Tuesday, 29 November 2011

My Week With Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011) Review

Michelle Williams plays cinema's most iconic bombshell in My Week With Marilyn...

Whenever a film claims to have been 'Based On A True Story', one has to approach it with suspicion - after all, so many of these stories exaggerate their subjects for the sake of melodrama, leaving reality behind for flights of Oscar-bidding fancy. So, when My Week With Marilyn purports to be the retelling of a 'True Story', the only appropriate reaction is laughter. Based on the acclaimed memoir The Prince, The Showgirl And Me by Colin Clark, this shallow drama is fan fiction at its most dizzyingly creative, supposing an affair between a Third Assistant Director and the world's most iconic blonde. I have no real grounds for suspecting that Clark's story is pure invention, but his alleged tryst with Monroe is unsupported by any other source, and the one-sided manner of Curtis' adaptation - narrated by Clark - smacks of untruth. My Week may present the bombshell in a unique light, but whether it's an entirely honest one remains unclear.

Monroe's tortured upbringing is often mentioned in relation to her celebrity, and here we find her (played by Michelle Williams) as a conflicted soul, caught between a person and a persona. "Shall I be her?" she asks Colin at one point, pouting to a crowd of adorning fans. Williams nails most of Marilyn's onscreen mannerisms, and her recreation of the Showgirl role is note-perfect, but what she fails to muster is the star's natural luminosity. Perhaps this was an impossible task for any actress - even one as distinguished as Williams, who at 31 is already overdue at least two Oscars. It's an indescribable quality which she is tasked with capturing - a quality which made Monroe a point of obsession for both men and women, who wanted to bed and be her respectively. That famous smile was like a spiders web; return its luscious favour and you'll be ensnared forever. Even Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), the director/star of The Prince And The Showgirl, probably fancied himself as a suitor for America's golden girl. "I wouldn't buy that little-girl lost act if I were you" he spits to Clark after a particularly disastrous shoot. There's little danger of that here.

But Williams' inconsistent portrayal is the least of My Week's problems. Its insufferably twee portrayal of the English countryside - halfway between Emmerdale and Countryfile - only adds to the film's feeling of artifice, presenting an eternally autumnal landscape where pubs are called The Hen And Cow (or some such nonsense), everyone wears a flat cap and the only available pastime is darts. Its consideration of the higher classes is sillier still, with BBC stalwart Judi Dench roped in as a seeming act of parody, and the rosy-cheeked Derek Jacobi turning up for a scene in Windsor (the camera's initial reaction to him is hysterical, almost leaping back with surprise). Not a single note of the film rang true for me - in fact, its plain-faced whimsy often left me cold. Curtis' and DP Ben Smithard shoot the story through with a sightseer's eye of 1950's London, and the inherently televisual aesthetic goes a long way to reminding us just how dislocated the film is from its subject. It's not all bad though. Branagh's Olivier is ingeniously conceived, particularly effective in his outraged outbursts at Marilyn's method coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker). His larger than life portrayal may be hammy, but it provides moments of hilarity and warmth in an otherwise dull and misjudged adaptation. In all honesty, there's no reason why this shouldn't be premiering on BBC1.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Game On #4. The World Is Not Enough

Christmas comes early for Bond in 1999's The World Is Not Enough...

This week's Game On completes our 007 Double Bill with The World Is Not Enough, EA's pumped-up PS1 tie-in to one of Bond's most disappointing outings, marked by the departure of Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and the rise of the rampant silliness which would climax in Die Another Day (Tamahori, 2002) and its infamous riding-the-wave scene...

After a thrilling pre-credits boat chase, The World Is Not Enough had threatened to be another solid entry into the Bond canon for Pierce Brosnan, but sadly the film never again reaches the heights of its opening moments. It's over from the moment R (John Cleese) rears his buffoonish head, but the introduction of Dr. Christmas Jones (a comically miscast Denise Richards) seals the deal - this is undoubtedly one of 007's weakest outings. What's most disappointing is the fact that the central relationship between Bond and oil heiress Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) has real heart, and is given a fair degree of emotional complexity by the actors. Their final exchange ("I never miss") has real dramatic weight, but everything around it is so ridiculous that it hardly matters. For example, Renard (Robert Carlyle), the film's megalomaniac villain, has a bullet lodged in his head which is slowly killing him, but until the moment he dies it will only make him stronger. There are a few solid action set-pieces, notably a high-velocity bomb chase through one of King's oil tunnels, but the film as a whole is empty, containing none of Bond's trademark wit or brawn. It's also one of the most boring entires in the series, clocking in at 129 minutes with the overwhelming feeling of having taken a leisurely Sunday stroll through a lake of gloopy treacle...

The cover art for EA's PS1 shoot-em-up The World Is Not Enough...

After the brilliance of Tomorrow Never Dies, which I hailed as the PS1's most underrated shooter, I had high expectations of The World Is Not Enough, but sadly they weren't met. It's not that the game is bad, but for some reason EA felt the need to revert back to GoldenEye's FPS formula, and the results are mixed. Once again there's no multiplayer option here, and the 10 campaign missions (based around the film's story) can be polished off in under two hours - in fact, I clocked this one in at 90 minutes playing at the hardest possible difficulty. None of the levels present any real challenge to the player, with hordes of half-baked henchmen blocking the path between you and a clear-sighted end goal. The AI is surprisingly feeble, with most enemy goons firing off rounds in any general direction, often getting stuck and glitching behind objects. Bond's automatic lock-on system makes it all too easy to knock them off without even stopping in your tracks, and each level ends up as nothing more than a full-throttle sprint to the finish line. If I hadn't stopped to explore side doors and collect armour I fear that the game might have been even shorter.

