A little while later we decided to continue the series, but this time we chose ten war films to discuss - and we've just recorded and published episode 8, looking at the 2004 film Downfall.
Both were driven by nostalgia to a large degree. We always used to go and see the new Bond film at the cinema ... I particularly recall seeing Moonraker, but I think The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) was the first. But just six months later my life would change, because that is when I went to see Star Wars (at The ABC in Tunbridge Wells, now sadly flattened).
Up until then it was war - comics, toys, models and films - that were my main preoccupation, but I mostly dropped that after Star Wars, and science fiction and adventure became my new obsession.
It was a great time to be a young kid. After Star Wars came Superman, The Empire Strikes Back, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Time Bandits, Clash of the Titans, E.T, Conan the Barbarian, Blade Runner, Tron, The Dark Crystal, War Games, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghostbusters, and Return of the Jedi, to name a few that have stood the test of time.
And it's nostalgia that is at the heart of The Force Awakens - an aspect that is partly responsible for its huge success, but which has also been one of the main points of criticism of the film.
I enjoyed it immensely, but then perhaps the film was rather aimed at me and those like me, and it pushed all the right buttons. I liked it so much that I started 2016 by going to see it again, and was not disappointed with a second viewing and with the hype somewhat cooled.
It's nice seeing the old faces again, but the best thing about the film is the new faces: Rey is an intriguing and positive main character, Fin is entertaining and hugely likeable, and the dark side offers up a very interesting personality in the guise of Kylo Ren.
Unlike some critics, I didn't mind the plot parallels with the original Star Wars. I think it's a trait of the series (or perhaps the Force) that patterns repeat, and I'm not surprised, after the reception that greeted episodes I-III, that the writers and producers wanted to play it safe to get the new franchise off the ground.
My worry is that the creative team behind episode VIII, slated for late 2017, will give too much attention to the voices of the fans when they come to map out future instalments. While, as I said, I loved every minute of The Force Awakens, it has also, actually, given me a greater appreciation of the originality and vision of George Lucas's prequels.
I re-watched them over the past couple of weeks, for the first time in a long time (in fact, in the case of episode III, for the first time since seeing it just once at the cinema) and was pleasantly surprised. Jar-Jar Binks wasn't as annoying as I, perhaps, mis-remembered, and I even found young 'Anni' likeable and somewhat sympathetic. Certainly the over-baked scenes with Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman are a bit difficult to watch, but I got a better sense of Anakin's path to the dark side by seeing all three in sequence. I surprised myself by really enjoying the last of the three, even Darth Vader's "Noooooooo!" didn't seem half as bad as I recalled.
The setting of the prequels is a feast for the eyes, and I think the story just about works - especially if you immerse yourself fully into the fantasy. This isn't science-fiction, after all, it's pure space fairy-tale!
Was Lucas largely criticised for being original? For telling the story he wanted to tell, and not the one his films' keenest fans wanted (ie. a more Star Wars-y Star Wars). Are those who are criticising The Force Awakens for being too much like A New Hope the same people who criticised The Phantom Menace for not being 'Star Wars' enough?
I'm not saying the prequels were perfect films, not one bit. I do wonder if, because of what they are, they are put under a great deal more scrutiny than would ever be directed at the original trilogy. Episodes I-III are world-building, background, nerd-notes. I shed myself of some of the internet stigma that has built up around them, and found I enjoyed them more than I thought I would.
We've had our nostalgia moment with The Force Awakens, and that's brilliant. Now let's hope we move forward into new territory, where quality storytelling will prevail over commercial interests and fan pressure. I want to see the new characters grow, and I'd love to see Luke Skywalker - the kid that started it all - used intelligently, with new aspects revealed, giving impetus to the new series, so that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, has a bright, absorbing, and exciting future.
It was part of a Koreeda boxed set that I got for Christmas - I'd forgotten I'd put it down as a suggestion, based on reading something over a year ago that made me think I simply must watch this man's films, and since forgotten, so it was a nice surprise. The other films in the boxed set are After Life (1998), Nobody Knows (2004) and Air Doll (2009).
Still Walking is the story of a family that get together for a memorial to the eldest son who, we gradually learn, drowned fifteen years previously when he went into the sea to rescue a young boy. There are two grown-up children left, Hiroshi, who has married a young widow with a son, and Chinami, who has a husband and two children.
The family come home to their parents, the father a retired doctor who has lost both his heir and his purpose in life, and a probably fairly typical elderly Japanese mother, serving, fussing over her children, commenting on their lifestyle choices, and cooking, complaining and loving the rare gathering of her clan.
