Sunday 28 August 2016

The Shallows by Anthony Jaswinski

 In The Shallow a young woman called Nancy is stranded in sight of land, indeed, a mere stroll from the shore, cut off by a relentless shark.  

Nancy is a surfer (the film features some snazzy surfing sequences) in a remote part of Mexico, who finds herself perched on a tiny rocky “island” about the size of a double bed, watching the fin of a great white circling her.

Nancy is played by Blake Lively, who has previously appeared in some superior films including the science fiction oddity The Age of Adaline and Ben Affleck's crime thriller The Town.

One very smart move on the part of Anthony Jaswinski's script is making her a medical student, so she can try and repair the shark bite in her leg in a visceral scene involving earrings and a sharp pendant. Ouch. 

Another smart move was giving Nancy an injured seagull, also stranded, as her companion on her tiny island. When she grabs the seagull, whom she amusingly nicknames “Steven”, I was worried she was going to wring his neck and drink his blood. But no, thank god, she uses her medical knowledge to reset his dislocated wing. 

The seagull is so terrifically engaging, smart and cute, that I thought he must be a computer generated figment. But, holy guano, he's a real bird Sully the Seagull! A star in the making.

The Shallows is a nice little movie and quite suspenseful. Blake Lively is plucky and appealing, and evidently did her own surfing... So is it churlish of me to suggest that our heroine doesn't quite have the star power required for the part? Probably. Nevertheless, Jessica Alba, where are you when we need you? 

The film has striking photography by Flavio Martínez Labiano and is directed by the Barcelonan Jaume Collet-Serra. Now, in these posts I tend to concentrate on the writers rather than the directors — after all, I am a writer myself.

But Collet-Serra has a great track record, including a couple of my favourite movies of recent years, the breathtaking psychological horror flick Orphan and the highly superior Liam Neeson thriller Unknown (Collet-Serra rather specialises in Liam Neeson thrillers, with three to his credit and a fourth in the works).

Writer Jaswinski, perhaps not surprisingly, has some horror films on his CV and here he's turned in a smart, compact, resourceful script... although a couple of times it’s not clear enough about what’s happening. 

Why does Nancy have to abandon her tiny island for the nearby buoy? Evidently because the tide is rising to the point where the island will be entirely underwater. But, as I say, not clear enough. 

Much worse is the oil slick she ignites with a flare gun. Where the hell did that come from? Not the flare gun... that's painstakingly set up. But the goddamn oil slick.

However, much the most lamentable thing about the movie, and one that must be blamed on the director is the insistence on putting images and video from Nancy's phone up on the screen in big floating vignettes. Is this really going to be the convention from now on? 

Nerve frequently did similar things, though with far more justification. If this is going to be a convention, it’s a shitty one because it’s a major distraction and destroys any mood or sense of reality. 

The Shallows also shares with Nerve some wretchedly bland pop music on the soundtrack, though thank heavens there's far less here. And The Shallows does at least have a proper score by the redoubtable Marco Beltrami. 

In the end, despite all caveats, this is a better than average summer thriller and an honourable mention is due. Plus, did I mention the great seagull? 

(Image credits: Posters from Imp Awards.)

Sunday 21 August 2016

Star Trek Beyond by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung

Actors who play a recurring role often come to have considerable insights into their characters, and some useful ideas on how to write stories about them. 

After quitting the Bond franchise, Sean Connery was hired to contribute to the script for a maverick 007 feature — though I suspect this was just a foxy feint by the producer to lure him into playing the role again. (It worked: the movie was Never Say Never Again.)

But the principle remains sound, and it also helps in a science fiction franchise if the actor in question is a big genre buff... it means they know things like a starship isn't designed for atmospheric flight. 

Hence Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, the engineer of the Enterprise, has ended up writing not just a serviceable Star Trek script, but a terrific one.

Star Trek Beyond is the best movie in the new series. Or, if you want to be mean about it, the only one worth seeing. 

The film begins with a great visual gag which wouldn't be out of place in any SF franchise, then moves swiftly to an audacious end-of-act catastrophe when the Enterprise is blown to bits and the crew, in escape pods, end up on the surface of a hostile alien planet.

What ensues is a series of subplots making good use of the various protagonists, who have been separated after their disastrous downing. 

The characterisation is better than in the previous movies, and there is some splendid new blood — Jaylah is a wonderful female alien whom Scotty falls in with. (In an Arthur Dent-style misunderstanding she  believes his name is "Montgomery Scotty" and refers to him as this throughout.)

Played by Sofia Boutella (who was the unforgettable amputee assassin Gazelle in Kingsman), Jaylah has bewitching make up, with a black and white face reminiscent of Daryl Hannah in Clan of the Cave Bear. She has an hilarious moment when she sits down in the captain's chair on the bridge, slouching across it, while Chris Pine's Captain Kirk stares on with pained discomfort.

I also loved the fact that, halfway through, it dawned on me that the heavily made up alien bad guy Krall was actually Idris Elba.

Pegg co-wrote the script with TV writer Doug Jung (Banshee) and some uncredited assistance from the likes of Roberto Orci. Great job. This is the first of the summer blockbusters to really deliver the goods.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards, where there was a rich selection. As you can see, I've really gone to town on Sofia Boutella's posters. Poor Simon Pegg was pretty much unrecognisable on his... Clan of the Cave Bear is from GStatic.) 

Sunday 14 August 2016

The BFG by Roald Dahl and Melissa Mathison

The BFG, as you no doubt know, is a Big Friendly Giant, here incarnated quite brilliantly by Mark Rylance, put through the CGI mill, in a new film directed by Stephen Spielberg and adapted by Melissa Mathison from Roald Dahl's children's novel.

