Monthly Archives: May 2016

Sunshine

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: The Sun is dying, and the Earth’s last, best hope lies with the eight-strong crew of the Icarus II. As the crew fly ever closer to the Sun in order to deploy their massive bomb, they come face to face with their own demons and the consequences of their mistakes; not only that, but they also stumble across the crew of the first Icarus, presumed lost many months before.

British director Danny Boyle is undoubtedly a man of great range, talent and vision. The evidence has stacked up all the way from Trainspotting to 28 Days Later to his Oscar-Laden Slumdog Millionaire and the critically acclaimed 127 Hours. But – and he’s by no means alone in this – he has sometimes failed to find audiences for his movies, for example A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach or Millions. While this bold Science Fiction effort has its fans, it has to go down as a chin-scratcher, rather than a blockbuster.

It’s 2057 and the future of humanity is threatened by a dying Sun. Seven years previously, the crew of the Icarus embarked on the long voyage to re-ignite the heart of the star with a ‘stellar bomb;’ but the ship disappeared without trace, and now the Icarus II is sixteen months into its own voyage, about to lose communication with a planet that depends utterly on the mission’s success.

The crew are protected by a super-intelligent computer also called Icarus, but even though Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) keeps a cool head, they are not a completely harmonious bunch: spiritualist Searle (Cliff Curtis) is fascinated by the Sun’s rays; Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) loves her garden room, supplying vital oxygen for the mission; Cassie (Rose Byrne) feels everyone’s pain; Harvey (Troy Garity) struggles to assert his authority; and Trey (Benedict Wong) is just terrified of doing the wrong thing. Then there’s impulsive Mace and Zen-like Capa (Chris Evans and Cillian Murphy), fire and ice in their approach to the mission.

As the ship approaches Mercury, the crew are astounded to hear the distress call of the first Icarus, giving them a painful decision – do they ignore it, or do they try to reach their sister ship? Mace is all for carrying on regardless, but Capa insists that a second bomb would give a much better chance of success, so they change course. However, the decision almost immediately has terrible consequences, and with the destruction of Corazon’s oxygen-supplying plants, there are more agonising moral decisions to make. What’s more, though the Icarus seems as deserted as the Marie Celeste, not all of the crew have withered away in the face of the Sun’s extraordinary power.

Sunshine is perfectly aware that it’s following in the footsteps of some awfully big space boots, yet – to give it its due – gives it a go anyway. Taking the atmospheric isolation of Alien and marrying it with the balletic, philosophical, epic quality of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine also has a touch of the sacrificial themes of doomed-planet movies Deep Impact and Armageddon (I don’t mention Solaris, Event Horizon or Silent Runnings because I haven’t seen them yet).

Topped off with some astounding, glowing visuals reminiscent of The Fountain, it all makes for a heady mixture; but regrettably, the brew is more disorientating than intoxicating. Sunshine begins as a claustrophobic film about the loneliness and despair of a hopeless mission in deep space, develops into a trippy mood piece much influenced by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark (Icarus is a few generations down the road from HAL, and shares the same authoritarian attitude), then concludes with a disappointing and disjointed finale as a monster is unleashed and begins to menace (what’s left of) the crew.

Had Boyle and writer Alex Garland stuck to making one kind of movie or the other, the result would have been derivative but consistent; as it is, the viewer is pulled in several directions at once, rarely a comfortable or rewarding experience. Any tension that the film’s troubling maths creates – there’s enough oxygen for four, and five on board – is utterly swept away by the frantic climax, during which it’s often hard to tell what’s going on.

The film’s not helped by the fact that – in true 2001 fashion – the crew are a boring, anonymous bunch, except for Capa and Mace. Capa is intriguing, largely because of Cillian Murphy’s innate other-worldliness, his calmness thrown into sharp relief by Chris Evans’ Mace, a right-thinking hothead who is the latest in a series of Chris Evans hotheads. Sunshine hardly gives us anyone to latch on to, and the film flounders, unable to summon 2001‘s sense of significance, becoming lost in a wave of hip but confused sights and sounds. It seems absurd to contrast the characters with Michael Bay’s one-dimensional stereotypes, but at least Harry Stamper et al had spark and gusto, a smidgen of humour.

Also, the more pedantic viewer is entitled to ask pertinent questions of the film, not least ‘What’s up [ha ha] with the gravity?’ If you care to read up on the film, you’ll learn that the actors did an enormous amount of preparation, including experiencing weightlessness. God knows why, when as soon as they step inside the ship, the astronauts might as well be walking around their own front rooms.

