Film Stuff

Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Every so often, I’m jolted out of my sense of complacency about films. I’d seen Last of the Mohicans before; of course I had. I can even tell you approximately when: it was a New Year’s Eve when I was about 20. It was a quiet, civilised night in with friends Sandra & Jo and we were working our way through a double or triple bill of films. I drove back home and arrived, stone cold sober at around 3am, to a chorus of drunken cheers from a parental party still in full swing. I have never felt more like Saffy before or since.

Anyway, the digression just serves to illustrate that I only got around to seeing the film approximately seven years after its first release, on a small screen, and it wasn’t the most memorable part of the night (that honour was taken by the image of my dad being hoisted up the stairs by his trousers by his elderly aunt at 5am, who clearly thought he’d had quite enough to drink, thank you very much). I remembered a few salient points – the waterfall, the shock fate of a couple of characters, and ‘I will find you!’, all combining into a sense of melodramatic excess. Frankly, I wasn’t too fussed.*

Fast forward to last weekend, and I’d spotted the film was being shown at The Electric as part of their Cinematic Time Machine series. Knowing Bob was not averse to the odd Western, I suggested we give it a go. Will McKeown from the University of Birmingham’s B-Film research centre gave a very interesting and informative introduction to the film, which provided some background context and set the stage effectively.

I tell you, I was almost crying by the time the first few bars kicked in. And no, before you ask, I’m not speaking as a newly discovered Daniel Day-Lewis fangirl (bit late now, seeing as he’s just retired). But the epic music, the vast landscapes, and the dramatic themes set against the backdrop of war seemed to strike a chord. And a melody. Did I mention the music?

Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his adopted father Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother Uncas (Eric Schweig) exist on the fringes of the French and Indian Wars in 1757. They live, hunt, and survive alongside the colonial settlers, subject to no-one but themselves. Happening upon a Huron ambush led by the uncompromising Magua (Wes Studi), they rescue two daughters of a British colonel stationed at Fort William Henry. Offering to escort them to the safety of the Fort, they arrive to find the place under heavy siege by the French. Smuggling their charges through the lines under the cover of darkness, their mission seems to be complete. Until, that is, Hawkeye takes a shine to the elder daughter and decides to stay on for a bit to get to know her while the fort is pummelled into submission. Finally surrendering to the French, the Colonel and his men are allowed to depart with full honours, only to march straight into the path of the waiting Magua and his war party. Saving the day again with some nifty moves (albeit not quite preventing a massacre), Hawkeye and co. escape to the afore-mentioned waterfall with the two daughters, an English officer, and a couple of anonymous redshirts who you just know are not long for this world. After a few more twists and turns, and an awful lot of running, the denouement falls on a clifftop skirmish; a fight to the death to enact justice, revenge, and a poignant lament for a dying way of life.

Yes, it’s corny. But my god, does it work. The tone, while reverential, never succumbs to parodic pretension. The visuals – as noted in the introductory talk – are stunning, and not just the landscapes. Many scenes are seemingly composed to resemble historical paintings of the period (thanks to Bob for that observation). Such attention to detail exemplifies the director’s focus on historical authenticity, from training the extras in contemporaneous military manoeuvres, to building the entire set of Fort William Henry from scratch using local materials.

What is especially interesting is that this dedication to historical veracity is favoured above a faithful rendering of the original plot. Viewed as an adaptation, the film clearly takes liberties with the source material; several characters who survive to the end of the novel do not share the same fortune here. Identities are switched around, ages are altered, and a racial undercurrent is not addressed apart from a brief mention in passing. But audiences are not engaging with the story as an exercise in comparison. As John le Carre says in an interview as part of the DVD extras on the 2011 release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: “this is the film of the film, not the film of the book.” It has to be seen on its own terms. Narrative fidelity – to what has been described as a rather simplistic depiction of cultural stereotypes – has been eschewed in favour of historical authenticity, in what Kamilla Elliott would identify as the ‘trumping’ model of adaptation. In this case, the changes align with the director’s interpretation of historical events to form a narrative cohesion that emphasises the central theme of survival and offers a prescient nod to the autonomy of rule.

The overall result successfully combines the genres of literary adaptation, war, frontier western, and historical romance, which is no easy task. The central relationships are well-characterised and (most importantly) credible, which go a long way to humanising the conflict and its surrounding politics. A film well-deserving of another outing on the big screen.

