and elaborate practical joke, I order you to stay here and go to great lengths to get these singing fishermen to sign a record contract that I have no intention of honouring while I go off back to London with the others.’

DANNY: ‘Okay! Er – why are you doing this to me? I thought we were friends, and I’ve not really done anything to antagonise you.’

TROY: ‘Sorry, man. The plot demands it.’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘You’re born to be a fisherman, or born to be a farmer / You’ve no choice over what you do, when you’re in a melodrama.’

 

4. A pub in Cornwall.

JIM is talking to his MUM in the bar.

JIM’s MUM: ‘So that there outsider finds himself stuck amongst us, initially against his will, but slowly learning to appreciate the value of our authentic community-centred way of life?’

JIM: ‘Looks that way.’

JIM’s MUM: ‘So it’s basically another knock-off of Local Hero, only with less wit and charm and more folk music?’

JIM: ‘Aye.’

JIM’s MUM: ‘Don’t you just hate it when people hit on a successful formula, and then mindlessly repeat themselves.’

JIM: ‘Don’t you worry, Mum, I’m sure the reviews of new films will go back to normal soon enough.’

Outside the pub, DANNY is talking to ALWYN.

DANNY: ‘So, I was initially here against my will, but now I have decided to stay, either because I am falling in love with you or because your authentic community-centred way of life has shown me what The Important Things in Life are.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny.’

DANNY: ‘Thanks for making that absolutely clear to me.’

ALWYN: ‘Is this not a sudden and not especially well-handled transformation of your essential character, Danny?’

DANNY: ‘Sorry, the plot demands it.’

 

5. JIM and ALWYN’s house in Cornwall.

DANNY is talking to ALWYN.

DANNY: ‘So, now we have fallen in love, and after some rather meandering plot developments I have managed to secure a record deal for your Dad’s band against the wishes of my shallow money-grubbing boss. I have also come to appreciate The Important Things in Life.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny. How long has all this taken?’

DANNY: ‘The internal chronology has become a bit vague, I’m afraid. But everything else seems to be going well.’

JIM and the FISHERMEN enter.

JIM: ‘I’m sorry to say this, but we’re at the end of the second act and it’s time for Danny to have a dark night of the soul which will help him realise all he has learned.’

FISHERMEN: ‘Arrrrrr. And not before time.’

JIM: ‘Danny, you are nothing but another shallow outsider who doesn’t understand our authentic community-centric ways! Plus, someone lovable has died and we’re all very upset. Get out of Cornwall and never return!’

DANNY: ‘All right, I’ll be off then. See you all at the climax for a life-affirming resolution.’ 

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘It’s now the part with pathos so the film will seem less shallow / Just like the bit in Four Weddings, where they kill off Simon Callow.’

 

6. At the pub.

DANNY enters. Everyone else is there waiting.

DANNY: ‘I’m back for the climactic resolution, where I demonstrate my commitment to Alwyn and show just how much I have changed. I now fully understand the importance of your authentic community-centric way of life, and many other Important Things in Life.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny.’

JIM: ‘I will therefore have to grudgingly admit you into our community, although I do note the storyline about a folk group of singing fishermen proving unexpectedly successful has become somewhat eclipsed by a subplot about who owns the pub and its symbolic relevance to the issue of the survival of communities like this one.’

DANNY: ‘Shall we all live happily ever after while the credits show us photos of the real-life folk group?’

JIM: ‘Aye, may as well. I think we’ve time for one last sea shanty, too. Hit it lads!’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘The final verdict’s on its way, and it’s sure to be nasty / There’s less meat to this bloody film than in a Cornish pasty.’

Fisherman’s Friends (directed by Chris Foggin) is in cinemas now, and is sure to folk you up.

 

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One of the things you occasionally hear people suggesting, when it comes to films, is that some of the famous old stories that have generally proven to be bankers time and time again – you know the sort of thing: Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Tarzan, King Arthur – seem to have fallen out of favour, at least slightly. It’s not that they always flop, goes the theory, but they’re seldom world-conquering smash hits any more.