Film students will get plenty out of Sunshine. There‘s a good game of Spot the Influence to be played, and amongst the borrowed ideas Boyle does come up with some truly arresting visuals, backed up by a groovy soundtrack. However, none of this is enough to sustain interest in a film that starts brightly and always looks and sounds the part, but never convinces that it knows what story it’s telling. Sorry, Sunshine, but you’re not for me.

Caligula

WFTB Score: 1/20

The plot: Lusty young prince Gaius Caligula Caesar becomes emperor of Rome – effectively leader of the world – under suspicious circumstances. The power immediately goes to his already half-crazed head and he instigates a series of mad schemes, all the while turning on anyone he suspects of conspiring against him.

I never usually feel the need to justify my film-buying or watching practices, but I will make an exception for Caligula, which was nestled between Toy Story and Anastasia in the videos of a charity shop. The film had a certain notoriety so I thought I’d give it a go, and besides, it was only 25p. Upon viewing, the price turns out to be at least 20 pence too much.

It’s the 1st Century A.D. and Malcolm McDowell is Caligula (‘little boots’), the young adoptive grandson of rancid Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole). Tiberius is approaching the end of his life but clinging on, and indicating that he might prefer his natural grandson Gemellus (Bruno Brive) to succeed him (if attempting to poison Caligula can be called an indication). With the murderous intervention of his friend Macro (Guido Mannari) Caligula does become Emperor, and his first act – prompted by his sister Drusilla, with whom he is sexually involved – is to have Macro arrested for the murder.

Drusilla also prompts Caligula to take a wife and he chooses the slatternly Caesonia (Helen Mirren); but despite his God-like power over the people of Rome and therefore the entire world, events do not turn always turn out in his favour as Caesonia bears him a daughter (which he declares a son anyway) and Drusilla succumbs to a fever. Taking the death badly, Caligula’s insane schemes escalate to the point where he is marching his army into the sea and prostituting senators’ wives. But who will put an end to them? Surely not little boots’ ineffectual Uncle Claudius (Giancarlo Badessi)?

If someone like John Nash can have a biopic, then barmy Roman Emperor Caligula certainly can, and you would expect it to contain a certain amount of debauchery. The original version of Caligula (so I read) certainly lived up to the description, the out-of-control hedonism of Tinto Brass’s filming spiced up with graphic (but utterly gratuitous) sex scenes shot by Penthouse owner Bob Guccione. I do not have that version, but from the footage that remains in the cut-down version I have, I can only imagine that it was a horrible, horrible film: not just – not even principally – because of the subject matter and the acts displayed, but because it is a sequence of poorly-lit, out of focus, badly-filmed scenes in empty papier-maché sets, which are incoherent at the same time as being utterly predictable – guess what happens to Caligula at the end of the film?

Cutting the film to about 100 minutes by removing most of the graphic sex and violence does not make the film any less unpleasant. Editing has been carried out by ‘The Production’, presumably by the film stock being thrown up in the air and spliced back together at random, meaning that scenes are confused and riddled with continuity errors to such an extent that much of it is nonsensical. By the way, those looking for titillation are likely to be disappointed as the nearest Caligula comes to sexy is by way of a bit of gentle necrophilia.

Remarkably, there is the germ of a good film contained within the mess. McDowell brings the same intensity to the role of the Emperor as he did to Alex in A Clockwork Orange, and the mainly British cast at least try to act (John Gielgud, playing Tiberius’ advisor Nerva, is lucky: he commits suicide early on). In the script too – much argued over between Brass and Gore Vidal – there is much potential for interest, as someone who is treated like a God, with the terrible example shown by Tiberius, is surely going to think himself a God and act as one; but we never get to examine Caligula in that much depth as the film sickeningly lurches from one random nastiness to the next (except, of course, in this version, the nastiness never actually happens). All you are left with is McDowell exhibiting delight in his madness. And while McDowell seems to be having a lot of fun, it’s incredibly boring for the rest of us.

I don’t believe that anything created by the informed, rational and free will of adult participants should be censored from being viewed by other adults. There is much that goes on in cinema that isn’t to my taste (Adam Sandler films, for a start) but criticism has to transcend, as far as it can, personal preferences and dislikes. However, watching Caligula doesn’t come down to a matter of taste, or objections on a moral level: in aesthetic, technical, and narrative terms, amongst many others, it’s simply awful.

Cabaret

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: In 1930s Berlin, cabaret singer Sally Bowles makes her living at the decadent Kit Kat Klub but dreams of film stardom. Naive young teacher Brian Roberts comes into her life and the pair start an unlikely romance, and although the appearance of debonair hedonist Maximilian turns both their heads, the rising threat from violent forces in Germany puts their personal dramas into stark contrast.

