Wednesday, 31 October 2012

On 31.10.12 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments
Film cynic attention-grabbing headline of the week - Disney have purchased Lucasfilm, giving them control of the Star Wars brand, and intend to revive the film series under a new team of filmmakers and produce Episode VII for 2015, followed by - take a deep breath - a new film every two years.

Despite my fanboy affection for the original Star Wars trilogy, my immediate reaction to this is one of cynicism. The two main reasons for this are the Star Wars prequels and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

The original Star Wars trilogy was big Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking at its best; an accomplished fun adventure. Sure, George Lucas tailored it for a mass audience, and it lacks the distinct charm of British sci-fi such as Doctor Who, but the result is infinitely watchable and genuinely does feel like a lot of care has been put into it; a big budget Flash Gordon, with influences ranging from Westerns to Joseph Campbell and Kurosawa. I even like the Ewoks. Since then, however, the series felt like nothing more than an attempt to milk all the money possible from the series, with no real storytelling care put into the prequels - a jumped up firework display of a toy advert, according a very well argued Simon Pegg.

So where could the new films go? If they're set after the original trilogy, there's a load of expanded universe content to draw upon. There's a trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn called The Thrawn Trilogy which seem like natural successors to the original trilogy; keeping all of its swashbuckling style and expanding on the main characters' lives in a way which feels both truthful and cinematic. The problem with adapting that is that it's perhaps a little too low in scale, with the main villain being a fragment of the Empire already brought down in the film trilogy; Disney will only want to go bigger and better, as those Hollywood types are wont to do. There's also, of course, the practical matter that Mark Hamill et al. have aged considerably more than five years since Return of the Jedi.

The other major piece of post-original trilogy fiction is the New Jedi Order, a massive book series  following a much older version of the original cast and their children as they fend off a galactic invasion from a sinister alien species. The problem with adapting this is that it's rubbish; frankly, this is where Star Wars fiction lost its grasp on what made Star Wars great and descended into dry, overly serious, drawn-out pulp.

So Disney will most likely be wanting to create their own stories and characters, to expand on the Star Wars universe how they see fit. Wherever this would be, my main feeling is that Disney would be milking a series that already lost its charm quite some time ago. Just like they did with the Pirates of the Caribbean series. 

Pirates was a similar situation condensed into a smaller time frame. Pirates 1 was great, Pirates 2 not  entirely awful, Pirates 3 soul-gratingly offensive, and yet they carried on relentlessly in the face of shitness, like a profit-spinning Wile E Coyote. I haven't watched Pirates 4 and don't intend to watch 5 or 6.

To sum up, I'm cynical. On the other hand, they haven't done a bad job with the Marvel banner, so let's keep an open mind, eh?

There is another potential silver lining to this. As Nigel Floyd pointed out on Twitter, George Lucas has, for many years, been stating his intentions to make a smaller, more personal film. Maybe now that he's relinquished his overpriced playground, he'll get around to that.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

On 27.10.12 by KieronMoore in , , ,    No comments

As an aspiring writer myself, should I have a soft spot for films about writers? Barton Fink is one of my favourite Coen comedies* and As Good as it Gets is charmingly funny, if not much about writing. I can’t think of that many good ones, actually. 

New rom-com Ruby Sparks is explicitly about writing. The concept: Paul Dano is Calvin Weir-Fields, a writer, who one day writes about a girl he sees in his dreams, only to have her come to life as the eponymous Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Not much time is given to explaining this miracle, and the film’s all the better for it – it’s a rom-com, who needs scientific explanations? Just don’t let some particular Doctor Who fans watch it... 

Rather, the film asks - how does Calvin cope with having 'written' his own girlfriend, and, consequently and more interestingly, how does the reality of Ruby compare to his writing, and how does he deal with the moral dilemma of his power to change things by ‘rewriting’ her?

These questions are all explored in Zoe Kazan’s competent and affecting script. It’s interesting that Kazan wrote and starred in the film – there aren’t many good writer-actors out there, and Kazan is certainly shaping up as one of them. Kazan and Dano lift the characters out of the screen and pull the film together with performances that are engaging without ever becoming, as some may worry, overly saccharine.

In fact, it’s a testament to the script and performances that Calvin remains likable throughout the film, even after the surprisingly dark turn the tale takes towards the end.  Which I won’t give away. Ruby Sparks can be read as a fable about the controlling partner, and the metaphor is extended through Calvin’s ability to manipulate Ruby with his typewriter, but Paul Dano manages to pull the sympathy in despite this darker side to the character, and audiences should be smiling by the end of the film.