Nevertheless, people still keep making films based on these stories, even if it is the result of some sort of reflex action: we’ve had two big-budget Sherlock Holmes so far this century, with another on the way (even if it is a spoof); a rather poor Dracula a few years ago; and two King Arthur films since 2004 (the Clive Owen version, which suggested the famous king was a Romano-British soldier, and the Charlie Hunnam one, which presented him as a kung-fu fighting London gangster superhero). And now we are on our second Robin Hood film in not much than eight years (the last one being the Russell Crowe-Ridley Scott collaboration which seemed to get considerably less interesting between the time it was announced and its actual release).

The new film is (once again) Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst. Now, I am generally well-disposed to an adventure movie in the classic style, even if the story is somewhat well-worn. However, I suspect that even if I had managed to get to the screening of the new film without encountering the trailer or advertising, my expectations would have been flattened like a tax-collector hit with a quarterstaff by the opening dialogue alone. ‘I could tell you what year all this happened,’ says the blokey voice-over, ‘but I’ve forgotten. I could bore you with the history, but I won’t.’ Yes, God forbid you should credit the audience with any intelligence or attention span, writers of Robin Hood, just patronise away. It really does sound like the makers of the movie getting their excuses in first.

I can understand why, for what the film-makers manage to do is take possibly the most famous of English historical folk-legends and – well, I was about to say that they make a film totally devoid of historical content, but this would not be true. There is lots of history in Robin Hood. It is all just mind-bogglingly, preposterously inappropriate history.

Things get under way with them setting up the romance between good-hearted young nobleman Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton, who has turned into a serviceable enough leading man) and rebellious young working-class girl Marian (Eve Hewson, who is all heavy eyeshadow and embonpoint). However, their idyll is shattered when Robin receives his ‘Draft Notice’ in the post from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn), sending him off to fight in the Middle East. Here we have our first two bits of history – the ‘draft letter’ scene, which could quite easily come from midwestern America in the late 1960s, and the Sheriff’s full-length grey leather trench-coat, which rather leads one to assume he is serving in the Wehrmacht, circa 1940.

It gets better (by which I mean it gets worse). Robin is supposedly serving in the Third Crusade (1189-1192), but the conflict is deliberately presented in a manner designed to create associations with the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, rather more recently – it is the same vicious chaos of house-to-house fighting. Swap out the longbows for assault rifles and stone throwers for air support and the sequence would be utterly indistinguishable from something contemporary.

Anyway, Robin’s moral qualms at the execution of prisoners by his brutal unit commander results in him being sent home in disgrace, but also in his earning the respect of an enemy warrior who eventually decides to go by the name of John (Jamie Foxx). Our hero is actually quite pleased to get home and see his girl again, but gets a tremendous surprise when he discovers he has been declared dead, his lands seized, and Marian is now shacked up with a bloke named Will (Jamie ‘Sex Dungeon’ Dornan). (This, by the way, was nothing to the surprise I got when Robin’s ship sailed into ‘Nottingham Harbour’, as Nottingham is generally agreed to be some sixty miles from the coast.)

Robin soon learns that the Sheriff is manipulating the war in Arabia for his own ends (apparently Nottingham is ‘the beating heart of the Crusades’), soaking the poor and spreading dark, divisive tales of multitudes of freedom-hating killers intent on infiltrating western civilisation. He and John resolve to stop it, but this involves discovering what the Sheriff is really doing with the money he takes from his subjects as taxes. They adopt a two-pronged approach – by day, Robin will be a charming young nobleman who will slowly gain the Sheriff’s confidence. But by night he will be a bow-slinging robber known only as the Hood!

I don’t especially want to labour this point too much, because (as mentioned) the film-makers do make it absolutely clear from the get-go that they couldn’t give a stuff about historical accuracy, but, short of proceedings halting for a musical number where Jamie Foxx delivers a new version of his 2005 meteorological ick-fest Storm Forecast, it’s hard to see exactly how this film could become any more divorced from things that actually happened in English history. One of the plot drivers is the question of what the Sheriff is up to with the cash, and I honestly would not have been entirely surprised to learn he was secretly building tanks or robots, because it would have been much of a piece with the rest of the film.