The film is peaceful and undramatic, but full of beautiful moments: the tension between the father and the younger, surviving son, who has failed to live up to expectations; the young widow's little boy, quietly trying to make sense of his own father's death; the uncomfortable annual visit of the boy (now man) whose life was saved by the dead son (and the mother's admission of why she continues to invite him); the yellow butterfly; the conversations; the gentle humour.
And the ending. I won't spoil it, but it brought an unexpected tear, though not a sad one. Well, maybe a bit - Hiroshi, it seems, could only be himself once his own parents had passed away, freed of his role as second son. Various aspects of this film will resonate with most people in different ways - something recognisable for everyone.
The whole film immediately brought to mind the great director Yasujiro Ozu, in setting, theme, style and mood, particularly Tokyo Story (see my review here). It even has a role, in the young widow (played by Yui Natsukawa), that would have fitted Setsuko Hara perfectly. I look forward to seeing the remaining Koreeda films, even if it might take a little while.
Gance was a genius of the silent era, making startlingly creative films such as J'Accuse and La Roue. But his biggest project was Napoléon, and as soon as I read about it in Brownlow's book - in the mid-nineties - I knew I had to see it.
The trouble is, Napoléon is not an easy film to see. Pretty much as soon as it had its premiere, in 1927, the film was sent out into the world cut down, reformatted, re-edited, cut again, partially lost, resized, copied and recopied, and even, in the 1930s, dubbed into an awful sound version. Audiences who went to see the the film, proclaimed as sensational on its first showing, often saw something heavily watered down at best, and an incomprehensible mess at worst. Gance's star faded and he entered a long period of creative anticlimax.
That the film has today been restored to its former glory, and reappraised into its rightful high place in film history, is almost all down to the enthusiasm of one man - Kevin Brownlow. As a young film collector in the 1950s he happened across two reels of the film and was immediately struck by its originality and style. He set out to find more, a quest that led him to the flea markets of Paris, the guarded archives of France's Cinémathèque, and far beyond - including meeting and befriending Abel Gance himself.
That process of reconstruction has never really ended, despite it enjoying huge revival showings in the early 1970s and 80s. Finally, last week, I was able to see the film myself, in a one-off screening at the Royal Festival Hall, complete with live orchestra accompaniment from the Philharmonia, with Carl Davis conducting his own score for the nearly six-hour film.
I was slightly worried that the reality of Napoléon would not live up to my expectations, having heard and read so much about it, but the film actually left me in something of a daze. Some of the impact was immediate - the stunning Brienne snowball fight that opens the film, the emotional unveiling of La Marseillaise, the sensation of the convention scene, the rapid cutting of Napoléon and Josephine's previous encounters, the victims' ball (where the men were 18th century and the women were all but 1920s flappers), and - the show stopper - the much anticipated widening of the screen to reveal Gance's innovative triptych as Napoléon's army marches into Italy. Other scenes I struggled with slightly, usually owing to my own lack of Napoléonic knowledge - the scenes in Corsica being a case in point, but not much else besides that.
The music was a huge part of the experience - what a feat of stamina for the orchestra, and Davis, to keep going for so long, never mind keeping in sync with the film (including some perfectly timed cannon shots). It was a couple of days before some of the musical themes faded from my head.
What is stunning about the film is not so much the story (interesting as it is), but the way it was told. Gance freed the camera - it was a snowball in flight, it was attached to sleds and guillotines, it swung on a pendulum and ran around attached to an operator's chest. The cutting was tight and sometimes startlingly rapid. At other times the screen was charged with two or three images on top of each other, wonderfully composed. The scope of the film, as you'd expect with the subject, was epic, a feeling reflected in the triptych, sometimes displaying a vast panorama with horses galloping from one end to the other, and sometimes parading two or three juxtaposed images. At one point the three screens were tinted with the Tricolore. It was immensely impressive.
Brownlow's story of the reconstruction of Napoléon is as fascinating as the film itself, and a couple of days ago I attended a talk by him at the British Flm Institute, though much of that story is written in more detail in his very absorbing book Napoléon: Abel Gance's Classic Film. It was really a triumph of will to put the film back together, especially in dealing with the often obstructive Cinémathèque, and even sometimes with Gance himself. One particularly poignant image is of Gance, 89 years old, watching alone from his hotel window as the audience below, at an outdoor revival in Telluride, gasped in astonishment at the revived masterpiece.
At the BFI someone asked if Stanley Kubrick, given his interest in Napoléon, had ever approached him about Gance's version. Brownlow - after not quite hearing and saying "Stan who?" - causing much laughter - replied that Kubrick had 'phoned him, asking for a print. "You're a man of the cinema", said Brownlow, "you have to see it on the big screen!". Kubrick, to his knowledge, never did. When informed that Baz Luhrmann had recently been chosen to revive Kubrick's project he rolled his eyes; when he was told that is was for television, he groaned!
