Sunday, 13 August 2017

Valerian By Besson, Christin & Mézières

I am not necessarily a huge fan of Luc Besson, so normally if I'd heard he'd invested vast sums of his own money in a movie, and the movie had tanked, I would hardly be moved...

But as it happens, my heart goes out to him. Because that movie is Valerian, and it's enormous fun. I urge you to go see it before it disappears. 

(And, judging by the empty cinema where I saw it last Saturday night, that may not be long. Which is a real shame.)

I first encountered the Valerian comics, by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières when I was working on Doctor Who, and I found them enchanting. 

The thing I remember most vividly about these colourful science fiction adventures is how they featured exotic creatures and their behaviour, instead of exotic devices and their function  — biology instead of technology.

And writer-director Luc Besson has succeeded in being true to this. Indeed, it is a pleasure to report how well he has succeeded, generally. Valerian (or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, to give it its full unwieldy title) may be rather silly...

But it is fun.

In fact, Besson seems to have absorbed the lessons of the Guardians of the Galaxy and has crafted a colourful, exotic, fast-moving science fiction romp which is cheerfully entertaining. In short, it's a Gallic Guardians of the Galaxy.

The movie's theme and treatment Besson also seems to be interestingly influenced by Ender's Game, another science fiction film with a baby-faced male lead. Plus, there's a dash of Avatar in here.

Now, the Valerian comics are actually a double act — Laureline and Valérian (the acute accent over the 'e' seems to have got lost to simplify matters), with the hero's female partner getting equal billing.

In the movie Laureline is played by Cara Delevingne, a successful model who began her career in movies with Face of an Angel, one of my least favourite films of all time. 

Here, though, she has a worthwhile movie, and her acting ability has developed pleasingly. And of course Besson is a heavily visual director, so it's no surprise that Delevingne looks so fetching clumping around in space armour and big boots. 

The eponymous Valerian is played by Dane DeHaan, who recently starred in the curious but memorable horror movie A Cure for Wellness. The two principals share baby-faced good looks and diminutive stature and have a routine, but entertaining, spiky almost-romance thing going on. They make a good team. 
 
Alexandre Desplat's music is another asset of the film. In an early sequence on the planet Mül he does an astonishing job of modulating from paradisiacal bliss to apocalyptic terror.

But it is in its visuals that Valerian is at its most stunning. Thierry Arbogast's cinematography is outstanding, and so is Hugues Tissandier's production design.

And Olivier Bériot's costumes must also be singled out for praise. (In the long list of credits at the end for the costume department there's the hilariously bleak one 'Dying and Ageing'.)

If Valerian has a weakness it's in Besson's dialogue — people bark "Copy that" in response to information, no less than seven times during the film. And there are plenty of other verbal clichés. 

So it's a pity the writer-director didn't get someone to do a quick dialogue polish for him. Particularly since his script is deceptively superb in its deft structure, expertly interweaving its plot threads and action sequences. (When this sort of thing is done successfully it looks easy, but it's actually very difficult to achieve.)

Incidentally, a re-writer might also have been able to fix an egregious lapse of scientific knowledge. Because unfortunately Besson seems to think "700 million miles" is a huge distance in space... 

In fact it wouldn't even get you out of our solar system.

Copy that.

(Image credits: Lots of lovely posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Beguiled (the 1971 film) by Traverse, Cullinan et al

This is the original of the movie which was recently and badly botched by Sofia Coppola, as I've discussed. 

As I said in that post, the main virtue of the remake is that it prompted me to re-watch the 1971 version, directed by Don Siegel, which is a seriously impressive film.

I also synopsised the plot in my previous post. Basically The Beguiled is a fever dream about a wounded Union soldier who ends up convalescing in a girl's school behind enemy lines in the Deep South. 

His presence there lights the fuse on a powder keg of repressed sexuality. And it doesn't help that the soldier, McBurney (Clint Eastwood) is a manipulative, lying bastard.

The 1971 movie has some minor flaws. The characters are given a few silly internal monologue voice-overs, and there are a couple of ill judged and somewhat clumsy flashbacks concerning an incestuous relationship between Martha (Geraldine Page), who runs the school, and her late brother.

But other than that, this is a masterpiece

In particular, Bruce Surtees's cinematography is astonishing and beautiful. His method for evoking candlelight is moody, effective and breathtaking, with superb use of deep shadow and colour.

This is in complete contrast to Philippe Le Sourd's dull and insipid work on the remake, which always looks lifeless, colourless and underlit.

Amazingly, The Beguiled was Bruce Surtees's first credit as a cinematographer after years labouring as a camera operator.