Even so, you have to be somewhat staggered by something passing itself off as a Robin Hood film which features no sword-fighting, no band of Merry Men worthy of the title (there are various characters with similar names, but almost without exception they bear no resemblance to the ones from folklore), and in which you only hear the word ‘Sherwood’ and get a close-up look at a tree in the last five minutes before the credits roll. Prior to this the film is just a generic cod-historical action runaround, most obviously influenced by various computer games and superhero movies and TV shows.

I suppose the big question when one chooses to revisit a fable like this one, if one has any kind of artistic soul, is why you are doing so, given there have been so many previous versions. What is the Robin Hood legend actually about? Why has it endured, and why does it continue to resonate? For me, the legend in its purest form is about a number of things – the complex nature of English society, the relationship between the people and the land, and the national inclination towards independent thinking and natural justice.

If the new version of Robin Hood is about anything beyond special-effects set-pieces, Taron Egerton looking soulful, and Ben Mendelsohn yelling ‘I’ll boil you alive in your own piss!!!’, then it appears to be a sort of glib, one-size-fits-all anti-capitalist and anti-establishment propaganda. Parallels between the situation in the film and recent events are drawn in with broad, clumsy strokes – young people are sent off to die in a foreign war puppeteered by wealthy old men at home, the poor are screwed over by the economic system, and corrupt leaders cynically employ divisive and racist rhetoric to maintain control over the masses.

You could, I suppose, have introduced some of these themes into a Robin Hood movie, if they were handled with care and delicacy, and inserted as a subtext. But here, the whole film feels like a cack-handed attempt at allegory – not so much Robin Hood as Occupy Sherwood.

I will try to find something nice to say about this film, beyond simply that it is not quite as bad as Peter Rabbit (I still had my head in my hands at various points, though). Well – much of it is quite well-staged, and competently organised. I suppose the production values are quite good, although the costumes and sets bear no relation to any particular point in history. Ben Mendelsohn does his best as the Sheriff (too many of the supporting cast are simply wooden). The plot sort of hangs together, on its own terms. But that’s about it, really.

The Rabbit comparison is a pertinent one, actually: in both cases, a well-known tale (or body of tales) has been comprehensively gutted of anything resembling the traditional content, in favour of something which the makers presumably think is contemporary, ‘street’, and edgy, but all the charm and texture of the original has been lost in the process. This is, by any rational standard, an awful Robin Hood film. It will probably make a lot of money. But give me Michael Praed any day.

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It falls to few people, no matter how naturally talented they are, to be good at everything. (This feels entirely just and comes as something of a relief to those of us who frankly often struggle to be good at anything.) And so there is surely something reassuring about the fact that, despite a massively successful and influential career as a novelist, author, essayist, critic, and memoirist, Martin Amis will still be remembered as a crappy writer of SF movie screenplays.

To be fair, he only had one go at this, and the experience seems to have been sufficiently unpleasant to put him off having another try. The film in question is Saturn 3, directed by Stanley Donen and released in 1980 under the auspices of Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment. Amis apparently used his experiences on the movie as material for his novel Money, which I haven’t read; Saturn 3, on the other hand, I have experienced, as both a movie and a tie-in novel.

saturn 3

(Not that it matters much, but I once interviewed the writer of the Saturn 3 tie-in – this was not the major focus of our chat – who was a fellow named Stephen Gallagher. Gallagher, a bit like Amis, went on to do many much more distinguished and interesting things, but as he is primarily a genre writer he is not nearly as celebrated for them. His main recollection of the Saturn 3 job was that he was writing the novelisation before the film was actually finished – I think this is standard practice – and had only a copy of the shooting script to work from, along with a photo of one of the sets and another of the film’s robotic antagonist. My recollection is that the book changes the end of the film subtly but considerably, but as I’ve observed before it’s not unheard of for tie-in writers to quietly try and improve on the original script.)