Some final thoughts:

  • It struck me that Peter Jackson must have taken some inspiration from this film for Lord of the Rings, not least in the visual characterisation of Aragorn and the chasing of the Uruk-Hai at the beginning of The Two Towers. You could push it even further and substitute the three characters easily enough: Hawkeye – Aragorn, Chingachgook – Gimli, Uncas – Legolas. Someone more technically-minded than me could produce a great mash-up of the two, swapping over the respective soundtracks
  • Like this kind of thing (full respect at 2.05 – that’s got to be tough on the thighs)

Footnote

*A few years ago, we had also seen the 1970s BBC TV adaptation, which was memorable mainly for Allo Allo’s Hilary Minster popping up at regular intervals in roles ranging from a British sergeant, Huron warrior, French infantryman and Delaware scout. The budget evidently didn’t stretch to covering the extras.

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Film Stuff

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The film choice on Friday night was the David Fincher adaptation of the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series. Heavily influential in creating a global audience for the Nordic Noir trend, the original trilogy was first adapted into film in a Swedish production not two years earlier. Questions, then, were raised at the time about the efficacy of a new adaptation so soon after the first. Mumblings around bandwagon-hopping, money-grabbing, and American audiences who can’t be bothered to read subtitles clouded the film’s popular reception (although it was critically well-received). The timing of the film’s release during the Christmas holidays probably didn’t help. Although there’s plenty of snow and (spoiler!) a family reunion, it’s not exactly The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Unusually for an adaptation, the 2011 film was compared to the 2009 Swedish production, rather than the original novel. The only other recent example I can think of that takes a similar approach is the 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the reviews of which invariably drew comparison with the 1979 BBC TV series starring Alec Guinness. To me, it raises interesting questions around the delineation between what is ‘definitive’ and what is ‘original’, and how adaptations navigate that spectrum.

The film itself follows the parallel storylines of disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he accepts a commission from a wealthy industrialist (Christopher Plummer), and the eponymous girl, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who is having a few issues with her guardian. Their paths converge as it becomes clear that a serial killer is in operation in the snow-blasted landscape and the family business is not welcoming the intrusion. To quote another film mentioned in a blog I’ve just discovered, ‘the hospitality in this country is as warm as the weather’.

Put simply, this is an outstanding film. Right from the opening credits, which combine Bond-like visuals with a nightmarish, punk-Alien vibe, Fincher creates an atmosphere that is unsettling, disturbing, and provocatively in-yer-face. The horrific scenes with Lisbeth and her guardian are not glossed over, but the unlikelihood of further sequels make them purely character development and motivation rather than narratively essential. Does that matter? I’d like to say not, but the absence of narrative completion and context (though not cohesion) gives this plotline a brutality that verges on gratuitousness.

This is not a film for a date-night, or one to recommend to your parents (well, not mine, anyway). But it’s a gripping investigative thriller with a uniformly excellent cast. I’m only sorry it’s taken me six years to get around to watching it.

Film Stuff

Star Trek (TOS) 1.1: The Man Trap

I started watching the original series (TOS) of Star Trek when the entire run was broadcast on BBC2 on Wednesday evenings at 6pm. I’ve checked on the BBC genome project, which archives all Radio Times listings from 1923-2009, and ‘The Man Trap’ was first broadcast on 26 August 1992. I was 11. An impressionable age, from any perspective, and a time when I was just about to embark on the transition from primary to secondary school. Not only that, over the summer, my dad’s work commitments had taken us from a relatively settled life in West Sussex to the uncertainty of a new start in Bath. As an adult, I can now look back on it as not a bad swap, but at 11 it meant never seeing my friends ever again. And actually, in most cases, that turned out to be pretty accurate. I was never a particularly reliable penpal, it was pre-Internet, my phone calls were generally functional rather than affectionate, and the most exciting piece of technology was a brand new fax machine that even then was never going to pass for speedy communication.

So it was within this context – new town, new school, and probably feeling more than a bit sorry for myself – that I first fell upon Star Trek. Looking back, the appeal was fairly obvious. The series embodied friendship, constancy, and familiarity (even the planets all looked the same). Every week, I could join a ready-made community who shared a common purpose. Despite the best efforts of some of the monster-of-the-week storylines, it was wholly unthreatening, and despite the literally out-of-this-world setting, the main focus was on the central relationships. It was fun, it was cheesy, but above all, it was home.

It to be said that I didn’t watch the series from the outset; I picked it up a few episodes into the first season. And, it being the early-90s, there was no TV catch-up, so ‘The Man Trap’ was therefore one I missed at the time (but I had seen it since). Watching it again a couple of days ago, I can see why it was chosen as the episode to open the series. It’s classic-Trek and the characters/ themes are already fully-formed, with virtually no clunky exposition (well, no more than normal).

