Category Archives: Movie Review/s

T2 4k 3D: Crunching The Terminator’s Numbers

Terminator 2: Judgment Day arrived in cinemas in the summer of 1991. Its main competitor was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner (remember him?). I went to see T2 twice at the cinema back then. By the time of the second viewing, I was watching the Soviet Union collapse live on TV news. (There was nervous laughter in the cinema when John Connor said the line about the Russians: “Aren’t they our friends now?”) The film dealt with Cold War fears. Looking at it again in 2017, it was difficult not to think of the current North Korean standoff as images of nuclear destruction flashed up on the screen repeatedly. So, the film’s themes are still relevant.

Just as the film is about time travel, so the film itself now functions like a time machine, taking us back to a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest movie star on the planet. That’s not the case now. He’s been replaced by a bunch of anonymous superheroes who dominate the box office (James Cameron was an early champion of CGI effects and T2 was the first film to use them extensively and effectively. You could argue that it created the tools necessary to bring all these comic book universes to life. Other films like Jurassic Park (1993) and The Mask (1994) consolidated the wow factor of CGI and proved it was here to stay. It reached its creative nadir with George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels which were like expensive cartoons.) Since Arnold’s return from politics, he seems to have lost that cocky charisma of old and looks bored and weary in movies now. He has also struggled to find decent vehicles to star in. Only Escape Plan with pal Sylvester Stallone hinted at a possible new direction for Mr. Schwarzenegger when he got a chance to speak German in a movie for the first time.

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Terminator 2 has none of those problems. Arnold is in his 90s prime and the film has been impressively upgraded to 4k and 3D by Jim Cameron.

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Terminator creator James Cameron

Knowing his technical expertise and perfectionist nature, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill restoration and it isn’t. The sound is incredible with thunderous gunfire and explosions (my ears are still ringing the morning after) and Brad Fiedel’s score gains a new lease of life in the mix. Glaring continuity errors have been corrected by Cameron with great subtlety. Some of the in-camera effects have dated, particularly the puppetry effects but Cameron has wisely allowed them to remain so as not to alter the heart of the film. It is a film from 1991 after all and he clearly didn’t want to get into endless nit-picking of his former work like Mr Lucas did with the Star Wars special editions (Greedo shot first, anyone?).

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Robert Patrick as the T-1000

Cameron got the casting spot-on too. Robert Patrick is a fantastic villain as the liquid metal T-1000. (Cameron didn’t have the money or the CGI to introduce this character in the first Terminator in 1984 and his inclusion makes this sequel one of the best.) Patrick’s wiry physicality and short stature give a David-and-Goliath look to his epic confrontations with the hulking Schwarzenegger.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger with a young Edward Furlong

Edward Furlong in his first film role is a revelation as the troubled, thieving tearaway John Connor. (A big difference from the Messianic future leader we’d heard so much about in the first movie.) His genial interplay with Schwarzenegger is the heart of this movie. Sadly, Furlong got into drugs and missed out on the third Terminator movie because of it and his absence from the series, along with Jim Cameron and Linda Hamilton, was a huge loss (some would say the series has never recovered from that.)

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The Dream Team: Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Eddie Furlong

T2 is at its weakest when it strains for significance, some of it coming across as cloying and the ticking of emotional boxes (Titanic struggled with some of the same issues). Some of the sequences are derivative, particularly the Cyberdyne building sequence which is clearly influenced by Die Hard. Still, Cameron is able to rise above his influences to create something memorable.

If your only reference point for the Terminator franchise is the woeful mess that was Terminator Genisys, I suggest you see Terminator 2 4k 3D on the big screen while you can. It still feels remarkably fresh and original (not hard in a time of comic book movie overload and lazy remakes). The humour hasn’t dated either with the audience laughing throughout at the gentle puncturing of Arnold’s tough image (it’s funnier than any of Schwarzenegger’s so-called comedies.)

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Cameron is hoping to re-release Aliens in 4k 3D, his other “best sequel ever made” and that would be most welcome from what I’ve seen here. He’s also returning to the Terminator franchise to produce a new trilogy of films starring Schwarzenegger (hopefully with Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong back in the mix too to reunite the dream team). Shooting begins on the new movie in early 2018 with the director of Deadpool at the helm. He’ll be back, oh yes, he’ll be back.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

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Fifty Shades Better

The sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey was the big Valentine’s weekend movie for 2017. In it, billionaire Christian Grey renews his S&M relationship with Anastasia Steele. I wasn’t a fan of the first movie. It was a huge missed opportunity. James Foley, director of Glengarry Glen Ross, has replaced the original director and his steadier hand makes for a better movie. There’s a new screenwriter also and it feels dramatically tighter, funnier and just a better movie overall.

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The first Fifty Shades film should have been the Basic Instinct of its generation but it completely wimped out to get a cash-friendly lower age rating. In one scene, Anastasia says to Christian: “Show me how bad it can be” (or words to that effect). He smacks her six times really hard on the ass (anyone who has been near an internet connection in the past two decades will know that that is very, very far from the worst it can get). Ms Steele’s face contorts into floods of tears. “Never do that to me again!” she howls. (She just told him to do it to her! Idiot.) Although this is based on a trilogy of books and they might have needed to pace the franchise. If they had gone full-on in the first one, there’d be little wiggle room left for the sequels.

