More than a guilty pleasure?

The irony of being a movie fan is that no-one dares buys you any dvds (surely the most obvious of presents for any film geek), in case you already own them. This being the case, I like to take steps to ensure that, come the 25th of December, there will be one or two shiny discs for me under the Christmas tree. A small list of suggestions in the appropriate email inbox usually does the trick, I find.

This year, at the top of the aforementioned list were a couple of items: one was the Blade Runner 5-disc set, a film which impresses more with every viewing (and there will be plenty more viewings this year, I am certain);  and Transformers, something which will not come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of my earlier posts. I saw it twice at the cinema, and now a third time on my brand new dvd, and all I can say is: here is another film that just gets better with every viewing.

Now let’s be clear on this. I am in no way comparing Michael Bay’s Transformers to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The latter is a masterpeice of cinema and a brilliant work of science-fiction; it treats its audience with intelligence; it dazzles, intrigues, and absorbs. It is a film that MUST be seen more than once to be properly appreciated. Transformers, on the other hand, is a commerical product designed purely to make money, based on toys and a cartoon series that were also products designed purely to make money. But the joy of seeing my childhood heroes come to life on the big screen earlier in the year meant that it was Transformers I was keenest to watch post-Xmas present opening. (In my defence, I had caught Blade Runner: The Final Cut at the cinema a few weeks earlier, so I had no urgent desire to watch it straight away again.)

So is this post going to be another act of worship at the altar of Cybertron’s finest? Well, possibly. What struck me was that, despite the obvious reduction in screen size, Michael Bay’s film worked just as well at home as it did in the multiplex. In fact, in some ways it worked better: the action is now easier to watch, it’s more intelligible. And because the script concentrated more on the human characters than the robots, the story was ultimately more involving. My original problem with the film was that the Transformers themselves were not the focus of the story, which meant there was precious little characterisation of them. In hindsight though, I think this was the correct decision: it opened the film up to a much wider audience, introducing this new world of TF to fans and newcomers alike. It allowed the audience to share the ‘Wow’ factor that Shia LaBoeuf’s character experienced. And that’s what Tranformers was all about for us kids in the 80s – how ‘Wow’ it all was. It was only later, through the comics and cartoons, that we came to know the characters of the Transformers themselves more intimately, and my hope is that the in-development sequel will shift the focus to them.

Of course Michael Bay’s film is no masterpiece: it’s too silly to be that. Bay’s direction can still ellicit snorts of derision when he pays too much attention to how wonderful US military hardware looks at sunset. But after three viewings, I think there is genuinely a case to be made that the film is more than a guilty pleasure. It is Fun with a capital F, because, aside from some phenomenal special effects, it has some heart to it – probably the first Bay film to do so. My gut feeling is that Steven Speilberg’s influence as Executive Producer has much to do with that, but I feel nevertheless a little credit should go Bay’s way. Having said that, my dream choice for the director’s chair of the sequel would be James Cameron, who is surely the best action director in Hollywood (except he hasn’t directed anything for 10 years), but I suspect he has bigger fish to fry these days – all-singing, all-dancing, 3-D fish by the sounds of it (the in-production Avatar).

So anyway, ramble over. I’m a Transformers fan, and I liked the new Transformers movie. Call me nuts if you like, but I’ll take it over the noisy, senseless, migraine-inducing 80s cartoon movie any day. Loved it when I was 10; watching it again a few months ago, I was appalled at how badly it had dated. It might have a certain nostalgic value of course, but in no other way can it compete with the new version. Except some of the Transformers looked cooler in animated form, maybe. Maybe.

“‘Twas the night before Christmas…”

So, Christmas rears its brutish head once again, like a large vicious dog guarding the entrance to the dark and mysterious New Year.

Hang on – I love Christmas! I’ve no idea where that introduction came from. Perhaps because it’s been ages since I last wrote here and my writing muscles needed a stretch. I think Christmas is great; not just because food and drink happily flow forth and work is banished from the mind, but also because, uniquely, happy memories of childhood are so vividly resurrected you can almost close your eyes and be there. Inevitably, Christmas Day comes and goes and is nothing like the way you remember it, but then really it was always the anticipation of Christmas that made the day itself so exciting. Well, alright, the presents too.

Part of the traditional seasonal excitement came from the tv of course. First there came the devouring of the Christmas listings magazines (back when there were only two: the BBC’s in the Radio Times, ITV and Channel 4’s in the TV Times). Even before I realised how much I loved films, it was always the big movies that I looked for on each page. Back then of course (cue misty eyes and rose-tinted spectacles), films on TV were far more of an event: we had no video recorder, and cinema trips were extremely infrequent, so TV was really the only place to watch films. This made the big Christmas Day movie a real family event. BBC1 went through a phase of showing Mary Poppins every Christmas Day for several years I think, meaning I am now unable to watch it at any other time of the year (but I love it all the same when I do see it). They then realised that people might like to watch other family films in the post-dinner, post-Queen’s Speech slot, so things like Indiana Jones got aired there instead. ITV meanwhile would stick on a Bond film (again, these were a bit more of an event back then; they would show three Bond films a few days apart, then nothing at all for months).