007 once again packs an impressive arsenal, and kudos to EA for really giving each one differing weight, control and impact - there are many PS3 / 360 games which still can't achieve this easy feat. Shotguns, uzis and grenades all pack a unique but equally pleasing punch, and despite the simplistic level design I can't deny how much fun it is to blast your way through the first couple of missions. The second - a chase through the streets of London for Cigar Girl - finds you swathing through a linear succession of heavily armed thugs, and filling them with uzi lead is a particular treat. The problem is that the gameplay doesn't really feel like Bond, and the 1st person perspective, combined with the generic mission structure, means that there's no real sense of tension or atmosphere. I noted Tomorrow Never Dies for its "genuine sense of Boy's Own adventure... a feeling of being stuck behind enemy lines." If that's what you're expecting here, then you might want to look elsewhere.

Compared to its predecessor, the game is also incredibly bland in terms of visuals - the badly textured interiors are all differing shades of brown and grey, and none have any real shape or character. Tomorrow Never Dies had a remarkably colourful and varied world, and Bond really looked like Brosnan - he even carried his shoulder in agony after receiving too much damage, notably affecting your style of play. There are some nice technical effects here - for example, walking through snow is much harder than gravel - but none of them substantially effect gameplay. It's a muscular little shooter, and fine for wiling away an hour or so, but Bond fans - especially fans of Tomorrow Never Dies - might find The World Is Not Enough a little disappointing. Still, it's not as bad as the recent Blood Stone...

Next week's Game On will focus on Ubisoft's recent PS3 tie-in to Spielberg's The Adventures Of Tintin (2011)...

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Last Year At Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961) Blu-Ray Mini-Review

Last Year At Marienbad (1961) is a romantic puzzle, framed like a dream...

Much like L'age d'Or (Buñuel, 1930) and Inland Empire (Lynch, 2006) - films which intellectuals spend years trying to unknot - Alain Resnais' Last Year At Marienbad is better reveled in than understood, which isn't to say that it doesn't hold meaning. I have a personal theory on the film's intention, but this hasn't come about through periods of intense deliberation; I have allowed its imagery to wash over me like a cold surf, and for its dreamlike fragmentations to arrange in my subconscious like the pieces of a jigsaw. I experience the film in a daydream state, and any attempt to probe deeper into its world (even Resnais claims it's about nothing) is futile. Marienbad is an expression. Of what, I do not know.

Here's the setup. X (Giorgio Albertazzi), M (Sacha Pitoëff) and A (Delphine Seyrig) meet at the French chateau Marienbad, where the charming X recalls to a bewildered A the romance they had shared in the previous year; this may or may not have happened, and Alain Robbe-Grillet's seductive screenplay remains ambiguous to X's claim, exhibiting several overlapping realities to the audience. M (played by the haunting thin man Pitoëff, whose vampiric image would later lend itself to giallo) could be A's husband, and his shadow looms large throughout the film. It would seem, as Roger Ebert suggests, that X is the character whose interpretation we are experiencing, as it is upon the whim of his narration that the story changes course. The myriad levels of reality are likely entertained by all three 'characters', but it is through X that the audience identifies - he is hopeful; romantic; suave. Were the film traditionally told, he'd unquestionably be the leading man.

The star of the film, however, is Marienbad itself - an ornate chateau where mirrors reflect realities, or perhaps hide them in plain sight. Its glistening candelabras, hanging from arches which oversee angular gardens, flowering into the damp air, create an incredible and enveloping atmosphere, captured by DP Sacha Vierny who lenses each surface in gorgeous black and white, rendering the film with the feel of an old photograph (themselves an artform of memory). It would seem fitting then that the film also features entirely static sequences, in which the camera maneuvers a tableau of elegantly attired guests, each erected with the precision of a chess piece. It is in these sequences, and those which juxtapose characters' differing interpretations of events, in which the film feels most alive - where it seems to challenge our very grasp on reality. It's unlike any other film in the history of cinema, and so long as we don't endeavor to solve it, like it were some sort of Rubik's Cube, it shall remain as such.

The Disc/Extras
Incredible, grain-free transfer courtesy of Studio Canal, whose current restorations have been criminally undervalued. Their extras are also brilliantly expansive. On the disc there's an interesting 19-minute introduction by Ginette Vincendeau which skims through the film's critical reception and most popular theories, a 48-minute feature on writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, and a 38-minute documentary entitled The Labyrinth Of Marienbad, which at one point makes an interesting comparison with Kubrick's The Shining (1980), noting their similar "labyrinthe corridors and tracking shots" and labeling them both as ghost stories. Along with the original theatrical trailer there are also two short films on the disc, Le chant du Styrène (1959), 13 minutes, and Toute la mémoire de monde (1956), 22 minutes. The former film is an aesthetically playful tour around a polystyrene factory, making particularly bold use of colour, and Resnais' sense of space and perspective really shines through here. The second film looks toward the Bibliothèque nationale de France for a faux documentary on libraries, and man's attempts to trap knowledge - in many ways it looks to memory and being in a similar fashion to all of Resnais' work, but overall feels incomplete. Still, both shorts are fascinating early works from a master of cinema.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Mr. Nobody (Jaco Van Dormael, 2009) Blu-Ray Mini-Review

Mr. Nobody (2009) spins the yarn of Nemo (Jared Leto) across the 20th and 21st centuries...