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Despite being dubbed “mummy porn” by the British press, Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fan fiction. Christian Grey began life on the page as Edward Cullen the vampire. There are flashes of Grey’s dark vampire origins in Fifty Shades Darker. A damaged former submissive of his starts jealously stalking Anastasia Steele, a paradigm of what the future could hold for her if she continues exploring Grey’s “kinky fuckery” with him, as Ms Steele calls it. Grey appears to be an energy vampire, sucking the life out of females that cross his path, destroying them and discarding them. That was good writing there.

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There is inconsistency in the writing of Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades Darker. On the one hand, she’s this ordinary girl who is out of her depth in a naughty relationship with this rich chap. On the other, she’s this ravishing beauty that a billionaire and her boss fight over (Grey even buys the publishing house she works for. Helen of Troy she ain’t), while everyone else tells her she’s the most gorgeous girl in the world. So which is it? Is she a struggling ingénue or this beautiful girl used to such attention all her life? That doesn’t make sense. Then again, the whole thing is a female fantasy and not a documentary. If you’re looking for logic, put on the Discovery Channel.

E.L. James gives her heroine a job in a publishing house. There’s a handy movie job for ya. No research needed there, James already knows the publishing world well. Even so, that whole section isn’t very convincing. It’s lazy writing.

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Julia Roberts as a hooker in Pretty Woman

Fifty Shades peddles a similarly dangerous Pretty Woman notion in that it suggests that getting involved in degrading sex will lead girls to their rich Prince Charming.

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(Kim Basinger appears in Fifty Shades Darker as the baddie. She was also in 9½ Weeks with Mickey Rourke in the 80s; arguably the spiritual movie grandparent of Fifty Shades. That was about a similar kinky relationship and showed the reality of the situation – bondage only leads to more numbing bondage. The woman doesn’t get to change the guy into a vanilla version of his pervy self as happens in Fifty Shades Darker. Strangely, after Christian Grey tones down his act, Anastasia suddenly announces “take me to the Red Room!”, Grey’s whips-and-chains dungeon. This chick doesn’t know what she wants other than wanting to have her cake and eat it too like E.L. James)

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On the other hand, it’s an anti-feminist message to acknowledge that some women enjoy bondage and letting men take control sometimes (some men enjoy it too). To deny it or repress it is censorship and a denial of freedom.

The sex scenes while they are well shot, lit and blocked out, feel perfunctory like the actors are just going through the motions. There’s little eroticism in them, that frisson that elevates the whole thing. Writing sex in books and for the screen can be difficult to do, you’re always going close to the line of humour; too much and it’s a laugh riot, not enough and it’s no good.

So, yes, I’d just about watch a third Fifty Shades movie, but let’s hope there’s not a fourth. We need to stop playing around in the grey areas…

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

 

Film Review: Trainspotting 2

“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…”

– John Cougar Mellencamp, Jack & Diane

“Thou shalt not be middle-aged” could almost be the theme of every review written about the sequel to Trainspotting. The critics moaned that Renton & Co. have gone “mainstream” with “Dad rock anthems” on the soundtrack.

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Like when The Young Ones started singing with Cliff Richard for charity (forgetting that their sitcom started life on the BBC, the very heart of establishment Britain). All the stars of Trainspotting have taken the Hollywood shilling decades ago (Ewan McGregor has done three Star Wars films, Robert Carlyle was a Bond villain, Ewan Bremner will be in the new Wonder Woman movie). There’s nothing wrong with that, most actors are out of work and fair play to any of them that can make a living at it, but these critics are making moot points.

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It’s like a Sex Pistols reunion; same band, same music, same (older) faces but the heart doesn’t pump as angrily as it used to. It can’t really. Johnny Rotten has done butter commercials but we all conform and sell out as we get older as we have more to lose and life’s too damn short. The cold isolation of youth rebellion loses its allure as we crave acceptance and, yes, easy cash (sorry to drop that nugget of reality on ya). Today’s rebel is tomorrow’s leader, that’s the way it always has gone and always will go in the future.

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“I’m 46 and I’m fucked,” Ewan McGregor says at one point in T2. A brave statement, as middle-aged men are meant to be invisible and consigned to life’s scrap heap to await the slow death of retirement. It’s wrong, especially when older men have so much life experience to bring to the table. But nope, ageism is rife in our society, just ask all those talented older guys who can’t get hired because of a number beyond their control. Not only are men of 46 meant to be ignored, movies aren’t meant to be made for them either. You can feel the hostility of the younger critics reviewing the movie towards these older characters and men of that age in general. They almost feel that it would have been better not to have made the movie at all. Films can only be about teens with superpowers for spotty teens with no power at all. That’s your demographic now.