Your first sense that things are going somewhat adrift with Saturn 3 comes very early on, when it is revealed that Kirk Douglas, superstar of the Golden Age of Hollywood, is only second billed on the movie. The coveted top spot is given instead to Farrah Fawcett, star of TV’s Charlie’s Angels. Hmmm. Rounding out the cast is Harvey Keitel, sort of (yes, this is another of those British movies which recruited an almost entirely American cast in an attempt to secure a US release).

In time-honoured post-stellar conflict post-Alien style, the film begins with a hefty model spaceship crawling from the top of the screen to the bottom, more than slowly enough for the viewer to discern that they are in for some duff special effects in the course of the next 88 minutes. All is not well inside the ship, either, for Captain Benson (Keitel), disgruntled at being barred from a mission on the grounds of mental instability, decides to murder his replacement and impersonate him on the job. (As this is the premise for the whole movie, you just have to accept how ill-thought-through and implausible it seems.)

Benson is soon rocketing off to Saturn’s third moon, Tethys, which is the location of a hydroponics research station operated by a couple named Adam (Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett). Both of them have been isolated for a long time – Alex has never been to Earth – and perhaps don’t notice that Benson is acting a bit strangely (nor that Keitel is obviously, and rather distractingly, having all his dialogue dubbed by Roy Dotrice).

The couple, who to judge from the film spend much more time in bed together than actually doing any hydroponics research, are displeased to learn that Benson’s mission is to oversee the construction of a shiny new robot which will make the station much more efficient and allow one of them to be reassigned elsewhere. But it turns out they have bigger problems. Hector the robot, who appears to be half-Terminator, half-anglepoise lamp, is programmed by Benson using a direct brain interface, and is inadvertently getting all of the captain’s homicidal tendencies and lustful thoughts about Farrah Fawcett in addition to his basic training. Trouble is bound to ensue…

Hard to believe it may be, but there was once a time when a film like Saturn 3 (current Rotten Tomatoes rating: 18%) could be broadcast as the BBC’s big Saturday night film. I should know, I was there: 8.20 p.m. on September 6th, 1986. My main memory is of acute surprise when the film turned out to have much more nudity and gore in it than I had expected (this must have been before they instituted the 9 o’clock watershed on UK TV). Apparently Lew Grade envisioned Saturn 3 as being a slightly disreputable exploitation movie (you can see how the plot might lend itself to this sort of approach), but Stanley Donen (who took over when original director John Barry was dismissed) presumably wanted something a bit more high-minded.

And so we end up with something which is neither intelligent or especially fun to watch. In addition to some of the most dubious spaceship models and special effects of its period, the film notably fails to present a coherent or convincing vision of futuristic society – this is obviously a second-wave SF knock-off film, post-Alien, but unlike that film and other ones deriving from it, you get no sense of recognition of the world or how it functions. Amis tries to create a sense of time and place by dropping cod-futuristic expressions and slang into the script (the base is ‘shadow-locked’ for most of the movie, which is why no-one can call for help, while the ageing Adam (Douglas was in his early sixties at the time, which if you ask me is too old to be doing nude fight scenes) is approaching his ‘abort time’, whatever that is), but it just feels intrusive.

Without much of a wider context having been established (the film’s Wikipedia page claims that it occurs in a future where Earth has become immensely overpopulated, but there’s barely any reference to this in the actual movie), Benson’s attempts to get his hands on Alex (‘You have a beautiful body. Can I use it?’) just feel contrived and leery for all his assertions that this is how it’s done back home. There’s an attempt at conjuring up some kind of sexual tension between the three leads, but the weak script and the lack of chemistry between any of them scuppers this (the most interesting relationship in the film is the one between Keitel and the prop robot).