"Know thyself? A maxim as pernicious as it is ugly. Whoever observes himself arrests his own development. A caterpillar who wanted to know itself well would never become a butterfly."
- André Gide

In the year 2092, Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is the oldest living mortal, caged away in aseptic isolation for the purpose of scientific study. On his final day (broadcast as a media spectacle) he reflects over life in the 20th Century, contemplating three possible realities, each spurring from a single childhood decision: whether or not he boards a train with his mother. So yes, it's basically Sliding Doors (Howitt, 1998) for existentialists, but nowhere near as interesting as that sounds. Van Dormael's vision is a striking if not original one (Slaughterhouse-Five is a notable reference point), and he's to be commended for his ambition, but Mr. Nobody quickly disintegrates under closer inspection, hiding a rampantly saccharine center beneath layers of faux intellectualism; the cinematic equivalent of a fondant fancy in spectacles.

Its irregular, elliptical structure does permit the film a degree of complexity, but this calculated façade fails to mask its deeper thematic shallowness, defined for me by an image of bicycles floating through space to the sound of classical music. Indeed, Van-Dormael's po-faced approach often calls his sincerity into question, and the film's 157-minute running time leaves so many metaphysical questions hanging that I began to wonder how much he really cared about them in the first place. Most plot strands also feel markedly incomplete, and the undeveloped side characters meant that I never really engaged in any of Nemo's decisions. If I don't care about the people, his flipping of a coin holds no dramatic weight or tension.

There's undoubtedly a great film to be made from the concept of Mr. Nobody, but this isn't it, and never could be with lines like "Do you remember what the world was like before telemerization? Quasi-immortality?" left in the final cut. Van Dormael can't quite decide, I think, whether he wants to lecture quantum physics or tell a timeless love story, and both ambitions become soured when the science is left tangled for the luxury of a happy ending. The film's clichéd utopia only adds to its been-there/done-that feeling, and if you thought The Fountain (Aronofsky, 2007) was tiresome, you'll probably want to give this one a wide berth.

The Disc/Extras
Immaculately presented on Blu-Ray, with the crisp image and sound perfectly complementing the work of DP Christophe Beaucarne and composer Pierre van Dormael. If you're going to see the film anyway, it's definitely worth shelling out a little extra for the quality of Blu. The extras are comprised of a standard theatrical trailer and a 45-minute Making Of doc, which does give some insight into the production. It's a neat little feature, but what light it sheds won't convert anyone who found the film just too whimsical for its own good.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Game On #3. Tomorrow Never Dies

On the run... Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

You'll need to don your spy hats for this week's Game On, in which I take a gander at the PS1's long-forgotten tie-in to Tomorrow Never Dies (Spottiswoode, 1997), one of Bond's most underrated outings...

A corrupt media baron igniting war. Camp Austrian doctors with a degree in chakra torture. Michelle Yeoh duel-wielding machine guns. How the hell is Tomorrow Never Dies so underrated? This action-packed spy thriller (Bond's 18th outing) boasts some of the series' most impressive set-pieces and outrageous villains, but it's also notable for engaging with present-tense political issues and stepping up the Bond girl stakes to make 007's eye candy an even bigger badass than him (Yeoh gained stardom in 1992's Supercop, the third of Jackie Chan's Police Story adventures). Yep, this one was a real game changer, but was largely ignored upon release, receiving a mixed critical reaction and opening second at the box office next to James Cameron's behemoth romance, Titanic (1997). Those who still need convincing should check out the film's most famous sequence - a thrilling motorbike chase through the streets of China, which ends on a stunt so silly it'd make Roger Moore blush. It's also worth nothing just how good Brosnan is in this film, clearly having found his feet in the role of Bond. Here he's cocky, suave and smoldering, but clearly capable of doing some serious damage. So, does this PS1 tie-in do the film justice? Let's find out...

The cover art for EA's terrific PS1 shooter, Tomorrow Never Dies...

Surprisingly, Tomorrow Never Dies might be just as good a game as it is a movie. Indeed, this muscular shooter is one of the most purely enjoyable on the PS1, and I was amazed to discover that it holds up way beyond my nostalgic expectations. Released in November of 1999, EA's terrific spy tie-in was one of my favorite games as a kid, and I wiled away many Christmas hours blasting through its 10 varied missions. Looking back, it's easy to see what attracted me. Each level carries a genuine sense of Boy's Own adventure; a feeling of being stuck behind enemy lines and constantly facing danger. And, of course, 007's impressive arsenal made for some really hard-boiled gameplay. Yes, it's much easier than I had remembered (it was teeth-grindingly tough aged 9), and the entire story can be whisked through in around two hours, but Tomorrow Never Dies is still an essential purchase for Bond fans.

Firstly, let's get technical. This game was obviously destined to live (unfairly) in the shadow of the much-revered GoldenEye, a revolutionary FPS for the N64. Tomorrow Never Dies makes the move to 3rd person shooting, stripping the game of its multiplayer option and focusing strictly on campaign missions. This makes for a much more robust single player experience, and one I actually prefer to the solid but overrated GoldenEye (recently given a makeover for the PS3, with Daniel Craig replacing Pierce Brosnan). Graphically the game is fantastic, with linear but detailed level design and highly developed character models - for example, Bond will begin to limp and carry his shoulder when he becomes injured (be sure to pick up that armour!), noticeably changing the way he controls. In fact, if you study his face during cutscenes, Bond actually looks a lot like Brosnan here, and it's clear that most of the pixels went into his handsome mug. There are some obvious ghosting issues, which are inescapable on the PS1, but this is an aesthetically pleasing effort, and each thoughtfully conceived level presents something new for the player...

This is ultimately where the game wins out over its competitors. The simple controls (hey, a non-analogue system that works!) allow for easy access into the games' multiple tasks, including shooting, skiing and stealth. The first mission, for example, sees Bond sneakily infiltrating a Russian radar base, falling into a full-blown firefight and escaping down the snowy hills, finally parachuting into an arms base where he decimates control towers from the cockpit of a heavily-armed MIG jet. And this is just the first twenty minutes of play! The game guides Bond through various set-pieces taken from the film (even the costumes are recognizable, such as that blue shirt in the top image) and even imagines some more original tasks, such as disarming a Russian convoy from the comfort of a rocket-enabled BMW 7. There's even a brilliant mission where you get to play as Wai Lin (Yeoh) as she takes down a Saigon police HQ with a rocket launcher. I urge everyone interested in gaming to track down a copy of this underrated shooter - believe it or not, it's one of the very best on the PS1!