Trainspotting 2 has flaws, sure; director Danny Boyle unwisely uses too many flashbacks of the first movie that begs for comparisons, almost as if he’s desperate to make people like the second one as much. There are snatches of Iggy Pop from the first movie and remixes of other songs from that classic soundtrack, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. There’s even a new riff on McGregor’s classic “choose life” voice-over from the first film. Okay, it doesn’t have the same scathing, anarchic, raging tone and has a mid-life crisis feel about it but it is surreal hearing that same voice addressing things happening now (even if the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been with us for most of the last decade, so it’s not that new.) The George Best references seem out-of-place (Archie Gemmill’s orgasmic goal seems to have lost its allure) along with that “where did it all go wrong?” story Best told on Parkinson donkey’s years ago (see my ageism creeping in reader? Stop it!) It also lacks that razor-sharp, documentary-style deconstruction of detox and the surreal sequences that peppered the original. However, the characters have grown up and gotten over their addictions, even seemingly Spud (we do get a scene of Renton and Sick Boy suddenly shooting up for no apparent reason, again that should’ve been cut but Boyle loses his nerve a little there, giving the audience what they want).

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The most unbelievable thing is the cameo by Kelly McDonald. She played the underage nymphomaniac who went drinking on a school night and slept with Renton minutes after meeting him. We’re supposed to believe that she’s now a convenient, plot point lawyer instead of the mum-of-three on welfare that she almost certainly would’ve been. Still, fans of the original will skip over that and enjoy her appearance.

This isn’t Trainspotting: The Male Menopause Years, though. On the plus side, it’s very, very funny (the audience I saw it with laughed throughout); Renton’s improvised song in a Loyalist club about no Catholics being left after the Battle of the Boyne is probably the best scene in the movie (that, along with the George Best scenes, make it seem more like a Northern Irish film at times).

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As for the characters having lost their balls, Robert Carlyle’s escaped convict Begbie is, if anything, a beast even more fierce now. With a head like a flaming football, Begbie tears through the film like a Celtic Joe Pesci, annihilating anyone and everything that gets in his way (he’s even made out to be like Jack Nicholson in The Shining when he smashes through to where Renton is hiding, sticks his head through the hole and roars at him.) There was a picture of De Niro in Taxi Driver in the first one and the style of Boyle’s flick was pure Marty  Scorsese with narration, freeze-frames and classic rock on the soundtrack. In T2, we get a parody of Raging Bull called Raging Spud.

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Ewan Bremner’s ne’er-do-well Spud is the vulnerable heart of the film and, while Bremner sometimes overdoes Spud’s child-like glare, his character perhaps shows the most progress going from a lonely, suicidal addict at the start to a blossoming man of letters.

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Jonny Lee Miller’s bleach blond Sick Boy returns and, as he’s a bigger star now than he was in 1996, he’s given a lot more to do. He seems to leech off a bit of Begbie’s violent, bullying energy in shouty, showy scenes, maybe they rewrote some of Begbie’s schtick to satisfy his agent.

Queen’s Radio Ga Ga makes a sudden, loud appearance during a trippy scene and this is probably what annoyed those young critics the most. Freddie and the boys are rock royalty and not the edgy, druggy types like Iggy and Lou Reed, but who cares? It’s a great rousing scene. It’s fun. What’s wrong with that?

The script also takes piquant pops at the EU; Renton is greeted on his return to Edinburgh after 20 years away by a Slovenian girl handing out leaflets, Sick Boy is running a blackmail scam with a Bulgarian hooker and the boys get involved in trying to hook up with a £100k EU grant scam. Brexit is the unmentioned ghost at the feast.

Sequels are delicate balancing acts; you have the give the audience something similar to the first one but in a new way. Rehash everything from the first film and the audience will get bored, but go in a totally new direction and it won’t feel like a real, true follow-up. Trainspotting 2 does move the characters on and tries to do something different with them. It updates them while giving us echoes of their past selves and, in that, screenwriter John Hodge does a solid job. It was always going to be a near-impossible task catching lightning in a bottle twice. Danny Boyle acquits himself admirably. He’s too talented a filmmaker to just phone it in.

There’s talk of a Trainspotting 3, and, as I thoroughly enjoyed Trainspotting 2, I’d love to see it happen. The pressure will be off in the threequel and they can wrap things up by making the Trainspotting franchise into a trilogy. I can almost hear those young, angry critics groaning; but that’s life, kids. Choose life.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Trainspotting 2 & The Return of 90s Culture

The 1990s really didn’t kick into gear until 1996. Stock, Aitken & Waterman had dominated the pop charts in the late 80s; by the early 90s they were gone. So was Freddie Mercury and the great Queen hit machine as we knew it. Into this power vacuum flooded a lot of anonymous house music, “rubbishy old dance” records as Cliff Richard dubbed them. The emergence of Take That and East 17 promised a return to steadier pop hits, but I still remember how bad the pop charts got in 1993 and 1994. Things improved in 1995 and then 1996 hit and, suddenly, everything seemed to be happening again.

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One of the gang. Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting

There was the retro Britpop war between Oasis and Blur with Pulp and Suede thrown in for good measure. The Spice Girls burst out of nowhere and George Michael returned with his excellent Older album and two number one hits. Take That were splitting up but Robbie Williams did get his first solo single out (a cover of George Michael’s Freedom ’90) and, despite this inauspicious start, he would confound his critics, pick up the fallen pop star banner and churn out some incredible hits later in the decade. Even Queen released the last singles recorded with Freddie Mercury in ‘96.