Kirk, McCoy and nameless crewman (Galaxy Quest gets this spot on) beam down to a planet to undertake an annual health check to two scientists stationed there. McCoy has a personal interest in the trip as one of the scientists, Nancy, happens to be an old flame (another harbinger of doom) whom he hasn’t seen for ten years. They beam down and the reunion goes off splendidly, apart from the minor (but so far unnoticed) fact that Nancy appears as a different woman to each of the members of the landing party. Cue the appearance of her particularly grumpy scientist husband, a distant blood-curdling scream, and the nameless crewman has sadly succumbed to the inevitable.

SPOILER ALERT (but hey, it’s 50 years old, so if you haven’t watched it yet, I doubt you’re going to care).

Nancy turns out to be a shape-shifting salt monster who drains the salt from her/its victims, thereby rendering them dead.  After several more bodies, a brief escapade on board ship, the creature (back in Nancy’s image) is reluctantly dispatched by her former lover, McCoy, who is forced to make an impossible choice.

Observations

  • It has to be pointed out that the creature seems to be motivated by the acquisition of salt, rather than any specific ill-intent, which makes you wonder why it couldn’t just have asked Starfleet to deliver a shit tonne of the stuff every year.
  • Interesting to note that the nameless crewman (and other victims, who did manage to secure identities) were wearing blue shirts rather than the stereotypical red. No doubt this will be rectified in future episodes.
  • Likewise, the Enterprise doesn’t seem to have invented replicators yet, judging by the amount of food being carried on trays in the episode.
  • On a similar point, does the Enterprise only have one canteen? People seem to be going up and down turbo-lifts and walking for ages with their bloody trays. You’d have thought they could afford one per floor, or at least a tuckshop to keep them going.
  • Sulu has a very impressive range of colourful plants in his collection, although one looks suspiciously like it’s being animated by a human hand.
  • Smooth-talker of the week: ‘Is this Nancy?’ bellows Spock as he belts her across the face with both hands, several times. Well, no, I certainly hope not.
  • Speaking of Spock, is he flirting with Uhura here? She looks as though she wouldn’t mind if he was…

Film Stuff

Star Trek @ 50

I seem to be confining my musings to significant cultural anniversaries at the moment. But this one certainly doesn’t deserve to pass unmentioned. Anyone unfortunate enough to know me during my teenage years will remember that Star Trek was, if not an obsession, certainly a preoccupation. The feature photo probably shows all that you need to know about my bespectacled, train-tracked glory years. Those with a passing familiarity to all things Trek will recognise John de Lancie – better known as the mischievous Q in The Next Generation (TNG) – a lovely, courteous man who didn’t in the least mind being accosted by the lifts by my friend Carina just as he was about to escape the baying mobs of a Star Trek convention in Bristol. Ok, it was a bit more laid-back than that, and more of a generic sci-fi gathering than specific to Star Trek (if memory serves, Jon Pertwee was the keynote speaker), but he was very nice, and as you can see, smiled gamely for the camera.

Similar to the writer of this article, my obsession gradually waned as the teenage years drew to a close, but Star Trek retains a lingering place of affection as a welcome and unjudging companion, and, in many cases, a facilitator of enduring friendships. In the words of Lester Bangs – the great Philip Seymour Hoffman – ‘the only currency you have in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.

I re-watched The Wrath of Khan last year after the death of Leonard Nimoy, and found it to be a genuinely moving eulogy on the passing of time, the value of friendship, and coming to terms with death. It was a fitting tribute to an actor and a character who, for many, epitomised the complexity and, yes, emotionality of the series.

So Happy Anniversary, Star Trek. Let’s see what you’re still made of.

Film Stuff

The BBC’s Pride and Prejudice is 20 years old

I’ll just say that again: the BBC’s version of Pride & Prejudice, with its stately homes, never-ending balls, and Colin Firth emerging dripping from a lake, was first aired 20 years ago last weekend. Man, I feel old. However, my attempts to explain this devastating sense of impending mortality was met with scant regard by my other half, who growled: “I remember the North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon in 1975. How do you think that makes me feel?” Yes, I say (not out loud – I’m not that daft), but that’s history. The BBC’s Pride & Prejudice is contemporary popular culture. It’s not allowed to be 20 years old.

Except it is.

I was 14 when the programme was first aired, just starting the first year of G.C.S.E.s and, rather excitingly, moving between a caravan and a B&B as we waited for overdue building work to be completed on our new house. It was a period of transition, in more ways than one. At the time, I was more interested in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, which was airing on UK terrestrial TV for the first time (still only four channels, folks). In the end, I only watched the first season of DS9, deciding that a team of misfits boldly staying in one place wasn’t going to float my boat.

