H R Giger has passed away…

ff1Early summer of 1979. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, its warm and I should be out playing somewhere but I’m with my parents shopping in Willenhall. The town has a large newsagents and for me this shop is the highlight of our weekly shopping trips, somewhere I can browse the shelves of paperbacks (its where I bought the Splinter of the Minds Eye paperback and so many others) and look through magazines, pick up the latest issue of Starburst if I haven’t gotten it yet. But my eyes suddenly catch the cover of a new film magazine, the one you can see on the right here. Alien is the big new science fiction film, and I don’t yet realise it will be certified ‘X’ over here and its joys be forbidden to me for a few more years. This issue of Fantastic Films (renumbered number one to favour its launch in this country) has a big article on Alien, but I pause to just soak up that cover photo. It looks just so strange, so unusual and, yes,  alien…  to my young self its utterly mindboggling and arresting. The colours are so dull and brown and earthy, gritty, the spacesuits almost old and victorian to my eyes.  Behind the figures the enigmatic Space Jockey rests, utterly strange and bizarre and unlike anything I have ever seen. Its my first encounter with the designs and art of H R Giger.

Today news has broken that Giger passed away on Monday, at the age of 74 following a fall at his home in Zurich. Another creative icon of my distant youth has gone. Better writers than I will be able to wax lyrical and describe in detail the Swiss artists surreal dreamlike nightmare images, his career and accomplishments, so I just thought I’d share this memory of my first encounter with his strange and remarkable visions. The world will be a more mundane place without him.

 

 

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

hp4Making these Harry Potter films must have been a huge undertaking. I haven’t had time (or inclination, to be honest, as I’m trying to stay spoiler-free) to look into any behind the scenes extras on the discs or read any info about how the films were made, but I assume that as one film would go into post-production the next would start pre-production in order to get them out every 12-18 months. It takes some doing; the logistics must have been immense and the producers have my sympathy/admiration. The Harry Potter films are big films, with ambitious effects and sophisticated sets and a fairly large cast, with the added weight of matching expectations of die-hard fans of the books as rabid as any Dr Who fan or Trekkie. I would imagine debates still rage about characters changed or scenes missing, as I gather the films were not entirely faithful- well, how could they be? Even at an average two and a half hours per film, some of those Harry Potter books are big and the films can’t keep everything. At least Peter Jackson wasn’t at the helm, he’d have been releasing three-hour movies and four-hour extended cuts, no doubt (maybe the fans would prefer that, who knows? Tolkien fans may raise a note of caution there!).

So now we come to film number four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and inevitably its rather a let-down following the superb Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that preceded it. Goblet of Fire is more of a functional piece following the artistic triumph of Azkaban. Its certainly an ambitious film, with some major set-pieces that easily dwarf anything in the previous three films- its just hamstrung by more pedestrian direction, although that may have been necessitated by  constraints of budget and schedule, and a rather ham-fisted script.

Harry is back for a fourth year at Hogwarts but this time the year is dominated by a prestigious tournament for which students from two other Magical Academies are invited in order to determine the most gifted young wizard. Sort of a World Cup of Wizardry; its a dangerous series of challenges involving a deadly dragon, mermaids and a man-eating maze.  Due to the dangers involved it is supposed to be restricted to the older students only, but Harry finds himself  mysteriously entered into the tournament by Persons or Entities Unknown. It all feels rather predictable to be honest, and Harry suddenly becoming Mr Unpopular amongst his friends and classmates is rather unlikely and forced, obviously keying into adolescent angst and narcissism. I can see what the book and film is doing here but it doesn’t convince.

The film plods along in episodic fashion (something of a problem for all the Potter films) but gets interesting just at the end, when at long last  Harry’s nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort returns to human form to ensure suitable menace for the remaining films. A thoroughly impressive villain who thankfully lives up to all the hype/warnings in films one to three, and rather scary for the younger viewers, Ralph Fiennes chewing up the scenery in fine form. Suddenly an extra darkness is injected and a character dies, and then the film ends. At least I don’t have long to see what happens next; cinemagoers were not so fortunate. Got to love these box-sets.