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Into this mix landed Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting. Based on Irvine Welsh’s scabrous novel of the same name, it was the movie of the year that everyone was talking about and was voted the best British movie of the last 60 years in a 2012 HMV poll. The title, taken from that old, nerdy British pastime of standing beside train tracks for hours collecting the numbers of trains as they pass, risked putting off potential viewers but it was subversively deceptive. This film crackled with energy from the first second it appeared on screen. It was anything but boring.

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It had that iconic orange poster campaign and that song “Born Slippy” by Underworld that instantly time-stamped it and still does. It captured a mood, a moment and the zeitgeist in a way that films like Fight Club and The Matrix would do later in the 90s. You remember exactly where you were when you saw it. It had the amoral Kubrickian tone of A Clockwork Orange, the freeze-frames and druggy juggernaut pace of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (another classic from 1990) and perhaps the best narration of any film since Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Although it was written and mostly completed before the whole Britpop thing, Trainspotting played right into it as if it were planned. Britain momentarily got its balls back (some would argue they are doing so again with Brexit; an appropriate time for the Trainspotting sequel to appear). It was a case of the Brits saying “anything thing you can do, I can do better” to Hollywood and the US pop charts. Empire magazine looked down on the film in a very British way for this “shameful” aspiration by writing that the film had “its nose pressed up against the glass of Hollywood, desperate for a piece of the action.” (That would come later in the 90s when Ewan McGregor was cast as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace and when Danny Boyle directed Leonardo di Caprio in The Beach, a casting decision that split up the McGregor/Boyle dream team until 2017 with the release of Trainspotting’s sequel T2, a cheeky nod to Terminator 2, another 90s classic).

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Like The Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, another Brit youth culture movie that perfectly captured the time it was made, Trainspotting explodes into action with a breathless street chase on foot (to the pounding drums of “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop. The inclusion of this and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” later, both produced by David Bowie, and the film’s subject matter of drugs, appears to use Bowie’s Berlin period as the film’s spiritual talisman for the themes of death, rebirth and hope Bowie went through both creatively and in his life then. Danny Boyle directed the closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 and featured a clip of Bowie singing “Heroes”, again from his Berlin period. It’s something Boyle revisits again and again in his work.) All the while, Ewan McGregor’s character Renton mouths the film’s nihilistic, punky mission statement in the voice-over as our outlaw protagonists flee from store detectives as they drop most of their stolen items on the ground…

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Thereafter, Renton, despite the use of humour and surrealism, begins the long, depressing slide into heroin addiction. The film pulls no punches. Anyone aspiring to this rebellious lifestyle is left in no doubt about the hellish dangers that await them. There are horrifying cold turkey hallucinations about Sick Boy’s dead baby (whether the model of the baby is meant to look deliberately fake or not is unclear) and the desperately sad way he is dumped in the street alone by his dealer to await the taxi to the hospital when he overdoses. All his so-called “friends” in the gang retreat back into their murky world to save themselves. (There is no honour among thieves here but crime does pay inevitably, two clichés nicely undercut there.) It makes Renton’s determination to save himself at the end understandable and sets up his character arc for the sequel.

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It was reported that Tom Cruise leapt to his feet during a private screening of Trainspotting shouting “this film rocks!” Praise from Caesar which kept the box office fever going, no doubt. Cruise would kick off his Mission: Impossible franchise that summer and the fourth sequel will be with us soon. It seems to be the 1990s all over again suddenly. (It just shows the problem with movies today: they’re all remakes, reboots, sequels, adaptations of old TV shows and/or comic book movies. Studios are playing it safe which is boring. Would Trainspotting get the green light to go into production today? Probably not. It’s the reason the 1970s is the best movie decade and always will be. New stories and new talent were given their head and the results were astonishing; The Godfather I & II, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Dog Day Afternoon and on and on. Those mature, morally-complex classics with their anti-heroes and downbeat endings would be too dark and confusing for foreign markets and gamer kids now. It’s all reheated, dumbed-down, hyperactively-edited drivel. Film companies aren’t prepared to take risks on new ideas unless they come pre-packaged with a built-in audience from a TV show or comic book. Ridley Scott bucked the trend by adapting the self-published novel The Martian into the movie with Matt Damon. This is what Hollywood should be doing to recapture the Golden Age again. Find those great writers and stories that are hidden out there and back them up with financing.

I was in the middle of my two-year acting course in 1996 and Trainspotting confirmed how exciting the art form I had chosen as a possible career was becoming. I would act with two of Trainspotting’s stars; Robert Carlyle (aka Begbie) in Angela’s Ashes and Jonny Lee Miller (aks Sick Boy) in The Escapist, both of which were shot in Dublin. I was doing a scene in Angela’s Ashes where Robert Carlyle is going to England looking for work. Unbeknownst to me, they had put Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson behind me in the train queue. I was having an animated discussion with someone and looked around to see those two familiar faces staring at me and I was struck dumb (as I usually am when I meet stars.) Jonny Lee Miller kept to himself all day on the set of The Escapist in Mountjoy Prison as he stayed in character. I played a prison officer, my one and only acting credit to date (more to come on that in 2017 with speaking parts in the ITV courtroom drama Innocent and TV3 show Assassins.) It was my little brush with Trainspotting and now the sequel is with us.

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Will it capture the mood of the time again? Doubtful, but a lot of middle-aged young pups from the 90s will be showing up at the cinema to try and recapture their youth and the cherry high of the first film.

