Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Rafe Spall’

What the hell is the point of the BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds? This is not a rhetorical question. After what felt like an endless wait and much teasing publicity, what eventually oozed onto the screen was possibly the most God-awful thing I’ve seen on TV all year, including second-season episodes of Space: 1999. The absolute best one could say about it is that it is well down to the usual standards of a BBC adaptation of an SF or horror classic, even worse than their version of The Lost World and quite as bad as their take on The Day of the Triffids in 2009.

There is a weird double standard within the Corporation when it comes to this sort of thing. Andrew Davies or whoever may take the odd liberty and stick in some nudity which doesn’t appear in the original text of a non-genre novel, but they are usually pretty restrained when it comes to the general thrust of the story and its subtext. And so they should, because what’s the point of doing an adaptation if all you’re going to keep of the original is the title and a vague sense of the premise?

And yet this is what we got when it came to The War of the Worlds. Let me put it another way: if the same creative talents get employed to oversee a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, I confidently predict that what emerges will focus on a turbulent lesbian romance between one of the minor Bennet sisters and the scullery-maid, all wrapped up in a frame story possibly concerning the Boer War, and quite likely performed on ice, to boot.

The back-of-a-stamp, idiot’s synopsis for both is pretty much the same: early in the 20th century, projectiles from Mars arrive on Earth, disgorging metallic tripods which proceed to devastate civilisation, their occupants pausing to snack on any locals unfortunate enough to cross their path. Doing so without having your pre-trip jabs proves to be a mistake, as Earthly bacteria end up wiping out the Martian invaders. But that is more or less the extent of their similarity to each other.

I was seized by a terrible sinking feeling before the first episode even got properly going, as the continuity announcer let rip with some blether about ‘spheres from Mars’. Spheres? As any fule kno, your self-respecting Martian invader travels by cylinder, not sphere. Then again, these were not Wells’ Martians – huge-eyed, glistening, tentacled creatures the size of bears – but apparently the work of someone angling for a job on the sequel to A Quiet Place: all angular, scuttling legs (the dubious logic involved seems to be that the Martian Fighting Machines resemble tripods because they themselves are tripedal, an idea pinched, whether knowingly or not, from John Christopher).

But these are just cosmetic issues and don’t really take us to the nub of the issue. I would have thought it was simple good manners on the part of an adapter to do the original writer the courtesy of focusing on the characters from the actual source, not new creations, and likewise focus on settings and incidents from the text, rather than making new ones up. Yet we ended with a story a good chunk of which was set in a doomy post-apocalyptic wasteland, an Earth tainted by the Red Weed, with various survivors staggering about miserably. Key amongst these were the character played by Eleanor Tomlinson, and her small son, played by a small boy whose name I can’t be bothered to look up: wife and child of the Rafe Spall character, who I guess was supposed to represent Wells’ original narrator. Tomlinson and the kid are not in the book. The post-apocalyptic wasteland is not in the book.

I mean, what the hell? Really, what the hell? In what sense of the word does this qualify as an adaptation? The brutality to the English language is nearly as appalling as the brutality to one of the foundational texts of science fiction. Let us see what the writer responsible had to say when interviewed about his aims for the new adaptation:

The version of The War of the Worlds that I wanted to make is one that’s faithful to the tone and the spirit of the book, but which also feels contemporary, surprising and full of shocks: a collision of sci-fi, period drama and horror.’

Let us put to one side the mystery of what exactly he thought was the ‘tone and spirit’ of Wells’ book and consider the rest of this startling utterance. I was certainly surprised to the point of shock at various points throughout the three hours of the series, but contemporary? What, honestly, the hell? This is an adaptation of a late-Victorian novel, set in Edwardian England, so what are you bibbling on about when you say you want to make it feel contemporary? How is that remotely supposed to work? If you want to make The War of the Worlds feel contemporary, the best way is to set it in the present day: George Pal and Steven Spielberg figured this out when they came to make their versions, both of which – perhaps not coincidentally – genuinely do seem to capture the tone and spirit of the novel much, much better than the new BBC effort.

(I am fairly sure that ‘contemporary’ is modern writer code for ‘female lead character’. Certainly, in this version, Wells’ actual narrator is too psychologically fragile to survive, and his brother is too hidebound and seized by jingoistic impulses to make it through. Of Wells’ men, only Ogilvy, a very minor character in the book, makes it through to the end of the new version, and this may or may not be because we are invited to assume he is gay. My God, I wish I were joking.)

