Less enjoyable was Serenity, watched on DVD. I'd heard only good things about this so was disappointed to find the characters fairly clichéd action types, and a storyline where every next move was expected. I need less teeth-gritting, gun-toting characters with a dark past please. Unless done as well as Bond in Casino Royale.
|"The Press of England seems literally to have gone mad over the cinema star, Charlie Chaplin, and so have other people. Thus the Mayor of Southampton received him publicly on his arrival from America. Hideous pictures are published too of this very undistinguished-looking person, surrounded by crowds with folly stamped on every face. It really is extraordinary and as the Morning Post points out a great testimony of the power of the Publicity Agent who is working up all this excitement underneath."|
I hoped to see some mention of Rider Haggard in Chaplin's autobiography, but the only thread-thin connection I'm aware of is a photo of Charlie seated next to actress Alice Delysia, who played Ayesha in a 1916 version of Haggard's 'She'. Haggard was not beyond enjoying filmed versions of his own work, but was plagued by those who sought to adapt them illegally. Of the 1916 version Haggard wrote (5 Jun 1916) "The She film is going very well, nearly two million people having paid to see it already."
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'Batman Begins' was okay, but generally rather dull. It hit a low-point early on when Liam Neeson (I think it was him, I mix them all up, those actors) said something in the monastery about being able to hide in the shadows, then I think he clicked his fingers and twenty ninjas dropped to the floor from the ceiling-beams where they'd been hiding, possibly since lunchtime. I did actually quite enjoy it, but it had many tiresome moments.
'A Life Aquatic' always looked intriguing, though I'd heard mixed reviews. But I have to say I thought it was really very good indeed. It had a nice upbeat feeling to it, was very quirky and I couldn't get over Willem Defoe being a German nerd. It even had a kind of hidden pirate base on an abandoned island. A lovely film.
And last night we saw 'Churchill (The Hollywood Years)'. I hadn't read any good reviews of this, I don't think, and mainly wanted to see it after reading about Antony Sher playing Hitler (see this funny little story from his book 'Primo Time'). But the film totally surprised me by being very funny indeed and full of some wonderful performances, particularly from Leslie Phillips, Harry Enfield and Antony Sher. It was a very traditional British comedy in a way, sort of the Comic Strip meets Ealing Studios, perhaps even a little Carry On, but with more swearing and explosions. It must have been inspired in particular by that whole Enigma machine thing in 'U-571', and perhaps just a few other films as well.
First of all, generally and overall, it was excellent, highly enjoyable, spectacular and well-made. I loved it.
But if I bring in some 'baggage' I can get more critical. My baggage is that I am very attached to the 1933 original; those early thirties fantasy adventures, such as King Kong, She and Lost Horizon, evoke such a wonderous and thrilling atmosphere. Secondly, and related to the first point, is my admiration of lost world/lost race fiction, a genre Kong belongs to. With that in mind I do have a few criticisms, but these are pretty minor really. At first I thought the acting was all a bit melodramatic - fine in 1933, not really necessary in 2005. Jack Black was great in the film, but I felt his famous last line, 'twas beauty killed the beast', seemed slightly forced on his character. Maybe this is unfair as the line is pretty famous. I thought the secret map looked too much like a film prop and the build-up to Skull Island was unsubtle, without the gathering of mystery it deserved. Once they were on the island and through the gates, things were rather overdone and we lost some of the awe the island could have inspired. A million dinosaurs, a zillion insects and, if being unkind, a bit of a theme-park ride. I didn't like the stuck-on subplot of the second mate and the cabin boy, which seemd to be missing parts, with the boy reading Heart of Darkness and the mate giving literary criticism on said book (I did like the character of the mate though).
Moving on to more positive crticism, and some things I really liked. The city-scapes and thirties New York at street-level was terrific. The glimpses of a more ancient civilisation on the island were tantalising and the fearful natives were excellent, forced to live on the rocky outskirts of Skull Island while a lush paradise, just yards away, was denied them. The action, despite it pummeling some atmosphere out of the film and being overdone, was exhilirating. Kong himself came across very well indeed on the screen and the Kong and girl scenes worked nicely I thought, but then I like a bit of pathos in the mix. Overall a wonderful film, but I wanted more from it, perhaps unfairly.
A couple of weeks ago I went to see 'Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire' from which I wasn't expecting much but actually hugely enjoyed. In fact it got me back into Potter again (after the Chamber of Secrets film put me right off) and I caught up and read the most recent two books.
The story meanders a fair amount, but is sustained throughout by the visuals, the characters and the surprising twists and turns in the plot. No character, except perhaps the main one, Sophie, is clear-cut, and you lose yourself in the film as you try to get a fix on them. Sadly, Howl's Moving Castle does not have the perfection of Spirited Away, Miyazaki's last big release for western cinemas. The resolve is too sudden, too easy, and storylines are despatched with a couple of sentences in a scene at the end that produced a cringe on almost every line (for a film that so far had me completely lost in its world). Blink and you'll miss an earlier reference to the lost prince, until the end. I was also disappointed that we had the dubbed version rather than subtitled, but then this screening was timed for half-term. Having said that, adults outnumbered the children, and I wonder how well children as young as 7 or 8 would follow it. Maybe they don't have to in order to enjoy what is, in the end, a great piece of cinema fantasy.
On holiday, at the Picture House in York, we saw Crash. This was one of those ensemble films where a series of characters and scenes all intertwine, something like Magnolia. It was very good, with excellent acting and great characterisation. Some of the characters were likeable (the lock-repair chap) and some weren't (the Iranian shop keeper). Others had more shades of grey (the two policemen, the criminals and the TV director). It's a film about race and how complicated prejudice is. My favourite scene, and a turning point in the story, was where Matt Dillon rescues the lady he practically assaulted earlier in the film from a car wreck. Near the end of the film, the younger policeman makes an assumption and discovers he's not as pure as he imagines, echoing the advice Matt Dillon gives him earler, "don't think you know yourself just yet" (paraphrase).
As an aside, I've never read the original book, but once, for my mum's birthday when she was ill in bed, I performed the play version (from a book) with me playing all the parts. I can only remember one prop which was a brown paper bag, but there must have been more to it than that. I suppose I was about ten or twelve years old.
* Edit 10.08.05: According to the Funday Times, Aug 7: "Four animal trainers worked with 40 squirrels for the nut room scene. The real rodents were supplemented by a troop of lifelike animatronic squirrels, made with real squirrel fur."
I am a particular fan of 'The Man Who Would Be King' based on Kipling's short story, and just think it one of the best adventure films made. And I still retain my interest in filmed versions of 'She'. At the moment I'm rather intrigued by the throne used in the 1935 RKO version starring Helen Gahagan, I was convinced it must have been designed by the wonderful Kay Nielsen by the look of it, but the IMDB reveals it was Alex Hall. Even the massive statues in the main hall of the set have a look of Nielsen, being very reminiscent of his concept sketches for Disney's Fantasia. The whole set is really something to behold (they re-used the huge gates from 'King Kong'), and echoes another great lost world film of the 1930's, 'Lost Horizon'.