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If it doesn’t have a cape and superpowers, today’s kids ain’t interested. They’re hungrily waiting for the next string of sausages from the Marvel machine, not some edgy junkie movie from Edinburgh. It’s their loss.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Loving The Alien

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Star Wars is the fairy story and I was going to do The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction,” said director Ridley Scott about Alien (1979).

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Director Ridley Scott on the set of Alien with Sigourney Weaver.

There were vague suggestions in the script as to what the creature looked like. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gave Scott a 1978 book by Swiss conceptual artist H.R. Giger titled Necronomicon. Giger had an incredible and unique surreal style with pages and pages of grey, suffocating, biomechanical erotica. When Scott saw one of the many creatures in Giger’s book, he knew he had found his monster.

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Hans Ruedi Giger at work

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The creature collapses many of our darkest sexual fears into one beast; its phallic head and tail, its erectile teeth and slavering mouth with two sets of jaws that recalled the vagina dentata (the folk myth of toothed female genitalia that goes back as far as Ancient Greece). So the creature was at once alien yet oddly familiar in subtle, subconscious ways.

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The alien has a life cycle straight out of a biology book. The creature begins life as one of the many eggs Kane (John Hurt) finds on the alien planet, the face-hugger leaps out of the egg, wraps itself around his head and implants its seed inside his throat (the first of several oral rapes in the film; Ash the android later malfunctions and tries to shove a rolled-up porn magazine into the mouth of Sigourney Weaver’s heroine Ripley). The writers apparently based this on a species of African wasp which lays its eggs underneath the skin of humans. The alien “foetus” grows inside Kane until it explodes out of him as the chest-burster and hides out in the ventilation shafts of the vast Nostromo spacecraft. The alien rapidly sheds its skin like a snake and grows in size to become the eight-foot tall adult.

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Perhaps because Ridley Scott is British, there’s a class element to the hierarchy on board the Nostromo spacecraft. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee says Scott uses “stepdown imagery” in the living quarters to make it seem blue-collar; mementoes like the shot glass with the toy bird pecking in it and family photographs show us a crew of interstellar truck drivers light years from home, missing loved ones and complaining about pay and conditions.

It has been said that Alien, like the slasher movies that were popular around the same time, stole the plot of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians where a group of characters are confined in one place and get bumped off one by one. Where the slasher movies and Alien inverted that structure was a plot device called The Final Girl – the female survivor who outlives her peer group and kills the monster or appears to. Ripley is the final girl in Alien. The key difference is that slasher films are set on earth with friends, family, neighbours or the police to call on for help. Ripley is totally alone in the depths of space and working for a company who think she’s expendable. There are no humans around for millions of miles and no one to hear her scream, which made it infinitely scarier.

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Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is credited with creating the genre of science fiction with her 1818 novel Frankenstein. The feminist theme of that book is that when men create life, they create monsters and Alien essentially has the same theme as the creature is born of man. So Alien is a very clever reworking and reinvention of basic horror and sci-fi themes for a modern audience.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Star Wars – Empire Under Construction

Narrative theory is the academic idea begun by the Russian scholars Todorov and Propp and continued later by the American Joseph Campbell, that the same archetypes and story motifs and narrative structures appear repeatedly in fairytales and folktales in every culture.

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With Star Wars everywhere in the news this week following the release of Rogue One and the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, let’s take a look at narrative theory through the example of Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. It was written and directed by George Lucas and released in 1977. It’s a science fiction film even though it takes from every genre; Arthurian legend (the Jedi knights are similar to King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Merlin-like figure who gives Luke a laser sword similar to Excalibur), Japanese Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress (1958) (Lucas said: “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.” Darth Vader’s helmet is also supposed to resemble a Samurai’s.)

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Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) and Harrison Ford in Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars also evokes American Westerns (Han Solo is dressed exactly like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the cowboy hat.The raucous, violent canteen is like a Western saloon and the destruction of Luke’s home and family is very like The Searchers) and World War II movies (Darth Vader’s helmet also resembles a Nazi helmet, the Empire’s troops are called Stormtroopers just as Hitler’s were and the dogfights in outer space are like Second World War aerial battles. Lucas even edited World War II dogfight footage into an early rough cut of Star Wars as a guide before the special effects were ready.)

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Lucas had tried and failed to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, yet he retained the opening exposition crawl from the start of the old 1930s Buster Crabbe/Flash Gordon serials for Star Wars.

Here are Propp’s archetypes in Star Wars:

Hero – Luke Skywalker

Donor – Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his lightsaber.

Helper – Han Solo, Chewbacca and the droids

Princess – Leia

Her Father – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

False Hero – There is no obvious false hero in the Star Wars – Episode IV. It appears to be Han Solo, who selfishly refuses to take part in the crucial assault on the Death Star but he redeems himself in a last-minute twist by saving Luke’s life and neutralising the threat of Darth Vader which gives Luke time to destroy the Death Star.

Dispatcher – I believe it’s Leia; she puts the distress hologram inside R2-D2. This sends the droid on his mission which reactivates Obi-Wan who activates Luke as the hero.