Luckily, this is not a long movie and relatively soon we come to the bits with the robot on the rampage. I suppose it’s a testament to the achievement of Isaac Asimov that he managed to banish the ‘killer robot’ story from respectable SF (this was his intention with his ‘laws of robotics’ stories). Saturn 3, which is one of the purest ‘killer robot’ stories in cinema, is therefore something of an aberration. Nevertheless, the film’s most effective sequence comes near the end, with the human characters stalked through the base by Hector (who, being a clanking seven-foot machine, develops an almost supernatural ability to sneak up on them). There is not much in the way of characterisation or context here, but it does function on a cinematic level.

The rest of the film doesn’t, really. There is an identifiable story going on, there is the most basic kind of characterisation, and the film doesn’t contain the more egregious violations of the laws of physics that some more distinguished professional film-watchers would have you believe are present. But it never engages and never persuades, and the story isn’t fun enough to make you overlook its various shortcomings. A rather ugly and primitive movie; the kind of thing that gives incompetent SF a bad name.

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It is one of those inevitable, slightly regrettable truths that the overwhelming majority of people sitting down to watch Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 movie The Room these days are doing so with a pretty good idea of what they are in for, for it is only famous because of its astonishing shortcomings as a piece of art. They know they are leaving the sunlit slopes behind and entering the valley of the shadow: watching The Room is a bit like taking a combined hitch-hiking and camping trip through Afghanistan. It’s going to be a mind-expanding, gruelling, and probably interminable experience, but you can’t say you weren’t warned.

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One can only imagine what it must be like to stumble upon The Room unawares and start to watch it with no knowledge of exactly what awaits. I almost envy that tiny group of initial viewers who benefited from that state of grace – although, on the other hand, settling into one’s seat in expectation of a conventional movie and then being exposed to Wiseau’s opus must have felt rather like going out for a country walk, bending over to look at a wild flower, and then receiving the impact of a charging bull in the nether regions of the person.

The thing is that the opening moments of The Room are, well, surprisingly competent, given the film’s notorious reputation. Credits play, background shots of San Francisco appear; one wonders if the film can really be quite as bad as it is supposed to be. Friends, it is.

The story is focuses on a saintly businessman named Johnny (played by Wiseau himself), who is an all-around great guy and beloved by nearly everyone who knows him. He is engaged to Lisa (Juliette Danielle), his long-term girlfriend, who is depicted as thorough-goingly manipulative, self-serving and callous. Despite affecting to love Johnny, Lisa commences an affair with Johnny’s best friend Mark (Greg Sestero); Mark is conflicted by this, but finds Lisa’s somewhat obscure charms to be utterly irresistible.

Will Johnny discover the affair? Will Mark decide to stop betraying his best friend and break it off with Lisa? Will Lisa leave Johnny, even though this will tear him apart? Meanwhile, Johnny’s youthful ward Denny (Philip Haldiman) has some problems with a drug-dealing gangster, which are never really explored or explained, Lisa’s mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, which does not impact the plot and is indeed only mentioned just the once, and there’s a moment where four of the main male characters decide to play American football in an alleyway dressed in tuxedos (this likewise does not advance the plot in any significant manner).

I suppose you can kind of just about make out the kind of film that Wiseau (who, in addition to starring and directing, also wrote, produced and financed the film himself) was trying to make: something vaguely akin to Reality Bites, a sort of ensemble piece about the lives and loves of a group of young people just starting out in life. To say the film is wide of the mark is a bit of an understatement: a lot of the time, it has that the-script-and-acting-isn’t-really-important feel of bad pornography, a resemblance which is only heightened by the fact that The Room features no fewer than five protracted and repetitive sex scenes.

If The Room is pornography, however, it’s pornography made by someone who is a bit unclear on the exact mechanics of the act and is too embarrassed to admit this (which I suppose is just another way of saying the sex scenes are actually fairly tame). Trying to work out why the film has five sex scenes, or indeed to discern the rationale behind many of its baffling creative choices, is the first step on a dangerous path, because trying to work out just what Tommy Wiseau was thinking when he came up with this sucker can only end in madness.

