Monday 5 October 2015

The Martian - the film

 This is the film based on the novel by Andrew Weir and starring Matt Damon as the eponymous character.
Overall, the film was a faithful representation of the novel, not entirely surprisingly as I felt that Weir had at least half an eye on the film rights while writing the book. The biggest potential problem with the film was the inescapable fact that, for vast stretches of the film, Damon’s character is on his own, potentially leaving us with large parts of the film where he’s essentially speaking to himself. In this particular case, that was alleviated by having him making video logs. We also get to see much more of the NASA manoeuvrings – in the book we tended to stay with Mark until there was a comms blackout. The film also dealt with the communications delays (30 minutes) and low-bandwidth by mentioning them then largely ignoring them (‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ dealt with the comms delays by presenting the viewer with pre-recorded interviews). It was also nice to see the re-use of some of the old Mars probes especially little Sojourner (but no Beagle – that hadn’t been found by the time the film had been made).
Although the film covered the big disaster of the potato crop wipe-out and the loss of the initial resupply rocket, Mark actually had an easier time of it in the film than in the book – not the usual complaint!
One of the things I wondered about the book was the general population’s interest in the situation but after seeing how people responded to the Philiae lander’s tweets, I feel that the film and the book may have it more accurately than me (I can’t remember what happened with Apollo 13, the nearest real life example to this situation). The (admittedly not-too-many) people in the audience seemed to have been pretty much drawn into the film as well. 
This may be the film to break the Curse of Mars!

Saturday 21 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

HobbitDesolationSmaug The middle section of the trilogy made out of JRR Tolkien’s rather modest book hit cinemas around the world this week with a film clocking in at almost three hours.

After a brief prelude we start right at the point where the first film ended where the eagles had left them. The orcs are still on their trail but as Bilbo sneaks back to check on who’s following, he spies a giant bear added to the mix though Gandalf doesn’t seem too upset by this. He advises they head for the house of Beorn as fast as possible though. Unlike the book (and BBC radio adaption for that matter), there’s no attempt to introduce the dwarves in small groups. Instead they hit the door at full tilt and barely get it shut before the bear gets them. They do actually get to meet Beorn in human form but he’s less of a character in the film, though in the book Beorn’s place is more of a stopping point than a film could afford. As before, Gandalf buggers off when the dwarves reach the edge of Mirkwood. The journey through the wood was suitably spooky though the dwarves manage to lose the elf road on their own before being attacked by the spiders and the whole party is taken prisoner however temporarily; Bilbo getting free fairly quickly and while he does free the dwarves he doesn’t interact with the spiders after stabbing one and gaining a name for his sword. It takes the intervention of a hunting party of elves to drive off the spiders and then the dwarves are taken prisoners deep inside the Sindaran Elven halls with Bilbo making it in just in time. There’s a bit of faffing around as the elves search the dwarves for weapons and Legolas makes fun of Gloin’s family… Apart from Kili finding himself rather attracted to the elven warrior maid and some interplay between the elves high command on whether they should keep out of the world’s troubles this section remains fairly faithful to the book but is intercut with Gandalf travelling to a hidden grave along with Radagast to find it empty and their realisation of just who it is they’re facing. Meanwhile we’ve still got the orcs on the trail of the dwarves and planning an assault on the elves to get at them. Bilbo rescues the dwarves in the expected fashion. Also in the elven halls, Thorin starts his downward spiral as he throws back Thranduil’s offer of an elven army to accompany him to the Lonely Mountain. Now, in the film history Thorin’s got good reason to doubt the elven lord’s offer but this was a rather violent rejection all things considered. Just in case the dwarves journey down the river in their barrels wasn’t already exciting enough the orcs harry them from the bank and Tauriel and Legolas follow the party downstream – the orcs were a distraction in the first film and they intrude even more here. The dwarves finally make it to the lake where they’re picked up by the bargeman from Lake Town. In the book there were a couple and these were never named. Here it’s Bard, grandson of the former king of Dale, destroyed by Smaug, in much reduced circumstances. To fair to Peter Jackson Bard’s position in the book is rather ambiguous while this does give him a proper job. Thorin’s obsession continues to grow as the dwarves are forced to hide out in Bard’s as Kili’s wound grows worse. After a botched raid on the town’s armoury most of the dwarves are brought to the Master of the town where Thorin makes the sort of promises that you should know wouldn’t be kept. Bard shows a bit of the naysayer he was in the book but the Master and the people let themselves be bamboozled and the dwarves and Bilbo resume their journey to the Mountain – well, most of them anyway, four of the party remain at Bard’s where the orcs finally catch up and things look bleak until Legolas and Tauriel join the fray. Meanwhile Gandalf and Radagast travel to Dol Guldur to find it apparently abandoned. Gandalf is clearly not going to make the rendezvous by the remains of Dale and Thorin is getting ever more irritable as it looks like they’ll not get to the right place by the end of Durin’s Day (the time scale in the film, rather unlikely, has been somewhat compressed at this point).