Next week's Game On will conclude the 007 Double Bill with PS1 tie-in The World Is Not Enough...

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Red And The White (Csillagosok, katonák) (Miklós Jancsó, 1968) DVD Review

The plains of war are unforgiving in Jancsó's The Red And The White (1968)

Miklós Jancsó could be the most underrated action director of all time. For proof, take the first sequence shot in The Red And The White. A young soldier retreats into the dense marshland, firing off rounds as he eyes an escape route across the neighboring river. The camera comes to a standstill as he wades through the water, but soon halts; enemy horses approach in the distance, chasing a single fugitive. They thunder into the foreground, and Jancsó allows for silence in their approach. Now we fear for the fugitive, and wonder where the solder has hidden away (as he now lies out of frame). The camera remains motionless, save for gentle pans left and right to provide greater focus on the action. Eventually the fugitive is shot dead, and his body tumbles like a rock into the river. He floats downstream and the camera follows, picking back up with our hidden soldier who now accompanies the corpse on its course. The sequence is exciting; dramatic; mournful. In one single motion Jancsó has framed a set-piece which ticks all the boxes of action cinema: coherent geography, tight pacing, character drama and violence. By keeping a steady eye on his protagonists and allowing the action to move around the camera (as opposed to framing the camera around the action, which risks sensationalizing it) he has crafted a masterful set-piece. It's quite literally breathtaking, but unfortunately The Red And The White never surpasses its opening moments...

Set in 1919, the film revolves around the opposing "Red" and "White" forces in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The "White" army seek to restore the old Czarist order, while the "Red" revolutionaries (largely consisting of Hungarian volunteers) attempt to crush their efforts. Jancsó denies the audience any relationship with an individual character, nor does he dedicate the story to any one side. In my review of The Round-Up I contemplated that Jancsó's films portray "constant shifts in power between opposing political factions", and The Red And The White is the strongest example of this idea - for fifteen minutes we may follow the "Red" order, but at any second they may be ambushed by enemy forces, who would then become the film's focus. The narrative structure allows for lucid camera movements, but this, combined with the lack of dialogue, can often become disorienting, especially for an audience unfamiliar with Hungarian history and politics (again, this bracket includes me). DP Tamás Somló lenses the landscape beautifully, but without the human drama of My Way Home or satirical ferocity of The Round-Up the action the plains support is far less engaging.

There are several action sequences in the film, all shot with the same cold distance of that opening set-piece. Jancsó doesn't allow for any sentiment to enter his executions, either - they are a common fact of war, and presented as such. Many describe the violence in The Red And The White as random, but I feel this is incorrect. The chilling thing about the violence is that it is entirely calculated, but carried out without remorse or feeling. These men kill with the same level of consciousness with which they would slice bread. Their moral compass has been corrupted. And in this sense, can any side truly be called good? Watching these three releases back-to-back I sense one might build a devastating and complex picture of war. It wouldn't be the easiest of viewings, but it's one I'd highly recommend...

The Disc/Extras
Undoubtedly the worst transfer of the collection, which is a shame, because The Red And The White is perhaps Jancsó's most visually commanding film. It could be that the source print was in bad shape when Second Run got to it, but the grain in some scenes can be awfully distracting. On the whole the film is still perfectly watchable, but it's not up to the company's usual high standard. Luckily the extras are solid, with the accompanying booklet containing an essential 18-page interview with Jancsó, conducted by writer/critic Andrew James Horton, and the disc containing the first part of Jancsó's Message Of Stones documentary series, Budapest (1994). The trilogy will be reviewed separately, at a later date.

The Red And The White is released as part of the Miklós Jancsó Collection, on shelves Monday November 21st.

The Round-Up (Szegénylegények) (Miklós Jancsó, 1965) DVD Review

Jancsó explores systems of torture in his political drama, The Round-Up (1966)

"The regime is pitiless. It seeks the outlaws and highwaymen everywhere. They are the last vestige of active resistance. They are criminals in the eyes of officials, they are freedom fighters in folk songs."

These words, which play over a gallery of illustrations - sheathed blades, cocked revolvers, cannons and gallows - at the beginning of Miklós Jancsó The Round-Up, provide the sharpest and most explicitly stated insight into the filmmaker's thematic focus. His films (especially 1968's The Red And The White and 1972's Red Psalm) portray constant shifts in power between opposing political factions, with the camera lucidly moving across both sides of the conflict. His war-torn landscapes are formidable, dwarfing those who roam them, and they often bear witness to acts of cold, random violence. His protagonists are vagabond types, fighting for a cause, but it's unusual that they will succeed against the bureaucratic forces. An alternative title for this film is The Hopeless Ones, and perhaps it too proves fitting as a label, for hope is not visible on the scorched political plains of Jancsó's Hungary.

Set in 1869, the film picks up at a Hungarian detention centre where prisoner Gajdar János (János Görbe) is coerced into aiding his captors identify Sándor Rózsa's remaining guerilla troops, who are holed up at the same location. What follows is a sort of satire, poking fun at the ridiculous nature of political torture, which results in as many lies as it endeavors to find answers to. The smart screenplay, once again authored by Gyula Hernádi, underlines the point that people will say anything when a rope is put around their neck, and therefore the validity of these methods is put under scrutiny. The genius of the screenplay, however, is that it makes this point without fastening it to 1869 which, as Jancsó points out in the accompanying notes, could double for 1956; viewers may even find a reading about the Iraq conflict within the peeling interiors of this prison camp. This is a drama of futility, and one which isn't afraid to take risks - Gajdar is murdered by a prison mob just after the halfway point, and the remainder of the film focuses on the search for his killer, in which authorities use the exact same means for which he was brought to death.