For me, the structure is this;

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Act I – Hidden Fortress meets The Searchers

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Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare (1968)
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Han Solo and Luke Skywalker similarly dressed as the enemy in the Death Star

Act II – Where Eagles Dare (Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton disguise themselves as Nazis to infiltrate a German fortress on a mountaintop just as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker disguise themselves as the enemy to get around the Death Star)

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Act III – The Dambusters (Lucas hired British cinematographer Gil Taylor to shoot Star Wars and he had done special effects photography on the 1955 British film The Dam Busters. The assault on the Death Star at the end is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the bombing of the German dams at the finale of The Dam Busters.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Star Wars © Lucasfilm Ltd.

       

Negotiating The Godfather

 

Godfather Cat Red

There is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. It’s not the opening scene which perfectly establishes the power and darkness of Marlon Brando’s Godfather Vito Corleone and the tone of the film and the resulting trilogy. It isn’t one of the many classic lines; “I believe in America!” “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,”, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again…ever.” (a line which foreshadows Michael Corleone’s murder of his brother and eventual moral downfall as he destroys his own family). It’s not the big, showy assassination scenes or the unforgettable minor characters that are patiently sketched out. I could go on listing all the many examples of masterpiece writing.

Godfather Negotiates With Sollozo

The scene I’m referring to is the subtle and under-appreciated negotiation scene with thug-on-the-rise Virgil Sollozzo a.k.a. The Turk. Brando’s Godfather is there as is his son Sonny (James Caan) and two of their henchmen with The Turk at the negotiating table. It is a verbal game of cards with everyone keeping their opinions close to their chests and giving nothing away. It is the 1940s just after World War II. The Turk wants money from the Corleone family to set up a drug-dealing operation (after the Prohibition booze boom of the the 30s, drugs would be the next one for organised crime) which is “infamita” and unacceptable to Brando’s Godfather. This frustrates The Turk and also Corleone’s son who can see the huge opportunity to get in early to the drugs market and make vast profits.

Godfather Sollozzo

The Turk offers a sweetener that rival mob family The Tattaglias will guarantee the Corleone family’s investment. Hot-headed Sonny foolishly puts all his cards on the table and reveals an eagerness for the deal. “Wait a minute,” Sonny says, “are you telling me that The Tattaglias will guarantee our investment?” There are subtle reaction shots from everyone around the table. It’s a huge mistake and all of them know it immediately. The Godfather tries to reprimand his son and makes apologies for his rashness but it is too late. A division in the family is now revealed and Sollozzo can start to take lethal action to get his deal.

Godfather Tries To Stop Sonny

That one line will change the course of the rest of the movie and the other two films that follow. It will result in the death of Sonny Corelone, the attempted murder of his father Vito, the exile of his brother Michael (Al Pacino) to Sicily for taking revenge on Sollozzo and a crooked cop and Michael’s subsequent merciless rise to power on his return, the near-destruction of The Corleone family and an all-out war between the five Mafia families.

Godfather Assassination Attempt

 

Godfather Sonny Shot

Sonny dies before most of these things happen, so he never sees the full consequences of his actions, but we don’t in life. We see some of them, but never all. Another nice touch in the screenplay. The Corleone family are clearly based on the Kennedy clan and their rise from immigrant obscurity to power and success in America with help from organised crime. There then followed assassinations and an unbelievable litany of tragedies just like the Corleones endure. No wonder Americans lapped up  The Godfather in the early 70s; they were watching their own history writ large with the drama bringing them even closer inside it.

The Sollozzo negotiation scene is rarely commented upon but it is masterful in its execution. Sonny’s unthinking rage is the Achilles heel of the Corleone family, a thread sticking out of a quilt that is gently tugged upon to start the whole thing unravelling. A superb piece of writing that, in a movie that is all about strength and power, reveals a realistic human frailty. The moment is even foreshadowed by Brando who says: “Women and children can be careless but never men.” A great deal of clever planning has gone into the script’s epic construction by Coppola and Mario Puzo based on Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name. It rightly won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Text: © Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved

The Godfather © Paramount Pictures

Hollywood’s Statement of Individuality

George Carlin Quote

[SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie 12 Years A Slave yet, come back and read this when you have.]

The central tenet of all American movies is this: individual righteousness is more important than the group ethic. You’ll see it in everything from the Planet of the Apes series to the Jason Bourne movies to Schindler’s List. If your peers or superiors tell you to do something that you find morally wrong, then, however serious the consequences, you must do what is right by your own code of ethics. A surprising message from the United States.

12-years-a-slave Poster

That message popped up again in the superb 12 Years A Slave that I watched for the first time last night. I had avoided it as I thought it was going to beat me over the head with a message about race (as some slave dramas can do hysterically). With race playing so heavily in any slavery story, it is tempting to simplify everything into black and white with all whites portrayed as evil sadists and all blacks being innocent victims. Slavery, like all human constructs, was complex. Whites and blacks did things we would expect of them but also things we would not. By following Solomon Northup’s eyewitness testimony of the time from his 1853 book of the same name, 12 Years A Slave avoids pouring 21st century clichés and misconceptions into the script. It shows great subtlety and fairness in allowing light and shade in both the slaves and slavers and that is part of the film’s greatness.

The racial element is sometimes overstated in slavery tales, at its heart it was the rich exploiting the poor for monetary gain. That’s an ancient story in a different guise for a new time.