I expect that the makers of this thing will defend their work by saying that it does stay faithful to Wells: the novel’s original subtext (in which the British Empire gets a taste of its own medicine from technologically-superior colonisers from elsewhere) is clumsily elaborated in a long speech in the final episode. Well, for one thing, Wells didn’t feel the need to articulate his subtext in quite such an ideas-for-the-hard-of-thinking way. The whole point of subtext is that it should be obvious without needing to be made explicit, and I suspect the reason it did need making explicit was that the story had been so thoroughly mangled by this point that the original message was no longer discernable without the aid of expository dialogue.

Instead we got a story we didn’t seem to be about anything, much. The innards of the story had been roughly scooped out and replaced by… well, not a great deal of anything, really. Some stuff which was presumably about climate change. Other bits riffing on imagery from recent real-world disasters. A lot of faintly mystifying material about Edwardian social mores. Possibly some of this was there in the name of making the adaptation more ‘contemporary’ – but, really, it’s a book from 1898. It’s never going to feel contemporary unless you do severe violence to the story. Why would you bother trying to bring it to the screen, if contemporary is what you’re after? Let it be itself, let it be a late-Victorian novel full of late-Victorian ideas about evolution and society. Put modern special effects in it, to be sure – but don’t lose track of what the author actually intended it to be like, and to be about. If you do that, you just end up with something that bears a vague, superficial resemblance to the source novel, but isn’t actually about anything and has nothing to say for itself. This is an adaptation in name only, made by people who seem only marginally interested in H.G. Wells. It takes real determination and talent to screw up such a great story so thoroughly.

Read Full Post »

‘So, do you think they’ve left the door open for another one?’ asked this blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent, as we left our screening of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (I should point out he was not there in his professional capacity). After a picosecond’s thought I was moved to observe that when a film franchise has earned more than $3.5 billion at the global box office, and shows no sign of running out of steam in terms of audience appeal, the door will most likely not just be left open but carefully taken off its hinges and burned. Whichever way you cut it, the Jurassic Park films (as I still think of them) do make squijillions of dollars, although why they continue to be quite so successful I have no idea: the original movie had Spielberg at the height of his powers, plus gobsmackingly innovative special effects, but none of the others have really done more than remix the ideas from that movie.

Is this true of Fallen Kingdom? Well, for this outing, previous director Colin Trevorrow has been replaced by J.A. Bayona, whose last film was the (really good) A Monster Calls. So you could be forgiven for cautious optimism (it is never a good idea to be uncautiously optimistic when dealing with major movie corporations and $170 million budgets). Things kick off with a highly promising, genuinely scary prologue as a team returns to the ruins of the Jurassic World park in order to retrieve the genetic material of one of the engineered hybrids from the previous movie. Lightning flashes, shadows lurk, people get chomped; hope begins to flutter in the chest of the jaded so-called film critic (hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson observed, unlike Jurassic World’s dinosaurs – but we went over that last time around).

Well, from here we’re off into the film proper. It turns out that Isla Nublar, where Jurassic Park and then Jurassic World were located, is volcanic, and fixing to blow up and kill all the dinosaurs, and people are not sure what to do about this. (Just what happened to the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, the setting of Jurassic Parks 2 and 3, is not addressed.) Many, including former park visitor Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, but don’t get too excited, as he appears for literally only about two minutes), are of the opinion that this is very much not a problem. Others disagree, including former park manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Cowboys, who clearly had one of those ‘make my character less irritating’ discussions between films), who is now a dinosaur rights activist. Helping her are a couple of new characters, a young man who is a somewhat craven comic relief clown, and a young woman who is incredibly feisty and competent – such is the way of the modern blockbuster, as any disgruntled stellar conflict fan will tell you.

Claire is contacted by representatives of an old business partner of John Hammond, who was involved in the very early development of the technology that recreated the dinosaurs. This man (James Cromwell) has a plan to transport the dinosaurs to a nature preserve where they can live peacefully, but he needs Claire’s knowledge of Jurassic World’s systems and also the help of her old beau Owen (Chris Pratt), the animal behaviourist and raptor trainer. (Owen has retired to the countryside to build a cabin, clearly unaware of the iron law that nobody who starts building a cabin in this kind of film ever gets to finish it.) Well, Claire recruits Owen and off they all go to the island to save the dinosaurs. What could possibly go wrong…?