Finally, it's interesting to note The Round-Up for its influence on Once Upon A Time In The West. Jancsó and Leone shared an incredible command of the Cinemascope lens, filling the widescreen frame with images few directors could even imagine. It's also obvious, contrasting the two films, that they both preferred to shoot houses from the extreme right or left of the frame, with the camera peeking out from their corners to observe the wealth of the landscape. In her S&S notes (included with the release of My Way Home, 1965) Penelope Houston also draws comparison between Jancsó and Ichikawa Kon, director of The Burmese Harp (1958). It's remarkable at this point in his career that Jancsó could sit so comfortably in such lofty company. But studying his earliest masterpiece, it's also easy to see why.

The Disc/Extras
Another flawless restoration job from Second Run, who really put a lot of care into their transfers. The accompanying booklet, authored by John Cunningham (Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House To Multiplex, 2004), provides a mini biography and career overview for Jancsó, and also a deeper contextual examination of The Round-Up, considering especially its political relation to post-1956 Hungary. On the disc there's a 19-minute interview with Jancsó, who discusses the film with fondness and intelligence. It proves quite revealing, which is perhaps unsurprising when we consider that it was shot by his sons. A solid package.

The Round-Up is released as part of the Miklós Jancsó Collection, on shelves Monday November 21st.

My Way Home (Így jöttem) (Miklós Jancsó, 1965) DVD Review

'I was walking, far from home, where the names were not burned along the wall...'

Miklós Jancsó, a director who could never be accused of not seeing the bigger picture, is a firm believer in the idea of a national cinema. Like the poet Attila József, Jancsó sought through his work to represent the courage and sprit of his homeland, which critic Penelope Houston definitively labels as "Jancsó's country". And it's the true mark of an auteur that, having previously seen only one of his films (1972's Red Psalm), I was able to identify within five minutes of My Way Home whose hand was guiding the camera. Jancsó, working with regular DP Tamás Somló, captures the vast landscape in breathtaking sequence shots, observing details both vital and incidental. For example, a scene where Jóska (András Kozák), a 17-year-old Hungarian, wanders through the war-torn plains, when suddenly enemy horses emerge from the top of the frame. The schoolboy finds cover behind a nearby bush and the camera, panning gently left, tracks the horses as they gallop by and slip over the horizon. The camera continues its journey until Jóska re-enters the frame, ending up on the exact same spot from which he fled. It feels like we've just witnessed an entire action sequence, but Jancsó executes the scene in just one graceful 360° movement. The plains were Jancsó's personal identification with Hungary, and with them he created a unique body of work.

For the first quarter of My Way Home Jóska is propelled through a series of short vignettes (the sequence where five prisoners are taken to collect water feels like an entirely self-contained short story) until he ends up in the custody of a young Russian soldier, Kolya (Sergei Nikonyenko). Their dynamic is an interesting one, basically playing out like a traditional coming-of-age tale. Jancsó denies us any specific date, but it seems clear that the film is set at the end of WWII. The boys should be enemies, and their inability to communicate (Jóska speaks a little German, but no Russian) means that they are forced to accept each other at face value. There's a wonderful scene where Jóska encounters a group of fugitive Hungarians, whom he refuses to join because Kolya would "get into trouble" if he escaped. A sense of empathy and understanding emerges between the boys as they realise that they are both prisoners of a larger, crueler system. Kolya, despite his youth, has come to understand the futility of war. He has been demoted to these isolated barracks (the boys' daily routine involves milking the several dozen cows which inhabit the surrounding fields) because of a war-related injury, suggesting that he has spent time in combat. I got the sense that both boys felt as lost as the other.

Eventually Jóska and Kolya become friends, and the scenes of them bonding, involving frog shooting and chasing skinny-dipping girls, are especially well handled by Jancsó, as he sidelines politics to focus on the theme of innocence lost. This is especially well represented by the heartbreaking ending. As Kolya grows weaker from his injury the boys' roles reverse and Jóska becomes his carer. The Hungarian desperately searches for a doctor to aid his friend, but by the time he finds one it's too late. Kolya has become just another casualty of war. This bleakness is also a mark of Jancsó's cinema, which film by film reveals itself as some of the most important of the 1960's. Few directors had such a profound social conscience and emotional scope. Jancsó's country is one I can't wait to revisit.

The Disc/Extras
Crisp image and sound, lovingly presented in a 16:9 digital transfer. The accompanying booklet features an article by Penelope Houston, reprinted from a 1969 issue of Sight & Sound. It makes a particular focus of My Way Home and The Red And The White (1968), but Houston uses these films to discuss Jancsó's wider themes and stylistic approach. It's obviously very academic, but the article certainly provides food for thought. The sole disc extra is Máramaros (1994), the second film in Jancsó's Message of Stones documentary series, which I'll review separately at a later date.

My Way Home is released as part of the Miklós Jancsó Collection, on shelves Monday November 21st.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Game On #2. Roswell Conspiracies: Aliens, Myths And Legends

Logan and Sh'lainn hunt for monsters in Roswell Conspiracies (1999 - 2000)

Sticking with the theme of PS1 sci-fi, this week's Game On looks back at the Ubisoft tie-in to one of my favorite cartoons; Roswell Conspiracies: Aliens, Myths And Legends.