Lalo Schifrin's score for the original is also superior to Laura Karpman's for the remake.

But where the 1971 movie really excels is in the quality of the acting and the writing. The cast here is stunning, vastly stronger than in the remake.
 
For years Eastwood cited this film as his best work and he was right. His performance is startling. I'd tended to dismiss him as a star who didn't act (and didn't need to).

But as soon as McBurney loses his leg, Eastwood's performance moves up several gears. He's entirely effective and believable. 
 
Mae Mercer as the slave Hallie — a character entirely white washed out of the Coppola movie — is extraordinarily powerful, convincing and dignified.

Then there's Elizabeth Hartman, immensely moving in a beautifully nuanced performance as the spinster teacher Edwina whose love is awakened by the undeserving McBurney.

And Geraldine Page who is frighteningly authentic and hard as nails as Martha Farnsworth, the school's owner.

Special mention must also be made of Pamelyn Ferdin as the youngest girl, Amy, the death of whose pet turtle triggers the final tragic phase of the story.

As well written as the film is, the writing credits on it are a nest of snakes: basically it was begun by the distinguished screenwriter Albert Maltz (This Gun for Hire, Naked City). He delivered several drafts entitled 'Johnny McB'. 

Maltz refused to write anything negative about the female characters, placing all the blame on McBurney. And he flattened out the Gothic and horrific aspects of the story. Maltz was fired and ended up using a pseudonym on the film, as John B. Sherry. 

The next writer was Irene Kamp who also had a strong track record (Paris Blues, The Sandpiper). She wrote two drafts (entitled 'A Nest of Sparrows') which focused heavily on the female characters, marginalised McBurney and — ludicrously — gave the story a happy ending.

Crucially, though, Kamp is said to have strengthened the role of Hallie the slave. After being taken off the picture she too resorted to a pseudonym, Grimes Grice. Apparently the name of her uncle.

The director Don Siegel was very unhappy with all these scripts. He had a clear idea of what he wanted, which was a movie which was faithful to the book. 

(Siegel's vision of The Beguiled was entirely admirable. He perceptively compared the story to the writings of Ambrose Bierce. And he tried to hire the artist Edward Gorey to create the poster for the movie, before the studio overruled him.)

Finally Don Siegel enlisted the help of his associate producer, Claude Traverse, who had a similar admiration for the book and succeeded in coming up with an excellent version of the script.

It's ironic in the extreme that the one writer who managed to crack the story didn't get any screen credit for it. And that the two who did insisted on hiding behind pseudonyms.

So, let's pay full credit to Claude Traverse here. And of course to Thomas Cullinan, whose original novel enabled everyone to go to work and collect a paycheck in the first place.

I have drawn on several books for the version of facts presented in this post. The most informative and useful was Don Siegel's autobiography. Patrick McGilligan's biography of Eastwood also provided some interesting details.

(Image credits: 'His Love... or His Life' is from IMD Forums. 'Isolated Girls School' and a rich variety of foreign posters — including the priceless Spanish one ('El Seductor') where 19th Century soldier Clint is holding a 20th century automatic pistol — are from the excellent site Cinematerial. The black and white ('Never been in a deadlier spot') ad is from The New Bev. The striking alternative poster with rainbow colours by rob3rtarmstrong is from Deviant Art.)

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Beguiled (the 2017 film) by Thomas Cullinan

The Beguiled is a remake of a 1971 Don Siegel classic starring Clint Eastwood. 

Directed and written for the screen by Sofia Coppola, the new version is based on the original movie, of course. But more importantly its source is the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan

Without wishing to labour the obvious, without Cullinan's unforgettable and disturbing novel neither of the films would exist.

However, if you were to look at Sofia Coppola's movie, you wouldn't know the novel exists. 

In an extraordinary departure from the norm (and in a move I am surprised is even legal) there is no mention of Cullinan and his book on the poster. And despite me indulging in a considerable wait at the end of the movie, I didn't see a screen credit for him either.

Maybe Cullinan's name was buried in the fine print amongst the drivers. Anyway, it sure as hell isn't prominent.

Which is why, in an attempt to redress an injustice, I've put Thomas Cullinan on the title of this post and left Sofia Coppola off it entirely. So she can see how it feels. Because I know she's bound to read this.

Anyway, The Beguiled is really a perfect Gothic tale about an isolated group of women with a predatory male put among them.

The male is Corporal John McBurney, a wounded soldier. Initially helpless, he is taken, in an act of Christian charity, into a girls' school to recover and heal. He is the only man on the premises.