Roald Dahl is a masterful writer and something of a household god of mine for his brilliant, concise, acerbic short stories which are often deeply disturbing and hilarious at the same time. 

They also invariably have a sting in the tail. Allow me to recommend, for a start, 'Lamb to the Slaughter', 'The Great Switcheroo', and 'The Champion of the World'.

But Dahl is more widely known for his kids' fiction, with tens of millions of fans worldwide. So it isn't surprising that his back-catalogue is being busily strip-mined for movie adaptations — all the more so since the writer's death. 

As I discussed in last week's post, Dahl was unhappy with the way his work was treated on screen and blocked film projects during his lifetime. But since his passing there's been something of a goldrush of Roald Dahl children's movies, usually heavy on the special effects because of the fantastic nature of these tales.

The latest of these is The BFG, based on one of Dahl's most beloved works. Sad to report, the movie is likely to be gone from the cinemas by the time you read this. Despite being a Spielberg film it isn't showing much box office mojo and has already tanked in America. 

All this makes sense because, despite its many fine attributes, the movie doesn't work. But before we examine why that is, let's dwell for a moment on those fine attributes...

I already mentioned how terrific Mark Rylance is in a subtle, nuanced performance (playing a CGI giant!). There's also dazzlingly imaginative production design — I love the way the giant uses everyday human objects repurposed to his scale. So, for instance, a red London phone box with its top removed becomes a receptacle for kitchen implements.

Plus the movie has a fine score by John Williams, and there's a captivating cameo by a delightful little ginger cat. And a nice running gag about how there are giants more giant than the BFG... indeed, he's a shrimp by comparison.

But of course, none of this is sufficient to save the movie. One fundamental flaw is that there just isn't enough story... the screenwriter Melissa Mathison is certainly distinguished, and has a laudable grasp of movies for children — she wrote The Black Stallion and ET.

The lack of plot is a major flaw, though. The only real story here is the BFG versus the nasty, bigger giants (who eat children) and how he defeats them with the help of Sophie (named after Dahl's granddaughter), the intrepid little orphan girl he befriends.
This isn't enough to fill the movie, and there are long soporific sequences where the BFG and Sophie explore a magical realm together, yawn... (I really did nearly fall asleep during this bit).

And, it has to be said, the character of Sophie, as played by Ruby Barnhill is also a problem. It sounds terribly unkind, but I don't think she's right for the part.  

She's a superb actor. But the viewer just doesn't warm to her, or care about her fate. We don't empathise. Instead we sit there thinking, gosh, that little girl can really act, but feeling quite unmoved by her and her situation.  
Oh well, at least The BFG has the best fart scene since Blazing Saddles. It doesn't sound like much, and it isn't exactly the Odessa Steps sequence from the Battleship Potemkin... 

But I do find fond recollections of it almost tempting me to see the film again...

(Image credits: The movie posters are, as usual from the reliable Imp Awards. The book covers ditto from the ditto Good Reads.)

Sunday 7 August 2016

Roald Dahl and the Movies

Roald Dahl has long been a favourite writer of mine, mostly for the grown up stories rather than the children's books — although those, too: I love The Fantastic Mr Fox. And while I've never read The BFG (stands for Big Friendly Giant), it's so much a part of the culture I almost feel I have.

Spielberg's movie of The BFG is the reason for my thoughts turning to Roald Dahl and his film incarnations. I'll post about the movie itself next week. But in the meantime here's a brief overview of the writer's work on screen.

Dahl was cantankerous, to say the least, and he had a long and fractious relationship with the movie industry, dating back to World War 2 when one of his very first stories The Gremlins almost became a Walt Disney picture. Disney spent several years developing it, but in the end it never happened. Here's a terrific radio documentary about it by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was, perhaps surprisingly, a Roald Dahl screenplay — he expanded considerably on Ian Fleming's flimsy kid's book — but Dahl was very unhappy with what the director (Ken Hughes) did with it. 

And he was very pissed off with what Hollywood made of his book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for a start changing the title to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with an accompanying shift of emphasis.

He was also very vocal about his disapproval of a burp gag which appeared in the movie. Although years later he'd recycle the idea, converted — in a very Dahl way — into a fart joke in The BFG.

In fact, the only movie of his work which he really liked was the Bond blockbuster You Only Live Twice which, again, surprisingly, featured a Roald Dahl script adapting an Ian Fleming book.

Roald Dahl was on good terms with Ian Fleming, indeed in the early 1950s Fleming suggested an idea to Dahl which became one of Dahl's truly classic, twisted short stories, 'Lamb to the Slaughter'. It's a favourite of mine and was memorably adapted for Alfred Hitchcock's TV series in 1958, in one of the episodes directed by Hitchcock himself.

But, as I say, Dahl was generally unhappy with screen versions of his work — he didn't like Nic Roeg's version of The Witches, either; Roeg had monkeyed with the ending. 

So, in later life, when he was more than comfortably off (read: hugely wealthy) from his book sales, Dahl turned down offers from the movies.

With his demise, the floodgates opened and we got, among many others, a neat stop-motion version of The Fantastic Mr Fox, an excellent animated James and the Giant Peach (with music by Randy Newman), a new improved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, title intact, from Tim Burton...

And now The BFG, to be discussed next week... But if you can't wait until then I suggest you pick up one of Dahl's masterful collections of short stories, like Kiss Kiss or Someone Like You.

(Image credits: The posters for You Only Live Twice, Willie Wonka, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Witches, The Fantastic Mr Fox and Charlie are all from the wonderful Imp Awards.)