If there’s one thing I really don’t like about Ruby Sparks, it’s an unusual sequence around the middle of the film, in which Calvin and Ruby visit Calvin’s mother and step-father. There’d been a lovely comment earlier on about how perfect, ‘quirky’ girls don’t exist outside of stories – pointing a knowing finger at that contemporary rom-com category which this effectively falls into. Thus when Calvin creates such a girl it’s so unrealistic that it must be a miracle. But his family, as it turns out, are so over-the-top off-the-rails quirky so as to completely null and void this point that the film had previously been making. With a house patched together from a range of spiritual buildings, they’re like something pulled from an early draft of Meet the Fockers before it was asked to be heavily toned down. There’s absolutely no reason for this; indeed, the family’s very presence is superficial, as they don’t have much effect on Calvin or Ruby and hardly appear again in the film.

So, apart from that unusually rubbish sequence, I liked Ruby Sparks. It’s an intelligent but not study of writing and of relationships and of the similarities between them, but not pretentiously so - it knows it's a rom-com and is an engagingly sleek and light-hearted one at that. Zoe Kazan is a name to look out for.

*Interestingly, only now have I noticed the similarities between Barton Fink and The Shining. That’s an essay for another day.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

On 6.10.12 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments

I didn’t enjoy Stephen Chbosky’s novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower and attributed this partly to the fact that I’m not in its target audience of early teen girls. The other part of the attribution was given to the fact that I found it clumsily written.

Its narration, as a series of letters from high school student Charlie to an anonymous reader, was an inspired device, which helped steer an otherwise conventional story. Through Charlie’s first person experiences as a lonely and socially awkward teen, the novel did manage to treat the usual range of coming-of-age themes, including drugs, abuse, sexuality and suicide, in a mature manner, but for God’s sake, it had too much crying in it. Someone cried on every page. Which got boring. I also find it hard to empathise with the American High School system. All the inviting girls to dances and ball games and words like sophomore. To be honest, some of those probably happen in Britain too, but I’ll have been too busy watching Doctor Who to notice them.

Anyway, this lack of empathy with the American High School system still stands with the new film adaptation, as do my mixed feelings on the story, as this, directed by its author, sticks very close to the source material.

I can, in fact, only think of two differences between the plots of the two versions – and they are probably the main reasons for my positivity regarding the film.  The first is the addition of David Bowie’s Heroes as a major plot point. Despite the strangeness of none of the three main characters having heard the song before, any film that features Bowie so prominently is fine by me and the song is a perfect fit for the two major scenes it appears in. With this and The Smiths appearing once or twice, the soundtrack is one of my favourite things about The Perks.

The other difference is that the film has less crying in it and can go for at least five minutes at times without any tears. Which is a relief.

One problem that results from the straight adaptation is that the framing story becomes neglected. With the novel, the letters actually are the story. In the film, they appear infrequently as a voiceover and it’s easy to forget that they actually are letters, not a generic narration. It’s hard not to feel that the occasional hints to this device are a little pointless.

A strength of the film is the performances. Logan Lerman as Charlie is a promising young star, Emma Watson isn’t bad, and We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Ezra Miller is, well, actually really good. The direction, meanwhile, a few awkward shots aside – somehow the introduction of Emma Watson’s character felt badly shot in a way which drew me out of the story – is competent enough, if not remarkable.

The overall feeling I was left with was that the The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a more competent piece of work than the novel, albeit, due to the neglect of the unusual narrative style, less individual. It’s an enjoyable story, which deals with the issues that teenage people apparently face in a respectable, unpatronising manner, without stepping over the line which the novel skirted into oversentimentality. And it has David Bowie in.
On 6.10.12 by KieronMoore in , , , ,    No comments
A few weeks ago, Radio Five Live's film review show broadcast a special James Bond themed edition featuring the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra playing the best themes from Bond films, as voted on by listeners.  It was, honestly, one of the most enjoyable radio programmes I've heard; accomplished renditions of classic tunes interspersed with Mark Kermode's entertaining-as-ever reviews. Plus, I agreed with the general consensus regarding a musical matter for once - Live and Let Die is indeed the best Bond theme.

And now there's another theme to add to that list - Adele's Skyfall. The song seems to ditch the punchy modern direction of the previous two themes - worked alright for Casino Royale, fell flat for Quantum - and attempt to mimic the style of more classic ballads. With an instance of the word "Skyfall" lasting for 13 seconds and bars of Monty Norman's classic Bond theme riddled throughout, it's certainly the type of song Shirley Bassey would sing. Unfortunately, that's all it is. It's not really an individual piece of music, rather a pastiche of classic Bond, with no punchiness or originality of its own much to make it memorable. I've never been a fan of Adele and this disappointing conservative effort hasn't changed that.

Let's hope the film's a little more exciting. For the series' fiftieth anniversary, Sam Mendes' Skyfall is set to, like the song, hark back to retro Bond styles, but also to keep the pace and grittiness of the previous two Daniel Craig Bonds. To be honest, I am optimistic - the trailers hint at a nice mix of classic Bond wit with the adeptly shot action of Casino Royale and a story less shit than Quantum of Solace, which essentially revolved around a plan to steal a lake. Here's James Bond fighting a train with a digger. Yes, a digger. Bond is back.