McBurney is a Union trooper amongst Confederate women, so he is the enemy. But he is also the enemy in a more profound and basic sense. He's a liar, manipulator and seducer. 

And as soon as he is well enough, McBurney is clumping furtively up the stairs on his crutches to sleep with the school's most flirtatious and precocious teenage student. 

In the 1971 movie the girl is called Carol. Here, in the first of many pointless and unhelpful changes, she's called Alicia.

The turning point in the story is when our "hero" is discovered in the girl's bed by a jealous teacher and pushed down the stairs. His injured leg is so badly damaged that amputation is the only option (or is it?)...

The loss of McBurney's leg is a powerful castration metaphor, and the sexual dynamics of this tale are profound, deep and troubling.


Or, at least, they should be. Sadly Sofia Coppola's version of the movie is pallid, bungled and utterly ineffectual.

McBurney, the Eastwood role, is here played by Colin Farrell. Not a bad choice at all. He has the smarmy virility and charm required by the part. Indeed he is a weaselly greaser in somewhat the same mould as the young Clint Eastwood.  

Some would argue that Farrell is a better actor than Eastwood, but Eastwood is unquestionably the more potent and charismatic star. So when Sofia Coppola's script begins to screw up, the movie is well and truly sunk.

The cast consists of talented performers. As Martha, the owner of the school, Nicole Kidman has the requisite neurotic fragility. It's questionable whether Kirsten Dunst is suitable to play her plain-jane old maid second in command. But Elle Fanning is just right, as the young temptress who will literally be McBurney's downfall.

One of the big mistakes of Coppola's script (and it has not gone unremarked) is to eliminate the only black character in the story. Hallie is the school's slave and she was magnificently played by Mae Mercer in the original movie.

Here she doesn't exist, presumably to make the other women more "sympathetic" by soft pedalling the fact that they're slave owners. But the film is fatally weakened by losing an important character. And of course a black actor lost a job into the bargain.

But the worst mistake by Sofia Coppola is racing hastily from the sympathetic and charming McBurney to the demonic and legless McBurney. The transition in the film is so abrupt as to be baffling. Or laughable. 

And it throws the whole movie off. Effectively the mid section of the picture doesn't exist. Sofia Coppola's movie is 94 minutes versus 105 for the original, but it feels like a lot more is missing than that.

This is because virtually every creative decision Coppola makes weakens and vitiates the material. But at least this film prompted me buy a Blu-ray of the 1971 version.

Watching it, what immediately struck me about the original is how much more effective the acting is, in every single role.

Indeed with the exception of a scene where McBurney's leg is buried (it goes thump into the ground — nice work, Sofia!) everything is better in the 1971 film, and I will post about that movie soon.

It's startling, and a little depressing to see how Sofia Coppola has screwed the pooch here so completely. It is hard to believe such potent material could be botched so completely, but she's managed it.
At least this movie got me — and hopefully some others — watching the original version. 

And, more importantly, it has brought Thomas Cullinan's novel back into print after being unavailable for decades. 

So we have that to thank Sofia Coppola for.

(Image credits: Only one poster at Imp Awards. The quad version is from eBay. The striking pink and black graphic version by Pawjanka is from Deviant Art. The black and white photographic poster is from Pinterest. The stretched image version is from Mad About Moviez. The typographic version is also from Pinterest. "In Theaters June 23" is from TMC.)

Sunday, 23 July 2017

It Comes at Night by Trey Edward Shults

To paraphrase Groucho Marx, "There's nothing like a great horror movie... and this is nothing like a great horror movie."

It's not that it's bad, exactly, it's just that it's utterly inconsequential... 

The cast is strong, though, with the reliable Joel Edgerton in the lead as Paul. Edgerton himself is a writer-director who has crafted a good suspense/horror film (The Gift), but he is just an actor here.

The movie is written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. The set up is that a terrible plague has swept the world. Paul and his family have sensibly isolated themselves in a cabin in the woods.

When an outsider turns up (Christopher Abbott as Will) they assume he is an interloper who has come to steal from them — clean water is a valuable resource. 

But Will says he has a vulnerable family who are waiting for him...

Paul decides to give them a chance and Will's family move in with our heroes. But can we trust them?

It's a perfectly viable set up for a suspenseful tale, and there are some effective sequences. 

But the script is threadbare. The cheapest gimmick in any horror movie is to throw in a dream sequence to provide a shock. This movie does this not once, but five or six times. 

It seems to be the only trick available to the writer.