It is a bit naïve to suggest that a tentpole blockbuster such as this is motivated by anything other than financial concerns – the studio’s notes to the director really only have one line, which reads ‘Make as much money as possible.’ But it always seems to me that this is particularly obvious with the Jurassic Park films – if there are any genuinely interesting or unexpected new ideas in any of these films, it is because they have managed to sneak in without anyone noticing, rather than being put there on purpose. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true, because I did note a slightly knowing and rather subversive element to the last one, albeit kept under extremely strict control.

The directors of these latterday movies do seem to be trying to move the series on, for all that the first half of Fallen Kingdom adheres strictly to the Jurassic Park formula (characters go off to an island infested by dinosaurs). Here things go pretty much as you would expect, with many imposing beasties, an altogether too nonchalant attitude to being thirty centimetres away from molten lava, and so on. People inclined to disparage Chris Pratt’s range as an actor should bear in mind the material he is usually given to work with – at one point in this film he is required to run stoically downhill, pursued not only by stampeding dinosaurs but also a volcanic eruption. I’m not sure even Sir Ralph Richardson could have given much nuance to that.

It’s where the film goes after this which is curious, as it becomes less of a traditional monster movie and more of a kind of faintly surreal gothic suspense thriller, with killer dinosaurs lurking in and around a stately old manor. But there’s also almost a sense of the film trying on lots of different ideas to see which, if any, fit: there are elements of an action thriller movie, a subtext in which the dinosaurs become symbolic of the natural world and its treatment by man, some (carefully veiled) criticism of Donald Trump, and even a move towards a much purer form of science fiction (it turns out that not just the dinosaurs have been genetically interfered with). The narrative ticks all the required boxes, but it still feels like a really mixed bag, and one reliant on some dubious plotting in places.

The key difference, I suppose, is that whereas the previous films operated purely in terms of ‘run away from the dinosaurs!’, this one is much more ‘save the dinosaurs!’ There are scenes involving our extinct friends solely intended to elicit pathos from the audience. Goldblum’s character, it is implied, is wrong to want to see all the poor dinosaurs killed off, despite the fact that these films have mostly been about dinosaurs causing trouble and eating people. It’s a curious shift and one the film struggles to negotiate elegantly – the workaround is that ‘natural’ dinosaurs are noble creatures which deserve to survive, it’s only the genetic hybrids created by man which are monsters with no right to exist (this film features an especially preposterous laser-guided prototype military dinosaur). It’s a rather artificial distinction, if you ask me.

Still, as I say, Fallen Kingdom does pretty much what you want it to, even if the first few minutes are by far the most impressive. The special effects are impeccable, and there is actually a really impressive cast – Rafe Spall is in there, along with Toby Jones, Geraldine Chaplin, and Ted Levine. I don’t think the studio need worry too much about getting their money back, even if the film is only competent rather than genuinely great. And the ending implies that the next one will be a thoroughly different kind of film, even if the basis for this doesn’t really hold up to serious examination. In the end, this is a capable blockbuster with some curiously weird touches.

Read Full Post »

Ingredients for British romantic comedy film with a marital theme:

  • Useless vicar performing wedding ceremony
  • Terrible best man giving faux pas-strewn speech at the reception
  • Affluent lifestyle of easy, aspirational upward-mobility for lead characters so target audience will identify with them
  • Kooky alternative lifestyle for supporting character so as not to repel alternative kooks amongst the potential audience
  • Incredible filthy rich lifestyle for another supporting character so the producers don’t feel completely out of their comfort zone
  • Imported foreign female stars to ensure a decent release in overseas territories
  • Soundtrack of ubiquitous pop and soft-rock songs to create comfortingly familiar atmosphere
  • Cameo roles from well-known comedy faces (people off the TV will do in a pinch)
  • Judicious amount of sauce

Honestly, this scriptwriting thing’s a doddle – I hadn’t decided what to do for this year’s ScriptFrenzy (it was going to be a toss-up between a dinosaur Western called Flesh and a screwball comedy martial arts action film for Jason Statham called Transporting Baby) but I think I’ll just do a rom-com, they’re such a sure thing at the box office that I suspect production companies don’t really look at the recipe, just the ingredients. I should be able to sneak a slightly dodgy script past them, no problem.