When it started broadcasting on Fox in 1993, The X-Files replaced The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who as the face of TV sci-fi, bringing home 5 Golden Globes and securing brand-name status during its 9-year run. BKN, a branch of the Bohbot Entertainment company, tapped into the market by basically reformatting the series as a Saturday morning cartoon, pitting a dynamic male/female team against governmental conspiracies and world-threatening aliens. BKN produced a number of distinctive cartoons in the late 90's, mostly spun-off from hit movies (1996's Jumanji, 1997's Extreme Ghostbusters), but Roswell Conspiracies remains their crowning achievement, despite low viewing figures and early cancellation. The blocky, primary coloured animation was never released on VHS or DVD in any region, although some kind soul has uploaded all 40 episodes to YouTube, and nostalgia aside (I have A LOT of love for this show) it really holds up, largely thanks to an offbeat sense of humour and some solid plotting. The scripting is really smart, but what continues to hook me is the emerging relationship between bounty hunter Logan (Scott McNeill) and his banshee partner Sh'lainn (Janyse Jaud; actually an X-Files extra in 1996), which playfully skirts around an obvious romance. Their teasing relationship, as well as the one between professional cover-up artists Fitz (Peter Kelamis) and Nema (Saffron Henderson), provides the series' beating heart, and worked around it are a series of hugely impressive action sequences - for those who want a flavour, check out Ep. 9: Bounty Wars! So, does the 2001 videogame do this underrated series justice? Let's not raise our hopes, eh?

The cover art for Roswell Conspiracies: Aliens, Myths And Legends...

So no, it's not very good. Again. Roswell Conspiracies has some pretty solid production values, making a valiant attempt at recreating the series' winning aesthetic, but what it lacks is any of the feeling. Rather than branching off from any of the show's existing storylines, Ubisoft's title crafts its own (weak) narrative, moving the 'plot' forward through stodgy animations and wooden dialogue, most of which is accessed through your PDA. The missions are all very linear, employing simplistic puzzles to block your way from the end-goal, with the path to their solutions littered with dumb enemy AI. Even though the game is easy to grasp, the needlessly complicated control system makes getting through it a bit of a chore, and the enemies' frequent respawning becomes a nagging difficulty when crossing ledges - eventually you'll just want to give up, as checkpoints won't save you here. I tried using cheat codes to unlock every level, just so I could get a full taster of the game before reviewing, but sadly they didn't work on the PS3 system. I haven't sampled every stage, but the ones I did play through were incredibly dulled and bland, coloured with shades of brown, black and grey (at least they got the blocky part right).

Once again I find myself wondering how much potential this game would have if re-made, even if it were on the older PS2 system. What it really needs, outside of some mission/combat variety, is a sense of the show's heart and humour; some co-op play would actually be really welcome, with 2 players controlling Logan and Sh'lainn. Throughout the series they encountered lycanthropes, vampires and minotaurs, each with their own abilities and environments, so the game would have been much stronger if built around one of their 'types'. The script and voice acting are really poor here too, which is perhaps the biggest letdown. The game, despite looking the part, just doesn't reach anywhere near the right tone. I remember renting the Roswell Conspiracies game in 2000, when the show was at its peak. Rainbow Video allowed for many of my early film/videogame experiences, and I miss the place dearly. But not even nostalgia - and remember, I've got A LOT of love for the show - can save this one. Even for PS1 it's a clunky, boring title, and a terrible disappointment.

Next week: Back to the movies for 1999 tie-in Tomorrow Never Dies, the first of a 007 Double Bill!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972) Blu-Ray Review

Bruce Dern stars as a lonely eco warrior in Doug Trumbull's Silent Running (1972)

Science-fiction is a genre inherently grounded in ideas, and most of its output - no matter how outlandish in theme - has a foot in the door of reality. David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999), for example, imagines a possible future where citizens play videogames organically, entering the fabric of the virtual world via body implants. Now, while I don't believe in a future where RPG's will be played through the human flesh, I don't think anybody could deny how rapidly we're working toward an age where players will be able to live inside the game, likely via some radical holographic technology. These future reality pictures are speculations on advanced logic, taking fact-based formulas and ideas and exaggerating them for the sake of fiction (the science-based world of eXistenZ gives way to conventions of horror). In this same mould, Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running imagines a near-future where the Earth as we know it no longer exists - the land has been leveled for, I presume, housing and industry. Children will never experience for themselves the beguiling mystery of a poppy field, whose beauty will be represented by picture books and postcards. Instead, fleets of advanced eco systems have been built in space, positioned around the rings of Saturn. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) has been cultivating one of these systems for the past eight years, along with three other men named John (Cliff Potts), Marty (Ron Rofkin) and Andy (Jesse Vint). But these men seem not to care for the trees and plants which Lowell so carefully tends to. They seem overjoyed when management is forced to abandon the preservation project, and it's announced that the greenhouses must be destroyed. Lowell decides to save the forests and in a moment of passion kills his three companions. Now he must tend to the trees alone, accompanied only by three drones; Huey, Duey and Louie (named after Donald Duck's nephews).

I wonder how far into the future Silent Running is set, because the screenplay (authored by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco) avoids any specifics. The spacecraft's design and technology looks largely contemporary, so the viewer is free to imagine the decade (or century) in which the film takes place, and I like to think of it as an alternative present-day. Pixar's WallE (Stanton, 2008) imagined a dystopic future where the Earth has been reduced to a dusty consumerist wasteland, leaving behind little robots to clean up our mess. Although Pixar have openly acknowledged a debt to Silent Running, I prefer to think of WallE as a possible sequel, set in 2805 when Lowell is dead and the eco project (seemingly funded by American Airlines) has long been buried. In many ways Lowell is Earth's final martyr, and Silent Running does subtly engage with religious ideas - when in the forrest he dresses in a loose grey robe, resembling that of a monk's, and in his sanctuary (referred to as Eden) Lowell represents the highest power. And in the end he gives his life for an ultimate cause.

