Sunday 29 December 2013

Dean Spanley by Lord Dunsany & Alan Sharp

Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, 1878-1957) was an Anglo-Irish fantasy writer whom some regard as the equal of Tolkien — indeed, early in their respective careers, Dunsany was much the more successful author. 

Among Dunsany's extensive literary output there is a strange and beguiling little novella entitled My Talks With Dean Spanley. This (literally) shaggy dog story concerns a clergyman, the eponymous Dean, who when plied with an appropriately expensive wine — Imperial Tokay — recalls his past life as a dog. It's a charming, oddball little tale.

And it had the great good fortune to fall into the hands of Alan Sharp, the magnificent Scottish screenwriter (Night Moves, Rob Roy). Sadly, Sharp died recently and there are numerous interviews, retrospectives, obituaries and tributes worth reading and a lot to be said about him, including this splendid one. I need to write about him at length myself. But right now we're concentrating on a drunken cleric and his life as a dog.

Alan Sharp loved the novella and developed it into a short (50 page) screenplay, purely for his own pleasure. He thought it might be a one-off TV show. But there were no takers. Then a producer called Matthew Metcalfe discovered the script and encouraged him to expand it to feature film length. No easy task. Dunsany's scant tale is just a series of dinner conversations. "There wasn't enough leg to fill the stocking," as Sharp put it. A "whole new plot" had to be added and attached to the original.

Sharp's brilliant solution — with Metcalfe's help and encouragement — was to invent for the narrator (played by Jeremy Northam) a troubled relationship with his father (Peter O'Toole), an emotionally shut down man who won't even grieve for his other son, recently killed in the Boer War.

The only trace of feeling in the bitter old man is his love for his dog Wag, who inexplicably disappeared when he was a small boy. Sharp weaves the old and new strands together by leading us to the discovery that the former incarnation of Dean Spanley (wonderfully played by Sam Neill) was that very dog.

When O'Toole finally learns, through Spanley, that Wag never came home because he was shot by a farmer, he is suddenly able to grieve both for his lost dog and his lost son. (The film's editor, Chris Plummer, came up with the beautiful notion of inter-cutting the shooting of the dog with the shooting of the son — a stroke of genius, and very characteristic of a film editor.)
And so the father is able to come to terms with loss and also to movingly connect again with his living son... 

Although he himself conceived these powerfully affecting additions to Dunsany's whimsical original, Alan Sharp was worried whether the expanded script would work. 

It was, he said, like "introducing Chekov into Gilbert and Sullivan." He needn't have worried. 

The film is a masterpiece and deeply effective, thanks in no small part to its top-drawer cast. Dean Spanley is full of delightful characters brought to life by top actors, such as the wheeler-dealer Wrather — a great name, as is Spanley, come to think of it — played by Bryan Brown.

Full credit is also due to production designer Andrew McAlpine,  cinematographer Leon Narbey, editor Chris Plummer, the aforementioned producer Matthew Metcalfe and above all the gifted director Toa Fraser.

"Sometimes you get lucky," said Alan Sharp. You certainly do.

Dean Spanley is a gem of a film, lovingly crafted and very touching, and you must see it. 
Some clever soul also thought to reprint the Dunsany novella complete with the Alan Sharp script and some excellent articles about making the film, as a movie tie-in. If you can find a copy (regrettably, it's become a somewhat pricey collector's item), you should grab one.

(Image credits: The poster of Sam Neill and the dog is from Media Fire. The book cover  with the red band is from ABE, where you can buy the book if you have deep pockets.  The cover without the red band is from an excellent blog about the book and film. The DVD cover is from Movie Talk. The image of the Dean (Sam Neill) sipping ecstatically is from Vimeo, where there is a trailer for the film. The happy doggie image is from Netflix.)

Sunday 22 December 2013

Homefront by Stallone and Chuck Logan

I've always been a bit dismissive of Sylvester Stallone as a script writer. This is largely because of his tendency to re-write people whom I consider to be considerably more formidable talents. Stallone has sought to improve on the work of Joe Eszterhas (F.I.S.T.) and James Cameron (Rambo), two of the greatest screenwriters of all time.

But Stallone himself is not a negligible film writer — after all, his 1978 script for Rocky was nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA.

I was reminded of this when I saw Homefront, an edgy and exceptional popcorn thriller with a screenplay by Stallone (who produces, but does not appear in the film) based on a novel by Chuck Logan.  

The star of Homefront is Jason Statham. Normally a serviceable leading man in action movies, Statham was recently highly enjoyable in Parker and here is very effective, largely because instead of just being a killing machine he plays a vulnerable father. There is even a scene with his young daughter where we see a glint of a tear in his eye.