It Comes at Night is big disappointment. If you want a horror movie which really does the job, and is a masterpiece into the bargain, see Get Out by Jordan Peele. 

It Comes at Night would never have ranked very high, but coming in the wake of that classic, it hardly exists at all.

I liked the dog, Stanley, though....

(Image credits: only three posters at Imp Awards. The alternate poster with a tree comes from Lil Wayne.)

Sunday, 16 July 2017

"Hybrid Puppies" — Spider-Man: Homecoming

The most recent movie about Spider-Man (one simply must include that hyphen) was the truly dreadful Amazing Spider-Man 2 back in 2014. I wrote about it here and, trust me, I wasn't happy.  

So my guard was well and truly up when the new Spidey franchise came scuttling into cinemas everywhere. 

But a friend told me the movie was good — great, actually — so I decided to give it a chance and see it that very day.    

I recently discussed, in connection with Wonder Woman, how comic book film are best made as period pieces. Well, Spider-Man: Homecoming (unwieldy title, but I guess they had to call it something) blithely ignores that dictum.   

It's set in modern day New York city, and indeed that's one of its strengths. The movie draws on a realistic — but very funny — view of urban high-school life.  

And it is great.  

Besides the period piece thing, the other really useful piece of advice if you ever find yourself making a comic book film is do not do an origin story. And, blissfully, Spider-Man: Homecoming does follow this path.  

It plunges us straight into the teenage world of Peter Parker, coping with adolescence and mutant spider powers.

Parker is played by British actor Tom Holland (he was one of the voices on the phone in the magnificent Locke). Holland is splendid, just perfect.  

However, he's not alone. Let me pass quickly over Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man — no hyphen for him), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan) and even Marisa Tomei, as Peter's aunt May. They're all fine...  

But more impressive is the teen cast: Laura Harrier as Peter's love interest Liz (actually 26, not a teen at all, but perfect casting) and Zendaya — with great hair — as class rebel Michelle (she has a wonderful line about the Washington monument being built by slaves).

Then there's Jacob Batalon as Ned, Peter's chubby nerd best friend, who becomes Spider-Man's assistant with a computer, or 'the guy in the chair' as Ned calls it.     

Yet we still haven't got to the finest performer in the film. It's Michael Keaton as the bad guy. Yes, I know. Michael Keaton has been through the movie mill for so long that it didn't seem he had any surprises left.   

But this is his best role ever, and he's wonderful. And that isn't the only surprise in this film...   

Because Spider-Man: Homecoming features a brilliant twist, something which I really didn't see coming, and which remains an enduring joy whenever I think of it.  

What a dazzling movie. It is directed by Jon Watts, who also gets a screenplay credit.     

And that list of screenplay credits is extensive: six writers, consisting of three pairs of teams — each with an ampersand.         

The top credit is given to Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley, who interestingly specialise in comedies (e.g. Horrible Bosses). 

Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers also have a strong comedy pedigree (The Lego Batman Movie and the TV show American Dad). 

Whereas Jon Watts & Christopher Ford have written some comedies but have a stronger track record in horror and crime thrillers (Clown, Cop Car, both of which were directed by Watts).       

The comedy influence is strong, and Spider-Man: Homecoming (I'm getting so tired of typing that dumb title) is outstanding fun. 

But it also really delivers the thrills — there's a devastating scene featuring the Staten Island ferry — and it has suspense and, as I said, surprises.  

Not quite up to the standards of the peerless Wonder Woman, but this is an exceptional comic book movie and one of the most agreeable summer block busters. Give it a spin.

(Image credits: posters, including a rather clever triptych, are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Wonder Woman by Allan Heinberg

DC Comics haven't had a lot of luck in terms of their movie adaptations. Certainly Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise has been a hit, but elsewhere the results have been somewhat dire. 

Zack Snyder's recent Superman (and now Batman) movies are, I think, numbingly poor. As was Suicide Squad from the normally excellent David Ayer. And then there's Green Lantern...

So my hopes were low for the new Wonder Woman movie. How wrong I was. It's an absolutely delightful popcorn picture, and also one of the best films of the year.

It gets off to a rocky start with a long, long, long prologue on Paradise Island, the enclave of Amazons where Diana (Gal Gadot) grows up. We ploddingly establish the set up for the film — basically that there's a bad guy called Ares, who will turn up later in a rather obvious twist.

But as soon as plucky pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) turns up, and Wonder Woman is precipitated into the real world, the movie hits its stride and never puts a foot wrong.

The smartest decision by the writers was making Wonder Woman a period piece. Perhaps because of their inherent silliness, comic book stories work vastly better at a remove from the modern day world.