At least this is the impression I was left with after watching Dan Mazer’s I Give It A Year, which, if it isn’t a rom-com, is certainly well-disguised as one. I have to say this is a slightly tricky film to review in-depth without spoiling the plot, but here goes anyway. Suffice to say that it appears to have been released specifically to cash in on the Valentine’s Day date-night audience, which is a little surprising given the general tenor of the thing.

igiay

Anyway, Rafe Spall plays Josh, a writer, who as the film starts is getting married to Nat, an advertising executive played by Rose Byrne (sigh), after a fairly whirlwind romance. Needless to say the course of married life does not run smooth, as it turns out they don’t know each other nearly as well as they thought. Also problematic is the fact that Josh’s old girlfriend (Anna Faris) is still on the scene, clearly nursing feelings for him, while Nat’s work brings her into contact with a wealthy American hunk (Simon Baker) to whom she finds herself instantly attracted.  Will the course of true love run smooth?

Of course, this sort of begs many questions concerning what exactly true love is, how you know when you’ve met The One, does the idea of ‘The One’ even make sense, and what degree of friction and not-getting-on is to be expected in any marriage, successful or not. These are important and interesting questions which most people, as grown-ups, will probably find themselves addressing at some point in their lives, and as such there’s scope here for an intelligent and witty film.

However, while I Give It A Year adheres quite rigorously to the ingredient list already mentioned – there are no fewer than three imported stars, and my cinema ticket came with a voucher giving me a discount if I bought the soundtrack – it’d really be stretching a point to describe it as strikingly intelligent, witty, or even particularly grown-up. Which isn’t to say it’s not intermittently quite funny, but that sauce of various kinds comprises a greater percentage of the overall dish than in, for example, a Richard Curtis movie (I’m sorry, I’m getting sick of this cookery metaphor too). A lot of the humour is quite coarse and crude – this is ultimately a comedy of manners, but most of the actual jokes are derived from social awkwardness and embarrassment, and in order to generate this Mazer has come up with a bunch of characters who are in no way believable as real human beings.

As a result, despite good performances from the central cast, the story as a whole never really convinces, nor is the main throughline especially funny. The film has a slightly odd structure, almost like a collection of comedy sketches, in which supporting characters will come in and do one or two (often very funny) scenes before we’re back to Spall and Byrne again. For example, Olivia Colman has a cameo as a nightmarish marriage counsellor, while there’s another bit where an attempted threesome becomes unexpectedly competitive.

But probably the biggest issue I had with this film is the way that it… well, look, this might be considered a Spoiler, so continue at your own risk. What starts off as a filthed-up copy of a Richard Curtis movie ultimately transforms into a rather odd parody of one, with all the cliches – the climactic dash, the triumphant declaration of passion – guyed and repurposed. It is, if you will, the film’s secret ingredient (though a bit less secret now you’ve read this, come to think of it). The problem is that those cliches are there for a reason, they’re part of a functioning story structure. Kicking that structure apart, as Mazer cheerfully does in the final act of the movie, risks alienating the audience, or at least confusing them. It’s not that the ending is parachuted in from nowhere, just that it runs contrary to one’s fundamental expectations of this kind of film – it’s like a detective story where the criminal is never caught, or a disaster movie where everybody dies.

So, it has some funny bits in it, but it’s not as consistently hilarious as its own advertising makes it appear. Neither is I Give It A Year quite the standard Working Title rom-com that it might seem to be – but, oddly enough, this is as much a problem with the film as it is a point of distinction.  Rose Byrne remains as reliably beautiful as ever, though.

Read Full Post »

I have an open offer of a bet that anyone who knows me can take up. The terms are as follows: together we will walk down the high street of any small town in England and visit every charity shop we pass along the way. For every such shop which contains a copy of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi amongst its second hand stock, you give me £5. For every shop from which Life of Pi is completely absent, I will give you £15. I am confident I will make money on this, for Martel’s book does seem to be one of those which was avidly purchased but not much retained (or, one suspects, finished). Nevertheless its combination of popular and critical success means that a film version has appeared, directed by Ang Lee.