Everyone seems to have a film that gets them in the festive mood; Mary Poppins is mine. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, but the spirit of the film instantly brings out feelings of joy and merriment that nothing else quite can. This can only be a direct result of the BBC’s Yuletide schedulings, but I thank them for it, because it is a wonderful film, full of classic songs, amazing sets and great performances (I would defend the legendary Dick van Dyke with my dying breath, thank you very much). 

That’s not to say there aren’t other equally great Christmassy films, which are beloved by others in the same way. Mrs. Ark has made the watching of The Muppet’s Christmas Carol a legal requirement of every Christmas Eve. Fine by me, because it’s a fantastic adaptation of the Dickens classic, perfectly capturing the essence of the story whilst sprinkling in the usual zany Henson humour. It’s a Wonderful Life is that other enduring Christmas cinematic institution, and quite rightly tops many lists of great Christmas films. Not feeling suitably festive yet? Whack this in your dvd player close to the big day – you’ll be ready to hug every single family relative by the end.

There’s plenty of other festive films out there of course, like Miracle on 34th Street, Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation… and others that escape me at the moment. And let us not forget real masterpieces like The Snowman – absolutely perfect. One of my own personal favourites is the golden-oldie Tom and Jerry cartoon ‘The Night Before Christmas’, perfect viewing for five minutes on a dark Christmas Eve teatime.

So much festive spirit! The only problem is – will there be enough time to watch them all before Christmas?

Shooting Romania in England (and vice versa)

Whilst enjoying once again the numerous pleasures of Hammer’s atmospheric 1959 production of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (which regrettably never led to further Holmes adventures from the studio), I was struck by the irony of filming locations now and then. Hammer, restricted by comparatively small budgets, were forced to use local spots in and around Surrey to double for Dartmoor – and did a pretty good job of it. For their adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, overseas shooting in authentic Eastern or Middle European locations was obviously out of the question, and so for exterior shots they would find suitably menacing nearby woods. Everything else was done inside the studio, which, with the right director, could be just as atmospheric as the real thing, if not more so.

The irony of all this is that today the exact opposite takes place. In order to recreate Ye Olde England on the cheap, film productions are forced to go to those same Eastern European countries that were once prohibitively expensive. The BBC’s new Robin Hood series is one of many productions currently exploiting this economic route, and many Hollywood films have done the same. Eastern Europe seems to be the location of choice at the moment to film expensive productions, in order to keep costs down. I have noticed in particular that cheapo direct-to-dvd sequels, a seemingly ever-growing trend, have found this method to be the best way to deliver a reasonably good looking sequel on a tight budget. Mimic 3 (Romania) and Lake Placid 2 (Bulgaria) are just two that spring to mind, neither of which I have seen, I hasten to add (possibly a good thing).

Certainly for fans of these sequels, and presumably the studio bean-counters, the low-cost production economics of Eastern Europe are a godsend. We might never have had the dubious pleasure of watching Lake Placid 2 if the situation were otherwise. On the other hand, it saddens me to think that the BBC can’t find anywhere in England to film their new version of the Robin Hood legend at a reasonable cost. Is this really the case? Is it just economics, or is it perhaps that our country woodland is so sparse now that a suitable location couldn’t be found? Whatever the reason, if Robin Hood can’t be filmed in England, something’s not right.

But there we go, that’s life I suppose. What intrigues me now is that the Hammer studio is finally resurrected after lying dormant for over 30 years.  Their new production Beyond the Rave will be the first off the assembly line. And after that? Well, perhaps they will turn their attention to that staple of Hammer horror, the humble vampire. And this time, instead of Surrey doubling for Transylvania, it might be more economical to shoot the Carpathian Mountains on location…

Revisiting the Rings

This past Monday, finding myself with a day off work and little else to do, I treated myself to a ‘movie marathon’: watching a few films in one go just so you can say you’ve done it. This is something only true geeks bother to do, and should never be boasted about amongst unfamiliar acquaintances or relations. I somehow managed to rope my brother in and, armed with pizzas, Pringles and copious cups of tea, we sat down to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies, neither of us having seen them for a couple of years or so. Although I didn’t really get anything new from the experience (besides noticing for the first time that the horse that rescues Aragorn from the river in The Two Towers is the same one he freed earlier on), it brought home to me once again just how wonderful these films are, working as great pieces of cinema as well as faithful adaptations of a classic literary epic. Six years on from the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, nothing suggests these magnificent films are going to date any time soon or are likely to be supplanted from their reign as the greatest fantasy movies ever made.