It's important to remember, when considering the humanist elements of Silent Running, that Trumbull conceived the project as a direct response to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for which he created the visionary 'Stargate' sequence. 2001, produced in conjunction with Arthur C. Clarke's groundbreaking novel, looked to life as a singular collective entity, charting man's evolution through millenias and star systems, working through a loose narrative which posed unanswerable questions to its audience. Kubrick's cold, clinical style led to what Trumbull describes as a "dehumanized" work, and so the director set about focusing his film on the empathy and tolerance of one gentle man. The film is undeniably sentimental (largely thanks to those two Joan Baez songs), and its eco message a little heavy handed, but Trumbull is successful in forming a quiet and profoundly sad character drama, drawing a career best turn from the eternally underrated Bruce Dern. Lowell is in almost every frame of the film, and the camera develops an intimacy with him that proves especially effective in the final scenes. Kudos to Trumbull and Dern too for imbuing the drones with such humanity. Their ultimate fates never fail to make me teary eyed, and the film's final shot is one of the most powerful in all of cinema...

The Disc/Extras
Stunning transfer from Masters Of Cinema, of whom we should expect nothing less. The opening credits, which observe the plantation and its life forms in microscopic detail, are captivating in their beauty. If their restoration for Silent Running looks this good, I really can't wait to see what they've done with Touch Of Evil (Welles, 1958). As usual there's an accompanying booklet, which was unavailable with my press screener, but the disc extras, including a commentary, making of doc, interviews and the original theatrical trailer, are all exemplary. An essential purchase.

Silent Running is released on Blu-Ray on Monday 14th October. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast. This review is also part of the Aurum Sci-Fi Quest.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Game On #1. The City Of Lost Children

Crumb (Judith Vittet) stares down the rabbit hole... The City Of Lost Children (1995)

For almost as long as I've been an ardent film nut (20 years and counting) I've also been an obsessive gamer, and on many an occasion my love for both art forms have suckered me into that most deceptive of traps: the film / videogame tie-in. Hercules (Clements, Musker, 1997) and Small Soldiers (Dante, 1998) were the first culprits. I adored these films at the cinema, and my parents, knowing this, bought me their tie-ins for the Christmas that I recieved my first PS1. I didn't take to gaming naturally (controllers lobbed across living rooms became a frequent house hazard) but my addiction was instant. Since then I've gotten a little better at platforming and shooting (racing, not so much) but I've never quite learned my lesson where it comes to those dreaded tie-ins. There's always been a kind of odd, wallet-sapping curiosity that niggles away in my brain, forcing me to shell out on the latest blockbuster title to waddle its way onto consoles. "This one might be different" I convince myself. It never is. But now, in a new feature for E-Film Blog, I'm going to address the issue. Every week I'll be taking a film along with its accompanying game and landing the verdict on whether this tie-in is box office gold or a lousy, lazy flop. First up we're going retro to focus on The City Of Lost Children...

For those unacquainted, The City Of Lost Children is a 1995 dystopian fantasy directed by visionary French duo Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (Delicatessen, 1991). It's an incredibly underrated film, following resourceful orphan Crumb (Judith Vittet) as she embarks upon a quest with carnival strongman One (Ron Perlman) to save the dozens of children kidnapped by loopy scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who plans to revert his accelerated aging process by stealing their dreams. Yeah, it's pretty darn weird, fusing visual motifs from Dieselpunk and Art Deco to create one kookily askew dystopia, and its influence, on everything from Dark City (Proyas, 1998) to 2K's videogame franchise BioShock, has gone criminally unchecked. The film opens on a young boy's dream of Christmas, which quickly turns into a nightmare as he's kidnapped by a rag-tag group of Santa's and a Buñuelian donkey. Honestly, I never thought I'd write that sentence. Accompanied by a beautiful Angelo Badalamenti score, the film has a sickly green aesthetic which, combined with the 1920's architecture - shadow-laden tunnels and wartime diners - makes for an enveloping world ripe for videogame adaptation. One would assume that this multi-tiered landscape was built for exploration, and would lend itself perfectly to the standard variety of platforming action. And when I learned that Marc Caro had overseen the production and art design of the project my hopes were raised even further. Was I right to expect the best from this tie-in? Time to find out...

The cover art for City Of Lost Children on PS1, developed by Psygnosis...

Honestly, it baffles me that anyone even thought City Of Lost Children was marketable as a videogame, as many tie-ins of the time (Psygnosis' effort was released in 1997) were of Disney movies, Saturday morning cartoons and comic book heroes. The game certainly seems to be aimed toward a niche, perhaps higher-brow crowd, and it's easy now to see why it flopped. Indeed, if it weren't for Caro's obvious supervision over the art design this colorful chore would be entirely unplayable. It basically takes the form of a point n' click adventure, charting Crumb (referred to here as Miette) as she moves through various room and corridors, each conceived within the gaze of three interchangeable cameras, which can be switched between to reveal clues and hidden paths. The main problem is that, due to the sluggish controls, this becomes a boring task rather than an exciting one. Rather than the directional buttons deciding the... y'know... direction of your character, they instead act as a positing tool. Unless you use the left and right buttons to rotate and point Miette in the required direction she will only walk forward, which has none of the fluidity of simply being able to tap a specific button and have it result in one direct movement. The analogue stick is entirely useless and the R1 button, which speeds her up from walking to running speed, results in Miette getting stuck behind glitchy objects. Getting from one side of a level to the other is unreasonably snooze-inducing, and means that eternal boredom sets in after only fifteen minutes of play...