The script by John Ridley is superb. Using the language of the time (“until freedom is opportune!” “melancholia”) also brings realism to proceedings. Steve McQueen brings a lightness of touch to the direction of the piece.

White women come off particularly badly in the movie. They appear as manipulative, bloodthirsty Salome/Lady Macbeth types, demanding punishment of others from their men and getting it. The subtext appears to be, when supposedly caring, maternal females in a society are that cruel and malicious, what hope is there for the men? None, it would seem. Shakespeare got that spot on and the idea works well again here.

Brad Pitt With Solomon

While Solomon is tricked into slavery by unscrupulous white men, it is a white man (hello Mr Self-Conscious Liberal and producer Brad Pitt) who gets his letter out to the North and starts the process of freedom for him. Pitt’s character is a Canadian carpenter working for Fassbender’s slave-driver Epps. Even though it would be financially beneficial to go along with slavery and profit from it, Pitt chooses to sabotage it and go his own individual way despite peer pressure from Epps.

The poster has Solomon running and I assumed he was going to become a runaway slave and kept waiting for the moment when he would make his momentous break for freedom. Surprisingly, once his pre-slavery identity is established, Solomon’s release comes through legal means that the white people abide by. There is no big action scene full of suspense as Solomon flees cross-country to reach the safety of the northern states. It is strangely anticlimactic but it is the twist in the tale as the film reminds us that he was one of the few people legally freed.

Solomon Is Freed

When 12 Years A Slave swept the board at the Oscars, some might have thought that the Academy was being politically-correct but the film and those involved in it deserved every award. Lupita Nyong’o is superb as the young female slave Patsey. Raped, beaten and the victim of a bloody, Christ-like flogging from her vile master Edwin Epps (another excellent performance from Michael Fassbender), the young model-turned-actress gives an astonishing, harrowing performance. There isn’t one false note in it. Lupita is one to watch for the future.

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Actress Lupita Nyong’o accepts the Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role award for ’12 Years a Slave’ onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Kevin Winter/Getty Images/AFP

12 Years A Slave is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, right up there with Schindler’s List. Great movies stay with you for days after seeing them. In an age of ubiquitous bubblegum superhero movies that lose their flavour as you’re watching them, that is rare. Comic book movies celebrate violence without responsibility, 12 Years A Slave shows the reality of how violence brutalises everyone involved. With school shootings so common, that’s the message we need to get out to today’s kids more than ever.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Close Encounters of the Terrifying Kind

Many things scare us. When it comes to stories, whether it’s books or movies, we’re being manipulated into being afraid. So it helps to have many levels of sell. There’s the obvious thing we’re scared of like alien creatures or zombies. Then there’s the subliminal things that may not register at first.

Close Encounters Crowd In Light

I saw Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind when I was six years old. I didn’t understand a lot of it like the significance of the missing Bermuda Triangle Flight 19 reappearing in the desert 32 years after vanishing.

Flight 19

Dreyfuss Alone

I also found the Richard Dreyfuss character’s peculiar behaviour confusing. Today, being an adult who has lived through a global recession, I understand exactly the pressures the Dreyfuss character was under.

Burnett Guffey

There were many scenes I found scary. The obvious scare was the little blond boy being abducted from his room by aliens as his screaming mother loses her grip on him (tapping into every child’s nightmare of being taken away from their mother). The scene that really scared me though was when Richard Dreyfuss gets in the shower with his clothes on and slides to the ground crying.

Shocked Dreyfuss Kids

His son sees it and calls him a cry baby. That really made me worry for the protagonist and his family. In a film full of fantastic visuals and scares, it grounded the film beautifully in harsh realism. It was tapping into the other childhood fear that the father, the head of the family, would lose control of himself and the family’s future. So Close Encounters has its visual scares (the aliens) and its psychological kicker (fear of the unknown).

tarman-560

Zombies also have a surface fear and a more profound one playing under the decaying skin on display. The packs of ravenous zombies are frightening (one newspaper branded the zombie the official fantasy creature of the recession!). What is more frightening however is the fear of the unknown they represent. In a zombie apocalypse, everything you know is changing; you don’t know why it’s changing, you don’t know what it’s changing into and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Just like Close Encounters, zombie movies regress us to a state of infantile powerlessness (which is perhaps why monsters in movies are usually huge with big teeth, the same way our parents appeared to us when we were toothless babies.)

Day-of-the-Dead-1985-FilmCap

The best writers know how to layer in subtext to give deeper meaning to what was once B-movie material. It is perhaps one reason why fantasy and science fiction movies are now being nominated for and winning Academy Awards in all the major categories, something that was once unheard of and is a refreshing change.

(To read more of my writing on a similar subject click here)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Dark Valentine: My Relationship with “Silence of the Lambs” On Its 25th Anniversary

On Valentine’s Day 1991, The Silence of the Lambs had its premiere in New York. It took several months to reach the other side of the Atlantic and didn’t open in Dublin until May 1991 – a particularly dull, chilly month. It was one of those event movies that everyone says you have to see. As with The Exorcist and Fatal Attraction, it dominated the media for weeks. There were TV panel discussions on the hysteria for this new phenomenon – the serial killer (they were common or garden psychopaths before that.) It was the last film that I missed out on seeing because the cinema was full. With so many multiplexes everywhere, you get in to see whatever film you want now. Having to make a second attempt to join the lengthy queue and get in made it more enjoyable, I found.

manhunterThe other Hannibal movie from five years earlier, Manhunter, got a boost from the huge success of Silence. It had slipped under the radar pretty much as there were no big names starring in it. People caught up with it in 1991 and a new fanbase for that film emerged. It’s also superb.