I didn’t actually watch Pride & Prejudice from the beginning, despite the near-constant trailers neatly encapsulating the set-up in one sentence: “Ah Lizzy, you’ll never be as pretty as your sister Jane, but I will say you look very well indeed” (and yes, sadly, that is quoted from memory). I remember Terry Wogan giving a weekly update on his morning breakfast radio show, bemoaning how no-one did anything except go to balls. Which, to be fair, pretty much summed up the first couple of episodes. I started watching properly from about half way through the series – fairly sure it was Ep.4, which is the point where EVERYTHING starts clicking into place. From there on in I was hooked, and saw the final episode once we had moved into our new house, with no other furniture except a TV and a set of plastic garden chairs.

It’s difficult to say exactly what makes this series (in my view) the definitive adaptation of Austen’s novel. The mid-90s saw a glut of Austen adaptations, from the slightly grungy, down-at-heel Persuasion (starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds), to the competing Emmas of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale, and the classy, Oscar-winning Sense & Sensibility with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. The popularity and, indeed, ubiquity of these adaptations showed that there was both a market and an audience for all things Austen. At six hours’ duration, Pride & Prejudice sat at the apex of this trend. The long form TV format allowed the story to develop at a leisurely pace that nevertheless packed in a substantial amount of character and plot.  The self-contained episodes were tightly scripted and directed with a lightness of touch that was never frivolous. Casting-wise, the production lucked-out in every single performance. You can even gloss over Julia Sawalha pretending to be a 15-year old. Both Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth grounded their characters and relationship with a realism that can sometimes be lost amongst the over-enunciated gentility of the English costume drama.

Looking at the competition, the 1995 version beats the others hands down. 1940 saw Laurence Olivier as Darcy team up with Greer Garson as Elizabeth, in a light piece of Hollywood romantic fluff that ruined the story completely by having Lady Catherine de Bourgh turn out to be a charming old duffer who was just testing Lizzy really, and welcomed her into the family with open arms. That’s almost like  Ernst Stavro Blofeld popping up one day and going “ONLY JOKING!”, while offering a plate of stuffed piranhas as a wedding present.

I must admit to not having seen the earlier 1979 BBC adaptation with David Rintoul as Darcy and Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth. But the ten minutes I did try, when in the throes of P&P fandom, seemed stilted and dry, and would no doubt require perseverance. By the by, as I looked this up on IMDB to find the date of release, I discovered that there was a 1952 mini-series with Peter Cushing as Darcy and Prunella Scales as Lydia Bennett. Now that would be worth digging out from somewhere (in a similar vein, there’s a 1966 Three Musketeers with Jeremy Brett as D’Artagnan, and Brian Blessed as Porthos, which has got to be worth a look).

Which brings us to the most recent, 2005 adaptation starring Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth. Contrary to many detractors, I think the latter is excellent – she embodies the character’s spirit and intelligence, and her performance is one of the few plus points in an otherwise abysmal production. Case in point:  the Bennett family are poor relative to their social status; that doesn’t mean they have pigs trundling through the kitchen at any given opportunity. And much as I love Donald Sutherland, he cannot do an English accent to save his life. I think he knows it too, so spends most of the film slurring and mumbling, and trying to pass it off as eccentricity. Doesn’t work. As for Matthew Macfadyen, he was much better suited to the (unfairly maligned) Ridley Scott version of Robin Hood, plaintively shouting “I’m the Sheriff of Nottingham!” dressed in just his breeches. The stoic, taciturn Darcy couldn’t be further removed.

So, despite being 20 years old, the 1995 BBC version of Pride & Prejudice remains the pinnacle. To mark the occasion, I plan to re-watch the series in the spirit of the original – i.e. every Sunday night for six weeks – trying to avoid the temptation of a Netflix binge. It will be a pleasure.

Film Stuff

Bleeding housework and bloody violence

Yesterday, I ran over my foot with a sofa. I was vacuuming at the time, which just goes to show that housework can be really bad for your health. Anyway, it really fucking hurt. There was even some blood. Annoyingly, it didn’t swell up and today there is minimal bruising, meaning that I have nothing to show for the pain and hardly any basis for milking the sympathy. Still, I got out of having to do the upstairs, which is a bonus.