Bilbo and the dwarves find where the hidden door should be but as the sun disappears below the horizon and nothing happens, they lose heart except for Bilbo who realises that the sun is not the only source of light that night (in the book it was the sun but the thrush was there in both). When it comes to searching the dwarven halls, the dwarves are a lot more active here, while they do eventually go underground in the book, it’s in response to an attack by Smaug. Here they follow on pretty promptly though it’s still Bilbo, fulfilling his contract, who enters the main hall, and I hope-to-ghu that most of that hoard was CGId – even as base metal or plastic you’d be talking an awfully large amount of coin. And then Smaug makes his appearance. Smaug was truly amazing and if his presence in the original book was a defining point for literary dragons I hope that his screen outing becomes the defining point of screen dragons though it did feel a bit cartoonish at times (here I ought to mention I saw the 2D version). The conflict between Smaug and the dwarves was pure film invention and the ultra-purists may object but while I do feel it went on too long I liked the way the production team used it to take a look at the industrial dwarf and the pure theatre of the gold statue in the final confrontation was (unlike the metal!) way cool. Throughout the latter part of film, the effect of Thorin’s obsession with the arkenstone in particular and the treasure in general was nicely effected.

Overall, this was a recognisable film and most of the expansion details added things to the film, especially in a universe where the Lord of the Ring trilogy exists. They use the Hobbit as a background and the original book of The Hobbit was written way before them with no thought of it being part of a continuing story. As a 12A, we got quite a few younger children (under 10) with their parents and the girls were well behaved while a couple of boys behind me got a little restive. My brother didn’t want to bring his girls (both in that under 10 range, just) due to the rating and the sheer length – two hours forty-one minutes for the film plus advert meant that the actual run time went to just over three hours (ouch!) giving me just enough time to get to my swimming lesson (thankfully the swimming pool’s just across the plaza from the cinema).

Sunday 16 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the latest visit to Middle Earth and is based on JRR Tolkien's book of the same name. As usual, I saw the 2D version as I'm not willing to spend money on an experiment that might not work (thats my use of the 3D glasses, not 3D film that seems to be a lost battle:-)).

As the film opens we're in the Shire with Old Bilbo (Ian Holme) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) talking about Bilbo's adventures in the East and a description of the Dwarven kingdom that once ruled there, followed by its fall without a mention of a ring given to the line of Dain. We don't get to see Smaug properly, normally just a shadow on the ground quickly followed by a blast of fire...

We then go to the opening of the story proper with Younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) sitting on his doorstep and ending up in a discussion of the various uses of 'good day' with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and Gandalf getting annoyed with the stodgy person that Bilbo was becoming. The dwarves were introduced in small groups with Bilbo becoming more unsettled as the evening passed. Finally all the dwarves and Gandalf are assembled and after a truly heart stopping scene where the dwarves are clearing up the pottery in a fashion guaranteed to give Bilbo a heart attack. They then settle in for a bit of strategizing and planning about taking back the Mountain from the dragon. Bilbo basically doesn't impress the dwarves as he collapses when presented with the contract detailing his potential injuries. He was going to be hired as the burglar but he hadn't impressed anyone yet...