LecterI found my seat in the auditorium and the lights went down. I had no idea what I’d let myself in for. I saw Silence in the Savoy, at the time the biggest screen in Dublin. Silence features extreme close-ups of the faces of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as they stare directly into camera at each other but also at the audience. Audiences are used to being voyeurs and watching the actors, not having them stare back. As Lecter unpicks Starling’s psyche, he does the same to the audience. I felt like a baby in a pram with these massive faces looming down at me. I was pressing back into my chair to get away from them. That’s never happened to me with any other movie before or since. On television, with the faces shrunk, it has none of that power (if you ever get the chance to see Silence of the Lambs on the big screen, take it.)

That wintry May in Dublin was significant, as I can’t think of another movie that depicts the ravages of winter so well. The first sound you hear is the clarinet of Howard Shore’s brilliant score. It sounds like birdsong and then you hear it again. It perfectly sets the scene as we see FBI trainee Clarice Starling jogging alone on a deserted assault course with brown Autumn leaves still in evidence. The film later shows what winter does to the soft flesh of a dumped female victim in the mortuary scene.

Clarice-surrounded

Unusually, for a film written, produced and directed by men, it has a pro-feminist bent. The males, like Doctor Chilton and Miggs, are all sleazy pervs to a man who only want get into Clarice’s pants (even Hannibal has a go at innuendo until he’s put in his place by Clarice). This is not just a serial killer thriller (although you get your fix of that too). It touched on many important themes that movies in the early 90s just didn’t; gender, sexuality, the relationship between fathers and daughters, even how we judge people based on their height. You got your criminal profiling layer too. Despite Clarice saying that “transsexuals are very passive,” the movie (along with Basic Instinct in 1992) was picketed by LGBT groups. It was a tradition dating back to Psycho to have a “deviant” villain.  It’s one reason Silence of the Lambs could never be made today in the form its in right now, which makes it such an honest film. Director Jonathan Demme agreed with the protestors and made the apologetic Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer dying of AIDS. Demme won the Academy Award for Silence as best director but his career since has been patchy to say the least.

Clarice Pointing Gun

You could see the film as a battle for the soul of Clarice Starling between the “good” father figure, her boss Jack Crawford, and the “bad” father figure, Hannibal Lecter. Clarice has to break free of them and her childhood trauma (her policeman father was murdered and the killer never found) and grow up and become a woman in her own right.

Clarice with Lamb

The sound design is brilliant; just listen to how the sound grows more menacing as Clarice Starling essentially enters into the bowels of Hell to confront Hannibal Lecter in his plexiglass cell. There are atonal, womb-like noises. It’s got probably the most effective sound design since Alien in 1979 which does a similar job of setting the scene and unnerving the audience.

Hannibal Dungeon

The rich photography by Demme regular Tak Fujimoto is exemplary, particularly the ending in the basement with no light during Clarice’s fight-to-the-death with the serial killer Buffalo Bill. (Every woman in the audience screamed when Bill reached out to touch Clarice’s hair when she couldn’t see him in the pitch darkness.)

Ted Levine

Ted Levine played Buffalo Bill in the movie and he is probably the unsung hero of the whole thing, not even being Oscar-nominated for his terrifying performance while everyone else won Academy Awards.

The-Elephant-Man

There are so many great lines of dialogue. Anthony Hopkins had given up on a Hollywood career and moved back to the UK to appear in theatre. Hopkins got a call in his dressing room from his agent saying there was a script called Silence of the Lambs and would he take a look at it. Hopkins thought it was a children’s film based on the title alone. Director Jonathan Demme came to see him and offered him the part because he’d seen him play an intelligent doctor with a heart in The Elephant Man. Even though Anthony Hopkins is only in Silence of the Lambs for around 14 minutes, he dominates the whole thing, even when he’s offscreen. It won him the Oscar and changed his life and career.

Silence Oscars

Indeed, the film became only the third film after It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to win all five big Oscars – Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Adapted). To date, it is the only horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. That was an incredible achievement at the time and it only grows even more impressive as the years go on.

Hannibal 2001

There have been other Hannibal books and movies (the sequel Hannibal opened on Valentine’s Day 2001, exactly 10 years later. 2001 was appropriate as Hopkins had based the voice of Hannibal on Hal, the computer from Kubrick’s 2001). None of the new material ever really recaptured the greatness of Silence of the Lambs. It is one of the best thrillers ever made with career-bests from all those involved on every level. There are great twists that you don’t see coming. Even that ending, which refuses to tie things up in a neat bow is daring (it so freaked out one couple in America, that they apparently refused to leave the cinema afterwards). It’s got everything you could ask for really. So, this Valentine’s Day, when you get sick of all the predictable rom-coms, put on that magnificent dark Valentine, The Silence of the Lambs, and luxuriate in a masterclass of acting, filmmaking, screenwriting, photography and production, sound and costume design. You will never see its like again.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.