One could nit-pick of course, about things like omissions from the book, or the restructuring of certain sequences, or even casting decisions. But taken as a whole, I would happily argue that these films are about as close to perfect as they can get. I have no problem with any of the cast, all of whom more than do justice to their parts, and the tinkering with the structure seems valid enough to me and certainly does nothing to diminish the story. Nor did I miss those segments omitted from the original text, like the Tom Bombadil episode. Despite the odd tweak here and there, which was almost certainly necessary, I don’t think any argument could be made that these films were unfaithful in spirit to Tolkien’s work.

Beyond fidelity to the source material, what these films seem to have for me is an attitude, a real timeless quality that I believe will ensure they will be revisited for many years to come. At the time of their release, there was talk of them being ‘the Star Wars films of their generation’, and to a certain extent I think that was true. The release of each of the three films became an event, a treat to look forward to at Christmas time; especially once director Peter Jackson had knocked it out of the park with the first movie and it was safe to assume The Two Towers and The Return of the King would be of the same standard. They roped in every demographic to the multiplex in the same way that Star Wars did almost a quarter of a century earlier. They ooze class from every pore, be it the stunningly good cinematography, the magisterial score by Howard Shore (which he has since toured around the world), the wonderful cast (how could anyone else play Gandalf now besides Ian McKellan?), the jaw-dropping special effects courtesy of the now world-renowned WETA, the literate and faithful script from Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens and of course Jackson’s own direction, which never gets in the way but simply serves the story and visuals (and chucks in the occasional characteristic flourish).

Jackson thanked J.R.R. Tolkien in his Oscar acceptance speech in 2004, and obviously without that groundbreaking novel the film wouldn’t exist. But adapting such a book was no easy task and Jackson deserves all the credit he got when ROTK scooped 11 Oscars. Children and adults were instantly won over by the trilogy, reminding us all that there is no substitute for a brilliant story well told. I very much look forward to the day I can introduce my own children to Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring, perhaps one cold Sunday tea-time in December some years hence. I loathe the phrase ‘movie magic’, but perhaps here it is appropriate.

Beverly Hills Cop II IS a classic 80s film! Plus: digital Dracula and rats

Just a small update following on my previous entry. Having now watched my Beverly Hills Cop II dvd, I can confirm that, despite being an inferior sequel to the great original, the film is still an 80s classic: Tony Scott’s flashy direction, the score, the fashions and Eddie Murphy still being funny help make this a decent enough sequel. No comment on part III I’m afraid – if I can get it for under 2 quid, then it may happen, otherwise no deal.

In other news, last night I caught a preview of Ratatouille, in a digitally projected ‘print’, courtesy of Cineworld Cinemas. Two things: the film is every bit as good as the reviews have made out; and digital projection is officially amazing. Visually the film is stunning (knocking the socks off other inferior computer-animated cartoons), and having it digitally projected was the icing on the cake; you could just soak up the Parisian atmosphere from the screen. A treat from start to finish – well done Pixar.

Whilst there I caught a poster advertising Hammer’s classic 1958 horror Dracula, which is returning to cinemas across the country at the end of October in a newly restored version from the BFI. Even better, at most Cineworld cinemas, it will be digitally projected. Having recently discovered Hammer’s horror classics for myself, I can’t wait. Unfortunately I can’t see anything about it on their website, but I just wanted to give Hammer fans advance warning. There will apparently be screenings on Halloween – I can’t think of a better way to spend it.

Beverly Hills Cop – a classic film?

What constitutes a “classic” film?

I pondered this question – in a vague, gentle, back-of-the-head kind of way – while I was watching Beverly Hills Cop last night. I’ve enjoyed BHC every time I’ve seen it, and yesterday was no exception. Purchasing BHC2 (which I haven’t seen for many a year) for £1.99 from CD-Wow recently provided an excellent excuse to introduce Mrs. Ark to the pleasures of Axel Foley and his escapades in the titular upmarket district of Los Angeles.

This is a film that many would call a classic 80s movie, and indeed it is enormously entertaining. There is of course Eddie Murphy’s brilliant performance, in a career-defining turn; the genius theme tune and score from Harold Faltermeyer; Martin Brest’s crisp direction; the excellent photography in Detroit and Beverly Hills; a great supporting cast; etc etc.

I wouldn’t deny any of these things, but as enjoyable as it is, I couldn’t give it a 5 stars out of 5 rating. A 5 out of 5 for me denotes a perfect film that goes beyond mere technical and artistic excellence – it has something meaningful to say about the world, or society, or life in general. Even as I’m writing this, I’m finding it difficult to put my finger on what makes a film truly 5 star for me. There’s that moment where a film can transcend being mere entertainment, and it actually touches your soul – it makes you see something differently, or gives you an experience you haven’t had before. That’s the indefinable magic of cinema I suppose, and probably why we’re all film fans in the first place.