For most of the film, they've stuck very closely to the book in terms of both action and dialogue. Some of the dwarves are less serious than presented by JRRT and less noble, though in a Henry the Fifth moment, Thorin Oakenshield (an impressive Richard Armitage) tells his company that they are his true companions, especially as the rest of the dwarves were a bunch of craven cowards, refusing to risk facing the dragon. The major departures from the book were the subplot where the orc Azog (Manu Bennett) and his merry band chase the dwarves all over New Zea..., ah, I mean Middle Earth was an embellishment on the book. We also see Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), transposed from the LOTR trilogy. From the BBC Radio 4 broadcasts of LOTR I see Radagast as a young wizard but in this, he's of an age with Saruman and Gandalf, if a little more addle-pated (much more reasonable really). The White Council meeting wasn't mentioned directly in the book, just in passing and they managed to insert the lore of the istari quite neatly.

This film takes us through the Misty Mountains and an encounter with the creature Gollum, and the finding of a plain golden ring. Rather than the (by now leaderless} goblins of the mountains chasing them down the mountainside, Azog catches them up once more and the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf are treed, only to be rescued by the eagles who take them straight to the Carrock and their first sight of the Lonely Mountain, where the credits roll and we have to wait for another year to see how things continue. Bilbo makes one of those comments you know that you are going to really, really regret Well, the worst is over now. before were transported to the halls inside of which, a dragon is waking up...

When I heard that they had spread the story out over three three-hour films and scavenged the LOTR appendices to fill out the time, I was wondering how well it would hold together, but if they can maintain the quality of this film, then we should be in for a real treat over the next few years (the BBC production was around four hours). As an aside, Thorin in the film is pronounced as TH whereas the Beeb used the pronunciation Torin and, as one of their arts and entertainments editors shares the name, Id probably have gone with that...