But like I say, City Of Lost Children is a visual feast, and despite some terribly rendered surfaces the game is impressively designed. The colours (rusty greys and those sickly greens) perfectly complement the film's palette, and despite some repetition in the locations (this is PS1 after all) there is a genuine sense of expansive space, and an endless world for Miette to explore. It's such a shame that there's no reason for the player to invest in said world, largely because of the sluggish controls , but also because of the quality of gameplay. Jeunet pinpointed the theme of this film - and it actually applies to all of his work - as being that "tiny things can accomplish great feats". Most of his narratives are built from incidental moments which have a domino-like effect on his characters lives, and there's great potential for this idea to be implemented into a videogame - especially in the way of puzzles. City Of Lost Children has a few, annoyingly varied in difficulty, but they feel so separate from the narrative driven action. Although the world itself is identifiable from the film, and replicated with care, there's nothing in the gameplay that suggests the genius of Jeunet & Caro. It's not a terrible game. Just a deeply misguided and fiddly one (continues after the image).

Hopefully the above image will represent the beauty of Psygnosis' failed attempt, but it also demonstrates the narrow, linear style of gameplay - close-up walkways and the clunky ascent beyond them. If ever there was a game I wanted to see remade, it's this one. Titles like Sly Cooper, Ico and Splinter Cell have recently been remastered in HD for the PS3. I wonder what good it would do to put a request in...

Next week I'll be moving toward TV / videogame tie-ins for the PS1 spin-off of Saturday morning sci-fi Roswell Conspiracies...

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn (Steven Spielberg, 2011) Review

"Yeah, I think we took a wrong turn somewhere"... The Adventures Of Tintin (2011)

Tintin, the intrepid boy adventurer of Hergé's iconic comic strip series, is long overdue his Hollywood debut. Steven Spielberg first discovered the character after a 1981 review of Raiders Of The Lost Ark compared Indy's escapade to the adventures of Belgium's premier journo, and the director soon became an avid fan, falling in love with the series' detailed artwork. He instantly set about adapting a story for his next film, with a 1984 draft, supposedly about poachers in Africa, attracting Jack Nicholson to the part of Captain Haddock. So, 27 years later and The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn is finally on our screens, co-produced by Peter Jackson and filmed entirely with state-of-the-art motion capture technology. Has it been worth the wait? Let's find out...

Traditionally I'd dedicate this second paragraph to outlining the film's plot, but it's complete balderdash, and all you need know is that Tintin is on a quest to find three model ships which point toward lost treasure. To explain any more would be cumbersome and boring, and half the fun of the film is reveling in its silly surprises - one of which jets around the corner every five minutes. In fairness, Hergé's strips were always wildly convoluted, making little to no sense in the run up to their finale. The screenplay, penned by Steven Moffat and brushed up by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, stays true to that formula, piling on epic set-pieces as the story ambles along, nodding back to past Tintin adventures including Crab With The Golden Claws (1941) and Red Rackham's Treasure (1944).

Animation was undoubtedly the only way to fully realise Hergé's world (Spielberg originally wanted to shoot his tale live action) but the mo-cap technology hasn't yet caught up to the director's vision, and occasionally it results in jerky action choreography and unconvincing facial expression. A frequent complaint with mo-cap is that it renders characters lifeless by deadening their eyes; arguably an actor's greatest tool. That's also true here, and if Spielberg's film - which is often breathtakingly beautiful - proves anything, it's that we're still a long way from fixing the problem. But he also finds an advantage to the technology which no director has yet exploited to such full effect - action.

You've probably heard whisperings of the Morocco chase sequence, involving a bird and a motorbike, and I can confirm those rumours now: it's extraordinary. In one impossible continuous shot, Spielberg tracks Tintin as he moves from vehicle to vehicle, rooftop to bustling marketplace, ducking and diving through a gorgeous landscape in the search for three withered pieces of paper; clues to the location of those sunken riches. There's no way such a shot could be accomplished in-camera, and Spielberg frequently extends the reality of his world to maximise his audience's enjoyment. The same could be said of the final crane duel, choreographed to recreate an earlier high-seas ship battle, which exhilarates in its scope and pace. There's little doubt in my mind that this is the best action film of the year.

But therein also lies Tintin's central problem. For as much as I enjoyed them it's impossible to deny that this is any more than a series of patchily connected set-pieces. Eventually I was left with a deep desire to spend more time with the characters, and for them to indulge in conversation, even fleetingly, on a higher level than exposition. The Thompson Twins (played here by regular Wright duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) provide a welcome comic diversion, and actually one of the film's high points. Whenever they're onscreen Tintin feels refreshed, giving room to a sub-plot about a local wallet thief, whose reveal is an absolute treat. Daniel Craig's villain, Ivanovich Sakharine, is also desperately underdeveloped, but the actor clearly relishes playing such a dastardly bastard, and he imbues the character with much more menace than the screenplay provides.

It's inconsistent, but Tintin could never be accused of being boring. This world-traversing mystery finds us at the hands of a revitalized Spielberg; the master storyteller is clearly having a blast, and his energy is infectious. My only wish is that he'd given a little more space to character, which gets lost amid the shootouts and swashbuckling on offer here. In a few years we'll be getting the sequel, to be directed by Peter Jackson. If he can sort out Unicorn's problems I'm confident we'll be looking at a winning franchise. Colour me excited...

P.S. In my first paragraph I was specific about this being Tintin's Hollywood debut. There were actually two live action French films produced in the 1960's, Tintin And The Mystery Of The Golden Fleece (Jean-Jacques Vierne, 1961) and Tintin And The Mystery Of The Blue Oranges (Philippe Condroyer, 1964), which aren't brilliant, but certainly worth tracking down for Hergé completists.