Crucially, though, unlike the World War Two setting of, say Captain America — which presented a ludicrous fantasy of a racially integrated US Army — Wonder Woman takes pains to actually try and depict the real horror and suffer of its own period — World War One.

When Diana sees the casualties of the mass slaughter she registers horror, and so does the audience. 

Gal Gadot is absolutely radiant in the lead role, playing the part with real heart and humour — "A baby!" she exclaims in London (you don't have such things back on the island) and has to be dissuaded from racing over to inspect the kid.

But that heart and humour were put there in the script. The screenplay is by Allan Heinberg (who has a distinguished track record in television, including Scandal) developed from earlier drafts by Jason Fuchs and, of all people, Zack Snyder. 

(One doesn't expect heart or humour from Zack Snyder.) The movie is splendidly directed by Patty Jenkins, best known for Monster (2003).

Wonder Woman has some terrific actions sequences (and a rather dull final battle). But for me the real pleasures were the small moments of fun, and some surprising character development. 

Among the ragtag band of good guys who join Diana on her quest is an American Indian, called simply the Chief (played by Canadian actor Eugene Brave Rock).

Diana, who of course knows nothing of our world, has a late night camp fire chat with the Chief about his history, and he tells how his ancestors lost everything. "Who took that from your people?" she asks.

"His people," says the Chief tersely, nodding at the sleeping Chris Pine.

Wonder Woman is a fun movie, a classic, a wonderful blend of reality and fantasy and better than it has any right to be. If you only see one summer blockbuster, I urge you to make it this one. 

(Image credits: Plenty of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Border Town Girl by John D. MacDonald

Before John D. MacDonald embarked on his distinguished career as a novelist he learned his trade writing short fiction for magazines, both pulp magazines and slicks. Most of these shorter efforts have been consigned to oblivion, but Border Town Girl is fascinating because it preserves two of the longer examples — what we'd call novellas.

The pair of stories are of roughly equal length and are called Border Town Girl (great title) and Linda (dull title). They were published in 1950 and 1956, the title story originally appearing in Dime Detective Magazine as 'Five Star Fugitive' (lame title), a pulp if there ever was one, and Linda making its debut in this book, although it would later be reprinted in a magazine hilariously entitled Climax.

The long gap between the writing of the stories shows. Border Town Girl is about a disillusioned writer and war vet (a classic MacDonald protagonist) called Lane Sanson who gets caught up in drug smuggling from Mexico to Texas. 

It's an efficient and vivid tale, but it is chiefly notable for its villain, Christy, a great name — deceptively innocent sounding — for a memorable bad guy with frightening strength and "zany little blue eyes." 

There is a hellish, nightmarish sequence when the wounded, fever-ridden Christy stumbles towards his revenge — and his demise.

The story features some dud dialogue like "You're a strange man, Lane Sanson", but on the other hand there are some fine descriptions — "He drifted, soundless as smoke, across the room..." "The sun was a hot weight behind him, pushing him along." 

And this wonderful evocation of an airliner, a "tired old plane" which "had sagged and blundered its way through storm and hail." The plane itself is virtually irrelevant to the story, but MacDonald just can't help being an outstanding writer.

Despite it's anodyne title Linda, written six years later, is a masterpiece. It tells of a dull little man, a "desperado of the cellar workshop," who has somehow managed to marry a gorgeous siren. "Linda was flamboyantly noticeable." Whereas their friend Stella's appeal is "subtle in the way that a Japanese print is subtle."

Poor Stella is going to be murdered by Linda and her own husband, and they are going to frame Linda's husband, the dull little man, for the killing. I could hardly bear to go on reading as the jaws of fate closed savagely on our hero...

The carefully planned murder takes place when the two couples go on holiday to Florida in rented cabins beside the beach. As usual, MacDonald brings the setting wonderfully to life: "Small sandpipers ran in flocks, pecking and then trotting up and away from the lap of waves, like groups of spry, stooped little men in tailcoats with their hands locked behind them."

The killing of Stella is horrific, as is the apparently full-proof framing of our hero. But, incredibly and satisfyingly, the tables are turned and Linda becomes "a shrewd animal fighting for its life."

This is an explosive, harrowing and unforgettable tale. No wonder it was twice filmed for television.

(Image credits: The covers are from Good Reads, except for the garter-and-typewriter  which is from Pinterest. The magazine illustration for Linda is from the superb and informative MacDonald blog The Trap of Solid Gold. The original McGinnis illustrations — including the rather more cheeky one — are from Elisa Rolle's McGinnis blog. )