But don't worry, that was between beating people up and shooting them.

Homefront is a really superior thriller, though, and much better than its provenance would suggest — the posters make the mistake of invoking the title of the execrable The Expendables. The director of Homefront is Gary Fleder, who has largely worked in TV of late, but previously directed the wonderfully off-the-wall Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead and the Philip K. Dick adaptation Impostor. He does a marvelous job on Homefront, as does cinematographer Theo van de Sande.

The film benefits immeasurably from its beautiful southern bayou locations, a fine score by Mark Isham, and also from a great cast. Kate Bosworth is terrific as a white trash mom, Winona Ryder outstanding as a crank (as opposed to crack) whore and the ever wonderful James Franco is a slimy but likable — and very formidable — villain.

This is a much better picture than I expected. Normally in a movie like this, when a cute little kitten is introduced in the first reel it's so that the bad guy can kill it in the third reel. But Homefront turns out to be a lot less formulaic than that (although the hero's black best buddy does get used as cannon fodder, in the grand tradition).

Great fun, involving, and unexpectedly smart, Homefront does finally fall apart at the end (I wish I had a dollar for every time I've had to say that about a movie) but it remains superior fare, and well worth a look.

(Image credits: all the photos and posters are from Aceshowbiz. It's instructive to compare the different campaigns: the posters of Statham and daughter, with and without gun in hand. And the way his shoulders are draped with the American flag in one version.)

Sunday 15 December 2013

Oldboy by Mark Protosevich and Spike Lee

I've seldom been as surprised — or moved — as I was by Oldboy. I was peripherally aware of the Korean film which came out some ten years ago, but I didn't really know anything about it. Which was lucky, because any prior warning might have diminished the impact of this great motion picture.

And it is great. It's one of those extraordinary, dark films — like Fight Club, Killing Them Softly or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans — to which American cinema occasionally gives rise. It was extraordinary and shocking and beautifully made.

Not to mention deeply moving and ultimately heartbreaking. I think it's probably the best film Spike Lee has ever directed, though I fear it's too bleak and brutal to gain the huge audience it deserves. In — very brief — summary it is about a man who is mysteriously imprisoned for decades, then released to try and put his shattered life back together. 

The cast is pure platinum: Josh Brolin is the hero and is quite wonderful, Elizabeth Olsen is terrific as the woman who helps him on his quest, Samuel Jackson does a great turn as a bizarre heavy with some nifty costumes and Sharlto Copley, who was an unforgettable villain in Elysium, is an unforgettable villain again here, in an utterly different mode.

Lee does a superb job on the film, aided immensely by his writer Mark Protosevich

Protosevitch has been involved in a number of high profile productions. He co-wrote the screenplay for the most recent adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. But his most towering achievement was the brilliant sf-tinged serial killer story The Cell, whose script was entirely Protosevitch's creation. Another favourite film of mine and one whose macabre and ravishing visual sense is similar to Oldboy's.

Oldboy has its roots in a 2003 South Korean film with a screenplay by Hwang Jo-yoon, Im Joon-hyeong and the director Park Chan-wook, based on a Japanese graphic novel (or, more accurately, a manga) by writer Garon Tsuchiya and illustrator Nobuaki Minegishi. The Japanese comic, when reprinted in translation in America won a prestigious Eisner Award. You can buy it from the excellent publishers Dark Horse

The Spike Lee and Mark Protosevich version of Oldboy is not a movie for the faint-hearted. It goes to some very dark places. But if you have the disposition for it, you will find it's one of the great films of the early 21st Century.

(Image credits: All the Oldboy posters are from Aceshowbiz. There is an interesting dispute reported on that site about the artist who allegedly created some of the posters. More details from the Guardian. And you can check out the comparison here. The red poster for The Cell is from Terrorifilo. The blue German poster for The Cell is from BlackBoxBlue, an intelligent blog posting about the movie.)

Sunday 8 December 2013

Gone With the Wind

It's not often one can report a miracle, but last week my local cinema held a one-off revival screening of Gone With the Wind. I eagerly attended and I can testify that, during the entire four hours, not one person used their phone.

I'd seen the movie before, decades ago, but it had faded in my memory and I was unprepared for how impressive it was. The early colour photography by Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes was immediately magnificent. It was often more expressionist than realistic. Rhett's farewell to Scarlett after the burning of Atlanta takes place in a world which is entirely a garish, gorgeous red. Scarlett's frightened nocturnal return to her ravaged plantation is a spectral blue. The scene where she finds her dead mother laid out is a jaundiced yellow.