So an average film but saved/made more interesting by its last half-hour. The series certainly looks to be moving into movie-serial format now with the main arc taking over at last. Four films in, its about time really…

 

 

 

Hannibal and Da Vinci’s Demons Renewed

Well, here’s some good news from tv-land; both Hannibal and Da Vinci’s Demons have been renewed for third seasons. These are two of my favourite shows at the moment. Currently I have my Tivo recording both their second seasons for me to watch when the complete seasons are ready (I have the first seasons on Blu-ray which I plan to re-watch prior to each).

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Hannibal has suffered from poor ratings since it started (it’s second season renewal was uncertain) but has rightfully enjoyed critical success- thankfully international financing helps covers its costs which makes it easier for NBC to renew it- importantly this also helps avoid network interference with the show. Considering how great Hannibal is, its ratings are odd (if this show was on HBO it would be huge, I’m sure) and I’m frustrated by how it gets lost in the schedules over here in the UK on a fairly minor satellite/cable channel. Nobody I know watches it. It feels like The Wire all over again; I expect word of mouth to ensure healthy DVD/Blu-ray box set sales in years to come. The writing is brilliant and the acting superb; this kind of stuff is better than what we see in movies, frankly. But anyway, a third season is great news and I can relax when eventually watching season two knowing there is more to come (I think the producers intend it to run seven seasons in order to tell the entire Hannibal storyline from the books and movies).

Da Vinci's Demons 2012Da Vinci’s Demons is the real guilty pleasure of these two shows. Its got a thoroughly preposterous premise but nevertheless its a joy to watch- I wasn’t sure for the first few episodes but once I ‘got’ what the show was I settled into it. Its really an adult comicbook, a what-if kind of thing, a flight of fantasy set in a strange sexy  medieval world in which fictional characters like Dracula exist in the same world as dashing hero Da Vinci. It seems to take its cues from conspiracy theories and political/religious intrigues – sort of  Dan Brown but wilder. Thanks to its period setting it looks and feels different to most everything else I see. Yes its daft but great fun. The performances are very good, the scripts imaginative and the production amazing considering its filmed here in the UK.  Its also graced by a terrific, highly ambitious music score by Bear McCreary that is, like his BSG work, a whole additional character in the show. Again, it seems to have a long story-arc in mind across several seasons and in many ways its clearly a harder sell than Hannibal so confirmation of a third season is brilliant news.

So anyway, anyone reading this who hasn’t tried either of these shows- give them a shot, you may be very pleasantly surprised.

 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

hp3Third times the charm, as they say- well, here we go, by far the best Harry Potter film I’ve yet seen, and I really doubt it will get any better than this: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is, pardon the pun, a simply magical ride. With Chris Columbus (the competent but rather unimaginative  director of the first two outings) gone, someone had the genius idea to hire Alfonso Cuarón for movie three and it works magnificently. From the very start there is a sense of wit, fun and charm that the first two films lacked, and this runs all through the film, from imaginative scene transitions to spellbinding production design and art direction. This was simply a joy to watch and I thoroughly enjoyed it- a real feast for the eyes.

It is so quirky and stylish, you really get the sense that this is a director’s movie as opposed to a film made by a committee. Chris Columbus is a competent director but he didn’t seem to stamp the first two films with his own authority and style, but its clear here that Cuarón was in charge and made his own movie. Its a movie based on a book, not a movie recreating a book slavishly. At least that’s what I assume (having never read the books), from how this film looks and feels so different from its predecessors. Its like a breath of fresh air, and suddenly the franchise seems full of possibilities. For the first time I’m watching one of these Harry Potter movies with an understanding as to what all the fuss is about. Doesn’t really feel like a children’s film either; it really feels like the film-makers finally sussed how to make a Harry Potter movie.

The music score, too, is a revelation. This film has a really fun, sparkling soundtrack, composed by John Williams. This, his last score for the series (although his themes will be no doubt utilised in the further films) is a riot. I have no idea if Williams let rip simply because it was his last shot at the films or if he was inspired by what he was seeing of  Cuarón’s film, but goodness its a wonderful return to form with shades of his great scores of the late seventies/early eighties.

Of course, part of the success of this film compared to Chamber of Secrets may be down to a slightly longer production schedule, as this film seems to have had a good six months longer (released summer 2004 as opposed to what might have been Winter 2003 following the run of the earlier films). Certainly having a new director revitalised the films and I look forward to what happens next.