Now, this movie has been released in glowing colour and stereo sound, with 3D also being available should that really be your cup of tea. I have to take all the foregoing for granted, as, in an attempt to foster the success of small independent cinemas across the UK, I went to see it at the Island in St Annes. I saw The Hobbit again there in their main screen and found it perfectly acceptable, but in screen 3 for Life of Pi all was not well: there was some kind of issue with the aspect ratio, the colour was washed out, the sound was a bit iffy and the auditorium too bright. All of this made long sections of the film look and sound about 35 years old (which is sort of ironic as this is when it’s set). I’m all for helping the little guy out, and admittedly it was only £3 a ticket (special New Year offer) – but come on, Island St Annes. You have to do better than this.

life-of-pi-poster2

Moving on from the latest instalment of New Cinema Review: in Lee’s film Rafe Spall plays a fictionalised version of Martel himself, a blocked writer who has been directed to talk to middle-aged Asian academic Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), as Pi apparently has the world’s most extraordinary story to tell him. What follows at first is a series of charming, fabulist anecdotes about someone collecting swimming pools, Pi quite wisely choosing to shed his birth name of Piscine Molitor Patel and doing so by a wholly remarkable method, his adoption of three different religions at the same time, and so on.

Then Pi’s father, a fiercely rationalist zookeeper, decides to relocate the family to Canada, taking all the zoo animals with them to sell. En route the ship encounters a savage storm and is lost. Pi, aged 16 (and played by Suraj Sharma), is the only survivor, finding himself adrift in a lifeboat with only a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a Bengal tiger for company, and most of the rest of the film concerns his various battles with nature and despair, with little hope of returning to dry land and an unpleasant death in the offing from any number of directions. (I had a similar experience on the boating lake at Butlin’s Filey in 1983, although come to think of it there wasn’t a tiger involved that time.)

Life of Pi‘s combination of narrative quirkiness and peculiar formal challenge instantly made me think that this was the kind of film entirely up Danny Boyle’s street – perhaps this would have been a little too obvious a choice for him, given he’s already done the remarkable life story of an Indian youth, as well as a struggle for survival with only one real character and a single location involved. Anyway, he spent most of last year either pepping up Baron Frankenstein or wondering at aisles, and so the job went to Ang Lee. The golden thread running with utter consistency through Lee’s filmography is that his films have virtually nothing in common with each other – this is the guy who’s done the costume drama literary adaptation, the martial arts arthouse favourite, the one about the gay shepherds, and the first version of Hulk, and so one shouldn’t be surprised by anything he chooses to do.

Personally I find I can take or leave Ang Lee’s movies – they all look good and are clearly the work of someone thoughtful, but quite often I find I can’t really engage with the story for whatever reason. I thought Life of Pi was one of Lee’s better films, although as a technical achievement more than anything else. You would think that an hour-plus of someone stuck on a raft or in a lifeboat with a hungry tiger would quickly get monotonous, if not actually boring – but the film remains engaging and nuanced throughout, with a distinct sense of a developing narrative (though I did wonder why the lifeboat never filled up with tiger dung). Sometimes it is tense, sometimes moving, sometimes funny: and this is largely down to Lee’s direction and a very assured performance from Suraj Sharma – given the prologue and epilogue sections of the film are very voiceover-heavy, Lee employs this device surprisingly sparingly for the main part of it. Richard Parker the tiger appears to be a fully CGI-ed creation, and an impressive one – presumably the original footage features a lot of Andy Serkis in a striped onesie.

The main section is also surprisingly light on obvious symbolism or Big Questions, especially given that the lengthy prologue seems to be going out of its way to raise serious issues concerning faith and religion, and our relationship with the natural world. The fact that the animals in the lifeboat are not remotely narrative-friendly or anthropomorphised in the slightest is a crucial one and seems to me to be central to the film. At one point this seemed to me to be becoming a deeply and openly allegorical story, with all sorts of parallels to different religious stories – but also one about what it means to be a human being trying to make sense of a complex and chaotic world. The film doesn’t really make much sense as anything else, so it’s just as well that it’s quite effective in those terms (although there’s a sequence where Pi encounters a very odd island inhabitated solely by meerkats that I’m not sure completely works – thankfully none of the meerkats try to sell him insurance, though).

This is a well-made and striking film about what it is that distinguishes us from the other animals of the world: and seemed to me to be suggesting that it’s our capacity for faith that makes the crucial difference. I’m not sure I agree with that myself, but Life of Pi is interesting and enjoyable enough whether you agree with its central thesis or not (or even with my idea of what its central thesis actually is). Probably not quite strong enough to pick up the big awards in the looming gong season (with the possible exception of Suraj Sharma’s performance), but a classy and serious film, worth seeing in a decent theatre.

Read Full Post »