Also stunning were William Cameron Menzies' set designs, the special effects by Jack Cosgrove, and Max Steiner's music. The cast were impressive: Clark Gable is predictably charismatic as Rhett Butler while the real surprise is Vivien Leigh, unforgettable as the scheming little tart Scarlett O'Hara. She's an English actress, who beat out every female star in America for the part. Interestingly, her impeccable Southern belle accent slips a little when she's playing scenes with Leslie Howard, another fine actor who was also English.

The brainchild of producer David O. Selznick, the film's named director was Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), with uncredited contributions by George Cukor, a specialist in women's pictures and musicals and Sam Wood, who worked with the Marx Brothers.

But I'm chiefly concerned here with the story and screenplay. As the presence of three directors suggests, Gone with the Wind was a troubled production (known as "Selznick's folly") and there were also a lot of hands on the script. The sole credited writer is Sidney Howard but Oliver HP Garrett, Jo Swerling, John Van Druten and Ben Hecht are also known to be involved. 

It was based on a novel by Margaret Mitchell. This book was originally entitled Mules in Horses' Harness until her publisher insisted on something less catastrophically crappy. I haven't read the book, but I suspect that it's responsible for the movie's fatal flaw.

Gone With the Wind is entirely gripping for the first two hours, which sets up the characters and propels them into the inferno of the Civil War. And even when the war ends, after the thoughtfully provided intermission, it exerts a terrific narrative grip. Scarlett is trying to rebuild her destroyed plantation when she is visited by a renegade Union soldier. The deserter walks up the stairs towards Scarlett, intent on rape — but first, robbery. "What's that you've got in your hand?" he leers.

What Scarlett has in her hand is a gun and she shoots him dead at point blank range. Scarlett's sister in law Melanie, ill in bed, is drawn by the sound and comes running in her nightdress. Scarlett gets her to strip naked on the spot and uses the nightdress to mop up the soldier's blood.

There is also some wonderful dialogue. Rhett Butler insists on seeing Scarlett after her latest husband has died. Scarlett couldn't have cared less about the dead spouse, but is theoretically in mourning, working her way through a bottle of cognac.  "I told him you was prostrate with grief," says her servant, Mammy (Hattie McDaniel). She has no illusions about her boss: knowing that Scarlett has designs on Melanie's husband she says, "You'll be waiting for him like a spider!" Rhett has no illusions, either. "You're a heartless creature," he says. "It's part of your charm."

The last hour or so gets hopelessly bogged down in the dull melodrama of the love triangle between Gable, Leigh and Howard. But up until then, Gone With the Wind is a revelation.

(Image credits: all the posters are from AllPosters, where you can actually purchase them.)

Sunday 1 December 2013

Gravity by the Cuaróns

I was utterly knocked out by Gravity, so much so that I have very little to say about it. You should rush to the cinema and see it. It's utterly gripping and immersively involving. I have seldom seen such a suspenseful film. I hope I didn't disturb the guy sitting behind me too much by writhing in terror as the characters endured threat after nightmarish threat.

In brief, Gravity concerns a routine space operation that goes horribly wrong. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney — virtually the only characters in the movie — are both great. I won't tell you much more because I don't want to spoil any of it.

I will tell you that it's superbly written — well researched, with deft characterisation — and has one of the greatest lines of dialogue in recent screenwriting history ("It's a little gloomy in here, isn't it?"). I just loved the script, which was written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón. I respect their work so much that I learned how to put the accent over the "o" in their names. And the "a".

Alfonso Cuarón also directed Gravity and he has a long and distinguished track record as a director, most recently with Children of Men, one of my favourite films of all time.

A few other quick points about Gravity. It has a trailer which, rarely, doesn't give away too much about the film — unlike the trailer for the remake of Carrie which ploddingly, and reprehensibly, lays out the whole story of the film. (Presumably so as to ruin it for anyone not already familiar with the plot.) But the trailer for Gravity just gives harrowing and tantalising hints of what's in store.

Gravity is on release in both 3D and 2D. I saw it (twice) in 3D, which was fun but, for my money, didn't really add a great deal to the experience (though I have heard it is very impressive in IMAX 3D). I'm sure it would be just as much of a knockout in 2D.

The music score by Steven Price is also amazingly effective and adds considerably to the impact of this great movie.

And I just want to say that the ending of the film is one of the high points of modern cinema.

(Footnote: Jonás Cuarón, the director's son and fellow screenwriter has made a fascinating short film which is sort of a plug-in for Gravity, concerning simultaneous events on Earth.)

(All the images are from the ever-reliable, though ad-infested Ace Show Biz.)