Wiseau has become a cult figure off the back of The Room, and a curiously cryptic and inscrutable one: in The Disaster Artist, a fictionalised account of the making of The Room (oh, yes, this is the state of modern culture), James Franco is content to just do a Wiseau impersonation, reproducing the man’s baffling hair, idiosyncratic mode of speech, and general air of being a human glove puppet remotely operated from another dimension – there’s no attempt to work out what actually makes him tick, or how anyone could have the necessary resources to make a film like The Room (it cost $6 million) but be so totally oblivious of their own shortcomings in terms of having any kind of talent.

I suppose this is why The Room exerts its strange power of baleful fascination over unsuspecting audiences. As I’ve said before, making any kind of movie is difficult, which is why the really, really good ones often feel like they have an almost-miraculous quality about them. Your chances of producing an absolute clunker also spike significantly if you start pushing the boat out in terms of your vision and the subject matter of your film – for example, the concept of alien invaders raising an army of zombies to conquer the world is one which is fraught with more pitfalls than most, which is possibly why it resulted in another famously bad movie. The thing is that Wiseau isn’t really trying to do anything that difficult, in terms of his actual story. He just gets almost every single important creative decision wrong.

The fact is that The Room doesn’t have many of the obvious flaws of other famously bad movies: there are no obvious continuity errors as such, or glaringly bad special effects. On a purely technical level it is actually fairly proficient (oh my God, I’m saying positive things about The Room: I’ve been doing this too long). But creatively… it is badly written, badly cast, badly directed, and badly acted, with ‘badly’ a huge understatement in each case. Characters and subplots appear and disappear almost at random, the main storyline is repetitive, the motivations of the people in the story remain baffling, and so on.

There’s not a lot of point in actually trying to review The Room objectively, for the fact that it is so very, very bad is intrinsically bound up with the fact that it has any kind of profile at all. Here at least the concept of consensus survives: The Room is not just terrible, it is famously, proverbially terrible. And obviously I would not disagree with this. But what I would add is that while The Room is never any good, it is also seldom boring (the sex scenes do drag on a bit), and the sheer nature of its badness also makes it quite mesmerising to watch. But not that often – if you have any sense, anyway.

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Regular readers may recall my trip a couple of months ago to the excellent Ghost Stories, in the company of a couple of young Russian women who – in defiance of all logic – were unaware they were actually going to see a horror movie. Well, as they say in the more gothic-influenced parts of Switzerland, mein Gott, ich habe ein Monster erschaffen, for – while her friend Yekaterina returned to Russia alarmed and trembling – Olinka, it seems, has developed a real taste for this sort of thing. ‘Can we go and see Hereditary? Can we can we can we?’ ran the general tenor of her messages to me for quite some little while, until we, um, went to see Hereditary, directed by Ari Aster. Filling in for Yekaterina was me good mate and occasional contributor around here Next Desk Colleague, which if nothing else made me hope that there would be less jumping onto and grabbing at each other in the dark on this occasion.

We saw the trailer for Hereditary before Ghost Stories, of course, and were not unimpressed by its unsettling weirdness. Less positive was the response of another group of people who also saw the trailer, according to the media, but as they were a group of small children and their parents waiting to watch Peter Rabbit, this is not really surprising. Oh, the horror! Oh, the outraged screams! Oh, the parents desperately dragging their youngsters out of the theatre! Mind you, I don’t understand why this doesn’t happen during every screening of Peter Rabbit, regardless of which trailers precede it, but there you go – it’s a funny old world.

‘It’s a funny old world’ is not the prevailing ethos on display in Hereditary. ‘It’s a horrendous, bleak, nightmarish existence’ would probably be closer to the mark. The main character is Annie (Toni Collette), a successful artist, who lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne), son (Alex Wolff), and daughter (Milly Shapiro). As the film opens they are preparing to bury Annie’s recently deceased mother, with whom she had a fraught relationship, to say the least. It soon becomes fairly clear that this is not exactly what you would call an entirely functional family: tensions and resentment, between mother and children at least, seem to be constantly simmering away not far from the surface. And as far as daughter Charlie is concerned – well, the kid just ain’t right, somehow, choosing to spend lots of time alone in a somewhat spooky treehouse, with hobbies that include scissoring the heads off dead birds. Hmmm.