So, does the word “classic” only denote those films that reach that lofty plane of filmmaking that extends the boundaries of cinema? Not necessarily, I think. Calling BHC a classic of the 80s, or a classic of its genre is dead right.  Films can be classics without necessarily being world-shattering pieces of cinema. BHC turned out to be an excellent genre piece that did everything that was asked of it. It was funny, it had memorable action, memorable bad guys, amusing sidekicks, good music – a prime example of 80s Hollywood. In short, it did everything right without re-inventing the wheel. And in this case, the wheel did not need to be re-invented.

There are several yardsticks by which a film could be defined as a classic: it is groundbreaking or taboo-busting in some way; it might be technically revolutionary; it broke box-office records; or, simply how popular it is with people many years later (look at It’s a Wonderful Life). BHC was extremely popular when it came out and as far as I can tell, remains popular to this day – so much so that a fourth outing is currently being developed with Murphy onboard.

In many ways, the label “classic” is beside the point. A good film is a good film, regardless of whether it qualifies as a “classic” in the mind of the viewer. But it is reassuring to me that a film can be great without being revolutionary. Maybe it makes me feel less guilty for enjoying those films that are just nice and straightforward, or that are, shall we say, less than perfect.

Now, I wonder if BHC2 is an 80s “classic” as well…?

Franchise fatigue?

The Franchise. Simultaneously one of the most popular and unpopular words currently floating around the world of cinema. It’s popular with the studio bean-counters, who love the idea of having a guaranteed blockbuster year after year, providing a steady income from ticket receipts and merchandise opportunities. It also seems to be pretty popular with audiences, who queue up to see the latest sequel to emerge from Hollywood. I read today how Resident Evil: Extinction is the seventh “threequel” (i.e. the third episode of a franchise) to be released this year, and the seventh to reach No.1 in its opening weekend.

The Franchise is however unpopular with critics of Hollywood, who write about the dearth of imagination in modern movie-making and talk about the good old days of the 1970s when filmmakers were allowed a free reign on what was made and succeeded in producing some of the most remarkable and memorable films ever. And to some extent, they do have a point. The world of cinema today is a different one from the 70s, and the great films made then remain classics of their time. One has difficulty thinking of a recent film that could equal the dark majesty of The Godfather for instance.

But Franchise has now become a dirty word, used to describe Hollywood movie-making at its brainless, soul-destroying worst. And it is perhaps true that in some quarters this reputation is justified. Examples abound of inferior sequels to great or good originals. It is far harder to think of sequels that equal or even surpass their progenitor.

But I would like to offer a few words in defence of the Franchise. Firstly, I like sequels. Not all sequels, obviously – there have been some that should simply be buried underground in concrete bunkers, or blasted off into space on a collision course with the sun (Batman & Robin, I’m looking at you). But the notion of returning to a universe that I enjoyed first time around is a very appealing one, particularly as there is often little opportunity to do so. Movies are generally one-offs: they tell a story, and then they end. That’s part of their appeal. But return trips, when they work, can be just as great. Forgive me for dragging in the Alien franchise to my blog again, but James Cameron proved that building on Ridley Scott’s universe was fantastically worthwhile. And Francis Ford Coppola’s own The Godfather Part II successfully expanded the story of the Corleone family.

But these are genuine sequels you say, not Franchises with multiple money-making opportunities. True. Modern day Franchises like Spider-Man and Shrek were created from scratch with the aim of making billions of dollars in cinemas and homes in various forms. But so long as effort has gone in to each ‘episode’ to give it a strong story and equally to tell it well, why should we not enjoy it? Comic-book adaptations are particularly prone to sequels, and why not? That’s the nature of comics, to tell stories over weeks and even months or years. It seems wrong to me that Spider-Man, Batman or Superman should be denied the opportunity for further exciting tales of their fantastical universes.

Equally, films like Die Hard or the James Bond series prove that a character can be worth returning to. If Ian Fleming or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could write multiple stories involving their famous creations, why shouldn’t movie-goers enjoy the same privilege?

Naturally, there will be hiccups and downright awful abominations (er, Batman & Robin, stop trying to hide behind your desk…). But if the characters and their worlds are good enough, they will prevail in the end (Batman Begins proved that). So all I would say is, when critics yet again berate the slate of sequels and spin-offs that Hollywood lines up for us suckers, remember that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Obviously variety is the spice of life, and in no way would I want to only see Franchise films. Some films just wouldn’t support a sequel, and quite rightly so. But neither would I want to be denied the opportunity to see a new Spidey flick.