Filmmakers desirous of Academy Award recognition could do much worse than picking up a Kander and Ebb musical. In 2002, Chicago won no less than six Oscars; and thirty years before, Cabaret earned eight, though not Best Picture, from ten nominations. As everyone knows from bitter experience, winning statuettes is no guide to quality (English Patient, I’m looking directly at you), so does this adaptation deserve the praise it received on release?

I should point out immediately that I have little acquaintance with the stage musical, so can’t comment too much on the extensive changes made to accommodate the story’s transfer to film and having Liza Minnelli as the star (Sally Bowles is, predictably, no longer English!); this review will therefore be on the merits – or otherwise – of the film on its own terms.

Cabaret opens in the Kit Kat Klub in 1931, a venue where the audience is as strange as the entertainment: mud wrestling, burlesque drag shows and musical numbers, all overseen by the impish Emcee (Joel Grey). Liza is singer Sally Bowles, belting out songs and revelling in the ‘anything goes’ atmosphere of Berlin, but struggling to pay her rent at a downmarket boarding house where bashful language teacher Brian (Michael York) pitches up, looking for lodgings.

Brian takes a room but spurns Sally’s advances on the grounds that he prefers the company of men, until her vulnerability overwhelms him and the two become a couple. It’s a shaky relationship, however, and the lure and lucre of suave Baron Maximilian (Helmut Griem) sweeps Sally off her feet. Little does she know that the purpose of Max’s invitation to his country estate is not merely to seduce her… Meanwhile, two of Brian’s students, penniless Fritz and wealthy Natalia (Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berenson), fall in love; but they are prey to the increasing prominence of the National Socialist Party as Natalia is Jewish. Little does she know that her paramour is also a Jew, hiding his faith in order to retain friends in an ever-more hostile environment. The fun and games at the Klub, and the progressive life lived by Sally and Brian, become ever more desperate as the Nazis – once unceremoniously shown the door – begin to assert their power.

The story of Cabaret has that blend of an intimate personal tale (Sally falls pregnant – what is she to do?) with a universal, and historically important, drama that the Academy love to reward, although in some ways Cabaret falls short as a piece of film-making: there is some clumsy editing and a number of odd close-ups, while the final scene is also pretty ineffective (recent stage versions have been much punchier about the Nazis taking control).

Also, the use of music is patchy, director Bob Fosse allowing a long time to pass between songs and choosing not to integrate them into the story (except for the Nazi Youth song ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’, all the songs take place on stage in semi-abstract fashion). The story itself feels incomplete, too, as only Brian is really given a satisfactory introduction and exit; Sally is left to perform at the KKK while it lasts, Max disappears altogether, and though we are asked to care deeply for Fritz and Natalia, we have no idea whether they escape to happier lives or get caught up in Hitler’s ghastly politics.

Nonetheless, Cabaret largely succeeds because it is a strikingly individual film. The central relationship is essentially a very unhappy one, yet there is something in its frankness that is both admirable and strangely compelling; York is believable as the callow Englishman and Minnelli excellent as Sally Bowles, confident and carefree on the outside but internally conflicted and desperate for approval. She sings the song ‘Maybe This Time’ with wonderful emotion, which more than compensates for the fact that she is clearly not a natural dancer. Joel Grey’s ashen-faced, alien Emcee epitomises the painted smiles and forced jollity of 1930s-era Germany (the period detail of which is also well realised), and Fosse’s direction emphasises the grotesque nature of events, juxtaposing comedy with brown-shirted brutality.

In many ways Cabaret is very ugly, with the camera pointed up the noses of the braying audience and highlighting the shoddiness of the entertainment (such as Emcee singing to a gorilla), but this is obviously a deliberate decision and one that gives the film a seedy power as it shows the creeping horror of the rise of National Socialism, and asks us to consider whether the depravity of the Kit Kat Klub is really a lesser evil.

As far as the music goes, the decision to limit the number and frequency of songs is slightly disappointing, but the ones that appear are lively, amusing and rather more varied in character than Chicago’s, songs such as ‘Money, Money’ and ‘Two Ladies’ giving Grey a chance to act up a treat and Fosse to go wild as choreographer; the style of the dancing is unmistakeably his, with posed limbs and stretched legs much in evidence, and helps add to the decadent feel of the Kit Kat Klub, a venue you’re fascinated to get a glimpse of but wouldn’t necessarily want to visit.