 

 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

hp2Harry Potter returns with his second year at Hogwarts and a darker adventure than the first. Much darker. Indeed, it had me thinking of The Empire Strikes Back at one point, but by the films end most of the plot points are resolved and all is well, though it does make me wonder just how dark things are going to get later in the series (I gather things get pretty dark later on and if this  film is any indication…).

Released a year after the first film, such a quick turnaround for a major motion picture of some considerable scope is particularly impressive. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare and long hours that ensured it was released on time and largely maintained the quality of the first.  Indeed, it largely surpasses the first film technically (the effects work is clearly more ambitious), and yes many seem to feel its a better movie.  I’m not so sure about that, although my problems lie with the story (and therefore more with the original book itself).  Perhaps its inevitable, but the film seemed overly episodic and also rather over-long (perhaps the episodic nature didn’t help).  I also think that Chris Columbus’ direction is again sadly flat and workmanlike- the finale with the basilisk was awkwardly staged in particular, although perhaps the tight pre-production and filming schedule to ensure the release date had an impact on that. Oh, and the last moments with everyone clapping and hugging were particularly cringe-inducing,  too forced and manipulative (wet eyes everywhere, give me a break). Okay, I know I’m hardly the target audience for a film like this but after all the darkness before, it just felt out of place and jarring. I hope the other films don’t end with more of the same.

Good points, well, the young cast did well again (albeit Ron’s getting irritating with his wide eyes and screaming) but the adults are rather wasted here considering the talent on hand. Again, that’s likely a fault from the book. The new additions to the cast are very good- particularly Kenneth Brannagh’s  buffoon-wizard Gilderoy Lockhart and Jason Isaacs as the sinister Lucius Malfoy,  father of  creepy brat Draco Malfoy. I don’t believe Brannagh appears again in the later films, more’s the pity.

I also just feel myself starting to lose the plot again already with the overall story arc/mythos.  The Chamber of Secrets (a Chamber of Secrets With Very Few Secrets, far as I could gather) has been re-opened by a ghost from a diary possessing the diary’s reader, the ghost being, er, Voldemort? So its Voldemort’s childhood self as he was when a student at Hogwarts or his adult self here? But I though Voldemort was alive somewhere, hmm. That’s where I got confused. I’m assuming Voldemort is still Out There Somewhere and this ghostly version of his younger self is gone for good. And how exactly was this diary in the hands of Lucius Malfoy anyway? Maybe some of this stuff is clarified in later films, I’ll have to see…

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

hp1This is the one our cousins across the pond retitled ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone‘, wasn’t it? How’d that work with everyone in the movie talking about the Philosopher’s Stone? What was the problem with using the term  ‘Philos0pher’s‘ anyway? These things can keep one awake at night, I mean, as if the world isn’t strange enough as it is, someone feels the need to retitle a children’s film – a children’s film!-because the title is confusing or might upset somebody or something.

Something else that could keep one awake at night is the realisation that this film dates back to 2001. Wookies in a wastebasket, what’s this- this film is thirteen years old already?!!  Good grief, it doesn’t feel so long ago.  Its a sobering thought that when this film was made and released the success of the franchise spinning out the entire book saga onto film was not a certainty. As it turned out the series of films was likely more successful critically and financially than anyone might have dreamed.

I should make a disclaimer here- I never read any of the books, and when the films originally came out I gave up around film three because it was confusing me/I couldn’t really follow it, certainly not via DVD rentals (I know, I know, I should have tried harder, but annual or biannual gaps between films left much of the Potter mythos rather confusing to me). I thought it would be best to watch the whole saga with a boxset so missed the subsequent films and avoided any spoilers (which took some doing, really). Anyway, here I am, bought the Blu-ray box in a lightning deal on Amazon back in December and am finally giving it a shot.

So anyway, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Having not seen it since on its first DVD release many moons ago, I had forgotten much of it. A number of things spring to mind. First, its got a cast to die for. Really, give it a few more decades and this will be even more true; already its a Whos Who of (largely) UK talent- I wonder if there was any pressure to make it American Friendly with the casting process? As it is, even the then-unknowns (the kids, pretty much) are excellent. So yeah, the casting is great. Second, its clear that its based on a book- there is a rich creativity in the setting that simply wouldn’t be there had this been an original screenplay- movies just aren’t this good creatively usually, certainly not when dreamed up from scratch. There is a wit and charm to the piece and threads obviously being laid for subsequent stories. No doubts fans of the books could pour over incidental details/references lost on me.