Sunday 25 November 2012

Skyfall Review

This is the fiftieth anniversary for the Bond franchise and the third outing for Daniel Craig in the role.
We open with a pre title sequence set in Istanbul where Bond has been sent to retrieve a missing disk with the names of intelligence agents hidden in terrorist organisations – a bit more serious than the usual run of the mill laptop left on a train affair.
Bond chases the thief through the streets and over the roofs of Istanbul - if you saw the Top Gear Special on the cars of Bond you’ll have an insight of how this was done – a more traditional chase and fight aboard a train (or more particularly on the top of a train) before Bond is shot and falls off a bridge into the roaring torrents below.
Roll the opening credits.
Rather unusually, the pre credits sequence has an effect on the main action of the film as M starts catching political heat from the lost disk and her computer is hacked while she’s out of the office causing an explosion in MI6’s headquarters and the death of 6 officers. After this debacle, M is told by her political masters that once this current mess is sorted out she’s out of a job so going home she’s startled to find a returned Bond waiting for her. In their new headquarters (rather appropriately Churchill’s old wartime bunker) Bond’s given a complete physical and psychological examination which he’s told he’s passed and then told to get his new kit from Q (not John Cleese any more), a spotty faced kid barely out of University, and in keeping with the rather minimalist gadgeteering of the Craig years all he gets is his gun and an emergency radio transmitter. And a ticket to Shanghai. And the Walther is coded to work only for his palm prints, of course.
Although the Bond films are straight up action adventures (most of the time) the scenes in Shanghai may as well have been set on an alien planet, really bringing home the transformation in that part of the world in a way that the news reports of China’s economic transformation haven’t really managed.
The action then moves to Macao with a more traditional meeting in a casino with a pretty woman whose bodyguards were more intent on her than making sure she didn’t get into trouble. With three bodyguards against Bond, he finds himself almost overwhelmed until a Monitor Lizard takes a liking to one opponent and another finds stiletto heels almost as effective a weapon as the knife. Bond then takes up his lady’s offer of a sailing trip out to sea to meet his nemesis. As in an earlier Bond, this is an ex-agent gone bad (Six really needs to look into its retirement package…). Like certain politicos back home, this villain believes the days of the agent on the ground are over but after a deadly variation of the apple on the head trick Bond, and a trio of Apaches take villain guy prisoner and bring him back to London. Q attacks the heavily encrypted computer with a degree of gusto that a more experienced hacker might have worried about, though, to be fair, it’s Bond who gives him the clue to break the encryption. Meanwhile, M’s at yet more hearings into the future of the 00 branch. This part of the film was rather cool as we intercut between the hearing and the villain’s breakout as his computer subverts MI6’s systems, and the subsequent chase through the London underground. Although this film doesn’t really go in for mass shoot outs in the style of the Roger Moore films, the action sequences are brilliantly, ah, executed as demonstrated in the gunfight in the committee room. But the villain gets away!
As M is bundled away to safety, her aide-de-camp finds himself pushed out of her ministerial car as an unknown driver whisks her off. It’s Bond of course but in a government car fitted with all the latest tracking devices, they’re not safe and so Bond takes M to the lockup where his Austin Martin DB5 is revealed to a bar or two of the original Bond theme and ‘Yeah!’s of delight from the older males in the audience! With Q busily supplying almost an almost false trail for Bond’s opponent to follow, we find ourselves up in the wilds of Glencoe and Bond’s ancestral seat. Although the  house is stripped of most of the contents, we get a quick lesson on ‘IEDs and your house’ with M showing an alarming facility for mayhem – up to this point, I’d seen her as a bureaucrat but she’s clearly had field experience along the line. And then we get the major confrontation of the film as the house is invaded by the villain of the piece and his minions (where was he getting them?) aboard their helicopter gunship. This constitutes the major action scene of the film, and again, it’s relatively minimalist with Bond, M and the auld family retainer, played with an incredibly posh English accent by Albert Finney (IMDb reports that Sean Connery was considered for this role which may have been a touch too self-referential).
Alas Judi Dench’s M doesn’t survive the fight and the film ends with us being introduced to a new M (we’ll have to see if he does become the permanent actor for the part). This was a shame as Dame Judi has been a fine M, and never better than in this film but we’re all getting older.
We’re promised that Bond will be back. But how many more films for Daniel Craig? Apparently, at forty-three, he’s beginning to feel the strain…
This was a far more introspective film than we’re used to from Bond but I don’t feel it really suffered from this and getting someone of the calibre of Sam Mendes as director really paid off. According to IMDb’s article many of the plans to shoot scenes in foreign climes had to be scrapped due to the uncertainty of the survival of the franchise after the collapse of the studio but Britain stood in excellently on its own merits.

Monday 19 March 2012

John Carter

I went to see this film a couple of weeks post release and at the earliest possible  showing of the two-dee version on a Sunday so I wasn't expecting the place to exactly crowded but there were only half a dozen of us in the particular screen. So fine views of the screen at least!

Once the ads and trailers were over we finally start into the film with an attack on the Helium aircruiser with the baddies' hellish new weapon then a meeting of Helium's Council to discuss the terms of the city's survival. As this involves her marriage to the enemy Jeddak, Princess Deja Thoris is somewhat unhappy with this. The film then breaks to Earth where we meet a youngish Edger Rice Burroughs being presented with his uncle's journal of the strangest gold hunter's dream ever. We then go back in time to the start of the Great Adventure. This bit we've seen in the trailers but John Carter is on Mars soon enough wondering just how come he can leap mountains and jump miles in a single bound...

Eventually Carter is found by one of the two main races on Barsoom, the lizard like tharks and after impressing their Jeddak with his strength he's sort of adopted and sort of taken prisoner. Of course being chained and unable to speak the lingo is no barrier to escape though shaking off the 'watch dog' might prove trickier. As Carter is about to be punished for the escape attempt, an attack on a Helium airship by their enemied diverts the attenton of the tharks and Carter meets Deja Thoris...

It was fairly easy to see where Disney had spent the money on the effects and if you can see homages to other films its also fair to recognise the debts their stories owe to the ERB originals. Of course, given modern knowledge of conditions on Mars, there are some serious suspension of disbelief issues to overcome but the story does largely do this IMO if not necessarily in terms of world sales figures - indeed Disney are looking to post a group loss after this.