I’ve no doubt that Cabaret is a film of the ‘love it or hate it’ variety, since its location and characters are both decidedly murky (not to labour the point, but Rob Marshall’s Chicago shines like a new pin in comparison with the smoky, frayed ambience found here) and despite Emcee’s initial invitation there is almost nothing welcoming or cosy about his cabaret. The film has too many faults to be considered a classic, and it’s not in the least surprising that it lost out on the Best Picture Oscar even without the consolation of knowing that it lost to The Godfather. All the same, Cabaret has Minnelli’s standout performance on film, a unique style, and retains enough barnstorming musical moments to remain an artistic achievement, whilst dozens of musicals from the era – and since – are remembered only to be reviled.

Bridget Jones’ Diary

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Thirty-two year-old spinster Bridget Jones starts a new year with a new diary and resolutions not to get involved with the wrong man. The two men spicing up Bridget’s life are haughty barrister and old family friend Mark Darcy and suave charmer (and Bridget’s boss) Daniel Cleaver: but which is the wrong man and which is Mr Right?

If William Shakespeare is the undisputed king of the text-to-film adaptation, his queen must be Jane Austen. Every generation has found something new to say about her small-scale stories, and the last twenty years have seen adaptations of Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and both film and a definitive television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, together with less direct versions of the novels such as Bride and Prejudice and Clueless. And then there’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, co-written by Helen Fielding with TV P&P writer Andrew Davies and Four Weddings and a Funeral maestro Richard Curtis. Though it’s by no means a re-telling of the whole story, it owes more to Austen than just the name of one its characters.

As the film begins, ‘singleton’ Bridget (Renée Zellweger) is back home for Christmas, visiting content father Colin (Jim Broadbent) and rather less content mother Pamela (Gemma Jones), and suffering the indignity of being snubbed because of her excitable nature by human rights barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). As she confides to her new diary Bridget is desperate not to die alone (‘half-eaten by Alsatians’), so is particularly susceptible to the charms of her handsome boss Daniel (Hugh Grant), a lusty character who smooth-talks Bridget into bed, claiming along the way that Darcy broke his heart by having an affair with his wife.

However, when it turns out that Daniel is merely stringing Bridget along, Bridget swaps her publishing job for one in television reporting, and an act of kindness from Mark makes her reassess her feelings about him. Bridget and Darcy nearly become close but Cleaver crawls back into her life, causing a whole load of friction and a good deal of entertainment for Bridget’s ‘urban family’, her group of fabulous friends. Meanwhile, Bridget also has to deal with her mother upping sticks for a tangerine-coloured shopping channel presenter, leaving her father devastated.

Like the above-mentioned Four Weddings, the dramatis personae of Bridget Jones’ Diary should be alien to ninety-nine percent of the human population (everyone except London-based media luvvies, essentially); and the casting of Zellweger and her charmingly over-pronounced accent should be an appalling misstep; but miraculously neither of these things are true. Renée proves a very likeable and human heroine, helped by the witty writing of Fielding and her screenwriting experts, and her vacillation between the arrogant but honest Darcy and the alluring but serpentine Cleaver (his poison against Darcy, prejudicing Bridget, is pure Austen) is both believable and filled with amusing episodes.

Firth and Grant both play their parts with gusto, and in marked contrast to Curtis’ tale all of these people are actually shown working. Bridget also gives hope to not-exactly-organised thirty-somethings who will recognise uncomfortable truths about being single, the smugness of married couples being chief amongst them.

Bridget Jones’ Diary is filmed with a light touch, so much so in fact that it invites inevitable accusations of chick-flickery (not that this is in and of itself a bad thing). This is most apparent in the film’s final act, with the characters realising who they really love but just too late to do anything about it – or are they? – and matters concluding in highly predictable fashion. The fight scene between Darcy and Cleaver is framed in particularly girly terms, the violence couched in clumsy comedy and the most unwelcome sound of Geri Halliwell singing It’s Raining Men.

In the subplot too there’s an element of predictability, as Mrs Jones leaves but finds the grass isn’t greener on the other side; despite sterling work from Gemma Jones and the always-dependable Jim Broadbent, the parents’ story has a slightly schmaltzy quality at odds with the smart and sweary urban comedy of Bridge and her friends. Lastly, to my mind, no matter how slightly-built you are there’s something inherently ridiculous about a grown woman who weighs under ten stone (Bridget starts the year at 136lb) wanting to lose 20lb. But I freely concede that I don’t have that great an insight into the female psyche.

Good work from the actors (Zellweger in particular) and writers ensures that by the time it enters its pedestrian, trundly last third, you are involved enough with Bridget Jones’ Diary to care about what happens to its owner; and although the ending is contrived, with Bridget out in the fake snow in her pants for the movie’s cutesy little twist, you’re glad that she gets what she deserves. It’s just such a shame Fielding had to unravel her heroine’s happiness for the inevitable and turgid sequel The Edge of Reason.