The film isn’t perfect, but as the first film in an untried series it does very well. Some of the visual effects are a little dated but hell, that’s largely a combination of the film dating back to 2001 and a likely limited budget. The direction by Chris Columbus is largely functional/competent, but it works pretty well. The cast have a chemistry, the story is engaging, it works pretty much for children and adults alike. Its a great family movie, and the best is no doubt yet to come. It will be interesting to see the cast develop and the success of the films transferred to the screen with bigger budgets and more confidence/experience behind the scenes.

Tell the truth: Ace In The Hole (1951)

aceWell, unlike The Lost Weekend, a blu-ray that languished on a shelf here for well over a year, this disc I watched pretty much as soon as it arrived. I’d been looking forward to it since it came up for pre-order months back. I recall first watching this film many years ago on a late-night showing on BBC2. Not knowing what I was in for, I remember it seemed quite shocking. Back then I think I believed all Billy Wilder films (thanks to having seen The Apartment, Some Like It Hot etc),  were comedies- the joke was on me in this case. The only humour in Ace In The Hole is in its very grim and dark ironies- it is a brutal, cynical film set in a broken America and as far removed from Wilder’s later comedies as one can imagine.

When does news become entertainment, when does it become its own mad circus? While it is true that the world of Ace In The Hole is history now, the importance and dominance of printed newspapers fading away,  its core message is as important as ever- indeed perhaps even more relevant now in this world of 24-hour news channels competing for exclusives and advertising revenue than it was back when it was made. Its hard to believe that Ace In The Hole was released in 1951- it seems quite prophetic and concerned with our own present-day.

ace2Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a world-weary big-city reporter  whose career is in tatters, finds himself stuck in lonely middle-of-nowhere Albuquerque, where he finds work for a local newspaper. Tatum scoff’s at the embroidered legend ‘Tell the truth‘ on the office wall. Tatum is convinced it is only a matter of time until he finds a big story that can resurrect his career and get him back into the big-leagues again.

A year passes, and the increasingly frustrated Tatum finally stumbles on his big story. A local man has been been trapped in a cave-in while scavenging Indian relics. Tatum works up a scheme to keep the man trapped  longer than truly needed in order heighten the drama and newsworthiness of the rescue attempt. The corrupt local sheriff  assists Tatum’s plot in return for Tatum writing him up as a selfless hero in order to help his winning an upcoming election. Even the man’s wife agrees to help Tatum, as she sees the resultant publicity and money as her way out of her marriage while she plays the dutiful tearful wife of the trapped man.

Ace4Soon the developing story engineered by Tatum becomes a huge National event, people from all over the country arrive to witness it first-hand, radio crews set-up to broadcast regular bulletins and the attention of the big national newspapers falls at last onto Tatum so he can strike his big deal. Unaware that its mostly all a lie, everyone wants the story and cynically there are plenty willing to somehow profit from it. The once remote, dead-end town transforms into a literal carnival. Special trains are put on to get the public there, a music band sells sheets of music describing the poor man’s plight, a circus arrives to entertain the tourists while they await the outcome of the rescue attempt. All the while Tatum is the centre of attention. But the happy ending Tatum is planning (a big job back in New York after the trapped man is rescued) starts to go awry as events start to spiral out of his control.

Douglas has never been better than he is here, possibly the performance of his career. His Chuck Tatum is horribly realistic and convincing whilst utterly repulsive and deplorable. He dominates the film and every scene he is in, his amoral character corrupting everyone around him in order to perpetuate the story he is selling. The film is clearly just as much a film-noir as Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity. The script is as sharp as you would expect from a Wilder film, with some mouth-watering dialogue and the editing is superb, ratcheting up the tension admirably.  The conclusion is as inevitable as it is perfect, the final shot a classic moment.

Its likely one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films, which is certainly saying something considering the company it keeps. But it was without doubt a film before its time. Too cynical? Too dark and negative about the broken American Dream? Whatever the reason,  it simply didn’t find its audience, proving something of a damaging flop for Paramount at the time (so much so that profits from Wilder’s subsequent film, Stalag 17, had to be used to balance the books for Ace In The Hole). But over the years its reputation has deservedly improved. Its a fascinating and endlessly rewarding film.