You can read the originals as digital dowloads from Project Guttenberg.

Thursday 27 January 2011

The Manifesto

One of the strangest programmes on Radio 4 is Mark Thomas' 'The Manifesto' usually broadcast in the Thursday 18:30/19:00 comedy slot..

The premise behind this show is that the presenter gets various members of the audience to propose various laws they would like to see voted in. These tend to run from the deadly serious to the arcane (abolish Wednesdays anyone?) and with some of the most likely Thomas will take the proposal to an expert to get an opinion.

Given the political apathy shown by most people at actual elections the enthusiasm of the audience is rather startling and rather uplifting - perhaps it's (cynically) because these particular proposals have no chance of actually being enacted or (less cynically) because here the people are actually putting forward their own ideas rather than selecting from a set of canned party proposals that almost inevitably suffer from the exigencies of office should the Party in question actually get into power.

Although I doubt I fully share Thomas's sense of humour the zaniness of the show raises it to a whole new level!

Sunday 9 January 2011

The King's Speech

This is not my usual fair – a more-or-less accurate biopic telling the tale of King George VI’s attempts to overcome the speech impediment that had caused him great difficulties from his earliest years.

The film opens with the then Prince’s disastrous speech at the close of the 1926 Empire Exhibition but quickly jumps forward eight years to 1934 and a dingy consulting room in Harley Street with the Duchess of York visiting a speech therapist in order to help her husband, under the pseudonym if Mrs Johnson. When advised that her husband ought to find a new job, ‘Mrs J’ tells him that this wasn’t an option and the therapist comes back with a quip about the job being related to indentured servitude. Mrs J’s response is heart-felt agreement.

We then get to see the Duke make a start on overcoming the impediment, reluctantly at first and certainly not without many setbacks as the situation evolves; at first the Prince is going through the therapy in order to better fulfil his duties as a royal but as his older brother, the Heir, becomes increasingly infatuated with his married American, it becomes increasingly likely that Bertie will become the King, a thought that (quite rightly!) terrifies him.

We have the death of George V and the succession of Edward VIII and some very unbecoming behaviour of the not-yet crowned King and his paramour Mrs Simpson (honest, it’s not that she was American, just that she was a twice divorced American) and we have Edward VIII signing the abdication papers (1936) and the coronation of Bertie as George VI and the unmasking of his speech therapist as an apparent charlatan – we’ll give Archbishop Lang the benefit of the doubt and that he really did care that the King had been conned and after an emotional confrontation the King and the speech therapist declare peace. The newsreel of the coronation was followed by a piece on a Nazi rally – a nasty comparison between the leaders of the looming confrontation.

The final section is the King’s speech of the title – the speech that the King gave to the Nation and the Empire warning of the potential horrors to follow on the day war was declared, which while not necessarily the smoothest speech ever, managed to capture the mood of the nation with montage images of those he had been involved with including his brother in exile.

Playing a person with a stammer must be an actor’s worst nightmare but Colin Firth was up to the task and Helena Bonham-Carter appeared to manage to capture the spirit of his wife, Queen Elizabeth and there were plenty of emotionally affecting scenes, one of the more surprising when his daughters greeted him with curtsies just after he had acceded to the kingship. However, there were elements of humour as well – the King and Queen accidently meeting Mrs Logue and her husband’s reluctance to let the King meet her.

The film did not really deal with the politics of the situation, the abdication crisis being basically a few moments and the lead up to war being largely ignored too, but these were not the foci of the film. The focus of the film was on the relation between ‘Mr Johnson’ and Logue and while I guess most of this would have been made up, it certainly felt like it captured the nature of the nature of the relationship.

As a side point, the fact that the Harry Potter franchise is coming to an end has released some senior actors for a number of roles in this; Michael Gambon was George V and Timothy Spall played a passable Winston Churchill and there’s Helena Bonham-Carter herself, as Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.