And here we kind of run into a problem, which leads us back to the trailer to Hereditary. This is definitely one from the atmospheric, impressionistic end of the spectrum – it does a very good job of giving you an idea of how you’re going to feel while watching the movie, but in terms of telling you what the actual plot is, or even what the movie is really about… not so much. Let’s just say that something happens, the nature of which is significant, and the rest of the film is about the family’s response to this and the various ways in which things go awry as a result.

So what is Hereditary about? It’s not at all clear at first. If you’re watching a zombie movie, there’s a certain grammar and set of tropes in the storytelling that you know to expect; the same is true with werewolf movies, haunted house films, and all the other odd little subgenres. But for the first hour or so Hereditary offers no hints, at least not openly. The film really seems to be about the dysfunction of an affluent family – you only really know it’s a horror film because the soundtrack makes it clear that there is an ominous significance to many of the events on screen (lots of heavy cello and occasional outbursts of unsettling noise). This, together with the sheer darkness of what occurs on screen, results in a first half to the movie which is genuinely extremely uncomfortable – there is an almost chokingly oppressive sense of darkness and unease. It is not at all easy or pleasant to watch. I have to say it’s not actually very scary, either, as this is traditionally understood, and I did wonder if this was going to turn out to be another one of those post-horror movies we are having so many of currently.

Well, it turned out that Hereditary isn’t a post-horror movie after all, for it turns into a very different film in the second half and a rather more familiar one. Once again, there does seem to have been some deliberate obfuscation on the part of the film-makers as to what audiences should expect, so I don’t feel I can really go into too much detail except to say that it involves seances not going according to plan, conspiracies, the desecration of graves, one of the kings of Hell, a cult, numerous severed heads, spontaneous combustion, and quite possibly a demonically-possessed kitchen sink. In other words, we are very much back in mainstream horror territory, with the important caveat that it still isn’t particularly scary.

Oh, they manage a few mechanical jump scares, and there are bits which will make the average person go ‘eww’ and no mistake, but it won’t get into your head and mess you up in the way that a truly great horror film will. The best it can manage is some so-so gore and other old favourites: when a shot is composed so that the main character in it is off to one side in front of an open doorway, you don’t have to be Thelma Schoonmaker to figure out that something spooky will be ‘unexpectedly’ appearing in the frame behind them in the not too distant future. And the problem is that all this doesn’t even seem to be there in support of a story which makes sense. There are a lot of ominous red herrings which don’t seem to go anywhere: Next Desk Colleague observed that it looked like a film where they were making up the story as they went along. Maybe they were.

Not surprisingly, by the end people were openly laughing at Hereditary in the screening we attended, and not the nervous-tension-diffusing kind of laughter either. I myself found I was more inclined to look at my watch, but I did emit the odd derisory snort as things went on. As the credits rolled I looked around at the rest of the team, wondering if they would agree with my snap ‘what a load of cobblers’ judgement. Apparently so: ‘terrible,’ was NDC’s response, while all Olinka had to say was ‘I’m so sorry for making you watch that.’

This does seem to be one of those films which everyone loves apart from the audience, though – I note that Hereditary currently enjoys a 92% approval rating from your actual professional film critics, but only a D+ from paying audiences. I do have to say it would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is an entirely worthless experience – the way in which the atmosphere of the first half is created and maintained is extremely impressive, highly unpleasant though it is to experience. Also, while all the main actors are good, the film has a particular virtue in Toni Collette’s performance, which is often mesmerising, and manages to engage and affect the viewer even when the film is beginning to unravel. So there is lots of promise and potential here, but for this to be realised it would need a film which is more coherent and original. There are certainly things of interest in Hereditary, but if this is the future of the horror movie, we are looking at a genre heading into serious trouble.

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