There are many other stories, not least of the actors, particularly Albert Dieudonné, who played Napoléon, and never again stepped out of his shadow (on a trip to London later in life he said "I do not want to visit Trafalgar or Waterloo!").
If you get the chance to see Abel Gance's Napoléon - do so (it's next showing in Amsterdam, in 2014). Do not see it on DVD - there is one available, and Brownlow warned us not to buy it from the BFI shop; he wanted his name taken off it, "but instead they made it bigger" he sighed. This is a spectacle - it demands a big screen, live music, and an audience. A true emperor of film.
Special thanks to Linda Wada for her excellent company on this cinematic expedition!
A recent Guardian article takes the position that long-time Tintin fans hate the film, think it is an atrocity, even, while those who know little or nothing of the character have loved it. Being a long-time Tintin fan myself ("and not just one who wears some wearisome t-shirt", as I was once described in a mid-nineties comics fanzine!) I have to say that I greatly enjoyed the film, and I know other serious Tintin fans who also confound the Guardian's view (the newspaper has been singular in publishing a barrage of negative Tintin film reviews - it's practically an editorial stance!).
So, is the film a slap in the face of Hergé, Tintin's creator? I can't see that it is. The film oozes love for this Belgian phenomenon and is very far from being some kind of cash-in. It has an atmosphere of authenticity that carries the story confidently through the changes that must inevitably come with any book-to-film adaptation.
First and foremost there is the question of the animation - Hergé's trademark ligne claire style has not been re-rendered and projected on to the screen. Instead we have CGI motion capture, where actors play out the action in a green-screened room wearing fetching skin-tight lycra suits. I think CGI has worked great for films such as Toy Story and Monsters Inc., where human beings play a minor role and the threat of the 'uncanny valley' is less intrusive, but it is often too distracting to be successful where actual people need to be depicted - why not just use people?
I have to say I was impressed with the CGI on Tintin - it's the best I've yet seen and it created a world in which I felt comfortably immersed. It isn't perfect by any means - there is still that odd weightlessness to the characters (though not so often) and sometimes I found myself marvelling at the detail on a character's close-up when I should have been listening to what they were saying, but that's a minor criticism. The characters felt familiar right away, whereas with live actors we'd have had to get over the shock of strangers, maybe even impostors, in the roles. Only Castafiore unbalanced me slightly; she looked like the plastic surgeons had been stretching away any wrinkles for a few years, though, actually, that may fit with her character. For me, it worked well enough - I even found the technical wizardry an enjoyable element on top of everything else.
What about the story? Spielberg and his writers have departed from a frame-by-frame adaptation and have instead conflated two war books, The Crab With The Golden Claws (1941) and The Secret of the Unicorn (1943), plus a chunk of original material. Is this heresy? No, in fact I think it's probably necessary. A comic is not a film and a film is not a comic (despite what some people may think) and a film could never reproduce the intimacy that exists between the reader and a page of bande dessinée. A film director does almost everything for the viewer, who becomes a largely uninvolved witness to events on the screen; voices, unknown or too well-known, are prescribed; music tells you what and when to feel, and you are taken through the story at twenty-four frames per second with no steering wheel of your own. This is not at all a bad thing, indeed, it can be highly enjoyable, but it is a different experience from reading Hergé, where the voices of Tintin and Haddock are called from within, from a reality that is all your own, where your emotions are left to react quite naturally to events and, though the author will guide and nudge, you are given the reigns to traverse the story as you please.
Because the mediums are so different it would be foolish, I think, to expect the experience of the albums to be replicated through the camera. We have the books, they are brilliant and will not be interfered with, and there can be little doubt that more people will be led to them after seeing the film. The film is good but it is not as good as Hergé's originals - his plots have time to breathe and develop and, more specifically, The Secret of the Unicorn and its sequel, Red Rackham's Treasure, benefit from a careful logic that is ultimately far more satisfying.
As a thing apart, the film works very nicely. The opening is a joy and you feel as though you have entered a world that honestly mirrors the books. It really picks up once Tintin is aboard the Karaboudjan and doesn't let up for a good while. One new scene, where Sakharine (elevated to the role of major antagonist) employs an unwitting Castafiore and a hawk to obtain the third model Unicorn, I really enjoyed, and the ensuing chase scene is fun, if rather ridiculous.