Last night’s Game of Thrones was satisfyingly violent, as usual. A sword through the head and out the mouth the other side was particularly brutal, though couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. I’m half way through Season 4, by the way, having watched two episodes a couple of years ago, didn’t stay the distance, but decided to give it another go recently. As a result, I’ve indulged in a veritable binge over the last few weeks. At the moment, it seems to have descended into a series of odd couple buddy road movies, following (among others): Arya/ The Hound, Stannis/Davos (whose name I can’t say except in a Swiss accent), and Brienne/Podrick. It’s almost turning into Lord of the Rings. I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of Brienne’s quest is – yes to protect the Stark girls, but what does she do with them once she’s found them? Probably just stand around looking menacing, which I accept she does very well. And judging by his notably black mop and more than a passing resemblance to Gendry, I’m going to make a punt that Podrick is going to turn out to be another Baratheon bastard, who somehow escaped the earlier cull.

I’m loving how everyone’s accents are slipping the further into the series we get. Littlefinger is becoming more Irish with every episode and there are increasing flashes of Scot emerging through the Hound’s guttural grunts. Also, I’ve only just noticed that none of the younger Stark children share the family’s northern accent, and wonder if it’s a thing in Westeros that everyone speaks in clipped RP before the age of 15, when they suddenly wake up with an entirely different vowel system. It would explain why Theon/ Reek shares the Stark way of speaking despite not joining them until the age of eight, by which time you’d expect the power of speech to be fully formed.

Incidentally, harking back to Season 3, I have a theory as to the origin of the Frey family’s funky headgear. Tom Brooke, who plays Lothar Frey, is a friend of a friend, and it was pointed out to me at the time that he starred in a Stella Artois advert as a downed WWII pilot. Watching it back, it could be easily construed as the inspiration for the Frey look. The irony that the pilot was betrayed in the advert by those giving him shelter is probably pushing the link too far, but I like these little conjectures.

It’s The Mountain and the Viper tonight, which I’ve heard doesn’t end well. But in the words of Ramsay Snow, “if you thought this was going to end well, you obviously haven’t been paying attention”.

Film Stuff

Day 31: Oslo, August 31st (2011)

We reach the end of the road with this poignant, slow-moving and very personal tale of Anders, a recovering drug addict who is about to emerge from a term of rehab. Aptly enough in a month of film (which stretched out to a year), it’s a story about journeys, of making sense of relationships, and trying to find your place in the world.

As the title suggests, the city of Oslo plays a prominent part in the film, providing a backdrop for Anders’ journey home, his attempts to confront the past and come to terms with his future. Given a day release from his treatment centre for a promising job interview, Anders takes the opportunity to call on a number of old friends. Ranging from a sympathetic old school-friend with a seemingly idyllic family life, to an old girlfriend traumatised at hitting 30, his encounters chip away at the facade of his generation’s societal ambitions and expectations.

In terms of structure and plot, it resembles 25th Hour in its depiction of a man trying to re-connect with his life. In both cases, there is a strict time limit for this journey of re-discovery, but the sentences are entirely of their own making. Oslo is less heavy-handed in its symbolism; this is not a state-of-the-nation type allegory; it exists on a much more personal level, while still undermining the aspirations and pretensions of the cultured middle-class. The men are either trapped in a sexless marriage, or having it off with girls ten years their junior, while the women are either struggling to conceive, or noticeable in their absence (his ex-girlfriend doesn’t answer his calls; his sister removes herself from his problems).

It also reminds me of The Swimmer, a 1968 film starring Burt Lancaster as a character who swims his way back home through the back gardens of his affluent neighbours. Starting off with all friendliness and smiles, people become increasingly more hostile the closer he gets to home, indicating a dark secret that gradually bubbles its way to the surface. Water is a recurring image in Oslo, as Anders tries to drown himself in the opening scene, then ends up in a public water park with a group of shallow friends. To quote Stevie Smith, he is “not waving, but drowning” in his over-riding sense of depression. Far from cleansing his sins, the water only seems to weigh him down further. He succumbs to alcoholic temptation after ten months dry. Water turns into wine, which turns into gin, which turns into heroin, and it all goes to pot.

With a quietly powerful central performance, the film challenges the social structures that allow talented, intelligent people to fall through the cracks, while never fully absolving Anders from his own, personal responsibility for his predicament. But in a bustling capital city, full of his childhood friends, he spends most of his time alone, walking the streets, or sitting in cafes listening to other people’s lives happening around him. Like Maya in Zero Dark Thirtyhe ends the film framed in a doorway, returning home but utterly alone. In this instance he chooses to draw the curtains, electing to spend his final moments looking inwards, shutting out the world one last time.