On the less-positive side, I did feel as though things fell slightly flat once everyone was back at port, with the police awaiting Sakharine and the strangely unexciting crane-fight that followed. And if you know the books, you can't help but feel the loss of the scenes with Tintin exploring the wreck of the Unicorn in the shark submarine and the island where the Haddock idol is discovered - wonderful stuff (from Red Rackham's Treasure, a book that supplies only its ending for the film). I also didn't quite feel the Thom(p)sons lived up to themselves, though they were amusing enough (edit: Gremkoska on Twitter reminded me of Snowy - I'd like to add that I thought Snowy looked a little weird, and didn't really work for me either). To balance that out, however, Allan is really well portrayed (well-rendered, you might say!).
All in all, the Tintin film is a very good thing, highly enjoyable, made with heart, and it's positive for both the Tintin books and, hopefully, comics in general. The one aspect I do dislike is the cheaper end of the merchandising, especially with things like the McDonalds tie-in. There's a lot of speculation as to whether Hergé would approve of Spielberg's adaptation (no one can know, my feeling is that he'd love it) but where Happy Meals are concerned I suspect his reaction may well be similar to the wild disapproval he exhibited when told that Tintin's face had been licensed to grace the inside of a child's potty - though that time, luckily, it turned out to be a joke played by studio colleagues!
Do go and see the film if you can. Enjoy it for what it is and come back, perhaps, with a deeper appreciation for those wonderful books.
The first, King Kong (1933), has just been edited and posted over at the Adventure Films Podcast blog. Yesterday we recorded our discussion of The Man Who Would Be King, and that will be up in about a week or so. Be sure to leave a comment and let us know what you think!
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) : Hidden Fortress (1958)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) : Time Bandits (1981)
Lost Horizon (1937) : Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
She (1935) : The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)
I have a very specific definition for what I term an 'adventure film', though I must say it's a definition that is rather fuzzy round the edges, and I find it difficult to pin down in words. It's got something to do with having to go on a journey, maybe a quest of some kind, and it's got something to do with starting out in the ordinary and being led off into the extraordinary. It may also have something to do with genre to some degree - The Lord of the Rings trilogy are definitely adventure films, but I don't quite categorise them as such due to the fact they take place in a fantasy world. Likewise, The Guns of Navarone or A Bridge Too Far are adventure films but, for me, the category of 'war film' trumps the category of 'adventure film'.
If you have any suggestions for good adventure films, please do let me know!
Edit: My brother and I have turned this idea into a series of podcast discussions on each of the the ten films. Click here for the archive.
The story tells of an elderly couple from a countryside town who make a rare journey into the capital to visit their children, all seemingly successful in the big city, but in fact a rung or two below the glamour that may have been hoped for. Another reality is that their children are too busy (or rather, use that as an excuse) to give their parents much attention, resulting in them, at one point, being packed off to a health spa for a few days. The only one who shows the couple any real amity is Noriko, the young widow of their son, killed in the war (beautifully played by Setsuko Hara).
The pace of the film is wonderfully slow and steady, giving you time to eat up the details of residential post-war Tokyo (almost all low-shot interiors), as well as to reflect on the scenes as you're watching them. Another technique that pulls you into the lives of the characters is the unusual view of people talking directly to you, as if you were the other person in the conversation. This is an Ozu trademark and can, at first, be a little jarring with the dialogue sounding somewhat staccato (because of the cuts), but you quickly become used to it and I find it engaging.
One of the things I love about Japanese cinema from this era is the restrained emotion under dramatic circumstances. I find it also in many classic black and white-era British films, and masterfully done in some of the later silent-era pictures, A Woman of Paris being an excellent example. There is so much over-acting these days and, to me, most television acting is rendered almost unwatchable as yet another character sighs heavily, stutters their words or rolls their eyes in order to hammer their emotions into the viewer. In films such as Tokyo Story, when real emotion does eventually spill over the barrier, it has veritable impact. The same goes for the camera, it just observes, it doesn't need to fly around all over the place, but when it does deviate, it has greater effect (a philosophy I adhere to in my own comic storytelling).
The NFT are currently showing a season of Ozu's films which runs until 27 February 2010.
To quote from the Edna's Place blog:
"This book is about her lost 1926 film, directed by Josef von Sternberg, who would later create "The Blue Angel" starring Marlene Dietrich. This would be the only film produced by Charlie Chaplin that did not feature Chaplin as director or actor. The film would never be seen by the public, and the story behind its creation and demise is fascinating. The book features over 50 recently discovered, and never-before-published production still photos from the film."
Linda has dedicated years to the study of the wonderful Edna Purviance and has discovered so much about Edna that was not previously known. Some of it appears in this book, but there is so much more that will one day appear in the Edna biography she is also working on. If you have any interest in film, film-making or silent film and the people that made them, go and check out this book.